Editor’s Note: This was one of our top 20 most read essays in 2010. We’re republishing it as we continue through our “revisiting 2010 the ‘best of’ series of 2010.” Thanks.
Like so many others born and raised in the buckle of the Oklahoma “Bible belt,” I was Christianized from an early age. My father was a pastor, and as a PK (Pastor’s Kid), I didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Flannel boards, K-Love, VBS, purity rings, Precept Bible Studies, DC Talk, and potluck lunches – all of this just came with the territory.
Somewhere early on, I absorbed the basic Calvinistic idea that the material world, like the material body, was colonized with eeeeviil. Most importantly, I was hard wired for eeeeviill. Every thought, impulse, feeling, and desire contained latent Dionysian energies roiling within them.
I distinctly remember attending a youth bible conference where the speaker confronted us on masturbation. Gulp. Blanch. Awkward. Stare at the floor. Crickets.
Well after the preacher finished bludgeoning us with guilt, a teenage boy scuffled to the front of the stage and shared his story of how he believed that God broke his hand during a baseball game to stop him from doing the deed. I was so naïve about the whole matter I thought that even adjusting my jock strap during a baseball game was “m”-ing it. Afterward, I joined the huddle of sobbing, acne covered boys down front, and hugged and cried and confessed sins of which I hadn’t really committed!
The point I’m trying to make is that I was systematically programmed to filter everything through the lens of sin. As a result, I lived under a constant fear of judgment for the sins I was harboring in my “idol factory” of a heart. Moreover, I was constantly looking for reasons to judge others for their sins. To this day, I still find it easier to articulate the bad news of the Gospel than the good news. Wickedness and corruption, depravity and idolatry, the “lust of the flesh” and the “deceitfulness of the heart” – this was just part of the lingua franca of my youth. It still is, honestly.
My father, it should be clearly documented, never preached “hell, fire, and brimstone.” His messages were always filled with grace. But there were those in his congregation – “fundies,” I like to call them (short from fundamentalist). And no doubt I got my full dosage of “fundy” indoctrination. I remember once, for example, attending a lock-in, where at about 2 am in the morning, our youth pastor showed us a grainy 1970’s movie about the rapture. The story followed this girl who scoffed at her Christian friends, and then after they disappeared, she realized to her horror that she got “left behind.” Eventually this girl comes to Christ. The final scene, from what I can recall, was something out of a Scorsese film, with gratuitous blood and body parts and decapitated heads rolling around. Anyway, the girl chooses to “take a stand for Jesus,” and the final scene is of her screaming hysterically as an iron blade drops down with murderous force on her neck, silencing her screams, as the screen goes black. Moments later, I’m not joking, I was literally crawling over writhing adolescent bodies to get to the altar to rededicate my life to Christ.
Perhaps you have similar “Christianizing” moment. And maybe your conversion story is similar to mine, where you got the hell scared out of you. Looking back, I realize now that maybe both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of my faith formation might have been faulty. I can’t tell you how many times, for example, I was coached up on how the most effective lead-in question to evangelize a lost person was to ask them, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?” Obviously, when it came to the vertical, heaven was the ultimate goal; hell the anti-goal. Holiness then was the horizontal focus; the penultimate goal. I was taught almost daily, for example, that true Christians were to be in the world but not of the world. In my pre-adolescent world of Christian schools and youth groups and summer bible camps, this was code for not dropping four letter words like Chunk in Goonies, not seeing movies like Ghostbusters, not going past first base with Shannon Davidson, and not crotch grabbing and gyrating like Michael Jackson.
It’s many years later, and now as a self-diagnosed “post-evangelical” and “recovering Christian school teacher,” I can’t help but ask questions that are meant to challenge the theological paradigms that I have operated within most of my life.
Lately, for example, I’ve been wrestling with questions like these:
What if heaven was never the goal that God had in mind for us?
What if being “in” the world and not “of” the world is more about the world knowing us by what we are for than what we are against?
What if Jesus’ understanding of his own mission and story is quite different from our understanding of it?
What if Jesus understood salvation less in terms of the afterlife and more in terms of the here-and now?
And what if, as a result, we have made heaven out to be something it was never meant to be in God’s overarching dreams for all creation?
Perhaps by wrestling with these questions we can discover the sham parts underneath our theological formation, and in so doing, make room for a fresh revelation that will launch us into a new way of being human.
To do this I believe we must give ourselves to the task of deconstruction. Too often Christians hear deconstruction and think of the word destruction instead. The two words, however, are very nuanced in meaning. To destroy involves an act of tearing something down to bring harm and ruin to others. The haunting images on 9/11 of the Twin Towers collapsing in a colossal plume of metal and dust come to mind. What happened that tragic day was meant solely to do harm to humanity. Deconstruction, however, involves the opposite motive. To deconstruct involves the act of tearing something down that threatens our humanity, like an unsafe apartment building on the brink of collapse. To deconstruct then is an act of genuine concern. It is meant to rescue us from something potentially life destroying. It’s more than that though. To deconstruct is also meant to clear away the debris to make room for a new kind of scaffolding. If you have ever seen an episode of Extreme Makeover, you know what I’m talking about then. Before Ty Pennington can build a new home, he must first bulldoze down the old one. Usually the scene on the show where Ty records the demolition team tearing down the old house is cause for celebration. Families watch and wince and squeal with guilty pleasure as they see their dilapidated home get leveled, knowing that something entirely new, stable, and breathtakingly good is about to be constructed in its place.
That’s what I hope to do in these posts. I seek to deconstruct the parts of my theological scaffolding that are cracked with unhealthy dogmas and potentially harmful propositions. To not self-deconstruct then would be to make room for eventual spiritual self-destruction.
One final caveat: I want to be careful that I don’t strike a polemical tone in these posts. Like so many Christian school kids I’ve known, I’m not writing from a jaded, pissed off place. I’m not out to give the church the finger Eminen-style. I’ve put enough distance between the Christian ethos I was raised in and the Christian ethos I worked in to look back with a gentle, thankful, humorous, and critical eye. Moreover, I want to honor my theological heritage, not dishonor it. My parents loved Jesus, and I’m grateful that an extension of their love for Jesus was sending us to Christian schools, youth groups, and even sports camps.
No kidding, after seeing The Karate Kid, I wanted to become like “Danielson”, so I begged my parents to send me to Eagle Lake Karate Camp. They did and it was awesome breaking blocks of wood for Jesus!
Most importantly, I am convinced that there are many others in the evangelical world who are asking hard questions. My parents are some of them. They understand that deconstruction is not the same as destruction, and that the goal of it all is to be transformed more into the dazzling image of Jesus. In fact, many of the books I have been reading (which I will mention in a future post for those who want to read), I have passed onto my parents, who surprisingly have not only read them, but in many places, agreed with them. Perhaps then there are more evangelicals like me from my generation, and my parents from their generation, who are mutually wrestling with their theological paradigms, willing to participate in an exercise of deconstruction in hopes of clearing the theological ground for a new kind of architecture that will draw others unlike you and me in where they will feel at home.
Read “Part 2” HERE. Thanks.
9 thoughts on “Deconstructing My Christianized Self, Part 1 (republish: “Best Of”)”
First off, I love the term ‘post-evangelist.’ It’s so thoroughly concise.
Also, this all ties in very well with a book I finished last week called Abba’s Child by Brennan Manning. If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you give it a go.
Finally got a chance to read your posts and love what you are writing here! Hope to see more.
Thanks for writing your thoughts. I’ve never been to Oklahoma but this area in Pennsylvania definitely sounds like what you are writing about. It gives me so much hope to hear other believers speaking out. I keep wrestling with the Christian mindset we seem to have realizing that much of it is not based on scripture but on culture. Frankly, I get a sick feeling when the normal fundamental Christian ideas are spoken because it seems like the point of the gospel and the point of whatever scripture is being discussed is missed in our Christian mindset. As a member of the “older” generation, I encourage you to question your faith and beliefs and then build on that foundation. Blessings to you as you continue your walk. Thanks for your honesty!
Donny and Sarah,
Thanks for your encouraging words. I think it was John Steinbeck in East of Eden who said, “The only stories that we ultimately care about are those that are about us.” We all have stories of moments that have shaped the way we think about everything, particularly spiritual things. I hope in this post and those to come to give us permission to look at some of our storied moments that have perhaps distorted, misshaped, and pushed us in the wrong direction in terms of what generous, dynamic, and ultimately life-giving spirituality looks like. Love to hear more of your thoughts.
Grace and Peace, JB
Thank you. Thank you for putting into words what Matt and I have been struggling with and trying to find the words for. We can totally relate. It is a hard journey…but so necessary. I truly believe in the end, like you said, we will look more like Jesus and act like Jesus rather than hiding behind our buildings, and the misconceptions we have from the flannel graph days.
Josh, this is great and in alot of ways the exact place I am in right now. I see so much wrong and I am battling what to do and how to do it. Thanks for posting. I have a few questions for you!
Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad that you are also probing, critiquing, questioning, and ultimately seeking clarification for deeper, more intentional living. I forgot the professor’s name, but he is famous for saying, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind.”
I love this! I don’t believe that to be a Christian, you have to check your brain at the door and just swallow what others spoon feed you. It’s great to ask these questions so that we may be “thinking” believers. Great job 🙂
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