It’s been just over 13 years since I first wrote about losing my faith and leaving Christianity, roughly 15 years since the events unfolded that began leading to that. Lately I’ve been thinking often about the changes I’ve made over the last several years, the impact that losing my faith has had on me, and all the ways that I think my life now is different from what it would be in the alternate universe where I still believe. My fall from grace was not an easy one-is it ever? If this is the first time you’ve read my story you’ll likely find it hard to understand unless you come from a fundamentalist background, but I’ll try my best to convey it well, with dignity, and with grace.
I’m writing this largely because I feel that it’s important to reflect on life’s changes and the things that take you from one station in life to another – my faith was everything to me and recounting how it became the center of my life helps me to process it’s loss and figure out where I might be a few years down the road from now – so this is a compendium of my faith story, from the earliest introduction to faith when I was only six years old, to it’s devastating deconstruction which began when I was 19. This is, like the very first time I did it, so hard to write – as it makes all of those wounds feel fresh and often reinforces my distrust in people, it reminds me how much I miss being part of a church and feeling like I belonged to a massive and purposeful movement that could be used for a purpose higher than myself. This reminds me of how sure I was that I knew g-d, that I felt his presence in my life and that he was guiding me toward something – how much I loved him and felt his love reflected back on me. Finally, it reminds me of the silence I felt when he fell quiet, when I no longer felt that connection – and so it’s difficult to reprocess and reproduce these memories but feels necessary for my own personal growth and I hope that, in some way, it’s helpful to others who are experiencing similar things.
I grew up in the same town I live in now, Eastman, GA. There is a church here for every 20-30 people.
My home was full of violence, alcoholism, depression, and narcotic abuse – most of the earliest memories I have are somehow related to one or more of those four things. My father was in and out of my life, when he was in it things were always considerably worse – he was a bad man, I’ve always been afraid of him, I don’t want to go into it much further – but life wasn’t rosy for me when I was young. I was always timid and afraid and most of that had to do with my father and the lives I have witnessed his impact on.
It’s not illogical then, for a kid the age of 6 to cling to religion with the steadfastness that many adults fail to-when I found out about the story of grace I found it irresistible. At a small Church of God, a branch of Pentecostalism, I accepted Jesus as my savior. One of the names of G-d is Heavenly Father and some churches like to talk about Agape – which is Kione Greek for love. Agape represented a type of love from g-d that was sacrificial, that didn’t hurt, that accepted me – and I craved that.
As a result of my involvement with this Pentecostal church, I was given the opportunity to go to a church camp every summer for a few years – it was run by the COG denomination, and if you’ve ever seen the film Jesus Camp it’s practically a mirror of this camp but on a much larger scale. This is where I became proficient at speaking in tongues; it’s where I became comfortable with the charismatic movement and the idea that my relationship with g-d could be more than some fleeting experience. It was something intimate, something most people didn’t feel – and that was a heartbreaking revelation. I wanted, from that age, to help as many people as I could to know Him.
For some reason, and I don’t recall why, I stopped going to church for a few years somewhere around age 9 and didn’t find myself back in church until a few years later. I always carried with me the feeling that G-d was there, inside this compartment in my heart and though I was young I felt like this was a part of my identity that I could never go without.
When I was 13 there was some sort of youth revival at the gym at our high school, I went.
Back in the days at church camp it was practically tradition to rededicate your life every year – and I felt compelled to do the same here, at this youth revival.
During the altar call I went up, along with hundreds of others and rededicated my life to Jesus. Most kids in the South have done this a dozen times. After this event I made this commitment again every day until I wasn’t capable of it.
All of the kids that went up front that night were given the opportunity to speak to a pastor or counselor of some sort, my memory is really blurry here but I think I spoke to a guy named Tim – who was the youth pastor at Eastside Baptist Church. I promptly started attending Eastside – I was very serious about my dedication to g-d at this point, I meant what I prayed and a combination of fear and love ensured that I stuck to it.
Eastside was your typical, small, member church in the Southern Baptist Convention – it had a decent youth program of a dozen to 25 students, but the pastor was fairly young and more lively than most of the others in the area – not having been traditionally educated in ministry or theology…he was one of those guys that had lived a rough life and done a lot of bad things, and who wanted to make right by g-d. He had a heart of gold as far as I was concerned, and I still feel that way.
Eastside was one of the first churches in the area to incorporate instruments and Contemporary Praise and Worship music into their services, sometimes forgoing the dusty old hymnal that we were accustomed to. Worship became a part of my lifestyle, and it infected my pastor as well. As a part of the church youth we went to a summer camp called SuperWOW (Weekend of Worship) every year, which was always one of those experiences that left me feeling more in love with g-d and like I had a mission here on earth. That week every summer was something I looked forward to yearly.
I don’t know how it happened, but at some point my pastor was exposed to and became interested in what are traditionally called the “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” – one of those being glossolalia or speaking in tongues. He wanted to experience what Pentecostals like those I grew up around called “the fullness of god” and started to practice and preach on glossolalia and the laying on of hands – which eventually got him ousted from the church by the deacons. I, of course, was already familiar with these things considering my earliest experiences were in the Pentecostal movement.
A Church to belong to
I think I was 15 or 16 when my pastor was forced to resign from his position. I had no idea there were tensions between him and the deacons of the church, but when he announced it to the church I remember running to the front and screaming through my tears “NOOOOOOO!” I was devastated, I felt at home at this church and I didn’t know if I could imagine it without his presence and love as a pastor. I felt personally deceived by the deacons, and I felt like they were preferring their religious traditions over what was clearly, to me, a Biblical truth. This opposition and aversion to what I would see as the Pharisees who loved their religion but not their g-d began here – I saw these sorts of people as legalistic individuals who were more concerned with appearances and their own comfort than the actual pursuit of g-d’s will.
The same day that he resigned I found myself in a convoy that made it’s way to his house. There were tears and a great deal of sadness, but we left with a determination to begin a new church. Within a week’s time we were working on making ourselves a new church home in a shuttered DFCS building. I was the second person to sign my name and become a member of that church (The pastors wife was first).
We were the first and only church for many years to have a food bank, and the most diverse that I was aware of. I was so proud to be a part of that. There were white faces, black faces, and brown faces and I don’t ever recall there being discomfort over that fact. We also had a very poor congregation-in fact, the word Outreach in the name of the church was chosen because we were situated in the middle of three subsidized apartment complexes in our community that we would often go out to and grill at in order to invite people to church and to receive from the food bank. It is what I believed church should be. I loved it and I loved the people in it.
A Prophet in his own town
It was just before that new church was formed when I was taken under wing by a man who fashioned himself a prophet. He was a musician and a teacher who led worship during the years that I was there. He and I became very close, and he knew that my desires were to be as close to g-d as I could be and so he took it upon himself to guide me where he believed I needed to go. I’m going to refer to him as the Prophet.
The Prophet was nice enough, like I said – we became really close and I really and truly looked up to him for many years. We spent a great deal of time together studying the Bible, working on a radio show that he distributed in Africa, and traveling to various events and conferences so that I could soak up and experience ministry. He gave me the Bible that I used the most, a Kenneth Copeland Study Bible. He believed in the “name it, claim it” theology of the Word of Faith movement which is popular on TBN. While he was theologically fairly adept, I don’t know that I can ever understand how he could fall prey to something as ludicrous as this sort of charlatanry – but as the man was mentoring me I fell into it as well…for a good year at least.
He told me on multiple occasions that he was training me up to take over his ministry. He kept me on a course of study which included reading various books and learning how to use a Strong’s concordance and other cross referencing tools. He had me read a couple dozen books I’d guess – though I may be confused since I was always an avid reader and chose a lot of my own material. The Spiritual Man by Watchman Nee was the only book I remember reading under his guidance that I recall having a significant impact, as most of them were very superficial writings on prophecy or the anointing or prosperity by the likes of Benny Hinn and Creflo Dollar. The Spiritual Man had depth, it changed me and it made me view g-d differently. It was entirely at odds, for what it’s worth, with the rest of the material that I had read and I’m not sure that he had grasped that. I understood that book differently than the prophet and I think because of that fact I started to doubt him.
The Prophet had a massive ego. He called himself a prophet out of the belief that all believers had been called to fulfill some sort of ministry within the church. Prophet, in some interpretations, is the highest of the callings, and he really let that get to his head. He held an honorary doctorate from an online diploma mill, and so he went by The Rev. Dr. (Full Name), Prophet – if that doesn’t give you any insight as to the ego he possessed nothing will. Sometimes his ego would rub me the wrong way. He liked to talk poorly about our pastor because he wasn’t educated enough and because he had a “country boy” ways of doing things, while I found those things endearing. He frequently talked poorly of the people in the church or other pastors and believed most people to be quite stupid.
The worst part of my time with The Prophet is that his ego had a tendency to rub off on me-he said that I was going to be a prophet like him- that I was going to take over his ministry and make it into a huge organization one day. That’s precisely what a kid like myself wanted to hear.
He loved to monopolize my time, and one day he had me helping him with some audio setup for an event we were doing on my girlfriend’s (now ex-wife’s) birthday – and didn’t want to give me leave to go and celebrate with her. He assumed, without clearing it with me, that my time belonged to him and that I was going to give him 12 hours of my time that day. This wasn’t uncommon, and normally it never bothered me to dedicate a weekend to some project he wanted to pursue, but it was rarely ever planned out so that if I had other plans I could work around what we had going on. I certainly wasn’t going to miss my future wife’s birthday that I had planned to be at for weeks. It made him really mad to be challenged on this and I think that was the last time he and I spent any real time together.
The Prophet left our church not long after that and I began to feel very convicted over the fact that I had become such an egomaniac under his lead. I began to question many of the things I learned from him, especially doctrines associated with the Word of Faith movement.
One impact he made on me was that he often told me that if I were not such a firm believer I’d be an atheist. He said that I investigate and explore so much that it would be inevitable for me had I not “found the Lord” so early.
Rethinking our Doctrine
When you are a serious, committed Christian, one of the goals you have for your faith is that it is in the right things. There’s always going to be a fear of the existence of error in your beliefs. Having studied dozens of cults at this time (17 years old if I’m remembering correctly) I was ever aware of the ease in which one could deceive oneself into believing what felt and sounded good as opposed to what was ultimately true. True, of course, meant Biblical at the time. If a belief didn’t line up with scripture then there must be a problem with the belief – this went for everything ranging from evolution (I was a creationist for a very long time), trinitarianism, eschatology (study of the end times), and my beliefs about who exactly g-d was.
One of the results of falling out of favor with The Prophet was rethinking the Prosperity or Word/Faith Gospel that he was so in love with. I remember praying to g-d to reveal to me the truth about this doctrine, which had never sat easy with me fully, but that I got caught up in simply because the fervor around it was so interesting and different from what I was accustomed to. I began to study the Bible looking for answers to this question specifically and I remember reading through the New Testament with a whole new set of eyes, simply incapable of reconciling these ideas with what I was reading. This was probably the 7th time I had read through the entire Bible and the 12th or so time that I had read through the New Testament and for some reason it was the first time I had experienced a radical shift in my beliefs as a result of what I was reading as opposed to a shift in my beliefs that were a result of what I was being taught.
After attending nearly every service since it’s foundation, spending anywhere from 3-5 days a week there in prayer, as members of it’s youth, it’s congregation, it’s outreach team, and it’s worship team; I could not reconcile what I believed with what was being taught in the pulpit at my church, so in December of 2003 I and my soon-to-be wife made the tearful decision to no longer attend, I was still a believer.
I felt like I was too young to confront my pastor and the elders about it, and so we left quietly – we never even said goodbye.
After leaving we decided to start looking for other churches. Eastman is chock full of churches and we were certain that we’d find one that felt right to us. We probably visited 6 or 7 before we started to feel uncomfortable at the prospect and started to doubt that there was one for us. Part of me started to feel like perhaps I should start my own (I still had quite an ego, and egotistical men love to start churches).
I never did, obviously.
Learning to ask questions
Years of apologetics and debating with people who were from all sorts of religious backgrounds initially taught me how to stand firm in the things I believed rather than to accept the possibility of my own failures in understanding. I was actually pretty good at learning what other people believed – as a lifelong hoarder I still have all of my library of resource materials from various cults that I was interested in and I still collect oddities from the world of religious literature. I have hundreds of books and pamphlets from The Watchtower, the LDS church, Seventh Day Adventism, and dozens of smaller late Christian sects – plus another few hundred books from religions that most people have never heard of (Eckankar, Hare Krishna, Urantia, lots of new age alien cults, etc). For some reason I’ve always been drawn to understand the differences between the way people view g-d – and in the case of my g-d I wanted to prove to those that were “in error” why they should see things my way.
At the time, for most of my life, I believed that the way to determine what was true was to reference the Bible. If something didn’t align with the Bible, it must be false. This is called a presupposition and mine was that the Bible is True – capital T, True. Eventually this causes some obvious problems and leads to some questions that fundamentalist Christians tend to try to ignore – these questions progress from most convenient to least and if you allow yourself to intentionally attempt to answer them become far more uncomfortable.
Why are there so many different, competing beliefs within Christianity?
How do I know I believe the right things?
How do I weed out the wrong beliefs I hold?
Which version of the Bible best represents G-d’s intentions?
How do I know that the English words in the Bible are comparable with the Greek and Hebrew words in the source texts?
How do I know that the translators didn’t allow their opinions to skew their work?
How do I know that the canon of scripture is correct?
It’s fairly easy to recognize the potential dangers of some of these questions to the fundamentalists views which don’t allow for the Bible to be incorrect in any way – but even the most staunch fundamentalist has struggled with these sorts of issues at times (admitted or not) and any time that these problems are addressed within the mind of a believer it is incredibly easy to become fearful of unintended consequences.
Challenging G-d is a phrase some might use to describe what it feels like to ask hard questions for the first time, like you are putting g-d to the test when what you are supposed to be doing is employing faith. If you are familiar with the story of Jacob wrestling with g-d, it’s not something you can do without walking away with a limp.
Deconstructing The Bible
My faith began with the implied belief, somehow ingrained in me from such an early age that I can’t remember the first time the thought occurred to me, that The Bible was 100% true.
That’s all well and good, until you start to wonder if perhaps it isn’t – if the cracks in the armor of unquestionable infallibility begin to show a bit more than you can bear. When this occurred for me I found myself forced to reevaluate my own existence, my mental states, and everything I ever believed. Faith predicated on the complete perfection of a collection of texts will, if properly examined, fail. Mine had to because I held the Bible in such a high regard that any crack in the facade of it’s perfection would destroy it’s usefulness to me.
I won’t spend my time here telling you all the things that made those cracks visible – there are thousands of websites dedicated to the Bible’s inconsistencies that do it better than I will – but I do think it’s important to note that ONLY because I was willing to question everything, even the foundation of my faith’s veracity, was I able to see it for anything more than what I desperately wanted it to be.
The Bible isn’t true. Not in the ultimate sense of infallibility, nor in the sense that it provides an accurate narrative of historical events. The Bible, as with most things, contains a great deal of Truth – much of which has been bent out of recognizable shape by the slow march of history.
What do you do with a g-d who can’t even reliably tell you about himself? A g-d who’s word is so easily corrupted that the modern church would have no familiarity with it’s Acts equivalent?
I didn’t have any choice but to stop believing. It became impossible.
I’ve been told countless times by believers that I made a conscious choice to reject g-d and enter into apostacy. Those believers are fools drowning in the shallow end. I often try to explain my unbelief in the same way that a Calvinist might explain his belief; I’m not capable of generating belief of my own volition – I can only believe that which has convinced me to be believable. I find it interesting that the Bible often refers to faith as a gift and not an act of contrition of any sort. I have prayed for the gift of faith endlessly. It has yet to arrive.
I can’t choose to believe any more than you can choose not to. It’s not reasonable to put the flippancy you take with your faith on me.
There were some choices made by me though, after all these revelations I was experiencing came to a head I had to decide what to do with the energy g-d had previously received. That decision was to keep spending that same time and passion and energy on the question of g-d – a journey that many have been witness to as readers of this blog, and as people in my life. I had to declare this to the world, I had to fix the problem of belief and spent a lot of my life trying to wake people up, feeling angry about having been deceived at such a young age – I was pretty “missional” in my approach, but it was all the result of grief.
Jesus and The Church
As a result of this blog, where I’ve scantily shared my thoughts on religion, politics and my own personal experiences I have been able to have conversations with hundreds of people who have left or are going through the process of leaving the faith. I’ve counseled dozens of people through the process and helped them find some level of peace with it – without trying to influence where they finally land.
I’ve never felt that peace.
The longing I’ve felt has never gone away. It’s always seemed like it would be permanent – I’ve accepted now that it is.
My longing (to know G-d), has led to an unending pursuit to understand not only the Christian faith – but all those surrounding it. I think I understand Christianity and the person known as Jesus better than I ever did as a believer. Turns out, I like him. I like who he seems to be, as I understand him – and how I interpret his words and actions isn’t so radically different from my previous interpretation – but it is fundamentally different. For an atheist, I have a lot of hard opinions on Jesus.
No longer a lamb being led to slaughter in a cosmic game none of us will ever crack the mystery of – but as an example of radically disrupting your society by pissing on the legs of powerful men while loving those who gather the ire of society – and – having the societal shift you’ve created grow into an uncontrollable, heretical monster you’d need to piss on today.
So what do we do with this uncontrollable, heretical monster?
To seek after and love and find meaning in the story of Jesus is easy outside of that monster, to want to find fellowship with people who are in the same boat is natural – but to do so with self identified Christians? That’s a difficult sale. I know what sort of things they’ve said about me behind my back, not to mention to my face….I’ll pass. Representatives of The Church have created a great deal of chaos in my life ever since I started writing this blog. Between this and other activism I’ve received at least a dozen death threats, my property has been vandalized, and my house has been shot at while I was sleeping in my bed.
No, I believe the Jesus story is on to something – but just over a hundred years after Jesus died it began to morph into an entirely different story – which was codified and turned into a means to gain power and influence. Modern Christianity doesn’t start with Jesus, it starts with Paul – and crosses the Rubicon of repairability sometime between 325 and 451 CE during the early church councils.
Jesus didn’t try to build a church. He tried to assemble people to his cause. He put Peter in charge of that assemblage – and Peter built – not a church – but a commune of like minded people with a mission concerning righting wrongs and caring for widows and children. I can’t help but think that the longing I feel is because I know how good and powerful that work could be in the world. How, instead of amassing land, buildings, and money….well…you know.
Jesus’ disciples were told to sell everything they have and give the proceeds to the poor before they could follow him. The earliest records of the assemblies Peter built show that they required much of the same – but directed funds toward the common good and outward. Petra’s Commune. You aren’t hearing that from your pulpits.
I think that, if you find yourself in the same boat as me – heavily convicted and influenced by Jesus words and philosophy – it’s difficult to know what to do with that. I think the answer is found in the old “WWJD” bracelets i used to wear; Do what he did: piss off the establishment, love the rejected, and be willing to give your life for your friends.
I think maybe I’m the best Christian I’ve ever been today, but I feel no need to associate myself with the word. I don’t need to declare it, the slightest examination makes it obvious. The ire of the pharisees is a badge of honor for me too.
When Saul – who was persecuting Christians – allegedly had his vision of Jesus, Jesus asked him why he kicked against the goads(or pricks in some versions). A goad or prick was basically a sharp stick meant to keep cattle moving – if your cattle kicks against your goad, he’s going to hurt himself. If I can be anything, I want to be the goad of the church – prodding it’s stubborn ass until it becomes what it was meant to be – I guess that indicates that I’ll likely die as saddened by the institutions of Christianity as I am now, and perhaps as inspired by and devoted their Christ as I have always been.