When you grow up believing both God and your mom think you are awesome, you become woefully unprepared for the banalities of life. This is a side-effect of growing up self-assured and evangelical, a case-study in what happens to a teenage girl’s psyche when she believes that she truly can do anything she sets her heart on.
My mom is important here; it was from her I learned that intense, interesting women were the backbone of our world and our religion, and that God was more often to be found in the wilds of nature or a Russian novel than in a tame and strangled church service. To have an unquenchable thirst for God, to demand far above and beyond what the world seemed to be offering me, was not only expected but encouraged. Like my mom, I grew up singing side-by-side with Church people, and I learned to be wary of the artifice and perfunctory nature of their faith. From my mom, a pastor’s wife and homeschooling mother, I learned that we all had our own wildernesses we needed to explore, and I didn’t need to apologize for it.
When I was thirteen, I started a punk rock band. I was the middle daughter, the one who never caused a fuss, the blonde-haired spiritual one, the girl who professed to wanting to be a missionary in a foreign land when she grew up. It all started when at a friend’s house the previous year I caught a glimpse of Green Day on MTV (a station which was forbidden in our house). As I watched Billie Joe nearly eat his microphone as he sang the words to “Basketcase,” I was mesmerized. I had found it. I had found people who were on a search for something, and who had turned to music as a way of exploring.
I went to the local Family Christian Store and pawed through the discount bins. I found a mixed tape from a small, independent label that put out ska/punk/swing music. The gentle hardcore and giddy pop-punk made me shiver in excitement. It was so short and so explosive and so pleasingly devoid of sex or drugs or swear words. I haunted the Christian store and slowly started purchasing anything that looked even slightly alternative. I told my mom that I wanted to start playing the electric bass. A musician herself, she seemed pleased at this turn of events, even as she didn’t quite understand the extent of my growing obsession.
When both God and your mom think you are awesome, it gives a patina of importance to everything you do. I didn’t just want to teach myself an instrument and re-create this astonishing music in my own way—I wanted to share the gospel through punk rock and save the entire world.
So that’s what I set out to do. My mom bought me my first electric bass: white with a smoky gray center. She signed me up for lessons at the local guitar shop, where I horrified an older, chain-smoking jazz musician with my laughably simple punk rock bass lines and my frequent proclamations of what God wanted me to do with my musical ability. I realized I couldn’t form a band on my own, so I started scouting out others. My older sister was my opposite in many ways—preppy and popular, she had begged and begged to attend the local private Christian school until my parents caved—but I could see she had potential. I made her a few mixes and tried to explain the wondrous glory that was a double-kick drum. I started leaving hints about how she really sounded a lot like Gwen Stefani when she sang, and if she cut her hair and bleached it and wore Doc Martens she would also look a lot like Gwen Stefani. She finally agreed, and my dreams were officially in motion.
To fill out the band, I would have to use some boys. In our little church youth group, there were only two who fit the bill. Jeremy, an acne-ridden adolescent who was obsessed with Rancid and who could definitely manage three chords on a guitar and Lee, a Star Wars-obsessed shy nerd who was an absolute genius on the drums. I informed them that I was starting a band and that practice started that week. Both of them nodded and showed up in the church sanctuary at the aforementioned time, and we all got down to the business of rocking out for God.
My sister wrote the lyrics and Jeremy wrote the chord progressions, and I oversaw everything as best as I knew how. Make it more about God, I would tell my sister. Jeremy, why don’t we have a drum solo right here. I was several years younger than everyone in the band, but it was clear that this was my vision and my doing. I studied my musician heroes, and due to a lack of diversity, nearly all of the people I idolized were older and male. Slowly, I started to dress more and more like them. I cut all my hair off and dyed it magenta, spiking it with gel. I started dressings in corduroy pants and oversize thrift-store t-shirts. I wore dog collars around my neck and yellow-tinted sunglasses indoors, all for Jesus, feeling like hot shit the entire time.
My mom did not understand the hair or the clothes or the music. “Are you sure they are singing about Jesus?” she asked me, trying to appear nonchalant. I pointed out the mentions of God in the liner notes until she seemed satisfied, if not a little wary. But it seemed to her like she was still dodging the bullet of teenage rebellion—there was no backtalk, no sullen attitudes—just two daughters playing punk rock and harmonizing about the love of God. She was propelled into all-out support, however, based on the backlash we started to receive. People at the church started to talk. Older woman, other mothers with daughters hovering around our same age, started to whisper loudly in the way of the self-righteous. About our hair color, unorthodox clothes, the unsightly necklaces and multiple ear-piercings. My mom, never one who comfortably fit into the mold assigned to her, snapped her back straight. My daughters, she would tell anyone who would listen, have amazing hearts. She became our biggest defenders and our biggest fan. She informed us that she was going to be our band manager, and began calling all the local Christian youth groups and evangelical coffee shops (all called something like Sovereign Grounds or He Brews, naturally.)
We started booking shows, playing with other young and terrible bands just like ourselves. My mom would stand in the back of the room while we played, nodding her head and smiling wide, chatting up the pastor or the youth minister and networking for our next gig. We would load up our equipment into our beat-up gold Chevy Astro van and my mom would drive us home, telling us all how proud she was.
I was deeply confident in the way of the sheltered. Homeschooled since birth, I was used to finishing my school work in a few hours and then spending the rest of my days pursuing whatever I wanted—watching the Price is Right, perfecting my bass lines, learning how to skateboard—waiting around for my friends to get out of school so we could hang out and do something fun. At thirteen, I was several years younger than most of the other teenagers in the music scene, and besides a scant few other female singers, I was the only girl musician in our insular world. It never occurred to me that I might not belong, that I might be seen as breaking gender and age codes.
My mom continued to get sucked into the small, loud world of Christian pop punk. She convinced my dad to start a concert venue inside of our strip-mall church, buying expensive flood lights, decking the place out in weird candles and kitschy artwork and overstuffed thrift-store couches. Once a month we would host a concert, and the parking lot in front of our church on a Friday night would be filled with kids, pouring in from who knows where, skating and yelling and drinking Mountain Dew by the gallon, uneasy church elders standing guard as bouncers, semi-professional musicians trying to earn their living off of the allowances of me and mine. I hung around those bands, some of whom I had listened to over and over again, trying to glean tips on how to play the sickest line, how to rock hard while still keeping the beat. Those guys, in their early to late 20s, hair dyed various shades of orange or black, covered in tattoos, wearing the t-shirts of other bands, generally looked down on me in amusement. But sometimes they were kind and gave me a tip or two.
For two years we played sporadically. We travelled as much as 2 hours away to play in other cities in Northern California. We refined our songs. We took band photos. We danced hard to the bands who played before and after us. Our weekends were filled with music and mosh pits.
The local paper did a story on us. In it, there is a picture of me, my face earnest and convinced. “Christians can be punk rockers too,” is the quote I gave the paper, and it was bolded in the font, just as I had wished for it to be. The rest of the band, a little embarrassed by my zeal, forever teased me about that line. But I was thrilled. My dreams of being a missionary, of spreading the truth to my generation, were really happening.
Our break-up did not happen slowly or dramatically. My older sister simply went away to college, and at the same time my family moved to another state. I still played a little bit here and there, mostly for youth group worship teams, but my interests had moved on. I attended the small public school in central Oregon where we lived for my last two years of high school and practiced trying to fit in a new environment. I got super into drama class, into pottery, into Christian apologetics. I grew my hair out and stopped bleaching it. I sometimes wore dresses again. I graduated with flying colors, amazing friends, a safe and secure and happy adolescent, a minority in a world littered with forces just waiting to crush the young, the dreamers, the female.
When you grow up believing both God and your mom think you are awesome, the world becomes something to explore, your body is a beautiful vehicle for moving within a very good kingdom, you are capable of making all things new. But then you grow older, you go to Bible college, and your world starts to get smaller for you. Professors, classmates, troubling passages of Scripture. Limits and more limits, hours of discussion on what you can and can’t do, unseen hierarchies and marginalizations now laid bare before you. When you are twenty, you finally start to absorb the idea that God might view you as a second-class citizen, that he might see some as more equal than others, that maybe not everything you do is golden and pleasing, that a good heart and good intentions are simply not enough—and it shatters you.
It takes a few years, but eventually you are able to disentangle your faith from the systems of patriarchy and white supremacy that undergird so much of the organized religion of your childhood. You spend more and more time with the down-and-outs of America, and you start to see glimpses again of a God who loves the messy, the weak, the unhinged; you see a God whose heart bursts with pride at the accomplishments of his wayward kids, who loves their unique hairstyles and strange fashion choices and celebrates any attempt of creativity and empathy. In the end, you come back to God, and to your mom, older and wiser and a little less brave. But there, still inside of you, is the seed of rebellion still sprouting into something beautiful. Both God and your mom think you are awesome. You were never prepared for the banalities of life. You hope you never are.