Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

HTLG: Objection #5: "You Were Never Really a Christian"

I've decided I don't yet need to finish the evolution chapter of How to Love God Without Being a Jerk before I send off the book proposal. I do, however, need to finish the chapter about the five big objections. So here's #5. #2 is here. #3 is here. And in the final version, they now wind up being #3 and #4, respectively. I'm going to write #1 and #2 next, and then--after a bit of editing--I hope to send this damn thing off, finally! (And then--sigh--look for a job in real diehard earnest.) So here it is:

Objection #5: “You were never really a Christian.”

This isn’t really an objection so much as a very common accusation, and it comes only from conservative Christians. This is for an obvious reason: my background and bona fides would satisfy anyone who approached the question neutrally. After I converted at age eight, everyone knew I was a Christian, and anyone who knew me then will attest to it; I went to church three times a week; I was a Bible study leader; I majored in religious studies; I practiced apologetics and tried to witness to people and convert them to the faith; and—not insignificantly—I was a virgin until I was 29. Nonreligious people don’t do that. Even religious people rarely have the strength of character to hold out for that ideal.

Suggesting that I was “never really a Christian” is therefore such a seemingly ridiculous assertion that if you knew that I get this accusation a lot, you might think, “I wonder if there’s something more behind that question than the accusers are letting on?” You might wonder if my conservative accusers might have an agenda that involves not paying attention to the facts of my life. And you’d be right.

See it from the perspective of the believer: Christianity is the answer to everything. It is not only the answer; it is, in fact, the only answer in a world that’s simply brimming with lies. The Christian has felt it for themself. [FOOTNOTE: I like this word. Not only is it nicely gender neutral, but it’s going to give uptight grammarians headaches that they richly deserve.] They have searched, found the answer, and have seen nothing to better it. So what am I saying—that there’s something better? Do I think I’m smarter than folks like C. S. Lewis? Anyone (i.e., me) suggesting something so outlandish must either be absolutely evil (why attack a religion that only wants to help people be good?), or (if I seem nice) must not have understood Christianity properly. We have gone back to Rule Number One again: either I’m evil, or I must be an idiot. [NOTE: For newcomers, when I establish the ground rules for this discussion, Rule Number One for both atheists and believers is "If You Dismiss Your Opponent as an Idiot or an Immoral Monster, Then You're Being a Jackass This Very Second."]

If you have felt any temptation to accuse me of this, I would like to point out, as directly but regretfully as I can, that this makes you an unfeeling jerk. And I think I can prove it.

Consider this: pretend that someone you know and love has just gotten a divorce. Anyone who has been through it, or knows someone who has, knows perfectly well that it’s an awful thing to have happen. While it’s fashionable for moralists to decry our age of alleged “quickie divorces,” in actual practice I’ve never known any decent person who got married in earnest good faith to contemplate divorce as anything less than an agonizing last resort—one that leaves real scars. [FOOTNOTE: By “decent,” I mean both morally grounded and halfway sensible. I’m not saying that famous quickie divorcers like Pamela Anderson, Carmen Electra, Mickey Rooney and Elizabeth Taylor are somehow not morally good people. I am, however, suggesting that they lack a normal measure of common sense. Even here, though, I can be nice: it must be hard to know if love is real in a world where you’re not only surrounded by other actors (who are very good at putting on shows), but in a place where you’re surrounded on all sides by an entourage of flunkies, agents, flatterers, and other people who simply lie to you all day long, every single day. In any event, pointing to Larry King and saying, “See! This is a world of quickie divorces!” is missing an important point: Mr. King isn’t like most normal people. So ignoring what I’m saying about normal divorce by invoking Larry King is like objecting to the statement that “most people find bicycle racing difficult” by saying, “That’s not true! Lance Armstrong does it all the time!” Larry King is the Lance Armstrong of divorce. My basic point still stands.]

So your friend is facing a divorce, and she says that she really has tried everything: talking, counseling, patience, understanding. And although a divorce will cause suffering, it’ll cause less pain in the long term than staying together. (I’m asking you to imagine this, but of course, most people hardly need to imagine this; anyone of a particular age has actually had this conversation and can remember what it’s like.) This friend of yours is a relatively recent addition to your social circle, so you weren’t really around for the whole story; you only have her word to go on. But her pain is obvious, and her stories don’t sound particularly far-fetched. What would you say?

The worst possible thing to say would probably be something like, “I bet you don’t understand marriage. In fact, I know for a fact that you’re just being selfish or lazy or ignorant. No one who was really married would ever want out.” At that point, you’ve stopped listening to the person you claim to be friends with, and are standing in judgment over her, and you’re assuming that, in the midst of her suffering, she’s self-deluded and actually lying to you, and you’re making this assessment without actually knowing any of the facts. That’s a textbook description of an asshole. Surely anyone can see that.

I had a very similar experience with evangelicalism. Most people who fall away do it in college--and usually when they enter, long before they graduate. I stuck it out for almost ten more years than that, and it was not an easy path to follow. I was more committed than normal, more religiously sensitive than normal, and I was truly planning on a career where I could change the lives of people for the better. (In that last respect, I haven’t much changed.) It was an agonizing experience—and as you’ll see in a few stories in later chapters, the strain sometimes risked driving me crazy—and anyone who tells me, in essence, “Well, you really just didn’t pray hard enough because you just wanted to be selfish and sinful” is an rank ignoramus of such low character that I confess I often just want to kick them in the teeth, since they obviously won’t listen to reason. Diehards like that are beyond reaching anyway; they’re happy to be assholes, and I urge all of them to put the book down and let it trouble them no longer. [FOOTNOTE: Fortunately, such people are rather few in number, though they seem to run a disproportionate number of radio talk shows.]

I am, however, interested in reaching people who say, “You were never a Christian” not because they really feel they know this, but because they sort of derive it logically because they don’t have any other conceptual options. That person I can talk to.

To a certain type of Christian, the Bible seems obviously good, and evangelical Christians themselves, as people who care deeply about the moral direction of their lives, are obviously (often visibly) more ethical than the non-evangelical people around them (at least by the evangelical standards of not swearing overmuch, not sleeping around, etc.). The evangelical world view also seems, to them, at least 90% compatible with the modern world of science and technology, without any particularly jarring problems that need to be addressed right away. So anyone like me who would write a book like this must be either doing so out of anger (to revenge himself against some Christian leader who behaved in an unchristian manner) or out of genuine wrong-headedness or lack of understanding. Christianity is goodness; saying that Christianity, qua Christianity, could ever be wrong is simply unthinkable. I must be flawed, either in the heart or the head, to have left this life of joyful meaning and salvation.

Happily, I can offer a third alternative. I offer this because I can understand the resistance. To a Christian who is truly devout, the existence of someone who left the church is, to some extent, an actual threat that must be dismissed somehow. After all, if someone tried Christianity and found it wanting, and if this person is sensible and accurate in their assessment, then Christianity really is wanting, and my beliefs are in trouble! That obviously can’t be the case, because I, the Christian, have done the same work and found everything fine! Therefore that apostate guy (me) must be deeply, deeply flawed, even if his book sounds more or less sensible on the surface.

Here’s my third alternative: Although I hope to eventually show that, not Christianity, but certain parts of evangelical Christianity, are in fact flawed and need fixing, in the meantime I have another option for you. Pretend not that I’m an idiot, not that I’m a monster, but that I’m looking too hard at the wrong things. I’m obsessed and I’ve pointed my gaze slightly off plumb. I’m no longer a Christian, you can think, not because I’m evil and I wanted to live the high life, but because I became—for understandable but, say, ultimately trivial reasons—unusually loose in my approach to scripture, and at the same time unusually demanding of the answers to questions about the role of women, the existence of hell, homosexuality, evolution, the problem of evil, and all the other handful of things that are covered in these pages. I like to think that if you can see me as someone who’s trying to get better answers to these questions than evangelicals usually offer, maybe then—even if you think I’m just focusing on the wrong things—my observations, like the observations of many obsessives, might turn out to be sort of understandable, and helpful to the non-obsessives who temporarily adopt the writer’s position. And with that truce called, we can move forward together as I make my first points.


Blogger that atheist guy said...

"I was a virgin until I was 29."

Impressive. But didn't you... you know. I mean, were you a "master of your domain"? If so then I am beyond impressed.

Interesting topic. I've heard this objection a few times and this is how I understand it: The Christian believes that Jesus literally, yes the proper use of "literally", changes your heart. This change is a supernatural event, like transmuting lead into gold. It can't be undone. So they can't believe a "true" Christian could ever deconvert. It's an impossible event from their perspective. Ergo, you the deconverted must have been deluded at the time.

2/14/2008 10:00 PM  
Blogger TeaBag said...

Hi! As an Episcopalian, I hear this all the time, that I'm not really a Christian, from other parts of the Anglican Communion. There's a lot to it, of course, but the thing that I find hardest is that I can say the Nicene Creed without flinching, I can worship regularly, read the Bible and gain meaning from it, and STILL I have abandoned the faith because experience has led me to believe that homosexuality is not disordered.

Actually, I'd love some advice on engaging in that conversation so that it's not "Am too!" "Are not!" "Am too!"

2/15/2008 11:17 AM  
Blogger Kris the Girl said...

I am involved with a small group of friends who are all "born again," Bible-totin' Christians...who observe Sabbath, don't eat pork, and celebrate/observe what are traditionally considered Jewish holidays.

Several of these people were excommunicated from their non-denominational church because they refused to "repent" of these things - these things in the Bible.

This judgement that has been levied against you is definitely not limited to people outside the church, and I'm glad you've addressed that.
Rest assured that there is at least one crazy religious zealot (...that would be me) who believes you were a Christian...and that you could walk away from it. This doesn't really affect my own beliefs, except to roll my eyes at how much flack you've been given over the years (as expressed in this blog. I know I don't actually know you.) :)

2/15/2008 1:59 PM  

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