Monday, June 14, 2010

Evangelical Christianity and Me

I've said this before. I was never a fundamentalist, or an Evangelical. But for most of my young adult and adult life, I've harbored a special wariness of the fundamentalist and even the Evangelical approach to Christianity.

I grew up attending an Episcopal church, and also with close association to the Quakers, in Southeastern PA. My mother's father was an Episcopal clergyman whose primary vocation was teaching and writing. He was an associate of some kind of John Dewey (by interesting coincidence, I've been a consultant for the last 10 years to an education scholar who is very much a latter-day Dewey disciple). And his principal written work (besides some letters to the New York Times around the time of WW 1 that I happened to stumble across) was a two-volume history of Christianity. I have a re-bound copy of it in my bookshelves, and I actually managed to read about the first 4 or 5 chapters a few years ago.

My mother (a/k/a EmpireStateMom for those of you who are coming in late) says his basic outlook was that of the Gnostics. I've not gotten a clear understanding of why that is or what about his outlook she equates with the Gnostics.

I open with this digression because my spiritual biography really starts with hers. My mother went to a Quaker college and for years afterward found herself alternately worshiping with the Quakers, the Congregationalists, and ultimately the Episcopalians. I was about 5 or 6 when I was baptized in the Episcopal church and I felt quite comfortable there as I grew up.

My father was an anthropologist who taught at the college level after a few years of doing research in Western Africa. He had grown up attending an Episcopal church, I believe, although I vaguely recall his family might have identified as Presbyterian. They lived in Texas.

From a very early age my father made sure I knew about and understood evolution. He was not hostile to Christianity, but pretty much by the time I had reached an age in which I could understand and appreciate Myth, I understood the earliest Biblical books to be Mythical.

I was in about 7th grade when I began to realize that some classmates in my heavily fundamentalist/Evangelical pocket of the world were not of the same point of view -- that they were absolutely certain that Adam and Eve were real, historical figures. (I even recall some of them quizzing a science teacher on the subject -- and I also recall her saying to them that she was more inclined to believe the biblical version, or something like that. It was a conversation I didn't get involved in at the time.)

Later, and separately from that realization, I came to understood the essential principle of fundamentalist/Evangelical Christianity: That the sole, or at least primary, reason for Jesus's coming to earth was to be crucified and resurrected in order to in some way absolve humanity of sin, and that that "salvation" could only be achieved by "accepting Jesus as personal Lord and savior."

As I've noted previously, that was not the message I got from the church I grew up in. The message that I did get was much more indirect -- in retrospect, and not at all certain that I'm getting it right now -- I would say that we were taught that Jesus was God come to earth to help us understand God better. But it was nowhere near as explicit and cut-and-dried as that.

I never bought into the personal savior theory as articulated by the fundamentalists, and I never bought into the closely aligned view that the book of Revelation was a reliable forecast of the future of the world. In high school I first discovered the work of Jack Chick, the fundamentalist cartoonist, specifically from an anti-evolution tract called "Big Daddy." (My father pointed out the many inaccuracies in its reading of the scientific data, and also pointed out the likely intentional way in which the pro-evolution professor is depicted in line with Jewish stereotypes.) I fantasized instead trying to write a tract that would rebut fundamentalist dogma with a liberal Christian social gospel, but couldn't get very far because I really couldn't articulate the message in such simple terms.

But something about my encounter with this strain of Christianity marked me for the rest of my life. I was always on the lookout for it; in my late 30s and early 40s I even subscribed for a time to an anti-fundamentalist newsletter. That dogma is a trigger for me, in fact -- provoking a visceral reaction that I don't fully understand.

This didn't set out to be a multi-part post, but I will leave off for now and continue anon.


  1. As someone who grew up as an Evangelical, I look forward to your follow-up post.

    It is interesting for me to see what Christianity looked like for those growing up in mainline churches.

  2. Thank you. I hope that Part 2 was worth the wait... :-)


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