From Fundamentalist to Pragmatist: What I learned about religion at age 14
Growing up, I witnessed adults in my family solve every problem one of two ways — with Jesus or Jack Daniels. For that reason, I hated family gatherings. Jesus and Jack were opposite extremes. Both teams dug in their heels.
Of course, being drunk on Jack was never a cute look and the same for being drunk off the Holy Ghost. But the “bible-thumpers” made all of life appear suck-ass. Every wrong decision could send you to hell — from how you danced to how short you wore your shorts in the grueling Texas summers. It really got tricky for the ones who sampled both a healthy portion of Jesus with an occasional swig of Jack (neither to extremes). Like my mother and grandmother, for example — they prayed every day and also drank in moderation.
One Christmas, however, everything changed. We gathered at grandma’s house, as was our custom. Four family members had recently attended a revival, and, suddenly, not only were they holier than everyone else, but they also knew more. Grandma scowled all day as her children argued about what the bible says about this or that. It must have been too cold to go outside; otherwise, that’s where I would’ve been. Instead, I was stuck indoors, listening to my loud relatives tally who was going to heaven and who “still had time to get it right.”
As a child, I knew my choice would be some brand of Jesus, but I wasn’t sure which one. At 14, after spending time with the religious crew, I chose Extremist Jesus (“E.J.” for short).
E.J. was strict. He preferred the King James Bible and talked in what I thought was code, but turns out it was dialect and culturally nuanced lingo. His lessons didn’t translate well for a late ‘60’s baby whose language palate was a mix of JJ from “Good Times” and Dee from “What’s Happening!!” Like his commandment to not “plait” your hair, for example. Turns out “plaiting” (pronounced with a long “a”) referred to a fancy hairstyle in Greek culture where women used gold as hair ornaments. Whew! So I could safely continue to “plait” (short “a”) my hair in the summer without offense.
E.J. also condemned wearing gold jewelry, makeup and dressing like a man. As proof of my love and allegiance to the teachings of the holy text, I stopped wearing makeup, pants, and jewelry (although I think we were allowed to wear watches). Then I met and fell in love with “Manny”. He was a senior at my high school. Manny had a car, money, and wanted to take me out on dates. While he never pressured me to change anything about myself, the mirror did. I looked at it every morning. I didn’t like what I saw.
My first act as an “apostate” was adding lipgloss to my morning regimen, and, later, eyeliner. On the day Manny gave me his class ring to wear on a necklace, I felt E.J.’s disapproving glare from heaven. I wore it anyway, although my spirit was weighed down by guilt. I had hoped the love I shared with Manny would lift me. It didn’t, but that situation serves as a milestone marker in my faith journey from extremist to pragmatist.
I tried to love E.J. with all my heart. But he was exhausting. There was issues happening in the community and on the planet that required an Old Testament “show up now, Yah!” response. E.J.’s hangups on jewelry and makeup seemed trite. Also, I began to meet other people who loved Jesus and M.A.C. makeup, and I started listening to biblical teachers who helped to silence the always disappointed, brooding voice of E.J.
I prayed for and found a new way of seeing and believing — a fresh anointing if you will. For anyone seeking freedom from E.J.’s oppressive regime, consider the following:
1. If you feel condemned to hell because you wear earrings, makeup, or pants, find a park bench — go worship God in nature. Every morning, I hike at sunrise. The wild beauty of the trails is more expository than a four-point sermon on the nature of God. The psalmist’s observation “when I consider the works of Your hands, what is (wo/men) that you are mindful of them?” reaches deep down inside the mystery of my soul. I can’t explain it, I just marinate in it, hoping that what comes out from me is layered — rich and flavorful — to the glory of God and the betterment of my community and the world.
2. If you feel condemned as a dirty, rotten sinner just because you exist, consider the natural cycles of life in nature. One of my favorite old school R&B cuts reminds us “to every life, there’s a season/for every hope, there’s a reason.” I know the book of Ecclesiastes says something similar, but that goes to show the power of metaphors in reflecting the meaning of life. Bible lessons that drill down on how awful you are miss the important lessons taught by nature. You are renewed. Everyday. When you awake in the morning, the cycle of nature that permitted time for rest and respite has ended, and it’s now time to get up. You’ll return to rest by that evening; nature says so. A story about you being dirty and rotten doesn’t tell the truth. You’re a reflection of the God of beautiful things!
3. If you feel worthless even though you’re doing all the right ‘religious’ things, pivot and do something else. When asked about the art of living, theologian Frederick Buechner, advanced in age, replied, “Listen to your life.” Yes! If you feel worthless at any time, it may be your life telling you to do something or do everything differently. Just because it’s religious doesn’t make it right. Your life is telling you so.
I got older and better, as did my family gatherings. The drinkers sought help for their alcohol addictions and the hyper-religious learned the Electric Slide. My 14-year-old self tried religious extremism and found it didn’t work, not for anyone looking to enjoy life on both sides of heaven. I didn’t need to quit #TeamJesus. I only needed to find a more palatable Jesus brand.
If you feel crushed by the weight of a bunch of religious rules and are looking for an exit strategy, please don’t give up on the life of faith. Just look for new ways of seeing and experiencing the Divine, Infinite Mystery.
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