I Must Know All the Things

How curiosity helped me leave behind my Pentecostal upbringing and find my way

My grandmother tells this story now and then. In it, I’m curiosity made flesh: five years old, big-eyed, blond hair turning brown, knocking loudly at her door.

“Who is it?” she sings.

“It’s me,” I answer.

When she opens the door, I look up expectantly and say, “Grandmother, just what do you know about space?”

I just had to know.

I’m a college dropout a few times over. The first time, at a university in Alaska, I was waylaid by the beckoning, white-blanketed winter slopes. When I saw snow tumbling past the classroom windows, I folded. I slipped out of class, and 20 minutes later I was strapped into my skis.

My second college attempt changed my life forever.

But let me back up a few steps.

I was born into a family deeply rooted in the Pentecostal church. Of my grandmother’s children, two pastor Pentecostal churches. One of those is my father. But the heritage runs deeper: My great-grandmother kept a yellow legal pad filled with hundreds of names. Her daily prayer list. One of the earliest evangelists in the Pentecostal movement was Reverend A.D. Gurley; farther back is the Reverend Dr. Phineas Gurley, who pastored and eulogized President Lincoln. (I’m no genealogist, so I can’t swear that these last two fellows are direct relations. But I suspect our family would claim them.)

My sister and I slept beneath church pews. As we grew up, “Pentecostal” became a defining trait. It was our excuse, too: when asked by our friends why we did things differently from the other kids, the only answer was, “I’m Pentecostal.”

A pastor’s kid has infinite responsibilities. I’ve taught Sunday School, sung in choirs, performed in pageants. I played the drums, arranged chairs before each service. There’s an out-of-print Christian rock CD with my lyrics and vocals on it. Don’t try to find it. I even preached, just once. When you’re staring down at a few hundred God-fearing faces, all sorts of questions boil up inside of you: What am I doing here? Don’t they know I’m just a kid? Don’t listen to me, you want to shout. But you open your mouth, and someone shouts, “Preach it!”

So you fake it.

When you’re born, you’re immediately dropped into this translucent sleeve, like a sausage casing. That sleeve is your whole world, molding you in the shape of the family you’ve been born into, pre-printed with your community’s opinions and ideals. You don’t know any better. They become your opinions, too.

The first time I remember feeling a little too snug in that sausage sleeve was September, 1988. I was anxiously awaiting my tenth birthday. We’d only recently returned to Texas. (My father had taken a job in Alaska, where I’d spent the past several years.) My best friends were all up north, preparing for winter; these Texan kids scowled at me. I began to feel like a splinter, slowly being pushed out.

We attended the church my father had called home as a teenager. It was larger than any I’d ever seen, with marble floors and faux-Roman columns. On the walls were gilded portraits of long-dead ministers. It felt like a history museum, or a mausoleum.

That year a strange book sent the church into a frenzy. 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988, by some fellow named Edgar Whisenant. For the first time, the concept of the “Rapture” — God’s sudden whisking-away of his best and brightest — felt tangible. This was an event to be celebrated, I thought. Instead, the adults around me were lit up with worry. Each sermon was more fervent than the one before. Desperate strangers poured into the building, struck with fear.

I wasn’t yet saved, so I had reason to worry. Adults were all saved, I thought. Why were they afraid?

But I wasn’t only afraid. I was dubious: An eternity anywhere seemed like punishment. And I was pissed off: Whisenant had declared that God would return between September 11–13, not long before my tenth birthday.

There was of course no Rapture that year. My tenth birthday and many more came and went.

For my second college try, I chose a Bible college. The same one, in fact, that my father had attended. Not long after I’d unpacked in my dorm room, I was aware I’d made a mistake. I did my best to fit in, but it wasn’t easy. Students held delirious prayer meetings in their dorms. Classes resembled tent revivals. My roommates often occupied the bathrooms for hours, studying their preaching faces in the mirrors.

I’d chosen a Bible college because it seemed like a safe place to ask questions. I approached theological study as I did any topic that interested me: I tried to challenge what I thought I knew, learn from my errors, then revise and challenge again. But this seemed suspiciously scientific, I think, to the faculty. After too many questions, my instructors would deflect: “Listen to God. Seek his answers.”

I asked God plenty of questions. He never answered a single one.

In 1988, before Edgar Whisenant’s deadline, I joined the heaving masses who cried out for salvation. Pick me, pick me, we all seemed to say. I was haunted by my repeated failure to speak in tongues. The pressure was immense: I knew that if I wasn’t saved, my family would disappear in front of me.

My grandmother and grandfather, in those days, owned a Christian bookstore. Bibles everywhere. David and Goliath action figures. On special occasions, my sister and I were allowed to take something home. I was an avid reader, and chose a novel: Raptured! by Ernest Angley. In it, a teenage girl discovers that the Rapture has occurred, and she’s been left behind. But she still has hope: If she’s martyred for Christ, she can still gain entrance to Heaven. Angley gave modern horror filmmakers a run for their money: I vividly recall Christians burned alive, decapitated, boiled in oil. Hands and feet were severed; eyes were gouged out. Each believer who endured woke up on the other side, robed in white.

So I prayed, I pleaded, I sobbed. Adults shouted to the heavens on my behalf. Heavy hands on my shoulders, my head, my chest, my back. Terrifying for a child who didn’t yet know the word “introvert.” My chin trembled, my voice wavered. After what must have been hours, someone declared, “He’s got it!” The it in question was the Holy Ghost. But there were no foreign words spilling from my lips. I was just a scared kid.

That night, my parents called relatives far and wide to share the joyous news. I didn’t tell them I hadn’t spoken in tongues, that my salvation was still a big, bold question mark. What would I have said? That it had all been a big misunderstanding? That I was a fraud? They’d all find out when they flew up to Heaven, and I didn’t.

I played along, the truth gnawing at me.

By the end of my first semester, I was done. For me, Bible college was a thinly-veiled finishing school for boys who saw the ministry as a status symbol, and who hoped to find the submissive woman who would stand behind the great man they expected to become. Students and staff alike jokingly referred to the school as bridal college. There were strictly enforced curfews, rules governing student relationships. Questions about these rules were dodged as adeptly as had been my questions about theology and doctrine, but romances flourished, and many weddings followed.

Good Pentecostal boys married good Pentecostal girls, and I was no different. My first wife and I joined a new church, and I slipped back into familiar routines: drums, choir, web sites, et cetera. But after a couple of years of this, all of my old questions began surfacing: How do you reconcile the Creation story with the fossil record? Can anyone really clearly explain why we’re right, and Baptists are wrong? How can anyone trust the showmanship of “tongues and interpretation”? My new pastor must have attended Bible college, too. “Seek it out,” he said, waving me off. “But be careful with all these questions. They only lead to more destructive ones.”

But I couldn’t stop asking. A friend once referred to me as a completist: “You aren’t satisfied with knowing a little bit about something. You want to know every single thing there is to know about it.”

In the early 2000s, I discovered Carl Sagan’s books. I knew who he was. I’d seen Contact, with Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. But I’d never read it, so I picked it up at an indie bookstore in town. The tenth chapter of the novel was intoxicating. In it, a rabid Christian, a rational theologian, and a skeptical astronomer discuss the existence of God. The astronomer, Eleanor Arroway, says:

You’re uncomfortable with scientific skepticism. But the reason it developed is that the world is complicated. It’s subtle. Everybody’s first idea isn’t necessarily right. God for you is where you sweep away all the mysteries of the world, all the challenges to our intelligence. You simply turn your mind off and say God did it.

Now and then in a person’s life, they encounter an idea that shakes them free, rewrites their neural paths. Eleanor Arroway’s words sent me barreling toward the exit ramp, and I took it. I resigned all of my positions in the church, and walked away, just like I’d walked away from college. There wasn’t a glittering ski slope ahead of me this time, just…what? Blackness. Uncertainty.

The church had been my entire life. My marriage quickly crumbled. Friends shut me out; family members regarded me warily. It felt as if I’d lost everything. It took awhile to see what I’d gained. That blackness wasn’t an uncertain void. It was a blank slate. I’d never seen one before.

I began writing a novel about an inquisitive girl. I named her Eleanor.

I haven’t set foot in a Pentecostal church in 13 or 14 years. Sundays belong to our family. My daughter asks more questions than I ever did. One day I told her about space. The next day she told me about Mars.

Some of my own questions have been answered along the way. Some haven’t, and some just became irrelevant. I’m not worried about my soul these days. I wouldn’t mind living forever, but forget Heaven: I just want to spend my time here, and see what becomes of us. Do we ever stop killing each other? Do our differences of opinions even matter? Who are we in a hundred years? In a thousand? Do the Cubs ever win the Series?

I just want to know.