Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood
Jon M. Sweeney
Paraclete Press, 2005
173 pp., 19.95
Betty Smartt Carter
The Lost Sheep
For evangelicals and fundamentalists, faith in God is a communicable condition rather than genetic. It's passed through close oral contact, occasionally through the airwaves or a shared tract, but never via chromosomes (or baptismal water, for that matter).
The first time I met anyone who thought differently, I was a young teenager on a missions trip at Appalachian State University. My partner was a long-legged, long-faced man who carried a Bible the size of Moses' actual stone tablets. He had no college degree of his own, nor could he count on me for intellectual backup, but he wasn't a bit intimidated. "I'll do the talking," he said, "and you just watch and pray."
We cruised the campus and witnessed, ineffectually, to a sweet-natured hippie and then to a devotee of Transcendental Meditation. After an hour or so we came across a young man on the steps of the student center and asked him if he knew Jesus.
The young man smiled like we were long-lost friends. "I sure do! Known Jesus all my life. I was born a Christian."
"Son," replied my witnessing partner in a firm but patient voice, "weren't nobody ever born a Christian!" As arrogant as he sounded, he didn't mean to offend. He was merely echoing the teaching so dear to all fundo-evangelicals: that Jesus saves through his own blood, and not through the blood running in your veins, or your mother's veins, or even the veins of your grandparents who founded a mission in Argentina. Various groups may add nuances to this doctrine (covenantalists emphasize God's promises to children of believing parents), but the basic teaching stands: belief is a choice of the individual, offered anew to each generation.
Only now do I really see the poignancy of that theological stance. Consider the interconnectedness of fundamentalist/ evangelical culture. After so many years of shared church and missionary life, not to mention a mind-boggling amount of intermarriage, American fundo-evangelicals have become a quasi-ethnic group, much like American Jews. A child raised in that culture may not be able to claim he was "born a Christian," but he can make a pretty good case for having been born a fundamentalist. Thus the very people who cherish the idea of decisional faith, who cling to it theologically, actually live as if faith is hereditary, a matter of family and kinship.
I thought a lot about this contradiction after reading Jon Sweeney's new memoir, Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood. Sweeney's story will sound familiar to many. He came from a devout fundamentalist family: his grandfathers were both Independent Baptist preachers; his father worked at Moody Bible Institute. He grew up physically in the backyards of his small town (Wheaton, Illinois) but spiritually in the halls of his churchrededicating his life to God multiple times, dreaming of becoming a missionary. As a zealous teenager, he led school chapels and argued theology with friends. He seemed destined to be a preacher or evangelist, fulfilling his family's dreams of a third generation of full-time Christian workers.
Then, on a college missions trip to the Philippines, Sweeney's fundamentalism began to unravel. His group was assigned to evangelize Catholics, even though that meant asking them to turn their backs on long-held beliefs. Perhaps empathizing with others from a strong religious heritage, he felt guilty about the mission itself:
By the time that my summer was over, I was convinced that what we were doing was wrong in its disregard for the life, community, culture, and the faith of the people that we had come to help. I came face to face with a series of real, human examples of how the faith of my childhood might hurt others.
Sweeney no longer felt at ease in the old fundamentalist paradigm, but it didn't occur to him to leave his faith altogether. At first he only wanted a simpler, quieter way of being a Christian. He considered becoming a Trappist monk (to the horror of his mother) but couldn't "make the leap." After transferring from Moody Bible Institute to Wheaton, he discovered a more tolerant conservatism (evangelicalism, really) and a handful of mentors who encouraged his questions. Eventually, though, his questions overtook his confidence in basic Christian doctrines. As an adult he drifted outside the boundaries of orthodox Christianity, retaining the shape and color of his childhood faith, but just a remnant of its theological content.
To his credit, Sweeney examines his story and its meaning with unusual humility. He doesn't claim superiority to the people he came from, only an inability to accept all that they taught him. He intends his memoir to be in no small part an exploration of the good in fundamentalism: its appreciation of the power of words and learning, its surprising mysticism and zeal for God, its ideals for human relationships and recognition of the human need to start overto be born again and again. His tone is thankful and affirming, meant to shore up bridges rather than burn them down.
For all Sweeney's optimism and kindness, though, there's a sad subtext in this memoir: the tragedy of a family divided by faith. Like so many others, he was born to parents who lived within a particular theological framework, asked to accept that framework for his own life, and then pressed into it by the weight of family tradition. He resisted in a generous rather than vindictive way, following his own beliefs and yet doing his best to live peaceably with the past.
Still, I know what his decision must mean to his family, having seen the same drama played out in my own and others over time. It's the tragedy Sweeney worried about for Catholic Filipinos: the pain of separation. Fundamentalists love their children as much as anyone else, and the threat of being torn apart (in this life and the next) can make that love an especially terrifying thing.
"These slow separations of changing faith were agonizing," Sweeney says. "I would imagine a slide toward separation and divorce, after years of loving marriage, would seem somewhat similar."
Ironically, it was Sweeney's family that had taught him to seek truth for himself. "If you look clearly and honestly at yourself in the presence of God," his preacher grandfathers had told him, "you have all the spiritual direction you need." Following their advice, he found himself wandering far from home. But the backward pull remains. In occasional moments of doubt, or nostalgia for the habits of childhood, he wonders if he made the wrong choice. Not a writer to ask for the reader's sympathy, Sweeney still gets mine when he speaks wistfully of his parents:
I wished to be of the same light as that of my mother and father. I wanted to be another link in the constant and continuous chain of faith. The light of their faith shone brightly and glowed beautifully. I was never more proud than when I was spiritually what they wanted me to be. In the end, though, it was impossible to bridge the gap between their light and my own.
It's a mystery why some cling to childhood faith and others stray. Fearing separation, we'd probably all like to direct our children's hearts, but faith in God doesn't allow room for fear or condemnation, or especially the bullying of those we love. It only allows trust in God's goodness, which is the very thing we've always preached to our children. And if we struggle to accept that, then we may have to face up to a humbling truth: it wasn't God we wanted them to love in the first placeit was really just us.
Betty Smartt Carter is a novelist living in Alabama.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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