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When a Christian fundamentalist-turned-scoffer becomes the senior religion reporter for one of the nation's top newspapers, she and God find themselves on a collision course. As her journey begins, Christine Wicker knows God primarily as "the source you never get to interview." Despite this, she pursues Him anyway and begins to glimpse a God she hasn't dared hope might exist. She finds Him in unlikely places—the ceremony of a Wiccan coven, an East German shop window, a Northern Ireland breakfast table. To her ...
When a Christian fundamentalist-turned-scoffer becomes the senior religion reporter for one of the nation's top newspapers, she and God find themselves on a collision course. As her journey begins, Christine Wicker knows God primarily as "the source you never get to interview." Despite this, she pursues Him anyway and begins to glimpse a God she hasn't dared hope might exist. She finds Him in unlikely places—the ceremony of a Wiccan coven, an East German shop window, a Northern Ireland breakfast table. To her grumpy amazement, she also finds Him in a place she swore she would never again look—the confines of a Southern Baptist church. It's a hard trip with surprising turns, but in the end Wicker finds a faith that answers the soul's call without ignoring the world's realities.
Inside the Bedrock of Faith
Not long ago, a former preacher called me a recovering fundamentalist. "You'll never really get away from it," he said. "It's a way of thinking and being that you don't just walk away from." The analogy was so apt that I responded with a startled laugh. He went on to say that the guilt, the sexual inhibitions, the grandiose ideas, the black-and-white thinking of fundamentalism is like a drug that shores up people's self-confidence. You may think you have left it behind, he said, but it hangs on. Somewhere far back in your self, it waits to emerge.
I stopped automatically tacking Jesus' name onto my prayers twenty-five years ago. Boyfriends who sat with me and my open Bible beneath streetlights while I pled for their souls have grown children now. I cannot even remember the last time I raised my face toward a handsome young preacher and felt my breath grow ragged in response to the power of his words. I no longer read my Bible, bless my food, or tell people they won't go to heaven unless they believe as I do. When avid soul winners ask if I've been saved by the blood of Jesus, I push their concern gently, and sometimes not so gently, aside. Asked what I believe, I might say, "Everything." I might say, "Nothing."
But time, experience, and even disbelief are not enough to erase the memory of what I once had. Sometimes I still long for those heady days when everything that God required could be known and was. In some buried part of my soul, I still miss that sweet safety, that senseof being chosen, of having an in with God that would withstand anything in life. I am sometimes still rueful that I can't go back. I may sit cross-legged with the Buddhists, hug trees with the Wiccans, or enthuse with the New Agers. But hand me a book of C. S. Lewis, put me in a pew before a Bible-thumper who knows his stuff, and I can feel a yearning every bit as piercing as the ex-smoker's sigh when that first thread of blue smoke wafts over from the table across the room.
Being a fundamentalist is living in the Garden of Eden. God walks with you, He talks with you, He sends signs of His presence all the time. The rest of the world lives by luck or coincidence or effort, but you live by grace. The rest of the world wonders how the story is going to end, but you know. God's your buddy. He chose you. He'd die for you. In fact, you think He already has. A lot of other people are in the garden with you, and they agree on exactly what's real and what isn't. They tell one another how special they are, how misunderstood by the world they are, how brave, how right, how righteous they are.
To the rest of the world, the garden looks like a box, but to you, it's the only safe place. Even when you go out in the world, the garden stays in your head. No matter where you go or what you see, you feel separate. Saved. God is going to take care of you. In this life or in the next. It is a lovely way to live. In return, you must have faith, no matter what your brain or your senses or your experience say. If you can make the trade, it is worth it.
I grew up in churches where the rules were very clear. You listened to the preacher, and he told you what the Bible said. Nothing he said strained your brain too much. He explained all contradictions by saying that we can't understand the ways of God. If you got confused or started to waver, he gave you a simple remedy: Remember that you must have faith and that your own understanding won't get you to heaven. Remember that you are a worthless sinner and only God's grace keeps the horrors at bay. To outsiders, the preacher's advice may sound restrictive. He'll play on that perception. He'll emphasize what a sacrifice you are making and how hard it is to stay in the garden. In fact, the better he creates that sense of separation, the stronger the church is likely to be, and the more money the congregation is likely to cough up.
The one big prohibition in the garden is "Don't eat of the Tree of Knowledge." If you do, you'll be cast out into a world of chaos, a place where truth slips away as soon as you grasp it, a place where God does not rule, a place where His will is not heeded. That is exactly what I did. And everything the preachers said about the world outside the garden was true. Except one thing.
They were wrong about God. God was still there, ever at hand, always available. I just wasn't in the mood to look for Him, and so I didn't know it. And one other thing the preachers of my childhood were wrong about: When I did look for Him, I found Him without having to go back to the little box that all the world's God limiters told me He lived in.
My drift away from the faith of my childhood began in college, as such movements often do. I'd grown up hearing preachers warn against losing your children to the false wisdom of the university. So I knew the danger.
I was a girl for whom Reader's Digest was highbrow reading. The only people I knew who had traveled abroad were guys who had been drafted. The university I attended was a state school. I lived at home. I was as protected as anyone could be, but even so, the world came rushing at me, and I was overwhelmed. My professors were disdainful of Christian ways. What passed for gospel in my family was treated as nonsense if I was foolish enough to voice it in class. As a replacement for the old-time religion, my teachers funneled outrageous, exciting new ideas into my head. They seemed to delight in tearing down my idols.
Their know-it-all arrogance made me furious. And so I resisted them and all the other worldly blandishments. I spent many afternoons praying and singing at the Baptist Student Union. When my sorority held a Halloween party, the talk of the Greek crowd was the frat boy who dressed up as a huge breast. My sisters were shocked but happily titillated by such daring. I was outraged. I complained and it wasn't long before I resigned from the sorority. My reasoning was that I'd be better off spending what little time I had on campus working for Christ at the Baptist Student Union.
But life at the university wasn't all that was drawing me away. The church was doing its part. One Sunday our congregation was delighted by the honor of having a former Miss Texas visit with her testimony. Feminism was gaining steam in those days, and I was just beginning to think that how a woman looked might not be her greatest glory. The leaders of my church, all male, weren't there yet. Grinning and fidgeting, they squired the beautiful beauty queen from room to room and finally to the front of the church so that we all could marvel over how lucky God was to have such radiance in His house. When they came to my Sunday school class, I looked around the room at the plain round faces of my fellow churchwomen and I thought, "Compared to her, we look like bowls of oatmeal."
I knew that despite all the preachers said about valuing godliness and virtue, they felt just like everybody else. Beauty and fame and riches meant as much to them as they did to people in the outside world, only they would never tell the truth. At the Baptist camps, boys and girls couldn't even go swimming together for fear their lust might be excited. But Miss Texas, who had stripped off and paraded down the runway in a bathing suit before all of America, was given great honor. All she had to do was stand up and declare herself one of us. Wasn't God lucky?
Perhaps it's the curse of youth to be so clear-sighted. Miss Texas and the gaggle of dizzy-looking preachers around her made me want to gag. Was I jealous? Of course. I was living in a box labeled "religion" because it was supposed to be constructed out of different values. If it wasn't, what did it have to recommend it? A bowl of oatmeal needs all the help she can get. If the church had none to give, I needed to be looking elsewhere.
My disillusionment was helped along by my new Sunday school teachers, a young married couple who had recently become Christians, which meant their zeal was especially keen. When the husband pulled his chair out of the circle to give his wisdom, his wife stayed in the background, hands folded in her lap, sweet smile in place. Our leader decided to teach the writings of Paul, and when he came to the part about how women were to keep silent in the church, an amazing thing happened—something I'd never seen before. A girl in the class objected. She said she didn't think she was made to be subordinate to men. I was shocked but emboldened, and soon I chimed in. Before long my teacher called my mother to say he feared for my salvation.