Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler

Rapture Practice

I am not a big reader of memoirs.  Just not something I usually enjoy. Short biographies of historical figures? Yes. Memoirs, no.

But when asked about Rapture Practice I was intrigued.  Mostly because the author’s childhood seemed similar to my own:

Aaron Hartzler grew up in a home where he was taught that at any moment the Rapture could happen. That Jesus might come down in the twinkling of an eye and scoop Aaron and his family up to heaven. As a kid, Aaron was thrilled by the idea that every moment of every day might be his last one on planet Earth.

But as Aaron turns sixteen, he finds himself more attached to his earthly life and curious about all the things his family forsakes for the Lord. He begins to realize he doesn’t want the Rapture to happen just yet–not before he sees his first movie, stars in the school play, or has his first kiss. Eventually Aaron makes the plunge from conflicted do-gooder to full-fledged teen rebel.

Whether he’s sneaking out, making out, or playing hymns with a hangover, Aaron learns a few lessons that can’t be found in the Bible. He discovers that the best friends aren’t always the ones your mom and dad approve of, and the tricky part about believing is that no one can do it for you.

In this funny and heartfelt coming-of-age memoir, debut author Aaron Hartzler recalls his teenage journey to find the person he is without losing the family that loves him. It’s a story about losing your faith and finding your place and your own truth–which is always stranger than fiction.

My own family was not quite as fundamentalist (for lack of a better term)  but the culture and language were very similar. I too went to church whenever it was open. I went to a private christian school. I wasn’t allowed to go to movies or listen to rock music. My church was also caught up in the rapture focus with the books and movies of Hal Lindsey and The Late Great Planet Earth and Larry Norman‘s music (ironic connection between rock music and rapture theology).  I too rebelled and pushed against the rules and culture of this world. In fact, for a big chunk of my senior year I moved out and lived with friends. I wasn’t into music and theater at quite the same level, although I did participate in both, but the environment was very similar.

So I can relate and I will admit this background colors my reading but it also might give me a good perspective.

The book does a very good job of describing and capturing what is was like to live in that world while retaining his love for his family and a sympathetic perspective towards almost everyone involved. Of course your reaction to the book is likely heavily influenced by your connection to, or perspective on, the world in which Aaron grew up.  Those Christians who hold to more fundamentalist, or dispensationalist, viewpoints will likely find much of the book frustrating and will be saddened, or angered, by his rebellion (to use his dad’s words).  And those who have rejected that background, or find it deeply offensive, will shake their heads at the ridiculousness of it all.

It is a quick read with a lively style and light touch.  There isn’t a great deal of suspense involved as Hartzler is openly gay and clearly writes from a perspective that is very different from that of his childhood.  The growing rebellion, and the deception necessary to continue down that path, are somewhat predictable.  The story builds to the climax as he moves toward graduation and it ends wrapped up in an inspirational way.

Despite this, the book is an enjoyable read because of the way it captures the difficulties of growing up; the challenges of trying to push against the strictures and confines of family without hurting those you love; the thought process of questioning your faith and trying to become your own person.  Hartzler really captures the emotions and struggles involved and his voice is that of a teenager not the wise adult looking back.  When faith and religion are a completely integrated aspect of your family how do you achieve some distance from that without breaking relationships? Without out-right rebellion and constant conflict how do you manage to be your own person within this kind of setting?  The answers are not as easy as you might think but Hartzler helps highlight the tensions and struggles involved for both sides.

As noted, I think Hartzler does an excellent job of presenting these challenges without condescension or bitterness.  And the love he has for his family really comes through. It is this honest and yet loving perspective that provides the value.  I think Christians who are open minded will find much of the book thought provoking and challenging. It points out some of the, in my opinion, ridiculousness of communities too caught up in their own world and thus failing to see the negative consequences of their attitude and actions.  The Hartzler’s are loving and kind but they are also blind to a sense of proportion and perspective. Their theology and eschatology drives them to become a caricature; in ironic fashion to become the popular stereotype evangelicals have of the pharisees (obsessed with rules and regulations not people).

This religious drive also allows them to assume that anything they do in the name of God is justified even if it means crushing their son’s spirit and limiting his sense of having any freedom or choice in his life.  To feel comfortable in his own skin he must hide from and deceive his family.  He doesn’t want to lie but he doesn’t want to hurt them either.  Finding the right balance is not easy, I understand, but dogmatism and the sense of the imminent return of Christ creates a claustrophobic and warped world view.

But if there was one complaint I had was the almost amoral nature of the way he represents many of the choices he made.  It is one thing to sneak out to movies and listen to secular music but another thing to attend parties with massive amounts of underage drinking.  He is careful to present this activity as within the safe confines of a friends house, whose mom makes sure to take everyone’s keys, but never acknowledges the potential danger involved (drunk driving being the exception and connected to his mom’s being hit by a drunk driver).

Throughout the story Hartzler’s basic guide is how things make him feel.  If this makes me feel good how can it be bad?  What is the harm in a little drinking and making out if it means closer relationships and a sense of belonging?  But drinking Tequila until you are sick and getting naked with your girlfriend and making waves in her waterbed can have consequences beyond what Hartzler seems to think about.  What if others at those parties didn’t come away unscathed? What if others ended up struggling with alcohol and in environments not so careful about not driving?  What if one of those young girls got pregnant because someone like Aaron was trying to find himself? Because of the emotionally driven nature of the book there is little sense that any of his rebellion was unwarranted or immature.  It is all part of a story of how he found his true self and felt free to be who he really was rather than hide.

This is understandable in many ways, and something we all wrestle with, but it just seemed like there should be some acknowledgement that not all rebellion and immaturity are grounded in seeking authenticity and honesty.  And sometimes this search can lead to some dark places as far too many young people have found out.  And just because something feels good that does not make it right and true.

The other thing that is a little odd is the issue of homosexuality.  It is an issue because Hartzler is gay and so we know where the path leads.  And it is touched on throughout the story; providing questions and tensions as he makes out with high school girls and hangs out naked in the hot tub with his closest friend.  But the story ends without any resolution or real exploration of that issue.  It is mostly just off stage but hovering in the periphery the whole time (if that makes any sense).

But these are small complaints.  Rapture Practice is a compelling and enjoyable coming of age story that captures a unique childhood with humor and grace.  If you every wanted to know what it was like to live in this world, or if you grew up in it yourself, I think you will find Hartzler’s story entertaining and even thought provoking.

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Kevin works in communications and public affairs. He tries to squeeze in as much reading (and blogging) as he can between work, family and watching sports.

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