A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 5

abandoned church

by John Ellis

During my transition from a student at a Christian day school to a Bob Jones University student, grunge music and its accompanying culture became my god.

It didn’t happen overnight, though. The 1993-94 school year, my senior year, provided me with clarity about my beliefs, or lack thereof, as well as boldness to act on my growing confidence in whom I wanted to become. By the fall of 1994, I was ready to begin openly jettisoning any pretense of Christianity. Many of the seeds of that rebellion had been planted in my heart at conception. Other seeds were sown along the way. The summer of 1993 saw those rebellious seeds begin to openly sprout; their fruit no longer hidden.

In large part because of that, if you were on Pensacola Christian College’s campus during the fall of 1993 and you remember a brown and beige van frequently barreling through with music blaring, that was me.

For that, I apologize. I was feeling my oats, so to speak.

Entering my senior year of high school, my angst was gone. Or so it seemed.

Earlier that summer, the divide between my worldview and that of my parents had grown wider. Well, not really wider, just easier for me to see. My final summer as a ranch hand at the Bill Rice Ranch provided me clarity.

My two summers working as a ranch hand were great. I loved working at the Ranch, and some of my favorite memories from my youth occurred during those two summers.

The work was hard, for sure, but the camaraderie, the hours of basketball, and meeting new people every week thanks to the constantly rotating youth groups attending the weeklong camps combined to help produce the best summers that a teenage, fundamentalist boy could hope for.

At the beginning of my first summer as a ranch hand, after my sophomore year of high school, I had been unceremoniously thrown into the role of the dishwash room’s team captain. A team captain was the Ranch’s term for manager. I ran the dishwash room.

I “earned” that responsibility because after the first meal service during the first week of camp the team captain quit.

He looked at the growing stack of dirty dishes from the nearly 600 campers plus counselors and staff and promptly decided that he’d had enough. Looking at the mounting pile of disorganized mess, I wanted to make that same decision. Knowing that if I did, I would probably have to walk back to Pensacola because there’s a chance that my dad wouldn’t come and pick me up, I put my head down and encouraged my remaining team members to help me tackle the pile of dishes. We were the last ones to leave the dining room that Sunday evening.

Obviously, my dad would’ve come and gotten me, but the point stands. Quitting would’ve been a stupid decision on my part. The eldest son of an IFB pastor doesn’t quit, especially not while working at a prestigious fundamentalist youth camp.

So, I was promoted.

It was that summer that I learned the meaning of hard work and how to be a leader. At the risk of bragging, I ended up being a good leader. A really good leader. I won Team Captain of the Year at the end of the summer.

When I returned home that August, my mom began readying to wash the dishes after my first meal back. I immediately stepped in and said something like, “I got this, Mom. You go sit down and read a book or something.”

I’ll never forget the look of loving pride that my mom gave me that evening.

My point: working at the Bill Rice Ranch was mostly good for me, on top of providing me with some of the most enjoyable summers of my youth.

The following summer, after my junior year, I returned to my job as the dishwash room’s team captain. Being a second-year ranch hand and a “decorated” team captain to boot made me something akin to royalty in the ranch hand dorm and as well as around the camp. As great as my first summer at the Ranch had been, my second summer was flat out epic!

Once again, the close camaraderie that comes with a summer of hard work away from parents, making new friends, including girlfriends, among the visiting youth groups every week, and hours upon hours of basketball now included the respect of my peers and the adults, and a growing confidence in who I was and the type of person that I wanted to be.

Campers treated the ranch hands as a version of fundamentalist rock stars. Throughout the week, and as odd as this may sound, campers would ask to have their picture taken with us. The cool college-age counselors that the campers looked up to treated ranch hands (some of us, at least) as peers. Although it really wasn’t true, we appeared untouchable by the youth pastors that accompanied the campers. We owned the Bill Rice Ranch, and it was next to impossible for the male campers from the visiting youth groups to encroach on our turf in any meaningful way.

So, yes, my confidence, which had enjoyed a sizeable boost the summer before, exponentially grew as a second-year ranch hand who was afforded the respect of almost everyone around me. To be clear, my work ethic and abilities in the dining hall legitimately earned me much of that respect.

Running concurrently with that, though, as my confidence grew, I became more brazen in flaunting the rules.

Required to tuck my shirt in? Ha! I was too valuable to have to worry about anyone making a stink about that.

Ignoring the light’s out rule at night? Same thing.

I could compile a long list of “unimportant” rules that I dismissed as no longer applying to me. Having transformed the dishwash room into a well-oiled machine that was, without question, the best team in the dining hall, I was more valuable than the rules, I thought.

Oddly, I got away with it. And, sadly, I learned a “valuable” lesson: confidence minus any obnoxious and overt flaunting of glee while breaking the rules equaled a level of power over the rules that enabled me to do what I wanted without having to cower in fear. If you acted like you were supposed to be doing it, people often believed that you were, in fact, allowed to be doing it. I took that lesson with me to Bob Jones University.

That understanding revealed to me that there was a better way to play the fundamentalist game: work hard at the things that adult’s value but that didn’t require me to pretend to care about Christianity and don’t be obnoxious; in fact, foster friendships with the adults,

The summer of 1993 was when I began to transition from a confused, scared kid trying to survive into a master manipulator who acquired the ability to reset the game to his own advantage. I began skillfully preying on the authority figures’ genuine love and concern for me, but in a way that didn’t require me to pretend to agree with the parts of their system that I disagreed with.

While that was happening, I, of course, continued to immerse myself in the world of pop culture. My newfound boldness allowed me to own my growing connection to pop culture, specifically rock music, that I had hitherto been afraid to allow to show. Externally, I began to more openly display my affections. My outside began to match my inside.

In terms of the authority figures, I began to stop caring about their rules. By that, I mean I stopped being bothered that I found their rules silly and illogical. Their rules were on paper and had no real power over me. Because of that, I had little reason to engage my authority figures about their rules regarding music, movies, dress, dating, etc., on any level, including no reason to break the rules in front of them. Their opinions about rock music, for example, made very little difference to me and, in turn, had next to zero impact on me. When they were around, I was generally occupied in a pursuit that provided little reason for me to listen to my music anyway. No reason to jeopardize my freedom solely for the sake of “sticking it to the man,” so to speak.

However, “sticking it to” my peers was another story. Because something else I discovered is that when you make yourself valuable to the authority figures, you have power over the “good” kids. I found that my growing confidence combined with my closeness with the authority figures confused and unsettled the “good” kids. I had cut the legs out from under their recourse of reporting me (to a point, I mean. I wasn’t stupid, after all).

Guys who were known for confronting other ranch hands over the breaking of rules began to steer very clear of me. That lesson, I also carried with me to BJU.

As the summer wore on, I found myself rolling my eyes and shaking my head at the preachers during the services in the sight of fellow ranch hands. I also began voicing my opinion about the ridiculousness of the speakers’ messages in conversations on the basketball court, at meals, and in the dorm. And not just about how their reasons for rules like not going to the movie theatre made zero sense, but about how their claims about God didn’t make any sense. In front of other ranch hands, I began to align myself with a worldview whose name I had yet to discover.

At the end of the summer, I again won Team Captain of the Year. But my joy was tempered.

Throughout the summer, I thought that I was going to win Ranch Hand of the Year. It was my second year, I was the best worker in the Dining Hall, leading the best team. I deserved that award, I thought.

Except, a few days before the end of summer’s awards banquet, I was pulled aside by my boss and told that while I was great at my job, I wouldn’t be nominated for Ranch Hand of the Year.

That made no sense to me. How could I not be nominated?

He told me that he was disappointed that I never led my crew in devotions, I never offered to pray at gatherings, and I seemed completely uninterested in spiritual things.

He was right, of course. But I didn’t see why it mattered.

To my way of thinking, the main reason for me being there was to provide a service in the dining hall, and no one had provided better service than I had. The other stuff seemed silly to me. In fact, my boss’ comments felt like a betrayal. After all, we were friends. I had become his Rook partner (a card game) and his confidant, I thought. Throughout the summer, he had entrusted me with many tasks that were usually outside of the scope of a ranch hand’s responsibility.

Regardless of my sense of betrayal and belief that it was unfair to use spirituality as a variable to help determine what I viewed as a work award, I was told that I would not be considered for Ranch Hand of the Year.

I was hurt, but learned that my new tactics, while providing me many “rewards,” also meant that I would never truly be the favored son.

On the long drive back to Pensacola, I reflected on my last summer as a ranch hand. It had been a blast. More importantly, I believed, that summer had finally freed me from my shackles of fear and doubt, providing me the courage to begin to explore who I was and what I believed without worry of what others thought. The Ranch Hand of the Year snub cemented in my mind that my future would not include my parents’ worldview. Attaining the approval of my authority figures was a means to an end, not the end itself. When the two diverged, I had discovered that the unknown path may not be as scary as I once believed.

Like most things, it ended up not being that simple, by a long shot, but the engine to my rebellious worldview had been primed and started. There was no looking back. From that time forward, for the next decade plus, I actively pursued the building of my own Tower of Babel.

By the time I got home, the sting of being told that I wasn’t eligible for Ranch Hand of the Year had subsided and I eagerly anticipated my senior year of high school. After all, the glories of basketball and girls awaited. My senior year was going to be the year that my basketball team won the conference championship, the year that my parents’ and school’s rules began to slide into the background, and the year that would be my entrance into full freedom.

I was wrong on all three counts, of course.

And that brings me back to my joy rides through PCC’s campus.

At that point in my senior year, things were going great. Basketball practice was in full swing, and I was enjoying the freedom that came with being entrusted to drive myself places, sans parents. In fact, as a senior, my parents had given me a level of freedom that would’ve sounded like a pipedream a year earlier.

Driving through PCC’s campus with my windows down and my radio blaring served two purposes – it was an opportunity to give the proverbial middle-finger to fundamentalism (granted, I didn’t have the courage to do it on my own school’s campus), and it allowed me the opportunity to look for someone.

The previous summer, while at the Bill Rice Ranch, I had met a girl whose parents were on staff at PCC. At the end of the week, she had given me her phone number, but I had yet to call her. Flash forward a few months, and my hormonally addled brain believed that driving through campus was a plausible way to reconnect. Not surprisingly, my hormonally addled brain was wrong.

That December, though, she showed up at my church for the wedding of two PCC students. That evening, she went with my family and I to Shoney’s for the all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet.

Our relationship progressed at lighting speed. Within the space of a few weeks, we declared our undying love for each other and our plan to get married.

As our relationship progressed, though, my sense that an end was coming began to heighten.

Cracks were starting to show, and it was in large part because her faith clashed with my lack of faith. By that I mean, her faith was an obstacle to me getting what I wanted.

She became the first person with whom I used explicit pretenses of being a Christian in order to achieve my goals. We even had “our Bible verse” in addition to “our song.” Our song was Bette Midler’s “The Rose.” Our Bible verse was Romans 8:28.

I don’t think that I had even heard the word “eisegesis” at that point, but I sure utilized it with Romans 8:28 to try and get what I wanted. The words “all things” can be dangerous in the wrong hands, especially when overall context is completely ignored.

However, as she continued to rebuff my greatest desire, my irritation grew. Not so much with her as with the religion that seemed to constantly pop up at the most inopportune times.

At the same time, around my friends at school, I began to express my doubts about Christianity. At one point during my senior year, I had the thought that if God was sovereign that meant that He knew everything that was going to happen. While not having a cognitive awareness of the concepts of necessary and contingent, the next step in my mind was that everything is necessary. Therefore, I surmised, according to Christianity all our actions are preordained.

For me, the logical conclusion seemed to be that it would be a sin not to sin. Because if God had preordained for me to shoplift a pack of gum, for example, it would be rebellion to do otherwise.

I shared my newfound “insights” with my friends, and we puzzled over it. A few of them liked what I was preaching, for obvious reasons, but one of them, my best friend, was aghast (probably as much at the holes in my logic as the implications I was touting).

Ironically, my best friend wasn’t a fundamentalist. His parents were Southern Baptists who also happened to be well-off and who donated quite a bit of money to my school and were held in very high esteem by the authority figures at the school. Those are the facts. For the record, I was never privy to any conversations about why my best friend’s family was so welcomed into the school’s fold. However, me and my classmates would smirk at how the authority figures would speak so glowingly of my best friends’ parents right after condemning new evangelicalism, a “nefarious” group that included Southern Baptists. Regardless of what the truth was, we all believed that money trumped consistency in the minds of our authority figures and we weren’t necessarily wrong.

Anyway, at lunch one day, a teacher overheard us talking about my belief that it would be a sin not to sin. Even though I tried to pass it off as a joke, an opportunity was missed by that teacher. I was simply given an angry lecture about how my thoughts were ridiculous and disrespectful.

Look, I understand that talking about God’s sovereignty and humans’ responsibility is a tall order, especially when you’re talking with teenagers, but that’s one example of how authority figures failed to recognize my doubts and interact with those doubts. And I write as a father of a daughter who has many of the same questions that I did as a kid.

Thankfully, she comes to me with those questions. But I must admit that even with all of my knowledge, training, and experience with theology, specifically apologetics, in those moments I feel utterly inadequate to interact with my daughter’s questions. When it’s your own kid, the stakes are much higher in your heart. However, by God’s grace, I will continue to do my best and never simply dismiss my daughter’s questions and doubts.

For whatever reason, the few times during my youth that my doubts and questions bubbled up, my authority figures always dismissed them offhand as silly or I was told that I simply needed more faith, and that was that.

The problem was that when that teacher told me that my thoughts were silly and refused to interact with them, I heard, “I don’t have an answer,” and, naturally, I then concluded that I was on the right track. I knew the Bible well enough to know that my conclusion contradicted what the Bible taught. My next conclusion was that that meant that God could not exist as explained by this obviously contradictory book called the Bible.

Things like that experience, the previous summer at the Bill Rice Ranch, my girlfriend, and my deepening belief that my authority figures were wrong about God were the seeds of rebellion that were watered during a ski trip to Breckenridge over spring break and that were fertilized by my co-workers at my first secular job that coming summer.

The parents of my best friend graciously paid for me and two other friends to join them in Breckenridge, CO. My family sure didn’t have the money to afford it.

I’m still not entirely sure why my parents allowed me to go. When my friend first suggested I go, it was a level of freedom that seemed too contradictory to the strictness of my parents to even be a possibility. But for some unknown reason, they let me go. So, on the Thursday afternoon of March 31, 1994, the day before Good Friday, I set out towards Colorado with my friend, his family, and two other buddies, all packed into my best friend family’s conversion van.

By the spring of 1994, the music playing on the radio and MTV had noticeably shifted. Rarely were the sexualized screams of hair metal bands played. In between songs by Ace of Base and All-4-One, bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Alice in Chains were beginning to dominate the airwaves.

The new music was different. It contained a gravitas that paired well with what seemed to be a different kind of rebellion than the music I had been listening to since I was in 4th grade. At the time, I still listened to my hidden cassette tapes of bands like Bon Jovi and Poison and wasn’t quite sure what I thought of this new sound that was cropping up everywhere.

Truth be told, I was about two years behind the scene and was only catching up because the music industry had figured out how to make money off the type of music that I was soon to discover was called grunge. Teachers and preachers had yet to begin preaching against grunge music.

One song that hit the airwaves just a few weeks before the trip to Colorado was Beck’s “Loser”. I found the stream of consciousness lyrics odd yet compelling. The music was catchy but still different from the music I usually liked.

“Loser” was everywhere in Breckenridge.

While visiting Breckenridge’s shops at night, I began to realize that the malls I loved back home were silly compared to what I was seeing. I remember standing in a head shop, listening to “Loser” play over the speakers while I gawked at guys and girls with multiple piercings, greasy hair, wearing flannel-shirt and dark boots, and with an overall aesthetic that matched Beck’s hit song in ways I couldn’t articulate. And while I didn’t completely understand the connection between the music and their aesthetic, it made sense to me.

I returned to Florida wearing the black snow boots my best friend had loaned me instead of my regular shoes and the desire to learn about the grunge culture that I had been introduced to firsthand in Breckinridge. The next week, Kurt Cobain killed himself.

I devoured every piece of information about Cobain and Nirvana I could find. Most evenings, my dad watched Peter Jennings on ABC News. The suicide of a mega-star meant days of coverage that I watched with rapt interest while my dad made comments about the destructiveness of sin.

I began taping every Nirvana song that I could whenever it would play on the radio. By the time I graduated from high school, my tape collection had taken a decided turn towards grunge. The lyrics fascinated me, and I began to pick up on the themes of alienation and the desire for freedom. The distorted guitars and crunching drums tapped into my growing anger at feeling trapped.

That summer, I got a job in the warehouse of a paper supply company. In the mornings, I helped the drivers load their delivery vans. The rest of the day, I sat around the warehouse listening to the radio while waiting to unload the semitrucks that delivered the warehouse’s stock.

That summer was educational as two of the drivers took me under their wing. One, a middle-aged hippy who had attended the first Woodstock, introduced me to weed and Jimi Hendrix. The other, who was in his early twenties and looked almost exactly like Anthony Keidis, furthered my education about what it meant to be Gen X.

Up until 1994, I had viewed rock and roll as a monolithic entity with blurred distinctions. My dad and his friends never saw, much less preached, any distinctions between Air Supply, Madonna, Run DMC, and Alice in Chains.

By summer, I was becoming aware of the fact that music genres matter and that rock, specifically grunge, matters in ways that pop does not. My co-workers taught me that there are profound differences between Def Leppard and Nirvana. One speaks to our selfish desires to be accommodated and the other to the pain that image bearers feel as the scourge of the fall comes down on their backs. To be sure, grunge’s expression of alienation often reflects a rejection of the Creator of the Universe. But at least it attempts to be honest about the world instead of just preaching the gratification of lust (and by “lust” I mean more than just sex).

The teaching I heard in youth group, at school, and at home was no match for the education that I received in that warehouse. Instead of simply fulfilling my desires like most of pop culture, grunge provided a robust replacement ideology for my parent’s ideology that I rejected. Grunge created a community bound by confusion, hurt, questions, and the desire to right the wrongs threatening to swamp society. The songs of Nirvana, Alice in Chains, and Pearl Jam encouraged me to look inward while desiring a better place. I also learned that grunge music was the language of Gen X. And being Gen X was an identity that I knew would make a good substitute for that of a naïve Christian school kid. My open scoffing at Christianity that had started the previous summer blossomed into a full-fledged dismissal of my parent’s religion.

As the end of summer and my departure for BJU grew closer, my girlfriend became increasingly worried about my spiritual state. She expressed displeasure at my choice of music and clothes and the things I told her about my job. One evening, she tearfully made me promise to not let the bad influence of my co-workers change me. Of course, I agreed. My co-workers found that amusing the following day when I told them about my promise.

After my girlfriend returned from a week at church camp, I was waiting for her as her youth group’s bus pulled into the parking lot. Keep in mind that it was summer in Florida, I sat on the hood of my dirt brown ’66 Dodge Dart, wearing my black snow boots, ripped jeans, and a flannel shirt. In my mind, as the bus rolled in carrying a load of Christian kids newly recharged to live for Jesus, I believed that I was the epitome of anti-Christian rebellion, and, in my mind, I imagined the effect I was having on them. It’s funny (and pathetic) how quickly I forgot how much like me most of those kids were. I convinced myself that all the Christian kids trudging out of the bus were simultaneously impressed and scared of me.

It was a blow to my ego when my girlfriend laughingly asked, “Why are you sitting on the hood of your car like that? You look silly.”

Our reunion after a week apart continued to disintegrate into a non-fairy tale moment after she told me that she had rededicated her life to Christ and had asked for forgiveness for the physical nature of our relationship. She pleaded with me to do the same, but I resisted. After a whole week of respite from having to listen to her attempt to insert Christianity into our relationship, ergo, into my life, I wasn’t in the mood to play the game.

An hour of arguing over my spiritual state went by before I angrily got up to leave. She begged me not to go and swore her undying love for me. Eventually, after I wore her down with sullen accusations that she didn’t really love me because she was ashamed of what I believed had been a good relationship, she tearfully changed her mind about the need to have even made the decision at camp. We made up. Our relationship’s status quo returned.

I’m afraid that many adults forget how impulsive and irrational teenagers can be, especially during emotionally charged situations that appear to have the potential to derail their life, from the perspective of the teenager. While I was embracing a clear path forward out of Christianity, my girlfriend was still attempting to synthesize her desires regarding our relationship with what she was being taught about Christianity.

Believing that we loved each other, we planned on getting married after college. My new identity was more amenable to conflict and change. I was beginning to know who I was and where I wanted to go; she wasn’t going to derail that. However, lacking any solid worldview identity apart from the self-centered moralism that we were taught set her up to be confused and make poor decisions. The threat that you’ll ruin your life seems awfully hollow when you believe that your life is about to be ruined anyway.

By the time I left for Bob Jones University a few weeks later, things were great between me and my girlfriend. So much so, that I had zero desire to leave. Even more than her, I didn’t want to leave the world to which I which I was beginning to discover and to which I believed I belonged. BJU’s rules were sure to keep me even farther away from my heart’s desires than my home. You see, as I became surer in my rejection of Christianity, the more problematic the rules became. Prior to my change over the course of my senior year of high school, the rules were merely obstacles to doing what I wanted. By the time I left for college, the rules represented being forced to exist in a system that I didn’t want to have anything to do with.

However, the decision was out of my hands. And having secured a job as a cashier in the Campus Store, I arrived on BJU’s campus a week before the vast majority of the student body. So, during the middle of August in 1994, my dad dropped me and my luggage off at my dorm room on the second floor of the Bibb Graves Dormitory.

After choosing my bunk, I lay on my back, defiantly put on my headphones that were against the rules and wept. The tears were from anger, not from homesickness. I resented being at BJU. The long four years of BJU’s incessant Christianity lay before me and I already wanted out. The problem was, I didn’t know how to leave. It took me three and a half years to figure out how. And during those three and a half years, my anger grew to a rage that caused me to despise anything related to BJU and Christianity.

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