My husband grew up in a conservative Christian home. He was the youngest of four children. His family’s level of conservatism has made them the subject of many jokes, and we have had our ups and downs. But he had a good home life. His parents loved their children and were actively involved in their interests. He isn’t much of a writer, so I asked if I could interview him about his faith and upbringing for this blog.
First question. What role did religion play in your upbringing?
What role didn’t religion play in my upbringing? There wasn’t anything that happened in our house that didn’t have its fingerprints on it. Everything from, you know, prayer before meals to the TV we were allowed to watch. The games that we played, and that we were constantly corrected for inappropriateness. Everything was sent through that filter of religious appropriateness.
How did religion affect you once you hit puberty? Were you allowed to date?
Well yeah, but nobody else in my family dated. I was the youngest. My brothers didn’t really have outside friends. My sister only hung out with the rejects from church and other girls who had skirts down to their ankles and really long hair.
Would it have been different if your sister had wanted to date?
Probably. I was youngest in a family of kids who didn’t socialize with other kids in ways that were normal. And I didn’t know it was weird until high school, or maybe eighth grade. When I met my friend Rick I kind of realized that the way my brothers and sister were with other kids wasn’t normal. This was the first time I hung out with kids outside of the church circle; even our neighbors were under the same religious rules we were. Everybody. I mean, the one neighbors next door didn’t go to church, but pretty much everybody in my life was church so it didn’t really seem like my brothers and sister were too weird until I started hanging out with the burnout.
How did your friends outside of the church influence your views on religion?
They had no religion.
Was it shocking to you?
No. I don’t think it was shocking. None of their behavior was ran through the filter of “Oh, is this religiously appropriate?” Rick smoked cigarettes and he smelled like alcohol all the time. He said “fucking a” a lot. He listened to heavy metal music, you know, and none of that shocked me but what it did do is it made me really nervous when we were with my parents.
Is that difference what drew you to him?
What drew me to him was our mutual interest in model trains. Then he slowly introduced music into my life. And pornography.
Did you feel guilty about that?
Music not as much. Him bringing over nudie posters and stuff? Oh yeah! Cuz I could rationalize out that a Motley Crew record or whatever wasn’t completely ungodly. It’s just music. But when he brought over the topless Samantha Fox posters I’m like, “Yeah, I know this is bad. This is bad. This is wrong.”
How did you respond?
I hid them.
Well I think a non-christian boy would have hid them, too.
Sex is something that none of my church friends and I ever had conversations about. I remember being over at my friend Luke’s house; he was in his bathroom and for some reason I looked in his top sock drawer. He had a stack of pictures torn out of a Popular Mechanics book. It was all these girls posing on cars and he had written in pen “I love you” next to them. That was the first time I realized these church kids were hung up on it, too.
Before that you didn’t know? You thought it was just you?
In ways. But all I knew about it was that I shouldn’t think about it. Whatever. You know. You’ve met my parents.
When comparing yourself to other Christians how did you measure up?
I always felt I was bit of a phony. Because everybody around me had these really strong religious experiences that were defining their lives at that moment, and they were into God the way people are into their girlfriend or boyfriend. The ones I’m thinking of are the ones at church camp who would raise their hand during the praise songs. The nice kids in cargo shorts playing acoustic guitars. I’d see the girls in the crowd raising their hands and think, “Those girls are fucking into God. What’s wrong with me?” And then the kids who would walk down the aisle to accept Jesus. “What’s making them do that?”
And you didn’t feel that?
No. I mean, I want to.
Do you believe now that it was genuine? That they were really having a god experience?
I think it was real enough that they weren’t embarrassed to go pray with the pastor in front of a room full of kids singing “What the World Needs Now Is Jesus.”
What was the biggest way that religion had a negative impact on your upbringing?
Shame. About fucking everything. Shame about the things most of my friends didn’t have issues with. Shame about not measuring up to the levels of spirituality I know my parents expected out of me. Or at least where I expected I should be at compared to where my brothers and sister were. I had the least to say about things at bible study after supper every night; going around the circle reading a book of the bible one verse at a time.
Almost every night. After supper that stack of bibles that were sitting in the dining room were the bibles that were passed out after we cleared the dinner table. My parents would give one of the kids the orders to pass them around the table and we’d read and we would discuss it and I would always have the least to say about it. I’d always give the most unimpressive prayers.
But you were the youngest. That must have helped. Do you think that Neil felt the most pressure, being the oldest?
Maybe. But Neil made my parents proud in ways none of the other kids could because he was a super overachiever just in the way Maryann had the spiritual “boner” for Christ.
So where did that leave your brother John?
It definitely fucked him up. But John walked down the aisle at church. John was one of those fuckers who got out of his seat at a youth group rally and walked down the aisle and prayed with the youth pastor in front of 250 kids. And then he’d go home and throw all his Simon and Garfunkel tapes out and say “this music is wrong.” He got rid of Simon and Garfunkel just because it was pop music.
What was the most positive impact of religion? What did you appreciate?
I think the best thing about religion was the community aspect. I liked that. Rituals. Things I find nostalgic but embarrassing. Like the “come lord Jesus” prayer before dinner. And the Christmas in the Barn record that was the opening to Christmas every year. I like the ritual and I like the tradition.
You had two worlds in high school. You had the secular and the Christian.
Yeah. I had my punk rock band I played in and that group of friends. The friends who, you know, dropped acid on an empty golf course in the middle of the night. And then I had the friends who went to Colorado on a missions trip, and then went skiing and were all in bed by eleven.
Your parents weren’t concerned about what you did with your band friends?
They didn’t know. Its the one thing that was the benefit of being the youngest kid in a family of super conservative people. My brothers and sister never got into any trouble, so when I came along they didn’t expect that. And I think they were naive about a lot of things. They were naive about the people I was hanging around with. Noah was fucking polite. Chris was in my Sunday school class. One of the kids in my band was the bass player for a Youth for Christ band that I was in. And his friend was always nice.
You could look at Rick and say “oh that guy’s trouble” cuz Rick wore cowboy boots and torn jeans and a Bulletboys t-shirt. He had feathered hair, he smoked cigarettes, and he had like a light peach fuzz beard all the time. And he bounced when he walked and swung his head back and forth. You could look at that guy and say “Oh, he doesn’t look like the other kids in Sunday school. He’s someone we should be afraid of.” But they were naive. Because unless you looked like a freak they weren’t too worried about it. And I got away with a lot of stuff because most of my ungodly friends were nice looking kids.
You also had a Christian band.
Yes. I joined Youth for Christ Reachout so I could justify having my parents buy me an electric guitar. They were very supportive of me learning to play guitar, they just wanted me to be involved in some type of music. So they bought me an acoustic guitar. A nice instrument. But they didn’t really want me to get involved in rock and roll or anything like that. I was learning Guns N Roses songs on acoustic guitar; then Youth for Christ was looking for a guitar player, and you needed an electric guitar. And I was like, “I’ll do that.”