When I saw the title and cover of this book I knew that I had to read it and that I would most-likely relate to it on several levels. Matthew Paul Turner's "Churched: One Kid's Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess" recounts the stories of the author's upbringing in a very conservative, fundamentalist church. In many instances the author looks back with a smirk on his face but also seriously wondering at times with a "What was up with that!?!" type attitude.
I burst out in laughter when Turner described how his parents ended up in a fundamentalist church stating that "Before we switched churches, my mother and father weren't Christians. They were Methodists." (p. 16). My parents have raised me within a similar church experience when we left the Presbyterian church for a large evangelical non-denominational church that I would now consider a fundamentalist church back then. Ironically, I am now Methodist.
Turner goes on to process his two church experiences by noting that "the God who came to the Baptist church was a lot more particular than the one I heard Methodists talk about - or he was schizophrenic. . . . I concluded that the Baptist God just did things differently than the Methodist God, but he also seemed to enjoy interfering a lot more in my personal space. I wasn't sure what to think about him." (p. 30.) I understand the poles between these two approaches and have experienced both. I do believe that there is a happy medium between them. Some churches try to answer every imaginable question with a straight-jacket answer for all believers. But oftentimes the complexity of life does not always offer up simple answers nor does the Bible offer simplistic answers to the tough questions of life. Just ask Job.
Further on, Turner has fun with the fundamentalist approach to evangelism and end times. He remarks that "If fundamentalist's life could be summed up in a quote, it would be this: 'This world is not my home, I'm just passin' through.' . . . Getting' to Glory was what our lives were all about. The way we saw things, it didn't matter that God had created the heavens and the earth - he did not want us excited about living here. A good fundamentalist worth his weight in guilt was quick to remind any skeptic that the world was going to hell in a handbasket." (p. 43) In many ways the focus of the fundamentalist church was on the issue of "saving" as many people through getting them to say a prayer to confess their sins and ask Christ to come into their lives. I have been apart of many, many events like this only to question the real lasting impact of such events or even such prayers. When we set it up like a fire insurance policy it really dummies down the depth and meaning of living in Christ. Plus this type of eschatology gives so much more power to the forces of evil than believing in the power of God. God came to redeem that which was lost both in His relationship with humanity and his creation. He empowered us with the Holy Spirit to continue the work that He began.
Turner explains the importance of having the right view of hell in that "When I was a kid I needed hell to exist. I didn't understand that at the time, but I needed it. Being a fundamentalist was pointless without hell. With no hot and fiery pit existing somewhere below the soil, our views and beliefs lost a good deal of their meaning. It was our fear of hell that fueled our motivation for living the way we did. Perfect. Separated. Medieval." (p. 108) . I remember the mantra that my friends and I would often say as we grew up in a church with our Christian school connected right to it: "We are sooooo sheltered!" I constantly had that feeling of growing up within a "Christian bubble" that tried desperately to protect us from a world going to hell. Everything within the church was understood in very holy categories whereas anything outside of the walls of the church was considered a tool of Satan: rock music, movies, dances, etc. A strong view of damnation and excessive guilt kept many of us home bored out of our minds. Keep in mind, these were the pre-video game, pre-cable TV days! Giving teens the tools for discernment and the ability to interpret the world was way to risky. It is easier to just declare it all evil, lock up the kids in a Christian school, and instill an "us vs. them" view of the world.
Fundamentalism had an impact on our social skills also. Turner points out that "Fundamentalism made me weird. I wasn't alone. It made lot of people weird. But I think some people at my church believed that was the point, that somewhere in the Bible, Jesus declared, 'Blessed are the weird.' Our weirdness was a form of obedience unto God." (p. 147). I guess I never knew just how weird I was until I graduated and headed off to the local community college. That was where I was overwhelmed by all the pagans and the professors who were going to indoctrinate me with their "secular worldviews". Of course after going through my first year of college with this mindset, I wasn't quite fitting in well and making friends. It wasn't until my second year that I sprinted away from my fundamentalist upbringing and dove in with the godless just to make friends and try to fit in. Three years of this approach only lead me to crash and burn, feeling dejected and guilty from my fundamentalist upbringing, but completely burned from getting involved with people who genuinely were a negative influence by anyone's standards.
And how to deal with the issue of S-E-X! I totally related to what Turner described that his "biggest fear about the end was that Jesus would come back before I had the chance to have sex. I wasn't alone. A lot of teenagers at my church worried about this." (p. 191). I grew up with a great amount of anxiety over this issue. Guilt (AGAIN!) for not being excited about Jesus coming back soon but also wishing desperately for the experience of sex with my future wife, and maybe the opportunity to see what a child of mine might look like, AND THEN Jesus can return.
Matthew Paul Turner does a great job throughout this memoir recalling his past as he trudges through the fundamentalist landscape of small town America in the late 20th century. But probably the best part of the book was the last sentence where he is sitting in his new church with his wife and he comes to the realization that "I wasn't afraid." (p. 224). He has come to a point in his faith journey where he was able to process the good and the bad of his church experiences, integrate it with many of the other life experiences he has had, and finally shake off the shackles of guilt and fear that his fundamentalist upbringing used in order to control their congregations. He did not reject his faith. Instead he was able to realize God was much bigger that the Baptist denomination, much bigger than the fundamentalist interpretation, and discover that love and grace was a more Christ-like approach to life rather than fear, guilt and condemnation. I thank God that I too was able to come to the same conclusions that Turner did without abandoning my faith.