Oct/Nov 2009 Nonfiction

Jesus People

by Jennifer Ruden

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The first Jesus person I met was in McLean, Virginia. I was twenty-two years old. Kent, the Jesus person, was twenty-one. He looked like every other recent college graduate: kind of dazed and kind of cute. He had blonde hair and blue eyes. If memory serves, he had a touch of acne, too, which was endearing.

He trained me at my first real job out of college, at a bank where I worked as a teller. In the early days of the job, I made a lot of mistakes. For example, I often gave out incorrect change or answered phones, "Hi," instead of, "Mellon Bank, how may I assist you with your financial needs?" In the midst of these errors, I would curse, and curse loudly.

"God damn it," I might say after forgetting to verify ID when cashing a check. A "For Christ sake" might flutter from my lips if my drawer was short (I was not so good at banking).

One day Kent looked at me and said, "Small request, Jen. Might you not take the Lord's name in vain?"

I thought he was joking. However, when I looked at him, I noticed something I seldom came across in people my age: sincerity. I had seriously offended him, and I felt bad. I cleaned up my mouth during that stint as lead teller. Only occasionally would Kent preach about my being a half Jew and my presumed trajectory to Hell. For the most part, we talked about other things. I developed a little crush on him, his being so close to the Almighty and what not.

He often spoke of his friends and even mentioned a clandestine girlfriend. I imagined them all dorky, shy, kind of overweight, your basic losers (this essentially described me at the time). After all, this guy wanted to be a minister. He didn't drink, smoke, curse, or flirt. How many cool people could he have possibly encountered in college?

One day over lunch he said this: "I proposed to Michelle last night."

I pictured "Michelle" in floral dresses, Mennoniteish, demure. "I want to spend the rest of my life with her." I was a little jealous, yes, but mostly dumbstruck.

"You are only twenty-one. Why would you get married?"

"But she's so beautiful," Kent insisted. "I knew it was right, Jen. I couldn't deny God's will one more minute." He crushed a napkin in his palm. "Not one more minute!"

Kent uttered this last part so urgently. I knew such urgency, had heard it many, many times from young men. It was the exigency of a man in dire need of female companionship. The overnight kind. Of course. Kent was getting married so he could get laid. I wanted to tell him there were women who specialized in this kind of thing, professional ones. Hell, there were women who weren't professional at all, just easy. Like me. But I said nothing. I looked down at my coffee and then back to Kent. A virgin?

I presented my theory to a co-worker. He was "between religions" but liked to use Kent for "research" should he take the Jesus plunge. Proselytizing, he told me, was Kent's version of jerking off.

"So it's true?" I asked him, and he nodded knowingly. Kent had contentedly admitted to him that he was a virgin and also confided he refrained from whacking off—all in the name of God. No wonder Kent got flushed in the collar when Mary the Money Honey slinked across the CSPAN channel we were obligated to air all day.

Soon after, Kent and I sat obediently on our banker's stools counting out our cash drawers. "Have you ever read the Bible? he asked.

I told him I had read "a bit" in my religious studies class. "God was one scary mother-fluffer in the Old testament," I said, and meant it. That was when God was always annoyed at our flawed species, blowing things up, firing off lightening rods left and right, stirring up plagues just to prove a point.

Kent laughed, which we did often. "He gets nicer as time goes on." Then, "You should read it all, you know."

Before I could reply, a beautiful woman walked in, as they were wont to do in the DC greater area. She had long, professionally highlighted, brown hair and plump lips. She wore a red business suit complete with stylish cream camisole and hose with seams inching up the backs of her legs. Her shoes were strappy, pointy things, the kind men licked in music videos, and no doubt cost more than what I made in a month. Kent's mouth dropped when he saw her. "MEE SHELL. What are you doing here?"

Blessed Be.

I would have never fathomed Michelle drop dread gorgeous, but I would be lying if I described her otherwise. She was striking and downright sexy. She drove all the way from her corporate DC job out to the 'burbs simply to ascertain which napkin her paramour preferred for the immaculate, 350 person, $200 per plate wedding. I will never forget that moment. The couple groped politely, kissed (mouth closed) and smiled. The sun spilt in through the bullet-proof Plexiglass, artfully creating an effect that was, well, religious.

I didn't know then that I was bearing witness to a movement. The beautiful people, the smart ones, the popular ones, oh hell, the "COOL" ones, weren't skipping school to get high, weren't masturbating with religious fervor, weren't unhooking bras in the lunch line, damaging reputations, folding back the seats of SUVs. No. Whole new breeds of young people were saving themselves. For marriage. For the afterlife. For Jesus. And here was Kent, bent on opening up a church with his venerable little wife, paving the proverbial way.

Five years later when I moved to New Mexico, the Jesus movement was in full swing. Granted, my students were mainly poor and Hispanic; our classroom discussions revolved around the sentence, not church. Yet on the horizon, the other students, the white ones, the rich ones, the beautiful ones, the ones who weren't trying to wrap their heads around grammar in a community college night class, it seemed they were praising Jesus. Loudly.

Next to the Gap and across from the Starbucks, churches were being erected, everywhere. They were magnificent, beyond grand in breadth and stature, harkening back to the cathedral days. They were so glorious that on one occasion my husband and I (two half-assed Jews) pulled over on a busy street to gawk at a structure so ostentatious I was sure it was a mirage. "I just have to look inside," I said.

My husband stood transfixed in front of the gift shop, state of the art playground, flat screen televisions, not to mention the Sunday morning broadcast featuring a smarmy preacher calling scripture numbers out like football scores. While I found all that interesting, yes, I was more intrigued with our guide. He was a young kid, 16-ish, who was decidedly cute. He showed us around the church like he had built it himself, gesticulating wildly, gloating, cocky, privileged. Doesn't this guy have anything better to do? I wondered. His zeal was off-putting and, I was certain, misdirected.

For the better part of ten years, I've been watching this revival unfold. And here's the thing: Jesus is fashionable. He's infiltrated the vernacular, the mainstream, even popular culture. It's hip to love Him, cool to be devout. Over the years I've seen groups of young people, moneyed, good-looking, starry-eyed in McDonald's parking lots, eating salads, defiantly not smoking, stroking (lovingly) the Bible, and praising the Lord. I've seen their photo-shopped advertisements for Saturday morning prayer circles and Bible discussions in malls, coffee shops, on the internet, everywhere: handsome teens passionately flipping pages, laughing, quoting, "thy"ing. The Father and the Son, et al.

I don't know why this depresses me, but there you have it. My own relationship with institutionalized religion is flawed, extremely flawed. My father, not technically a Jesus person but still a Christian, refrained from trying to convert my synagogue-less Jewish mother and only occasionally tried to convert me. It's really not the religious aspect I'm arguing. I am not versed enough to do so, and after all, this is America, and we are free to worship (or not) who or what we choose. Yet I can't forget the look on Kent's face when I asked him once if he believed I was going to Hell. It appeared the question had disappointed him, scared him in a way. Of course he thought I was going to hell: political, outspoken, dirty-minded, dirty-mouthed, and, above all, rebellious, me. Of course. In that moment, I had wanted to smack him with the deposit slips lined up in front of us, squish him inside one of the plastic missiles, and launch him across several drive-thru lanes. Get laid, I wanted to scream. Do something worth repenting.

Call me old fashioned, but isn't it a natural phenomenon when young people rebel against institutions, as opposed to the antithesis happening to Kent, and with many others, who are finding refuge within them?

Take my babysitter, for example. When she began working for me, she was a heartbreakingly beautiful 20-year-old. She did not swear in my presence and remains one of the most responsible young people I'd ever met. When she told me she was saving herself for marriage and then basked in her own glorious self-righteousness, I stifled laughter. Why, I wondered, would you go and do a thing like that?

Soon after she started babysitting for me, a bird flew into my house. I had opened the door, and a gray starling whizzed past my nose like I had invited him. Before I could expound on the metaphor, the bird was flapping into glass windows and darting around the living room, stirring up papers, napkins, thumping into walls. It was clear I would be late for work. I ran around cursing God, the bird, my mother, yours, even the wind that brought the bird in the house. I balanced on a ladder with a dishtowel, ready to cup my hand around that little bastard. After an hour, sweaty and panting, I finally caught him. When I looked around, however, the babysitter was nowhere to be seen. I found her up in my bedroom, terrified.

I expressed my concern to my husband, asked him if he'd noticed a difference in young people. Had he detected an air of self-righteousness? Had they become too... fearful? Wholesome?

"Who prefers slutty daughters?" he asked, incredulous.

"No one," I stammered. "But I don't want obedience in the name of Jesus, either."

So I resigned myself to worrying about these young people privately. Where was the angst? The rebellion? Why wasn't anyone listening to Nirvana anymore? What in the name of God was going on?

And then something happened. I felt its nearness in some deep part of me that lacks a name. I liken it to the ways dogs can sense earthquakes before the ground ever trembles. A slight change, one underfoot, but it was there nevertheless, quivering and inevitable. Something, I knew, was about to give.

My 20 year-old sister was the first to yield. For whatever reason she got angry. Pissed. Political. She discovered punk. She pierced a few things. She kissed some boys, some girls. She called me a Yuppie.

Then I read an article alleging that young girls are worse now than ever. That they have replaced kissing in the closet with the "blow-job." The article goes on to lament ass-rider jeans, exposed midriffs, the infiltration of marijuana in the lifeless suburbs, tweens wanting nose rings, tattoos, MTV. I was not alarmed as so much relieved. Thank God, I thought. All hope is not lost.

And now this. Last week my babysitter quit. Something about school schedules and obligations, but I saw that rhetoric for what it was... bullshit. Her jeans have gotten a little tighter over the past year, her blouses more revealing. At a certain political rally, I saw her wrapped around the indifferent body of a boy, a hot one, like a caduceus. His hands were in a place they need not be. She had that characteristically adolescent look of depravity, lust, the audacious composure to sit on her boyfriend's lap like God wasn't watching, or better yet, was. Oh dear, I thought. Is this the same young woman? Is that his hand sliding down the valley of her jeans?

I was struck suddenly with the memory of the bird that flew in my house two years ago. How we had stood in the arch of my doorway, me lifting the towel up from my hand like some kind of magician. As we watched the starling erupt in the gray sky before us, I had detected, even then, not a look of relief from my babysitter, but one of envy.

So here she is: a revolution following her like a lover. This woman knows how to tilt the seats back. This woman will take on this young man expertly, divinely. Here’s a couple with transcendence in their very near future. Well, well, well, thought I. Can I get a Hallelujah? Can I get an Amen?


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