None of us are the same person we were as a child of 4 years old, a teen at age 14, a young man at 24, at 44, or at age 84.
As we go through life, our perspectives shift and change. They are colored by our own unique personal experiences, psychology, and beliefs. These constantly changing self images are easily lost in the Here, the Now, the Today.
I think it’s very important to always re-examine who we’ve been in our earlier lives.
Creative Perspectives is a post series where I share some of my own life experiences and a little about how those have effected me, both as a person and as a writer.
In the Beginning…
Every story has a beginning. As beginnings tend to lay the foundation for everything else to come, it only seems appropriate that I start this series with a look at one of the most important influences of my childhood years.
It’s time to go to church.
I promise I won’t be preaching (I’m an agnostic heathen!), but I will take a little trip into the culture of church, and what it meant for me to grow up in that culture as a preacher’s son.
I was born in Amarillo, Texas in August of 1969, the first son of a 21 year old Church of Christ preacher and his 17 year old wife. If you are unfamiliar with the Church of Christ denomination, think of the Little House on the Prairie TV series. If you’ve seen the Ingles family attending church, you’ve pretty much seen a Church of Christ service.
It is a very Old World flavor of Protestantism, with small, patriarchal, family oriented congregations, usually no larger than a half a dozen families attending. Women are not allowed to play any role in the church. Church doctrine does not allow the use of musical instruments as part of worship, and they do not believe in Sunday school. There was no tolerance for straying outside the moral norms of the church.
In short, the Church of Christ is nothing at all like modern day evangelical mega-churches with their slick “worship team” productions, open tolerance of immoral leaders, women preachers, and (gasp!) people dancing in the aisles and raising their hands in worship.
Although I can’t remember there being any direct pressure from my parents on the issue, my earliest memories do include the unstated expectation that I too would grow up to be a preacher. It colored everything I did as a young child.
Everyone around me seemed to know it and expect it, as I was – obviously – the oldest son of a preacher.
Growing up in my father’s house was literally like attending seminary school from a very young age. My dad was an incredible scholar, with a comprehensive understanding of at least five different forms of Greek used to write the New Testament. There were always piles of books laying open on his desk, on the coffee table, and in the floor.
I was taught to study the original language of the scriptures directly, instead of relying on one of the many dozens of Bible translations in popular use.
“Words matter,” my dad would say. “Even a subtle shift in the way one word is used historically can totally change the way modern people comprehend God.”
Words matter, indeed, and not just our written words. Even the words that are unwritten. The ones between the lines.
It is quite possible that our unwritten words matter far more than those we commit to pages, books, or computers.
The Holy Church of Adam’s Navel
Dad had a favorite story to enforce this point. There was a Church of Christ congregation in another part of the state that had been rocked with internal conflict over the potentially sinful nature of a mural painted in their front foyer.
My father, without knowing any of the details, was sent as a visiting preacher, in hopes that a fresh pair of eyes might help the two sides come to terms.
On arrival at the little church, my dad examined the mural. In it, he said was a beautifully painted scene of the Garden of Eden, with an image of Adam and Eve in the foreground, and a snake menacing from an apple tree in the background.
On initial inspection, he could see nothing offensive or controversial with the mural at all. All of their nakedness was appropriately covered and the scene appeared true to the story in the Bible.
But the elders who opposed the mural were all too quick to point out the painting’s egregious error: the artist had given Adam a belly button.
Darwinians are free to ponder the chicken and the egg. But if ever there were an existential paradox over who came first, surely the children of God know it to be that of Adam and his navel.
If the elders were to be taken seriously, the question bore enough weight to create a crisis of doctrine. The Church of Christ had no doctrine on the subject.
The arguments, logics, and theologies flew from both sides:
“Adam was made in God’s image. God was not born of a woman. Therefore, Adam could not have had a belly button.”
“All things are possible with God, He may well have given Adam a navel so we wouldn’t have need to question!”
“I think that Adam may have had a belly button, but only after he and Eve were forced out of Eden.”
On and on they spun in unwinnable debate. All because the author of Genesis, purportedly Moses himself, did not foresee the need to inform the many millions of faithful believers on the status of Adam’s unruly navel.
According to my dad that congregation never resolved the doctrinal dispute over Adam’s belly button. Rather than just painting over the mural with something benign, the members went their separate ways, destroying their own spiritual community in the process.
Is the story true? Who knows, my father could spin a good yarn when he wanted to. But it does teach one helluva lesson.
Words, spoken or otherwise, matter.
Once You Begin To Question…
If having a completely new perspective thrust upon one’s worldview can be as disruptive as the seemingly child-like question of “Did Adam have a belly button?”, what happens if you allow the questions to continue? Even just the silly ones?
Was Adam created instantly as an adult, or was he created as a child to grow up in Eden?
If Adam was a child, did God wait to make Eve until Adam was ready for a mate?
Was it really an apple? If the painting of a navel is crucial, isn’t it also important that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil be accurately portrayed in the mural?
Why do we still eat apples, isn’t that a sin for us too?
Now I know these examples are silly, but they’re meant to make a point.
In a religion based on the literal interpretation of allegorical stories, unresolvable questions are inevitable. An allegory is nothing more than a tale intended to pass on a moral lesson or truth. But believers are expected to accept a fable as literal truth “on faith”, lest they be filled with angst and anxiety.
In this environment, questions can make a person feel guilt simply for attempting to use logic and reason. Once the questions start, they may chip slowly away at your faith in many cherished church doctrines. If one simple belief can be wrong, then they all could be wrong.
The question of Adam’s navel is not existential for Adam. It is existential for the entire faith.
Keep this idea in mind as we’ll come back to it soon…
It’s All Latin To Me
In addition to an extensive exposure to Greek, my father gave me a solid beginning in other languages. Latin is not a subject I recall every having been taught in school, not even high school. But under my father’s tutelage I was recognizing the Latin root words in English before first grade.
Around that time my dad was transferred to a Church of Christ in El Paso, Texas, where he found a regular day job as chaplain of the El Paso Police Department. We lived in a low-rent, mostly Hispanic neighborhood a stone’s throw from the border, so learning Spanish was seen as a necessity.
Dad picked out the phrases he thought it important for me to know, most notably, “My dad is a cop!”. To help me pick them up faster, he always linked English and Spanish together with their Latin origins.
It wasn’t speaking the languages themselves that interested me. I’m not very good at it. Over the years I’ve picked up some conversational German and Spanish, a smattering of French and Russian, and enough Arabic to meet Uncle Sam’s needs, but it was always the relationship of languages to each other that fascinated me.
What my father was teaching me, without ever explicitly saying so, was that no only do words matter, but the original context of words matters. Hidden there in vowels and consonants are the histories of entire civilizations. From word origins, to language origins, to cultural origins – understanding them is important to understanding who we are today.
There are all kinds of contexts to language and the way we think, not just origin or phonetics, as I was soon to learn…
Words Can Give You Super Powers
As mentioned earlier, the very first phrase in Spanish I learned was “My dad is a cop!” Dad told me to never use it unless I felt afraid of someone, but if I ever did, to say it forcefully, loud, and with confidence. We practiced it over and over together until he was satisfied I had it down.
Living as close to the border as we did, our neighborhood had frequent nighttime visitors: illegal aliens who had just swam across the Rio Grande from Juarez, looking for a safe place to hide.
This was Texas in the 1970s. I’d grown up hearing the term “wetbacks” used by all sorts of people without any idea it was derogatory. In my childs’ mind there was a river, they had to swim it to get here, therefore their backs were wet. Wetbacks. It just made sense.
One night when I was five, my dog Suzy woke me up, and kept trying to lead me to the front door. Now I obviously wasn’t a bright child, because instead of alerting my parents to the concern, I threw the front door wide open and turned on the porch light.
There, shimmering and wet and blinking against the porch light, were three shirtless Hispanics, huddled around the back of my dad’s car. There was a gas can on the ground and a siphon hose dangling from the gas tank.
“Wetbacks!”, I exclaimed under my breath, while straining to hold Suzy’s collar as her hackles went up and she started barking.
I puffed up my chest and flickered the porch light, shouting in my most authoritative voice,
Mi padre es un policía!
The three men took off running in different directions, leaving their tools and some clothing behind. Dad, was right, it seemed, and I was emboldened by my victory. I shut the door and marched off back to bed, never even thinking to mention the incident to Mom and Dad.
After my encounter, realizing that there was actual fear on those grown mens’ faces, my tiny understanding of Spanish felt like a super-power. I would practice my super power in the mirror. Mi padre es un policia! Then with my best stank face. Mi padre es un policia! I even tried to make sure I was getting the accent right. Mi padre es un policía!
With just a few words I could put myself in charge of grown-ups!
But super powers come with super curses. It’s a rule, ask Stan Lee. Just like it’s a rule that every super-hero has to take his lumps, doubly-so if he’s earned them.
Though it took me a lot of years to realize it, that sense of power that I was feeling didn’t just come from the words I’d said. It came from some subconscious understanding that these words only held weight with certain people. With certain people that speak Spanish. With certain people browner-than-me.
Being one of the only white kids in the neighborhood, and too young for school, I spent a lot of my day hanging out with the younger Mexican kids. Most of them spoke some English, and with my smattering of Spanish, we managed to get along and play well most the time. I didn’t think of these kids as “wetbacks” – I guess because of my own literal interpretation of the slang – they were just my friends.
One afternoon, while playing with my usual group, there was a fight over something. It was probably something silly, as is the case with most children’s conflicts. All I remember is that I tried to win the fight with my super-powered magic words. But this time I added a little extra flavor for effect:
Mi padre es un policía, wetbacks!
I got punched. Hard. More than once. There might have been some kicks too. Then my browner-than-English friends tossed me into an old clothes dryer that was sitting alongside our house and slammed it shut.
I stayed there in the dark, stifling heat for a long time before daring to open the door.
After the older boys got home from school I got pounded again. It didn’t matter at all that my dad was a cop to them. It didn’t matter at all that I wasn’t even sure why what I said was wrong. But they helped clarify often. Every few days, when I was brave enough to venture out into the neighborhood, I got thumped by somebody.
I was far too young to comprehend the context of my own words. With just one, I’d turned my super power inside out.
My magic words tasted like dust in my mouth.
Being Correct Doesn’t Mean You’re Right
I wasn’t the only one learning some hard lessons in Texas. For my father, a theological crisis was looming.
The books and letters contained in the New Testament were written by different people, and written in various dialects of Greek. For example, there was a specific form of Greek used only by Roman military officials that the Apostle Paul was fond of using when writing to certain churches.
Almost all modern Bible translations are based on translating the New Testament from a single form of Greek. They are mostly based on old understandings of the linguistics of the day.
There were entirely new understandings of the New Testament to be had if one could get the context of the translation correct. My father began his own painstakingly meticulous translations of the original Greek New Testament texts even before graduating seminary school.
As his own understanding of certain passages grew, he realized that in a few cases the meaning of the original texts were nearly the polar opposite from what was being passed off in modern theological doctrines.
Over time, these ideas began to make their way into my dad’s sermons. Regardless of how correct his translations may or may not have been, I think we already demonstrated in the case of Adam’s Navel exactly how fragile religious doctrines are. My father’s views and subtle shifts in teaching were not making him any friends in Church of Christ circles.
From 1969 to 1976, my father was rotated as preacher to congregations in Amarillo, Victoria, El Paso, and finally Seagraves, Texas. We were always on the move. By mid-1976 my father gave up the preacher’s calling, and he packed up the family and moved us to Southern Oregon where he was raised.
Dad never stopped studying and translating, though. He would occasionally be asked to speak or perform a wedding at one church or another around the state. But the gap between him and the church only continued to grow.
One Man’s Cult
Our family continued to attend the Church of Christ congregation in Ashland, Oregon. Time went on until I was old enough to make the choice to be baptized for myself. For me it was no choice at all. I was baptized at age 10. In the view of the church elders I was now a “man”, and it was time I started taking on roles in the church.
I had a good singing voice, and being good at maintaining a tempo, I was often asked to lead the congregation in song. Then came opening or closing prayers. Then to serve as usher for communion, or passing the collection plate.
At age 11, I was asked to give a whole Sunday evening sermon on my own. I was terrified, but managed to get thru it okay with some helpful encouragement from friends and family. After a visit from a travelling missionary I was convinced my life’s work would be to take the Gospel to some dark continent.
Yet, while I was finally growing into the shoes that I’d felt were always waiting for me from birth, Dad was having a rough go of things.
By this time relations had long been strained with much of his family over his diverging theologies, especial with my grandparents. In the Church of Christ culture, family and faith are synonymous – to stray from one was to put both at risk. Our infrequent family visits were awkward, and there was obviously an elephant in the room with the adults all the time. I heard my father crying with my mom late at night once after a particularly prickly visit.
It’s not often a boy hears real pain in his father’s voice. So while I was adamant in my religious beliefs, I knew whatever was going on was having serious impact.
Then Dad stopped attending Wednesday evening church services at the Church of Christ to go to a Bible study somewhere else.
“Is it a Church of Christ?”, I asked.
“Oh,” was all I said, and walked away. I’d heard all I needed to.
Within a few weeks, Mom was going to the new “Bible study” with Dad and they were taking my little brother with them. Then they started attending Sunday’s at the cult church.
I say cult, because it wasn’t Church of Christ. In my mind it was that simple. If you weren’t Church of Christ you were going to Hell. Except for Baptists. The Baptists with no Sunday school were cleared for Heaven, I was fairly certain.
I was still attending the Church of Christ, catching rides to services with another family, but that was getting awkward too. Every week somebody would ask me where my parents were, when were they coming back, was I okay? They would look at me like I was some poor abandoned orphan, with little “tisks” and whispers as soon as I’d turn away. I was transformed from rising young leader in the church to ever-present cause for pity and concern.
I started to dread going. What was I supposed to say to them? I’m afraid my family has joined a cult?
Every month or so, Dad invited me to at least give it a try and see what it was that I was so against. I stayed steadfast in my beliefs and turned him down, but the awkwardness at the Church of Christ was reaching the point of creepy.
To see the looks on the faces of people I’d known and loved like family for years, you would think I was a devil-worshiping cultist myself.
Visiting An Alien World
There I was, almost 13 years old, the son of a preacher, preparing to become a preacher myself, in absolute fear for my family’s souls, and yet too embarrassed and ashamed to go to church.
I finally relented and agreed to attend a Wednesday evening service at my parents’ new church so I could see what I was up against.
It was like visiting another world…
First, we got out of the car and we weren’t at a church. We were at a senior citizens’ community center. I imagined how evil a church must be in order to hide behind the facade of an old folks home.
Even before we went inside my anxiety was up because I could hear music coming out of the building. It wasn’t worshipers singing the tried and true hymns of my faith. It was loud, with guitars, a bass, drums, and microphones.
We went inside. There were no pews. Instead ushers were running around the room setting up metal folding chairs. A band was up on stage, making sound checks, and a woman was leading the songs. Another woman was off to the side of the stage, dancing and smacking a tambourine.
Surely I was in the house of the devil.
I refused to sit with my family, instead taking a seat in the back row of chairs, as close to the exit as I could get.
The service started off simply enough with music led by a husband and wife team. Instead of singing from hymn books, the words were projected up onto a screen. The people clapped, sang, and danced. Even as simple as this may sound, it was chaotic compared to the stoic nature of Church of Christ services. I was already fighting to keep myself from leaving.
Another woman in the row in front of me jumped out into the aisle, threw her hands in the air, and started crying out in a loud voice, rattling away in a language I didn’t recognize. I learned later this was called “speaking in tongues”, but to me it sounded like a devil was speaking directly through her.
I had to stay in my seat. I had to stay long enough to hear the kinds of lies their preacher was going to spew. Looking around the congregation, I spied my father sitting towards the front of the room, hands raised in worship to his God, swaying to the music, and he looked happy.
He didn’t just look happy. He looked rapturous.
They excused the children to leave for “youth group” while the worship service continued. Sunday school! Who knows what those kids were being taught behind closed doors?
Was there anything Christian that these people had not violated?
After at least a half an hour, the congregation calmed down into a mellow hush, faint whispers and prayers still being muttered as individuals continued to stay in an almost trance-like state of worship. In a Church of Christ service the music is always the same: three hymns, then a prayer, everyone sits, then the preacher does his thing. This was something organic and absent from time.
The band leader announced that we were in for a treat. The pastor’s wife was going to be giving the sermon tonight. A woman in a sharp, dark grey pants suit passed by me, walking up the aisle to take the podium.
I got up and exited the building before she’d said a word.
To some Christians today, that scene probably sounds like nothing at all unusual. But with my background, I stalked away feeling like a wholly unprepared Daniel fleeing the lion’s den. I had seen the devil.
I stewed for weeks, trying to comprehend that confrontation of faiths.
I refused to go back, but I couldn’t return to the Church of Christ either. They would know I had been to a cult, I was sure. The questions and the sidelong pitiful glances would be all the more heart-felt, and all the more damning.
When One Chapter Ends
When my dad later asked me what I thought about the service, I was honest. I told him I thought it was a cult. The Church of Christ understands the role of women. They would never use musical instruments. Why did youth groups need to be separated from the adults? Were they being brainwashed or worse behind closed doors?
I blamed him for taking my mom and brother there. I blamed him for ruining the life we had in the Church of Christ. I blamed him for the schism with my grand-parents. I was pretty good at coming up with things to add to the blame pile.
He sat quietly all the while, a soft smile on his face, sometimes the harshness of my words making his eyes water. But he just listened until I was through. He never justified, or defended, or tried to make less of how I felt.
“All I can do is follow my heart and my mind, son. Both are telling me God has new things for me to learn..”
Then I remembered that service and the rapturous look I’d seen on his face. That was something I had never seen, ever. Being a “disciple” had always been about following doctrines and theologies to me. It was about being moral. It wasn’t a joyful thing. Church of Christ services were about as joyous as a funeral march by comparison, if I were to be honest.
I had an epiphany of sorts. I was trapped in my own version of Adam’s Navel, where steadfast ideals were blinding me to a an important lesson. I needed to see past the disturbing details to see the bigger picture.
I knew my dad – there was no devil or cult going to give him that kind of bliss. I had never looked at the results of going to church before. I didn’t look on it as a spiritual quest because the Church of Christ had already given me “all the answers”. Until that moment belief and faith were only about doctrine and dogma. Something about simply witnessing Dad’s joy was opening up an entirely new perspective I had never considered.
I knew that words, written or otherwise, matter.
I knew that the context in which those words are used, matters.
But until that moment I hadn’t realized that words and events can have more than one context going on at the same time. They can mean different things, to different people, for different reasons. The only way you can discover these contexts, my newest lesson showed, was to ask questions and be willing to receive an answer.
So the third great lesson I attribute to my father and growing up in the church is:
It’s okay to question your own beliefs.
It wasn’t long before this new realization gave me the courage to start attending Dad’s new church; to discover new questions of my own about subjects like faith and spirituality. If not for his example, I might never have found my own way of looking at the world.
There are still many more ways in which both my father and religious exploration influenced me, but none so directly or with as much impact.
Those are stories for another time…
There’s an old saying about how opinions are like assholes: everyone has one. Well I say that everybody also has their own Adam’s Navel, just as sure as they have a belly button.
Each of us has some thought, some doctrine, or some political ideology we are holding onto simply because to question it might unravel the very foundations about how we see the world.
I challenge you to spend some time playing with your own belly button. Examine it closely. Pick out the lint. Give it a sloppy-wet raspberry.
Just don’t take it so serious that you miss out on a world filled with alternate perspectives.