A Punk Rock Rebel Returns to Church
Image: Tom Kubik

I have always been a person of gloom. Even as a small child, I suffered bouts of depression salted with anxiety before I even knew what the words meant. From toddlerhood on, insomnia overtook me as I tried rocking myself to sleep. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I wouldn’t brush my hair. I didn’t want to go to school.

But I did go to church. Until I didn’t.

I’m a cradle Christian, raised on Sunday school classes with picture books of Moses bobbing in the basket in the reeds and Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus in the straw-dusted manger. Christmas Eve meant candlelight services, and the rest of the year was punctuated with youth group performances of schlocky Jesus-pop musicals. I attended Bible study after school, and in the summer our teacher toted us to rallies where I’d win scoops of candy for correctly reciting Scripture verses.

My sensory memories of church were always profound: the heady scent of stargazer lilies on the Easter altar, pine boughs and candle wax at Christmas. When “Do You Hear What I Hear?” played on the stereo, hearing “A star, a star, dancing in the night / With a tail as big as a kite” felt like having a hand wrap around my heart and give it a loving squeeze. I even liked the zing of fear I got from scary biblical lore. Watching The Ten Commandments every year, my favorite moment came when I’d superstitiously hold my breath as the spooky Angel of Death drew across the sky, bypassing houses that had lamb’s blood painted on the lintel. Whew, close one!

Depression, Sarcasm, and Cynicism

Meanwhile, the darkness within kept creeping. Way back in second grade, an upsetting session with a school psychologist had given me the impression that I was crazy and would be watched (and possibly institutionalized). My depression, still unnamed, deepened as I grew older. I became less interested in church, and by adolescence, depression, sarcasm, and cynicism had become my holy trinity, which might sound impressively edgy if it weren’t so miserable.

Punk rock, beatnik poetry, and outsider art helped me build an aesthetic around the rage and emotional murk churning inside me every day. At 17, I dropped out of high school and moved to New York City’s East Village, where the closest I got to a church was throwing on my thrift-store leopard trench coat and meeting my friends on the benches of Tompkins Square Park to swill shared 40-ouncers and hunt for half-smoked cigarettes on the ground before going to a midnight show.

To this day, I cherish my travels among the freaks, losers, ragers, and least-of-these-ers. They offered necessary ballast for a life set adrift. But my explorations into alternative spirituality yielded less satisfaction. Dipping into Paganism, I saw an appealing exaltation of nature, mysticism, and female sacred power, but in the hands of the teenage girls in my crew, it felt superficial and put-on, like a school play staged under a full moon. Yoga I loved, but the rudderless New Age philosophy permeating so many classes felt self-indulgent and strangely pretentious. So I settled on being an agitated agnostic, parked somewhere between “spiritual but not religious” and “New Age dilettante.”

While my outsider status provided an important measure of belonging and consolation, it wasn’t a lasting answer to the problem of living with steady depression. I moved to the West Coast and back again, married, and started working as a writer between dark spells that froze me into writer’s block for weeks at a time. At times, you could say I was passing for normal.

November
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Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith
Grace for Amateurs: Field Notes on a Journey Back to Faith
Thomas Nelson
2017-10-31
256 pp., $15.78
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Christianity Today
A Punk Rock Rebel Returns to Church
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