Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween, Witchcraft, and Child Sacrifice

In the spirit of Halloween, I can think of nothing more bone-chilling than this video. I first viewed it a few years ago, but it still makes me shiver.

My parents never took me trick-or-treating, because Halloween glorified Satan and we served the Lord, Jehovah, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who loved us so much he offered his beloved and only son Jesus as a sacrifice on our behalf. Dad picked me up early from first grade on Halloween, so I wouldn't have to participate in the costumed parade down the sidewalk with the rest of the class. The next week I saw photos of my smiling friends, and my teacher, Mrs. Welch, dressed up as a bottle of grape juice and wondered what danger I had been protected from.

A year or two later, Mom hosted a neighborhood Thanksgiving-themed party as an alternative to Halloween Everyone dressed either as Pilgrims or Native Americans and Mom constructed a paper teepee in the living room. We even bobbed for apples. That was probably the year after we handed out Christian coloring books to trick-or-treaters. Every year afterward we turned out our porch light and stayed away from the front windows.

Not that we didn't have our own ghost stories. Just owning a Cabbage Patch doll, for example, could give demons access to your soul. Owl decor could prevent childbirth from progressing. Wearing a Buddha on a chain or playing with a Ouija board could open a person to demonic influence. God commanded his people to kill witches, which was why I had to exchange the copy of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe that I won as a Sunday School prize. The Witch of Blackbird Pond was permissible reading material, because the woman who was accused of witchcraft was really just a misunderstood Quaker.

My friends devoured Frank Peretti's novels of prayer warriors fighting demonic armies, though the books were too spooky for my mom to allow me to read them. I was an adult when Harry Potter arrived on the scene, but the stories of spells and magic were deemed inappropriate for Christians in most of my circles. Sorcery was nothing to make light of. The Bible likened the sin of rebellion to witchcraft, and if our legal system truly followed the Law of God, parents could have disobedient kids executed. As it was, we had to make do with spanking.

Today, stories like Isaac's make me shudder. They make me want to hug my children close and assure them that I will always fight for them--against gods, if need be. That it is my responsibility to protect and care for them and no one, not even a god, could convince me otherwise*.

*Any parent who does hear such a voice in their head needs to seek help, quickly, for their children's sake.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Journal Excerpt: Learned Passivity

This is what my 14-year-old self had to say on a long ago New Year's Eve:
What I’ve learned most this year:  God will provide for my every need. All I need and ever will is Him. Since His love is SO great, He’s the only Being I’ll ever need to be content and joyful. He wants what’s best for me, knows what is best, and will supernaturally take care of it. I don’t have to do anything, trying to make my plans work out. If I trust Him, He’ll show His power.

Just a few years earlier, I was an active girl with dreams and goals and ideas for the future. Dad wrote on my 6th grade homeschool report card that my "interest in spiritual things" was limited to "just the facts".

Somewhere between ages 12 and 14, I learned that I was to be passive, that I was to wait, that I was to be guided, led, and provided for by a supernatural being. That I didn't know what was good for me. That I didn't have to do anything.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ripples of Misogyny

The following intimate and insightful post is by Sean-Allen Parfitt and is reposted with his permission. Sean-Allen blogs at Of Pen and Heart, where this article first appeared on August 26,2013.

The reason I despise fundamental Christianity, as revealed to me in a dream

Recently there has been a series over at the Homeschoolers Anonymous blog, called “Voices of Sister-Moms”. I began reading the introductory post, but could not finish. My entire body was having a negative reaction. I mentioned this to some of my fellow LGBT Homeschooled friends, and they wisely suggested that I step away from the article till I could calm down. I was seriously angry, and had beginning symptoms of a minor panic/anxiety attack.

I was surprised at my reaction to the article.

After all, I am a male, the eldest in my family, who, in the patriarchal/quiverfull system, is in a position of privilege. It’s true that I was expected to do a lot of housework and helped homeschool the kids (see last Friday’s post), but I went to college, got a job, and was allowed to live my own life. (And by “my own life” I mean going to work and coming back home and going to church with the family and sometimes hanging out with friends.)

Well, in the last two years, I’ve come out of the closet, left the fundamentalism my family calls Christianity, meet many new kinds of people, and discovered that what I was taught isn’t necessarily the truth. I am in a relationship with another man, which is for me a clear illustration that the traditionally taught family dynamics are not the one true way. I have even begun to question Christianity itself.

But I couldn’t put my finger on either my anxiety when reading about the mistreatment of Christian girls or my strange negative reactions to other generic mentions of Christianity.

Why did I cringe when I saw a post on Twitter recommending a book about God’s love? Why do I skim past the tweets with Bible verses and references to good times at church?

I believe I got my answer in a dream I had Saturday night.

In my dream, I was visiting my father’s childhood church, which my family had begun re-attending. Mom was in a small-group discussion, and brother T was in the main sanctuary. I walked up to T, but he distinctly turned away without acknowledging me. Once Small Groups was over, Mom came back into the sanctuary. I began following her as she straightened the pews, talking to her. She was upset with me for living openly gay, and I was getting more and more angry with her as the conversation continued.

Then I exploded at her. This is very much out of character of me, as I have only raised my voice at her on a few occasions. I almost tremble is reverent fear of my mother, who has power to unleash unheard-of retribution. Or at least, that’s how I feel. So for me to yell at her actually took me by surprise in retrospect. But what I said to her showed me exactly what I had been feeling but had been unable to express before.

It was the very innermost turmoil that I had not been able to understand.

Do you know what I hate about Christianity?” I shouted at my mother, standing in the very sanctum of the religion I was at that very moment criticizing. “Do you know what it is that makes you unable to accept the fact that ‘I’m gay, and it’s OK’?” My mother just stood there, not replying. And then I said the word. Just one word, a simple 8 letters that encompass the root of my dissatisfaction with the religion in which I was raised, and which has caused irreparable pain to so many people. I opened my mouth, and with conviction, the word thundered through the church:

According to Wikipedia, “Misogyny /mɪˈsɒɪni/ is the hatred or dislike of women or girls.” When used in a religious context, it usually refers to the belief that women are the “weaker sex” (see I Peter 3:7) and are under the authority of men (see I Corintians 11:3and I Timothy 2:12). In practice, this means that women and girls are to be humble servants to men. Girls are groomed to become wives and mothers, and should not aspire to be successful on their own. They are to submit, never questioning their fathers, husbands, or pastors.

When I awoke from my dream, I was surprised at what my mind had expressed while I slept. However, upon reflection, I realized how so very true it is. Misogyny is at the heart of much of the pain I have experienced in my life.

It is the root of the pain that countless other women and gay men have felt.

Wait, sure, you can see how misogyny has caused incredible pain and discrimination for women, but how dare I include myself and other gay men in that category? This is the question I asked myself. But even though I did not express it verbally in my dream, I knew what the answer was.

One major argument used against unions between two men is the call to remember God’s biblical definition of marriage. Thus, marriage is commonly interpreted as a union between one man and one woman. Traditionalists maintain that the proper balance of power places the man in the position of leader and the woman in a submissive position. Women are expected to take care of the home, cleaning, cooking, shopping, teaching, raising children, making life easier for men, and providing sex on demand. Men are expected to go to work, provide money and housing, spiritually lead the family, and lead the family into ministry work.

With this in mind, it’s not hard to extrapolate the effects of misogyny onto gay men. If two men are in a relationship, who has what duty? Men aren’t supposed to do the women’s work. Who leads the family and makes the decision? Which one goes to work and which one cleans the house? In short, which one is the man and which one is the woman?

So many straight fundamentalists can’t grasp the idea that gay men are still men.

A flamboyant gay man is called effeminate and looked down on. When I came out to my mother over the phone, she prayed for me. In that prayer, she cried, saying that she didn’t want me to be her daughter; she wanted me to be her son. I have had several people ask me who is the man in Paul’s and my relationship.

Besides being entirely misguided, such notions and comments are very hurtful. I have been completely cut off from my family. My old friends have told me that we cannot fellowship anymore. They see me as a deviant from the natural order and desires. Because I don’t want to be with a woman. Because I don’t want to exercise headship over my partner. Because I like to engage in “feminine” pursuits such as sewing. Because I care what I look like and plan my outfits to coordinate. Because I wear earrings. Because I am “acting like a woman”, when I am really a man.

I admit I am not sure where I stand on the issue of Christianity. The pain and hurt I have received from the church has made me very wary of the religion of the Bible. When I see others facing the same discrimination I have, I become enraged. It is hard not to be bitter against the very religion that brought me up.

It’s a world of pain, hurt, and rejection, all because of one word: misogyny.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Do not withhold correction from a child,
For if you beat him with a rod, he will not die.
You shall beat him with a rod,
And deliver his soul from hell.
Proverbs 23:13-14

The problem, of course, is that children do die.

One Christian minister includes a disclaimer with his sermon on discipline: "Of course, you must not be too severe. It’s possible to beat a child to death." But even if their bodies survive, their spirits are wounded and something beautiful and trusting inside their hearts has died.

In recent weeks and months, numerous bloggers have discussed the abusive child training methods advocated by Michael Pearl. Below are just three examples of adult children reflecting on the way spanking was utilized in their homes.

Samantha, from her post "Raised to be a Monster":
What is so frightening about these teachings is that they blur the line so badly. They’re insidious, because to parents who have absolutely no desire to harm their children, these teachings, on the surface, seem alright. There seems to be cautious admonishments for parents to have discernment– all the while telling them that if you do not drive rebellion out of their heart you are damning their very soul.... Parents are sucked into viewing their child as the enemy– you are in a constant, never-ending battle for the fate of your child’s soul, and you cannot give up.  
Rochelle, in "When Love Means Hitting":
“I spank you because I love you” is the same thing as “I hit you because I love you.”
Saying this gives children confusing messages about what’s ok and what’s not ok. In fact, more than just abusing the child by hitting them, spanking tells the child that they are worthless and sets them up to more vulnerable to being in abusive situations their whole life, because they don’t know boundaries of abuse.

Quick Silver Queen, writing at The Eighth and Final Square: 
You know, the verse in Proverbs that says foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child but the rod of correction will drive it from him. And the verse that the heart is wicked and who can know it. So the first problem is, they don’t come to parenting with the view that these are people. They come to parenting with the view that these are wicked little sinners who need a radical change, whose thoughts and feelings and opinions and likes and dislikes don’t matter because it is all selfish willfulness.

My parents were taught about spanking as their Christian duty very early in their parenting when someone gave them the pamphlet "Children, Fun or Frenzy?", written by Al and Pat Fabrizio in the late 1960's and still a standard of parenting guidance in many Christian circles.
My obedience to God to train my child requires that every time I ask him to do something, either "come here," "don't touch," "hush," "put that down" - or whatever it is, I must see that he obeys. When I have said it once in a normal tone, if he does not obey immediately, I must take up the switch and spank him enough to hurt so he will not want it repeated. Love demands this.
It wasn't long before we all knew the biblical arguments for spanking. "I'm doing this because I love you", my dad would say earnestly as he pulled out his belt or a wooden spoon. After all, "He who spares the rod hates his son..." (Prov. 13:24) and "whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives."
"For what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons." (Hebrews 12:7-8)
When Dad spanked us, the session usually ended with prayer. Spanking was a common subject of conversation when we got together with other homeschooling families. Out of earshot of our parents, we would compare experiences and swap tricks for getting more leniency. At our house, Mom spanked harder, and longer. She thought not crying was a sign of resistance and pride. But screaming at the top of our lungs didn't seem to lessen the spanking's severity.

Some years later the whole family sat through a series of evening lectures at the local Mennonite church listening to Ray Wenger describe how a godly family should look. His own family was a shining example, singing in harmony together in matching dresses. Afterward, my parents got copies of the lectures on cassette. I listened to them when I was bored while doing the family ironing.

In his message on discipline, Wenger gives very specific guidance for hitting children who "resist the parent's will". As soon as an infant can understand words like "no" or "stop", he says, they are old enough to spank. If they are uncooperative at diapering time, for example, "They're very exposed--give them a good crack where it counts."

Wenger believes the rod should be a parent's first resort. (He recommends a 3/8" wood dowel from the hardware store as a "symbol of authority".) “It needs to be severe enough to be worthwhile. The child needs to learn that the way of the transgressor is hard," urges Wenger.

According to Wenger, "Time out" takes too long and requires a busy parent to monitor the child the whole time. Spanking, on the other hand, is quick and simple. And because the technique is in the wrist, a wife "can spank just as effectively" as her husband: "Your wife can learn to do that with great gusto," Wenger assures the Christian dads in his audience. Quoting the Old Testament, Wenger repeats his formula: the rod, combined with reproof, gives wisdom. Withholding the rod deprives the child of this wisdom.
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child;
but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. (Prov. 22:15)

Another voice for spanking was the late Denny Kenaston, founder of the Charity Fellowships. Another ATI family gave my parents a collection of Kenaston's sermons, in which he advocates "The Holy Art of Spanking our Children", and "The Rod of Love".

Kenaston's version of spanking is both creepy and utterly theatrical. "Bring the Bible along with the rod", he says, and then recommends the parent start crying with the child before the spanking begins. The parent is to calmly assure the child that the parent is not angry with them, but that the spanking is directed by God: "Open up your heart to this spanking and say, 'I'm going to get everything I can out of this spanking!' Then, "maybe let them have a little prayer... after that, it's time for the spanking." Kenaston does not permit any wiggling or kicking. The child is to put his/her head into a pillow or into the couch cushions and take the spanking quietly. Not one swat or two, but a "thorough spanking": "Spank them till you sense in your heart that the work is done....the work is in the heart."

Kenaston's last step involves the parent kneeling beside the child, weeping, putting an arm around the child, and praying. "Maybe sing a song with them... Tell them, 'You are my dear son, you please me in so many ways, you bring so much joy to my life'... Isn't that how God spanks us?" Kenaston's widow Jackie is now a part of Michael and Debi Pearl's speaking "ministry".

Debi Pearl & Jackie Kenaston

Ken Ham of Answers in Genesis and his brother Steve released a parenting study in 2006. The workbook stated, "Our children are sinners", and went on to quote an 1888 book by John Charles Ryle:
Parents, determine to make your children obey you--though it may cost you much trouble--and cost them many tears! 
They also quoted the more popular Tedd Tripp, author of Shepherding a Child's Heart:
The rod underscores the importance of obeying God.
And John MacArthur's Successful Christian Parenting:
Short, stinging strokes to the backside... should be painful enough to make the consequences of disobedience sufficiently distasteful and unforgettable.

Larry Tomczak, who helped co-found Sovereign Grace Ministries, is another well-known advocate of spanking. In 1982, he published a book disturbingly titled: God, the Rod, and Your Child's Bod.

Sounding like an echo of Bill GothardTomczak explains, "The primary goal in loving correction is to produce godly character..." Tomczak stands by his parenting advice today, despite being named a defendant in a lawsuit alleging decades of abuse, and continues to sell his book The Little Handbook of Loving Correction.

"Were your parents abusive?" my counselor asked.

I didn't know what to say.

For decades, I accepted the answers given. They didn't want to do this; spanking us was what God required. My parents were showing me how to obey by being obedient to him. Like Abraham, they were also showing God how much they loved and trusted him.

Yes, it involved hitting us and causing us physical and emotional pain. Yes, it left bruises that they didn't want others to see. Yes, we closed the windows before spankings so neighbors wouldn't be concerned. Yes, spankings went on and on until a child's will broken. Yes, many meals were interrupted and the rest of us suffered from indigestion. Yes, we stopped alongside the road on trips and the rest of us had to get out of the van so the offending child could be spanked in private. Yes, we kept a wooden spoon by the changing table, and one in the diaper bag, and one in the car. Did I grow up in a abusive home?

In my mid-teens, I gave my first spanking. I had been left in charge, and my toddler brother defied my authority. Having studied Gothard's material on taming lions in a Wisdom Booklet, I quite calmly followed the instructions I'd been taught. I'd seen it done so many times, it felt natural. My sweet and precocious little brother was surprised, and never caused a bit of trouble for me again. The hierarchy had been established.

When I had children, my husband and I discussed spanking. We set limits for ourselves, to keep from repeating anything so drastic as my childhood experiences. But as time went on and we recovered from old wounds, any kind of spanking became increasingly distasteful. We doubted its morality as well as its efficacy, and sought out other approaches to parenting that better suited both our goals and our values.

I regret spanking my children. I regret being harsh or violent with them when there is more than enough harshness and violence in the world. I regret thinking they were born broken sinners I needed to fix.

I am glad my kids still love to cuddle with me now, glad they are learning that inflicting pain is never a valid way to control another person, glad they protest bullying and injustice--no matter who's doing it. I'm glad they are patient as we navigate this adventure of parenthood that is more an education for us than it is for them.

Because of getting to know my children and glimpsing life through their eyes, I am a more compassionate human being.

Related posts:

The Mask of Modesty

Not on Your Side, Debi


Violence Against Children

Children, Fun or Frenzy

Reflections on my Childhood, Part II

Flavors of Autumn

Food has been on my mind lately!

Some of those thoughts will be in a future post. Today I just want to share the delightful salad I discovered this week:

  • A big bowl of greens (I used leaf lettuce and spinach)
  • Slices of sweet red onion
  • A handful of toasted walnuts (I'll try pecans another time)
  • Dried cranberries
  • Chunks of yellow-ripe pear
  • A generous topping of Gorgonzola crumbles
  • All drizzled with tangy raspberry vinaigrette


The only way I can think to improve on this salad is to follow it up with a tender slice of pumpkin cake rolled around creamy cheese filling and enjoy with a cup of hot tea. :)

Monday, October 21, 2013

"God, Thank You For This Beating"

The May 20, 1974 issue of Time ran an article about Bill Gothard entitled "Religion: Obey Thy Husband". I wasn't born when the article was published, but I know the scene all too well. These excerpts are particularly poignant.
Standing ramrod-straight in a business suit, Gothard lectures with few gestures, fewer jokes, no vocal theatrics and as props, only an easel for sketching and an overhead projector... Yet his hearers sit in rapt attention, jotting in thick red notebooks.
A few years later, my parents were "jotting in thick red notebooks", and a decade later, they brought me along. Gothard still stood "ramrod-straight" and despite years of working at his centers, I have never personally seen him in anything but a suit.
Gothard even advises a wife whose husband chastises her to say, "God, thank you for this beating." And Gothard adds to Christ's words from the cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. But you know what you are doing through them to build character in me."
This standard Gothard fare enabled many abusers. Sadly, tales of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse abound in groups of cult survivors raised under Gothard's influence.
...Gothard ... favors fasting, tithing and Bible memorization, while opposing liberal Bible criticism, much of higher education, highly rhythmic music, working wives, explicit sex education and any sexual arousal before marriage. As for homosexuality, Gothard says that when it is made "a normal way of life, then it's all over for a society, and we are right at that point."
Dating could get you shunned from the group, yet there have been a number of sex scandals at Gothard's IBLP headquarters. Gothard himself has been accused of sexually harassing young women on his staff. Others have carefully followed Gothard's "principles" only to find themselves married to abusive spouses, or spouses with whom they were sexually incompatible or to whom they did not even find themselves sexually attracted.
Gothard, cheerfully convinced that he teaches only what the Bible does, is less concerned with his critics than with administering a budget that should reach $8 million this year. The money goes into a 200-acre headquarters complex in Oak Brook, Ill., where a staff of 70 answers 200 spiritual "Dear Abby" letters per month, prepares advanced seminars and is developing a national training center for pastors and schoolteachers, as well as a "character curriculum" that he hopes many colleges will adopt. According to Gothard, they should scrap conventional subjects and rebuild courses around 49 virtues, including diligence, loyalty and tact.
The "character curriculum" eventually evolved into the Advanced Training Institute homeschool program (the Jim Bob Duggar and Congressman Dan Webster are two well-known ATI fathers), and later the Character First program which has continued to promote Gothard's vision of submission to authority to school children, orphans, prisoners, U.S. Air Force recruits, and Navy SEALs.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Science Controversies in Kansas

When a friend and I took our kids to the Dinosaurs Unearthed exhibit at Wichita's Exploration Place this summer, we were startled by this notice at the main entrance to the exhibit.

Considering that Wichita's Sedgwick County Zoo, the most popular tourist attraction in the state of Kansas, prides itself on not presenting visitors with any references to evolution, I shouldn't have been surprised. This zoo, 18th largest in the nation and sponsored by numerous corporation and local businesses, offers numerous educational programs. Their parking lot is often filled with school buses, and the zoo reimburses Title 1 schools for transportation costs. They also cater to homeschoolers, offering special presentations, discounted admission days, and educational resources available for nominal rental fees. As a homeschooling mom at one of these events, I was impressed at how well the zoo staff knew their audience: the presenter volunteered that the zoo is careful to avoid any mention of evolution or long time frames in any of their educational materials.  

By contrast, Botanica, Wichita's botanical gardens, quietly displays a subtle statement outside the butterfly garden. When I first visited the gardens as a young earth creationist, I noticed the little sign and it made me slightly uncomfortable, as if I'd encountered a thorn in the midst of Eden.

The Beil limestone at the base of the sign.

This month, we visited the Denver area. We spent a day at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, touched ancient fossils and dinosaur footprints at Dinosaur Ridge, and learned more about dating rocks at the Colorado School of Mines Geology Museum. The exhibits were all so matter-of-fact about simply presenting the evidence. No one was walking on eggshells or trying to skirt the issue of evolution.

Today, back in Kansas, there is fresh controversy over science standards. According to,
"The State Board of Education is asking Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt to defend it in a lawsuit over its decision to adopt new science standards. Board members met with their attorney in executive session this week about the federal lawsuit filed last month by an anti-evolution group called Citizens for Objective Public Education.
. . .
"The lawsuit names the board and individual members as defendants. It contends the new science standards promote atheism and violate the religious rights of students and parents.
"The standards were developed by Kansas, 25 other states and the National Research Council. They treat evolution and climate change as key scientific concepts to be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.
These Next Generation Science Standards state that "science is a way of explaining the natural world." They go on to explain: "Indeed, the only consistent characteristic of scientific knowledge across the disciplines is that scientific knowledge itself is open to revision in light of new evidence."

But revision in light of of new evidence makes many people uneasy, so the controversy over how to educate our children will go on. My daughter's middle school teacher offered a disclaimer in case the video she showed on "origins" should conflict with what any student's traditions or beliefs. 

This sign, along a walking trail at the Wichita's Great Plains Nature Center, illustrates just how controversial the subject of geologic time continues to be in Kansas, and how strongly it stirs people's emotions. 

This interpretive sign was vandalized by a zealous visitor.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ken Ham: The Evolution of a Bully

Last week, in an approach founder Ken Ham described as "cordial and engaging", the creationist organization Answers In Genesis sponsored billboards like this one in several major cities. I can't help wondering who Ham's atheist friends are, and how long they will remain his friends with engaging expressions of cordiality like these.

* * * * * * * *

I first encountered Ken Ham at an ICR conference in Michigan. I was a young homeschooled kid and adored Ken Ham from the first time he opened his mouth. I loved his Aussie accent, his beard, his jokes. I retold his story about "nursing the baby" way too many times. Science was my least favorite subject, but I liked history and social studies and I believed his every word. It never occurred to me then that Ham might be wrong about fossils, Cain's wife, homosexuality, or the book of Genesis itself. 

* * * * * * * 

In 1974, Ken Ham himself was searching for answers. Ham taught science in a public high school in Australia, but apparently, teaching about evolution and millions of years presented a challenge to his faith. A church friend directed him to the book The Genesis Flood by Henry Morris (a hydrologist and founder of the Institute of Creation Research in California) and John Whitcomb (a theologian).

Morris viewed the Bible as a history book and was excited to share his notions of catastrophism and how a global flood a few thousands years ago could have shaped all the geological forms we see today. Morris was greatly influenced by a Seventh-Day Adventist named George McCready Price, who went searching for geological evidence to support the visions of Ellen White, who proclaimed that the fossils were "thus preserved as an evidence to later generations that the antediluvians perished by a flood. God designed that the discovery of these things should establish faith in inspired history".

Morris, a Baptist, read Price's book on "flood geology" in 1943, then quietly repackaged this novel approach to geology in his 1961 book The Genesis Flood. A decade later, Ken Ham was thrilled with Morris' solutions that could simply do away with the "millions of years" question. He felt compelled to tell as many people as he could about these new answers.

Ham quit his teaching job in 1979 to start Australia's Creation Science Foundation (CSF) with fellow schoolteacher and fundamentalist John Mackay. At first, CSF operated out of the Hams' home. Ken Ham later wrote that Mackay had suggested on multiple occasions that he (Mackay) and Ham could be the two witnesses described in Revelation 11 (an idea Ham says he could not accept).

Dr. Carl Wieland, a medical doctor and former atheist, believed he had encountered the supernatural while playing at card tricks with his wife. Recognizing that modern science and telepathy were incompatible, Wieland became a creationist and even founded a creationist magazine Ex Nihilo. When Wieland joined forces with the fledgling CSF, the young magazine's name was changed to Creation.

In 1987, Ham moved to America with his wife Mally and their five children, first to work with Films for Christ on a creationist documentary, then to work for the Institute of Creation Research as a traveling speaker to popularize ICR's creationist message. Ham continued to direct CSF from across the Pacific until 2004. Carl Wieland, still recovering from a near-fatal car accident that took his sight in one eye, served as CSF managing director in Australia. But the Creation Science Foundation was about to rip wide open.

Margaret Buchanan, a widow, and her disabled daughter, Debbie, joined the CSF staff in 1984. Margaret served as Ham's personal secretary. Shortly after the Hams left Australia, John Mackay, angry about being replaced as editor of Creation magazine, called Buchanan at her home, told her not to come in to work, and made bizarre accusations. Mackay claimed Buchanan practiced witchcraft and necrophilia and was a tool of the devil. (Mackay told Ham that he had had to cast demons out of his dog and a black cat because of Buchanan's satanic influence.) Another staff member then sprinkled Buchanan's office space with grape juice to cleanse it of evil spirits. Buchanan agreed to take a four-week leave of absence while staff considered the whole affair.

When the board finally decided Buchanan was innocent, Mackay laid down an ultimatum. He would not stay unless she was dismissed. So Mackay left, with a handful of followers, to lead his own creationism organization. When Margaret and two other staff members tried to meet with Mackay at his home, he threatened them with police action if they did not leave his property. Mackay was later excommunicated from his Baptist church. CMI's website includes more than 63 sordid pages of documents dealing with the allegations, investigations, witnesses, diary accounts, signed letters, and more.

In the stormy aftermath of Mackay's departure, Dr. Andrew Snelling, a CSF scientist who later followed Ken Ham to ICR, admitted to having had concerns about Mackay's "extremely sloppy research":
I worked alongside Mr. John Mackay for some years when he was with the Foundation...
As a Christian and a scientist, I have become more and more concerned with some of the claims he has been making, particularly in the area of geology. Instances have come to my attention that are either totally untrue, or misleading, even to the point of deception. Even while working with him I was concerned about an emerging pattern of extremely sloppy research, coupled with a tendency to gloss over opposing facts, even when they were graciously brought to his attention by myself and others, which drew progressively closer to the borderline between honesty and dishonesty. My concern, then as now, was his growing potential for bringing discredit to the whole creation movement.
Warnings such as these are difficult to give about someone professing to exercise Christian ministry. Undoubtedly, if past experience is any guide, Mr. Mackay will skillfully seek to have them interpreted as further 'persecution'.
(Meanwhile, Dr. Wieland ended up divorcing his wife and marrying Margaret Buchanan. Of course, this added to the tension within the organization as some staff members believed the Bible forbade remarriage after divorce.)

In 1994, the Hams left ICR to found their own layperson-oriented creation ministry (CSM), and moved to Kentucky with the Creation subscriber list. CSM (USA) and CSF (Australia) were closely tied and their leadership overlapped significantly. Before long, "the board decided to change the organization’s name to “Answers in Genesis,” to reflect the fact that the ministry was not just about “creation,” but the authority of all of Scripture—as well as about evangelism and equipping believers to build a biblical worldview."

According to Ham, the Australian and American AiG organizations made a "mutual" decision to separate in 2005 over differences of philosophy and organization and met "cordially" to iron out the details. Other sources describe the split much less pleasantly, writing of a years-long "bitter power struggle", "domination", taped phone calls, and accusations "of deceptive conduct". The Australian organization rebranded as Creation Ministries International (CMI). Still more friction arose over printing and distributing Creation in the U.S., with AiG introducing its own Answers magazine sometime after the Creation Museum opened in 2007.

Today, creationism has become a multi-million industry with AiG strongly dominating the market. AiG materials are available in 77 languages. The organization conducts evangelistic campaigns and literature distribution at the Olympic Games. Plans are in place for the construction of an amusement park around a "replica" of Noah's ark, partly to serve as a warning of God's judgment for tolerating homosexuality.

Ken Ham and his brother Steve authored the parenting study Genesis of a Legacy, in which they teach that children are foolish sinners who are actually disobeying God when they disobey a parent. Instead of "reasoning" or allowing "questioning" or "delay", the Hams advocate John MacArthur's approach: "short, stinging strokes to the backside", "painful enough to make the consequences of disobedience... unforgettable". 

Based on the story of Adam of Eve, Ham is a staunch opponent of gay marriage. He has written an article suggesting that if homosexuality is to be deemed morally acceptable, then child sacrifice should have an equal status. He also opposes efforts by schools to accommodate transgender students. His suggestion that transgender students are disguising their real motives betrays a truly painful ignorance of gender issues:
Sadly, these school authorities don’t recognize the sinful heart of man and what can come out from it. Surely schools officials have thought about the potential for high school boys to pretend to “identify” as a female just so they can have access to the girls’ restroom and, maybe, to their locker room—winking to their friends as they do it?   

* * * * * * * *

AIG prayed for my request :)
For years, I read Ham's books, got his newsletter, sent him my money and my prayer requests. I was excited about the progress of the creation museum as they overcame the opposition of the community to build a temple to unchanging Truth.

Then, I had kids of my own. Before I knew it, they started to gravitate toward picture books about dinosaurs and stars at the library. My parents had always rejected books that mentioned "millions of years" or talked too much about biological "adaptations". I didn't want to discourage my kids with unnecessary censorship, and I didn't want them to grow up feeling as uneasy around science as I was. So I started researching. As a homeschooling mom, it was important to me to be able to teach them accurately about dinosaurs and astronomy and geology. And as a Christian, I looked for trustworthy sources who shared my belief in the inspired truth of the Bible. 

But what I learned shocked me, and sparked new questions. The next time I visited my parents' house, I pored over the latest book from AiG, studying their answers. And I felt lied to. AiG isn't about the data, or the scientific method. AiG doesn't offer scientific responses to questions about the rock strata or the age of the earth or fossils of whales with hips. They can't offer plausible explanations for day and night and light and vegetation on Earth before the Sun appeared on the fourth day of creation. Most of their "answers" can be summarized as "Well, a global flood could have caused..." And they pretend there is no contradiction in the two Genesis creation accounts. 

AiG is about one specific religious agenda--a fundamentalist approach to Biblical doctrine that assigns everyone who is "wrong" to hell. Suddenly Ken Ham, my former idol, looked more like a bully.

* * * * * * * * *

In 2010, Rachel Held Evans rocked many in the evangelical world with her book Evolving in Monkey Town, in which she considered the scientific validity of theistic evolution. When Ham shook his head sadly over the "indoctrination of our age" and "compromising church leaders", dismissing the faith of Christians who also embrace modern science, Evans posted an articulate and heartfelt response on her blog:
"We are tired of fighting. We are tired of drawing lines in the sand. We are tired of Christianity being cast as a position in a debate when it is supposed to be a way of life.

"What we are searching for is a community of faith in which it is safe to ask tough questions, to think critically, and to be honest with ourselves. Unfortunately, a lot of young evangelicals grew up with the assumption that Christianity and evolution cannot mix, that we have to choose between our faith in Jesus and accepted science. I’ve watched in growing frustration as this false dichotomy has convinced my friends to leave the faith altogether when they examine the science and find it incompatible with a 6,000-year-old earth. Sensing that Christianity required abandoning their intellectual integrity, some of the best and brightest of the next generation made a choice they didn’t have to make....

"Ken likes to frame his position as an unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture, but in reality his is an unwavering commitment to one interpretation of Scripture."
The following year, Ham was banned from speaking at a homeschool convention in Cincinnati after making "mean-spirited" remarks about another speaker, a Bible scholar and theologian who approaches the Old Testament very differently than Ham does. AiG also used its deep pockets and legal staff to bully a smaller Christian ministry with a similar name, threatening them with charges of trademark infringement.

And this month, AiG's billboards appeared. Responding to criticism over his message to his "atheist friends", Ham both defended and reiterated his satisfaction with his own belief that atheists will spend eternity in hell, while mocking the notion that dead people cease to exist. He described atheism as "sad" and "purposeless".

* * * * * * * *

exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Many, many followers of Jesus doubt Young Earth Creationism, and even St. Augustine considered the Creation account to be allegorical. But no one told me that. I swallowed the whole Ham sandwich: you couldn't have faith, or sin, or Jesus, or heaven, or God... without Adam, Eve, Eden, a global flood, and less than 10,000 years. The only problem was, when I could no longer believe in a young earth, the rest of the story disintegrated, too. 

Once upon a time, my meager tithe checks helped build Ken's creation museum. Today I am one of his "atheist friends", taking my kids to see dinosaur footprints and ancient rocks. Ham's cartoons (the red "Abortion" balloons flown from the castle founded on Evolution) and his jokes ("God didn't make Adam and Steve", "fossils don't come with labels!") led directly to my atheism. 

My life is neither sad nor purposeless. But if it makes him feel better, Ham can thank his God that I'm finally wrong. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 4

In Which I Return to the Beginning

We had exhausted the church options in our own community; now we crossed county lines heading east, south, and west. We piled into our 12-passenger van and rotated directions each week, laughingly calling ourselves a "circuit-riding congregation".

The Church of Christ had fired their ATI pastor, and he was now leading a small fellowship of mostly homeschooling families who met on Sunday mornings at a public school to the east, near the lake. The school would rent them the library for something like $10 a week, and we could drag in a piano from down the hall to accompany the pastor’s guitar. This band of believers sang a lot of praise songs I remembered from my childhood. The pastor would print out his sermon notes and pass out copies to everyone. Then he would put the same notes on the overhead projector, stand to the side, and proceed to read them to us. But the homemade cubes of communion bread were nearly as delicious as the charismatic kind, and they served it every single week. On Sunday nights, many in the church liked to have bonfires, s’mores, and guitar-led sing-alongs on the beach.

In the opposite direction, we knew an ATI family pastoring an old country church. Their theology was more covenantal than ours and the congregation more blue-collar, but their music was safely conservative and I borrowed interesting books from the minister. Having connections to the Methodist tradition, they took their monthly communion at the altar rail. Until I asked the pastor to officiate at my wedding, I did not realize that Bible Methodists do not endorse jewelry—including wedding rings.

Other weeks, we drove south to join an eclectic "plain" fellowship meeting in a township hall. Some families were ex-Amish, having been forced out of their communities when they were "born again". One couple had been raised Catholic and now vehemently objected to the celebration of Christ-mass. Another had been Episcopalian, turned Amish (exchanging their minivan for a horse and buggy), and were now neither. When they decided to have a baptismal immersion service at a farm pond, no one knew how to do it. The baptismal candidates didn't even get completely moistened, though, as a female observer, I didn't tell them so. 

Everyone homeschooled, the girls all wore dresses, there was little interaction between the sexes, and the women all wore scarves around their hair, with only an inch or two revealed above their foreheads. The a capella singing was painfully slow. The men took turns preaching. I doubt anyone in the group had a college degree; some of the adults had not even finished high school. I cannot recall the fine points of their theology because it was primarily discussed at men’s meetings. As non-members, we would not have been allowed to take communion.

I was annoyed with the extreme patriarchy and made a point of wearing lipstick (gasp!) and my boldest pale pink dress (short sleeves, print of scattered full-blown roses, dainty lace collar, decorative brooch-like button, and wide belt). Though I enjoyed hats, I did not wear one there. I was accustomed to being the most conservatively dressed in any social group, so feeling like the "harlot" was a new experience! I suddenly realized how most normal women must have felt when they visited our family. 

After months of riding our little circuit on Sunday mornings, we settled at the fellowship that met at the school. The pastor was soft-spoken and kind, there were lots of other children, and the families were the most like us. In many ways, that church was a spiritual rehab center or halfway house, attracting the hurt, the lonely, the ones who didn’t fit elsewhere. It was, for the most part, a safe and quiet place for us to park while our emotional wounds healed.

I moved to Oklahoma (to work for Bill Gothard's cult) and fell in love with a Christian & Missionary Alliance Church there. For the first time since childhood, I looked forward to going to church. The people were friendly and the service combined all the elements I most enjoyed. Even though I couldn't remember the CMA church of my infancy, I had a feeling of returning to the beginning, of coming home to where I belonged, and for a year I participated to the fullest extent my cult involvement would permit.

Theologically, I liked the CMA teaching on the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts; after all I'd seen, it felt centered. One week the pastor prayed for a sick man to be healed. The man was anointed with oil and we all prayed. I went home for a visit and when I got back, the man was dead. I tried to understand. I wrote a poem for his widow, imagining the man in heaven and trying to put a hopeful spin on his passing. Faith was so mysterious.

One of my coworkers at Gothard's training center was confident she heard God’s spirit communicating with her. We talked about faith and what we wanted it to mean. During the lunch hour one day, we went up to my room and she prayed for me to receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That afternoon I spoke in tongues for the first time. After decades of stories, curiosity, contradictory advice, and yearning to "experience God" in a physical way, this strange and awkward exploratory event felt like losing my spiritual virginity. I basked in a sense of fulfillment for a while.

But my job moved out of Oklahoma and CMA church in my new city wasn’t as inviting. The charismatics weren't down-to-earth enough; the Lutherans were too old or too certain; the Baptists far too stuffy. I kept exploring, learning from each church I was part of, but never able to put down roots. I married, and we eventually settled at a Christian church in our neighborhood that both my husband and I could appreciate. The music leader played with skill and gusto, though some of the more suggestive songs about Jesus made me giggle now that I had sexual experience.

Since Christian churches share a common ancestor with the Church of Christ, communion was a weekly ritual. Unfortunately, this particular congregation used tasteless minuscule crackers that got stuck in my teeth. I tried to think reverent thoughts, picturing the tiny cup of grape juice "blood" as an oral vaccine, passing Christ's immunity on to me and strengthening my resistance to various temptations. It helped for a while, but eventually I started taking two crackers at a time, to get a morsel big enough to chew. Then I switched to selecting the darkest bit on the plate, because at least Burnt Bleached Flour is a flavor.

Once in a while, I would pray in tongues again, sometimes because I felt overwhelmed by life, other times just to see if it still worked. This went on for years until one week, sitting in the sound booth in the back of an evangelical church in the middle of Kansas, my husband and I knew we didn’t belong anymore.

In an attempt to preserve what faith we had left in the God of the Bible, we found a Methodist church with a beautiful pipe organ and a heart of compassion. But even singing anthems with the robed choir, attending the pastor’s Bible class, and dipping bread in grape juice in his study didn’t help. One Easter Sunday, we helped the children’s department with the resurrection-themed crafts, then quietly slipped away. Even as an atheist, I found I could still speak in tongues.

Friends sometimes suppose that if I had ever met their Christ, I would have to love him. But I was presented to the Lord at two weeks old and have seen more of the Body of Christ than most. I found that we simply weren't compatible. For thirty-odd years, I thought we had a relationship; I even thought we were close. But after years of thinking the problems were all mine, his behavior at last began to trouble me.  Could he be trusted? Could he be schizophrenic? Was he cruel? Was he real? And I finally had to conclude: eternity would be far too long to spend with anyone so enigmatic.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 3

In Which I Learn I am Not a Baptist

Now we were Baptists, or nearly so. Some of the men in suits were my Dad’s clients, successful businessmen in the petroleum industry. One man managed our grocery store, another the Christian radio station. Another dad sold computers at the local store. A retired public school teacher led the congregational singing, but many of the musicians we heard at church were professionals, some even affiliated with an internationally-renowned arts center.

I was mesmerized when a guest harpist performed one week. My heart melted when the pastor’s son accompanied his own voice at the piano on a visit home from college. The sound guys could have turned off the microphone when one of the deacons played a trumpet solo, but for the most part, Baptist music was crisply timed, properly rehearsed, and perfectly orchestrated. Only once did a soloist break down in the middle of her song and let the soundtrack run on without her.

The morning service, recorded and aired on a local radio station at night, ran on a fixed schedule. There was no open-floor "quiet time" and prayer was not spontaneous. The opening song was always cheerful, the closing song always introspective. Even altar calls were predictable, unless someone actually went forward and we had to sing another verse of the hymn. Personal testimonies and hymn requests were reserved for the evening service.

The Baptists were very sure about some things that we had previously left open. Jesus would return AFTER the Tribulation, and salvation was a permanent deal, unless you didn’t get the genuine article the first time. Baptism had to be by immersion, not for salvation, but as proof of salvation. They knew that God didn’t use "speaking in tongues" anymore, though they still prayed for healing for a long list of sick people on Wednesday nights. And their pastor had to write three sermons a week!

We finally left Bible Baptist because Bill Gothard had convinced my parents, who convinced me, that songs with a backbeat—even songs about Jesus—were tools of Satan. The elders were tolerant of our beliefs for a while, but they came to look with disfavor on a family of nine standing up and filing out of the sanctuary during the soloist’s "ministry of music" week after week, even if we returned to our pew for the sermon! It was a mutual break-up in the end, because the church introduced a "contemporary" early service, with a drum set up front, and my parents could not attend a church that resembled a rock concert.

So it was back to the church search, though we knew our options were very limited by now. Two other homeschooling dads in our town were followers of Bill Gothard (and members of his ATI program). One was the pastor at a Church of Christ, but their doctrine was suspect. The other attended a tiny IFB church close to our house. We started visiting there, and there was nothing offensive about the music if you didn’t care about quality, or the lyrics. The hymnal we used had been edited by John R. Rice, and the songs we sang were almost entirely of one genre (and almost entirely written between the years between 1850 and 1950). Here, there was an uncomfortable divide between the Gothardite homeschoolers (only two families now, but we made up more than half the minors in the church) and the rest of the congregation.

The pastor left shortly after we started attending, so we sat through repetitive interim preachers, guests, substitutes, and prospective young men interviewing for the position. In the end, the other ATI dad was "called" to the pastorate, which was convenient since his family was already living in the parsonage. He was a layman with his own audio-visual business, and it was odd thing all ‘round. My parents were not part of whatever voting process landed him the church, as they were waiting for the new pastor before they officially joined.

The new "pastor" ruled with a heavy hand. We didn’t know he was an abusive man at home—that would come out years later when two of his daughters escaped his house. We only knew he wore a somber suit and tried to make people feel guilty. We sat uncomfortably in those pews for two more years. All the normal people disappeared, leaving only the most rigid fundamentalists—and us. Since the former pianist had gone, I played the Gospel songs for the southern-style worship that emphasized sins, blood, and dying Lambs. Being a novice accompanist, I had some input on the song list, but the male leader had the final say, and his whims determined how many stanzas we sang. He typically announced, " e’ll sing the first, second, and the last!" I once told him I would hate to be a 3rd verse in a Baptist church.

Much as we looked the part in our long, homemade dresses with our KJV Bibles, we weren't really fundamentalists. We were tolerant of dispensationalism, but not sold on it. We watched Billy Graham movies at home (sometimes skipping objectionable songs), we prayed with Presbyterians, we visited gloomy Lutheran Lenten services, we once attended Mass with our Catholic cousins, I read a New Testament paraphrase, and we didn’t think the evangelicals building the huge complex down the road were on the path to hell. Dad even read us a book about glossolalia—stories about people praying in tongues that were supposedly unknown to the speakers but recognized by others within earshot. Stories that directly contradicted the pastor’s sermon series on Acts.

At home, I dug out a songbook from the 70’s with familiar guitar tunes from the days of the Home Fellowship group and the Sunshine Inn. After Sunday dinner, I would play stormily, pounding out my frustration and wounded spirit in haunting minor chords. I sang "Our God Reigns", "God and Man at Table Are Sat Down", "You Are my Hiding Place", and eventually drifted to hymns like "Be Still, My Soul" and "Blessed Quietness".

One day the pastor and the one remaining elder asked my dad not to come back anymore. It was both a relief to me and a deep sadness. Other might talk of their "church home", but we were spiritual refugees again: too "Pentecostal" for the Baptists, too "plain" for the charismatics, and too "Baptist" for our Mennonite friends. Too full of emotion to know what to say, I wished I could pray in tongues.

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 2

In Which God and I are Friends

This particular group of Friends was unique in that they did occasionally celebrate Communion, with grape juice and fluffy white bread. Everyone tore off a piece as the loaf was passed down the row. The congregation was small and the old wooden meetinghouse drafty, so they set up chairs in the basement for services through the winter. The pastor was young, with a sweet wife and baby boy. Through every sermon he would remove his glasses, set them on the lectern, put them back on, take them off, and so on. There was no band, no overhead projector. In the middle of the service, everyone sat down, even the pastor, for fifteen minutes of "quiet time".

A short white-haired lady whose neck had gotten lost in multiple chins frequently filled the silence with stories or thoughts from her week. Other times a grandfatherly jail chaplain shared his thoughts about God in a reassuring voice. His daughter-in-law played the piano for our services. There were college students who occasionally attended in shorts and t-shirts, a one-armed man who frightened my mom, a blind mother of three who played the guitar, a dairy farmer who also worked as a nurse, and a dark-haired young outdoorsman with a beard that made my pre-teen heart beat faster.

Dad took us all to midweek hymn sings and prayer meetings at the parsonage, where I learned to follow along from a hymnal. Mom and I did a discipleship study with a small group at the church, which groomed my shy child-self to pray aloud with an adult partner. I recall a boring video series called Ordering Your Private World by Gordon MacDonald, former chairman of the board of World Vision. About the time we were watching MacDonald on a TV screen, he was resigning as president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship after admitting to an adulterous affair. But the Internet had not yet been born, so we knew nothing of MacDonald’s private world.

Another video presentation was more memorable. It warned of the AIDS crisis: the American population was forecast to be decimated in ten years’ time, or was it twenty? I didn’t really know what they were talking about, only that public restrooms could expose me to a deadly virus. The video had a lot to say about "homosexuality". Dad leaned over from his folding metal chair next to me in the dim room and whispered into my ear, "That’s when a man sticks his penis into another man's bottom." My eyes must have widened, but there was nothing to say.

I was twelve or thirteen the Easter that some of the church ladies decided it would be cute to have a children's choir. They taught us a Michael Card song (that included the line: "You can choose what not to believe in…"). There were perhaps eight of us on the stage. Standing there in the new skirt and blouse Mom and I had sewn for the occasion, I was painfully aware of being the oldest.

Changes came as more families followed us from the charismatic fellowship to the Friends church. When the congregation withdrew from the Quaker denomination, I joined the adults in voting for a new church name and was pleased when my favorite won out. "Cornerstone" soon voted to align themselves with the Evangelical Free denomination. We parted ways with them at that point, because the "E. Free" allowed divorced men to be pastors and my mother’s interpretation of the New Testament did not permit such low standards.

My best friend during this period was part of the local Mennonite church. Our family occasionally attended special meetings there, and we loved their potluck meals. Like us, Mennonite girls wore homemade dresses and eschewed make-up. Unlike us, the adult women all wore their hair tucked up inside pleated white caps. They sang unfamiliar hymns in four-part harmony from shaped notes. Marriage was a permanent bond. The pastors were laymen; women were homemakers who planted spectacular gardens and made their own ketchup. Their Anabaptist heritage ran deep; some couples spoke German at home. But the insurmountable difference was their approach to education: my parents were passionate about homeschooling, while the tight-knit Mennonite community expected all its members to support the church's one-room private school. So in spite of all we appreciated about the church, we could never really have fit in.

To his credit, my dad, despite homeschooling and delivering his own babies, never felt comfortable with home-churching. But hunting for a new church is a daunting process—all the more with five children in tow—so Dad and I formed a search committee and visited local Sunday morning services together, discussing their merits on the way home and reporting back to the rest of the family at lunch. Dressed in my mom’s hand-me-downs, I was mistaken for his wife more than once.

We settled at the Baptist church we’d driven past so many times early in my childhood: a traditional brick building with padded pews, a grand piano, and an organ. Dressed comfortably on our way to the charismatic church and gazing out the car window, I had always felt sorry for the proper, well-coiffed Baptists in their suits, Sunday dresses, and heels. They were obviously rich, and, I imagined, smug. I knew they didn’t dance or speak in tongues.

Circling the Christianity Buffet, Part 1

An abridged version of this article appeared as a guest post on the blog Ramblings of Sheldon.

In Which God and I Are Introduced

By age 23 I had made a full circuit of the American Christianity buffet table and if I hadn't tasted everything, I had at least gotten near enough to smell it.

I was dedicated to the Protestant God by my parents and a Pastor Dibble at a Christian & Missionary Alliance church in a college town in Pennsylvania. My parents, raised Lutheran from infancy, had been rebaptized there by immersion. They were enthusiastic about Bible study and campus evangelism.

I was wearing toddler sizes when I invited Jesus into my heart before bed one night. There wasn't a CMA church in our new town; my parents fellowshipped with a small, casual group that met in an old building named the "Sunshine Inn". I remember watching the adults perform skits for one another, sharing potlucks, everyone dancing to "Father Abraham", and a small printing operation in a back room. When the group decided to construct their own multipurpose church building, my dad was among the volunteers helping to lay block or hang drywall.

The church was young and charismatic, its members idealistic. Instead of hiring a single pastor, they attempted to follow the pattern of the book of Acts: a group of elders shared the responsibilities of leadership, sitting in front of the assembly together and taking turns teaching from the Bible. Our dentist was one of the elders--until his daughter returned home pregnant from Oral Roberts University and he resigned. Once when I was sick, a group of men from the church (some of the elders?) came to our house to anoint my forehead with oil.

During church services, people prayed out loud, prophesied in tongues, and danced or raised their hands in worship. Song lyrics were shown on the wall via overhead projectors and the song-leader was usually playing a guitar along with a handful of instrumentalists in the "orchestra". Against the wall were inconspicuous wooden boxes with mail slots in the top. Dad often let me slide his tithes and offerings envelope in—a treat I enjoyed and helped him remember. The envelopes were printed with a large Roman-style coin, cut into pie wedges to illustrate the ten percent that belonged to God.

There was a warm water baptistery off to the side of the sanctuary/gymnasium at the church, but my dad baptized me in the Great Lakes in a small ceremony with one other family. They sang “Our God Reigns”—my favorite. My friend’s mom wrapped me in my bath towel with the elephant on it, and I was excited because now Mom and Dad would let me share communion. Elders would stand in the aisles at church holding bottles of grape juice, ready to refill the the common cup as it passed down the rows. The cubes of homemade unleavened bread were fragrant with coriander and star thistle honey. I always tried to nonchalantly pick the biggest piece when the plate made its way to me. I still have the recipe for that bread; it’s one of my family’s favorite snacks.

I remember the men of the church being kind, and I was very aware of their contributions to the community. One was a Vietnam vet who became a veterinarian; he was renowned for his gentleness and good humor. My friends’ dad was an auto mechanic; his father served as principal for the church school and supplied bottled honey to local stores.  A craftsman builder with huge hands did the remodeling on my mom’s kitchen, and helped me ride a bike. When pipes in our house froze one winter, we called the plumber from our church; my brothers and I watched him work. Another dad built cabins from logs he cut himself, and showed my brothers how his bear trap worked. One couple collaborated on art and publishing.

Women and men seemed to participate freely and equally in everything but direct preaching. Except for the elders being an all-male group, I was never aware of restrictions based on my gender. Many adults, including my parents, took turns teaching Bible lessons to the kids in the school classrooms that doubled as Sunday school rooms. I can still quote many of the Bible verses I first memorized there, amid the alphabet posters, stacks of math workbooks, and cabinets of craft supplies. My teachers gave me The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a prize, but Mom made me exchange it at the religious bookstore. By then, all fantasy, not just witches, was banned from our home. If my parents had heard of C. S. Lewis, they had certainly never read him.

My parents came to object to sensuality in the church. The church orchestra became more of a band, and this made my parents uncomfortable. They were more concerned about several of their friends’ marriages falling apart and about two divorcees from the church marrying each other. This upset my mom so much that we left that church and started attending a Friends meeting.

Part 2: In Which God and I Are Friends