Friday, November 02, 2007

Mawwiage and family (phase two)

Jon quit his job at the Vineyard only 18 months after we came to Cincinnati. The reasons are fairly straight forward. His boss, the founding pastor, was asked to step down and he did. Jon worked in this pastor's chief department which became a dead end job quickly as it was no longer directly related to the rest of the church. We saw that Jon's future on the staff was insecure and perhaps even likely to be terminated. So Jon preempted that possible danger and found another job and then quit.

At that time we had to decide if we would stay in exile here in Cincinnati or run home to California's higher housing prices, traffic, the beach, the LA Times and our old church. We decided to stay, against all odds (even giving up Pac-10 sports on TV). We loved living in a house and our kids already loved their friends here.

So we continued to go to the church, even though Jon was no longer on staff. The next year that followed was the one - the most difficult year. My need to keep quiet about my eroding faith to protect Jon's job was gone. At the same time I watched my kids participate in Sunday school classes that curled my straight hair. For instance, Jacob reported that in his class, they played a miracle game. Kids were blindfolded while the teachers gave them things to drink saying, "Jesus turned the water into..." and then the guinea pig would be forced to sip Mountain Dew or grape juice or milk without knowing what it was and then guess what Jesus had turned the water into this week. When they got to Jake, they gave him yogurt on which he gagged. It traumatized him. It horrified me.

I had already gone through my phase of deconstructing the miracles (really thinking about what might have happened, what the stories were meant to convey more than how they could be scientifically proven, etc.). And at that time, I couldn't have told you that I believed in the accounts as "magic" or "miracle." But to have the Wedding at Cana account trivialized to such an extraordinary Nicklelodean degree offended me more than naive literalism. I could not believe that this game was supposed to be some kind of spiritual guidance for kids.

I shared my irritation with Jon who sympathized with me. We were both beginning to tire of the overly "seeker-friendly" orientation of the messages and the mood of the church.

Not long after that, we attended the Easter service. I kid you not—Easter egg hunt and a bunny for the Sunday school crowd. Worse, the pastors formed a faux boy band and performed as the opening act of the church service. That's when I knew I could not attend that church any more.

Never mind whether or not I thought the Bible was the inerrant word of God, whether the resurrection was a spiritual concept or a literal fact, whether people had souls and spent eternity somewhere or were simply endowed with consciences and spirits to be used for good in the here and now. All of these dilemmas paled when held up against the trivializing of faith in the form of pop culture celebration and emulation.

And don't get me wrong. I love pop culture. I watch Seinfeld and Friends reruns every night. I don't mind good speakers referencing pop culture to make points.

Naive literalism (beliefs taught and accepted without theological reflection) combined with a drive to be relevant (which looked like being hip and current, not truly connected to the pulse of what makes society tick) emptied Christianity of its power, meaning and truths. It was as though Christianity had become slogans and cliches around which a community gathered.

So we left. We spent the next six months checking out other churches. I was ready at that time to stop going to church all together. Jon was not. In fact, he was insistent that we continue to go to church somewhere. He shared my disappointment in the Vineyard, but he did not share my theological angst. Hence, church must continue. For the kids. For ourselves.

I don't mean to drag you church by church through that sojourn. I will mention one or two highlights:

--I asked if we could check out the Unitarian Univeralist Church downtown. We did. Jon has a great sense of humor and helped the kids adjust to the "weirdness" of it by coming up with a little catch phrase we could say to each other all day. I forget what it was now, but it helped. Jacob returned from Sunday school to report: "Mom, Dad - there's a witch in this church!" Apparently, one of the kids was from a family who practiced Wicca. Liam and Caitrin's teachers were amazed that they knew Bible stories. "It's rare that any of our children know what the Bible is, let alone the stories in it." Uh, okay. So yeah, that was a bizarre experience, even though the people were lovely.

--We attended another Vineyard up until 9/11. This church had 200 members and not one person said hello twice in the six months we attended. We tried to introduce ourselves, but... didn't go anywhere. I took to reading theology during the sermons when it became clear the pastor didn't know any. Predestination and free will choice littered the same sermons without any awareness of the conflict. The Sunday after 9/11, the pastor led his sermon with, "I'm not going to talk about 9/11. It would be too easy to talk about that event and pray about it and get preoccupied with it. Today, I'm going to give a usual sermon. We don't need to spend time in grief. We need to focus on the Gospel."

That was our last Sunday.

And thus began two years of church at home. Our conflicts over faith were about to begin in earnest.

10 comments:

R. Michael said...

"It was as though Christianity had become slogans and cliches around which a community gathered"

Julie, I like this summation of the evangelical experience. We hang on pithy sayings that are no more imaginative or inspiring than some country music lyrics that I have heard. It never ceases to amaze me that otherwise intelligent people can be motivated by words or ideas that are incongruent or clearly one-sided...but it has also taught me that intelligence only plays a partial role in what motivates us religiously (in our ability to undertstand the basic concepts).

Was wondering if you had done any reading regarding some of the recent research in the psychosocial motivations of religious behavior. I have only read what has be popularized in the lay press but I think some of it is truly fascinating. It makes me question what my own motivations are and how did I go through a "religious" phase only to end up deconstructing the very ideas that I had built my life around.

Bilbo said...

And I thought I was the only one who read books during a sermon...Regarding your pastors comment regarding 9/11, "Today, I'm going to give a usual sermon. We don't need to spend time in grief. We need to focus on the Gospel."....This is just so, so, sad, it makes my heart break...

Dave said...

r. michael, are you familiar with James Fowler's "Stages of Faith" model? You can easily find outlines of the six stages he describes by using your preferred search engine. His theory is fairly straightforward and easy to grasp, and helped me a lot to understand "why" going through the Stage 3 (Synthetic-Conventional) phase was a necessary step along the way for me. You may find it similarly helpful for putting your own spiritual development and changes in context.

Steve said...

Julie:

"I took to reading theology during the sermons when it became clear the pastor didn't know any."

I have done that before.

And...

"The Sunday after 9/11, the pastor led his sermon with, "I'm not going to talk about 9/11. It would be too easy to talk about that event and pray about it and get preoccupied with it. Today, I'm going to give a usual sermon. We don't need to spend time in grief. We need to focus on the Gospel."

I could scream. I am sorry. You have really been through it....

Thanks again for all your thoughts, musings, and good heart.

mariam said...

Wow, when reading your descriptions of the churches you attended, I kept thinking thinking that I don't thank God often enough for the church I was led to. I will be in my church tomorrow with more humility and gratitude.

julieunplugged said...

FTR: We have attended loads of churches outside the Vineyard over the years. I went to very conservative churches in college (Presbyterian as well as non-denom evangelical). We had our pre-marrieds at Church on the Way (Pentecostal). We were married at Mt. Soledad Pres. in San Diego where I attended when not at college and so on.

I only shared here those sort of defining moments that made me leave (not what kept me in church for all those years). I especially appreciated the community support of church, the meals after my babies, the help in parenting, the support in learning to be married, the shared work to help our community's poor (Vineyard is *very* good at this), the space to receive care, prayer and comfort when struggling emotionally and so on.

It's since deconstructing that I've found myself rethinking church and what it is and what it should be in my life (if anything). To commit to a local congregation and all that entails again would require me to feel energized and excited to do it (not a tuition I pay with my seat in a pew each week just to get the benefits of church community). I'm not there yet. I wonder if I will be again.

Rick said...

Julie,

I always love reading your posts and articles. Thank you for sharing your story.

I suspect there are many, many more who, like you, who have been left with the bitter taste in their mouth... like yogurt.

Ever miss California? I do... :)

julieunplugged said...

I miss California most days. :) But I'm content to be in Cincinnati now.

Lacey said...

"To commit to a local congregation and all that entails again would require me to feel energized and excited to do it (not a tuition I pay with my seat in a pew each week just to get the benefits of church community). I'm not there yet. I wonder if I will be again."

yup. i am right there with you.
sometimes i wonder what life would be like if i was able to just pretend and go back the way things were for so long. but i know that isn't the answer. i just wish i knew WHY i felt so uncomfortable going to church. i still think there is a body of believers that i am atleast abstractly connected to... i just don't know if i will ever feel any desire to be a part of a "local" gathering again. sometimes i can't help but wonder if i have it all wrong... the journey continues :)

Mike Ogden said...

Your post makes me feel like apologizing to you for what the "church" has done to you. But then I'm reminded it's done the same thing to me. Maybe we should all apologize to each other and start over with informal, intentional relationships. That's the best I can come up with at this point and I sense there are others of you struggling with the same thing. Thanks to all of you for sharing.