Wednesday, September 19, 2007

My Deconversion Story – In Which We Learn that Tevye Knew a thing or Two about Traditions

I started attending church when I was six weeks old. There was never even a hint of choice in the matter. It was what we did. Because of my early start, the Christian God was as much truth to me as the sun rising—it simply was. If someone thought otherwise, they were not in touch with reality.

As we view our upbringing within our society, certain ideas and concepts become ingrained in us. When joining a line, you started at the back. You did not randomly join in the middle somewhere. No one had to explain that to us—we observed, incorporated and acted upon that observation. We all think we are entitled to “fair.” We all think “dirty” is bad and “clean” is good. No one prefers public restrooms.

My parents did not have to sit me down and patiently explain, “Look, we would like you to attend Elementary School, so that you have sufficient knowledge to meet the requirements of High School. You need High School knowledge in order to obtain entry in college. A college degree will be necessary for you to become a professional and have a career so that you can support a family. How does that sound? Is that O.K. with you?” No argumentation, debate or discussion was ever necessary. It was what was expected of us, and to contemplate otherwise would be madness.

Likewise, my parents certainly never explained there were a variety of theistic beliefs, and while they preferred a Baptist, Fundamentalist, Calvinistic version of the Christian Abrahamic sort, the choice was up to me as to which (if any) I determined was correct. Hardy Har Har.

As I grew up, I attended school during the week and learned the reality of English and Math and History as it conformed to the world. On the weekend I attended Sunday School and Bible Class and equally learned the reality of God, and the Hebrews and Jesus and doctrine as it conformed to the world. Just as, in school, one quickly realized that there would always be more Math and more History, and one would never know everything there was to know about a subject, we realized the same limitation about our Christian God.

On Friday I learned George Washington was the first U.S. President. On Sunday I learned Jesus walked on the water. Both were historical truisms, locked into my tiny brain.

We went to Sunday School, so that when we became young adults, we would be equipped to teach Sunday School. We taught Sunday School so that when we became middle-aged, we would be the deacon/deaconess on the Sunday School Committee. Bringing our children to Sunday School to learn, just as we did, and eventually become teachers and deacons.

We learned the Bible. We never questioned its authority. That would be as silly as questioning our school textbooks. We presumed it was divine, just like our parents did, our teachers did, and our classmates did.

I was trouble when it came to Sunday School from the very first. Did you ever do sword drills? It is where you hold up your Bible with one hand, a person calls out a verse, ”Matthew 5:22!” and immediately everyone tries to be the first to find it. If you were, you got to stand up and start reading it (to prove you had found it, of course.) Then you got to call out a verse and so on. I was fast. Which meant I pretty much alternated calling out verses. They tried my holding the Bible in my left hand. Still won. Upside down and left hand. No change. Sitting on it—still prevailed.

And when I called out verses: None of those easy Gospels. Nope. Went right to the Minor prophets, of course. Good ol’ Nahum brought ‘em to a crashing halt. (My discovery of 1 Sam 25:22 and Song of Solomon 4:5 ended my career as a caller. Bible drills began to fade after that.)

We had BMA. Bible Memory Association. Each year, you would start with an age appropriate book of verses (sentences for first graders, chapters for adults) and each week you would memorize an allotted section, recite it to a designated monitor, and receive a prize if you completed your book. In my family, it was expected you finished your book. I do not recall a single family member (including myself) who did not finish their book. To this day, if asked to recite a verse, 99 times out of 100, I would do so in King James Version, thanks to BMA.

We had Awana. This was a combination of learning verses, physical games, a lesson, and doing Boy Scout-type activities. Again, there were books that needed completing. Again, it was expected we would finish our books. I wish I could report that I did so—but that would not be honest. I hated the knot-tying and fire-starting, or whatever. I finished the verse sections quickly. The rest held no interest for me.

We had Vacation Bible School. In looking back, it seems there wasn’t a program out there that we Baptists wouldn’t embrace!

Please understand, I am not recounting all this to impress upon the world how much of the Bible I learned. While I did this, so did my parents, my brothers and my sister. So did my friends, their siblings and their parents. Tradition. I do not look back and think, “Wow, what a lot of Bible study I did”—no, I look back and shrug; it was what we all did. It was what was expected of us. Brush your teeth and learn your verse.

However, if there was one area that I was a bit different is that I would actually look up the verses cited by our teachers. If they said, “Matthew 5:22 says…” I would be looking up Matthew 5:22, and its context, before accepting their particular take on the subject. Most of my friends (and, regrettably, most church goers that I know) do not do this. They take the word of whoever is speaking, without bothering to question it. (Is this the first crack in the veneer, perhaps?)

In doing so, I began to realize how many times the teacher would get it wrong. I was an arrogant, smug, little egotist, that was more impressed with me than I should have been, so I would carefully point out that they must mean a different reference, or that what they were saying did not fit the context, or how do they explain another verse that seemed to say something different. I am sure they loved me for that! (That was sarcastic, in case you didn’t notice.)

As I say, I was seen as a bit of trouble. I only became worse as I became older. By the time I was a teenager, I would watch their eyes roll as soon as they saw my hand go up. What I didn’t realize then, but understand now in hindsight, was that I was discovering the contradictory nature of the Bible. How can we have Free Will AND be elect? If they wanted to talk on Freedom of Choice, I would point out Rom. 8:29-30 and Ephesians 1:5-11. If they wanted Election, I would question how we would be held responsible if we had no choice. Romans 9.

If they wanted to talk about sin, I would point out love (Luke 6:27). Talk about love, I would point out judgment. Rom. 2:1-3 and 1 Cor. 6:1-3. Talk about Judgment, I would question how we can. Matthew 7:1-2. And yes, I was doing it to be a sanctimonious jerk, not out of any real interest in the subject. My only excuse is that I was a teenager. We are ALL jerks as teenagers!

I still thought the Bible was divine. I still thought, for the most part, it could be reconciled. The items that were not resolved could be explained away under the awesome over-reaching intelligence and difference that is God. Look, I didn’t understand Quantum Physics. It only makes sense that a creature infinitely more intelligent than the brightest physicist could understand how Free Will and Election, a seeming paradox, was not. I rested in the fact that we did the best we could with the Bible we had, and when we discovered we were wrong, come heaven, this should not be a surprise.

By teenage years, and up through adulthood, the biggest problem with Sunday School is boredom. I know that is not the “politically correct” thing to say, and I should be making some theological point of people who do not have the gift of teaching should not be Sunday School teachers—but I have been there. You can’t kid me.

Many Sunday School classes are b-o-r-i-n-g. At least with me, there was the hope it could be less boring. I introduced the “other” side. I made people think. One Sunday School teacher told me (many years later) that upon requesting to teach my class, he was specifically warned about me. “Do you want that class?…has him in it.” He laughed. We got along fabulously. Why? Because it was not boring.

By my college years, I had matured. Somewhat. I was no longer interested in “showing up” the teacher, as much as how to resolve what the Bible was trying to say. How to actually work with a God interacting in my life. I started enjoying the discussion to get other people’s views on the topic. How do they resolve “putting God first” when their schedule is so busy. How do they show love to a homosexual? How would they implement Luke 6?

There is only one thing to do with a person like me—make me a Sunday School teacher, of course! For the last 15 or 16 years of my church life, I taught a variety of ages in either Sunday School or Small groups. Yes, sometimes I was boring too. (And, to destroy the concept of “fate”—I never recall a person like me in any of my classes.)

My last teaching position was with 4-5 year olds. I was teaching the same stories, with the same feelings of truisms that I had as a child. I thoroughly enjoyed it. There is so much in the Bible that can be told, and that is an age where it is all so new. My..uh..reenactment of David killing Goliath (he cut off his head with Goliath’s own sword, ya know), was remembered for months and months after.

We were given strict guidelines and strict materials to follow. We could only use the “church-approved” books. When I started the series on miracles, the first lesson was on Jesus turning water into wine.

Water into wine? These were Baptist kids—most of them had no clue what wine even was! Further, at 4-5, their concept of how one obtains something is by opening the refrigerator or turning on the tap, it “miraculously” is there. Out of all the miracles that they could pick—this one?

Fearing boredom, I went to the healing of the paralytic by the friends lowering him through the roof. More graphic, more interesting, and far more crafts to instill the story. Went on-line, obtained some free pictures to color, drew up the story, made the craft (a bed through a roof, of course) and we went off-course from the “church-approved” material.

It seems that even as a teacher, Sunday School was trouble for me. Word got back to the Head of the children’s department. I had NOT used the approved material and (gasp!) had made up material of my own. A meeting was held. The Head confronted me, with the Chairperson of the Education Committee, as to my indiscretion.

Head: Is it true that you did NOT use the approved material?
Me: Yes.
Head: And where did you get your material from?
Me: This. [Holding up my Bible.]

Silence while the Chairperson slowly turned red, trying to hold in her guffaws.

Me: Is this church-approved material?
Head: Why…you…that…[sputtering]
Chairperson: [trying not to burst out laughing] Yes, the Bible is still considered approved.

They left me alone after that. Wise.

I understand that people may be looking for the deconverting part. You may be inclined to skip ahead, searching for some specific doctrine, or argument or event which moved me from being a Christian.

But in trying to put together my story, as fascinating as that may be, [more of that sarcasm here] I fear that some essence would be missing. Those who know me in real life do not need to hear this. They know me. My family knows this.

Every single muscle, vein, drop and atom within my body lived and breathed Christianity. It was who I was. It defined me as much as “male” does. And to truly understand that, I may belabor the point of my upbringing.

This was who I was. My feet walked to church, not because I felt some fear of hell, or because my parents did or some promise of reward. I did it because it was correct. Truth. If all you want is the cold, hard facts of “What happened when” then you will never understand that losing Christianity was the equivalent of tearing my heart out and watching it stop beating in my hands.

Without Christ, I was no longer who I was. Like Tevye, becoming ungrounded without his tradition—to lose Jesus was to lose everything.

Chapter 3


  1. Oh gee, don't leave anything out. This is great. It's like going back in time. "Bible drills!?!" Finding the 'dirty' verses as a little boy. Tradition, Tradition. Without it our lives would be as shakey as, as a fidler on the roof. Sigh. I love that movie.

  2. During this period, were you ever given materials to read or talks explaining why you believed what you were required to believe (i.e., apologetics)? If not, did you do it on your own? Thanks.

  3. Dave Armstrong,

    At church? No, most of the books we read or utilized were study guides. Books that already presumed the Bible was divine, Jesus was God, and that a literal 6-day creation occurred about 6000 years ago. (Perhaps an occasional defense of the faith, but even then, it was primarily against other faiths—not complete atheism.)

    School was different…(I am working on that entry now)…

  4. I've been enjoying your comments on Tweeb. As you've noticed the level of scholarship there is extremely low but you apparently have the disposition to dispensate.

    An Avid Fan

  5. I'm enjoying your story very much. I love reading about the thought process that led someone to ultimately reject religion.

    Of course no matter how much detail and how much you reassure your audience of your sincere belief, there will always be at least one person who proclaims that "you were never a TRUE CHRISTIAN." In their universe, I guess, a true christian could never reject the teachings for any reason. Like Mother Teresa, you know. An atheist at heart but still going through the empty motions.

  6. Dave Armstrong: it is TheologyWeb Forum.

    Thank you, sacred slut and joewallack. There will be more...

  7. there will always be at least one person who proclaims that "you were never a TRUE CHRISTIAN."

    Yes, of course. Calvinism requires its adherents to take this stand. That was Dag's old belief-system. If one departs, he never was truly in the place where most folks assumed he was.

    I have never believed that myself, as an Arminian Protestant and then a Catholic, because it isn't required (nor is it biblical :-) ). I don't deny that DagoodS was a Christian before. I have no reason to doubt it. It is possible he was not in the full sense but I could hardly determine that, not knowing his heart. Only God knows. One should take another at his word unless there is massive, irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

    Calvinists often neglect to understand that even John Calvin stated that no one could know who is in the elect. DagoodS could be saved in the end. No one knows but God.

    I even designed one of those fake church signs about the latter possibility:

  8. DagoodS,

    I'm also enjoying this, and hope you are able to post all of what you intend to post. I've added S'mores ice cream to Zoe's popcorn. :)

    I did have a question on the Bible STudies, which Dave touched on. I have friends who have participated in groups such as AWANA, and got the prizes for knowing the most obsolete Bible facts. However, I've noticed in discussions with them that if I happen to pull from Bible verses that support positions other than theirs, they ask me where it is in the Bible. It seems, as your experience points to, the Bible is memorized in a doctrinal manner, not in a "free" manner.

    So what is the purpose of memorizing the Bible? I can see how it would be helpful for those who know nothing about the Bible and thus the "four spiritual laws" can be thrown at them. But it almost seems to do a diservice, because it's programmed into people, in a certain order. If they came across people who were very familiar with the Bible and yet used in in a different doctrinal way, it seems as though the memorizer would be lost.

    I did love the "approved material" section.

  9. heather,

    You typically ask very good questions. And these are no exception.

    We all memorize in a certain doctrinal manner. Being a Calvinist, at one time I was required to memorize all the passages dealing with predestination. Because it was key to our doctrine. Usually, later, in BMA, I remember memorizing chapters at a time. Philippians was always a common book to learn. 3 John was cool ‘cause one could brag they have an “entire book” memorized. At one time I work on having all of Ephesians memorized. (I could recite chaps. 4-6, and chapter 1. I had started memorizing at 4:1, for an inexplicable reason.)

    To be completely honest, looking back, we memorized because it was tradition. All of our forefathers memorized, we memorized, we made our children memorize.

    You are right, too, that at times people think they the Bible says something because they memorized it that way, and it turns out they are incorrect.

  10. I have never been able to memorize Bible passages very well. My memorization skills are nil, which is why I went into physics (no kidding).

    However, at one point I did have John 10:1-33 memorized. I bet I can still get pretty close to reciting the whole thing.

  11. My husband and I were both involved in high school bible quizzing, wherein we were to memorize a book of the bible (Matt, Luke, Acts, and several epistles. We had teams and at the meets would have to display our memorization skills.
    But as there was no need to think critically about what we were memorizing, it was actually a disservice. I was sure I knew the bible. The fact that I could quote large portions of it 'proved' it. I had ceased to think about it except for ways it could make me feel guilty or superior. Each portion stayed segregated in my mind. The questions that did pop out were lulled into quietness by statements of condescension that if I continued to memorize, God would one day open my mind.
    The only good that it did me is to have an answer to family members now who think I don't believe because I don't know the bible.

  12. losing Christianity was the equivalent of tearing my heart out and watching it stop beating in my hands.