Oct/Nov 2008 Nonfiction

I Was a Teenage Fundamentalist

by Kevin Brown

My mother loves to tell the story of me as a child, probably about six or eight years old, preaching to the other neighborhood children on our back porch until they would get tired of listening and wander off to play somewhere. I also carried my Bible around whenever I thought I was going to be beaten up; I believed that no one would hit someone carrying a Bible, and I was right. I never had a fight, even when someone was looking for me specifically to beat me up, when I had the Bible, though I took many a beating when I was caught without it.

Most people I know who ever embraced a fundamentalist approach to Christianity blame it on their parents. Many of them were in ultra-conservative churches growing up, some of them even in cults, and they look back on their time with distaste and, often, pure hatred. I, on the other hand, have no one to blame for my following the path of fundamentalism. My parents not only did not push me down this path, but they thought I was weird for following it at all. The church we attended while I was growing up was a mainstream Presbyterian church. Thus, I do not look back on my time with anything other than bemusement at how I ended up there in the first place, and, in fact, there are many positive outcomes from the time (the most obvious being a knowledge of the Bible that most liberals cannot even begin to approach).

I should take just a moment to point out what is usually meant by fundamentalism in Christian circles. The main distinction between a fundamentalist and a mainliner is the approach to the Bible. Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is the absolute Word of God, without error, while mainliners believe that the Bible is inspired by God, but written by fallible men who were influenced by their culture. Traditionally, fundamentalists focus on law: one does the right things and one gets into heaven. This should not be confused with earning one's salvation, though; it is often believing the right things more than doing the right things. You must believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that he died for your sins, and you must repent (and be baptized in certain denominations) in order to be saved. Mainliners focus more on the love aspect of God, believing that God's love is wide enough to cover the mistakes we're going to make, even in the case of believing the wrong things about God. None of this should imply that fundamentalists ignore God's love or that mainliners ignore doctrine; it's just that the emphasis is on each of these aspects of Christianity in these two camps.

I was never told that the Bible was inerrant, but I somehow came to believe it, as I came to believe many other things that I had never been taught. When I was quite young (around six or eight again), a friend asked me what I thought about suicide. I told him that suicide was wrong and that if you committed suicide, then you would go to hell. No one ever taught me that, not my parents nor anyone in my church, but I was sure that it was correct. Somehow, then, I came to conclusions completely on my own with no background whatsoever. This continued when I made the leap from simply being interested in Christianity to becoming a fundamentalist.

I can still tell you the date that change occurred: March 12, 1985. There was no particular lead-in to the event itself. I hadn't been feeling particularly religious before then; in fact, if anything, my interest in religion had seriously waned. I was a freshman in high school, and religion was simply something I did on Sundays by then. My parents wanted me to go to a catechism class that the minister was teaching, but I wanted to play basketball with my friends. I went to a few of the classes, but I never completed them; I did have a great deal of fun playing basketball, though.

What did happen in the week preceding March 12, though, is that my friend, Kenneth, the one from the "holy" family, asked me who my favorite contemporary Christian band was. What is most interesting to me about his question is that he assumed two things: 1) I knew what contemporary Christian music was, and 2) I listened to it enough to have a favorite band. My answer illustrated that he was wrong on both of his assumptions; I told him that my favorite contemporary Christian band was the Statler Brothers. I was raised on country music, so when I had to name any band who sang anything resembling Christian music, they seemed my best guess, as the Oak Ridge Boys didn't sing about God with quite the same regularity.

He then informed me that there was such a thing as contemporary Christian music, though he didn't explain what it was. He proceeded to tell me that Steve Camp, a contemporary Christian musician, was coming to town for a concert, and he asked me if I would like to go. Since my interest in religion had considerably waned by this point, I wasn't thrilled with the idea of attending anything remotely Christian, but he was a good friend, and I liked doing things with him, and I had never been to a concert before. I still didn't agree at that point, as I told him that I wanted to talk to my girlfriend first. She, knowing more about Christian music than I did, agreed readily.

You can probably already guess what happened. I went to the concert and enjoyed the music, though I really don't believe I understood any of the theology contained within the songs. I do recall one that referred to Jesus as a U.F.O. (the lyrics were something like "he's an unidentified flying object, and he's coming to save the world"), but it wasn't the songs that had the effect. Camp spoke near the end of the concert, and he asked people to stand if they'd like to be saved (which I didn't feel I needed, as I had been going to church my entire life) or if they'd like to re-dedicate their lives. At the last point, I felt considerable guilt. What had I been doing for God lately? Nothing. Thus, I stood, a move that certainly surprised my girlfriend, though she held my hand tightly and smiled beatifically at me, and I went backstage to get an autograph and tell Camp of my decision. He was polite and encouraging, but as there was a line of people, there was not much more he could have been.

I should point out at this juncture that I was not a wild teenager before this night. I have no dramatic story of God pulling me away from drinking or drugs or even tobacco. I didn't cause my parents trouble; I was always home when I said I was going to be home, or I called to be sure it was fine for me to come home late; I had never taken a drink, smoked a cigarette, or dipped tobacco, which was the popular activity where I lived. Perhaps if I would have had some bad behaviors in my life for God to have straightened out, I wouldn't have turned the way I did.

Since I had nothing terrible in my life to give up, I gave up rock 'n' roll. After all, I reasoned ("reasoned" is probably way too strong of a word), it was Christian rock that had saved me, and what had secular (as I learned non-Christian music was called) music done for me? Again, no one told me that I should quit listening to secular music; in fact, all of my friends, even the one who took me to the concert and my girlfriend who otherwise supported my decision, listened to secular bands. And not only did I quit listening to it, I tried to avoid it anywhere I went. I wore headphones on the bus so that I could listen to my music rather than the secular music played on the radio, and I hated listening to it whenever I rode to or from school with my friends. I remember becoming furious at my friends once because the played a Quiet Riot tape in my boombox (it was the 80s, remember) because secular music had never been played on that system.

At school, I developed a reputation for my dislike of rock 'n' roll music. Growing up in the South, though, there is a great deal of tolerance for strong religious beliefs, as long as they're within the realm of Christianity. Thus, I became a leader of the Prayer Club, the largest club in the school. Seldom, though, did I speak of rock music there; instead, people would ask me about it, as they did in Kenneth's youth group. One of the other leaders recognized this as a problem, though, and he wrote in my junior year yearbook, "Don't let the hatred of rock 'n' roll music outweigh the love of Jesus Christ." I thought he was wrong, of course, and I didn't pay much attention to it. The next year, I became the leader of the Prayer Club, and, oddly enough, one of the most well-known kids in the school. I also planned to go to Milligan College, a college in the Christian churches / Churches of Christ (as they are known), where I would study either math or Bible (I thought of being a youth minister, not surprisingly).

I would be remiss, though, if I let you believe that I was only adamant about the evils of rock 'n' roll. No, I believed that many things were evil. Cursing (or "cussing," as we called it) was definitely not something that should be done, and I even tried to shed myself of saying "geez," "shoot," and "friggin," as they were all merely replacements for cussing.

I also saw the evil in drinking. I probably could have told you then that the Bible said nothing at all about drinking in and of itself (though it did say that your body is a temple of God, and you should take care of that temple, and nobody thought alcohol had any positive effects back then), but I knew what it could lead to. Thus, I tried to avoid eating at establishments that served alcohol or frequent any type of business that sold it. However, I worked at Kroger, which sold more beer than you would think, and my favorite restaurant was a Pizza Hut that served beer. Needless to say I did not last very long at this attempt. I did, though, once run out of gas on my way to church because I refused to buy gas from a gas station near my house because they sold beer. Even I wondered why God would allow me to suffer for doing something so noble.

And then there was sex. I read more books on Christian dating than I would care to admit, and they actually taught me a good bit about dating that I still remember. I recall reading that men should walk on the outside when walking on a sidewalk, just in case a car splashes water or mud when it drives by. Also, I remember learning that you should not look into your handkerchief after you blow your nose. Of course, I didn't read books on Christian dating for those insights; I read to find out how far I could go on a date without sinning, as the Bible is notoriously vague on this issue. But what I really wanted was to be told that what I was doing with girls was perfectly acceptable. After all, I thought, I'm not having sex, which I know is a sin, so everything else must be fine. The books were remarkably consistent, though, often using the same language: do not go below the neck or above the knee. I will readily confess now to breaking this rule repeatedly, and I suffered great amounts of guilt because of it (often telling a girl afterwards that we could no longer do such things, as they were sins, then trying my best to get her to let me do it again). I will, however, not confess to what exactly I did.

So, how did I begin to escape this type of thinking? It came in college, not surprisingly, but in a place where one might be surprised to find it happening. I did end up attending Milligan College, which billed itself as a liberal-arts college with a Christian emphasis. People outside of Christianity often think of such colleges as being nothing more than places of indoctrination, and I'm sure that some of them are. Milligan, however, was not one of those places. The professors there truly did want us to think, and they often made us do so even when we (or I, in this case) did not want to.

The first year began to break down my thinking, but not in any conscious way. I encountered Christians who believed quite differently from me on almost all of the issues mentioned above. I had a late night argument with a friend about whether or not Christians could cuss (I won that argument by falling back on the argument, "Would Jesus do it?" years before the What Would Jesus Do? movement ever came about). I knew people at the school were drinking and having sex, and our dorm even had a yearly cigar party. I felt that I was surrounded by sinners, and I considered leaving for a Bible college just over an hour away. Luckily, my friend from the cussing argument had a friend who was attending that school who came to visit. When I complained to him of the sin that abounded at Milligan, he told me that the same thing happened where he went to school. I was honestly shocked. I could not believe that potential ministers would live in such a way. Thus, I simply endeavored to live better myself.

In the same way that I can remember when my days as a fundamentalist began, I can also remember when they began to come to an end. I do not remember the date, but I do remember the class. I was taking Sophomore humanities from Dr. Terry Dibble, a professor I hated. I had tried not to get in his class for a second semester after pulling a "C-" from him in the first semester of the course. However, his was the only class open, save for an 8:00 class, which I desperately avoided. I am unable to remember the subject we were actually supposed to be discussing, a note to all teachers out there who think that staying on the subject is the most important aspect of teaching, but I can still remember the question he asked me. Dibble loved to pick on Bible majors, and he had done so mercilessly throughout the previous semester. As I was never one to keep my opinions to myself, he had plenty to work with.

On this particular day, we came to the subject of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Dibble asked what I thought was a terribly easy question: "Why were Adam and Eve kicked out of the garden?"

I raised my hand (I was always such a model student) and responded, "Because they disobeyed God."

"Really?" he said. "Are you sure about that?"

I replied that I was, but he told me that it was because God was afraid that they would become like Him. I couldn't believe he said such a thing, and I told him so. He told me to go look it up when I got back to my room. I did, and here it is from Genesis 3:22-23: "And the Lord God said, 'The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.' So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken."

At that point, I realized that everything I believed, whether it was taught to me by someone else or if I simply formulated it on my own, could very well be wrong, and I had to re-examine everything I believed. Over the next two years of college and one year into graduate school, I did just that. Unfortunately, what happened to me was all too common: I put my faith in reason to the same extent that I had put it in my view of Christianity before; thus, I ended up leaving the church because it didn't measure up to my rational standards.

Luckily, I have learned to integrate both aspects of my life now, finding room for faith and reason and exploring where they overlap and where they contradict, knowing that either of them could be wrong and need adjustment. But I don't regret leaving the church, just as I don't regret the time I spent being a fundamentalist. I can now look at the church with the eyes of an outsider and question practices and beliefs that need questioning, but I can do so with a Biblical knowledge that an outsider can't even begin to approach. I'm thankful for my days of dogmatism, though I'm sorry for the people I hurt because of those beliefs, and I'm thankful for my days of atheism, though I'm sorry for time not spent doing good through work in the church.

My current job is as an English professor at a Pentecostal university (Church of God, to be exact), and I see students who remind me way too much of the young adult I used to be. They are afraid of the world and all the evil it contains, believing that their faith is a tightrope, that if they take the wrong step, they will fall off and be doomed for eternity. What I have learned in my journey, though, is that you can turn cartwheels on that rope, for God is the net that resides below us, just waiting to catch us when we fall, and fall we will. That is now the fundamental belief of my life.


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