Recovering from Church Abuse
Sometimes in a waiting room or on an airplane I strike up conversations with strangers, during the course of which they learn that I write books on spiritual themes. Eyebrows arch, barriers spring up, and often I hear yet another horror story about church. My seatmates must expect me to defend the church, because they always act surprised when I respond, "Oh, it's even worse than that. Let me tell you my story." I have spent most of my life in recovery from the church.
One church I attended during formative years in Georgia of the 1960s presented a hermetically sealed view of the world. A sign out front proudly proclaimed our identity with words radiating from a many-pointed star: "New Testament, Blood-bought, Born-again, Premillennial, Dispensational, fundamental . . ." Our little group of two hundred people had a corner on the truth, God's truth, and everyone who disagreed with us was surely teetering on the edge of hell. Since my family lived in a mobile home on church property, I could never escape the enveloping cloud that blocked my vision and marked the borders of my world.
Later, I came to realize that the church had mixed in lies with truth. For example, the pastor preached blatant racism from the pulpit. Dark races are cursed by God, he said, citing an obscure passage in Genesis. They function well as servants-"Just look at how colored waiters in restaurants can weave among the tables, swiveling their hips, carrying trays"-but never as leaders. Armed with such doctrines, I reported for my very first job, a summer internship at the prestigious Communicable Disease Center near Atlanta, and met my supervisor, Dr. James Cherry, a Ph.D. in biochemistry and a black man. Something did not add up.
After high school I attended a Bible college in a neighboring state. More progressive than my home church, the school had admitted one black student, whom, to stay on the safe side, they assigned to a roommate from Puerto Rico. This school believed in rules, many rules, sixty-six pages' worth in fact, which we students had to study and agree to abide by. The faculty and staff took pains to trace each one of these rules to a biblical principle, which involved a degree of creativity since some of the rules (such as those legislating length of hair on men and skirts on women) changed from year to year. As a college senior, engaged, I could spend only the dinner hour, 5:40 p.m. until 7 p.m., with the woman who is now my wife. Once, we got caught holding hands and were put "on restriction," forbidden to see each other or speak for two weeks. Outside somewhere in the great world beyond, other students were demonstrating against the war in Vietnam, marching for civil rights on a bridge near Selma, Alabama, and gathering to celebrate love and peace in Woodstock, New York. Meanwhile we were preoccupied, mastering supralapsarianism and measuring skirts and hair.
Shortly after the turn of the millennium, in the spring of 2000, I experienced a fast-motion recapitulation of my life. The first day, I served on a panel at a conference in South Carolina addressing the topic "Faith and Physics." Though I have no expertise in physics, I got chosen along with a representative from Harvard Divinity School because I write openly about matters of faith. The panel was lopsided on the science end, for it included two Nobel prize-winning physicists and the director of the Fermilab nuclear accelerator near Chicago.
One of the Nobel laureates began by saying he had no use for religion, and in fact thought it harmful and superstitious. "Ten percent of Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens, half are creationists, and half read horoscopes each day," he said. "Why should it surprise us if a majority believe in God?" Raised Orthodox Jewish, he was now a confirmed atheist.
The other scientists had kinder words for religion but said that they restricted their field of view to what can be observed and verified, which by definition excluded most matters of faith. When my turn came to speak, I acknowledged the mistakes the church had made and thanked them for not burning us Christians at the stake now that the tables had turned. I also thanked them for rigorous honesty about their own nontheistic point of view. I read from Chet Raymo, an astronomer and science writer who has calculated the odds of our universe resulting, as he believes it did, from sheer chance:
If, one second after the Big Bang, the ratio of the density of the universe to its expansion rate had differed from its assumed value by only one part in 1015 (that's 1 followed by fifteen zeros), the universe would have either quickly collapsed upon itself or ballooned so rapidly that stars and galaxies could not have condensed from the primal matter . . . The coin was flipped into the air 1015 times, and it came down on its edge but once. If all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the Earth were possible universes-that is, universes consistent with the laws of physics as we know them-and only one of those grains of sand were a universe that allowed for the existence of intelligent life, then that one grain of sand is the universe we inhabit.
After the panel two more Nobel laureates, another in physics and one in chemistry, joined the discussion, along with some thoughtful Christians. One of the physicists asked to see the quote by Raymo, whom he knew as a personal friend. He pondered a moment, thinking out loud, "Ten to the fifteenth power, ten to the fifteenth . . . let's see there are 1022 stars in the universe-yeah, I can buy that. I'll take those odds." We then moved on to the critique of religion. Yes, it has done harm, but consider the good it has accomplished as well. The scientific method itself grew out of Judaism and Christianity, which presented the world as a product of a rational Creator and thus comprehensible and subject to verification. So did education, medicine, democracy, charitable work, and justice issues such as the abolition of slavery. The atheistic physicists freely acknowledged that they had no real basis for their ethics, and that many of their colleagues had served Nazi and Communist regimes without a twinge of conscience. We had a fascinating interchange, that rare experience of true dialogue resulting from different perspectives on the universe.
A day later, my wife and I got up early and drove a hundred miles to the thirtieth reunion of our Bible college class. There, we listened to classmates describe the last three decades of their lives. One told of being delivered from arthritis after ten years when she finally dealt with unconfessed sin in her life. Another extolled the advantage of sleeping on magnets. Several were suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and others from severe depression. One couple had recently put their teenage daughter in a mental institution. These did not seem to be healthy people, and I felt sadness and compassion as I heard their stories.
Paradoxically, in narrating their lives my classmates kept resurrecting phrases we had learned at Bible college: "God is giving me the victory . . . I can do all things through Christ . . . All things work together for good . . . I'm walking in triumph." I left that reunion with my head spinning. I kept wondering how the skeptical scientists would have reacted had they sat in on the class reunion. I imagine they would have pointed out a disconnect between the observable lives and the spiritual overlay applied to them.
The very next morning, a Sunday, we arose early again and drove two hundred miles to Atlanta in order to attend the "burial" of the fundamentalist church I grew up in, the one with the many-pointed star. After moving to escape a changing neighborhood, the church found itself once again surrounded by African-Americans, and attendance had dwindled. In a sweet irony, it was now selling its building to an African-American congregation. I slipped into the very last service of that church, which had been advertised as a reunion open to all who had ever attended.
I recognized acquaintances from my past, an unsettling time warp in which I found my teenage friends now paunchy, balding, and middle-aged. The pastor, who had served the same congregation for forty years, emphasized the church motto, "Contending for the faith." "I have fought the fight," he said. "I have finished the course." He seemed smaller than I remembered, his posture less erect, and his flaming red hair had turned white. Several times he thanked the congregation for the Oldsmobile they had given him as a love gift: "Not bad for a poor little pastor," he kept saying. During the expanded service, a procession of people stood and testified how they had met God through this church. Listening to them, I imagined a procession of those not present, people like my brother, who had turned away from God in large part because of this church. I now viewed its contentious spirit with pity, whereas in adolescence it had pressed life and faith out of me. The church had now lost any power over me; its stinger held no more venom. But I kept reminding myself that I had nearly abandoned the Christian faith in reaction against this church, and I felt deep sympathy for those who had.
That single weekend gave a snapshot reprise of my life. Where do I belong now? I wondered. Long ago I rejected the cultish spirit of the church I had just helped bury. Yet neither could I share the materialistic skepticism of the scientists on the panel. Though they may wager on one fantastic grain of sand arrayed against the forces of randomness, I cannot. Theologically, I probably fit most comfortably with the evangelical Bible college, for we have in common a thirst for God, a reverence for the Bible, and a love for Jesus. Nonetheless, I had not found there much balance or health. Sometimes I feel like the most liberal person among conservatives, and sometimes like the most conservative among liberals. How can I fit together my religious past with my spiritual present?
I have met many people, and heard from many more, who have gone through a similar process of mining truth from their religious past: Roman Catholics who flinch whenever they see a nun or priest, former Seventh Day Adventists who cannot drink a cup of coffee without a stab of guilt, Mennonites who worry whether wedding rings give evidence of worldliness. Some of them now reject the church entirely, and find Christians threatening and perhaps even repellent.
One of Walker Percy's characters in The Second Coming captures this attitude well:
I am surrounded by Christians. They are generally speaking a pleasant and agreeable lot, not noticeably different from other people-even though they, the Christians of the South, the U.S.A., the Western world have killed off more people than all other people put together. Yet I cannot be sure they don't have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise the truth? One might even become a Christian if there were few if any Christians around. Have you ever lived in the midst of fifteen million Southern Baptists? . . . A mystery: If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it?
His last question rings loud. If the gospel comes as a eucatastrophe, J. R. R. Tolkien's word for a spectacularly good thing happening to spectacularly bad people, why do so few people perceive it as good news?
I became a writer, I now believe, to sort out words used and misused by the church of my youth. Although I heard that "God is love," the image of God I got from sermons more resembled an angry, vengeful tyrant. We sang, "Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight . . ." but just let one of those red, yellow, or black children try entering our church. Bible college professors insisted, "We live not under law but under grace," and for the life of me I could not tell much difference between the two states. Ever since, I have been on a quest to unearth the good news, to scour the original words of the gospel and discover what the Bible must mean by using words like love, grace, and compassion to describe God's own character. I sensed truth in those words, truth that must be sought with diligence and skill, like the fresco masterpieces that lie beneath layers of plaster and paint in ancient chapels.
I felt drawn to writing because for me it had opened chinks of light that became a window to another world. I remember the impact of a mild book like To Kill a Mockingbird, which called into question the apartheid assumptions of my friends and neighbors. As I went on to read Black Like Me, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham City Jail," my world shattered. I felt the power that allows one human mind to penetrate another with no intermediary but a piece of flattened wood pulp. I saw that writing could seep into crevices, bringing spiritual oxygen to people trapped in air-tight boxes.
I especially came to value the freedom-enhancing quality of the written word. Speakers in the churches I frequented could raise their voices! and play on emotions like musical instruments. But alone in my room, controlling every turn of the page, I met other representatives of faith-C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, John Donne-whose calmer voices traversed time to convince me that somewhere Christians lived who knew grace as well as law, love as well as judgment, reason as well as passion. I became a writer because of my own encounter with the power of words, and I gained hope that spoiled words, their original meaning wrung out, could be reclaimed.
Ever since, I have clung fiercely to the stance of a pilgrim, for that is all I am. I have no religious sanction. I am neither pastor nor teacher, but an ordinary pilgrim, one person among many on a spiritual search. Unavoidably and by instinct, I question and reevaluate my faith all the time. When I returned from the head-spinning weekend among physicists, Bible college classmates, and Southern fundamentalists, I asked myself yet again, Why am I still a Christian? What keeps me pursuing a gospel that has come to me amid so much distortion and static, that often sounds more like bad news than good?
Every writer has one main theme, a spoor that he or she keeps sniffing around, tracking, following to its source. If I had to define my own theme, it would be that of a person who absorbed some of the worst the church has to offer, yet still landed in the loving arms of God. Yes, I went through a period of rejection of the church and God, a conversion experience in reverse that felt like liberation for a time. I ended up, however, not as an atheist, a refugee from the church, but as one of its advocates. What allowed me to ransom a personal faith from the damaging effects of religion?
From the Hardcover edition.