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On Drifting Back, and Looking Ahead Part 3
When I was writing my Belief Series regarding my faith and belief journey thus far, I got an amazing and timely message from a friend. In that message they shared encouragement and support, but they also shared a story.
Not only is my friend’s story impactful, but it is very well written. More than anything- more than facts and statistics- it is the power of our stories which moves hearts and shifts perspectives. And so I asked my friend if they would mind sharing their writing on my blog and, lucky for us all, they agreed to do so. This week I will be sharing my friend’s 3 part story and I hope you will join us, comment, and share. (My friend is writing anonymously for privacy. The names in their story have been changed.)
I look back at that summer fondly, despite the conflicting ways it can make me feel. I miss my friends. We were able to meet up a few times in the years after. I lost touch with Bailey about ten years ago. Jacob and I trade messages about once a year. It was such a small stretch of time – a handful of months against the other four decades I’ve stacked up. I have such a vivid and visceral link to that place in time; the extent to which it’s informed the other forty years is worth reflecting on. I still find my mind drifting back there, though far less these days than it used to.
Up until the less enjoyable side of my time in J City, I’d never really had to deal with any of these bizarro Christian people waving their Bibles around like billy clubs. I was no stranger to the culture, either. I was born to a pastor and a pastor’s wife, and my first and middle names are Old Testament prophets. I’ve been privy to all the standard weird Christian stuff my whole life: learned shame, white Jesus, cognitive dissonance, purity culture, etc. All of those things seem normal, though, when you’re getting a weekly dose of confirmation bias on Sunday. There’s just no real reason for any sort of examination when you’re “in it” like that.
Neuroscientists have posited that our brains can size up a stranger in about a tenth of a second as to whether they’re an “us” or a “them.” This is the way we sort into and reinforce our subdivisions, or tribes. We can be parts of multiple tribes, like maybe the NY Jets tribe, the “music is better on vinyl” tribe, or the fundamentalist evangelical tribe. Maybe someone is a little bit of all three of those tribes. I have a feeling, though, that they’d still high-five another guy in a Jets jersey after a touchdown, even if he’s a Buddhist carrying a cassette tape player. This is why everything still kind of works in society.
It can also go terribly wrong. As an example, imagine you’re our Evangelical football fan/music snob. In your pursuit to make it obvious that you’re a devout Evangelical, one of the many podcasts you consume alerts you that Jesus exclusively listened to CDs. Your own research into the referenced scriptures makes it even clearer. In fact, you’re seeing this idea posted and reposted all over social media. It all seems so obvious now (even though you have to ignore the fact that there weren’t CDs until the 80s.) You have a really strong conviction; the heavens have moved to put it on your heart. You have no choice but to give up vinyl records to show your sacrifice and signal your virtue to the other Christ followers. Pretty soon, hanging out with your Evangelical buds, you start to think maybe no one should be allowed to listen to vinyl — given how dangerous it could be to CDs and the children, of course. Next thing you know, you’re burning a pile of records downtown in front of the city hall, calling out those who have turned from the Lord.
We’re at our worst when we insulate ourselves from anyone or anything different. We’re at our worst when we place our tribes ahead of our well-being; this is something that is extremely difficult to do when so many tribes, especially religious ones, insist that there is no well-being without them.
When you live through the kinds of stories, like mine, where you find yourself on the receiving end of this religious arrogance, it can be scary. The need to remain in the tribe and protect the tribe is a very strong motivator. It’s pretty easy to see a reason to reevaluate your affinity for the tribe, when a grown man, fully believing he’s armed with all the authority of God and the baby Jesus at his back, is yelling at you about supposed moral failings. I began to see, as time went on, that moments like these weren’t isolated incidents. I’m grateful my impulse to lean toward justice was stronger than the impetus to repent, beg, and apologize to try to stay. I think that instinct to avoid abandonment may be the only reason some have for remaining in religion. I want to run into the burning building and rescue all of those who can’t or won’t advocate for themselves in these situations.
This starts to make you think that even the best of us are doing a terrible job of practicing Christianity. I’ll admit that I am cynical about how Christians use the Bible, but we’re thousands of years removed from events that happened in a culture we don’t understand, recorded centuries later in a language we don’t speak, adjusted for the benefit of ancient power structures, and then canonized by another group of inherently flawed humans. Now, we’re back to dealing with the Pharisees and the Sadducees – the legalists and the fundamentalists. We’re back to tables in need of flipping. This isn’t the first repeat that history has seen, and unfortunately, I don’t think it will be the last. As my partner likes to say, in her best Rusty Cohle drawl, “Time is a flat circle.”
The memories that came out of my experiences that summer, good and bad, rippled through my life. I still made terrible decisions, though. I fell right back in and out of that insular embrace the Jesus tribe had to offer. I repeated bad patterns, and I ended up in some inhospitable places in the years after. Sometimes my actions were an insult to everything I’d experienced that summer. It was during that summer that I started to see outlines and shadowy structures off in the distance that would later materialize into some big questions. I wish I’d started paying attention to them sooner.
I guess what I’m getting at is, I’m angry. I’m angry and I’m at a loss about what to do about it. I think that’s why I started writing it down. I didn’t know what I was doing or where I was headed when I started these pages. It never really occurred to me to write for anything other than utility, until Katie encouraged me. She’s really been my fairy blogmother through this whole process; she introduced me to something that I didn’t see in myself. It seems that I should have been writing all along, if only for my own benefit.
Katie and I have agreed that what brought us into the same orbit were shared experiences. I don’t think she’s smoked Kamel Reds with a rebellious band of alterna-Christians, and I’ve certainly not had to go through the things she’s weathered in her life. But I feel like these stories we tell share a structure that we all know by heart, every beat and every well-worn trope. Her version just has a different slate of characters persevering through a different plot.
After reading much of what Katie has written, and hearing what she has to say, I think that she and I are in a similar place in our stories now. I think there’s a pretty big swath of us who are. We’ve come out on the other side of these experiences and we’re seeing religion, ministry, life, love, mental health, politics, and just about everything else in the bare light of day. It’s a vulnerable place to be, but it offers an opportunity to exist outside the cultural, religious, and political machines that work to manipulate all of us.
Unfortunately, I don’t know how to drown out the droning hum of those machines – their lies and their perverse narratives. I don’t know how to encourage people to work to transcend this tribal, “us” vs. “them” inertia we’re all subject to. What I do know is that I’m encouraged every time my heart recognizes a part of someone’s story.
It stands to reason that we’re at our best when we’re surrounded by a diverse cast of characters with different beliefs and different values. We have to share our stories and come together in a community of shared hearts instead of wasting away in our mechanically constructed tribes. We should be building communities based on our shared beliefs, regardless of our backgrounds. We should celebrate the stories we’ve lived, and dismantle and repurpose those unhealthy tribes we’ve found along the way.
Maybe this can’t be achieved on a macro scale; I don’t know. After all, we're hardwired to be uncomfortable with what is different and to defend our tribes. I’m fully aware that what I’ve written in this afterword could be picked apart and decimated just like any other commentary. I believe my aim is true, though; it is difficult to fault leaning into love and turning away from hate. People from every generation have philosophized, dreamed of, and in some cases, found another way, and I think we can, too.