Let me tell you a little bit about Colby.
Ever since I was ten, Colby has been a part of me, like a small, sentient circuit board lodged in my brain. He wasn't always like this. When I first met him, he was autonomous: a Moloch Machine, a literal deus ex. Beneath the brim of his red baseball cap, unblinking eyes bulbously stared, plunged, hypnotized. In a contractionless castrati monotone, he sing-songed his teachings, and over many weeks and months, I memorized them until some remnant of his programming seeped into my own.
And who was Colby? A giant Christian supercomputer, of course. When I was in fourth grade, I was sent to attend North Shore Christian School in Lynn, Massachusetts. The decision was not taken lightly by my parents. On his part, my father could never believe in something as comic as an ephemeral old man who lives on a cloud and whom — after a brief burst of creative creationism in his early twenties — has been spending the last six thousand years of his early retirement kookily obsessing about where and how people are mashing their genitals together. My mother, on the other hand, is culturally Catholic. She is fascinated by the ritual of faith, but otherwise seems to believe that the afterlife will sort itself out with a minimum requirement from her either of guilt or hysterical self-justification. They are both exquisitely good people, and as such, they measure other people's goodness by their kindness. Both, when asked, would agree that any faith that gloats about the eternal suffering of billions is inherently unkind. As such, they are inherently distrustful of many of the permutations of North American protestantism.
Still, at the end of my third grade year, it was decided I would be sent to N.S.C.S. My hometown's public schools were commonly reviled, and North Shore Christian School was well known for its excellent reading and math programs at the time, which was very important to my family. The science curriculum was also excellent... with one notable, glaring exception. Classes were small and the teachers were said to be young and focused. Additionally, the music director, Larry Kamp, was a family friend who was well respected by my father for being driven out of the neighborhood church for not being fundamentalist enough: they both shared a love for John Zorn and horror movies. There would be a friendly teacher there to keep an eye on me.
But there were some notable drawbacks. None too surprisingly, the science program completely ignored evolution, although it did not go as far as to claim the universe was only six thousand years old. There were also Bible classes and prayer sessions. There was nothing to be done about the prayer sessions, but my father spent a lot of time in the evenings unraveling the mysteries of evolution for me at home — King Kong was once used as a whimsical teaching aide — and my mother, who admired the philosophical problem-solving of Catholics, tried to get me to approach the Bible more critically.
Ultimately, with some reservations, my parents enrolled me. And this is where Colby comes in.
In the beginning of my fourth grade year, when I was just settling into my new school, my teacher Mrs. Betts announced that we would be doing a class play, called "God Uses Kids." The play sounded exciting, mostly because it had a robot in it named Colby. I repeat: some lucky kid was going to get to be a fucking robot in the school play. Every one else had to play a member of Colby's backyard Bible-study group, the Colby Gang, all of whom wandered around the stage wearing a t-shirt clearly identifying his or her character by name.... not the way Tennessee Williams might have accomplished things, but hey, it worked for the audience.
But I digress. That's not the point. The point is: ROBOT. Let that word sink into your inner ten year old for a second. Take any kid on Earth and ask them what they'd rather pretend to be: the robot overlord of each and every one of his classmates or some doofus Christian kid so dumb he not only allows an 8086 to advise him on the affairs of his soul, but walks around with his name airbrushed on the front of his t-shirt. Everyone wanted to be Colby. The competition for the role would shed blood and sweat and — in the case of our class' tearful prima donna, Jonathan — tears and temper tantrums. But no one wanted the role more than I did.
I took the script home and started memorizing. The plot seemed no more demented than many of the things I had been exposed to at North Shore Christian School, but as my parents helped me learn the lines, even I couldn't ignore the incredulous arching of their eyebrows. As I sit down to describe the plot now, I find mine following the same upwards trajectory.
The play centered around Colby, a sentient Christian super-computer who — for some reason — had set up a secret neighborhood enclave for the Christian kids in the neighborhood. It was called Colby's Clubhouse, and inside, it was a Jim Jones phantasmagoria, in which a dancing, singing Christian robot led a gaggle of Bible-thumping kids in elaborate dance numbers, pausing only occasionally to recite scriptures. The main dramatic arc of the play concerned the arrival of new kid Eddie in the neighborhood: he cracked wise about Jesus, never read the Gospel, and was dismissive not only of the Colby Gang's impromptu hymnals but openly professed an admiration and affinity for that year's hot R&B supergroup, the New Kids on the Block. Eventually, Eddie is shown the error of his ways through the tireless proselytizing of the Colby Gang... as well as the direct intervention of Colby himself, who bluntly informs Eddie that he's going to hell if he doesn't mend his ways. Eventually, Eddie breaks down, falls to his knees, and welcomes Jesus into his heart as his Lord and Savior. At that point, Eddie is welcomed into the Colby Gang as an honorary member, presented with his very own pastel-colored, self-identifying t-shirt, and takes part in the exiting performance of the play's title song, "God Uses Kids." Curtain and applause.
As an adult, Eddie's plight concerns me. He was openly referred to as a "jerk" and "bad kid" in the play character notes, and that never bothered me at the time. But let's more closely dissect the plot by placing ourselves in poor Eddie's shoes for a minute.
At the beginning of the play, Eddie moves into a new neighborhood. He's alone, depressed and friendless. Worse, he quickly discovers that none of the kids in the neighborhood like to play video games or watch movies or listen to records or play with action figures or throw the football around — you know, normal kid stuff. All they ever want to do is sing about Jesus. Raised non-secularly, poor Eddie finds himself ostracized from his newfound peers from the very start, and understandably compensates by adapting the defense mechanism of a smart aleck personality. He acts out. He differentiates himself through cynical non-conformity, but is soundly hated for it.
That's all bad enough, right? Poor Eddie. But consider what happens next. Eddie is invited to the neighborhood clubhouse. Hoping for the acceptance and friendship of the neighborhood's unseen but popular alpha dog — the mysterious but charismatic Colby — he goes, but instead of meeting another kid, the door is locked behind him and a giant metal monster lumbers out of the shadows. Its eyes spit sparks; its servos gnash like rusty teeth. It grabs Eddie by the arms and in a shrill falsetto scream that reverberates with metallic soullessness and the sounds of gears grinding, it inexorably begins to paint Eddie a picture of hell straight out of Bosch. Mewling, fleshless bird things with scissors for beaks. Oceans of boiling feces in which billions bob and drown. Bodies crawling with insects and scabs that never heal. Forced sodomy by impossible geometric shapes. The sound of infants screaming forever and ever and ever and ever. Eddie's mind breaks... as, in fact, had the mind of each and every member of the Colby Gang's under the same nightmarish duress. It is the initiation. He's been accepted. One of us. One of us.
For those who have not been exposed to the children's media of fundamentalist Christianity, this will all seem absolutely perverse, even in abstract. Colby is one of many surreal horror shows adopted by North American churches as Christian mascots: another is Salty, a talking, magical Bible with a similar constabulary of prepubescent minions to do his bidding. For atheist adults, the adoption of these soulless anthropomorphisms as prophets of Christ doesn't seem Christian... it seems positively Satanic.
But as a kid, I never noticed. In fact, I inexhaustibly pursued the part of Colby, and eventually won it... mostly by dint of being the new kid. About my actual portrayal of Colby, there's little to say: the dad of one of the kids in my class made a wonderful cardboard robot suit for me, and my performance was hailed in the school newspaper as positively Shakespearean. All in all, it was a happy time.
Still, as the years have passed, I have become more and more disturbed by the way my childhood, all so briefly, was caught up in the cult of Colby. As an adult, it seems insane and monstrous. How could my teachers not recognize that their play could easily be interpreted as being about a demonically-possessed IBM clone? More importantly, how could my teachers so cavalierly adopt a soulless machine as a prophet for Christ?
But it was no accident. In my own accidental embracement of method acting, I once asked my teacher, Mrs. Betts, about Colby's motivation.
"Mrs. Betts," I asked. "Is Colby a cyborg?"
"What do you mean, cyborg?"
"Is he like a human brain inside a robot? Like Robocop?"
"Oh, no, John..." Mrs. Betts laughed. "He's just a computer."
I was puzzled. "But he believes in God."
"Well, of course! We wouldn't be doing the play if he didn't."
"If he doesn't have a soul, how can he believe in God?"
"Ah, I see where you're going..." Mrs. Betts mused. Then she paused and thought for a second. I'll never forget what she said next. In a few words, Mrs. Betts perfectly expressed something: an ideological contempt for personal meaning that has come to define for me both the Fundamentalist whack job and militant atheist alike.
"No, you're right, Colby doesn't have a soul," Mrs. Betts explained. "He's just been programmed to think he does."