It’s about growing up in the early nineteen-sixties traveling with Brother David Terrell, one of the last of the big time tent evangelists. He started off as a folk hero who was beaten by the Ku Klux Klan for allowing blacks and whites to sit together under his tents. The white southern establishment hated guys like him and often trumped up reasons to shut them down. The book chronicles Terrell’s rise and eventual fall: womanizing, the abuse of money in later years and his evolution into a leader of an apocalyptic sect.
Why did you write the book?
After 20-plus years away from the Holy Roller environment, a family funeral brought me back into contact with everything I was trying to avoid. The main topic of conversation at the funeral was whether Terrell would resurrect his son. That experience raised questions I wanted to explore as a writer: why are people willing to give everything to such a man; what do they get psychologically and spiritually from following him; is there any real good that comes from him? I had a personal stake in those questions because my mother and Terrell were involved in an affair that lasted for decades.
Why did you write the book as though all of the “miracles” actually occurred?
I wanted to tell the story as I experienced it, and I didn’t see people who were planted to fake miracles or anything like that. Though, I am willing to believe that happened at times. I also wanted to explore the beauty and danger of absolute faith. When you get five to ten thousand people together praying the same prayer, remarkable things can and do happen. Those same remarkable things can lead to dark stuff, like being willing to sign over your life and critical thinking abilities.
Do you think you grew up as part of a cult?
I think I grew up in southern tent revivalism—which is a tradition, not a cult. I also think that when Terrell began calling himself a prophet, threatening people who questioned him with God’s wrath and urging followers to sell everything and move to “Blessed Areas” to wait out the apocalypse, we had ourselves a full blown family cult.
What do you think of the current debate between believers and secularists?
I think the U. S. as a whole is a country of fundamentalists, and that includes many believers and secularists. They argue for and against the most simplistic version of God and spirituality; God as the big Santa Claus in the sky, the absolute, verifiable truth of stories that are clearly about something much deeper than literal truth.
How would you like to see the debate change?
I’m interested in a conversation about what it is inside us that religion speaks to. How does it shape us, help us, hurt us? Huston Smith pursued those questions, and Joseph Campbell too. Karan Armstrong’s book A Case for God raises them again.
What did you learn from writing the book?
I learned that the past goes on and on inside me. I thought I had put it away from me, through time and place and education. But once I started writing it was right there. Not simply the past recalled, the past mediated through what I now think and believe about it, but the past as I experienced it.
Are you a believer?
Yes and no. When I practice prayer and meditation, I feel as though I am in relationship with something that is much larger than myself. And that larger something often makes me less of a bitch, but not always. When I revert to thinking about God, I fall into a fundamentalist frame of reference, and I think, “Nah, I can’t believe that.” So faith for me is a matter of practice.
DONNA JOHNSON found redemption in books and the University of Texas. She is obsessed with the big questions posed by religion and has written about faith for the Dallas Morning News, the Austin American Statesman, The Holy Ghost Girl Blog at Psychology Today and other publications. Her critically acclaimed memoir, Holy Ghost Girl won the Mayborn Creative Nonfiction prize and was awarded a Books for a Better Life award in the spirituality category. She lives and writes in Austin TX, where with the help of family and friends, she works at leaving behind The Elect and becoming a normal person.