Depression, Religion

Faith and depression

“The joy of the Lord.” I’ve never felt it.

In 2016 my grandma died. The year before that, my other grandma died. In 2018 our house burned to the ground in the Camp fire (along with the whole rest of the town). I am well-acquainted with grief. And when I stopped believing I also experienced a super long and hard grieving period. It was like I had lost my best friend who I had spent every day of the previous 35 years with. But even before these events I had a problem feeling joy.

I had been told my whole life that the Bible commanded me to rejoice in the Lord, and that the fact that I was unable to rejoice meant I was being sinful and unholy.

By the time I was in 6th grade Job had become my favorite book in the Bible…

Paul and his thorns…

Jonah and his shady weed in the desert… (I hadn’t realized that Jonah was suicidal. I thought he was just disobedient.)

David’s Psalms of despair, those are the ones that resonate.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” Ok, that’s a little better. At least Jesus was a little more sympathetic toward broken people like me.

But the songs and sermons at church weren’t about brokenness. They were about joy. I didn’t feel it, so I had to pretend… Fake it ’til you make it… But I wasn’t good at that. People used to ask my friends if I hated them because I didn’t smile, and my friends would say no, that’s just Aaron. The excuse was that I was lost in deep thought or something and maybe I was.

I never participated in “holy laughter.” If people were getting slain in the spirit at the altar I would be up there with my arms open waiting for it and dude actually had to push me down by my forehead.

So I sucked at faking it.

I was taught at a young age that the idea of self-esteem and the entire field of psychology we’re “humanistic,” and that humanism was satanic. Like Frank E. Peretti novel conspiracy-level satanic. Anything “secular” was by definition invalid. Worldly. Basically if anybody had any ideas about anything and that person wasn’t a Christian or was speaking from a scientific or academic viewpoint, those thoughts and ideas were not of the Lord and might even be from the devil.

So even if I had known I had a problem, treatment wouldn’t have been an option. It would have been prayer and fasting and spiritual warfare.

An aside

When I was little there was a time when there were noises coming from the attic like pebbles being scattered on a tin roof when our roof wasn’t tin… Apparently this wasn’t caused by pigeons or possums, or even ghosts, but by demons. So someone came over and anointed the house with oil. My parents probably wouldn’t even remember this story if you asked them. But things that scare the hell out of you when you’re a kid tend to stick with you…

Rain fell like judgment across my window pane
It fell like judgment but it was only rain. —Bad Religion

Overspiritualizing things is something humans have been doing for tens of thousands of years. Sounds from your roof? It’s demons. No rain at all? It’s because the gods aren’t happy, so do a rain dance. Can’t get pregnant? Sacrifice to the fertility goddess. Can’t find your shoes? The pixies stole them. Hear a bump in the night? It must be the bogeyman. You got cancer? Let’s pray for God to heal you. Got depression? It’s sinfulness. It means your faith is weak or something.

Ligonier ministries says depression is caused by the sin of hopelessness/unbelief.

Think about those things that are good, true, and beautiful, and your brain will demonstrate a certain chemical footprint; indulge sinful imaginations and it will have another.

They put the cart before the horse. It’s the chemical imbalances that cause the thought patterns, not the thought patterns that change the chemistry. You can’t magically change chemistry with the power of your mind. What are you, a freaking telekenetic super hero?

The diagnosis is mine

My brother-in-law claimed I had inherited anger issues from my father, and he said that Dad and I were both on the road to hell because of it. Well, it turned out what I needed wasn’t repentance, it was a fucking 33¢ pill.

My wife has chronic depression. It’s been tough to deal with over the past five years. When reading a book for partners/spouses of people with depression, I started to realize many of the stories actually described me, not her. So basically, up until that point I blamed everything on her, when it turned out I was having the same issues.

In the late twenty-aughts I was working at what I considered my best job ever. And I was damn good at it. But I started getting called in to HR for regular meetings about my personality and was put on probation.

My doctor had me take a quiz and diagnosed me with dysthymia. And apparently 1 out of every 20 people is in the same boat. Though not typically as severe as the depression my wife suffers, it is more chronic—it never goes away—and it’s harder to treat. Dysthymia has ups and downs with a wavelength similar to bipolar, but the peaks aren’t manic: they’re never above the baseline of “normal.” I’ve been on meds ever since (if there’s a lapse in my refills I start throwing things around the house).

One of the things that makes it really difficult to deal with dysthymia when you’re married to someone with depression is that it’s often difficult to tell when your reactions are due to your own condition, or in reaction to what the other is doing to you. (If one’s spouse suddenly decides to go off their meds for a month and a half, and that ends up being the worst 6 weeks of your marriage, it’s hard to tell who’s to blame.)

When I told HR and my supervisors that I was on meds now, and that my depression was a thing, they didn’t take me off probation or make allowances per the Americans with Disabilities act. I didn’t last much longer there. I think some bridges got burned. I thought maybe if I put my “disability” on later job applications maybe I’d get the understanding I needed… Probably not.

I read C.S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy but wasn’t surprised. I read Piper’s The Legacy of Sovereign Joy. That was probably a life-changing book. But I don’t think I got any actual “joy” out of it, though I got the sovereignty part. What did help was the idea that it wasn’t my fault that I didn’t have joy; if I was ever going to get it, it would have to be thrust on me from a higher power.

If I were still a Christian I would be a Calvinist: our accountability is not dependent upon any notion of free will, but is a judgment deserved on us through the doctrine of original sin. The secular application of that is that our thoughts are not our own, but are a product of our genes and our physical brain and all the activity and chemistry going on there. Cause and effect. If you had scanners powerful enough you could actually look at my head and see the problem.

Your mental state is a product of your physical brain and its chemistry, not of your supposed immaterial soul. For that matter, anything we do is directly caused by our brains (see Sam Harris, Free Will) and maybe therefore a judgment of works makes no sense at all.

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Religion, Scripture

Put another way…

My dad is a worship leader. He proposed to my mom with the “God told me you’re supposed to be my wife” pitch. He gave me names from the bible—“Aaron” and “Jacob”—and he said God showed him some bible verses that applied to me prophetically, to the effect that I as his son was meant to have a greater impact in the world than even he. (No pressure, right?) I was raised in one of those churches that claims to be non-denominational but proved it was simply a new denomination with different labels. I played violin and mandolin in a couple Christian rock bands. I ended up a worship leader in my own right and even secretary of the board. I had a patriarchal upbringing, and for the longest time, I believed the Bible supported this. You can imagine my surprise when I got married and my wife refused to do the dishes or the laundry. It was a huge shock to my worldview.

I think I first noticed something was wrong with our religion when I saw an episode of 60 Minutes about the remnants of the Branch Davidians in Waco. Yes, they’re still there. In the video, the new leader’s daughter was playing a Taylor and singing a Tim Hughes song. After that I could never sing that song again. Branch Davidians are a cult. If our way of worshiping isn’t particularly uniquely Christian then what are we even doing?

I registered Democrat for the first time in two decades of voting. Then I ended up as simply a liberal mainline protestant, coming up with frameworks to explain why Genesis was never intended to be taken literally, ceremonial and civil laws were meant for a certain time and certain place, etc. But it seemed like the vast majority of Christians were the crackpot kind. Jesus said there would be wheat among the tares but he also said to judge a tree by its fruit. Sorry to mix metaphors.

The last church I had a leadership role in, I noticed some things were a bit off about their statement of faith. I did a ton of research and prepared a 12-page document explaining my position. But then I realized there was no way these home-schooling fundies would keep me around if I told them I accepted the scientific validity of evolution and the Big Bang.

Then people who went to the church I had helped plant killed one of their kids by beating them to death with a plumbing supply line. They read a book about how to raise kids god’s way and a huge portion of it was about beating them. They went to prison, and the rest of their kids are now being raised by healthy parents, going to real schools, prom, etc.

This event had a huge impact on me. It was the first time I saw people close to me use scripture as a justification for evil. It occurred to me that there were probably more Christian terrorists than there were Muslim. All those us-versus-them arguments about whose religion was the more violent went out the window. But the reaction of most of my Christian friends on the various social networks was “oh great, now they’re going to paint all us Christians who spank our kids as crazy people.” My reaction was “people, it’s not about you!” In the same way, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, my right-wing friends were much more concerned about preserving their right to pack heat than they were about making this country a safer place for children.

John Piper took part in protests in the 1980s against abortion clinics which got him arrested. And I once heard him say in a sermon that he would again take up such illegal resistance if it became the law of the land to not spank your children. That is: if he were ordered by the courts not to spank his daughter, he would do it anyway.

Piper is also on the forefront of the misleadingly-named “complementarian” movement, which claims to be honoring to women but in fact requires then to stay at home and take care of children, and prevents them from taking leadership positions in the church. While blogging about the Schatz tragedy I found that most of the likeminded bloggers were also feminists. So this was a sort of epiphany for me, and I came to realize that feminism and children’s rights go hand-in-hand. I knew this was the equality that Jesus was trying to teach, and which Paul was getting at when he said “in Christ there is neither male nor female.”

Christ enthroned vs. Jesus the man

Chris Hitchens points out that the Christian religion attracts the uneducated. And recent studies have shown that conservatism attracts people with a certain brain structure that makes them selfish individualists, while liberalism attracts people with another structure that make them altruistic. Ironically, altruism is the thing which Jesus of Nazareth preached in the Sermon on the Mount, but these days Christians are all about just signing up for their “get out of hell free card” instead of actually becoming the kind of loving people Jesus told them to be. The worst thing about Christians is when they emphasize “gospel” over “law” but live like devils, or forget their neighbors and oppress the poor, thinking that at least they “believe” the right things so nothing else matters. James said faith without good works is dead.

So many today, especially in conservative Reformed circles, tend to emphasize Christus Victor over the real Jesus. That is, Christ glorified, the King of heaven, who will come back to judge the quick and the dead. As such they value the theological teachings of the new Testament—which were written decades after his death—rather than the actual words of Christ, which were passed from Cephas and James the brother of Jesus straight to Paul and recorded by Q and Mark within their lifetimes—before the christological developments of later years.

Christ enthroned condemns the world and inspires wars. The actual human Jesus was a man of compassion.

The heavenly Jesus inspires the GOP to promote an American theocracy and stir up Israeli wars in Palestine in order to hasten the return of Christ. The living Jesus said “the kingdom is among you”.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

“Turn the other cheek.”

Jesus, the bathwater baby

The Bible was such a huge part of my upbringing. But the more I looked, the worse it looked. It’s wrong about origins. The Bible condones slavery, the ownership of women as property, and the execution of rebellious teenagers. The story of the Exodus, in which God performed his own “slaughter of the innocents” in the final plague, was particularly problematic for me. I eventually realized I had to either become a Marcionite heretic or drop the whole thing. That is, science and reason tell me that Yahweh, even if he existed, was a murderous tyrant, and so if Christians teach that Jesus was the son of Yahweh, or that Jesus believed he was doing the will of Yahweh, or that Yahweh raised Jesus from the dead, that these claims must be false.

However, inasmuch as we can verify that Jesus was an anti-establishment revolutionary who preached social justice, healed the sick, condemned the rich, and promoted the Golden Rule like Buddha and Isocrates before him, then this is a man who inspires me.

Thomas Jefferson took a razor and glue to the gospels and cut and pasted together his own bible, leaving out miracles and supernatural stuff like the resurrection. He had a point, I think. So now I’m going to pull a Jefferson and do some picking and choosing of my own.

The first half of Genesis is out because science disproved it. Yahweh’s genocidal ways are out. So basically half the Bible is out, right? The apocalypse is out. Oh, and hell is out, too.

The Psalms are beautiful. Skip the imprecatory ones, though.

Jesus’ moral teachings are still incredibly relevant. At least I think so. Of course, then you have critics pointing out that “He who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t in the oldest manuscripts. That sucks, because it seems right on.

Keep James, with his condemnation of the evils of the rich. Dude is awesome.

Saul of Tarsus: “In Christ, there is no Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free.”

Southern fundamentalists rejected this outright because they wanted to keep their slaves. Modern fundamentalists reject it because they don’t want to give women equal status. Modern eschatological wackos reject it because they think Jews still have an elevated status; they side with Israel at all cost, even against the Palestinian Muslims and Christians whom they continually oppress.

In Christ, there is no Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. The verse is obviously morally right. You don’t have to balance it out with the verse that says women shouldn’t teach or have authority over men, because it’s obvious which verse is moral and which one is religious. (Besides, according to New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, those sections were pseudepigraphal.)

The idea is there is a true morality, and we as moral beings can sit in judgment of scripture and reject it as needed, rather than letting scripture judge us.

I hope to be a more moral and gracious and kinder person as an atheist than I ever was as a believer. I think I just need to be a good husband and a good and loving father, and let this higher morality guide me instead of the oppressive mysogyny of scripture.

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covenant theology, Reformed Theology, Religion

How Reformed Theology taught me to be a Freethinker

All truth is God’s truth. —Augustine

A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence. —David Hume

Bertrand Russell said, “Perhaps you may say that it would be rather a pity if Christian education were to cease, because you would then get no more Rationalists.” I concur (though I admit I can’t tell if he was being sarcastic). It was Christian ways of thinking about the world which brought me to where I am now. Not standard evangelical youth group or men’s prayer breakfast ways of thinking; but the hard thinking thought by great minds like Calvin, Edwards, Warfield, Piper.

Free Will is a Myth

One of the first Calvinist authors I read thoroughly was Jonathan Edwards. He was much derided in my high school American Lit class for the hellfire of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”, but he wrote hundreds of other books and sermons as well. His Freedom of the Will is an epic logical tome of metaphysics, in which he explains that we do things because of our nature, and our wills are bound to that nature.

In Calvinist speak this deals with the Sovereignty of God and the depravity of man. In neuroscience speak it’s biology, the chemicals and neurons in our brains that cause us to do the things we do or think or say.

Science also shows us that we are a social species and have evolved ways to live in community with each other. This is morality. Don’t steal, don’t rape, don’t kill. Despite this fact, there are sociopaths who lack this instinct, and in addition, none of us complies with our instinctual morals perfectly (white lies, outbursts of rage in an otherwise gentle soul, etc.). Calvinists call this total depravity. And neuroscience says it’s biology. It raises the question in terms of the penal system: how strictly do we hold someone responsible for their own actions?

Natural Revelation

They had two foundations: one, the law of nature, and the other, the word of God. The protestants have endeavored to carry on this double process of reasoning, and the result has been a gradual increase of confidence in the law of nature, and a gradual decrease of confidence in the word of God. —Robert Green Ingersoll, Mistakes of Moses

God reveals himself in two ways: in Scripture, and in Nature. Nature does not lie. Rabbi Moses Maimonides taught that reason and science were not contrary to revelation; rather, if there is evidence that seems to contradict the Scriptures, the problem is with your interpretation.

Natural revelation teaches us that whatever we learn from nature is in fact not a deception, but is truth. You can look at a deer and an elk and figure out that they are more closely related to each other than a cat and a frog. You can sail around the world and figure out the earth is round. If there are bones in the ground, and if elements have a half-life, then if the half-life of the potassium in the bones indicates it’s 600 million years old, then that’s what it is. The devil didn’t manipulate the dirt to make it look older. And the paleontologists who analyzed the data aren’t devil-worshipers peddling lies in order to deceive the elect. If the speed of light is 1 light-year per year, and we can see a star that’s a billion light years away, then it means that the star was there a billion years ago.

More liberal theologians have been able to reconcile the age of the earth with the Genesis account through literary criticism, recognizing the creation story as a sort of poem rather than an eyewitness account. But the problem of religion is that scientists are always treated as heretics by the orthodox. So if the doctrine of natural revelation is true, then orthodox religion is therefore invalid and true religion is that which accepts science. But if one argues that the orthodox are not the true church and only the critically-thinking Christians are the true church, then you’re still left with the problem of theodicy: that the Holy Spirit has allowed the established church to deceive billions of people over the last 2000 years.

Natural Law

Natural Law teaches us that the moral law is not something that has to be imposed on mankind by an external force, but is something that is inherent to our nature. According to Reformed doctrine, the sin of Adam was a failure to obey the Moral Law.

Paul says it’s “written on our hearts.”

Sam Harris says this morality predates homo sapiens, and that our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, share the morals summarized in the second table of the 10 Commandments as well (apart from the prohibition of coveting).

In other words, we didn’t need Moses to go up Mount Sinai to figure out that killing and stealing are wrong.

Law and Gospel, Covenant Theology

The framework made famous by the Lutherans and adopted by the Reformed communions is a very helpful way to discern critically whether a given command from Scripture is binding or not. Basically it goes like this: God made a covenant “of works” with Adam which Adam broke. In his covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (the covenant of Grace), Yahweh explained that the onus was on himself to fulfill the terms of the covenant, unconditionally. (This is what was signified by Yahweh passing between the animal parts. The party making the oath is saying “Be it done so to me if I fail to keep it.”) But the covenant that Israel ratified at Sinai was the “covenant of works”. In fact, the entirety of the Mosaic Law is a man-made religion endeavoring to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The Law consists of three parts: the ceremonial law, the civil law, and the moral law. The Moral Law is “summarized” in the Ten Commandments but is also “written on the hearts of men.” The civil law was particular to the kingdom of Israel (eye for an eye, etc.) and the ceremonial law (priestly duties, sacrificial system, etc.) was “fulfilled” in Christ as all the blood sacrifices were a foreshadowing of what was to come in his ultimate sacrifice in which the covenant of grace was fulfilled (as Jesus/Yeshua being Yahweh incarnate paid the ultimate price himself).

In the Lutheran view anything that is commanded for us to perform is law, and everything that scripture says God does for us is “gospel”. This is the case whether the verse being referenced is in the old or new testament. Moral law (as opposed to civil or ceremonial) is still binding, but it doesn’t elevate us in any way. Our salvation is wholly upon God’s grace in the gospel.

Reformed theologians have done a great job with this, and it’s probably the best way to make sense of Scripture. The problem is that mainline Presbyterians and Lutherans who believe these things make up only a tiny percentage of the number of Christians in this country. A whole lot of evangelical pastors reject the idea of going to seminary to learn things like this. This means that most who identify themselves as conservative Bible-believing Christians are not interpreting scripture through these lenses and take single verses (such as “homosexuals are an abomination”—Moses, covenant of works) as God’s holy word and somehow forget that Jesus said “he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

Cessationism as a pathway towards skepticism

If you grow up in a Pentecostal, charismatic, or semi-charismatic church, you have likely had certain experiences which you perceived to be spiritual. You felt the “tug” of the Holy Spirit on your heart, or his prompting you to pray for somebody in a certain way out loud, after which the person you were praying for is like, “Wow, that was totally God!” Or speaking in tongues. Or when you fell on your back during afterglow and couldn’t get up because God was holding you down. When you give your testimony, you look for those personal “encounters” where you totally felt the Spirit move, because these experiences made it “real” to you. You felt like you had a firsthand encounter with an actual invisible spiritual realm.

If you start in charismania and then move to a more Reformed theology informed by scholarship and reason, you end up with rational and theologically sound arguments for what’s termed “cessationism”. This is the doctrine that the so-called “gifts of the Spirit” were only meant for a certain time and place: the first century, in the book of Acts when the gospel was spreading to new regions, and signs and wonders needed to accompany the message.

So, how then do you explain all those experiences you had?

On one hand, Reformed theology is probably the best way to make sense of the Scriptures. On the other hand, the “experiences” of the charismatic religions experiences are the biggest hindrance to unbelief, because without being informed by neuroscience, you were certain they were real.

Well, it turns out that neuroscientists can measure this with brain scans.

They’ve been able to determine that praying, speaking in tongues, meditating, etc., all have the same effect on the brain whether one is Christian or another religion. You can perform scientific experiments on your spiritual experiences and see that they’re not spiritual at all. There’s a perfectly rational explanation, involving neural pathways formed a million years ago in the minds of our ancestors as they dealt with the death of their loved ones—and they could point this all out to you with an MRI.

An English mentalist named Darren Brown did a show on Netflix called Miracle where he was able to recreate the experiences of faith-healing, tongues, falling on the floor, etc., using the power of suggestion. It’s really eye-opening. I hope that for someone who watches it, it might just end up being the last straw.

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politics, Religion

A Chronology of Deconstruction

Some of these events have been addressed in previous blogs, such as my drift towards a mainline liberal church. I thought that was a destination, but “The road goes ever on and on, whither then I cannot say…”

I am the son of a worship leader, and I spent 15 years of my own life in music ministry. As early as I can remember, Sundays were long days—arriving first so my dad could set up and do sound check, and leaving last after my dad had packed up. Even as an adult it was that way for me, too. When there were evening services, the afternoon was very short.

I grew up in Calvary Chapel. I was “spiritually advanced” for my age, in 5th grade going to the Jr. high Sunday school, participating in small group discussions and having all the “right” answers. I played the violin and was told I was gifted. I was taught that the gift was given to me by God and was to be used to his glory. I completely internalized that, but when someone would give me a compliment about my playing, I would have a hard time appearing gracious. I’d be all like, you should give the glory to God, and if I said anything like that out loud (God, I hope I didn’t) it would have come off as super arrogant.

For most of my life I read the Bible like brushing my teeth, every morning when I woke up and every night before I went to bed. I only listened to Christian music. I was a super goodie-goodie kid. I wore Christian T-shirts. I got beat up by bullies at school, I thought I was being persecuted but maybe people just thought I was annoying.

I lived for summer camp. There was something about the retreat experience, of being away from it all. Every time I went to camp I would recommit myself even though I never actually backslid. It wasn’t like I was cussing, listening to secular music, smoking, making out with girls, or even getting bad grades. I actually got baptized twice even though it’s supposed to be a once and for all deal. I guess I was worried that the first time didn’t stick.

Malibu

When I went to college I went through this process of making my faith my own. As soon as I got there I learned that the so-called “non-denominational” denomination that ran the university that gave me a music scholarship believed that musical instruments were profane and not worthy of use in a church context. So I was forced to find church off-campus. I went to the Vineyard, which was a step more charismatic than Calvary Chapel (to the consternation of my parents). I felt like it was safe since the movement grew out of Calvary, and we were singing all of their worship songs anyway. I started praying in tongues. And it was my first encounter with Christians who weren’t rapture-crazy.

I served in the music ministry for several years, including the adults’ service, the college/young adults band, and the youth band, with the band Lifehouse. The C.Y.A. leaders tried to bully me into choosing them exclusively, but I pushed back. We’ll go ahead and call this bullying Spiritual Abuse.

I went on short-term missionary trips to Scotland in 1999 and 2000, I felt I was “called”, like it was my destiny or something. The first year was awesome. I’d play fiddle and people would come out of the woodwork and just start dancing. One old Scottish lady said, “Ye have a celtic spirit about ye.” The official state Church of Scotland is Presbyterian (Europe doesn’t have the same separation of church and state that we do). So it wasn’t like we were trying to convert pagans.

If you’re a missionary you need to witness and if you’re going to witness you need a testimony. Chrissy Stroop wrote in Empty the Pews that it’s hard for those who grow up in the church to articulate a testimony.

A lot of kids raised in sheltered evangelical environments struggle with this, because when your mom or dad led you through the sinner’s prayer when you were a toddler, it can be hard to paint a convincing picture of transformation, of a before and after. Many evangelical kids secretly envy the testimonies of adult converts who can tell stories of drug addiction or sexual promiscuity as parts of their preconversion lives that God gave them the strength to give up.

Since I didn’t have any pre-conversion experiences, my testimony had to be based on what I felt about God’s power in non-conversion circumstances. I said it was that I could feel the Holy Spirit during worship. I forgot that it’s simply music that produces those feelings of transcendence, even without words or not in a church. I should have remembered that from my youth orchestra days.

So in the summer of the new millennium, I had to chose whether to return to Scotland for 2 weeks or to spend those 2 weeks in immersive rehearsal with my band for the first tour coinciding with the record release. I chose Scotland because I believed it was God’s will. I chose wrong. When I got back the producer informed me they had decided to tour as a 4-piece and as the multi-instrumentalist fifth wheel I was considered unnecessary. They said they’d call after the first tour and I could be on the second. They never called. I now accept that it was my fault, and I owe an apology to those toward whom I harbored resentment for so long. If I had made a rational decision based on what I wanted to do career-wise instead of believing the voice of my imaginary friend, things would have gone differently.

Meanwhile at church: the youth pastor turned out to be a pedophile and he had allegedly molested an important young future actor who was just in jr. high (he has gone on to make a few blockbusters). The youth pastor left the country before he could be brought to justice, and the entire youth group was traumatized and left without closure. (I myself felt a little funny looking back on a time he had invited me to get away and spend some time in a fancy hotel with him.) The senior pastor’s son took over and we all kind of tried to have some large-group therapy on a charter boat to Catalina on Labor Day, with a lot of bonding and probably some self-reflection about sexual harassment.

Early on the church had rented an elementary school lunch room on Sundays and kept all their stuff in storage containers. But suddenly there was a lot of talk about money. The pastor had a Malibu townhouse and an expensive Mercedes SUV. The church bought a building for millions of dollars and customized it with state-of-the-art sound and lighting systems and the pastor got a brand-new convertible. The “you need to give more” stuff was really hard on me because I was poor, and sometimes unemployed. The pastor’s son told me I had to tithe on my unemployment check if I wanted to be in God’s “favor”. When you only get $270 every other week, $27 is a lot of money. (Let’s call that spiritual abuse, too.)

My girlfriend went on a longer-term trip to Scotland. While she was there she was talking to Calvinists (duh, Church of Scotland). I got into an argument with her about it (I thought Calvinists were evil) and cussed her out and broke up with her via an international telephone call. (Let’s call that spiritual abuse, too, though it was I who was inflicting it.)

Things got even worse when the church splits began. Churches tend to split off when they think the parent church is failing to live up to true Christianity. In leaving people lose their community. If they found another they would either have to start from scratch like kids moving to a new school, or if they were in the company of others who left then they’d have the shared memories of the old community and start thinking of half of their friends as being on the wrong side of the schism. Or they might not have found anything at all and they’d just be alone. Then the new place would have a schism of their own. And on and on. I’ve gone through at least four of these. No, five.

At one point the Y.A. pastor confronted the senior pastor about some accounting discrepancies. So he got kicked out. And the entire young adults group basically left the church. Eventually everyone else left the church, too. I became convinced that most of the problems with the church had to do with the money-making institution that has a building and a mortgage and staff to pay; take all of this away, but keep the community. Make your pastors get day jobs.

I looked into the “house church” movement, which is like a home fellowship where the Lords’ Supper is an actual meal. I think it would have been pretty cool if it had taken off but it’s really hard to convince people to participate. At least it was in those days, in L.A.

Chico

With a gaping hole where “spiritual community” should have gone, and nothing left tying me down in L.A., I moved to a small town in Northern California to be with a former band-mate. I started becoming involved at the local Calvary Chapel as a musician and behind-the-scenes guy. I recorded music with the Y.A. band which included my buddy and his brother-in-laws.

I ended up in the enviable position of “church staff” (though not as an employee with benefits, but as an over-taxed contractor), working on media, radio and podcasts. So much for the pastors-should-get-a-day-job thing? I got fired by an elder who was actually quite a bit of an asshole. It turned out they wanted to replace me with my young apprentice who could put in more time for less money. And they were surprised when I left. They actually expected me to stick around and keep doing things for free.

I discovered John Piper. I listened to all of his sermons on my iPod and read all of his books. After much careful study and yelling at friends who were pulling my teeth, I became a Calvinist. This process took me a long way towards rationalism, textual criticism, and just using my brain. I learned that free will is an illusion; I read actual theologians who said truth can be found by observing nature and stopped ignoring science.

Church plant

My future brother-in-law had been on staff at our church but got fired. (He was probably on his way out anyway since he had also become a Calvinist, which is generally looked down upon at Calvary Chapel.) He had a regular midweek Bible study at his house for many years and I encouraged him to make a church of it—I felt it was the closest thing to this “house church” I was longing for—and we finally planted our church. Though we immediately started renting space in a community center instead of keeping it in a house. I made the website, edited the podcasts, led worship, served as secretary of the board; I was told I could be an elder, “eventually”. My wife and I had our first kid.

In addition to being a Calvinist I became an amillennialist (that’s someone who basically doesn’t believe in any of the end-time bullshit that a lot of evangelical whack-jobs believe in). I realized how badly premillennialism had affected the church; how it resulted in America’s horrendous foreign policy and Christians’ disdain for education, the cause of them holding church in theaters and strip malls rather than building stone buildings of the Presbyterian type that last for hundreds of years. (This is a little contradictory; on one hand I’m condemning church building fundss, but on the other I’m looking at the lack of buildings as a sign of impermanence.)

Our politics changed as well. I read Living in God’s Two Kingdoms by David Van Drunen, which helped set right the term “secular”, which had always been a bad word to me. We are all secular and sacred. Atheists and humanists have taken to using the term to describe themselves because Evangelicals call them that. But Secular means laity. It means what happens outside the church building. Jobs are secular. Farming is secular. Shopping is secular. Music is secular. Marriage is secular. Politics is secular. In 2008 it came down to a choice between Obama and Palin and the Trump supporters. We chose Obama even though up to that point I had always voted Republican. But that kind of marked a big turning point for me. His policies lined up with the way Jesus told us to live, taking care of the poor and the weak. I couldn’t be a single-issue voter anymore.

At our new church, it came time to settle on a statement of faith, and we were leaning towards the 1689 London Baptist Confession (LBC), which is based on the 1647 Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). But exceptions were going to be made. A decade ago when John Piper began to accept Presbyterians into membership at his Baptist church, he said: “Beware of making the doors of your church narrower than the gates of the Kingdom.” I had the same feeling, that we shouldn’t draw lines where they shouldn’t be drawn. I felt it was my duty as a co-planter and board member to study and investigate the issues so that the decisions could be made with integrity.

The LBC says the earth was created “in the space of six days, and all very good”. I wanted to clarify: were we saying “literal” six days, or a literary/poetic work week? Because there were different ways it could be interpreted. Should someone be accepted or rejected in the church based on a choice between theistic evolution or young-earth creationism?

LBC also lists the Ten Commandments. What about the Fourth Commandment? (“Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”) What if someone works on Sundays (the Christian Sabbath) and therefore can’t ever come to church? How could he be a member when he can’t actually participate? Should we leave this one out? But how in the hell do Christians get to pick-and-choose from the Ten Commandments by committee? Telling people they had to hold to 9 and only 9 of 10 commandments seemed a little non-standard. What’s the point of Republicans putting the 10 commandments on courthouses to provoke the ACLU into suing you if not all of them count? And if Christians reject one of the Ten “great” Commandments why do they still hold to the lesser commandments that say homosexuality and fornication are sins?

The vote came down, my wife and I were the only ones to vote no. The whole rest of the fellowship were basically voting that I should be disqualified from leadership; because even though I subscribed to the entire Reformed confession I wouldn’t agree with the one exception they made to it. We were Excommunicated (they called it “church discipline”). We were shunned by family and friends.

Then someone from the church got sentenced to 22 years in prison because they killed their daughter by spanking her too much. Because the Bible told them to. So I decided that the Bible not only was wrong about origins, but it was wrong on its prescriptions for punishment as well.

Adrift

We ended up at an old-timey church where people dressed up on Sundays. A man led the hymns while a lady played the piano. Then I started leading sometimes, doing older hymns but with my awesome acoustic guitar arrangements. The old guy left because he was offended by my piercings and tattoos, so I had to lead every week instead of just sometimes.

That church ended up needing to choose a statement of faith as well, but because of my previous experience I was determined to not let it affect me as much. It turned out they had copied theirs from John MacArthur’s church verbatim. MacArthur was even stricter on creationism and harsher in his condemnation than most. I basically knew from the outset that I was going to be on the outside on this one but thought we could enjoy the community until it came down to the wire. But then they started meeting in an abandoned funeral parlor and it just got way too depressing.

But that process of researching the age of the earth had a big impact on me. I read an essay by reformed authors explaining that Genesis was intended as a literary poem rather than a historical account. I read a very convincing book in support of evolution written by a Christian who worked for a scientific think-tank. It was called Saving Darwin, but Karl Gibberson, and I recommend it as a good starting point if you’re uncomfortable reading books by atheists. I came to accept evolution as a fact.

Eventually we found ourselves at a Presbyterian church. There are two main branches of American Presbyterian: a conservative branch, and a liberal branch. The conservative branch split off from the main branch over doctrinal liberalism, but there is some controversy regarding whether the split may have been racially-motivated. This church was the main branch. The one that traced itself back to Philadelphia in the 1700s, which traced itself back to the Westminster Assembly in 1647.

It was so refreshing to be part of a mainline denomination for a little while, getting attached to historical colonial roots. To say our church wasn’t formed by a bunch of So-Cal hippies in the 70s, Nor was it formed by the same Second Great Awakening which spawned Mormonism and countless other aberrations. But was actually the very same Reformed church that came from Scotland and England with 400 years of history since the Reformation. If you wanted to get back to old-school without all the newfangled Evangelical crap, but didn’t want to go all the way to Catholicism, then Mainline protestant is the way to go. (Yes, I think the Protestant Reformation was legit.)

“Science and Religion” were not viewed as mutually exclusive. The associate pastor even wrote a book on the subject.

It was fun for a while. It was an ancient building with a high bell tower that you could hear from a mile away. But we wouldn’t end up sticking around since I was on a two-year path to deconstructing altogether at that point.

I read Jerry Coyne’s book Why Evolution Is True. He was a real atheist; it was clear he was not sympathetic to the cause of compatibilism at all. I was able to read the book and learn a lot while excusing his opinions but it planted a seed. I read Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris and felt like he was a kindred spirit. Robert M. Price’s books were very helpful because he had gone through similar changes in thinking to me. He began by criticizing what’s wrong with Evangelicalism (Beyond Born Again, 1995), but did so in a manner that was sympathetic to Christianity in general—later on he rejected faith altogether (and ultimately, even Jesus). I read God Is not Great by Christopher Hitchens mainly as a sort of “research” to see how atheists think. Halfway through it I had realized I was agnostic. By the time I finished it I was an atheist.

It was 2012. I stopped blogging, because I wasn’t sure how my audience of Facebook friends would take what I had to say. I hadn’t come out to anyone but my wife and kids. As soon as I told my wife, she said, “We need to go to church.”

Evangelical subculture is still a big part of who I am. I still listen to Switchfoot. Even though all my instruments burned in the 2018 Camp fire I still play the hymns I orchestrated on my guitar in my head when I lie in bed at night. I’m still Reformed, in a sense. When I talk about separation of Church and State I quote John Calvin and David Van Drunen. When I talk about origins I reference Meredith Kline. I’m not afraid of going to hell because if I were to end up there it’s because I was predestined to go there—to God be the glory. My ideas about social justice are informed by the teachings of Jesus. Imagine my disappointment when I discovered the evidence for his ever having existed is not so irrefutable after all.

Now I think I suffer from this thing called Religious Trauma Syndrome. I don’t think it’s in the DSM-5 but it ought to be there, right next to PTSD. There was so much psychological manipulation going on around me for my whole life. I had stayed up nights “wrestling” with God, in anxiety over what his will was for me, whether I should do this thing or that, worrying about whether I was “in his favor.” Still, when I stopped believing I experienced a super long and super hard grieving period. It was like I had lost my best friend who I had spent every day of the previous 35 years with. But it turns out this friend was imaginary. I called him Jesus.

You may say, “I know a lot of people who have been through similar experiences with church splits who haven’t walked away from their faith.” This is true. But I spent a couple years wrestling with all these questions before I became an unbeliever. I will get into the reasons in later posts.

Under the topic of “Theodicy” I’ll discuss that one aspect of the “problem of evil” is the evil that is represented in that there are so many Christians who believe wrong things.

After understanding evolution and eschatology (end-times theory), I looked around and saw how fucked up all the churches were that were prophesying the end of the world or warmongering for Armageddon. There are racists and end-times-fanatics, and you’ll see people defending the faith, saying things like “not all Christians are like that.” But way too many are. So it’s not just “how can god allow this to happen”, but “how does he cause this happen in an institution he’s supposed to be in control of?”

You may say the church has bad people in it because God said he will leave the tares (weeds) in the field until it’s time for harvest. But if the field is 99.99% weeds then you have bad seed and you’re a terrible farmer and you need to pick another line of work. If God were good, he wouldn’t allow the Church to get so messed up.

Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, surpassed the morality of the Bible with a single sentence: “Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.” Imagine how different our world might be if the Bible contained this as its central precept. Christians have abused, oppressed, enslaved, insulted, tormented, tortured, and killed people in the name of God for centuries, on the basis of a theologically defensible reading of the Bible. —Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation

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The morning after the Dec. 6 storm

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Summer of ’13 playlist

I’ve added a “make a playlist” habit on Lift. Mixtapes always bring me joy, so I think making a habit out of this will help me with my happiness issues. This one is mostly modern indie with a classic twist (you know, those bands that either deliberately or accidentally sound like they’re from the 70s). And The Clash, who actually were from the 70s. There’s also a bit of a reggae theme.

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Rethinking my GTD strategy

I’ve been using Evernote since 2006. The combination of checkboxes and their searchability with the “todo:” search operator allowed me to manage my GTD workflow in a particular manner. Other third-party solutions, such as Zendone, utilized notes as to-do items, ignoring built-in checkboxes altogether. But then when Evernote released a new “Reminders” feature, they piggybacked on it by making the reminders behave as to-do lists, with their own checkboxes, completely separate from the ones in notes. This was a little problematic, as it creates serious fragmentation in your workflow. Perhaps it can be used for “focus” items. I didn’t like the old checklists, but I used them. I like the new checklists, but the fact that they can’t be correlated with the existing ones makes a transition difficult, and though reminders are supported in the API, they are not supported in the free-text search syntax or saved searches, both of which I use in my regular workflow. (Another area of fragmentation is that Reminders aren’t available in the Windows version.)

Enter Springpad. The only way you can enter a checklist is as a separate note type (just like in Google Keep). I don’t have a workflow planned up yet, but I’m starting to get some ideas. I also like the “comments” feature, and though this is used in so many modern platforms (blogs, Facebook, G+, etc.), because of my background, I relate it to software development PM apps like Bugzilla or OnTime. Evernote has collaborative features, but it does not have this ability to identify who wrote what when.

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Depression, Worship

Still

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App Reviews

Evernote GTD notes

I’ve been using Evernote for several years. A few months ago I started using an app called Zendone for my GTD workflow. This required a bit of an adjustment, because it has categories within the app which don’t actually correspond to Evernote tags or notebooks, and it uses the titles of your Evernote notes to create task items, rather than checklist items from your notes, which makes going back and forth between Evernote and the app a bit problematic. So, mostly it’s like its own app which happens to use Evernote as its back-end database. To top it off, they just started charging fees, and I don’t really think it’s a service worth paying for.

So I’m going to go back to using Evernote directly. I might utilize The Secret Weapon for some guidelines, but I’ll also rely on some techniques that I’ve developed over the years and adapted from other apps. Maybe I’ll standardize this workflow and publish it as an alternative to TSW, and perhaps even make an app of my own someday…

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