I would rather be a liberal than a fundamentalist

“This is part 4 of a series of posts titled “Behind The Mask.” This series grew out of the pains of numerous and very real interactions with other people and their experiences, as well as my own existential struggles. Often Christian writings (articles, books, etc.) are filled with so many unrealistic/oversimplified statements and rules that those of us who struggle with Christianity are lost in a raging torrent of self-righteousness and arrogant “truths.” We are urged to wear a mask, hiding our struggles with a perfect smile and an “amen!” I don’t want to do that. Frankly, I just want to be real and honest and deal with very real feelings and experiences. I want to explore the very depths or Christian crisis. If you have never struggled to be a Christian, this isn’t for you, for the rest of us, let’s talk. If your heart is crusty, dry, empty, or completely faithless, this series is for you and me.”

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I grew up in a Christian fundamentalist culture staunchly committed to fighting worldliness and liberalism. Honestly, I didn’t really know what worldliness and liberalism really meant, but I knew it was bad.

Yet I joined everyone else in the great “worldliness extermination” and spent most of my young/adult life dangerously preoccupied with fighting the encroaching attack of “the world” and “liberalism.” How could you not be? The only viable alternative was being tortured by hellfire for all eternity while demons with pitchforks worked over your charred remains. It was all true, I heard, some unknown man or woman had fainted and saw a vision of these demons in hell torturing sinners with unimaginable cruelty. Actually it was very imaginable, and I spent a great many sleepless nights thinking about those grotesque depictions, and wondering why the demons were impervious to the fires. Somehow it didn’t feel fair, they were the ones that forced people to sin, after all, why didn’t they get tortured?

A great many of my friends didn’t seem to care about any of that though. I remember asking a “friend” who was two years older than me and constantly bragged about his sins without any shame. Sergey, I would say, “aren’t you scared of hell? It’s forever and ever.” To which he simply laughed and said “no, I don’t think about it.” But I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t not think about it. It was the only thing I thought about. Except that other thing teenage boys think about. But that only made me think about hell even more. Sigh.

And so I set myself on the path of a genuine, earnest, well-meaning fundamentalist.

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“If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”- Jesus

Few things used to frighten me more than this verse, which I read as literally as possible. I began to seek out things to gouge out and throw away, though fortunately I didn’t start with body parts. When I was twelve I took my super soaker (a charity gift from a local church, oh the irony) and smashed it against the asphalt until it splintered into dozens of brightly colored pieces. A few hours previously I was told that guns are evil and sinful (yes, even squirt guns). They said the devil would start small, but eventually he would lure me into a violent lifestyle that denied God. In a second serving of irony, I’ll bet the neighbors watching me smash that squirt gun saw more violence in that act than if I had been shooting the darn gun. A few years later I stumbled upon a violent video game that portrayed an infantryman’s journey though the perils of World War II. I played it until hearing a few sermons about the dangers of video games. I was inches away from becoming a demon possessed school shooter, or so they said. (Quite literally I was told that the Columbine school shooters were acting like copycat Ninja Turtles, no joke). I quickly repented and gave it up video games, for a time at least, all the while wondering why my friends who didn’t follow suit managed normal, un-murderous lives. Later I really wanted to ask the preachers why Joshua could murder people with a long wicked looking sword, and remain free from demon possession, even as red hot blood ran down his blade, and yet I would become possessed for clicking buttons on my mouse. But fear, guilt, and shame prevented me from asking.

I humbly obeyed, but deep down I was asking questions.

Little did I know, but my wife and I both shared a childhood fascination with Pokémon. I was in the sixth grade when the Japanese anime TV show made itself a household icon, capturing the attention of wide eyed fifth graders everywhere. I was one of those children. Fortunately both of my parents job schedules overlapped just at the appropriate time for me to gleefully run downstairs and watch each new episode of the adventures of Ash, Misty, Brock, and of course Pikachu. Later I borrowed a friends Gameboy and a game titled Pokemon Red, which increased my bathroom time by a couple hours a day. Later I even got stacks of Pokémon cards, shelling out pockets full of quarters to my suppliers at school. Alas, this fun did not last. I was found out, lectured about the demons behind this phenomenon, and regretfully but earnestly decided to be rid of this “doorway for satan.” I took my large (and somewhat expensive stack of cards) to a local school park and threw them up in the air screaming “free Pokemon cards!” Then, with jealousy in my eyes and guilt in my heart, I stared at the kids scrambling around and collecting my cards.

I humbly obeyed, but deep down I was asking questions.

I started reading Harry Potter in the 8th grade. I loved it, and it became my favorite book series. Every autumn as the leaves turned yellow and the school year approached, I was excited by one thing above all.  Each summer yielded a new Harry Potter book, and I would finally be able to get my hands on it at the school library. Of course I’d have to sneak it in and keep it well hidden, often removing the book jacket and hiding it in my locker at school. Nonetheless, reading it was the highlight of my childhood; I was moved, thrilled, and captivated by the story. Until the many lectures and sermons about the dangerous Satanism prevalent in every page of this novel. I remember the sad day I finally gave away The Goblet of Fire, because I was scared that by reading it I would end up in a huge goblet of fire.

I humbly obeyed, but deep down I was asking questions.

I remember the day my sister came back from Bible camp. She went into her room and began tearing up her CD collection, throwing out all of her secular music. She had recently experienced a vivid revival service and felt earnest and genuine conviction to consecrate herself by giving up her secular music. (Fortunately for me, as she had the boom-box, this didn’t last forever). Today, I can still remember that moment with unique clarity.  I felt so guilty. I watched her throwing away stacks of popular 90’s CD’s, and deep down I felt ashamed that I wanted to listen to it. Boy bands composed the majority of my music diet at the time. (No I am not gay; I’m married for goodness sake!) Fortunately I found a few Christian boy bands to supplement my music addiction.

I humbly obeyed, but deep down I was asking questions.

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Psychologists define “disillusionment” as “a feeling that arises from the discovery that something is not what it was anticipated to be.” It’s that moment of trembling anxiety when you find that your sincere expectations and genuine beliefs are incorruptibly proven to be false. Sometimes one wanders around, fighting the traumatic emotional angst buried inside, eventually becoming angry at the promoters and proliferators of the thing that was disproven. Other times there is a feeling of nihilistic despair and pessimistic doubt, and one slowly becomes unable and unwilling to trust strong opinions and statements. And still others will quickly grapple with the data to reinterpret the events in order to fill in the deep chasm created by disillusionment.

That sounds very familiar.

Some days I felt like I was wearing a blindfold, and everyone said “If you step forward just one step you will fall off a huge ledge.” For some stupid reason I still did it, but to my surprise I didn’t fall off. They said the same thing about another step. For another stupid reason, I did it again, and still no ledge. One hundred failed predictions, prophecies, and pontifications later, I still haven’t reached the ledge. I don’t even know if there is a ledge. I’m frustrated, disillusioned with these voices, and want to take my blindfold off!

But I remained genuinely faithful.

In the last twenty years I believed statements that controlled my behavior regarding everything from clothing, fashion, styles, art, television, cartoons, movies, plays, comics, books, games, music, recreation, vocation, political ideas. Any other alternative was considered worldly and promised immediate consequences that never came. Every warning, every silly story, all of it didn’t come true. Every promise didn’t deliver.

But I had earnestly believed, how could this happen?

Disillusionment.

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“There is a time for everything… a time to build up and a time to tear down” – Ecclesiastes

And then it clicked. It probably took a lot longer than it seems, but at one point, everything that fundamentalists split churches over started sounding more hollow and useless. Did it really matter whether women wore skirts, jeans, or jewelry? I certainly didn’t care. Was television really the cause of untold demon possession? What about sports, are they really so worldly and sinful? Is the Bible really to be interpreted strictly literally? Is there a 666 chip that is coming within a few years? Is the theory of evolution Satan’s godless deception? Is science fiction and fantasy literature a modern version of witchcraft?

And then the house of cards simply crumbled. I didn’t’ push it over, it just fell on its own. It wasn’t sustainable. Fundamentalism is a religious belief that must always be held together, for the moment you let go, it crumbles under its own illogical weight. The moment you let logic, reason, and a genuine reading of the Bible without the fundamentalist apologetics into the picture, it can’t survive. I stopped fighting what many call “worldliness” and “liberalism” because there was nothing to fight. It was a ghost produced by many well-meaning, yet overactive imaginations.

Today, I simply think guns and video games are like any other objects, they can be used or abused.

Today, I think the memories of playing with Pokémon memorabilia are some of the happiest and most innocent things in my childhood.

Today I love Harry Potter and had the pleasure of introducing my wife to the series. We both love it, and so do some of our favorite pastors and theologians.

Today I would rather listen to secular music, rather than certain cheesy “Christian music.”

Not because any of that is important, but for the exact opposite reason, it is not.

Jesus is, this stuff is not.

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Without animosity or hostility I am admitting that I don’t believe any of that fundamentalism stuff to be true. Not because I am a terrible person who is intentionally waging war against God law, but because fundamentalist has proven itself false more times than can be counted. What virtue remains in following something that isn’t true? Jesus who loves his people and lays down his life, I can love and adore. Tall tales about visions of hell, 666 chips, a rapture (that happens to be at least a hundred years late now ) I can’t believe. The fact that there is a God who created us for a purpose, yes. The ideology that we must throw out solid science when our blindly literal hermeneutic won’t allow it, no.

But what if all those fundamentalist ideas are true, someone might ask, what would you say to God on that final day? Honestly, I would simply get on my knees and repent before him, because God’s mercy is certainly more trustworthy than fundamentalist ideas.

In this life, it’s the only thing I can trust.

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