More Than None

    Amongst those who converse about religious trends in our society there is a term used to refer to folks like myself who do not claim any personal religious affiliation: we are the “nones”. Putting aside the quaint irony that the word sounds just like “nun” and thus could easily be confused with a thing that is basically its opposite, it is a friendly abbreviation that helps add some cohesion to a group of people who are otherwise seen as disconnected outsiders.

    Unfortunately, there is a downside to the label. It explains a person’s present state of spiritual affairs well enough, but it obscures the religious places from which they might have come. Many people who currently identify as “nones” did not always find themselves in that category. I myself was a Bible-studying, gospel-preaching, youth group-leading Evangelical Christian for the first twenty-seven years of my life. For those folks, as for me, there is sometimes a slight discomfort with adopting the “none” classification because it does not capture or communicate the whole story--a story that includes chapters featuring some serious ecclesiastical commitments.

    Given the nature of my upbringing and how sincerely devoted I was to the Christian cause, I cannot simply say that I have no religious affiliation. To do so feels--and is, I think--disingenuous. The church, no matter how much I wish to be free of it, is still in my head. It’s in my bones. I am still processing the ways I was indoctrinated (I might even say brainwashed) into illogical, often heinous, ideologies. I cannot just make the doctrine leave me. My stilted, nervous thoughts about sex exist because of the church. Guilt about having told numerous people they were going to hell swims in my heart. I have no idea when, or if, my fear of literal demons will subside.

    Scrolling right past “Christian” and checking the box next to “None of the Above” doesn’t cover all that; it doesn’t even allow room for it. Yes, these kinds of categorical demographics created for the sake of gleaning statistics are naturally oversimplifying, but all too often “none” is interpreted as “having no interest in religion” when, on the contrary, folks like myself consider religion to be integral to our daily being despite having renounced involvement in it. We are not disconnected from it; we have been entangled with it, were perhaps hurt by it, and are trying to navigate the ever-present but unseen reality of its continued influence on our lives.

    Every time I find myself in a situation in which I have no apparent choice but to identify myself as a “none”, I am reminded of how desperately we need a space in our society where ex-believers can assert and discuss their ongoing relationship with the traditional theologies and dogmas of their past. It might not fit as neatly onto a one-page survey as the typical short-list of religious options, but it is essential to our understanding of the spiritual state of our world that we acknowledge the number of lives being lived in the wake of indoctrination.

    It is no small thing to shift religious gears mid-existence. It is an especially tricky feat when one’s identity was rooted in one’s belief system of choice throughout one’s most formative years. The perspective of those who have decided to take this extraordinary leap of faith is invaluable, but it lies so often untapped because doctrinal affiliation is assumed to be static, or a discrete fact unrelated to the past. On the contrary, the truth is that we--much like the great spiritual figures in our varied histories--are all on special journeys of our own, journeys that might find us in wildly different camps over the course of our lives. If we are given the opportunity to share the details of our movements with each other--if I can see where you have been and not just where you are--perhaps a more helpful (certainly more accurate) understanding of the dynamic nature of belief will spread. Perhaps we will learn to give ourselves and those around us permission to grow out of old ways, to grow into new ones, to be true to the honest convictions of our hearts even if they seem to contradict where we’ve been, and even if they don’t fit neatly into one little box.

Chaos Theory: Why The Meaning God Gives Pain Might Do More Harm Than Good

    Yesterday I listened to an episode of the On Being podcast that originally aired last summer featuring professor, researcher, and author Dr. Pauline Boss. It was entitled “The Myth of Closure.”

    Boss is known for developing the theory of “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is loss that has no finality or resolution, one that is not clear-cut. It might look like losing a loved one to dementia--the body is still present but their “self”, as we knew it, is going or gone. Ambiguous loss might also involve a missing person, such as a soldier whose body is never found or was destroyed, or a person who disappears in a natural disaster whose body is never recovered. Because of the “ambiguous” nature of such losses, according to Dr. Boss, the person whose loved one is gone experiences a unique kind of grief, a kind of grief perhaps more difficult to move on from than what one might go through in more definitive circumstances.

    I was intrigued by Dr. Boss’s theory, having not heard it before, but it was something else she said--something somewhat tangential to her main point--that struck me most powerfully and brought me back to the topic of leaving the Christian church. Boss said that people will sometimes get stuck in destructive grieving cycles--say, of perpetual self-blame--when they try too hard to make sense of what is ultimately a senseless event. In other words, according to Dr. Boss, it is perhaps only when a person experiencing loss lets go of the idea that the traumatic event meant something that they are free to move on. Moving on might look like taking charge of the meaning-making (e.g. starting an organization for the parents of missing children if one’s own child was lost and never found) but it cannot be the Sisyphean struggle to suss out any logic in the event itself.

    Here’s where fundamentalist (and even mainstream) Christianity comes in: those of us raised in such a tradition were and are taught that God’s will is in one way or another behind everything that happens in the world--the good and the bad. So, when the bad thing happens, a girl who was raised as I was in an Evangelical environment will search for all the reasons God might have allowed that bad thing to occur. At best this is just silly; I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care that my phone fell in the toilet. At worst--well, we have a version of “love” (assuming one believes that God is all-loving) that involves testing the beloved with terrible trauma and immense pain. On purpose. For some secret reason. 

    This is no good.

    That thought in and of itself--the thought that God was very intentionally allowing me to be hurt even when I’d done nothing wrong--became traumatizing to me as I grew older and more independent and had to start providing myself with the emotional strength needed to make it through the thorny bits of life. It was compounded distress: the loss itself, whatever it happened to be, plus my desperate calculations as to its existential and theological meanings. On the contrary, the relief I found in choosing to detach painful situations from the thought of their supposed ultimate significance was like a valve release. It didn’t mean whatever sucky situation I was in didn’t suck, it just meant the universe had nothing against me and I was free to at least make some good from the unavoidable bad as I saw fit.

    It seems like every day I discover a new way in which my Evangelical upbringing set me up to fail. Certainly it wasn’t all bad--which I’ve pointed out plenty of times before, so I won’t go into detail here--but it still amazes me how many times a week I find myself whispering to no one in particular, “Wait, was that normal?” I don’t know. We don’t know what’s “normal”, what’s healthy, us ex-Evangelical kids. What I do know (now) is that being able to rattle off all the reasons God might be ‘testing’ you with sad circumstances does not in fact make me a helpful person to be around in a time of grief. I don't remember where I learned that lesson, but it wasn't from the church.

    Ultimately, I just wish it could have been more realistic, my social-emotional education. Of course, this is not a wish that can be granted when it comes to Evangelicalism, so in lieu of a magic wand with which to change my past I’ll do what Dr. Boss suggests and let those first couple decades in Jesus Freak land be nothing but coincidental chaos. And I'll ask myself what I can do with the nonsense now. The answer is: exactly this--exposing the secrets, building community, and letting people know that it's never too late to choose a happier and healthier path.

Jesus Was My Boyfriend

    A simple Google search of the words “sexual innuendo Christian worship songs” will get you plenty of articles about how ripe with sensuality the average contemporary church service is. Lyrics such as, “Your fragrance is intoxicating/in our secret place” (from a song by Casting Crowns); “I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more” (from famous Australian church Hillsong); or, “hungry I come to you/for I know You satisfy (also from Hillsong, and also accompanied by the repeated lines “I’m falling on my knees/offering all of me”) are regularly belted by believers. With their hands raised to the sky, they show no signs of embarrassment.

    Even though their interpretations of such words appear as pure as the driven snow, there’s little point in mocking the trend, or making junior high jokes. It’s likely that any devoted church-goer over the age 16 is probably whispering similar jokes to their fellow congregants, even as they continue singing the words and meaning them from the bottom of their hearts. Yes, they get it--assuming they haven’t gone so far as to live on a commune with no access to popular culture--and they brush it off. In my experience, identifying the hilarious double entendre-laden lyrics of modern Christian worship is one thing the church can actually have a sense of humor about.

    Less funny is the way that young Evangelical people who are commanded to be chaste actually do sublimate their sexuality into their feelings about Jesus. The saucy lyrics might elicit a knowing glance and muffled snickers, but those are superficial delights. Underneath the words, behind the music, the hearts of young folks in the throes of worship are bursting with a sublime love for their savior.

    This love, while exciting, is subtly confusing. There’s nothing to compare it to in mundane life. We have platonic love and romantic love, and the latter is, culturally speaking, meant to transcend the former. If this is the case, with what concepts and words do we understand and categorize our feelings for Jesus--a being who was a man but now exists supernaturally, much like a ghost? Not only that, a “man” who loves us, as individuals, unconditionally. Since our society’s heteronormative lexicon does not offer us an analogue for love that is both incredibly intimate and asexual, it seems to me (and felt to me, when I experienced it myself) that Christians--especially young Christians--slip into a somewhat amorous way of speaking and thinking about Jesus. He comes to take on a romantic role, whether or not one realizes it.

    At least two factors make young Evangelicals particularly vulnerable to this “Boyfriend Jesus” syndrome. The first is, of course, the virgin vow. Christians, for the most part--and definitely Evangelical Christians--are instructed not to have sex with someone unless they are married to that someone. Regardless of how silly you lucky lifelong seculars might find such a commandment (and by the way, Christians are still having sex before and outside of marriage; they just pretend they aren’t) the fact is that it moves into the realm of psychologically problematic when you’ve got young folks whose very present, totally normal sex drives are not being dealt with or discussed. Is there an acceptable way to channel those desires, which aren’t going to go away, into something worthy of God?

    As if those natural sexual urges aren’t enough, throw into the mix a popular culture that idolizes not only sex but “romance”. You are nothing if you are not romantically partnered in our society. Everything is less fun--meals, movies, trips, holidays...none of it, we’re told, can truly be enjoyed except in the presence of someone you’re sleeping with. Evangelical Christianity does little to combat this notion. Marriage is idealized, and made even more intriguing by the fact that it magically makes sex okay all of a sudden. The notion that God desires for each person to be coupled is literally preached from pulpits. And this is not even to mention that the idea is simultaneously negatively reinforced by the stark reality that, at a certain point, there is no place or care for you in the community if you do not have a significant other.

    So, you can understand why I wanted it, and wanted it bad: to be in love; to be the object of love; to know the reassurance of a (male) figure by my side, accepting my affection and adoration; to live the fantasy. And the church, it turns out, had just the solution--a gentleman who, we were told, literally existed in order to give his life for us. Whose love was, in a word, perfect. He was the one we were to adore and direct all of our affection toward. His name was Jesus, and he was available to us at any time. It was in this way that I fell in love with a long-dead Middle Eastern Jew. There was even a song to express exactly my sentiment (or to tell me what sentiment to have, depending on how you look at it): “Jesus, I am so in love with you.” I’ve sung it at least a hundred times in my life.

    Here’s the problem, though--I didn’t know what it meant to be “in love” with someone at the time that I started consciously having these feelings for Jesus, which was, big surprise, just after I’d finished puberty. Maybe no one ever knows until they’re in the middle of it, but I had never even had a shot at it with a human male, let alone a supernatural being. As such, I was only guessing that how I felt about Jesus was the same as “being in love”, just like I was only guessing that everything I was believing in and adhering myself to was right. What did I know of the world and its nuances and bounty of information a the time I committed myself to Christ? Very little; yet there I was.

    Even more suspect than my naive claim to be in love with a dude that (a) I had never met, (b) lived two thousand years ago, and (c) existed for eternity as a spirit in heaven was the way I was also, inevitably, constructing my understanding of the experience of partnered love based on what I was “experiencing” in relationship with Jesus. And what was that experience? Well, no two-way communication for one. I could say and feel any which way toward Jesus and not only would he not respond, I could also easily live in the extravagant fantasy that, were he physically present, he’d be totally cool with all of my moods and words. Not very good training for actual human-to-human negotiations, it turns out.

    Not only was Jesus not there to talk to, he wasn’t there to touch. I don’t meant that I wanted to make out with him (though maybe I did and I just didn’t realize what those feelings were at the time)--I mean that there was no satisfying way to make a gesture of affection. The feelings kept building and building and there was never any release (even of the non-sexual kind) which spun me back into the turbulent cycle of the building of those feelings once again. Why was that an unhealthy lesson to learn about love? Well, I never had the experience of wanting to be away from someone’s company, even though I loved them. I never had the experience of the ebb and flow of physical attraction vis a vis the one I was with. In a way, it was ideal. And yet, the person I loved wasn’t actually there, so any way you slice it I was still caught on the reality of my fleshly life.

    Maybe it isn’t that big of a deal that I basically dated Jesus until I was twenty-five years old. Not that I didn’t go out on dates with human gentlemen in that time, but they were few and far between and none of what I felt for them was “love”. Still, isn’t it interesting how an all-encompassing, exclusionary belief system like (Evangelical) Christianity finds ways to slide its tentacles into the throbbing spaces of all your dreams and desires? It asks of you things that are either biologically or culturally unnatural and figures out how to compensate you for your sacrifice in a way that makes sense in that world. Sure, singing weirdly erotic songs to Jesus while in a dark room surrounded by rows and rows of other people might have been a bit healthier than an adolescence spent searching for a hyper-sexualized version of love from a bunch of random guys, but I didn’t learn anything either.

    Growing up takes a lot longer in the church; it’s like dog years versus human years: ten church years of living = three years of real-world living. So if you’re still recovering from your conservative Christian upbringing, it’s okay. We got held back. There’s still time, and the world isn’t actually as mean and judgmental as we were told. We’re just unlearning the rusty old ways we inherited, which is true for everybody regardless of whether they were raised in church or not. Everybody has their own Boyfriend Jesus they have to break up with, and I’m excited for every person who has the courage to make that move.