When I first began to read literature seriously, in my early 20s, I was in thrall to the literary and intellectual tradition that Catholic and Jewish writers could draw upon and push against. I found that I had much in common with believers and apostates such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Andre Dubus, Cynthia Ozick, Nathan Englander and Philip Roth. They were Americans, but they were also somehow other, owing to childhoods that claimed allegiances that transcended the merely national. Like those writers, I had belonged as a child to a group that claimed a high otherness, but unlike those writers, I belonged to a group that so distrusted the culture itself that it had never bothered to cultivate much in the way of a literary tradition. I have waited until the fourth sentence to use the phrase “Evangelical Christianity,” because the people from whom I came have been partially responsible, as a political power block, for so many of the abuses of the late 20th and early 21st century. Literature aims to complicate, or it ought to, and Evangelical Christianity too often aims to reduce, to say, “There are two ways of looking at every problem, the right way, and the wrong way,” and there are consequently two kinds of people, the right people and the wrong people.
But this, too, is a reductive characterization, and one that too often goes underexplored in literature, because, like every other group of people, evangelicals are an agglomeration of individuals who are distinguished one from the other by their individual wants, needs and desires, by their individual prejudices and peccadilloes, by their individual inclinations toward generosities and pettinesses, by their individual circumstances of birth and family and origin and raising and class and culture. So when writing about evangelicals, as when writing about anyone, the trick is to particularize, and that’s the special gift Julia Scheeres displays in her fierce, honest and intelligent memoir “Jesus Land,” which tells the story of her raising in rural Indiana by well-educated parents with a missionary zeal, who pack Scheeres and her adopted brother David (who is African-American) off to the New Horizons Youth Ministries Christian boot camp in Escuela Caribe, in the Dominican Republic, a place that promises to reform troubled teenagers by culture shock and distance.
The audiobook is ably narrated by Elizabeth Evans, whose delivery is sufficiently sassy in the first half of “Jesus Land” to simulate the interior life of the teenager whose observations drive the story forward through time. In the second half, her delivery alternately expands and flattens to mirror the emotional risings and fallings that Scheeres endures at Escuela Caribe, where corporal punishment is permissible, where discussions among the teenagers are constantly policed, where daily brainwashing sessions are mandatory, and where new arrivals arrive at Level Zero of a five-level system of earned privileges. At Level Zero, a student must be watched at all times, must ask to move, sit, stand or eat, must not communicate with members of the opposite sex or with other “zero-rankers,” must not wear makeup or jewelry, and must memorize arcane Bible passages and achieve physical benchmarks in sit-ups, push-ups, leg lifts, and squat thrusts in order to have any chance of advancing to Level One.
The rest of the audiobook is an account of Scheeres’ near-capitulation to the program, as part of a long attempt to escape, get home and regain a little bit of power over her own life. The one measure of grace that distinguishes her time at Escuela Caribe from the other students’ is the presence of her beloved brother David, with whom she has survived “racism and religion,” and with whom she finds, ultimately, her true home and her true family. So it is heartbreaking when the book’s epilogue is devoted to news of David’s death — news that forces in Scheeres a renewed, adult reckoning with the events they experienced together at Escuela Caribe, and especially with her parents, whose good intentions provoked so many atrocious outcomes.
“Good intentions go awry,” Scheeres writes, “as with missionaries bent on saving souls who obliterate entire tribal cultures. Or former juvenile delinquents who find Jesus and decide to start reform schools. I thank my parents for bringing me David, but not for the life they gave us.”
It is tempting to read Scheeres’ story as a metaphor for the culture from which she came, but metaphors are slippery. “Jesus Land” could likewise be read as a metaphor for the United States, or a metaphor for human beings in general. Like the best writers, Scheeres offers her characters in the fullness of the contradictions they hold in tension, and with great and clear-sighted empathy, and at the end of the audiobook, the listener might say: They’re so much like me.
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