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  • Sacred Viewing
  • DeWitt Henry (bio)
Jerald Walker, The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult
boston: beacon press, 2016. 196pages, cloth, $24.95.

Perhaps the funniest, most inspired moment in Walker’s new memoir about growing up with blind parents in relative poverty comes late in the book, when he begins to feel lust (a sin in his parents’ religion). He recalls exploring a Playboy that a friend had stolen and brought to school:

Despite my impulse to turn and leave, I joined the boys as they moved to Rodney’s side, crouched with them after he placed the magazine on the black and white tiles. While we peered over his shoulder, he turned the pages with such delicacy, such reverence, that we might have been biblical scholars, dumbstruck by our discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. When the sacred viewing was over, Rodney began tearing out pages and offering them to us for our personal use. I said I didn’t want one, until someone scoffed and accused me of being afraid of girls, so I took it. But before I got home I threw it away. To discover the work of the devil was one thing, to own it quite another. I’m also afraid of girls.

Readers of James Joyce’s Portrait may recall the moment when Stephen Dedalus, a boy indoctrinated by Catholicism and considering the priesthood, has his epiphany of the sacred in the profane. He sees a girl on a beach as “a [End Page 209] wild angel . . . the angel of mortal youth and beauty, an envoy from the fair courts of life.” Walker’s moment is profoundly hilarious, of course, more in the way of Mark Twain than of Joyce. But as in Joyce’s Portrait, a soul is at stake, and the whole book has built up to this “sacred viewing.”

Street Shadows, Walker’s earlier memoir, told a story of redemption from his past as a juvenile delinquent and gang member. His strategy was to interleave the shadows of his background (lostness) with the present, where he is happily married, parenting, and teaching (foundness). In The World in Flames, he begins by addressing his children “with stories about his doomsday cult, even though they have heard them before.” He enlarges on the story of his childhood and focuses more on the lunacy of his parents’ faith.

In their own childhoods, Walker’s parents had been sighted. “My mother was born with a bad eye and accidently poked out the good one on a stick when she was nine, and my father lost his sight after falling down a flight of stairs when he was twelve.” They raise their children under the confusing doctrines of Herbert W. Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God. Modern medicine is forbidden. No interracial socializing or marriage. Halloween and Christmas are not celebrated. Corporal punishment of children is required. Tithing is required. Passover is observed. The Bible is read and quoted at every turn. Homosexuality is condemned. But most of all, there is the imminence of Judgment Day or “Tribulation,” when the Chosen will be saved and transported to Petra, Jordan, while all infidels break out in boils and perish in rivers of fire. Walker himself goes from unquestioning belief as a child, terrified by the church’s sermons and attempting to convert his friends (which he learns is forbidden), to questioning, to crises of faith as an adolescent. His parents while “blind” in their faith, and all too easily conned by Armstrong and his doomsday predictions, may seem wantonly foolish to Walker, but they are also loving and concerned for their many children, brave in transcending their physical handicap. As an adult he comes to understand their need to believe, even after Armstrong has been exposed by 60 Minutes: “They want their sight. The best hope for this, the only hope for it, in their view, is in continuing to believe in the church.”

There are fascinating details about living with the blind: “I ran from the room, filling the apartment with noise because bells had been tied to my shoes.” To Walker’s boyhood friend Paul (and to sighted...


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pp. 209-212
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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