I was always a Christian. Grandma and Grandpa took me to church from the time I was very little, and the older I got, the more involved I became. Bible study... Youth Group... VBS... confirmation classes: I did it all. Public school was where I was bullied, but church was where I was safe. By the time I was in junior high, I had decided to earn a scholarship to a small private Christian high school, where I would get a better education than the big public one, and could be in an environment conducive to God's doctrine, where everyone loved one another and sought to build up, not tear down.
My Christian high school, with the insane hypocrisy of its administration, did more to turn me off of organized religion than anything (Kick out the pregnant girl because then other parents wouldn't donate money, but let the pastor's son who knocked her up stay! Deny enrollment to worthy students because they would be on scholarship too! Allow students whose parents contributed large amounts of money to the school get away with drugs, abortions, and even, in one memorable occasion, an affair with one of the teachers, but God forbid the scholarship kids even wear their hair differently or listen to secular music, because out you go! Give showy, preachy sermons at chapel comparing yourself to David when you act like a dick instead of personally apologizing to someone!) And while the education wasn't quite “we don't believe in dinosaurs!”, it was still abysmally lacking in terms of things like actual history and non-Christian approaches to literature.
Still, I held on for a good long while. Jesus wasn't the problem; people were, right? Christianity was my foundation. And Christianity's promises were vast and glorious ones: once I truly let Jesus into my heart, I would experience love unlike anything I'd ever known before, “the peace that passeth all understanding.” I kept doing it. I had been "letting Jesus into my heart" ever since I was a child, but when the sunshiney miracle of love and peace didn't fill me, I was sure I was doing it wrong, and tried again.
I tried for almost another decade, but instead of the radiant warmth of God's benevolent love, the primary things I experienced were guilt, terror, shame, depression, and a life-stifling insecurity that almost tore me up completely. I eschewed organized religion in my early 20s, became “spiritual” instead of a churchgoer, hoping that would help. It didn't. I became a gay rights advocate, a feminist, and an outspoken academic, and with all that, my understanding of the many lies of Christianity and its problems as a foundational element of America grew. Logically, I know it's all manipulative bullshit.
But emotionally, the rhetoric of Christianity has continued to haunt me, even after years of therapy and struggle. Sometimes, even now, I can easily become convinced that God will punish me for my sins (which include things like “loving my husband,” “being happy” and “having ambition”) because I am a bad person. Revisiting the big lies built into Christian rhetoric has lead me to think about What I Learned from Christianity, the religion of love, the teachings that we are told will make the world and each person in it better:
_What I Learned from Christianity_
- I am a “poor, miserable sinner.” I am, inherently, by birth and by nature, bad. I don't deserve things like grace, mercy, love or redemption, but God, in His magnanimity, will grant them to me anyway. Thinking of myself as anything other than a lowly worm in the dirt, worthless and unloveable, was “pride.” If I tried to believe I was worthy of love, respect or even just basic humane treatment, God would knock me off my egocentric perch to teach me humility. “Pride/a haughty spirit goeth before a fall,” after all.
- *My body and all the things it wants are bad. It's either gluttony or lust or sloth. Every natural inclination, from sexuality to illness, must be controlled, stifled.
- *All the things I like are bad. Anything not-God that brings me joy is wrong. If the day is beautiful, I must remember first and foremost to credit God. If a meal is delicious, I must remember to thank God for it. I should not want anything ... not any material goods, nor even time or attention from a parent, support from friends, or an hour of purgative laughter or tears. All love and joy should come from God, and if you forget where your blessings come from, if you take them for granted, God will punish you by taking things you love away. It is wrong to love something like a band or a pet because that is “putting something else before God.” (Time and again I would be stricken with guilt because my cat often provided more comfort than God when I was shattered, or the lyrics of my favorite band sometimes spoke to me and felt more relevant than most Bible verses. And if I loved anything or anyone else, then God would take that from me or smite me in some way to show me that He was “a jealous God” and I should not have “false idols.”)
- I was fucking sick of being tested. Why couldn't I just be loved?*Everything I do is not enough. Everything I do is, in some way, bad or sinful. No matter what you do, you will never be perfect, like Christ, but for some mad reason, we are meant to keep trying. Thus, I am a continuous failure in God's eyes. I remember one Bible Study class where we discussed bad and good habits. The gist of the lesson was that anything, if it becomes habit, is bad, no matter how good it seems or started off being. Our leader talked about how her habit of picking lint could, ultimately, destroy her, and she should read the Bible instead when that inclination arose (but never to let Bible-reading become “just another habit”). During another lesson, another one of our teachers rebuked herself for referring to her overstuffed purse as “her life” because, obviously, Jesus was the real center of her life. There was no room in our existence for metaphoric language or jokes or speculative questions. Despite supposedly knowing what was in my heart and how desperately I struggled to be a good person and do the right things, if I messed up and committed a sin like telling my grandmother that I loved her more than anyone or wondered aloud about an inconsistency in Bible verses, God would be perfectly justified in doling out punishment upon me. Gotcha!
- *God pretty much abuses you for His own entertainment, because He's the One in charge, and never wants you to forget it. After all, God never gives you more than you can handle, because He loves you. (Shades of George Carlin!) In fact, you should thank Him for believing you are worthy of trials! And He will reward you... maybe not in the way you think or want, but somehow, some way. “If you pray to God for patience,” said one of our pastors during Chapel in 10th grade, “He won't grant you patience. Instead, He will provide you with tests to build your patience! If you ask for riches, He will show you where real wealth can be found!” he said, and gleefully began explaining the ways he and others he knew had had their prayer requests “answered” sometimes with the opposite of what they asked for, to “teach” them some important lesson. So... you can't even ask God for something good or helpful without it turning into a whole psychological back-and-forth mindfuck? If I asked God for health, then He'd give my mom cancer? If I prayed to Him because I was scared and alone, He'd place in my path someone who was scared-er and alone-er to show me what was really what? Or later I'd be expected to understand that the “answer” to my prayer was that I went through months of emotional distress and depression? If I asked Him for ANYTHING – that job, this happy thing, that virtue – I'd only receive some sort of honked up series of Heavenly Obstacle Courses? So how could I ask Him for _anything_, if it was only going to be twisted and turned back on me in scary ways...? “The ways of God are mysterious,” I'd hear people say, while they rationalized some new and convoluted series of incidents as “God's plan!” If you are struck with severe illness, lose everything in a fire, or your baby dies, then it's because “God must have chosen you for a very special purpose.” Really? How can I live without the constant terror that God is going to torture me to teach me some important lesson?
- *I must be wholly selfless and put everyone else's needs before mine. To be anything else was selfish. Hell, self-esteem was selfish! When “The Greatest Love of All” came out, our English teacher had a good, long rant about it. “It's so self-centered! Me, me, me! Where is God in all that self-centeredness?” I felt so guilty that, for years after, I changed the lyrics when I sang along to “Learning to love your God is the greatest love of all” and “Find your strength in His love.” Therefore, I spent years being taken advantage of (just like my grandma and mother had, in the name of “being a good Christian”) because that was what I was supposed to do. “It's just as easy to say yes as it is to say no,” my very religious cousin told me once about constantly giving one of her church friends rides everywhere on a daily basis for years. “It's not that hard to be a good person. And she's just lonely.” So I gave and gave and gave... and ended up attracting the most scum-sucking sycophants in the process, who almost destroyed me and abandoned me when I needed them.
- *Moreover, I must not be angry. I must forgive. The men who sexually abused me, the bullies, the people who hurt me, all of them... if I even THOUGHT about it, I was “not letting go and letting God,” I was “holding on to anger,” I was “unforgiving” and that was “taking up too much of [my] energy.” Besides, all those things happened for a reason to make me the person I am today, right? So remember, I should THANK God for deeming me worthy of those tests! Be sure to do that when I “pray for my enemies....”
- *Thinking is bad. Questioning is bad. Be like His sheep! Just follow! That is how to be a true believer! My desire to truly understand everything was anathema to everything we learned in Sunday School and Bible Study. “But... why did God put the tree in the garden in the first place if Adam and Eve weren't supposed to eat from it?” I asked our teacher in 4th grade. “That doesn't seem fair.” Later, I wanted to know why knowledge of good and evil was such a bad thing. The answers to those questions were unfulfilling: “you just have to have faith,” “That's God's plan,” “It's not for us to know,” and especially, “Why do you have to be so critical? Why can't you just accept?” I could admit, only secretly to myself, that if it meant knowledge, I would've eaten the fruit, too. Why was knowledge a sin?!
Things didn't make sense. How could I be a “poor miserable sinner” and yet a glorious and beloved creation in His image? How could I believe that God wanted me to be happy if my life as a Christian was going to be, essentially, an endless maze of tests and tortures to see just how much I really loved Him? Why did I as a four-year-old child need to be sexually abused in order to be “tested” by a loving God? Was God loving and benevolent, or a sadistic puppet-master? God constantly tests us, but we aren't supposed to test Him? How come both sides of a war could claim that the same God was on their side? Why was I supposed to “read the Bible every day/Learn what Jesus has to say” but not think about all of the weird and problematic shit I encountered. The story of Isaac, the plagues, multiple wives and concubines, Song of Solomon, the differences between the four Gospels, eating Christ's “body” and drinking his “blood”... these things all didn't jibe with the rhetoric I'd been raised with.
And where was all the love and peace and joy they promised?!
The big “thunk” of realization was when, after reassessing my first love relationship that ended disastrously, I saw that every controlling or abusive element with my significant other was exactly what was EXPECTED of my relationship with God. Everything that left me broken with a boyfriend, everything that the therapists were saying was unhealthy and detrimental was what was EXPECTED of my loving and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. All of my desires are to be subordinate to His. I must do what He says without question. If I need Him desperately, I'm supposed to be satisfied with vague knowledge that He's here for me and loves me even though I can't really see, feel or communicate with Him at all. He will “test” my love for Him with trials, through which I am to remain devoted, patient and faithful. I was wrong to feel desperately lonely or afraid, and if I protested the way things were, there was a whole pile of rationalization behind it: “My child, you never did let go” and “That was when I carried you” and “It's all in God's plan!” and “Who are we to question the ways of the Lord?”
I was fucking sick of being tested. Why couldn't I just be loved?
Realizing a co-dependent relationship with Jesus was as harmful as any other bad relationship, I made more changes and got more therapy. I wish I could say that, after that, I've gone on to a happily agnostic life. I haven't. I struggle with my beliefs... but fortunately have finally allowed them to exist currently in a state of flux. I struggle, too, with my reactions, with that still-present voice in my head that pipes up “God is testing you!” “You'll go to hell if you blaspheme the Holy Spirit!” (I'll be sent to hell for thinking critically about the Bible, but Westboro Baptists are all saved? God is angry with me for my Bad Thoughts, but is a-okay with fundies bombing abortion clinics or tormenting LGBTs? What the fuck sense does THAT make?!) The rhetoric can still poke me and bring back all those old guilts and fears in an instant, but I'm learning to focus on the positive things... things that were, ironically, promised but not delivered by Christianity: love, peace, and happiness.
Back in my Jesus-days, when everyone would share their “conversion stories” about “when God took hold of” their lives, I didn't have any dramatic thing to include. I couldn't “witness” about that.
I can now.
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