Great Literature Helped Me Escape My Fundamentalist Christian Past February 5, 2019

Great Literature Helped Me Escape My Fundamentalist Christian Past

This is a guest post by Jessica Wilbanks, the author of When I Spoke in Tongues: A Story of Faith and Its Loss. She lives in Houston, Texas.

Like all fundamentalists, I used to live in a binary universe. When I was in elementary school, my parents joined an offshoot of Rock Church, one of the first megachurches. Sunday after Sunday, our pastor told us there was a war going on between God and the Devil, and we were on the front lines.

People, books, and movies — even women’s clothing — could all be confidently sorted into two categories, like columns in an accountant’s ledger. Good or evil, saved or damned, modest or immodest, worthy or unworthy. I remember a Sunday school teacher once telling our class that if a song didn’t glorify God, then it was “of the devil.” Even as a devout eleven-year-old believer, that didn’t sit well with me. What about “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”? How was it possible that such a benign song was evil, simply because it wasn’t explicitly Christian?

By the time I was sixteen years old, I’d had enough. I stopped believing in God, but I didn’t call myself an atheist. I didn’t feel like I had anything in common with provocateurs like Christopher Hitchens and Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Their fierce critiques of religion and harsh judgment of anyone who found comfort in faith felt like a different breed of the same fundamentalism I’d left behind me.

For a long time, I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere.

In high school and college, I gravitated toward the arts, especially literature. I read far beyond my school syllabus, falling in love with the work of writers like Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and Flannery O’Connor. Their books centered on powerful questions — such as the meaning of justice, the nature of evil, or what it meant to be a woman — but they never put forward easy solutions.

Instead their rich language and carefully crafted scenes conveyed a less cerebral, more experiential kind of truth than I had ever found in Sunday school.

I’m not the only former believer who has found a new home for themselves in the arts. Scholar Philip Francis, the author of When Art Disrupts Religion, writes at length about the way music, literature, and visual art can challenge the dualistic nature of fundamentalist faith.

Through interviews with over eighty former evangelical Christians, Francis chronicles the ways their ideologies were challenged based on encounters with writers and artists such as Mark Rothko or Fyodor Dostoevsky. So often, these encounters are a first step toward breaking down the rigid divisions that are so central to fundamentalism.

When I began writing down my own story about growing up in the church, I resisted my tendency to judge and categorize, and instead I set out to claim my own experience. As I wrote, I focused on images and sensory detail: the way my pastor’s calloused hands felt on my forehead when he pushed me under the water during my baptism, the sound of my mother’s soprano blending with my father’s deep bass as they sang hymns together, the shame and panic I saw in my mother’s eyes when she found out I was bisexual, and the apocalyptic terror that still sometimes strikes me late at night, years after walking away from the church.

For many years, I’d been ashamed of my former belief and the many ways it has haunted my life, but over time, I came to understand that these experiences couldn’t be easily categorized as good or bad, true or false. Instead, they are as rich and complex as life itself.

In its final form, my memoir When I Spoke in Tongues, is the inverse of the typical spiritual autobiography. It charts my journey away from the fundamentalist faith of my childhood, a faith I mistrust and mourn in equal measure, and chronicles my struggle to find a place in the world following my deconversion.

Years have passed since I made peace with my lack of belief. Since then, I’ve learned that there’s plenty of room for perspectives like mine in the atheist movement. Not all atheists paint with the same broad brushstrokes. Many of us do our best to resist fundamentalist mindsets, pushing back against binary thinking wherever we find it.

Eileen Scully once called fundamentalism “an anxious search for an inviolate truth,” and artists’ dismissal of the very concept of inviolate truth counters fundamentalist paradigms. For artists, doubt is far more interesting than certainty, and the process of asking questions is far more compelling than the experience of arriving at solid answers.

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