Testifying in The New Yorker: Jia Tolentino on her childhood inside Houston's 'Repentagon'

Gothic first-person accounts of growing up in a Christian subculture have become modern Americans’ equivalent of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. They serve as a vast collection of subjective narratives, often focused on the horrors of authority figures who encourage virginity, offer awkward alternatives to pop music (or welcome it uncritically), favor novels about the Apocalypse and otherwise fill the cavernous spaces of megachurches with conformists.

It’s difficult to read such accounts without wishing for more details. In “Ecstasy,” which appears in the May 27 edition of The New Yorker, Jia Tolentino writes this about her life in a Houston megachurch she calls the Repentagon. Here’s a sample:

“Three girls were electrocuted when a light blew out in the pool where they’d been swimming, and this tragedy was deemed the will of the Lord.”

Sensible journalism questions should be obvious: Who deemed it the will of the Lord? Was this declaration from the pulpit? Did it come from one of those boorish pew-dwellers who think it’s comforting to say the Lord must have needed a few new angels in heaven? Was it someone who speaks only of God’s sovereignty but never of living in a fallen world where random deaths are happenstance? Did this assertion represent even a plurality among members of the Repentagon, which Tolentino, for reasons she does not specify, never identifies as Second Baptist Church, one of the Bible Belt’s best known megachurches?

Tolentino’s account stands out because it is not solely a story of deprivation and unresolved anger. This paragraph leaps off the page:

I have been walking away from institutional religion for half my life now, fifteen years dismantling what the first fifteen built. But I’ve always been glad that I grew up the way that I did. The Repentagon trained me to feel at ease in odd, insular, extreme environments, and Christianity formed my deepest instincts. It gave me a leftist world view — a desire to follow leaders who feel themselves inseparable from the hungry, the imprisoned, and the sick. Years of auditing my own conduct in prayer gave me an obsession with everyday morality. And Christian theology convinced me that I had been born in a compromised situation. It made me want to investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.

What feels like half the essay is a paean to the Houston music subculture chopped and screwed, and to the many drugs this subculture sent into Tolentino’s experience.

Trigger alert: the next paragraph refers to teen-aged twerking:

Chopped and screwed mimics the feeling you get from lean — a heady and dissociative security, as if you’re moving very slowly toward a conclusion you don’t need to understand. It’s perfect for Houston, where you can pass a full day without ever getting off the highway, where the caustic gleam of daytime melts into a long, swampy night. The music sounded right to me as soon as I heard it, sitting on the old seats of my parents’ Suburban, in the parking lot of the megachurch. I was in eighth grade, and Southern rap had already ascended, permeating even the Repentagon. At cheerleading camp, we tied thick white ribbons in our hair before stunt practice, listening to OutKast and Nelly; in ninth grade, we played Ludacris, and in tenth grade T.I. One summer, everyone started twerking: we dropped to the floor and clumsily thrust our hips, mimicking the motions that were spreading like a virus, clapping for the girls who could do it best. In high school, we would spend some of our evenings at youth group, where we sang about Jesus, and others going to teen night at a Houston club, driving into the thicket of liquor stores and strip clubs a mile up on Westheimer, entering a dark room where the girls wore miniskirts and everyone sought amnesty in a different way. (There was a lack of zoning in our cultural lives, too.) Sometimes a foam machine in the ceiling would turn on and soak our cheap pushup bras, and we’d glue ourselves to strangers as everyone chewed on big mouthfuls of Southern rap.

Once Tolentino begins discussing her growing appetite for drugs, her essay becomes oppressive. Evangelical readers will note the guest appearance by a popular Oxford don.

Throughout
 these years, I read a lot of C.S. Lewis, the strangest and yet most
 reasonable of twentieth-century Christian writers. I went back most often to “The Screwtape Letters,” a collection of imaginary correspondence sent by a bureaucratic demon named Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood, a “junior tempter” who is trying to lead his first human subject astray. The book’s title had odd, coincidental echoes that hinted at my relationship to its central subject — the ordinary temptations that could lead a person to Hell. “The safest road to Hell is the gradual one,” Screwtape reminds Wormwood, “the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” When I first came across that sentence, I felt as if someone were reading my palm.

My road 
that way has, in fact, been gentle, although there were signposts if I'd wanted 
to see them. I could say, for instance, without too much oversimplification,
that the year that I stopped believing in God — 2006 — was also the year I first
 did Ecstasy, in a friend’s college apartment. We swallowed pills that had been
 crushed into Kleenex, and then we slipped into a sweaty black box of a music
venue down the street, and I felt weightless, like I’d come back around to a
 truth that I had first been taught in church: that anything could happen, and a 
sort of grace that was both within you and outside you would pull you through.

Tolentino can be a sparkling writer at times, but reading her essay is like enduring a panhandler who never stops talking about the wonders of pot.

I cannot possibly know who’s to blame for this, but Tolentino’s childhood experiences apparently left her thinking that the main point of Christianity is to live in an unbreakable bubble of bliss. If that’s the case, Ecstasy makes perfect sense as the most tempting substitute for God.

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