Forgetting What It Feels Like…

I became a Christian when I was around 7 years old. It was at a summer camp for elementary schoolers. I wasn’t quite old enough to attend the camp, but my parents were part of the staff. I remember sitting around a campfire with a few dozen other kids singing songs and hearing stories about Jesus. The night ended with the typical “altar call,” one of many during the week I’m sure. It represented the culmination of the week’s efforts and the ultimate reason a group of adults would take kids out into the wilderness: to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

This was no Jesus Camp, but there were certainly heavy doses of emotional “encouragement” involved. A beautiful outdoor night, a warm fire, soft music playing in the background, a heartfelt narrative about how we were probably feeling guilty for all the sinful things we had done in our lives and how great it was that a Jewish carpenter turned deity was able to take care of all that. It is acceptable to manipulate the variables to “help” impressionable, malleable children draw a particular conclusion—that they need to give their hearts to Jesus—when it is something Christians approve of, that affirms their own worldview. Further, when a child, unable to vote, drive, or make any other significant decisions by him or herself, makes what is supposed to be the most important decision of his or her life, this is presumed to be wholly autonomous and respectable, whereas nearly any other decisions made by a child at this point are likely to be dismissed as the product of immaturity.

In any case, I was feeling sufficiently guilty and emotionally depleted. After most of the kids had left, I remained at the campfire and a few leaders led me through the ‘Sinner’s Prayer.’ I was emotionally relieved at not having to carry around the burden of my own sins anymore. Of course, having grown up as a pastor’s kid, nothing much really changed. In the scope of things, I was a pretty good kid, and I already was at church Sundays, Wednesdays, and other times in between. But I’d gained two things: freedom from sin, and an eternal guarantee.

I remained a committed Christian for over twenty years. One of the things I find interesting about my exit from religion was that it was not nearly so dramatic. Of course, conversion is made instantaneous, at least in evangelical Christian circles, by the narratives we use to accompany it, ones that seem to emphasize the power of God to change people immediately, if only they are willing. Maybe it is God’s reluctance to let go, then, that marks the process of deconversion. Looking back, I can see at least a yearlong process of exiting from the faith, and if I consider all the variables involved, it was probably more like four years.

What surprises me now is that, several years removed, I am forgetting what it felt like to be a Christian. Those outside Christianity typically critique it for its logical contradictions or its collateral damage, but the advantage of the former Christian is that they lived the religion. As many evangelical Christians note, it is not a set of doctrine or dogma—at least not just these things—but a relationship. Misunderstanding the sincerity of this belief is understandable, if one has not experienced it, but it should be taken seriously, no matter how wrongheaded it ultimately is.

When encountering religious obstinance, over same-sex marriage for example, I increasingly find myself to willing to dismiss it as ridiculousness or hardheadedness. This may be the external result, but it also maintains the internally coherent worldview for many Christians. When a Biblical literalist notes that ignoring Scripture in one place means the entirety of Scripture is threatened, he or she is not making an argument about interpretation, but about the foundation of his or her existence. It is saying, “my world may crumble if I accept that change, and I’m not willing to take that risk.”

To a certain extent, that is true. The world as I knew it did crumble when I left the faith, but not in apocalyptic fashion. It was more like a building that, damaged through significant storms and left unprepared, gradually weathered to decrepitude and ultimately collapsed under its own weight. I don’t think the debris will ever get completely cleaned up, but it no longer serves a functional purpose.


Jesus was a Circus Clown. Any Takers?

As I noted a few posts ago, my understanding of the Bible, and texts in general, was much like the positions I have been describing. I assumed there was a “best” meaning to a given text, and that my job was to find it. It was usually the most commonsensical meaning. I did not question that my habitus, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s word for the social structures that form and constrain my thoughts and dispositions, provided me with a common sense that was not common to other cultural contexts. When I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, I was frustrated when we had to explore the symbolic meanings of the “A” that Hester Prynne was condemned to wear. “It’s a friggin’ A!” I thought. “A is for adultery. End of story.” My quirky teacher wanted to explore the shame and isolation of the protagonist, the guilt of her lover, the self-righteousness of the town, etc., all within that little letter. It was my first significant encounter with the fact that the text does not and cannot constrain the range of possible meaning.

I’m now a proponent of reader-response theory, which suggests that the individual interprets and thus creates the meaning of the text. What this means is that there are no universal constraints on any particular interpretation. Why would this not create anarchy? Well, in a historical sense, it is the way that has been interpreted since the invention of script. In other words, it has not created anarchy yet. Second, and more importantly, meaning is constrained in a practical sense by the social environment, the habitus mentioned above.

This came up most clearly in a class on the historical Jesus I participated in. We were examining all the different portraits of the Jesus that scholars have created over the last couple centuries, ranging from Jesus the magician and Jesus the apocalyptic prophet to Jesus the wisdom sage, Jesus the social revolutionary, or Jesus the Jew. (These “portraits” are all painted by scholars using the historical-critical method, which serves as an indication of its limited ability to secure meaning.) I realized a couple things from being presented with so much different information about the same subject. First, there was an element of truth to each portrait. I liked some more than others, but there was at least a marginal basis for all of their claims, which means that truth is not as concentrated as I would like it to be. It’s not a matter of picking the right door. Second, I realized I could come up with nearly any portrait of my own, find some sort of textual evidence for it, and trot it out as the latest theory. There was nothing in the text to prevent me from doing so. The only limitation would be the level of acceptance my theory receives, and that acceptance is variable and dynamic.

Thus the title. I could certainly make the claim that Jesus was actually like a circus clown. He came to attract our attention with tricks and keep us entertained. It would be practically impossible to gain any traction with this theory, but that doesn’t mean it is not permitted by the text. If it is not permitted, it is because of a lack of reception. There are plenty of religious theories (think of any of the various second incarnations of Christ) that seem to us to have no logical basis whatsoever. Yet we come to know of these interpretations because there are people, sometimes a few and sometimes hundreds or thousands, who do believe them. If we contend that these movements are “wrong,” we would do well not to base this judgment on the text itself, but on the variety of other social constraints that make it in our interest not to accept them.

Admitting the lack of constraints on interpretation is valuable because it gives us a base level of understanding to engage those interpretations that seem, to us, to be radically off the mark. Though we criticize, condemn, and marginalize those who take socially unacceptable interpretations, we might admit that some of these folks have taken the harder road. We, on the other hand, have ceded the dictation of our moral worlds largely to others, other people, other institutions, other texts. More productive dialogue on the controversial issues we face can take place if we do not offload the source of our morality to an institution’s standards. We don’t have to reject any institutionalization for its own sake, but we do have to do the work to actively engage and verify its principles.


Deconversion: The Turning Point

“Well, I realized that the question of whether or not Jesus was divine wouldn’t change the way I live my day-to-day existence.”

I was sitting at the local coffee shop with the pastor of the church I had attended for nearly three years. I had been dropping hints that I was experiencing some significant shifts in my “Jesus paradigm” (in his words), and he wanted to meet and talk about it. I was on the church leadership team, after all, and led worship at least once a month, and helped set up and tear down the sound system nearly every week in the elementary school cafeteria where the church met.

It was a calculated response. I could have responded to the, “So, where are you at?” question in many different ways. But my response was sincere and I thought it would be the clearest and most concise way to convey my thoughts. He was unprepared for my answer. He probably expected me to say something like, “I think Jesus actually was more concerned with the poor than the rich” or “I think Jesus might have been pacifist.” The surprise on his face at my response would have been humorous were it not such a serious moment for both of us. Overall, though, I was relieved. It was the beginning of the end of one phase of my life, and the start of another, though I didn’t realize the full ramifications of it at the time.

As the conversation continued, it was clear that he and I were now in completely different worlds. At one point, when I turned the conversation around and asked him why the same question mattered to him, I knew he could give any number of responses. He blurted out in astonishment, “Because He conquered death!” Why would I want to disregard the fact that because of Jesus, I get to spend eternity in heaven? If I stayed in the club, death would have no effect on me. And the only way that could work was if Jesus was divine, because that’s how God made the rules. The fact that continuing to believe in a Christian heaven while disavowing the only way to get there would be an untenable position was temporarily lost on him. In any case, my concept of heaven had departed long before the divine Jesus did.

I can’t remember how exactly the conversation ended, but he promised we would speak again soon. A lot of changes took place in the ensuing weeks. He took me off the leadership team and the worship team, but I continued to attend the church with my family (and run the sound board and help set up and tear down, because presumably I could not directly corrupt others in the church in those positions—and there weren’t enough people to do them).

A couple months later, though, I received a phone call from the pastor just “checking in.” He asked me in a roundabout way whether I was planning to continue attending the church for much longer. I had still been figuring things out. More than that, I didn’t want to jump ship at the first sign of trouble as I had seen and heard so many other church members do in my lifetime.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “When I’m up there speaking, and I see you out in the audience, and I know where you’re at, it makes it hard for me to do my job.”

I was both surprised and a bit amused at that point. “Well, if you tell me not to come any more, I won’t come,” I replied.

“No, no, no. I’m not going to bite the bullet for you. You have to make that decision on your own.”

Why did you call then?, I wondered. “I’ll think about it.”

“Matt, I just want you to know, I love you man. I want the best for you and your family.”

“Thanks.” I never went back to the church again.

I ran into him a few times in the following months. Before, I’d helped him move, helped friends craft a video for his anniversary, attended his father’s funeral, and gone to a movie with him. After, though, it was just pleasantries. The love was lost, I guess. The church only lasted for about six more months after we and another important family stopped attending. I never found out just how significant our departure was in the death of the church, but in my more vain moments, I guessed it was significant. Anyway, he moved to lead a much larger church in a much larger area. I’d helped him go back to his roots. At one point in my informal excommunication process, he’d told me, “I thought I was pretty progressive, but you’ve helped me realize I’m a fundie [fundamentalist]!” I didn’t know what I was, but I wasn’t comfortable being a Christian anymore.

Of course, much more went into my process of deconversion, just as much more goes into conversion than being knocked off a donkey by the voice of God, but when you look back, you identify a turning point. This was mine.