A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 3

abandoned church

by John Ellis

Every so often, I wish that my kids could have the schooling experience that I did. My time within the Christian school movement, from kindergarten through high school, was, for the most part, fun and contained a sense of community. I can’t help but wonder if my kids who attend public school aren’t missing out on that. (Edit: My kids are now in their third year at a classical Christian school.)

But then I remember that the community often ran at odds with the local church (not that I cared about that at the time) and that my fun was mostly an outworking of my rebellion within a strict environment that attempted to control my behavior with comically futile efforts much of the time. In fact, fulfilling my rebellion within those confines was a large part of the fun. Related, and maybe most importantly, I remember that for me and most of my classmates, two diametrically opposed worlds existed within our Christian school and youth groups. Many of us lived two parallel lives – a life of convenience and a secret life of conviction. Our life of convenience, our put-on “Christian” life, was necessary to maintain our secret life of conviction -our life of rebellion against our Creator.

The life of convenience – posing as good fundamentalist kids – was required because, well, as I’ve already explained, it was basically against the rules to not be a Christian, at least at my school. Furthermore, unless you played by the rules outwardly, your life became a series of increasing hassles that would eventually swamp and sink your ability to have fun – i.e., do what you want while serving self. The authority figures were playing for keeps. Combatting that required committing to a high level of subterfuge.

Admittedly, my lived experience amounts to a small sample size, but having come in contact during my childhood with those who attended other Christian schools, as well as having several good friends at other Christian schools, and having heard from many others as an adult, I can confidently say that my experience at my Christian school was the rule and not the exception. To those who say that my experience isn’t reflective of the broader conservative Christian school movement, ask around, listen to others. I maintain that my experience is likely the norm and not the exception.

That being said, I will admit that those who say it was the school’s prerogative to construct their school the way they saw fit are correct from a human standpoint. But my authority figures’ clinging to their human rights came at the expense of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For sure, me and my classmates answer for our rebellion and how we responded to the gospel, and, sadly, for how many of us continue to rebelliously reject the gospel. But the adults who were called to train us and point us to Christ answer to God for how they raised us, and the fact is that the system we were raised in encouraged deceit and obscured the gospel by interacting with us as if we were Believers instead of the heathens that most of us were.

Some of my harshest criticism for the authority figures of my youth is how they created a system that, in truth, required hypocrisy while failing to account for our hearts of stone. To be fair, I believe that for some of them, they did so unwittingly. However, their good motives do not abrogate their responsibility for the results. And the broken lives of my friends and classmates are some of those results.

As a kid, I knew that I didn’t believe in Jesus, but being honest about my beliefs or lack of beliefs would have upended my life in ways that were unimaginable to me. What catastrophic consequences would unfold if the eldest son of a respected fundamentalist pastor and Christian schoolteacher mother was expelled from the very school that employed his mom? As a teenager, the realization of that question’s gravity hung like the sword of Damocles over my head.

One incident among many that caused me to believe that Damocles’ sword was descending upon my head happened after I loaned my friend Nathan (not his real name) my precious and ill-gotten copy of the hair-metal band Poison’s 1990 album Flesh & Blood. Nathan’s mom, who was a teacher at our Christian school, found the cassette. Until I was able to confirm that he hadn’t ratted me out, I lived in fear.

As a preemptive measure, I took my sizeable stash of hidden tapes, those sermon tapes that I had repurposed as mixtapes containing hours upon hours of forbidden rock music, as well as a few shoplifted cassettes, and destroyed them. I then buried the mass of splintered plastic and entwined magnetic tape in a plot of trees behind our house. I couldn’t take the chance that Nathan had been forced to reveal the source of the Poison cassette. With no other evidence available, it would be easier for me to deny the tape was mine if he had folded and ratted me out.

My lack of faith in Nathan’s loyalty proved false. I destroyed my precious music collection for no reason; he refused to give up his source. However, considering the risk, I wasn’t upset. I simply chalked the loss up to the necessary cost of feigning obedience. You see, obedience was the template for Christian virtue in the world of my youth, and, hence, Christianity itself.

Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, as my friends and I knew because it was drilled into us. And that heinous sin was dealt with swiftly and severely. More importantly, the barometer of obedience was always being consulted. The “Conduct” grade on my report card carried a far greater gravity in my house than even the academic grades. Obedience was serious business.

What’s more, obedience was always being used as an impactful tool to divide the sheep from the goats – the good seed from the bad seed.

To help keep us in line, one of the favorite Old Testament anecdotes that my authority figures loved to use as a rhetorical bludgeon was God’s rejection of King Saul.

Chapter 15 of 1 Samuel opens with the prophet Samuel instructing Saul that God has commanded him to utterly destroy all of the Amalekites – “Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Samuel 15:3)

That command was based on Deuteronomy 25:19 that says, “Therefore when the Lord your God has given you rest from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven, you shall not forget.”

That seemingly harsh yet ultimately just and righteous command was given to the Israelites because as God was leading His people out of bondage, the Amalekites staged attacks on the stragglers, the weak, and the elderly of the Israelites. Attacking the heel, so to speak, echoing the curse. Not to mention that the Amalekites engaged in the despicable practice of child sacrifice.

Well, after receiving God’s command via the mouth of the prophet Samuel, King Saul attacked the Amalekites and defeated them. Except, instead of devoting everything connected with the Amalekites to destruction, Saul left alive the nomadic tribe’s chieftain and many of the Amalekite’s choice livestock. Under King Saul’s leadership, the people of God only devoted to destruction the things that they despised. They believed that they got to decide right and wrong.

The prophet Samuel, of course, shows up on the scene, hears the bleating of the sheep and the mooing of the cows, and confronts Israel’s disobedient king. For his part and abdicating his responsibility by throwing the people under the proverbial “chariot wheels,” Saul, mimicking the whimpering excuse of his first father Adam, begs off because, “the people spared the best of the sheep and of the oxen to sacrifice to the Lord your God, and the rest we have devoted to destruction.” (1 Samuel 15:15)

Samuel responds by reminding Saul that he can’t push any of this off on, “the people.” In verse 17, Samuel retorts that Saul is the “head of the tribes of Israel.” That Saul is the one whom, “The Lord anointed … king over Israel.” Samuel continues by reminding Saul that God gave him a command, a command that was disregarded. Using poetry, Samuel delivers the famous line, “Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice.” (1 Samuel 15:22)

That line, ripped out of the context of the passage, was repeated ad nauseum in my Christian school. Coupled with “rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,” uttered by Samuel just a few lines later, whenever we would get caught breaking one of the myriads of rules, our teachers would often chide us using 1 Samuel 15:22.

We had it drilled into us that God demands obedience. And were catechized with the dictum that disobedience undermined our testimony and our ability to be used of God. Did we want to end up like Saul? Discarded and shamed? Better obey the rules; better toe the line; better make sure that we were conforming to the image of an obedient fundamentalist kid.

Look, it’s true that God demands obedience. Disobedience is what got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden and is what introduced death and corruption into the cosmos. But, using 1 Samuel 15 as a morality tale warning of the consequences of disobedience ignores how the story points to Jesus. In doing so, it undermines the opportunity to confront sinners with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Going back to Deuteronomy 25, an interesting parallel exists between the verses about the Amalekites and Genesis 3:15 where God promises that the Seed of the Woman will crush the head of the Serpent. You see, in the same verse God also reveals that the Serpent will bruise the heel of the Promised One.

As the Israelites – God’s People – made their way through the desolate wilderness on the way to the Promised Land the Amalekites, “attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you, and he did not fear God.” (Deuteronomy 25:17)

As Serpent-Satan’s seed, the Amalekites struck at the stragglers. Moses wrote “cut off your tail,” but the imagery mirrors the bruising of the heel prophesied in Genesis 3:15. The Amalekites are striking at the people of God because the Promised Seed was to come (and finally did) from the line of Abraham. Destroy Abraham’s line and God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 fails. Throughout the Story of Redemption, we read about Serpent-Satan striking at the Promised Seed.

Fast forward back to 1 Samuel 15, and the descendants of Abraham under the covenant leadership of King Saul failed to utterly crush the head of Serpent-Satan’s seed. What’s more, an important redemptive theme is revealed in Samuel’s words, “to obey is better than sacrifice.”

Not only does sin have to be punished and utterly destroyed, but God demands perfect obedience. Samuel’s statement reveals the weakness of the sacrificial system, a system that the writer of Hebrews describes as “copies of heavenly things.” (Hebrews 9:23) Not only did the Old Testament sacrificial system fail to atone for sin, the Old Covenant, the Law, failed to produce people that could satisfy God’s demand for perfect obedience.

As the corporate head of God’s people, Saul failed to crush the head of the seed of Serpent-Satan because he was a sinner incapable of perfect obedience. The story in 1 Samuel 15 points ahead in the Story of Redemption to Jesus, the Promised Seed who perfectly obeyed the Father and who, because of his perfect obedience, was a sufficient and efficient sacrifice for the sins of God’s people. By offering himself up as the spotless, unblemished sacrifice for the sins of those who repent and place their faith in him, Jesus crushed the head of Serpent-Satan, defeating sin and death.

The thing is, King Saul isn’t the only figure who fails in 1 and 2 Samuel. Even though King David, the man after God’s own heart, chopped off the head of Serpent-Satan’s proxy Goliath, David failed to live a life of perfect obedience. While pointing to the true King, the true seed of the woman, David falls short and fails to deliver the deathblow to Serpent-Satan.

Sadly, though, instead of using the Old Testament to point us to Jesus because we were born sinners under the curse of death and enslaved by Serpent-Satan, our authority figures cheapened the gospel riches of the Old Testament by using them to shame us for holding hands with our girlfriend or failing to complete an assignment or daring to have our shirt untucked during class.

Controlled by the teaching and emphasis on moralism, that environment taught us how to shape our external life in ways that pleased our authority figures. All that was needed to be considered a good fundamentalist kid was obedience on the outside, which meant that we learned to obey while the eyes of our authority figures were on us. Our public life of convenience, that of playing the role of obedient fundamentalist kids, ensured that we would escape childhood with minimal amount of hassle. All the while, our true hearts that were still filled with sin and rebellion wholly embraced our secret life of conviction – a life of rebellion and serving self. For me, wrapped up in my secret life of conviction was the belief that God probably didn’t exist, which meant that calls to morality were merely obstacles to me doing what I wanted and embracing my true identity.

Finding an equilibrium was important. By that I mean the need to find a balance between rebel kid and good kid that kept the eyes of the adults off me as much as possible. I understood the need to find that equilibrium, a way to do what I wanted while maintaining a relationship with the authority figures that kept them happy enough so that they wouldn’t pay close attention to me. I also understood that the equilibrium didn’t involve overt expressions of agreement with my authority figures. Likewise, but in the opposite direction, it also could not involve overt expressions of rebellion.

So, by the time I became a sixth grader, I had found a lifestyle that resulted in an equilibrium that kept the adults from paying too close of attention to me which, in turn, freed me up to basically do what I wanted.

During Sunday school, while having conversations with my parents, and when sitting in classes and chapel at school, I learned to say enough but not too much.

Often, stories about modern day “prodigals” center on the president of the youth group, or the pastor’s kid who leads the soul-winning efforts among his (or her) peers, or the guy who always won the preaching contests at his Christian school. Regardless of the specific backstory, the “good” kid in the traditional evangelical “prodigal” stories falls into sin and walks away from the faith. Not me.

I knew that if I was the guy who was asked to lead devotionals, help organize ministry outreaches, or be considered the “spiritual” kid, the hassle in my life would become exponentially greater. That type of commitment to “spirituality” would not only have been exhausting, but it would also have caused the adults to focus on me in ways that would’ve created even more obstacles to me doing what I wanted.

Likewise, being considered a rebel would’ve been problematic. The kids that were openly antagonistic towards the authority figures were so fettered by the adult’s unwavering gaze as to be trapped. The overtly rebellious kids didn’t get to do what they wanted to do nearly as often as I did.

One kid, who was in and out of the dreaded boy’s homes until he finally disappeared from our lives altogether during the 10th grade, flaunted his rebellion. Like my mom, his mom was a teacher at the school. Naturally, that meant that more was expected from him than the average student. Unlike me, though, Chris (not his real name) was unable to manage that burden. He frequently lashed out.

Every time he would ball up, glare at the authority figure, and refuse to back down while spitting invectives, I would cringe in the knowledge of what was in store for him. He never seemed to learn the lesson and his life was upended. Chris’ childhood was decimated by the increased efforts by our authority figures to force conformity out of him. Rock, meet hard place.

So, I sat quietly, rarely volunteering to offer my thoughts about religion, but spoke up enough so as not to give the adults reason to be suspicious about my heart. I also took pains to hide my overt rebellion. I rarely argued with my parents about their rules, and when I did express displeasure about any of the rules, it was over rules of function and not over rules that fell under the category of “moral.” When I complained, it was about rules like having to wear a tie to school, not being able to chew gum in class, or being forced to participate in the school’s fundraisers. I never dared to openly express displeasure about the prohibitions of movies, rock music, and physical contact with the opposite sex. I kept my mouth shut about the things I actually cared about. And it worked.

As I grew, my parents and other authority figures appeared to believe that, overall, I was a good kid with a lot of talent and potential to serve God. Years later, I learned from my mom that she was expecting my heart to be ignited to serve God once I got to college. While I was growing up, in high school especially, her aim was to keep me pointed forward, to get me safely to Bob Jones University. Except, while she hoped and prayed for that, I was becoming more and more enamored with the world and the sinful pleasures it enticingly held out.

Entering high school, most of my energy was spent on the pursuit of sex and rock and roll. By the time high school had ended, the pursuit of alcohol and cigarettes was included. The weeds and thorns that I was supposed to have been sequestered away from and protected from by the Christian school movement.

My first real exposure to the hidden and tantalizing world of explicit sex was through the Penthouse magazines that I found in the woods behind my house the summer after fourth grade. The same summer I was first baptized.

As much as I loved the magazines’ pictures, the stories of sexual exploits in the Forum section are what really stoked my lust. Reading the over-the-top, vivid descriptions of pornographic conquests, my sex-education was provided by Penthouse.

Over time, as my friends and I found ways to access porn as well as movies that contained explicit sexuality, we would compare notes. And the things that we were learning about sex outpaced our authority figures’ teachings about sex in such drastic ways as to cause us to assume that our parents and teachers were naïve to the pleasures available.

Growing up in the post-sexual revolution world meant that the ways in which the world viewed, discussed, and displayed sex were so far removed from the world of sex, even illicit sex, that our authority figures had grown up in during the 40s, 50s, and early 60s as to render their perspective unhelpfully naïve, I think. For example, I’m pretty sure that if they had discovered that a couple of the older girls in the school had taken topless polaroid pictures of themselves that were passed around by the guys, the authority figures would’ve been completely stunned and at a loss as to how to move forward in terms of discipleship, not just for the girls but for the guys, too. That type of thing “never” happened in Christian schools, they believed. Holding hands was considered scandalous, after all.

Most likely, outside of the first few busted who would’ve had the opportunity to tearfully “repent” and rededicate themselves to Jesus, everyone involved would’ve been expelled and those of us caught in the dragnet would have been dismissed as “bad apples” and forgotten about by everyone but our parents. Out of sight, out of mind.

I do remember the confusion and hurt evinced by the teachers when it was discovered that a group of middle schoolers had played a fairly explicit game of “truth, dare, or physical challenge” in the back of the bus during a school trip. I was high school upper classman at the time, and the teachers talked about it to me and my fellow upperclassmen as if we would be just as confused, shocked, and hurt as they were. Their sense of betrayal, confusion, and hurt was obvious, and we knew better than to add to it.

We deceitfully commiserated with our teachers by expressing shock and dismay, too. What we failed to mention is that when we were younger, we had all played that same game in the back of that same bus. The only reason we no longer played it was because we were mostly all paired up with members of the opposite sex at that point. We no longer needed “childish” games to manufacture excuses to gratify our lust.

The sexual exploits and conquests of those who had graduated in the years prior to us were passed down, becoming a type of Christian school tall tales. We believed that our predecessors had succeeded in taking their gratification of their lust to heights we had yet to attain. Those tales became benchmarks for us to strive for. Looking back, I have little doubt that many of those tales were embellished. Little matter, though, because while our authority figures were busy watching and praising the mask of our supposed obedience, we were busy trying to fill our lives with as much lustful activity as possible.

That being said, our parents and teachers weren’t Keystone Cops, and, if we weren’t careful, we did get caught.

And every time a kid would get caught doing something that broke the rules regarding interactions with a member of the opposite sex, it was assured that we would be given another round of the same teaching on sex that we had always heard.

Frankly, and sadly, our authority figures’ teachings about sex were less teaching and really just attempts to fence us off from sexual activity. Not once in church, at school, or even at home was sex put into the context of the gospel. Not once were we confronted with the reality that our real problem was our heart of stone and not our lust. We learned that sex before marriage stained you, made you “less than” for marriage, and hindered God’s ability to use you.

Except we knew that wasn’t true. And we knew that because we occasionally heard stories from someone who had had sex before marriage. As the young preacher would thunder about how we would ruin our life, sharing his own sordid past as an example, we could see his pretty wife sitting on the front pew. Sex before marriage obviously hadn’t ruined his life.

Not to mention that on the rare instance that someone got busted for doing something sexual, if they confessed their sin and expressed an appropriate level of remorse, they were immediately restored to full fellowship. What’s more, many of those kids were then treated as minor celebrities by the authorities. No matter what rule we wanted to break, we always knew that we had the repentance card to play. Certain “big” sins, though, were treated differently if repentance was forthcoming. Repenting of those sins appeared to be viewed as trophies by our authority figures. Trophies to be bragged over and used as illustrations of how God can change a life.

Everything my authority figures taught about sex can be distilled down to, “S-e-x outside of marriage is wrong and will ruin your life.” And I mean everything that was taught.

While perusing magazines and watching movies, I would think, “If this is what a ruined life looks like, I want my life ruined.”

To that end, as my parents, teachers, and youth pastors continued to assume that I was a Christian who needed, most of all, to be protected from the allure of the world; as they continued to assume that my core beliefs about the existence of God and the veracity of the Bible matched their core beliefs, the more their attempts to fence me off from the world backfired.

From my unregenerate perspective, the enemies of my authority figures were my allies. They were the ones who would introduce me to a lifestyle that matched my beliefs and desires. Hedonism became my religion and pop culture became my liturgy. Rock music, of course, became the most obvious and the most easily accessible entrance into the world of freedom for which I longed.

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