If you are among the friends and family that were a part of the evangelical church of my youth, I understand that this blog may be difficult for you.
I know this because when I was a teenager in that church, I would have been terrified to read sentiments such as these. But I’ve learned to release myself from terror, and – while I still embrace all of the spiritual joy you have shown me – I no longer see the world as rigidly as you do. My aim is not to attack you; my aim is to help you understand why.
If you are among the individuals raised in that type of church, and are looking for language to talk about the difficulties of your experience, I hope this will help you find your voice. And rest assured that – more than anyone else – this blog exists to reach and help you.
So, faithful friends and family, know this.
I did not have the courage to speak to you before.
I am deeply sorry that I have held back my suffering from you, especially since it would have given you an opportunity to help. But know that the way I see the world has not changed overnight, and it is not the result of any of your actions. You taught me how to carefully study scripture when I was a child, and that beautiful gift developed into my ability to carefully study the world, to study its people. I have used that gift to better understand my experiences as well as yours, and ultimately, to refine my language. That is also why I can no longer cling to the letter of the law you taught me.
When I was a young adult, I felt more faithful and more liberated the more I was willing to let go of your law. For a good many years – and with great anger – this led me to reject Christianity in whole. Ironically, this idea of dismissing things as black and white, absolutely true or absolutely evil, was a technique I learned from you. Once I was able to move past that type of fundamentalist thinking, I was able to regain something precious: the ability to see the beauty of my experiences with you, and – in spite of the problems – to understand all the good that was worth holding onto.
I have finally let go of my anger and embraced joy, and that has allowed me to regain my spirit and strength. That alone is why I am able to speak to you now.
Along those lines, I do not believe that you are “wrong” or that what you taught me was “wrong”. I see that you are fixated on the idea of absolute truth, and believe that your life (well, all life) should be, fundamentally, founded on the absolute truth of scripture. Since you were taught to view the word of God that way, it follows that you would be fixated on the absolute right or wrongness of belief. I understand why, and I do not judge you for it.
My question to you is: can you begin to understand why you were taught view scripture that way? And can you try to understand what I now believe, and why?
For all of their light, your teachings directly contributed to my suffering. I am not their only victim. But I do not seek to punish you or to shame you. I am not blaming you.
I only seek to question you, and to ask you to question yourself.
When I question you, I am not attacking you.
If there is anything I wish to impart to you, it is this: questions are not attacks. I know you are defensive, because you taught me to defend my faith. You adorned me with the “armor of God” and prepped me for a barrage of evil slings and arrows. You showed me how pop culture ridiculed our beliefs, and you had the courage to stand up for them anyway. I admired your strength.
Ironically, it was other types of Christians that showed me the problem with that armor: simply put, I didn’t need it. It was based in fear. It was holding me back. And even more importantly, their armor looked strikingly different than yours.
I was raised Pentecostal, yet was taught by Catholics. I talked philosophy with Presbyterians, but studied at a Southern Baptist institution. I found spiritual beauty in an Orthodox church that I had never found elsewhere. I voraciously devoured the history of Christianity and its connection to other world religions. And from those experiences, I gained this wisdom: the history of Christianity is a questioning of what, fundamentally, being a Christian actually means. But your armor, your defensive nature, prevents you from being a part of the changing and ever-developing history of Christianity; it made you heavy, static.
Thus, it follows that – in the tradition of Christianity – I must question you now.
You gave me the misleading impression that the way you approached scripture was, inherently, the way scripture was always viewed and the way God always, absolutely intended. To assert this is to reject the entirety of two thousand years of evolving Christianity, and the thousands of years prior that helped shape it. To assert this, as a Protestant, is utterly nonsensical: your church only exists because Martin Luther rejected Christian orthodoxy to read scripture in a radical new way. And Christianity itself only exists because Christ challenged the authority of his own church, scriptures, and tradition. Why stop that process now?
I know that you’re sitting there saying “I KNOW there is something absolutely true in all of this!” I understand that: the great spiritual experience is edifying and fulfilling in a way that facts simply aren’t. It’s a precious aspect of human life, and it is powerful. Even so, that sort of spiritual knowing doesn’t have to translate to a foundation of facts and culture for you to enforce. Doing so taught me that faith was equal to knowledge – and thus, I did not learn faith.
Ineffable Truth became translated to your current laws, beliefs, and behaviors. But because you defended all of them with GOD, most were not up for debate. I should be able to ask you to reconsider even the deepest parts of your belief without rejecting your belief as a whole. I should be able to challenge your political and moral beliefs, your actions, the things you taught me as a child, and the orthodoxies of your denomination – all without rejecting your salvation, or the joy of your faith.
This process of questioning has been the very tradition of Christianity, yet it is one that – in my youth – was entirely neglected. There is a common belief among you that evangelical fundamentalism is somehow the most timeless, truest form of Christianity. That particular way of viewing the Bible was invented by American theologians about one hundred years ago. It is not aberrant. It will not be the end.
Even worse, you used your idea of scripture to enforce an oppressive legalism; beyond your intentions, you made us feel forever disgusted by ourselves, losing all sense of wholeness and normality. I do not want you to continue to allow your flock to suffer as I have suffered.
I want you to see that your impact is as important, if not greater, than your intent. I want to open you up to a deeper aspect of your own faith.
But in order to do that, I need you to drop your armor and replace it with faith. Faith is an openness, and unknowing – but your armor keeps you closed. I wish you could stop being so defensive. I wish you could truly love and embrace your enemy instead of correcting and converting them. I wish you would stop being so afraid of them. But if that frightens you now, rest assured:
I will not reject you, and I will not convert you.
As an evangelical, you taught me that my mission in life was to go out into the world and convert others to Christianity. Part of this process simply meant acting in a way that showed others Christ’s love: being a witness with my behavior, learning to stand up for “the least of these”, and showing hospitality to the enemies of our faith.
Rest assured that I have embraced those lessons, and I am grateful to you for teaching them. My life will be forever bound by the spirit of the beatitudes, the golden rule, and the red letters attributed to Christ.
Yet this is only half of the process of conversion: the other half is indoctrinating people into what you assert is the “absolute” truth – not of salvation, not of God, but of your denomination’s most current culture and rules.
You taught me that to be Christian was to be Republican. You taught me that Christianity had never, ever changed. You taught me what you assumed without question was the proper context of the New Testament and Old Testament in modern life. You taught me that aborting children was evil, but that murder in times of war was righteous. You taught me not only that the Bible was “literally true” but that it had to be.
Even worse, you taught me that if the Bible were not literally true, than it could not possibly have value, and that the whole of your belief would be without purpose. That every bit of spiritual experience and wisdom beyond understanding you had ever received would be nullified and worthless. Why?
Why do you assume that God insists on humanity having a literal, unchanging and absolute handbook for how we must all shape every aspect of our lives? And not only our lives, but the moral and civil laws of our entire country — laws that not only dictate how you must behave, but how every other individual must behave? Why do you demand that others not only convert to your faith, but to your current behavior? And why do you enforce these assumptions on your children, without question – how could that legalism ever show them faith?
How is that process a necessary aspect of salvation? How does it hold true against the ever-changing history of Christian culture? How does it compare to the actions of Christ himself, which were to reject the institution and authority of the church in his time?
You may have answers for these questions, and you may not – but I’m only offering questions, not demanding answers. Theologians have struggled to find such answers for nearly two thousand years. Your beliefs are not inerrant; they are merely the most recent result of this studious and difficult process. You may assert the process is God-ordained; even so, the process, like all processes, is not complete. Believing otherwise allowed historical Christians to justify and enact horrors.
Regardless, without a theological argument (that was up for questioning), you taught me that I must conform to your current culture by invoking the name of GOD and the fear of the DEVIL. You said there was no other way, that it has always been this way. And for that, I and many have suffered.
But again – let us remember my aim here – I do not want you to suffer, nor convert.
You have probably never heard anyone ask you these questions without the underlying goal of getting you to abandon your Christianity. Because of that, you may have assumed all such questions were attacks. But I am in no way attacking those beliefs. I have no dogma to offer for your conversion.
Instead of conversion, I offer context.
If you read the previous section again, you will see that I in no way ridiculed any of the beliefs you hold. I understand precisely why you hold them, and you do not have to defend them to me (unless, of course, you demand that myself or others must act upon your beliefs… that requires an argument, theological or otherwise; otherwise, it is merely a demand of power, over your fear, for your control.)
What I am offering, though, is a greater context as to why you were taught those beliefs, where they came from, and how they have changed over time.
I want to show you the history of theologians debating and arguing over those beliefs, as well as the great schisms that followed. And I want to show all of this as part of an evolving process, rather than an absolute end in itself.
I am asking you not to reject the context of Christian history. I am asking you to learn more about the changing context of the world around it. I am asking you merely to consider that your timeless truths may be more like temporal stepping stones – incomplete ideas that you needed to hear, but do not yet completely understand. They may not be wrong, so much as they are only partially right.
Perhaps the whole of Christian history – and the Hebrew religion that came before it – were all steps on the path to an even greater truth that God hopes to reveal. Perhaps that truth is being revealed over time, all over the world. Perhaps you were right to deny the legalism of other religions, because legalism sits in opposition to faith… perhaps that will help you deny it to yourself.
Perhaps your teachings were intended to lead me to this moment, and perhaps my calling is to share this moment with you.
Yet for now, know that I sense an overwhelming fear in you: the fear of hellfire. The fear of being wrong, and for it, suffering eternal damnation. You may believe that this fear saves you; however, you may just as easily believe it has held you back. Your fear could be forcing you to demand a shape and purpose to a God that remains greater than you, beyond your language, and beyond this one moment in time. Your fear could be forcing you to unjustly demand control over the behavior and actions of others. Your fear could be preventing you from teaching your children the beauty of faith.
I have become swept into the great flow of faith, and – for the first time since my childhood – feel the power of the spirit flowing through me. I have not rejected what you taught me, or the power I have experienced in your church. Instead, I have been taken far beyond it.
I will not demand that faith be turned into absolutes and law. I will not demand it takes shape or religion. I will let God remain ineffable. I will always hear your words with love. I always have. It is what led my here.
Finally, I do not expect you to understand all of this. After all… I certainly don’t!
Difficult truths are difficult to comprehend, let alone to communicate. But after years of shame, I have learned to be grateful for you, and learned to regain my voice.
Let my art and my writing serve as a testament to the developments of my faith, and let it communicate something far greater than myself. Let it help you understand how and why I have suffered, so that it may lead to less suffering in others.
I hope you will listen, as I have listened to you. To respect me as I have respected you. And to love me, as I will always love you.