by John Ellis
In 1994, Douglas Coupland, the voice of Gen X, published Life after God. A collection of short stories, the book gave voice to the belief that my generation was “the first generation raised without God.”
Beyond just seeing the release of one of Gen X’s seminal works of art, 1994 was notable in my life for seeing me graduate from high school. And while it’s true that the world around me was erasing God, the aisle I marched down to receive my diploma led to a platform from which I had been force-fed God for years.
Gen X may have been the first generation raised without God, but there were still a few of us who were living in a world of Christianity. And for many of us whose childhood existed on islands of religiosity set in a cultural sea of irreligiosity, much of our adulthood has been spent attempting to come to terms with the contradictions within ourselves.
Who are you when your worldview has been shaped by two diametrically opposed systems of thought?
That’s a question that many Christian schools, conservative churches, and strict evangelical parents refuse to even acknowledge exists in the hearts of many of my fellow Gen Xers who were raised in the Christian school movement. Because no matter how hard they tried to protect us from the world, the cynical secularism of the MTV generation played as large of a role in our development as did their brand of Christianity.
The brand of Christianity I was raised in is called independent, fundamentalist Baptist – IFB, for short. In fact, my dad, who’s now retired, was a pastor, my pastor. My mom, who passed away almost twelve years ago, was a Christian school teacher. (As way of shorthand for this series, I’ll be referring to me and my peers as “ex-fundys.” That’s not intended as a pejorative; it’s simply shorthand.)
Since the early 2000s, much ink has been spilled by fellow, ex-fundy Gen Xers excoriating conservative Christianity, specifically the IFB, in attempt to make sense of the confusion and even pain that they felt and continue to feel as a result of their strict, religious upbringing clashing with their own rebellion. To be frank, much of their vitriol is undeserved by their parents, teachers, and pastors. But I do empathize with their confusion and pain, having lived it myself. At times, in fact, I still struggle to understand what happened and the ways in which it has shaped me. At times, I too still feel the pain of my childhood, teen years, and early adulthood that was the unintended consequence of having been raised as a fundamentalist Christian in a world that was increasingly rejecting the God of my parents.
That being said, by God’s grace, this will not be a series of posts flaming my upbringing. I love my parents, and thank God for their faithful witness, in word and deed, in my life. I am incredibly grateful for many of my Christian school teachers, Christian university college professors, youth pastors, and the variety of IFB adults whom God brought into my life during my formative years. Without their loving witness, it’s not a stretch for me to claim that I would already be dead or, at best, in prison.
Thankfulness, however, does not mean blind approval. So also, by God’s grace, neither will this series be an unabashed apologetic for my upbringing. The adults that God placed in my life were almost as imperfect as I am, and even though I believe that in the main their motives were rooted in a desire to see me grow in grace and the knowledge of Jesus Christ, the fact remains that the IFB movement does have some errors and even sins that need to be confronted. My friends who are still hurting are owed a voice, too.
On the surface, my story appears to be unique in comparison to the life stories of many of my peers. I struggled my entire childhood with the belief that my parents were fooling themselves that God existed. Having entered adulthood as an atheist already, and only repenting of my sins and placing my faith in Jesus as my twenties closed, my story is the opposite of the norm. My peers who rejected Christianity, to a varying degree or another, tended to do so only after entering adulthood.
For those who struggled with many of the same questions I did, both as a child and as an immature Christian in my early thirties, they did so in a manner that was much more muted than my struggles. I tend to cringe at the “Cross and the Switchblade” sensationalism of my life story, but attempting to claim that my life’s colors have run completely parallel with my ex-fundy peers would be an exercise in false humility that would be seen through and scoffed at by those who know me.
One thing I have learned, to my surprise, though, is that although the rising and falling action of my story is sharper and faster than most of peers, I’m not as unique as I once believed.
Almost five years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts about my life story for my now defunct, original blog. I wrote the series mainly out of boredom; out of a need to do something constructive (a part of my story that I’m planning on hashing out several posts from now). To my surprise, I heard from many family members, friends, and even people that I had never met about how they too had struggled in a similar manner as I had during my youth.
At the time, during my adolescence, while living my Gen X/fundamentalist angst, I believed that none of my peers could relate. Looking around at my classmates, I thought that I was the only one missing something. Most of them seemed happy, content, and appeared to give little thought to the inconsistency of the world around them. They appeared to buy what the adults were selling, so to speak.
It’s for them that I’m rewriting my story. Or, rather, it’s for them that I’m once again fleshing out how God, in His mercy and grace, has chosen to write me into His story for His glory and for my salvation.
What’s more, I now have something to say. Instead of needing to write, I want to write. By God’s grace, I want to give voice to the experiences, fears, and pain that many of my Gen X fundamentalist peers lived and, sadly, that some are still living. And in doing so, I pray that I can reveal that our identity was often misdirected, even by those who meant well. We were never fully Gen X. We were never fully fundamentalists. We were hurting children who needed to find our full identity in Jesus.
Another motive for writing out my place in God’s story, even more important to me than my previously stated motive, is for my children. My kids are growing up in a post-Christian world, and, by God’s grace, I desire to steer them to Jesus by telling them how God steered me to Jesus even as I did everything in my power to reject him.
By way of introduction, I am now a committed follower of Jesus. In fact, I have the privilege of serving my conservative evangelical church as an Elder (a pastor). In God’s providence, the irony is that almost fourteen years ago, I sat on the patio of my apartment, got high with my roommates, and then declared that if they ever heard that I was a pastor, not to believe it. I told them that if I ever became a pastor, it would only be for the women and the money. Whenever I think about that moment, I don’t know if I should cringe in shame or laugh in embarrassment. Most often, I do both. The reality is, though, that while I was uttering those stupid words, God knew what He had in store for me. If anything, I should be thankful that God is sovereign and that He saw fit to paint irony into my life. It’s for His glory that I now tell you what happened to a fundamentalist Gen Xer who didn’t believe in God.
Soli Deo Gloria