What This Post Isn't
|This post is a bit of a downer. So here's a picture of my|
cat with our remote.
And this is certainly not a "Oh, poor pitiful me, look what the nasty church folk did to li'l ol' me! Wahh, wahh, wahh!" sob-fest. Something happened to me that had no business happening, based on what was endlessly drilled into my head. And now, I'm calling "BS!" on it, that's all. In fact, some of you reading this may go "Oh, okay, this explains everything!"
In fact, let the record show that my 20 years at Park Street Church did me a world of good. I made a lot of close friendships that endure to this day, and I received a lot of excellent instruction and guidance that helped navigate the maze of modern faith a little easier (and, I have a feeling, a maze that was much simpler, if it existed at all, at the very beginning of the whole Christian thing). The various fellowships really got me through some rough times, especially as a teenager and young adult. Nothing can change that. It's just that, since events that will be relayed in this post, I've decided to hold up a lot of the things I've been taught to closer scrutiny and tougher questioning.
Why Dredge Up Something That Happened 25 Years Ago?
Because if there's even the slightest chance that even one person can walk away from reading this and realize that you can be a Christian without becoming a complete tool and/or committing intellectual suicide, if there's even a small chance that someone who was disgusted by religion reads this and considers giving God another try, or if there's even one person out there who is going through or who has gone through a similar situation and is still trying to make heads or tails out of it, then it's worth posting.
Besides, there wasn't a fully developed social media-oriented Internet back then, let alone online blog, where one could vent and get it all out in the open, so there!
A Call To Service
It all started in the mid-80's. My then wife and I were settled into our marriage, well-situated at Park Street Church, and comfortably set in our jobs at work. Kids were still a ways away thanks to the Glorious Peoples' Five-Year Plan (in other words, no new glorious people in the house for five years). Life had settled down. It was about this time that I thought that I'd like to serve the church in some capacity.
It was brought to my attention that Park Street's high school group needed adult volunteers to serve on staff, and that it would be a good fit for me. After all, I had joined the high school group back in 1974, where I became a Christian in more than just name then, and had found a place where I belonged. The friendships I made there, and the ways that God had worked in my life helped me make it through those tough high school years. Part of this support came from the adult volunteer staff, particularly one staffer named Bob French, who introduced me to Avalon Hill war games.
Perhaps there was some lonely, overweight kid who wasn't fitting in at school and was teased, but was turning to God for answers and help. Perhaps this was my way of giving back to the church. I talked it over with some people, and they agreed that I would be temperamentally well-suited to work with high schoolers because I could easily relate to them (translation: You're just a big kid yourself, JT).
My Beliefs Before
|The way I felt from the late 70s to late 80's|
I should also state for the record that my conservative Christianity wasn't "perfect". After all, I had difficulty accepting the idea of women being submissive, and unable to, say, become a member of the clergy. I had the whole SF/Fantasy thing going on, and although I lived my life by The Book (literally and figuratively), I didn't think the Earth was actually created in a week and was only several thousand years old. My credulity had its limits. I also wasn't too keen on the Christian sub-culture. My tastes in music, movies, books, and tv was definitely "secular". I can name two Christian musicians, for instance, that I think are worth the time of day (Steve Taylor and guitar genius Phil Keaggy, for the record).
And, of course, I had been taught that my church was my spiritual family, here to support me and help me grow into an awesome mature Christian. The body of Christ, as manifested at Park Street, was my safe harbor, a source of strength, comfort, and when needed, correction. The secular world didn't understand, and would persecute me. The church was better than that. And not only that, there was even a certain implication that Park Street's way was just a little better. I also won't even go into detail about what many of the people around me thought about the Catholic Church at the time.
Although one of the pastors that led Park Street's college fellowship tried to repeatedly drill into everyone's heads that the attitude of believers when dealing with non-believers was to be "as a beggar telling another beggar where to find food", there was the sense of condescending superiority that manifested itself in certain circles in the group.
|Me, being a pillar of Christian maturity on high school staff|
And so it went, for about a year or so. Maybe two. I don't know, frankly, the dates are a little fuzzy, but I know that my tenure there overlapped with the birth of Adrienne, my first kid, in May of 1987.
Trouble Heads Its Ugly Rear
So sometime after Adrienne was born and we had moved out of our duplex in Boston and bought a house in Randolph, a few of the parents organized a sort of "meet and greet" thing for all of the high school staffers and the high school parents. Hey, sounds great!
|Contents: Rulebook, adventure, dice, crayon, and|
So there I was, at this sort-of party held at the house of one of the more well-established church families, when one of the parents asked me about myself, where I lived, how I joined the church, and what I did for a living. I explained that I was a stay at home dad, and that I brought in income as a full-time freelance writer. Intrigued, the parent continued the questions and asked me what I wrote.
And that's when I said the words that would change religion for me forever.
"Oh, role-playing game books. You know, like Dungeons and Dragons."
Cue the needle being dragged across a record.
The smile froze on the parent's face. "Oh, I see. That's...nice," came the reply. Or words to that extent.
I should have known something was up when suddenly a shadow crossed the face of the moon, a vulture alighted in a nearby tree, a wolf howled, and the Eye of Saruman turned its baleful gaze towards me. I may as well have said I ran a baby mill that specialized in selling sacrificial infants to cults around the country.
Nobody Expects The Parental Inquisition; Actually, No, Everyone Expected Them
|Our chief weapons are gossip, ignorance, slander, and a|
total disregard for the Bible!
Yeah. Now, people were "concerned" about me. And, in true Christian social etiquette, rather than being approached directly, a small group of parents took their concerns to the Youth Pastor.
Because, you see, Dungeons and Dragons promoted witchcraft, demonology, suicide, and Satan. Kids lives were being ruined by it. And now here's a staff member who not only plays the game, he also writes for them! I'm still convinced that somewhere out there, there's someone working feverishly in an isolated room, trying desperately to prove that D&D was responsible for World War Two.
So naturally, the parents were "concerned". They were "concerned" for my immortal soul, they were "concerned" about the effect that my profession would have on their children. They were "concerned" for their children's eternal souls. So much concern! They had allllll the concern!
And thus, an issue was born. These parents wanted to know even more about me, what exactly I did, and what these role-playing games were. Because, you see, they had anti-D&D pamphlets which exposed the game for what it was. Never mind that the source material they used was from a different game and wrongly attributed to D&D. No, this was Satanism. Wasn't I aware of the fact that I was playing with fire?
Once it became clear that they couldn't force me to quit my job, they asked if I'd be willing to attend a meeting at one parent's house. The meeting would include a bunch of the concerned parents (there's that blasted word again), and they invited this outside "expert" who made his living lecturing at different churches and youth groups about the evils of..well...pretty much everything. In an effort to try and meet these people halfway and perhaps lay the matter to rest, I agreed. Maybe if I played a little ball, they'd talk a walk.
Get it? Play ball? Walk?
Enter The Nutjob
|Beware: a Devil-worshipping Druid lurks|
within those branches. Also, possibly a squirrel
1. Rock music is Satanic. There's backward messages, and also the beat incites people to violence. Anthropologists played rock music for tribes of African natives, and they grabbed their spears and prepared for war. (huh huh...he said "grabbed their spears". huh huh.. Cool.) On the other hand, when classical music was played, these tribes became happy and pleased (as an aside, who ARE these tribes? Where are they found? What nation in Africa hosts them? Is there a generic African tribe that acts as a sort of litmus test for first-world cultural issues??).
2. Disney movies are Satanic, especially Fantasia. Because one character practices magic (Mickey in the Sorcerers Apprentice), and there's demonic imagery.
3. Christmas trees were created by Druids as a way of mocking Christ's crucifixion.
4. Christmas wreaths were also created by Druids to mock Christ's sacrifice. See, the wreath represents the crown of thorns, with the red holly berries representing the droplets of blood from his forehead.
5. D&D was evil because it had spells and demons.
Well, that settled that. Right? Because this is how Satan influences society. He plants things in stuff that's just so freaking ludicrous and/or hard to decode unless you were very clever.
I don't know...sounds like a dumb plan to me. But then again, who was I to question my Dark Overlord?
That's Me In The Corner...
Since I was unmoved by this expert testimony, the group of parents increased their efforts. Now, what needs to be said for the record is that, of all the parents of the kids in the group, half of them didn't care one way or the other what I did for a living. Roughly a fourth of the parents thought I was the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread. The last fourth were the concerned parents who were convinced I was playing with the tiddlywinks of the Devil, or something.
So this concerned 25% pushed the matter. They approached the Youth Pastor with their concerns, and asked that more be done. So, an appointment with the Head Pastor of the whole freaking church was made. Just the pastor and me, having an honest and frank sit-down. The Big Guy and me.
The result? The Pastor declaring that I was a fine, God-loving young man who loved serving the church, and whose heart was right with God. And that's a pretty good paraphrase, by the way.
And so, the concerned parents said "Oh, okay. We'll drop it then!", and everything was great. Crisis averted.
No, actually, the difference it made was "diddly" and "squat", and diddly left town. You see, Park Street is a Congregational church, which means that the Pastor simply can't make unilateral declarations. The congregation has a say. Okay, that's a gross simplification, but it was explained to me that form of church government did have a bearing in it. These parents wanted a meeting of all of the parents, and the Youth Pastor.
Everyone, in fact, but me. Because, you see, everyone was trying to spare me the public embarrassment.
Are you kidding me!?!?!
|Concerned Park Street parents gather for the big meeting|
But I stayed away, like a good little soldier. From all accounts I heard afterwards, parents were actually shouting at each other. Tempers flared. When one parent was accused of behaving in an unBiblical manner, his quote, and I kid you not, because this gem burned itself into my brain by weight of its sheer outrageousness was, "I don't care what the Bible says! This is my child I'm talking about!" This from one of the established church families. Nice Christianity you got there, big guy,,,
Hey, I did have my supporters, bless them, and they were determined to defend me. But it was to no avail. The parents who supported me were furious, and tried to point out that I had done so much good, and the Bible itself said that you can't get bad and good fruit from the same tree. Apparently, though, these concerned parents weren't very interested in spiritual botany.
That's Me In The Spotlight...
|I told you! I told you, "Stay away from writing for TSR, mate!"|
But did you listen? Oh no. Well, cheer up, JT! Worse
things happen at sea! Look on the bright side of life!
People would use the word "resigned", and I had no qualms about correcting each and every instance I heard of it, and told them "No, I was forced out." I didn't quit. I was pretty much emotionally blackmailed into stepping aside. And I'd be damned if I'd let revisionist history get a foothold.
We were allowed to stay at the church, though. We could continue worshipping there and such, maybe even get involved in another area of ministry that simply didn't involve children. Wow. Thanks. That was mighty white of them. So in other words "We really can't find or prove any wrong-doing on your part, but just the same we want you to stay away from impressionable children."
Oh, and for the record, let's just make sure it's known that there was never even a hint of impropriety on my part in terms of inappropriate touching and such. The most that can be said in that area was that a couple of the girls developed crushes on me, and the knowledge of that made me take extra measures to make sure that there could never be any confusion in that area. Just needed to be said.
I honestly hope that those Christian parents who were so keen on controlling every minute aspect of their children's lives, ended up alienating them on some level and forcing them to think more for themselves. I hope that the tighter those parents closed their grip, the more star systems slipped through their fingers.
Losing My Religion
I'll be blunt. The incident destroyed me. I had done nothing wrong, and the one group of people who were supposed to be my "family", had done me an enormous amount of harm. And as far as I was concerned, this completely upended a lot of what I was led to believe. At least the birth of my first son, John, in March of 1989 was such a happy occasion that it pushed a lot of the bad feelings away for some time.
But when the hoopla over the birth had receded and life returned to normal, there was still that big issue, reminding me that things were not as I had been repeatedly taught that they were supposed to be. I had been taught that things were black and white, with very few gray areas, if any. It's right or wrong. It's Godly, or not. Good or evil. And yet what had happened was enormously wrong, and spoke very badly, in my opinion, about modern-day American Christianity.
"But John," I'm sure some would exclaim. "What did you expect? Did you expect the church to turn to those five families and say 'Leave if you want, but this guy's innocent, and we're not going to throw him under the bus!'"?
Yes. Yes, that's exactly what I expected. If I was doing nothing wrong and was actually adhering to the standards of the Bible and they weren't, then they were wrong, and they are the ones who should just shut up and go away. Or at least just shut up.
But what's the loss of one young married couple compared to a group of five well-established church families?
|Because nothing bad can come from appeasement|
That's when things started to change. Because even though, on the surface, everything looked as okay as could be expected, there was a LOT of damage below the waterline. Any attempts to repair that damage were insufficient. Water was rushing in, and this ship was listing.
Because it occurred to me, if they were wrong about this, if the whole "We're here for you and we're your family who loves and supports you" was not exactly true, if the whole "Well, there's right and wrong, but sometimes things get a little more complicated" was the way things in fact ran, then what else was up for debate and questioning? Perhaps things weren't as absolute as I had originally been led to believe.
Let me tell you, nothing cures someone of being judgmental like having those same guns of judgement being trained right back at you, and by the very people who you were working side by side with.
And that's why, aside from the core Christian beliefs of the Trinity, the Crucifixion and Resurrection, you know, pretty much what the Nicaean Creed puts forth, I started questioning and re-evaluating everything else.
It didn't help that, as time went on, I was increasingly aware of some extremely nice people who weren't Christians; good, moral, considerate, decent people. And on the other side, I became increasingly aware of a number of Christians who were, not to put too fine a point on it, miserable assholes, some whose behavior should at least be raising some eyebrows amongst even the most tolerant rank and file.
There was this big to-do in the nineties about teachers who were gay and how some parents were up in arms over this, not wanting their kids to be exposed to that. I think they were afraid that their kids would be exposed to those notorious Gay Waves(tm) that everyone knows that gay people radiate, and can affect anyone who's not wearing a tinfoil hat. But what happens when you have gay friends, and they are some of the nicest, most articulate, polite, creative people you've met, while there are some Christians you know that are kind of sketchy, and you wouldn't trust them in a room alone with your kids for all the money in the world?
And even though the act of abortion is an evil, do you really want to set the precedent of allowing the government the authority to determine what you can and can't do with your body? Once you allow the government (at any level) start making those choices for you, you open a door that can't be shut again. Is that really okay?
And what about the whole God and country thing? Is this really a Christian nation, or is it a nation with a lot of Christians? If we were to pass laws that are based on concepts beyond the basic Judeo-Christian tenets, then which branch of Christianity do we base those laws on? Catholicism? Baptists? Lutherans? Congregationalists? Whichever we chose would mean one sect would be happy, and the rest would be pissed, possibly feeling disenfranchised or excluded.
No. No, there was a lot to think and pray over. Something wasn't right here. Everything was unraveling save those aforementioned core beliefs. And mostly because I was starting to see that many of the things I had subscribed to, the attitudes and forms of behavior extrapolated from parts of the Bible, simply didn't make sense.
|Exclusive photo of my faith circa 1994|
Unless, of course, Christianity is supposed to be "Everyone else can twist the Bible to justify their actions, as long as they have the power and influence to get away with it." Somehow, I don't think so.
The Ship Goes Down
By the late 90's, everything fell apart. My marriage, going to church, it all went away. The bedrock I had ostensibly built my life on had turned to shifting sand, and everything came crashing down (wow, how many more metaphors can I cram into this blog entry?). I pretty much went insane during this time and acted out in ways I never imagined myself doing.
I don't want to sit here and say "Because things didn't go my way in 1989, I chucked out everything I believed in and pretty much went berserk." That's not the case. But when everything you've been taught for the past 15 years, everything you believed, the expectations that grew inside of you as a result of what you were told, suddenly comes crashing down in a major crisis, a situation where your ideals and the church that instilled them in you were supposed to step up to the plate and deliver but instead utterly failed, well, yes, you will undergo a seismic shift, and begin to question just how much BS you've been fed without realizing it.
God didn't give up on me. My kids didn't give up on me. And a small circle of Godly, dedicated Christian friends didn't give up on me. Although it is amazing just how many Christians, when faced with the presence of sin, go absolutely berserk and end up making things far worse. Or at the very least, take the opportunity to show just how Godly they are by shunning the offender completely. Yeah, I'm sure Jesus is positively impressed with that. Three cheers and a tiger for you.
But the slow process of recovery had begun. And as it did, it began to occur to me that once you had the whole Trinity/Crucifixion/Resurrection part nailed down, and you were on board with the Ten Commandments and Christ's two commandments of loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself, the rest of it is up for discussion between you and your conscience, which, if the Bible is to be believed, is now influenced by the Holy Spirit.
And the final word on the whole parental D&D crisis was this: a glimmer of hope. Of those five sets of concerned parents, only one mother, just one, came up to me when the dust had settled, and, looking genuinely upset and contrite, said that she was sorry and asked for my forgiveness. She had said that things had been handled badly, and definitely not according to Biblical principles. She said that this wasn't the result she had hoped for, and asked again for my forgiveness. It was clear she was honestly bothered and sad about what had happened. So yes, I sincerely and honestly forgave her. And, as Christ commands us to forgive even those who don't ask for it, I've quietly forgiven the rest.
But I haven't forgotten, and the two things aren't mutually exclusive. I haven't forgotten, and the experience has colored my perception of churches, organized religion, and people who walk around with such holy airs where everything is "Jesus this" and "God that" and "Hallelujah amen!" I trust God. His people, not so much. More like a case by case basis. And the more they go out of their way to show their piety and holiness, the less I trust them. No, I've learned the hard way that the hands raised in public worship one moment can put a dagger in your back the next. Not all of them are like this, not even most of them. But all it takes is just a few to make your life a living Hell. Outward piety, in my opinion, is no longer a guarantee that you will be treated compassionately, decently, or in any way shape or form that Christ intended.
I should also say for the record that it wasn't just this one big nasty earth-shattering incident that drove me away from the conservative right-wing viewpoint. It accounted for only about 80% of it, and was the catalyst for the change, yes. The other 20% was made up of other things, including a few "Hey, wait a minute" moments, and a minor clash with the Board of Deacons of a conservative Baptist church.
And So Today...
|Here is Truth. Everything afterwards is just guesswork.|
I am in the "pray without ceasing every day, study the Bible, don't be a dick to people, and stick up for your faith if it's getting unfairly dragged through the mud" camp. Like when people on Facebook say things like "Those stupid Christians and their narrow-minded judgmental ideas. Anyone who believes in some big invisible guy in the sky is ignorant and superstitious!" That's when I speak up and go "Ahem. Christian here. Care to amend that just a tad?" It always
I have no solid proof in the existence of God. I have no answers to things like "Where did Cain get his wife?" I don't know if Adam had a navel. All I know is some of the profound changes in me are things that cannot be explained away as "you did it yourself", or "that's just natural growth". I know myself well enough to know what I'm capable of doing, sensing, feeling, and learning. There is a peace that transcends all understanding, and other matters of mind and soul that have no other explanation. I know He lives, and that's enough for me, and I will never be dissuaded from that.
And someday, we'll find a church that we're comfortable attending. A church where the biggest concern about us is "Are you folks walking with God?" and less "How many beers do you have when you go out to dinner?", "Do you still game?", "Do you guys really dress up for Halloween?", or "Do you think gays should marry?" (For the record, the answers are: "Yes", "2 or 3 depending on the glass size", "Hell yes", "Yes, and sometimes on other days too", and "absolutely!").
In Parting, Some Lessons Learned
|"This may come as a shock to you, but I|
love that chain-smoking drag queen
just as much as I love you, Mister Bible
Study leader/church deacon!"
Tolerance doesn't mean that you compromise your own beliefs. But you can't thrust those beliefs on others, nor can you use your beliefs as a way of determining who has the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in our country. Get 20 Christians together and poll their opinions on 20 different issues, and I can guarantee you there will be far from unanimous agreement. And if that's so, then how can you honestly try to legislate Christian behavior into our society?
I think Christianity in our country has severely dropped the ball when it comes to politics and social issues. Rather than approaching society as a compassionate helping hand, too many of its members come across as cold, joyless, dogmatic, reactionary, intolerant, Rethuglican fossils who use the Bible as a crowbar to pry their way into people's private lives instead of as a means of spreading comfort, wisdom, and the good news.
The Bible says "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling'. It does NOT say "work out other people's salvation..." Take care of your own issues, but by all means help out others when asked. Follow Jesus' words and don't judge. You'll be surprised as to who you see in Heaven (and who you don't).
As a for instance, I recently saw a link on Facebook to an article called "Should a Christian get a tattoo?" Seriously? This is a thing? Frankly, I don't think God gives a damn if a Christian has ink, unless it's having "Satan Rules" (or, if the person is uneducated, "Satin Rulez") tattooed on their face. Now, me, I have no use for tattoos. But I also have no use for hunting, guns, smoking, or the Charismatic Christian movement. That doesn't mean I should go looking for Bible verses that somehow validates my tastes and positions, and inflict them on others. Hey, are you Christian who's a gun-toting, tattoo-wearing dude who enjoys going out on Saturdays and vaporizing a random deer every once in a while? Knock yourself out, God bless you. Enjoy. As long as you and God are on the same page. It's not my cup of meat, but it's also none of my business.
So, in other words, love God, love everyone around you, don't be an ass, and mind your own damn business, and let other people work out their own lives, hopefully with God's help. Oh, sure, there may be times when intervention is needed; heck that principle applies to situations that have nothing to do with religion. And if people ask for your help, your advice, your opinions, whatever, then absolutely, by all means you do so without hesitation.
G.K. Chesterton was right: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” This world needs more Pope Francises, and fewer Pat Robertsons. For that matter, fewer Richard Dawkinses as well.
|Yeah, I believe in Jesus. So!?!?|
Here's a tip: if you do find yourself getting into an argument about the existence of God, and the doubter says something like "So you believe in some old bearded white guy who lives in the sky and punishes evil?", then stop the argument right there, and walk away. This person is not interested in intelligent discourse; rather, they just want to belittle you and your beliefs by painting them in the most ridiculous manner they can think of.
It's like my wife has said: "Never try to teach a pig to sing; it's a waste of time, and it annoys the pig."
Anyways, I'm done. Frankly, that felt good. It's my sincere wish that I enlightened and/or entertained more people than I pissed off. It'll be interesting to see if there's a drop in my Facebook friends or GooglePlus followings.
Oh, and one last thing. If there's anyone out there who was hurt by any words, actions, or attitudes I expressed back in those days, I am genuinely sorry and embarrassed for any grief I caused. I thought I had my head up in the clouds, communing with the angels; turns out instead I had my head up my ass.
Peace, and God bless.