Friday, February 01, 2008


No memory is ever pure, for we all construct narrative in hindsight. I have constructed a strong, bitter narrative around one episode from my childhood such that I have made it a lynch pin of my identity. The memory involves rapture movies. Do you know of these beasts? Have you ever borne witness?

By now you all know that my father died when I was 7. You may even know that he died of a curable disease: Hodgkins--that's the one that sidelined Mario Lemieux for a couple of months back in '93. Even back in the early '70s, Hodgkins was curable if it was detected in time. My dad's was not. Now maybe that was because he was a stubborn, bear-the-pain-in-silence farmer or maybe it was because my small town was serviced by two family doctors who had spent the bulk of their careers as missionaries in Africa and, as such, were not really on top of the diagnostic literature. I don't know the answer for certain but as I mentioned above, I have consciously constructed bitterness from this story.

When my dad died, our doctor felt deep and honest remorse. I'm certain of it. Whether he also felt pangs of guilt, I'll never know. For years following dad's death, the doctor's wife came to visit once each summer carrying a cheque that would send one of us kids to camp. I know this family of devout Christians saw this act as God's work, charitable work. We were dirt poor; going to summer camp was an opportunity we certainly wouldn't have had without their help. The camp, Fair Glen, was a pan-denominational, evangelical Christian organization with a few acres of land about a half-hour from where I grew up. Its sole purpose was make us born again... while teaching us a bit of paddling and bead work on the side.

I remember my first year at camp. I was 12 or 13 years old (but I felt younger) and it was my first time away from home--really away, not just visiting Uncle Lloyd and Aunt Vi or bunking down at Gram's for the night. I was gone a full week without the ability to contact home. On our first night at camp, before we were even able to get to know one another and form strategic social-sanity bonds, we were all herded into the main hall for movie night. We watched A Distant Thunder, a rapture film.

A Distant Thunder begins with a guillotining scene set to a chorus of complacent Christians singing "We shall overcome" dirge-like as they are marched to their death. You see in the prequel to this film, A Thief in the Night, all God's faithful are swept off to heaven in the Rapture. Those left behind are given a choice by Satan's followers: accept the mark of the beast or be executed. The only hope promised to these poor sods is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour such that their reward will await them on the other side of the blade. Some do. Some do not. All are murdered brutally on-screen.

After the film, we were told that the Rapture could happen at any time, that end-times were at hand. Only those known to Christ would be taken in the Rapture. The rest of us would have to deal with the apocalypse. We then walked back to our cabins, which had no indoor plumbing or electricity, to contemplate our souls and to get a good night's rest. Suffice to say, that night, as I lay on my bunk unable to sleep for fear of being attacked in the night, for fear of simply dissolving, for fear of never seeing my family again and for fear of fear itself, I became born again.

A week later on my return home, CTV carried the "World Television Premiere" of The Omen. I made it as far as the Nanny scene ("Damien, Damien, this I do for you!") before having to leave the room more terrified than I had ever been in my life. I didn't sleep all night, for if I slept on my side I could be attacked from behind. I could easily be smothered if I dozed off on my stomach. Phantom arms were sure to spring up from the bed should I lie on my back. The hands under the bed would no doubt grab my ankles if I made a run for it. Hours passed by and I watched the slow path of headlights crawl around my walls, each light a trumpet blast from one of the horsemen of the apocalypse.

It's not that I was new to Christianity when I walked through the gates of Fair Glen. We were a god-fearing family. When I was little, my mother played the organ at the Anglican church and I helped by putting the hymn numbers up in the hardwood display boards. My Gram was a fire and brimstone Baptist who made sure I attended Pioneer Girls. She was also responsible for the various illustrated editions of the Bible we had kicking around the house. And yet, Christianity was quietly observed in my family, my mother being more a disciple of C.S. Lewis than any kind of organized doctrine.

After my rebirth of duress in Christ, I remained a Christian throughout my teen years though never so earnest and terrified a one as I was that first summer. I returned to camp at least one more time and saw a few more Rapture films before my indoctrination was complete. I eventually joined the United Church and became part of a singing teen ministry. I went to Breakfast Club before Church each Sunday and eventually the social aspects of Christianity won out over all that fear-mongering. At the time, I believed I was a true person of faith but in retrospect I know that my core was hollow on this count.

As I passed into adulthood I began to question so many aspects of Christianity and the Church. I lost my faith entirely and I know deep down that I will never reclaim it. I don't pretend for a second that this loss of faith can all be pegged on a single rapture film, but when you come to God by way of the lion and not the lamb you will always be frightened and unsure. When your experiences are soured by poverty and parental loss such that you can't help but question the motives of even the most sincere do-gooders, you become that proverbial camel on the wrong side of the needle--except that you can't help but wonder to yourself why you would ever want to squeeze yourself back through.

This post was written as part of Julie's Hump Day Hmmmm. I would have had it up on Wed except I got too sleepy to finish it last night. And yes, I have read Gwen's post but not until I had this one more or less written. Oh and I have also seen the Mimi Rogers/David Duchovny Rapture, just in case you're wondering.


flutter said...

Wow, Mad.

Gwen said...

First, damn, Mad, you knocked this one out of the park. I loved the last few lines that begin with "when you come to God by way of the lion and not the lamb..." So powerful.

So. I see what you mean. Yes, oh yes, we had plenty of rapture films fed to us, too, and it was the same kind of gripping fear as the hell and damnation sermons because I was never sure, really, that I was truly saved. If God was so willing to let such bad things happen, to send his creation to such a terrible place, how could I trust him to see that I was trying very hard and was therefore worthy of heaven, of rapture? Not that I could articulate that at the time, in my child brain, but the uncertainty was always there.

I often wish, now, that I could access religion, any religion without the taint of my childhood experience. While my three sisters are all still believers, and nearly every single person I grew up with, I don't know how to get around it myself. Christian friends tell me now that the message of Christ was misinterpreted or misunderstood, in the way it was presented to me as a child, but these well-meaning Christians are a product of that supposed falseness. So how can I know they're not still wrong?

I loved this. This was a thing of beauty.

Mad Hatter said...

Gwen: "I often wish, now, that I could access religion, any religion without the taint of my childhood experience."

Yes and yes again.


Karen said...

Mad, I don't know what to say. Your story is so powerful. I think you know I am a Christian - but one of a very different background than what brought rapture movies to the world - more liberation theology and soup kitchens. Strangely, I grew up in New York City with two parents who worked for the church - and yet, I protected from the ugliest parts of my own faith tradition. I do feel grateful to my parents for that - for sharing only the very purest, best parts of the faith they wanted me to have. My sisters and I have each chosen different paths at different times, but freedom was our model. So thank you for writing this memory down. It has given me some thinking to do about how will share with my kids and how I want to shield them and yet make them free.

thordora said...

My mother was a die hard RC to the day she died. I wanted to believe for her, and I wanted to believe for me.

But even that want flew out the window when she died. What sort of god would take our parents from us?

Julie Pippert said...

Oh. Mad. Wow. I don't know how you can construct the narrative any other way.

There is a reason why the saying is that good intentions pave the road to the very place those people endeavored to avoid.

No, I never saw a rapture film or read any rapture books. I don't think I ever will, now.

I understand why your faith is like the camel on the other side of the needle.

This was a fantastically powerful post. I'm glad you brought it to the table. It leaves my mind spinning, and my heart a little wrinkled.

Anonymous said...

When you come to God by way of the lion and not the lamb you will always be frightened and unsure is poetry.

painted maypole said...

wow. Sorry.

The rapture baffles me, as it is completely and utterly NOT BIBLICAL, and as far as I'm concerned, a bunch of hooey. And using it to try to convert people. yikes. I guess one could argue that their hearts were "in the right place," but that just seems to call to question what kind of place that is. Fear mongering is frightening indeed.

nomotherearth said...

I second what Alpha Dogma said. Do you know - I have no idea what a Rapture film is (although I can hazard a guess). My dad is a United Church minister...should I know what it is??

Anonymous said...

Charity is so completely subjective. I think people assume that giving what they WANT to give is what matters. But, man, that charity that you got? Not so thoughtful, in my opinion.


Beck said...

Ick! Poor you!

Rapture theology is not a mainstream Christian belief - it belongs solely to Baptist/Pentecostal churches. (as far as I can tell.) Other mainstream Protestant branches (Lutheran, Anglican and the Canadian United Church, as well as Catholocism and the Orthodox church) utterly reject it as unsound theology.

I view teaching children enviromental fear-mongering (that they're all going to die in a terrible storm or down in a flood, for example, which one eager young teacher told my daughter's terrified kindergarten class) as the same sort of insidiious child abuse as teaching them that they're going to be murdered by hordes of Satanists.

Beck said...

(Nice spelling of "Catholicism", eh?)

Andrea said...

I watched those movies! I went to bible camp! And pioneer girls! Of course, for me family, that was ages 0 through sixteen.

I think I still have the pioneer girls manual around somewhere. It was my introduction to the perfect-woman-is-clothed-in-purple concept.

Beck is right. It is child abuse.

Bon said...

oy. i hung a bit with the evangelical crowd in my own teen years after a pleasant childhood in the more lamb-focused United Church, but i got spared the rapture films. evidently, i didn't miss much...and am grateful i missed whatever they did offer, because when i left, thanks to the prayer vigils offered up in light of my enjoyment of "Inherit the Wind," i managed to lose my faith without being hurt so badly as to leave bitterness.

i am sorry your fall was not so gentle.

cinnamon gurl said...

This post is fantastically written, Mad, as others have pointed out. It sings. For me it was the first line that punched me in the gut and held me to the very end.

I have never seen a rapture film but if I had, I'm sure I would have responded exactly the same. The things that happen at summer camps (or at least the things that happened to you and me), even the secular ones, make me think I don't ever want to let Swee'pea go to one.

Anonymous said...

holy crap.

my atheist upbringing is feeling warm & cozy right now.

I wrestle with sending my daughter to a Catholic school, because I know that God can be as dangerous as gangs.

jen said...

good lord. i saw that series of rapture films as a young girl and they freaking scarred me for life. i can still picture the images, that guillotine, good lord (whoa)

i so understand this.

Christine said...


speechless here.

makes my 12 years of catholic school seem like theological cake.

Running on empty

Kyla said...

Oh Mad. Sometimes Christianity makes my stomach turn...and I am a Christian. I think you nailed the lion and lamb line. That is the truth, friend.

TEOM said...

Sheesh, I thought my Catholic upbringing was bad, but no one ever stuck a horror film in front of my face and told me it was rapture.

I just can't help but thinking that the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion outweigh the good it has been known to do.

Jenifer said...

Mad this is gold. I have never seen a Rapture film thankfully and cannot imagine the lasting damage it caused.

Papoosie Girl had her Reconciliation this week in preparation for her First Communion. She attends a RC school as I did, which is what I wanted. We had some issues though with one of the priests since Papoosie was baptized in a Greek Orthodox Church.

The ensuing struggle to get this sorted out with no compassion or compromise from the Church...until in the end when the Bishop took my side (which was supporting all existing doctrine - not bending any rules) left me disgusted.

I believe in my faith, that has not changed. The part of my that had faith in the institution though that is fading.

Misty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Misty said...

While the post was superbly written, the comments have been even more enlightening. I have had my own torturous past inflicted by the church, so much so that I am afraid of Christians. In fact, when I meet people who seem so nice and normal but are in fact people of faith, my coping mechanism is to tell myself they are not "real" Christians.

There are Christians who don't believe in the Rapture? There are Christians who have never even heard of a Rapture film? I am stupefied.

My mind wonders how that is even possible. And with that wondering, the opening widens just a bit.

ewe are here said...

I had never heard of a rapture film until I read this. And I can't help but wonder why people who force children, children!, to watch such films think terrorizing them will not cause serious emotional distress and harm. And, once grown up and past being so young and impressionable and scared into 'believing', I wouldn't be surprised if most turned their back on the church because of this type of indoctrination.

Aliki2006 said...

I've never seen a rapture film, either, but this post is just a wonderful one to read--so rich, so scrumptious, really, if you don't mind my using that word for this.

mo-wo said...

When is that perfect post deadline?

Heather said...

Wow, this post is very powerful and intense. Thank you for sharing this story so honestly and beautifully.

My husband grew up with some similar experiences, but perhaps without quite the extremity of exposure to such films. It has been a struggle for him as he seeks to find and identify what is true and authentic about his own faith.

alejna said...

That was so beautifully and powerfully written.

What a frightening thing to do to children. Showing those brutal movies and then leaving you to those dark bunks. It seems so calculating.

I'm not sure I'd ever heard of rapture movies. I've certainly never seen one. Whatever religion I was exposed to as a child was quite mild.

Mimi said...

Wow, Mad. Beautiful. Very powerful.

Janet said...

Hi Mad, found your blog through Slouching Mom. We have a lot in common, not the least of which is the fundamentalist "scare them into heaven" upbringing. My father died when I was 3 and my stepfather found this fundamentalist church, then a school to go with it, as well as attendant summer camps. Somehow they coerced my Methodist grandmother into seeing "A Thief in the night" at church one Sunday night, and she was properly and thoroughly horrified at what she thought was blasphemy. I finally got out of that environment at age 18, and now, approaching 46, I am still completely messed up about my faith (if I have any) and what to do about raising my kids, who I didn't have until after 40, partly due to my religion issues. Sorry for such a long comment. I really didn't need to say so much, because you already said it so eloquently. I will definitely be back to visit.