Now Featured in the Patheos Book Club
Butterflies in the Belfry—Serpents in the Cellar: An Intentional Quest for a Natural Christianity
J. Michael Jones
Chapter 1: The Fall
The vortex on the imitation-bamboo table kept spinning and its suction escalated. Trying to escape its tug, I exited the small restaurant, stumbling outside, I paused to catch my bearings. I left the fumes of wok-burnt noodles and stumbled into the dark, dusty air that hovered over the busy night streets of Cairo as one intoxicated … on bewilderment. It was a thick desert air, saturated with an unorthodox mix of motor exhaust fumes, jasmine, campfire smoke, incense, and rotting—animal, I presumed—flesh.
But even outside, walking along the crumbling sidewalks beneath clusters of date palms, dulled by the perpetual coating of coco-colored dust, I felt myself continuing to fall and lose control as if it were actually happening. The rabbit hole was following me and, like quicksand, there was no escaping its pull and nothing within reach to grasp, nothing that might arrest my fall. I turned the corner and stepped off the side street into Tahreer Square at the heart of Cairo. Even at nine o’clock at night, it was a perpetual hive of activity with hundreds of walkers and drivers amongst buses, donkey and camel riders. But in the midst of the chaotic masses, I’d never felt so alone—and terrified. Not just terrified of Rod or of Egypt, but of my own darkness, which was beginning to percolate up through the hole, a darkness with claws, scales, and saber-like teeth. What was most scary now was realizing that the hole wasn’t in the imitation-bamboo table or even in the restaurant, but in the middle of my own soul—and there was no escape. The adrenaline had fermented into a sour, inward-pointing rage. I refused to name the dark force at first, but I knew what it was—it was raw hate. A hate that had germinated while in the breakfast buffet in Chicago, and that had been nurtured through Rod’s long absences and failed promises of bringing our things and helping us assimilate into this inhospitable place. And I’d allowed the anger to proliferate when Daniel was so sick and I was so scared.
Earlier that year, we had sent Rod a telex saying we were taking our extremely ill boy back to the United States for emergency medical treatment. A sterile, impersonal telex returned the message: “Request denied. Use only Egyptian medical services.” All my wrath at Daniel’s suffering and near death I now allowed myself to spew at Rod. And at myself. I hated Rod for disrespecting me and my family. I hated myself for having allowed it.
A mile away, I fixed my eyes on the metro train station, which was my portico from the chaos to the relative peace of my home and my lifeline to Denise’s comforting arms. I continued walking, but slower, now that I knew I couldn’t outrun the void. I heard the sound in my ears … on the left and on the right … before me and behind me … a soft thumping sound. It was my house of cards starting to fall in slow motion, the cards landing one by one. The thin cards, little more than façades, had been carefully but perilously put in place since my conversion a decade and a half earlier. There were the stoic kings, always in control, with a confident sense of purpose. Below them were the princes, serving as the perfect Christians of obedience and order. Finally, at the bottom, were the smiling jokers—the first to fall. The entire house of cards of my Christian persona was toppling. I kept walking, focusing my eyes on the sparks shooting, like fireworks, from the pantographs and overhead power lines as electric trains pulled out from the station, leaving a trail of ozone in the air like an android’s perfume.
What was the meaning of those fifteen years of devotion to Christ? When I first came into the fold, my DI mentor had shared with me a verse from 2 Corinthians 5:17 that now I was a “new creation.” He went on to explain that all my past was erased and I was a blank slate of purity. I felt his words so reassuring because as a young man I had a lot of anger. My mentor also taught me a simple formula for Christian maturity, like a magic growth potion: Time in The Word (meaning the Bible) = Christian maturity. I’d spent thousands of hours in The Word—thirty minutes of devotional time most mornings. I’d memorized hundreds of Bible verses, not to mention all the other activities of Christian discipleship, such as evangelism and prayer. I’d also attended hundreds of hours of workshops and classes, thousands of hours of lectures and sermons—and for what?