4 June 2014: In 2006, I wrote a series of blog posts called “Learning to Be Lost: The Broadmoor Story.” I didn’t publish them. I was reminded of them recently as I looked back through an email exchange with writer and preacher Gordon Atkinson, who encouraged me to publish them way back in 2006. So, eight years later:
Learning to be Lost: The Broadmoor Story
Part I: Mark the Christian
“But I don’t need to listen to what you have to say – I know I’m right.”
I was having an online conversation with my friend Teresa, attempting to explain my doubts about Christianity, when she said it. I signed off without saying anything and closed the computer, stunned. At that moment, I realized that with most of the people I called my friends, I now had little in common.
My family and I began going to Broadmoor Baptist Church in 1997, the end of my seventh grade year. It began when my brother, disaffected with our parents’ Catholic church, was saved/converted (he would now agree that these are both questionable designations) at a Broadmoor summer camp. The beginning of my Christian walk began shortly thereafter, and my sister followed in turn. Both of my parents (Mom a lifelong Catholic and Dad a convert from another Southern Baptist church) decided that going to church together was more important than which church we chose.
I jumped in headlong. Bible studies, choir practice, evangelism classes, the whole bit. My friend Luke moved to Shreveport and to Broadmoor around the same time. By freshman year of high school, he and I had become best friends, the leaders of the youth group, and had gathered around us a group of friends that would be our rocks through the next four years.
For those four years, the Christian gospel would serve as the center of my worldview, and the lens through which I understood and ordered the rest of my world. I would stop dating non-Christian girls and listening to non-Christian music. I quit lacrosse, fully believing that God had led me to do so. I spent an hour every morning reading Scripture and praying, what evangelical Christians call “quiet time.” Luke and I would spend Friday and Saturday nights reading through my dad’s copy of Hard Sayings of the Bible, a doorstop of a book that tackled issues from creationism to Calvinism. I prayed and fasted and spoke in tongues and knocked on doors to spread the gospel. At school I would come to be known as “Mark the Christian,” a phrase of varying admiration and ridicule. Mine was an intensely personal – and intensely public – faith.
I invited myself to join a worship band our new middle school minister was assembling. When the local medical student who had been our leader pulled out, I angled for leadership of “Fourth Watch,” a band name we had chosen in reference to a story in the gospel of Matthew. In the story, Jesus had appeared to save his disciples from a storm during the fourth watch of the Roman night, the witching hour. Just as he did to the disciples, we told our audiences, Jesus would appear to us in what seemed the darkest hour.
With an increasingly absent high school minister, Fourth Watch and I became more and more responsible for the planning of the weekly youth group meetings that grew fivefold to about 125 students. Fourth Watch was everywhere: we practiced three times a week, played at a few local churches, and recorded a CD. Many of us also continued to involve ourselves in other church activities, including summer camps, children’s camps, Sunday morning solo performances, youth choir, bible studies and accountability groups. My books, my music, my t-shirts, my jewelry, my guitar-playing, my goals and dreams and name – all had the same adjective before them, all the time: Christian.
Part II: Learning to be Lost
I had always been one to ask questions. Luke and I went round and round about hard biblical issues, and I had two atheist friends with whom I constantly argued about Christianity. After a brief period of doubt early sophomore year, I encountered and absorbed a strain of evangelical writing called apologetics, which purports to be a logical defense of Christianity. But as high school wore on, my questions became more focused on others (“Who needs to be ministered to today?”) rather than cosmic ones (Could God make a four-sided triangle?”).
The summer after graduation, however, brought the winding down of my youth group responsibilities. Younger leaders emerged, and my friend Ryan assumed command of the band. I began to look forward to college and for the first time had the time and space to examine my own faith on my own terms.
The unraveling began with a simple question, posed by another friend of mine, Emily. Emily and I had a discussion early in the summer about the nature of prayer: as Christians, she argued, we should have more fear and awe of God than we do. I disagreed – mine was more the Buddy Jesus than the flaming-sword, spit-you-out-of-my-mouth Jesus.
The more I considered the topic, however, the more I found biblical justification for Emily’s position. How could I have assumed a level of unflinching friendliness with the Creator of the Universe? Who did I think I was talking to?
Then, unexpectedly, the question shifted. Who had I been talking to? What was this “personal relationship” that I heard and spoke about, and who was the God I was suppose to have it with? The more I read and questioned, the more mysterious the Big Guy became and less convinced I was about the reality of my personal relationship with him.
I turned to the Bible, which I had been told (and had told others) held the answers the all of my inquiries. But the Bible read differently this time around; without my personal relationship with God to support claims of biblical inerrancy, the Good Book failed to measure up. Why had my church always ignored some passages in both the Old and New Testaments? Did the Bible really condone and sometimes laud genocide? Who decided which books should be included, and which ones omitted? And were my non-Christian (and non-evangelical) friends really hell-bound?
And with that, the first two pillars of my faith – my personal relationship with Christ and my trust in the Bible – crumbled. I had one only one more – the church.
But something had gone wrong as I went about asking these questions. At first, ministers and friends welcomed my pursuit; a stronger and more informed faith would result, right? But as I kept pushing past the Sunday school answers, people starting squirming. Their squirming became impatience and then turned to anger. Wouldn’t I leave well enough alone?
It was less than six weeks later that Luke, one of the few with whom I was able to speak freely, asked, “Mark, would you even say that you are a Christian anymore?” I balked, but could come up with no definition by which I could say respond affirmatively. I was no longer certain that Jesus was my personal Lord and Savior which, according to the Southern Baptist understanding, was the line of demarcation.
I have since come to understand that the Southern Baptist definition of a Christian is in fact a Southern Baptist one – other denominations and faiths define the term as they please. But I knew one definition and had been taught that it alone had a biblical foundation. And by that definition, I was now an outsider. An unbeliever. Lost.
At first, I hesitated to broadcast my new status. I feared the reactions of those around me, much as I imagine my gay friends fear reactions to the revealing of their orientation. My fears of rejection proved justified: the widening gulf between my friends’ beliefs and my lack thereof ripped friendships to shreds – particularly friendships with adults and with girls my age. My guy friends continued just about as they had: we still talked too much about sex, fart jokes never got old, and my lack of wrestling and video game skills remained the biggest divider between me and the majority of the group.
At Broadmoor, however, I morphed in two months from a leader into a liability, from an example into a pariah. Conversations like the one with my friend Teresa, from which I inferred that I had nothing to offer anymore, embittered me. I turned inward, shutting out anyone whose negative reaction might sting; in the process hurting many that genuinely cared about me.
Part III: Wandering in the Wilderness
Over the course of little more than a month, I successfully deconstructed my entire worldview. More accurately, that worldview collapsed in on itself. I had fit every experience, every relationship, every piece of information into the framework of evangelical Christianity. When I dug at the sandy foundations of that framework, the entire structure went.
Then came college. Every assumption I had clamored for reexamination. My relationships suffered, because I did not know how to talk with people. In high school, the world had been divided into “Believer” and “un-Believer.” The collapse of that easy dualism had now left me unwilling to engage the former and ill equipped to relate to the latter.
Slowly, I began to put my world back together. As I can see, there were two parts to that process: the first, 1) reorienting myself in the absence of an evangelical Christian worldview, and 2) letting go of the bitterness I felt from the treatment I had received – and occasionally still do receive – from evangelicals. The first took the better part of freshman year; the second, much longer.
I began taking religious studies courses at Vanderbilt. They offered a place to study Christianity without the nervousness I felt anytime I walked into a church. In fact, many of my classmates and professors encouraged me to continue searching, doubting, and questioning. Some, I would imagine, did so because of their own biases against conservative Christianity. The majority, however, simply appreciated my own need to wrestle with the hard questions, even if it meant walking away with a limp.
What I did walk away with were heavy doses of classic liberalism and existentialism, a tension I continue to carry. The expression of that tension came, for the first time, during a trip I took to work with street kids in Peru. I fell in love with a group of boys who had found refuge at an orphanage in the center of Lima and came back from the trip bitter, hurt and confused. I simply could not comprehend the hopelessness of the lives these boys were leading – and cannot agree with any theology that brushes over, minimizes, or otherwise explains away their suffering.
Getting to know these boys sent me into a tailspin that I would later learn to describe as “existential” –a philosophy that for many of its adherents holds up randomness and meaninglessness as the fundamental nature of the universe. If suffering like this existed, that precluded the possibility of the world having been ordered by any sort of force driven by love and compassion. Didn’t it?
It was a logical conclusion, however, that I refused to accept. No matter the arguments I mustered, my heart would not recognize the ultimate nihilistic conclusion of some existentialists: that there is nothing to be done. That refusal, the optimism that people define as “liberalism,” drives me to do the work that I will do for the rest of my life: seeking out people suffering under oppression and poverty, and liberating them from both.
In this way, with this work, I have been able to meet for myself the deep spiritual yearnings of all people: purpose and hope. There will never be, unfortunately, an end to suffering and injustice. But we can always – must always – choose to believe that our actions can make the world a more just and less painful place.
I have only begun to reconstruct a worldview for myself, and by no means feel as if I have arrived at all the answers. In fact, I now place far less on having the right answers, thanks to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a book I picked up at the end of freshman year. It is a basic beatnik novel from the sixties – a sort of Jack Kerouac On the Road journey of self-discovery. What that book taught me (in addition to how to justify skipping important classes in order to go rope-swinging into the Harpeth River) was how pay more attention to a journey than to its destination. From road trips to mountain climbing to relationships, you often find the good stuff on the way and in the process, rather than once you arrive at somewhere.
If becoming comfortable in my own non-Christian skin took some doing, getting past the bitterness I felt toward Christians was twice the task. I had been burned, badly, and continued to be. Christian acquaintances told me point-blank that my thoughts on Christianity were not “Spirit-led” and were therefore irrelevant. Old girlfriends refused to date me because of my non-Christian status. I stayed a constant outsider to a group of guys in my sophomore dorm because my conversion potential was minimal.
But in the midst of this, I found other Christians – most of whom would be discounted by evangelical standards – that demonstrated to me love and community. My brother, who introduced me to the blog of an online preacher who was more pissed off at most Christians than I was. A Catholic priest and friend of the family, who delighted in the candor of my questions. A believing girlfriend whose love healed my deep-seated fear that relationships with Christians would be impossible. A campus minister/drinking buddy who called himself a “recovering fundamentalist.” A small church in one of Nashville’s low-income neighborhoods where I could serve without having to explain my theological commitments. A group of volunteers, of all stripes, who came together in Long Beach, MS to repair the wounds of Hurricane Katrina.
Part IV: The Wide and Winding Road Back to Faith
In high school, my personal faith and scripture formed the foundation of my faith. They were the first to go, followed by my trust in the church. The process of coming back to faith, surprisingly, has thus far taken the same route, but in reverse. Christians like the Catholic priest and my brother and the children’s minister at that run-down Church in Nashville have resurrected my faith in the Church – not as a body of people who are better than others, or even headed to a better eternal abode. Rather, like those first-century Christians, they are a rag-tag group of ne’er-do-wells who – when it all hits the fan – will continue to look after each other with unfailing and divine devotion. A church that recognizes its role as a haven for those who have no sanctuary, and its obligation to be a voice and a liberator for the poor and the oppressed.
Within this paradigm, which holds people at its core rather than ideas or doctrine, the question of scriptural allegiance becomes less important. Academics of religion call this orthopraxis, in contrast to orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the establishment of right doctrine, which leads to right practice. Othorpraxis works the other way round: you begin with the injunction to love your neighbor and then figure out the rest as you go (Cf. Micah 6:8). Scripture becomes a guidepost – maybe the most important of guideposts for Christians, but not the only one, and certainly not an inerrant one.
The last piece of the three steps, my own personal spirituality, I have left open for the time being. I feel no particular pressure to get it sorted: not only am I comfortable wandering, but I have a hunch that though spirituality must necessarily be rooted in community, it must stem from personal experience – the sort of personal experience that is impossible to force or anticipate. Until then, I am happy to wander.
The 2006 version of this particular post:
6 Nov 2006:
Occasionally, though less often with the passing of years, I still hear people ask, What happened to Mark?
Generally, this refers not to my rather nomadic nature, but to the transformation I went through just after high school. After having been heavily involved and invested in a Southern Baptist church in my hometown called Broadmoor, my worldview turned upside down, and I haven’t been inside the place since without squirming a little bit.
I have finally taken the time to write that story, a story that is close enough for me to write it with emotion but distant enough now that I can do so without any bitterness. I wrote it for myself – much the same way one writes about a past girlfriend or a memorable trip whose details are beginning to get fuzzy around the edges. It is a story worth telling, though; if it is one you’d like to hear, let me know.