This is a true story: Aaron Hartzler is the oldest son of a Midwest Baptist preacher and a fervent mother who gave herself wholeheartedly to family and good works. Both parents included their oldest son in ministry from an early age, making use of his dramatic and musical talents. Throughout his early life, Aaron faithfully attended church, Christian school, and Bible camp, where he loved acting out object lessons for rapt young audiences.
But: “… the atonement Mom and Dad believe in is absolutely free for the taking, but that gleam of pride in their eyes comes with some strings attached. I have a hard time telling the difference between their love and their approval, and when my actions don’t live up to their standards, I feel I’ve lost both.” Even more disturbing was how he could move listeners to tears over the story of Speckles the Hen spreading her wings over her chicks during a prairie fire so they could live—all the while fearing that Christ’s atonement “doesn’t apply to me. I desperately want to feel the comfort of that Psalm about being covered with big wings. There seems to be a promise of safety nestled in those feathers, or maybe of flight.”
Hartzler’s memoir, Rapture Practice: My One-way Ticket to Salvation (marketed to teen readers) is made-to-order for contemporary culture-mavens, for besides exposing the secret workings of fundamentalist family life, Hartzler also turns out to be gay. Still, the book is not quite what I expected. The tone of the memoir is more affectionate than agonized—though the teenage Aaron came to hate the constraints of his life (no TV, no movies, no Christian rock), he loved and admired his parents and knew they loved him. This is the rare unbeliever’s memoir lacking in bitterness, and enthusiastic reviewers applaud his eventual synthesis of love and liberty. For Christian parents, Rapture Practice is touching, eye-opening, and terrifying.
If ever a couple were zealous for the Lord, it was Aaron’s parents. Though readers will have their own ideas about the Hartzlers’ mistakes, no one could say that Aaron would have remained faithful under “better” child-rearing techniques. Proverbs 22:6, we’re often told, is a statement of general principle, not an ironclad promise. The blame rests with Aaron, not his parents: Like Esau, he traded a priceless heritage for a mess of contemporary-culture pottage.
Two important takeaways: One, God’s sovereignty trumps our best efforts. However we long to take our children with us to heaven, some will slip, and others will turn and march resolutely in the opposite direction. Belief is not something we can compel. But hope is as long as life. Aaron, who eventually chased his acting dreams to California, comes to a triumphant Hollywood ending in his memoir, but I suspect he’s never been severely tested. His relativistic worldview has no plausible answer for suffering, loss, and death. It may be that when he reaches those extremes, the wings of Psalm 91 will provide refuge at last.