One of the cultural peculiarities of growing up in the 1980s was being treated to After School Specials. These were moralistic tales produced to give comfort to young people experiencing the traumas of everyday life. Most of them involved circumstances far removed from my rural Arkansas challenges. And interestingly enough, had my Dad attended my small Pentecostal church with us and abided by their prohibitions of owning a television set, I would have been denied this window to the rest of the world and perhaps been robbed of my inspiration to later produce my own versions of these types of meritorious high minded media productions designed to convert my friends to my exclusive brand of Christianity.
Author of Ragamuffin Gospel, Brennan Manning observed; “It is always true to some extent that we make our images of God. It is even truer that our image of God makes us. Eventually we become like the God we imagine. One of the most beautiful fruits of knowing the God of Jesus is a compassionate attitude towards ourselves…This is why Scripture attaches such importance to knowing God. Healing our image of God heals our image of ourselves.”
Reminiscing today about my high school years, as rainy and cold days tend to lend themselves a bit to nostalgic meanderings. Thankfully for me these trips down memory lane aren’t just confined to my mind. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me there are video tapes. My Gosnell, Arkansas high school had a fully functioning television production facility, that I saw as my gift from God to change the world. It is interesting to observe through these moralist tales that I constructed, just how much my image of God was reflected through my own desires. Like most teenagers is seems that sex was central to most of my thoughts, even as they were defined through repressive moralistic apprehension. It is easy to spot now from this vantage point of maturity that my rants against what I perceived to be the evils of teenage promiscuity were actually attempts to access information about a world very different from my own. Ditto my story lines concerning teenage abuses of alcohol and drugs.
I’m by no means suggesting that these weren’t and aren’t real issues that plague our society. My intention here is to reflect on my preoccupation with issues that weren’t issues for me. Early on it appears that I may have suffered from a messiah complex. A messiah complex (Christ complex or savior complex) is a state of mind in which an individual holds a belief that they are destined to become a savior today or in the near future. The term can also refer to a state of mind in which an individual believes that they are responsible for saving or assisting others. This was me in high school. And if I’m honest I still struggle with this.
I think much of my messiah issues were informed by a religious tradition that placed a great deal of responsibility on me for the salvation of others. In my tradition, we had a monopoly on eternal truth and everyone else was simply wrong. And at the time, I don’t recall there being any room for nuance. It was our eternal way or the highway. The highway to Hell.
And to be clear, the issues that separated the saved from the damned in my small Pentecostal organization didn’t center around big ideas about God, but rather small issues imbued with eternal significance. For instance, the issue of watching television or going to the movie theater was a heaven and hell issue. As I grew older, I remember actually having conversations with leaders of my church and denomination as to which issues would keep us from heaven and which would most assuredly land us in hell. Most of the conversations employed the language of hedged bets with most refusing to be specific about which actual practices were damning. I believe this is because most leaders either understood how ridiculous it all was or were uncomfortable in prescribing specific prohibitions against activities that they or their family members found enjoyable. But make no mistake, most things that people found enjoyable and harmless were prohibited. And though some in my circle were reluctant to issue blanket prohibitions, many gleefully indulged in proclaiming as many as possible. If not merrier, more (or actually less) was certainly deemed holier.
I couldn’t wear shorts for the fear of being immodest and suffering for all of eternity. I remember attempting to wear shorts one time to school and being overcome with such a guilt ridden self consciousness, that I swore if I could ever get them off it would be a lifetime of pants for me! Of course, my female peers couldn’t ever wear pants, only skirts and dresses, but never too short. Short was defined by the hemlines of the times, but always had to be longer and thus more modest than those worn by “worldly” folks. And speaking of short, my hair was always to be short while women were forbidden from cutting their hair. At all. Not even a little bit.
These prohibitions along with others against makeup, jewelry, and swimming in mixed company, oddly known to us as “mixed bathing” were guardrails protecting us from eternal torment. What resulted for many was an earthly torment of never knowing exactly what they had to do to get to heaven or if it would ever be enough.
My life in the church was much easier given that I was a male, but looking back on these films I produced I recall a host of challenges presented to me by my religious sect. When I showed one of the films to my pastor at the time, I was chastised for showcasing “scantily clad” young women and integrating Christian rock as the soundtrack. Now mind you, I was a good kid. The quintessential Pentecostal subaltern bent on evangelizing the world, yet even my attempts to do so were ridiculed as too worldly. Could the adults in my life not appreciate my efforts? Or were they incapable of observing the subtext of my Apostolic After School Specials?
In retrospect, I projected an eternal certainty at sixteen that is now impossible to fathom, as eternal certainty, especially the kind based in my own efforts, seems an oxymoron. If I could speak to my younger self I’d tell him to relax. I’d explain to him lovingly “I see you, I hear you.” Then I’d take him to lunch and let him know that he can’t save the world, he can’t save anyone, not even himself. I’d tell him to enjoy moments more and that not all of them are of eternal consequence. Many things are lovingly designed to simply be enjoyed.
Some have suggested that I missed out on a lot of experiences due to the imposition of my moralistic dogmas. Perhaps? I do find myself increasingly fending off longings that most people seem to have exhausted in their youth. What I do regret is serving a religious system that expected me to trade life for an eternal insecurity. You would think with all the things we were asked to give up, that at the very least the eternal promise of a better after life would have been more secure? But it wasn’t. It always exacted a price of trying harder, living holier, and generally living up to impossible standards that literally no one ever completely obtained. At least no one I knew.
The sanctified life was just always out of reach, requiring another revival service, youth camp, extended fast, or three hour prayer shift. As good as I was. I was never good enough.
After school specials always had a sentimental resolution resulting in a return to normalcy for the angst ridded troubled youth. I don’t know that I ever got my resolution? In many respects the story is still being written. Stay tuned.