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by John Ellis
Desiring sympathy and solidarity as we seek an autonomous existence apart from God isn’t new. That’s part of the trap our first parents, Adam and Eve, walked into. In Genesis 3, the Bible calls Serpent-Satan, “crafty.” He is beguiling and a master at feigning understanding through his soothing slither of commiserating words. Deceitful commiserating words, but seemingly commiserating, nonetheless.
Arresting Adam and Eve’s stroll through God’s good Garden, Serpent-Satan twisted the words of God and called into question the veracity of His love and care for His creatures. Sidling up to the married pair, Serpent-Satan tapped into their desire to be gods themselves by perverting God’s words just enough to cast doubt about God’s love for them.
Adam and Eve had found someone who understood them, who cared about them, and who wasn’t going to hold back any good thing from them, or so they chose to believe. And, so, they sided with Serpent-Satan against their Creator in a coup on the throne of God – the very One who had commissioned them as His son and daughter with unfettered access to His blessings and tasked with the glorious role of ruling as His vice-regents. All of God’s gracious and good gifts were not enough for their prideful, self-serving hearts, though.
The many deceitful worldviews crafted by the same Serpent-Satan that continue to plague humankind, coyly tempting us into joining his self-serving masses intent on dragging heaven down to earth do not stray far from the very first pattern. I mean, why change what works? And, boy, do his tactics work!
The coup on God’s throne continues to this day by rebellious humans allied with Serpent-Satan. No matter what our good, sovereign, and wholly just Creator bestows on us, we want more. We believe that we deserve more.
Satan is crafty and desires to sift us out, destroying us. And whether we want to admit it or not, pop culture can be a dangerous conduit for the devil’s deceit in very subtle ways. It’s adroit at snaking out our desires and flashing the hopes and dreams of the fulfillment of those desires out of our speakers and across our screens. While often out-of-balance, the parents of those, like me, who grew up in strict conservative Christians homes viewed pop culture with an eye beyond suspicion. Pop culture was the enemy, allied with the Devil. Our parents viewed the surrounding culture as enemy number one.
Sadly, and ironically, an out-of-balance disregard for the warnings of our parents has led to the destruction of many ex-fundies as they feed the lust of their flesh through an unthoughtful consumption and wholesale embrace of pop culture under the guise of embracing Christian liberty.
All that to say, my parents weren’t completely wrong in their desire to shield me from pop culture. The problem lay in their belief that shielding me would act as a panacea, of sorts, protecting me from rebellion. That, and their belief that they could effectively shield me from the MTV generation, to begin with.
Of course, they failed to effectively shield me because, for one thing, attempting to do so was tantamount to the little Dutch boy attempting to plug the dyke with his fingers. From listening to “Footloose” in a Pizza Hut, to the neighbor boy who taught me the lyrics to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” among other songs, to gorging myself on TV and forbidden music while my parents were away on church visitation every Thursday evening, pop culture began to saturate my life at a young age. What’s more, I began to search it out, propelled by a growing addiction to my new conduit out of the stifling fundamentalist Christian world of my parents.
For another thing, my parent’s efforts failed because they didn’t account for the great human tragedy that all rebellion begins in the heart, not outside of it. My search was fed by my rebellion that already existed, not the other way around.
My search wasn’t just about wanting more or better entertainment options. My search was primarily rooted in my existential desire to learn who I was and where I belonged. I was searching for a new identity. Or, rather, I was searching for ways in which to articulate my identity.
My “new” identity shaped by the forbidden music, TV, and movies, or, rather, the external identity that I wanted but was unsure of how to adopt, offered sympathy, care, and fellowship. It told me that I wasn’t alone. An identity option that gave voice to my struggles and doubts. The identity of a good fundamentalist Christian kid didn’t allow for struggles and doubts, or so I was led to believe.
Having struggles and doubts put your standing within the community in jeopardy and filled your life with hassle. My “new” identity not only allowed struggles and doubts it even gave voice to struggles and doubts. Sitting in that Pizza Hut, listening to Kenny Loggins implore me to kick off my Sunday shoes ensured that my “new” identity’s holy text became the rock music fearfully denounced by my authority figures.
By the time my childhood morphed into teenager, I had become skilled at accumulating rock music. I repurposed cassettes from my dad’s vast collection of sermon tapes that appeared to serve little purpose other than gathering dust on the shelf. Strategically selecting tapes that I believed would be the least likely to be missed by my dad, I spent hours with my finger hovering over the “record” button on my family’s stereo, waiting for the DJ to play a song I liked. Before I figured out that trick, as a young child I soaked up whatever rock music I could, becoming increasingly thirsty for more.
In rock music, for the first time in my short life, I found a welcoming community of likeminded people, albeit a community that I could only interact with in secret. The Christian fundamentalism that I grew up in believed with every ounce of its being that the platitude “one bad apple spoils the lot” should be applied literally to humans. My home life, my church life, and my school life were all working in a tight alliance to protect my identity as a good fundamentalist kid, and that meant, first and foremost, shielding me from the “bad apples.” Rock music was one of the primary litmus tests for identifying “bad apples.”
But, no matter, I began to develop a handle on navigating the tightrope between the identity I had embraced and the identity I had been assigned by virtue of my birth into a fundy family. And for the time being that was enough. What I didn’t realize, though, was that it was a trajectory crafted by a deceitful worldview hell-bent on leading me to, well, hell.
Another thing that I didn’t realize at the time was that although I rejected my Maker, that didn’t alter the fact that I am made in the image of God.
First and foremost, like all other humans, I was born with the identity of an Image Bearer. While I was not a good fundamentalist kid, I was (and remain) an Image Bearer of the Sovereign Creator of the cosmos and all that it contains. An identity that my authority figures failed to articulate to me even though it’s spelled out in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible.
It’s revealed in Genesis 1:26-27 that, “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image and after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
In their book God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants, theologians Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum explain:
Given the normal meanings of ‘image’ and ‘likeness’ in the cultural and linguistic setting of the Old Testament and the ancient Near East, ‘likeness’ specifies a relationship between God and humans such that adam can be described as the son of God, and ‘image’ describes a relationship between God and humans such that adam can be described as a servant king. Although both terms specify the divine-human relationship, the first focuses on the human in relation to God and the second focuses on the human in relation to the world. These would be understood to be relationships characterized by faithfulness and loyal love, and obedience and trust – exactly the character of relationships specified by covenants after the Fall. In this sense the divine image entails a covenant relationship between God and humans on the one hand, and between humans and the world on the other.
You see, being made in God’s image meant, among other things, that I longed for relationships with fellow humans. The problem was that I was living in a system populated, at least on the surface, by other humans who didn’t relate to me. Or at least who appeared to be unable to relate to me. The fundamentalists around me seemed foreign in their goals and priorities; I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me. Having the identity of an Image Bearer still clinging to his rebellion meant that I looked outward for my God-given desire for community.
Stepping into the breach, the secular worldview of Gen X’s MTV culture promised me that community. Tragically, that same worldview offered me a liturgy of worship to fill the “God shaped hole” in my heart that, like all humans, I was born with.
God-shaped holes in the heart are not easily plugged, especially if you’re a young kid growing up in strict fundamentalism where conformity was expected. Non-conformity brought hassle and pain. Deviations from the expected dress, attitude, and actions were met with immediate intervention. This meant that even though a rebellious longing for an identity separate from my Creator was maturing in my young heart, I lived within a system that didn’t allow me to be honest.
In their good and right desire to faithfully shepherd their children and preach the gospel to them, conservative Christian parents will often attempt to create a worldview greenhouse over the gospel seeds sown to ensure that good fruit is produced by their efforts. While their endgame is understandable, as well as laudable, their efforts reveal three errors: 1. A synergism in parenting that boxes out the Holy Spirit (well, boxes out the Holy Spirit, if it were possible to box out the Holy Spirit – it’s not, thankfully, as my story attests). 2. A blind spot regarding how truly sinful and rebellious all humans are; specifically, within the environment I was raised in, a lack of full appreciation for the utter depths of depravity innate in humans born to fundamentalist Christians. Even though, at times, they payed lip service to it, they failed to fully grasp that sin originates inside the child and not outside. 3. That gospel fruit is best revealed by conformity to certain man-made rules and standards. As long as you looked the part, the role was synonymous with you.
To be fair, while taking Jesus’ Parable of the Soils to heart, conservative Christians are often faithfully obedient in sowing gospel seeds. If there’s one thing that I would like people to take away from my story (besides God’s loving goodness in pursuing and saving sinners) it is the importance of sharing the gospel with your children. I don’t think a day of my childhood or teen years went by without me hearing the gospel of Jesus Christ. Regardless of their foibles and even missteps, I owe my parents, schoolteachers, and other fundamentalist authority figures a debt of gratitude. God promises to work through His Word. No number of missteps can stand in the way of the Holy Spirit bringing forth the fruit of repentance and faith in a heart sown with the gospel seed. I’m a living, walking testament to that truth.
However, as faithful as they were at sowing the gospel seed, my authority figures did make missteps.
What fundamentalist parents and teachers are often unwilling to admit is that the Parable of the Soils has some hard truths that may apply to their kids. As a parent, I empathize, but the reality is that the soil of the heart cannot be manipulated into accepting the seed.
As a child, when I heard the Parable of the Soils taught, which was frequently, the teacher’s emphasis generally leaned towards Luke 8:7 – “And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it.”
The thorns, or course, were interpreted, and not necessarily incorrectly if not incompletely, as the allures of the world, specifically pop culture. Movies, rock music, and worldly amusements were wrapped in the caution tape of “thorns.”
Keeping the “thorns” away from our heart’s soil was a full-time job for fundamentalist parents, teachers, and preachers. Rules were piled upon rules, all with the desired goal of protecting us from the influence of society’s thorn-filled “weeds.” Likewise, and to be fair, by God’s grace, out of a genuine love and concern, they were also busy with another full-time job – sowing the gospel seed. From their perspective, they were called to do three things, prepare the soil, sow the seed, and then defend the soil so that the seed can take root – the “promise” of Proverbs 22:6 in action.
In my early life, as a young child, the problem was that even though my parents and teachers strived as hard as they could to keep the soil of my heart free from the thorns of pop culture, they failed to consider that one of the other soils found in Jesus’ parable might apply. They also failed to acknowledge that the soil of my heart was under the purview of God’s sovereignty. And, so, they assumed that thanks to their efforts the seed sown was bearing fruit. Their assumptions shaped my world, the rules in my world, and their expectations of me.
By God’s grace through the power of the Holy Spirit, as an adult the seed sown did bear fruit in my heart. As a kid, though, God wasn’t finished preparing the soil and watering the seed. However, as a young, confused child, the impatience of my authority figures bore down on me with a weight that no kid can bear.
Even though the existence of God did not make sense to me, I was terrified of being wrong. Because although I had trouble wrapping my brain around the existence of God, accepting the existence of hell was not difficult. My developing brain had yet to connect the apologetics for the existence of hell with the existence of God. At the time, just because God didn’t exist didn’t mean that hell didn’t exist, I believed.
What I knew and understood was pain. I knew what it felt like to get stung by a wasp, to have my finger slammed into a car door, and to somersault over my bicycle’s handlebars onto the asphalt after my poorly constructed ramp disintegrated mid-trick. I also understood the pain that comes from the rejection of friends, disappointment of my teachers and parents, and the loss of a pet. More importantly, for the concept of hell, at least, I had learned very well that disobedience brought with it punishment of the painful variety.
That being said, I’ll be the first to admit that as far as childhoods go, mine was fairly void of any actual trauma. However, as a kid, any trauma, no matter how slight from an adult perspective, seems, well, traumatic. So, pain I understood. And hell fit well into my existential understanding of the world. Hell was easy for me to believe in. Which was a useful belief for the chapel speaker when he asked my kindergarten class to raise our hands if we didn’t want to go to hell. I, of course, raised my hand.
No five-year old wants to go to hell. And, so, as best as I can remember, my entire class got “saved” that morning.
I remember being ushered down the hallway with a several of my friends into a room with a smiling adult waiting. After a few questions that our collective Sunday School knowledge helped us ace, we were led in a short prayer. I don’t remember a whole lot about the event, but I do remember how pleased the smiling stranger appeared as she hugged us one by one.
And that was that.
To my parent’s credit, I wasn’t baptized after my first “conversion.” And since my mom taught at the school, she would’ve heard about it. In fact, she was most likely in the room watching me be ushered out. Apparently, my parents wisely deduced that whatever happened that morning, it wasn’t of the Spirit.
Over the next several years, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about that morning, but I did spend a lot of time puzzling over the existence of God. And, over the next several years, hell became less and less scary.
Even though hell may have become less scary in my mind, my stern, preacher father was another story.
One summer day following fourth grade, my dad stepped out of the house, and with a serious tone and stern look called me into the carport. I assumed that I was in trouble.
I shuffled into the carport under a cloud of dread.
The first words out of my dad’s mouth were strange enough to cause me even more angst. Looking back on it, I realize that his statement, “It’s time to take care of your soul,” was his attempt at being lighthearted. As a ten-year old, though, it rang in my ears much differently. The ominous nature of it served to add to my growing fear.
Please don’t misunderstand what follows; I love my dad, and I’m eternally thankful that he not only preached the gospel to me my entire childhood (and into adulthood) but that he loved me enough to desire to “take care of my soul.” But, the nature of fundamentalism set me up to make a second false profession of faith.
I knew the answers. I had been schooled in the gospel, Bible trivia, and fundamentalist lingo my entire life. I took great pride in winning Bible trivia contests. And I had also learned that answering “incorrectly” to my dad’s questions would translate into a myriad of hassles in my life.
By that point, I was old enough to be aware that unsaved kids had a rougher time in my Christian school than did the kids who said they loved Jesus. It’s not that the “unsaved” kids were any worse than the “Christian” kids; they weren’t, even though the authority figures seemed to operate under the false assumption that they were. Unsaved kids had it rougher because the authority figures watched them more closely.
And by “watched them more closely,” I mean that there was an obvious culling out within the classroom. My friends and I got the picture that the authority figures wanted to limit our interaction with the “unsaved” kids. In fact, there were times growing up when I was pulled aside by a teacher and told, “You need to be careful being friends with so-and-so, he’s not a Christian.”
The implication was clear. Unsaved kids, when allowed entrance into our life, were viewed suspiciously by the adults. What’s more, the surest way to a hassled life was to be counted among the unsaved kids. It’s hard to get away with breaking the rules when that’s exactly what the authority figures assume you will do and treat and watch you accordingly.
That mindset provided a type of caste system within the classroom. While there was definitely some “cool cache” that came with hanging out with the “bad” kids, I realized that the overall cost outweighed the benefit. Wanting to avoid the problematic tag of “bad seed,” though, meant appearing to pay “lip-service” to the us versus them mentality that divided the “good” kids from the “bad.”
Much of that us versus them mentality that undergirded the fundamentalism of my youth, as well as much of conservative Christianity today, is the belief that America is a post-Christian nation. Interestingly, that perspective fits well with Douglas Coupland’s claim that Generation X was the first generation raised without God. The foundational assumption being that until recently the United States of America had been a Christian nation. Those living in fundamentalist Christianity, as well as conservative Christianity, in general, believe that they are the faithful remnant of a glorious heritage of national faith. Unbelievers in their midst are often viewed as threats to the purity of the group.
Russell Moore has named this perspective “nominal, civil Christianity.” In his essay titled, “Is America Post-Christian?”, Dr. Moore bluntly states that, “Nominal Christianity is not just a deficient form of Christianity. It is the opposite of gospel Christianity.”
Reminding his readers of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees recorded in Luke 5:32 that he came to save sinners, Dr. Moore explains that, “nominal Christianity doesn’t start where the gospel starts: with the sinner’s inability to come before God without a mediator.”
Paraphrasing Kierkegaard, Dr. Moore describes the fundamentalism of my youth with the warning, “that a nominal, civil form of Christianity is the greatest apostasy, in which pagans live thinking they are Christians.”
In fact, over the course of the first twenty years of my life, I existed in a culture that embraced this as the ideal:
“The idea of America as ‘post-Christian’ then calls the church to a sort of freaked-out nostalgia. We identify our focal point in some made-up past—whether the founding era, or the 1950s or the 1980s or whenever. That makes us all the more frantic when we see the moral chaos around us. We see it in terms of ‘moral decline’ instead of seeing it the way the Bible does, in terms of not decline but of Fall.”
For the fundamentalists of my youth, that “moral decline” was self-evident, and, in their minds, they were the sole courageous ones toeing the moral line of the Christian nation that was slipping into non-existence. The framework of fundamentalist life was designed to reflect the belief in Dr. Moore’s “made up past.”
Protecting their children, those who were destined to inherit their godly heritage, was vital. Ensuing that a faithful remnant remained so that Jesus wouldn’t find the world already emptied of his followers upon his return drove the system of rules. Rules designed to keep us clean; designed to keep us as strangers in the increasingly godless land of modern-day society. The soil of our heart had to be protected at all costs, the authority figures reasoned.
Believing that modern-day society and pop culture were the main “weeds” threatening the soil of our heart, fundamentalism crafted a world dominated by rules and focused on standards. Hollywood, rock music, and current clothing trends weren’t just treated with suspicion; they were viewed as the enemy. Good fundamentalist kids were to be separated from the world and the world’s influence.
Weeds were ripped up with fervor.
As I’ve already written, as I got older my authority figure’s efforts at ripping up those weeds was revealed as tilting at windmills. There were too many “weeds” and the soil of my heart ached for the comfort, companionship, and counsel of those “weeds.”
Shamefully, it wasn’t just rock music and movies that were viewed as weeds that needed exterminating. And, so, the few unsaved kids in our midst were viewed as a threat to our souls. A grave threat of which we were sternly warned.
Regarding certain classmates, the implication was clear. Unsaved kids, when allowed entrance into our life, were viewed suspiciously by the adults. One bad apple spoils the lot, and all. What’s more, and this bears repeating, the surest way to a hassled life was to be counted among the unsaved kids.
To be clear, even in fourth grade, at the time of my Dad’s “taking care of my soul,” there weren’t many openly unsaved kids around. And as I got older, that small number eventually dropped to none. I mean, when schools require agreement with a statement of faith as a stipulation for enrollment, kids of fundamentalist parents don’t really have much of a choice. As my school put it, “A student who does not agree and cooperate with the overall purpose and program of the school will not be admitted or allowed to remain [emphasis added].”
Multiple times a year, the school administration, particularly the seemingly larger-than-life and intimidating man who had founded the school, located in Milton, FL, would let us know that attendance at the school was a privilege, not a right. Dr. Dayton Hobbs would then cast his menacing gaze around the room and rumble, “If you’re not happy here at Santa Rosa Christian Academy, stop by my office and let me know. I’ll be more than happy to help make you happy. We can part as friends.”
That was easy for him to say. It was next to impossible for us to actually take him up on his offer, especially for those of us whose parents were in full-time Christian service. The amount of turmoil and upheaval that would’ve been caused by an honest admission that “I don’t agree with the overall purpose and program” was unfathomable.
Because of that, no kid, that I was aware of, during the “moment of truth” when asked about belief in God or salvation had dared to voice the doubt, much less belief, that he thought the whole thing, Christianity, was a sham. I definitely wasn’t going to be the first. Thankfully, in that moment, while standing in the carport with my dad, when it was my turn to be faced with the “moment of truth,” I had a model to look back on and copy.
During the previous school year, the class bully, a redhead kid named Snapper got saved (I don’t remember if that was his real name or his nickname … we lived in the Florida Panhandle, it very well could’ve been his real name). In fact, my dad was the one who led him to the Lord.
What had happened was that Snapper had made fun of me, using some dirty words. Knowing that I would lose in humiliating fashion if I physically defended my honor, I did the next best thing. I threatened to tell on him.
Snapper, of course, after some angry bluster, broke down and told me that he couldn’t help using bad words because he wasn’t saved. To this day, I don’t know if he was genuine or just really really street-smart. I never saw him again after that year. Whatever his motive, I was unsure of how to respond to this unexpected change of events.
I said the only thing I could think. I asked him if he wanted to talk to my dad.
My dad, who also worked part-time at the school, was more than eager to talk with Snapper. I watched as my dad led him through the plan of salvation and then prayed with him.
So, when my dad called me into our hot, muggy carport the summer after my fourth-grade year, I knew how this was supposed to go.
When my dad asked me if I knew I was sinner, guilty before God, I knew the answer was, “yes.” When he then asked me if I knew that the wages of sin is death, I also knew that the answer was, “yes.”
I dutifully prayed the prayer, asking Jesus into my heart. The following Sunday, I was baptized.
My parents were elated. In their minds, I was on my way to following in my uncle’s footsteps by becoming a foreign missionary.
For me, over the next couple of years, as my time in elementary school came to a close, I believed that fundamentalist Christianity was nothing more than the oppressive lifestyle in which I was raised. My “conversion” didn’t change my life, much less my heart of stone. In fact, throughout most of my schooling, I didn’t really think of myself as a Christian or as not a Christian. It was simply a lifestyle adjective that was attached to me. Increasingly for me, as could be expected considering my heart of stone, that adjective began to be revealed as shackles.
There’s one more “conversion” left in my story before I finally repented of my sins and submitted in faith to Jesus. A very dramatic “conversion” that happened during my freshman year at Bob Jones University. But that part of God’s story of bringing me to Himself belongs in another chapter.
My two childhood “conversions” were a product of my environment and not the work of the Holy Spirit. My goal wasn’t to be dishonest; my goal was to survive. Unsaved kids in my immediate environment were unicorns. They simply didn’t exist. It was only the few outsiders that the authority figures allowed into our broader fundamentalist world that were unsaved. And it became obvious that their headaches, hassle, and overall rough time at church or school would be ours if we aligned ourselves with them. And those unsaved kids were never around for long.
Getting saved was the default position, and it took an extraordinary amount of courage to be honest about not wanting to participate, and as a scared fourth grader I did not have that courage. I wasn’t a hypocrite; I was frightened and simply trying to survive within the system I was born into.
My conversion stories and my experience of being treated as a Christian when I was actually a heathen combined with the many similar stories of my classmates to create the genesis for this book. As I wrote in the introduction, a couple of summers ago, I visited my old school for the first time in years. As I stood in the hallway that contains all the names of the graduates, my heart broke. It seemed like name after name represented a broken life still struggling in sin. While scanning the names, I thought, “Except for the grace of God, there go I.”
In their fervent desire to see us trust Jesus, the authority figures unwittingly created an environment that didn’t allow us to do otherwise. Most of my classmates entered adulthood beset by sin that our authority figures didn’t know about, wracked with doubts that they had never voiced, hurting, and confused. And many of them entered adulthood trusting in a prayer that they had prayed when they were a scared, confused child, just like me. Their trust in superficial words falsely labeled a prayer was quickly swamped by the roiling waves of adulthood and their own sin and rebellion. Unlike Peter, many of my classmates didn’t have Jesus in their life to keep their eyes on during storms.
Hollow words, even hollow words that end with “in Jesus’ name, amen” make for a poor savior when dealing with the storms of adult life. A prayer isn’t Jesus.
For me, though, and thankfully and mercifully, in an odd way, I might add, I entered adulthood attempting to do battle with my demons and struggles solely in my own power. I knew my conversions were a sham. No delusion existed in my mind about what I believed, or, rather, about what I didn’t believe. It’s the adults in my life who insisted that I was a Christian, even though all the evidence condemned otherwise. However, adulthood was still down the road, and the boy John Ellis had to navigate pressures and expectations to safely make it to the “promised land” of adult freedom. Growing up a “Christian” who didn’t believe while living in an environment that doesn’t have a category for doubt created challenges. Hiding my true identity was the overriding challenge, and one that I was able to master, albeit not without some hiccups.
 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenant (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 79.