I came across this site and have to recommend it.
I figured that if I’m going to have a blog with discussions about Christianity as the primary theme, it would be only fitting for me to delve more deeply into what has occurred in my own Christian life up to this point.
I was born the eldest son of Evangelical Christian parents, in Harmony, PA, about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. My mother is a lifelong Christian; my father is not, having converted around the age of 14. The first year of my life my father was the youth pastor of the church where my mother grew up. When I was a year old my parents became missionaries in Hungary, which at the time was behind the Iron Curtain; albeit very loosely, as Hungary took significant amounts of aid money from the West, and was a fairly mellow Communist nation by that point. My earliest memories were there. This lasted until 1990, when my father accepted a senior pastor position at a church in Lancaster County, PA, in the heart of Amish country. We lived there for nearly six years, during which time two of my three younger brothers joined the family, and I was first introduced to the idea of God, Jesus, the Bible, etc. I was saturated in Super Book, Adventures in Odyssey, McGee and Me, and all the staple Christian video series. The idea of a supreme being that created the world made sense to me. In 1996 my father accepted a pastor position in northwestern Pennsylvania, right along Lake Erie, where we lived until August 2000. I became very interested in studying the Bible during that time, and my belief was very solid. I developed a reputation at church as the one who always knew the answer to Bible questions, with one girl even going so far as to call me “God boy.” I embraced the label, however. Other ideas of American Christianity I became introduced to at that time included the “Rapture-ready” mentality, the cruciality of a Christian pushing the letter R on election day, and the insistence on a “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” demeanor at all times. This was largely picked up, mind you, from the Christian culture at large, rather than my family, whose reasonableness I will touch on later. But regardless, the aforementioned ideas have shaped the person I am today, though not in the way I expected at that time.
Come August 2000, when I was nearly 13, my father became the senior pastor at the original church (where my mother grew up), which honestly was something I think he had been hoping for for quite some time. I started 7th grade at a Christian school, which, as a naive 13 year-old with an oblivious personality, I was extremely excited for, as I assumed everyone would be as zealous for God as I was. I was a miniature Pharisee much of the time, to be honest. But it was also around that time that I realized that something seemed different about my Christianity from many around me. I noticed in chapel at school, at youth group, youth conferences, etc. the people around me were lifting up their hands, closing their eyes, some on the verge of tears, having apparently life-transforming existential experiences. I did not feel this. Nonetheless, up through about 10th grade I just rationalized this by saying “They have their way of relating to God, and I have mine.” I never doubted any of them.
Around 10th grade, I began to seriously question my own legitimacy as a Christian, when one day, someone asked me how my relationship with God was. That seriously blindsided me, and I stumbled over it. I had no deep, emotional experiences to speak of, and I often forgot my Bible readings from that very day. The person went on to express that they were very concerned about my standing with God. I felt utterly terrified at that statement. I tried very hard to emulate the worship leaders for whom God seemed to be right there, and giving them powerful feelings to boot. I envied the people who could go to Bible studies and speak so confidently of “what God was telling them.” This tortured me. However, fast forward to 11th grade, and I did what I often wonder in retrospect was my compensation for some doubts. I fully latched onto the religious right and the reelection of George W. Bush, who was a leader raised by the Lord Jesus Christ to fight abortion and homosexuality, as well as the corrupt welfare state, those silly hippie peaceniks, and the progress-hampering environmentalists. I was not going to compromise with the godless agenda that John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards wished to impose on America. I’m exaggerating my thought process at that time a little bit, but not by much. And in retrospect, it serves to wonder whether it was in fact my way of covering my doubts about my faith, by living vicariously through conservative “Christian” politicians and their legislative goals. The blending of power aspirations with Christianity. Ugh.
This mentality continued through 12th grade, and lingered as I began my time at a tiny liberal arts Christian college in upstate New York, though by then my religious right-ness had simmered considerably, due to George W. Bush’s glaring lack of accomplishment. I enjoyed college, and I became introduced to the idea of social justice as a manifestation of the gospel. Hence personal experience took somewhat of a backburner, though lingered nonetheless. I began questioning how I had understood things.
Early in the my sophomore year of college, on a Friday night, I inadvertently came across a deist website. I read the idea of God as the giver of reason and rights, and I embraced the idea. I was tired of feeling guilty for never seeming to have manifestations of supernatural revelation in my life. I was tired of blushing when someone asked about “my relationship with God.” I was no longer a Christian; what an exhilarating feeling! However, it was a low-key de-conversion. I still attended church, because I enjoyed it. I didn’t get into drugs, alcohol, or sex. I still embraced the role of Christianity in the Western world, but enjoyed the smug feeling of “those sheep need religion, but I don’t.” I disclosed to no one besides my father, one of my other pastors from back home, and one classmate. All three were very sympathetic and encouraging. This lasted most of my sophomore year, at the end of which I turned back to Christianity in a panicked haste, after suffering severe anxiety attacks. I realized how prideful I had been (another motive had been that I felt ashamed of not having good answers for questioning coworkers at my summer jobs; I’m a terrible debater). It also breaks my heart in retrospect how free I felt in my deist phase; a freedom that is supposed to be felt through Christ’s liberation of us from the bondage of sin. I had enjoyed living free of Christianity, but when the going got tough, I was quickly over it (I know this isn’t how it works for everyone, but it certainly was for me).
Junior year was much like my freshman year: I read my Bible, prayed privately, maintained interest in social justice issues, and attended a decent Methodist church near Houghton. The highlight of that school year was the Steelers winning the Super Bowl with 35 seconds left. At the end of my junior year I found out I was being accepted into the Middle East Studies Program, in which I would be spending the fall semester in Cairo, and traveling around the Middle East.
The summer after my junior year was spent interning at a foreign policy think tank, and while it was a fantastic experience, it also played a role in further alienating me from the hawkishness of the far right, as this was a definitive “neoconservative” group. Then I spent the semester in the Middle East. This was spiritually eye-opening for me, for two reasons: first, it exposed me to Middle Eastern Christianity, which, rather than personal experience, puts more stress on the liturgy as the collective expression of the community of believers in Christ (services are beautiful); and second, I saw firsthand how American policy in the region marginalizes people politically and socially, further disillusioning me with the civil religion and anti-Sermon on the Mount nature of the religious right. To this day I am very passionate about Palestinian rights, and just peace for Israelis and Arabs alike.
Unfortunately, this fantastic experience ended with the year 2009. 2010 was one of my most miserable years of my life, the first half being spent in the boredom of academia in my last semester of college, culminating in a surreal and dreaded graduation on a chilly, rainy, and dreary May afternoon; and the second half being spent back home in Western Pennsylvania working menial jobs with redneck half-wits. That whole year I was withdrawn, aloof, self-pitying, and mildly depressed. The only thing to keep my going were my Islam and foreign policy classes in college, the Episcopalian church I attended which vaguely reminded me of the beautiful Coptic liturgy from Egypt, and the goal of saving money to move to Washington DC to start seeking work. At the end of 2010, a door opened up with a friend from my summer in DC, and I was able to move in with him and look for work. I interned on Capitol Hill and worked some temporary jobs before finally obtaining my current job in May 2011.
Which brings us to now. What are my views now? Hard to say exactly. My view of spirituality has largely once again, shifted to an understanding of the Scriptures and the church as a collective expression of our dependence on God, though the theme of Christ’s redemption of the individual heart remains crucial, which I suppose is why I retain the label “Evangelical.” The former means that I love the sounds of the mysterious Gregorian chants of the Catholic church, the quarter-tonal chants of the Coptic church, and the classical liturgy in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. I am interested in ways of merging notions of individual evangelistic transformation with righting the wrongs of society, much in the tradition of the 19th century evangelists. I have my weaknesses as well. I still can get defensive when someone wants deep and intimate details of my devotional life, which I am slowly coming to accept is simply not part of my personality. I struggle with numerous sins, as does anyone. I get ornery with people espousing the ultra-conservative political views I myself once espoused. I become prideful when my Christian views are challenged. I lose my temper with my coworkers. And I am still deeply struggling with issues of personal theology, and what I think the church should be, and how I fit into it. And I struggle to find the humility to allow others to struggle with these things, even as I struggled and continue to struggle. I am still a messed up guy. I am utterly hopeless without the saving power of Jesus Christ.
But I guess that’s kind of the point.
Let’s start by defining the term “evangelicalism.” A Wheaton College study defines it, in its most basic sense, as “all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practical emphases. British historian David Bebbington approaches evangelicalism from this direction and notes four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and “crucicentrism,” a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.” However, they study goes on to note that “A third sense of the term is as the self-ascribed label for a largely Midwest-based coalition that arose during the Second World War. This group came into being as a reaction against the perceived anti-intellectual, separatist, belligerent nature of the fundamentalist movement in the 1920s and 1930s.” In other words, the early 20th Century Fundamentalist movement, in which evangelicalism has its roots, had taken a turn towards complete separation from the world, and those who came to be called “Evangelicals” contended that Christians must be engaged with the world. Out of this movement came those of us who are now labeled as such, sometimes politely, sometimes pejoratively. And in the contemporary manifestation of this faction/movement/segment/whatever are several things that I take strong issue with, and although they could be criticized as massive generalizations, I maintain that they are largely valid criticisms:
1. American Evangelicalism tends to overemphasize personal experience, to the point that it is largely taboo to question the divine origins of what people claim.
I can’t tell you many times I’ve heard “The Lord laid it on my heart to…..” or “I really felt God speaking to me” or “I felt burdened to….”. Look around in many worship services, and you will see often hundreds of people lifting up their hands, eyes closed, apparently lost in an out-of-this-world existential experience, each on an individual basis. Each person is looking for what I see as more of a quest for emotional fulfillment than looking to meet God as a Christian community. Now, I happen to attend a Baptist church with strong Biblical teaching, and is not as much into that stuff, but I nonetheless see it a lot.
I have often loved being in Anglican, Orthodox, and yes, even Catholic services, in that at the center is the (beautiful) liturgy, which is the expression of a collective Christian community, in line with the intent of worship in the Old Testament. Worship in the early church, as I understand, was primarily about the church meeting God as a group, not individual experience. The latter is, at its core, shallow, selfish, and lacking in foresight.
2. American Evangelicalism functions such that it is completely dominated by those with extroverted and/or emotional personalities.
This is related to the previous one, but not identical. In nearly all of my experiences at churches, I have noticed that those most often looked to as shining examples of Christian living have been people who are really good at verbalizing spiritual things. Let me be extremely honest with you: You know in Bible studies where some people ask deep and probing questions about your spiritual life? I have always HATED those moments. I am an introvert and a rational through and through. I always felt like I was being judged for my typical inability to give good examples of when I had “felt” that God was communicating with me. I’m terrible at explaining how my Bible reading for the week has been spiritually nourishing me. It seems that people often resort to unbiblical methods of determining such things. Sometimes I have almost felt as though small groups resembled police interrogation sessions. Why do people need to know the intimate details, any more than I need to know about their sex lives? Not to go on a rabbit trail, but back to the original point, such ways of running Bible studies very much favor a particular temperament. About five years ago, I even temporarily became a deist because I was completely burned out from trying to conform to this type of Christianity (my own pride was also a huge factor, though that’s a story for another day). It seems that many others feel this way.
3. American Evangelicals often are very enamored with American civil religion.
American civil religion is the veneration of the narrative of America’s history, which ascribes a special moral character to both the American people and the founding principles of the United States. Many quote the Founding Fathers like scripture, refer to democracy as a chosen system of God, and justify atrocious foreign and domestic policies in the name of Christ. One can see this in the overwhelming support for the Republican party among evangelicals, particularly in the area of war. I find that deplorable, to be honest. A friend of mine has some good thoughts on this.
I strongly hold to these grievances, though please feel free to either agree or disagree.