A young man stands in the back of a church auditorium. It’s another Sunday. Pastor Nolan has preached another sermon, one that contains elements of the same sermon he has been preaching for years. Now it is time for another altar call.
“Every head bowed and every eye closed.” Pastor Nolan orders. The young man in the back ignores that edict, not because he’s rebellious, not even because he is now a teenager and an usher in the church at this point – so he has a good reason to keep his eyes open. He does it because he is troubled by something. He wants to know what is really going on in the church that he has been going to since he was five.
Matthew Paul Turner and I have a lot in common, despite his being 15 years younger than I and growing up on the opposite coast. I was also “churched” my entire life. Where MPT (that’s what I’m going to call him because I think it’s cool to use all three of your names and then abbreviate them like JFK) went to a very conservative Baptist church, I was raised in the very conservative Assemblies of God.
If the name Assemblies of God rings a bell it’s probably because of the many luminaries of the Christian faith that came from the denomination. Hallowed names such as Jim and Tammy Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Benny Hinn, and Gene Scott all started out as AG ministers. In fact when a televangelist or other well known preacher gets in trouble, there’s a good chance he’s AG.
So, yes, like MPT I was churched. In fact I was so churched that to this day when a bible speaker says to turn to a particular verse I race to it to try to beat the person next to me like we used to in Sunday School Bible Drills. I don’t stand up when I find the verse though…usually.
I was so churched that my first word was “Hallelujah.”
I was so churched that when I found out that my 7 year old friend was Catholic I tried to cast the demon out of him in the name of JEEESUSSSS!!!
I was so churched that whenever I hear a classic bible story like Noah’s Ark or David vs. Goliath I always picture it on a flannel board.
OK, that will be enough of that.
MPT is one of a number of Christian writers that I’ve discovered in the past couple of years who approach their faith with humor, honesty, and the awareness that the answers aren’t as easy as traditional fundamentalism seems to portray them. For me, discovering these writers has literally been a Godsend. Writers like MPT, Susan Isaacs, Don Miller, and Jonathan Acuff have done more to draw me back to my faith than The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, and The Shack combined (none of which I’ve read of course, but they sit there on my bookshelf encouraging me anyway).
These are Christians who take their relationship with Christ very seriously, but are able to turn a cynical eye at Christianity and point out it’s foibles as practiced. One of my favorite features of MPT’s blog Jesus Needs New PRis the Jesus Picture of the Day where he collects and displays the most horrid depictions of our Lord and Savior ever perpetrated, usually done in all sincerity, and of course Jesus is almost always Caucasian. Here are a few of my recent faves:
At the age of five, young Matthew and his family were snatched from the satanic – well…Methodist – church that they were going to and placed in the loving arms of the Independent Baptist Bible Church led by Pastor Dave Nolan. Apparently many in the Methodist congregation no longer felt that God was attending a church where the pastor would use Yertle the Turtle as a sermon illustration.
Personally, I think the collected works of Dr. Seuss are filled with allegorical meaning for children and adults and are excellent sermon material. From there to here, from here to there, wonderful insights are everywhere. But maybe that’s just me. I’m a big fan of the good doctor.
As MPT points out, fundamentalism “made lots of people weird. But I think some people at my church believed that was the point, that somewhere in the Bible, Jesus declared, ‘Blessed are the weird.’ Our weirdness was a form of obedience to God.”
As a recovering fundamentalist myself, I can tell you that there is some comfort in it. Even though it separates you from the mainstream population and makes you “weird,” it gives you a set of clear cut guidelines on most issues. It eliminates gray areas and cognitive dissonance. Most importantly, in most fundamentalist churches, if you have any questions about how to live your life, there are plenty of church folk around who will be glad to tell you.
Pastor Nolan and his ilk had no problems telling people how they should live. He was filled with wisdom about how a Baptist should dress, how to cut your hair, what movies to watch (none basically), what music to listen to, what to watch on TV (avoid The Smurfs, not because it was a lame cartoon, but because the cat Azrael was satanic), even how to stand:
“…it was obvious Mr. Harry didn’t love Jesus. Not the way I did. For one thing he slouched. Pastor Nolan told us that a man’s posture said a lot about his character. All the men at church stood up straight. I did too. Every time I saw Pastor Nolan at church I pretended to be a soldier – a tall one, with a gun and a slew of badges. He would walk by me like he was a king inspecting his knights, and if he approved, he would pat my head and say, “You’re a good kid, Matthew.”
In Churched, MPT describes his journey through the thicket of fundamentalism with honesty and humor of course, but with a surprisingly light touch. Although he skewers some of the conclusions that the people in his church came to, you never get the sense that he holds the people themselves in contempt. All of this makes for a very readable book with just enough cynicism to keep it entertaining, but not enough to make it bitter and unsavory.
In the church where he grew up, he obviously was instilled with many worthy values. One of them was honesty, and this is where things began to unravel for him. As he grew older, became an usher, and was privy to more private conversations between church leaders he noticed that the talk of “souls being saved” focused more on numbers and percentages than on people’s lives actually being changed.
As he stood in the back of that auditorium that Sunday, his head not bowed, his eyes not closed. He watched Pastor Nolan ask for hands of anyone who wanted to become born again. He watched as Nolan said, “I see that hand.” Five times he said it, indicating five more souls to enter the Kingdom of God that day. The problem was that Matthew, head up and eyes open, didn’t see any of those hands.
At the end of the book there is a scene where MPT is talking to the pastor of the church where he currently attends. He confesses to the pastor that he has some questions about some important tenets of fundamentalism and evangelicalism, and he wants to make sure that he and his doubts will be welcome at this new church. This is at the end of the last brief chapter called ‘Benediction’ where MPT talks about trying out different churches. I would like to have seen more about his journey from fundamentalist to believer with questions. Some of this may be fleshed out in his new book Hear No Evil, which I am still reading and will be reviewing here next week.
The pastor seemed to understand and welcomed Matthew to continue his faith journey with the congregation. And isn’t that all that any of us can ask for?