The Rumble of Distant Thunder by Vic Sizemore
The Rumble of Distant Thunder
In April of 1966, I was a translucent fish curling in my mom’s warm cocoon, and Time magazine’s black cover read, “Is God Dead?” In January of that year, The New York Times had already answered the question with an unequivocal “God Is Dead”—the headline Elton John sings of in his 1971 song “Levon.” On September 14, 1966, I was born into a deeply religious and fearful community at Appalachian Bible Institute, a tiny fundamentalist school nestled into the rugged mountains of southern West Virginia. Barbarian tribes were just outside the gates and would bring with them persecution. It had been prophesied in The Revelation.
My dad was an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist preacher who had trained at ABI, at Bob Jones University, and then gone back to teach at ABI. Elkview Baptist Church in Elkview, West Virginia called him to their pastorate in 1967. I grew up beside Rt. 119, a two-lane that runs between hillsides and the muddy Elk River—brown water below on the right, hills, jagged cliffs, and yellow falling-rocks signs on the left. My immediate neighbors and playmates were the scabbed and angry children of the working poor, whose tiny houses clung to the riverbank.
Some of these poor kids would eventually crash cars on those winding roads, a couple would drown in the river itself, and one or two would end up shot dead in fights, but these kids were mostly, to use Ezra Pound’s words, the “unkillable infants of the very poor.”
The parsonage was white, and had three bedrooms. One of the bedrooms was behind another so that my sister could reach her room only by passing through the bedroom I shared with my brother. Built on a hill, half of the house was single story, and the other half perched atop a narrow one-car garage. Church bus keys hung just inside the back door of the laundry room. Men in dirty green work pants shoved open the back door without knocking, called hello into the house as they grabbed for keys.
Along the side of the house, erosion had pulled the soil away from the foundation like an old man’s gums from his teeth. Where the cinderblocks stepped down with the hillside, an unearthed section of blocks formed the right angle and short sides of a black triangular hole that smelled of cold under-house dust. The receding dirt at bottom shaped the triangle’s lumpy hypotenuse. I could wriggle myself through that hole and enter a special secret place under the floorboards.
I discovered the hole only after our family had moved to the big house directly on the other side of the church, and the small house became the church offices. I would shimmy under and find the light switch on the garage wall to the right, and a single bulb hanging from the floor above would blast on. The dirt was so dry that it glowed like the surface of the moon; it was sharp and metallic in my nostrils sent me into sneezing fits that I suppressed for fear of discovery. Beside the light switch was a half door made from a piece of wood. I could not open it to the garage, where church mowing and maintenance equipment was stored, because the door was hook-and-eye locked on that side. No matter: what I was there to see—the casket—was with me there in the crawl space.
Safely hidden under the small white house, I took special pleasure in knowing exactly where the preacher, my dad, was by the footfalls on the floor above me, and the associate pastor, and often my mom as well, cranking out bulletins on the turquoise mimeograph machine. I also relished the terror of staring at the bright hole I had just wriggled through—by some trick of the light, it looked far too small for a boy’s body to fit back out; every time, it took some minutes to screw up the courage to crawl back out. Still, I went back repeatedly.
In the powdery dust, I sat in the blaring yellow bulb light and stared at the poor man’s casket: wood covered in gray felt, inside lining of yellowed and stained satin, thin padding. I had memorized plenty of scripture by this time in AWANA. I had a verse for almost every occasion. Here by the casket for instance. The wages of sin is death…” and “It is appointed unto man once to die and after this the judgment.” Sin and death. Death and hell.
Since dad wore a suit everywhere he went—or, at the very least, a shirt and tie—his going to preach a funeral was just another thing he did, like church, hospital visitation, and door-to-door witnessing. He preached funerals often enough for me to understand that people were falling over dead every day, all over the place.
Staring at the poor person casket, I thought of Ruthie’s dad, a drunk with hunched shoulders and toothless puckered face. Something was wrong with Ruthie’s eyes, and she always smelled like pee. Her dad drove up and down the river in his decrepit pickup truck asking people for scrap metal. He fawned and backed into himself like an abused dog, over-polite even to us children. His hands were nicked and his fingertips work-blackened.
More than once, after Ruthie’s dad’s truck lumbered away, dad lectured us on the evils of demon drink. Once, I heard dad say to a church trustee who was there to mow grass, “It’s a wonder he’s still alive,” and the man agreed, and in the subsequent discussion justified his own occasional use of chewing tobacco to dad. Ruthie’s dad was going to hell though. His miserable life was not even a taste of the torments he would suffer there—he was drinking his way straight into the lake of fire.
This was why dad witnessed to people at the Dairy Queen, why he carried tracts inside his suit coat pocket to give to the man at the gas station, the woman checking him out at the grocery store. This was the Great Commission, truly the one high calling. It had to be an all-consuming mission. What else could even come close in importance?
I stared at the casket under the old house and wondered at the mystery of it all.
At Halloween, churchmen dragged out the casket for a haunted barn—early, before EBC threw off the holiday the more palatable Harvest Festival; kids could still dressed up, but as biblical characters, not ghouls. The barn was at the bottom of our new house’s yard, flanked by three apple trees. The new house was old, and with its knotty pine walls and a vaulted living room ceiling, which was also knotty pine, it felt like a lodge. It did not feel like home, but another church space in which we happened to live.
Home and Elkview Baptist Church were a Venn diagram of two circles so closely overlaid that only a tiny sliver of each existed outside the other. I did not find it odd that there was no boundary between church and home, family and congregation. Religion was my mother’s milk, my food, the air I breathed—Premillennial Dispensational Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Christianity, to be specific.
Developed in the late 1800s by John Nelson Darby, Premillennial Dispensationalism harmonizes the entire Bible into an all-encompassing story of the entire universe. It is a map, a guide for looking at history, judging present crises, and knowing with certainty what will come in the future. According to Darby’s system, God governs the universe differently in different ages or dispensations. We were (and are still) in the dispensation of Grace, the church age, in which everyone must accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
After the Rapture and seven years of Great Tribulation, The Millennial Kingdom will arise, and Jesus will set up his true utopia for the faithful. One thousand years later, eternity resumes, and every human being who has ever existed will be fully aware and awake, either in heavenly bliss with God or hellish torment with Satan and his angels. Getting saved was the only way out of eternal torment.
The events leading up to the Rapture that frightened me most in those days. I hunkered in the church sanctuary watching A Thief in the Night and begging God to save me—one more time to be on the safe side—in Jesus name so I could escape the Great Tribulation. Salvation was not a free pass however; all of our preachers were clear that suffering must come to the remnant of us true believers before the Rapture. All hell was going to break loose, civil society would break down and persecution would come to us at the hands of the god-haters and atheists. Although the foretold suffering was frightening, it also caused a heady exhilaration—the time was fast approaching when the Lord would come with a shout and trumpet blast, and all our hopes, held in spite of the mounting cultural sense that we were crazy, would be vindicated.
Therefore, we were to stay true to our purpose. The Great Commission was unequivocal: preach the gospel, make disciples. Dire news about the world made my dad redouble his business of winning souls—it seemed he thought that saving the world, or at least all of Elkview, had been assigned to him alone. He worked with the urgency of one trying to convince people to flee a burning building. I saw my dad coming and going in the parsonage, not unlike the men who grabbed keys, except he was the preacher, his suit pockets ready with tracts and breath mints. “The hour is growing near,” he called from the pulpit while we sat straight and our friends scrawled in coloring books. “The Lord will not tarry long.” Historical events were aligning to fulfill every prophecy necessary for the Rapture. The signs were clear.
The world was flying apart, signs and omens of the Lord’s imminent return were everywhere. Fear was our milieu—fear of displeasing God, fear of the Enemy Satan, his minions both demonic and physical, fear of communists, fear of war. Armed conflict in Vietnam had already gutted the souls from seventy thousand American carcasses and countless Vietnamese, and nevertheless, godless communism thrived as those corpses festered with rot and flies.
Women threw off their bras on the evening news, founded a National Organization to leave their husbands and kill their babies. Black men rose up, called themselves Panthers, and took up arms to murder law-abiding whites and the police. The federal government continued its push to take away the right of states to decide whether to mix the races. A preacher in Virginia started a Christian Academy, which the local news advertised as “a private school for white students.” My dad’s alma mater, Bob Jones, was standing their ground against the encroaching federal government on racial integration, even though it was hurting them in financial aid money. Homosexuals were not just coming out, but were shamelessly preying on the children of the faithful.
“If God does not judge American,” I heard more than one preacher call out, “He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.” The Kanawha County School Board adopted textbooks with writings from communists, Muslims, and secular humanists. The books taught situational ethics. The enemy was inside the gates, had breached the education system right at home. Mom and dad pulled my sister, my brother, and me out of public school and sent us to Elk Valley Christian School.
I heard a guest speaker in chapel at EVCS tell us that the God is dead movement claimed God died of grief because humanity had become so wicked. “I’m here to tell you,” he said, “God did not die. God is not dead.” God was not only not dead, He was alive and well, and that’s why we did not need to fear. The choir sang, “Lift up your heads, your redemption draweth nigh,” one woman always hitting the high note, but more as a siren wail than a sung note. We would be fine. We would keep to ourselves and wait for Jesus to come to the rescue, as God promised he would.
Then for some reason, instead of waiting for the foretold suffering before Jesus imminent return, we went on the offensive. In EVCS, the new school for Christians, one day I was walking with friends through the sanctuary of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, with its fluorescent lights in the high ceiling in the shape of a cross, and the pastor stepped out of his office on the left side of the pulpit and showed us his hidden weapon. A tall man with a dark brown toupee swept awkwardly across his forehead, just a little too low and a little too dark for the real hair around his ears, his sudden appearance made my heart skip a little.
The preacher had paddled me only one time, when the principal was out. Though larger and stronger, and much younger than the principal, the preacher was inexperienced at beating boys’ asses with boards. He pulled his swing for fear of actually damaging us, and the paddling barely stung at all. This morning, he pulled open his light blue suit jacket and showed us the flash of his nunchucks he had stashed in the inside pocket, where my own dad kept his gospel tracts and breath mints.
“Just in case,” the pastor said.
It might seem odd that a preacher in West Virginia in the 1970s would be carrying nunchucks to a rally in Charleston. We were all swinging nunchucks around Elk Valley Christian School at that time. Karate for Christ evangelist Mike Crain had just held special meetings at Mount Pleasant, and had spoken in chapel at EVCS. Crain had wowed students in Friday morning chapel before he preached—I heard that Crain had accidentally cut Stacie’ mom’s hand while whacking a cucumber out of it with a sword in revival the previous evening. Crain sold both real wooden nunchucks, and plastic practice ones at his merchandise table. Mom let my brother and I each get a plastic pair. I envied the pastor’s real ones, heavy and painted black, held together with a silver chain instead of the vinyl rope on our plastic pieces of shit.
“In case we have to defend ourselves,” the preacher told us.
Seeing that we were still confused, he explained: word was that radical brute lesbians were meeting the crusade as it made its way across the nation, trying to break up their godly momentum. The same radical lesbians, he told us, who were reportedly manhandling protesters at abortion clinics, bullying them as they tried to stop women from murdering their babies.
“These aren’t regular gals,” the pastor said. “Some of them are 180 pounds or more.”
I had just broken 100 lbs. One eighty was a big girl indeed.
The entire student body loaded up and bussed across the bridge from Elkview into Pinch, and rolled toward Charleston on Rte. 114, which ran along the Elk River’s bank. I was excited as I watched the weeds and trees flash by my bus window. Often Rte. 119 was visible across the brown river. I wanted to see the preacher battle brute lesbians with his nunchucks—hell, I just wanted to see a brute lesbian.
To my great disappointment, not a single radical lesbian showed up—and I suspected they were never even planning to come in the first place. No one had the opportunity to whip out nunchucks. It was the same old thing I was sick to death of: another choir singing, another preacher talking for what felt like an eternity, and more singing—the background noise of my entire church-drenched childhood. However, tame squirrels on the state capital’s manicured lawn scurried right up to people, begging for handouts, which was far more interesting than yet another choir and yet another preacher.
The choir wore matching red, white, and blue outfits, and they were young, but they were still a church choir. I wandered off and played with the squirrels that were so tame they would creep up and grasp a nut right out of your hand. The sound of the crusade on the Capital steps echoed out across the Capital lawn. The forces arrayed against Christians were the same ones I’d always heard were out to get us, but the exhortation had changed—we were being called to turn the other cheek no longer, but to stand up and fight the enemy hordes, give as good as we got.
I did not realize it at the time, but this was the birth of the Religious Right. That rally, where the lesbians failed to show, was the West Virginia stop of the Jerry Falwell’s traveling “I Love America” crusade. It was 1976, maybe a year or two after.
On Sunday, March 11, 2012, I lounged on the daybed and read The New York Times as the aroma of French roast coffee filled the den. The obituary section included an article about William Hamilton, the man at the center of the Death of God controversy back in 1966. Hamilton’s ideas have nothing to do with the actual death of a divine being. “The ‘death of God’ is a metaphor,” he told The Oregonian in 2007. “We needed to redefine Christianity as a possibility without the presence of God.” This was not nearly as radical as it sounded, at least not to academic theologians, who had been dealing with this at the very least since Nietzsche.
When Nietzsche trumpeted the death of God, he was not announcing the actual death of any god, but of the “metaphysical logos,” as Martin Heidegger terms it in his book, Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s point is that God never existed in the first place; what died was the illusion that we can any longer look beyond the material world to explain our existence in any meaningful way. Hamilton, a minister, was saying that if this is true, there is no calling on the Deus ex machina.
From the beginning, my dad went about his business of preaching and witnessing. As the culture changed outside those church walls, nothing about his mission changed. Nevertheless, I look back on that crusade in Charleston, where preachers carried nunchucks to do hand-to-hand combat with radical lesbians, as the moment I sensed, though I could not have articulated it at the time, something fundamental had changed. This new preaching was not the gospel of Jesus Christ. These speeches were about power, the loss of it and taking it back.
Why would they exchange such a grand and important purpose—the saving of eternal souls—for TV arguments and dirty political fighting? The fear now was not of dying and going to hell anymore. It was not of standing before God and not hearing, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” If you believed the Bible, what could possibly be more important than preaching the gospel and trusting God, the Deus ex machina, to step in and save you when He saw fit?
Today the religion of my dad, though he is still at it—the religion concerned with preaching the gospel and saving souls from death and hell—seems like a relic from a long distant past. The Religious Right has grown into a juggernaut that wields its great power to wreak havoc on anyone in its way, friend and foe alike.
William Hamilton tried to find a path for Christianity to go forward in the absence of God. It seems to me now that, their rhetoric notwithstanding, this is precisely what the soldiers I the Culture War had done as well, although in a more active way. The source of all that fear in the community where I was reared was the nagging sense that maybe the Death of God folks had been right all along. The game was lost; God would not intervene against the enemy; we looked up for our redemption in vain. The best bet was, before it was too late, to pick up a weapon and wade into the fray.
My short fiction and nonfiction are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, storySouth, Connecticut Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, PANK Magazine, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, Reed Magazine, Superstition Review, Entropy, Eclectica, Ghost Town, and elsewhere. Excerpts from my novel Eternity Rowboat are published or forthcoming in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Drunken Boat, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Pithead Chapel, Letters and elsewhere. My fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and two Pushcart Prizes.