“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
− Richard Dawkins, “The God Delusion”
This past April, I was delighted to reconnect with a friend from college, Noelle, who is currently documenting the rebuilding her life after leaving fundamentalist Christianity:
She writes with such elegant frankness and vivid detail of her early experiences as a young Evangelical. In one of her recent blog entries, she recounts when her father sat her down to explain the facts of life: that is, that we are disgusting, perverted sinners who deserve an eternity in Hell for the heinous crime of being born (because Adam and Eve, y’all); whose only worth is the fact that Jesus loves us in spite of our hideous, evil selves.
Noelle’s Jesus is not the Jesus of recent evangelical Christianity, the deity that Richard Dawkins pointedly describes in his controversial 2006 book. She believes in a loving God that bears no resemblance to the hateful, spiteful, malevolent deity we were taught to believe in, love, and fear as children. Though we aren’t geographically close, it’s been an honor to renew our friendship and to be able to encourage her in whatever way I can in her journey towards rebuilding a life based on truth and authenticity.
It’s an interesting time to reconnect as I’m essentially doing the same work of rebuilding my own life after living adrift for so long. It’s daunting work, especially the further down the rabbit hole I get into therapy, as I realize how many unhealthy fundamentalist Christian scripts there are still rattling around in my mind.
In talking with other ex-Evangelicals, one experience we’ve all had in common is how ingrained mask-wearing was to our upbringing and daily lives as Christians. It’s a curious phenomenon, especially in a culture that supposedly holds honesty as a virtue. From an early age, we were inadvertently taught that there are certain faces you wear to church, our in public, at home, and with different social groups.
There’s a lot of pressure to appear spiritual, godly, and pure. Shame is employed as a means of policing behavior in the church under various guises, usually as concern for someone’s spiritual well-being. Prayers would be offered, sometimes publicly, for people who were known to be “struggling” with certain sins. “Helpful” advice would be proffered, with corresponding Bible verses to justify behavior that would otherwise be considered intrusive and even offensive.
“Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:1-3)
As I grew up, I developed personas (even different personalities) for various situations and people. I knew which face to wear at church, at Bible study, at choir practice, at youth group, at church band rehearsal, and out at the bar with friends. When I came out gay, I was one person when out with friends and another just a few hours later when I’d go to church. I even went to service one day after having had phone sex with my first boyfriend the previous night.
It was schizophrenic.
And none of this would be were it not for the culture of externalized self worth and affirmation that’s central to the fundamentalist Christian worldview. Every desire and action for the evangelical Christian is subject to the approval of God via the Bible — that is, the approval of those “qualified” to interpret the Bible based on their personal beliefs and prejudices.
The result is that for many years, even after coming out gay and then atheist, was that I was constantly and unconsciously looking for the approval and affirmation of others who I looked up to and considered authority figures.
“We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.” (2 Corinthians 10:5)
I didn’t trust myself or my own desires. After all: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). It took almost an entire decade to accept that my same-sex desires weren’t pathological, or evidence of my rebellion against God’s will.
To an extent, I still don’t trust myself. I struggle with the worry that I spent too many years ultimately pursuing the wrong career and educational path for me, having allowed other people’s ideas about what I should want for a career trump my own desires; that I lack the practical experience to make informed opinions about everything from dating to job searching; that, after everything, I’m just a poor imitation of a real human being.
“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 2:3-4, ESV)
An insidious effect of these early formational lessons was coming to believe that what I wanted didn’t matter. To have personal desires was to be selfish. “Dying to self” was the chief ambition of the Christian. “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
I’ve often said that fundamentalist Christianity relies heavily on Stockholm syndrome—of teaching people to be their own jailers and tormentors. And the system only works so long as you believe in it. The moment that you stop, it all falls apart, emotionally and psychologically.
Until a few months ago, my personal desires were virtually indistinguishable from the desires of people around me. Understandably, this had profound effects on friendships and romantic relationships.
More on this next time…