Revival of the Fittest
It was normal enough until we went to Brownsville. We left New Jersey as a bunch of rowdy teenagers and descended on the Florida panhandle like a jittery plague, staying up past midnight to throw rubbery waffles from The Waffle House down the hotel halls like frisbees. In the morning, we went to church.
The church in Brownsville was having a revival. Even with daily services and a cavernous sanctuary, groups gathered in the parking lot to watch the sermon on projector screens. The atmosphere inside the church was charged with spiritual energy. The pastor didn’t just preach, he urged us toward repentance, his voice poignant with authority. At the altar, people fell down on their knees, or straight backwards, corpse-like, into the arms of waiting ushers. Someone explained that they were being slain in the spirit. We all wanted it to happen to us.
During worship we sang songs with lyrics that leaned heavy on a spirit of contrition. There was an urgency that tapped right into our exposed teenage nerves, desperate for purpose and acceptance. We raised our hands in supplication with our eyes squeezed shut to see God better. I placed crumpled babysitting money in the collection plate with the reverence of a widow donating her last coin as it passed. The leadership encouraged our earnestness. We were mobilized into action.
Upon our return, the youth group was rebranded as the “Chosen Generation.” Our church wanted a revival too, and they wanted it to start with us. Bible study was now “discipleship training,” and it had requirements like witnessing and fasting. Participation was mandatory in order to serve on ministries like the worship team, on which I was a timid vocalist. Members of the worship team were discouraged from listening to anything other than worship music. Even Christian rock was considered too symbolic of its secular counterpart. We were to be set apart. The Chosen Generation.
Gone were the 80s and the era of optimism, of “Jesus loves me, this I know.” It was the 90s. We had O.J. Simpson, Heaven’s Gate, impeachment hearings, Columbine, and Y2K. The fires of hell were palpable, their flames licking at our heels. We traded the tenderness of the Psalms for the gritty masochism of Paul, who boasted in 1 Corinthians that he beat his body and made it his slave. We were obsessed with Armageddon, studying the book of Revelation and prepping for the end times the way other kids prepared for SATs. Every time something bad happened – an earthquake, a flood – the pastor claimed it was the “birth pangs” of the world ending. Some nights I woke up in a cold sweat, afraid that my family had been raptured without me.
Before long I was spending upwards of 18 hours a week in church. Witnessing was extra. We went out in pairs distributing tracts at the mall or up and down main street. I felt a deep sense of shame during these times because I hated witnessing. It wasn’t just that I was shy, to me it felt forceful and dirty. Finding God should be like falling in love, I thought. It should be personal and natural. But I didn’t want these souls to go to Hell because of me, because then I would go to Hell too.
Fasting was another key component of discipleship. The lead pastor claimed to give up food for Lent. Not just sweets or meat or dairy. All food. 40 days and nights without it, just like Christ had done in the desert. I marveled at his dedication. We were required to fast at least one meal per week, and we replaced the act of eating with the act of prayer. Thinking about hunger would defeat the purpose of the fast. If we focused on our empty stomachs, God couldn’t fill us with his spirit.
For one of our lock-ins, we spent 30 hours camped inside the church without eating. We played flashlight tag and stretched out on our bellies on the basement floor to pray. We didn’t sleep. The growls in our stomachs echoed between one another like sonar. In the morning, we were given cleaning assignments. Mine was to dust the blinds that hung from the tall windows in the church sanctuary. I stood on a ladder bleary eyed, hungry and sleep deprived, watching particles of dust float through the air like glitter. I tried not to think about the pancakes we were promised once we broke our fast.
No matter how much we prayed, God wouldn’t give us a revival. Our youth group wasn’t growing. The few strangers we lured in from witnessing would visit once and never come again. It was the same group of kids, crying at the altar week after week. The leadership doubled down. It must be something we were doing wrong. We were not “on fire” enough. We were too wicked. Had we been fornicating? One Friday night, the pastor called a dozen boys to the front of the room and had them form a line. They shuffled forward in various states of awkwardness.
“Alright, alright,” the pastor said, half-smiling, motioning with his hands to quiet down. He was an oversized teenager himself, tall and lanky with a shock of white blonde hair that kept him in a perpetual pubescence. Then he asked me to stand. I walked to the front of the room, blushing and trying not to make eye contact with anyone. The pastor handed me a single rose and instructed me to tear a petal off and hand it to one of the boys. I did, and continued in that fashion, petal after petal, sweaty fingers avoiding sweaty fingers, until I reached the last boy in the line.
“Now hold up what you have left,” the pastor said. It was barely more than a stem. He took a step back and smiled with the satisfaction of a magician performing a parlor trick. In a sudden rush of embarrassment, I understood.
“The rose represents your heart,” he said, and took the ravaged stem from me. But what he really meant for it to demonstrate was my ravaged body. In that moment, if I could have fallen through a trap door and disappeared into the floor, I would have.
It was no accident that a young woman had been chosen for the illustration of promiscuity personified. The girls in the youth group were particularly scrutinized. We were encouraged to dress modestly so as not to cause one of our brothers to stumble, and regularly warned about the dangers of stirring lust within their hearts. Women in the Bible were memorialized as vessels of destruction. Jezebel, Potiphar’s wife, Delilah, and Eve herself, the mother of all and the mother of sin. I learned to be afraid of my own sex, of my own body.
In response to these new teachings, we collectively shunned dating. We signed vows of purity and wore promise rings. We continued to pray for our revival, but it wasn’t coming fast enough, and the youth were still considered those to blame. An elder in the church sent me an email, laden with criticism, berating me and the “frozen chosen” for preventing the spirit of God from falling. We were still too sinful and too worldly. God couldn’t fill our hearts with his spirit because our hearts were full of sin.
More and more I found myself wanting to hide, to disappear. Since fasting was so precious, I did it as often as I could, and was met with an unexpected benefit. My weight began to dwindle. I would manifest my own disappearance. We didn’t have a scale at home, so I weighed myself on the bathroom scale at the little girl’s house where I babysat. Week by week I watched the numbers plummet. 110 pounds, then 100, then 90. I tightened my WWJD bracelet closer to my shrinking wrist, felt my promise ring slip on my skeletal finger. All along I had been learning another religion. Of buried feelings, of erasure. Of punishment and denial.
Before long, things began to spiral. My mother was frantic, shuttling me to the doctor on a weekly basis. She kept watch of me at night and checked my pulse to make sure my heart was beating. When I looked in the mirror, I saw death. One day, a boy stood behind his mother at church, peering out at me. “What’s wrong with her?” he whispered. His mother shushed him. Didn’t he realize? I had beaten my body. I had made it my slave. My physical body meant nothing in the pursuit of being sinless. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Maybe the only way to avoid being sinful was to starve.
One morning while babysitting, I woke up to feel the cool tile of the kitchen floor against my cheek. The little girl stood above me, blinking. Her eyes were so round, I thought. I lay there, unable to move, as I felt my limbs twitch from the last few moments of my seizure. The scale at the doctor’s office that day read 82 pounds. “If you don’t place her in treatment, I could lose my license,” the doctor said. There were two options: a coed psychiatric ward in New Jersey, or an all-girl treatment facility in Arizona. I would go to the latter for two months. I was fifteen years old.
Having my life and family stripped away from me after trying so hard to be good felt like the ultimate bait-and-switch. Upon my arrival in the treatment facility, I was told I would require a feeding tube to pump nourishment directly to my stomach. There was no way I could consume enough food to reach a healthy weight fast enough. Two nurses held me down while another fed a plastic tube through my nostril and down my throat into my stomach. I begged them to stop. “I can do it,” I said. “Just let me eat.”
My therapist was furious that the church had encouraged teenagers to fast. She wanted to call Child Protective Services. I was confused. If church was good, wasn’t everything we did there good for us? If the people in church loved me, why would they do anything to hurt me? For the first time since I’d joined the youth group, I began to doubt. The teachings, the requirements and rewards, took on the visage of a traveling salesman in a stagecoach, someone who has to leave town when the prescribed elixirs fail to work, or worse, do harm.
When I came back from rehab, I had changed more than just my weight. What had once been black and white now contained the shades of gray so terrifying to fundamental Christianity. No one knew what to do with me or my new ideals. “The complacency of fools will destroy them!” the pastor read from Proverbs. There was no place in the church for lukewarm. Salvation was an investment strategy that traded only in extremes: hot or cold, heaven or hell, forgiveness or damnation. Those who were passionate were useful, and those who weren’t would be disposed. They disposed of me then, though I went willingly.
One by one the members of the youth group fell away. Some got pregnant. Some turned to alcohol and drugs. Some went to college and graduated summa cum laude, the presidents of sororities and clubs. I never understood what made the difference. Maybe it depended on how deep the roots took hold, on what they choked. Little by little we were replaced by the next generation. The youth pastor stepped down. Rumors circulated that he’d had a relationship with one of the teenage boys. I don’t know if it was true.
The revival never came.
Elizabeth Muller lives in New Jersey with her husband and three children. She is a graduate of Columbia University and is currently working on her second novel. You can find her on Twitter, @eawrites.