It’s nine o’clock on a Sunday morning. As ever, I sit in the balcony at church. My father, the pastor, is in the pulpit. I am in the throes of arousal. My roving eye lands on the buttery thighs of Parker Ainsworth and the pink trim of her panties, visible thanks to the recent popularity of the miniskirt. Next to Parker sit other girls my age—Jaynie and June, Debbie and Shauna, Delilah and Jezebel—with crossed legs, supple, tanned, and silky.
I look away, bow my head in prayer, and search my head for Bible tips. “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, etc., think on these things.” I think of Jesus’s bleeding, tortured, graphic death walk to Golgotha, a walk made for sinners like me. Embrace the torment, young man. But the shift and twinge in my lap begs for attention and a subtle rearranging.
How hard it is to bring erections under the Lordship of Christ—a mystery I often ponder. Not even my improvised chastity belt could help: tighty-whities secured by a jock strap so tight it squeezed my junk like some kind of BDSM zentai. In time, I would find it helpful after temptation and fall to rub a rough dish towel against my genitalia until I bled.
We had recently moved to the epicenter of southern white terrorism, according to the FBI’s reckoning. Yes, Brown vs. Board of Education had been the law of the land longer than I’d been alive, and yes, LBJ had signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, but in 1967 deepest Mississippi, the explicit agonies of the civil rights struggle were still unfolding. In nearby Meridian, federal prosecutors tried 18 white Mississippians for their role in murdering civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman. Not for nothing did the respected journalist Curtis Wilkie title his new book When Evil Lived in Laurel. Laurel was my new hometown.
When in my early thirties I revisited these years as a scholar, I was struck by how a siege mentality had become pervasive among white southerners; it was a complete way of seeing the world, with both an inner coherence and a breakdown of ordinary meaning. Holiness came to mean power; civilized came to mean violent.
At the time, however, I was aware mostly of principalities and powers colliding and clashing in my body—along with the sobering fact that, according to the people I trusted to interpret this world, Jesus was set to return soon. And despite my cleaving to the straight and narrow, I believed in my heart of hearts I wouldn’t make the cut on Judgment Day. I’d found nude photos torn from a magazine in the woods one afternoon and had not disposed of them properly; by which I mean I had not set them on fire as I had The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles album, my Easy Rider poster, and a Ouija board. I had not plucked out my roving eye, which I should have done, because, you know, as the Good Lord himself said, it would be better to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than go to hell with two. In any case, I was pretty sure Jesus would find me somehow compromised on the day when the trumpets blasted and the sun went dark.
I knew my body was the temple of the Holy Spirit. The goal was to remain sexually pure—presenting the temple undefiled—until I met my soul mate, who had made the same arduous journey. My family, friends, and church prayed that I would run and finish the race; and they prayed for my future mate as well, for the woman who had been chosen as my helpmate before the creation of the world, an idea no less grand in God’s perfect providence than the firmament of the heavens and the light upon the earth. I had only to wait to receive my just deserts.
“You need Jesus Christ to give you strength in (1) purity, (2) dedication, (3) courage,” my parents had written in a letter on my birthday. My mother explained to me that premarital sex leads to psychic ruin. “All the girls I know who’ve lost their purity have emotional scars. They’ve lost a precious something they can never get back. Their thinking is somehow damaged.”
Those girls had committed the unpardonable sin, was my takeaway. Oh, Lord have mercy, the unpardonable sin! From my first reading of the Gospel of Matthew—“Wherefore I say unto you, ‘All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men’”—I was consumed by the need to understand what this might be. Here was Jesus, turn-the-other-cheek, blessed-are-the-merciful Jesus, showing us the dark hole in his big love. All sins would be forgiven but one. And he wasn’t saying which. But I was pretty sure I knew.
The problem was that the more I learned about my contemptuous flesh, the more I wanted to feel the shape and heat of my girlfriend’s lap, where she would let my hand rest sometimes at the movies. She was probably not my special someone, nor I hers. I was fairly certain that Jesus would return to rapture the Christians to heaven before I could marry and go the distance. The lines of desire and purity collided in a heap of shame.
Numerous books on the subject of a young man’s struggles appeared mysteriously in my bedroom during these years, sometimes inscribed by a parent, other times randomly tucked into my bookshelf. They reinforced the life expected of me: The most wonderful gift you can give your future bride or groom is your purity. Strip tease and leg show, bathing suits which unduly expose the body, particularly women’s bodies, magazine stories and pictures that turn the mind especially toward lovemaking, the movies, the embrace of the dance—these lead to sexual desire and so on to necking and petting. God wants more than just a person’s mind or his service in some future career. He wants his body kept pure and clean. Now!
In my journal, I charted the slippery slope of the affections: “1. Acquaintance. 2. Casual Friendship. 3. Close Friendship. 4. Intiment [sic] Friendship. 5. Immorality/Impurity.” In an adolescent script I fretted over the ease with which I could become “Satan’s main instrument.”
So I equipped myself for battle like the ascetic St. Anthony in the desert. I would fight the good fight. And I would lose my mind anyway.
My descent into juvenile delinquency began as a spontaneous act as seemingly unmotivated as Meursault’s killing the Arab in The Stranger. I was walking on the sidewalk one afternoon along Bay Springs Road drinking a bottle of pop with my best friend, Mike West. I could see the motorcycle approaching from the north near the curb store but didn’t think much about it until the Harley downshifted a few car lengths away. When the bike reached us on the road, I spun around and sidearmed the bottle straight at the driver’s head. “What the hell?” Mike shouted. “What the burning hell?” We jumped over a copse and tore through the kudzu screen into a jungly escape.
Pubescence came over me white-hot and fuming. The way I saw it, as long as I remained pure—didn’t have intercourse before marriage and abstained from drugs and alcohol—I was free to run wild. So I turned to throwing bottles and water balloons at passing vehicles. I punked M-80s into the exhaust pipes of parked cars—the kind in which couples drank and fornicated—and watched from a safe distance as the tailpipes convulsed and flared like fabulous roman candles. I fired bottle rockets from the bridges and overlooks of the interstate and outran cops and highway patrolmen, because I knew the trails that cut through alligator weed and honeysuckle back to Ellisville Road. My father, bless his heart, and all of our parents were clueless.
My father would lead the weekly meetings of the Royal Ambassadors, awesome gatherings that included a Bible study and film highlights of SEC football games, and then dismiss us boys into the night, a pack of hooligans with red-letter Bibles hooked on bedlam and the destruction of property.
On Wednesday nights, my friends and I had taken to bailing on choir rehearsal, instead playing basketball in the corner lot. We no longer wanted to sing in the music minister’s sappy Christian musicals—we’d moved on to Sly and the Family Stone and ZZ Top. One week, we found the church basketball hoops removed. In retaliation, Derek Ham and I set the music minister’s house on fire—though arson was not our intent. Camouflaged by purple pyramids of sweet gum, we bombarded the house with bottle rockets—just intending noise, just intending to disturb the despised minister’s sleep. Still, I wasn’t unhappy when a rocket landed on a bed of pine needles on the roof of the house, smoldered, and then burst into flames.
If you’re a fundamentalist boy coming of age at the exact spot where the Bible belt breaks the skin—pre-internet, pre-Gameboy, premillennial, pre-everything—and there’s nothing to do afternoons and weekends but loiter outside the curb store, you’ve probably already discovered the thrill of juvenile delinquency.
The fire has to go somewhere.
Adapted from Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir by Charles Marsh. Copyright ©2022. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.