Around this time, television screens were installed all over campus, and the senatorial face of our pastor bobbed around on each one, preaching to nobody in particular.
At chapel, we were sometimes shown religious agitprop videos; in the worst of these, a handsome dark-haired man bid his young son farewell in a futuristic white chamber and then, as violins swelled in the background, walked down an endless hall to be martyred for his Christian faith. Afterward, we sang “I Pledge Allegiance to the Lamb.”In middle school, I became conscious of my ambivalence.
I would spin in circles at the skating rink and know that someone was looking down on me.
Toward the end of elementary school, the impression of wholeness started slipping.
My parents took to his kind and compelling style of preaching—he was classier than your average televangelist, and much less greasy than Joel Osteen, the better-known Houston pastor, who became famous in the two-thousands for his airport books about the prosperity gospel.
My parents began regularly attending services at the Repentagon, and, soon afterward, they persuaded the school’s administrators to put me in first grade, even though I was four years old.By the time I got there, in the mid-nineties, Houston was entering an era of glossy, self-satisfied power, enjoying the dominance of Southern evangelicals and the spoils of extractive Texan empires—Halliburton, Enron, Exxon, Bush.Associate pastors flogged fund-raising campaigns during Sunday services, working to convert the considerable wealth of the church’s tithing population into ostentatious new displays.One Sunday, I told my parents that I needed a sweater from the car.I walked across the echoing atrium with the keys jangling in my hand and the pastor’s voice ringing through the empty space.During the holidays, I acted in the church’s youth musicals; one of them was set at CNN, the “Celestial News Network,” and several of us played reporters covering the birth of Jesus Christ. Back then, believing in God felt mostly unremarkable, occasionally interesting, and every so often like a private thrill. Fathers offered their children up to be sacrificed. The horror-movie progression of the plagues in Exodus riveted me: the blood, the frogs, the boils, the locusts, the darkness.When I was still in elementary school, my family moved farther west, to new suburbs where model homes rose out of bare farmland. I was taught that the violence of Christianity came with great safety: under a pleasing shroud of aesthetic mystery, there were clear prescriptions about who you should be.A teacher advised us to boycott Disney movies, because Disney World had allowed gay people to host a parade.Another teacher confiscated my Archie comics and my peace-sign notebook, replacing this heathen paraphernalia with a copy of the new best-seller about the Second Coming, “Left Behind.” Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.The church I grew up in was so big we called it the Repentagon.It was not a single structure but a thirty-four-million-dollar campus, built in the nineteen-eighties and spread across forty-two acres in a leafy, white neighborhood ten miles west of downtown Houston.