Exodus: Chronology of an Apostate (Part 1)

I think my mother was always suspicious of the sincerity of my faith, even when my faith was at its most sincere. I suspect she expected Jesus to take the edges off me as a child and make her job as a parent more amiable. She expected my relationship with Jesus to bear fruit, and she expected that fruit to come in the form of a less obstinate, more respectful, and more obedient child. So it didn't matter how regularly I had morning devotions, how high I raised my hands in worship, or how many bible verses I memorized, because I continued to do things like order a sandwich on the local gas station's new touch screen kiosks after she had explicitly instructed me NOT to play around with said touch screens, and so in her mind something here was not adding up; clearly I wasn't sufficiently sincere in my servitude to the Almighty to become the good Christian boy that she (and God) wanted me to be.

Having one's piety under constant surveillance is a little like living with a spouse who's always accusing you of cheating. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, you look at your partner's oppressive paranoia and begin to think, "I'm already paying half the price of cheating; I might as well pay the other half and at least get the pleasure as well." It wasn't my mother's paranoia that pushed me out of the Christian faith, but when I told her that I was an atheist at the age of 19, I'm not sure which emotion she felt more strongly- dismay and fear for my immortal soul, or a certain smug satisfaction that her suspicions had been justified all along.

We've had a lot of conversations about God since then. A lot of emails and texts have been written. Many an adventure in apologetics has been had. I thought she was done sending me books, links, and DVDs, but just last week the following showed up in my mailbox. It's been well over a decade now since I first explained to her that I am no longer a Christian.

I mean, good on the Eagles for an improbable Super Bowl win, but this book is so low on my list of reading priorities that I'll have to die and go to hell for all of eternity before I get to it, and at that point, what's the use?

Now far be it from me to begrudge a mother's attempts to save her prodigal son's soul from eternal damnation, but the problem is that we have nothing new to talk about. I already know all the Sunday school apologetics that she does, because she made me go to church two+ times a week for eighteen years, and she's not interested in learning about things like Occam's razor or Darwinian evolution, so we're at a stalemate. I think she honestly wanted to understand my apostasy at first, but the last few years our conversations have degenerated into a banal, Groundhog Day-type scenario. Sometimes she seems surprised to hear things that we've talked about before at length and I'm starting to suspect that she's settled into a state of selective amnesia/permanent denial. It's kind of like a friend of mine who came out as gay to his parents when he was a teenager. He sat them down in the living room and they listened to him in silence with blank faces and glassy eyes. He said they looked like powered-down robots. After he finished they said "Ok," ...and he's had come out to his parents about five more times since then because they refuse to comprehend it. To this day his dad still asks him if he has a girlfriend every few months.

This past spring, Groundhog Day came again and my mom sent me a message saying that she had always wondered what had influenced me to leave Christianity. I responded by saying that she obviously hadn't been wondering hard enough to remember the countless conversations we'd already had about this exact point. Then I forwarded her a long email chain we had exchanged back in 2007.

But she gave me an idea.

I've told a lot of different stories to a lot of different people at different times about why I turned my back on the religious tradition and community I was steeped in throughout my childhood and adolescence. But I've never collected the most pivotal of those stories together and presented them in a clear, chronological narrative. So I'm going to spend the next six installments of Open Letters doing exactly that. My mom asked for it.

Before I tell you how I got out, though, I have to tell you how I got in. I was born into evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic Christianity, but my parents were not.

Despite having very different personalities, my parents' biographical backgrounds have a lot in common. My mother was the younger of two children; my father was the youngest of six.

My mother had one of those authoritarian, emotionally distant fathers who were so typical of the 60s. When he wasn't busy climbing the corporate ladder, watching football, or building his own house, he preferred to invest his free time in her older brother. My paternal grandfather was killed in Vietnam when my dad was ten years old.

Neither of my parents were particularly popular in school. Both of them moved to new school districts in middle school, ensuring they had no childhood friends in high school. My mother was self-conscious about her weight, wore glasses, and her parents' extreme frugality meant she was usually dressed in her cousin's hand-me-downs. She played the clarinet in her high school's marching band. My father was short and scrawny, had a scar and a lisp left over from a cleft palate that hadn't been surgically repaired until he was four years old, and very bad acne as a teenager. Some kids once tricked him into walking up to the high school football coach and asking to join the team. The coach laughed in his face, as did the kids who had put him up to it.

As you can probably imagine, my parents' romantic experiences in high school consisted almost exclusively of frustration, unrequital, and heartbreak.

When Christians talk about a Christ-shaped hole inside of everyone's heart, they're really talking about people like my parents.

My mother had an evangelical Christian roommate her freshman year in college. My father moved to New England to go to school and the only person he knew in the area was his favorite cousin, who had recently become an evangelical Christian. Both of my parents were born-again Christians themselves before they had turned 20. They joined the evangelical community just in time to be swept up in Jerry Falwell's Religious Right in the late 70s. My father, formerly left-leaning, and my mother, previously uninterested in politics, became ardent supporters of Ronald Reagan, and they saw themselves as part of an important secular and spiritual movement, locked in a battle between good and evil, pursuing a sacred mission of redemption whose scope extended from the supranational all the way down the individual soul. It must have been a heady cocktail of purpose, community, and belonging after so many lonely years of estrangement. 

My parents met through church (how else?) shortly after Reagan's election, and buoyed, I can only imagine, by a surge in confidence spurred by a rush of post-election endorphins, they started dating and got married several years later. I wouldn't come along until Reagan's second term.

My mother had earned a degree in elementary education and was teaching at a private Christian school on a tiny salary when she became pregnant with me. She quit her job when I was born and after five years of being a stay-at-home mom, you might think the natural thing to do would have been to enroll me in a private Christian school, maybe even the same one where she had worked.

But working at a Christian school had taught her two things: first of all, the quality of the education is low. She had worked along side "teachers" with associate's degrees in office administration. Anybody who was qualified soon found a job elsewhere with better pay. The second thing she learned is that private Christian schools are a grease trap for troubled students on their way down the drain. Parents of kids who have been expelled from the public system often turn to a Christian school because A) They hope religious instruction and Christian peers will reform their child and B) They don't have many other options. Imagine their surprise when a sizable portion of those Christian peers turn out to be other little hoodlums sent there to avoid bad influences exactly like themselves. Also, by the time I was five I had a new baby sister, which meant my mom couldn't go back to teaching at the school to offset the cost of tuition.

Public school was a non-starter, both because she also doubted the quality, and because she was afraid that both my classmates and the curriculum would have a negative, secular influence on me.

Finding a high-quality education is always a challenge. Finding a high-quality education that's affordable can be extremely difficult, and finding a cheap, high-quality education that met my mother's standards of ideological purity proved impossible. Almost. The solution was obvious. She would take matters into her own hands and homeschool me.

For better or worse, she achieved all of her goals. 

She planned out the semesters fastidiously. The curriculum and workload were carefully selected and tuned to match my strengths and improve my weaknesses. The summer break was abridged and the extra free days were spread evenly throughout the year to facilitate continuous learning. My work and tests were meticulously logged and presented to an independent evaluator at the end of every year for appraisal. I was required to take the same standardized tests as my public school peers every few years. I scored in the 95th percentile or above in every category of every test, every year. I finally entered the public school system nine years later as a freshman in high school, where I was placed into a program for the gifted. The scholastic workload in high school was a joke compared to what my mom had demanded from me.

We started every school day with a bible lesson. I read the Bible cover to cover multiple times. I memorized thousands of bible verses. I went to Christian youth group on Wednesday nights. I went to Bible Release Time Thursday afternoons. I went to a Mennonite homeschooling co-op Tuesday mornings. I went to Vacation Bible School, Christian day camp, and Christian wilderness camp every Summer. I was taught young-earth Creationism instead of Darwinian Evolution. Corporal punishment was applied liberally and vigorously, using implements ranging from measuring rulers to belts to spring-steel shoehorns wrapped in leather. Secular music was forbidden in the house. Every radio in every room and vehicle was tuned to the same local Christian radio station that played worship music or messages from the likes of Dr. James Dobson or Ravi Zacharias around the clock. We didn't get a TV until I was four, and my parents still don't have cable. I remember going to a lot of Pro-Life demonstrations and Support-the-Troops rallies when I was a kid. I wasn't allowed to have Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures because they were a bad influence. I don't even know how or why. I guess my parents thought Michelangelo's casual surfer attitude and "Cowabunga, dude!" shtick was too Left Coast.

In the region where I grew up, being active in the homeschooling community meant spending a lot of time with Mennonites. I spent a lot of time with Mennonites.

It all feels more or less normal when you're in it. Church was an opportunity to see my friends. I would bring a couple of LEGO knights or a pocket full of Hot Wheels cars with me and play under my seat to get through the service. By the time I was nine or ten, however, my mother was quite insistent that I start taking the whole thing seriously. I remember one time during the worship service she stood me up, grabbed my wrists, raised my arms for me and swayed them back and forth in rhythm to the music. That worked, somehow. It got me over my own self-consciousness and I went on to participate more actively in worship after that. I don't want to undersell the fact that I was having a truly spiritual experience for the first time in my life, because I was, but being charismatic in a charismatic church is also an elevator of status. It made me feel more adult as well, and I noticed the grown-ups in the church looking at me with respect and approval.

Growing up as I did, I was never not a Christian. By the age of ten I had accepted Jesus into my heart more times than I could remember, and extending back to ages so young that I couldn't possibly have remembered even if I had tried. Asking me when I had become a Christian would have been like asking me when I had started eating solid food. But by the summer of my tenth year I had reached the requisite cognizant awareness to feel the weight of my decision. 

I remember clearly being at summer camp that year. They had been building up to the altar call all week. It was a pretty standard procedure. They did it every year. They started off with fun, light fare; lots of jokes, puppets, self-deprecation, etc. Some Christian camp songs got people into a spiritual mood. The camp directors slowly increased the gravity of the spiritual messages all week until the night before everyone went home and then the trap snapped shut. They took everyone out to a special location in the woods and kept us awake later than we had stayed up all week. The campers were already feeling sentimental because the week was coming to a close. We sat entranced, singing around a flickering bonfire while someone on a guitar led the group in an extra long worship service. After that, cabin counselors we'd spent a week building close bonds of trust with stood up one by one and told us what horrible people they had been before Jesus Christ changed their lives. That altar call usually got just about everyone.

Like all of my conversion and recommitment experiences, mostly I remember the guilt and anxiety of it. 

The proselytizer needs you to be broken so that God can fix you. There's a lot of talk about being born into sin and incompleteness and a Christ-shaped hole in everyone's heart.

Christians refer to the Gospel as The Good News, but hell underpins all of it. They don't want you to focus on hell; they don't want you to be a Christian just for the "fire insurance," because that would be an insincere commitment. They want you to focus on God's love and forming a personal relationship with him through prayer and worship and study of the holy scriptures... but the alternative to that is eternal torment in a lake of fire. It's a weird dichotomy; like someone who wants to be your best friend but threatens to kill and rape you (not necessarily in that order) if you don't love them back. There's a vague stink of Stockholm syndrome to the whole thing. One of my dad's favorite Bible verses was Job 13:15- Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.

So every conversion starts by telling someone how sinful and evil and corrupt and incomplete they are, reminding them that the consequences of their wickedness is eternal damnation, and then when they're feeling their most guilty and fearful, selling them a great solution to the problem that was just manufactured.

You'd think accepting Christ into your heart would put an end to all that fear, but it lingers because pastors often plant doubts in your mind and try to play it both ways. It's not supposed to be about heaven and hell; carrots and sticks, but those motivators are just too powerful for a pastor to resist for long. On the one hand, saved is saved, and yes our Jesus product is 100% effective with a lifetime guarantee, but on the other hand, it does say in the Bible that you shall know a tree by its fruit and all the bad trees get thrown into the fire... so if being a Christian is supposed to make you a good person, and you're not being a good person... maybe you're not as much of a Christian as you thought you were. Maybe you're still in danger of the fires of hell after all. Lucky for you we've got a solution- it's Jesus... again. Time to invite Christ into your heart for the 23rd time. Better saved than sorry.

In the denominations I found myself and within the circle of Christians I ran with, the general consensus was that babies and small children who died without accepting Jesus into their heart would go to heaven anyway because they had not yet reached an age of accountability. That rule was also generally applied to virtuous pagans around the world who live and die without ever having the opportunity to hear The Good News of eternal life through Christ Jesus. This belief has some interesting logical ramifications. Wouldn't it be best to kill all children before they grow up to prevent a portion of them from going to hell? Similarly, if the going-to-heaven rate of a remote Amazonian village is already at 100% before a missionary sets foot there, then the only possible result telling people about Christ for the first time could achieve is that some proportion of them will now be going to hell. Ignorance is truly bliss. 

As a child I sometimes used to envy those remote peoples of the earth who had somehow managed to avoid the terrible emotional burden of the The Good News. I used to wish that no one had ever told me about it.

So that's how I got into Christianity. The next five posts will be about how I got out.


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