by Randall Frederick
When I began looking for a seminary to attend, I consciously sought one where I would be exposed to ideas that were different from what I had grown up with in the Church. My parents were open-minded conservatives and I was raised in Louisiana – a state neatly divided into “the Catholic South” versus “the Baptist Northwest” since the Long administration. During the week, I attended a private Catholic school and on weekends, we were active members of a Baptist church. Later, my parents would send me to another private religious school where I was intrigued by Pentecostal classmates, attend an Episcopal church, and work for first a Pentecostal and later Baptist church. Needless to say, my trajectory towards religious work is stamped like a passport. But years before I decided to go to seminary, I began to look into Judaism and Jewish theology. Curiously, I found myself aligning with Jewish theology more than Evangelical Christianity. I wanted to find a school where I would be exposed to theology that would not ignore other faiths – something many seminaries tend to do, favoring their denominational or foundational teachings and claiming any and all deviation is heretical.
A former girlfriend and I went to visit a seminary in 2010. It was the first and primary school I was thinking of attending at the time, having just finished my Masters in English. We were excited, and the choice to go there would have made sense for both of us, given the way we thought life would shape up at that time. The teaching faculty was strong; I had already read some of their articles and books. I even had friends who had attended that particular school and thought highly of them. I was excited by the prospect of joining them.
Still, while there was the extended promise of reduced tuition and financial assistance, the school taught and encouraged fundamentalist ideas. A woman’s place was in the home, for example, even in a difficult economy, and they were forbidden from leadership in the Church. Republican ideas were inexplicably called “Christian,” which scared me as I am suspicious of unions between religion and state and feel that we often present our own ideas as holier than everyone else’s – especially when it comes to politics. More, when we were given a tour of the campus, our guide made fun of other denominations… and showed me a bathtub where students were taught the “correct” way to baptize someone.
Not a joke. There was an actual 10 week class, each class an hour long which met twice a week. That’s 20 classroom hours on the “right” way to baptize someone. No theory. All practice.
This entire package I refer to as “old time religion” because it is simple and does not consider the shades that so often color other areas of life. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is the motto of this side of religion, for better or worse.
Given my nature, it is a frequent thing that I am misunderstood. Many of my friends, for example, think I am incredibly liberal. Others think I am conservative like them. Some think I am stoic and reclusive, “stand-offish” and “cold” while others think I am the life of the party. In my own imagination, I imagine myself to be like Rhett Butler or Fitzwilliam Darcy, characters who were misunderstood and allowed the misunderstanding about them to flourish without correction. Sometimes, it is because I am exhausted from having to constantly articulate and defend an idea. Sometimes, I find the misunderstanding amusing. But more often I simply don’t care what people think or say about me, given the frequency of their incorrect assumptions and the ability of many to make a conclusion without all the facts. Their ignorance will prove itself soon enough, so why answer an outright untruth and muddy it up with complicated facts? Such it is that when I say I turned away from that particular seminary because they taught and encouraged old time religion, I am concerned that this might be misunderstood as a condemnation of “old time religion.” Not the case. In many ways, I prefer old time religion… even though I know it can reach terrible ends. I greatly admire the “old time” ministers of my youth, the grandfathers and grandmothers who instilled in me a fear of God, a pursuit of holiness and “right” living, a close and personal relationship with God, with Jesus, and of course the Spirit of God. As I study “new time religion” on the other side of the continent, I frequently miss the fire-and-brimstone preaching, the bake sales with plump, expecting mothers, and the sweltering summer days spent on hardwood pews under slowly turning ceiling fans.
I miss people like Jimmy Swaggart, Marvin Gorman, John Hagee, and the handful of evangelists who came to the churches I attended with a simple message of salvation. I miss the altar calls. I miss the strange way that, mid-sentence, they could break into song. I miss the ministries where you knew exactly what they thought – everybody was a sinner, everybody was going to Hell, and the only thing that could fix that was getting. right. with. God. Right. Now.
But missing them does not override the reasons why I left their orbit. I maintain long-held concerns with old time religion – namely, the way that you could jump to conclusions without knowing people. The way that everybody was going to Hell except “us” and “our people.” The focus on original sin – that everyone is “broken” today because of what someone did in a garden so long ago. The emphasis on literalism in a collection of very nuanced stories – talking snakes, humans swallowed by fishes, whores of ancient civilizations riding dragons in the sky – without regard for what those images might mean (especially when the authors of those stories insist, and insist repeatedly, that the crazy things they are talking about are symbolic and “like” something else, not the thing itself).
What I don’t miss is the “brickianity” that prevailed for so long in my childhood. The way that I began to turn on my friends and point out their sins… when my own were so readily apparent to everyone. Rob Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis encapsulates this concept well. For the person who subscribes to an all-or-nothing expression of religion,
[F]aith isn’t a trampoline; it’s a wall of bricks. Each of the core doctrines for him is like an individual brick that stacks on top of the others. If you pull one out, the whole wall starts to crumble. It appears quite strong and rigid, but if you begin to rethink or discuss even one brick, the whole thing is in danger. (26)
As Bell puts forward, Legos are fun. Building blocks are fun. The game Jenga is fun. Architecture is fun. Working with finite, concrete, tangible things is fun.
But so are trampolines.
Instead of each brick resting on another brick, and the possibility that pulling away one brick might cause the whole wall to tumble down, a trampoline is held together by many springs which bend and flex, much in the way that religions are held together by several doctrines which can, and often do, bend and flex. Trampolines are fun not because they are trampolines, but because the fun welcomes others. The fun is exponential to how many people are playing and jumping with you.
What if that spring [doctrine] was seriously questioned? Could a person keep jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? (26)
[O]ne of the things that happens in ‘brickworld’: you spend a lot of time talking about how right you are. Which of course leads to how wrong everybody else is. Which then leads to defending the wall [doctrines]… you rarely defend a trampoline. You invite people to jump on it with you. (27)
The problem with brickianity is that walls inevitably keep people out. Often it appears as though you have to agree with all of the bricks exactly as they are or you can’t join… Jesus invites everybody to jump. (28)
Saying yes to the invitation doesn’t mean we have to have it all figured out… I can jump and still have questions & doubts. (29)
Maybe that is who God is looking for ~ people who don’t just sit there and mindlessly accept whatever comes their way. (30)
It’s possible to believe all the right doctrines & not live as Jesus teaches us to live. (35)
Coming out of that environment was very difficult for me. I remember that when I began to verbalize (i.e. “verbally process”) what I was thinking and feeling as I abandoned the faith I had grown up with/in/for, someone once laughed at me and said I was a good source of “entertainment” for him. “You say the craziest stuff!” One night, attending a religious college group, someone told me “We only come to see you light yourself on fire – it’s the highlight of the week, watching you go crazy.” Two years later, a pastor said I “bothered” him because I “knew too much.” Another pastor once turned me down for a job, “not because you aren’t qualified. You are! It’s because I know you tend to think a lot, and we want [this church] to really only know one thing and that is our denomination’s teachings. We don’t really want them questioning things.”
I don’t think my friends or these pastors realized how desperate I was at that time to make sense of my world. They were, I will always feel, pushing me out of the Church by insisting that I subscribe to everything or nothing at all. They wanted me to take things part-parcel-and-package without processing through the often contradictory ideas that religion, philosophy, and all things deep and weighty of eternal consequence bring with them. Things were happening inside of me that I have not yet been able to dislodge, now almost a decade later. I lost my religion for a while during that time of deep introspection and questioning. Put another way, the world stopped making sense. And it still doesn’t.
One of those things that helped me through that time was reminding myself over and again that it was okay if I didn’t believe everything I was told to believe. It was okay to ask questions. I had to, as scripture puts it, work out my own faith. I had to do the difficult task of finding out what I believed for myself, of “trying the spirits” as they say.
In cultural Judaism, you are expected to question things. One of the patriarchs of the Jewish faith is Jacob, later called “Israel” because he “wrestled with God.” To stop wrestling with God, to stop asking questions, is to reject your identity as an Israelite – one who wrestles with God – and to forsake not just your cultural identity, but your spiritual one as well. I believe that, and have held on to that as I encourage people to ask the questions pertinent to them in their own spiritual experience. Like Bell, I could (and can) affirm certain beliefs even while I recognized differences between how others told me to believe and how I actually believed. Sometimes, it’s okay to be a heretic – every true and great theologian was once considered one.
Old time religion is appealing. It offers certainty in a changing world. It offers a sense of right-ness in a world of questionable activity. It polices itself, instills a sense of a personal code of conduct, and allows others to police you (and you them) in a familial way. You feel “closer” when you are able to point out each others flaws, similar to the grooming habits of primates. It offers a core collection of songs and behaviors, expectations, and rites. It it “cultic” in many positive ways – after all, isn’t there a sense of community and camaraderie when we dress up and sing college fight songs? And isn’t that cultic in a positive way?
We are born, baptized, work hard, marry, work hard, have babies, work hard, retire, and die with a nice collection of sweaters, knowing that because we worked hard, we have our Golden Ticket to Heaven. The answer to all of the questions in life is simple: Jesus. Jesus saves. Everything else is trifling. Those who would ask question, even allow questions are here to confuse us. And they are evil. For after all, isn’t Satan the author of confusion? I tip my hand here not to mock, but to admit quite clearly that I was once part of that system. I was lulled into a false sense of security, of “rightness” by it.
Much of old time religion is, indeed, salvageable. Ministries like Jimmy Swaggart & Co. that have helped so many find hope and clarity of purpose continue to flourish because they articulate their beliefs very clearly and simply. Even today over lunch, I was telling a friend “I think of Jimmy Swaggart the way gay men think of Judy Garland – even at his worst, he’s still good for the kitsch.” Old time religion isn’t wrong, it’s just not up to date.
Though the sound of the Christian music and fire-and-brimstone preaching in the early twentieth century may seem laughably out of date now, in the biography Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet Spy, Eric Metaxas records how Dietrich Bonhoeffer enjoyed Evangelical, even conservative, expression of Christianity even though he held strongly liberal ideas from childhood. The two, for Bonhoeffer, were not incongruent. Metaxas writes
A part of him was powerfully attracted to this sort of thing, but he wouldn’t see anything like it for ten years, when he attended the Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City.
More than pointing out that what is now old was once new, I am suggesting that there is some kind of latent power in a clarifying religion which names “sin” as the root of our problems, not our co-workers inability or our father’s emotional shortcomings. It is offensive, indeed, to be told that we are responsible for our poor behavior – not someone else. It is offensive to become too ecstatic in music, to actually enjoy types of music that sound nothing like the clubs we frequent or which sound curiously as if you want to give Jesus a blowjob (check out here and here). It is offensive to live counter-culturally in any way, even to promote a sense of community rather than individualism.
I’ve noticed, especially in the last year, the irony in preaching. Fiery preaching produces good results. Good preaching produces fiery results. In other words, soft and kind words aren’t always what we need. Sometimes, we need abrasive religious instruction that makes us uncomfortable because it produces change. When we hear self-empowerment from pulpits and lecterns, it affirms us and makes us feel good about ourselves but doesn’t seem to motivate us. We’re good already. We’re “the good guys” and so we have no reason to change. Old time religion, cantankerous as it may be at times, calls us to action – in our hearts and minds to call our bad behavior “sinful” and “evil.” There is a demand, a required action right now, to do something now – be it getting on our knees in prayer, to admit our sins, to “light the fire” under us to help our neighbors, to realize our racism and cultural elitism. Or to realize our pride and repent of it.
To be sure, old time religion is uncomfortable and out of touch with societies that refuse to be criticized. The music, with all those silly lyrics about grace and forgiveness fall on deaf ears when we’re focused on self-actualization. Which isn’t to put that kind of religious work to shame. Far from it, religion which focuses on self-actualization has been helpful to me personally and certainly to people that I have known over the years. My point is not to discredit the advances of religious thinking and expression, and certainly not to wave away the kind of preaching that helps people reorient themselves, overcome past shames, and find a positive sense of identity. Rather, I’m questioning if perhaps “old time religion” might be something we hold on to and maintain with respect in such an “advanced” time for religion. Might there not be room for those “old paths” that our grandparents once celebrated? Might there not be room for the “simple” answer that Jesus saves, that God asks for holiness through the law and the prophets?