In my last post, I told about the life-changing car wreck I was in as a teenager on December 22, 1985. I said that it was that car wreck that changed my life, but that post really didn’t go into details as to how my life changed. In this post, I want to share a little bit of how the course of my life changed because of that car wreck.
Over the course of that Christmas break, I did a lot of soul-searching, at least as much soul-searching as a 16-year-old kid is capable of doing. Having grown up in a Christian home, having gone to an Assemblies of God church for most of my life, and as I was going to an Evangelical Christian high school, I was, simply put, a good suburban, Evangelical Christian kid. I was still a kid though, and for all practical purposes didn’t know all that much about anything outside of conservative Christian Evangelicalism.
In any case, the car wreck made me think—and what I thought about were the countless youth group sermons and high school chapels where I was constantly being told that I need to “get on fire” for Jesus, and not give into “apathy.” If you attended a Christian high school, you’ll be able to relate. I decided that it was time that I really did “get on fire” for Jesus—I was going to get serious, really serious, about my faith.
16-Year-Old Joel Gets Christian Hard Core
It was the mid-80’s, at the height of Jerry Falwell’s “Moral Majority,” and I had started reading books like The Great Evangelical Disaster, by Francis Schaffer, and Bad News for Modern Man, by his son, Franky Schaeffer. These books, as others like them, had a single message: Evangelical Christianity is going down the tubes because of secular humanism and liberalism.
Now, to be sure, there really is a lot wrong with our increasingly secularistic culture, and I am by no means any kind of liberal. But, however well-intentioned books like those were, I think they helped whip up a certain amount of paranoia in the Evangelical world, and ended up blurring the lines between the Kingdom of God as proclaimed in the Gospel, and a right-wing political ideology of the GOP. Again, I say that as someone who still is largely conservative, and who has, by and large, voted GOP. I might overall agree with the GOP platform, but I know the difference between that and the Gospel. The two are not the same. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with many people. But I digress…
Reading these books made a huge impact on me during the second semester of my junior year. I happened to be taking a Bible class on Doctrine that semester, and the major assignment was to write a doctrine paper. My paper wasn’t so much on any particular doctrine, as it was the parroting of the books I had been reading. The title of my paper was, Christianity 1986 AD: Rotting from Within. I still have it. The thing that strikes me most about it, is that it’s the kind of essay you could probably find written by Ken Ham, the ultra-Fundamentalist young earth creationist. In fact, he had written his first major book, The Lie, in 1987. I’m astonished to realize that my paper had a jump on him by about 9 months.
Instead of me explaining what my paper was specifically about, allow me to just share the first few sentences. It will give you an idea:
“Many liberals, under the name Evangelical and Christian, have twisted and molded Christianity into some fashionable, non-controversial religion that anyone can join without giving up one shred of immorality. The greater orthodox Christian community, on the other hand, has refused to speak out against these so-called Evangelicals, and has even said that staying uninvolved in biblical and love. These two groups make up the majority of today’s Christian church. Because these two groups compromise the Word of God and cop out, the secular liberals, in the meantime, are tearing down every wall of morality and even are attacking the church directly.”
It goes on in that vein for 12 pages. In the paper, I condemned church leaders and Christian colleges like Wheaton and Calvin; and I decried abortion, homosexuality, and somehow (yes, this is ironically true, for those of you who’ve read my other posts on Ken Ham) linked it to the creation vs. evolution debate.
I really didn’t know what I was talking about. All I knew was that if I was going to be “on fire” for Jesus, it meant that I judge and condemn any and all Christians who were, in my opinion, too compromised. It turned out that my Bible teacher was really impressed—so impressed, in fact, that she arranged for me to read my paper in chapel. I thought I had arrived. I was convinced I was going to start a revival at my school.
After I read my paper, I challenged the student body to stand up out of their pews if they were really serious about following Christ. Of course, being a Christian school, everyone did (more out of peer pressure than conviction). Then I challenged them to come down to the stage after chapel was over, and write their names down. I was going to form Christian action groups for next year. I was convinced that I was going to be some great “leader” for my Senior year.
And Then God Tapped Me On the Shoulder
The reason why most of my classmates might not even remember that chapel was because that great “movement” was I going to lead never happened—soon after school got out for the summer, God displayed his ruthlessness once again in my life…just not in the form of a car crash. I can’t explain it, really. I just had the sudden realization—conviction, if you will—that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or what I really believed. It was at that time that my sister was telling me about a book she was reading, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. She had also read something about Francis Schaeffer that was interest to me. After he had become a Christian, become a pastor, and had been a pastor for a number of years, he had the realization that he wasn’t sure what he believed. Long story short, he admitted it, left his pastoral position for a time, went off into the Alps, and completely rethought his faith.
That blew me away: here was a guy who was a pastor for years, and he admitted his crisis of faith, and essentially went back to square one. I was a 16 year old kid—what did I know? Maybe I should admit the same thing to myself. And so, over the course of that summer, without really telling anyone, I was essentially an agnostic. I took the summer to read Mere Christianity to see if there really was anything truly convincing and substantial to Christianity. (You can read all of my 30 + posts on Mere Christianity starting here). That book gave me a solid start and sure footing as to what Christianity really is. Years later, once I became an Orthodox Christian, and actually taught Mere Christianity in my 11th grade Bible class, I was amazed at how fundamentally Orthodox C.S. Lewis (an Anglican) really was.
As for Schaeffer, although I’ve ended up disagreeing with a number of his arguments about Christianity, philosophy, and Western Culture, I still appreciate the fact that he was one of the first Evangelical Christians to really attempt to engage Western philosophy and culture. His books opened the door to my attempts to understand culture and philosophy. His books, How Should We Then Live, The God Who is There, Escape from Reason, and He is There and He is Not Silent, are still worth the read.
Sting: The Evangelist
In addition to Lewis and Schaeffer, my sister introduced also me to the music of Sting—and Sting’s music probably can constitute the soundtrack of my life. In the summer of 1986, though, he had just come out with his first solo album, Dream of the Blue Turtles, an incredibly artistic, jazz-infused piece of musical perfection. Not only that, though, but the topics it covered and the lyrics of virtually every song spoke to my soul. I listened to “Moon Over Bourbon Street,” a song actually inspired by the Ann Rice novel, “Interview with a Vampire,” and heard in the lyrics the dilemma of being human.
I could comment on every song on that album, but I will limit my comments to just one more: “Consider Me Gone.” This song, probably more than any other, signified my leaving my childhood behind. After reading Mere Christianity, I realized two things: the Christianity Lewis described made sense, yet the Christianity I had grown up in smacked of shallowness. By the end of the summer, I knew I was going to follow the Christ I found in Lewis’ book, and that meant that I just wasn’t going to feel at home in the Evangelical world I had grown up in—hence, Sting’s song, “Consider Me Gone.” The lyrics are as follows:
You can’t stay there, you can’t stay there
There were rooms of forgiveness in the house that we shared
But the space has been emptied of whatever was there
There were cupboards of patience, there were shelf-loads of care
But whoever came calling, found nobody there
After today, consider me gone
Roses have thorns, and shining waters mud
And cancer lurks deep in the sweetest bud
Clouds and eclipses stain the moon and the sun
And history wreaks of the wrongs we have done
After today, consider me gone
I’ve spent too many years at war with myself
My doctor has told me it’s no good for my health
To search for perfection is all very well
But to look for heaven is to live here in hell
After today, consider me gone
I’ll say it right now, that song is my life’s soundtrack. That song speaks more of the hard part of the Gospel to me than virtually anything else: take up your cross and follow me; let the dead bury their dead; the Son of Man has no place to lay his head. That song set me out on my new life, and for the most part it has been quite lonely.
I Never Really Left, Until Recently
Now, I never completely “left” the Evangelical world. Even when my Christian journey led me to the Orthodox Church (I remember distinctly thinking the first time I ever went to an Orthodox liturgy, “I’m home”), I remained teaching Bible in Evangelical schools for 16 years. That being said, I never did fully feel “at home” in Evangelical churches and schools ever since that summer of 1986. And I still don’t yet understand why, after I had found the Orthodox Church, God would take me away to a place where there is no Orthodox Church. I find myself a 46-year-old divorced Orthodox Christian with no Orthodox Church, and whom Evangelical schools have rejected because (as you know if you read my blog) I don’t think the universe is 6,000 years old.
So when Jesus turns to me and asks, “What about you? Are you going to leave me too?” What else can I say, other than the words of Peter, “Lord, to whom can I go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Translation? I keep driving. I keep wrestling with God…
…and I sing,
“O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.”