Saturday, January 14, 2012

Conversions and De-conversions - Too much information

About the time I was forced to repeat my senior year of high school was the first time I began to doubt my Christian Faith. I did not doubt the truthfulness of Jesus, but I did doubt what role, if any, he really played in our lives. It was also a time of great adolescent insecurity and confusion for me. I was physically leaving childhood and becoming a young man, but I was emotionally still a very young child. Nearly every Christian who was involved with my life had a failure of Faith during these years. Either they left the Faith, revealed themselves to be hypocrites in their Faith, or failed in some profound way in their walk with Jesus. I did not understand how the Holy Spirit could fail in his empowerment of all our lives, but in the end I just chalked it up to our own human faithlessness. I graduated from high school in 1982, thoroughly confused about every aspect of my life, not just my Christian Faith.

Cape Baptist Christian School was located in the three-room basement of Cape Baptist Christian Church. When I enrolled, the student body consisted of 35 youngsters in grades 1 through 12. To keep things simple in my family, my younger brother and sister enrolled at the same time that I did, although their grades were much better than mine. The school followed the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, which in the years since has become very popular with Fundamentalist homeschoolers. At the time, ACE was a new and revolutionary method of education, which incorporated Holy Scripture into our learning environment. The entirety of my ACE education consisted of me sitting in a small study carrel, reading selections from my student workbook, and answering quiz questions at the end of each section. Each workbook, called a PACE, contained a reading assignment, written from the perspective of Christian Fundamentalism. In hindsight, it was the most ineffective form of education imaginable. Not only were the assignments in history and science heavily slanted to favor Fundamentalism, but the questions were designed to be answered by merely repeating something we had just read. The education I received at this school was nothing but the chore of repeating what I had earlier read. It was nothing but call and response. We were taught no better than parrots. We had no teachers to give us lessons. Everything we needed was contained in the PACE. The ACE curriculum was nothing but glorified homeschooling. If I had a question, I would raise my little American flag over my study carrel, and an eager and untrained volunteer would come to answer our questions. There were 3 or 4 volunteers who helped us with our PACEs. I have forgotten most of their names, but I do remember Miss Betty, Brother Bert, Brother Dave and the school Principal, Brother Ed. The education and instruction was inane, but when I enrolled and learned about the workbooks, all mom and I thought at the time was, “this seems easy. I should be able to graduate from here.” It astounds me that the school was in fact recognized and accredited by the state of Missouri, so my diploma was valid.

Cape Baptist Christian School was my first encounter with the Baptist Church. The Jesus Movement of southern California heavily influenced my family’s earlier Pentecostal beliefs, and we were not at all used to all the rules that we suddenly encountered. First, I had to cut my hair. So much for that Peter Frampton look that most of us young teenage boys were going for. Second I had to shave every day. So much for that patchy peach fuzz I was becoming proud of. I had to wear a uniform. The boys wore a blue shirt with an American Flag clip-on tie, and the girls wore blue, ankle length dresses with white blouses and blue vests. I actually grew to appreciate the uniforms and short hair, because I had learned that much of my school bullying came from class distinctions brought on by clothing, hair and fashion. As much bad as I have to say about Cape Baptist Christian School, I will give them this to their credit – the constant bullying I encountered in public school vanished, and I actually grew to like nearly all my fellow Christian students.

We were not allowed to listen to secular music. I think this rule affected me the most personally. I could understand why they did not want us listening to KISS (Knights in Satan’s Service), Donna Summer (love to love ya, baby!) or God forbid, the Village People (disgusting homosexuals). But I did not personally enjoy most of those forms of popular music. At the time I was paying regular visits to the local used record shop, and learning about jazz, classical and British progressive rock – not exactly sensual music that you could grind your hips to.

I don’t know how many times I argued with Brother Ed regarding music. He told me that rock music was evil because African tribes pounded their drums with the same rhythmic patterns that were used in rock music during their Satanic human sacrifices! I told Brother Ed to hide all his kitchen knives. Since they were used to carve human hearts out of innocent victims of African human sacrifices, those must also tools of Satan!

Brother Ed told me that I could not listen to jazz since it is purely secular and not glorifying to God! I told him that by this logic I could not do anything – play sports, read a book, watch a TV show, or go for a hike, because these did not glorify God either! He told me I was right. Ooops - that argument sure backfired.

I also loved Handel’s Messiah. I had the complete oratorio on a 4 LP box set. Fortunately, I was allowed to listen to that! Of course, I listened to whatever I wanted when I was in my own bedroom, even though I could be expelled if I was caught. Mom certainly did not care what I listened to, and even enjoyed most of the same music I did. Michael mostly enjoyed country Gospel music and had many LPs in that genre.

Girls were not allowed to wear pants or make-up. Some girls belonged to a very strict denomination that did not allow their women to cut their hair at all. I remember one young girl, cute as could be and a year younger than myself, who had hair to rival cousin It from the Addams Family. She was allowed one pin to hold it all in place, since more pins than that would have been too ostentatious a display of feminine wiles. My younger sister hated wearing ankle length dresses, especially during Missouri’s cold winter months. The school was so emphatic about their students following Biblical standards of dress both on and off campus, that she nearly panicked when she saw brother Ed at the grocery store while she had her pants on! Brother Ed did stress that Christian values must be followed outside of school hours or we could be expelled.

We were not allowed to go to the movies. We could not even see ‘Disney’ movies, as family friendly movies were called back then. Everybody knew that movies were sinful and not glorifying to God, but even viewing Disney movies would fund movie studios with more money to make what they really wanted – movies that mocked God. Movies were out. Mom did not like us seeing movies either, although she did allow us to see some family friendly fare. And of course, she did cave in and allow us to see Star Wars. Television was also becoming a sticky point, and there were many television programs we were not allowed to watch. It was a different time and the boundaries that were being pushed back then are trivial compared with our modern shock and awe media. I still remember the hot flushed embarrassment I felt one evening while watching MASH. In a dramatic moment, Hawkeye Pierce called an evil Korean soldier a ‘son of a bitch”. I really was shocked, which I am sure was the program’s intent. Such language coming from the television really concerned my mother.

At Cape Baptist Christian School, my classes included New Testament Survey, Old Testament Survey, Collectivism (a sample test question from this class: “Where is Mao Tse Tung at this moment?” The answer, which I got correct, was “Hell”) and the subject I dreaded most – algebra. The algebra PACE was nothing but page after page of algebra problems. All I had to do was solve for x several thousand times and I could earn my high school diploma.

It was around this time that most of the Christians in my life had some failing or another in their Faith. My spirit empowered stepdad Michael Wagner began to drink. His drinking got heavier and heavier, and he would occasionally do stupid things like lock mom out of the house and threaten us if we opened the door for her. I remember what alcohol did to my real dad, and although Michael never physically harmed me, his drunkenness sometimes frightened me. He started going to AA, and had mixed success with that fellowship of struggling alcoholics. Despite our weekly prayers for him when he missed church, Jesus seemed to play no part in his recovery.

Mom was clearly backsliding. Her Holy Ghost inspired worship and daily devotionals vanished in the home. She prayed only on Sunday mornings, and although she still believed that Jesus was the only way to her salvation, it was clear to me that the fervor of her Pentecostal years in New Mexico were gone.

The members of the Wagner Family church were scattered about southeastern Missouri, and were all in some kind of trouble. All the children from that church, all the kids who used to roam the New Mexico desert with me, were growing older. We sometimes went to visit my friends, the Johnsons, who lived in a tiny farmhouse outside of Perryville, Missouri. The oldest daughter in that family was becoming a real beauty. Not quite an adult, but clearly not a young girl anymore. I knew there was trouble when I saw that her dad playfully let her sit on her lap, wrestle and giggle with her as if she were a toddler, and clearly ooze hormonal lust as she wore her Daisy Duke shorts around the house. This man, who I remembered from New Mexico as a fire breathing hellfire preacher was, to my disgust, clearly showing signs of lusting after his own daughter. I struggled with my own sexual sin, but he did not think us teenagers could pick up on his.

I occasionally spent the night with them. It was not unusual for us to sleep in the same bed together (I grew up with 3 of us crammed in the same bed). The oldest boy, E----, was teaching me about a great new fantasy dice game called Dungeons and Dragons. He told me not to play it around anybody from church, and he had already seen his fair share of trouble from it. Paradoxically, E---- sometimes placed convictions on me to take the Bible more seriously than I did.

“The Bible is like God’s answer book. I know you are having problems with school, with girls, things like that. But the Bible is the only book you need. You have a problem, you just look up the right passage in that book, and God will have an answer for you right there.” I found him convincing, and did my best to read and learn the Bible on my own.

Once when I was spending the night with E----, as I lay in bed with him, the lights were out, and were talking about things boys talk about. Then he asked me, “Have you ever heard about how the French people kiss? They place their tongues in each other’s mouths when they kiss. Sounds weird huh? Do you want to try it?

I told him “no”. I remember not being shocked, just confused.

“Can I rub my dick against your butt? It feels good. I know it sounds weird, but you will never know if you will like it until you try it.”

Again, I rejected his advance. It is strange that I did not move out of his bed. I just lay and went to sleep. He never spoke to me like that again. Perhaps it was just adolescent curiosity, I don’t know. Perhaps he was just a confused teenager, who spoke about the truth of the Bible from one side of his mouth and anal sex from the other. But his Christian convictions, and those of his Spirit empowered family were certainly not what they used to be.

I saw it again and again. Professed Christians, many of whom I had grown up with, were betraying their Faith. I had seen the miracle working power of Jesus in action! I had seen, with my own eyes, people being healed of all manner of sickness and deformity! I had seen people speaking in tongues, and being Slain in the Spirit! All these Signs and Wonders seemed to vanish as I grew older. It changed my own Faith. For the first time in my life, I doubted. I did not doubt Christianity, or the Salvation brought by Jesus, or the “plan” that he had for my life. I doubted the true power of Jesus to keep us under his protective wing. I doubted his power to give us the strength necessary to overcome temptation. Was it our failing human faithlessness? I had previously seen the evidence faith in all these people, even my own mother, and yet we were forgetting Jesus. At the time, I did not know who or what to blame for the hypocrisy.

I had my own hypocrisy to deal with, my own sins, and my own struggles. I know that I struggled mightily with my own sexual sin. I know I did my best to be Faithful to Jesus, and to allow his Spirit to empower me in the face of temptation. But like my friends and family, I could see the power of Jesus wane even in my own life. As faithful and as prayerful as I tried to be, I always submitted to my lustful thoughts. I was taught that it was never the fault of Jesus. He was giving me the strength. Rather, it was always my own fault. I believed that the fault always fell on my shoulders when I could not resist sexual temptation. But I simply did not know how to be any more Faithful! I prayed, I read my Bible, I meditated, I gave to the church from my meager lawn mowing earnings, I did everything I could think of! Yet it never seemed to be enough. The guilt and shame that continually ran through my mind during this time was a terrible burden.

At school, we boys were allowed to talk to girls, but we could not touch them or sit near them on the bus. If we had to take a bus to a school function, usually a basketball game, and sitting near a girl was unavoidable, we had to place a bible between us so as not to make physical contact. Sex was never discussed, only dismissed. This school never educated us about Sex, they only wished it away and pretended that it did not exist. We were told that sex outside the bounds of matrimony was Evil and Sinful, and that lust of a woman’s body was a grave sin and something for us to be shameful of. That was about the extent of our sexual education. But these rules and attitudes about sex were being pushed into my head when I was 17 years old – a time when my body was changing, a time when I was craving the attention of girls, a time when I needed that education the most! Since I had come from a background of hippie communal living, I had a better understanding of sexuality than most, yet it was still something that was never discussed in our home, church or school! I was at that age when I would long to talk to unreachable girls, to attract their attention and get to know them. When I could not, I had to go home and try not thinking about them – which was easier said than done when I was 17. But this led me to think of avoiding the temptation to commit the most shameful sin that I could commit as an adolescent, one I fought mightily to control, and nearly always lost.

“No. I will not. I will not. Lord Jesus give me strength. Give me strength. Give me strength against this temptation!”

I would imagine Jesus, looking down in disapproval from his Heavenly throne.

“No. I will not. Please give me strength Lord Jesus!”

I knew Jesus hated my Sin. I could not get the thought out of my head though. I know that Jesus told me that to look upon a woman with lust was already to commit adultery with her, and I knew that just thinking about her, pondering, entertaining the idea of being with her was just as sinful as fornication. I also knew that masturbation was simply the act of giving in to that most heinous temptation. I might as well be a rapist!

This act of shame and disgust happened very frequently in my high school years. Every time it was the same. I would pray for strength. I would ask Jesus for strength against temptation. I would wash my face. I would try thinking of something else. Eventually and inevitably my raging hormones, conditioned by millennia of evolutionary processes, would finally win. I would ultimately just give up, and give in to temptation while alone in my bedroom, and commit the most foul of lustful Sins in the presence of the Savior of my soul. Sometimes while wiping up the resulting mess, I would cry in shame and disgust. I prayed for forgiveness. “Jesus, I am sorry, I am sorry. I repent of my lust. I repent of my lust. I ask that you give me strength to never do it again, never do it again.” I would feel a sudden surge of moral strength that would usually last about two days before temptation struck again.

What was I to do? It was a terrible catch-22! I figured that I was losing to temptation because I was not Faithful enough to Jesus. But I did not know how to be more Faithful, except by praying to Jesus empower me with the Holy Spirit. But I did not think that Jesus was honoring that prayer because of my continued sexual sin!

It was this never-ending cycle of lust, sexual sin, guilt, and repentance that kept me in a state of religious anxiety. I remember once when a special guest was to come visit our church. It was said that he was a prophet, and some people told me, in awe, how he could look into a person’s eyes and discern all their secret sins. I somehow managed to skip that Sunday service. I feared being called out in front of the entire New Hope congregation.

I was not the only one. Again and again, I saw Christians give in to sin. Some continued to profess Christianity, others did not. In the surrounding years, I think I saw everybody fall to some extent. Our Christian summer camp, Camp Penuel, was a sanctuary for Bible reading and prayer by day, and a hotbed of teenage Christian sex by night. The dichotomy confused both my brother and me. One of our teachers at Cape Baptist Christian School, Brother Dave, was fired for inviting some of us teenagers to a party at Cape Rock. It included rock music and alcohol. Not that our principal Brother Ed was innocent, he was just more subtle in his approach. He practiced corporal punishment on only two girls during the time I was there, both were by paddle, and both were 18 years old. In the years since, both women have told me that he made a habit of paddling them, alone, in his office. They knew it was strange and creepy, but it was allowed by school policy, their parents had signed a waiver which allowed paddling, and the young women were left powerless to his obvious but secret fantasies.

Christian morality was crumbling in my mind. Sex was an abomination, yet it was everywhere. It was pervasive, yet it was never discussed. Everybody seemed to be engaged in it, yet it was wished away and repented of. It was only allowed if it was kept quiet and subtle. It seemed to be allowed if we were just sneaky enough.

I finally graduated high school in 1982. I had a graduating class of 3, the two aforementioned girls and myself. I never did finish my algebra PACE. Brother Ed gave me my diploma, on the condition that I would finish my algebra PACE over the summer, a condition I never fulfilled. I was conditioned to think that I would never be good at math, so it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Mom and Michael gave me a Thompson Chain Reference study Bible for a graduation gift. I loved it! It had a brown leather cover, with my name, in tiny gold print, embossed on the lower right corner. I still own my Thompson Chain Reference.

I had no prospects for the future. I had no skills, no desire, no direction. I had heard of college, but I was never directed towards it. That was something that rich kids did. Other kids got scholarships, whatever those were, and went to college. My dad was a lumberjack. Michael was a house painter. Mom picked up whatever odd jobs that she could. I was doomed to a life of low-wage manual labor, and I never questioned that destiny. I spent a very difficult summer with dad in a logging camp, and decided that logging was too physically demanding for me. I took the only route I could see open to me. I enrolled in the Air Force and became a telecommunications operator.

To my shock, mom divorced Michael. The drinking became too much. Mom told me that there were many things I did not understand. She told me that she did not know if she ever really loved Michael Wagner after all. It was then that I realized that she had married Michael, not for love, but just for the sole purpose of taking care of her children. She married him at a time in her life when she was penniless and desperate. Still, in my young adulthood, in my naiveté about the world, I did not understand. All those sermons I had heard over the years, all that talk about Christian marriage, the sinfulness of divorce and Holy matrimony was betrayed. I remember crying when mom gave me the news of the divorce. The last time I saw Michael was in 1985. Apparently, this Holy Ghost filled preacher’s son was running from the law. He had hit his new girlfriend with a hot iron and was attempting to skip on his bail. He somehow found me and asked for money. I had none to give, so he left. I was stunned at his hypocrisy! He drank too much, he was divorced from my mother, he beat up another girl, and he was trying to get money from me so he could hide from the law. I was so angry at bogus Christian morality, at Michael, at mom, at my own frustration, that I kicked the first thing that I saw. Unfortunately, the brick wall was harder than my foot, and I had to drive myself to the emergency room with a broken toe. I never saw or heard from Michael Wagner ever again.

OH! I nearly forgot to mention this. It was also about this time that I last saw the cute girl with the huge mop of religiously required hair. I did not recognize her. She had a pixie cut, modest makeup and looked as happy as could be!

This was a particularly difficult article for me to write. Dear Reader, I hope you will excuse my ending it with that happy memory.

<-- previous chapter next chapter -->


DoOrDoNot said...

Thanks for being willing to share your experiences with such raw honesty. It sounds like that period of your life was such a confusing and painful time.

I just watched Jesus Camp and your post makes me think of some of the kids I saw in that video with tears streaming down their cheeks as they repented of their sins and had their hands washed with bottled water. It was painful to see their anguished faces.

This is beside the main point, but I'm interested in how you finally figured out your aptitude for math, given that you're a physicist. I suppose the air force had something to do with it?

HeIsSailing said...

Thanks for reading DoOrDoNot. This article brought back some really ugly memories for me. I actually restrained myself. I could have written much much more. I have very bad memories about Camp Penuel that involved alcohol and sex, and my summer with dad at the logging camp. But why belabor the point? My high school years were the worst time of my life.

Yeah, the math was a funny thing. Turns out I am especially talented in that area. But at the time, I did not believe it. I never did pass algebra, because I did not think I could, so it became a self fulfilling prophecy. I had zero self confidence at that time.

I don't want to jump the gun and explain how I became a physicist. To be honest, I am not entirely sure how that happened. It developed over several years, and I want to write that story slowly, because it also explains a huge reason why I got out of Christianity. I will get to that time in my life a little later, but I think I have about 4 or 5 more articles in my story before I get to that. But no, the Air Force had nothing to do with it.

Sorry, I knew my de-conversion story was going to be long. It was just a part of a very very long process.

Yeah, those Jesus Camp kids were me at that young age. The only difference was that we lived in the middle of the desert, and did not get politically involved or too worked up about abortion. But we washed each others' feet and baptized each other in the horse tank practically every week. We were always crying. I cried rivers of tears in my religious ecstasy. I cried until my face hurt from the redness and swelling.

Thanks again for reading. Plenty more to come soon.

... Zoe ~ said...

You mention "holding back." I always hold back. I think sometimes it's necessary otherwise it's just too much to bear.

Even though you held back on details, one can sense the emotional heaviness of your writing. It reminds me of my own teen years. If I had to relive them again, I'd choose not too.