Maybe I was lucky. My childhood as a secret atheist in a Fundamentalist family had many awkward moments and roughly 6000 hours of pew-time, but it was a sunny childhood nonetheless. Religion was not so much crammed down our throats as thrown around our shoulders like a warm and fuzzy blanket. In fact, my parents were so sweet about it that my inability to believe felt quite churlish at times, as if I were criticizing the quality of a home-knitted pair of socks. Moreover, there were some totally trivial benefits of a churchy childhood that stayed with me long after the last sermon I heard was happily expunged from my memory, and these are still part of my life. Here are four of them.
1. We grew up able to carry a tune. Even the most musically hopeless among us learned to lisp “Jesus Loves Me” on key by late toddlerhood, and graduated to the complexities of Baptist Hymnal tunes before we could read. Those of us who had trouble with high notes learned to sing in harmony, or at least to keep a consistent third below the melody line, which served well enough.
I first discovered the utility of this when I was about nine, the most incompetent Brownie ever to try the patience of a long-suffering Grey Owl: I didn’t earn a single merit badge, not one, but I was the only member of the pack who could warble “God Save the Queen” tunefully, which was in itself quite a feat. Also, us ex-Fundies are probably among the few people outside the churches who know all the verses to all the major Christmas carols, plus the parody versions involving rubber cigars and shepherds washing socks by night.
2. Sunday dinners. Forget the loaves and fishes. A greater miracle was performed weekly by all good mothers-in-Christ, who could leave for Sunday school with the family at 8:30am, return from the church service at 12:30pm, and yet have Sunday dinner on the table by 1pm. And not just any old casserole thrown hastily into the oven to heat up, but perfectly cooked roast beef with all the trimmings, gravy, mashed spuds, three veg, mustard, horseradish, sliced Spanish onions swimming in cider vinegar – and dessert.
How to organize all this was a secret passed down from Fundamentalist mothers to Fundamentalist daughters, and if I told you, I’d have to kill you. But I can say it came in very handy later on, when organizing the munchies for wild parties at university. And perhaps the only ritual remaining to me from my churchy past is the sacrament of the Sunday roast.
3. Still on the subject of food, three words loomed large in the Fundamentalist social lexicon: condensed mushroom soup. In casseroles or on them, as gravies or sauces or coatings for chicken or chops, ingeniously combined with tinned tuna, frozen veg, multifarious forms of potatoes, noodles, or rice – condensed mushroom soup was, as far as I remember, the basis of what you might call Church Potluck Cuisine. Other ingredients were commonly used as well, some good, some bad – I retain a vicious hatred of molded jelly salads, for example – but the chameleon utility of condensed mushroom soup will abide forever, even unto the end of the world. Which is probably why, by actual count, I have twenty-two cans of it downstairs in my disaster-preparedness cupboard.
4. We ended up knowing a whole lot about the Bible. I can still quote chunks by memory, have an excellent grasp of who did what to whom, and can tell you the names of all twelve minor prophets, in the correct order. This fiddly kind of knowledge often gives me an unfair advantage in pub quizzes and crossword puzzles, and certain categories of Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. It was also a big help in English Literature courses at university. And there’s more: when my kids were little and I ran out of fairy tales, I would tell them Bible stories, suitably glossed.
To be honest, I’m reasonably fond of the Bible. It is a collection of ancient writings, some of it gruesome, some of it lovely, and the dire uses to which it has latterly been put are not the fault of the original creators. And, like many other apostate children of cover-to-cover families, I love the Jacobean extravagance of the King James Version, and abhor the more recent dull and ugly translations, with their grisly efforts at modernity and relevance. They are just as boring, dare I say it, as translations of the Koran.
Shallow observations? No doubt. But then, I’ve barely scratched the surface of a Fundamentalist childhood. Someday, I may write about (trigger warning) Sunday school picnics.