I looked forward to reading Tony DuShane‘s Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk because I felt like, according to the blurbs on the back, it would give some insight into a somewhat secretive religious group, Jehovah’s Witnesses. This coming-of-age novel, while not necessarily full of specific, insider info on the theology and practices of Jehovah’s Witnesses, does provide insight into how problematic extremely conservative social and theological worldviews, especially with regard to sex(uality), can be for teenage believers.
DuShane’s lead character, Gabe Dagsland, is a teenage Jehovah’s Witness living in Millbrae, California, during the early ’80s. A devoted member of his congregation, Gabe’s greatest concern is his budding sexuality and its accompanying desires and erections and how they will impact the status of his soul after Armageddon. As he progresses through junior high and high school, he moves in and out of a series of potential relationships and navigates how he will or won’t publicly express his faith on campus and how he will maintain good standing in his community of faith.
Limited though they may be, DuShane’s glimpses into the life of Jehovah’s Witnesses are quite disturbing, especially their practice of disfellowshipping believers who transgress. This process lasts for an entire year, and during this time, the disfellowshipped believer must avoid contact with any other Jehovah’s Witnesses, family included, unless he or she is under the age of 18 (teenagers can have contact with their parents, though it is apparently strained). During this time, fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses must ignore the disfellowshipped as well. As DuShane points out, this might not be too problematic for people who join the Jehovah’s Witnesses later in life after they have established other “worldly” (non-Jehovah’s Witness) friends. However, if a person has been raised in that community for their entire life, thy lose virtually every friend and relationship they have. After the year has passed, should the believer choose to do so, he or she can apply for re-instatement into the community and, if accepted, will gradually re-gain what leadership roles, if any, they possessed beforehand.
Gabe’s greatest temptations are almost laughable: worldly music (some but not all…jazz is o.k.), inappropriate contact with the opposite sex (he gets in trouble for holding a girl’s hand while the elders remain ignorant of the conduct between him and his cousin Karen), and drunkenness (he hides this from his parents and the larger community). Gabe faces a major conflict with the elders of his congregation when they find out that he slept in the same house (not the same room or bed) with another teenage girl without an adult present. As such, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ approach to sexuality, or at least the ways in which DuShane presents them, are highly archaic. Such conservative views will no doubt lead to troubled relationships and unspeakable amounts of guilt, even among adults who eventually leave the faith.
“Good” or “normal” Jehovah’s Witnesses appear to be few and far between in DuShane’s text, but Gabe seems to be one, even if he is wrecked by fear and guilt. As such, I feel like the title is a bit mis-leading. Gabe is not a Jesus jerk. In fact, he tries to minimize potential offenses to non-Jehovah’s Witnesses and reaches out to his friends who have crises of faith and moments of disbelief, even as he entertains his own doubts as well. In the end, Gabe simply wants to live a normal teenage life, yet in a community that won’t allow teenagers to hold hands with the opposite sex, normal is simply impossible. The crises of faith that teenage Jehovah’s Witnesses endure do not disappear in adulthood as the actions of Gabe’s father reveal towards the end of the novel. Though such crises are often humorous throughout DuShane’s novel, in the end, they prove to be heart-breakingly tragic.