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.

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