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.
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.
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.
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.
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