A few weeks ago I began chronicling the story of my Christianity, my deconversion, and my personal and intellectual development post-deconversion. I began with the reminiscences, Before I Deconverted: My Christian Childhood and Before I Deconverted: Ministers As Powerful Role Models. This post is a series of recollections of my high school religiosity. Below I cover my outspokenness in high school, my love affair with Contemporary Christian Music, my time as a pamphleteer that presaged my future career as a blogger, my attempt to threaten my high school with a lawsuit, the English teacher who awoke the love of the liberal arts in me, and my high school discovery of poetry.
An Outspoken Freshman
1992-1993: Freshman year in high school was when I think I first dug into theology and politics. I read Mere Christianity over Christmas break and it had a huge influence on me. I remember earlier, in 5th Grade reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe too and finding it profoundly moving. The death and resurrection of Aslan struck me as so powerful and there was something familiar about it, like I knew this story but I couldn’t articulate it directly.
I listened to Rush Limbaugh and devoured his books in the spring. I was amazed at how he made everything fit this one worldview. As Emerson might see it, Limbaughs false consistencies were the hobgoblins of my juvenile mind.
At 14-15 years old I did not realize how easy it is to make everything seamlessly fit one’s paradigm as long as one is entirely prejudiced. I remember making vigorous arguments at a family event when I was about 15 and my brother trying to take credit for teaching me how to argue. I credited Rush. (But I probably owed the most credit to my youth minister Mike who was profoundly influencing me this year through our long one on one weekly talks.)
This was the year that I also relentlessly debated on behalf of an abstinence-only approach to sex with the the poor safe sex guest speaker in my freshman English class. She was remarkably unflappable and gracious, even offering me the chance to put together an alternative presentation, but she stuck to her own plan of teaching abstinence as one of numerous options.
I was also really outspoken on abortion that year and though I don’t remember bringing it up much in subsequent years, I was bullied over these views for years. There were people who every time they saw me would try to wind me up by jeering, “what are your views on abortion?!”
My school had few Evangelical Christians. Outside of church I knew few kids as outwardly religious and zealous as I was. I was utterly undeterred by being disliked for my beliefs and managed to have many friendships with normal kids in spite of them.
1993-1994: When I was 15, I began getting public speaking experience in earnest. Eighteen years ago today, on November 21, 1993, I gave a very well received Sunday morning sermon as part of a “Youth Sunday”. My deep message was called “Take it to the Limit” based on a cheesy Christian hair metal song by the band Whitecross. I talked about the clever little tale in the Bible in which Gideon outsmarts a much larger enemy army with fewer soldiers of his own by startling them in the middle of the night with all sorts of noise and fire, leading the enemy to panic and kill each other out of confusion. I was given opportunities to talk at very small places like a Christian home for troubled teens. It was a big deal to me. I stayed over as a guest of honor and everything. Being in front of groups teaching and preaching was extremely natural to me. I wound up a camp counselor at my Christian church camp by the time I was 16 too. I was an utter and complete disaster at first. My first week involved being in charge of a group of fifteen kids, all 11-12, eleven of whom were girls. They manipulated the crap out of me.
That same year was biology class. I had woken up one morning watching a creationism propaganda show produced by D. James Kennedy. They offered a free book at the end of the video called The Collapse of Evolution by Scott M. Huse. I thought that was awesome of them. I drove my poor biology teacher crazy with my obstinate refusal to accept the truth of evolution. He was a good, kind, friendly, and patient man who deserved much better.
That year I also read C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters which became my favorite book for several years. I found it utterly enthralling. I only now remember bits and pieces. My favorite bit remains his account of humility as the ability to acknowledge one’s own accomplishments and even admire them, yet with the same distance as noting the excellence of someone else’s work, not overly wrapped up in one’s own contribution to it. This was a big influence upon me not to be shy or ashamed or overly modest about whatever I did well in life but to appraise whatever I did honestly and straightforwardly whether good or bad, just as I would someone else’s work.
Before Camels With Hammers There Was The Point
1994-1995: My church decided to redo its weekly bulletin and add features to it. I quickly became the editor-in-chief of the project and turned it into a monthly “journal” which my editor and I decided to name The Point. We filled it with articles, poems, and other items of interest that I solicited from church members and pastors who I knew from various places. I wrote a lot and vastly rewrote some articles in the editing process. I went crazy designing (and sometimes overdoing) creative layouts and fonts for all the different articles. It was a labor of love and I think it was of a somewhat impressive level of quality for a project helmed by a 16-17 year old. I never once submitted anything to the high school newspaper or creative writing periodical. Even then I sought a blogger’s independence and had a leeriness of submitting my work for editorial judgment.
First Amendment Champion
1994: I edited The Point with the goal of making this ostensibly Christian journal into a proselytization vehicle. My friends at school were the people to whom it was most distributed and though we wrote and presented it aimed at a general audience, we saw it as outreach to non-believing or nominally believing kids in my school. Most of my friends liked it. It certainly never converted anyone. One day one of my teachers raised the question of whether I was allowed to be passing it out in school and so the principal ordered me to stop.
So I contacted a lawyer. For no charge The Rutherford Institute, a group which aggressively supports the Christian side in 1st Amendment battles, put together a memo for me defining the rights the courts had determined students had for distributing religious literature at school. My principal told me I was entitled to a table where I could hand out The Point between periods. I thought this was ridiculous and just went back to doing what I had always done—handing it out informally to my friends and to strangers. We made a huge deal out of the attempt to “censor” us in The Point with a huge “Censored” logo and our cartoon mascot behind bars. I passed out the issue telling kids it was banned and they lapped that up.
Too much of the burden of producing The Point fell on my shoulders so I eventually ran out of energy as I became interested in and distracted by other things, and the project unceremoniously fizzled within 9 months of its really taking off. It basically just lasted the full duration of my Junior Year.
1994-1996: I began writing poetry as part of an attempt to write song lyrics with my friend Bryan in 1994. I am so comically unmusical and so bad a singer that the plan of having me sing while Bryan played guitar on our recordings did not go terribly far. We made a few demos that probably are most mercifully lost to history. But I kept writing verse—terrible, blunt, artless, didactic verse that a dogmatic religious teenager would write. Only when my heart was smashed to pieces in May of ’95 did I make my first efforts at metaphor and symbolism. This was because, interestingly, while I did not see how awful didactic poetry was, I did know how bad whiny teenage broken heart verse was and aimed to avoid it by writing about my experience on a more general and universal, symbolic level. This was also to hide the subject matter since I was shy about coming right out and explicitly expressing my broken heart in verse others would read.
I remember for the first time, even before this, realizing some of my poems sucked badly. I was putting one into The Point and it just struck me that it might suck. So I asked my editor and my girlfriend if it was bad and they were kind of matter of fact about it. Yes. Yes, it was bad. They hadn’t thought to stop me from publishing it (or previous bad poems!) though. No one had ever told me how bad my verse was until I, like, asked if it was bad.
By the time I was graduating high school, I had gotten pretty good. We put on a slightly elaborate poetry reading at my church with music and super lo-fi lighting effects and it was a night I’m still proud of. I got much better throughout college and put together a compilation called Naked in the Night Garden of which I am still reasonably proud but which I would be hard pressed to actually find amidst all my old papers.
Rereading my poems a few years ago, I was surprised how many of my poems were deeply critical of the church, even as they were written when I was a believer. I had a Christian enthusiast’s love of God and Jesus, of course, but I was working through philosophical and psychological ideas with a fair degree of concern for truth beyond mere fundamentalist preaching. Although most of my poems were short, the crowning accomplishment of my poetic efforts was a 180 stanza poem called “A Prolegomena To All My Future Prayers”, in which I somewhat vigorously debated the existence and goodness of God with a fictional interlocutor and with myself.
I stopped writing poetry altogether simultaneous with the end of my faith during my senior year of college. I have only written a poem or two since, for a girlfriend. The last poem I wrote during my prolific period was very short and it was written the day after I deconverted:
When I Lost My Faith…
I slit my thought
and was rebaptized in its blood
And that was all the poetry there was left to write.
1994-1996: When I was inducted into the National Honor Society, my soon-to-be English teacher Mr. Peter Doyle gave one of the very few ceremonial speeches in my life that I remember anything from. I remember him describing how in his public speaking class he would always have students give a short speech on how to get to their house. He would himself describe how to get all the way to his home in Brooklyn from our Suffolk County school on Long Island. He then talked about a few intrepid students who used those directions to arrive at his doorstep. He talked with pride about their response to his books when they were in his apartment. Somehow this led to the conclusion, in which he turned and faced all of us seated behind him and with not a trace of irony but rather the most convincing and dramatic of faces and vocal inflections possible said to us, “Welcome to the life of the mind.”
The next year I had him for English and for Public Speaking. The first day of class he promised we would learn more in his class than we had in any others. It was in his classes that year and the next that I first was inspired with a love for the liberal arts and began to see learning as an exciting pursuit of truth. I wrote some of my first purely philosophical essays for Mr. Doyle, ones which moved beyond my literalist theologizing and into thinking. I remember in particular writing about how foreknowledge could be compatible with freedom in Oedipus Rex and doing a comparison of the differing visions of hell one found in Dante’s Inferno, Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, and C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
1996: When I graduated I was remarkably gratified to read what my friends and acquaintances wrote in my yearbook. Somewhat to my amazement, people expressed a lot of admiration for my dogged commitment to my beliefs. No one had done so for the four years that I was risking (and assuming) alienation in order to speak my mind. But in the end, people responded in a really touching and affirming way to my willingness to stand alone for what I thought. That yearbook is one of those things in my life that makes me proudest and most gratified to reflect on—even if I regret pretty much everything I stood for. At least it’s a reassurance that my principled atheism likely also has a more positive effect than anyone now admits to me.
Christian Music in High School
1992-1996: In the beginning of 1992, I discovered Contemporary Christian Music and I devoured it. I had been starving myself of most music besides “Weird Al” for years out of fear that secular music was evil. So listening to, and loving, Michael W. Smith’s Go West Young Manfor the first time was this unbelievably happy experience.
It was music I dug and it was completely Christian. I can still remember the liberating rush I felt when I first heard it. It was like being one of those Footloose kids and being allowed to dance—but not having to side with the devil to do it! And it was with so much consternation that I would debate with others whether his (barely) more “secular” 1993 album Change Your World and whether Amy Grant’s mainstream pop albums were “too compromised” for their cross-over (less cross-oriented) appeals.
At the same time I picked up Smith, I also picked up Carman and was elated by his stuff too. Carman had “edgy” stuff about demons and witches and this “dark” stuff made it cool to me. I also got into Whitecross as a way to try to find something hard and metal-like to appeal to my metal-loving friends. It took me a while to adjust but they became one of my favorite bands. I even put together a music video of movie clips for their song “In the Kingdom”. Below is their official video. In retrospect the song is pretty awful. My video made it better. It had muppets. Someday hopefully I will figure out how to transfer VHS to internet accessible video file and shall gift it to the world.
DC Talk was my introduction to rap:
I eventually found a couple heavy metal albums I still think are pretty sick, like Bride’s Snakes in the Playground
and Tourniquet’s masterful Vanishing Lessons:
Within a couple of years, I naturally, without realizing what I was doing, gravitated to less explicitly Christian, less mass-marketed and cheesy, and more indie Christian bands. I was into the stuff which was obscure, made attempts at being honest, was comfortable with some ambiguity, and musically tried to do interesting things.
Read posts in my ongoing “deconversion series” in order to learn more about my experience as a Christian, how I deconverted, what it was like for me when I deconverted, and where my life and my thoughts went after I deconverted.
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted:
Before I Deconverted:
How I Deconverted:
When I Deconverted:
The Philosophical Key To My Deconversion:
After I Deconverted: