Saturday, November 10, 2007

11 - Senior Year

I kept going to church and Sunday school. I still refrained from drugs, alcohol and sex (I’d never even had my first kiss). I still went to Bible Club and Bible Study, and I prayed every night with my family, and before every meal.

Something was different about all of it, though. It somehow wasn’t real anymore.

Spiritually, I didn’t grow very much that year.

My dad says that if you want to leave your church, it's important to wait until a time when you're no longer in a position of leadership. This way, your departure won't be political, loud and defiant, but it will be plainly stated for anyone who notices your absence, after you're gone.

I hope that my departure from Biblical Christianity (ie, the type of Christianity that sets the Bible apart from all other books) has been in this fashion.

Friday, October 26, 2007

10 - Summit

I had hope that it would all blow over in a few months. I had hope that I would return to Christianity, with my questions answered. Several times, I actually caught myself beginning speeches in my mind, about how I had realized that Christianity was the one true religion.

I had heard that speech for my entire life, and I could picture myself giving it one day, in spite of the fact that my questions had only become deeper.

So when Bible Club elections rolled around, I ran for Vice President. “My doubts should be gone by the end of the summer,” I thought. “When I get to Summit, I'll meet people who are going through exactly what I'm experiencing, and they'll know what to say.” I won the Bible Club election, and I felt sure that I would be sharing my testimony in fall semester (my testimony would be about how I had searched for the truth in other religions, but could only find it in Christianity).

“At Summit, I’ll get some answers to my questions,” I thought, and those questions referred to things like "divine authority of Scripture" and "the exclusive correctness of Christianity among world religions." They were big questions, but I had big hopes.

Unlike most summer camps, Summit Ministries involves mandatory lectures and reading assignments. It’s a little like a miniature seminary, and I was thrilled about going there.

We were welcomed by Dr. David Noebel, the founder, and after a brief speech, he showed us a music video. Carmin, a well-known Christian Artist, was singing about reclaiming America for Christ while standing in front of flags and government buildings. To Carmin, this involved things like "getting prayer back into public schools." He called public schools "battle grounds," and he was referring to school shootings. After two years out of private school, I had nearly forgotten that people felt this way. My prayer life had never been stronger than it was during my first year of public school.

In many ways, the music video set a tone for my experience at Summit. Of the various lecturers, some were less propagandistic than others, but the overall theme was simple: All world religions are incomplete, except for Bible-based Christianity. It was the same message I had heard for my entire life. It was the message that I had embraced wholeheartedly as a child, the message that had left me desperate for something more. There was no new twist on the message. It was proud and firmly planted in its own perspective, the right perspective.

I looked around at all the healthy attractive young people there, and I wondered if they heard what I was hearing.

We learned about the strengths of Modernism, Creationism and Capitalism, and the flaws of their counterparts (Postmodernism, Evolution and Socialism). I felt convinced of the strengths and convinced of the flaws, but I wondered if there was something they hadn't told us.

I expressed interest in hearing a lecture from someone who wasn't already Christian. I wanted to know if they might say about what we were learning. Noebel responded by saying that for our entire lives, we'd been bombarded by nonchristian ideologies. Summit was time for the Good Guys to fight back.

Again, I looked at the people around me. I knew that 90% had been raised in a good Christian home, that many had gone to Christian schools. A large proportion was from the South, and nearly all of them were white. They were just like me.

I had lived my life in the Church, hearing Truth preached straight from the Bible. I'd been to conferences and camps and retreats and Bible Studies, taking leadership roles throughout. I'd fasted and prayed and sought after the truth, trying to discern the Scriptures.

It wasn't enough anymore, to listen to people tell me about how my beliefs were fine, and just needed tweaking. It wasn't enough to hear testimonies of people who had converted to my religion, without hearing also from people who had left it. It wasn't enough to learn about the merits and flaws of nonchristian ideas, as taught from within the church.

I did two things.
1) I decided to tell more people about my questioning. Mitchell tried to get me to explain myself further, but I really didn't know what to say.

"Do you believe that Jesus lived?" he asked.

"Yes. But beyond that, I'm just really not sure of anything."

"Well, what do you think about the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument?"

(It's the argument that says that Jesus must have been one of the three, and the only reasonable option is "Lord").

"I... I just don't really know. I mean I guess it makes sense, but I just don't really know anymore."
2) I wanted to figure out how to explain myself, so I called Klint Bicknell. He was the smartest nonchristian I knew, and I wanted to know about how he explained himself to people.

We hadn't discussed religion since before he lost his faith, so the phone call surprised him a little.

"Wait, before I get into this," he said. "You know that I don't really..."

"Yeah, Kendall told me."

"Ok, good. Because sometimes people ask me to help them with their Christian walk, and I never know how to break it to them..."

"Oh wow, I see."

We talked for about thirty minutes, then he sent me 3 long emails about why he doubted Christianity. It mostly had to do with the Authenticity of Scripture and general methods of indoctrination.

Afterwards, I felt better, but still confused.

I talked to one of the Summit leaders about my struggle, and he gave me a book. It's called New Evidence that Demands a Verdict, and I still have it. The inscription says, "Here's the evidence, now you supply the verdict." It cost him over thirty dollars, and when he gave it to me, he said, "Now you'd better wear out the cover on this book."
I resolved to read all 750 pages, but I kept getting stuck after 20 or 30. It felt too much like everything I had already heard, only more difficult to grasp. I became frustrated with myself, for not being able to read it.

"If I really wanted the answers," I thought, "then I would read this book." And I still feel frustrated sometimes, for not being able to read it.

When I got back from Summit, I told my whole Sunday School class that I was questioning my faith.

One of my classmates said to me, "Don't stop questioning. Don't rest until you have settled whatever it is that you're trying to settle in your mind."

But I was already settled, in a way. I was already comfortable with the status of "questioning," opening the doors to new ideas rather than engaging the evidence that supported the worldview from which I was walking.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

9 - Roozbeh

I met Rouzheen toward the beginning of high school, during her "Christian phase". During that time, she experienced a new and enriching lifestyle, and a culture that ran deep into the lives of most of her friends, me included.

She had tried to share her faith with her older brother, Roozbeh, and he responded by expressing hope that she would get beyond what she was going through.

"What about Grandmom?" he asked Rouzheen, "Do you think that Grandmom will go to hell?" Their grandmother was still living in Iran.
"I guess I don't know," Rouzheen responded, and as time progressed, she gradually drifted away from the Christian faith.
Then, very abruptly, Roozbeh died.

He died at the end of Rouzheen’s senior year in high school (my junior year), and although Rouzheen still felt close to her Christian friends, she couldn't have been more disconnected from the religion they followed - the religion that claimed that her brother had gone to hell.

Roozbeh was remarkable – he finished college at Texas A&M in 3 years (with a Genetics degree), then he earned a master's degree at Oxford. Roozbeh listened to The Gypsy Kings, and he tie-dyed his own t-shirts. When you talked to him, he was interested and responsive to what you said. He was the easiest person to admire, and the hardest person to outdo – and he inspired an unbelievable amount of jealousy in the person who eventually killed him.

Roozbeh’s story, for many reasons, deserves an entire book of its own. It is interesting and complex, and asks many of its own difficult questions. I’m going to try, at great risk, to summarize part of it here, because my oblique interactions with Roozbeh (and the memory of Roozbeh) have played a major role in my own life’s story.

In Tyler, Texas, Roozbeh and Zaid found that their middle-eastern bond was stronger than their middle-eastern conflict. Roozbeh (Iranian) and Zaid (Iraqi) had both emigrated to the states because of the war between their countries (in the 1980's), and they discovered, at Robert E. Lee High School, that their classmates didn't know the war, or about the difference between Persians and Arabs. In this environment, the two became unlikely friends. Roozbeh excelled socially and academically, and Zaid struggled to stay in school - but the bond between them had been fused, based on their similar yet so different pasts. After High school, Roozbeh went to A&M and continued his academic success, and Zaid went to Texas Tech for one semester, then returned to his home in Tyler.

Sometime during that year, Zaid became tormented by thoughts about Roozbeh, the repressed memory of an event involving drugs and sexual misconduct - Roozbeh completely denied it. They drifted in different directions, unable to mend their friendship. Roozbeh finished college and went to Oxford, and Zaid remained in Tyler. In the summer of 2003, Zaid contacted him, asking to meet. Zaid’s family had warned Roozbeh’s parents, saying that Zaid was becoming unstable, but Roozbeh had hope. He felt no reason to fear, and he wanted to talk things over. He waited in front of the bookstore where they had planned to meet. When Zaid arrived, he produced a rifle, and he shot Roozbeh through the hand and into his stomach. He died within minutes. Zaid is currently in prison, and Roozbeh is dead.

I was eating breakfast at my kitchen counter when my mom called me over to the newspaper and pointed to the article. I closed my eyes after reading its brief description. Nothing made sense in the world, and Roozbeh's death was no exception.

Few words were spoken at Rouzheen’s house that week. They had flowers and food and family members, but very few words. I sat with Rouzheen and a few other friends; together, we tried to eat some of the food people had given to offer condolences. Klint Bicknell was there; I hadn't seen him in nearly a year. I thought about how he didn't believe in God anymore. I thought about how I didn't believe in anything anymore, except maybe silence and hugs.

In that house, I witnessed a community grieving together. They spoke Farsi when they needed to speak, grieving in a world that didn’t make sense. It was the first time I had seen anything like it outside of my own community, the Christian community. Although most of Rouzheen's relatives were strangers to me, I couldn't help but recognize the connection they had to each other.

One of Rouzheen's church friends came over to offer condolences - really, she was more of an acquaintance. She asked Rouzheen, just to make sure, if Roozbeh had placed faith in Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior. She hoped that they could feel comforted by a simple "yes," then maybe they could talk about what heaven is like, the heaven that's only for Christians.


Lacking the energy or the will to ask her to leave, Rouzheen internalized the pain. The words had cut deep into her memory of a life that she once loved, the life she had lived as a Christian.

Rouzheen’s friend had presented 2 clear alternatives:

A. In order to reconnect to her Christian fellowship, she could believe that her brother was in hell, and that he’d lived his life dead to the Spirit, or

B. Siding with her family, and everyone who actually knew him, she could continue to remember Roozbeh as someone who had lived, and lived abundantly.

Friday, October 5, 2007

8 - Dana

I had only heard two things about Gary Neel:

  1. That he was once a dedicated believer, and
  2. That he no longer considered himself a believer at all.

And it made me nervous, just to think that I was gong to meet him.

We visited San Francisco during spring break of my junior year. While there, my family met with a few of my parents’ friends, including Gary Neel and his wife, Dana.

We met for dinner at a restaurant. He, an ultra-marathon runner, had a healthy smile and a firm handshake, along with an extremely positive demeanor. And although I didn’t notice it at first, his wife was a wildly free spirit.

I took a seat across from Dana, and Gary began asking me about college aspirations. Since I didn’t have any in specific, I told him about how we’d just visited Stanford University, and how I wouldn’t mind going there (“if I can just get accepted first”).

He looked at me, as he smiled to his memories of college, “Yeah… college is great… I just remember being amazed by how many different ideas there are in the world,” he said.

And it made me curious, but I was scared to ask what exactly he meant, so I just looked at my menu, trying to find out what I wanted to eat.

Soon afterward, Dana and I started talking. When I asked what she did for a living, she said, “Actually, I work in spirituality.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I work in a large corporate office as a spiritual therapist.”

Only in California,” thought one part of my brain, but the rest of me just sat there, listening.

She leaned into the light of the candle on the table, “I practice a religion called Eckankar,” she said. “It’s an ancient form of spirituality.”

At this point, Gary leaned into the table as well, facing my dad. He started to talk about their old friends, cutting the table into two conversations. To my dad, Gary seemed embarrassed of his wife.

And she continued so speak, with her eyes locked into mine. “It began in the Middle East, thousands of years before Jesus… But when Christianity became the dominant world religion, it was suppressed. But even then there were people who practiced it in hiding, maintaining its traditions.”

“Interesting, I’ve never heard anything about this,” I said.

“Well, it has only resurfaced in the last half-century – in the sixties in the US.”

I nodded slowly, “Ohhh...”

“You probably think I’m crazy,” she said, “but if you really want to understand it for yourself, you just have to try it.”

At this point, Gary tried extra hard to talk to my dad, about anything but Eckankar. And while one part of me remained completely skeptical about Dana, the rest was almost entranced by the passion behind her words. It seemed so familiar.

“You’ll just need to get into a closet, some place where there’s no one around, and then you chant for about twenty minutes: hiew, hiew, hiew, hiew.” She chanted in a high-pitched voice. “Trust me, it works.”

Although I couldn't actually picture myself doing the chant, I felt some connection to the way she described it.

"It's the most amazing thing you'll ever experience," she said, "It floods your entire body with joy; it's overwhelming, and really... really just indescribable. You just have to try it."

"Ok," and I nodded my head, while she kept talking.

"Sometimes tears just stream down my face," she said, "and I can't do anything but just sit there, crying. Sometimes I cry for hours."

"Wow," I said, but I was ready to change the subject, and she could tell. In my battle between skepticism and acceptance, skepticism had won; and I had broken the connection between us.

Still, I had plenty to think about.

By the time we had reached our hotel, I was feeling upset and confused. Something was bothering me. I had touched something profound and horrible and raw and beautiful, and I couldn't get it off my mind. Then, when my parents made fun of her religion, I started to cry.

I could feel myself questioning something I had never questioned before, and even though it felt terrible, I kept asking... and why? Because of a single conversation with a woman I'd never met, starting with, "What sort of work are you in?"

It was silly. It was stupid. Her religion was just stupid. Everyone else could just disregard it. Why did I feel so confused?

From the moment that Dana related her spiritual experience, my mind had been drifting to mine. I thought of a memory that (until then) I had been holding with white-knuckled hands: one of the defining moments of my Christian identity.


In the eighth grade, my entire class at Grace Community took a trip to a camp in Colorado. For a week we did leadership training exercises and intense Bible studies. We went snowshoeing and downhill skiing. It was exhausting and enriching and amazing, and on the last day there, something happened. It's hard to explain what it was, but it was something.

We were all in the chapel and we just started crying, and I don't remember what had sparked it, but once we were crying, it didn't matter. There were about fifty of us there, in that chapel on top of a snow-covered hill, somewhere above Camp Redcloud.

Before that, Patch, the leader from Redcloud, had been talking about the importance of honesty and accountability, and he opened up a time for students to speak.

We shared things that we'd never shared before. I went to school with these friends every day, but I had never known about the things that they shared that night.

And, when we cried, we cried together, all of us, and the Holy Spirit was there. It filled the place. It connected us to each other and to ourselves, and we all experienced it. It was real.

I remember Emily Skipper wiping tears from my eyes, and smiling. I smiled too. There was hugging and crying and hugging and crying, and we all could just feel what was happening.

The whole thing lasted no more than an hour or so, and to be honest, it probably looked as crazy as those services you see on TV, where people are falling or laughing or waving their hands, but when it's you, it's totally different.

It's totally different.

I remember thinking, "We cannot forget about this," and afterward I'd say it to my friends, "We have to remember what happened at Redcloud. You guys, we have to remember it."

And whenever I thought about religions, outside of my own, I thought about how they could never experience anything as real or as powerful as the Holy Spirit, who had been with us that night at Camp Redcloud.

And Dana, the member of some random religion for hippies, convinced me that something had happened to her.

Demons? Maybe hypnosis? Cognitive dissonance?

To her it was real. I didn't know what, but I knew that to her it was real. I could see it in the way that she spoke: she had encountered something real.

So rather than questioning Dana's experience, I questioned my own - and I couldn't find any real answers. I didn't question whether my experiences happened or not, but whether they were more real than hers.

And I just couldn't know for sure. I felt like I couldn't know anything for sure anymore.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

7 - Mrs Schofield

I don't know if it's because of my spiritual questioning, sexual questioning, both, or neither, but as we moved toward the end of high school, I spent less and less time with my best friend Ryan. To be honest, I was fairly freaked out by my questioning, so I wouldn't be surprised if he was freaked out by it too.

I remember one of the last times that I stayed overnight at his house, during the spring of our Junior year. He was on his waterbed, and I was on a mattress on the floor, and we just stared at the ceiling and talked until going to sleep. Ryan had glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling, even in high school.

We talked about Christianity that night, which was typical. We were always talking about predestination or assurance or some other complicated aspect of our faith, but this night was different.

On this night, I asked Ryan if he ever questioned all of it, the whole thing; I asked if he ever questioned Christianity itself.

He said sometimes he did.

I told him that recently, I’d been questioning all of it pretty seriously.

And instead of backing away, Ryan gave me something else to think about. Ryan can be that way in conversations. He said that he wondered about people like Knema or Rouzheen or Mrs Schofield, people we knew weren't Christians. He said that he wondered if a good God would really send them to hell (or allow them to choose hell for eternity).

“Whoa,” I said. “Yeah.” I couldn't believe it. Until that point, I hadn’t really questioned heaven and hell, or thought about specific people going there. I guess I had it in the back of my mind somewhere, but mostly, I’d just wondered about spiritual identity, and whether or not Christians were really different than anybody else.

Ryan said that he hadn’t made any conclusions about whether they could really go to hell. He said that he wasn’t going to let it get in the way of thinking about other things, though. Pretty soon after that, he rolled over in his bed, with the water sloshing under him.

My mind was reeling.

We were more than halfway through the school year, and Mrs Schofield had really made me curious. Rouzheen and Knema too, but especially Mrs Schofield. She was going through a divorce at the time, and we all knew about it. I heard about it through my friend Eric Perez. Mrs Schofield never talked about it, though. She just kept teaching biology, without missing a beat.

She would come to class prepared every day, with a 90 minute lesson that never slowed down. She had lecture slides, videos, lab exercises, and activities that really forced us to get involved: 90 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Also, she had music playing at the beginning of every class, and an honor system where we signed a slip of paper promising not to cheat. She said she would trust us, because we were adults. A few of the students cheated and she found out, and she almost started crying while she told the class about it.

When Mrs Schofield taught, she focused on the students, not just the biology, and it always made us focus on the biology. It was impossible not to learn, just from sitting in her class. But we knew that she wasn't a Christian, we just knew it. And I wondered how she could have so much life without Jesus in her heart... and even in the face of divorce.

And now, on top of all of this, I had to consider that she might go to hell when she died... There was just no way. There was just no way. Every time I saw her, after that conversation with Ryan, I would think about how there was just no way she could possibly go to hell.

I recently sent an email to Mrs Schofield, telling her about that conversation with Ryan, and how it affected my life. I then asked her, basically, "Do you consider yourself a Christian?" because she and I had never actually talked about religion before. I had always just assumed.


Her response finished like this:


I have never doubted that there is a higher power,
that there is a right and wrong, good and evil,
and that we should all strive to be on the right and good side,
and that Jesus was a miraculous soul who has made many in the world reevaluate their principals and choose the light.
I believe Plato said "The life unexamined is the life unlived,"
and so I refuse to go blindly along, just traveling the conventional and expected path.
If hell is the price to pay for that, then I expect I will be in some very good company.

Her email made me wish that we'd talked about religion earlier, but I wonder if the "Christian me" would have really understood her words... there's a chance that I would have heard her saying, "No, I'm not a Christian." There's a chance that I wouldn't have looked for any more meaning beyond that.

...But I knew, even in high school, that I wouldn't mind being with Mrs Schofield after dying, that wherever it was that she was going, I wouldn't mind going there too.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

6 - David Erwin

“Dad, let’s have coffee soon,” I blurted to him one morning. My dad isn’t very good at “quality time,” but he knows it’s important and he knows that most people need it more than he does – so every time I tell him, “We should have coffee,” he agrees.

But I didn’t want to freak him out, so I didn’t pressure him to meet soon. I didn't really know what was going on with me, but I knew that I didn't want to make anybody worried. Between the 5 other members of our family and his job, the first time that Dad and I could meet was a week and a half after I first proposed the idea.

A week and a half is an entirely unimportant amount of time for most people in most phases of life, but for me it was serious: it was Christian or not, eternity or not, love or no love, and why - My mind traveled to a million places that week-and-a-half, leaving no stone unturned. I was really looking forward to talking to Dad. Somehow, I felt comfortable talking to him about anything; he would always know how to respond.

In many ways, questioning my Christian identity wasn't as much of a "brick wall" as it was like walking into some sort of thicket, as on a path that grows thin and crowded by branches. I had to deal with my questions, one at a time, in order to keep moving forward.

Tyler had 3 coffee shops, and 2 were closed for the day. We met at the third, a Starbucks. The evening was warm, so we found seats outside, overlooking the mall parking lot. We could have beat around the bush for hours, so I decided just to go straight for it: "Dad, I'm not really sure, but recently I've been thinking that I might be gay." Yes, gay. And by "recently," I meant "in the recent few days." I had originally wanted to talk about Christianity, but that's not what was on my mind.

Once I hit a question like, "What if I'm gay," I couldn't let it go. I tried to think about different things, but it kept coming back, like "Don't think of an elephant." And by the time that I sat down with Dad, I was going insane, unable to handle the ramifications behind the question: How would I ever have kids? How would I ever get married? Could I ever really be accepted as gay?

Dad wasn't phased at all. He didn't even ask me to try to explain why. He just told me that he would still love me if I was gay, then he talked about his best friend in college, David Erwin.

"David Erwin was gay?"

"Yeah, didn't I tell you that?"

My dad loves to tell stories, but sometimes he leaves out important details. I'd heard a thousand "David Erwin stories," but this little fact had been missing.

"I guess it's because he came out of the closet after he had already left Baylor," Dad said, "so most of the time that I knew him, I didn't really think of him as gay."

Dad told me the story of when he and Mom had gone to San Francisco, to visit David Erwin. "Jane, I think Erwin might be gay," he said as he knocked on the door. The door was opened by a man wearing tight leather and makeup.

Dad laughed as he said to me, "That was one of the biggest understatements of my life."

Not long after that visit, while Dad was finishing med school, David Erwin contracted HIV, then fullblown AIDS, and died.

"Nobody even really knew what AIDS was back then," Dad said. "It was devastating, the way his doctors treated him, as if he was some sort of test subject. They knew nothing about treating HIV. Nothing."

We talked until the breeze started to cool down, and by that time I felt much better. Dad knew that I'd wanted to talk about religion, but it was getting late, so we decided to head home. We'd talk about religion some other time.

Only a week and a half before, homosexuality was simply and completely wrong to me. It was an aberration from God's intended plan. After leaving my Christian worldview, though, it was no longer that simple. I couldn't really understand it, but I knew that it wasn't that simple anymore.

If David Erwin was living, I wonder what he would have to say about sexuality. I wonder what he would say about the Southern Baptist culture in which he was raised. I wonder what he'd think about religion. If anything, I feel sure that he would say only good things about my dad, just as Dad will always speak fondly about his memories of David Erwin.

To me, now, sexual identity just seems wrapped up in this much greater mystery of personal identity itself, a subject I'll explore (to some extent) for the rest of my life, with no expectation to arrive at any major conclusion, other than that I am human, just like everybody else.

Today, whenever I'm getting to know someone who might be gay, I'll ask them, "Are you gay?" and they they respond, "yes" or "no," then usually follow up with, "Are you?"

I'll always respond with, "no," because it's the most accurate one-word answer that describes me. If anyone asks for the twenty-word answer, though, I'll tell them, "I honestly think that sexuality, just like religion, is much more complicated/complex than the categories we create with words." ...and even with twenty words, I feel like I'm barely scratching at the surface.

4 - Darwin

Everyone knew that Mrs Schofield was an atheist - atheist, right? Or maybe agnostic, but whatever she was, she wasn't a Christian, and everyone knew it.

Mrs. Schofield was our biology teacher. She inspired scores of students to study medicine, she brought recycling to our city, and every year, she taught the theory of evolution as if it were scientific fact.

“I know this is a controversial subject for many of you,” she said as a preface, “but this is the explanation that science has to offer, so this is the explanation that I am going to teach.” Then she took a breath and began the evolution sequence.

Science,” I thought, and I thought of all of the evidence that refuted evolution. I thought of polystrate fossils and the missing link, I thought of people gluing peppered moths to trees, and I thought of Darwin’s Black Box.

And Mrs. Schofield continued her lecture, so I listened.

She started by telling the story of Darwin, a man who enjoyed traveling too much to continue on his path of becoming a minister. She told us about the context in which he had lived, how there had been a set number of species, and how it was widely accepted that these were the very same species that God had created, the species that marched two by two onto the ark.

She talked about how Darwin had been afraid to publish his ideas, because he knew it would cause controversy. She told us how, when he died, he was buried in Westminster Abbey, where his body still lies.

And when I went home to talk to my dad about this stuff, he would say, “Well, I believe in Natural Selection. How else could so many species be extinct?" But evolution was bigger than just natural selection, and Dad just usually didn't discuss it. Usually, my dad talked about how Medical School inspired in him a respect for a creator who would design a system as intricate as the human body – so surely, my dad was a creationist, right?

Mrs Schofield was introducing me to a different Darwin than I had ever known, and I was forced to sort out the facts for myself.


One time, a couple years prior, I had a substitute Sunday school teacher who talked about the importance of 6-day creationism and the worldwide flood.

“Because if they can get you to admit that even one part of the Bible is wrong, they can make you question the whole thing,” he said, “even the virgin birth, or the existence of Jesus.”

My dad didn’t agree with him, though. He thought that a 6-day creation wasn’t necessary for believing in the Bible. We never had a chance to discuss it in full, but, at the time, I leaned toward the substitute Sunday school teacher.

To me, the Biblical creation account seemed to be screaming for literal interpretation, not as an allegory (“…And there was evening and there was morning – the first day… the second day… the third… fourth… fifth… sixth”), and I felt compelled to believe in the Genesis account, the 6-day creation account, because if I questioned the Scriptural creation account, I questioned the inerrancy of Scripture itself.

About halfway through the evolution sequence, Mrs. Schofield was starting to have me convinced. It scared me. And I couldn't believe in Darwin without really re-assessing Genesis - When I re-read the Biblical creation account, it looked more like ancient mythology than complete Truth.

Suddenly, I noticed myself questioning other parts of the Bible, such as the Tower of Babel. "How did languages really develop?" I wondered...

Through these tiny, simple questions, I watched the Bible fall short of Holiness.* And as soon as I knew it had missed the mark, even a little bit, I started to question whether anything about it was worthy of being called righteous – even the gospel accounts of Jesus.

--------------------

*There are dozens of sources that attempt to lay out the flaws of the Bible in ways that people can plainly see them, but I feel sure that sharing them would only lead to debates and discussions that I've never enjoyed. It seems that for every author who tries to point out an error in Scripture, there will be another author who can explain it differently. I believe that those sources, just like most things that people read, exist only to convince people of that which they already believe.
And I know this firsthand: for the entire time that I believed that the Bible was holy, the only Bible I could see was a holy one, and there was never a lack of Bible scholars to affirm me in the way I interpreted Scripture. I still don't understand what eventually allowed me to see the shortcomings of the Bible, but my prayer is that it would allow my Christian friends and family to see them as well.

Monday, September 17, 2007

3 - Klint

I knew it was impossible for someone to actually lose their faith. I’d heard about people who left the church, and there were lots of jaded pastors’ kids, but if anyone had ever been truly saved, they would always be a Christian; their place in heaven was sealed for eternity.

The typical buzzword for this, doctrinally speaking, is “once saved, always saved,” and, for the regular churchgoer, this meant that you should make certain that there was a time in your life when you sincerely gave their heart to the Lord. And no matter where you went from there, you were Saved; your name was written in the Lamb's Book of Life, and it could never be unwritten - even if you renounced your faith in God.

But those of us who studied the Bible more closely knew that it was not exactly that simple. We knew that if you were really truly saved, that your life would be radically changed forever, and that the fruit of the Spirit (as evidenced by good deeds) would pour out of your soul for the rest of your life. This belief is called “perseverance of the saints,” and it is one of the 5 pillars of Calvinism*.

The subtle difference (between “once saved, always saved” and “perseverance of the saints”) was huge. It meant that if anyone left the faith (and died before returning to it), then their relationship with Jesus had never been true in the first place. We could not know if anyone’s faith was true, unless they could carry their faith to the grave. True Christians would persevere, in order to work out their salvation. And if they didn’t, it showed that their faith was not sincere.

“Will, I need to tell you something.”

I was on the phone with Kendall Bicknell, standing in the courtyard of my high school. This was somewhere toward the beginning of my junior year. “What is it?”

“It’s about Klint. He… he doesn’t believe in God.”

I had to sit down.

Klint Bicknell was the smartest person I knew. He had a perfect ACT score. He and Kendall studied Greek together in their spare time, so they could read the New Testament together, and Klint studied Hebrew as well. I remembered seeing Klint standing on the stage at church, the night they announced that summer’s interns – this was only a few months earlier. Klint could have gone anywhere for college, but he chose to go to Calvin, a small Christian School in Michigan. It was there, during his sophomore year, that he forsook his belief in God. It rocked my world.

“He knows he’s really smart,” Kendall continued, “and I think it just goes to his head sometimes.”

“Yeah,” I nodded, thinking to myself.

I thought about how small humans are, in comparison to God, and how pointless it is for us to question Him. I thought of Klint like an ant, questioning the existence of humans.

Deep down in my heart, I felt something starting to turn. I didn’t want to think about it anymore. I didn’t talk to Klint for months.

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*The other 4 pillars of Calvinism are Total depravity of man, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, and Irresistible grace. Even though Calvinism is reasonably well-supported by scripture, it remains extremely controversial in the church. This is because most Bible-believing Christians disagree with the overall message of Calvinism, which is (at great risk of paraphrasing) that if God is sovereign and the Bible is completely true, then God, before the beginning of time, planned for a minority of people to be saved from eternal damnation.

Friday, September 14, 2007

preface

Sometimes a person will decide to ask that one, nagging question, the one that everyone around seems to ignore. The question that, when asked, will re-ask every question that was once considered “answered.” This question takes different forms for different people, but its basis is simple:

  • What if I am wrong?
  • What if everyone around me is wrong?

In these stories, I attempt to depict the time in my life when I asked these questions more intensely than any other time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

5 - The Brick Wall

At seventeen years old, I was becoming enlightened. I knew, as Socrates knew, that I didn't know anything, and the more I learned, the more there was to know. The process invigorated me, and I wrestled with questions that people have wrestled for ages: free will, existence of reality, and eventually identity itself. I’d spend hours just sitting and thinking, praying and thinking, and I had no idea what I was getting into.

Most of this philosophical journey unfolded inside the framework of Biblical Christianity. Even though I toyed with ideas like "maybe reality is some sort of dream," my core beliefs, by which I functioned on a day-to-day basis, remained intact:

The Bible was the infallible Word of God, and I, a depraved sinner, had been saved by the grace of God, through Jesus Christ. It was impossible for me to do good works, because of my sinful flesh; only Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, could do good works, and I prayed that He would work through me, and that I, a lowly sinner, would not get in the way. Any time I did something commendable, it was God. Any time I did something sinful, it was me. All of my actions, routine or unique, fell into one of these categories: spirit or flesh, Christ or me.
And I continued thinking.

The belief in a sovereign God gave me permission to question everything, including Him. And I finally did it, too. As I tested the stability of the framework by which I saw the world, parts of it proved to be structurally weak, and eventually the whole thing collapsed.


Every week, I attended a high school guys' prayer group, called Cornerstone. We met at my friend Jeremy's house. I had helped start the group a few years earlier, and I was among the handful of members that kept the group going through high school - in many ways, the group helped me through high school as well.

One week at Cornerstone, though, everything felt different. Cornerstone was the same, but I was different. That night, Jeremy was my prayer partner, so he would pray for my requests, and I would pray for his.

We were sitting on his living room floor, talking. There were about ten of us there that week.

“I’ve been thinking at a million miles an hour," I said to Jeremy, "and this week... I hit a brick wall."

Jeremy nodded, listening. There nothing else I could say. Jeremy shared his requests, and we bowed our heads in prayer. I went first, praying for Jeremy's relationship with his girlfriend and his performance in classes at school.

And then it was Jeremy's turn. “God, I pray for Will, God. He says he’s been thinking a whole lot lately, and God, he just, he feels like he’s hit a brick wall... And Lord I just pray that You’ll be with him in this time, that…” And that was it. Cornerstone went on, nothing had changed. I’ll remember that moment for the rest of my life. My entire life had changed, but I could not communicate it to anyone.

Jeremy had no way to understand what I was talking about, and I had no way of explaining it. Whenever I tried to begin, I'd get lost in questions that I may or may not have known the answers to - I mean, I thought I knew the answers, but I didn’t know any more… Is the Bible true? Am I still a Christian? Am I going to heaven? Haven't I already doubted and questioned enough?

The brick wall was this: I had been getting to know a lot of nonbelievers, and I learned that they weren't very different from me - even though I had the power of the Holy Spirit, and they supposedly didn't. I asked myself:

What if everyone is exactly the same?

What if Christians are no different than non-Christians, and

What if everyone is just acting selfishly?

What if Christians just think they can love with the love of Jesus, and

What if that includes me?

3 more questions are scrawled on a note that I wrote to myself, sometime that week. It was one of those "distillment moments," when a hundred things had been boiling in my mind for hours, then I picked up a pen to write, and everything that remained poured out. three questions:

  • DOES THERE EXIST SOME NOTICEABLE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A CHRISTIAN AND A NONCHRISTIAN?
  • BETWEEN A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY AND A SECULAR ONE?
  • DOES A CHRISTIAN SOCIETY EXIST?

The answer, deep in my heart, was no.

I could not ignore it.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

2 - Onya

When I was fourteen years old, I knew where I was going. They say you can never truly know, but I knew. At least, I was confident enough to tell everyone around me that I knew, and with a clean conscience - My relationship with Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, was stronger than ever, and my faith was moving me into action. I was on this world to save souls, and that was all there was to it.

Through an online Christian message board, I met my first atheist: Onya.

“And yes, that’s my real name,” she said in an email. “It’s Russian.”

Onya had posted a blanket statement on the message board, about Christians ignoring facts in order to hold on to faith. In all, we probably only shared about 4 emails between the two of us, but I'll never forget our interaction. I, an outspoken evangelical, was not trying to convert her, but to give her a fuller image of Christianity. Obviously Onya had become jaded by "Christians" who might have treated her with bitterness. I wanted to prove to her what the love of Jesus really looked like.

I started by simply listening to her. Listening was the only thing that had gotten me anywhere in life, and, when I listened to Onya, I realized that she had a lot to say. Christianity, to her, was filled with stubbornly ignorant people, and this made her angry. She believed that Christians allowed themselves to be persuaded (practically hypnotized) by something they knew, inside themselves, to be a lie.

I assured her that this was not the case, at least not for me.

When she said that faith should never contradict facts, I agreed. I told her that faith was the evidence of things not seen, not evidence against things seen, and my faith in Jesus was reasonable and supported by evidence. I didn't say it to contradict her, but only to inform her. Obviously, I thought, her view of Christianity had been skewed, and it was my responsibility to show to her that Christians, true Christians, are reasonable people.

I wanted to find out where she had gone wrong, and lovingly correct her. So rather than telling her "you are absurd," I just asked her to tell me more.

“Will,” she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t go on with this discussion much longer.”

I stepped back, so as not to pressure her. I knew that the situation was in God's hands, and that God would work within His perfect plan.

“But I want you to promise me something, ok?” she spoke to me like I was a child, and I tried not to resent it.

“I want you to promise me that if your faith in God ever conflicts with facts, that you won’t be too scared to question it... Never ignore what you know to be true, even if it contradicts your beliefs.”

Confident that the facts were on my side, I promised.

We broke contact on good terms, and have not resumed it since. At the time, I felt glad for having planted a seed of truth (real truth) into the darkness of Onya's life.

I was fourteen years old.

Monday, September 10, 2007

1 - Sarah*

About a year ago, while I was home from college for a few weeks, I sat at the kitchen counter talking to my little sister Sarah. My mom was cooking scrambled eggs, and I can't remember what we were talking about. Somewhere in the conversation, Sarah asked me, "Are you going to go to heaven?"

I looked at her, and with a smile said, "I don't know..."

"Yes he is going to heaven," my mom said, before Sarah could think about my answer. The conversation shifted to other subjects, mom finished the eggs, and we prayed before eating breakfast together. I doubt that Sarah has remembered it once since then, but I haven't been able to get that question off my mind.

In the last few months, I've had lots of conversations with Evangelicals. Their culture is the one that I was raised in, so I'm compelled to go back and talk to them, to hold ties to the world that I came from. Whenever someone asks me, "Do you think that you'll go to heaven or hell?" I try to cause them to think, by saying something like "Maybe, but I highly doubt it."

It is my answer that says, without saying it, "I want you to rethink your question."

But when my sister asks, it's different. She's ten years old now, so of course she'll spend more time thinking about the question, right? There must be some day in her future, when she begins to understand what life can be like, to live outside the boundaries of that binary eternity (heaven or hell?)… but until then, what do I say to her? What if she asks me again, in a different way? What could I tell her?

These are drafts of some personal stories that I'm writing and revising.
I would love to hear any feedback.