A Baptist Inferno: Dante Alighieri and My Childhood by Johnny Chapel
I've been a pagan since I was four years old, maybe from before that. I don't mean I knew formally what paganism was at that age, but that's when I started to feel a strong and conscious connection to the spirituality of nature. That's when I started seeing spirits, including my totem animal. Try telling that to your parents (at any age, much less at four). My parents had already decided I would go to a Christian church - the Ordinal Baptist in Mudfield.
Now, of course, I knew this whole Christianity business wasn't going to fly. Unfortunately, it took me about ten years to get kicked out of the church; it might have taken longer if it weren't for the magnificent Dante Alighieri. In the end, it was his grace that saved me from a Baptist inferno.
Admittedly, I was a somewhat precocious child. At seven, when many children are learning to ride bikes and play basketball, I was obsessed with opera, writing poetry, and the layered mythology of Dungeons and Dragons. At nine, I was taking vocal lessons. At ten, in the fifth grade, I first read Hamlet. I was also forced to church at least once a week.
Mrs. Davida taught Sunday School. I remember one day I brought some of my books to church. I wanted to read while the other kids were having their snack.
Mrs. Davida grabbed them from my hands as soon as I entered the classroom. She was a very grabby lady - at the time I knew her, she had already grabbed six husbands. She looked at each book. For the most part, they were science fiction and horror novels with lurid covers. Mrs. Davida wasn't having any of that. "We only read the Bible in Bible class," she announced throatily.
"Alright, then," I spat. Within a few minutes, I had located the passage I wanted - Deuteronomy 22:28-9. "Hey," I said to a friend, "listen to this."
"What are you whispering about?" complained Mrs. Davida, grabbing me by the ear out of habit.
I raised my voice just enough for the class to hear about my Biblical find. "This verse says it's ok to rape a girl if you have the money to pay her father. Why is that, do you think?" Mrs. Davida was not pleased.
Soon afterwards, my class began a new policy. The new rule ran, "We only read our quarterlies in Bible class." In case you don't know, quarterlies are little books alleged to represent the Bible in an easy-to-digest form for kids (and many of their parents). Usually they are part-Bible, part-baseball card, part-terrorist manual, and entirely mistaken.
They'd been asking each other, "What would Jesus do?" for what seemed like forever. The next time I heard, "What would Jesus do?", I swore I was going to take the offender for a permanent visit to the baptismal font. It would be hard to inquire about Jesus' motives from a watery grave.
Actually, the church Vacation Bible School bake sale gave me the chance to do something even better. Now, in case you are unaware, Vacation Bible School doesn't just torture children; the torture is only secondary. The main reason for Vacation Bible School is that parents get sick of their kids very soon after summer begins. Vacation Bible School solves the problem. Mom and dad drop by after a few weeks and "ooh" and "aah" over the popsicle-stick golems that their children have made while they were at home mowing the lawn, gorging on fudge, and watching their favorite shows all afternoon. Or maybe the parents worked. Church has been a provider of free daycare for decades, if you don't mind a little indoctrination.
Mrs. Hertzman managed to annoy me at every turn. She was wealthy enough to be spoiled, but still terrified that some important person wouldn't like her. She’d mothered six of the world's biggest bullies. And she wore so much noisy jewelry that she sounded like a skating rink.
"Oh, Mrs. Hertzman?" I inquired as we carried plates of cookies out to the church parking lot.
"Yes?" she replied sweetly (she didn't know yet that my family was pretty poor and she was hedging her bets).
"About what, honey?"
"About why we're doing this bake sale."
"Well, we want to make money for the church - to help missionaries and such." Ah, yes - we were helping the missionaries. Every morning at Vacation Bible School we sang "Onward Christian Soldiers" and surrendered our pocket change to help the missionaries. Mrs. Hertzman's WWJD bracelet clinked against the table as she set the cookies down. We headed inside for more.
"Well, I've been reading the Bible and it seems to me that one of the only things that really made Jesus angry was when people were buying and selling things in the temple." This made Mrs. Hertzman uncomfortable. In her view, eleven-year-olds didn't ask questions like this; they read their quarterlies and shut their mouths.
"Uh..." Mrs. Hertzman was starting to look a little sick. I saw my moment.
"So, I'm thinking, 'Here was a guy...'
"Jesus wasn't just a 'guy,' dear."
"I'm sorry. I mean, here was this god who wasn't so much upset by being tortured and crucified as he was by people selling things in church. And that's what we're doing, so I just want to know what Jesus would do. I thought maybe if you don't know I could ask some of the customers..."
I got to spend the entire afternoon "supervising" in the kitchen. I did get sick from eating so many sweets, but I'd decided it was my duty to make sure none of those cookies had a chance to piss off Jesus.
Mrs. Hertzman became my regular Sunday School teacher when I turned twelve. After several weeks of being alternately bored and horrified, I decided to stir things up a little bit. She gave me the chance when she declared that women who'd had abortions were murderers and should be ashamed of themselves.
"Mrs. Hertzman?" I raised my hand in mock-compliance.
"Yes," she sighed loudly. By now she knew we were poor and she'd had enough of my snide comments and difficult questions.
"Well, last week you were saying that little babies go to heaven when they die in their mother's bellies?"
"Why, yes. Of course they would. They haven't had the chance to sin against god."
"If babies go straight to heaven, then abortions are good? Yes?"
"Why would you say such a thing?" Her cheeks were ruddy and her hand was clenched around her quarterly. All of her bracelets had started to wobble - I felt I was addressing a cymbal.
"Well, if we let them live, there's a chance they'll sin and go to hell. But, if we kill them straight off, they can only go to heaven."
"Now, listen here..."
"So doesn't that mean we should kill all the babies?"
"So we should wish for the babies to go to hell?"
"No, but... That's it. Get out!"
And that's all it took. It was the last time I saw Mrs. Hertzman, except in crowded church services from across the room. From then on, I spent Sunday School period in the hallway, reading indecent science fiction novels.
We've all seen church car washes. The church has all its teenaged girls put on their skimpy swimsuits and parade around in the sprinklers. As you can probably guess, this was one of the Ordinal Baptist Church's best bets for quick cash. I was thirteen.
"Wow! This is great." I said, sidling up to Mr. Grice. Mr. Grice was a coach and "teacher" at the local high school. "Look at all these hot girls! It's like a wet t-shirt contest."
Mr. Grice laughed in a way that made him sound as if he were eating really good cookies from the last church bake sale, but he kept his eyes on the girls. Tabitha Jameson was trying to help Amelia Boytner adjust her bikini top. Behind them stood a girl in a soaking wet purple bathing suit with her back to us.
"Man! Look at her!" I gasped.
"I know, my man," he said, determined to be cool. His voice fell to a whisper as he continued, "And look at that sweet ass! I could just rip off that cute little suit and..."
His voice trailed off as he noticed that we were talking about his daughter.
"I'll just bet you could," I smirked, walking away.
Look, institutions are groups of people. Every institution has good people as well as bad people, and every one has a lot of in-betweens. I had friends at Ordinal Baptist - and my true friends stayed my friends when I left. Besides, it wasn't just outsiders who used the white corrugated church gardener's hut to smoke dope. And it was mostly insiders who lost their various virginities in the church balcony on various Friday nights. People are people. But it was obvious by this point I wasn’t ever going to be one of the people who belonged or mattered.
So how did I get out? What was finally the last straw? That's where Dante comes in.
I had just turned fourteen and was sitting in the church lobby reading a book. Our youth director wandered casually over. He was always just casually wandering over to us potentially troubled youths.
"What are you reading?"
I showed him the cover. Vivid flames danced around the title - Dante's Inferno. He frowned. "It's the story of Dante's journey through Hell," I volunteered.
"What? Well... it describes Hell?"
"Yes, in poetic detail," I confirmed. Then, without changing my expression in the least, I added, "The bottom level's reserved for traitors like me." Then I offered the coup de grace: "A Catholic wrote it."
His face turned red. He seemed to be muttering to himself - probably wanting to know what Jesus would do. And that was the miracle; apparently, Jesus would boot my sorry ass right out of his church into glorious freedom. Maybe Jesus did respect other people's spirituality - or maybe some other god had offered to take me off his hands.
Before I exited the church lobby for the final time, I left my little edition of The Inferno in the hall closet near the main auditorium. Who knows? Maybe some other poor, imprisoned kid found it there and was questioned about it.
Maybe Dante Alighieri did have a legacy at that church.
"Oh Beautiful for smoggy skies, insecticided grain, For strip-mined mountain's majesty above the asphalt plain. America, America, man sheds his waste on thee, And hides the pines with billboard signs, from sea to oily sea." - George Carlin