Seeing the light

A former Christian fundamentalist recalls a life of ferocious, intractable faith -- and the moments it began to crumble.

Published December 21, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

This morning I drive to work thinking about the lipstick on my front tooth that I can't fix until I exit the freeway, my college freshmen students who will not be prepared for class and firemen, my new heroes. I turn on NPR. An interview.

A scholar explains how difficult it is for a religious fundamentalist to function with the concept of multiple identities. While most of us are comfortable defining ourselves in several different roles, a fundamentalist cannot. She is called to forsake anything that challenges her mission as a single-minded follower of God. Even good things can distract her from the narrow road. Once the image of "zealot" has been forged, the radical will cling to that self-definition and disregard anything but her mission of serving God with her whole heart, soul and strength.

Can the zealot be a city councilman, a lover of literature, an expert at chess or backgammon? Unlikely. These pursuits have the potential to hinder the believer from becoming a sold-out follower of God. The Old Testament God who consumed his servants' sacrifices in a blinding flash of fire is not a God content to be a suburban pursuit, a scheduled event on a crowded calendar. The zealot capitulates in the face of this demand and is rewarded with sure answers secreted in inerrant scriptures and promises of eternal security. In a chaotic world, the clarity of seeing oneself simply and irrefutably as a child of God is immeasurably comforting. No need to quibble about what is important and what is not -- God is important and everything else is not.

I know this to be true. The interviewee on the radio is describing my former incarnation, a religious fundamentalist who would have died defending her faith. Remembering how I spent my youth clinging to a sole identity makes me cry, there on Interstate 235 on my way to teach paragraph development to sleepy and hung-over youngsters.

I was born in Iowa in the middle of the 20th century. My parents dropped me off on Sunday mornings at a small Baptist church with red carpet where I was taught to turn my back on the world, to retreat, hug my truth to myself and pray for the doomed on the outside. It was clearly a case of "us" and "them." We were the sanctified, the born-again, the elect of God. The others were lost. The others didn't have a clue. My seventh-grade Sunday school teacher warned the knobby-kneed bunch of us 12-year-old girls that the unsaved would trip us up, bring us flat and destroy our faith. We were to be watchful. Yes, she told us, tell the unbelievers about Christ, but don't become friends. For the love of Jesus, don't let the unbelievers influence you to compromise or turn away from the one true God.

My exposure to fundamentalism germinated below the surface throughout my adolescence and finally took root when I turned 18. I was a child bride, pregnant and unhappy when I turned to the Sunday school Jesus for my only likely salvation. I surrendered everything -- my will, my thought processes, my questions -- in return for him coming in and straightening the place up. I began to measure everything against the Holy Scriptures and the one true God and his son Jesus Christ. I plotted each event in my life in the grid of God. I saw the hand of God in everything, and I mean everything. Parking spots at a crowded mall were a gift of God. My daughter's earaches were a test from God. The Del Monte vegetables on sale at the market were a sign of God's provision. I called myself his handmaiden and I began each entry in my prayer journal with a plea to be "used by God." What rich pleasure it was to know the Creator of the Universe was inhabiting me, using me as his mouthpiece. I asked God to speak through me and then I believed each word that left my mouth was his word.

I would not have killed anyone in the name of God, but beyond that important distinction between me and some fundamentalist extremists, I see very little difference. I feared and suspected those who believed in a God who was not my God. I knew I had the answer of the universe. I knew I was right about the path to God. And for years, I didn't doubt it, not for a minute. I didn't waver in the face of others who embraced another religion as fiercely as I. They were mistaken. They had been deceived by their own desires, their prejudice, their allegiance to the Father of Lies, Satan himself.

I believed God to be merciful and loving, but that knowledge paled in my understanding of God as a strict and merciless judge of sin. When the Bible said the beginning of wisdom was the fear of God, I took that seriously. God was not going to take my sin lightly -- not a God who sacrificed his own son for my sin. I kept a tight rein on my actions for two decades of my life. I could not lose my temper, tell a lie, speed even one mile over the speed limit. If I were leafing through a magazine and saw an astrology column, I slammed it shut for fear that I would read even a word of such pagan and occultist prose.

I was filled with anxiety much of the time because, while I could control my actions, I could not control my thoughts. And sometimes the thoughts in my head, my modest and bowed head, were evil. I wanted attention. I was proud. I was jealous. I could hide these emotions from the other believers, but I could not hide them from God and it made me very, very afraid. I resented the flash and dazzle of the world, the temptations always there before me.

For a long time, God's approval meant everything to me. He was my meat and drink. I wanted Him to love me and I longed to prove my love to Him. I often thought about heaven. I daydreamed about walking with Him on a green, celestial hillside, His eyes on me. There were no flames of judgment, no fury over sin, only love for me, a holy and fierce love for me, His disciple, the one who denied herself the pleasures of this world out of adoration of Him. I knew He would reward me and I could not wait to see His face.

The fundamentalist is intractable. Can you convince her to compromise in any of the tenets she holds sacred? You cannot. Even in the most benign case, she will see you as a contaminant. Your values and your ideas are not worthy of her consideration because they are wrong. The fundamentalist does not need to understand you and has no desire to try: You are of your father, the devil, the deceiver, the one who is the enemy of her soul. You are not redeemable as far as the fundamentalist is concerned. Your fate is sealed. You, in fact, are dead already.

That is why it's not such a leap for these fundamentalist extremists from another part of the world to see others as nonentities. As far as they are concerned, those outside the true faith might as well be dead. Unbelievers have missed out on the only real thing on planet Earth, the only opportunity for redemption and a ticket to paradise. Through their own choice and because of their own rebellion, they have sealed their fate. Even a loving God must allow humans to exercise free will and take the path they choose.

I understand the fundamentalist. Even now, I know what my former brethren think when they look at me and listen to my denial of all things holy. I know how I would have reacted to someone like me, a believer who has fallen away. I am the one the Scripture says has returned like a dog to his vomit, a newly cleansed pig who has gone back to the mud and mire of the world to wallow in it. I am now an apostate, but how did it happen? Why did I set down the cross I had once so eagerly shouldered?

I was 18 when I embraced fundamentalist Christianity as the only truth. I had the untapped zeal of youth, ready to attach to any worthwhile cause. I was young and in love, in love with God much more than I was with my husband. I believed everything I read in the Bible, accepted everything other believers told me about God, and stopped any analytical or reflective thoughts in their tracks. I gulped dogma and opened my mouth for more. I felt so safe, so secure, so infinitely sure of who I was and what my future held. I dressed modestly and evangelized every chance I had. "The church," I told strangers, "is the bride of Christ. And he's coming back any day now to claim us."

But he didn't show, and that was just the beginning of the disappointments I would tally through the next 20 years. Unanswered prayer, tragedies that could not be properly explained, events that made my loving God look cruel and heartless. Leaders in my church who were lecherous beneath the surface, a glance across a church pew that stripped me of clothes. I read Christian publications that were militant and ignorant, calling women to keep their hair long and their heads covered out of respect to their men and to wear long skirts, no slacks, ever. An elder in our church paddled my infant for not lying still during a diaper change. He left bruises on her legs. A couple got divorced and we all whispered our disdain. One morning I sat with Bible on my lap and found my mind wandering. I tried to make myself read, to learn, to be cleansed, but I was thinking of going to the library instead. My prayers grew perfunctory. I sang the hymns on Sunday morning less enthusiastically. I began to listen to our talk at our church suppers. We, the whole lot of us, were arrogant, smug and intolerant for any way of life but our own.

Finally I slipped my hand from God's. We had been walking hand in hand for a long time, but one day I just let go. I saw his back in front of me, and some part of me said to hurry, catch him before he's completely out of sight, but I did not. I just watched him until he disappeared. God had become a demanding husband, an aloof one. He was a hot and cold lover who would withdraw without explanation. No matter how much I strove to please him, it was obvious of how far I had to go, how frustratingly unattainable my goal of holiness. My love for him faded, and with that love went my submission, my unquestioning acceptance of everything I was taught. I looked at other believers and marveled that they continued to persevere. They were cheerful in the face of disaster, assuring everyone else that God would bring something good out of their brain tumors, lost jobs, missing children.

Extricating myself from the church was the most difficult thing I have ever done. I didn't know how I could admit to anyone that I had stopped believing in the word of God. My children bowed their heads in prayer at the dinner table and asked me questions about the devil and God and who was stronger and I realized that I had raised them to be followers of something that wasn't real. When I read the Bible, I saw contradictions and a bloody religion that had arisen from myth. My husband became an elder in the church and I went to college. He went to prayer meetings and I went to poetry readings. One year into graduate school, I knew what I had to do. I was terrified to make it official, to pull out, to deny, to be a Judas, but I had to. I left it all behind: my marriage, God and the simple answers catalogued and filed inside my head.

During the next few years, I went to Europe several times. Always, I felt compelled to visit the cathedrals. I lit candles but said no prayers. It was so cold in those churches. I was always glad to leave and feel the sun on my face, to see the world clearly and not through stained glass.

By Carolyn S. Briggs

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