Because growing up in White evangelical Christianity is not a terribly unique experience, those of us who harbor fond (or perhaps terrible) memories of things like church, Sunday school, Christian schools, youth conferences, and missions trips find each other regularly and talk about what it was like to be in that world. I’ve found myself at countless dinners, work events, and wedding receptions, talking with old and new friends about the church environments where we grew up. When sharing these experiences, there is usually a twinge of, “Wasn’t that weird?” mixed with “Wasn’t that awesome?” and sometimes a bit of “Can you believe that someone really told us that?” Outsiders often listen with wide eyes, surprised at anecdotes about children playing schoolyard games themed around the crucifixion, about fifteen-year-olds being sent to New York City to perform Christian dramas in the middle of the sidewalk as an attempt to convert “the lost,” about kids being taken into a broom closet to be spanked by their teachers for stepping foot in the school too early in the day, or about a man pretending to commit suicide by gun in front of a class of fifth graders in order to teach them a lesson about, well, something he thought was important.
These are the childhood experiences of Bryan Parys, author of the spiritual memoir Wake, Sleeper. Growing up in evangelicalism may not be unusual, but Parys is not a typical kid experiencing typical Christian faith. He is an extremely curious child with a vibrant inner world, which is constantly being expanded and confused by the metaphors of faith that surround him.When Parys is four, his father, Alfred, dies of esophageal cancer, but not before recording onto a cassette tape a series of his thoughts about living a good life for little Bryan to listen to as he grows older. His father’s death introduces the young boy to contradictory ideas that people usually discover somewhat later in life: the pain of mortality combined with the Christian doctrine of eternal life. Parys writes in the present tense—not as a gimmick or to be a part of the trend of present-tense memoirs, but to challenge the idea that life is linear. He chooses to embrace the concept of eternity in his craft. The teachings of his childhood were sometimes meaningful and sometimes absurd, but they clearly affected him deeply, evidenced by the way the teaching that God exists outside of time determines his writing decisions as an adult.
When he listens to the tape of his father’s voice, his father is alive. When his father is dead, his father is alive in Heaven. When his father is alive, his father has a Father in Heaven, who is God, who is unbound by time. This is the kind of language that entangles little Bryan, who is constantly trying to figure out what his world means.
Parys’s entire childhood and adolescence are governed by the influence of his parents’ conversion to Christianity, which took place before he was born. Their transition from pot-selling hippies to ground-level members of the religious right places Parys in a non-denominational church and affiliated Christian school, where there is no institutional oversight or generations of tradition. Instead, there are simply people trying to live their faith authentically and prevent their children from being eternally lost to them after death.
These earnest believers try to teach their children spiritual truths from cradle onward, without realizing that their lessons could be misunderstood by the literal minds of children. Parys, however, seems to have been born with a mind more complex and creative than his peers, leaving him to question the more bizarre language of these teachings. Still a child, though, he doesn’t know how to ask questions in a way that doesn’t frighten the adults, and so he learns to silently straddle the lines between metaphor and fact, the spirit and the body, Truth and supposition.
One of the fascinating things that Parys does in Wake, Sleeper is to take the simple spiritual lessons that his religious mentors introduced to him as a child and spend time with those ideas in a far more exploratory and intellectual way than they could have anticipated. For example, the simple demerit system in his seventh grade classroom goes beyond a way to manage class behavior, and instead determines how Bryan perceives the state of his soul.
When his class, which has only a handful of students, is told that they are getting a bad reputation in the school for being unruly, Bryan thinks, “If my class has a bad rep, then I do, and therefore there are slices of my past that must be creating it.” He goes on to list his sins, from hanging on the basketball hoop for too long (“I am disobedient”), for not shutting his eyes when others are praying (“I am sacrilegious”), and for glancing at his friend’s copy of Hustler (“I am a pervert”).
It’s hard to believe that the adults in Parys’s life didn’t recognize the intensity of some of the things he was experiencing. They seem oblivious to the giant pieces of symbology that Bryan discovers everywhere. This is one of the strengths of the writing: these symbols seem authentic and obvious, yet only the right person is able to pick them up and examine them carefully. Take, for instance, the fact that teenage Bryan doesn’t have a traditional bed, but rather, he sleeps on the fold-out sofa on which his father died. To his family, the couch is just a couch, even if it carries some weighty history. It was a couch when his parents brought it into their home, a couch when it was moved to another house, a couch when Alfred died on it, a couch when it was put upstairs in the room that would become Bryan’s, a couch when Bryan opted to keep it instead of going the more common route and getting a twin bed of his own.
He writes of the decision to sleep on the pull-out bed, “I felt I had no choice. I kept what to me had become a relic that, no matter how coffin-like, offered me a connection with my father.”
He draws attention to his need to find metaphor and meaning when talking one night with his wife, Natalie, who wants him to get rid of notes from his college courses. Parys can’t understand why Natalie would get rid of the paper trail in her own life and suggests that she should hold onto more things:
“But what if you get famous someday?”
“You think that if I get famous, someone’s going to come pawing through my notes from Research Methods?”
“You never know—people can read meaning into anything.”
This moment, like the other bits of humor throughout Wake, Sleeper is earnest and heartfelt, and often deadpan. Take, for instance, the way that he describes evangelical dramas that he and Natalie performed on the streets of New York City when they were in high school. He reluctantly plays Jesus in this pantomimed drama, while Natalie is the lost soul in need of salvation. Parys writes, “Her white shirt echoes my divinity while her black pants show that she is an individual and she has the capacity for free will.” While it may sound like a simple description of the intended symbolism of their costume choices, it comes at a point in the book when the reader has grown accustomed to Parys’s precise humor. I laughed hard at that moment, because Parys has so effectively developed his strategy of drawing attention to the absurdity of “Christianese” that he doesn’t need to provide any commentary. He simply has to show the reader what he was taught, and we see on our own how ridiculous it was.
Wake, Sleeper is poignant, smart, and
lyrical. Parys goes beyond some of his peers who write about growing up
evangelical Christian by exploring the intense connections between the body and
the spirit. The book covers extensive psychological, physical, and spiritual
ground for the memoirist, whose unique way of looking at the world has caused
him as much trouble as it has provided him with a knack for recognizing beauty
and chaos in the unnoticed language of faith.
The well-meaning adults who raised Parys and his friends in their insular religious world wanted to help keep them on the right path. Parys spends this entire book questioning what the path even means, but he does so in a way that honors the confusing tradition in which he was raised. He never comes through as angry or traumatized, and instead maintains a sense of wonder at the inner workings of his church and his mind. I enjoyed the familiarity of Parys’s experiences in the way that I enjoy talking with friends who grew up in the Christian subculture of the ’80s and ’90s, but also because it revealed new ways of understanding that world.
Liz Boltz Ranfeld is Instructor of English at Anderson University, teaching English composition and creative writing.