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The righter you get it

By Jane Douglas ~

People coming out of a life of faith face a whole lot of challenges. Often our leaving costs us all or at least most of our friends. Our support networks vanish overnight and we have to learn how to build new relationships from scratch. Without a written moral code, we find ourselves dropping long-held beliefs and values on the table, picking each up in turn for examination as we decide which deserves a place in our new lives, which are due for revision, and which we will discard. The victims of spiritual and psychological abuse so prevalent (some would say inherent) in Christianity, we – and our poor children – often have to navigate a prolonged period of fragility as we begin the slow journey to recovery and wholeness.

Unbelievers tend not to understand us. For those who have never been susceptible to religious sentiment, it’s almost impossible to comprehend its appeal. When we finally find the courage to reach out to non-believers and seek new relationships, it can be difficult to find a way of engaging wholeheartedly. Often we are reluctant to share our backstory for fear of being misunderstood or even despised.

It is a pretty rough ride – and sometimes a frightening one – but even at its bumpiest and most scary, it’s a journey of joy and wonder. I’m not the only one who has found that coming out, walking into a world of intellectual truthfulness, embracing a new found agency, and growing towards a healthy and functional adulthood provides a thrill that makes all the difficulties seem almost irrelevant.

And while I’m terribly sad that some very precious friendships were not able to survive my transition to a life beyond faith, I understand that everything has its time. So, in reality, I don’t mind too much that my new atheist friends may sometimes misunderstand me or even that my old Christian friends reject me. But there is something that really gets my goat…

First, some backstory…

It’s a common misconception that fundamentalism is a wholly anti-intellectual exercise suited only to humourless ninnies who are incapable of thinking logically or independently. That’s not how I remember it. I was for more than 20 years a wholehearted worshipper of Christ. I devoted my life to loving Jesus, finding out what pleased him and then living it with a whole and joyful heart. Knowing and loving my Saviour and sharing his sweetness with my children was the dearest thing to me. Sure, I didn’t always manage to live up to my own ideals, but I believe my motives were pure.

My then-husband had studied to be a minister so our home was bulging with Bible translations, commentaries, books on theology, and hermeneutic helps. My children remember me studying the Bible surrounded by more than a dozen open volumes. They also recall that I always first submitted my understanding to God in prayer. I genuinely wanted to know what God thought on any matter. If you could show me that God desired me to do, think or act a certain way I’d have crawled over broken glass to do it. On the other hand, if I couldn’t see a thing in Scripture, I wasn’t one to rush off following what Christian leaders or friends were doing even if they could make a strong case for it. When my best friend and her family became Amish and she and her girls all started wearing cape dresses and head coverings, I agonised over the Bible to see if I could agree with their new practice. I ended by saying that it would break my heart that my worship might not be pleasing to Christ because I was inappropriately attired, but that I just couldn’t see either uniformity of dress or the necessity of head coverings for contemporary women in Scripture. Had I been able to, I’d have frocked up in a flash.

Clearly it was beliefs that will seem strange to many led me to hold this attitude of obedience to the principles of the Bible. Essential to this sort of faith life is (a) believing in the existence of God, (b) believing that he is in fact the Christian god and (c) believing the Bible is his inerrant Word, revealing his will for his people. Although we all know of fundamentalists who are stupid, stupidity is not a requisite and, in fact, the vast majority of my Christian friends were very clever. But once you are convinced that God is real and that he has provided us with a book that contains his will, it’s impossible for those of us who love Christ the way I did to ignore what God apparently says on a matter. Or to cherry pick the bits that suit us. For us, either the Bible is God’s Word or it isn’t. Either he means us to do what he has said, or he doesn’t.

I have known more than one Christian woman to comment, ‘I’m so grateful God didn’t lead me down the path you went down!’ At best these statements seem rather heartless, at worst they display an appallingly smug arrogance. This is not to say that I was a Bible literalist. I was well acquainted with hermeneutic principles. I understood how to interpret Scripture in light of context and originally intended meaning, and was able to intelligently apply these and many other orthodox hermeneutic guidelines to my Bible study. I was not one of the King James 1611 club but used an New American Standard Bible and a parallel Bible containing four further versions, and referred to numerous other translations regularly. With more than a passing understanding of the nuances of interpreting ancient texts, I was not one to knowingly take a scripture out of context and apply it thoughtlessly to my life. Decisions about Christian practice were taken seriously in our home. Jesus was our example who didn’t hesitate to obey the Father but even gave up his own life in obedience. Christianity, I had often been heard to say in those days, could be summed up in two words: ‘Yes, Lord’. To the best of my ability I lived what I believed.

What was that about a goat?

So I find lately I’m seeing red when continuing Christians who were pretty Quiverfull but not quite so QF as me imply that the reason my family was so damaged by our faith (and possibly the reason my faith has now died) is that I was doing it wrong all along, that I was obeying scriptures that were not meant to be taken seriously. Or, as in one recent conversation, the implication was that had I only had access to an obscure and, I was assured, more accurate translation of the Bible, I’d have known that God didn’t intend, for example, for women to obey their husbands. I was assured in the ‘right’ translation, women are never actually instructed to obey in this way.

With respect to those sincere believers, in my view the Bible is clear that God intends his followers to obey his instructions, particularly those that are plainly reiterated many times in Scripture.

19This you know, my beloved brethren. But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; 24 for once he has looked at himself and gone away,he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. 25 But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does. (Book of James, Chapter 1, NASB)

As my friend Vyckie Garrison has said, QF women like we were simply took biblical Christianity to a logical end. Just as James advocated in the verse above, we were doers of the Word. Not as unthinking automatons but as servants of Christ whose motivation was to know him and please him in every aspect of our lives. This seems extreme only because most Christians don’t choose to follow Christ’s instructions so wholeheartedly as we did. I freely acknowledge that my faith in the Bible was at the root of the destruction that was wreaked in my family, but I contend that we experienced such destruction because we were getting it right – at least, more right than your average liberal Christian – and not because we should have chosen more wisely which particular sections of the Bible to obey, or because we should have sought longer for a translation we could tweak to suit our existing preferences.

And speaking of goat bothering, I have known more than one Christian woman to comment, ‘I’m so grateful God didn’t lead me down the path you went down!’ At best these statements seem rather heartless, at worst they display an appallingly smug arrogance. If that’s how God plays the game, clearly he’s a very nasty fellow indeed. If he takes those who love him most and tricks them into living their lives in obedience to him without qualm that that obedience will certainly lead to misery and shame, he’s not a god I would choose to serve. I know I wouldn’t have understood or lived my Christianity perfectly, but if you are following the Creator of the universe with your whole heart, wholly open to his leading, you’d think he’d be at least powerful enough to give you a gentle shove in the right direction. By all means structure your Christianity so that it doesn’t destroy you, just don’t claim you aren’t picking and choosing in order to keep your nice Jesus while defending yourself from the real truth of your religion which, done properly, will beat the crap out of everything you hold dear.

So that is why I sit where I currently do. My faith conversation runs like this: I figure, either God exists or he doesn’t. If he does, he’s either the Christian god or he’s not. If he is the Christian god, then either the Bible is his book or it isn’t. If the Bible is God’s book…I want nothing to do with it or him. So, yes, this probably qualifies me as a true apostate. I am, for now, willing to acknowledge the (remote) possibility of the existence of a kind of supernatural something or other. However, if the Bible is his Book, then I choose him not. Let the dice fall where they may, I cannot find Christianity by the Book compatible with functional adulthood. Indeed, in my view, the righter you get it, the wronger you may turn out to be.