A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 4

abandoned church

by John Ellis

One of the sad ironies embedded in my authority figures devotion to protecting my testimony was that while they were busy guarding my external actions, Satan was further warping and hardening my rebellious heart of stone. Even if my authority figures had been successful in protecting me from outward acts of sin like sex and alcohol, they would’ve still failed. Yes, the music I loved stoked my desire to have sex, drink alcohol, and discard any external semblance to the fundamentalism stifling me, but, even more harmfully, it provided a counter worldview to the worldview of my parents; it found a comfortable home in my heart, because my heart was already in the full throes of rebellion against my Creator.

While writing this, I realized that I’m wearing an old Guns N’ Roses t-shirt. A t-shirt that is purely functional for me because it remains mostly untorn and it fits in a way that helps me ignore the fact that I’m an increasingly squishy middle-aged man. The logo on the front could be a picture of my mailbox, for all I care. As a teenager, though, I would’ve given almost anything to be able to lounge around in a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt without fear of punishment.

Currently, I have two (I think I only have two) Guns N’ Roses CDs hidden away in a box that’s collecting dust somewhere in a storage area in my house. I use the word “hidden” purely in the sense that those CDs are hidden from my sight.

When I was a teenager, though, my one Guns N’ Roses cassette tape was hidden in a box collecting dust under my bed. And it was hidden so that my parents couldn’t see it. At night, I would pull my contraband Walkman out of its hiding spot, place the earphones over my head, and listen to “Welcome to the Jungle” while fantasizing about the day that I could live in the glorious jungle that Axl Rose wailed about.

Slash’s opening guitar riff followed by Axl’s blasphemous entrance into a song that immortalized in my young mind the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll became for me the standard that stood against what my parents, teachers, and youth pastors believed.

Kicking off the song, the lyrics begin, “Welcome to the jungle, we got fun -n- games. We got everything you want, honey we know the names. We are the people that can find whatever you may need. If you got the money honey, we got your disease in the jungle. Welcome to the jungle.”

During my first summer working as a ranch hand at the Bill Rice Ranch, I wrote the lyrics of “Welcome to the Jungle’s” first verse and chorus on the wooden slab holding up the mattress of the bunk above me in the dorm room. The Bill Rice Ranch is a fundamentalist Christian camp in Tennessee; a place where girls aren’t allowed to wear pants, guys aren’t allowed to wear shorts, and no one is allowed to listen to rock music. I earned legendary status for my act of overt rebellion scrawled on the bottom of that bunk.

While I understood that the song’s protagonist wasn’t singing to me but to naïve, starry-eyed girls getting off the bus in LA, I still felt that Axl was speaking to me, in a way. It opened the door to a world unencumbered by the rigid, seemingly pointless rules of my parents and school. A world that offered me an escape from the specter of God, I believed. After I found out that Axl had grown up in a strict religious family (Pentecostal), my connection to his band only strengthened.

The amount of energy and effort put into scaring us of off rock music only served to heighten our interest in the verboten music. My dad, especially, dedicated a lot of time and energy into making sure the youth under his charge were separated from rock music.

Having been taught music in high school by the revered Frank Garlock, one of my dad’s pet issues was music. In fact, many of my dad’s closest friends within fundamentalism seemed to be focused on warning Christian school kids about the dangers of rock and roll. Hugh Pyle, Danny Sweat, Barry Webb, Tim Fisher, and others preached the dangers of rock music as they were steadily paraded across chapel platforms, during youth group, at summer camp, and as speakers for revival services. And I loved anti-rock sermons.

Growing up during the pre-internet age meant that much of my knowledge about bands and musicians was provided by anti-rock music preachers. Many of the bands that became my favorites were first introduced to me during a sermon. For example, a sermon is how I first learned about Ozzy Osborne. An anti-rock music book is where I first learned about Motley Crue. Both when I was in elementary school. Much more harmful, an unintended consequence of the anti-rock and roll sermons was the way that many of them undermined the gospel.

One of the favorite rock and roll boogeymen for fundamentalist preachers was the Australian hard rock band AC/DC. Over the course of my youth, I heard many times that AC/DC stood for “anti-christ/devil’s child.” Except that’s 100% wrong.

Before hitting the big time, the band was sitting around the Young brother’s mom’s flat while trying to come up with a name for the band. At some point during the discussion, they noticed the AC/DC symbol on a sewing machine, thought it looked cool, and then named their fledgling band AC/DC.

Hearing the band relate that story while being interviewed on MTV caused everything the anti-rock preachers said to be suspect in my mind, including any and all parts about Jesus. If they were lying or misinformed about the band’s name, how I could trust anything else they had to say?

That bit of misinformation is just the tip of the iceberg of errors that riddled the anti-rock sermons. Throughout high school, me and my friends would basically play a game of anti-rock bingo during the sermons. The errors, obvious misinterpretations, and overall cluelessness about the genre we loved caused us to view the preachers and their messages as a collective joke.

Most of us were immune to the never-ending parade of anti-rock music sermons and lessons. While listening to the preacher rail against our favorite bands, we attempted to hide our smirks and comments to each other from our authority figures. Figuring out how to quote lyrics out loud in class without the teachers knowing what we were doing became a favorite pastime. Trading cassette tapes took the place of trading baseball cards. Being the first one to tell our friends about a new song or a new band became a benchmark for cool.

That doesn’t mean that all my friends were immune to the siren call of an emotionally charged altar call. The best preachers could get some of the most hardened reprobates to tearfully stumble down the aisle and promise to rededicate their life to God, starting with getting rid of their rock music collection. I was always tempted to suggest to those ensnared by the preacher’s pleas that instead of trashing their music they let me hold onto it. That way, when they wanted it back in about three weeks, and they always wanted it back, I could give it to them. I never suggested that, of course, because doing so would’ve been a good way to ensure that a newly “repentant” friend would feel compelled to earn some extra repentance points by turning me in. Instead, I ruefully watched the same friends throw away their rock music at least once a year, a decision they always regretted later.

I don’t know of a single kid who successfully swore of the “devil’s music” for more than a few weeks. You see, we Christian school kids loved rock and roll.

And, so, as our authority figures attempted to protect our testimony by shielding us from pop culture, they were unwittingly doing battle with a foe that they were no match for. And they were no match for it because our affections had yet to be turned towards Jesus. And their handwringing and dire warnings fed our adolescent rebellion.

The more they railed against our favorite bands, the more power they gave those bands. The more they told us silly warnings about kids who crashed their cars while listening to “Highway to Hell,” the cooler we felt as we blared our car radios with the windows down. In my own heart, based on what our authority figures were telling us, I thought that listening to rock music meant that I really wasn’t that different from my public-school peers. And that was one of the things that I wanted most of all.

I was wrong, of course. No amount of illicit cassette tapes nor knowledge of rock music could bridge the difference between me and the public-school kids. As high school ended, I became painfully aware of that. And during my final year of high school I began to have a sneaking suspicion that my life of convenience was at war with my life of conviction in ways that I didn’t realize and with consequences that I previously hadn’t foreseen. I began to realize that finding answers to my childhood doubts and questions about God while embracing a world that my parents firmly eschewed meant far more than breaking rules and having fun. And that realization was birthed and fed, in large part, by my growing sophistication when it came to music.

Before explaining that, though, I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t share an anecdote that was simultaneously confusing and cool and that reveals the real heart of my dad. He loved Jesus and he wanted his children to love Jesus. While I may question some of his tactics, I won’t and, frankly, was never able to question his motives. One Sunday morning during 8th grade revealed this and stayed with me, even during the height of my rebellion against God while I was in my twenties.

Every Sunday morning, the church my dad pastored paid for airtime on the local a.m. station with the call sign of WCOA. Most churches sent prerecorded segments in for the station to play. Not my dad. He loved going in and doing it live. One Sunday morning, he took me with him.

WCOA was the sister station of Q-100, a top-forty station. At the time, top-forty was a much broader genre than it is now. Rock was included, as was true hip-hop. Q-100 was one of my favorite radio stations. Unbeknownst to my parents, I would lie awake at night, listening to it.

The studios for the two stations were in the same building. Getting to WCOA’s studio required passing Q-100’s studio. As we passed the “cooler” FM station’s studio, the long-haired, tattooed DJ stuck his head out of the door and cheerfully greeted my fundamentalist pastor father as if the two were friends. That blew my mind. I knew who the DJ was, looked up to him as the epitome of cool, and could not wrap my brain around how someone that cool could know, much less be friends, with my decidedly uncool preacher father. To confuse things even more, the DJ invited us into the studio.

I don’t remember what he and my dad talked about. I do remember the song that was playing while we were in the studio: Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I think of my dad.

As I stood in what I considered the inner sanctum of coolness in the presence of a man whom I considered one of the high priests of cool while listening to one of my favorite songs, I could not wrap my brain around what was happening. Rock music was playing, and my dad was nonchalantly chatting with the long-haired man who was responsible for that “evil” song being sent out over the airwaves. At the time, it didn’t compute.

And therein lies the rub.

My dad witnessed to that DJ. I know that, because the DJ would occasionally show up at church, as would several other DJ’s. Their presence in church wasn’t by accident. My dad fostered a friendship with them for the sake of the gospel.

I praise God for my father’s faithful obedience in sharing the gospel with sinners. That he was not put off in the slightest by the sinner, and befriended sinners for the sake of the gospel. Yet, in the same breath, I lament that his confused, hurting son was only able to ever see glimpses of that father.

Almost every time long hair on guys was brought up in my fundamentalist world, it was done so in a manner that dripped with disdain and with invectives hurled in the direction of any man who would dare have long hair. Rock music was taught as so detrimental to society that being in its mere presence was dangerous. That Sunday morning at the radio station, my dad interacted with that DJ in a manner that seemed to fly in the face of the attitude that he and my other authority figures had constantly displayed throughout my childhood.

There is no such thing as a “what if,” but what would have happened if my dad’s approach towards pop culture and the youth in his church, including his own children, had been the warm, unafraid, non-hyperbolic man more concerned with the sinner than the sin that I witnessed in Q-100’s studio?

Oh, my word, what would have happened?

Instead, my friends and I were fed a steady diet of moralism. We were treated as Christians who needed to be protected from sin and not as sinners who needed Jesus.

And as our authority figures attempted to shape our worldview by shielding us from pop culture, they were unwittingly doing battle with a foe that they were no match for. And they were no match for it because our affections had yet to be turned towards Jesus.

During my senior year of high school, I began to realize that rock music mattered in ways that I had previously been oblivious to and in ways that gave my authority figures reason to fear it.

Before continuing with my story, though, or, rather, before diving into the actual meat of my story, it’s important, I think, to comment on entertainment’s, particularly pop culture’s, relationship to Christian liberty.

Some books call this an excursus. Maybe this is one. Maybe these next few paragraphs will be inside a bolded box, set apart from the rest of the chapter. I don’t know. It may get edited out, for all I know. I do know that that worship of Christian liberty has caused many of my peers to approach pop culture with the belief that discernment equals legalism. While I empathize with the fear, I am concerned with the lack of understanding and submission to the fact that followers of Jesus are commanded to pursue holiness. Sadly, an anemic appreciation of holiness characterizes much of the American evangelical church.

The relationship between Christianity and pop culture can be a touchy subject freighted with often unexplored nuance. At the mere mention of Christians responsibility before God regarding their entertainment choices, many shudder, point their finger, and accuse the speaker of being a dreaded legalist.

Even though I have concerns and have expressed some sharp criticisms of my parents and other childhood authority figures, I am thankful for the example they provided in being willing to be counter-culture and to take stands that they believed were right even though those stands were highly unpopular. That being said, one of the sad outcomes of the ways in which my generation’s fundamentalist authority figures viewed and discussed pop culture is that many of my generation exhibit an almost wholesale embrace of a self-serving definition of Christian liberty that includes very little (if any) thought to discernment and caution. Many conservative evangelicals my age and younger have not taken the time to prayerfully consider what the Bible has to say about their engagement with pop culture.

In fact, many engage in an unintentionally ironic form of reverse legalism: Those who don’t exercise their Christian liberty by listening to U2 or drinking beer are guilty of denying Jesus.

Look, the twin pitfalls of legalism and antinomianism crowd the path of righteousness. We’re all tempted to drift to the right or to the left, and the excesses and out-of-balance responses of others (as well as our own faults) do not justify either pharisaicalism or libertinism. God sets our feet on His path and calls us to pursue holiness.

In the Bible, Christians are commanded in Hebrews 12:14 to “strive … for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” In his commentary on the book of Hebrews, F.F. Bruce expounds, “Those who are called to be partakers of God’s holiness must be holy themselves; this is the recurring theme of the Pentateuchal law of holiness, echoed in the New Testament: ‘You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy (Lev. 11:45, etc.; cf. 1 Pet. 1:15f.) To see the Lord is the highest and most glorious blessing mortals can enjoy, but the beatific vision is reserved for those who are holy in heart and life.”[1]

Briefly, God’s attribute of holiness is ethical in dimension. Theologian Louis Berkhof explains that “The fundamental idea of the ethical holiness of God is also that of separation, but in this case it is a separation from moral evil or sin. In virtue of His holiness God can have no communion with sin.”[2] The prophet Habakkuk writes that God “cannot look at wrong.” (Habakkuk 1:13) “The Hebrew word for ‘to be holy,’ quadash, is derived from the root qad, which means to cut or to separate.”[3] Throughout the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, God is revealed as having to be utterly separated from sin.

For many, the word that is anathema in refence to God’s holiness is the word “separation.” While often an abused concept in the world of fundamentalism that I grew up in, separation from sin should be an important aspect in the lives of Christians. At times, separation from sin will look like jeopardizing your career because your boss is oppressing the poor. Other times, separation will look like refraining from casting your ballot for a politician who is far removed from God’s expectations of justice and mercy. The pursuit of holiness should pervade all aspects of a Christian’s life. Even entertainment.

Without question, some forms of entertainment are functionally directed towards sin. Think strip clubs. There is a good and proper context and function for nudity, namely, the marriage bed. Strip clubs have so perverted the function of nudity as to be render the activities that take place inside their debauched walls as sinful and off limits for Christians. Of course, strip clubs are easy to declare off limits when writing to Christians. Going just a few steps further, however, and proclaiming movies that contain sexually explicit/nude scenes off limits for Christians quickly rouses a “Whoa! Hold on a minute, Mr. Legalist. Standards aren’t holiness.”

Except everyone has standards, … allow me to repeat that … everyone has standards, everyone; it’s just that some of us aren’t willing to put our own personal standards to the test in light of the Bible’s command that Christians pursue holiness. And this is where it would be so much easier to make hard and fast lists with hard and fast requirements for entertainment options that Christians can and cannot engage.

My parents, teachers, and youth pastors turned making lists into an art form. Any music that even remotely sounded like rock and roll was declared anathema; the lyrics could’ve been the text of the KJV’s translation of the Lord’s Prayer, and just the hint of a syncopated beat or the mere presence of an electric guitar would’ve deemed it unholy. Unless it starred John Wayne, and with other occasional exceptions, my parents refused to rent movies rated above G. Renting The Journey of Natty Gan was even scandalous. Of course, renting movies was the only option because going to the movie theatre was not allowed. Our testimony could be undermined if we were spotted at the movie theatre.

A similar upbringing has helped produce a libertine spirit in many professing Christians who reject the notion that the Christian life can be reduced to a strict series of do’s and don’ts. If I’m being honest, I too have been frequently guilty of swinging too far towards the libertine side of the Christian liberty/entertainment debate. It’s much easier to unthinkingly shake off the out-of-balanced approach of previous generations than it is to do the hard work of thinking about a personal approach to entertainment that honors God’s commands for Christians to pursue holiness. However, compartmentalizing entertainment choices away from the pursuit of holiness is a sin before God.

As a parent, though, my main priority with my children is that they love Jesus; that they bow the knee in repentance and faith before Jesus and accept his life, death, and resurrection as the only possible way to restore a right relationship with God. Banning or even not banning entertainment isn’t going to help with that. The power of the Holy Spirit in and through the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ is what will accomplish the salvation of my children. I do, however, know that being actively involved in my children’s entertainment choices provides opportunities to preach the gospel to my kids.

Instead of wholesale condemning the pop culture of today, sitting down with my children and listening to the music that’s being marketed towards them is a great starting point to a conversation about God’s holiness, humans’ sinfulness, and how most humans ignore God’s holiness because they want to be king over their own life so that they can be free to fulfill the lust of their flesh. That’s not to say that there are no pop songs or movies that I label as off-limits for my children. But, in “banning” the song or movie, by God’s grace, I will endeavor to have a conversation with them about why I did so that leads back to Jesus.

No doubt, readers hoping for a rulebook giving clear and tidy instructions on how to engage pop culture in a manner that glorifies God and honors the command to pursue holiness are probably disappointed. Wrapped up in pursuing holiness is an honest assessment of our weaknesses and propensities towards sin. Some things, like strip clubs, are so diametrically opposed to God’s holiness and so brazenly celebrate and promote sin as to be off limits for all Christians. Other things may be inappropriate for some to engage and ok for others; I can’t determine that for anyone else. I can only determine that for myself and attempt to make determinations for my family as I strive to lead them, disciple them, and point them to Jesus. My concern for my brothers and sisters in Christ is that they prayerfully and thoughtfully consider their entertainment choices in light of God’s command that Christians pursue holiness.

Romans 6:18 gives the glorious promise that Christians “having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” One of the reasons that Jesus took on the form of human flesh was to “redeem us to be obedient.”[4] Jesus came to earth, lived a perfect life, died for the sins of his people, and then rose from the dead in order that we could obey God by pursuing holiness. Thoughtlessly and cavalierly engaging pop culture is disobeying God’s command that His people pursue holiness.

Unfortunately, my fundamentalist authority figures approached pop culture with a one-size-fits-all rubric. Worse, they simply condemned rock music and, in doing so, missed out on many opportunities to articulate, teach, and discuss a Biblical worldview with me. As I got older and began listening to more “sophisticated” music as well as actually listening to the lyrics and paying attention to the interviews of the artists, the tension inside of me began to deepen.

As I listened, as that tension began to widen the divide between me and the fundamentalists around me, I began to realize that my authority figures weren’t completely wrong: Their worldview was at odds with the worldview promoted by the music I loved. Realizing that I was going to have to shed my “hypocritical” equilibrium and choose a side was not comfortable.

[1] F.F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. Gorden Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 348-349.

[2] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 73.

[3] Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 73.

[4] Joel R. Beeke and William Boekestein, Why Christ Came: 31 Reflections on the Incarnation (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013), 43.

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