IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Grew Up In A Fundamentalist Church

Why can’t I watch Teletubbies? BECAUSE JERRY FALWELL SAYS YOU CAN’T.
Publish date:
December 18, 2013
religion, fundamentalist

Ah, summer camp. A joyous time of making macramé friendship bracelets, playing capture-the-flag, and learning about how a lady must always wear knee-length jean shorts over her one-piece bathing suit in order to avert the ubiquitous Male Gaze. (Because who could blame those fifth-grade boys for lusting after my bespectacled and permed self?)

If you weren’t similarly encouraged to attend a fundamentalist Bible retreat during your childhood, then this just got a little embarrassing. If you were, I will not only recommend a therapist but also assure you that we’re in good fellowship.

“Fundies,” as we’ve been (not-so-affectionately) nicknamed, are popping up all over the news. Along with the ever-exasperating likes of Michele Bachmann and Mark Driscoll, I am all too familiar with the judge-y and hurtful rhetoric that spills out of the pulpits of too many megachurches every Sunday.

I not only attended a fundamentalist summer camp, but also spent my entire childhood in a fundamentalist church that -- on a scale of hymn-singing to holy-rolling -- was a full-on Bible-thumping, altar-calling, tongues-speaking crazy-fest.

To say that being a member of a fundamentalist church is a bit of a rough ride is kind of like saying that Judas was only a bit wrong to betray Jesus. My coming-of-age experience with fundamentalism, which was fraught with dysfunction, can pretty much be summed up in the following:

Why can’t I watch Teletubbies? BECAUSE JERRY FALWELL SAYS YOU CAN’T.

I’ve been reading some Judy Blume books and I have a lot of questions. NO YOU DON’T.

I’d like to go to an ’N SYNC concert. TRY A NEWSBOYS CD INSTEAD.

I am considering attending an Ivy League university. WE WILL PRAY FOR YOUR SALVATION.

Although my fundamentalist upbringing gave me some major doubts about voluntarily choosing to be in a religious environment, I ended up enrolling in an interdenominational (and mostly normal) Christian liberal arts college that seeks to reconcile Christianity with the academy.

Disenchanted with what I came to view as the overly-literal doctrines of my fundamentalist church and intrigued by the different worship styles of my classmates and professors, I began trying out Mennonite and Reformed churches before taking a more radical departure by settling down in an Anglican congregation.

Contrary to the fears of my fundamentalist brethren, my college experience did not destroy my faith but served to demonstrate its compatibility with the informed and thoughtful life I wanted to lead.

I have now spent six years away from my fellow fundies, and after a brief hiatus from church after college I am once again longing to be back in the pews. While I am in no sense nostalgic for the youth-grouping, mission-tripping, Harry Potter-banning days of my youth, I am looking to join a community of believers who don’t place faith and reason at odds, but who are willing to grapple with the tension that comes from the gray areas of belief.

Interestingly enough, this pursuit of an intellectual faith has led me to the Roman Catholic Church -- an admittedly strange (if not heretical) place for a fundamentalist has-been.

For an organization that doesn’t have the most amazing track record with Protestants or women, to put it mildly, the Roman Catholic Church does have a pretty robust theology that appeals to me intellectually and emotionally. With its focus on both scripture and tradition, Catholicism also provides a historical basis for Christian belief and practice that my fundamentalist church could not.

While I’m not yet ready to cast my lot (so to speak) with the Roman Catholic Church due to more than a few of its stances I find problematic, I am willing to navigate this resurgence of religious devotion within an orthodox Christian framework that I and millions of others find compelling.

But the question remains: Why, after so many years away from the craziness that characterizes much of Christian fundamentalism, do I find myself wanting to read the Bible and pray the Rosary and connect with a church in a time when an increasing number of Americans are religiously unaffiliated? Maybe it’s the fact that as much as I want to deny it, nurture has a powerful hold on me. Or, what I believe is more likely, it’s the realization that while I can’t go to church and expect to avoid life’s ugliness, I want to go back because it’s the place where I’ve learned how to deal with it.

In spite of its legalism and hypocrisy and judgment and very questionable science, Christian fundamentalism instilled in me the desire to better understand the nature of God and faith -- ideas I’m now exploring in a different Christian context.

However, my reentry into the fold is a cautious one, filled with fears of getting hurt again by people who profess to love their neighbors and anxiety about swapping one kind of crazy for another.

But here I am, six years removed from my fundamentalist upbringing and still wanting some religion in my life. And I’m okay with that.