Posted by: emjb | August 6, 2005

Ceilings vs. Open Skies

At various places around the internet, I’ve run across discussions on the Duggar family. They had a documentary on the Discovery Channel, 14 Kids and Pregnant Again!, which had a sort of cheery, wondering tone to it. Basically, they are a fundamentally relgious family in Arkansas, part of the full quiver movement (Google this if you wish, I’m not linking to avoid referral trolling). In this family’s case it seems to involve a) having as many children as biologically possible (filling one’s quiver) and b) protecting them from the world by schooling them at home and interacting only with other families with similar beliefs.

Nothing really new in either belief, just in their combination; being anti birth-control has long been considered a more Catholic belief here, while separation from society at large for religious reasons is as old as the Amish, or if you like, the Puritans. Full-quiver idealists seem to be an outlier group in Christian religious fundamentalism at this stage; and I’m not one of those who worries about being “outbred” by fundamentalists, if only because I know so many fundy-raised kids who’ve rejected or tempered their parents’ teachings. I fully expect some of the Duggar children will leave their upbringing and choose a different life.

What fascinates me and saddens me about this family or others like them is what happens to those children before that day comes, and after. I can, in a less extreme way, understand their world. I had access to TV, secular books, and public schools, which they do not, but at the same time I was a kid who really believed what I was taught. I was taught to resist the world around me, and I did; I destroyed books, records, or tapes I bought if I decided they did not “further the glory of God.” I was very modest and unassuming; I worked hard to be humble, to do only what I thought God’s will was, and for a long time, let the church or religious writers tell me what that will was. My worldview was shaped by premillenialist Rapture-pushers like Tim LaHaye and Hal Lindsey, and it was a long time before I understood how much larger the world of history and thought was than what they told me.

(Begin overextended metaphor):
It was as though I was raised inside a house with no windows and one door, and that door was marked “The World.” Just to stand too close to it was risky; it might open and tempt you out into the unknown. You were told that your ceiling was the sky and your floor was the earth, and that was all you needed or should need. But there were cracks in the walls and breezes got in, bringing smells and sounds you could not identify but couldn’t help wondering about. The stories you were told had strange gaps in them, or hinted at meanings that seemed to contradict what you were told.

And then one day, a sudden crisis rumbles through the house, and huge gaps appear, letting the outside world in. You have several choices now. You can try to repair or even expand your house, shutting out the dangerous things that the gaps reveal. You can stay on your porch, yelling at passers by to come into your house or they will be killed. Or you can go outside.

Most fundies do go outside eventually, I’m convinced. The beliefs they live under are just too confining..and contradictory…to stay inside of all the time. But sneaking out to enjoy the world’s pleasures brings guilt, and fear of what will happen if they renounce their beliefs. So they always come back, and they lie about leaving, disparaging the evil world they secretly need and love. (end overextended metaphor).

I found out about this in a rather odd way, growing up in the church. When I was 6 I began to notice that all the kids my age were getting baptized. I soon began to ask if I could be too. Adults around me were thrilled, for the most part, especially the church leaders and teachers. I had an interview with our pastor, which didn’t intimidate me at all for some reason. He asked me a lot of questions, but a few years of Sunday school had taught me all I needed to know about what to say. Yet even as I said things like “I want Jesus to live in my heart!” part of me knew that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. The pressure was all in the direction of baptism, though, so I never thought to back out. My pastor was apparently impressed with my maturity, and the baptism took place on my 7th birthday. It was fun, wearing the white robe and being dunked in the tank. I was fascinated by the jujitsu hold the assistant pastor used; he held out his left arm at a 90 degree angle, grabbing your nose to hold it closed. His right arm went behind your shoulders, and then he dunked you in one smooth motion, up-down. I remember I had to stand on a cinderblock in the tank to keep my head above water pre-dunk, and had to concentrate on bending my knees at the right time so I wouldn’t fall off of it and flail around.

Anyway, that was that. I was a little Christian now, and I was dried off and taken home.

But that wasn’t that. I started to feel uncomfortable. I knew that at least some of what I’d said was a sham, that I didn’t really feel any different or that Jesus was in my heart now. I felt bad about misleading people, and afraid God was mad at me. I’m not sure how long this went on…maybe it took a whole year. But at some point, I was in church on a Sunday and the pastor was making the invitation to give your life to Jesus. I was fidgeting as I kept my head down with the rest of the congregation, “Just As I Am” being sung by the choir. The pastor kept pleading, in heartfelt tones he always used, for anyone with any doubts to come down. It seemed to last forever. Finally, I darted out of my pew before my mom could stop me and went to the front. The deacons gathered round, and I sobbed out that I wanted to put Jesus in my heart, for real. There was consternation and whispered conversations when a deacon realized I was already baptized and shouldn’t be there.

My mom appeared to take me off into a separate room. I was still sobbing uncontrollably, and she scolded me for going to the front. I tried to explain what had happened (but I’m not sure I could have), but she didn’t understand. Finally in exasperation, she told me that I was already saved and I shouldn’t let myself get so emotional. And then we went home. No one ever talked to me about what happened, just seemed more embarrassed at my fervor.

After that there was always a disconnect between whatever religious feelings I had and what my church actually expected of me–which was mostly to show up and say the right phrases. At the time, I didn’t feel superior so much as confused. And even now, I don’t blame them. Fundamentalism asks us to do what is not possible–it tangles itself up in contradictions that don’t allow anyone to live an ordinary life. It tries to regulate and restrict all the tiny things that make up living until there is no way to act correctly and still live at all.

I lingered in the church for a few years, even after I’d left home and no longer had to obey my parents. I tried different churches, here and there. None of them really felt any different than the one I grew up in. There was still a man at the front, preaching and leading. There were still rows of silent, mostly bored parishoners thinking about the football game, and their restless children. There was still very little life in any of it, except the occasional musical interlude. The preacher was there to do his job; our job was to listen politely, give the church some money, and go home.

I had been to livelier churches; Assembly of God, and a charismatic church, where speaking in tongues occured, and occasionally, being slain in the Spirit (i.e., fainting) but I had never felt any extra spiritual presence there either. Just confusion at the commotion, not sure if it was a put-on or not. And definitely repulsed by the politics, the fear and hatred that were encouraged, the mistrust of reason and knowledge, the ignorant nostalgia for a nonexistent past.

So in the end, I drifted away. Church didn’t want my passion, and it certainly didn’t want my questions. It wanted my warm body, hours of my time, and my money, but not me, myself. There was no room for the person I was there. There wasn’t any room, I came to realize, for the kind of God I was likely to believe in, one that didn’t insist on male supremacy, one that prized conscience over dogma. One that didn’t demand spiritual maturity from 7-year-olds, or threaten to send anyone over age 13 (considered the “age of discernment” at my church) to hell for not getting baptized and declaring that Jesus lived in their hearts.

To revist my metaphor, I realized at one point that I was permanently outside of the house of religion in which I was raised. It wasn’t that I needed a new house, it was that no house would ever be big enough. I had to be outside, in the elements, under the naked sky, if I wanted to know anything at all, if I wanted enough room to think real thoughts. I was afraid, for a little while. Warnings about how unchurched believers inevitably sank into sin and went to hell did have some power over me. I did wonder, in bad moments, whether I had angered God. But to go back into the prison I had left was impossible, and so I finally decided that if there was Hell to pay for the freedom I couldn’t live without, then something was seriously wrong with the universe and I would just have to risk it. If God was going to punish me for acting on my deepest, purest need for freedom, the need which he evidently gave me, then he was evil and I didn’t owe him obedience. I decided that obedience from fear, which had been taught to me as the highest form of devotion, was really the lowest. I was not going to believe that I’d been brought into this world to grovel before a celestial bully. And of course, what I really hoped is that if there is a God, that he or she is nothing like what I was taught anyway; that he or she was someone who made us to be thinking and choosing adults, not children, and not slaves. That Hell is a sadistic dream of power-hungry men, not a fate that awaits the unworthy.

And sometime after that, the fear left, and it has never come back. Things are much more complicated now, but in their own way, so much clearer. I don’t know any of the answers I used to know, but I’m no longer required to pretend that I do.

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