After we finished our read-through of the Bible in my ordination class last month, we decided to take it easy for a while. Take a break from the insane pace and piles of studying we’d been doing for over two years and just spend some time talking. So, for the past several weeks, we’ve been taking turns telling our stories. Who we are, where we come from, how we got here. What we think. What we believe. It’s been such an interesting and enlightening exercise getting to know each other in such an intimate way.
I worked for days putting mine together. I wanted to hit all the important details, but also have a thread that tied the whole thing together. Part of what we were required to do was define a metaphor for our spiritual views… a picture of how we see the world and how our faith fits into that idea.
If I had been asked that question ten years ago, maybe even five years ago, it would have been easy. Something about spiritual discipline, exercise, how working hard will get you where you need to be, spiritually-speaking. But I’m not really that person anymore. My life, and my outlook, has a lot more grey than black and white.
I took my turn before I read this book, sadly. It would have made the process a lot easier. Or, if nothing else, reminded me that I’m not alone on this road.
Jesus Girls is a collection of essays about “growing up female and evangelical”. It’s a book of women, like me, who came of age in the church and have had something of a complicated relationship with it ever since. Some have reconciled, some have not, but they all have a story to tell. And not a black and white, right and wrong story. A real story.
Like this, from Anne Dayton, that I’m pretty sure she wrote while looking INTO MY BRAIN. She writes how it felt to get involved in church as a teenager with a family that didn’t find it as… appealing as she did. (It is taking all the self control I have not to type out the entire essay, just FYI.)
I was hooked. With the fervency of a new believer, I threw myself into youth group. I started coming every Wednesday night and promptly developed a crush on one of the boys. I soon felt very comfortable there, but no matter how many weekend retreats and campouts I went on, I knew almost instinctually that I could never quite fit in. I hadn’t been in Sunday school with them since nursery. They all seemed to have this vast and secret knowledge of song lyrics that I could never hope to acquire. They listened to the right music – Michael W. Smith and Stephen Curtis Chapman and Amy Grant, and later Audio Adrenaline and the Newsboys – not Mariah Carey and Nirvana and Weezer. In short, they had a carefully filtered world filled with positive influences and inspirational media that would lead them along the way everlasting. I had a family who watched PBS on Sunday mornings.
My family listened to America’s Country Countdown on Sunday mornings, but the rest of it sounds very familiar. It didn’t have anything to do with my family, or, really, with the youth group specifically. I just had such a desire to belong. There is nothing worse than being fifteen and feeling like an outsider.
I wanted someone to give me a True Love Waits ring. I craved one of those “Go Against the Flow” t-shirts.
But I never got any of those things. Mostly, I think, because I never bothered to ask. And to this day, I’m not really sure why. My parents are not selfish ogres, nor are they anti-church. They never denied me much.
I guess it somehow didn’t occur to me to ask my parents to buy these things for me. Part of my reticence was a shyness, a sense that religion was a private affair, and that talking about it was deeply revealing and embarrassing. Even in church, I couldn’t work up the courage to pray out loud; prayer was something I did in the quiet space of my mind. We rarely talked about God in my house. The one time my mom suggested I pray over a Thanksgiving dinner, I was so self-conscious I just shook my head and started eating.
I’m sure there was also a certain sense of guilt involved, as if embracing the Christian subculture was rejecting the mainstream world my family lived in, and thus, them.
In Kari’s review of the same book, she talks about the idea of testimony and how we were taught early on that ours needed to be compelling so as to win more people over to Christ. That was never an idea I was comfortable with, partially because I didn’t really feel like it was my job to convince people to believe, and partially because my story wasn’t all that interesting. I wasn’t a drug addict or a gang member or a prostitute before Jesus found a place in my life. He didn’t turn my life around, he came alongside me on the path I was already taking.
Instead, my story is about finding room at the table for everyone. I had the idea that Christians were all the same shape, and you better squeeze and contort yourself until you fit the mold. Now I understand that we are all who we are because that’s who we’re supposed to be, because we are made in the image of God and there’s a lot more to who he is than we can imagine. I understand that faith is personal, and unique, and that it has very little to do with listening to the right music or wearing the right clothes or having the right job.
But even though I was stuck with parents who drank wine with dinner and believed in science, they allowed me space to be who I wanted, and they tried to encourage a healthy balance between my “church things” an the rest of my world. In other words, they were always trying to get me to lighten up.
College is a time when you’re supposed to refocus your view of the world. My Christian friends were questioning the narrowness of the culture they had been brought up in, and many started rebelling against the parents who had sheltered them in the bubble of Christian pop culture. I, on the other hand, was looking at the choices I had made and wondering if maybe my parents might have been right all along.
And the reason I can understand those things is not because of the church, at least not the church as I knew it in high school and college. It’s because of the family I was born into, the one that taught me to love the Beatles and Fleetwood Mac and Sunday morning breakfast, and also how to think for myself and be independent and not let someone else dictate who I am.
They were teaching me the lessons that would later define both the faith I cling to and the way I teach the teenagers in the youth group I am now in charge of. I just didn’t see it at the time.