Jesus Loses His Freak: How I Lost One Leper Messiah, and Gained Another, Part 4

As the coffeehouses begin to lose their outsider cool, Jesus begins to lose our hero in part 4 of Mark Dery’s personal essay-cum-cultural critique. Read all available installments here, or better yet, never miss another feature by signing up for the RD Daily Newsletter here. You’ll receive our features and blogs every day in your inbox. 

But as I delved deeper into scripture with my bible-study group, I found myself nagged by the awful doubt that while Christ was cool, Christianity wasn’t. I’d always had issues with the Father of All Authority Figures, Yaweh, whose because-I-said-so! insistence on instant, unquestioning obedience to authority was matched only by his serious anger-management problems. When he wasn’t giving the Israelites carte blanche to bash out the Midianite babies’ brains and rape their virgins, he was hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he could justify punishing him for having a hard heart, which is what attorneys like to call a nice point of law. Yaweh seemed about as judicious and coolly rational as Idi Amin Dada, yet like every totalitarian Dear Leader he insisted his fear-sickened people love him…or else, booming, “I, the LORD your God”—always with the screaming CapsLock, like some online whack job—“am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” (Exodus 20:5).

Happily, Yaweh was safely chained in the basement of the pop-Christian unconscious, the Old Testament, which most Jesus kids I knew seemed to view as a dusty scroll of Sunday-school fables about ancient Israelites, periodically interrupted by a yawn-inducing list of begats or the heaven-sent Genocide of the Week.

But the New Testament had its problems, too. The more I read, the more troubled I was by the dissonance between the righteous Jesus of the social gospel—the Revolutionary of Love, defending the destitute and the despised and demanding social justice on their behalf—and Paul’s chauvinism, misogyny, and homophobia. Worse yet, Christ, who seemed to have inherited his dad’s megalomania, insisting ad nauseam that he was The Way and The Truth and The Life and threatening his believers with eternal banishment to the outer darkness unless they submitted to His Will.

Around that time, being a Jesus Freak was losing its outsider cool, in my mind—the kiss of death, for any teenager. Some religious historians date the co-optation of the Jesus movement from its high-water mark in the mass media: Explo ’72, Campus Crusade leader Bill Bright’s shrewd re-packaging of conservative Christianity in the hippie sounds and styles of the Jesus Freaks—a breakthrough move that showed evangelical America how to use pop culture to market its message to its prodigal sons and daughters.

More profoundly, Bright’s “Godstock” witnessed the first stirrings of the evangelical demographic that would emerge in the ‘80s as a political force to be reckoned with. Following market capitalism’s tried-and-true strategy of marketing subcultural transgression as defanged fad, conservative Christianity embraced the teen style, if not the theological substance, of the Jesus movement—and squeezed the life out of it. By no accident, evangelicals were fruitful and multiplied.

Meanwhile, at the FBC, Abba was a victim of its own success, outgrowing the smaller of the church’s two sanctuaries—a godsend to the Old Guard, since it enabled the church to resorb Abba into the established order. “By 1974, space became a problem, and Abba moved into the much larger main sanctuary of the church,” Tim Pagaard, son of former pastor Ken Pagaard, recalls. “The proceedings grew more formal. Worshipers now sat in neat rows of pews instead of cross-legged, shoulder-to-shoulder, helter-skelter on the patchwork carpets of earlier years.

“As Abba became increasingly formalized, though, the crowds eventually began to dwindle. What had once been a quasi-independent youth movement was entirely absorbed into the church schedule in 1975 as a ‘Friday evening service.’ Leadership was turned over to the church elders, and the Thursday and Saturday meetings were cancelled. ‘Abba’ as an entity was no more.”

The Revenge of the Dads.

By 1975, I was gone. Ultimately, I hadn’t been able to swallow Abba’s—or the bible’s—unconscionable defense of “governing authorities,” no matter how venal or violent, following the apostle Paul’s decree in Romans 13:1, that “everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”—a helpful reminder to be Good Germans, even in the days of Mayor Daly and My Lai, Kent State and Nixon’s Christmas bombing. Nor could I conscience Abba’s—or the bible’s—sanctioning of sexist inequities and homophobic drivel that, to my mind, should have been buried with the Hebrew patriarchs. Faith-based apologetics for bigotry and blind obedience simply didn’t square with my vision of Jesus as a sharp-tongued prophet of social justice, come to speak truth to power and right the wrongs of this world.

I drifted away from Abba and, over time, from Christianity altogether. In the made-for-TV version of my life, I’d lose my religion in one mind-cracking moment, like some film of Saul on the road to Damascus run backwards. Unfortunately, that version would be as autobiographically fraudulent as it would be dramatically satisfying. Truth to tell, I lost my belief by degrees, as the ‘70s waned.

But my earliest recollection of realizing I was losing the faith was melodramatic enough. It happened that night, hours after Abba, while I was kneeling before the glowing image of Ziggy Stardust, desperately wishing I could reach through the screen and touch what Teresa of Ávila would have called his glorified body, so “supernatural and beautiful” that it rendered me beside myself as I mouthed the words to “Moonage Daydream” as Ziggy sang them: “The Church of Man, love / is such a holy place to be…”

Part 5: Our hero trades Jesus for Bowie, a spiritual seeker whose own journey led through a buffet of traditional systems and the occult.