I have been thinking periodically about my poor, orphaned project of last summer, and I’d like to give it another shot. Firstly, apologies to the zero readers who may have been joyously anticipating my dissection of their favorite contemporary Christian hits from the nineties. If you know my life situation, then you’re aware that I undertook a major project at an immensely stupid time. Suffice to say, everything in my life exploded (purposefully) last summer and, however happy that made me, it put me in a position where frivolous writing projects were not an undertaking that I had the energy for.
So why, you may ask, do I wish to start again? Quite simply, I want to earn my increments. I’ve been considering Christianity and its impact on my life in some depth since before I tried to start this project the last time, and the rhetoric classes that I have been taking (and will complete shortly, at the time of this writing) have helped me to crystallize some of what has been going on in my head. I’ve deleted the initial post in this series because it is overlong (which is pretty amazing if you consider how long this is) and goes into too many details, but I’d like to clarify my problems with Christianity and reposition myself as a skeptical atheist who still sees some useful tools from the religion of my youth.
You see, no atheist (at least, no atheist from a religious society) is a pure atheist, absent of influence. Atheists in American society have been raised in a religious context, and those contexts influence the shape that each individual’s atheism will take. Deconversion requires an active disavowal of the prior belief system, and frequently people depart from that belief system without realizing that the ideologies inherent to that belief system remain in their DNA, giving form to what their future ideologies will be. The deep conservatism that molds the atheism of much of the skeptical movement, with its intolerance for differing epistemologies and its continuing suspicion of female and minority bodies, is rooted in the conservative Christianity that has so wounded many skeptics. (That intolerance, in turn, is rooted within a patriarchal society that bends theistic and nontheistic ideologies alike, but I’ll save that for my honors thesis.) I have wondered why so many atheists are so hostile to postmodernism, which appears to me to be a thoroughly skeptical project in that it questions the established paradigms and permits many bodies to express their lived experiences. In the end, though, I think that hostility can be found in the intolerance of conservative Christianity for competing stories. Things are either true or not true, with no room for the subtlety of degrees. If it is true that Christianity, along with other theistic religions, is sorely mistaken about the source of reality, then Christianity must be inaccurate about everything else, and must be rejected wholesale. As a postmodernist skeptic, I would argue that every worldview maintains both accurate and inaccurate views, and to discard the entirety of Christianity and scorn Christians based solely upon their likely inaccuracy about the existence of a deity is to engage in the greatest hubris. Earn your increments! Every ideology that every person hews to is full of inconsistencies and it is both possible and necessary for people to question and acknowledge the baggage that comes with ideology. As Dan Fincke at Patheos says, “You are not the standard or perfect realization of all virtues, no matter how rightly proud you may be of the ones you have. And failure at your distinctive virtues is not failure at all virtue.”
My rejection of Christianity was not based upon evidence or lack thereof, seeing as I abandoned it for neopaganism, which has an equal amount of evidence for its own accuracy (that being none). I think, in retrospect, that my rejection of Christianity was predicated upon its utter failure to describe anything like my experience with the world, with my faith, and with other people. The way that I would phrase it now is simple: Christianity, as I was raised to understand it, was insufficiently radical. I could see glimmers of something worth salvaging in the faith, for sure. They were there in the extraordinary kindness and patience of a boyfriend who essentially nursed my broken being into some semblance of health after a prior abusive relationship; while I would now attribute this to his own essentially kind and patient nature, I connected this to the unconditional love of Christ at the time, and I was probably onto something without understanding why. I could see them in the way that I was not the only woman I knew who found solace after violence in church communities. They were present in my absolute failure to internalize the hatred that was endemic to the brand of evangelicalism in which I was raised; the problem wasn’t that I was insufficiently Christian, but that I had taken much more seriously the Christ who hung on the cross than the Christ who exploded the bodies of nonbelievers in Left Behind. Those who taught me—despite the deep conservatism of their own religious and personal morality—inadvertently managed to tend within me the seeds of radical reconfiguration that were the very root of Christ’s ministry.
However, since I had been taught to equate Christ with the Christianity that hated queer folk and women, that had no tolerance for anyone who questioned the (pseudo-) literal truth of the Bible, I abandoned Christ and Christianity, not realizing that I still carried that idea of Christ within me and desperately wanted to live up to it. I still wanted, and want, to be like the gentle Jesus who has been subsumed by the greed-enabling warmongerer touted by the religious right in the United States (whatever problems there are with the character notwithstanding; he is a complex figure). I don’t have to pray to him to want to be like him, or even to think that he existed; there are fictional characters who have profoundly influenced my life even while I acknowledge that they are fictional. Christ was a central figure in my formative years, and he doesn’t have to have been real in the physical sense to have an impact upon who I am and how I conduct myself.
It was not only my teachers who inculcated this gentle Jesus within me. It was, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose, the music to which I listened. I was shaped by Michael W. Smith’s “Secret Ambition” and by DC Talk’s “Jesus Freak”; I was shaped by “It Is Well With My Soul.” I was formed by Tony Vincent’s discussion of emotional manhood in “Real Men Don’t Cry” and by the exultant joy in the universe of Avalon’s “Testify to Love.” I am a product of the contemporary Christian music of the 1990s as much as I am of the secular culture of the time, if not moreso, and I refuse to pretend that this isn’t important to me. Rather than letting the Christian Right claim the good that I have carried within me as a result of my religious upbringing, I want to reclaim it and name it for what it is: a positive fruit of a largely negative culture. They couldn’t drill into my head that Christianity is a religion of love without it sinking in, like it or not, and I do not need to accept Jesus-as-God to acknowledge that he is a crucial aspect of my understanding of love today. Love isn’t theirs alone; it’s mine as well. That matters to me. (This is not to say that a background in religion is required for someone to truly understand love; all I am saying is that my religious background had an impact upon my understanding.)
The positive, however, does not negate the often-trite and sometimes-hateful messages contained within the music of my childhood. I cannot reclaim the songs listed above without also acknowledging the racism of Steven Curtis Chapman’s “Burn the Ships,” the eerie militarism of his “For The Sake of the Call,” or the grotesque bigotry of “Heaven in the Real World.” (Yes, I don’t like Chapman. Can you tell?) I cannot discuss the gentle Jesus without acknowledging the violent premillennial dispensationalism that underpins Glenn Campbell’s “The Four Horsemen” or the terrifying martial mindset behind much of Petra’s imitation of hair metal. These, too, shaped my idea of Christianity, shaped who I am, and I have to disavow these things if I am to earn the increments of what I took from the faith of my childhood. (I could discuss neopaganism at length as well, but this is a music blog and I have no real problem with the music from my days as a Wiccan aside from the gender essentialism that underpins much of the religion itself.)
So, when I find the time for another post, we’re going to dive in with the good, and I will likely alternate between positive and negative in order to maintain some balance and to keep myself from burning out from the sheer hatred that I carry for the worst of the music. This is probably going to be a long-term project, so there may be gaps of weeks between posts sometimes. While I will try not to post until I have the next post already written (a rule I have already broken by posting this), I will probably (continue to) break this rule.