A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 13 “The Unraveling Begins”

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

As 2002 began, I found myself living in Atlanta, GA. Over the previous three years, I had made some minor alterations to my grand plans. Having fallen in love with performing on stage, my goal was no longer to become a movie star. I was now focused on a career as a theatre actor. And from my perspective, I was on the cusp of achieving all my goals. My life was going great.

My Christian upbringing was a distant memory that rarely troubled me. At parties and rehearsals, I would often mention that my dad was a fundamentalist Baptist minister to the great delight of those around me. I would regale them with tales from my time as a student at a Christian school and BJU, and they would chortle at my mocking depictions of people from my past.

As an avowed atheist and Marxist, faith was an object of scorn. The few professing Christians that wandered in and out of my social and theatre circles quickly learned to keep their faith to themselves when around me. Armed with a fundamentalist Christian education, I knew the Bible inside and out and loved to needle professing Christians with the book’s contradictions and gross moral lapses. I may not have been a fundamentalist Christian, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for proselytizing. Instead of preaching repentance and faith, I preached hedonism and skepticism.

And, so, by 2002, I had grown into my desired lifestyle. The depravity that had been new and seemed so scary yet fascinating to me in 1998 had become a normal part of my life. I was no longer the timid Christian school kid afraid of being found out as a fraud. Depravity fit like a glove, and I wore it comfortably.

I was also active in liberal organizations like PETA, Amnesty International, and Adbusters. While I would’ve angrily pushed back on this claim at the time, I was finding my salvation in progressive activism. All in all, four years after my last semester at BJU, I had managed to scrub fundamentalism from my life and reinvent myself as the exact opposite of what my parents had hoped and prayed for me when I was born in 1975. Whenever I was with my parents, which was infrequent by my design, I found the immense pain in my mom’s eyes amusing and prided myself on having escaped the silly mythology that controlled her life.

Now, as a parent who prays daily for his children, I can’t imagine the agony that my mom took to bed with her every night. But in 2002, I didn’t care; I loved my life. I had freed myself from God.

Not long into the new year, two important events happened. My marriage ended, and I was cast in the role of Tom in The Glass Menagerie, one of my dream roles. Over 200 actors auditioned for it, and, honestly, I was surprised when I got the call offering me the part.

As to my marriage, the handwriting had been on the wall even before we were married (not to mention my confession in the previous chapter). The morning of our wedding found us screaming at each other because I wanted to go play basketball with my buddies and she wanted me to help her parents take wedding stuff to the church. I played basketball and we got married that evening. Three and a half years later, I spent most nights on the couch after we were both worn out from fighting over whatever we happened to be fighting about that evening. So, when I walked out our apartment door for the last time, I was relieved. By no means does my emotional response to my marriage finally ending justify any of it; I was a horribly selfish, unempathetic husband, and I realize that now. However, in 2002, walking out the door meant walking into complete freedom. Having landed the best acting gig of my life helped.

On top of being one of my dream roles, the job also paid me more than I had ever made up to that point working in theatre. Interestingly, Bob Jones University played an unwitting role in me landing the part.

Before submitting my resume, I considered scrubbing BJU off it. At the time, the university was still suffering the repercussions from the controversy over their interracial dating ban that they dropped in 2000. During his presidential campaign about two years earlier, George W. Bush had visited the school, setting off a media firestorm. By early 2002, the fury had died down some, but I still wondered if having BJU on my resume would hurt me. Not really having anything else education wise to replace it with, BJU remained. A week after submitting my headshot and resume, I received an invite to the audition.

One day during a rehearsal, I asked the director, a gay man based out of New York City, why he had invited me to the closed audition. To my surprise, he said that it was because I had gone to BJU. Taken aback, I asked what he meant.

“I’d never met anyone from BJU,” he replied, “and was curious.”

The play’s run went great. I received rave reviews for my depiction of Tom, had moved in with the actress playing Laura, and was finally making enough money as an actor to no longer need a side job. What’s more, I had already signed the contract for my next acting gig. As far as I was concerned, all my angst, doubts, and insecurities were safely in my past. I was finally myself, living by my rules, accomplishing my dreams and goals on my terms. In my mind, the God of my parents was finally dead.

A common theme throughout many of the great tragedies of ancient literature is the destructiveness of hubris. As a lover of literature, I knew that but failed to see the foreshadowing in my own life. As someone who was immersed in play analysis, I tended to view life through the lens of a three-act structure. What’s more, as someone who also tended to view life in overly dramatic terms, I should’ve been assuming that I was only in the beginning of my Act 2; that my hubris would soon be clashing with the primary conflict of my life’s story.

But, as the great tragedies of literature teach, hubris blinds. What’s more, as the Bible reveals, the heart is deceitful and sin blinds with a blindness that only Jesus can heal.

I entered the summer of 2002 with a level of arrogance unmatched in my life’s story, before or after. Thankfully, by the end of that year, God, in His mercy, had begun to break me.

By the time rehearsals for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, my next gig, had started, I needed a new place to live. My “relationship” with my previous cast mate had run its course. That was fine with me – new show, new actresses.

My new director helped me procure a room in a house owned by a Delta pilot. The house was large, and each room was rented out to a different individual. When he was in town, the owner occupied the master suite.

I realize that as an actor I kept weird hours, but during my three months living there, outside of my landlord, I never saw any of my roommates; I heard them, but never saw a single one of them. To this day, that fact remains a mystery to me. And a mystery that ended up playing a role during that summer in an unexpected manner, but more on that in a bit.

As the weeks wore on, I was enjoying teaching acting classes during the day, rehearsals in the evening, and partying at night. From my perspective, it was shaping up to be a great summer after having had a great winter and spring. Part of what made it great was the financial freedom that my theatre teaching gigs afforded me. I found myself with more free time during the day than what I was accustomed. To help pass the time, I began sitting in the library, hours on end, reading.

Prior to that summer, The Metamorphosis was the only work by Kafka that I had read. That summer, I devoured The Castle but it was The Trial that really resonated with me.

There was something about the sense of disconnectedness, unspecified feeling of guilt, and increasing alienation and hopelessness suffered by Josef K., the novel’s protagonist, that felt familiar. I was so captivated by the book that I read it again upon finishing it the first time. I didn’t understand Kafka’s unfinished book (I probably still don’t), but, at the same time, The Trial made sense to me. Even though I couldn’t explain it, I felt like in many ways I was K.

About that same time, for some reason (well, “for some reason” assuming my 2002 perspective), I started to become obsessed with dying. As in, I became terrified of dying. Whenever I would drive by the Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, my eyes would scan the skies. With my eyes trained upwards, I would think that statistically speaking a plane was due to crash; I would then convince myself that there was a high probability that my car would be under whichever plane fell out of the sky. Considering that I was more concerned about what was going on in the skies above me then what was happening on I-85 around me, it’s only God’s grace that I didn’t die in a car crash that summer.

Pairing with my new, growing fear of death, I also began contemplating the nothingness that awaited me after death. Previously, I had never given much thought to the absence of afterlife that was a part of my atheism. Upon thinking about it, though, I found it troubling. The thought of ceasing to exist was depressing, especially if I ceased to exist at the ripe old age of almost 27. But, the non-existence of an afterlife was an atheistic dogma that I held dear. Death and its subsequent non-existence may be horrible, I thought, but that’s the way of an impersonal universe. Better to live and die enlightened than to live and die trapped by a silly superstition.

The seeming emptiness of the house in which I lived had also begun to weirdly play on me. Whenever I was at the house and awake, usually late at night or during the mid-morning, there was evidence of people living there but never any sight of other humans. I began to feel as if I was in a community that I wasn’t allowed to see.

By myself, before drifting off to sleep in the eerily quiet house, I began to think nostalgically about friends from my youth. Frequently high, I would have conversations with people from my past. Often those conversations turned into me defending my current lifestyle and beliefs against the imagined questions of those who had once poured a lot of time, energy, and love into my life. Eventually, I would fall asleep, slightly troubled by my curious need to defend myself during imagined conversations. However, in the morning, with the sun streaming through the windows, I would give no thought to my previous night’s questions and feelings.

During that time, while we were still in rehearsals, the assistant director threw a cast party at her house. It was a stereotypical cast party and most of the cast and production crew were there. There was plenty of alcohol, of course, but the presence of minors meant that the party remained bland. It was obvious that half of the people were scheming about how to politely make their exit so that they could make it to a better party that wasn’t bogged down by the presence of minors. Most of the other half were scheming about how to politely exit because they weren’t really into parties. In other words, it was a polite yet boring party. Eventually, only the assistant director, one of the theatre’s college interns, and I remained.

Christine, the intern, had caught my eye at the first rehearsal. While we flirted quite a bit during rehearsals, the professional cast and the interns remained fairly segregated, especially outside of rehearsal. That party was the first time we spent any real time together away from work. After about an hour, the assistant director, possibly realizing that she was a third wheel in her own house, or just bored and ready for bed, excused herself, leaving Christine and I alone in her living room.

As we talked, sharing stories about our pasts, learning about each other, I quickly became aware of how lonely she was, and how much baggage she was carrying from her past. She had recently moved to Atlanta from California and didn’t have very many friends in the area. I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone as desperately lonely as she was. She was also in an incredible amount of pain, having moved to Atlanta to escape her abuser. Shamefully, I’m afraid that she escaped one abuser only to find another kind of abuser. Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time.

Quickly doing the “relationship math” in my head as we sat close together on the couch, I concluded that the quickest way to getting her into bed was to steer into the points of contact I had with her because of my disconnectedness from my past. I shared how my current life caused a relational separation between me and my family. “Oh,” I insisted, “my family loves me, but they don’t understand me, and I can’t really talk to them about anything.”

The conversation became mutually reinforced tales of woe about how everyone from our past, family and friends, had no part in our current lives. As we talked, a strange thing happened; I began to realize how incredibly lonely I was. Realizing that I didn’t have a single person who really knew me to which I could confide my hopes, dreams, and fears, someone to intimately share my life with, and not just my actions, I began to despair.

I fought it, but for the first time in years, memories of past teachers, preachers, and other authority figures who had genuinely cared about me flooded into my mind. It dawned on me that, in many ways, even though I was surrounded by friends, I didn’t have a single person in my life who cared about me as much as my old BJU dorm supervisor, for example. I also began to become aware that I wasn’t building anything in my life that mattered apart from me. For the first time, maybe ever and at least in a long time, the nothingness of my life began to reveal itself. Sitting on the couch, in the middle of trying to seduce a female, I began sobbing.

Looking back on it, the moment makes sense. For years, I had alienated myself from real relationships as I pursued my completely self-centered goals. That moment was merely the release (the beginning of the release) of my need for transcendence, both in relationships and a purpose for life. During the moment, though, I was mortified at myself and my inability to control my emotions. And I didn’t understand what was happening.

Still in the committed thralls of building my own Tower of Babel, I later turned that moment into my advantage. That night, as I cried, Christine cried, too. The next morning, as I readied myself to drive her to her apartment, I realized that my “embarrassing” emotional breakdown had inadvertently worked in my favor. She had connected with me on an emotional level that I hadn’t known that I had wanted until that night.

To be fair (a little) to myself, at that point, I had started to weary of one-night stands and wanted a real relationship. I did like Christine and eventually actually cared for her, although never more than I cared for myself. She became the first real relationship that I’d had in years. Sadly, among other obvious sin issues, it was a relationship so weighed down by baggage that it quickly became toxic. Among other ways, that toxicity manifest itself in my burning desire to destroy any religious impulses she expressed.

When we first started hanging out, she had just started attending a large, non-denominational evangelical church. Most likely, it was because she was lonely. Not long into our growing yet still undefined relationship, she happily told me about the new friends she was making in the young singles Sunday school class she had started attending. I scoffed.

She had only a vaguely religious background and was utterly unprepared to handle my onslaught on her burgeoning religious beliefs. As she would excitedly tell me what her new friends were teaching her, I would explain to her how it was all rubbish and basically fairy tales made up by ancient illiterates who had little to no understanding of how the universe works. I took great delight in showing her contradictions in the Bible and pointing out the ways in which a Biblical worldview had no place in a tolerant society.

It didn’t take long for her to stop going to church. By the time we parted ways two years later, I had converted her to atheism. The early morning after that party, though, I was less concerned about her worldview and more concerned about the onslaught of loneliness that had overcome me the night before. While it was true that my loneliness had been the entry point for my relationship with Christine, I was still surprised and unnerved to discover its existence.

However, and somewhat mixing two metaphors, you can’t put toothpaste back into the tube and so the Band-Aid covering my loneliness and angst was ripped off. Over the next two years, my pain festered and grew. At the time, even whenever Christine and I were together, a deep sense of incompleteness and alienation from, well, something, began to increasingly gnaw at me. Whenever I was by myself, I began to experience what would eventually become the norm – alone at night, my loneliness gradually became suffocating. By the time I finally bowed the knee in repentance before God through faith in Jesus, nights alone had become physically painful. That extreme was still in my future, though. Regardless of how bad it was going to get, during that summer my “great life” began to feel less great. Adding to my confusion, before that summer ended the first shot across the bow of my atheism was fired – the first shot, from a human perspective, that is.

One late night, while alone in my room, a radio suddenly began blaring down the hall. Curious, I got up and opened the door to my room. As soon as the door opened, the music stopped. I found that odd but assumed that an unseen roommate had turned his radio on and off. I closed the door, but as soon as I did, the music began blaring again. As you can probably guess, upon quickly opening the door, the music again stopped.

Puzzled, I closed the door and sat back down on my bed as the music began playing again. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, I barged out of my room and into the dark hallway. No lights and no sound greeted me.

Curiously and somewhat cautiously making my way down the darkened hallway, I began flipping on light switches. The direction that the music had come from was a communal area that was always empty. That night was no different. I inspected the stereo system the landlord had provided, switched it on, and was greeted by the same music. Unable to find some sort of an alarm clock on the stereo that could provide an explanation for what had happened, my mind considered the options.

My rational, materialistic mind immediately assumed that a roommate had been in the room but had left. On one hand, that seemed to be the most plausible explanation. On the other hand, it still didn’t make complete sense. Or, really, any sense. I mean, each time I had swung my door open, the house was pitch black with no sound. Obviously, none of my roommates had been in that room switching the stereo on and off. But at the end of that conclusion’s road lay mythical nonsense, I believed, so I made my way down the stairs and inspected the first floor. Nothing.

The next day, I laughed about it during a break from teaching improvisation to fourth graders. My co-teacher, an actress in the show with me, was horrified. “That sounds like an evil spirit trying to unbalance your energy,” she gravely warned.

After brushing off my explanation about how there’s no such thing as evil spirits and/or ghosts, she offered to make me a special dreamcatcher that if I hung on my doorknob would protect me from evil spirits. I told her thanks, but no thanks, regretting having told her about what had happened.

My regret proved prescience because she never let me forget about it for the rest of the summer as she continuously begged me to accept her dreamcatcher. The thing that was the most annoying about the whole deal was, that from time to time, I found myself wondering if there was more to it than science or logic could explain. And on many nights, I found myself wishing that I had accepted that dream catcher. I didn’t allow myself to entertain such “nonsensical” thoughts for long, though. I was an atheist, after all.

To be clear, as a follower of Jesus, I still do not believe in ghosts. However, I do believe in Satan and other fallen angels. I am no longer a materialist and, so, I believe in the immaterial world. That being said, you will be hard pressed to get me to voice a belief about what happened that night. Frankly, on a personal level, I don’t really care what happened; I’m just thankful that it happened. I relate the anecdote because whatever was going on, it played a small part, at least, in beginning to shoehorn the immaterial world into my purely materialistic worldview. Over the subsequent years, prior to my salvation, while I laughed it off, a tiny part of me was still troubled by what happened that night. If it was one of my unseen roommates playing with the radio for some odd reason, I praise God for that. If it was something else, I praise God for that, too. I’ll leave it to the readers to form your own beliefs about what actually happened that night. I’ll say this, though, that wasn’t the last time over the next two years that something weird and unexplainable happened to me.

As the summer of 2002 closed, and as my loneliness grew, I found myself navel-gazing more and more about who I was and what I was doing. I also began to increasingly view moments from my fundamentalist Christian past through a lens of wistful nostalgia. Being in a committed relationship with someone who was constantly searching for answers and constantly attempting to figure out her place in the world affected me, too. As destructive and sinful as our relationship was, Christine confronted me with worldview level questions that I mistakenly believed I had already settled. Likewise, my newly found fear of death worked on the edges of my worldview. Entering the final months of 2002, my life was not nearly as tranquil as it was when the year had begun.

I also made a serious career misstep as A Midsummer Night’s Dream closed. I had been offered two acting gigs – one in Atlanta, the other back in Greenville, SC.

I can’t say for sure that my growing existential crisis played a part in returning to Greenville, SC, the home of BJU, but I also can’t say for sure that it didn’t. All I know is that for some dumb reason, I chose to take a gig for less money in a much smaller market in order to play the Big Bad Wolf in a touring company’s productions of a Little Red Riding Hood and The Three Little Pigs. At the time, I told myself that I was doing the director, whom I considered a friend, a favor. “Besides,” I believed, “Atlanta will be waiting for me after my contract’s up.”

Except, I didn’t factor in the industry’s incredibly short memory. By the time I was ready and able to return to Atlanta, I couldn’t get directors in Atlanta to return my phone calls. Having found other actors able to play the roles I was right for, they had moved on.

The tour quickly became tiring and artistically unsatisfying. Wearing a wolf costume while doing the Macarena on stage to rooms full of shrieking kids was a far cry from playing Tom in The Glass Menagerie. To make matters worse, the money was less than I had originally been offered. When the theatre’s financial manager sat me down and explained to me that the profit sharing part of my first contract would be illegal since the theatre was a not-for-profit organization (something I’m still not sure I understand), I felt like I didn’t have any other options but to allow him to tear up the initial contract and then sign the new contract. That change resulted in me making around four thousand dollars less than I had planned over the life of the four-month contract.

That may not sound like much money to most people with real jobs, but it’s a substantial amount of money when you’re a theatre actor. Because of that, I had to once again work a side job. I found a job bartending at a brew pub that was willing to work around my weekly touring schedule. That still wasn’t enough, so I also delivered pizzas during the days I wasn’t on the road. Those four months were some of the most grueling, work wise, of my life. Granted, different lifestyle choices would’ve allowed me to live on less money, but I wasn’t about to change my lifestyle.

One of the expensive lifestyle choices I made was taking the time and money to drive to Milledgeville, GA at least once a week to pick up Christine who was back at college, and then bring her back to my unfurnished apartment in Greenville. Often, I would finish a gig, drive the two and a half hours to pick her up, drive the two and half hours back, get a couple of hours of sleep, wake up and go deliver pizzas while she slept, and then take her to my bartending job that night. After my shift ended, usually around midnight or 1 am, I would drive her back to her dorm, spend the remainder of the night in her dorm room, and then wake up early in order to make it to my next gig or pizza delivery job on time, depending on the day.

If you thought it was exhausting reading those run-on sentences, imagine living those run-on sentences. The oft repeated enterprise was a lot of gas and meals on the road that I couldn’t afford, not to mention the lack of sleep.

By November, I was exhausted and sick of all three of my jobs. To make matters worse, Christine and I had begun arguing over our future together. She had begun talking about marriage and kids; I had turned my sights to the theatre market in Chicago and couldn’t really see myself bogged down with a family. Not having the energy, time, or resources to find another companion, I did my best to placate her without over committing myself.

One night, about a week before Thanksgiving, while making the return trip to Greenville after having picked her up, I wrecked my car.

I’m still not sure what happened, there’s a good possibility that being exhausted and high didn’t help, but I believed that a deer was standing in the middle of the road. Slamming on my brakes, I hit a patch of ice, I assumed, and skidded off the road into a pretty deep and wide ditch.

The front of my Pontiac Grand Am was firmly stuck in the ditch with the back tires off the ground. With my door wedged shut, I crawled out of Christine’s door behind her. Terrified and angry, she screamed at me. I tried to explain to her that I had been trying to avoid hitting a deer at sixty miles an hour. Peppering her speech with an overused obscenity, she screamed back, “What deer!? There was no deer!”

As she chewed me out for almost killing her, I began to doubt whether there was a deer or not. To my surprise, I also realized that there was no ice on the road.

I stood there and meekly took her profanity-laced insults because I had a more immediate problem than my car. Assuming I would end up in jail if a cop showed up on the scene while I was still high, I had enough presence of mind to implore her not to call 911 just yet. However, a few minutes later, a cop car pulled up anyway.

As the officer walked towards us, I rehearsed in my mind what I would say and reminded myself to be cool. He asked if we were all right. I told him that we were and then explained that I had swerved to miss a deer and lost control of the car.

He told us that he worked for the City of Athens and that since my car was sitting just outside the Athens city limits, we’d have to wait until a county deputy arrived. Although cold and miserable, I was relieved.

By the time the tow-truck wrenched my car out of the ditch, the sun was beginning to come up. I called in sick to work from the lobby of the garage as the mechanic worked on the front end of my car. By the end of the day, I was out money that I did not have to spend, and my car was still far from whole, needing expensive repairs to the lower control arm bushing. It was in good enough shape, sort of, to drive home, though. “Keep it below 30 miles an hour or so until you get it fixed,” the mechanic warned.

By the beginning of December, my bank account had been drained, my credit cards maxed out, and my car finally fixed. My rent was also due. I decided not to wait around for the eviction notice but didn’t really have anywhere to go. I had no real friends, and I obviously couldn’t move into Christine’s dorm room, although we did discuss the possibility.

Since both of my sisters lived in Greenville with their families, my parents came to town that Christmas. The day after bitterly explaining about my bad luck and how my insurance company refused to help with the car repairs (which is a story in and of itself), my parents handed me a check for two-hundred dollars, money that I knew that they couldn’t afford to give me, and my mom quietly suggested that I move back home.

“Until you get back on your feet,” she said.

Staring at the check and fighting back tears at their generosity, I agreed.

The next week, with all my earthly belongings stuffed inside my car, I stopped in Milledgeville on my way to Pensacola just long enough to blow that $200 partying with Christine.

Almost five years after I had left, for good, I had believed, I found myself back home.

Unlike 2002, the new year opened with my life headed in the wrong direction. I was broke, lonely, had no source of income, my theatre career was on-hold, and I was living in my parents’ house.

Unloading my car, I thought to myself, “At least it can’t get any worse.”

Boy, was I wrong.

3 thoughts on “A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter 13 “The Unraveling Begins”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s