The articles about my years as a Fundamentalist Christian are particularly difficult for me to write about. I think I cold write dozens of articles describing my years of attending Calvary Chapel, and consolidating all those disparate memories into only a few short articles is a bit of a challenge. Ultimately, my purpose in writing about these years is, not just to describe the stress and guilt I felt as a Christian, not just about the humorless ignorance that Calvary Chapel encouraged me to live in, and not just about the bogus apologetics they taught me to believe or the hypocritical behavior they engaged in. My purpose in writing this series is to explore why I converted into religious faith, and why I left religious faith. By 1990, simultaneous with my most fervent years as a Christian, I began to crack out of the ignorance that Calvary Chapel imposed on me. It took years, but the real beginning of my de-conversion from Christianity began out of necessity. I needed to learn a real trade in order to escape my life as a short order cook. My real education and my escape from Christianity finally began, slowly and tentatively, in 1990.
I can summarize my years as a Fundamentalist Christian in Calvary Chapel this way:
I was convinced that I had the exclusive truth about the nature of reality. Us Christians, especially those of us who did not rely on mere religion, but on our personal relationships with Jesus Christ, were the only humans on earth who had the unmerited favor of the Almighty, and had exclusive rights to eternal paradise through the Blood of Jesus Christ. All other humans were self-deceived or liars. Knowing their backgrounds or their stories was irrelevant. It did not matter what other religion or religious tradition they followed, and it did not matter why. It did not matter why they did not worship God as he One True God. The bottom line was that every single one of them was no better than Lucifer. Like Lucifer the fallen angel, they were prideful enough in the face of God Himself, to want to set themselves up as their own god. Non-Christians were guilty of the most heinous sin of all, that of pride, and they wanted to set themselves up above the heights of the clouds, to be like the Most High, and rely on their own wretched strength for their salvation. Anybody who did not take Jesus Christ as their own personal Lord and Savior was, in effect, spitting in the face of Jesus Christ as He hung on the cross. They were telling Jesus that they were good enough, and they did not need His blood to atone for their sins as the wrathful God demanded, but could face God clothed only in their own, pathetic, fleshly righteousness, which was no better than filthy rags before the Almighty.
This is what I truly believed while attending Calvary Chapel. I had confessed and repented of my sins there because I was miserable and unhappy, and I wanted to make something better of my life. It had nothing to do with Salvation. When I initially converted, I was not fearful of Hell. I just wanted to finally find peace and contentment in my life, and give it a sense of meaning and purpose. Calvary Chapel took these inner desires and piled on the baggage of Christian dogma. I was suddenly to believe that I would attain Heaven because of my Faith in Jesus. All others who did not believe as I did were damned, not due to God, but due to their own prideful lusts. The Truth was self-evident, but they were too deluded to accept it.
Believing this dogma was like hanging a millstone about my neck. I told myself that I was finally happy and at peace, but the truth was that I never felt more guilt in my entire life than when I attended Calvary Chapel. Most crucial of all, I lost my sense of humor. Christianity, as taught by Calvary Chapel, forced me to view nearly every human I came into contact with as a lost sinner, bound for eternal flames. It did not matter if they attended church, or even if they professed to be a Christian. I met many who claimed they were a Christian, but if I asked them about the specifics of salvation, sin, who Jesus was, or any other crucial matter of dogma, it was obvious to me that they were not really saved. They professed to know Jesus, but Jesus did not know them. They did not have a true relationship with Jesus, but were relying on their religious affiliation to do the saving for them.
I did not ponder too long on the uncomfortable questions that this dogma brought up. What about those who have never heard of Jesus? Crazy, I thought. I was certain that everyone in our modern world had heard of Jesus. What about those who were not raised in a Christian cultural backdrop? Pastor Skip once told us about his visit to India where he met a group of Sikhs. “They were still Sikhing,” he would chuckle. But seriously, what about people like them who were not from our Christian-saturated culture? I did not think too much about these questions. They were uncomfortable to me. Besides, God knew what was best, and He was a compassionate Father and all-knowing Judge. I had faith that He would ultimately do the right thing in determining their eternal destiny.
Questions like these became increasingly uncomfortable when I decided to enroll in the local community college. By 1990, I realized there was no future in odd cooking and dishwashing jobs. I needed to learn a trade, so on a whim I enrolled in a course in basic electronics. I finally had my foot in the door of higher education, and I started to meet people outside of my own social circle. At the age of 26, for the first time in my life, I met somebody who was not raised in the familiar traditions of Western Christendom. Trinh was from Vietnam, and everything about her was alien to me. Her thick accent was almost impenetrable, but we somehow managed to understand each other. I think I naively found her to be wild and exotic, since she was the first Asian I had ever really met. My curiosity got the better of me, and we became fast friends. One afternoon, over lunch outside the classroom, I asked her about Jesus. She did not understand what I was talking about. That was startling to me! Everybody whom I ever met, when asked about Jesus or God, gave some kind of opinion. They may not have been a true Christian, but they had an opinion about who Jesus was, or who God was. Everybody knew who Jesus was! But this girl from Vietnam, while she had heard the name, had no opinion about Jesus. She had as much opinion about Jesus as I had about the Buddha. That is, none. This Jesus character was not part of her culture, and she was not raised with this tradition, so why should she have an opinion?
Should I tell Trinh more about Jesus? I could tell a neighbor, a friend, a homeless guy on the streets about the salvation from sin that the death of Jesus gave us, and everybody would already have some basic idea of what I was talking about. Our culture was that of Christianity. Trinh was Buddhist. Since she did not share my cultural religious identity, I would have to describe to her, from first principles, about who Jesus was, why she was a sinner, and why she needed Jesus as her Savior! How could I possibly cross that cultural divide? It would be like her telling me about the Buddha – a name I had heard, but one that I knew nothing about. I was slowly learning how to view things from the point of view of over a billion humans whom I had never met. That was just a tiny step, just a tiny crack into viewing my Christian beliefs form another point of view, but it was a start.
“Are you going to talk to me about religion?” She showed her distaste by squeezing her eyes shut as if she bit a sour lemon.
“No.” I never brought up the subject again. I don’t think the thought that she was doomed for Hell ever crossed my mind.
Trinh was a whiz at math. I was terrified of math, and had never passed basic algebra in high school. I realized that I had to enroll in a basic math course if I wanted to continue studying electronics. My education began, but it was still tentative. I was still unsure of what I wanted to do, or how education was going to benefit me. Electronics did not really interest me, but the school catalog started to intrigue me. I could have a night course in Mexican archeology! American History! Creative Writing! Even as a lousy cook, I could afford these courses in the trade school! So one by one, on nothing but a whim and a newfound curiosity, I started taking night courses at Albuquerque TVI. I suddenly found that I missed all the reading that I had done in high school. After high school, I found one addiction in alcohol, then I found another addiction in Jesus. I did little of my own reading during this time, except for the Bible and John MacArthur biblical commentaries. The night classes in Albuquerque TVI taught me to be curious again. They taught me to be curious about dangerous subjects like history and sociology.
Back in Calvary Chapel, Pastor Skip taught me that curiosity in worldly wisdom was to be viewed with suspicion. Pastor Skip often spoke of his personal distrust of secular philosophy and psychology. He said that even Christian psychiatrists often had to do studies and readings of how the human mind works from secular labs and universities. “Why would I need to read these books of human wisdom,” Pastor Skip would preach, holding up his Bible, “when I have the Owner’s Manual right here?” Philosophy could be a good thing, Pastor Skip would say, since it literally means ‘the love of wisdom’. But true wisdom only comes from one source, again referencing the Bible, and secular philosophy leads to nothing but despair and sinful pride. Pastor Skip sometimes told us about his brother who once majored in philosophy. “He read all the philosophers, and came out more lost and confused then ever!” Well there you go. What more evidence did we need than Pastor Skip’s word on the matter?
Pastor Skip openly admitted that when it came to his Christian beliefs, his goal was to remain as ignorant and close-minded as possible. He did use those very words, and that really amazed me at a time when I was just discovering night classes at Albuquerque TVI. Pastor Skip implored us to read, study, and rely on nothing but the Bible. We did not need to bother ourselves with pseudo-intellectuals who studied the Bible as literature. We did not need to read about church history, religious thought or those Catholic church fathers. We did not need to entertain other ideas or points of view. All we needed was the Bible and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost to guide and teach us.
So for a short period of time, I alternated between two different ways of attaining knowledge and wisdom. Calvary Chapel insisted that it was by the Word of God alone, but at the same time my natural curiosity was being reawakened, thanks to some night classes at the local vocational school. I discovered that I was actually good at studying. I had an extremely long attention span, and I could sit for hours on end, doing nothing but reading, writing and taking notes. I followed Pastor Skip’s advice and read the Bible in its entirely. Then I read it again, cover to cover, in a different translation.
But I could also go to the library to check out some books assigned by my American history teacher. I particularly remember a shocking book written by escaped slave Frederick Douglass. My history teacher told us about how the Bible was used by Christians to justify slavery. “He certainly hates Christianity,” I would muse about my teacher. But I did not quit the class. As offensive as I often found American History, particularly my teacher’s condemnation of the role of religion, I did not drop the class. Instead, I went to the library in the attempt to verify some of the shocking things he said. Time and again, I found he was correct. He once described the horrors that the Spanish perpetrated on the southwestern natives in the name of Christ. I had never heard any of this information before! He told his shocked class, “Look, this is not a Disney movie. This is history.” I should have been offended, and I was. But I was addicted to learning more. If it were true, then I would have to deal with it. If I was to be honest with my Faith, I had to learn to reconcile this suppressed history, as shocking and offensive as some of it was, with my Christian beliefs.
It was a bit of a dichotomy. Pastor Skip, Calvary Chapel and my Christian beliefs on the one hand, and my burgeoning curiosity on the other. My high school education was next to useless. I had spent my entire high school career trying to avoid bullies and getting into a fair share of trouble. I had somehow squeaked through graduation after repeating my entire senior year and barely avoided repeating it a second time. I was given no educational direction from my parents, whom I don’t blame, because they did not know any better. I don’t think I was ever taught to appreciate the joys of education, or the thrill of discovery. I shuffled from class to class for five years at Albuquerque TVI, still with no direction, and with no intention of gaining a degree in anything. Some classes I excelled in, others I failed. I learned to face my fear of math. I enrolled in basic algebra, the same dreaded class that I had repeated and failed multiple times while in high school, and discovered that I had a natural affinity for it. I shocked even myself! I had come to believe that I was a failure at math, and that I would never understand it. It was a true self-fulfilling prophecy. I believed that I would never understand it, so I did not understand it. But I had no idea how talented I was in math, given a little confidence, discipline and attention. I learned to view the math problems as entertaining puzzles, much like crossword puzzles – and after much work, study and practice, I excelled. I was finally, after years of failure and self-loathing, learning to have some self-confidence.
Pastor Skip told me that confidence in my own strength was not pleasing to the Lord. I learned to repeat the wish of John the Baptist in reference to Jesus: He must increase, while I must decrease. Life was not about me. I was weak in my own flesh. I could do nothing on my own, without Christ who strengthened me. Of course Pastor Skip was right! I could see how lost we were when relying on our own strength! But when I pondered my own fleshly nature, and our lost and sinful state, I would sink into despair, guilt and self-loathing. There was nothing good about me, Pastor Skip taught, and I was wretched and wicked from my mother’s womb. Self-confidence only came when I was allowed to rely on my own strength, yet this confidence in my own power was offensive to God.
I was torn. Calvary Chapel taught me that I could not do anything. I was worthless without God. I had no power. I had to give it all to Jesus. Doing the seemingly impossible, by finally passing my dreaded math classes, and passing them after overcoming much self-imposed fear, was a tremendous victory for me. I was beginning to believe in, dare I say, myself. Just a little.
Despite my newfound love of learning, I was being pulled in two different directions. I could learn about the Bible, about Jesus and delve deeper into the meat of my beliefs, or I could rely on my own strength, develop some kind of discipline, and learn things in school, hopefully to lead to a better job, but ultimately just for the joy of it. I knew I wanted to study what I loved. And I loved Jesus. That love, I swore to myself, would never die.