Exodus: Chronology of an Apostate (Part 3)

My parents changed churches three times in the first eighteen years of my life. Because our social lives more or less revolved around church, this was a pretty big shake up every time it happened. Tears were shed, friends were lost, routines changed. Until the last defection, my parents had a penchant for joining small splinter churches. I remember a lot of services in school buildings, private homes, old warehouses, and rented rooms. I think they liked the fresh enthusiasm, the creative potential of the new, and being a part of the church-building process. The Protestant denominations have an antiestablishmentarianist streak anyway, and these were also very fundamentalist, very literal Christians who sweated the biblical details, so there was always a molehill worth dying on.

Our third stop was a five-year stint at a church started by an artificial wood siding tycoon, Mr. Veit. He was a former Mennonite, a multi-millionaire, a charismatic preacher, and a big believer in the prosperity gospel. It would be too easy to weave a narrative highlighting the irony of hundreds of middle-class people paying ten percent of their incomes to a church started by a guy who lived in a small mansion and upgraded his luxury cars every two years, but the truth is that my parents tithed ten percent of their income to every church they ever attended. As far as I know, Mr. Veit didn't take a salary and he spent a lot of his own money on the building we eventually moved into. That said, I don't remember many of the church's members becoming unusually prosperous, despite the material wealth Mr. Veit assured us was in store if we trusted God to provide for us and were obedient to the principle of biblical tithing. A few people at church who were especially close to Mr. Veit did end up buying rental houses and opening the occasional restaurant, but I suspect that was more a function of being the close confederate of an influential man with a lot of money rather than the blessings of a just God rewarding generous tithing.

Mr. Veit, or Jerry as everyone called him, also had a lot of connections in the world of international ministry. Mission trips were commonplace at his church. I built a house in Honduras and renovated a school in Haiti, my father spent a week in Chile repairing a ship for World Vision. Jerry was good friends with the guys over at IHOP, of whom I have written before. He also had a lot of connections with some big-name apostolic preachers in Ghana and South Africa. Jerry's oldest daughter married the son of one of these South African preachers in what kind of looked like an arranged marriage, but I'm going to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt and say that it merely appeared... vaguely... to the casual, outside observer... to be an arranged marriage. Needless to say, Jerry was delighted by his daughter's selection. And that's how Jet (I don't remember his real name, everyone just called him Jet), son of an influential South African apostle, came into our lives.

Jet was OK, I guess. He was in his early twenties at the time and automatically became co-leader of the youth group upon his arrival, so kids my age at the church spent a lot of time with him. He made quite an effort to impress us. Maybe too much of an effort, to be honest. I was twelve years old and quite literally making the transition from child to teenager. But even at that age (and a little insecure myself) I could sense when people were desperate to be liked. Jet was one of those people. He used to show us videos of South African beat boxers as a point of national pride and tell weird little white lies, like that his Nissan car had a VTEC engine. I'd just nod and smile awkwardly. Everyone knows VTEC engines are made by Honda, not Nissan.

Jerry's son (and now Jet's brother-in-law), Will Veit, was about four years older than me and fresh from the DMV when Jet came over. Jerry bought Will a Lexus SC400 to celebrate the occasion, and I remember riding in the back of it one Sunday with Will driving and Jet riding shotgun. We were on the windy, wooded roads behind the Veit estate and Will was taking his newly acquired driving acumen and car to their limits while Jet cheered him on. At the time it felt like a dangerous, escalating, self-reinforcing cycle of each trying to impress the other, but I was twelve and had almost exclusively driven with my relatively sedate parents my whole life, so maybe it was half as wild as I remember.

What I remember clearly however, is that they used... profanity! Words like damn, shit, maybe even hell; I can't recall exactly. It was a veritable whirlwind tour of Swearsville. I was shocked- here were the sons of two respected apostles, themselves leaders of the church youth group, laughing and using forbidden words; words which my mother had spent the last twelve years assuring me were quite displeasing to God. They must have picked up on my discomfort at some point during the ride, because we ended up having a short conversation about profanity. They explained that it was the intent of words which made them "righteous" or "unrighteous." Making the noise "damn" was no different from uttering the sound "darn" if anger and hostility were the inspiration for both. God cares about the intent of the human heart, not one combination of letters or another. To this day, that explanation makes perfect sense to me. What didn't make sense was my mother's explanation when I asked her why exactly it was that God so frowned upon expletives.

She mumbled something about Matthew 5:22, and in fairness to her it was pretty late in the evening so she probably just wanted me to go to bed, but I found her answer to be wholly unsatisfying.

Matthew 5:22 is one of the go-to verses on profanity and it goes a little something like this-

"You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.' But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell." Matthew 5:21-22

This verse seems, in fact, to support exactly what Will & Jet told me in that Lexus so many years ago. It's about the anger, not whether you say "fool" or "fuck." My mother's half-hearted defense of the Bible's profanity prohibition and the fact that the conversation ended with her saying something along the lines of, "Just trust me; it's bad," opened my eyes to a very startling possibility. Perhaps not everything she had been feeding me was actually from God. Maybe there was some distortion of that message on its way from God's mouth to my ears. Maybe it had been tampered with. Maybe my mother (and lots of people like her) had been adding their own opinions and life advice this whole time and coating them in credibility co-opted from the bible to keep their kids from questioning it.

I remember quite distinctly, it was at this moment that the proverbial scales fell from my eyes and I realized that God and my mother might have separate agendas. Her interpretation of the Bible might not be the authoritative version. I made the switch from credulous to incredulous.

I suspect many of you can relate to that moment when you first realized that your parent is a fraud. Or at the very least, that they are merely mortal; not the omniscient, omnipotent entity they first appeared to be in your early childhood.

With my dad that moment came many years earlier. I had just got done watching Bill Nye the Science Guy and I went downstairs to the basement to see what my dad was up to. I think he was unloading the dryer. Bill Nye fresh in my mind, I asked my father some follow-up question about the moon, and his answer contradicted what I had just learned. That's when I realized that A) This guy doesn't know shit about the moon, and B) That's not going to stop him from pretending he does. I became a life-long dad skeptic on the spot. Funny how stupid little moments of clarity stick with you forever. I'm sure my dad has no recollection it. Why would he? For him it was just yet another day spent making up moon facts so his son would shut up, the same as every other day.

Profanity was but the first crack of daylight as the lid of Pandora's box opened. I saw our church's worship leader laughing at Eddie Murphy's bawdy and irreverent humor in the sacrilegious film, Holy Man. Someone brought GTA III to a youth group lock-in at the church, and we played it all night with no one batting an eye at the murder, mayhem, or prostitutes. There were less Puritanical ways to be Christian, there were happy people out there doing it, and my mom and everything she had taught me were not synonymous with God. I was learning to reject arguments from authority, and after those first dominoes fell, my Christian faith was living on borrowed time. It was a question of when, not if, I would pull hard enough on that thread for the whole thing to unravel.

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