by John Ellis
There are occasional moments when I wish that my kids could have the schooling experience that I did. My fifteen years within the Christian school movement (K-4, K-5, and a second time through fourth grade plus the normal 12 years equals 15, for those that were wondering) were, for the most part, fun and contained a sense of community that, at times, I think my kids who attend public school are missing.
But then I remember that the community often ran at odds with the local church and that my fun was mostly an outworking of my rebellion within a strict environment that attempted to control my behavior, with comically futile efforts much of the time. Related, and maybe most importantly, I remember that for me and most of my classmates, two diametrically opposed worlds existed within our Christian school and youth groups. Many of us lived two parallel lives – a life of convenience and a secret life of conviction. Our life of convenience was necessary to maintain our secret life of conviction.
When I grew up in the Christian school movement, it was basically against the rules to not be a Christian, at least at my school. Those who say it was the school’s prerogative to construct their school the way they saw fit are correct. But my authority figures’ clinging to their human rights came at the expense of the gospel. For sure, me and my classmates answer for our rebellion and how we responded to the gospel. But the adults answer to God for how they raised us, and the fact is that the system we were raised in encouraged deceit and obscured the gospel by interacting with us as if we were Believers instead of the heathens that most of us were.
The last ten years of my schooling were spent in a Christian school located in Milton, FL, a town roughly 25 miles east of Pensacola. The school was considered a flagship school within the Christian school movement, and the founder was thought of as a leader in Christian education. As proof, his books were sold in Bob Jones University’s campus store and he was asked to speak at conferences.
The school was also home to a popular children’s ministry that aired on Christian radio stations around the world and that published books that were read and loved by Christian families the world over. Over the last few years, in conversations with fellow Believers from a variety of church backgrounds, I frequently discover that they too grew up with that children’s ministry. If they’re close to my age, I tell them that there is a good chance that my hands helped put together the books they loved as a kid.
What’s more, being friends with students from other like-minded Christian schools, working at a Christian camp for two years in high school and a year and a half in college, and having attended Bob Jones University, I can confidently assert that my experience in a Christian school was the norm. My dichotomy of two lives – one of convenience and one of conviction – was the experience of my Christian school peers across the board during the 80s and early 90s. Even now, as I write this series, I’m receiving emails from strangers thanking me for giving voice to their experience as a fundamentalist kid.
A couple of years ago, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans was published. I wrote a review of her book that you can read by clicking here. For this post, though, the pertinent part of her book was summed up in my review:
The Christian school and churches that Rachel Held Evans writes about in Searching for Sunday are almost utterly unrecognizable to me. In fact, by chapter two I was left scratching my head in puzzlement at her statement, “I should mention I attended a Christian elementary school where ‘my dad’s hermeneutic can beat up your dad’s hermeneutic’ served as legit schoolyard banter.”
What?!? On my Christian school playground, using words like “hermeneutic” would’ve ensured that you never got invited to birthday parties; if we had known what “hermeneutic” meant, that is.
My Christian school playground was filled with constant scheming about how to get around the rules, dirty jokes, and attempts at kissing the girls. What was missing were any conversations about the Bible stories we had just heard in the classroom, discussions about faith, and any expressed desires to honor our parents through obedience.
The thing that was puzzling to me was the seeming lack of conflict felt by my friends due to what I perceived as an untenable relationship between their playground words and actions and their words and actions whenever the adults were present.
I understood the need to find an equilibrium, a way to do what I wanted while maintaining a relationship with the authority figures that kept them happy enough so that they wouldn’t pay close attention to me. But, for me, that equilibrium didn’t involve overt expressions of agreement with those authority figures. Many of my friends, though, from my perspective, appeared to blithely accept what the authority figures were teaching when in the presence of the authority figures while still attempting to maintain a life of rebellion.
I don’t remember having a single conversation with my friends about that apparent contradiction at the time. It stuck in my head, though. Conversations over the last few years have revealed that many of them were simply attempting to live a hassle-free life while struggling with the contradiction they knew existed in their own heart. In other words, they weren’t that different from me.
By the time I became a sixth grader, I had found a lifestyle that resulted in an equilibrium that kept the adults from paying too close of attention to me which, in turn, freed me up to basically do what I wanted.
During Sunday school, in conversations with my parents, and in classes and chapel at school, I learned to say enough but not too much. Often, stories about “prodigals” center on the president of the youth group, the pastor’s kid who leads the soul-winning efforts among his (or her) peers, or the guy who always won the preaching contests at his Christian school who all fell into sin and/or walked away from the faith. Not me.
I knew that if I was the guy who was asked to lead devotionals, help organize ministry outreaches, or be considered the “spiritual” kid, the hassle in my life would become exponentially greater. That type of commitment to “spirituality” would’ve been exhausting and caused more adults to focus on me in ways that would’ve been obstacles to me doing what I wanted.
Likewise, being considered a rebel would’ve been problematic. The kids that were openly antagonistic towards the authority figures were so fettered by the adult’s unwavering gaze as to be trapped. The overtly rebellious kids didn’t get to do what they wanted to do nearly as often as I did.
So, I sat quietly, rarely volunteering to offer my thoughts about religion, but spoke up enough so as not to give the adults reason to be suspicious about my heart. I also took pains to hide my overt rebellion. I rarely argued with my parents about their rules, and when I did express displeasure about my school’s rule, it was over rules of function and not over rules that fell under the category of “moral.” When I complained, it was about rules like having to wear a tie to school, not being able to chew gum in class, or being forced to participate in the school’s fundraisers.
As I grew, my parents and other authority figures appeared to believe that I was overall a good kid with a lot of talent and potential to serve God. Years later, I learned from my mom that she was expecting my heart to be ignited to serve God once I got to college. Growing up, in high school especially, the aim was to keep me pointed forward, to get me safely to Bob Jones University. Except, while she hoped and prayed for that, I was becoming more and more enamored with the world and the sinful pleasures held out by the world.
Entering high school, most of my energy was spent on the pursuit of sex and rock and roll. By the time high school had ended, the pursuit of alcohol and cigarettes was included.
My first real exposure to the hidden and tantalizing world of explicit sex was through the Penthouse magazines I found in the woods behind my house the summer after fourth grade. The same summer I was baptized.
As much as I loved the magazines’ pictures, the stories of sexual exploits in the Forum section are what really stoked my lust. My sex-education was provided by Penthouse.
Over time, as my friends and I found ways to access porn as well as movies that contained explicit sexuality, we would compare notes. And the things that we were learning about sex outpaced our authority figures’ teachings about sex in such drastic measures as to cause us to assume that they were naïve to the pleasures available.
Growing up in the post-sexual revolution world meant that the ways in which the world viewed, discussed, and displayed sex were so far removed from the world of sex, even illicit sex, that our authority figures had grown up in during the 40s, 50s, and early 60s as to render their perspective unhelpfully naïve, I think. For example, I’m pretty sure that if they had discovered that a couple of the older girls in the school had taken topless polaroid pictures of themselves that were passed around by the guys, the authority figures would’ve been at a loss as to how to move forward in terms of discipleship, not just for the girls but for the guys, too.
I do remember the confusion and hurt evinced by the teachers when it was discovered that a group of middle schoolers had played a fairly sexually explicit game of “truth, dare, or physical challenge” on the bus during a school trip. I was an upper classman in high school at the time, and the teachers talked about it to me and my fellow upperclassmen as if we would be just as confused, shocked, and hurt as they were. Their sense of betrayal was obvious, and we knew better than to add to it.
We commiserated with our teachers by expressing shock and dismay, too. What we failed to mention is that when we were younger, we had all played that same game in the back of that same bus. The only reason we no longer played it was because we were mostly all paired up at that point. We no longer needed “childish” games to manufacture excuses to gratify our lust.
Every time a kid would get caught doing something that broke the rules regarding interactions with a member of the opposite sex, it was assured that we would be given another round of the same teaching on sex that we had always heard.
To be honest, “our authority figures’ teachings about sex” was less teaching and really just attempts to fence us off from sex. Not once in church, at school, and even at home was sex put into the context of the gospel. Not once were we confronted with the reality that our real problem was our heart of stone and not our lust. We learned that sex before marriage stained you, made you “less than” for marriage, and hindered God’s ability to use you.
Except we knew that wasn’t true. And we knew that because we occasionally heard stories from someone who had had sex before marriage. As the young preacher would thunder about how we would ruin our life, sharing his own sordid past as an example, we could see his pretty wife sitting on the front pew. Sex before marriage obviously hadn’t ruined his life.
Not to mention that on the rare instance that someone got busted for doing something sexual, if they confessed their sin and expressed remorse, they were immediately restored to full fellowship. In fact, many of those kids were then treated as minor celebrities by the authorities. No matter what rule we wanted to break, we always knew that we had the repentance card to play.
Everything my authority figures taught about sex can be distilled down to, “S-e-x outside of marriage is wrong and will ruin your life.” And I mean everything that was taught.
While perusing magazines and watching movies, I would think, “If this is what a ruined life looks like, I want my life ruined.”
To that end, as my parents, teachers, and youth pastors continued to assume that I was a Christian who needed, most of all, to be protected from the allure of the world; as they continued to assume that my core beliefs about the existence of God and the veracity of the Bible matched their core beliefs, the more their attempts to fence me off from the world backfired.
From my unregenerate perspective, the enemies of my authority figures were my allies. They were the ones who would introduce me to a lifestyle that matched my beliefs and desires. Hedonism became my religion and pop culture became my liturgy. Rock music, of course, became the most obvious and the most easily accessible entrance into the world of freedom for which I longed.
Rock and Roll
While writing this, I realized that I’m wearing an old Guns N’ Roses t-shirt. A t-shirt that is purely functional for me because it remains mostly untorn and it fits in a way that helps me ignore the fact that I’m increasingly a squishy middle-aged man. The logo on the front could be a picture of my mailbox, for all I care. As a teenager, though, I would’ve given almost anything to be able to lounge around in a Guns N’ Roses t-shirt without fear of punishment.
Currently, I have two (I think I only have two) Guns N’ Roses CDs hidden away in a box that’s collecting dust somewhere in a storage area in my house. I use the word “hidden” purely in the sense that those CDs are hidden from my sight.
When I was a teenager, though, my one Guns N’ Roses cassette tape was hidden in a box collecting dust under my bed. And it was hidden so that my parents couldn’t see it. At night, I would pull my contraband Walkman out of its hiding spot, place the earphones over my head, and listen to “Welcome to the Jungle” while fantasizing about the day that I could live in the glorious jungle that Axl Rose wailed about.
Slash’s opening guitar riff followed by Axl’s blasphemous entrance into a song that immortalized in my young mind the world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll became for me the standard that stood against what my parents, teachers, and youth pastors believed.
The lyrics begin, “Welcome to the jungle, we got fun -n- games. We got everything you want, honey we know the names. We are the people that can find whatever you may need. If you got the money honey, we got your disease in the jungle. Welcome to the jungle.”
I wrote the lyrics to “Welcome to the Jungle” on the bottom of the bunk above me in the dorm room during my first year working as a ranch hand at the Bill Rice Ranch. The entire song. I earned legendary status for that.
While I understood that the song’s protagonist wasn’t singing to me, but to naïve, starry-eyed girls getting off the bus in LA, I still felt that Axl was speaking to me, in a way. After I found out that he had grown up in a strict religious family (Pentecostal), my connection to his band only strengthened.
The amount of energy and effort put into scaring us of off rock music really only served to heighten our interest in the verboten music. My dad, especially, dedicated a lot of time and energy into making sure the youth under his charge were separated from rock music.
Having been taught music in high school by the revered Frank Garlock, one of my dad’s pet issues was music. In fact, many of my dad’s closest friends within fundamentalism seemed to be focused on warning Christian school kids about the dangers of rock and roll. Men like Hugh Pyle, Danny Sweat, Barry Webb, Tim Fisher, and others preached the dangers of rock music as they were steadily paraded through on the chapel platform, during youth group, and as speakers for revival services. And I loved anti-rock sermons.
Growing up during the pre-internet age meant that much of my knowledge about bands and musicians was provided by the anti-rock music preaching that I heard. Many of the bands that became my favorites were first introduced to me during a sermon. For example, a sermon is how I first learned about Ozzy Osborne. An anti-rock music book is where I first learned about Motley Crue. Both when I was in elementary school. Much more harmful, an unintended consequence of the anti-rock and roll sermons was the way that many of them undermined the gospel.
One of the favorite rock and roll boogeymen for fundamentalist preachers was the Australian hard rock band AC/DC. Over the course of my youth, I heard many times that AC/DC stood for “anti-christ/devil’s child.” Except that’s 100% wrong.
Before hitting the big time, the band was sitting around the Young brother’s mom’s flat while trying to come up with a name for the band. At some point during the discussion, they noticed the AC/DC symbol on a sewing machine, thought it looked cool, and then named their fledgling band AC/DC.
Hearing the band relate that story while being interviewed on MTV caused everything the anti-rock preachers said to be suspect in my mind, including any and all parts about Jesus. If they were lying or misinformed about the band’s name, how I could trust anything else they had to say?
That bit of misinformation is just the tip of the iceberg of errors that riddled the anti-rock sermons. Throughout high school, me and my friends would basically play a game of anti-rock bingo during the sermons. The errors, obvious misinterpretations, and overall cluelessness about the genre we loved caused us to view the preachers and their message as a collective joke.
That doesn’t mean that all of my friends were immune to the siren call of an emotionally charged altar call. The best preachers could get some of the most hardened reprobates to tearfully stumble down the aisle and promise to rededicate their life to God, starting with getting rid of their rock tape collection. Many times, I wanted to suggest that instead of trashing their music they let me hold onto it. That way, when they wanted it back in about three weeks, and they always wanted it back, I could give it to them. I never suggested that, of course, because doing so would’ve been a good way to ensure that a newly “repentant” friend would feel compelled to earn some extra repentance points by turning me in. Instead, I ruefully watched the same friends throw away their rock music at least once a year, a decision they always regretted later.
I don’t know of a single kid who successfully swore of the “devil’s music” for more than a few weeks. You see, we Christian school kids loved rock and roll.
Figuring out how to quote lyrics out loud in class without the teachers figuring out what we were doing became a favorite pastime. Trading cassette tapes took the place of trading baseball cards. Being the first one to tell our friends about a new song or a new band became a benchmark for cool.
I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t share an anecdote that was simultaneously confusing and cool and that reveals the real heart of my dad. He loved Jesus and he wanted his children to love Jesus. While I may question some of his tactics, I won’t and was never able to question his motives. A Sunday morning during 8th grade revealed this and stayed with me, even during the height of my rebellion against God while I was in my twenties.
Every Sunday morning, the church my dad pastored paid for airtime on a local a.m. station – WCOA. Most churches sent prerecorded segments in for the station to play. Not my dad. He loved going in and doing it live. One Sunday morning, he took me with him.
WCOA was the sister station of Q-100, a top-forty station. At the time, top-forty was a much broader genre than it is now. Rock was included, as was true hip-hop. Q-100 was one of my favorite radio stations. Unbeknownst to my parents, I would lie awake at night, listening to it.
The studios for the two stations were in the same building. Getting to WCOA’s studio required passing Q-100’s studio. As we passed Q-100’s studio, the long-haired, tattooed DJ stuck his head out of the door and cheerfully greeted my fundamentalist pastor father as if the two were friends. That blew my mind. I knew who the DJ was, looked up to him as the epitome of cool, and could not wrap my brain around how someone that cool could know, much less be friends, with my decidedly uncool preacher father. To confuse things even more, the DJ invited us into the studio.
I don’t remember what he and my dad talked about. I do remember the song that was playing while we were in the studio -Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’.” To this day, whenever I hear that song, I think of my dad.
As I stood in what I considered the inner sanctum of coolness in the presence of a man whom I considered one of the high priests of cool listening to one of my favorite songs, I could not wrap my brain around what was happening. Rock music was playing, and my dad was nonchalantly chatting with the long-haired man who was responsible for that “evil” song being sent out over the airwaves. At the time, it didn’t compute.
And therein lies the rub.
My dad witnessed to that DJ. I know that, because the DJ would occasionally show up at church, as would several other DJ’s. Their presence in church wasn’t by accident. My dad fostered a friendship with them for the sake of the gospel.
I praise God for my father’s faithful obedience in sharing the gospel with sinners. That he was no put off in the slightest by the sinner, and befriended sinners for the sake of the gospel. Yet, in the same breath, I lament that his confused, hurting son was only able to ever see glimpses of that father.
Almost every time long hair on guys was brought up in my fundamentalist world, it was done so in a manner that dripped with disdain and with invectives hurled in the direction of any man who would dare have long hair. Rock music was taught as so detrimental to society that being in its mere presence was dangerous. That Sunday morning at the radio station, my dad interacted with that DJ in a manner that seemed to fly in the face of the attitude that he and my other authority figures had constantly displayed during my short life.
There is no such thing as a “what if,” but what would have happened if my dad’s tack towards pop culture and the youth in his church, including his own children, had been the warm, unafraid, non-hyperbolic man more concerned with the sinner than the sin that I witnessed in Q-100’s studio?
Oh, my word, what would have happened?
Instead, my friends and I were fed a steady diet of moralism. We were treated as Christians who needed to be protected from sin and not as sinners who needed Jesus.
And as our authority figures attempted to shape our worldview by shielding us from pop culture, they were unwittingly doing battle with a foe that they were no match for. And they were no match for it because our affections had yet to be turned towards Jesus.
The more they railed against our favorite bands, the more power they gave those bands. The more they told us silly warnings about kids who crashed their cars while listening to “Highway to Hell,” the cooler we felt as we blared our car radios with the windows down. In my own heart, based on what our authority figures were telling us, I thought that listening to rock music meant that I really wasn’t that different from my public-school peers. And that’s what one of the things that I wanted most of all.
I was wrong, of course. No amount of illicit cassette tapes nor knowledge of rock music could bridge the difference between me and the public-school kids. As high school ended, I became painfully aware of that. And during my final year of high school I began to have a sneaking suspicion that my life of convenience was at war with my life of conviction. I began to realize that finding answers to my childhood doubts and questions about God while embracing a world that my parents firmly eschewed meant far more than breaking rules and having fun.
During my senior year of high school, I began to realize that rock music mattered in ways that I had previously been oblivious to and that my authority figures had good reason to fear it. As I warily stepped into that world, I tried to continue to cling to the comforts of “home” but you can’t turn corners without leaving a path completely behind.
 Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2015), 7.