THE LEFT BEHIND: LARRY NORMAN & THE RAPTURE
Originally published in the Portland Mercury (2008)
I was about as sheltered as a kid could be.
I went to private Christian schools for the entirety of my pre-collegiate life. My dad was the principal at the majority of these institutions. My mom, a kindergarten teacher. My two favorite songs were Evie's "Come On, Ring Those Bells" (which, contrary to the bangin' title, was a late '70s Carpenters-esque Christian Christmas carol, not a modern hiphop classic) and "Sail On" by the Imperials (my dad's favorite band, kind of like a Christianized "Kokomo"-era Beach Boys, complete with bushy graying beards, aloha shirts, and an unfortunate lack of Brian Wilson). In the world of cinema, the only thing over a "G" rating I had ever seen was E.T., and I remember my family huffing out of the theater early due to the movie's over-the-top obscenity. Horror movies were out of the question. Especially hardcore satanic snuff films like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Poltergeist, and Ernest Goes to Camp. All these curious plots my classmates were happily bonding over were completely beyond me.
Turns out, I didn't need secular Hollywood to scare the hell out of me.
I never got the chance to meet Christian music founder Larry Norman, though my high school band played a Christian rock festival with him in the mid-'90s. That's about as close as I got. I can't even say I'm a fan of his music. I can only name one of his songs, but that's quite enough for me. This specific song has haunted me to the core. Its essence kept me on the proverbial straight and narrow for the first 27 years of my life, through a healthy combination of guilt, regret, and sheer heart-pounding terror. I'm sure Slayer or Cannibal Corpse would be proud to have etched this legacy upon a young boy's subconscious, but I'd like to assume differently about the motives of a hippie Christian folk singer. I know it's bad to speak ill of the dead, so I'll refrain from judging Norman's character. I'm sure he was every bit as saint-like as Frank Black claims he was.
The song in question was called "I Wish We'd All Been Ready," and it was the theme to the movie A Thief in the Night—a Christian film about the Rapture. I was probably around 10 years old when I experienced both song and movie for the first time. My well-intentioned parents drove me to a small church in a suburb of the small Hawaiian town we lived in at the time. The movie was showing on a pull-out projector screen in the middle of a cramped assembly room. I remember the laminated floor being dirty. Everything in Hawaii is stained red from volcanic soil, but this floor was exceptionally filthy. I should know; I spent over half of the movie looking down at my flip flops, tears spilling from wide eyes, sweaty hands pressed over small ears, unable to bring myself to look back up at the screen.
My brain will be forever branded with these lyrics:
"A man and wife asleep in bed
She hears a noise and turns her head he's gone
I wish we'd all been ready
Two men walking up a hill
One disappears and one's left standing still
I wish we'd all been ready
There's no time to change your mind
The Son has come and you've been left behind..."
The Son (yes, both capital "S" and non-solar spelling intentional) has come... And you've been left behind. Is there anything more horrifying? Not to me. I knew my mom would be taken to Heaven. From my birth up until her death several years later, I never saw her commit any sort of sin. Not one. My dad, too. Yeah, Jesus would certainly take him. Even my sister was a no-brainer for a starring role in the Book of Life. Me, though? No way.
At 10, I was already flying headfirst down the slippery slope. I stole little pink M.U.S.C.L.E. toys at drugstores by stuffing them into my socks. I drew primitive pictures of naked ladies before quickly burning the evidence in the backyard. I was caught saying the word "shit" and got out of being bare-assed spanked by saying, "No, I said SHED, as in Jesus SHED his blood for you!" I heard Janet Jackson's song "Nasty" on the radio and got inexplicably funny feelings in my stomach. I hated every second of church every Sunday and I secretly enjoyed skateboarding light years more than memorizing Deuteronomy.
My fate was sealed. I was sure of it. I was still at least a decade away from any run-ins with sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll, but I knew that the "everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41) was also prepared for skinny, awkward, prepubescent me. I knew that on some unforeseen night, at exactly 11:34 pm (I bumped my digital alarm clock off the dresser and it landed upside-down, spelling "hell" in glowing red light. I've been petrified of this daily moment ever since), when all of us were sleeping, Jesus would silently creep into our house and Rapture my faithful family, one by one. He would lovingly touch their foreheads and they would instantly disappear into thin air, off to spend an eternity in the clouds with golden streets and no crying, and no lusting, and no stealing, and no memory of their wayward son/brother. But my bedroom would be ignored, as if I had goat's blood slathered upon my door frame. Tidbits, my pet mouse, sensing something was awry, would begin running crazily on his wheel. I would wake up in a sweat and sprint down the hall to my parents' bed, but all I'd find would be a warm outline of where their bodies were seconds before. I would lie there numbly, feeling the sheets growing cold around me, alone with the rest of the sinners in a godless world, for eternity.
So what's it like up there, Larry? At the very end of it all, were you really ready? Or were you just as scared as I forever will be?