The thing about the particular person that I started dating right after high school is that I didn’t like her that much. It was one of those, “Well, I guess this is the best I can do,” sort of things. Before you go feeling bad for her, I feel I should point out that she was someone who repeatedly and egregiously used men.
We were together for nine-ish rocky months. It ended when I tried to break up with her but she acted like she didn’t want to break up and then went out and messed around with two other guys, one of whom was a friend who she told that we had broken up.
For at least seven of the next nine years I heard from her every spring. The last time came after the aforementioned friend’s wedding, when he invited her and I asked him what the hell was wrong with his brain. Eight months later I got an email from her asking why I hated her. I responded, which was probably dumb. I was honest, though. I told her that I didn’t hate her because that required me to care and I really, really didn’t.
She then attempted to inform me that no one knew me or could possibly know me better than her. Which, y’know, was weird, since we hadn’t had more than two or three civil conversations in nearly a decade at that point. She didn’t know me at all anymore. But she still tried to tell me that no one knew me better than her.
That’s a play that might have worked on me at one point.
I’m forced to admit that there’s a stretch in my life where it was really easy to manipulate me. There weren’t really any girls putting their claws into me at the time, though. I was being manipulated by the church.
Okay, the thing with the girl referenced above did overlap with that. But, um, I figured it out.
The thing about Evangelical Christianity is that it’s inherently manipulative. There’s no way around it. They tell you that you have to be a certain way and believe a certain way and if you’re not that way you’re going to be punished. But they have no proof of said punishment. For any other group this would result in laughter and mockery. The fact that Christianity in general and Evangelical Christianity in specific has such power is indicative of the power of its manipulation.
I suppose it’s necessary for me to explain a bit. Sigh. Okay, let’s get to it.
I was desperate for validation before I hit high school. I don’t know when it started, so I’ll just go with “before high school” as a catch-all for, y’know, anytime before 14 or so. I got a lot of my validation from church. Or, depending on how you define things, I got less negative validation from church. That might require a bit of explanation, too.
Church, at least as far as I experienced it, was good at a construction of, “We’ll accept you if…” They were more than happy to want me around. They were more than happy to want me to get involved and do things. They only wanted me around and involved if I behaved in a certain way and that way was a narrow, not really particularly Biblical collection of behaviors and activities, however.
That’s where things get sticky. Evangelical Christianity would have you believe that they’re the sole defenders of a true, Biblical, unconditional love. The love they peddle, however, is as conditional as any love I’ve ever experienced. More than a lot, even.
Before I get too deep into things, though, I think I should point out that I don’t really have a problem with conditional love. I think that all love is, on some level, conditional. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. One of the things about living in the real world is the realization that nothing whatsoever can be truly unconditional, love included.
The problem here is that the love of the Evangelical Christian god is actually more conditional than most sorts of human, earthly love. It’s not even a contest, really. God, according to the Evangelical mindset, is more than willing to revoke his love for infractions as simple as being who you are. That was an unconscionable viewpoint for me.
There are several people in my life who I used to love and who I would do anything I could to help even though I haven’t talked to them in years and even though the reason I haven’t talked to them is because they hurt me. There are other people in my life who I can’t stand but upon whom I wish no ill will. There are even some people who I can’t stand, who have said or done awful things to me, and upon whom I still wish no ill will and who I tend to feel sorry for if I sit down to think about their motivations. As such, the thing I realized with growing horror towards the tail end of my time in Christianity was that I was more loving and more forgiving than the Christian god as taught by Evangelical Christianity.
There’s a reason I took to referring to god as “the Cosmic Jackass.” Part of that is because he was a bigger jackass than me and I freely admit that I’m perfectly capable of being a jackass. If, in the end, my general jackassery stopped short of damning people to hell who didn’t know any better, or people who were just doing their best with a bad hand, or people who did know better but ended up making bad decisions, then where did that leave god?
None of that really helped with my big problem, though. I desperately wanted to be accepted.
Christianity, for all its faults, offered one thing that the various other outlets I had did not: a fairly straightforward path to acceptance and respect. It was fairly easy to start down that path, too. All you had to do was be the sort of person who showed up and helped out. There’s always a shortage of people who want to show up and help out in a church. The other trick is to spend your time studying the Bible and knowing how to say seemingly profound things in Bible study.
I eventually combined those things in such a way that I ended up in leadership positions in church groups. It kind of happened by default most of the time, too. I even spent a brief time at a friend’s church the summer after everything kind of fell apart doing my level-headed best to not be that guy. I still ended up getting pulled in the direction of being that guy.
There was a lot of burnout in the ministries I was involved in. The same group of people tended to be involved in everything and the same group of people tended to be very tired of having to do everything. This is a familiar dynamic for any group where something eventually has to get organized and done.
My need for affirmation and the heady rush of being the guy who was there and handled shit created a vicious feedback cycle. I have to stop here and get back to inherent problem with this whole stretch of self-revelation, however. I don’t think anyone really intentionally manipulated me. I think the problem with any group that has a sufficient need of getting stuff done is that if someone shows up and says, “I want to help!” the people that need help say, “Great, get to it!”
Where the manipulation comes in is the inherently manipulative nature of Evangelical Christianity itself. Every other group in which I’ve involved myself I’ve had the option of saying, “Yeah, I can’t get involved with that. Sorry.” In Evangelical Christianity, however, you’re taught that you’re supposed to spend your every waking hour advancing the kingdom of god. To do otherwise is to risk god’s displeasure.
That’s why I ended up pushing myself well past the breaking point.
Meanwhile, remember that one of my primary beliefs is in the tug of war between empathy and resentment. I chose empathy. I also still have the email string from 2009 floating about and I went back and read it to do my necessary research for this post. Empathy makes it really hard to do that without feeling bad for shutting her down like I did.
That’s one of my points: empathy is a hard choice to make. Resentment is the path of least resistance. It’s easy to hate. It’s a lot less easy to choose to try to understand another’s pain but then still say, “I don’t need that person in my life.”
Seriously, though, it’s hard to read the email string from the past and not feel like I was being a total dick and wanting to email and apologize for something that happened almost four years ago. In an exchange between me and someone I don’t care about. Have I mentioned that choosing empathy as a default is difficult?
I’ve been poorly treated by a lot of people in my life. I can still remember the names of people who bullied me in grade school. I can still remember specific instances. I can also honestly say that if I were responsible for deciding whether any of those people were to be forgiven or tortured for even a minute I’d choose forgiveness every single time.
I mean, I suppose there are extenuating circumstances, like if someone who bullied me grew up to be a child abuser or something. But if I were god and I had the ability to make stuff like that not happen then you know who I’d blame for child abuse? Me. Period.
That was where I met Amy. At the time I pretty much knew that I was damaged goods and couldn’t really handle trying to win her over. Interestingly, my solution to the problem was to go back into my church-leader-guy mode. I literally knew no other way of operating on a level of even minimal confidence.
Now that I put it in those terms it’s blatantly obvious why I spent so much time sitting around and feeling bad about not having Christianity anymore even though I couldn’t be a Christian anymore. I’ve said that Christianity is like an abusive relationship many times. It really is. The reason I stayed in was because when confronted with a situation where I had to dig in and be my best self I had no reserves outside of my identity within Christianity.
That’s not an accident, by the way. Evangelicals are more than happy to tell anyone who’s willing to listen that the only way to succeed is through Jesus.
I’m not really sure how best to present this part of the story. But here goes:
The critical stretch for me in regards to leaving Christianity was my second full year at Western Illinois University. I was on the leadership team for the InterVarsity chapter out there. I was pushing really hard on the personal aspects of my Christianity. I was also trying to succeed academically (which, for the record, I did: 4.0 GPO the fall semester, somewhere in the 3.75 range in the spring). I was also entertaining and confronting serious doubts about stuff for the first time. Furthermore, I was hanging out with charismatics, which brought a lot more of the prophecy and speaking in tongues stuff out.
For someone full of self-doubt, prone to trying way too hard, and already a little too willing to sit around and try to figure out what god’s will for my life was this was a dangerous combination of factors. I spiraled off and basically had an extended nervous breakdown. My primary saving grace in all of it was school. I refused to let the fact that I was an emotional wreck hurt my GPA, so I pushed on through sheer force of will and intellectual arrogance. My secondary saving grace was the people I knew who weren’t the people in the ministry I was working with. Close at hand was a collection of friends of all religious persuasions who were more than happy to just kind of hang out without asking anything of me (which was good, since I was probably a major bag of dicks). Farther afield was my church at home, which was useful for comparison purposes when the group I was working with seemed completely dysfunctional (which, for the record, it was).