New Yorker writer and author Jia Tolentino. (Elena Mudd)
With Meghna Chakrabarti
New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino explores modern culture through her experience as a millennial, and how social media shapes identity.
Excerpt from “Trick Mirror” by Jia Tolentino
New Yorker: “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston” — “The church I grew up in was so big we called it the Repentagon. It was not a single structure but a thirty-four-million-dollar campus, built in the nineteen-eighties and spread across forty-two acres in a leafy, white neighborhood ten miles west of downtown Houston. A circular drive with a fountain in the middle led up to a bone-white sanctuary that sat eight hundred; next to it was a small chapel, modest and humble, with pale-blue walls. There was also a school, a restaurant, a bookstore, three basketball courts, an exercise center, and a cavernous mirrored atrium. There was a dried-out field with bleachers and, next to it, a sprawling playground; during the school year, the rutting rhythm of football practice bled into the cacophony of recess through a porous border of mossy oaks. Mall-size parking lots circled the campus; on Sundays, it looked like a car dealership, and during the week it looked like a fortress, surrounded by an asphalt moat. At the middle of everything was an eight-sided, six-story corporate cathedral called the Worship Center, which sat six thousand people. Inside were two huge balconies, a jumbotron, an organ with nearly two hundred stops and more than ten thousand pipes, and a glowing baptismal font. My mom sometimes worked as a cameraperson for church services, filming every backward dip into the water as though it were a major-league pitch. There was tiered seating for a baby-boomer choir that sang at the nine-thirty service, a performance area for the Gen X house band at eleven, and sky-high stained-glass windows depicting the beginning and end of the world. You could spend your whole life inside the Repentagon, starting in nursery school, continuing through twelfth grade, getting married in the chapel, attending adult Bible study every weekend, baptizing your children in the Worship Center, and meeting your fellow-retirees for racquetball and a chicken-salad sandwich, secure in the knowledge that your loved ones would gather in the sanctuary to honor you after your death.
“The church was founded in 1927, and the school was established two decades later. By the time I got there, in the mid-nineties, Houston was entering an era of glossy, self-satisfied power, enjoying the dominance of Southern evangelicals and the spoils of extractive Texan empires—Halliburton, Enron, Exxon, Bush. Associate pastors flogged fund-raising campaigns during Sunday services, working to convert the considerable wealth of the church’s tithing population into ostentatious new displays. When I was in high school, the church built a fifth floor with a train for children to play in, and a teen-youth-group space called the Hangar, which featured the nose of a plane half crashed through a wall.