Hylton Memorial Chapel was filled with hundreds of teens. I sit here and try to remember why so many church youth were gathered there. It may have been a speaker, but I think it was a Newsboys concert.
At the end of the concert, the house lights came up a little, music played softly in the background, and an altar call was made. My friend, Kelly, whom I had invited, wanted to answer the call and asked if I would go with her. Surprised by her response, I agreed. We walked forward, ears still ringing from the loud music, and were paired with a young woman whose job it was to walk youths through committing their lives to Christ. As it turned out, Kelly was already Catholic, but wanted to reaffirm her faith. And since, in my experience, Catholicism wasn’t counted as good as evangelicalism, this was just as good as a conversion. The woman pulled out the go to tool of many an evangelizing Christian: a tract.
gospeltract.org If you have five minutes, go to the website and see all the tracts they have for sale. It’s hysterical!
I don’t remember exactly what the tract said. But I do remember a cheesy and disturbing comic about a man who was just going along with the world and not making the right choices in life. He ends up on a train or in a mining car or something, heading straight into the fires of hell. I. was. mortified. I desperately wanted to distract Kelly with something shiny or ice cream, but we finished and then prayed “the prayer”.
This was the evangelical subculture in which I grew up. It parlayed dramatic conversion stories into more conversions. It used social pressure to coax knees to the altar. It co-opted secular culture for music and merchandising in order to appear “cool”, rather than creating something original. Scare tactics, like demonic possession and eternal hellfire, prevented depletion of the ranks. Men were leaders and women were helpers. One’s sexuality and sexual behaviors were of utmost importance.
People who weren’t virgins on their wedding nights were damaged goods who owed their spouses explanations. Girls who weren’t covered up enough led boys into temptation. I remember once, in elementary school, my church’s pastor lecturing and shaming me for having pulled down my pants while inside his daughter’s playhouse. You see, my body was created by God and shouldn’t be exposed that way. His daughter had told on me…right after she had pressured and dared me to do it in the first place. Homosexuality was a “lifestyle choice” caused by sexual abuse and poor parenting. One sexuality conference our youth group attended turned out to be a speaker from Exodus Ministries who “used” to be gay, but was totally “straight” now. Music, games, fellowship, and atmosphere allowed substance to be traded for style.
It wasn’t until I left for college that the trance I had been in was fully broken. Over time, I came to realize how shallow my faith was and just how much the pile of evangelical bullshit stank. I learned more about scripture and biblical history and scholarship in my secular college classes on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Letters of Paul. My journey has led me to a place of “I don’t know”, which I’ve described as agnosticism. When I made that admission, I was worried how my conservative evangelical family would react, especially my mom. I was almost certain that she would tell me how much I was breaking her heart and God’s heart. But nothing happened.
Finally, this past Monday, my mom talked to me about it. She began by saying that between my blog and Facebook activity, it was pretty clear that my beliefs were different from what she thought they were. As she built to the emotional bomb she was about to drop, I tried to remain stoic. I had no interest in letting myself become vulnerable or getting into an unwinnable argument. As last, she said it: I don’t blame you.
In fact, she was glad that I had turned away from the faith of my childhood. It wasn’t the real thing. She explained that, like me, she was learning to make her faith her own. It wasn’t all the little things that mattered; not the “rules”, what everyone else was doing, or having the right answers.
The more she and I talked, the less I was able to hold back my tears. And then, the gasps came, deep from within my chest and my soul. As I ugly cried and disposed of crumpled tissues, I was able to allow for some healing. Bitterness was eased by some understanding. As the pain I carried with me was validated, I began to let it go.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~1st Corinthians 13