Every year, my evangelical boarding school in Kenya (Rift Valley Academy/RVA) had a week-long tent-revival. But without the tent. They brought in a speaker from America, or sometimes Canada or Britain, to preach every night for a week, and also every day during chapel. He (because, obviously) was invariably some wannabe cool dude/80’s version of a hipster that could “connect with the youth.” One year, it was the now famous mega-church pastor Andy Stanley, but back then he was better known as the otherwise unknown son of mega-church pastor Charles Stanley. A friend of mine recounted a recent visit to Andy’s church near Atlanta, which is attended by tens of thousands. Andy only appeared physically before part of the congregation due to space constraints, and everyone else saw a hologram of him. I told my friend I felt pretty certain that Jesus never intended for his disciples to convey the good news via hologram, but who knows. Back in the 80’s, the demand for Andy was not so great as to necessitate any form of teleportation, and we got him in his 30-year-old flesh, all the way over in Africa.
This week was called Spiritual Emphasis Week, or SEW, without even a hint of irony. Because, you know, the rest of the time at RVA, no one gave a crap about peoples’ spiritual lives. Between daily Bible class, daily chapel, weekly dorm devotions, massive pressure to have a daily “quiet time,” weekly Sunday school and church, as well as evangelical work-ins whenever possible, we were left to our own heathen devices. Thank God we had SEW every year to allow us to take time out to think about God and get off whatever neglectful path devoid of spirituality we were on.
SEW unfolded like a well-made burrito every year, revealing the familiar layers of inspiration, manipulation, guilt, shame, peer pressure, redemption (until next time!), and topped off with ritual banned cassette tape destruction. Honestly, the whole thing could have been an elaborate scheme to get us to hand over our satanic music, since most of the staff was unable to identify it by sound and generally couldn’t be bothered to hunt for it. On nights/days one through six, the speaker gradually ramped up the heat surrounding whatever scripture/theme had been selected, probably in consultation with the RVA staff, probably centered around whatever sin was particularly contagious on campus at the time. On day/night one, things were pretty casual. The speaker cracked all their best jokes, made all their best teenager-cool references, and reeled us in. Then he expertly and gradually shifted over to earnest authority figure before we even knew what was happening. So by the end of the week, when he was telling us to burn our tapes, we were like, well, this hip dude is telling us AC/DC will fry our souls right up so it must be true.
I always approached the final night with a combination of foreboding and hopeful expectation. I knew exactly what was going to happen every year. I had experienced it so many times before, at RVA and other evangelical revival services over the course of my young life. The message was always the same, the crescendo of an emotional pitch that built through the week and basically boiled down to: Whatever kind of Christian life you’ve been living, it’s not good enough. There is some part of your heart you aren’t giving over to God, some hidden sin you aren’t confessing, some bad habit you won’t give up, some divine directive you are ignoring, some lost soul you aren’t saving, some messed up room in the home of your life that needs a good cleaning. And definitely some Madonna cassette tapes under your bed you need to fork over. And that was on the mild end of the spectrum. On the more severe side of things, you were a total fraud, a nominal Christian,” who just went to church and never did their quiet time and secretly wanted to have sex. “Nominal Christians” weren’t really Christians, and you know what that means. Yep, hell. But doing your quiet time simply from obligation could also be bad. You had to have the right motivation, you don’t want to just be “religious” like one of those Pharisees Jesus rebuked all the time. You needed to have a personal relationship with Jesus and feel about him as you would an actual person you could marry you love so much and live only for him.
The last service ended with a somber altar call. The speaker called people forward to accept Christ as their Savior or to “rededicate” their lives to Christ. This was when I started to get nervous, and not because I was thinking, this whole thing is a massive con and everyone is going to know I think so. No, I was a true believer, or rather, I wanted to be, more than I wanted anything in life. I wanted so badly for lightning to strike, to feel the spirit move as so many of my friends seemed to do. They wept uncontrollably and went forward joyfully and seemed remade at least for a time. They enthusiastically got up extra early to have their precious quiet times with their BFF Jesus and waxed eloquently in dorm devotions about all God was teaching them. Every year, there was always a particularly shocking case of a kid who seemed to be a model Christian, a spiritual leader on campus, who went forward and testified to the fake life he or she had been leading and tearfully pledged their entire life to Christ, the whole thing this time! And they seemed to almost glow with joy and peace.
But I had never felt that genuinely. And year after year at SEW I hoped and prayed I would experience a miracle, like Saul on the road to Damascus, that Jesus would just knock me off my horse and change my life forever. Then I would KNOW I was saved and accepted, and I would be healed of all my fears and failures. Year after year I sat waiting, watching streams of my peers go forward in apparently genuine faith, getting more and more anxious as the time passed, frantically trying to conjure a spiritual awakening. Finally, I would rise from my seat and walk dutifully to the front, trying to look enraptured but honestly feeling not much at all.
Other than guilt. I could always feel that most acutely, whether it be from how I treated my roommate, a slightly racy book I had enjoyed a little too much, a disrespectful tone I had taken with a teacher, or a worry I could not relinquish. Or the secrets I was keeping. And yes, the cassette tapes. Sometimes I had since reacquired the tapes I had destroyed the previous year via illegal double-decker boom box duplication. I probably pulverized Like a Virgin multiple times, making it not only a smash hit but a repeatedly smashed one. Add to all that the guilt of pretend rededication of my life to Christ, of walking the aisle in a heretical charade.
As an adult, this pursuit of a real, true “born again” experience continued, particularly as my sorrows and struggles mounted. I prayed for freedom and healing from my dysfunctional relationship with food, my overwhelming grief after leaving Kenya, my increasingly miserable marriage. I just knew if I could deeply experience Jesus, surrender my life, for real, and truly trust God, everything would get better. Or at least be bearable. I tried everything to conjure up a life-changing spiritual transformation. I prayed, I studied the Bible, I read books. Still it eluded me. This Jesus sure does play hard to get, I thought on my darker days.
The first time I encountered strict Calvinist theology–in an academic rather than a religious setting–a new terror filled my heart. Hard-core Calvinists like the Puritans believed that some people were among the elect, destined for heaven, and others were not, destined for hell. This was preordained or predestined by God, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. A spiritual experience, rather than being the process of salvation, merely confirmed one’s predetermined status as one of the elect. What if the fact that I had been earnestly pursuing an experiential faith without success meant that I wasn’t among the elect? What if I was going to hell no matter what? I mostly dismissed this–a Calvinistic God sounded far too cruel and arbitrary to me–but it was more than a passing thought.
Many years later, I’ve still never had a conversion experience; in fact, I’ve come closer to having a de-conversion experience. I’m no longer an “orthodox” Christian according to evangelical definitions. I affirm the divinity, death, and resurrection of Christ, but I’m agnostic about most everything else. And if I’m honest, there are times I struggle to believe any of it. I think there’s a decent chance there is no God, or no after life at the very least. Frankly, this doesn’t scare me at all. I wasn’t conscious before I was born, and if I’m not after I die, so be it. Sure, I would love to see again those I’ve lost and those I will eventually lose (although I could honestly do without seeing some of them). But I’m at peace with whatever will be. I believe if God exists, he is love. I’m going to be fine.
So why do I even bother with Christianity or religion of any kind? Many of my friends and family probably wouldn’t consider me a Christian any more, given my unacceptable doctrine (and that’s fine; I welcome them to pray for me). The culture I live in certainly doesn’t require it. Quite the opposite, calling yourself any kind of Christian or attending any sort of church makes one a bit weird around here. Increasing numbers of Christians of various sorts are abandoning formal participation and even basic belief. For the first time ever, fewer than half of Americans belong to a religious community of any kind. So what keeps me hanging in here?
I just finished Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Freeing Jesus. She calls her book “memoir theology,” which she defines as “the making of theology–understanding the nature of God–through the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus.” And it is indeed a beautiful tour of her experience of Christ in its various iterations, from Methodist Sunday School girl’s view of Jesus as friend, to born again high schooler accepting Jesus as her personal savior, to depressed, slightly lost seminary student navigating fierce theological battles, to humbled pilgrim who finds peace in uncertainty and the divine in the ordinary. I found much of myself in her story, including an ill-conceived first marriage. Although she started out Methodist, and I’ve ended up there (at least for now)!
One thing I appreciated most was that, while she found fault with various Christian cultures and phases she had left behind, she also found value. She did experience an aspect of Jesus in all of them, and she did carry forward bits and pieces of her Christian pasts. Ultimately, if I understand her correctly, she finds that Jesus is bigger than all of them, bigger than any tradition or box or doctrine, he is in all things and through all things.
And that’s ultimately why I’m still a Christian. Because of Jesus. Just because I never experienced him in the way I was told I must growing up–and yes, this caused me significant, in my opinion, unnecessary distress–I’m so thankful I was introduced. If anything, Christians routinely undersell him. My evangelical upbringing emphasized his importance for the afterlife–something unknowable and not even the major focus of most of the Bible–and glossed over his vitality for THIS life, one that is very real, difficult, complicated, yet beautiful. Heaven and hell are all around us right here on earth. And Jesus showed us how to live, how to love, how to be free in their midst.
When I read the Bible, there is a definite arc, a clear progressive (in a non-political sense) trend, of human beings gradually learning to rise ever-so-slightly above their selfish, violent, tribal, survivalist instincts, their zero-sum games. Then Jesus enters the chat and turns all the tables the rest of the way over. He says the best defense is vulnerability. He says the weak are the strong. He says the more you try to possess, the more you are possessed. He says self-sacrifice is freedom. He says love is power. He says the greatest sin is fixating on others.’ He says grace can overcome shame. He says we are all beloved, all connected, all welcome. He builds bridges and tears down walls. The work that Jesus started has reverberated through the centuries and, I believe, is visible in the elevation of human rights of all kinds, the value placed on each human life, the overall decline of war and oppression (speaking very broadly/historically), and even in other forms of secular and religious thought.
I don’t have to know what happens when I die or understand the Trinity or whether infant or adult baptism is correct or what Revelation means or remove all semblance of doubt from my life in order to follow Jesus. I can wake up tomorrow not even sure there is a God, and I’ll still be certain how I want to live my life that day. Whether or not there is a hell has no bearing on loving my neighbor right here and now (and I realize that is not true for all Christians; for those who earnestly believe in hell and that most of humanity is headed there, it tends to orient their lives toward explicit evangelism, and I’m not here to criticize their beliefs or choices). To quote Diana Butler Bass quoting a Spanish poet, “We make the road by walking.”
I’ve found in following Jesus–in asking myself how better to love and heading in those directions–I am born again and again. Of course, I still fall short. To be honest, I find some people so very difficult to love. But each new day is an opportunity to see others through Jesus’s eyes, to respond to them with his voice, to serve them with his hands. I do believe in his divinity, but even in moments when faith is hard to come by, his example speaks for itself. It’s how I choose to live. Or at least how I choose to aspire to live.
It turns out Jesus doesn’t play hard to get. He’s just highly mobile. Instead of receiving him in a box, you just need to join him on the trail.