At the Southern Baptist megachurch my family attended when I was growing up, you were supposed to bring your own Bible to services, which were held Sunday mornings, Sunday evenings, and Wednesday evenings—and that doesn’t even count Sunday school, choir practice, youth group, and periodic revival meetings. Not to mention the daily Bible classes and Thursday chapel services that were part of the curriculum at the K–12 Christian school I attended, which, by the way, was attached to the megachurch.
During the period in question, the only person who spent more time in church than I did was Pope John Paul II. But he was Catholic, so I think the Southern Baptist Convention would agree he’s disqualified.
The Bible I carried to church in my teen years was a New American Standard version bound in maroon leather, with tissue-thin, gilt-edged pages and the words of Christ printed in red ink for some reason.
According to the dedication page, This Holy Bible was Presented to Zachary K. Thompson By Mom & Dad on August 2, 1992.
The underlined parts were blanks filled in by my mother. August 2, 1992, was my 13th birthday.
I recall youth pastors saying that the Bible of a true believer should be in poor condition—dog-eared and full of markings—because that illustrates the volume’s owner has attempted to devour the Scriptures.
And so I dutifully underlined verses that struck me as significant, made cross-referencing notations, and supplied the occasional mystifying or inane comment in the margins. For example, next to the Bible’s shortest verse, John 11:35, which records Jesus’s reaction to the death of his friend Lazarus—“Jesus wept”—I have helpfully written, “Jesus’s reaction.” I believe the correct term in Christ’s spoken language of Aramaic would be, “No duh.”
I would add these scribblings to the text during the many, MANY sermons I sat through. Other times I would doodle, usually by drawing boxes around words or making looping lines in the blank spaces around them.
Occasionally I would look at the maps of the Holy Land in the back pages. In one of them, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are a fleshy pink set amid a beige desert. In short, the realm of King David bears a remarkable resemblance to diaper rash.
Don’t assume from my habitually light tone that these are happy memories. Being a closeted gay teen in a Southern Baptist megachurch wasn’t exactly my idea of heaven.
The message I got from the pulpit, the youth group, the Christian school’s mandatory right-wing indoctrination course (it was called “Understanding the Times,” though the teacher didn’t), and even the Lord-heal-our-land segment of the choir’s July 4th Summer Freedom Celebration concert was that gay people were just about the wickedest sort of people there are—right up there with abortion doctors and Democrats.
Take it from me: Being told that you’re depraved on a constant basis at such a young age leaves permanent scars and can very nearly destroy your faith. I’m no theologian, but the thing in there that sounds like a sin to me is the part where a bunch of grownups joined forces to make a vulnerable kid feel like he was defective just because he happened to think Mario Lopez was cute.
Turns out there was nothing wrong with me, though (and to any LGBTQ+ youngsters out there: There’s nothing wrong with you either, and shame on anybody who tells you otherwise).
Despite the Southern Baptists’ best efforts, my battered faith managed to survive, probably because I was stubborn enough to hold onto what the Bible actually says: that we are, as the Psalmist puts it, “fearfully and wonderfully made” by a God who loves us—just as we are—and wants us to love others—just as they are.
Besides, Mario Lopez was cute, is cute, and shall be cute forevermore, world without end, AMEN.