An evangelical Christian childhood is one long, unbroken game of The Floor Is Lava, but one in which the adults are playing too. You fall from the womb and the doctor sets you on a piece of outdated living room furniture and tells you not to touch the floor. You are told your every urge will be to touch the floor, that you were born wanting to jump headfirst into that floor, and that left to your own devices that’s exactly what you would do. Luckily, the very God who created that lava floor made a way for you to avoid this: walk all over his kid, instead.
Talking about childhood with people who didn’t grow up this way can be a bit surreal, and finding a voice who did can make those memories feel more real than they have in years.
Patricia Lockwood, acclaimed author of Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, and perverted patron saint of poetic weirdos on Twitter, relates her own strange and wondrous religious childhood in her new memoir Priestdaddy, and her story will resonate for anyone who grew up with a dad who found a friend in Jesus but counted few other peers. Lockwood’s father is a Catholic priest, and her childhood was spent in one church rectory or another in “all the worst cities of the Midwest,” as she is fond of saying in her author bios. Father Lockwood found Jesus at the bottom of the ocean while stationed on a nuclear submarine, after several dozen viewings of The Exorcist. When your salvation occurs on a warship at the hands of the director of The French Connection, you inherit a brash faith that is as likely to carry a gun as a Bible. Her father, who first spent time as a Lutheran priest before converting to Catholicism, has an affinity for both accessories, and Lockwood patiently and often hilariously sketches this singular patriarch in Priestdaddy.
My own father was a minister as well — one cut from the same colorful cloth at Lockwood’s — and the echoes of my upbringing I found in her story brought back all the old comforts and confusions of my childhood.
I grew up the son of a traveling preacher. He didn’t want to be the traveling kind. He dreamed of nothing more than having a small, country church to shepherd week after unchanging week, shaking the same wrinkled hands at the back of the sanctuary every Sunday as men gave him approving nods and widows placed both palms around his, looked up at him with damp eyes, and told him they could see glory the way he described it, and Jesus in the midst of it. It never worked out. A few churches took him on, but each engagement ended in unmitigated disaster after a few months. The search never really ended, it only wayfared longer in some forgotten corn and coal towns than others. We loaded into a puke-yellow camper van that was always spitting up some small but critical part — a fuel pump, a fan belt — and crisscrossed the eastern half of the country. Corning, N.Y. Mt. Morris, Mich. Port St. Lucie, Fla.
None of these engagements paid much, if at all, so he worked full time through the week, and we would set out on the weekends in search of the promised land. We would generally find upon arrival that the promised land had lost half its businesses when the interstate had come in and bypassed it 10 miles away. These towns felt dusty in even the heaviest rain. My father would pull out a feisty sermon from his arsenal, deliver it to the echoing, half-empty pews, and then we would sample six variations on green bean casserole in the fellowship hall during the potluck dinner in his honor, which was often as not the only payment. He was the non-denominational preacher equivalent of a college band, spending a weekend on the road for just a few minutes on a stage, hoping to be discovered. He wasn’t part of a world-wide, millennia-spanning denomination like Lockwood’s father was; he wouldn’t have fit well within one. If there was a reward waiting from him, he would have to hack down his own trail to get to it. He saw himself as a voice crying in the wilderness, and it’s no coincidence the actual, geographical wilderness is where he most often found himself.
The churches blur in my mind. The first to actually hire him was in southern Florida, and we left our life in northern Indiana behind only to discover it had been a fool’s errand. The church met in the living room of a house, and it didn’t take long for problems to emerge. They found out I was taking communion without being baptized, so a few days later my family and I entered the warm waters of Bathtub Beach and I received the spirit, spluttering in the salty wash, while my mom jumped above the waves to take pictures. After a few more weeks, my dad, never able to pick his theological battles, split from the elders over some hermeneutic minutiae and there we were on the Atlantic coast of Florida, an hour north of the Keys, with no more church than we’d had when we’d left the Midwest.
We joined and parted with two more churches in the year we were in the Sunshine State before moving back to the flat table of Ohio farm country, where my dad pastored a dying, white clapboard church for less than a year before some conflict ruined the union. The situation got so bad we feared physical violence. I remember sitting in a booth at McDonalds while my parents and a pastor from a neighboring church drafted an escape plan to get the family out of the sanctuary in case we were attacked on the Sunday my dad was to make the announcement we were leaving. No violence occurred, but we drove into the woods in our camper van the next day to hide out for a week anyway.
Like military brats, a preacher’s kids learn to make friends quickly and to lose them again without a thought. The wind stirs the branches in the grown-up world and suddenly the kids are packing up their rooms again, looking up a new town name in a Rand McNally road atlas, wondering if it’ll have a Dairy Queen.
We carried “home” with us wherever we went — spongy pink hermit crabs who could recite scripture. We knew words in Greek and Hebrew but didn’t always have time to learn our neighbors’ names.
To cope with this permanent sense of displacement, my sister, seven years my senior, invented wild origin stories to explain why we had no roots. She surmised she’d been rescued by our parents from bad people in Detroit and ferried away to northern Indiana. She thought my grandfather might have been a spy, or maybe a Nazi (the truth: a telephone repairman). She spent hours digging through the drawers of an old wooden desk in a storage room in our trailer — the desk I’m sitting at now — to find secret documents to corroborate these theories. There had to be something to explain why we knew fewer than a dozen living relatives, why we rarely saw any of them, why my parents never bought a house, why we spent more time on the road in a camper than we did in our neighbors’ homes, why we were homeschooled, why we never had time to make permanent friends. I’ve never been to the gravesite of anyone I share blood with; I don’t even know where those graves are.
Lockwood’s dad moved her family from place to place as well, filling new openings in parishes in Cincinnati, St. Louis, Kansas City, and elsewhere. When you grow up this way, your family is your village, and Lockwood’s father was her family’s self-appointed Chief. He is nothing you expect when you hear the words “Catholic priest.” He is married with children, for one thing, taking advantage of a Vatican loophole that allows men who are already married when they join the priesthood to maintain families. He lets off steam by playing shrieking, wall-melting electric guitar solos in his office, walks around in front of family and strangers in his briefs, and loves nothing more than a good testosterone-drenched action film. He is stubborn, at times brutish, and arrogant, but he loves fiercely.
My father, like Lockwood’s, converted himself to Christianity as a young man, not long after meeting my mother. He grew up on the streets of Detroit, fatherless and socially awkward, and as a young adult decided (for a reason now lost to me, though at one time essential to family mythology) to read the Bible cover to cover. Somewhere around Isaiah he realized he believed in God. When your conversion comes at the pen of an Old Testament prophet, you inherit a faith that spits fire from a whirlwind, and you get a sense for where your life is headed right away. He married my mom, conceived my sister, moved the family to Indiana, and had me, all the while dreaming floating visions of a wooden lectern and a humble congregation.
Like C.S. Lewis (sort of the Malcolm Gladwell of Christian theologians), my dad had a knack for breaking complex theological arguments down into simple logical puzzles in which only one answer could be right and one could be wrong. This had the effect of making these complicated ideas much easier for a layman — or a six-year-old — to understand, but it also stripped away the essential nuances of these concepts and presented them as false binaries. When we were children, we thought my dad a paragon of wisdom and higher thinking. His logic and discernment were unassailable.
Like Lockwood’s guitar-wielding, brief-wearing priest of a father, my dad could be both magnetically charismatic and an unknowable enigma, impossible to explain to the uninitiated. He was an uncommonly gentle man whose calm composure could be as frightening as an alcoholic’s rage. He was an affectionate playmate whose spankings bruised our souls more than our asses. He was a man of wild imagination, crafting fantastical stories of outer space and prehistoric adventures, all the while instilling in us a conviction that all the fantasies of scripture were incontrovertibly true.
And convicted we were, all through our childhoods and teen years. My sister dreamed of a martyr’s death, surrendering her life for the sake of the gospel like Nate Saint or Jim Elliot. I fell asleep at night to the horror stories of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. As teens, we shimmered with holy fervor, beautiful and bleak. Late in Priestdaddy, Lockwood perfectly encapsulates what it felt like in those days to live every moment vibrating along the taut strings of eternity:
Everything signified. Everything I looked at was designed for my eyes. The fabric of existence was cut to fit me; all ceilings were as tall as I was high; each book in the library fell open and let the word ‘rapture’ leap toward me. The greatest gift of rapture was that it existed independent of the intellect; I needed no education to feel it. It was a capability, and born in the body when I was born — a reflex that sprang back gold against the hammer. We held hands and closed our eyes and felt our bones glow, and when there was pain, we offered it up.
We spoke back then of being on fire for god, of burning with sacred passion and fealty. It would be another decade before I realized it was the unsaved sinners in hell who really fit that description best, who blazed involuntarily for the glory of a fickle deity. My faith crumbled under the weight of the very logical arguments that had built it. My sister, too, quit those walls. But while we believed, oh, how we shined.
For reasons best saved for another time, I decided to leave college after only one year and get married at 19. Neither part of that decision worked out in the long run. For very different reasons, Lockwood too missed out on higher education and got married while still a teenager. While the circumstances were profoundly different, it’s hard to shake the feeling there’s something unique about growing up in a weird religious home in middle America that predisposes one to both choices. Why get an education when revelation is free? Why delay marriage when you’ve already given your whole self away once to God? There was no guidance against these choices. Recklessness was baptized as maturity.
I miss belief, as often as not. I miss when “everything signified,” when I was part of a heavenly army, when my soul was written in a golden book outside time and I knew my faith would echo through eternity. I miss answers. Sometimes, I miss the hope that any of this means anything. In Priestdaddy, Lockwood writes about how easy it would be to fall back into belief as an adult, how “just a gentle push and I would fall back into the old faith; I would believe it all again, everything.” I feel that propensity less than I do the ongoing saturation of my imagination and vocabulary with the glossary of belief. The floor was lava for the first two and a half decades of my life, and I jumped from Christological sofa to soteriological foot stool to eschatological easy chair so many times my language and thought structure warped permanently around that lexicon, heated from below. Lockwood, a poet many know for her irreverent blend of religious and sexual imagery, explains it thus:
People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine. The word ‘God’ does not fall out of the vocabulary, as the sun does not fall out of the sky; the shapes of the stories remain, as do their revelations. I was never fluent in tongues back when it mattered, but when I am left to myself, out come all the old worshipped words, those fondled verses tumbling on verses, onto the page which can hold and forgive them.
I trembled at those same words for so many years. I’m not sure I’ve learned to forgive those verses that shaped and blistered so much of my childhood, that do still in reverberations so many years later. Twisting them, as Lockwood describes, is not only a way of “still participating in the language,” but also of exorcising the hurts that language inflicted. When my wife and I joke about “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ beneath me, Christ bent over the back of my couch,” it isn’t blasphemy for blasphemy’s sake. It’s a child wearing a mask at Halloween of the very monster that’s kept it up at night in terror. And, of course, it is, as Lockwood indicates, a way to peek back in the windows, a way to assure yourself your home is still there, even if you’ve run away from it, even if you don’t want to go back.
My parents never really did find home. They never found the church my dad had dreamed up. He rested from his search after the fiasco with the escape plan, and we stayed in one place for the next decade. He was always restless, and jumped at sounds in the night more than once, hoping his patience had paid off. Instead, after my sister and I were both married off (and before we both divorced), they became foreign missionaries. That fit. The missionaries who would visit our churches growing up were always a bit odd. They wore clothes that didn’t really fit, long flowered dresses and shirts tucked into pleated dress pants, and they never seemed to get our jokes. We looked at their kids a little warily and their kids looked at us a little warily till we inevitably discovered Freeze Tag is a language that transcends cultures. For the first two decades of my life we were that weird missionary family anywhere we went, even if we didn’t know it at the time. We just thought we were marked by God in some way. Everything signified, even rejection, even suspicion. And so, with the kids gone and no family graves to tend, my parents took a few months of Spanish and boarded a plane and went somewhere they’d have been outsiders anyway. My sister and I stayed here, wondering what it had all meant, what our origin story said about us, what fearfully and wonderfully encompassed in the context of our childhoods. I have washed the feet of businessmen in a church basement and I have carried a casket through city streets in a pro-life rally and I have wept through the night, imploring the Almighty on behalf of a lost soul, and now I don’t believe a word of it. Oh the depths of the riches. Everything signifies.