A Godless Fundamentalist: Chapter One

church building


by John Ellis

The day children are born is generally a momentous occasion for the parents. For the kid too, I guess. The day is scary, amazing, and filled with sensory overload. Over the next few days, the excitement is tempered, but not by much.

The moment the arrival of my first born became real to me was when I fastened my daughter’s car seat into the car for the first time and then sat behind the wheel. The things that I had taken for granted for years, like most other drivers knowing what they’re doing and traffic lights working as intended, etc., now seemed to be a collection of potential … nay, highly likely scenarios that ended in tragedy. My hands were at 10 and 2 and the speed limit became sacrosanct during that drive home.

However, the births of both my children brought far more excitement and joy than trepidation. Even though my wife and I knew that like all other parents before us, we weren’t ready, we also knew that God had given us a starring role in pointing two humans to Himself. We also knew (and know) that our actions, our parenting, will help shape who our daughter and son will become.

From the start, we’ve had dreams and desires for both of our children. First and foremost, we prayed and continue to pray for their salvation from their sins through faith in Jesus. We also hope for things like fun childhoods, happy marriages, and successful careers. You know, things that most parents hope and dream for their kids. Even though they were fundamentalists, my parents, of course, were no different.

On August 2, 1975, I arrived in this world.

My parents had specific desires for how my life would be shaped and formed into adulthood. Most of those desires I learned from hints, subtext, and the revelation of Aunts and Uncles years after the fact. My parents rarely shared with me their goals and dreams for me outside of abstract, fundamentalist talk. I do know this, according to my parents, I was born to be an independent, fundamentalist Baptist missionary.

My full name is John William Ellis, the same name as my uncle. An uncle that I never met. Years before I was ever conceived, he was killed in an airplane crash while serving on the mission field.

My dad didn’t say a whole lot to me growing up, but one topic that never failed to cause him to spring to life with conversation was his brother. And I get that. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to have a sibling die when you’re both in your twenties.

While I understood my dad’s desire to talk about Uncle Johnny, the conversations were always heavy with expectation for me. Being the namesake of an almost mythical man who perished in the full-time service of God brings with it a responsibility in Christian fundamentalism. Your heritage matters, and I was always pointed in the direction of honoring my uncle’s name by following in his sacrificial footsteps.

At times, as a young boy, I wondered if my dad hoped that I’d die in a plane crash on the mission field, too. I knew he didn’t, not really. But the thought did pop into my head from time to time.

One thing that almost all ex-fundy Gen Xers have in common is hearing the constant refrain that there is no greater calling than to give one’s life to full-time Christian service. For sure, the caveat is often thrown in that God needs businessmen, too. After all, the preacher would laugh, “if there were no Christian businessmen, who would give the tithes that keeps the lights on?”

I felt badly for the businessmen in my church whenever my dad would tell that “joke.”

My sympathy for the businessmen in my dad’s church paled in comparison to my own personal distaste and my sympathy for myself in relation to the joke. You see, that statement would often be coupled with my dad’s sharp rebuke to any parents who wouldn’t allow their children to be foreign missionaries. For him, as he would proudly assert from the pulpit, nothing would make him happier than seeing his children serving God on the foreign mission field.

I knew that my name was at the top of the list in my dad’s mind.

The thing was, I had zero desire to be a missionary. But growing up, I was rarely asked what I wanted.

It wasn’t so much going to a foreign country that was the obstacle. I always enjoyed hearing missionary stories in Sunday School, VBS, Bible class at my Christian school, and at home. Frankly, the life of a missionary sounded kind of exciting to me.

In fact, in at least a small way, the exciting missionary stories of my childhood probably helped birth my wanderlust that later found extra fuel in the “missionary” stories of writers like Jack Kerouac.

The problem with becoming a missionary was that I wasn’t sure if God even existed. If God didn’t exist, what was the point of being a missionary?

Some of my earliest memories are of me lying awake in my bed at night, puzzling over how my parents could be so sure that God existed. I mean, their “proof” for God was the Bible. Yet they said that God wrote the Bible. That seemed awfully convenient to me. As a result, my parent’s religion seemed fishy, at best.

Eventually, after trying to logically work out how my parents could be so certain in their beliefs about God, I would fall asleep, scared that I was going to burn in hell because I didn’t believe. Part of my fearful sleep and subsequent nightmares were also partially driven by concern for how my strict, disciplinarian father would respond if he found out that his brother’s namesake doubted the existence of God.

And my doubts extended far beyond the existence of God. To me, the Bible was a scary book filled with horrible people.

Bible stories were drilled into me, to be sure. There was a time when I could name all of the Northern and Southern Kingdoms’ kings, in order. But I was taught those stories as mini-morality tales.

What I learned was that I’m David and should pick up my five stones. I’m Joseph and should flee temptation. I’m Abraham and should trust God without question.

Except Abraham tied his son to an altar, raised a large knife over him, and would’ve plunged it into Isaac if God hadn’t decided to stop him. The flannel graph pictures helped fill in whatever gaps existed in my imagination. What kind of morality tale is that? I agonized over the question, how in the world could my parents seriously advocate that I should be like that guy?

The first time I remember hearing that story, I was in kindergarten. As I sat in my desk, squirming with pent-up energy fueled by incredulous discomfort at what I was hearing, my mind did mental gymnastics trying to figure out how my kind, gentle teacher could seriously think this was ok.

The graphic picture on the flannel graph board hammered home my teacher’s stern admonition that we should always trust God. God will provide a way of escape. I wondered how I could trust a God that might ask my dad to tie me to an altar and plunge a knife into me.

Instead of going to my parents with my doubts, I attempted to work them out by myself. Of course, since I didn’t exist in a vacuum, my failure to go to my parents meant that the hole in my influence was quickly filled by outside voices. Unbeknownst to my strict, fundamentalist parents, from my earliest age, my worldview was being shaped by the growing secularism of the late 70s and early 80s.

Backing up a bit, as I mentioned, part of my nightly fear was that my parents, especially my dad, would discover my doubts. You see, in my parent’s world, doubt didn’t exist; at least from my perspective.

And not just my parents. My school teachers, Sunday school teachers, friends, and parents of friends all seemed 100% confident that what they all said was true was, in fact, true. No doubt. No questioning. So much so, that I believed that my doubts automatically placed me outside the acceptable behavior for everyone around me.

That, of course, meant that I needed to find some new “everyone’s.” I didn’t like feeling alone. Modern, secular society was happy to oblige.

TV was mostly off limits to me and my siblings. Shows like Little House on the Prairie and Wheel of Fortune were ok, as were the occasional cartoon.

My parents, and especially my mom, rode strict herd over the TV, including commercials. Any hint of rock music, and the TV sound was turned off. During the few game shows we watched, my mom would sigh with disgust whenever Pat Sajak or Richard Dawson would inadvertently expose me and my siblings to topics deemed inappropriate by fundamentalism. My dad would snort and shift in his chair. I was left to wonder what the problem was.

Over the years, I learned that the sinfulness of pop culture was simply to be accepted as a fact. Almost all questions and/or pushback was met with an attitude by the authority figures that translated into extra hassle for the kid who dared question the accepted fundamentalist dogma. I learned to keep my head down and my mouth shut.

While learning that lesson, though, I was also learning that there was a competing worldview to my parents’ worldview. And that attractive worldview didn’t appear to be as unwilling as my parent’s worldview to engage in troubling questions and thoughts. In my young mind, I began to suspect that there were people outside of my “walls” that understood my doubts.

I don’t know if previous generations who grew up in Christian homes lived under as intense of a societal bifurcation as many Gen Xer fundamentalists did, but I’m guessing not. To be fair to my generation’s parents, in large and important respects, the world had been upended since their childhood. In fact, they lived through it.

My parents saw the sexual revolution come to fruition. I completely understand and empathize with their desire to put walls up between their family and the increasing godlessness and sin flaunted by larger society. As I wrote in the introductory post, and paraphrasing Douglas Coupland, my generation was the first generation to grow up without God.

My parents were driven by the motivation to protect their children. The lives of me and my siblings were that of acknowledged strangers in a strange land. What’s more, our family, school, and church were all constructed to keep “them” away from us. A primary goal of fundamentalist Gen Xer’s authority figures was making sure that we remained unblemished strangers in a strange, immoral land.

The Benedict Option is not new. The problem is that many who are now advocating a form of it are not doing a good job of accounting for the living demonstrations of its results.

You see, the question needs to be asked, what happens when some of the inhabitants of the isolated community are blemished strangers in that “safe” land? What happens when that lonely stranger is taught that there are only two identities in the world? – you’re either a fundamentalist or you’re not.

Trust me, that stranger, if he’s a little boy, lies awake at night, scared because he believes he’s all alone in his doubts, fears, and questions and that he has no one to talk to.

And that’s when, no matter how hard the authority figures attempted to bar the entrance, the MTV generation stepped in and deceitfully said, “We understand.”

For me, the calling of Gen X became louder as I began to pay closer attention to our neighbors, to the people in the mall as we trudged to Sears to get our annual family photo taken, and the muted commercials on TV. My family’s difference became increasingly and embarrassingly apparent to me. I felt like I was forcibly hidden within a system in which I didn’t belong. I longed to look like, sound like, and be around all the interesting people swirling around my fundamentalist existence.

Even more important to my embrace of godlessness, the secretive, forbidden music called rock and roll began to pique my interest.

I wondered why my parents were so concerned about this music. Why were some cartoons forbidden solely because of music? Why did my dad quickly scroll past certain radio stations? Why did my mom insist that the waiter turn the speakers down on the rare instances that we went out to eat?

I began to suspect that some of the answers to my larger questions, at least, were wrapped up in this mysterious rock music. My suspicions were confirmed in 1984 while sitting in a Pizza Hut one Sunday night after church.

Even though my mom, out of genuine love and concern for her family and, more importantly, the desire to honor Jesus, always asked the waiter to have the speakers turned down, the speakers were never turned down to the point where I couldn’t hear the strange music. That Sunday night in a Pizza Hut during 1984 was no exception.

Obviously, more than one song played over Pizza Hut’s speakers that evening, but I only remember one song. And I remember that song and that moment very vividly.

It was only years later that I heard of the movie, much less watched it, but Kenny Loggin’s “Footloose” resonated in my rebellious nine-year old heart in a way that very few things had up to that point in my life.

Sitting at the table, in my suit and dress shoes that I hated, the lyrics, “kick off your Sunday shoes” lodged in my heart. For me, the most obvious thing that separated me from everyone else and that identified me with a world in which I believed that I didn’t belong were my clothes. And here was that forbidden music telling me to kick off my hated Sunday shoes. In that moment, as least metaphorically, I did just that – I kicked off my Sunday shoes.

As silly as this is (remember, I was only nine years old), “Footloose” appeared to understand me. In my little boy brain, I then concluded that I was right about this forbidden music. From that point on, I believed that my people, those who thought like me and would help answer my questions, were attached to rock music.

Over the intervening years, the more my authority figures preached against rock music, the more I was forced to listen to the anti-rock messages by famous fundamentalists (many of those messages contained unintentional errors that my peers and I would pounce on and use to dismiss everything the preacher had to say), the more I dug into my belief that my parents and teachers were afraid of rock music because it offered answers they were unwilling or even unable to provide. In the world of the fundamentalism that I grew up in, you were either a committed fundamentalist or you were a rock music loving heathen.

I chose the second identity.



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