Aaron Hartzler grew up in an evangelical Christian home where they were so eager for Jesus to return that they would practice jumping up to the ceiling to get a head start. When Aaron was little, he helped his mother to run the Good News Club from their living room, and his father helped him to get started in acting by participating in church plays. He was an exemplary young man. He and his siblings went to Christian school and his father taught in the local Bible college. They had no TV and could only listen to an approved Christian radio station. His parents opined that the term “Christian rock music” was an oxymoron.
As Aaron grew older, tiny bits of the world leaked in through the cracks in his parents’ carefully constructed fortress. At night, he would turn his clock radio to the local “adult contemporary” station and listen to it ever so softly. One day, he forgot to turn it back, and he was discovered. His parents cried. As a matter of fact, they cried about everything: Aaron not wanting to wear socks with his Docksider shoes, Aaron listening to Sandi Patti (too contemporary), Aaron reading GQ magazine, even though he truly read it for the fashion tips. As one might expect, Aaron began to think that his parents might not be right about everything. When his parents found out that Aaron had bought his (approved) girlfriend a CD of the soundtrack to Pretty Woman, they forced him to drop out of the school play two weeks before the first performance, because they knew that acting was the most important thing to him. Something broke in Aaron at that point. Afterwards, his parents moved him to a much more conservative Christian school, which did not have the effect his parents had hoped.
Until this book started hitting the “Best of 2013” lists, I had no interest in reading it. Although I was not brought up in an evangelical Christian home, my son was. I ran a few of these things past him, and we’ve had some good discussions. I held my breath while I was reading Rapture Practice, expecting to side with the parents and hoping that I would not be hurt or angry. I wasn’t. What made all the difference was Mr. Hartzler’s attitude toward his parents and even religion in general. This is not one of those pathetic exposés of “all the terrible things my parents did to me.” Aaron loves his parents—always did, still does. His parents are not portrayed as stupid or hateful; they are really sincere, and Aaron gets that. With the very best of intentions, his parents worked really hard to make Aaron just like them, but as all parents learn eventually, God made every single one of us an individual. Aaron does not believe everything his parents taught him, and he struggled mightily to help them to see that and to help himself to accept that.
Aaron grew up in an incredibly legalistic household. The number of rules that his parents had for daily life was impossible to remember, let alone obey. The problem with legalism is that if your parents burst into tears over a CD, why not just sleep with your girlfriend? What more could they do? If everything in the world is a sin, then nothing is really a sin. Furthermore, his parents felt that it was their right to control every single part of his life, down to the most excruciating detail. It was absolutely suffocating. At a certain point, you have to allow your child to think his own thoughts and have some privacy. Ironically, his parents’ exhausting attempts to make sure that he did not have sex with a girl drove him to do just that, knowing that even having sex before marriage would be more acceptable to his parents than his growing realization that he was gay. He knew what his church thought about homosexuality, and he was torn up about it.
Even though we did not bring our child up like Aaron, this honest memoir of an evangelical childhood caused me to reflect on what we did right and where we may have gone wrong. All parents rear their children in their beliefs, even if they believe nothing at all. Values are passed down, either actively or passively, from one generation to another. If mothers and fathers have beliefs or traditions that bring them joy or peace, they would naturally be eager to pass those beliefs on to their children because they love them and want them to be happy. We Christians really do believe that Jesus is coming back—although perhaps not in a pre-trib rapture—and we really do believe in a heaven and a hell, and we want to make sure our children land in the former. Some things really are sins, but going sockless is not one of them. Christian rock music is not an oxymoron; it is sometimes fantastic (and sometimes unfortunate). Although our children may not believe all of the details of our own faith, we shouldn’t confuse them so much with Pharisaical rules that they can’t find the simple Gospel in our lives.
Mr. Hartzler ends his story on a beautiful note. He realizes that he’s been hiding his true self all of his life, because he is afraid that his parents won’t be able to love him as he really is. He then comes to understand that he also needs to love his parents as they really are. He knows that his parents are truly sincere in their faith and that they are living out their beliefs with complete integrity. We can all respect that, even if we don’t agree. Aaron is probably pushing forty at this point, and I don’t know if he has any faith in God, but I hope he will be able to sift through all of the dross and find the truth shining in there somewhere.
Recommended for older teens and adults who want to think through these issues. There is some sexuality and profanity. Get ready for lots of reflection and discussion.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else—including my church, which is, I am happy to say, not at all legalistic. Thanks, guys.