My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (2)

I decided that I wanted to attend a conservative Christian college that was just starting up on the other side of the country. It was billed as a place where, unlike some other, more infamous Christian schools, the students would be taught to think for themselves, and to defend their beliefs against those who would attack them. It was advertised as a place thinking Christians could go to hone their skills, cement their worldviews and then take them out into the world to influence it for God.

Naturally, being who I was at the time, this appealed to me, and for about the first year of its existence, the school made some attempts to live up to its billing. I had a couple of wonderful professors there who introduced me even more to the concept of thinking “outside the box,” and the notion of questioning what one believes in order to either strengthen it, or realize that it isn’t worth believing.

Since that time, I’ve been sad to see the college slip into the typical mode of teaching students what to think, rather than how to think. I treasure my time there because it feels like I and those who attended with me the first year got something that no other student of that school will ever get.

There was, however, a darker side to my college experience . . .

When my family got its first Internet connection, my father, knowing about my struggles with pornography, sat down with me, looked me in the eye, and said, “If you go anywhere you shouldn’t, I’ll know.” This fear-based approach worked on the surface – I never viewed a single pornographic picture on my parents’ computer.

However, the problem with fear as an influence on others is that it is a very powerful behavior-modification tool . . . and very little else. During the remainder of my time at home, I merely got my titillation from some other source than the computer. Later I would realize that this fear had become a theme in my life . . . and the next place it cropped up was once I left home for college. Now that I didn’t have my dad’s watchful eye on me, I felt (naively) free to do whatever I wanted with my computer. I was careful at first, afraid that those watching the network would catch me looking at websites I shouldn’t be looking at.

As time went on, I got less and less careful. Not that it would have mattered. About halfway through my second year, the college found out, somewhat by accident, that a number of the guys on campus had been viewing pornographic websites on their college laptops over the school network. Each of us was called in to speak to the Dean of Students.

My meeting with him began when he said, “You do realize that this is an expellable offense?” There was the fear again.

None of us, however, were expelled. At the time, my mom was suffering through her first bout with cancer, so the decision was made that unlike the rest of the students, I wouldn’t have to call my parents and inform them. That was reserved for a later date. I would, however, have to meet with the Dean regularly and be accountable to him.

The first time we scheduled a meeting, he didn’t show.

The second time, I waited outside his office for an hour past our scheduled time, while he sat in a closed-door meeting with a member of the faculty.

I didn’t bother trying to schedule a third meeting . . . I figured I’d probably get called in and dressed down for it, but that I’d explain and then everything would progress as it was “supposed” to.

What happened was worse.

What happened was nothing.

Suddenly, I came face to face with something I hadn’t experienced before – at least not consciously – a full-bore, undeniable example of someone who claimed to care about me, and who very demonstrably didn’t.

As the year wore on, gradually the fear wore off. I finished my academics and returned to the pornography, knowing that I was untouchable, not because they didn’t have the power to do anything to me, but because they simply didn’t care enough to bother.

After I graduated and began graduate school, I finally started to realize just how miserable my life truly was. I hated myself, and I thought of myself in most of the lowliest terms possible. During my time at college, I’d investigated several churches. Some had proven too shallow, others too weird. Some had just simply not appealed to me.

I had finally settled into a home church that seemed like what I was looking for, only to discover that I had no idea what I was looking for.

When I came back for graduate school, much the same thing happened. I discovered that the home church wasn’t what I thought it was, and tried out a couple others.

Finally, I found one that looked like exactly what I needed. They had a deep respect for Scripture, a robust outreach program for college students and youths just starting their careers, a good small-group program, and most importantly of all (to me), you could request to be placed in an accountability relationship with an older, more mature Christian, and the church would set it all up for you.

This was, I thought, precisely what I needed.

Once again, however, the fear-driven accountability relationship only treated the symptoms. I wasn’t seeking out pornography anymore . . . but neither was I particularly growing or getting to know Christ better. I just didn’t want to have to explain to my accountability partner, an elder in the church, each time we met that I’d been looking at dirty pictures again.

That seemed to suit both of us fine, until my distaste for the superficiality of it all led me to gradually attend church services less and less.

If you want to come to the attention of your church, the quickest way to do so is not to commit some heinous act or get in a fight with a church leader. The quickest way is to simply stop showing up.

It was my first experience with how threatened church leaders feel when you discover you don’t need them to stand between you and God anymore. I stopped going regularly because I was being handed a slate of obligations (show up on Sunday morning and evening, meet with your accountability partner once a week, and stay active where you can) that didn’t accomplish anything with regard to my relationship with God. Where I really got my spiritual nourishment during this time was from the small, weekly bible study I shared with between four and seven other guys, each Wednesday night.

It was about this time that my life began to fall apart . . .

(to be continued . . . )

Back to Part 1

Go to Part 3

My Journey out of Church and into the Body of Christ (1)

It was a Saturday night, and the young man was deep in discussion with the woman he was dating. Their discussion centered around the church he was preparing to attend the next morning, of which he had been a member for several months. “I don’t mind if you go,” the young woman said, “I’ve just been hurt so much, and so often that I don’t think I can go with you. It’s not good for my heart or my soul. I think that’s why I haven’t really gone for the last couple years now.”

“That’s fine,” he said, “What will you do with your morning?” She replied, “I think I’ll go down to the pond, talk to God, maybe journal a little . . . ”

He thought wistfully that this sounded like a much more edifying morning than singing the same hymns, sitting in the same pews, and getting frustrated with the same things that had been bothering him about his church for some time now . . . . . . I know that’s what he thought, because he was me, in the spring of 2005.

I can’t tell you when I became a Christian, because looking back now, most of the “conversion experiences” I had seem so hollow. I think I’m coming to believe that coming to know Christ is a process, not an event. This is the story of my experience with that process. I hope that by reading it you can come to know me, and my Savior, a bit better . . .

I grew up in church. I asked Jesus Christ to be my savior (the first time) when I was three and a half years old . . . and I meant it with all my heart. Little did I know the incredible ride He had in store for me.

I was a very thoughtful little kid. I decided at four and a half that I wanted to be baptized. I told this to my parents, who told the pastor of our conservative, Baptist Church. He counseled waiting for six months, due to my youth. Six months later, I again said I wanted to be baptized. This time, I was.

When I was nine, we began attending the church I would stay active in until I left home for college. It was a very conservative, fundamental, nondenominational church. I busied myself serving where I could – cleaning up after services, playing the violin for the offering and special music, and singing in the children’s choir among other things. Then my family joined an organization called the Advanced Training Institute (ATI). ATI was a homeschooling organization, but it was more than that. One friend of mine recently called it “Pharisee school,” and by and large, the name fits.

Through ATI, I learned what a messed-up person I was. I learned that I was constantly teetering on the very edge of God’s displeasure . . . or at the very least missing out on his ultimate blessing, because I wasn’t saying, doing or being exactly the right things. I learned that all of my problems could be drawn back to pride or bitterness. I discovered that God’s grace was dependent on how closely I followed his rules. I found out that music with a backbeat was sinful, and that dating led to sexual immorality. I was taught how to read Scripture with the specific intent of making it say what I wanted it to hear . . . and then calling it a “rhema” . . . defined by ATI founder and leader Bill Gothard as a “special word from God.” . . . in short, I learned a lot of really screwed up stuff.

Somewhere around the time when I was 11 years old, I began noticing the sorts of things that boys around that age start to notice. I didn’t know what to do with it all, so what I did was began to watch television shows that featured scantily clad women, and read romance novels in the library . . . all of this when my parents weren’t looking, of course. Before too long, I had essentially taught myself the rudiments of the “facts of life.” I went to my first ATI Regional Training Conference (a big bash in Knoxville, TN each year where thousands of people get together to sing hymns, heap guilt on each other and wear blue and white for a week) when I was 13. By the end of the week I felt so guilty about what had become a mild addiction to softcore pornography that I confessed it to my parents.

This was the first of many such confessions. It was an issue that would haunt me for more than ten years.

It was in high school that my small, unquestioning worldview began to crack. I committed the cardinal sin of the ATI lifestyle . . . I began thinking for myself. I began to notice the double lifestyles lived by many ATI families – they lived one way at home, and another when they were around each other trying to impress all their friends with how godly they were. I should know – I played the game too. I began to notice how they really didn’t have anything to offer someone like me . . . very earnest and well-meaning, but dealing with a very serious, habitual sin that had become an addiction.

Why it took so long for me to begin to see this, I’m not entirely sure. I was raised by my parents to be able to think, learn and discover things for myself. Somehow, though, I became convinced by everything I heard . . . and which was repeated each Sunday at church – a church that lined up very closely doctrinally with ATI.

Then I went to college . . . specifically, my local community college, and the fissures started widening. I joined the debate team, and my debate partner introduced me to country music, which I decided I liked (despite its backbeat). My debate experience was a mixed bag. I discovered that I was a strong person who could indeed stand up for what I believed. I was offered drugs and refused, I determined for myself that I didn’t want to drink alcohol, because of my (previously demonstrated) addictive personality, and the fact that alcohol abuse runs in my family . . . and I stuck to that belief. I defended my faith in the face of being known to the rest of the team, somewhat affectionately, as “Christian Coalition Boy.”

But I also discovered something. I learned that when one is forced to debate both sides of an issue, one is forced to truly examine what one believes. I had to question things I’d never questioned before. I had to learn both the strengths and weaknesses of my beliefs . . .

(to be continued . . .)

Go to Part 2

A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

My wife has posted quite capably on the “Formerly Known” series of essays sweeping across the websites and blogs of we the disenchanted with the institutions and traditions that have appropriated the name Christ gave to those dedicated to a life following Him: “The Church.” Her contributions have been posted both here and at her own blog. One thing however, I believe to be missing. Please find that missing element – my meager contribution to this discussion – below.

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A Former Footsoldier of the “Christian Right”

I am the one who, at age 13, began writing letters to the editor of his local paper, reminding readers of the need to remember the true meaning of Christmas, the original intent of the Constitution, and the importance of prayer in schools.

I am the one who made repeated calls to Capitol Hill when Congress tried to take away my right to an education as I and my parents saw fit.

I am the one who interned in my Congressman’s district office as a freshman in high school.

I am the one who, too young to vote myself, convinced my parents not to vote for Bob Dole in the Republican Primary of 1996 because he was not conservative enough.

I am the one who, in high school and college, engaged in public debate for pro-life and pro-marriage issues.

I am the one who participated in both the Young Republicans and the Campus Crusade on the grounds of my overwhelmingly liberal California community college.

I am a three-time attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference

I missed the 2000 inauguration of President Bush only because I was away from my college campus near D.C., participating in a mock court debate over whether or not religious expression should be allowed on public property.

I am a former footsoldier of the Christian Right.

I watched as my parents and the rest of the voting-age population handed Congress to the Republicans in 1994, and I rejoiced. I watched as the Clinton administration was succeeded by President Bush, and I cheered. I believed both of these events to be signs of God working in the government of my country.

Along with my fellow students, fellow church members, and friends, I spoke out against government intervention in personal matters, and in favor of a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.

Along with these same fellows, I argued against the war in Bosnia because it was a “foreign entanglement,” and in favor of invading Iraq because it was a “national security threat.”

I claimed that it was a crime for President Clinton to lie about sexual relations with an intern, but that President Bush needed the ability to authorize torturing captured prisoners.

I derided the government’s desire to track those who buy guns, while supporting the PATRIOT Act that allows them to track those who borrow books.

I am a recovering hypocrite.

By all appearances, it seems that those who desire to live from a logically consistent worldview tread a lonely path. Everywhere one turns, another church, politician or interest group is touting the right to free speech – while attempting to stifle an opposing point of view. Once upon a time I believed this activity to be strictly on the part of “the liberal left.” Those who saw the same tendency from the other side decried a “vast right wing conspiracy.”

We were both wrong.

Power corrupts, whether one is republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, Christian or athiest. Double-standards do not respect religious or partisan boundaries.

Politicians, pastors, and pundits, Christian school presidents and para-church organization leaders beware. The time in which you can isolate us, manipulate our thought processes and bend us to your will is coming to an end. We are learning that we are not alone.

We are learning, as well, that where once you may have hoped to further the cause of Christ, now you work to further the cause of your own ability to control us.

We are tired of hearing that abortion and homosexuality are “God’s topics,” while poverty and racism are not. We believe that God cares just as much about a family struggling to find its next meal as he does about an unborn baby.

We walk through the woods and see the same pile of strewn trash and abandoned beer cans that you see – but where you lament that people are partaking of alcohol, we grieve that they are despoiling God’s creation and denying us the ability to enjoy the same pristine environment that hosted their celebrations.

We are tired of hearing that it is our God-given duty to open our checkbooks to your building funds or election campaigns. Some of us call ourselves “emergent,” or “missional,” or “outchurched.” I call us “Christian Libertarians.”

We are discovering that we do not need you anymore.

We are learning that God does not tell us which party to vote for. We are learning that Scripture contains no “pastoral role.” We are discovering that you are not necessary to organize, motivate, preside over, or govern us.

We are remembering that Christ urged us to “give to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s” – and we are realizing that in this equation, you are nowhere to be found.

We are discovering that you are only relevant as long as we allow you to be, and we are beginning to revoke that permission.

We are the former footsoldiers of the so-called “Christian Right”

. . . And we are defecting.

Why I am an Agnostic Christian

I have been asked, of late, by a number of people whose opinions I value, why I refer to myself at times as an “agnostic Christian.” Some have expressed concern with my answer, and I therefore feel a need to clarify. This post will be the first of several relating to my thoughts and studies of late on a number of spiritual issues that have been troubling me for some time now.

To begin with, I have been told that the term is an oxymoron – that it contains two terms that cannot be reconciled. I disagree. I find it more of a paradox – two terms that seem to be irreconcilable, but which, under closer examination, make perfect sense.

Why then do I call myself an “agnostic Christian”? To answer that, I need to break the term down. The latter part is the easy one. I call myself a “Christian” because I believe Jesus Christ – the same Jesus whose name appears in early first-century Roman records from the province of Judea – was more than the great teacher many thought him to be at the time. I believe, as did his closest friends, that he was God incarnate, who was born as a gift for his creation, mankind, died to absolve us of the guilt brought onto us by our sin and that of our progenitor, Adam, and rose from the dead in victory over the physical death that is Adam’s curse. I rely on this same Jesus . . . on his life, his death, and his resurrection . . . for absolution of my own sin, and for the promise of eternal relationship with him.

The question of why I call myself an “agnostic” is a bit more difficult to explain. At its root, the word agnostic is derived from the Greek word gnosis – or knowledge – and the prefix a – indicating a lack thereof. Thus, an agnostic is quite literally one who does not know.

This, I find, describes me more by the day. I was enamored, recently, of a bumper sticker I saw, that said, “don’t believe everything you think.” This saying fits me to a tee. I find with each passing day that more and more of what I think is wrong. Therefore, while I hold my beliefs (any beliefs) firmly until they have been disproven, I am always open to that happening. Given how much of what I once thought has been shown to be wrong, I live assuming that much of what I still believe is probably wrong as well.

So by that most basic of definitions, I am, quite literally, an agnostic Christian. I believe in the existence of absolute truth, but not necessarily in the assertion that I have grasped it completely – or that I ever will, though I will never stop searching.

The problem then becomes the fact that this word “agnostic” has been used for centuries to describe one who does not believe the existence of God can be proven.

It might shock some who know me well to hear that I agree.

You see, Paul’s letter to the Romans says that, at present, we “see through a glass darkly” and that the time when we shall see “face to face” is still in the future. To my mind, the instant I assert that I “know�”. . . or even that I can “know” . . . that God exists, there is no place for faith in my relationship with God – and faith is an essential . . . the essential . . . ingredient in a true relationship with him.

If I assert that I “know God exists,” this assumes that I know exactly who I am talking about when I speak of Him – that is, that I know his attributes, his character, his form and behavior.

Needless to say, I don’t. If I did, the request he makes of me to trust him, to commune with him, and to love him would be a simple task. If I made that claim of God, it would mean that I know him better than I know my wife, my family, my dearest friends. While I hold God as my most important relationship, I wouldn’t dare to presume that much.

So the simple truth is that I don’t know if God exists. It is enough for me to believe that He does. That, to me, is the faith He asks of me.

Filters

Greetings.

Whereas my dear wife began this blog with a biography, I will begin with a challenge. Many of the salient points of my story that do not appear in my biography (found on this blog’s “About” page) will come out in future posts.

The challenge I issue to those of you who read this blog – be it one time, or regularly – is this:

Before you begin, ask yourself this question, “What assumptions am I bringing to the reading of this post (or page, or comment, or forum entry)?”

The beauty of this particular medium of communication is that I do not have to pretend to be impartial or unbiased. Those in the journalistic realm often claim objectivity. Those in spiritual pursuits often claim to be reading unvarnished truth into their preferred sacred text.

The truth, however, is that not one of us is truly impartial. We approach every interaction – be it with another person, a piece of literature, a point of view, or even a blog like this one – with our own presuppositions.

To make it easier for you to read and understand what I write, I will lay mine out on the table. If you like, I would be more than happy to converse with you on any or all of these subjects in the comments section or the forum:

  • I believe in the existence of absolute truth – and in my inability to grasp it completely.
  • I believe that matter, time, and logic are all creations of an eternal being who is all-knowing and all-powerful.
  • I believe that the writers of the Bible were inspired by that eternal being to craft the writings they did.
  • I believe that humans were made to be free.
  • I believe that definitions are important.

The last of these presuppositions is the key to all of them. One must define one’s terms if one is to engage in anything remotely resembling reasonable conversation. There is a reason I chose the word “absolute truth,” rather than “right and wrong.” There is a reason I chose the word “logic” rather than “knowledge,” or “wisdom.” There is a reason I chose “inspired” rather than “infallible,” and there is a reason I did not elaborate on what I mean by “free.”

I hope each of these reasons will become clear to you in future posts, but please understand that when you (or I) use a word, it is in the context of our presuppositions. For example, in the previous paragraph, it might be your presupposition that the words “inspired” and “infallible” are synonymous when referring to Scripture. It is my presupposition that they are not. In order to have a meaningful discussion on this topic, you need to know that about me, and I need to know the same about you. I’m certain that when I said, “I believe humans were made to be free,” it brought a thousand connotations to your head – probably both positive and negative. I would love to discuss further with you what I mean by that, and how I think many people misunderstand it. I will certainly address it at length in future posts.

For now, though, just ask yourself, “what are my filters? What am I assuming to be true as I read this post?”

Do that, and it will make this conversation that is Unedited Life much, much easier and more enjoyable for all of us.