A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 1

abandoned church

by John Ellis

On August 2, 1975, I was born for the first time.

Interestingly, one of the most vivid metaphors that Jesus used to describe salvation is birth. During a clandestine meeting with a Jewish religious leader, Jesus made the astonishing claim, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Living two-thousand years ago didn’t prevent Nicodemus from being any less astonished at those words than are those of us living in the 21st century. Even though Wikipedia and modern science had yet to be invented, Nicodemus understood that humans cannot be born twice. So, dripping with incredulity, Nicodemus pushed back by pointing out the absurdity of Jesus’ claim. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4)

How often have we skimmed Nicodemus’ reply without fully appreciating the eye-rolling tone underlining his pushback of Jesus’ absurd statement?

Jesus, of course, wasn’t speaking of physical birth. He was talking about the eternally important spiritual birth into God’s family. Because apart from spiritual birth, our lives are shaped, dominated, and ultimately controlled by rebellion against God. To escape the devastating effects of sin, including the eternal, never-ending death our sin deserves, humans need to be born again into God’s family and be given a new identity in Christ Jesus. Humans’ first birth is into rebellion. I was no exception. The difference lay in the artificial identity that framed my entrance into this world and that determined the trajectory of my life, regardless of what I thought or wished.

My first birth gave me the identity of a fundamentalist preacher’s kid. And that identity shaped my life but not my soul. A tension that would’ve led to my destruction if not for the grace of God. And I had only been on this planet for a few years when that tension began to rear its ugly head.

My early childhood was stereotypical of fundy kids. Church and more church. VBS and more VBS. Silly Bible school songs and more silly Bible school songs. While singing, “Stop, and let me tell you what the Lord has done for my me. He forgave my sin, and He saved my soul,” my classmates and I thrilled at the twirling cardboard stop sign in the teacher’s hand. Switching from the red “Stop” to the green “Go,” we continued, “Go, and tell the story, of the Christ of Calvary.”

From my earliest memories, I sang that song in the first person. That’s how it’s written of course, in the first person, but I was expected to own it before I even knew what “it” was. That’s the birthright of a kid born to an IFB pastor and a Christian schoolteacher mother. You’re born with an “it” that determines your life steps. Upon the day of your birth, only a few possible outcomes are entertained. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6)” was considered an ironclad promise and not the proverb that it is.

And, so, on August 2, 1975, the roadmap of my life had already been charted. Having been the ones to plot out my journey on that map, my parents believed that their job was to get me from point A to point Z while hitting all the other proper points in between. For them, the “promise” of Proverbs 22:6 would be the never-failing guard rail ensuring that my life would stay on track. As long, of course, as they did their job correctly.

My parents had specific desires for how my life would be shaped and formed into adulthood: remain unblemished from sin and dedicate my life to God through a commitment to full-time Christian service. Many of their specific desires, though, I learned from hints, subtext, and through the revelation of Aunts and Uncles years after the fact. My parents rarely shared with me their goals and dreams for me outside of abstract, fundamentalist talk. I do know this: according to my parents, I was born to be an independent, fundamentalist Baptist missionary.

My full name is John William Ellis, the same name as my uncle. An uncle whom I never met. Years before I was ever conceived, he was killed in an airplane crash while serving on the mission field in the country of Columbia.

My dad didn’t say a whole lot to me growing up, but one topic that never failed to cause him to spring to life with conversation was his brother. And I get that. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to have a sibling die when you’re both in your twenties.

While I understood my dad’s desire to talk about Uncle Johnny, those conversations were always heavy with expectation for me. Being the namesake of an almost mythical man who perished in the full-time service of God brings with it a weighty responsibility in Christian fundamentalism. Your heritage matters, and I was always pointed in the direction of honoring my uncle’s name by following in his sacrificial footsteps.

One thing that almost all ex-fundy Gen Xers have in common is hearing the constant refrain that there is no greater calling than to give one’s life to full-time Christian service. For sure, the caveat is often thrown in that God needs businessmen, too. After all, the preacher would laugh, “If there were no Christian businessmen, who would give the tithes that keeps the lights on?”

I felt badly for the businessmen in attendance at church whenever my dad would tell that “joke.” At the time, I didn’t have the awareness to even consider how that “joke” played among the women in the church who were barred from even that lower-level service to God.

However, my sympathy for the businessmen in my dad’s church paled in comparison to my own personal distaste for the joke and sympathy for myself in relation to it. You see, that statement would often be coupled with my dad’s sharp rebuke to any parents who wouldn’t allow their children to be foreign missionaries. For him, as he would proudly assert from the pulpit, nothing would make him happier than seeing his children serving God on a foreign mission field.

I knew that my name sat atop the list of me and my siblings in my dad’s mind: John William Ellis, the namesake of his beloved brother who sacrificed his life on the mission field. The thing was, I had zero desire to be a missionary.

It wasn’t so much going to a foreign country that was the obstacle. I always enjoyed hearing missionary stories in Sunday School, VBS, Bible class at my Christian school, and at home. Frankly, the life of a missionary sounded kind of exciting to me. My small record player that I received as a gift on my 5th birthday routinely played Ethel Barrett’s dramatized retelling of missionary stories. The name of the missionary escapes me, but one recording telling the story of a missionary tortured by the people he’d gone to evangelize stuck out in my young mind. The dramatized (and, frankly, racist) sounds of the exotic locale sparked my imagination, and my growing machismo longed for the opportunity to fight any intended torturers.

In fact, in at least a small way, the exciting missionary stories of my childhood probably helped birth my wanderlust that later found extra fuel in the hedonistic “missionary” stories of writers like Jack Kerouac. Traveling to strange locales, being separated from my family, and facing danger were not obstacles for becoming a missionary. My problem with becoming a missionary was that I wasn’t sure if God even existed. And if God didn’t exist, what was the point of being a missionary?

Some of my earliest memories are of me lying awake in my bed at night, puzzling over how my parents could be so sure that God existed. I mean, their “proof” for God was the Bible. Yet they said that God wrote the Bible – God exists because God says He exists. That seemed awfully convenient to me. As a result, my parent’s religion seemed fishy, at best.

Eventually, almost every night, after trying to logically work out how my parents could be so certain in their beliefs about God, I would fall asleep, scared that I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t believe. Fitful, strange nightmares that I still vividly remember were the sacraments of my sleep.

One dream found me in a meagre, splintering raft tossed about by waves as everyone I knew stood worriedly inside a Greek-like temple structure that was surrounded by the roiled waters. Waves chipped away pieces of the steps that lead to the cracking temple floor from where my parents pleaded with me to come to them, unaware of their own tenuous safety. Blinded by their own concern for me, they shouted that my only hope was with them inside the temple. For my part, while terrified and unsure of what to do, I was never able to find a way to steer my raft to my family and friends. It wasn’t that I wasn’t tempted to join them; it was that I didn’t know how they had managed to find their way to that temple to begin with. Even worse, as the dream would go on, I became increasingly suspicious of everyone’s claim that the crumbling, aged temple was safer than my raft.

For me, in that dream that never failed to jolt me awake, safety was unattainable. No matter where I turned or what I attempted to do, nothing brought hope. In my dream, as in my life, salvation didn’t exist for me, and I was pretty sure it didn’t exist for anyone else either.

I had that dream over and over, well into my teenage years. Even at a young age, I was able to interpret that dream. Waking, I would huddle fearfully in my bed. Doubting God’s very existence as the son of a fundamentalist pastor and a Christian schoolteacher mother is no light matter. If nothing else, I believed, it meant that I was all alone in the fundamentalist world that I lived.

And my doubts extended far beyond the existence of God. To me, the Bible was a scary book filled with horrible people.

Bible stories were drilled into me, to be sure. There was a time when I could name all the Northern and Southern Kingdoms’ kings, in order. The intriguing yet troubling stories of the Bible were part of my everyday education. Unfortunately, I was taught those stories as mini-morality tales.

What I learned was that I’m David and should pick up my five stones. I’m Joseph and should flee temptation. I’m Abraham and should trust God without question.

Except, Abraham tied his son to an altar, raised a large knife over him, and would’ve plunged it into Isaac if God hadn’t decided to stop him. The flannel graph pictures helped fill in whatever gaps existed in my imagination.

What kind of morality tale is that?

I agonized over the question of how in the world could my parents seriously advocate that I should be like that guy?

The first time I remember hearing that story, I was in kindergarten. As I sat in my desk, squirming with the pent-up energy of a young boy fueled by incredulous discomfort at what I was hearing; my mind did mental gymnastics trying to figure out how my kind, gentle teacher could seriously think the events of the story were okay.

The graphic picture on the flannel graph board hammered home my teacher’s stern admonition that we should always trust God. God will provide a way of escape. I wondered how I could trust a God that might ask my dad to tie me to an altar and plunge a knife into me. That question became a plot device in my nightmares.

Sadly, the Old Testament being taught as morality tales only served to feed my doubts. But whether I wanted it or not, my identity was that of a fundamentalist kid – a preacher’s kid, to boot. For many of my authority figures, my identity was set. In their minds, I needed to have that identity protected from the world. Teaching the Bible as morality tales was one of their main tactics. Except viewing and teaching the Old Testament as little more than a collection of morality tales opens a Pandora’s box of seeming contradictions and moral quandaries.

“Sure, I do bad things,” the thought process goes. “But I haven’t allowed my wife to be taken by another man out of fear like Abraham.”

“True, I may occasionally lie, but my level of deceit pales in comparison to Jacob’s.” I thought as I watched the scales of comparison tip in my favor. “I haven’t visited a prostitute like Samson. I didn’t cover up my adultery with murder like the ‘great’ King David. Unlike Hezekiah, I’ve never foolishly displayed my strength to foreign enemies and then shrugged my shoulders at the punishment because that punishment would be poured out on other people long after I was gone.”

“If the Old Testament ‘saints’ are the measure of morality, then I’m doing pretty good. What’s more, if this God, whose existence I doubt to begin with, wants me to emulate these people, then I think I’ll find another god, assuming any exist, thank you very much,” was my conclusion, even as a young kid.

Children who don’t delve into philosophical musings about the existence of God are also harmed by this moralistic approach to teaching the Old Testament. In one ear, they hear “faith, faith, faith.” In the other ear, they hear “do, do, do.” Because all children are born with the identity of rebel against God, the “do, do, do” is naturally going to ring the loudest, to the point where the “faith, faith, faith” is drowned out. As adults, when their “doing” crumbles and is revealed to be a false salvation, and it always crumbles into a pile of rotting wood, hay, and stubble waiting to be burned, what’s left?

Shamefully, though, the children who manage to successfully “do, do, do” at an approved level are feted and elevated to positions of prominence across much of conservative Christianity. And my upbringing was no outlier.

Those among my peers who were able to successfully “do, do, do” were assigned the identity of a good fundamentalist kid that deserves emulation. Owing far more to my parent’s positions than my ability to play the game, I managed to achieve the identity of a solid fundy kid even though I was wracked with doubts. Doubts about God’s existence and the morality that I was being taught.

Instead of going to my parents with my doubts, I attempted to work them out by myself. Of course, since, like everyone else in the world I didn’t exist in a vacuum, my failure to go to my parents meant that the hole in my influence was quickly filled by outside voices. Unbeknownst to my strict, fundamentalist parents, from my earliest age my worldview was being shaped by the growing secularism of the late 70s and the 80s, the time period of my childhood.

Backing up a bit, part of my nightly fear, as I mentioned, was that my parents, especially my dad, would discover my doubts. You see, in my parent’s world, doubt didn’t exist; doubt wasn’t allowed to exist.

And not just my parents. The teachers at my Christian school, my Sunday school teachers, friends, and parents of friends all seemed 100% confident that what they all said was true was, in fact, true. No doubt. No questioning. So much so, that I believed that my doubts automatically placed me outside the acceptable behavior for everyone around me.

That, of course, meant that I needed to find some new “everyone’s.” Because, unsurprisingly, since I wasn’t different from most people, I didn’t like feeling alone.

No human, much less a small boy, enjoys feeling isolated without any access to those who understand and can empathize with them. I needed a new people. Turns out, modern, secular society was happy to oblige, especially pop culture.

TV was mostly off limits for me and my siblings. Shows like Little House on the Prairie and Wheel of Fortune were okay, as were the occasional cartoon. Soaking in whatever pop culture I could, I grew more and more fascinated by the glimpses of the outside world I saw on my family’s little black and white TV adorned with rabbit ears.

My parents, and especially my mom, rode strict herd over that TV, including commercials. Any hint of rock music, and the TV sound was muted. During the few game shows we watched, my mom would sigh with disgust whenever Pat Sajak or Richard Dawson would inadvertently expose me and my siblings to topics deemed inappropriate by fundamentalism. My dad would snort and shift in his chair. I was left to wonder what the problem was.

Over the years, I learned that the sinfulness of pop culture was simply to be accepted as a fact. Almost all questions and/or pushback was met with an incredulous attitude by the authority figures that translated into extra hassle for the kid who dared question the accepted fundamentalist dogma. Any hint of an unwillingness to simply accept the ex-cathedra pronouncements about pop culture from authority figures carried with it the almost irreversible label of a troublemaker – a bad seed.

The sentence for that label was a childhood filled with the endless rolling waves of hassle from suspicious authority figures. I learned to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

While learning that lesson, though, I was also learning that there was a competing worldview to my parents’ worldview. And that mysterious yet attractive worldview didn’t appear to be as unwilling as my parent’s worldview to engage troubling questions and thoughts. I was aware, of course, that there was sharp divide that separated us, the fundamentalist Christians, from them, meaning, of course, everyone else. A sharp divide that was jealously and zealously guarded by my authority figures, including my parents. In my young mind, I began to suspect that there were people outside of the “walls” that had been constructed and guarded by my parents, and that those people would understand my doubts and could provide me with answers. That made the thought of peering over those walls all the more intriguing.

Before detailing how I was stealthily boosted over the wall, I would be remiss (and it would be uncharitable) if I didn’t point out that I highly doubt if previous generations who grew up in Christian homes lived under as intense of a societal bifurcation as many Gen Xer fundamentalists did. To be fair to my generation’s parents, in large and important respects, the world had been upended since their childhood. In fact, they lived through it.

My parents saw the sexual revolution come to fruition. I understand and empathize with their desire to put walls up between their family and the increasing overt godlessness and sin flaunted by larger society. That’s not to excuse them. I want to be careful not to assume of posture of spiritual superiority. As I wrote in the introduction, and paraphrasing Douglas Coupland, in a lot of ways, my generation was the first generation to grow up without God. That’s not literally true, of course, because the history of the world is piled high with the generations’ attempts at dethroning God, after all. That being noted, Gen X did come to age during a time that had managed to successfully strip even the façade of submission to God from broader culture. My generation’s Tower of Babel was unmistakably rebellious, and owing to anemic theologies, unbiblical anthropologies, and commitments to incorrect perspectives on history, my parents and authority figures were largely ill-equipped to existentially cope with that shift and, by extension, greatly hindered in their ability to disciple the children in their care in ways that robustly reflect who God is and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Because of that, my parents were driven by the motivation to protect their children, misplaced, incorrect, and harmful though it might have been. To them, the lives of me and my siblings were that of acknowledged strangers in a strange land. What’s more, our family, school, and church were all constructed to keep “them,” the feared citizens of secular society, away from us, the “strangers,” the remnant of God’s people desperately holding on until the Rapture. A primary goal of fundamentalist Gen Xer’s authority figures was making sure that we remained unblemished outsiders in a strange, immoral land. Good intentions, though, do not necessarily produce positive results.

Recently, conservative writer Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option, a book detailing his belief that Christians should initiate a “strategic withdrawal” from an increasingly hostile secular society. In the book’s introduction, he explains, “The idea is that serious Christian conservatives could no longer live business-as-usual lives in America, that we have to develop creative, communal solutions to help us hold on to our faith and our values in a world growing ever more hostile to them. We would have to choose to make a decisive leap into a truly countercultural way of living Christianity, or we would doom our children and our children’s children to assimilation.”

The thing is, the Benedict Option is not entirely new. Dreher’s book tolls a familiar ring of warning and action for me, especially chapter 6, “The Idea of a Christian Village.” The problem is that many who are now advocating a form of it, including Rod Dreher, are not doing a good job of accounting for the living demonstrations of its results.

You see, the question needs to be asked, what happens when some of the inhabitants of the isolated community are blemished strangers in that “safe” land? What happens when that lonely stranger is taught that there are only two identities in the world? – you’re either a fundamentalist or you’re not.

Trust me, that stranger, if he’s a little boy, lies awake at night, scared because he believes he’s all alone in his doubts, fears, and questions and that he has no one to talk to.

And, for me, that’s when, no matter how hard the authority figures attempted to bar the entrance, the MTV generation stepped in and declared, “We understand.”

The siren calls of Gen X became louder as I began to pay closer attention to our neighbors, to the people in the mall as we trudged to Sears to get our annual family photo taken, and to the muted commercials on TV. My family’s difference became increasingly and embarrassingly apparent to me. I felt like I was forcibly hidden within a system in which I didn’t belong. I desperately longed to look like, sound like, and be around all the interesting people swirling outside my fundamentalist existence.

Even more important than the people on the periphery of my existence to my embrace of godlessness, the secretive, forbidden music called rock and roll began to pique my interest.

I wondered why my parents were so concerned about this music. Why were some cartoons forbidden solely because of music? Why did my dad quickly scroll past certain radio stations? Why did my mom insist that the waiter turn the speakers down on the rare instances that we went out to eat?

I began to suspect that some of the answers to my larger questions about God’s existence as well as my sharpening feelings of estrangement, at the least, were wrapped up in this mysterious and forbidden music. My suspicions were confirmed in 1984 while sitting in a Pizza Hut one Sunday night after church.

Even though my mom always asked the waiter to have the speakers turned down, the speakers were never turned down to the point where I couldn’t hear the strange, enticing music throbbing through the restaurant, calling to my heart. That Sunday night in a Pizza Hut during 1984 was no exception.

Obviously, more than one song played over that Pizza Hut’s speakers that evening, but I only remember one song. And I remember that song and that moment very vividly.

It was only years later that I heard of the movie bearing the same name, much less watched it, but Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose” resonated in my rebellious nine-year old heart in a way that very few things had up to that point in my life.

Sitting at the table, in my suit, tie, and dress shoes that I hated, the lyrics, “kick off your Sunday shoes” lodged in my heart. For me, the most obvious thing that separated me from everyone else outside of my circle and that identified me with the fundamentalist Christian world in which I knew that I didn’t belong were my clothes. And here was that forbidden music telling me to kick off my hated Sunday shoes. In that moment, at least metaphorically, I did just that – I kicked off my Sunday shoes.

As silly as this is (remember, I was only nine years old), “Footloose” appeared to understand me. In my little boy brain, I then concluded that I was right about this forbidden music. From that point on, I believed that my people, those who thought like me and would help answer my questions, were attached to rock music.

Over the intervening years, the more my authority figures preached against rock music and the more I was forced to listen to the anti-rock messages by famous fundamentalists (many of those messages contained unintentional errors that my peers and I would pounce on and use to dismiss everything the preacher had to say – including any true and right things said about Jesus), the more I dug into my belief that my parents and teachers were afraid of rock music because it offered answers they were unwilling or even unable to provide. In fact, in the world of the Christian fundamentalism that I grew up in, you were either a committed Christian or you were a rock music loving heathen.

I chose the second identity. First, though, that identity would first have to maneuver over a small speed bump or two.

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