This installment will likely be long and a bit rambling. In it I want to share a number of aspects of the culture and way of life in a fundamentalist evangelical church. I’ll highlight some of the ways they spiritually manipulate their congregations and maintain a level of acquiescence that keeps people in line and motivates them to give up their autonomy to these so-called leaders. It will also show how very human and not at all special/changed/enlightened/empowered Christians are, despite claims and promises to the contrary.
A. Every Moment of Your Day and Night
One of the more damaging aspects of life in the modern Evangelical church is the manner in which they inundate nearly every aspect of your life.
If after all T and I had been through, anything could have ruined our marriage, it was this, believe it or not. But it was at the center of the conflict that shook our relationship to it’s foundation about 7 or 8 years in, to where we had to pretty much start over and I had to learn how to understand her and her needs. (And I’m positive that the fact I can sometimes be a bit of an asshole didn’t have anything to do with it.)
It works like this. First they tell you that your good works don’t make you a good Christian, that your heart and your relationship to Jesus is all that matters.
You already attend church on Sunday morning at 9AM.
But you want to help out, right? Churches always need helpers and volunteers. Plus you want to be part of things, even in little ways. So you join choir. They meet on Thursday nights.
Then they remind you that you and your spouse really need small group fellowship and bible study. So you join your area home bible study. They meet on Tuesday nights.
Then you’re reminded that you need discipleship with a smaller group of your own gender, so you join a discipleship group. They meet on Monday nights.
Soon someone finds out that you can play the guitar. They ask you to help with the worship team. That’s just fun, right? They rehearse on Wednesday nights.
The youth group needs someone to run video and lights, which you apparently can do, since you can play guitar. They meet on Friday nights.
They are always short of help in the nursery, so you volunteer to watch little ones at the 11AM service on Sundays.
They’re short of ushers at the Saturday night service, so you volunteer to help out there too.
I mean, how do you say no to furthering the work of god in your town?
The kicker is that, despite protests to the contrary, those people who are there every day helping out are viewed (read: judged) as being dedicated Christians, devoted servants of the Lord who give their time and energy to reach the lost and further the gospel. They tell you to pace yourself, blah-blah-blah, but you can’t get away from the undercurrent of busy=committed and holy. I was literally out every night for several years after we were married, involved in one thing or another. And I was committed in areas that required my attention during worship service, so half the time, T and I weren’t even sitting together for much of the service.
It all came to a head when she got fed up with being a church widow, and let it be known that this would not work for the long haul, period. And I recall being torn about serving Jesus and making my wife happy. Now, no church leader would admit to putting you in that position, and in fact would probably individually counsel us to do just what I did. Quit everything and pay lots of attention to my wife. But they, and the culture, are always drawing conclusions that they don’t come right out and say, but they do say it in code. I think at that point they viewed my wife as lukewarm and felt I was having to balance that against true dedication.
What kind of culture puts that pressure on a family?
The Jesus kind.
B. How to Make People Feel Like Shit on Easter Without Really Trying
Did I mention we were choir members?
The two highlights of being in Choir were Christmas and Easter.
Easter took the cake. Every Easter the choir would put on a very elaborate and expensive musical production. The story often focused on different aspects of the story, or different people, sometimes made up characters with their own story set against the backdrop of the crucifixion and resurrection. But the centerpiece was always a fairly brutal depiction of the Christ’s death and a celebratory resurrection. It was almost emotional blackmail, to tell the truth.
Most of the musicals we did were written by David T. Clydesdale. He was infamous for killing tenors and sopranos with his stratospheric arrangements, but best known for his emotionally manipulative productions.
We would have 40 plus people on stage as the crowd, and Jesus, played by whomever happened to be sporting a beard and long hair that year, would come stumbling down the aisle with the cross. The same cross we used season after season. It had a small platform for the feet, and two metal loops on the end of the cross for the wrist, with nail heads sticking out of them. We had Pilate, the Centurion, most of the apostles accounted for, and Judas, of course, was committing suicide somewhere offstage.
We were the angry crowd to start with, jeering and shouting “Crucify him!” We got quite good at all this.
Then the cross had to be laid down upstage. They’d make a show of him being nailed onto it. Then, at the huge swell of music, that cross would be raised up, with a sometimes gruesomely made up Savior, a dramatic moment meant to elicit tears. And believe me, it did. Everyone on stage would be crying their eyes out, and much of the audience – as many as 1,000 people at a time – would be bawling too. Not only was it tragic, but it was the message that I put him there, you put him there, each one of us put him there and owed our entire eternity to him.
Then he’d be taken down to sad music, and after some interlude, he would rise again, usually at the very climax of the show. Sometimes the actor would actually appear, all cleaned up. Sometimes it would just be shown as the empty tomb, the stone rolled away.
Then, while everyone was raw with emotion, the pastor would pounce, with a 10-15 minute sermon designed to pick out the vulnerable in the audience, those who were struggling with something in life and looking for answers. The seekers.
Of course, many of us had invited people we knew were not believers, or churchgoers. We weren’t doing this for our congregation. We were doing it to manipulate and win over the non-believers, and we knew how to turn up the juice and sell false hope and promises of spiritual freedom.
This brutal passion play was the centerpiece of our year, and we thought it beautiful, poignant, moving, and the most important thing we did.
C. Satanic Panic
The mythical Satanic Panic was well underway when we became born-again. This was manifested in many ways in our church. Santa Cruz was seen by our church as a place of intense spiritual darkness, a nexus for powers of darkness to oppose the advancement of the gospel.
I’m not joking.
We heard tell about Witch’s and Satanic covens that supposedly gathered on Sunday mornings specifically to invoke the powers of darkness against our congregation. If the lights went out, many of us assumed that there was more at work than a simple PG&E failure.
We were taught sermons and classes about demons and demonic activity. To fundamentalist Evangelicals like ourselves, demons and angels were as real as the sidewalk under our feet. They were everywhere. We were taught how they behaved, their strengths and weaknesses, the rules on how they were able to affect and even possess individuals, and about some of their hierarchy. They even brought in some outside pastor who was an “expert” on demons and demonic activity to do a sermon series on demonic activity.
On the one hand they would warn us not to be looking out for a “demon behind every bush,” on the other hand they had us convinced they were hiding under the damn pews. (Disclaimer – we didn’t have pews, but it sounded better than ‘chairs’ in this context.)
The ominous looking book, The Adversary and it’s follow-up, Overcoming the Adversary, showed up on our church bookstore shelves. It was a handbook on demons and a how-to book on how to deal with them.
I’m truly not making this up. We were taught how to talk to them if we suspected one was in our presence, be it home, church, or anywhere. We were taught what to say to drive it away. We were taught how difficult they could sometimes be to dislodge when they were powerful, and so on.
When we weren’t dealing with real demons, we were dealing with fictional ones, though supposedly they depicted real biblical truth in the ways that demons operated and how to deal with them. Frank Peretti’s book, This Present Darkness was a sensation in our Christian circles. Everyone was reading it and eating it up. Here were good Christians winning the battle against demonic forces that were taking over a town, much like we believed Santa Cruz was being taken over by demons.
This all leads to one of the things I’m most ashamed of in all my Christian experience. Here we are, young adults in our late teens/early 20’s, and we’re feeling empowered and on high alert, because the battle was here in our dark community.
Do you remember Ernie? The guy who led T to pray the sinner’s prayer back in our teens? Well, somehow, Duane, who was my roommate at the time (not too long before I married T) had gotten to know Ernie, who was between places to live. We let him stay with us for a couple of nights. On that second night… well, I don’t even remember how it started, but Ernie was under a lot of emotional strain, and he said some things that got Duane’s hackles up. He was starting to think Ernie had himself a demon. I was in my bedroom in the back, and he called me out, and next thing you know, there we are, either side of Ernie on the couch, and we’re gonna get the demon out of him.
It really pains me to relate this, I’ll be honest. I’m so embarrassed, and it didn’t take until now for me to feel embarrassed. I was there by the next morning and it’s never stopped eating at me since.
Anyway, we were praying over him, with our hands on him, and Duane was trying to command this demon to show himself and asking what his name was. Yeah, we had both read the books, and we were now going to follow our marching orders.
Ernie was struggling with it, and I think we even had him convinced he had a demon. He was confessing sins and trying to get this thing out of him. Of course, it didn’t come out of him, because it was just his own emotional turmoil inside. He was in a bad spot in his life, and we fucking steamrolled him for it.
This went on for hours, long after Ernie started pleading with us to leave him alone and let him go to sleep. Finally, probably at about 2 or 3 in the damn morning, Ernie punched Duane in the jaw, hard. And Duane deserved it. I deserved one too, but it never came. Shortly after that, I don’t remember how, we all came down off the ledge and just sort of agreed that was enough and went to bed.
In the morning Ernie left. I apologized as best I could, and Ernie, because he’s probably a better person than I am, accepted that. I never saw him again.
News got around church, not that we’d done something terrible to a vulnerable friend, but that Duane got punched in the mouth by a demon. I guess that seemed easier to believe than that these two young, fairly upstanding men, were driven by a truckload of spiritual bullshit being dumped into our young minds and acted on it in the worst possible way.
D. New Age Nuttery
That demonic nonsense went hand-in-hand with the bogeyman of the New Age Movement. This was seen as the greatest danger to our society and to the Christian community there was. It was a sign that the end times were near, so watch out. A cottage industry grew up around books warning about the New Age: Tarot cards, crystals, Eastern Mysticism, Meditation, and anything else the Santa Cruz hippies were into.
There were books like The Seduction of Christianity, The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow (ironic, eh?) The Beautiful Side of Evil, Gods of the New Age, and a number of others. Everyone was convinced that this New Age was the first drumbeats of the apocalypse. Christians were being deceived, they said, and would be deceived in growing numbers until the Great Tribulation came. It would be the doorway to the Great Apostasy that would precede the End Times.
Because we were in Santa Cruz, they taught us that we were in one of the epicenters of this movement. They railed against Christian moms going to Yoga classes at the local gym, against having crystals in the house, against meditation that was anything more than concentrating on bible verses. Eastern Mysticism was Satan’s tool to peel away the faithful, one by one.
They even offered a class, a six-week Sunday school course, on the New Age movement, its dangers, and the ways these bad New Age people are trying to infiltrate our god-fearing churches. The guy who taught it claimed to have come out of that movement a practitioner of many New Agey practices, like TM, using crystals to balance chakras, and yoga, among other things. He had male pattern baldness and a fresh set of plugs in neat little rows from his forehead back toward his cowlick. I guess I was being shallow and was so distracted I remember very little else about the class.
Eventually that madness would die down and we’d move on to the next bogeyman.
E. The End is Nigh
This might have been the next one, in a way, but fears of and hopes for the Apocalypse intertwined almost every topic that ever came up.
Dudes and Dudettes – this is what it was all about. Nearly every single thing we learned could be tied straight back to the End of Days. In our Dispensational Economy, our leaders had the End Times mapped out to a T, with some exceptions.
The New Age and Occult stuff was straight up a sign that the time was near.
We were convinced that we were the last generation or two of the church age. We couldn’t believe that, barring cancer or a car accident. that we wouldn’t be here to see the Rapture, the Tribulation, if the Rapture was later than we thought, and Return of Jesus Christ to Earth on the Mount of Olives.
As in his real actual god-foot landing on that mountain in Israel and cracking that bitch in two.
I think a lot of people who are either not believers, or are nominal/liberal Christians (the kind who cherry-pick the good parts, don’t apologize for it, and are nicer people because of it) don’t realize how seriously we believed this stuff to be true.
We lived our lives based on the fact that the Earth as we knew it was almost done.
We had classes on this too. Many of them. Guest speakers, books in the bookstore. It was unceasing.
You can laugh, but people who believe this poppycock are all over your neighborhood, and once in the very chair in which I sit.
Oh man, I don’t even know if I have the energy to get into this one. But here we go:
At our church, we were taught, straight up, that the Earth was 6,000 years old. While you wouldn’t be tossed out if you disagreed, that was the doctrinal party line. And boy did we eat it up.
I’m no dummy, honestly, but if they said it in the pulpit, just like everything else, I ate it up like the prole I was.
Ken Ham came to our church on two occasions, spoke at service, hawked his books, gave additional seminars, all of it. And we ate it up. We believed the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics was the death knell for Evolution. We believed that Ken Ham’s little sandbox experiment proved that the Grand Canyon was formed during the Great Flood.
Speaking of the Great Flood, you know who else came to speak to our church?
James Irwin. No joke. He came to tell us all about his search for Noah’s Ark and how dang close he was. He actually passed away only 2 or 3 years after visiting us. I remember even then thinking that this might be a bit over the top. But the church was hosting him, so it couldn’t be too whacky, right?
So we believed it all. Later in my life as a Christian, understanding how crazy all of this was helped me along the way to breaking free. But more on that later.
G. Mo’ Money
Money and giving were very serious topics. I can’t tell you how many times we were told it wasn’t about the money. We were to give what god laid on our hearts.
They never missed a chance to regurgitate the promise from Malachi 3:
10 Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.
So while they would tell you that giving is a choice between you and god, they would still lay that shit on you. So if, like us, you were broke most of your life and struggling to pay your bills, how the fuck were you ever supposed to shove the floodgates open when you didn’t even have a tithe of the tithe? Them that’s got, shall get, right?
That seems bad enough, but then, every November, there was – Duh-dada-DAHHHH! Faith Promise!
What’s that you say? You’ve never heard of faith promise? That was how we set the missions budget.
Oh, yes, this was how the Gospel was going to finally get to all corners of the Earth and get us to the Rapture, the End Times, and the judging of all those assholes who didn’t agree with us. You see, there’s a doctrine there that the end times cannot begin until all people in the world have heard the gospel. So churches are sending them out as fast as they can train them not just to win souls, but to hit the quota and get the final show on the road.
Anyway, you’re probably wondering how Faith Promise works. Well, remember how I said that nobody in the Dispensationalist vein really believed that god spoke to use these days? Well, apparently that wasn’t true in November, which was Missions Month. During that month, they would hand out commitment cards. Then they told everyone to pray and ask god to “lay a number on their hearts” for how much they could give over and above their regular giving in order to fund missions. They would collect those cards, and from there set the missions budget for the next year.
In a practical manner it was pretty effective, because they usually managed to collect the amount committed. Whether it actually came in from those who committed, I have no idea.
So I hated November. We could never ever hit the 10% we really wanted to give. And I really thought I needed to get there in order for us to experience god’s blessing in our finances. If we couldn’t do that, how in the hell were we ever going to commit to something over and above? It was like a one month dose of the old Catholic guilt stacked on my regular every day Christian guilt.
And doesn’t it always come down to the damn money?
H. Oh Noes, teh Homogayz!
There isn’t a whole lot to say about this except to share a personal story or two from early in my Christian experience.
Remember how I told you to remember that first exchange when my mom came out to me?
Well, after getting into the theology and understanding what I was supposed to believe, I didn’t waste any time telling my mom she was evil and sinful and was bound for hell for being a homosexual.
Yeah, what an asshole. One of my favorite things about being free from that delusion is being able to affirm my mother as I should, to say I’m sorry and mean it, to love her unconditionally for who she is and accept her love back. I can’t ever undo the awful things I said, but I can reach out in honest love and be the best I can be for her and for everyone right now.
The other memory I have is from college health class at Cabrillo. Remember, this was back in ’86 when being gay was barely becoming acceptable in many circles, and assholes like us were fighting it. Another Christian and I were in the same class. But there was one day when the teacher brought in two individuals who were gay, and were activists for gay rights. My friend wasn’t there, but I made a scene. I was calm, cool, and collected, but I remember saying my piece in the middle of these 40 other students. To their credit, the two individuals presenting were far more tolerant of me than I was of them and did their best to talk me through it. They weren’t successful at the time.
The next class I had to miss, but my friend was there. He found me at church a couple days later and asked me, “What did you do?” Apparently they’d spent the most of the class time talking about that Christian guy.
Am I proud of that? No. I was a perfect example of what they had to overcome just to be treated as regular people.
I. Do as We Say, Not as We Do
One thing I’ll never forget.. Well, let me back up first…
One of the aspects of being a church member that made me very compliant was the fact that I looked at pastors and elders as specially chosen. They had to be special, better, strong, powerful, wise, right? Otherwise why would god have chosen them to lead such a big, growing church?
One night, not too long after T and I were finally married, we were at choir, and the assistant director was running the rehearsal because the Music pastor, along with the other pastors and elders, had been in late night meetings all week. We all knew something was up, but had no idea what.
Finally, near the end of rehearsal, the music pastor, P, came to talk to us. He told us that our senior pastor, C, was having an affair with a woman and would be stepping down from leadership.
You could have heard a pin drop. There were some quiet tears from a few in the choir, but most were just in shock. How could this happen? Was there some mistake? How could this staunch firebrand of a preacher turn his back on the truth like that?
The even deeper, unspoken question was, if he can’t hold it together, what hope do I have?
At the same time, R, the pastor who counseled and married us went on hiatus for several weeks. When he returned, he stood up in front of the church with his wife and confessed that he too had been unfaithful. To their credit, they worked through it and are still together. C and his wife split and he found someone else to marry, I’m not sure who, within the next year or two. He dodged any church discipline and just took off. I guess that’s probably the better choice in some ways… Except that a couple years after that he was back in the pulpit.
You know what chaps my ass about that? Well, of course you do. They spent so much energy trying to keep T and I from each other. They tried to break us up. Us having sex was such a big goddamn deal that they thought we should be apart forever, then here they go and do what they do… Yeah, maybe they paid a price, but… well, I’ll just leave it at that.
J. Get ‘Em While They’re Young
This is a real thing. They work very hard to get the kids indoctrinated young, make sure they know “God’s Truth” before they can get out into the world and get corrupted by nonsense like reality.
That’s why we had our daughter in a private Christian school until we moved to an area that didn’t have one.
That’s why I volunteered for 2-1/2 years to lead the children’s choir. 120 kids every Sunday, doing kids’ versions of the musical/pageants that we put on as adults – just not so bloody. I actually wrote the entire script for one using music from another with a script we didn’t care for.
I was actually proud of that little comedy, though it definitely got trimmed. They didn’t think one of the magi should have brought the Virgin Mary a Thighmaster…
The church also had Caraway Street. If you’re unfamiliar with that, it’s basically a rip-off of Sesame Street, with muppets and all, and all designed to indoctrinate the children without them knowing they’re getting their heads filled with religious delusion before they have the capacity to evaluate it reasonably.
Clever enough name, though, I’ll give them that – Sesame and Caraway are both seeds, and Caraway = take your cares away… etc. Too bad it’s the same old crap in a different package that many of these kids will be struggling to shed even years later.
K. This is… Christian Idol!
Idolatry. Gawd, did I ever get tired of that. I love my wife more than anything. More than life itself. She makes my life worth living. If I ever lose her, it will be the most painful struggle imaginable to get on my feet again. She has been my rock for all these years and ever more so today.
Doesn’t that sound pretty sweet? Every word is true.
And you know what? My old church leaders would call that idolatry. They would say that I’m putting her above god, that it’s god who should be my rock. They would say it’s only him I should love more than anything, more than life itself.
If you didn’t give the whole tithe because you wanted to buy a new TV, you were idolizing the TV over god, and you were in sin.
God and Jesus had to permeate everything in your life. You had to acknowledge Him in everything, as first in everything. You were NOTHING apart from him. Your righteousness like filthy rages (lit. used menstrual rags.) You had nothing to offer god. You were hellbound and worthless except that he chose you to call out of darkness, and for that you should only be grateful.
They try to tell you that’s affirming. But it’s only a cycle of self-hatred they foment to keep you acquiescent and under control. Putting anything before god, believing in yourself – that’s idolatry – sin.
They never missed an opportunity to hammer you down.
L. Tell Me Your Secrets
Ever heard of Accountability Partners? Yeah, that’s a thing. You know what it’s for?
I mean, there could be other things, but 9 times out of 10, if you need an accountability partner, it’s because you’ve built up a measure of guilt over an occasional indulgence in online porn, and you need to get right with god.
Now it’s one thing if you have a sex addiction and really need to get off the nudie wagon – no pun intended. But even the slightest indulgence in porn was seen as a huge evil thing, the big unspeakable sin undercutting the effectiveness of Christian men everywhere.
But if you’re not in the mood to be lectured about checking out a handful of boobies the night before, might you not be tempted to just not mention it?
Never fear, XXXChurch is here. These guys will let you download X3Watch. It’s basically an add-on for your browser that monitors your online browsing. You choose an accountability partner – mine was a guy I call Titus here at the blog – and you enter his email address. If you access a questionable site, it will send your partner an email so he can check up on you. And of course there’s a version for your phone.
And I have to say, it worked for awhile. I didn’t look at anything – not because I didn’t want to see a boob or two, but because I just didn’t want to endure the fucking lecture.
I suppose the issues with porn do transcend religion. There’s another entire conversation about whether it objectifies or empowers the women who do it, etc. But the point for the purpose of this blog is that it’s just another way Christian and church culture encourages you to not be your own person, to turn over your autonomy to someone else.
I actually quit the app not because I wanted to look at boobies, but because it kept misinterpreting sites that I liked, fantasy fiction, chess, gaming, and such, as adult, and I was dog tired of explaining that crap to Titus.
Of course, when I finally came out as an atheist, Titus wasted no time accusing me of leaving god because I wanted to look at porn. To say that pissed me off would be a massive understatement.
But now, knowing there’s no sky judge, if I really feel like looking at some porn, that’s just my choice. The funny thing is it’s not nearly so compelling now that it’s not the forbidden fruit. Imagine that.
M. Attack of the Cults
Another thing Christians love to do, and we ate it up at the time, is criticize and make fun of all the other religions. There are entire books and tracts dedicated to highlighting the errors of all those other religions and cults.
The main thing about these materials is that they don’t assess other cults or religions reasonably, rather they are assessing them only in comparison with their own religion, which is like saying that Spiderman isn’t true because we believe in Batman.
But I’ll bet you dollars to donuts your average Evangelical Christian knows a lot more about the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, or Christian Scientists than the average joe, just for that reason.
And yes, we actually took a class about cults and non-Christian religions.
One day some JW’s came to the door right about the time I’d been going through one of the pamphlets. I had it in my back pocket. We sparred a little bit, and the older guy of the two got a little irritated. I happened to turn and he noticed the pamphlet. He got even more pissy, “What’s that in your pocket?” I was kind of taken aback, but then I thought, why not? I showed him the pamphlet with a smirk. He was all pissed off. “If you want to know what we believe, why don’t you just ask us?” I asked him if the pamphlet was wrong. He just handed it back and left.
I was pretty proud of myself. As if my own beliefs could stand up to scrutiny. Someday I’d find out.
Well, Now That’s Over!
That’s just a basic survey of the madness and warped perception of reality you have in the culture of the Evangelical church.
In my next installment I’ll move the timeline forward and get into the later years and what led to my eventual deconversion.