A good number of things about writing Jacob Wrestling scare me. Most of the spooks making me wince have to do with the writing process itself–telling an extended narrative in a sequence of poems while balancing a tight chain of causation and several subplots isn’t easy stuff. But now that I’m getting closer to a completed draft of the book, I’ve had a bit more time to worry about some of the thematics of the novel, especially its religious elements. While the book doesn’t directly deal with my personal religious experiences, a good deal of Jacob’s character derives from behaviors I saw as a teenager immersed in the pentecostal church.
Growing up, my parents, sister and I were always a church-going family, but which church we went to was never a constant. We would attend one house of worship for a while, then move on to another as soon as my parents took issue with a piece of dogma peculiar to that congregation. I’m not sure how many churches I attended from the time I was a young child to the time I became infatuated with pentecostal Christianity, but suffice it to say it was a number. I also attended a Christian school throughout junior high and high school; there was never a time I was not completely enveloped by the protestant belief system.
But in my late teens, I began dating a boy who was a part of the local Foursquare church (a branch of Higher Life pentecostalism) and was eager to become a part of his world, though it was likely more for the sake of being close to him than out of any desire to change my straightforward evangelical views. I’d seen plenty of arm-waving worship by this point, and had even heard a few tongues-speakers before, but I wasn’t prepared for the kind of practices I’d encounter in heavy-duty pentecostalism.
Already conscious of being an outsider in a church most other congregants had attended their entire lives, I was anxious to fit in. Most of the teachings of the church were familiar to me; the basic Christian narrative I’d learned for seventeen years was intact here. But the Foursquare church had some added areas of mandatory belief that were deeply troubling. During the several years I was a part of this church, I was told that I was not actually a “saved” Christian because I had not undergone the process pentecostals refer to as Baptism of the Holy Spirit. In essence, I didn’t speak in tongues. Further evidence of my apparent lack of salvation was the fact that I had/have a chronic health issue and had not been healed even after the laying on of hands. It seemed clear, at least to the people who spoke with me about it, that I didn’t truly believe enough, and relied too much on the medical professionals caring for me and not enough on God. This apparently revealed my worldliness (and worldliness, in the Christian lexicon, might as well be a four-letter word). While these experiences shook me, I began to feel even more troubled by overwhelming pressure to confess one’s sins in front of a large audience, and the obsession with “spiritual warfare” that led a friend of mine to be exorcised of a demon by a group of other teenagers. During one Sunday service, when my friends were at the altar being slain in the spirit and speaking ecstatically in tongues, I realized something was truly wrong–the spiritual nausea and overwhelming guilt I’d been subject to with regard to my lack of “gifts” had nothing to do with any kind of actual Christian practice, but had everything to do with manipulation and pride disguised in the trappings of piety.
It was a slow process to extricate myself from the pentecostal world, and it would be some time before I left the emotional effects behind me. As I began stripping away the layers of damage I’d accrued, I realized how little of my former belief system remained intact. Today, when I get the occasional “are you a Christian” question, usually from a teenager back from church camp, the best I can do is a scowling “it’s complicated.”
Writing Jacob Wrestling has been an exercise in dealing with some of that latent guilt I never fully got out of my system. As I tell the story of a boy pressured into believing he has received the ability to give prophecy and convinced that his mental illness can be cured through faith, I still feel a little like that last girl left sitting in the pew. I know that, up at the altar, someone’s getting ready to tell me I’m worldly. Only now, I think I’m okay with that.