At my former church, one of the elderly ladies approached me and asked if I would help her lead an upcoming Bible study for the high schoolers, which consisted of three young women. She had pre-selected two books. The one that I was given an opportunity to look at was based on the autobiography of it’s author and held many ocean metaphors. Considering that all of us lived in a land-locked state and the odds were not good that any of us had even seen the ocean in the last fifteen or twenty years, I did not recommend the book. The next week, I asked about looking at the other book. She told me that she had already rejected it because it was ‘too deep.’ I might have mentioned that something deep might just be what is needed. On the way out, I happened to pass by the high schoolers. I didn’t even know their names. But the look on their faces … it was blank. They were here because they had no choice, but they didn’t care about anything remotely connected to this church. It was just then realized how much more I had known about the Bible by the time I was their age than they did.
My grandparents’ church borrowed the VBS concept and turned it into a weekly program throughout the school year – crafts, music, a lesson, a game, and a dinner were all a part of it. Older students get to opt for an alternative – a Bob Ross style painting class. The church also offered a Sunday School and Sunday Evening class. We still did VBS every summer. Little by little, they taught me a lot. The order of the books in the Old Testament and the order of the books in the New Testament, the basics of Christian theology, and a fair amount of the specifics of that particular denomination’s theology. All of this by the time I was half-way through middle school.
By the time I was in high school, I was in another church and in another denomination. Building on what I had learned, there were more advanced teachings in store for me. We did numerous Lifeway Bible Studies. The last few years, I helped run VBS as an assistant to the adults. When I graduated, I understood concepts like propitiation, atonement, reconciliation, evangelism, justification, sanctification, glorification, salvation, holiness, incarnation, inerrancy, infallibility, intercession, omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience, ordinance, predestination, indwelling, redemption, regeneration, and repentance. I had also read the Bible on my own from cover to cover at least twice.
I was so thoroughly educated about these things that for a very long time I continued to believe them just as they were taught. The proof of that is in this blog. Reading back on the first few years I realized that my words were those of my pastors, my Sunday school teachers, and my youth group teachers over the years. In all the ways that mattered, I was the epitome of perfection as a child who was born as a christian and raised as a Southern Baptist. In other words, I was thoroughly inculcated (instilled an idea by persistent instruction) and indoctrinated (taught to accept a set of beliefs without question.) This meant that I really knew my Bible. It also backfired in a big way, as evidenced by the last few years of posts. My own words have emerged and they are in many things the opposite of what I was first taught.
I think back and I wonder, “Just how many of the other boys and girls who learned what I did really weren’t into it?” “Which of them grew up to reject everything?” “Was it right for us to have been taught these things in this way in the first place?” The more I think about it, I really wish there was a lot more openness. “As Southern Baptists, we teach x, but Methodists teach y and Lutherans teach z.” “This can be interpreted to mean a or b or c.” “Decide for yourself if that sounds right. Do a little research and come up with your own answers.” “It’s okay to not have a particular belief at all about any of these things.” It should have been more important to have our hearts in the right place than to have all of the right answers or the right doctrine just so.
This is not to say ‘I believe because it’s all I’ve ever been taught’ but ‘I believe in spite of what I was taught.’ I have the feeling that I was meant to be a believer no matter what church I grew up in or what denomination I was a part of and I also think that having been put through all of that made me who I am now.
I did live in tension – about being the best Southern Baptist I could and believing exactly as I was supposed to. Now as a non-denominationalist, I live in less tension. But a small amount still exists because my beliefs are not what I had learned was right when I was little. It used to be comforting to believe exactly as I should and know that all of us cannot be wrong. It’s another thing to realize that it’s quite possible to believe the same thing as everyone else and be totally wrong; as most probably was the case in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Having experience also sets me at odds – it’s one thing to learn what I’m supposed to do when I grow up, but it’s another to be grown up and realize that it’s not that easy. It’s not that black and white or cut and dried. It also makes me wonder what other things they taught me aren’t quite right. More often than I’d like, I worry because I’m watching the Southern Baptists from a distance and I feel like they don’t hear me shouting why they lost me and why they’re losing others who are in many ways very much like me.