Just now, I watched a youtube video linked from a front-page Reddit post entitled “Monster Energy drinks are the work of Satan.” I expected it to be a video explaining the perils of diets comprised of synthetic preservatives and sugars, for instance, but the video actually featured an apparently midwestern white lady explaining the semiotics of the Monster energy drink branding and its mockery and disparagement of the Christian God.
I hopped down into the comments to feel the satisfaction of knowing I’m on the same side as the Internet’s peanut galleries, and I almost immediately came across a comment that sent triggers up my spine:
Although I grew up in a reasonably churchy household–and although our church was both protestant and even included “Evangelical” in its title(!), I was only rarely exposed to fire and brimstone in my own churchgoing experience. Indeed, the only memories I really have of hearing threats of hell and damnation from people in my church as a child were typically other kids trying to scare each other or adults trying to enforce discipline. Apart from those sorts of incidents, the most off-putting teaching I can really remember learning from my own church was that dogs don’t go to heaven because they don’t have souls. Frankly, I think the pastor was talking out of turn by being so presumptuous, but maybe he learned soul-detection in seminary and is just not at liberty to disclose practices and methods. But I digress.
What I’m getting at here is that, while I grew up in a house where church and Sunday School attendance were both compulsory on a weekly basis, the point of church seemed to be about being part of a community rather than top-down moral authority. In fact, I reflect on the church of my childhood as not even having a particularly in-group focus: there was no special process for receiving communion for visitors, and I recall pretty much every event having some focus on expanding and developing the community. Obviously, this agenda isn’t all smiles and rainbows, as it’s precisely what fuels missionary work, but it’s important to thoroughly contextualize my own religious upbringing; when I was a boy, prior to the death of my father, I sincerely wanted to be a good Christian. I can remember reading Proverbs in bed one Saturday night, yearning to be more insightful and/or righteous and/or decent and/or whatever else I was supposed to derive from solemnly poring over so-called ancient wisdom. I did this, not to escape any pain or to find salvation so much as because I’d been raised to admire and respect my elders, who appeared to understand life and who showed up weekly to …sing about it and drink coffee, I guess.
All this brings us to 1992.
And actually, I bet that Saturday night I spent reading Proverbs was also 1992… Maybe that was around the time that I had discovered I really liked NWA. My Muslim friend had made me a tape of I-forget-what, but Side B of this tape contained about half of Niggaz4Life, which quickly became a favorite lawn-mowing cassette of mine. And if I can guess about my mental state at the time, I probably felt conflicted about liking such vulgar music (don’t matter just don’t bite it) while also feeling a commitment to Jesus, his teachings, and the general level of decorum and respectability I saw in the church community–these were people putting on their Sunday best and getting together to pay homage to their creator and to sing and laugh and dote on their associates’ babies; it was a million miles–no, a hundred miles and runnin’–away from the world NWA described.
NWA, of course, wasn’t the first rap group I’d heard or liked. I think maybe I started getting steered towards rap in summer camp between 3rd and 4th grade, when I first heard Milli Vanilli. Sigh. My first “real” rap tape, though, came around Christmastime in 1989; my dad took my brother and me to the music/bookstore, and I picked up a calligraphy book and Young MC’s “Stone Cold Rhymin'” album. It was great. Then, in the spring of fourth grade, I was elated to pick up a copy of MC Hammer’s “Please Hammer Don’t Hurt Em.” These two tapes quickly became my long-distance running soundtracks, as I trained to set the record for most laps completed annually in my local elementary school’s once-every-other-week running program. Oh shit, I’m getting way off-course.
So Summer 1992. Here we are: it’s the summer before I start junior high, which entails all kinds of social changes both in school and in church. First of all, the junior high has “socials,” which are school dances outside of school hours. Secondly, many church youth groups begin the process of “confirmation” around the same age (and, at my childhood church at least, also had after-hours dances). In preparation for all this, I would be going away for a week to a Lutheran camp with the rest of my church youth group. In addition to this, because I had a good friend who was Episcopalian and who spoke highly of his own church camp, I would first be going away for a week with his church youth group. For me, this was (I think) the first week away from home since 1989, when I spent a week at Spanish camp, and I was pretty excited about it.
When my friend and I finally got unloaded at his camp, I was feeling enthusiastic but also felt a little stressed at first, since I didn’t know all of the prayers and songs that his people knew by heart; I remember reading from the song book while most everyone else expressively sang along to these songs they already knew. Still, the camp experience was fun, and I would even go so far as to say it seemed a little more adult than my own church youth group and camp experiences. For instance, they watched Jaws as a group, whereas at my church camps, pop culture seemed to be eschewed. Also, I remember our camp counselor at my friend’s camp leading us to a girls’ cabin for us to serenade them, though he rejected “You’ve lost that loving feeling” in favor of something more benign and circumstance-appropriate. Maybe this is just a bias of my perspective, but my feeling at the time and in recollection was that my friend’s church camp treated us early adolescents more as adults or at least beings of flesh and desire. I found this conflicting at the time, because I simultaneously felt his church culture seemed to involve many more formalities than the one to which I was accustomed.
Once again, I’m just trying to establish context, because where his church’s camp diverged from my own religious experience, that shit got real fast.
A few nights into my experience at his camp, I first heard the term, “Spiritual warfare.” The preacher who was running the camp, who dubbed himself, “Father Dog”–and who generally seemed like a fun guy, explained that at every moment of every day, God and Satan were fighting for our souls. I remember feeling terrified by this (and also curious about how I might witness or experience this condition). Father Dog had a right-hand man called Tim, if I recall correctly, and Tim was the life of the party–a very fun guy who would wear silly hats and sing in silly voices and generally loosen up the campers, making people feel comfortable away from home. Mostly. There was a Muslim kid at the camp who had come with a friend, and I remember Tim giving him the third degree, wondering aloud why he’d even come to the camp given that he was a nonbeliever. I remember wondering if I’d attract similar treatment for being Lutheran rather than Episcopalian, but (SURPRISE!) it never became an issue.
The camp continued to be fun for the rest of the week, but I remember a sense of momentum leading towards something. On one of the later days of camp, we played a massive game of capture the flag on the sprawling camp grounds, which was great, but I remember finding it odd that some of the camp counselors had donned army face paint in order to blend in with the dark. On another afternoon (maybe the same afternoon?), we had a massive shaving cream fight called “Bedlam,” a term I had to look up upon returning from camp. The shaving cream and/or water balloon fight seems like a staple of church youth group activities, but I remember a greater sense of ritual than I’d ever experienced before. Again, it felt like we were moving somewhere–towards something.
It must’ve been on the last night of camp that we were finally taken on the night hike. They led us into the woods after dusk, and if I recall correctly, we were in groups holding on to ropes so that we could be led without seeing (poetry). Early into our hike, one of the camp counselors who had been wearing army face paint during our game of capture the flag jumped out of a tree to startle us. We continued forward into the woods.
During the last few days at camp, different people had been talking about rumors of “Pierre,” who ….did something with a chainsaw or something. I forget the story, but I remember that gossip about “Pierre” had just emerged out of nowhere and suddenly had the talk of the campers, who were very interested in the details of his story and whether or not his ghost still lived in a cabin in the woods at the camp.
We continued hiking into the woods, and as we came upon a rotten, flimsy cabin in the woods, Tim and Father Dog were there. Tim first told us the story of old Pierre and whatever he did with the chainsaw or axe or whatever and whatever happened with his ghost. The story may or may not have ended with him or someone else making scary noises; I don’t recall.
Then it was Father Dog’s turn.
Father Dog proceeded to tell us the story of how he got his moniker. You see, Father Dog had been traveling with his family when he was a young boy, when they encountered a bad storm while in an airplane. If I recall correctly, it was a snow storm of some kind, and he wound up being tossed from the plane when a door opened mid-flight. He fell to the ground, survived, and was cared for by a pack of wolves until authorities were able to find him several/many days later.
Even as I type this out, twenty-two years later, I can’t quite bring myself to call the story fake. After all, within 13 months of hearing that story, I was in a plane crash, myself, and I freed myself from the wreckage to go find help; strange and unexpected things do happen, no doubt about it. However, as I recall the totality of that camp experience — as I recall hearing this shit about spiritual warfare, it’s hard for me to accept this story on its face, simply because it appears to have been part of a regime for scaring people into faith (irony alert). From the easygoing check-in through the late night ghost / survival stories, the camp experience seems to have fit a narrative of escalation–specifically an escalation of intensity and anxiety. Much like the woman fearing the devil in Monster energy drink tries to do, these camp clerics seemed to manipulate us juvenile campers with their conviction and interpretations.
And so, after decades of contemplation, the best sense I’ve been able to make of anything is that when people roll up and start telling you how it is in your soul and how invisible symbols mean something sinister and this sort of thing–when people try to diminish your spirit with their wide-eyed warnings and judgments… *That* is spiritual warfare.