When we get in a large group my wife, Tracy, loves to tell a story about how we got into a huge argument while on a date, during our courtship. The reason for the fight? She dropped a “bomb” on me, when she told me she wasn’t a fundamentalist.
“You MUST be a fundamentalist”, I insisted. (Those are the only real Christians, after all.) Yet, she refused. As the date ended, I was sad with the knowledge that she wasn’t part of the elect, and that we were CLEARLY spiritually incompatible.
For her, it’s one of those stories she LOVES to tell in large groups.
For me? It’s one of those stories that makes me want to crawl under a rock and stay put until humanity has successfully sent a manned expedition to Mars, sometime in the mid-2030′s. But, she loves to tell it…
I’ve often heard conservative folks refer to liberal folks as “a product of their liberal education”. Well, I was the opposite- a product of too many years mixed in a potent combination of conservative evangelicalism and fundamentalism. I knew every canned answer I was supposed to know. I had all the outward credentials of a good fundamentalist (heck, I was even chairman of my local Republican Party), I read the right authors, I only got my information from Fox News, never missed an opportunity to post on Facebook about abortion or gay marriage, and allowed countless relationships to be alienated because of my broken, no-room-for-error, arrogant, fundamentalist thinking.
I had been taught to be a fundamentalist, taught to think in only black and white, guilt and innocence, right vs left… I was a product, not a person. A relationally destructive product…
Ironically, I’m more ashamed of my fundamentalist thinking than anything else in my life- because it was the most destructive, both to myself, and others.
However, the story has a happy ending- my wife married me anyway, waited patiently, and alas- I am only “formerly fundie”.
How I grew to have a life I love instead of a life I secretly hated, was a complicated process. Ironically, I didn’t find freedom from simply walking away from it all- the freedom I found was through actually figuring out who Jesus is, and what he had to say. Instead of walking away from the fire, I dove back in- with the humility and willingness to rediscover God. However, I didn’t arrive at the station enthusiastically.
Tracy, my wife, pressured me to go to seminary- something I utterly resisted. I had every excuse in the book, but she always seemed to find a way to thwart my excuses, poke holes in my faulty logic, and leave me with no other option but to walk through the next door. So, we packed up our belongings, and headed to Gordon-Conwell in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Within days at seminary, I was thoroughly convinced that it was run by a bunch of Satan-loving heretics (after all, everyone seemed to think the idea of a “rapture” was a joke). However, weeks into my first semester I realized that God was big enough to sort things out if I’d simply be quiet, humble, and open to actually learning.
And so, I began praying: “God, whatever is true about you, I want to know it.” I must have prayed that prayer a bazillion times, often with the post-script: “… and I don’t care what label that gives me in the end.” With that prayer, my life changed. I found myself humbly wrestling with theology and expressions thereof. I caught myself praying for people while I read their gut-wrenching stories of tragedy in the news. I began to see the teachings of Jesus in a whole other way- as if I had been a pharisee who had never taken the time to actually understand the meaning behind his parables.
I then began a chapter of quietly wrestling with all the things I had secretly wished to wrestle with, but never had a safe place to do so. I came under the wing of an Arminian theologian from Romania who was deeply influential. I connected with folks from the Boston Emergent Cohort, who remain some of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I got to know friends like my friend, Phil, who gave up everything- even their denominational tradition- to love people like Jesus loved. For the first time ever, I was surrounded by people who were the kind of Christians I endeavored to be.
The last straw in my fundamentalist paradigm, was a Wednesday evening class entitled “Biblical Justice” with Father Dean Borgman. As a fundamentalist, I had always understood the biblical concept of “justice” synonymous with a God who never misses an opportunity to punish us (after all, the Lord punishes those he loves!). Studying under Father Borgman completed my paradigm shift as I realized that social justice for the poor and oppressed is an activity that must be at the forefront, if one is to actually claim they are following in the way of Jesus.
Throw in some Greg Boyd, a little NT Wright, a chat with Brian McLaren, (and maybe some Rob Bell, but I won’t confirm that) and the rest is history.
As my wife often summarizes: “seminary saved our marriage.”
And, quite honestly, it saved me. Being a fundamentalist was a miserable, anger filled experience that caused me to defend positions my heart knew were indefensible. It caused me to see people as objects to be converted, immigrants as societal blood-suckers, and anyone with even the slightest liberal sounding opinion to be Satan’s spawn. Today, though my writing may come off as a bit cranky at times, I am happy and content as I embrace a life that simply wants to emulate the loving, inclusive, and non-violent person of Jesus the best that I am able.
Sadly, many formerly fundies walk away from faith completely. As for me, I will forever be grateful to the people I have encountered (mostly my Emergent and Vineyard friends) who showed me that there is a faith worth living.
My hope is that here you’ll be challenged, encouraged, and perhaps even inspired as I continue to wrestle with what it means to be a Jesus follower in this time, and this place.
Benjamin L. Corey