Sunday, November 11, 2012
Raised Evangelical: Bob’s Story
One of the more tragic stories is to be found on a blog on the atheist channel of Patheos. The blog is called "Love, Joy, Feminism" (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism), and is written by a young woman who identifies herself only as "Libby Anne." Libby Anne was raised in a very conservative evangelical home that was strongly influenced by the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements. Homeschooled, she went off to a secular college, and confronted with the evidence for evolution her faith began to crumble. Unable to discuss her doubts with her family, in which her father's views were to be accepted unquestioningly, she chose to leave Christianity altogether and is now an atheist and a feminist.
One of Libby Anne's ongoing projects is a series called "Raised Evangelical," in which she invites readers who have had experiences similar to her own to tell their own stories. The respondents follow a standard question and answer format. Each story is different, but there are certainly common underlying themes. Most of the respondents are young women, there was often an authoritarian parent or pastor in the picture, and there was often difficulty in living the Christian life. In many cases there seems to be confusion about the way of salvation. Even though the person may have been outwardly quite zealous in high school, he / she goes off to a secular college or university and it is only a matter of time before faith in God falls by the wayside.
Since Libby Anne has a strict policy of "no proselytizing" (she once accused this blogger of delivering a theological lecture on her blog) it is hard to post critical comments on her blog. Yet the stories are profoundly disturbing, and the issues are of immense significance, and so we shall attempt a response here on my blog. Since I do not know Libby Anne or any of her respondents personally, I thought it would make more sense to tell my own story, using her standard format. The questions are grouped together in nine sections, each section dealing with a different topic. Since her questions and my answers are sometimes quite involved, we will spread this out over several blog posts. I will begin with Section 1 (Inroduction) and then go directly to Section 7 (Questioning), since that addresses the central issue. Then, in subsequent posts we will go through most of the remaining sections, since they provide cultural context. In the end I think we will be impressed with how much the world has changed in the last fifty years, and how much Evangelicalism has been radicalized as a result.
Section 1: Introduction
Question 1: Please introduce yourself before we get started, providing a brief snapshot of your background and overview of your beliefs today.
I am a 62 year old widower and father of three daughters. I was raised in Fundamentalist Baptist home in the Syracuse, NY area, and first made a profession of faith at age 7. I went to a public high school, attended a Bible college for two years, spend three years in the Army, then went to a Christian liberal arts college and finally seminary. I spent most of my adult life working at a wide variety of secular jobs. I am still a conservative evangelical and am currently attending an informal house church fellowship.
Question 2: How did your family and religious community self-identify? As evangelicals? As fundamentalists? Or as something else? What did these terms mean to your parents and religious community?
We saw ourselves as fundamentalists, by which we understood born-again, Bible-believing Christians. (Most other churches in our area were either liberal Protestant or Roman Catholic.)
Question 3: How did your parents become evangelicals or fundamentalists? Did they grow up in evangelical or fundamentalist families, or did they convert later?
They converted later in life. My father had practically no religious upbringing at all – his father had been an agnostic. As a girl my mother had attended a liberal, mainline Presbyterian church. After my parents married they both attended mainline churches. When I was about six my family moved back to the Syracuse area, and for some reason my parents had a hard time finding a church they liked. However a new church opened down the road from where we lived, and my parents decided to visit. It was a fundamentalist church, and there they heard the gospel. They made professions of faith, were baptized and joined the church.
Section 7: Questioning
Question 1: In what ways did the culture of your family and church differ from "mainstream" American culture? To what extent were you integrated into or isolated from "mainstream" American culture? To what extent do you feel that evangelicalism creates a sort of self-contained culture of its own, with Christian bookstores, Christian music, etc.?
Back then (the late 50's and early 60's) the "mainstream" American culture had not departed nearly so far from its Judeo-Christian roots as it has today. On such issues as marriage, abortion, homosexuality, etc., what is considered today the distinctive agenda of the "Religious Right" was "mainstream" then. We were just ordinary, middle-class Protestant Americans. There was a small evangelical subculture – Christian bookstores and music publishers, as well as Bible colleges, but that was about it.
On the other hand Fundamentalists distinguished themselves from the rest of the culture by abstaining from the petty social vices of the 20's : movies, drinking, dancing, smoking, card-playing and the like. In these areas we were expected to practice "personal separation."
Question 2: What first made you question evangelicalism / fundamentalism? Was this initial questioning a frightening or liberating experience?
Question 3: What did you struggle with most when you were in the midst of questioning and leaving evangelicalism / fundamentalism? What was the hardest part?
I think it is pretty normal, as you get older, begin to think for yourself, and become more aware of the broader world, to question your parents' beliefs. You can't help but wonder whether all the things they told you were really true. To further complicate matters, your childhood and family experiences may not have been entirely happy, and that will tend to drive you into a different direction.
In my case I went off to a Bible college that was approved by our church, and had some very positive experiences there. At first I was tempted to dabble in the "youth culture" of the late 60's, but then was led to examine my faith more closely. There was one professor in particular (a history professor) who was both a godly Christian and a serious scholar. I had a circle of friends who were serious about their faith. Then I began attending a church of a different denomination (Reformed Episcopal) where I heard some first-rate expository preaching.
I also read books. I was so engrossed by The Escape from Reason by Francis Schaeffer that I read practically the whole thing in one sitting, although I didn't understand it until almost the end. Later I also read The God Who is There, by the same author. I was also impressed by a book with a decidedly different orientation – The Imitation of Christ by the late Medieval Catholic mystic Thomas a Kempis. What a Kempis did was to challenge me to think about whether or not I really loved Christ.
What I began to realize is that the question comes down to this: either God exists or He does not. I was convinced that He existed; the order and complexity of the universe cannot be adequately explained by a blind, purposeless natural process. And if God did not exist, where would that leave human society? What answers would we have? Sex and drugs and rock'n'roll? (Believe it or not, that was what passed as an alternative to our parents' materialism in the late 60's.) Life without God looked like a dead-end street to me.
And if God exists, the only question that mattered was, what does He think? And the only way to know that is through the Bible. My parents and my home church pastor may or may not have been right on a variety of issues – and they undoubtedly were wrong –they were, after all, only human beings. But in a very real sense now that I was a young adult what my parents had said was entirely irrelevant. I was accountable directly to God for what I believed and how I behaved. Ever since then I have applied myself to the study of Scripture.
I was soon to be exposed to the larger world in a dramatic way. At the end of my second year of college I was broke and since I had a low draft number, I enlisted in the Army. I served tours of duty in both Viet Nam and West Germany. The experience left me with no illusions about the goodness of man apart from God. At one point, when I was in Nam, I became our company's drug and alcohol abuse counselor. I got the job by default – I was the only guy in the company that didn't use either drugs or alcohol. A couple of times I had to pull guard duty with the company "skag freak" (heroin addict).
And since then not much of anything has happened to me to change my perception of things. I have seen marriages end in divorce, careers ruined in a haze of alcohol, lives end in suicide. The road of life is littered with wrecked and ruined human beings. You say that the world would be better without God? I have seen it with my own eyes. It is not a pretty sight.
Question 4: Among those who grew up around you who were also raised evangelical / fundamentalist, what proportion still hold those beliefs and what proportion have also left them?
Unfortunately I have long since lost contact with most of the people with whom I grew up. I have met people who were raised in conservative evangelical homes and have since left the faith. I have also met people who came from ungodly backgrounds and are now vibrant Christians. For an interesting story about a friend of mine who was not a Christian when I knew him in high school, visit his website (http://www.billbalson.com/conversion.htm).
Ironically as it may seem, there is a sense in which a person raised in a Christian home actually has a harder time coming to Christ than someone from a totally ungodly background. The youngster in the Christian home knows what he is supposed to believe. He may genuinely have tried to please his parents and church leaders. He (hopefully) managed to stay out of serious trouble. And everyone may assume that he is already "born again" because of an early childhood profession of faith. But what is often the case is that the young person has only a second- hand faith. Unfortunately wanting to please your parents is not the same thing as wanting to please God. And once the person leaves home for college or the military, it becomes apparent that his "relationship with Jesus" was purely imaginary, and they abandon the pretense, usually saying that evangelical Christianity is out of touch with reality or that there is no evidence that God exists. God is not real to them, and in a sense they are absolutely right: they have no real relationship with Him.
Part of the difficulty is that a young person growing up in a Christian home may have never repented, because he never really saw himself as a sinner. As far as he can remember, he has always tried to do the right thing. But Jesus came, not to save the righteous, but sinners. The outwardly moral person has a hard time relating the gospel to his own personal experience because he can't see the problem with himself.
It is also easy for a person from a Christian home to take Christianity for granted. It is just something that was always there, maybe even something that was forced on you, whether you wanted it or not.
But for the person who was not raised in a Christian home, like my friend Bill above, it is a matter far different. He has seen the heartache and trouble, the hopelessness and despair. He has fallen prey to various addictions, and seen where the path leads. It is not hard to convince him that he is a lost sinner. Thus, when the light breaks through and he finally comes to understand the gospel, he eagerly embraces it – it is his life raft in the raging sea of sin. And thus, in a strange, ironic way, "Many who were first will be last, and the last first" (Matt. 19:30).