Tips for Kindergoth Christian Teens
by Jen Burke Anderson
illustration by Caleb Morris
SUNDAY WAS THE first lovely day of this entire miserable spring. I was planted outside the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park, the sun warming my back on a green park bench as I contemplated the riot of landscaped blooms at my feet and hoped to God this weather would hold up for a few days. What could possibly be better than this, except maybe this with an ice cream cone?
On an adjacent park bench, three teenage girls were going through a game of Rock Paper Scissors to decide something between them. Hm, my sun-fried mind vaguely wondered, how does all that go again? Paper covers rock, scissors cut paper… blah blah… la la la…
I looked up. The three girls stood before me, wearing the vestiges of small-town goth- dom: crucifix chokers, long skirts, Celtic bangles, glittery eyeshadow and a studied absence of hair styling. Two of them were quite heavy-set; one was trim.
I was preparing myself to give directions to Comic-Con when one of the heavy-set girls, blond and probably around 16, took a seat next to me. The other two stood at attention like a Greek chorus waiting for action.
“Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”
People Are People
There was a time, long ago, when I would have lashed out at such people. But I am 37 now, and have since done a lot of living, hurting, thinking, reading, discussing, traveling and writing. Since I can’t attempt a civilized political or philosophical exchange with my family without raising my voice and acting like an idiot, I’ve resolved to try civilized exchanges with everyone else. Besides, I was impressed by the novelty of being politely addressed by teenagers for the first time since my young adulthood.
“Well,” I began, already feeling the fight-or-flight reaction that usually accompanies being randomly asked to surrender your entire belief system: My heart pounded, my face flushed, my mind raced, my eyes darted across the horizon for channels of escape. Stand firm, I told myself. Be straight-up. You will only hurt them if you don’t tell the truth.
“I was raised Seventh-Day Adventist, and I pretty much trashed the whole Christian thing in my early 20s. I’ve been happy ever since.”
They nodded sagely, as though they were way ahead of me. Still, there were some cracks in the façade: breaks in eye contact, slightly knitted brows.
We were worrying each other.
“Well,” said the blonde, “why would you say you’ve been happier?”
“I can be myself,” I said. “I can think how I choose to think. Before, I felt like I had to have the church’s permission to think or say anything. It felt very inauthentic to me.”
This interested them. At this point the blonde girl launched into a narrative about their recent adventures using some jargon I didn’t quite catch: Battle Cry, ATF, some other acronyms apparently particular to ex-goth Christians.
“Wait, wait,” I said, “you’re losing me. Battle Cry?”
“The big Christian youth gathering in town,” one of the standing chorus said.
Ah. Now this was all making sense. Of course they were from out of town. One of them had mentioned Tacoma.
“Have you ever had a loved one close to you pass away?” the blonde asked.
I replied that I had.
“Well, don’t you ever want to see that person again? Don’t you want to see them in heaven?”
“Of course I’d like to see them again,” I said, “but does wanting it make it so?”
She stopped; there was a collective holding of breath among the others. She told me that her little brother was handicapped, had a very serious disease. The doctor said he was going to die in six months.
Her eyes were full of tears. She wasn’t bullshitting.
She also described herself as an “ex-kindergoth.” She had been suicidally depressed, had seen the doctor, had taken eight different types of anti-depressants. They had all made her worse. I believed that, too; those drugs don’t work for everyone and doctors often overprescribe them.
I was unsure what to say. Perhaps mega-church Christianity, in the immediate sense, really had saved her life. Her standing friends seemed to genuinely stick by her as she’d taken the tremendous chance of approaching me cold on the park bench. They were a support system for this fragile girl.
And yet, while not wanting to smash her belief, I wanted her to learn to think. Her long-term well-being would depend on her being able to take more chances in life, and religion does not exactly smile upon the chance-taking life — especially in girls and women.
When she described the tremendous “rush” she’d felt at the Battle Cry event, surrounded by thousands of enthusiastic fellow believers, I told her that she wanted to be careful of sensations like that. Perhaps it’s not the Holy Spirit you felt, I warned, but the same visceral tide of emotion you’ll feel wherever scores of people gather and direct their attention towards a single thing: a sporting event, a political rally.
Looking back, I wish I’d told her about some of the genuine “rushes” I’ve had in my life: traveling to a foreign country by myself for the first time, seeing my name in print next to a story I’d published, doing shows on college radio, scoring a cool job. I fear my rationalist approach might have simply disillusioned her without offering a positive alternative.
The four of us did have an enjoyable, civilized exchange. These girls were not the type of aggressive, script-operative Holy Joes who make you eventually throw up your hands and walk away. They listened. I hope I listened, too.
When they realized they had somewhere to be, they took their leave and we agreed it had been pleasant talking to each other. I wished them luck, and meant it.
Policy of Truth
If only I’d had the chance to talk to them some more, here’s the advice I would have left them with as they continued their journeys in the church:
1. Get yourselves a broad base of knowledge. Don’t let the church be the only influencing factor in your lives. Take your education seriously. Psychology, history, literature—all these things will help you grow as a person. And don’t freak out if they teach things that seem to conflict with your faith; nobody is trying to persecute you. Choose appropriate moments to add your calm, dignified voice to the dialogue. You’ll be in a secular humanist society for a very long time, and it need not torment you. At the end of the day, you still have the ultimate say in deciding what’s right or wrong for you.
2. Don’t buy Christian rock. Come on. Those bands suck. Besides, to paraphrase Daniel Smith of the Danielson Famile, if there were a true Christian music industry, CDs would be eight dollars. (Battle Cry tickets were $55-199. Where’s Jesus when you need him to boot some money-changers out of the temple?) And think about it: Why get the church-approved Radiohead knockoff band when you can get Radiohead? Did the good Lord not give Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood, et al. extraordinary gifts of composition? And they’re pissed off about a lot of the same things you’re pissed off about; they’re no fans of mainstream culture either. There’s good music out there that won’t rub your values the wrong way. You just have to look for it. Branch out. Why not bluegrass, roots, gospel, classical, rockabilly?
3. When you’re old enough to vote, don’t just vote for any old bozo who throws a bunch of God talk at you. If America becomes a more spiritual place, it will be because of peer-to-peer networks, not a federally administered program. Besides, the “Revival of Values” people are going to screw you economically. They’re going to throw social security down the crapper and let Wal-Mart destroy your town and they’re definitely not going to build you guys any youth centers or skateboard ramps. Screw ’em. You deserve better.
4. If you’re disgusted with MTV/shopping mall culture, your remaining alternatives are not limited to goth, mega-churches or the 7-11 parking lot scene. There’s other stuff out there, and again, it doesn’t have to conflict with your faith. Keep looking. Never be satisfied. There’s al- ways something better just around the corner. The public library is your friend.
5. Travel. Get out of the country. Shoo! Go on! See the world. And don’t go there to convert people, go there for fun. It may be one of the most important things you ever do for yourself.
6. Develop your talents and interests. To people outside the church, it will seem like I’m stating the obvious, but I have a firm recollection of a Christian childhood where my talents and interests were hungrily monitored as mere accessories to furthering the church agenda. The real purpose of talents and interests, girls, is to let you make your mark on the world and get you through the hard times.
7. Don’t let moralism screw up your morals. I was attending a Christian college in 1988, when the AIDS epidemic was doing its worst. Students doing internships in public hospitals had to make a decision: Do I give compassion to these gay men who are dying alone of this horrible disease, or is it more important to not have any association with what I consider to be a sinful lifestyle? Most—but not all—of my classmates came down on the side of compassion. Once the students saw these patients as human beings, saw for themselves how much pain they were in and how lonely they were, it was a whole different ballgame. The right decision became clear, despite the dictates of the church mechanism. Exercising your individual moral conscience is a good thing.
8. It’s OK to masturbate. No, really, it is. It’s possible nobody else will ever tell you that, but I’m telling you: IT’S OK.
Nice talking to you.
Jen Burke Anderson is a writer in San Francisco, but she really wants to be in a f***in’ band. F***in’ contact the magazine if you’re interested.