It’s amazing what sort of things come together into creating a novel. Bad Religion still astounds me 15 years after I finished the first draft.
I’m not the first writer to have an ax to grind over his or her religious upbringing. It wasn’t the wooden country church I objected to. It was Channel 17 out of Canton, Ohio, “Flagship Station of the PTL Club!”
I also had a fine collection of grunge, non-hair heavy metal, and hard rock albums and downloads off iTunes.
And a coworker introduced me to the Farting Preacher.
Yeah, the Farting Preacher was the catalyst for the third (originally intended to be second) Nick Kepler novel, Bad Religion.
First, a little background. My parents had a sort of religious awakening in the late 1970s. My mother had always been devout. My dad was just another working class joe who dutifully went to church every Sunday. Beyond that, church was mainly a social center.
And then my father got baptized. My mother found Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. And for some reason, we had to watch Jerry Falwell every Sunday morning before church. My question of “Why are we watching this when we’re going to see Reverend Huntley speak in an hour?” did not go over well.
Fortunately, my father never drifted to Angry White Guy Radio, already a thing in the early days of Reagan’s presidency. He found it annoying. My mom, on the other hand, collected and watched televangelists the way I memorized baseball players and their stats before I was eleven, then rock bands and who played in which one when I was older. And therein, the conflict was set.
This new breed of televangelist hated rock and roll and demonized sex. Even before I knew what sex was, I knew I would probably want to have it some day. The arrival of Blondie on television made that crystal clear to me. So, as my mom tried to teach her son Bible verses and get him to be a good person, said son was discovering the Beatles and the Stones, along with this guy who sang a song about cocaine named Eric Clapton. Somehow, Peter Frampton was okay. Never mind that he released an album called I’m in You. From there, it wasn’t long before British New Wave hit American shores. Then came Deep Purple, which begat Whitesnake (before the hair), and it wasn’t a very far trip to Zeppelin, Floyd, two versions of Genesis, and the realization that Clapton sang about more than cocaine.*
Meanwhile, I’m treated to an endless parade at home of the Bakkers, Falwell, Oral Roberts, and Jimmy Swaggart (whom my wife is distantly related to. She plays up the Mickey Gilley connection more.) And every time they came on, I asked, “What is this guy’s problem?” Authoritarian as hell, pompous to the point your average political pundit would blush, I saw a bunch of empty suits.
Then the circus took a gloriously dark turn. Oral Roberts announced he needed several million dollars or God would “call me home.” Some wealthy person gave him the money so he would shut up. Literally, the man said that was why he did it. Then the Bakkers’ sex and financial scandals broke. Right about the time I started listening to hair metal. So I was treated to Jim Bakker’s mistress Jessica Hahn becoming America’s favorite metal groupie – lingerie and teased-out big hair and all!
Then Jimmy Swaggart tearfully announced “I have sinned against you!”
By the time I moved to Cincinnati, I had had enough. I no longer wanted to sit in a little wooden country church every Sunday morning. Imagine my surprise when I found out Catholics not only drank, they often made a sport of it. It was methadone for the Jim & Tammy heroin. So, by the mid-90s, I slept in Sunday mornings and played and collected an outrageous amount of music.
Around 1999 or so, I created Nick Kepler. And I began sketching what would become Northcoast Shakedown. I knew I’d need a follow up. While Second Hand Goods would be an entirely pantsed novel, it wasn’t the second story I came up with. No, that came about because a coworker showed me this…
Yes, I the final inspiration for a Nick Kepler novel was prosperty Gospel huckster Robert Tilton, a man who makes the Church of Scientology look like pushovers whenever it comes to the government shutting him down. They catch him defrauding the faithful, and he’s back two years later. Tilton’s cocaine-induced facial tics and pauses, along with his insistence that the Holy Spirit pretty much just says “Hoo baba kanda” a lot, inspired someone to release videos of his most awkward moments with farting sounds inserted. It’s become a sport on YouTube even to this day.
I decided it was time I took a shot at these douchebags. So I created the Reverend Calvin Leach. I contrasted him with pastors I had known personally, pastors who had to hold down fulltime jobs, listen to everyone else’s problems as they dealt with their own. and basically, showed their own warts. In short, they walked the talk because they went through what the rest of us go through, faithful or not. And a lot of them my age or younger liked the same music. One pastor even rocked out to a snippet of “Highway to Hell” during a service. (He also is an avid biker. It’s kind of a federal law for bikers to listen to AC/DC in most English-speaking nations.) I gave my “good guy” an “unforgivable sin.” Meanwhile, I couldn’t make Leach as evil as I intended. He would be little more than a mustache-twirling cartoon if I did. So, the real antagonist would be someone behind the scenes manipulating Leach’s vanity and even blackmailing the other guy with his “unforgivable sin.”
Throw in things getting complicated between Nick and Elaine and a Russian mobster nicknamed “the Antichrist” being one of Nick’s allies, and you get a very complex story.
I’m glad I wrote this one third. There was a lot to unpack in here, and I didn’t want it to sound ranty. Hopefully, Bad Religion accomplished that.
*Lately, Eric’s singing antivax screeds. Eric, it might be time to hang up the Strat and go sit in the rocking chair, buddy. The guy in the subway was wrong. You are not God. That was Robert Fripp.