This weekend, Noah and I finally rented Hell House. You've all probably heard of it - it's a documentary detailing the organization, planning, construction, writing, rehearsal and performance of the annual "haunted house" presented by Trinity Church in Cedar Hill, Texas. The attraction features scenes of botched abortions, gay men denouncing Christ on their deathbeds, a rave that ends up in the administration of a "date rape drug" (none of the people involved have any idea what the name or other important properties of this date rape drug may be). We curled up in bed with a pint of ice cream ready to laugh and laugh at the born again freaks and their little abortion plays. And I suppose we did laugh a little. But mostly, I just felt sad and uncomfortable.
Christianity has always been a big part of my life. My mother, father and sister are all very spiritual. People in my family talk to god. But for the most part, the religion of my family is open, tolerant and loving. My mother and father are Episcopalians - "Catholic Lite" we call it. All of the wine, none of the guilt. It's a pretty logical and liberal denomination. We have female priests, gay priests and the election of a gay bishop caused quite a stir lately.
And then there were the more bible-banging elements of my religious upbringing. I went to summer camp at a fundamentalist Christian camp in Arkansas. I rode horses, learned about boats, and raised my hands to the Holy Spirit. On Sadie Hawkins' night, the girls got to chase the boys around and marry the ones they caught. After the "ceremony," everyone went up the hill to watch a reenactment of the crucifixion. I did plays about thwarting Satan and delighting in heavenly bounty after being saved. And I had a great time. There was nothing un-fun about it.
When I was 12 or 13, I started going to Bellevue Baptist Church with a friend. Bellvue is huge - the base congregation consists of almost 30,000 people - with an enormous baptismal tank front and center for the television cameras that broadcast from there every Sunday morning. During my visits there and long before and after, the head of Bellvue Baptist was Dr. Adrian Rogers*, the three-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention. According to his obituary in the Boston Globe, he was elected in 1979 as part of the conservative takeover of the convention. The obituary continues:
|His election turned out to be a watershed moment for the denomination, and the 16-million-member group shifted dramatically to the right politically and theologically. In the years that followed, conservative leaders pushed hard against abortion rights, homosexuality and women pastors. "There's no one in this country I respect more than Adrian Rogers," Focus on the Family's Dr. James Dobson said on Rogers' last day as pastor. "You draw me to Christ. When I'm with you, I feel closer to the Lord."|
At Bellvue, I read the bible a lot, talked about boys a lot and once signed a petition to keep the movie The Last Temptation of Christ from Memphis theatres without having seen or read it.
I have cried over the fate of America's ungodly youth. I have felt moved by the Holy Spirit. I have wept at a replay of the crucifixion on a hilltop in Arkansas.
You might say I identify with the people in this documentary. I guess I was one. And, you know, it was fun and satisfying in a way. Any doubt that popped up, any concerns I might have had could easily be dismissed. It was the devil. Seriously. That's what I was taught, and that's what I thought. Oh, Amanda, that's the devil talking. And I'd pray the doubt away as best I could and keep signing petitions.
When I was 15, I joined the local children's theatre where I made some of the best friends in my life and acted in/directed/produced and watched some of the worst theatre of my life. I also learned how to smoke, drink and a host of other things that I'll spare my family from reading about here. During my years there, I watched my friends come out and sat with a friend during her abortion. In the theatre community I met gay couples, atheists, feminists, and the first person I ever knew who was living with AIDS - basically Jerry Falwell's nightmare Christmas list. Gradually, I stopped attending Bellvue. I missed my expected first year as a camp counselor because I was doing a play. I was slipping into Satan's trap. I was in Jesus Christ Superstar, an event which caused my church buddies to stop speaking to or associating with me. I had sunk too low into the pit of hell and they couldn't reach me.
If you go to Trinity Church's website, you can access their daily devotionals with titles like "Ye Are Not Your Own," and "The Bond-Slave of Jesus," that say things like:
|There is no such thing as a private life - "a world within the world" - for a man or woman who is brought into fellowship with Jesus Christ's sufferings. God breaks up the private life of His saints, and makes it a thoroughfare for the world on the one hand and for Himself on the other...Let Him have His way, if you do not, instead of being of the slightest use to God in His Redemptive work in the world, you will be a hindrance and a clog.|
The passion of Christianity is that I deliberately sign away my own rights and become a bond-slave of Jesus Christ. Until I do that, I do not begin to be a saint.
The first thing God does with us is to get us based on rugged Reality until we do not care what becomes of us individually as long as He gets His way for the purpose of His Redemption. Why shouldn't we go through heartbreaks? Through those doorways God is opening up ways of fellowship with His Son...If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.
...breaking the husk of my individual independence of God, and the emancipating of my personality into oneness with Himself, not for my own ideas, but for absolute loyalty to Jesus.
If through a broken heart God can bring His purposes to pass in the world, then thank Him for breaking your heart.
THANK HIM FOR BREAKING YOUR HEART.
This is what they tell the 13 year old girl who realizes she's gay and is told that she must face a life of denial and celibacy because her feelings are a sin. This is what they tell the kid who doesn't want to condemn his friend for being Jewish.
It's not about your individuality, your feelings or your ideas, but about "absolute loyalty to Jesus."
And absolute loyalty is easy when you're at Christian camp or when you're listening to Adrian Rogers tell you about hell, or when you attend Trinity School and Trinity Church and the only time you ever meet anyone who doesn't is when you're playing "abortion girl" in the annual haunted house. Don't question, don't explain, don't change and if you do, blame it on the devil. And if you submerge your feelings deeply enough and suppress your individuality enough, you might get a mansion in heaven.
I didn't have a huge, dramatic break from the church or from Christianity. But slowly, I stopped accepting the conservative elements around me because I began realizing they weren't right. Accepting their fire and brimstone had always felt wrong, and I started thinking that maybe it wasn't the devil's voice telling me that - it was my own.
*Adrian Rogers apparently died last Tuesday. I did not know that until I started writing this post. Weird, huh?