Sunday, January 8, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Losing the fire, the spirit and innocence

So far, I am enjoying writing about my Conversions and De-conversions. I am noticing certain trends, and piecing together aspects of my young life that would lead to my continued entrenchment into religion, and my ultimate de-conversion from religion.

What, in my story so far, has led to my de-conversion?

My parents were not rooted in a strong religious tradition. They were just as spiritually adrift as I was.

I had an early, if undeveloped, exposure to evolution, paleontology, and astronomy.

I loved to read, even at an early age. I loved picture books, but I was not afraid of reading more advanced material – even if I did not understand it all.

I was already critiquing the very human nature of worship by seeing the artificial patterns in it.

I was inspired by personalities on television that were unlike anybody I knew in my real life. Television scientists seems so much more interesting than our ranting pastor, Grandpa Wagner.

But there were also things adrift in my life that would eventually lead me deeper into religious belief:

I was becoming increasingly aloof, alone, depressed, confused, and even angry.

I was raised in a stifling environment. I knew no other perspectives or points of view. Unlike my desert isolation in New Mexico, I knew alternate religious traditions were out there. I was aware of Methodists and Unitarians in Cape Girardeau. But they were not in my sphere of influence, and I had no compelling reason to investigate them. I had my Truth. My religious destiny seemed forced on me by a channel of ignorance.

Those were the ‘Seeds of Change’ in my young life. Each of these items would only intensify after my family moved to southeast Missouri, and I entered my high school years. One more item would be added in those years, and I am not sure if it caused my de-conversion from religion, or my entrenchment into religion. Probably both. I will discuss that in my next installment of this series.

I never felt more out of place, I was never more a fish out of water, than when I was living in Southeast Missouri. I still remember my first morning there, as I woke up in a tent Grandpa Wagner had pitched on somebody’s farm. I remember the smell of freshly cut alfalfa, rolled into giant circular bales, unlike the square bales I was used to seeing in New Mexico. I remember an intense humidity unlike anything I had ever experienced. I remember the peculiar Midwestern food, which was completely absent of beans, red chile, or corn tortillas. Nobody spoke Spanish, and there were no mud brick homes.

There were no long-haired Jesus Freaks who wore patched bellbottoms and ill-fitting, hand-sewn, embroidered vests. Except us.

The whole reason the entire Wagner family and church followed Grandpa Wagner in his move to Missouri was to spread his vision of Pentecostal Christianity. But the church that Grandpa Wagner wanted to start never materialized. Grandma Wagner, ‘Old Toothless’ as my dad called her, had died sometime around our move. In hindsight, I suspect she was the quiet glue that held the whole church together. She seemed to be a Christian relic from another time. She was a haggard, humorless, stern, frightening woman, and upon her death the whole church, along with the Wagner family disintegrated. Grandpa Wagner eventually married a younger Midwestern woman (‘younger’ meaning mid-40s), and retired to a life of selling his woodcrafts in local art shows. I don’t think he ever preached again.

The Wagner family and church split and went their separate ways in the southeastern Missouri region. Michael Wagner and my mom spent the next couple of years moving from one tiny farm town to another, looking for some kind of employment. We eventually settled in Cape Girardeau, Missouri where I was enrolled in 7th grade. My grades in school had already started to deteriorate before we left New Mexico. In Missouri, they completely tanked. The school bullying increased to an almost unbearable level. The classes in my new school were much larger than the tiny school rooms I was used to in Jemez Valley Elementary, and because I had earlier advanced a grade, I was still the youngest and among the smallest in my class. I was viewed as an outsider, an oddball, and a complete misfit in the Midwest. Public school, for me, was a complete and utter waste of time, and most of my time was just spent trying to avoid trouble. I am ashamed to admit that in being bullied, I sometimes, rarely but sometimes, became myself a bully. In my frustration, I sometimes beat up youngsters who were even weaker than I was – most of those with some kind of mental disability that we all did not mind laughing at. What a miserable and depressing time! In hindsight, I can honestly say that my high school years were by far the worst years of my life.

Those first few years were especially rough. I would sometimes skip school altogether, and instead of taking the school bus, I would walk to the public library and spend the day there. I still loved to read, and the library was my escape portal to the outside world.

July 20th 1976 was a monumental day for me. I had hoped that Viking, the giant probe then orbiting the planet Mars, would land on the planet’s surface on the nation’s Bicentennial, but it eventually landed on the 20th of July. In September, I saw the first pictures from Viking, when a photo of the planet’s surface made the cover of National Geographic. I was astonished. That photo I was looking at was the surface of another world! That tiny red dot in the sky, the wanderer that was named after the Roman god of war looked just like Death Valley in California! The photo I was looking at was of an alien world that no human had ever spoiled with a single footprint or had ever once been gazed upon. The Viking Lander absolutely astounded me in my youth. I desperately wanted to be a part of it, to be associated with something that immense, but had no idea how. Instead, I spent my time skipping as much class as I could get away with.

From what I remember, the religious culture of Cape Girardeau was quite diverse, but was mostly made up of various Pentecostal denominations and some Methodist churches. Of course, everybody in town claimed to be Christian, but I had been taught that most of the churches, especially the large ones that rung bells every day at noon, were dead, lifeless and without the Holy Ghost. They were no better than Catholics. They relied on dry liturgies, formulas, and ritual. My family looked for the smaller churches, those with little organization, and that got their power straight from the Holy Ghost. We found that in Missouri, especially in the backwoods areas, this could be carried to amazing extremes. We visited churches that were frightening even by our own ecstatic, tongue speaking standards. I remember one tiny country church, where a young man, completely out of control while he screamed in tongues, almost lost grip of his baby, which he held coiled in his arm like a football. Such chaotic displays were too much even for my mother. We eventually found a small, but growing ‘non-denominational’ church that was to our liking. I will call it the New Hope Church, led by Pastor Jack. I remember Pastor Jack and people of New Hope to be all very good people. Mom and Michael met many people there in the years we spent at that church, and my mom still has nothing but good things to say about the people there. New Hope welcomed us into their congregation, and most of the friends we made in Missouri were associated with that church. New Hope certainly manifested the spiritual gift of Other Tongues, along with interpretation, and Pastor Jack could certainly get excitable. But the chaos of being Slain in the Spirit and the frightening rants of Grandpa Wagner were over. New Hope seemed much more stable then the tiny, unhinged church that we left in San Ysidro.

My religious beliefs started to fully mature during this time. Jesus was becoming less of my invisible, magical friend, and instead becoming more of a god whom I must learn to obey and worship. It was at New Hope where concepts like the Trinity, the dual natures of Christ, Justification and Sanctification began to find their definition in my mind. The infallibility of the Bible was more emphasized than I had ever heard from Grandpa Wagner. Jesus Christ was God Almighty from eternity past, and was the creator of our Universe. Jesus was the second member of the Trinity, which was the sole nature of God in three Persons, being God the Father, Jesus the Son and the Holy Ghost. The Trinity was analogous to water being in the forms of vapor, liquid and ice – not quite, but good enough a model for a teenager. Adam and Eve were the first humans on the newly created planet. Because of their rebellion, mankind was lost in Sin, and were thenceforth forever separated from the Holy nature of God. But the only Son of the Father, Jesus, because of his love for us, became fully human while somehow still remaining fully divine. Actually, Jesus was sometimes said to have humbled himself and stripped himself of his divinity, and other times was said to be both simultaneously divine and human. Confusing, true, but I did not at the time worry myself with those technicalities. Jesus descended to planet Earth, and as the sinless and perfect man, sacrificed himself to his vengeful Father, to redeem and justify mankind from their Sin. Our human obligation was to repent, turn to God, and accept the sacrifice of His only Son, thus rejecting our own inherent sinful nature, so we could become fully acceptable to His holy nature. The Bible was the sole authority of our knowledge of God, our sinful nature, and his gift of Salvation. The Bible was inspired and inerrant, meaning it was without error, and above doubt, question and critique.

Quite what this all meant, I don’t think I was fully sure. But I fully believed it all. I had no choice but to believe it. I might as well have tried not believing in my own Being as to not believe in what I was taught about God, Jesus, the Bible, and the predicament of His creation. It was the only paradigm I knew. I was vaguely aware that other religions existed, including dead and heretical Christian denominations and Catholicism, but I had little reason to consider them, at least not until my curiosity got the better of me in my last year of high school. My Christian Beliefs were the only Necessary Beliefs and there was no need or desire to question them. If somebody had asked me why I believed what I did, I don’t know what my answer would have been. I suspect the very question would have puzzled me. Why ask? The thought of even asking for reasons was beyond my religious horizon. I lived the life of pure Faith. There was no reason. It simply Was.

We continued to believe in the near return of Jesus in the form of the Rapture, and the beginning of the Great Tribulation, which was the seven-year reign of the Beast, popularly known as the Anti-Christ, upon Earth. A popular and amazingly influential writer named Hal Lindsey was becoming well known during this time. Nearly everybody read, or at least owned, his books The Late Great Planet Earth, Satan is Alive and Well, and There’s a New World Coming. These books, which were Lindsey’s interpretation of the Apocalyptic books of Daniel and Revelation and implausibly read into newspaper headlines, formed the backbone of many of Pastor Jack’s sermons. Instead of Grandpa Wagner’s hellfire rants, Pastor Jack calmly lectured us, with the aid of an overhead projector, the confusing interpretations of the bowls, seals, trumpets and other bizarre apocalyptic imagery. I did not understand much of it, except that the imagery of impending Holy War and the End of the Age was very frightening. I remember one sermon in particular, that I thought demonstrated the amazing prophetic vision of the Bible. Pastor Jack, with the aid of maps and hand drawn pictures on his overhead projector, showed how the blessing of Moses:

And of Asher he said, [Let] Asher [be] blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brethren, and let him dip his foot in oil. Thy shoes [shall be] iron and brass; and as thy days, [so shall] thy strength [be]
– Deut 33:24-25.

was actually a prediction of some newly discovered Israeli oil wells located somewhere near Mt Tabor, which amazingly enough was in the ‘toe’ portion of the boot-shaped Asher. Most maps show Zebulon and Issachar to be where Pastor Jack included Asher, and I am not sure if oil was ever found near Mt Tabor, but we were quite impressed nevertheless. Driving home I told mom I was amazed by Pastor Jack’s sermon and demonstration that the Bible could predict the future so accurately. She agreed.

I owned a comic book, which summarized the popular apocalyptic beliefs of New Hope Church in the late 1970s. Surprisingly enough, it was made by the same people who put out Archie Comics, and I was shocked when I saw it again on the Internet. This comic, which I must have read a million times, is a good synopsis of my view of the impending world, and how to avoid being damned in the crossfire, by our loving Savior Jesus. I also find it quite nostalgic. I owned lots of these Spire Christian Comics, including The Hiding Place, Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys and Hello, I'm Johnny Cash. While not as horrific in worldview as Chick Tracks, they accurately represent my Fundamentalist beliefs of that time. Like Chick Tracks, I probably got the majority of my theology from memorable comics like these. Check them out.

Looking back, and comparing my young years of Christianity in New Mexico to those in Missouri, I can detect very subtle changes in our spiritual lives. Life in Missouri was immensely more complicated than the relatively simple, yet primitive desert life of New Mexico. As Fundamentalist as New Hope was, Grandpa Wagner and his home Pentecostal church offered a life of unquestioned absolutes. Things were simple when there was a single Holy Ghost, Fire Breathing, Tongue Speaking, Miracle and Healing Pentecostal church and a single heretical Satanic Catholic church in the town. Things were uncomplicated in the desert, where we made a simple living by selling goat milk and cheese to the hippies who came down from the Jemez mountains to our humble, mud-brick home. We were Holy Ghost empowered because we could be. We could sing and dance to homemade Gospel songs all night, with not a care in the world. Our penniless, Jesus Freak, hippy lifestyle was a temporary life in an alternate universe. Things were different in Missouri. Suddenly, family obligations became more demanding. Mortgages and bills had to be paid, and laws requiring children to be in school were enforced. Somehow, the Holy Ghost Fire that we had in New Mexico vanished. There were more outside influences from the larger population of Cape Girardeau, more religious diversity to contend with and alternate points of view. Mom and her three children were getting older. Our religion, though still Pentecostal, was becoming even more formulaic. The wild Jesus Freaks from New Mexico were becoming domesticated. Innocence was not quite lost, but she was slipping away like a dream.

As a born-again Christian, I was supposed to be living a life of sanctification, and continually emboldened and made into the image of Jesus by the power of the Holy Ghost. But in truth, there was nothing special about this Born Again child of God. I was a very confused, somewhat rebellious, hormonally driven, misfit teenager. School was a continued source of torment. I was certainly smart enough, but I was apathetic. I was given no direction for my future by my parents, pastor or school. I simply drifted by, trying to avoid others. I was to graduate high school in the summer of 1981, but I flunked one too many basic algebra courses. I was simultaneously enthralled by Carl Sagan’s PBS series Cosmos, intrigued by Steve Allen’s other PBS series Meeting of the Minds, yet I could not pass a stupid math class, and had to repeat my entire senior year of high school. My continued depression sank me to crushing lows. Mom was at wits end. As ashamed of myself as I was, I fought with mom against sending me back to Cape Central High School for another year. I could not bear another year of torment in that school. Mom finally and reluctantly enrolled me in a small private school owned by a Baptist church, which we had never attended.

I spent my final year of high school enrolled in Cape Baptist Christian School (again - a bogus name), the smallest school I would ever attend. This was my first time being affiliated with the Baptist denomination, and I again stepped into another world of religious stagnation.

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Hendy said...

I only skimmed this so far, but just wanted to add that my parents did not indoctrinate (or even teach me) that any particular religion was correct. I've wondered how much this has to do with my openness to other "truths" in my searching.

This is a big area of concern with my daughters, ages 1 and 3. Do we really understand the implications of teaching them at a young age that "X is right" or "Y is the only way" or that "Z is real"? How much do we understand the ability to critically question later in life? Given that most members of a religion keep that same religion for the duration of life, I'd say that the childhood environment is huge!

Thanks for writing this.

DoOrDoNot said...

Thanks for the documentary recommendations you made on an earlier post. I've watched Marjoe and will get to Jesus Camp when it arrives from Netflix. I actually found Marjoe on both Netflix and youtube. Facinating! And disturbing.

I share a common history with you in terms of geography. Until I was 10, I also lived in southeast Missouri and then we moved to the st. Louis area. I came from Poplar Bluff, which we thought was a big city compared to the little farming communities surrounding us. Not exactly a diverse, culturally rich environment, is it? I remember very few Catholic churches there, but lots of Baptist ones, and of course, my denomination, the church of Christ. It's interesting your perspective on the "strange food" of Missouri, given that it is my "normal". Did you learn to eat fried catfish and hushpuppies there?

HeIsSailing said...


It seems to me that young children believe what parents say, but then are also influenced by the parent's actions. If you have read my earlier entries, I wrote how my parents did not have a strong religious tradition when they grew up, and mom converted when I was 5 or 6. Maybe a little older. Anyway I believed at the same time she converted because... she was mom! It was later when I saw their hypocritical actions that I first began to doubt.

DoOrDoNot, glad you enjoyed the movies. Marjoe especially brought back a lot of memories for me! Oh yes, I remember Poplar Bluff! And yes I found the food very strange, even the fried catfish and hushpuppies. Compared to New Mexico, especially the Rio Grande Valley where everything is served with a healthy portion of green or red chile, either roasted or as a sauce, I found food in Missouri to be very bland. I remember once when mom tried to dry red chile pods in the sun in Missouri the way she did in New Mexico - it was so humid that they did not dry - they just rotted. We ate everything with fresh corn tortillas, and back then nobody in Missouri had even heard of a tortilla. Instead everything was with bread, be it with biscuits and cream gravy or chicken and dumpling stew. Very heavy food, but very bland to me. To this day, whenever I travel to the midwest on business travel, I have to bring a large bottle of tabasco sauce to liven the hotel breakfast up a bit! The one food I did learn to enjoy was frogs. I sometimes went 'frog gigging' out at a pond on a farm I knew of. Go out about 3AM, catch giant frogs, bring them back home and cook the legs for breakfast. YUM!

Thanks for reading!

... Zoe ~ said...

Frogs! Eww! LOL!