Deconstructing Evangelical Theology: "You Were Never a True Christian"

It's an argument that I'm tempted to believe. When I look back over the last fourteen years of my life, about eleven of them were spent as a born-again, Bible believing Evangelical Christian. Then, a series of unfortunate events began around 2011, including adultery committed by one of the pastors of our church and the discovery of sex crimes committed by my pastor father-in-law.

I can't point to the exact moment when it happened, but my faith packed it's bags and left. Sometimes it all feels like it was a dream. I think back to why I came to believe that homosexuality was a sin, that all people are born destined for hell and need a savior, and that demons prowled the Earth causing trouble, and I can't explain it. The only thing I can say is that they seemed true at the time, and now they don't.

I feel like parts of my personality had been suppressed, and suddenly reasserted themselves. Sure, there were times I had doubts. But I pushed them away. Now doubts are all I have. I'm not an atheist, but I'm not a Christian either.

So what the hell happened?

So far, no one has tried this argument with me. I've had friends say that my de-conversion scared them. The reason is simple: if it can happen to me, it can happen to them. This is why people who leave a religion (or any way of thinking, for that matter), are often told that they must never have been a True Follower of that way of thinking. If the person leaving can be 'othered', the people who stay can avoid thinking that the same thing could happen to them.

The reality is that this argument doesn't 'other' the person at all. You can search online and find examples of dedicated pastors, priests, and missionaries that left the faith. I'm sure that all these people were sure at one point that this would never happen to them. They believed they were True Believers. The reality is that it can happen to anyone.

We all want to believe that we're rational beings that carefully examine all the options and then reach a conclusion, but reality is anything but that. Our brains are meat based computers that can make mistakes. At the time I became a Christian, I interpreted certain events in my life as signs from God. I had no other explanation for them. Yet, now, on the other side of that journey, I find that my loss of faith is just as inexplicable. 

There's a variant of the 'Not a True Believer' argument. Some Christians would say instead that I found a False Gospel or a False Jesus. The True Gospel and the True Jesus are still waiting for me to find them.

That's a nice thought, but by this argument I've already found two fake Jesus's. I've tried Catholicism and Evangelicalism and have discarded them both. 

If there's a True Jesus out there, why is he so hard to find?

This post is part 3 of a series. The previous post is Is It a Religion Or a Relationship?

Deconstructing Evangelical Theology: Is It a Religion Or a Relationship?

Many Evangelical Christians hate religion. And not in the way that someone who used to work at McDonald's is sick of Big Macs. No, these Evangelicals hate religion because they believe that they are not, in fact part of a religion.

They're part of a relationship! It's completely different!

As usual, they've redefined words to suit themselves. Religion (often referred to as 'cold, dead religion') is what those other people at those other churches do. They have rules and rituals. Ugh.

If you are an Evangelical and honestly believe your relationship doesn't have any rules, I encourage to partake in any one of the following experiments.

  1. If you're a woman, tell your pastor you're interested in becoming an elder.
  2. If you have a newborn baby, ask your pastor to baptize it.
  3. At your next Bible study, mention the awesome Rob Bell book you're reading.
Ok, but what about rituals? Evangelicalism doesn't have those, right? 

Except that praying is a ritual, no matter how you look at it. The rituals of Evangelicalism are less rigid, sure. Prayers are free form, not memorized and spit back. But a free form poem is still a poem, just as much as a poem that follows iambic pentameter.

If you don't think that an Evangelical service is a ritual, try shouting out a question in the middle of the pastor's sermon. Let me know how that goes. Or, throw down some cardboard and start break-dancing while everyone else is singing "Mighty to Save".

Still don't believe me? Let's go to the Bible:

"Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless."

James 1:26

Remember, Evangelicals take the Bible to be inerrant - the ultimate authority on everything. The verse above describes a situation where religion is worthless. This means that under some circumstances, religion is not worthless.

This is called "the exception that proves the rule". Not in the way most people use it - most people say "it's the exception that proves the rule" when they really mean "the exception rather than the rule". No, the exception that proves the rule.

Example: Say you see a sign that says 'No parking on Sundays'. From this sign, you could extrapolate that parking is, in fact, allowed on the other six days of the week.

If the Bible is inerrant (not that I'm saying it is), and religion is worthless, why bother describing this specific circumstance where it is?

This post part 2 of a series. The previous post is Do the Pharisees Get a Bad Rap? and the next post is "You Were Never a True Christian".

Deconstructing Evangelical theology: Do the Pharisees get a bad rap?

Some Evangelicals believe that when God says or does something in the Old Testament, that means that Jesus said or did that thing.

Let’s take a look at this belief in light of Jesus’ treatment of the Pharisees. Jesus is the protagonist of the Gospels, and he has no shortage of villains to confront - the scribes, the chief priests, even the devil himself. But for me, the best villains of the Gospels were always the Pharisees. So legalistic. So proud. Always looking to make Jesus stumble, and always getting shut down.

But do they get a bad rap?

Well, the Pharisees are known for their legalism, but the most common complaint I’ve heard leveled against them is that they were too legalistic about doing no work on the Sabbath. They made all kinds of regulations about what constituted work. I’ve heard it said that they even made rules about whether one could put on a wig or false teeth on the Sabbath.

What jerks!

But who made the law about not working on the Sabbath? God. (Exodus 35:1) Remember, that means Jesus made the law, according to some.

Ok, but he never said to make ridiculous rules about it, right? It's not his fault!

But what, pray tell, was the penalty that God set for breaking this law?

Death. (Exodus 35:2)

So let's follow the chain of events, assuming that anything God did, Jesus did.

  • Jesus creates a law saying no work is to be done in the Sabbath. He provides no parameters on what constitutes work other than saying that fires should not be lit in people’s homes on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3).
  • He says that if the law is broken, he will fucking smoke your ass. He drives the point home by ordering the execution of a man for picking up sticks on the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32-36)
  • When a group of his followers creating legalistic rules about what constitutes work, he's pissed.

It gets even weirder in light of some of Jesus' actions. For instance, he saves the life of a woman who is about to be stoned to death for committing adultery, saying "let he who is without sin cast the first stone."

What about the poor bastard who was picking up sticks?

God ordered that he be stoned to death.

How does that make sense?

This post is part one of a series. The next post is Is it a religion or a relationship?

One Hour in Hell: My Brush with Suicide

[Trigger warning: suicide, suicidal thoughts]

I was suicidal once. For about an hour.

Let me back up (pun intended).

I've had a bad back since my early twenties. People ask me, "How did you hurt your back?", expecting, perhaps, a tale of me lifting a car off of a litter of puppies, or BASE jumping off a skyscraper in order to tackle some jewel thieves. In reality, it was caused by ignoring my doctor's advice (because hey, I was going to be young forever), and a career as a software engineer in which I sit all day. The last straw was a picnic bench.

I was at a birthday party, and sat down on a picnic bench, as I had done hundreds of time before. As I sat down,  I felt my back go out. Oh well, looks like I'll be spending a couple of days on the couch again I thought.

I got home, lay down on the couch and screamed.

I had to lay flat on my back on the floor to alleviate the pain. My wife and I realized something was seriously wrong when I couldn't stand up. It was the weekend, so we contacted an on call nurse, who told me to call an ambulance.

"An ambulance?" I said, thinking Thirty one year olds simply do not call ambulances, my good woman.

"Well, we can't leave you on the floor, honey." she replied. Hmm, a sound argument.

I had back surgery to remove half of my L5-S1 disc, and had to take lots of Percoset. I was staying within the prescribed dose, but I wanted to get off of it as quickly as possible.

I went from ten pills a day to two. I was already in a funk because of the surgery. It was my first, and I was thinking about my mortality and how I was getting old, that kind of thing. Within forty eight hours of dropping the dose, I went from funk to full blown depression.

Not the depression I'm used to. The kind that's maybe not even depression at all, just a terrible, awful mood. This was evil. It's the only word for it. I didn't even notice it coming on. It was just there. The word depression doesn’t do it justice. A pothole is a depression. This was a bottomless pit.

I don't know how to describe it any better than that, because the feelings were so alien. Actually, that's a good word. If you've ever watched or read any story where someone gets possessed by aliens or demons or whatever, when they're rescued they usually say some variation of the same thing:

"It was like I was a prisoner in my own mind, and all I could do was watch what was happening and scream."

Except I couldn't even scream. It was more like a whisper. It was something like this:

Me: Umm, that seems harsh...
Me: But I have a family.

These things didn't sound like something I'd say, but who was I to argue with myself? Except it wasn't me. Except it had to be me, because who else would it be?

Cue ominous music.

Luckily, I was raised to believe that married couples make decisions together. Maybe I'd mosey on down to the kitchen and bounce this plan off my better half.

Me: Wait, if you're me, why are you calling me, 'you'?
Depression: UMM...crap

Ok, the last two lines didn't happen, but I have to lighten the mood a bit.

I briefed my wife. I don't remember if I used the word suicidal or not. She looked up from the stove where she was cooking and said that I should probably take a Percocet and see if I felt better.  

I wasn't sure. I hemmed and hawed. I mean, gosh, what if something bad happened? She repeated herself, with an implied "before I slap you with the business end of this spatula, you silly son of a bitch".

I took the pill, and sat down at the kitchen table. Within fifteen minutes, I was fine. Not "top of the world" fine but "hey maybe I'll give this living thing another whirl, it seems pretty cool" fine. Whatever force that had invaded my brain was gone, leaving no trace.

At one point during this ordeal, I wondered if I would feel the same way tomorrow. I knew without a doubt there was no way I could handle that. What I was experiencing was Hell, in the Evangelical sense of the word. It was conscious torment. It wasn't eternal, but it felt that way, and perception, in this case, was reality.

If you struggle with suicidal thoughts, I won’t insult you by saying that I now understand your struggle. I only got the briefest glimpse of what it's like. That would be like saying you understand the plot of The Godfather after watching the first five minutes dubbed into Esperanto.

I did learn this: suicide isn’t the act of a coward. Anyone who deals on a regular basis with anything like what I was feeling is brave. Even if they choose to end their life.

But what about the people that a suicide victim leaves behind? Isn’t it cowardly and selfish for them to end their own pain, leaving loved ones to pick up the pieces?

Again, I can only speak based on my limited experience, but I would say it’s not. For that brief time, I truly believed that I would be doing my wife and three young daughters a favor by choosing to end my life. My view of reality had become so twisted that ending my life seemed like a noble sacrifice, no different than throwing myself in front of a bullet.

I don’t know what it's like to deal with thoughts like this on a regular basis, but I experienced enough that I will never pass judgement on someone who does. Like lung cancer, it’s a medical condition. You wouldn't say that someone who died of lung cancer "decided to stop breathing". That would be absurd - they died because they were robbed of the ability to breathe. Depression robs you of your ability to view reality correctly, and your ability to make decisions - including the decision to seek help. It was a tremendous effort for me just to walk downstairs and talk to my wife.

Some people think depression is a character flaw or a spiritual issue. It shames me to admit that I once believed this too.

If my wife had believed that, I might not be alive today.

5 Awesome Reasons to Leave Your Church

Recently, Relevant Magazine an article entitled 5 Really Bad Reasons to Leave Your Church. As someone who has experience leaving a church, I felt compelled to respond. 

There are five reasons in the article, but they all boil down to this one:

"My needs aren't being met"

Hooooo boy, American Evangelical churches hate when their members have needs. This is because they view themselves as locked in an eternal battle with the forces of Satan. The pastor is the general and his flock are soldiers. Soldiers obey. They don't complain, and they certainly don't have needs.

But the church also needs to put non-Christian asses in seats so that people hear The Gospel. So they have to provide whizz-bang worship services, engaging sermons, and comfortable seating. 

But here's the catch: these frills are not really intended for members. Once you become a soldier in God's army, you are expected to serve until it hurts . You are expected to surrender your comfortable seat if a potential recruit needs it. 
This is a bait and switch. 

Let's use my former church as an example.

One of the the pastors there bragged that when someone told him they didn't like one of the songs , he had replied, "Well, we weren't singing it to you."

A good soldier doesn't complain about their countries national anthem, you see.

Once they showed a video that compared a good church to a battleship and a bad church to a cruise ship. This means that in their mind, a bad church is keeps it's members safe, and if people get hurt, they apologize and make amends. A bad church recharges people instead of draining them.

On the other hand, a good church is one where people obey orders and people's comfort and safety aren't important. It's a place that you can't leave.

This is how the church was run. They pushed for people to become members as soon as possible. Small group leaders were strongly encouraged to have members sign covenants promising to attend the group so that, as one pastor put it, "if they don't live up to their end of the agreement you can hold it in their face and call them out" (paraphrase). 

People who practically lived at the church (because they were in so many ministries) were held up as shining examples that others should aspire to be.
Young couples expecting their first child were told not to just "check out" because they were parents now. And we were constantly reminded that it wasn't about us and our needs. 

But nothing could change the fact that members weren't actually soldiers and could therefore leave whenever they felt like it. So other tactics had to be employed. We would be frequently reminded that we were one of only a handful of "bible believing churches" in our corner of the state. The phenomenon of "church shopping" was roundly decried. The membership covenant with the church was likened to a marriage (and we all know how Evangelicals feel about divorce). 

So what? I hear some people say. Anecdotal evidence, that's all you've got!

Then why did Relevant feel the need to write the article?

Because what Relevant (and churches like MFC) want you to forget is that you have agency. You have choice.

You can leave if it's too big or too small or too far away. You can leave because the sermons are boring or because you don't like the style of worship. It's up to you. Just as you can choose to trade in your car, move to a different city, or start a new job.

They want you to forget that the best reason for leaving a church is the one that you pick.

They want you to forget that sometimes, it is about you and your needs, and that's OK. 

I Don't Care If It Rains Or Freezes, As Long As I've Got My Magic Jesus

My former pastor once preached a sermon about another pastor who had invited a man to live in his home after that man was released from prison. The charge? Child molestation. The reason for the pastor's decision?

I'll give you three guesses. Actually, you don't get any guesses, you should have already figured it out.

Yep, the child molester had found Jesus while in prison. The pastor's decision made quite a stir, and he was interviewed by a local media outlet. He said that if Jesus was real and could change a person's heart, he had to put his money where his mouth is and invite this man into his home.

Anyone want to guess what Bible verse he referenced? Anyone? Bueller?
17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:[a] The old has gone, the new is here! (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)
But if you've spent any amount of time in Evangelical churches, you already knew that. You see, Evangelical Jesus isn't just the Son of God. He doesn't just forgive your sins. He's also a bloody wizard.

Not a magician who does crude parlor tricks. No, friends, the Evangelical Jesus performs actual magic. You see, when a person becomes a Christian by "asking Jesus into his heart", that person becomes a new person! It says so, right in the Bible! Avada Kedavra! I mean abracadabra!

Now, I don't know the end of this story. Maybe the molester in question had a genuine change of heart and the story ended happily (I certainly hope so). And don't think I'm bashing Jesus. I think Evangelicals are putting words in his mouth.

Because you see, at some point after a rookie Evangelical asks Jesus into his heart, they will experience their first Struggle With Sin. Perhaps they've even heard the above verse and can't understand why this is happening. They'll go to a trusted friend or their pastor for an explanation. They'll probably be told that Magic Jesus doesn't just wave a magic wand and change us all at once - it's a process. This process is called sanctification.

Phew! So Christians will change in small increments over time as they gain life experience and knowledge. The only problem is, this sounds an awful like how non-Christians change. It's called "growing up" and it does not, in fact, end when you turn eighteen (a fact which continues to surprise me despite having passed that mark some time age). 

The example I gave is not an isolated one. Abusers within the church are frequently reinstated into positions of authority (or never removed) because they've repented. After all, Jesus has forgiven them, so why shouldn't their victims? They have, after all said the magic words - "I'm sorry". Sometimes with actual tears. 

I don't sympathize with abusers. I save my sympathy for their victims.
However, I will say that abusive Christians and I have one thing in common: we were sold a bill of goods by a church that promised radical change that never came. I wanted to be released from anxiety; this didn't happen until I got on medication. Fortunately for everyone involved, I never committed a crime due to my anxiety.

Telling people they have changed when they haven't is irresponsible. In some cases, it's dangerous. The unnamed pastor in my story held his beliefs so firmly, he invited a convicted child molester into the home where his children lived. In doing this, he sided with an abuser over his children.

Let's let that sink in for a moment. 

Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. How many victims of abuse have been forced to forgive their abuser? Face to face, no less? How many families have had a member commit horrible abuse, only to demand forgiveness and refuse to go to counselling because of this theology?

Don't think I'm letting abusers off the hook - far from it. They are the ones ultimately responsible for their actions. However, it is possible to be an enabler of abuse. I defy you to show me an example of Jesus doing this. When he saved the woman about to be stoned for adultery, he didn't make her forgive the people about to throw said stones. He didn't make the other disciples forgive Peter for his betrayal. 

It is true that the early church made Paul, a man who murdered Christians like it was his job (actually it was his job) one of their chief missionaries. 

But could it be that they sent him on trips all over the world so the families of the people he killed wouldn't have to be around him?  

Of course there's no way to know. But there's certainly no account of those families being forced to forgive him.

A Web Developer's Thoughts on Coke's Anti-Gay Marketing Disaster

Recently, the Coca-Cola company came under fire for being anti-gay. The company had launched a marketing campaign in which customers could personalize a virtual can of Coke with whatever words they wanted. The site disallowed profanity, but included the words "gay" and "homo" in it's list of banned words. 

I'm a web developer. My company is tiny compared to Coke, of course, but I couldn't help but envision how this might play out if I were asked to design such a site for my company, because profanity is something that developers run into from time to time. At my previous job, we shipped our product on CDs and required the customer to input a randomly generate product key. A customer called in to inform us that their key included the letters 'FUCK', and one of our engineers had to scramble to change the key generator to filter profanities.

I can't help but feel that I would have done a better job.

Most developers would probably choose to use a software library called a wordfilter to perform the profanity scan. Think of a software library as being like an app for your phone. You just download it and use it - you don't need to know how it works. In this case, think of an app that lets you input some text. You then press 'Done' and an alert pops up if there's profanity in the text.

Most of these libraries would come with a built in library of profanity, including multiple languages and alternate spellings, possibly even more devious entries (like 'f.u.c.k' instead of fuck) that wily users might enter to circumvent the filter.

Of course no software is perfect, and a wordfilter is no exception. It can only split words into two categories - non-offensive and offensive. That's good enough for a smaller company such as mine. But a company as massive as Coke should have at least attempted to define a tertiary set - words that could be offensive. Entries with words in that set would have to be approved by an actual human before being allowed.

Let's take a non-controversial example: suck.

"I love sucking down an ice cold Coke!"

Clearly only one of those examples represents the Coke company in a positive light. 'Homo' and 'Gay' could easily be plugged into the second example, and would be caught by a human, though missed by a software library.

If someone entered a word that could be offensive, just display a message like this:

Your message contains word(s) that could, in some cases, be used in a derogatory manner. It will be manually reviewed and, if the message is not offensive, you will be allowed to use it.

It's not a perfect solution. Some might still take offense. And a *cough* unenlightened employee might refuse the word 'gay' if it's NOT used in a derogatory manner. 

Y'know...hmm...this entire idea sounds like a PR disaster waiting to happen, and probably should have been nipped in the bud. Perhaps they should have talked to someone from Nike

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.