Perhaps my inability to connect with what the preacher was saying traced back how I was raised. My parents did not talk much about religion. They took religion for granted. Religion was to them a background assumption, not something to get worked up about. The preacher, in contrast, managed to get himself worked up every Sunday.
The preacher was a gangly man with a comical face, which he compensated for by projecting a stern, humorless presence. His dour expression and his homicidal glare prevented us adolescents from openly mocking him. All our mocking thoughts were confined within our skulls, like children kept indoors by bad weather, trapped until cabin fever drove them to stampede down the hallway, slam against walls, guffaw, and taunt all well-bred thoughts into submission.
The congregation was genuinely impressed by the preacher, especially when he spoke loudly in staccato to signal that he meant every single word of it. The louder his proclamations, the more fiercely the congregants bobbed their heads in agreement. When he calmed down and spoke in a civil tone, everyone sat courteously, passing the time by exchanging discreet little smiles with one another.
The mothers in the congregation often whispered reprimands to their children for squirming, facing the wrong direction, kicking the pews, and committing other petty infractions. The mothers were not disturbed primarily by the fact that their children were missing a witty and insightful sermon; they simply wanted them to stop attracting judgmental gazes.
The children sulked for the first two minutes after being scolded. Gradually, however, the sullen clouds began to lift from their faces as they transitioned to casual reveries about the buttons on their shirts and the blades of grass clinging to their shoes. Their attention was irresistibly drawn to the grass or to their shoelaces, which, under the circumstances, provided an inordinate amount of entertainment.
The children most prone to get in trouble were those who spied their mothers smiling pleasantly at other adult members of the congregation. Betrayed into thinking their mothers had acquired a cheerful disposition, and misinterpreting this as a license to engage in more spirited horseplay, these children were destined for hardship.
The mothers initially employed the ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach, rendering themselves willfully blind to their children’s activities. When that strategy failed, they tried a furtive glance or an inconspicuous tap behind the ear. The children dismissed these sophomoric efforts, brushing them aside as though flicking away a gnat. The mothers’ gracious facade began to crumble. They shifted in their seats. An ominous spark of anger began to flicker in their eyes.
It is a delicate task to communicate threats of bodily injury sufficient to horrify small children while maintaining composure appropriate to a church service. The mothers alternately smiled tenderly at the adults and scowled menacingly at their children, all the while pretending to be captivated by the preacher. I could not observe this performance without developing a degree of admiration for the mothers. Nevertheless, the mothers’ endless facial contortions were confusing to the children and tiring for the mothers. By the end of the sermon everyone was relieved to get outdoors.
The children became attentive only near the close of the sermon, as the preacher’s conflagration with the devil escalated toward a dramatic climax. The preacher jabbed his fist at an invisible foe, presumably Lucifer, and flailed his arms like a traffic cop, one being attacked by a pack of wolves. He then leaped side-to-side as though he had a yellow jacket up his wazoo. Suddenly the preacher’s spine stiffened as he became engorged with adrenaline. Red-faced, he hammered the lectern and shouted like Hitler. The audience had seen this drama played out on previous Sundays, so they knew their hero would ultimately prevail, but they visibly shared his outrage at the devil’s persistence.
When the children asked their mothers what made the preacher so mad, the mothers pressed a finger to their lips and said, “Shhhh!” The more agitated the preacher became, the more inquisitive the children grew. Soon the choir of mothers singing “Shhhh!” provided a droning accompaniment to the preacher’s tirade. Eventually the preacher became distracted by the hissing noise and lost his enthusiasm, and thereby equilibrium was established.
Since I came from a large, quarrelsome family, the preacher’s ability to speak loudly failed to impress me. I listened in vain for some intellectual substance in the preacher’s ravings, perhaps the gentle whirr of a high-flying principle or the clank of a solid inference, but all I heard was the pelting of a few cold anecdotes, clinking the surface of a tinny narrative and plopping into slushy pablum. Church, I finally decided, was a place of theatrics, ritual, and socializing. These are not bad things, mind you, but they have nothing to do with God. I came away from my infrequent visits to the church questioning whether God visited there at all.