Becoming Alive Again

sent in by kitty

Unlike many here on this board. I did not grow up in a Christian home. My mother is Buddhist and my father officially Protestant, though he never read the bible or went to church. I converted as a teenager because my very conservative friend seemed to be the most together individual I knew, and I felt like the least together individual (at least that wasn't doing drugs or binge drinking or sleeping with the football team).

The church I attended - and my friend's family, who "discipled" me - were very mission oriented. Sponsoring missionaries, having missionary speakers, mission trips for the high schoolers. The missionaries and their travels to exotic places fascinated me (just like National Geographic and PBS anthropology specials did) and it didn't take me long to come believe that I should be a missionary.

So (after a math/science heavy college prep curriculum in high school), I went to a Christian liberal arts college to get a degree in communications arts and a minor in theology with the intention of becoming a Bible translator. Complete with a semester at the Summer Institute of Linguistics at the U of O in Eugene. I had a great college experience, and met some awesome people and am still friends with some of them. My classes were fascinating. Theology. Cultural anthropology. Greek. Biblical studies. Linguistics. Missions related culture classes. And it was the beginning of the end for my faith.

A friend of mine recently said that no thinking person can be involved in a missionary community remain conservative. And that was true for me. I started my college career as a culturally and politically conservative individual. I would have called myself prudish. The missionary related coursework unraveled all of that. When you are discussing cultures where men felt naked if they didn't wear their jute string around their waist but never covered their genitals, it is hard to take seriously the argument that it is sinful for American women to wear spandex shorts to the gym. Missionary thought today has long departed from the "force those natives to wear muu-muus because toplessness is EVIL" mentality.

The theology, religion, and biblical studies courses, meanwhile, started to unravel the confidence I had in my faith being right. Much of theology it seems, is a long and elaborate vocabulary list of terms the definitions of which are up for continual debate even by experts in the field and many of which describe contradictory and opposing thoughts which are, paradoxically, all equally true. Not being immediately blown away in confusion by that made me feel like I knew the secret handshake to some exclusive yet esoteric club. Except... gnosticism was a heresy, so theology shouldn't be a secret handshake.

By the time I finished college, I could not go forward on my missionary goals. I was too disillusioned by the things that didn't fit together. I still clung to my religion (even though I rarely attended church my last year of college) but it had started to unravel like the flimsy ball of yarn that's been tormented by a playful kitten. I shoved the flimsy ball of yarn into a shoebox and stuffed it on a shelf. Though I would never have said it at the time, I sensed that if I continued to ask questions and press the issue, my beliefs would not survive. At the time I said that questioning would "confuse" things and lead me astray.

After college, I married, joined the workaday world, attended a church regularly with my husband, and tried to settle into living a Xian life instead of examining Xian thought. I went to women's Bible studies and couples fellowships with my husband. I saw Xian counselors to try to work out some of the problems that arose (quite naturally) from finding myself in the midst of several major life milestones at once and being suddenly career-less. We settled on a theologically conservative - but relaxed and casual - Presbyterian church. The services were upbeat, creative, had great music, and dance and drama ministries. The focus on the artistic and the aesthetic really drew me in and moved me, and the pastor was real, self-effacing, and had a wicked sense of humor. Being in a comfortable and uplifting setting helped to set aside most of my doubts.

The more time I spent around the Christians in my chosen church community, though, the more I felt alone. The women at the studies were, for the most part gossipy and shallow. I shared few of the concerns that they did, and they could not understand mine. The studies themselves were prepackaged, surface level schlock – difficult to get into for an ex-theology student. As little as I knew that I knew about the Bible and theology, it floored me that the average, intelligent Xian knew far less. Neither my husband nor I had much in common with the other couples in the "new married" group, and felt little desire to engage the people we met outside of the organized activities. I saw several Xian counselors in the course of two or three years, looking for the "right fit." All saw my presenting problems (dissatisfaction w/ career, discomfort w/ marriage roles, disconnect from my parents, loneliness) as manifestations of spiritual problems, and recommended small groups and prayer.

And thus was created a cycle… I felt lonely and adrift because I did not have enough Xian fellowship, so I went to Bible studies where I didn't fit in, became lonelier and guilty on top of it, and sought other Xian fellowship to ease the loneliness… which never filled the needs.

Sometime during my second year out of college, I rediscovered art and began sketching almost daily. I found it therapeutic in many ways, and was getting very good. My counselor encouraged it, but I think she was being indulgent of a nice little hobby. I still wasn't getting the fellowship I needed.

About a year later, there was a big scandal involving the heads of the Xian counseling center where I was both getting counseling and studying. Rape, embezzlement. And a cover-up by the counseling staff. Nothing that is terribly unusual in Xian organizations, but I thought that just happened to gullible charismatic Xians back east. I was devastated and felt betrayed. I quit counseling shortly afterwards, and started to shut down emotionally.

I continued to go to church and small groups, and continued to try to pray and study the Scripture on my own. More and more, it felt like habit. I had lost, completely, my enthusiasm and devotion to Christianity, and went through the motions only because I still believed it to be truth, and that these were things I had to do. When I went to church, I was seething inside.

It was a relief to me when we started to work on a movie project that involved weekend shoots out of necessity. We were busy Sundays, and could rarely attend church. It was an even bigger relief when I found out that he was dissatisfied with church as well – it was unbiblical, and in practice was contrary to the spirit of the command to gather together with other believers. Towards the end of the shoot, we decided not to go back, and instead found a small group of Xian artists that met once a month in San Jose.

It seemed that, finally, I had found a group of Xians that I could connect with in more ways than sharing the religion line on the census form, and it was a pleasant change. Too little, too late, as they say. The salve of having a teensy bit of meaningful fellowship with Xians interested in more than making nice at church made me wonder why it wasn't like that with the rest of the church… especially if we were "one in the spirit."

When my husband started to research theology and history to write a book on art, I picked up a few of the books he was reading to keep on the same page, and to be able to read and comment on his writing. His research brought him deep into the apologetics and mythology that I'd been afraid to look at eight years earlier. The two books that I actually read from beginning to end were Robert Price's "Beyond Born Again" and Jacques Ellul's Subversion of Christianity. "Beyond Born Again" is a critique and dismantling of Evangelical theology and apologetics as an immature and untenable belief structure–and then presents amature theology in its place. In Subversion, Ellul dismantles the distortions of Christianity created by the early church and by politics and power-layer by layer-to come down to a historical, essential core of Christianity, and then rebuilds that core into a new, improved Christianity. I found the core to be…empty, and there building seemed desperate, as if Ellul knew that he had been left with nothing, but had to hold onto that nothingness or lose his faith entirely.

By this time, I had little love for my religion, and held onto it only out of the belief that it was truth. I had doubts about the interpretations of passages on a woman's place, or homosexuality. I did not believe that a 6-day creation needed to be literally true. But I believed that the core doctrines – that Jesus was the son of God born of a virgin around 6 BCE and who lived, preached, died, and rose again around 29 AD, and that this core story was unique to Xianity – was true. That was shattered. The "essential core" that was left to "rebuild" was 4 conflicting accounts written 50 years or more after the fact of universally told "dying and rising sun god myth" syncretized into one of the many 1st century Judaic Messiah cults. Nothing unique, nothing verifiable. Nothing that could be proven to be true, or even more likely to be true than any other religion. After that, the "rebuilding" by both Price and Ellul felt hollow, as if both knew the core was empty. For their best efforts at rebuilding a mature religion based on truth… the best I could come away with was a teaching myth that was "true" insofar as its stories communicated universal human truths in a way that inspired socially appropriate behavior.

For a brief time, I thought of holding on to Xianity as the teaching myth to guide me into being a better person, still believing, in some small way, that there was something special about *this* story which – though not literally true – better reflected eternal truth than other myths. And then realized that such a thing was being dishonest with myself. There were stories that drew me in, inspired me, helped me to live a more vibrant and fulfilling life far better than the tales of desert wanderer telling strange, sad parables and destined to be tortured to death. And those stories were written by a myth-loving entertainment moghul, a hopelessly optimistic utopian dabbling in Eastern mysticism, and a confirmed atheist – all less than 40 years ago. Even as teaching myth, established religion claiming to be truth fell short of works of fiction claiming to be nothing but.

Evangelical Christianity calls conversion becoming "born again." I can't help but think that they have it backwards. Thirteen years ago, I began to die – and 10 months ago I started to live again. It hasn't been an easy or painless 10 months by any means - there was lingering depression, and I separated from my husband of six years. But for the first time in a decade at least and possibly the first time since childhood, I am truly alive. I need no longer hide my feelings or myself behind a mask. I no longer curtail learning to "safe" boundaries to protect my world. I am free to be who and what I am - to be real and honest with myself and with all around me.

And I am - in spite of whatever pain real life brings - happier than ever.

Sex: female
City: San Francisco
State: CA
Country: USA
Became a Christian: 15
Ceased being a Christian: 28
Labels before: Envangelical Protestant, Liberal Christian
Labels now: Atheist
Why I joined: friend's life witness
Why I left: peeled back the layers, and found it empty at the core

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