A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 12 “Freedom, Finally”

abandoned church

(The previous chapters can be found by clicking on A Godless Fundamentalist under Topics on the right hand side of this page. To receive email notifications whenever subsequent chapters are published, hit the follow button.)

by John Ellis

In December of 1997, the Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting was released. I watched it three times during the movie’s theatrical run. While I enjoyed the movie, my fascination with it was mainly driven by the narrative surrounding its journey from page to screen.

The short version of the story goes that buddies Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both struggling and unknown actors at the time, had miraculously sold Miramax the rights to their script. A true rag to riches tale. Granted, none of that is how it really happened, but I didn’t know that at the time. In late 1997 and early 1998 the tale of two unknown actors plucked from obscurity resonated with me. So, I began writing my own screenplay.

That screenplay is in a box, hidden somewhere in my house. One day, maybe, I’ll pull it out and let people laugh at read it. Until then, all that needs to be known about it is that the protagonist was a high school student trapped in a strict fundamentalist family who finds her true self through art.

The irony of it, provided by hindsight and much personal and spiritual growth, is that while writing that screenplay I truly believed that I had attained a level of change that provided me a perspective on the other side of that story. As a newly minted, fully ex-fundamentalist, I believed that I had found my true self via my escape. The truth was that I hadn’t. Which may explain why I was never able to finish the screenplay. I had yet to live the ending or, really, even the middle.

I was correct on one point, though; I had obtained my freedom. Well, I was “correct” based on my definition of freedom. The thing was, I still didn’t really know who I was or what I really believed. And I also didn’t understand that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34).”

At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my new-found freedom. With all my high school buddies still in college, the military, or married, I really didn’t have anyone in Pensacola to hang out with. I also didn’t really know how to make the most of my new freedom. One night, alone and bored, I decided to visit Seville Quarter; the famed Pensacola night club that had earned legendary status in my mind for the reported debauchery that took place inside its walls.

About five years later, I landed a job bartending at Seville Quarter, and was pleased to discover that the rumored debauchery paled in comparison to the actual debauchery that took place inside the club’s walls. During my time working there, I basically lived at the club. But that’s a story for a later chapter.

In the early winter of 1998, though, nightclubs were still well outside of my comfort zone. I had been to bars, but not a nightclub. Standing outside Seville watching the long line of clubbers waiting to enter, I realized I didn’t have a clue about what I was supposed to do – neither the process of getting inside nor what to do once I was inside.

One of the dangerous things about the first couple of years of my “freedom” was that I was terrified of anyone discovering my background. I was afraid that Christianity still clung to me, and that it was obvious that I had grown up in strict fundamentalism. I was mortified at the thought that people might consider me a Christian. That fear compelled me to do anything and everything to demonstrate that I was, in fact, not a Christian.

However, while standing outside of Seville Quarter that night, my fear of being unmasked as a “Christian school kid” worked itself out in the opposite direction. I went home without setting foot inside the club.

During the first couple of months of 1998, my loneliness drove me to occasionally attend my parent’s church on Sunday evenings. In a theme that was to reemerge from time to time during my twenties, regardless of what I thought about the beliefs and rules of the church, there was no denying that the people were friendly and welcoming in ways that helped assuage my growing loneliness. Plus, my parent’s church had a big bonfire after the Sunday evening services over which hotdogs and marshmallows were roasted.

The young adults of the church were mostly Pensacola Christian College (PCC) students, and they were quite confused by me. By this time, my parents had begun traveling in a new ministry and were on the road the first few months of 1998. I don’t know what my parents had told the church about me, but whatever it was the young adults were not expecting the guy who showed up. Upon meeting me, the young man who led the young adult group blurted out, with obvious confusion, “Oh, you’re John?”

With really nothing to lose, knowing that they would never deny me hotdogs as long as I wanted hotdogs, I was completely honest for the first time in my life when around fundamentalist Christians about who I was and what I did and did not believe.

We’d stand around the bonfire, and I would openly (and obnoxiously) brag about drinking, smoking, and my incredulity at Christianity, trying to impress them with my rebellion. My insecure posturing included silly thing, too, like making sure that my necklace was visible. In turn, they would attempt to answer my questions about things like the problem of evil, the veracity of the ancient book that they claimed was written by God, and the validity of the rules that they were voluntarily placing themselves under. I enjoyed the attention brought to me by what I viewed as a game and didn’t feel badly in the slightest that it was not a game for the PCC students. They were genuinely concerned for me. Discussing Christianity over hot dogs was one thing, though; I turned down every invitation to meet and discuss the Bible either one-on-one or in a group. And even those Sunday evening conversations abruptly ended once I got a job delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut.

Prior to delivering pizzas, I had been working in the shop at a Thrifty Car Rental. But the pay was terrible and the job boring, not to mention the owner and the manager were both incredibly racist. Stuck by myself in the shop all day with nothing to do but wash cars and change the oil punctuated by being forced to listen to my bosses’ racist jeremiads, I began looking for a different job almost as soon as I started working at Thrifty.

I had also found part time work at the local concert arena(s), but the work was way too sporadic to be considered my actual job. However, while not providing me with a steady income, it did provide me with a crash course in the rock and roll lifestyle I so desperately craved.

Possessing the dream to be an actor, a movie star, to be specific, but not really sure of where to start, I had walked up to the box office of Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre, proudly announced to the attendant that I was an actor, and asked who I needed to speak to about employment. To be clear, by “employment” I meant the starring role in whatever play was next on the docket. I knew that an acting career required auditions; but I had no clue as to how to book an audition. I also didn’t realize that the Saenger Theatre is a touring house, much less know what that means. For her part, most likely misunderstanding what I was asking, the bored box office attendant directed me to a door on the side of the theatre.

The door led to the theatre’s office and I repeated my objective to the receptionist. She smiled, reached in her desk, and pulled out an application. As she handed it to me, she asked, “Do you know where the Bayfront Auditorium is?”

Confused why she would ask me that, since that was where concerts were held and not plays, I told her that I knew where it was. Confusing me even further, she informed me that the Bayfront Auditorium was where I would be working most of the time. “You’ll also occasionally be working at the Civic Center,” she added as I sat down to fill out what I still thought was an application to be an actor.

Filling it out, though, my confusion was quickly cleared up and I realized that I was sadly (embarrassingly) mistaken. It wasn’t an application to be an actor (it didn’t take me long to find out that that’s not how the theatre and movie worlds work); it was an application to help unload trucks and set up for the acts performing at the Bayfront Auditorium, Civic Center, and Saenger Theatre.

Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I filled it out, handed it back to the receptionist, and left. The gigs I landed from filling out that application were few and far between but working alongside roadies unloading trucks and setting up for concerts provided eye-opening experiences.

Working concerts for bands like the Foo Fighters and Paige and Plant exposed me to how extreme the contrast between the world I grew up in and the world of rock and roll truly is. All those anti-rock and roll preachers of my youth were proven to be incredibly naïve. The backstage world of rock concerts was beyond anything they had warned about, and I couldn’t have been happier. To be sure, I silently held back most of the time, happily soaking in the conversations and actions of the colorful people working alongside me, only joining in when asked directly.

What I failed to account for at the time, though, was that most non-Christians do not exist in the hedonistic carnival atmosphere that roadies and groupies for a rock band raucously live while working and living behind the scenes of a tour. I later learned that the lifestyle is found in basically all touring events – circuses, theatre, fairs, et al. – but in the winter and spring of 1998 that lifestyle was utterly foreign to me. Dangerously, I assumed that this was the model for living as a non-Christian. Ironically, I jumped straight from one sheltered, naive perspective to another.

Unfortunately, my new sheltered, naive perspective set the tone and trajectory for my life post-BJU/post-fundamentalism. I entered a world of darkness that most people, including non-Christians, have zero experiential understanding of, even if they’re aware of its existence. To this day, in my heart, I must guard against the temptation to ask why God allowed such a totally unprepared Christian school kid to step immediately into that world. Just a few months removed from being a Bob Jones University dorm student, almost every conceivable vice was within my rebellious grasp. The truth is, though, I have zero right to point a finger at God because I got exactly what I wanted. And, so, I began a years’ long lesson on sin’s enslaving horrors.

I took that perspective with me to Pizza Hut. Unfortunately, my time at that Pizza Hut only reinforced my new perspective of the non-Christian life. I later learned that the store that had hired me was an outlier, and that’s saying a lot considering the behind the scenes life within the service industry. What did I know, though? Again, mirroring my response to the roadies backstage at the Foo Fighters concert, I believed that the lifestyle I was invited into at that Pizza Hut was the norm.

The store’s manager was a friendly man in his late thirties who was single. He was also unethical in more ways than one. It was a rare work shift that I didn’t leave with free pizza and buffalo wings with his encouragement. So much free food walked out of that store that I marvel at his ability to match the stock he was ordering with the stock being sold whenever he did the books. I don’t know, maybe his tenure as general manager of that Pizza Hut didn’t last much longer than my employment there. Eventually, that much inventory shrinkage attracts the attention of eyeballs in corporate’s accounting department. However long he worked at the store, during my time there his lack of ethics also extended to his hiring practices and interactions with his employees.

Like all Pizza Huts at the time, the store had a sit-down restaurant. The wait-staff reflected the manager’s taste in women. And most of my female co-workers clamored for his attention, which he was more than happy to provide, at work and at his house.

The manager loved throwing parties at his house for his employees. His was the first house that I ever entered that had a fully stocked bar in the kitchen and a stripper pole in the living room. Wet t-shirt contests and lines of cocaine were among the highlights of his frequent “work” parties.

No matter how much I try, I’ll never forget the first party I attended at his house. It resembled much of what the authority figures of my youth had warned me about, and I remember thinking, “It’s even better than they said!”

As the action swirled around me, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. However, at parties like that, you don’t really need to know what to do, you just need to be willing to do whatever is offered or suggested. My earlier referenced fear that my fundamentalist past would be discovered came into play in a bad way that night. Afraid that if I said “no” to anything, I would be found out, I said “yes” to everything.

As a side-note – if you’re a parent, teacher, or anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis, be very careful about how you discuss vices. With good motives, to be sure, my authority figures failed to discern between things like marijuana and cocaine, for example. When you have it drilled into you that all drugs are bad with no gradations allowed, your reasoning becomes, “Well, I did this, may as well do that.” I recognize that chances are I would’ve made the same decisions no matter how well I had been educated, but I heard that same sentiment ruefully expressed by individuals during my time in the drug culture. With my own culpability acknowledged, the fact remains that I entered that world without the knowledge needed to make better choices if I had wanted to make better choices. My point, parents and youth leaders, know what you’re talking about before you start talking. And, by all means, start talking with the kids under your charge. If you don’t, someone else will.

I had a lot of firsts at the party that night, none of them good. My education in how to embrace hedonistic depravity was continuing at an accelerated rate. Among other things, that night, or, rather, that early morning marked the first time that I drove drunk (and high).

Terrified, I didn’t want to drive home. But I was more scared of being exposed as a novice to the party lifestyle. I mistakenly assumed that admitting that I was drunk would mean that I was admitting to not knowing how to drink and handle my liquor. In my mind, that revelation would make me less desirable to my female co-workers. So, I white-knuckled it the whole way home. While seemingly a small thing in light of that night’s events, driving drunk the first time represented a larger willingness to embrace an utter disregard for others in order to serve myself. I was more concerned about the perception of others than I was in my own safety, not to mention the safety of others.

Thankfully, I arrived home safely, but once you start checking off boxes like that, the successive boxes become easier and easier to check off. So, I’m not sure “safe” is the appropriate description.

Sin is corrosive, and none of us can control it. None of us. Over the years, I’ve met people at various stages of rebelling against their Christian upbringing. After sharing my story, I’m inevitably told, “I’m not you. I’m never going to be that stupid.”

Sadly, and predictably, I will frequently later hear about the tragic trajectory of their life. By then, if I’m allowed the opportunity to speak with them, their perspective will have drastically changed since our previous conversation. Their definition of “stupid” will have moved quite a bit. This bears repeating very often, there is a reason that the Bible teaches that we are slaves to sin.

My desire to leave my Christian upbringing far in the past combined with some of my initial experiences into a world of depravity that most people only ever hear about to lead me to embrace a lifestyle that took me to depths of depravity that I didn’t know how to escape from and that eventually almost killed me. By God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, I’m not dead or in prison. More importantly, God has made me alive in Christ. But that didn’t happen until years after that party.

In just a few short months after having been a dorm student at Bob Jones University, I had managed to enter a world of depraved darkness that fascinated me and that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I had almost everything that I believed I wanted. All that remained was my acting career. But I had a plan.

That March, I drove to Greenville, SC, to visit Bronwynne, who was finishing up her final semester at BJU. On the permission slip to stay off campus for the weekend, she listed that she would be staying with her parents. Often, rules only serve to restrain those who want to be restrained.

Afraid that she would get busted if anyone saw the two of us together, we stocked up on food and alcohol and holed up in our hotel room for the weekend. While there, we made plans.

She had been offered a job at WMUU upon graduation, the radio station that was owned by BJU at the time. And she was already in the process of looking for an apartment in town. We decided that after her graduation in May, I would move to Greenville. Knowing that it would be risky, but believing that we could pull it off, the plan was for me to move in with her. I also proposed to her that weekend, and we decided to get married that August. We’d only have to hide our planned living arrangement for a little over two months.

Our ultimate goal was to move to Los Angeles. Or, rather, my ultimate goal was to move to L.A., but she was happy to support me in my pursuit of movie stardom. While still mostly ignorant of how the entertainment industry worked, I knew that if I were to become a movie star, I would need to move to L.A. I also knew that living in L.A. would be much easier to manage on two incomes.

I’m not entirely sure what she was thinking; I know some of it, but her motives that were driven by her past are not mine to confess. My motives, though, are my sins to own. And as I write this, I’m reminding myself that I am now a forgiven child of God whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus, because this isn’t easy to remind myself of, especially in front of others.

My sole motive for proposing to her was because I needed her help to get to LA. Once there and once my acting career was well on the way to being established, I would no longer need her. I proposed to her with the intention of eventually leaving her; sooner rather than later, I hoped.

I had fallen so much in love with sin, I was incapable of thinking about anybody but myself. Free from the constraints of fundamentalism, and enjoying an unrestrained access to sin, I was constructing my life with the sole purpose of fulfilling the desires of my flesh. Seated firmly on the throne of my heart, I served myself at the expense of everyone else around me. While a step to a larger goal, marriage also kept me from other things that I wanted. And, so, I viewed my impending marriage as a disposable means to an end.

For those who want to glorify my past, know that you are glorifying a despicable human being who was only just beginning to live for self in 1998. I will go to my grave bearing scars from the decisions I made back then. Thankfully, by God’s grace, upon entering my grave, I will be awakened fully sanctified in the presence of my Savior. My scars will be no more. But until that day, I’m afraid that I will always struggle with deep shame. You do not want my life.

In a previous chapter, I mentioned my dorm supervisor who is now serving as a pastor in Colorado. He had entered BJU an older student, saved from a life filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Whenever he would share his testimony, I would sit back and think, “That sounds cool. I want that life.”

That’s my fear whenever I share my testimony: that someone will sit back and think, “That sounds cool. I want that life.” I’m afraid that some will be tempted to ignore what I ignored. During his testimony, my old dorm supervisor would always say something like, “I was miserable in my sin.” And I would always dismiss his warning.

Years later, when I would be huddled somewhere, fighting thoughts of suicide, I would cry to myself, “Mr. Hafler was right. I hate this life.” And in those moments, all his words would flood my mind, including, and most preciously, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It took a couple years of total despair before I finally turned from my sin and submitted to God through faith in Jesus, but Mr. Hafler’s testimony became a light shining the way.

If you’re reading this, and all you’re hearing is fun found in freedom from Christianity, know that I pray that if you go down a path similar to mine that you will one day despair like I did. And during your despair, I pray that you will remember that true freedom only comes through repenting of your sins and placing your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In 1998, though, my despair was yet to arrive. I believed that I was well on my way to my heart’s desires and I was loving my life. So, early that summer, I packed my belongings into my powder-blue, 1988 Buick Century and drove to Greenville, SC.

The day I moved in with Bronwynne, I went to the ABC store across the street from our tiny apartment and stocked up on the various liquors that had been staples at my Pizza Hut manager’s parties. I also left my car in the Bi/Lo parking lot across the street so as not to clue the apartment manager into our living arrangements. Her husband was still a BJU student and we assumed that they would not have been okay with it.

After we moved in together, the two of us began fighting almost every evening. Screaming obscenities at each other, I would eventually leave before the neighbors could call the cops. A couple of hours later, I would return, and we would apologize to each other. I apologized so that she wouldn’t kick me out; she apologized so that I wouldn’t leave. We were the definition of dysfunctional.

It was obvious that our parents were aghast at our engagement, and for good reasons. Her parents pushed back on it a little bit. They were confused about what had happened. Initially, they had been led to believe that full-time vocational ministry was in my future. Now, even though they knew very little about what was going on, they were confronted with the reality that their daughter was marrying a pizza delivery drive who had failed at college. My parents didn’t really say anything but asked lots of questions. Years later, I asked my dad why he didn’t tell me that it was a bad idea. He responded with the rhetorical question, “At the time, would you have cared what I thought?”

I don’t know about Bronwynne, but our fighting never really bothered me. My only concern was getting from her what I wanted. The arguments were the cost of doing business, I assumed. As we both began to increasingly sink into altering our minds, we became strangers with shared memories. By the time our marriage ended a little over three years later, we didn’t even know each other.

In the meantime, we built whatever relationship we had on our mutual rebellion against our pasts. In some ways, her job at WMUU made that easier. It’s easier to rebel if you have a foil.

At the time, she still considered herself a Christian. Frankly, I didn’t really care what she considered herself to be so long as she didn’t allow any standards and rules stand in the way of what I wanted to do. There was little chance of that happening, though.

Usually hungover from the night before, she would drag herself to the daily devotions that opened the workday at WMUU. Since her job was selling radio ads, she wasn’t really required to be in the office. After making an appearance, she would return to our apartment and we would laugh at the gullibility of her bosses while we mocked that morning’s devotions. She would then go back to bed; I would watch movies until it was time for me to go to my delivery job at a Pizza Inn.

At the beginning of the summer, we attended a BJU approved church. We did so because we were worried about her BJU bosses becoming suspicious.

Our conversations after attending church were usually centered on picking apart the sermon and finding reasons to dismiss it. Eventually, our conversation would turn to a mutual reinforcing of why our beliefs were correct and strict Christianity’s were bigoted. As the weeks wore on, we became increasingly vocally upset at the stance against things like abortion and homosexuality articulated by Christianity. It didn’t take long for us to begin ignoring the potential for her getting fired, and so we stopped going to church altogether.

One of the nice things about large churches with over a thousand members is that it’s easy to slip away and nobody notice. Nobody ever questioned us about our church attendance, or lack thereof. Nobody at her work ever took the time to inquire into her spiritual state, even when red flags were everywhere. The sad irony is that was the time during my post-college adulthood when I was the closest to Christians I would be until nearly years later and it was also the time in which I was confronted the least about my need to repent and place my faith in Jesus. The years following that summer saw Christians popping up in unexpected places to call me to repentance and faith. However, I can’t remember a single instance throughout the summer of 1998 when anyone asked me if I was a Christian. And, outside of my parents, I can’t remember a single individual that year who told me that they were praying for me, much less shared the gospel with me. My point? We should never assume that the quiet couple sitting in one of our pews are Christians.

By the end of that summer, I had begun to embrace a cognitive atheism. The writings of Bertrand Russell and others had begun to work on me. No longer content to simply dismiss the faith of my parents, I began to openly embrace the opposing worldview. Before 1998 concluded, I had also booked my first theatre gig.

Less than a year after my career as a BJU student had ended, I had discovered and embraced hedonism, finally jettisoned Christianity completely, and started my acting career. As 1998 closed, I believed that I was destined for fame, fortune, and all the pleasures that I could ever dream of. Sin is pleasurable for a season, after all. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my season of embracing the darkness without any real cost was quickly coming to an end. I had no way of knowing that around the bend of my life’s journey lay years of pain. Apart from the victory found in Christ, sin will always have the last laugh.

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