by John Ellis
In 1994, Douglas Coupland, the unofficial spokesperson for Gen X, published Life after God. A collection of short stories, the book gave voice to the belief that my generation was “the first generation raised without God.”
Beyond just seeing the release of one of Gen X’s seminal works of art, 1994 was notable, at least in my life, for seeing me graduate from high school. And while it’s true that the world around me was busy attempting to erase God, the aisle I marched down to receive my diploma led to a platform from where I had been force-fed God for years.
Gen X may have been the first generation raised without God, but there were still a few of us who lived in a world of Christianity. And for many of us whose childhood existed on islands of religiosity sitting in the cultural sea of irreligiosity, much of our adulthood has been spent attempting to come to terms with the contradictions within ourselves.
Who are you when your worldview has been shaped by two diametrically opposed systems of thought?
That’s a question that many Christian schools, conservative churches, and strict evangelical parents refuse to even acknowledge exists in the hearts of many of my fellow Gen Xers, as well as our Millennial brothers and sisters, who were raised in the Christian school movement. And yet, no matter how hard they tried to protect us from the world, the cynical secularism of the MTV generation played as large of a role, if not larger, in our development as did their brand of Christianity.
The brand of Christianity I was raised in is called independent, fundamental Baptist – IFB, for short. In fact, my dad, who’s now retired, was a pastor. My mom, who died in 2006, was a Christian schoolteacher. (As way of shorthand, I’ll be referring to me and my peers as “ex-fundys.” That’s not intended as a pejorative; it’s simply shorthand.)
Since the early 2000s, much ink has been spilled by fellow, ex-fundy Gen Xers excoriating conservative Christianity in attempts to make sense of the confusion and even pain that they felt and continue to feel, at least in part, because of their strict, religious upbringing clashing with their own rebellion. To be frank, much of their vitriol is undeserved by their parents, teachers, and pastors. But I do empathize with their confusion and pain, having lived it myself. At times, in fact, I still struggle to understand what happened and the ways in which it has shaped me. At times, I too still feel the pain of my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood that was the unintended consequence of having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian in a world that was increasingly antagonistic towards the God of my parents.
That being said, by God’s grace, I will not be flaming my upbringing. I love my parents, and thank God for their faithful witness, in word and deed, in my life. I am incredibly grateful for many of my Christian schoolteachers, Christian university college professors, youth pastors, and the variety of IFB adults whom God brought into my life during my formative years. Without their loving witness, it’s not a stretch for me to claim that I would already be dead or, at best, in prison.
Thankfulness, however, does not mean blind approval. So, also by God’s grace, neither will this book be an unabashed apologetic for my upbringing. The adults that God placed in my life were almost as imperfect as I am, and even though I believe that in the main their motives were rooted in the desire to see me grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the fact remains that the IFB movement does have some errors and even sins that need to be confronted. My friends who are still hurting are owed a voice, too.
On the surface, my story appears to be unique in comparison to the life stories of many of my peers. I struggled my entire childhood with the thought that my parents were fooling themselves that God even existed. Having entered adulthood as an atheist already, and only repenting of my sins and placing my faith in Jesus as my twenties closed and after a stint as a drug dealer, my story is the opposite of the norm. My peers who rejected Christianity, to a varying degree or another, tended to do so only after entering adulthood.
For those who did struggle with many of the same questions and doubts that I did, they generally did so in a manner that was much more muted than my struggles. I tend to cringe at the “Cross and the Switchblade” sensationalism of my life story but attempting to claim that my life’s colors have run completely parallel with most of my ex-fundy peers would be an exercise in dishonesty that would be seen through by those who know me.
One thing I have learned, to my surprise, though, is that although the rising and falling action of my story is sharper and faster than most of peers, I’m not as unique as I once believed.
Almost seven years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about my life story for my now defunct, original blog. I wrote the series mainly out of boredom; out of a need to do something constructive, and, more importantly, out of a need to begin to articulate and interact with the odd trajectory of my life.
To my surprise, I heard from many family members, friends, and even people that I had never met about how they too had struggled in a similar manner as I had during my youth. As the notes thanking me rolled in, I began to become aware that a large percentage of ex-fundies have more in common with each other than many of us realized. The existential isolation that we have felt has been largely unnecessary.
It’s for them that I’m writing my story. Or, rather, it’s for them that I’m fleshing out how God, in His mercy and grace, has chosen to write me into His story for His glory and for my salvation.
What’s more, I now have something to say. Instead of needing to write, I want to write. By God’s grace, I want to give voice to the experiences, fears, and pain that many of my Gen X fundamentalist peers lived and, sadly, that some are still living. In doing so, I pray that I can reveal that our identity was often misidentified and misdirected, even by those who meant well. The solution, then, of course, is finding an identity rooted in Christ by grace through faith.
In the summer of 2017, for the first time in years, I stood in the main hallway of the Christian school I graduated from in 1994. The wall is decorated with plaques commemorating each of the school’s graduating classes. Standing in my alma mater’s hallway I fought back tears as I read name after name of my fellow alumni. Many of the names hid the tales of people who are broken and hurting, many of them having rejected the faith of their fathers and mothers and of our teachers, of whom some still teach at that school, who had been tasked with shaping us into godly men and women.
The section of the wall devoted to the classes of the late 80s and early 90s was the hardest for me to look at. Those names were my classmates and friends with whom I laughed, argued, and hurt with as we navigated the weird and often contradictory world of Christian fundamentalism. We were never fully Gen X. We were never fully fundamentalists. We were hurting children who needed to find our full identity in Jesus. Those plaques on the wall are a painful testament to the continued confusion, hurt, and rebellion of many of my oldest friends, of whom it was once believed that they were Christians, only to have it revealed in adulthood that the gospel seed has yet to take root and bear fruit in their heart and life.
By way of introduction, I am now a committed follower of Jesus. In fact, I have had the privilege of serving my previous conservative evangelical church as a pastor. In God’s providence, the irony is that sixteen years ago, I sat on the patio of my apartment, got high with my roommates, and then declared that if they ever heard that I was a pastor, not to believe it. I told them that if I ever became a pastor, it would only be for the women and the money.
Whenever I think about that moment, I don’t know if I should cringe in shame or laugh in embarrassment. Most often, I do both. The reality is, though, that while I was uttering those stupid words, God knew what He had in store for me. If anything, I should be thankful that God is sovereign and that He saw fit to write irony into my life. It’s for His glory that I now tell you what happened to a fundamentalist Gen Xer who didn’t believe in God.
I am a sinner saved by grace. I am an unmitigated failure who has been blessed with an eternal inheritance from my Almighty Father. Through my union with Christ, I am a child of the Sovereign Creator of the universe, though I have robbed, deceived, and abused many. My faults lay scattered around me, often rearing their accusatory head with the hellish goal of causing me to forget that I am Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. I am a sinner who clings to Jesus.
God is sovereign. I know this because the Bible tells me this is so. I also know this because my experience drags my rebellious will out of me and reveals that God moves in mysterious ways for His glory and my good. I know this because one early spring day in 2004, I stood on a bridge, looked at the rocks below, and prepared to jump. Five minutes later, I found myself on those rocks, not having jumped, but having climbed down the embankment with tears streaming down my cheeks.
Huddling on those rocks while those passing by threw concerned glances in my direction, I sobbed. That morning, I had decided that day was the day I would put myself and my family out of their misery. True, my family would mourn. One day, though, they would mourn less, I believed. The next day, even less. Until one day I would be little more than a cautionary tale for my nieces, nephews, and unborn great-nieces and nephews.
“Uncle John ruined his life,” the old-timers would wag at family reunions. “A failure at college. A failure in marriage. A failure in life. Don’t be like Uncle John.”
I even failed at committing suicide.
As I wept, sitting on those rocks, the church I had unwillingly attended the summer before while visiting San Francisco came to my mind. The love and kindness shown to me by the members of that strict, fundamentalist Baptist church called to me. Prior to that, it had been years, almost a decade, in fact, since I had felt truly loved and wanted by those who didn’t share my DNA. Confusingly, and, frankly, infuriating me, that small church in Antioch, CA was where I knew I needed to go, no matter what. And, so, on that early spring morning of 2004, instead of finding myself standing in rebellion before my Maker after making an eternally tragic decision, I determined to move to California as quickly as possible. I longed for the people of that church who, without reservation, had embraced me, a drug-dealing atheist.
Nearly twenty-nine years earlier, though, the people holding me, loving me, and praying for me did not foresee me as a suicidal drug-dealer. My life had been sketched out for me by my parents from the moment of my conception. But rebellion runs deeper and has a stronger hold than the best wishes and desires of even the godliest of parents. And that’s where my place in God’s story begins: my rebellion against my parents and the God they worshiped and served. And my rebellion started the day I first drew breath.