Growing up in a Christian family and series of churches exposes a child to plenty of stuffed shirts—anxious, stern, or asinine people who protect the status quo.
Rather than apply deep, vigorous thought to rules and emphasize the spirit behind the letter, these staid men and women answer the question, “Why?” with a “Because” or “I said no”; a “That’s just the way it is” or “You’ll understand when you’re older.” They always seem to have bad haircuts.
One such woman, a blonde Olive Oyl, came to church camp every summer. Though she must have had other reasons to spend a week eating hotdogs and singing worship songs, she dedicated her daylight hours to policing the boys’ rampant shirtlessness. Heaven forbid that our nipples and stomachs awaken the girls’ libidos.
An overactive sense of propriety must have promoted this crusade, doomed to fail by the late-June heat and humidity in Quebeck, Tennessee. A cotton t-shirt may as well have been a wool sweater.
“David,” she would yell, her strident voice shooting from her lair, the craft house, like an arrow and arching across the amphitheater, horseshoe pit, and gravel road to the ping-pong table. “Shirt on!”
She was more a nuisance than a real threat—a horsefly whose bite made you wince but brought no lasting injury. As soon as she wandered off in search of other prey, we peeled our shirts right back off. Going barechested was a strategy for keeping cool, along with wearing mesh shorts and sandals, drinking ice water, and swimming in the Caney Fork River. Cold showers provided only momentary relief. Before I made it back to the cabin, I could feel perspiration beading up and rolling down between my shoulder blades.
Was it our fault the girls couldn’t go shirtless? We wouldn’t have complained.
Besides, watching Olive Oyl’s exasperation swell like a balloon then shrink as she released a hot burst of nagging provided cheap entertainment. We also threw handfuls of gravel on the cabins’ tin roofs. The rocks fell with a tat-tat-tat-tat-tat like machine gun volleys from war movies, and a warning from an adult inevitably followed: “Stop throwing rocks!”
The thrill of aggravating Olive Oyl and the other camp staff was worth getting caught. I don’t recall the camp directors ever punishing any of us for shirtlessness, and the penalty for throwing rocks was scrubbing toilets and picking up soggy trash in the boys’ bathhouse.
Every generation has a posse of zealous whistle blowers. The sages of my dad’s youth must have sat around a heavy oak table with their hands folded, discussing the evils of “mixed bathing,” a nefarious activity that involved boys and girls swimming at the same time. They must have wanted to encourage sexual purity by preventing boys from seeing girls in their bathing suits.
Sexual purity is a good and godly aspiration. But I know from experience that a pretty face and a hint of a figure are all my imagination needs. A superb eraser, it passes across clothing and, voila!, creates a naked woman.
We all have AES—Adam and Eve Syndrome. Tell us that something is off limits, and that fruit, whether apple or two-piece bathing suit, becomes very enticing, irresistible even. Tell me not to open the top drawer in the dresser, and I can’t think of much else for the next couple of hours. Tell me not to raft down the Little Harpeth River when the spring floods come, and I’ll sneak out to the garage and start inflating a pool raft.
Despite this truth, leaders still try to regulate human nature, to herd the cats of human hearts into better choices, “for their own good.” What else can they do?
Lawmakers attempting to legislate morality encounter a similar resistance on the part of the governed. Take, for example, Prohibition. Nicknamed “The Noble Experiment,” it banned the sale of alcohol for consumption from 1920-1933.
Prohibition failed. In his recent Time article, “The Demon Drink,” David Von Drehle observed, “If alcohol demoralized American society, outlawing alcohol was even worse.” Health problems, domestic abuse, poverty, and addiction result from alcohol abuse, yet in New York City alone, anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 speakeasies sold illegal alcohol. Prohibition rolled out the red carpet for organized crime.
We can always improvise ways to have our fun, and self-destruct. Chalk one up for human ingenuity. The more rules leaders make, the more we have to break. Conservative churches are the ideal habitat for mischief. Tell me no, and I’ll brainstorm a dozen ways to answer, “Yes.”
He interned with the youth ministry at Hillsboro Church of Christ, and was the single best thing that happened to a bunch of rabble rousers the summer before my junior year of high school.
Reasons Jonathan, Will, Bear, and I loved Kory:
· He played bass in several bands.
· He was a Christian, musician, and comedian—the trifecta for girls who love Jesus. Kory went out on lots of dates. He dated so many different girls that he once forget one girl’s name while introducing her to a friend.
· He led a bible study in his apartment off Thompson Lane in a seedy area of Nashville and sometimes heard gunshots at night. This excited us suburbanites.
· He helped us make a short film that involved running over Jonathan’s Hulk Hogan with a commercial lawnmower.
· He resembled a white Buddha and had the short arms of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
· His facial hair was sparse, but he could grow an impressive necktee.
· He accidentally slit his foot open with my Leatherman on a mission trip to Honduras. We found this accident very funny.
In a word, he was authentic. On a trip to Kings Island, a theme park in Mason, Ohio, he pulled the single greatest stunt that I’ve ever witnessed from a youth intern. I became one myself in college, and though Phillip vomited in a Huddle House parking lot after a game of Farkle, I was never able to replicate the sheer hilarity of Kory’s naked buttocks.
As several of us were walking into the bathroom, he held up his hand to stop us and said under his breath, “Watch this.” He walked up to one of the urinals, dropped his shorts and boxers, and stood there with his back to the entrance. For the next five minutes, he remained in that position, and when a stranger walked in, he’d look over his shoulder and nod, “What’s up?”
This gesture forced them to look him in the eyes, a grown man with a bubble butt and his underwear around his ankles.
Our job was to watch their facial expressions and try not to blow his cover by laughing. In order not to be rude, newcomers had to say hello. Visibly uncomfortable, they would choose the urinal farthest away, or even wait until a stall became available. The situation eventually got the better of us, and when we were all in tears, the tension in the room disappeared.
Kory’s inappropriateness and audacity won our admiration. We would have listened to any advice he had to give, and we probably would have honored any rules he set. Whether or not we realized it, we respected honesty, authenticity, and a good sense of humor, not a frown and checklist of dos and don’ts.
Love, not law, makes us want to change, to behave. Olive Oyls make us want to strip and throw rocks.