I Was A Teenage Lemming God

During my sophomore year of high school, I underwent a brief yet sudden transfiguration from an awkward and demurring nerd into an absurdist rodent deity. Initially an episode of youthful silliness, my stumble into pseudo-religion was unknowingly my crash into a permanent state of religious crisis, becoming painfully cognizant of the stark tensions between the Human and the Divine. Only now, over two decades later, do I dare tell the strange tale of how I became the god of the lemmings and embarked upon my path of Christianity and existentialism.

My abrupt incarnation and haphazard revelation was neither a moment of blasphemy nor a plea for help. What my peers saw as silly or merely eccentric was for me a major shift in my self-understanding and my relationship with greater things, with what Paul Tillich calls “ultimate concern.” Here was a mechanism of catharsis that sustained me through some of the most pivotal moments of my adolescence. Becoming the Lemming God provided both a persona through which I learned how to push back against my world’s evangelical Christianity, and also a persona behind which I could begin to work out my own salvation in fear and trembling. Ultimately, my Christianity took on an absurdist edge, and this absurd Christianity would become the only Christianity that I could ever be a part of. But as a young teenager in a small high school who felt scant control over my life, briefly disturbing the waters of my social scene was insurgency enough.

In North Central Texas, high school football, barbecue, and cowboys complement the myriad Baptist, Pentecostal, and “non-denominational” storefronts and steeples manifesting Christendom’s reign. Radiating beyond the capillaried organism of the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex, suburbia scatters into cow country, full of provincial towns with oversized pickups and fierce independence. In that world, the message is clear and simple: God is in control; everything happens for a reason; everyone needs Jesus. Liberal–even moderate–churches resemble rare and distant foxholes, their congregants maintaining low profiles and their neighbors judging silently their orthodoxy and authenticity. Life in Texas is about where you go to church, not if. The Son of God is so all-encompassing that one breathes the spirit of evangelicalism just by living there.

I happened to just be living there, growing up west of Fort Worth in a three-Dairy-Queen town with an annual international rodeo. The high school mascot was and remains an enraged blue kangaroo. Imagine Friday Night Lights in miniature, without the decent football team and compelling characters. The year was 1989, during the AIDS epidemic and the nation’s Satanic Panic. An anxious time to be a budding sophomore, to be sure. I was afraid most of the time: afraid of my parents, of getting bad grades, of sex, of everything, basically. My only security was in books. Learning functioned as a kind of narcotic against the ravages of high school life.

Living detached and nervous in this rural Texas world did something to me, I admit that.  I have never considered myself a Texan, having moved from New England when I was nine. Speaking at a Northeasterner’s clip, I absorbed neither the drawl nor patois. Perhaps, the initial shock of moving to a landscape of heavy summer air and toxic sun, that endless horizon of rolling plains with only occasional scattered trees instilled a deep attitude of resistance. Regardless, I assumed the defensive stance of a trapped interloper, ever-adapting to the foreign way of life, memorizing the necessary codes to pass accordingly.

In Texas, some codes are for the religious panopticon: 1) Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain; 2) Remark how God awesomely shapes history and science; 3) Casually suggest prayer for life events, and especially before meals. Even though religion was not firmly pressed upon me at home, it surrounded me almost everywhere else. As if the prying eyes of parents weren’t enough, Jesus was an omnipresent, omniscient, and salvific judge. Each thought and action was recorded and suspect, waiting to be rewound and played back before everyone on The Day of Judgment. I was mortified every time I thought of it. Even as an outsider, I was still shame-adjacent to this well-structured world. All these procedures and proscriptions were self-policing for a species at constant risk, a people not to be trusted. People who were, in a word, fallen. Only immersive baptism, that hallowed, expected rite into adulthood, could increase your odds.

Immersed in that world, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t talk to anyone about religion, because I didn’t know how to talk about religion. Religious knowledge didn’t come from within my family, where it served a nominally ethical purpose. It didn’t come from my immediate circle of friends, which seemed to coalesce possibly, in part, to escape it. And yet, Jesus permeated even the conventional treacheries of adolescence, contributing to the stressful morass of hormones, internal shame, and pop quizzes. It was all so overwhelming.

My inability to process and understand the role of evangelicalism in this world set it in bas-relief. Increasingly, I grew concerned about the looming cultural expectation that God was central in my life–a God who was painfully ever-present, who just wouldn’t go away. Jesus was boldly proclaimed through the posters in our school hallways announcing various Bible studies as well as the “GOD’S GYM” T-shirts shouting “HIS PAIN, YOUR GAIN.” Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, and Steven Curtis Chapman filled the headphones of so many Walkmen.

My panic attacks would come later, gasping in that toxic Evangelical air. Until then, my psyche sought to not just resist, but outsmart that religious world, something tectonic and rippling. Satire is, by its nature, a language of resistance.  In ninth grade, my English teacher had introduced to us the weapons of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope. I understood A Modest Proposal and The Rape of the Lock to be works of caustic genius, cool and exciting. There remained, however, for me a fundamental disconnection. The English remained archaic, the British context distant and historical. Yet I brandished the literary firearm of a genre as only a tenth-grader can, lashing out against my surroundings, critiquing and mocking whatever sacred cows I could find.

In Monty Python, I found comic relief, if not salvation. Here was a release valve for the deadly-serious matters of Jesus Christ As Lord And Savior Of The World. The anarchic British troupe provided not only a vocabulary, but a grammar of transgressive language and performance. Sketches like “The Bishop” and “The Spanish Inquisition,” ever-unexpected, provided a space and vehicle for considering and attacking God and the Church from a vantage point previously unoccupied. In their madcap world, the legacies of the literary satirists became tangible and vicious. I could experiment with cultural taboos, explore absurdism, and challenge my status quo, and yet maintain an air of conformity in the midst of it all. Nothing was off limits.

I learned all the lines to Monty Python and the Holy Grail–especially Brother Maynard’s Scriptural recitation for the appropriate and effective employment of the Holy Hand Grenade. It was only a matter of time until something exploded. The grenade would eventually detonate in Algebra II.

I was exhausted. It was still so early in the fall semester and I had studied all night for this math test that I was now bombing. My body felt surreal, punchy and disoriented. Anxiety struck. The broader concerns of life and family and school and existence began to cascade upon me. Decorum and taboo evaporated in the dizzy swirl of youthful panic. And there in that room and in myself was something unimaginable growing inside me, snapping open its eyes and shaking itself awake. Numbers and symbols, an unbreakable code, stared nonsensically up at me. I rose from my seat and wobbled up to place the exam face down upon my teacher’s desk. Turning, my eyes absorbed everything before me, the classroom’s bland carpet and walls, my shoulder-hunched classmates, my glazed-eyed teacher. Through the windows, the afternoon light shone ochre, the color of mathematics. I felt my soft palate burn sick. I stumbled back to my seat. I was dizzy and nauseated at myself, and at the sunlight, and at solving for ‘x’.

And in that moment, I did something previously unimaginable, something very unlike me that had become very, very like me. Like a Dead Poets Society schoolboy, I stepped boldly, firmly up onto my desk, planted both sneakers upon my chair, outstretched my arms in a crucified pose, head cocked and defiant toward the room’s scribbling masses, and proclaimed in a bold and clarion voice, “I am the lemming! I died for your sins!” Those unchecked words flowed up through my throat and into the heavy air of the classroom. This got attention. I wasn’t sure I  wanted attention now. But there I was, standing above my classmates, all of them. Silence and startled stares shot back at me. Then, I heard my teacher’s commanding voice. “Burke. Sit down.” I sat down. Slouching deeper into my chair, a strange and new-found energy quivered through me. I blinked and gripped my desk. Something had happened.

My brain buzzed. I felt like I had blown a hole in my foundation. But what was pouring into the crater? I sensed that unobtrusive and anxious me had broken through myself into that which I feared: the failing of so many expectations. It wasn’t about this math class, but something greater. Sophomorically, I had lashed out at logic and order with rhetoric and absurdity. I had done something audacious, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what. The adrenaline of panic began to dissipate. For the rest of class, nothing more was said. I simply didn’t matter enough, and I enjoyed that safety of indifference. I’d never been a disruption before, so I got a pass. I was good at passing, even if I was only barely passing Algebra II.

When the period’s dismissal bell finally rang, we all shuffled out, relieved of our collective ordeal. That ochre room souring behind me, I felt I’d crossed a threshold. I had failed expectations in that class. Incomprehensibly, I had broadly paired my failure at math with failure and religion. But why? Furthermore, I had discovered a new kind of freedom for myself in speaking aloud, in saying aloud something very strange and abrupt. Something unimaginable had been imagined. In an awkward teenage way, my existential battle with religion was made manifest. And it would never again be silent. I had never been the class clown. But now, if only to myself, I was the class heretic.

The lemming is a small, inoffensive creature resembling a squat hamster, its coat a furry black, brown, and tan. It has a soft, round body, fat cheeks, and beady, black eyes. They are social animals that live in arctic burrows, serving as low-rung fodder, primarily for snowy owls and foxes. They have an affable Disney or tortured Watership Down quality, whichever you prefer. When I stood on my chair, I cared little about any of this. I primarily understood lemmings, like most people, as tiny mammals seemingly seasonally-driven to mass suicide. I hadn’t been looking for attention, but there I was on my chair mimicking an apex of divine suffering, making it my own for my sin of not having properly prepared for my exam. I hadn’t proclaimed myself a martyred revolutionary, but a sacrificial vehicle of atonement. Upon my desk, I had put on the mantle of a god–and not just any god, either! I was now the divinity of an mostly-unobtrusive rodent. And I was strangely compelled to share that. Who does that?

High school hallways are natural conduits of self-reflection and dread. They are brutal, revelatory, and downright embarrassing. I could have chalked up what happened to exhaustion and left it at that. But I couldn’t let it go. Making my way through the throngs of students, I began to parse the moment. Why the fuck did I say I was a lemming, of all things?

And that was how satire had come to save the day. From bloodthirsty rabbits to Twentieth Century Vole, Monty Python routinely elevated ordinary fauna from their humble status to something frightfully transgressive. Human virtues often employ traditional animals as archetypes. The fox is clever. The dove is peaceful. The dog is loyal. The lemming is… suicidal? At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. I was the deity of these seemingly nihilistic creatures, and for what? To be the embodiment of this creaturely absurdity? To metaphorically turn my lemming-like classmates from their mindless dash toward the sea of conformity? Even that was a muddle.

I had, perhaps, gotten slightly ahead of myself. By abruptly and absurdly proclaiming myself the Lemming God, what I had unknowingly done was deftly manifest my own existential crisis. A playful act to handle high school stress had unwittingly initiated a kind of dire self-reflection. I had proclaimed a persona, but I soon understood that mask to be ultimately meaningless. This somehow led me to consider the meaning of my actual self. Who was I in this little town and what was I doing here? Was I just going through life, serving someone else’s purpose? The silence was stark. In truth, I had acted before I was. And in acting, I became. C’est l’existentialisme.

Before me among the lockers gathered my friends, my fellow eccentric academics. In those hurried minutes after my math class, something beyond the veneer of the episode’s silliness had begun to take shape. I discerned a truth underneath it all. If anything, I knew I could entrust my revelation to my circle and I would not be mocked. We were not just nerds, but weird nerds, that subspecies of nerds, abhorred then, but who now create the geek culture voraciously consumed around the globe. As my friends turned to greet me, I outstretched my hands, like newfound paws, and grinned. “Lo! I am the Lemming God!” I announced. “I died for your sins!” They paused and stared quizzically. I had touched the third rail of religion. I had gone there. I had broken taboo.There was a kind of disclosure, a quality of “coming out” to it.  This was now my thing. And then they laughed. They laughed welcomingly, even if they didn’t know how to accept it. Among the many rows of blue lockers, this was my moment, my transfiguration. It was good to be there.

With a wry smile, I did next what seemed almost natural. I turned to my friend beside me, looked deeply into her wide eyes with newfound Dionysian zeal, and asked her in a lofty accent, “Wouldst thou like to become a lemming?” “Yes!” she beamed, shrugging her shoulders. I grew solemn, dead-panning a missionary’s tempered sobriety. Standing tall and lifting my chin, I concentrated on her face. “Close your eyes,” I commanded. She did. I cupped my left hand upon her cheek with the gentleness of a loving savior and proclaimed, “I baptize you…”. I touched her other cheek with the back of my hand and continued, “…as a…,” and in Pentecostal fashion lightly tapped her forehead with the meat of palm: “Lemming!” I shouted. Her eyes fluttered open and she tipped back, her mouth slightly open in shock.

“And there was much rejoicing!” I cheered, stealing a line from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Everyone marveled, perhaps a bit nervously. “Eek! Eek!” I squeaked, clenching my raised left hand into a paw. “Eek! Eek! Eek!” responded my friends, paws raised with enthusiasm. And that was it. No water. No spirit. Four people were saved that day. From what, though, I am still not sure. But our church had been birthed and the gospel, whatever it was, had to be proclaimed.

News spread poorly. In actuality, evangelism was merely a side effect of our group just stating we were lemmings. In fact, I was probably the only one saying anything. Among our immediate classmates, the reaction was tepid: “Oh, you’re a lemming? Then you’re one of Burke’s friends. Weirdo.” And as this mock religion slowly became known among my peers, I continued to wrestle with what the whole thing was actually all about. even if it meant nothing to anyone else but me. This semi-alter ego was clearly my catharsis. Something inside me was hurting deeply and I was doing some heavy lifting. I understood that much, at least.

In retrospect, my antics probably could have qualified as a kind of performance art. But performance art was something far away in New York City; we small-town kids would see only sanitized and neatly-packaged versions of it through MTV, if at all. If I had known about performance art then, I probably would have played my role more fiercely, caring less about what painful ramifications I could experience: I was weird and said weird things. I was a rural Diogenes ranting to his own barrel’s echo. High school weirdness, as any weird kid knows, creates a particular kind of reactive threshold. Either people decide to dismiss it entirely or to punish it. The most common reaction to what I said and did was confusion. And this bafflement led to swift disinterest, which probably saved me from getting my ass kicked.

Some of the evangelicals, however, felt otherwise. I had created my own Life of Brian situation, where there was outrage simply because I was playing with faith and sacred cows. I was a messiah in a town where there clearly was only room for one. I hadn’t attacked or openly derided Christianity. Instead, I had created something juxtaposed to it, if only as a kind of mirror, and this was enough to freak my classmates the fuck out.

This is how raw Texas religion can be. The very existence of Another God is tantamount to an existential threat. I knew students whose Jesus was so strong and so powerful that he could not endure anything that smacked of mockery. One well-established Christian stared at me hard after I had recounted a list of maxims uneasily similar to the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the stoats,” I suggested. “For they will frolic in green pastures.” Her tone was sharp and unforgiving. “Burke, you can’t do that. You can’t say that!” As The First Commandment clearly states, monotheism abhors competition. And here I was, threatening this girl’s orthodoxy simply by claiming turf. All I could do was to grin and shrug.

There is something so high school about the whole thing, about the powerlessness and seeming futility during that formative period of American life. A teenager has only so many ways to express anxiety. And I seemed to have manifested that adolescent suppression into an icon of absurdity and meaninglessness. Indeed, what is more meaningless in north central Texas than a god of lemmings? In that math class, I had located myself in one of those high school critical moments and had shuddered to my core. I had no power, no authority, not within my family, not within my life. I was desperate for liberation, but had not yet encountered Kierkegaard’s observation that “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” I had only recently discovered Albert Camus, and was still terrified to read The Stranger, but not too scared to listen to The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” on the sly. “Whichever I chose, it amounts to the same: absolutely nothing.” I was painfully ripe.

My persona was not God, but a god–and a very small and ineffectual god at that. A mortal god if there ever was one. A god revolting, if only for himself, against the mob-boss God who owned this dirt town, who ran and still runs this state. I was no messiah. I had no miracles, no Scripture, no nothing. Merely giving religion the finger wasn’t interesting or seemed to take much effort. Instead, I was running my hands across a long wall, feeling my way across it. Texas religion has a shape, a structure, a texture. And here was its wall. Shaking up my world was my exploration to understand it better. It was pure teenager.

My pseudo-religion, founded upon the silliness of the innocuous and suicidal lemming, betrayed deeper and unsettling matters of identity and purpose. I found myself outlining internally so many structures, so many forces pushing against me and so much for me to push against. I was shining a light on what I understood as religion’s absurdity and the danger of its cultural codes, and I found a strange confidence in doing so. It was a confidence for understanding that mortality is real, life is absurd, and that existence is troubling. Only in college would I really understand that the only way I could tackle Christianity for myself would be to comprehend it as ultimately absurd, and to understand its societal trappings as a lethal Kierkegaardian Christendom.

By the spring, the Church of the Lemming had mostly run its course, and our collective attentions chased after new, 1990 interests like Twin Peaks, Depeche Mode’s Violator, and making stupid movies with my parents’ VHS camera. For me, the catharsis of becoming the Lemming God helped ease something within me, if only the entry point of turning sixteen. Rebellion requires consistent energy, and I just didn’t possess the internal resources to sustain either the internal angst and rage or the external performance art  against the machine of Texas Evangelicalism. I had classes to pass. I was still the Lemming God, but a tired one. The problem with punk is that its strenuous, frenetic exertion of self leaves you exhausted and vulnerable to what you were resisting in the first place.

“I met a girl” are the famous last words of many boys catching their breaths in the agonizing throes of rebellion. And, indeed, in the fall of that new school year I suddenly noticed a girl in my class. I don’t know why I fell for her, because she wasn’t the kind of girl I wasn’t brave enough to ask out. She wasn’t an artist, or alternateen, or even part of my inner cadre of eccentric friends. But she had an intensity about her that kept my interest and that proved my undoing. I didn’t realize until it was too late that that intensity was for her Lord And Savior Jesus Christ. Still, I remained smitten.

One night in my parents’ Subaru, when I thought we were about to make out, she stared hard at me and asked me about my relationship with Jesus, catching me entirely off guard. Flush with hormones and derailed expectations, I had no good, immediate answer. I knew she was a Christian, but that hadn’t really been a significant aspect of our relationship up to that point. I left the date dazed, pondering the truth that though I had parodied some of its basic tenets, I still did not really know much about Christianity. The Lemming God absconded, easily felled. For the next four years, I tried to be present in that Christianity that I had worked so hard to resist. It wasn’t that I liked it or believed it, though I gave it a shot. It was more that I just stayed there, because my world’s ecclesiological wasteland was so expansive that I didn’t know of any other option.

Attending the University of Texas at Austin during George W. Bush’s gubernatorial tenure, I witnessed the galvanization of the Religious Right’s student wing. Improbably, as a sophomore, I was offered the student presidency of the Baptist Student Union, and I did not have the courage to decline. In my passing, I remained tacitly complicit in the gathering storm that is now part of history. I winced at the religious right’s homophobia, complementarian sexism, and overarching patriarchal suburban whiteness. I saw the ascendance of Intelligent Design, Christian apologetics, and the idolatry of the Bible. Progressive Christianity seemed wholly marginalized on campus.

For those four years, I was pummeled by the orthodoxy of evangelicalism’s overzealous joy–not happiness, but joy. That indescribable sense of security and reassurance, that well-grounded faith in God. And the more I became aware of that joy, the more I discerned I did not have it. It was not part of my experience as a human being. This “joy of the Lord” all seemed like so much methadone. I tried and failed to “pass” during my bout of Evangelicalism. But ultimately, I flamed out and flamed out hard, for so many reasons.

In the rushing return of my existential angst and frustration, that crater within me reeopened. But in the place of the Lemming God appeared something daunting and apophatic. I discovered an improbable kinship with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard, especially Fear and Trembling. It affirmed Angst, the Absurd, the Absolute, and the Leap of Faith. I turned and embraced fully the anxiety and melancholia of the Gospel that tells of the God-man cast into the Wilderness to later suffer abandonment by both God and Man. To prepare myself for formal academic theology, I changed my major from psychology to classical civilization to translate Greek and Latin, learning the New Testament and its socio-historical context for myself, not what had been preached to me. I found solace among the Episcopalians, who deftly bridge ancient and contemporary worlds.

In all of this, a blunt, reactive atheism never came. Instead, I ventured forth into the world of deconstruction and the death of God. After UT, I studied philosophical theology at Yale Divinity School, learning and honing my theological utensils, delving ever deeper into existentialism and postmodernism, tracing God’s shadow as I hoped to find it. What developed was a bleak theology that discerns and preaches lamentation toward action, anxiety of freedom, and, indeed, a post-punk counterweight to joy. It is a stark theology of Lent and the Triduum. It is where I find relief, solace, and strength–and it is mine.

Origin stories are often dubious and spectacular, my lemming-god story being no exception. For a long time afterward, I considered my sophomore years of high school and college to be the worst of my life. I was dreadfully unhappy and stuck in so many ways. But I remember that Kierkegaard wrote that “life must be lived forward, but understood backward,” and I understand that they were two of my most formative years. It was in those years that I began to understand the value of my anxiety, that it had a force–in the guise of an absurd rodent deity and a nascent theologian.

I also eventually learned the truth about lemmings. The entire idea in the American consciousness about their mass suicide is a lie. In Disney’s vivdly told, Oscar-winning 1958 documentary “White Wilderness,” lemmings are filmed plummeting off rocky cliffs into far-below waters, where they ultimate drown. In fact, they were shoved. Disney’s film crew force-marched the creatures to their deaths to support their constructed narrative. This myth of suicide, which persists to this day, was debunked in a 1983 Canadian TV exposé on Hollywood’s cruelty to animals. Such are origin stories.

As humans, stress and sorrow shape who we become and color how we perceive ourselves, our pasts, and our futures. Too often, we treat these pressures, these gravities, as illnesses to be avoided or cured. We fashion narratives and theodicies to explain their origin, direction, and impact. The Lemming God was birthed in stress. My Christianity was formed in a crucible of unhappiness. I would not be the person I am today without the circumstances that taught me the importance of existential anxiety, cultural critique, and theological inquiry. I would like to think that, as I live my life, I have better questions now than before, about God and myself and the tensions between. Perhaps, in some way, there is that to rejoice about. Eek! Eek!

Burke Gerstenschlager is a writer and former academic book editor. His work has appeared in such places as Religion Dispatches, Extra Crispy, and Brooklyn Quarterly. He earned his M.Div. at Yale Divinity School, specializing in philosophical theology and New Testament. Burke lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife, their son, Søren, and two geriatric cats. He frets about God at bleaktheology.com.