“I mean, we’re culturally Jewish.”
“But you met on a JDate!” I yell, drink in hand. “Don’t you guys take your religion pretty seriously?”
“Yes and no. It’s our tradition. And we definitely believe, but it’s just . . . less literal, you know?”
Yeah. I do.
I’ve heard this kind of thing a lot from my Jewish friends. Even if you don’t buy it all, you can still remain in the community. A.J. Jacobs writes that he is “Jewish like The Olive Garden is Italian.” I wish Evangelicals were as adaptable.
Even though I’m no longer a Christian by doctrine, I’m proud of much of my heritage. But the world’s largest religion doesn’t yet have a category for people like me — you’re either an actual believer or you’re just a lukewarm Christian, and that’s the kind of Christian God spits out of his mouth.
I grew up bouncing around mega-churches, and upon recent reflection, I’ve realized how fantastic my childhood was. My dad led thousands in worship every Sunday. During the week, he would (as we Evangelicals say) “do life” with these people, working as counselor, collaborator, and friend. His job was to nudge people toward the divine. I love that.
The older I get, the more I love about my Evangelical upbringing. I love that I was pondering existence and eternity in the context of a community since I was a tiny human. I love that I was trained to befriend outcasts and loners at school, like Jesus would have done. I love that I was immersed in different cultures around the globe while partaking in works of charity with huge groups of friends on these things called mission trips. I love that pop music and positive values fused every week at youth group. I love how much confidence my faith gave me. I love the good decisions I made because of it — and the bad decisions I avoided. I love how my default greeting was to hug instead of shake hands, even with people I was meeting for the first time.
I love that I was trained to befriend outcasts and loners at school, like Jesus would have done.
But, of course, there’s a whole lot more to being an Evangelical Christian than that. I used to love all that “whole lot more,” too. I was a radical soldier for every aspect of my culture. I was a Jesus Freak who Kissed Dating Goodbye so I could Fight For My Generation. I never kept track, but I probably converted a hundred of my peers throughout high school. I started an evangelism training small group that grew to around fifty students; I preached there almost every week. Leadership roles in youth group were a given. Hyperbolic encouragements from church leaders reinforced my godly (and God-sized) ego.
Straight out of high school, I went to Oral Roberts University, the Charismatic Christian utopia in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But after just three semesters, said utopia had essentially de-converted me. ORU had some ridiculous rules (curfews, closed dorms, no facial hair except mustaches, etc.). It was also more charismatic than the churches I’d attended growing up. At chapels, a certain dean would pray in tongues on the microphone; students would wave flags and dance in jubilee; speakers would claim divine healing powers. The crazy rules and crazy chapels made me wonder if my whole life was crazy. I got the unnerving feeling I was on the edge of a cliff. I was. Once I allowed myself to really question things, I began falling out of faith.
I went back home really (really) pissed. I felt like I’d been on the receiving end of a joke my whole life, except nobody was in on it. How the hell had I bought into all this? Did I actually pray over someone whose leg was broken and tell him to “jump on it in faith”? Had I really spread anti-scientific and anti-progress sentiments on nearly all fronts? Had I really believed it was sinful to be gay? Had I really perpetuated such sickening intolerance?
My questions were heartbreaking for my family and friends. I lost my girlfriend of five years and friends I’d known since childhood. After a while, I couldn’t stand to walk through the giant, automatic glass doors of my home church. Life-changing worship experiences gave way to super awkward “Let’s pray for Michael” moments. An empowering sense of community dissolved into the realization that connecting with others usually requires you relate to them, and reading my church’s statement of faith informed me of how little I now related.
For a while, I considered myself an agnostic. I still kind-of do, but I struggle with labels like that. Sure, the word “agnostic” describes my position on the question of the existence of God, but what about my approach to everything else? Like my Jewish friends, I want the heritage label without all the doctrine.
Unfortunately, most Christians I know would consider this heresy.
I want to ask [my friends] how stuff is really going, and hug and cry if things suck, or jump around like a crazy person if they’re great.
Christian fundamentalism (like any form of fundamentalism) rests on black and white, absolutist paradigms. Over and over again, by misusing and overemphasizing strange verses like Revelation 3:16 (the “lukewarm” thing), my peers and I were taught that we could never, ever have our cake and eat it too. It was all or nothing. This is why many of my friends have also rejected religion. Some have discarded any notion of personal morality whatsoever. Many of them have no idea that less conservative approaches to their childhood faiths even exist — the strange Christianity we experienced is the only Christianity they know.
But in attempting to escape their indoctrination, I think they have fulfilled it. Brainwashed with extremism, they are still operating as if the values of their religious worldview and the evolved-over-the-centuries ethical underpinnings that motivated them can’t be separated.
Must we accept that Jesus literally resurrected from the dead in order to apply his teachings to our lives? Do I really have to be an ideological clone of my father to find his work in ministry beautiful? And perhaps most importantly, are all of us ex-Evangelicals destined to lives of poignant nostalgia for the communities of faith we once belonged to?
I can’t accept that. I want to meet with my friends every week and celebrate life, even celebrate the teachings of Jesus and other spiritual teachers throughout history. I want to ask them how stuff is really going, and hug and cry if things suck, or jump around like a crazy person if they’re great. I want to give my ancestors a seat — just not the only seat — at the table. I still want to share my life and what I believe. I’m not a post-Evangelical. It’s not something I’ve surpassed. It is still me. Still my way of life. Still my culture. I’m culturally Evangelical.
Image by Daniel Robert Dinu.