Book Talk: Rapture Practice

This was a striking book. Rapture Practice: My One-Way Ticket to Salvation by Aaron Hartzler, is a young adult (YA) memoir. That’s a fairly new genre, and there aren’t a ton of books in the genre yet, so I was really eager to read this book to see how the author structured the story and dealt with memoir and the teenage psyche. I also was interested in his story.

This book was about a young man growing up in a fundamentalist Christian home. It was a family that did not go to movies, watch TV, listen to secular music, or drink. They didn’t want their kids around people who did those things, either. Aaron’s parents heaped a lot of guilt on him and were very strict. There were high behavior expectations for all the kids, and everything was focused on being good Christians and pleasing God. The parents talked about the rapture a lot, thus the title of the book.

I feel like this book really spoke to the danger of fundamentalist Christian upbringings. Early in the book, Aaron had a confrontation with his dad over wearing socks to church. When Aaron tried to tell his dad that wearing socks with boat shoes looked silly, his dad turned it into a lesson on rebellion and obedience and threatened to spank Aaron. Aaron thought:

I feel like my head will explode. How did this happen? One minute I’m on my way out the door to church wearing something I feel good about. The next minute I’m arguing with my dad about being rebellious. Over socks? 

Another time, Aaron bought his girlfriend a secular CD – the soundtrack to Pretty Woman. When his parents found out about it, his dad said: Satan wants to murder you, to take your soul to hell for all eternity. You’ve trusted Jesus as your savior, so he can’t do that, but he’d love nothing more than to murder your testimony for Jesus Christ by tempting you will all the things that this sinful world has to offer: the movies, and the rock music, the sex.

And then his dad told Aaron he had to quit the school play. Aaron was one of the leads.

There are many other examples of his parents’ extreme reactions to pretty harmless activities. As the book goes on, Aaron secretly begins to question his parents’ strict rules and approach to God. In one scene, he is a counselor at a children’s summer camp and he tells a pretty scary story about a little chicken named Speckles who sacrificed herself for her chicks. He relates the story to Jesus, hell, and salvation. Afterwards, he thinks: Speckles’ sacrifice isn’t beautiful. It’s horrible. I must have really scared the little kids around the campfire. If I’m afraid of hell, imagine how terrified they must be of it.

Eventually Aaron begins to secretly do some of the things his parents forbid. He goes to movies. He drinks. He goes to parties. He has girlfriends.

Oddly, the parents of his good friend Bradley seem more accepting of Aaron than his own parents. Though they let Bradley drink, they obviously believe that both he and Aaron are good kids. There is a sense of trust with them that you don’t get with Aaron’s parents.

Aaron’s parents are loving and express that love often, but it’s a love with strings. They go beyond the typical parental discipline. Over and over, Aaron rotates between feelings of guilt, shame, anger, frustration, and resentment. No matter what he does, he’s always getting in trouble because he wasn’t a good enough Christian, a good enough witness, or pleasing enough to God.

Eventually, Aaron realizes something else about himself: He’s gay.

He doesn’t really discuss being gay much in the book, and that revelation comes pretty late in the book anyway, but you can imagine the fear and dread he experiences after realizing who he is. There is no way he can tell his parents. It’s one more thing that he has to hide.

I have to admit that some of Aaron’s story reminds me of my upbringing. I was raised in a conservative evangelical denomination that didn’t drink, go to movies, or dance. (Although now I think they’ve changed the movie and dancing clauses.) I never really saw anything wrong with going to movies, but I accepted who we were and what we believed. I never snuck out, secretly saw movies, or drank as a teen.

However, my parents were not controlling like Aaron’s, and though I understood we were supposed to be the “salt of the world” and live for Jesus, I don’t feel like I was subjected to so many rules and regulations. I had a happy childhood and felt loved.

Aaron’s story, though, makes it clear that in his world, he had very few choices. He was criticized for what he wore, what he listened to, gifts he gave, friends he hung out with, and sexual feelings. He was forced to pray for forgiveness and publicly ask for forgiveness at times. To me, it is no wonder he “rebelled” – he was never allowed to be himself.

I think there is a better way. Christian parenting (any parenting) should first and foremost be about loving and encouraging your child. Christian parenting should not be about shaming, guilting, and punishing your child into good behavior. I am all for discipline, but my motivation for disciplining my children is to help them be good people when they grow up. My main goals for my children are for them to believe in themselves and love others.

Sometimes I think Christianity teaches us not to believe in ourselves. It teaches us to doubt ourselves. It teaches us that we are only ever bad and sinful. It teaches us not to trust ourselves, because there is not good in us. Obviously the idea is that God’s grace works in us so that we can be good. But I really think Christianity fails when it comes to helping kids have self-esteem. For me, the biggest Christian message for kids is that God loves them.

But another Christian message is to love and care for others, and I want my kids to learn that lesson, too. I think there are instances where it is good to put others first. I think it’s important to learn to listen to others’ perspectives. I think it’s good to learn how to share, how to negotiate, and how to get along with different kinds of people.

But I refuse to raise my children in an environment of guilt and shame. Sometimes I wonder if I am too hard on them and have too many expectations. I tend to expect myself and everyone else to be perfect, and I have to keep that in check. One thing I’ve read is important to do it to criticize your kids’ actions, but not their person. So I try to make it clear that I love and value them, but I address bad choices or actions that are not okay. I never want them to feel ashamed for who they are, though. And I do not believe that Christianity is supposed to be about behavior control.

The end of Aaron’s story is surprising. Though his parents forced him to do some really embarrassing things and he got kicked out of his Christian high school, Aaron ends the book at a place of contentment with his parents:

I understand my father’s heart is full of answers about where we go when we die, and answers about how we should live before we do. He is sure of these things . . . My heart is full of questions. I’m no longer certain about what will happen when I die, or if Jesus will really come back one day . . . Yet somehow, as I stand here with my father in the sun, I understand that my heart full of questions and his heart full of answers are both filled with something else: Love. 

Initially the ending bothered me a little because I wanted Aaron to be more angry with his parents after the ways they spiritually abused him. But maybe along the way, Aaron himself internalized a key Christian teaching: grace.

I recommend this book because it was actually pretty entertaining, but I also think it’s a good caution for those of us raising kids in Christian homes. For myself and my family, I want home to be a place of open, honest discussion about activities and issues. I want authentic approaches to God. I want the focus to be choosing actions that show love and respect for ourselves and others. I hope that I can and do make those things a reality.

I know this post is way too long, but as far as a writer’s perspective, I thought this book was pretty well-written. There were times I wanted it to be an adult memoir because I think more complex language could have been used in places. Also at some points I wanted more of an adult voice. What I like about memoirs is authors can look back at themselves through the lenses of time and maybe have a different perspective about who they were long ago. There wasn’t much of that in this book. It read more like a novel. However, I’ve read interviews with the author, and he really wanted it to just be about his high school experience, and I think he wrote a compelling, capturing book. I thought the title was perfect. Titles can be hard to get right, but this author nailed it.

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