Where to start? The beginning of my story is the Big Bang (if it happened that way) or maybe even before (if there was a ‘before’ – how could we know?). My birth in Alabama in 1980 would be a logical place to start, but this blog isn’t really an autobiography. It’s supposed to be more like an archaeology of ideas. One place archeology is especially interesting is in disaster areas, like the town of Pompeii that had been covered in volcanic ash. So I think I’ll start doing my auto-archeology on one such catastrophic event in my life: going to Dallas Theological Seminary to earn a master’s degree.
In April 2001 I decided my life calling was to be a Bible translator, someone who moves to a remote and exotic land, learns the language of a small tribe, and translates the New Testament into that language, thereby bringing them the Gospel for their eternal salvation and a better life this side of the Pearly Gates. As newlyweds, my wife Amber and I joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in 2005 and moved to Dallas, Texas for some final education before heading overseas. Dallas Theological Seminary offered a Master’s in Biblical Exegesis and Linguistics (MABEL), which seemed to me like the perfect program for an aspiring Bible translator. I believed strongly in my career calling and wanted to treat myself to the best preparation we could afford. And so to Dallas we went.
I only lasted six months.
Although our pastor in Florida had warned me about the dangers of seminary, I still wasn’t prepared for the intellectual and spiritual hurricane I was walking into.
I was raised in a Mennonite religious culture. The Mennonites are descendants of the Anabaptists, the so-called ‘radical reformers’ of the Protestant Reformation. The original Anabaptists agreed with reformers Luther and Calvin on the point that the Bible should be a Christian’s religious authority rather than the Catholic Church. But these radical reformers adhered to that principle so consistently that they eventually ran afoul of Lutheran and Calvinist church leaders who had political as well as religious interests. Many of them were persecuted, and many were killed. To survive the onslaught, the Anabaptist formed tightly-knit groups based on often literalist interpretations of the Written Word (Scripture) and an urgent devotion to the Living Word (Jesus Christ). On these twin pillars, Anabaptists created small communities held together by mutual love and concern, seeing themselves as exemplars of the ‘body of Christ’, the true church.
As sociologist Peter Berger explained so eloquently in his book The Sacred Canopy, human beings are born without a ready-made ‘world’ to inhabit. It is one’s society, one’s culture and language that progressively construct a world for one to live in. The world constructed for me was a late twentieth-century, white, lower middle class, southern American, Anabaptist world. In that world, the Bible was the supreme textual authority of our religious lives. It posed the right questions and provided the right answers. It set the horizons of our experience, the lines of our belief, and the limits to our behavior. We read it, studied it, memorized it, recited it, preached from it, and posted it on our walls. It was the one and only ‘Word of God’, a letter and life-manual written to humanity directly from God Himself (even if dictated through human scribes). Paradoxically, Jesus Christ was also God’s Word in the world I’m describing. He was the ‘word made flesh’.
The conflation of a book and a body as both ‘God’s Word’ induced us to think of the Bible as a living text whose personality was that of Jesus and to think of Jesus as a human book whose message was everything the Bible says. To add to this (con)fusion of concepts and experiences, the community of believers (the Church) became the site where the living text (Bible) and human book (Jesus) co-created the ongoing Body of Christ in the present. The world my mini Mennonite society made for us was a beautifully integrated, seamless whole in which we could find belonging, purpose, and identity.
Although I had been exposed to other ‘worlds’, it wasn’t until I went to seminary that the very foundations of my own world were shaken to the core. During the first six months we were in Dallas, we had a hard time finding a local church to be a part of. We visited many but felt uncomfortable in them. Not being a member of a living communal organism fed by Scripture and the Spirit of Jesus deprived me of my ‘daily bread’: the ongoing sustenance fed by the recipes of Scriptures and the leaven of the Gospel. In my classes we studied Greek and Hebrew, church history, biblical theology, philosophical theology, biblical anthropology, and other wonderfully fascinating topics. But this was a bit like digging deeper and deeper into bread recipes to quell your hunger for bread. As for the leaven, there was a joke going around the school that “the only reputable religious person not at the seminary was Jesus himself.” I took the meaning of the joke to be that while so many prominent evangelical scholars and personages were associated with the seminary, the overall spirit of the school was one of prestige, competition and comparison, dogmatism, elitism, wealth, success, etc. – seemingly unchristlike values.
The organic unity of my world based in three bodies – Bible, Jesus, Church – started to disintegrate. A good spell – a ‘Godspell’ or ‘Gospel’ – had been cast over my life to create an existential bubble in which to grow up, find my wings, and fly. I may have thought that spell was unbreakable and that bubble unpoppable. But they weren’t. The spell is maintained by belief in the divinity of these three bodies: Bible, Jesus, Church. While I was studying in Dallas, I came to doubt the inerrancy or infallibility of the biblical writings and authors. Along with this, I wasn’t experiencing love in a way I recognized from other Christians either at the school or in the churches we visited (eventually we settled into a very loving church community!). The intellectual unsafety I felt at seminary (due to dogmatism and theological policing), and the social insecurity I felt at church (due to feeling unknown and unwanted) undermined the confidence I had in my relationship to Jesus in my own heart and mind. Reeling from all this, I tried to reach out to people for solace and support but felt let down each time. The people I reached out to were disturbed by my questions and proffered pat answers. A professor dismissed me from his office. A pastor mocked me on his blog. A family member corrected me. I didn’t know where else to turn, so I mostly stopped turning to anyone.
I’ve often said that my experience in seminary was a perfect storm for losing one’s religion. The three pillars of my religion- Bible, Jesus, Church – were all broken. My reading in linguistics, philosophy, theology, cognitive science, phenomenology, and anthropology convinced me that no book – the Bible not excepted- was ‘divine’ or immune from errors. My interaction with different kinds of Christians convinced me that inclusive and unconditional love for outsiders wasn’t their organizing principle. And my evaporating sense of an Other to relate to internally (through prayer) and externally (through praise) convinced me that whoever Jesus/God were, they weren’t who I had always thought they were.
In 2006 my religion died and was buried in the cemenery.
Requiesce in pace!