“So what do you believe now?” a friend asks me over a dinner of chicken fried steak, buttery rolls, and mashed potatoes dripping with gravy.
I finish chewing my food and pause for a few moments to formulate my response. “I’m still Christian,” I say as I stare at the ceiling. “But I don’t buy into 99% of what people think Christianity is.”
“Like what?” he follows up, attuned to the uncertainty in my voice.
There’s a laundry list of items that go through my head. As I’ve made a life for myself — away from church, away from Christian education, away from my undergraduate and graduate studies — my faith has become defined by what it’s not instead of what it actually contains. Not necessarily because this is how I want to define it, but because the trappings of American Christianity necessitate it.
This seems like a topic that is simultaneously appropriate yet unwieldy over dinner at Texas Roadhouse.
These friends of mine do not believe in a god. I can’t help but see the irony in how infinitely more comfortable I am talking to them about my faith than to others who were raised as fundamentalist Christians or evangelicals and still identify as such. They listen, in an attempt to understand. They listen out of curiosity. They listen in order to synthesize my beliefs with those of other Christians. They listen because they are my friends.
They do not pull out a bible to recite “clobber verses” and prove me wrong. They do not half-listen in order to win. They do not interrupt with the goal of persuading me to another position. They do not challenge me to defend everything I believe, don’t believe, or don’t know much about. They do not make assumptions about all the other beliefs I might also hold.
When I was younger, my family only attended church sporadically, but I was enrolled in private Christian schools up until college. I was far more immersed in Christianity than just attending a church service every Sunday. Everyone I knew was Christian. Everything I learned was framed within the context of living a Christian life.
So much of what I learned seemed harmless. Growing up in a small, private Christian school gave me a tight-knit circle of friends I went to class with, year after year. I got to know my teachers well, and they taught me for several years in a row. I even invited several of my teachers to my wedding, proud to show them the person I had become.
I can’t help but remember the joy I experienced when I reflect on this time of my life.
I remember doing sword drills, flipping through the well-worn pages, curled upwards at the corners, of my Psalty bible. I remember being the first in my youth group to recite 1 Corinthians 13:4–8 and getting a donut as a reward. I remember spreading my arms out wide as I sang the words “I may never fly o’er the enemy/but I’m in the Lord’s Army.” I remember inviting a girl at my school to Awanas (partly because I wanted her to know Jesus and partly because I wanted to earn more Awana bucks). I remember playing the leader of the Shepherd Kids for the Christmas musical one year. I remember watching The Donut Man in daycare after school. I remember singing along to Two or More in the car with my mom and my little brother.
The nostalgia and the certainty of my childhood faith have been powerful forces in my life, but they have dulled and waned over time, like a full moon obscured by thick gray clouds. It has become impossible to look back on the joyful moments without remembering the troubling propaganda embedded within them:
- Other religions were ridiculous and obviously untrue because of their infinite gods or absurd creation myths.
- Losing my virginity before marriage would liken me to a wad of used chewing gum.
- God’s will isn’t necessarily for us to die with dignity; if our end days are filled with suffering, we are to embrace it, just as Jesus did when he suffered on the cross.
- One time, I made a joke about homosexuality and got in trouble because “sin isn’t funny.”
- God created the universe in literal, 24-hour days, and no other interpretation was biblically sound.
- I can’t count how many people have told me that I come from a “broken family.”
- One lesson I learned in bible class involved an illustration depicting numerous people riding down a slide into the depths of hell, with God being depicted as merciful for plucking a few people off of the ladder.
- I was taught to wear modest clothing so that my brothers in Christ didn’t lust after my body.
- When I was planning my wedding, I told people I wasn’t changing my name, only to be met with accusations that I was sinful for not submitting to my future husband.
- Anxiety is selfish because you’re making everything about you instead of about God.
- In literature class, the scene where Lady MacBeth “unsexes herself” became an opportunity for my teacher to explain how unnatural it was for men and women to act like members of the opposite sex.
- Someone at my husband’s old church messaged him and told him that he shouldn’t marry me because it wasn’t “God’s will.”
In general, Christian education aims to instruct students in a way that is “consistent with biblical truth.” What this “biblical truth” looks like in application is a rigid interpretation of the bible that almost always toes the republican party line. The people in power at these institutions truly believe in the unwavering piety of their hardline stances on evolution, abortion, sex outside of marriage, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. They portray Christian education, like the United States, as a “city on a hill” while demonizing public education.
Consequently, in Christian education, Christianity and American exceptionalism are inextricably intertwined. Politics isn’t just a tool for influencing the culture: it’s a battleground where evangelical Christians are fighting to preserve the moral superiority of the country. To reinforce this, Christian schools can’t just teach Christian values. These institutions must conflate conservative values and biblical truth in order to secure their own influence and to raise up a generation that will carry the torch and vote accordingly.
With this in mind, it’s clear why I was taught that everything was black and white. Or, more accurately, red and blue.
It wasn’t until I started growing up and had choices to make — who to befriend, who to date, where to go to school, what to study, what jobs to apply for — that I began to question what I had learned. Slowly, I realized that everything I was taught had been filtered through a very narrow lens, one that many other people did not share.
But I didn’t know that I had a choice. I was in this bubble that I never realized I could leave — until I did.
I can’t point to a specific moment when I left the evangelical community I grew up in. It happened little by little. Small fragments and pieces of my heart and mind drifted away, and as I reconstructed my identity, my beliefs, my sense of self, and my view of the world, I just sort of realized that I had left that world behind.
It started in college. I know this validates the biggest fears of evangelicals and conservative Christians, as evidenced by the many books I’ve found in Christian bookstores with titles like Can You Keep Your Faith in College? or How to Stay Christian in College. But I wasn’t brainwashed by my professors. I was taught how to think.
In fall 2008, during my first semester of college, I was taking a creative writing workshop. I was shy and quiet, rarely offering my opinion or perspective on the works we read for class. I remember reading “Sea Oak” by George Saunders, a short story about a male stripper who works at a place called Joysticks. As you can probably guess, my very sheltered 17-year-old self had never read a story with dialogue like “show me your cock.” I dutifully annotated the story in my dorm room but showed up bright and early to my professor’s office hours to…ask some questions.
I put on as much Christian swag as I could find: my “Saved by the Cross” bracelet, my purity ring, and my “Faith as Small as a Mustard Seed” necklace all made an appearance that day. I cringe thinking of the questions I asked my instructor. Are all the stories we read like this? Do you have any edited copies of our textbooks? Can I opt out of reading short stories about male strip clubs? And so on.
In my head, I anticipated that this experience would be everything my Christian teachers warned me about. My obviously godless instructor would be furious that I even uttered the words “I’m Christian” in his office (as if he couldn’t tell from the obnoxious amount of Christian jewelry I was wearing). He would fail me for asking such stupid questions and publicly humiliate me in front of everyone else at our next class, in the style of God’s Not Dead or the atheist professor chain letter.
Of course, none of that actually happened.
He was extremely patient with me. He explained that a lot of the stories and poems on the syllabus would address adult themes and language, and because I was in college, I could probably expect the same sort of content in all of my classes. He encouraged me to read critically and with an open mind, to understand the literary value and significance of each piece we read. I left his office feeling encouraged but nervous and weary of how many more penis-centric stories I would have to read.
I didn’t abandon my beliefs that day. Instead, it was one of many experiences that nudged me towards a more complex, realistic, and meaningful faith — one that is better suited for the world that we are called to love wholeheartedly.
Even with years and years of a private Christian education, complete with prayer in every class, weekly chapels, Bible classes, and “mandated” church attendance, my particular brand of faith simply could not stand up to scrutiny. Mostly because my brand of faith wasn’t just “Jesus.” It was “Jesus and” a very long laundry list of other non-Jesus things: Jesus and America. Jesus and patriarchy. Jesus and heteronormativity. Jesus and creation. Jesus and conservatism. Jesus and hell.
But when I returned to the bible, it was clear that this “Jesus and” brand of faith only made sense if you selected certain passages while ignoring others. It could just as easily be Jesus and love, grace, social justice, equity, kindness, acceptance, and so much more.
As I transitioned into a world where Christianity was one of many perspectives and not the only perspective, I struggled to see the faith I was aching for: the faith that could move mountains, make the impossible possible, and bring love and belonging to a suffering world.
Today, I am 27, and I am still unlearning things that seemed harmless at the time but that led me to divide the world into two camps: Christians and everyone else. Saved and unsaved. Good and evil.
Little by little, I’ve been able to strip away so many of the assumptions that colored the way I viewed the world and the people within it.
As I struggle to put my experiences in context and to form a cohesive narrative of my faith, it feels as though I am constantly reliving experiences I would rather put behind me. This is mostly because I still experience epiphanies that show me how some pre-conceived notion has covertly shaped my thinking on one thing or another. In these moments, I feel as though I’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg — like I’ll spend the rest of my life unlearning things that I didn’t realize were still ingrained in me. Accepting this reality is a daily struggle that has made me cynical and skeptical about Christianity.
While I can’t speak for other evangelical Christians who spent most of their lives going to church and attending Christian schools, I can say that so much of the faith I learned growing up is an insult to what Christianity really is and should be.
It was too easy. It told me that I knew everything I needed to know. I knew who to love and who to conditionally love. I knew when I did right and when I did wrong. I knew the answers to the questions that have occupied theologians and philosophers and scholars since the beginning of time.
But I reject a faith where the people who claim to love a god who made us all in his image also refuse to attend a gay wedding because it “validates that lifestyle.” I reject a faith that teaches us we are all equals in theory while women are prohibited from being pastors in the church. I reject a faith where privileged, white American Christians travel the world and disparage other religions while proselytizing their own.
Leaving fundamentalism has been isolating in so many ways. There has been so much pain as I’ve walked away from some people and been left behind by others. But I know that it has all been worth it because the life I have now is more freeing and more fulfilling than ever before.
The best part is that this new iteration of my faith doesn’t pretend to be the answer to everything. Instead, its beauty is in its complexity; in its emphasis on love and grace above all else; in its acceptance of all people; in its ability to grow and adapt and evolve; and in its relevance to an ever-changing world.