WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I had two dreams.
One of those dreams was to be a preacher.
I wanted to preach because I loved public speaking, and because I loved memorization, and also because I grew up in the Church of Christ, which taught that baptism was the only way to get into heaven, but that it was also good to have a lot of extracurricular activities on your application, such as being a missionary or being persecuted. The ideal scenario would be if you could somehow arrange to be martyred, preferably on a mission trip, while you were baptizing many natives, who were also martyred, but not before all of you had been persecuted for a few days.
But mission trips were expensive, and martyrdom seemed like a lot of work, and so our best option for getting into heaven was just plain old persecution, but that, too, was nearly impossible, because I grew up in Mississippi, where Christianity was less a religion than a weather system, something everybody lived inside, a condition of the atmosphere, like having the paper industry in your town, which makes the town smell like baby feces, but which the nose soon forgets, because the industry is probably good for the town, like Christianity, which is also good for the town, and which only smells like baby feces to people from out of town.
In Mississippi, Christians were everywhere, and it’s still that way. It’s not like in Portland or Philadelphia, where the Christians all have tattoos of Jesus and work at soup kitchens and give backrubs to the homeless. Down here, all those jobs are already taken, so Christians have to do other things with their time, like needlepoint or racketeering.
Or in my case, preaching.
Jesus would love that, I thought.
My other dream was to be an actor.
I had done a few plays in college and wasn’t terrible at it, and I still loved public speaking and memorization, and also, I’d left the Church of Christ, which had great music and pretty girls, and hitched a ride with the Presbyterians, who had terrible music and homeschooled girls, which made them seem exotic. Most exotically, they preached a radical doctrine that said nothing you did could get you into heaven, and they told jokes, such as this one:
“What did the Baptist say to the Presbyterian in the liquor store?”
How could you not love these Calvinist bastards? According to them, there was nothing I could do to get into heaven. Martyrdom wouldn’t do it. Persecution wouldn’t do it. Being a preacher definitely wouldn’t do it.
“People are stupid and shitty,” they said. “But God doesn’t mind, since you can’t help it.”
That was great, but how would I know what to do with my life?
“Whatever you’re good at,” they said.
I had reservations about preaching, as I knew it would require many sacrifices, such as the excessive wearing of neckties, and I had recently become enmeshed in a love triangle with beer and cigarettes, and I had not yet heard of a church where they would let you smoke and drink while you were preaching, despite the fact that Jesus clearly did not care, so I decided to consider other options.
According to Presbyterian logic, I could be a genocidal maniac and get into heaven, which sounded great. Or, I could be an actor, which isn’t much different from being a genocidal maniac, especially if you do a lot of musicals.
“What should I do with my life?” I asked God, once I knew I could do anything.
“Blah blah blah,” God said.
Which sounded like, “Go be an actor.”
I thought about this. There were many benefits to being an actor, especially a Christian actor, such as being persecuted by all the pagans in the professional theater community, which sounded very exciting.
They would make me work on Sundays, probably.
And they would make me be in vulgar, tasteless plays, such as Oklahoma!
And they would force me to go to their cast parties, where they would persecute me with Jell-O shots. Beautiful pagans. Drunk pagans. Naked pagans. It was not going to be an easy life, but it was my calling.
And so, a few weeks before graduation, I traveled to a large conference in Miami to audition for summer stock, and nobody hired me, and I was very sad.
So I went home.
There was one more possibility, a little theater in Mississippi where they actually paid the actors. They did serious theater, some of the best plays ever written.
“What sorts of plays?” my mother asked.
“The House at Pooh Corner,” I said. I’d been told this by their director, who explained that they hire interns to travel the state, performing this play in elementary school cafeterias.
“Can I audition?” I asked, on the phone.
“We saw you already,” they said.
They had been in Miami. They had seen me. They had no interest.
So I talked to God.
“I thought you said to be an actor.”
And God said, “Blah blah blah.”
Which sounded like, “Ha ha just kidding.”
“Have you thought about a drama ministry?” a classmate asked, a few weeks before college graduation, after the pagans had rejected me. Many of my classmates seemed desirous to go into the ministry, playing music in a church or making art for a church or doing ballet in a church. I had never heard of doing theater in a church. It sounded like it could lead to all sorts of dangerous heresies, like applause, or having emotions.
And there seemed to be much simpler ways of talking about Jesus than by miming.
Then I met Scott.
“We don’t do mime,” Scott said, at dinner. He was a friend of a friend, the cofounder of what he called a vaguely Baptist “theater ministry” in Birmingham, Alabama. Many Christians did this, putting nouns in front of the word ministry and making it a thing.
I didn’t like it.
But Scott seemed intelligent. He looked normal. We shared a pitcher of beer, and the pitcher was empty, and he didn’t seem to not be drinking it. Maybe his theater ministry wasn’t so bad.
“We write our own material,” he said. “And we don’t do skits.”
“Good,” I said. “What do you do?”
“Sketches,” he said.
Sketches. It sounded like a trap.
He went on, talking about their national tour, their budget, their benefits.
“Housing,” he said. “And health insurance.”
This seemed insane. You could get a place to live and a salary and free travel around the country, just to make art.
“What’s it called?”
“All Things to All People,” he said.
He explained how they’d gotten this name from a verse in the Bible where Paul explains that “unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews.” To the weak, he became weak, to the lawless, he became lawless, and to the people who had no gift for coming up with names for things, he apparently became somebody who had no gift for coming up with names for things.
“You should audition,” Scott said.
“Maybe,” I said.
Across the South, it was not unusual to see signs advertising “Karate for Jesus” or “I Am the Potter and Ye Are the Clay Ceramics Studio for Christ.” Which always upset me. Do your karate, sure, but leave Jesus out of it. I liked theater and I liked church, but just because you liked two things didn’t mean you had to combine them. I also liked cigarettes and elderly people with emphysema, but I didn’t necessarily think they should be in the same room.
But health and insurance were good things to combine.
As were free and housing.
For my audition, I recited a monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when Bottom awakens and recalls having been turned into a half-mule, half-man, wondering, Did any of it actually happen?
I have had a most rare vision. I have had a dream, past the wit of man to say what dream it was. Man is but an ass if he go about to expound this dream.
I was pretty excited about saying ass in my audition. The other actors would probably be reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I figured, or would be performing with hand puppets. Several others auditioned first. In addition to their monologues, each of them had songs. I hadn’t brought any songs. So at the last minute, I decided to do something extra special with my monologue. I wouldn’t simply recite it. I would recite it very loudly, with special emphasis on the ass.
I also added a few more asses in there.
“Thank you,” they said, when I was finished.
I drove back to Mississippi, feeling a little worried. I had been too loud. At one point, it seemed like I had been doing nothing but screaming ass. They might think something was wrong with my hearing, or that I had a disorder that made me constantly shout obscenities at religious people.
A month later, they called.
I was hired.
When my contract arrived in the mail, it seemed like too much money. The local playhouse was paying its interns minimum wage to die of heatstroke while dressed in Tigger and Pooh bodysuits, while I would be earning three times that, and living in a lush new apartment, where the drama ministry would also pay for water, electricity, gas, and everything, it seemed, but my sins.
“You’re going to work for Baptists?” my Presbyterian friends said.
“They’re cool,” I said, and they looked at me funny.
“You’re going to work for Baptists?” my pagan friends said.
“They’re all right,” I said, and they looked at me funny, too.
I laughed. The Baptists got a bad rap.
I studied the materials they’d mailed. The ministry was far more than drama. I’d be touring the nation with a whole righteous caravan of sanctified art, including music, though they did not call it music. They called it “worship,” as in, “The worship was so good that one of our amplifiers exploded.” This was not the sort of music I was used to in religious settings. I preferred hymns written for the slide guitar or the organ, but not necessarily a five-piece band fronted by a person called a “worship leader,” as in, “Our worship leader wears a microphone on his head.”
Also, these worship leaders performed for large audiences of youth who all seemed to be singing with their hands in the air. This was not the way of Presbyterians, who generally only put their hands in the air when they are getting arrested, and who generally don’t get arrested.
I set down the colorful packet of materials and tried to suppress the specter of doubt that had settled across my spirit. I repeated over and over to myself:
“I am getting paid to be an actor.”
“I am getting paid to be an actor.”
But then another mantra interrupted me:
“They wear microphones on their heads.”
“They wear microphones on their heads.”
I arrived on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the sun cutting across the landscape fiery and cold, a jewel in a mirrored glass case at the end of a long and polished hallway. My station wagon was filled with books and clothes and three cartons of cigarettes and framed photographs of my friends and family.
As I approached the apartment door with my duffel, I reviewed everything I knew about my new roommate, an actor named Bart, which is not his real name. Bart, they said, had studied at the American Music and Dramatic Arts Academy in New York. Bart was going to teach me everything he knew. We would probably be rivals, and then great friends, and I would have to thank him in my Tony Award speech.
“Bart Something,” I would say, lifting the trophy. “Thank you for believing in me.”
I knocked, the door opened.
“Hello,” I said.
Bart looked older than I’d expected, husky and balding, more like a high school football coach than an actor, which I liked, because I was also husky and balding, so we had a lot in common already. Was our husky baldness a coincidence? Would we be developing an original show about the spiritual journeys of great husky bald men throughout history?
“Yeah, hi,” Bart said, returning to his place on the couch with a pronounced limp. I noted that he was missing one of his legs, in its place a prosthetic.
I sat down in the living room and tried to make conversation with my new friend and mentor, but he seemed uninterested, so instead I chose to stare at his plastic leg. Acting seemed like a courageous career choice for a man missing an important body part, I thought, and then I felt bad for thinking it.
“I’m going to bed,” Bart said, and went to bed.
“I will, too,” I said.
We would be sharing a bedroom.
I disrobed and lay down, while he sat on the edge of his bed and removed his leg, dropping it on the carpet like a heavy old Russian boot. It was a little dirty, I thought, like maybe it had been stolen off a mannequin at Sears, and I felt bad for thinking that, too.
“Good night,” I said, tumbling into a dry and hateful sleep. Tomorrow would be my first day as a professional actor. Dreams were coming true. The quality of my sleep did not offend me. It was just my old life, I reasoned, saying goodbye, falling off like an old leg.
The next morning, I was up first.
Showers always put me in a good mood.
As did smoking, which I did after my shower, on the balcony.
We had a balcony.
I had never lived anywhere with such a nice balcony.
I had never lived anywhere with such new furniture.
I had never lived anywhere with a man with one leg who seemed angry all the time.
Bart and I were going to ride together. I looked at my watch, then toward the bedroom, where he was making a lot of noise slamming drawers. Finally, he was ready.
“We need to talk,” he said, which seemed like a pretty heavy way to begin a conversation with a new friend. “What did you do in the shower?”
What was he talking about? Had I done something wrong? Did he believe I had molested the soap, or masturbated into the shower curtain?
“I took a shower,” I said.
And I explained that I had turned the water off, and got my towel, and touched the towel to my skin, and then put my clothes on, and that I was going to put my clothes on first and then dry off, but it seemed like it would be hard to dry my skin if there was something between it and the towel, such as clothes.
I waited for Bart to laugh, but whatever had taken his leg had also claimed his ability to feel joy.
“The bathmat was completely soaked,” he said.
“I had to change my socks,” he said.
“I could have slipped,” he said. “I could have been really hurt.”
“I could have beaten you to death in the night with your own leg,” I thought, but did not say. Instead, I apologized. He seemed pretty dramatic, which I guess was a good thing for an actor to seem.
Bart drove, and he drove very fast through the cool, overcast streets of the city, running stop signs and breaking traffic laws, and I had to pray to Jesus to keep me from making a joke about a lead foot.
Soon, we arrived at a large warehouse. Inside were a few offices, scenery and light rigs leaning against walls. Everybody seemed nice enough. Scott was there, and Travis, the artistic director, who explained what our first show would be about.
“Stephen,” he said.
“The martyr?” I said. That sounded good. Sketches and monologues about a martyr and his violent death had potential. Step aside, House at Pooh Corner.
We also met a man I’ll call Rusty, the executive director of the parent ministry, which was called Student Life. Rusty seemed very important and powerful, which you could tell by the strength and size of his goatee. After meeting everybody, we just sort of sat around. I wanted to smoke, but felt I should wait. Growing up in Mississippi, you learn a few things about Baptists, such as, they can be weird about smoking.
“The body is God’s temple,” is a thing you will hear Baptists say about cigarettes, suggesting that one does not smoke in God’s temple because, as it explains in 1 Peter 3:12, God has asthma. To them, smoking in public was fundamentally no different than having a tattoo of a baby skull on your face, a sign that you clearly did not care what people thought of you and that you might have all sorts of terrible things in your home, like black lights or a large collection of novels.
What would my new Christian theater friends do if I stepped outside for a cigarette? Would one of them join me? Would the thin membrane of our whitewashed politeness burst in the congeniality of tobacco and liberty, revealing a richer honesty underneath? Or would they assume I enjoyed listening to “Stairway to Heaven” backwards so that I could learn Satan’s plan for my life?
It was all so silly. We were adults. We were artists.
I pulled out my cigarettes.
“Anybody want to go outside?” I said.
“Why?” one of them said.
Something about the why concerned me, as though we were a small colony on Mars and outside was a toxic atmosphere burning with nefarious gasses. I put my cigarettes away.
“For fresh air,” I said.
“I could use some fresh air,” a girl said.
So this girl and I went outside and stood there and breathed for a while.
“Isn’t God’s creation awesome?” she said.
“It is,” I said, wishing God could create a cigarette in my face.
After a few minutes of breathing in silence, we went back inside and learned that we’d all been invited to a play that night at a local university, which was the first normal thing to happen all day.
We went to the play, and it was fine.
And we went out to dinner, and it was fine.
And we sat in the smoking section, and it was fine.
And I smoked a cigarette after dinner, and it was totally fine.
The next day, something was not fine.
We had waited in the warehouse for at least an hour, maybe two, when my boss, Travis, came out of the offices looking pale.
“Harrison, could you come with me?” he said.
He led me to an office, where Rusty sat behind a desk.
“Please, have a seat,” Rusty said.
He spoke first, declaring grand propositions about the gospel and the ministry and a forest of familiar tropes about Christ crucified and all that.
I knew where this was going. Rusty was going to end his speech with a final pronouncement about how my parents had been found murdered. While he was still speaking, I did my best to come to terms with this news and what it would mean for my life and how difficult it would be, having to sell all my father’s rifles and my mother’s skillets, but also how the experience of loss might deepen my art, and then I judged myself for such loathsome thoughts, and then I judged myself for judging, and, having sensed what felt like genuine contrition, it seemed prudent to offer myself forgiveness and absolution, which I did, at which point I brought my attention back to Rusty and his words, some of which were, restaurant and cigarette and stumbling block.
“Wait, what?” I said.
My head reeled, bounced, full of helium and ignoble gasses, punctured by the vaguest words, a flaccid and dying party balloon floating down to the hard and unforgiving floor.
“We’re making you a very generous offer,” he said.
I was still a little confused and turned to Travis, who stared at the floor like a man who’d just been asked to shoot his own dog, and finally, I understood: I was the dog.
The discussion that followed was painful and unsurprising. I knew the Baptist position. As Saint Paul said to the church at Corinth, “Ye shall neither drink nor curse nor smoke nor go with girls who do.” The company was not an expressly Baptist organization, though. They’d hired me, and knew I was Presbyterian. And I was pretty sure one of their cofounders had shared a pitcher of beer with me. There had been no creeds to sign, nothing in my contract about alcohol or tobacco or even goatees, for that matter.
“But we’re working with youth groups,” Rusty said.
“And it doesn’t look good,” he said. “Smoking, drinking.”
“Is this about the beer I ordered?”
“A beer,” I said. “One beer.”
“One is all it takes.”
“We don’t need to be out at bars.”
“It was an O’Charley’s,” I said. I cited the miracle at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. “I’m sure people were drinking the wine,” I said. “I’m sure people were not just marveling at the wine, or staring as federal agents poured out the wine.”
But Rusty was unmoved.
“Children don’t need that temptation,” he said.
“The temptation to feel happiness?” I said. “What about fried chicken? Is it wrong for the fatter children to see us eating it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I saw some pretty fat children in the brochures.”
I was not going to win this fight, I knew. Jesus could be tending bar at O’Charley’s, and people like Rusty would pray for Jesus to turn his life around.
“Just tell me,” I said. “Is it wrong, what I did? Are you saying it’s a sin?”
“No,” he said.
“Is it wrong to break the law?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Because I’ve seen one of your employees break the law in the last two days,” I said.
“I’m not going to say,” I said. “But one of his legs hasn’t been seen in many years.” I explained that Bart was a reckless driver, a runner of stop signs, a changer of lanes without being a user of blinkers. “Those all seem like laws to me,” I said. “And laws seem very important to you.”
Rusty pushed a letter of resignation across his desk.
“I don’t want to resign,” I said. “I want to be an actor.”
I wanted to stay, to prove them wrong, to show them that Camel Lights and the Light of the World could coexist in this place. I liked my apartment. I liked my balcony. I liked my health insurance, which I needed, because of the Camel Lights. Then I studied the letter of resignation, including the large numerical figure at the bottom.
They wanted to buy me.
“That’s a lot of money,” Rusty said.
I felt like a piece of meat. A piece of very expensive and delicious meat.
“Take some time,” Rusty said. “Pray about it.”
I wanted to pray that Jesus would cause Rusty’s goatee to ignite and melt his face, but I knew it was wrong to hate, and there was probably some clause in the document that stipulated I was not allowed to burn anybody, for fear that young people might see it and think we were smoking.
I drove around the tired old city feeling the groaning of creation, and I thought about persecution, about the burning churches of Zanzibar and the exploded hospitals of Jakarta and the labor camps of China. I thought about how, in England, they’d burned and strangled the first man to translate the Bible into, of all things, English, and how later they read his work and liked it. I thought about Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms, and how the pope tried to kill him, and I thought about that guy who tried to kill the pope, and I thought about the man who tried to kill Reagan and the man who did kill John Lennon and all the people who’d been persecuted or martyred because they did something someone else didn’t like, and I thought about how my young and unformed career as an artist was being murdered over a beer and a cigarette at an O’Charley’s.
I wandered the streets of Birmingham, a beautiful city, really, the tinsel of civic wreaths hung about the streetlights with care, and found a payphone and called the only man I knew in town, the father of a good friend, an intelligent man who read philosophy and drank wine and tried his best to love God, and I went to his house in the dark of night and we talked. I was sad, confused, lost.
“What should I do?” I said. “Should I fight this?”
“They sound like sons of bitches to me,” he said.
That night, I asked my heart, “What should I do?”
“I agree,” my heart said. “They sound like sons of bitches.”
And then I asked God, “What should I do?”
“Blah blah blah,” he said, which sounded like, “Take the money.”
The next day, I took the money and fled, like Baby Jesus to Egypt.
A day later, I made a call. I still remembered the phone number of the pagan theater in town, rife with witchcraft and animal sacrifice, which had rejected me so totally only months before.
“I’ll do anything,” I said to the man on the phone.
And they hired me.
I’d just called them up, in the saddest week of my life, and they hired me.
It was a kind of salvation.
I worked at that theater for four years, and I wish I could tell you everything I did there, the walls I painted and shows I did and plays I wrote there, but this is not that story, because that is a happy story. But I can tell you about my first day, when my new boss showed me around the green room, the booth, the costume shop, and then, at the very end, outside the back door, the most special place of all.
“This is where we smoke,” he said.
I wept quietly.
I didn’t know it then, but they would persecute me a lot. They would make me work on Sundays, sometimes. And they would make me be in vulgar, tasteless plays, such as adaptations of Henry James novels. And they would make me go to their cast parties, where they persecuted me with Jell-O shots, which turned out to be pretty great, if you paced yourself.
And they did occasionally mock my ancient religion.
“Christianity is just so silly,” they sometimes said.
Instead, they subscribed to much more believable ideas, such as reincarnation and the power of crystals, which was fine. It made for rich conversation.
The day I left, when I walked into Rusty’s office and handed him the signed resignation letter, I asked him to promise me something.
“I don’t know what sort of person you expected me to be,” I said. “But maybe you can put a paragraph in your contract about not wanting to hire anybody who drinks or smokes or masturbates more than once a week.”
“Thank you,” he said.
And I left, and I felt bad for saying that thing about masturbating.
In my new life with the pagans, they talked about masturbation sometimes, and all sorts of other horrible things.
“I was sexually abused,” one might say.
“My mom’s in jail for selling crank,” another might say.
“Well,” I said. “I once worked in a Christian drama ministry.”
And they gasped.
“No way,” they said.
What’s so remarkable, lo these many years later, is how unremarkable it is, that men will behave according to their nature, which is stupid and shitty. This is one of the great themes of the Bible, that people are often stupid and shitty, including the people who think it is their job not to be stupid and shitty, which is why we need Jesus, who said, Come to me, all ye who are stupid and shitty, and I will give you rest.
And so the lesson is not to try not to be stupid and shitty, because you will be anyway.
And neither is the lesson to be stupid and shitty on purpose, because that’s even stupider and shittier.
I still wonder: What had God been trying to show me, through this exercise, this making and then dashing of what I thought was my dream? I’d read the Book of Job enough to know that I might never know. Maybe he was trying to teach me something about dogma, to show me what happens when you take ideas more seriously than people, which would be a valuable lesson in the years ahead, in many of our nation’s great universities, where I would eventually find a home. Or maybe he was just trying to show me that people who are missing an important body part are often in a bad mood.
When I tell this story to my friends, they just wag their heads. It’s so predictable.
“Christians are so judgmental,” they say.
And I’m like, “I know.”
And they’re like, “No, really.”
And I’m like, “No, really, I know.”
And they’re like, “Didn’t Jesus love the prostitutes?”
And I’m like, “Who doesn’t love prostitutes?”
“You must hate those people,” they say.
But I didn’t, and I don’t.
They were trying.
They meant well.
They gave me a lot of money.
They made my dream come true, if for but a moment.
Past the wit of man to say what dream it was.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.