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3. The big one


Kids (and kids in church) like to tell stories with weird superstitions and urban legends and dark rumors and wacky conspiracy theories.

I remember being highly skeptical of this stuff. It seemed to me that kids were kind of gullible. I didn’t want to be gullible. So if some kid tried to tell me a "true" story that I had already encountered in a book of urban legends or ghost stories, I would call him on it.

So I learned this, at a young age: being gullible is easier and more likely to result in social popularity. Calling people on their BS not only makes you unpopular, it completely fails to stop the BS. Nobody will ever admit that you are right. Even if, later, they come around to your way of thinking, they will still never ever ever give you credit for having been right all along.

(Yes, political pundits are exactly like elementary school children.)

That’s probably when I started to develop the noncommittal nod and variations on "Hmm. That’s interesting. Really. You don’t say."

One thing I remember as a kid is the legend of "the big one" which was this inevitable giant earthquake which was going to "put California into the ocean." Periodically, rumors would go through the school that "they" were predicting that "the big one" was going to hit sometime "in the next year" or "by November" or "around Christmas."

I guess I was a tiny bit worried about this, because I thought it probably wasn’t completely impossible, but I always got really suspicious when I heard something through kid rumor and didn’t see it in the news. Especially if it was something that seemed kind of unlikely. So I did research and found out that 1. while a superquake might certainly do huge damage to the region, nobody who was actually a geologist was anticipating that the effect would include the entire state breaking off from the continent and disappearing under the sea, and 2. predictions about earthquakes weren’t that precise.

When we started going to North Orange Christian Church (I was around 10), it was a historic building that had been abandoned for years and recently restored. My mother was telling me about it, and she said that it had been quite damaged, including vandalism, and "Satanists" had been using it.

I didn’t question the assumption that there were Satanists, who were kind of like inverse Christians, but I didn’t understand them. Why would you buy into the basic construct of a particular religion, only to do everything in reverse? It didn’t make any sense to me. The idea of deliberate evil seemed weird and nonsensical. And real-world evil, like Nazis and slavery, always seemed to come from people who were dead convinced that they were right and what they were doing was good.

There was something else I didn’t understand about Satanists. We were supposed to be scared of them, I gathered, but I wasn’t sure why. I assumed it was because their religious construct was insane, so they probably were insane too, and maybe they would do insane, scary things, like violence for no reason. But there was kind of this overtone that not only actual Satanic Persons were frightening, but also Things of Satanism. You know, their symbols and whatnot. Which were a pentagram, maybe, except when that pentagram was a masonic symbol or part of the flag. And I wasn’t sure why this was supposed to be scary. Because I assumed that we, as Christians, didn’t think that Satanists had real mystical power. Their symbols couldn’t actually summon actual demons, could they? So what was the big deal?

Satanism was not an easy concept to research, because it was sociology, not geology. At that time books like Satanic Panic hadn’t been written yet, because the panic itself was still in its infancy. So what I ended up researching was witches, particularly the Salem witch trials. Somehow I came away from these investigations with the impression that not only did witches not exist, but they were also super cool. I was really into witches for a while. I was a witch for Halloween (my first black dress, thanks Mom!) and I formed a small coven with some of my schoolmates.

Our coven activities consisted largely of memorizing the "double double" speech from Macbeth and assembling kitchen spices into charms to help us do better on tests. There was also the usual Ouija board and "light as a feather, stiff as a board" experimentation. I think we might have done healing chants as well. I thought witches were under a special obligation to be ethical and I was dead set against both hexes and love spells. Even though I didn’t actually believe in witchcraft.

(Two things I learned, as a witch: if you make up the mystical stuff with confidence and an appropriate sense of poetry, the other kids will go along with it even though they know you’re just making it up on the spot. I also learned that it is possible to sort of believe in something and not believe in it at the same time. And sometimes weird things will happen that are probably coincidence. But, just in case, don’t cast any spells where you would regret it if they worked. It’s probably not true, but really, who knows what’s possible in this vast mysterious universe of ours?

So, my current view of religion is actually fairly close to my 10-year-old view of witchcraft.)

The concept of Satanism was on the rise during the 1970s, but the other big thing that kind of went along with that was the end of the world. Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth was a bestseller, and there were horror movies like The Omen that fed into the same general pop culture awareness of things like "end times" and "rapture" and "Antichrist." I think it resonated off other contemporary concerns, like fear of nuclear war, environmental damage, urban crime, and the economy.

I got the impression that all this end of the world stuff was supposed to come mostly from the book of Revelation, so I sat down and read the book.

I enjoyed it, actually. It’s kind of like a psychedelic horror book. All sorts of weird trippy imagery.

There were two big things I noticed about it. One, is that the book keeps saying that all these things are going to happen "soon." It goes back to that again and again, and the soon part doesn’t seem to be intended as metaphorical. Yet most of the rest of Revelation does seem intended to be metaphorical. For example, the "666" bit is couched in language that makes it clear the number is some kind of code for a particular person. So I thought it was peculiar that the end-of-the-world types seemed to be interpreting all the symbolic stuff literally and all the literal stuff symbolically.

The second thing I noticed, was that it was so strange and symbolic, that anybody who claimed to understand it perfectly, was lying.

I didn’t doubt the book itself, at that age. But I was willing to doubt other people’s interpretation of the text. Maybe it was my future English Lit major coming out. When people told me things about the Bible that worried me, I would always go back to the text itself.

Most of the time, I found the text itself reassuring.

Except when I ran into that quote from the King James, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." I immediately ceased all witchcraft activities and worried about things for a while. What did it mean? Why was it there? Was it talking about the same kind of stuff that I had been doing, or was it talking about something else?

I don’t know how much that influenced my decision to get baptized, but it wasn’t long after that I did.

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