There were three churches in the small town where I grew up. My family attended the Church of Christ, but there were also Methodist and Nazarene churches. Most of my friends attended either my church or the Methodist. We always felt sorry for the kids who attended the Nazarene Church. That church was strict about girls and women not wearing makeup, and that was something we looked forward to. The Nazarene Church also frowned on dancing, and my friends and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to attend the Junior High, which held periodic dances. We also felt sorry for the Nazarene kids because their church was housed in a metal building, not “nice” ones like ours. The core beliefs might not have been that far apart, but one of the major disagreements revolved around baptism. My church firmly, righteously, insisted on verbally dedicating one’s life to Christ by the early teens at the latest, followed by immersion. The other two churches baptized by “sprinkling”, and each insisted its way was the only way. I guess all those “Judge not that ye be not judged” speeches fell on deaf ears.
When I was in 4th grade, we got a new pastor. He and his wife had three young boys. Initially, they were welcomed warmly by our congregation. The pastor was young, enthusiastic, and his joyful spirit spread quickly through our congregation. When I was in Junior High, it was our pastor’s idea to take the Junior High youth group to the city of Akron to see the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I remember how plush the seats were, so much nicer than in our little hometown Duncan Theater. How I laughed at that movie, and afterward we went out to eat, which I think was a pretty rare thing for any of us then. It sounds silly, but I had so much faith then, faith in my church, faith in the world, even faith in my faith.
My youthful attendance at the Church of Christ in my little town was awash in salvation testimonials that consistently backfired for me. Meant to inspire with tales of redemption, more often than not these stories, books, and films clued me in to the horrors of the world. For instance, there were the knife fights I learned about in The Cross and the Switchblade. My Sunday school teachers all kept warning us that something would forever be missing from our lives if we didn’t completely immerse ourselves in the religious dogma they insisted on drumming into our heads. But for me, all the lectures began to turn me against what I started to think might be fake Christianity.
The faith that I still had was shaken later that year when our Sunday School teacher chastised a teen visiting from another town, telling her that she must convert to “our” particular church or she would go to hell. That church didn’t baptize by immersion as ours did, and “everyone knew”, the teacher said, that immersion was the only way to be saved. A couple of others and I questioned the teacher. We were told that good Christians never questioned. But I did, and I felt terrible for that girl, who fought back tears that day, and never visited our church again. A few years later, a group of people from our church chased our pastor, that fine man, out of the ministry because he once rode a sled downhill with the woman who taught our High School Sunday School class.
For a long time after that, even after I grew up, and still completely believed, I had the pervading feeling that something could be missing from my life, different things at different times. But why? Why was something missing? If not success, then love, if not love, then friendship, if not friendship, then something else, even something as simple as an ingredient. Is there a cook alive who has not had the experience of baking cookies; creaming the butter and sugar, mixing in the eggs, then adding the flour, baking soda, salt, and vanilla, and only then realizing that someone has found and eaten the entire bag of chocolate chips she thought she had hidden so well? Occasionally, I even used to wake up and wonder: what will be missing today?
Eventually, I fell away from religion. Today, I see religion as completely wrapped up with Republican policies. I know that doesn’t explain why I fell away to begin with. Many people who are religiously unaffiliated still believe in God. But the scandals in the church of my youth sparked a crisis of faith for me. I began to view religion’s rules as antiquated, restrictive, and irrelevant to my life. Today I am at the point that I can barely stand Christian conservatives and their social agenda.
I identified as a Christian, at least intellectually, for many years, even though I no longer attended church. But, more and more, I began to believe that Christianity might be a crock of shit. I kept up appearances, mostly so that I didn’t get the “I’ll pray for you!” If I told people what I actually felt, I knew I’d get the ‘talk’. “Do you really want to burn in Hell?” I thought Jesus was okay. He seemed like a decent guy. But if I mentioned that I wasn’t convinced he ever lived, and moreover, if he did, he was not white, given the area of the world in which he lived, I was met with either condescension or disgust. “Judge not that ye be not judged” seemed to apply to deaf ears of all ages.
If I asked random Christians to explain the Gospel, could the majority of them explain it? I doubt it. If you can’t explain your faith, do you really know it? I think if you asked most professed Christians why they are Christian, they would immediately tell you that they were born into a Christian household. It’s like hearing someone proclaim that they are Republican or Democrat because that is the environment their parents raised them in.
Many of the “Christians” who are my FB friends seem to ascribe to the moral view of God as some sort of cosmic genie who will give you candy if you are a “good” Christian, like the butterscotch candy my Grandma used to give me as long as she thought I was being nice. If we are nice to each other, we’ll end up at the pearly gates. Of course, for the majority of the “good” Christians that I know, being nice only seems to apply to being nice to other white folks. The mark of Christians I see today is outrage and condescension, particularly when it comes to politics. If someone says something they disagree with, they show no signs of respecting that person, let alone loving them.
My Mom and I disagreed about lots of things. By the time I was a full-fledged adult, I did not share her religion. I got on her nerves sometimes, and she surely got on mine. But we always loved each other. Our differences of opinion didn’t really matter, and made us appreciate each other more. She would prefer that I not burn in Hell because I never took my children to church. But she loved me.
Now, it annoys me to no end when someone implies that one has to embrace a certain religion to hold to any standards of behavior. I respect everyone’s right to believe as they wish. For me, in spite of the fact that I am part of the rapidly growing group of the un-churched, my life is full.