More personal testimonies

I still love the evangelical ritual of sharing “personal testimonies.”

In our evangelical churches, the practice has often calcified into something less honest — with stories told more to match others’ expectations, or the tellers’ perceptions of those expectations. Stories told in that way tend to all sound the same.

But the basic idea — Hello, here is my story, this is who I am so far — remains a powerful thing. Stories aren’t arguments, and they don’t call for any particular response other than to listen to them.

When we tell our stories as honestly as we can, they are true stories. But the meaning of those true stories is subject to change depending on what happens next — something none of us can include in our stories until after that happens. We can tell the truth, but we can never tell the whole truth, because the whole truth about our own stories is something we can’t know until we know how our stories end. Our stories may turn out to be like that movie about a brave and compassionate psychiatrist helping a scared, confused little boy, which you find out, once you get to the end, was really a very different movie — one about a brave and compassionate little boy helping a scared, confused psychiatrist.

But our personal testimonies aren’t stories with a beginning, a middle and an end. They stop in the middle because they’re told in the middle. So when we hear or read an honest personal testimony, we’re left with the same question that any good story makes us ask: What happens next?

Anyway, here are several items I’ve recently encountered that each can be considered, in a sense, a personal testimony:

Alise Wright, “Memories of Faith“:

1998 – The Internet is new and the world is suddenly much smaller. I meet my first real atheist. I meet Christians who are gay. I meet people who think that the only real Bible is the King James Version. My views about faith are twisted around and shaken up.

Rachel Held Evans, “15 Reasons I Left Church“:

… 9. I left the church because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and misogyny and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

10. I left the church because of my own selfishness and pride.

11. I left the church because I knew I would never see a woman behind the pulpit, at least not in the congregation in which I grew up.

Rachel Held Evans, “15 Reasons I Returned to the Church“:

… 9. Liturgy that reads like poetry

10. Madeleine L’Engle

Kathy Escobar, “Justice: What Love Looks Like in Public“:

I became increasingly more secure in my Christian bubble and began to pay less attention to wider issues. I instead began to focus on issues that the people around me were spending energy on–the erosion of the morality of America, the horrors of public education, and making sure tax money wasn’t spent on things I disagreed with. Even though they looked like worthy causes at the moment, the truth is that my support for them had nothing to do with anyone else.

They were all about me. My protection. My kids’ protection. My Christian-world’s protection.

Libby Anne, “A reader asks: Am I angry at my parents?“:

My parents were originally just your ordinary evangelicals. Then, after they began homeschooling for unrelated reasons, they began to be sucked into the beliefs of the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movement, whose influence in the Christian homeschool movement is strong. As a result they not only taught me that I was always to submit to my male authority (first my father, then my husband), but also expected me to be a clone of their beliefs and lifestyle. When I challenged and eventually rejected these ideas, I went through a very painful period where I essentially had to choose between my family and my freedom.

Dan Savage, “This American Life: Return to the Scene“:

I am not a practicing Catholic. I am a lapsed Catholic. An agnosti-theist, a sort of agnostic-atheist hybrid, which means I cross myself on airplanes. I blew up once at a friend who thought it was funny to invert one of the crucifixes in my erotic collection of Catholic kitsch. And half the time when I take the Lord’s name in vain, like when I mutter “Jesus Christ!” through clenched teeth when my boyfriend passes someone going 90 miles an hour in a snowstorm, I am, in all honesty, seeking the protection of a higher power. I go right back to not believing in God once he’s delivered us safely back to the right-hand lane, which makes me a hypocrite and an ingrate. …

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  • This is what being a Classicist does to you:

    I read, “We can tell the truth, but we can never tell the whole truth, because the whole truth about our own stories is something we can’t know until we know how our stories end,” and thought, “Hey, that’s from Herodotus.”  (Who puts it into the mouth of Solon.)

    Alas, I have nothing on topic to add.

  • Anonymous

    Well mom and dad were okay and I grew up happy, so I don’t have much to say.

  • I think Rachel Held Evans has inspired me to do something similar, about why I left my faith.

    1.  Because church was a strange combination of terror and boredom that has yet to be replicated elsewhere in my life.  (Terror at the constant THE WORLD IS ENDING, boredom at 3 hours of standing each time we went to hear the same damn sermon 2-3 times a week.)

    2.  I discovered science.  When  I reconciled science with faith in a reasonable fashion, I was told this was horribly wrong and that I had to choose.  I refused to choose and thus began a looooong spiral away from belief.

    3.  What the church’s influence did to my dad. I’ll never know if he was an asshole who mellowed out later or if he was a reasonably decent person being terribly deceived, because that period the worst aspects of my father’s behavior and the church are inextricably bound.

    4.  Because God never talked to me, and I was always told that I was supposed to hear from God on all kinds of random things.  Either the almighty didn’t like me very much or they were lying to me.  Either way I clearly wasn’t welcome there.

    5.  I wish I had the faith to believe the world was created in 6 days… but I have thoughts.*

    6.  Because since I was a child I’ve had not-normal thoughts about my gender and sexual preferences, and instead of being able to just ask, I had to cram down and hide those things, twist them in knots and bury them away.  To this day I’m still trying to unpack and figure out that part of myself.  I still don’t know what it all means.

    7.  Because I too was bothered by those stories, and everyone tried to tell me it was somehow OK.

    8.  Because for all my failings, I give a shit about people; and the church did not and saw giving said shit to be a negative, in spite of all the red letter text agreeing with me.

    9.  Because I got sick of being paralyzed with fear, over the state of my own salvation, over the state of my family’s salvation (especially my mother and brother who stopped coming to church!).  Not to mention the whole every time there’s a goddamn eclipse or harvest moon I’d freak out due to the expectation the apocalypse could happen any minute.

    10.  I met atheists who weren’t assholes. 

    11.  I was tired of lying to myself – after years of trying to come up with a way to retain my faith, of twisting myself in knots to believe in something that had never ever REALLY felt real to me I finally was able to give it up.

    12.  Because I like martial arts, D&D, and don’t have a problem with other people drinking.  (All of which were of SATAN!)

    13.  Because I am sick to this day of the suggestion that all the bad shit that’s happened to me is because I’m not right with God.  Newsflash:  Bad shit was happening back when I was a little fundie robot; it just hasn’t changed.

    14.  I like to fucking swear sometimes.  It’s cathartic.

    15.  Because Christian-brand media is generally godawful and I discovered art, reading and music beyond that sphere.

    *H/T Lewis Black.

  •  Would that that were the common experience flat.  (Seriously I’m happy to hear it, simple though it is (^_^)b nothing wrong with happy.)

  • When I write my blog, I’m often terrified. It’s something I need to do, it’s something I feel a vocational calling to do. But as someone who is now dependent on the care of his neo-reformed brothers, I’m a little terrified that they’ll be terrified that I wrote a book criticising Evangelical and particularly NRed views on reading and interpreting scripture.

    Which, if you’re curioooous (cough, cough self-promotion cough):

  • JessicaR

    Yeah, growing up Jehovah’s Witness pretty much scorched earth any desire for me ever to be religious, Christian, or attend any kind of church ever again. And it’s not that I’m stubborn and “refusing” to believe in god, it’s that I honestly can’t. I get a sense of spiritual peace and awe, a glimpse of something eternal when I look up at the stars, when I feel the breeze on my face on a warm day, when I listen to a good piece of music, when I see ballet performed, etc.

    I have never felt “Jesus in my heart” or “leading” or any of the modern American church constructs about sensing God, in the sense of a distinct entity I can talk to and expect some form of response from, in your life. And truthfully I’m okay with that. I would feel much worse if I was stuck in a situation where I had to to fake it for the sake of family peace. I had to do that a few times as a teen and it’s awful.

    I guess if I had to put in down in words God is too small for me. The God I grew up around was small and petty, and he made small petty people who acted out in small petty ways. I wanted something bigger, something older, something kind, or if not kind at least something without the sense that it was constantly about to destroy the world and all the nice people who didn’t go to my Kingdom Hall.

    It’s funny, I like pressing my nose against the glass of good kinds of faith. Like on this blog, I look in the window and I see something beautiful, but I know it’s not in my heart or my mind to make a leap of faith like that. So I keep walking, I keep looking and learning and searching, and that’s okay too.

  • I never belonged to a church. At a very young age, I began seeing paraelels between how some people acted at church, and how kids treated each other in middle-school. I understood the concept of “church politics” long before I actually studied real politics.

    As a teenager, I enjoyed playing D&D with my friends, but I realized that some folks simply stopped playing, and I wonderd why. I realized that part of the D&D draw was that it was a social activity for me and a half-dozen buddies, and that once we started engaging in other social activities, the lure of the dice wasn’t so great. I imagine that church is like that for some adults. Instead of Mt. Dew and cheeze-puffs, it’s coffee and cookies after the service. No dice rolling, but there’s singing (and sometimes shouting) and it’s entertaining and social.

    Now, I’m not saying that’s all the church has to offer, but reading Evan’s lists I was struck by how much had to do with the social, communal aspects of church, and of how many items might just as easily apply to a hobbyst club or a book group.

  • CombatQueer

    Wow, that Dan Savage video tore me up. Beautiful and heartbreaking.

  • Anonymous

    CS Lewis once called hymns “second-rate poetry set to third-rate music.” I personally follow that up with “followed by a fourth-rate sermon to make a fifth-rate service.”

    I haven’t been to a church service since a few months out of college, seven years ago. I don’t miss a thing. Dad was the pastor: he sucks majorly.

  • Emcee, cubed

    I didn’t grow up with any religious upbringing. Neither of my parents went to any church when I was a kid. I went with the neighbors across the street sometimes, and I did a lot of Vacation Bibles Schools (several different churches in the area had them. I didn’t really see the differences between denominations back then…they all pretty much seemed the same.) When I was 7, in response to something I said, one of the VBS teachers told me I shouldn’t be reading comic books, and I should read the Bible instead.  As a child who was ridiculed mercilessly in grade school, who used comics as one of my few means of escape (I hadn’t discovered theater yet), the impression that it was either church or my comics had me leaving the church at a run. It never occurred to me at the time that a different church (or even just a different teacher) would have a different opinion. A few years later (I was 9), Mom took me to see a friend of hers in a show at her friend’s church (a Rodgers and Hammerstein review). On the way home I asked mom if you had to go to that church to be in the shows. She said she thought so. So I agreed to go to church so I could be in shows. That was how I became a Unitarian Universalist. (The first show I did there was HMS Pinafore. Yay, G&S). The only reason I don’t really attend services anymore is because they insist on having them Sunday morning, and I don’t believe in waking up on Sundays until at least afternoon. I still self-identify as a UU when asked my religion. I tend to call myself an atheist when asked about my beliefs, and am really more an apatheist, in that it just doesn’t matter to me one way or the other whether there is a god or not.

  • I love the thought of a testimony as a story of how they came to be who they are now.  I guess I’m in the middle of sorting out my own testimony right now, and it’s a bit complicated since I have almost nothing in common with myself 10 years ago…I’m writing on my blog about my experience moving away from the worldview I was raised to have as a homeschooler in the Christian patriarchy movement.

  • P J Evans

    I get a sense of spiritual peace and awe, a glimpse of something eternal
    when I look up at the stars, when I feel the breeze on my face on a
    warm day, when I listen to a good piece of music, when I see ballet
    performed, etc

    It’s close enough to feeling that larger, warmer God for me.

  • Anonymous

     I was struck by how much had to do with the social, communal aspects of church, and of how many items might just as easily apply to a hobbyst club or a book group.

    That’s true, in a limited sense. But churches tend to have much more powerful networks and support circles — multigenerational groups that can support you from birth until death (ideally). By contrast, a lot of secular clubs are segregated, either on the basis of gender or age or both. (Regulars at my knitting groups have ranged *widely* in age — from their late teens to their 60s or so. I’ve yet to see an intergenerational conflict emerge. (*)  OTOH, we tend to stare at the strange men until they go away. If they don’t take the hint, we’ll talk about feminine issues.) Churches also far more widespread geographically. The widespread secular institutions that *do* exist (e.g. fandom) tend to reinvent themselves every few generations, preventing a lot of the support groups and networking functions that might otherwise evolve.

    But I think the ultimate explanation might be very simple. Savage is fond of talking about “prices of admission” for relationships — compromises you’re willing to make in order to be with someone you care about. Many secular institutions carry a decent price of admission: you might need to pick up a new hobby, or profess an interest in a certain subject, or sink a decent chunk of your spare time and money into something new. All of which are fine — they’re what ties the group together, and there are plenty of things that you’ll grow to enjoy with time. Churches, for the most part, have pretty low prices of admission — you may have to profess a few beliefs or whatever, but it’s not a whole lot out of your life in exchange for a *lot* of return.

    (*) OTOH, just try getting four women — in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 60s — to agree upon a karaoke song everyone knew. Good times.

  • Nenya

    JessicaR, what you say about growing up JW scorching your chances for being religious is very much how I feel (just replace JW with my childhood sorta-fundie cult). I do very much have a sense of…what do I even call it? Sensawunda, they say in sci-fi circles. I have spiritual and emotional antennae that twitch to certain kinds of beauty and true things. But if I ever try to pin it down in the least, it kills it dead, like sticking a pin through a butterfly. Other people can put what they feel into words about this kind of thing much better than I can. Too many faked testimonies as a child, or something, I guess. 

    I believe the universe is held together by love. And I can intellectually appreciate a lot of theology, and mythmaking can be quite satisfying. But there’s a point where I have to back off and say no, God never talked to me the way you folks are describing. 

    Anyway–Fred, your point about how we are all writing our stories in the middle of them is really comforting to me. Thank you. 

  • Reading the Rachel Held Evans piece reminded me, once again, that my testimony runs the other way. There wasn’t anything the church did that drove me away; there wasn’t any unpleasantness. In fact, the church I grew up in was – within the limits of human social groups – friendly, encouraging, supportive. Scare tactics were almost non-existent; there was a sort of unstated understanding that we do the best we can and trust in God to forgive us when we fall short. There wasn’t any conflict with science; Genesis, read poetically, was compatible enough with what we understand of the origins of the universe and human life.

    And despite this, despite being raised in a distinctly Christian environment, despite having no particular complaints with the church or the faith (honestly, I’m still far more irritated about some of the things the boy scouts put me through), there came a time when I simply couldn’t believe, any longer, the things that I’d been taught as a child. Things that had seemed so marvelous and compelling – that Jesus would willingly die on the cross, to save all of us – just didn’t make sense to me anymore. And I went back and forth with that for a few years, and then tried to explore other things for a few years after that, and eventually concluded that I just don’t have it in me to believe. I am, basically, a materialist; which makes me functionally atheist. And I don’t feel that as any particular loss.

    If my life were a fairy tale, I’d be the boy who ignored the warnings and stepped off the path – only I wasn’t punished for it; I found that the forest wasn’t so scary once you were in it, and the wolves and boggles were often friendly, and the simple act of exploration was tremendously rewarding. And I lived happily ever after, or as close as anyone ever does.

    I don’t know how to square that with the Rachel Held Evans piece. Relationships are complicated, and she’s talking about why she left a particular relationship – and, in her follow-up post, why she came back. Those thoughts seem to invite a certain focus on how to keep people from leaving, and how to bring them back after they’ve left… and that’s not a focus I can share. I’m not interested in coming back, and I doubt I ever will be.

    So on the one hand, I don’t really have a counterpoint for these sorts of reflections – I don’t have anything against people finding their way back to Christianity, or finding their way to religious beliefs of any sort, really; and I don’t want to offer my experience as some sort of opposition to anyone trying to do that, or even just looking to see if it’s possible. But on the other hand, I do think it’s pertinent to point out that sometimes the reasons why people leave the Church don’t reflect any particular failure on the part of that person or the Church, either one. Sometimes relationships just don’t work out. And if I’m wrong, and there is a God out there, and if He’s anything like he was described to me long ago, then He understands that…


  • I might as well add my list. Here are the reasons I have problems with the Church. (Please note that I’m not saying “why I left the Church,” because as far as I’m concerned, I was never a part of it.)

    1) Because, even though I made my first Communion and was confirmed, I went through both ceremonies under protest.  I knew, at the age of thirteen, that I did not have a strong belief in the Church or in Catholicism. If there was a God, I did not want to have to lie to that God. I’d read enough fairy tales and folktales to have picked up the idea that lying to deities was never a good idea.  

    The nuns at my school had a conniption fit over the idea of my not going through both ceremonies and coerced my parents into making me participate in both rites. Ceremonies that were supposed to be an affirmation of belief were carried out despite my lack of conviction that this was the faith that I wanted to follow for the rest of forever. Thirty-six years later, I still resent this coercion, and I still feel angry that no one cared that both ceremonies were effectively lies.

    2) Because, at twelve, I saw the similarities between the story of Noah and the folktales of a half dozen other floods. Yet, for some reason, I was supposed to think that Noah was real and the others were just stories.  I didn’t understand why I was supposed to think critically about every other subject in school but completely suspend thought when the topic was religion.

    3) Because, during some severe layoffs that were making necessities hard to obtain, the archbishop of my diocese decided that he wanted a swimming pool. And he ordered all the Catholic churches in the diocese to hold “special collections for the Archbishop” until the pool was paid for. 

    4) Because, while the churches were collecting money for the swimming pool, they weren’t helping anyone who was having financial problems. I heard of plenty of people who went to the Church for help and who were refused.

    5) Because, seven years ago, when I was at the end of my rope, physically and emotionally, I went to one of the priests at the church I once went to. He told me that the church was not in the business of giving charity. 

    Let me repeat that. The Church. Is not. In the business. Of giving CHARITY.

    He further told that if I wanted help, I would have to come to Mass every day AND give a large contribution to the Church. 

    It was useless to point out that if I had had a large amount of money, I would not have been in desperate straits to begin with.

    6) Because my religion classes in high school were basically anti-abortion screeds, accompanied by photo slideshows of aborted fetuses. This was in a class that was right before lunch.

    7) Because the aforementioned archbishop came to my school and delivered, in essence, Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Only this version was more along the lines of “Anyone Who Has Even THOUGHT about Abortion in the Hands of an Angry God.” And he terrified half the class by convincing them that he, personally, had God’s ear and that he would ask God personally send anyone who had had such a thing straight into the bowels of Hell. He also said that all the angels and saints would look down into Hell and would enjoy the sight of, as he put it, “stupid sinners suffering.”

    8) Because, during the first outbreak of AIDS, I went to church and heard at least one priest say that AIDS was a holy judgment on sinners. I didn’t know of any people who were gay, but I didn’t think that people deserved to be punished by God for being the way that He, presumably, created them.

    9) Because I could never understand why it was perfectly okay to yell at God and argue with him if you were Jewish–yet this was completely wrong if you were Catholic.

    10) Because I had a religion teacher who was the most bigoted and anti-semitic piece of slime I ever had the misfortune of meeting–so much so that she drove all of us to go on strike. (And the school didn’t have any problem with her bigotry or anti-Semitism until her students refused to go to class.)

    11) Because I could not believe that Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were in Hell because they hadn’t been Catholic.

    12) Because I couldn’t help but notice that asking God for things did not work. And I don’t mean bikes and things like that. I mean things like asking Him to help me not be afraid  before a test or to give me courage when the boys at school attacked me with baseball bats and hockey sticks. It never worked. In fact, it got to the point where I started feeling that praying for something to happen was a guarantee that it wouldn’t.

    13) Because I got tired of hearing that a woman couldn’t be a priest because she couldn’t represent Christ. I could not understand why a Y chromosome was so important.

    14) Because the God of the Old Testament was a genocidal maniac. I could not look at that Deity and see something good, loving or paternal. I certainly couldn’t see anything that deserved worship.

    15) Because I hated going to church and hearing the priests first mentioning a bill or a referendum coming up…and then telling the congregation how they were going to vote.

    16) Because, in my diocese, the bit about “the church community” was a fucking JOKE. 

    17) Because I knew that Jesus was not the only god who supposedly died for people.

    18) Because I went to schools run by Irish nuns, and I knew that religious hatred was not only alive and well but, to an extent, approved of, because nothing brings people together faster than “We’re not like THEM!”

    19) Because I met other atheists online, and they were saying exactly what I had been saying for years.

    20) Because I never saw any evidence that being Catholic made you a better person…and a lot of evidence that being committed to the hierarchy wasn’t the same thing as doing good.

  • Ordinarily I don’t comment anything worth reading, but the church I walked away from wasn’t notably authoritarian, so my reasons for walking away were a bit different from the ones that’ve been listed so far. So even if it isn’t worth reading, it may be worth sharing.
    #1. I left because my confirmation was a tribal signifier.

  • To Edo Owaki:

    What is a praxis? And in what way was your confirmation a tribal signifier? (I was under the impression that Protestants didn’t do confirmation. Apparently, I was wrong.)

  • Easy one first: confirmation isn’t sacramental in the denomination I was raised in, but it is ritual. There was mentoring, prayerful discernment, being rubbed all over with stinging ants without screaming swearing/affirming/reaffirming some things I no longer remember, etc. I got distinctive body modifications a gilt-edged bible with the denomination’s cross and the reverend’s signature and blessings, and I was One Of Them.

    Hard one: praxis is the work of integrity. I knew that this thing called Christianity was supposed to mean something. And I knew that being what I claimed was supposed to change what I was.

    It didn’t. Looking back now, my questions were all variants of “How do/can/should I mean what I say?” I didn’t have the literature to unpack them, or the language to ask them; and when I tried (and botched) the asking, I remember the situations as being awkward even by my standards. (I could have asked the evangelicals, but they weren’t my tribe, and didn’t seem to share my concerns about how to mean ethically.)

    By the end, it wasn’t a slippery slope; it was an infinite recursion.
    It’s why I loved “Though I May Speak” so much.
    And why it was so devastating.