Sunday, February 19, 2012

Formspring Question--My Religious History

This week, I got the most fantastic question posed to me on Formspring, and it was clearly from someone who has read the blog.  This is so refreshing, as having an account on this site opens one up to all manner of humanity with names like "sniffmymuffin" asking very specific sexual questions.  You also get pretty inane ones directly from the site; for example, "Do you like donuts?"  I've read such stimulating commentary as "Q:  What are your views on abortion?  A:  I wouldn't get one, but whatevs.  LOL."  I share this all to relay how excited I am when I occasionally get a real question from a real reader. 

I'll just point out here that if anyone wishes to ask me a question or suggest something for me to blog about, you can always do so in a comment, by emailing me from my profile, or you may ask via the Formspring widget that appears somewhere in the column on the right.  That's what someone did, so here goes!

How are you able to be as open as you are about your history with religion?

I really think that this is a great question, and I've been thinking about it a lot over the past few days.  There are several answers, and they all sort of depend on how you look at the question and if you continue it with any phrases, like "when it sounds so crazy" or "when it may highlight your current disbelief" or...well, fill in the blank.  I'll offer up a handful of answers. 

Because of my audience

When I started posting, I personally told four people--two friends and two family members--about the blog.  As these things go, those four people turned into twenty in no time flat, and then grew from there.  This is perfectly fine, and I guess I should have known that this would happen given the fact that I don't do the usual forms of social networking.  Most of this group aren't bloggers, and based on stats drop in with varying regularity from pretty frequently to only on occasion.  Everyone in this group knows my religious history including upbringing, later church activity, and about what I now term "Jesus jobs," so any story I tell is either something they've heard, experienced with me, or they can at least picture it based on other things they know about my former places of employment, etc.

Also when I first began posting, I had been a blog reader for several months, and most of the ones that I read were by authors who had been religious.  Specifically, many of them were former Mormons.  While making my way into the "Church Alumni Association," I read a lot about Mormonism (a topic I've always found interesting anyway) and about people leaving Mormonism.  It helped me examine a faith objectively and from a distance, and then apply my findings to my own religion of origin.  As a result of posting comments on these blogs, a few people found me here and there, and many of them have a similar background even if the religion of choice or birth was different.  Everyone in this group either totally gets any story I could tell, or can at least say, "Cripes, that's nuts," and sympathize in some way.

As for people I've picked up from completely non-religious blogs or the ones who find me through Google searches looking for Severus Snape pictures, Tina Fey quotes, or clips from Glee?  I don't know what they think!  I'm sure the Google searchers just move right along as I do when I'm doing the same; however, if a few stick around and read about me getting gang-healed by Pentecostals...well, so be it.

Because I had/have a unique position in several different religious circles

This probably comes more from the angle of why than how, but I'll throw it out there, anyway.  Since I grew up in a sort of middle ground brand of nondenominational Christianity, I fit (past tense) into lots of different groups.  We didn't get slain in the spirit and speak in tongues, but as time went on and fads came and went in churches, our style of worship became looser and more jeans-wearing-worship-bandy, so enthusiastic services weren't exactly foreign.  On the other end of the spectrum, our church growing up wasn't really liberal, but services in Methodist, Presbyterian or other mainline denominations didn't seem that different either...maybe just a little more formal.  We were right in the middle.

My dad sang in a gospel group for twenty-five years, and as a kid I would be taken around with the family to lots of different churches where the group performed--usually during Sunday evening services.  By the time I came of age, I understood that there were lots of different ways to be a Christian, and I was encouraged to think of us all as brothers and sisters in the same faith but with different forms of expression.  In high school and college I got involved with lots of different groups that were Christian, but ecumenical. 

As I left college and moved to a bigger city, I had a job at a Presbyterian church as their Director of Christian Education.  I mostly ran youth and children's programs.  I did this as someone without a Presbyterian background, but they knew this when they hired me and were fine with it.  I did really utilize a lot of ecumenical materials and we attended big events regularly with youth groups from churches of all denominations.  Doing this put me in connection with lots of different groups, some ok and some a little crazy.  Connections led me to other workplaces, such as the radio station of which I wrote a few posts ago.

From college through my mid-twenties, I perpetually ended up in situations that seemed normal at the time, but now seem a little funny especially to people outside of the story.  My friend Jack is continually surprised at random things I will say.  For example, he was talking about some shenanigans he read in the news about a particular Baptist group.  Quothe I: "Did I ever tell you how I became president of the Baptist Student Union in college?"  He looks at me like I'm nuts, "But you're not a Baptist!?" "None of us were. Well, two Baptist girls started the club then graduated, and the membership that they'd built was all of the non-Baptist variety."  It really did sort of piss off Baptist churches when we would go to present some sort of program or run a youth night for them, and they would find out that we were a bunch of pinko-Methodist-Catholic-Lutheran-nondenominational commies.

Another time...Jack: "Ugh...that place over there has an ultrasound machine, and they convince young girls not to have abortions."  Me: "I know. Did I ever tell you how I ended up on their Board of Directors?" Jack: "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."  Early in our friendship, he asked me if I'd ever been to a Catholic church, and I said, "Well, I've never been to mass, but I had to give a talk in front of three hundred or so teenagers in a Catholic church once."  "WHAT?"

I taught him a few things about lingo, too. As a devout Roman Catholic, Jack has a hightened sensitivity to anti-Catholic rhetoric, and he is quick to assume that criticism is always in that direction. For example, in the film Jesus Camp, a girl talks about "dead churches" and on various religious television stations you'll hear people talk about churches that are "not on fire." Jack always took this as code for "The Catholic Church." When he brought this up one day, I told him that he was partially correct, but that charismatic people view any church that does not speak in tongues or have healing and miracles as dead and not on fire. He was a little surprised, but I knew this from being around lots of charismatic and Pentecostal people.  Jack: "So to be on fire, you have to speak in tongues and have a drum kit?"  Me: "Yes."

All of this meandering is to say that since I found myself involved in lots of different Christian groups of different varieties, I have a somewhat unique view of the Christian experience.  I didn't realize this until Jack started to point it out.  After that I began to notice things about people who only have a view of Christianity from their own specific denomination.  For example, I was talking to someone and for some reason I used the word Protestant and he said, "Oh, I'm not a Protestant...I'm a Baptist."  Huh?  Another time, I noticed that someone spelled Pentecostal "Pennacostle."  Upon digging further, I found that he didn't know that Pentecostal came from the word Pentecost, and furthermore didn't know what the latter was.  This also was a life-long Christian.  It just wasn't something his denomination emphasized, so he hadn't made the connection.

Sorry for the length of this answer, but the end of it all is that since I have a different view of things, I figure I should share it and maybe it will be helpful to someone.

Because I was duped but not crazy or deceitful

This sounds terrible, but I don't think I would have as easy a time telling my stories if I'd been the person who really thought they were being knocked out by the holy spirit, and not some guy in a suit. 

Also, if I had been a part of some kind of religious deceit, I think I'd be hesitant to tell the story.  Last weekend, I saw the fantastic 1972 Acadamy Award-winning documentary Marjoe (thanks again for the recommendation, Ahab), about a man whose childhood was spent preaching the revival curcuit, and as an adult he hires a film crew to document his last tour.  Behind the scenes, his interviews reveal that he is performing a con, and he is telling his secret in order to show people the schemes they are falling for on a regular basis.  I think that would be a hard story to tell.

Because I'm single with no children

Whether through PostSecret (I'm a Baptist preacher's wife and an atheist, and no one knows) or post-religious bloggers, I've come across some really heart-breaking stories about people whose beliefs have changed, and as a result their marriage and status as an involved parent are at risk.  Because of this, they have to be closeted about their religious past and present, really.  I'm not in this position as someone who is single and with no children, so in a very practical way, that is partially how I can be so open about my religious past and non-religious present.

Because I know I'm not alone

I know people who have come out of religion, and as we all tell our stories, we are helped and become a community.

Because it's my story, and it's true!

You know, I could have been born in Europe to a family of intellectuals under the govern of a kindly lesbian agnostic president, in a town where people ride bikes and don't think much about religion. I could've been born in the Northeast U.S. to Episcopalians who listen to NPR and continue to attend church because of the high end brand of coffee served after the early service, but sometimes skip to go to the movies.

But I wasn't. I was born in Indiana, and we went to church. I wasn't one of the smart ones who turned fourteen and cried, "Bunk!" to the whole religion thing. All of that sent me on a certain trajectory, and that's ok. It's my story. I own it, because it's the only one I have to tell. Other people appear in it, so I try to be respectful and not name names (though it wouldn't take a math whiz to put together two and two and figure out some of the places).

So, asker, that's my very long and complicated answer to your simple and great question. I hope I hit on something that makes sense toward what you were looking for, but if not, feel free to ask a follow-up.

Whatevs, LOL.


  1. Michelle, Darling, thank you so much for sharing your story with us. I love your willingness to share. It is just so refreshing to have people to discuss heavy topics with who are willing to be open and listen, not judgemental and only want to hear themselves talk.
    Your talk of being single and with no kids made me think of our situation. Nathan and I are definitely on the opposite spectrum from our families of origin. And we both wonder how this will effect O as he grows up. We both think that through rebellion he will go the opposite direction and become the Bible-thumping, uber-conservative. That scares me so much more than I can convey. :) But I guess you just hope they get it and don't do anything stupid. Also, i will always love his boyfriends/girlfriends. The minute you hate them, they run after them. Thank you Teen Lit for teaching me the ways of teens. Also, don't ignore your children too much or they will date/marry a vampire or a werewolf.

    1. I have not a worry in the world for Mr. O. He is one lucky little fella to have the parents that he does. He's one of the very fortunate ones!

      Jackie, your support and friendship are grand things, indeed.

      Teen lit does provide a window into all manner of dark arts and species intermarriage. On that topic, remind me to tell you about my dream last night about going to Comic Con, turning a corner, and plowing right into K Stew. I don't even want to know what that means. There's more to it, though, and it's pretty fun.

  2. "For example, in the film Jesus Camp, a girl talks about "dead churches" and on various religious television stations you'll hear people talk about churches that are "not on fire." ... Charismatic people view any church that does not speak in tongues or have healing and miracles as dead and not on fire."

    Alas, yet another excuse for why their religious system is superior to everyone else's. There are many types of spiritual experiences, and ecstatic ones are not the only kind.

    1. Very true, Ahab. I have so many memories of people looking down their noses at "dead churches." Besides speaking in tongues and healing/miracles, another litmus test for many charismatic folks I knew was the amount of time a worship service lasted. An hour or an hour and a half service was laughable to them, because "you can't get in the spirit until you've worshipped for at least two hours." One guy told me that and then said that in a typical service at his church after a few hours of singing, praying, etc. their minister would preach for a few hours, then there would be more singing. Can you imagine the state your mind would be in at that point? I understand how people can have what they view as supernatural experiences after all of that. I think my brain would be mush and susceptible to all kinds of things.

    2. Hours on end!? Gaaaaaaah! I could barely survive a weekly hour-long mass during my Catholic days.

    3. Oh my gosh -Jesus Camp. That documentary just made me have a lot of emotions which were not positive. The whole scene where they were touching a life-sized GW Bush and praying?! Also, I believe the were holding plastic fetuses while laying hands on the life sized cutout of the the president...OMG. (I am at work I must calm down.)

    4. Yes, those fetus replicas that wear jeans, send text messages and hold down jobs. I saw a set of those once that cost a couple hundred bucks. They were made with rubber and had some kind of special finish that was supposed to feel more like skin, so when young girls touch them, it feels more like a baby. I wanted to vomit.

      Have you seen Hell House? You should check that out--another jaw-dropper. I have to say, though, I've seen lots of the things that are seen in Jesus Camp. It was disturbing but not foreign to me.

    5. "Hell House" is now on my list of must-sees.

    6. Oh, yes, you must see that one! I would love to hear your reaction. I hope you will get to see the dvd extras. The content of those is more shocking in some ways than what you see in the film. Also, there is an audio track of a segment on "Hell House" from "This American Life" that's really good.

      I might have to do a little post on this movie. I have never attended a Hell House but a friend and I have sworn that we are going to catch one this coming Halloween. I will post about that for sure.


Always feel free to chime in.