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Left behind 

Religious fervor is its own hell on Earth

Lary is selling autographed pictures of Jesus, in case anyone's interested. He got the idea after working the TV camera at a Benny Hinn religious revival conference held in the Omni years ago. He found himself surrounded by "thousands of these fucked-up Bible freaks" and it actually scared him, which says a lot because almost nothing scares Lary. For example, one Halloween he showed up in white flowing robes with the words "I'M JESUS, YOUR FUCKING SAVIOR," scrawled across his back in black marker.

"I'm tempting the gods," he laughed, "like there are any."

But the religious freak show at the Omni scared Lary. "Why?" I ask him. I mean, did he feel himself start to convert? Was a tiny piece of his condemned soul tugging at the rest of him, threatening to draw him into the writhing throng? Threatening to chisel a crack in that crab shell he keeps around his heart?

"Hell, no," he says, irritated that I implied he has a heart. "These people were insane, possessed. Shaking and twitching and foaming at the mouth and falling over each other. Thousands of them, surrounding me, screaming and moaning and chanting," he shivers, as if the memory is too much for him. "Get me out of here," he'd pleaded.

And I get it. It's like that Left Behind series of books, in which all the good Christian folk get sucked into heaven and leave people like Lary to deal with the ensuing hell on Earth. Rapture, it's called, and I'd probably fear it more if I'd been allowed to go to church as a kid. But my mother was an atheist and my father was too busy nursing his hangovers on Sunday mornings to drive us, and both had very viable motives if you ask me.

"What bigger hell is there," my mother used to say, pointing her cigarette at a passing church bus, "than a heaven full of people like that?"

So I figure that explains why Lary was scared at the Benny Hinn conference in the Omni. He must have looked around and found himself in a pit, pretty much, packed with undulating, screaming, sweaty possessed people; heads flailing, voices modulating, arms reaching, fingers grasping.

And the crying. God, the crying. "Wailing and wailing," Lary shudders, remembering the sound, like sick sea elephants.

Lary must have realized he was alone in that pit, having been left behind by any sign of reason or civil decorum, and his whole personal philosophy had to have been tested at that point, his philosophy that it's foolish to go through life frightened by the prospect of hell, because up to then he'd been so certain there was none. But then he found himself in this pit with these people, pinned in by an ocean of sobbing fanatics, and all of a sudden the realization hit him that there certainly is a hell after all, and that he was certainly in it.

I've felt that way before. In high school I once went to church with a fragile girl who latched onto my inability to gracefully decline her efforts to salvage my endangered soul, and I decided to take it as an opportunity to rebel, somewhat, against my upbringing. The church ended up not being a church, really, but a cinderblock building that had all the beauty of a big public toilet. The service was a barely tolerable torrent of promised eternal agony for those who didn't adhere to every letter of their particular sect, and when it was over I felt a soaring relief interrupted by the distressing realization that it really wasn't over after all. The worst was yet to come.

"Now we will speak in tongues," the girl told me, her translucent skin glowing with a kind of inner awfulness only visible to me. Speaking in tongues entailed, as far as I could tell, flopping around at the foot of an icon and babbling, basically. I was a shy kid at 14, and tough, already having grown an emotional crust not easily penetrated by fervor of any kind. My enthusiasm for flopping and babbling was found to be insufficient by this crowd, who tried to correct it by, literally, pushing me around. So there I was, the daughter of an atheist and a drunk, bobbing around in a little sea of gibbering religious freaks, bouncing from fist to fist like some infidel hot potato. In all, it failed to knock me free from my own ingrained paganism. I did gibber a little, though. "Get me out of here," I gibbered again and again, drowned out by the bigger babbling around me.

So Lary and I laugh because we have that in common. Both of us at one point in our past had walked right into hell and were left there alone for a while, begging to be freed until finally, graciously, we were. "Get me out of here," we'd each pleaded inwardly. Yes, we'd pleaded, but to this day I'm still wondering to whom those pleas were made, still wondering who answered them.

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