Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.2]

About this time, something odd was happening with Mindy’s parents. Grandma Schultz told us that Aunt Ellen and Uncle Ed had become “born-again Christians” after Ed had another motorcycle accident. This one nearly killed him, and led Aunt Ellen to discover that Ed was having an affair. At first I just thought their conversion was an inconvenience, but not a huge deal, because it meant Mindy was no longer able to spend Saturday nights at my house. I was still permitted to stay at her house, with the stipulation that I go to church with them on Sundays. Since this was often the only option, I accepted it simply so I could spend time with Mindy. But it didn’t take long to sense a strange change in the family dynamics.

Prayers at the dinner table went from “Dear God, thank you for this food, this life, and my great wife, Amen,” to “Oh Heavenly Father above us, we thank thee for thy holy gifts for which we are about to receive in undeserved abundance. Let them nourish our weak and weary souls, Oh Lord, letting the nutrients cleanse our evil minds and bodies, and eternally deliver us from sin…” We kids were preached and prayed fervently to, not just during meals, but during car rides, while being tucked in, and while getting baths, which often turned into pseudo-baptisms. My aunt and uncle constantly quoted rhetoric and stories from the Bible and explained at length, repeatedly, who Jesus Christ was and why we needed to worship him. One night at McDonald’s, Aunt Ellen described the design features of heaven—and unfortunately of hell—in great, gruesome detail. Future activities, such as an upcoming car ride or a search for something lost, called for a prayer. And every positive thing that happened, such as having just enough milk for a cookie recipe or the mailman coming on time, was attributed to the Lord, who received a “Praise God, oh thank you Jesus” gratuity.

Prior to this time, my exposure to Christianity had been mild and had either come from my sporadic visits to the Catholic church with Grandma Shultz or to the Methodist church with Grandma Trailer, or from Dad’s explanations about the theory of Christianity as one that competed with evolution. And Dad had actually done a good job of presenting evidence for both beliefs—scientific evidence for evolution and philosophical and psychological evidence for why some people need religion. He remained adamant that he was not an authority on either subject and that everyone should have the chance to find those answers for themselves and believe what they want to believe. His unwillingness to influence my personal choice left me pondering it all.

Watching so many people at Mindy’s church crying, wailing, and rallying together around what they clearly believed with all their hearts to be the truth, started to have an effect on me. I had to wonder if they all were experiencing something real. I started listening more carefully to the sermons and asking my aunt and uncle all kinds of questions to eliminate my doubts. Naturally, their answers and evidence to back them up were things that couldn’t be proven or disproven…so for the first time in my life, I worked hard to impel faith. But, to achieve this faith, I’d have to swallow a frightening linchpin, which was that to avoid being brutally punished in Hell for all eternity, you absolutely had to believe in Jesus Christ and personally accept him as your savior. To my great horror, my aunt and uncle told me that they were terribly worried about my father’s soul and that if he died tomorrow, he would be one of the ones to perish.

For several months, I prayed continually, and silently, for my dad to believe. I went to church every Sunday with my cousins and received the Holy Ghost every chance I got, with the hopes of becoming a stronger Christian and one with more power to influence my dad—or at least attain better graces with God so that he’d possibly save Dad on my behalf. Becoming adequately saved required attending Bible studies, healings, retreats, abortion protests, and the occasional church “lock-in.” I worried often that my faith wasn’t strong enough, because I was the only one that couldn’t yet speak in “tongues.”

Until one night, while locked inside the church basement with all the other church women and girls, we performed a round-robin confessional. We were forced, one at a time, to sit in the middle of the circle and confess all our past sins—the biggest one of mine, of course, being that I’d accidentally killed Burrhus and lied about it. The guilt of carrying that lie for all those years—the only significant lie I’d ever told my father—was finally lifted that night as everyone put their hands on me and murmured “you are forgiven.” In that instant, I felt a tremendous weight lift and a surge of ecstasy rose from my stomach, up my throat, and out of my mouth until finally “the tongues” came flowing out of me beyond my control. It was the first and only time I was ever able to speak them.

Even as an eleven-year-old, I felt that many of the people at the church behaved strangely and seemed poor, needy, and lost. Some spoke incoherently at times, but everyone else seemed to understand them perfectly. It was confusing. And, as my aunt and uncle’s “missioning” intensified, many of the needier or down-and-out people were recklessly welcomed into their home. One Saturday night while I was sleeping over at Mindy’s, we kids were instructed to go to bed at 9 p.m., only to be awakened two hours later and marched down in our pajamas to the center of a circle of crying, humming, tongue-speaking adults, who didn’t even seem to notice we’d entered the room.

When my uncle stood to pray for our “stained” little souls and asked the Lord to deliver us from evil, the adults grew silent and put their hands gently on our foreheads. One woman, whose hand was connected to my forehead, began to rock from side to side and speak in tongues in an increasingly louder tone until she crescendoed into a scream and yanked her hand away as if I had electrocuted her. She sat silently crying, rocking back and forth, cradling herself around the middle. Feeling an indescribable but almost physical energy in the air that made my stomach lurch and my breathing difficult, I shot a desperate glance at my aunt, who merely kept rocking steadily with her eyes closed…deep in her own trance.

A few weeks later, my aunt and uncle took in a battered Vietnamese woman, Hao, and her troubled nine-year-old son, Gam. Hao created a lot of drama around the house, speaking almost hysterically on topics none of us could understand. She often went out partying in provocative clothes, only to call my relatives at three in the morning because she’d been beaten up or raped by some guy she’d met at a bar. Money disappeared from wallets. Hao would frantically deny all accusations, at which time my aunt and uncle would sit her down and pray with her to find the answers.

Gam, who was also nothing but trouble—hyperactive and violent—loved to say he could talk to the devil. He was a bad influence on my littler cousins, who barely got enough attention from their parents as it was. Being good Christians, my relatives put up with this scenario until they finally discovered that Gam was inappropriately touching their youngest daughter, Marie, who was five. They prayed and prayed about it, but when it didn’t stop, Uncle Ed finally gave them the boot.

When Hao and Gam left, Ed and Ellen sat little Marie down and we all prayed for her emotional and physical healing. Then it was abruptly and absolutely never mentioned again. Over the next several years, a revolving door of prisoners, homeless people, and pregnant teenagers took refuge on their couch, accepted prayers and handouts, and often left the house’s inhabitants a little poorer. We kids were enlisted to write inspirational prayer letters to prisoners, scripted to help them see that Jesus was their only savior. Eventually, prayer became the answer for absolutely everything, even for the time Luke fell out of the back of a moving truck and possibly broke his jaw; utilizing modern medicine of any kind demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s powers and made you a betrayer.

One Sunday, about a year after all this started, I experienced a turning point when a special guest, known as Nick the Greek, came to the church. An ex-prisoner, Nick had been convicted of raping and beating multiple women and stabbing one of them. However, he had found Jesus during his prison stint and was now instilled with the power of the Holy Ghost to save the souls of others. With a flair for public speaking, Nick told his wretched and appalling story to a crowd of murmuring, riled followers.

When his tale was finished, he asked any man, woman, or child who felt even the faintest uncertainty as to whether they had unequivocally asked for and received the Lord as their savior to join him on stage to receive The Spirit. My aunt reached over, put her hand on my knee, and gave me the usual nod of affirmation that I should get my butt up there. I typically followed all her orders, trusting that she knew this was the best way to help my father.

Approaching the end of the line, I stood in a position where I could examine Nick the Greek more closely. He was short and wore a black suit and a black top hat above a mane of long, black, wavy hair. His skin looked thick and tan and he had dark circles around his eyes. Too soon, I was standing directly in front of him. He closed his piercing blue eyes and slowly began to speak in tongues. Summoning the Lord down to me, he touched my forehead with a burning hot palm, which sent a jolt of a warm, soft electric current from the point of contact through my body and out my feet. I must have fallen to the ground, but I hadn’t felt my back connect with the floor. When I came to and realized I was lying on the carpet looking up at the ceiling, a stranger in a gray suit was reaching for my hand. I walked away feeling clearer, fresher in my mind—cleansed.

But this time, the feeling didn’t last. My stomach felt uneasy. Instead of having more evidence to believe in the supernatural, I couldn’t stop thinking about Nick the Greek’s story and the eternal equation behind it. The basic assumptions were that you had to believe in God and accept the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart as the savior to get into heaven. But, as I just learned from Nick the Greek, you can also rape, beat, steal, lie, and stab—in essence, do horrible things to others for years on end—and ALL will be forgiven in the end; you can still receive a pass to heaven as long as you accept Jesus Christ into your heart sometime before you die, even seconds before. Was this news good or bad?

When I first heard it, it felt like a gift. It bought me time, gave my dad an “out.” Even if I couldn’t get Dad to believe in God now, I could possibly sway him into believing when he was on his deathbed. I ran right home and, recognizing how silly it must sound, begged him anyway to agree to do this crucial act for me the minute before he died. I was hoping he’d humor me to hedge his bets. I said, “Dad, it’s okay if you don’t believe now…but promise me that you will just accept the Lord into your heart right before you die, so you can be sure to get to heaven…if there turns out to be one.”

But my father said, “That wouldn’t be right, Honey.”

Oh? It seemed like the perfect compromise to me. Never mind that my plan hadn’t accounted for accidental death. Dad could have so easily lied to me to make me feel better…but he couldn’t lie.

As tears welled up in me, he explained, “It wouldn’t be right for me to lie about my belief in something, just to possibly get the reward of heaven. Doing that under false intentions would make me a hypocrite. Don’t get me wrong; thinking there is a heaven is a great and comforting thought, but Michelle, I believe I am already living the purest life I can. I am motivated to do the right thing in life because I believe all people, regardless of religion, deserve the same possibility of living a good, happy, and healthy life, and it would hurt me to hurt others. Believing there is a god or a heaven or hell wouldn’t change that for me.”

“But, Dad, the rules state that the ONLY way you can get into heaven is if you ask the Lord into your heart. You can do ALL good things and STILL be sent to hell!”

“Honey, I look at it this way…first of all, even if there is some kind of god, I don’t believe he would take the form of Man. We have created that concept because we understand it and it makes us feel safe and protected. Different religions have different descriptions for their god and his teachings, but they all contradict each other in rules and principles. Some don’t even believe in heaven and hell at all. Who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong? There’s no way to prove any of it.”

“Yes, everybody can’t be right,” I agreed.

“Secondly, let’s say for the sake of the argument that there IS a kind of god out there that watches us. I don’t think he’d be in the business of deciding whether we are worthy of reward or punishment at the end of life. If there is such a being, he would possess the most evolved intelligence in the universe and therefore understand all the sciences and psychology we haven’t even discovered yet. He would recognize we are people who still do not yet even understand our own biology or psychology and behave mostly unaware of our conditioning.

“Since most of human behavior is a factor of consequences that people don’t always understand or aren’t even aware of, would it be fair of God to hold everyone accountable for their actions? It would be like saying that our cat should be burned because she stole food from our cabinet. I’d like to believe He would be compassionate, not angry; intelligent, not subjectively judgmental. He would not judge people by their religions. He would hold true, unconditional love for everyone, including atheists. He would not punish people for simply questioning his existence.”

The honesty, rationality, and sincerity of my dad’s words began to alleviate the unease I felt inside and to dissolve my fragile faith at the core. Unlike so many moments of the past few months, I felt some relief and hope. I hadn’t been sure if I really believed in God or not as I had never been able to perceive or conjure him like everyone else had; I was just scared and was doing anything I could to protect my father. But now, a real conflict arose—I could not accept with any logical or emotional sense a god who would allow Nick the Greek, and not my father, into heaven.

And, if that’s indeed how He operated, I was prepared to outright reject him and his unfairness on principle. Regardless if there was a god or not, I felt with great clarity, in heart and mind, the right thing to do was to go to hell with my dad (if there turned out to be one) rather than to believe in a god like that—one I couldn’t respect as an ideal of intelligence and kindness. So, although it wasn’t religion, I came to find faith after all—faith in logic, science, and my humanistic father.

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