The Devil Is in an Air Bubble
The devil is in an air bubble floating beneath my baptismal robe.
This is troublesome, because I am trying to do the right
thing—and, incidentally, avoid hellfire. I have walked to the front
of my fundamentalist Christian church this Sunday morning to
profess my love for Jesus and be buried with him in the baptismal
grave. I will rise and walk anew, a new Christian, a good girl—
not sinless, but perfect nevertheless.
But this damn bubble is getting in the way. It is Satan, come
to thwart me.
I am a fundamentalist. I know that in order to spend eternity
in heaven with Jesus, I must be immersed completely
in the water, be it in a baptismal font, like this overly large
bathtub-type model at the front of my church, or in the swimming
pool at Green Valley Bible Camp, where I go every summer,
or in a river, or anywhere where the water will cover me completely.
I must be buried, figuratively speaking, because that is
how Jesus did it with his cousin, John the Baptizer, in the river
Jordan.1 It is how I want to do it now. I came to the earth sinless—
not like Catholic babies, who, I’d been told, drag Adam’s original
sin around like a tail. Not me. Had I died at birth, I would have
shot back to God in heaven like a rocket. But I did not die, and the
time I’ve been on earth since my birth I’ve spent accumulating
black blots on my soul, like cigarette burns in a gauze curtain.
And here Satan has floated up in a bubble beneath the thick
white robe, and so I am not, technically speaking, completely immersed.
My soul is encased in my body and my body is encased in
this gown, and a small portion of it has swollen to break the water’s
surface, like a tiny pregnancy, or the beginning of a thought.
My head is under. One hand is clenching my nose shut and the
other is crossed over my chest, half the posture of a corpse in a casket.
But if this dress doesn’t sink with the rest of me, the whole
ceremony will be useless.
I am a fundamentalist. We worry about such things.
A ceremonial joining-together only makes sense. I am thirteen
when I decide to make it official. I’d been flirting with Jesus since
age eight or so, the way a little girl will stand innocently next to
her cutest uncle, will preen and dance for attention with only a
dim idea of the greater weight of her actions. I meant no harm. I
just loved Jesus. He made me feel happy.
In my mind, Jesus had been flirting back, and why wouldn’t
he? Our families were close. I went to his house three times a week,
sat in his living room, listened to his stories, loudly sang songs to
him. Our relationship was inevitable, and it seemed the simplest
thing imaginable to declare my love.
And so on this bright and terrible Sunday morning I nervously slide out of my pew to walk up the aisle during the invitation
song, the tune we sing after the preacher gives his sermon. The invitation
song is a time of relief for those who think the preacher
has gone on too long, and a time of trepidation for the sinners
who are paying attention. Although the song varies depending
on who’s leading the singing, all the invitation songs share a tone
of exhortation firmly grounded in fear, meant to shake a few of
the ungodly loose from the trees. And I am a sinner. I know that
as assuredly as I know Jesus loves me. I am trying to live my life
to meet the impossible ideal of perfection set for me exactly 1,972
years earlier by my boyfriend. The Bible said Don’t lie, but I lie
several times a day. The Bible said Don’t steal, but I copied from
a friend one morning in social studies because I hadn’t taken the
time to do my own homework. The Bible said not to lust, and
while I am not clear what that means exactly, I harbor a deep and
abiding crush on a series of pop culture icons from Bobby Sherman
on—save for Donny Osmond, because he is too Mormon and
I don’t think I could convert him. But Donny is the only one from Tiger Beat
magazine for whom I have no tingling feelings. I know,
even though my church would frown on it because none of these
boy-men are members, that if any of them save Donny drove up
in a jacked-up Camaro and honked the horn, I would hop into the
front seat without a look back.
Oh I sinned, all right.
As I begin to walk to the front pew of the sanctuary at Fourth
and Forest church of Christ, I can hear the giggles and gasps from
my girlfriends left behind. Most of them have already taken the
walk to the front to declare their love for Jesus, but I have dragged
my feet. I know I need to be baptized—it would sure beat spending
eternity in hellfire—but it seems such an awesome step. I am
walking toward the highest church office I can reach as a female—
that of a baptized believer—and for that brief moment, all
eyes are on me. I will be a Christian. I will teach Sunday school
and participate in the odd rite of church dinners, where the mark
of distinction is given to any woman who can assemble an ordinary-
looking cake out of ingredients you wouldn’t expect, like
beer. Or potato chips. I will grow up and marry a deacon, the
worker bees of our church, who will one day grow old—like,
forty or so—and become an elder. I will raise up my children in
the way they should go, and when they are old, they will not depart
from me.2 I will wear red lipstick and aprons and gather my
grandchildren to my ample lap (all grandmas being fat). And finally,
I will recline in my rose-scented deathbed with a brave,
faint smile as my family gathers around me, and then I will rise
in spirit to my home in glory, leaving behind a blessed bunch
who look and sound and smell like me and who point to my faith
as their ideal. They will, of course, all be Christians, and they will
marry Christians and beget Christians, and not some watereddown
namby-pamby type, either, but fire-breathing and soulgrowing
Christians, members of the church of Christ, saved by
grace and fired with an obstinate belief in the black and white.
Give me that old-time religion! Yes, Lord!3
It is all laid out for me, both in the Bible and in the talks our
Sunday school teachers give us. I know my future as I know the
St. Louis Cardinals lineup from the tinny transistor I sneak into
my bed on game nights: Bob Gibson, Ted Simmons, Matty Alou,
Lou Brock, José Cruz, and the man who will ultimately betray
my faith in baseball and become a hated Yankee, Joe Torre. Those
Cardinals will win the pennant one day, but I will be a Christian
The sanctuary in which I walk is a high-ceilinged, cavernous
room covered completely—walls and ceiling—in knotty pine that
holds my secret sin. When I am bored—and during three-hour
Sunday-morning services I am often bored—I attempt to count
the knots in the panels behind the preacher. I lose count and start
again, lose count and start again. I feel guilty about that, but I
am sitting through three sermons a week and once I recognize the
preacher’s theme (sin, mercy, salvation), I start counting knots.
The room seats roughly seven hundred souls. I say roughly,
because we never fill it. It was built amid much discussion and
hard feelings at a time when my church was among the fastestgrowing
Christian groups in the country. Of course we would fill
it, we told one another, even if our regular Sunday-morning attendance
hovered around three hundred or so. God would provide.
We just needed to have the right amount of pews. The
interior looks as we imagine the ark of Noah would look—spare,
with not one cross on display. Jesus hung on a real cross. Who
were we to use the emblem of his shame as decor? And why
would we, as girls, wear small golden crosses when the real one
was so much bigger and uglier?4 The pews are padded—another
discussion—and there are no prayer benches, for fear that they
would put us in company with the Catholics. Still, I never once
saw someone drop to his or her knees during public prayer. We
are, one visiting minister derided us, the only group of believers
that sits to sing and stands to pray.
In fact, the building was built on prayer—and a painful
schism. When you believe you are holy and have God on your side,
you easily cross over into being dogmatic. We split over paving
the parking lot. The anti-paving bunch argued that Jesus never
walked on pavement, and that we shouldn’t be so fine-haired as to
worry about muddying our good shoes as we scrambled to our
(padded) pews. And besides, the money could be used for a
greater purpose—namely, saving souls. The grandparents of this
crowd had cheered at the outcome of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Consider them opponents of creeping and sweeping modernity.
The other bunch—and, oddly, my notoriously hidebound
family sided with them—said that paving a parking lot was right
and good, that it didn’t hurt to have a few creature comforts, and
the anti-paving crowd hadn’t kicked up a fuss over the fancy
new air-conditioning, now, had they? When the church splits, we
stay with the paved group. And when it splits another time over
whether the grape juice of the Lord’s Supper (the communion we
enjoyed every Sunday) should come from one cup, as Jesus may
have shared it, or from tiny shot glasses set into special circular
trays made for such an event, my family again sides with the progressives.
The others we derisively call “one-cuppers,” as damning
a phrase as “dumb-ass hillbilly.”
It would be my family’s one concession to change.
Among the literal-minded, schisms are just waiting to surface,
ready to crack open at any moment. Elsewhere, the other
churches of my faith—we had no central hierarchy, opting instead
for home rule by a group of older men, the elders—would
split and split again, over adding a pastoral counseling service,
or a daycare center—more modernity, in other words, but that
was later. For now, we felt the sheep were scattered, and when we
brought them home, they could clatter across pavement to sit in
padded pews and partake in the liquid part of the Lord’s Supper
from tiny shot glasses meant for just such a purpose—and likely
to form a barrier against the common cold as well.
Excerpted from Dating Jesus by Susan Campbell. Copyright © 2010 by Susan Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Beacon Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.