by John Ellis
In December of 1997, the Oscar winning film Good Will Hunting was released. I watched it three times during the movie’s theatrical run. At the time, I enjoyed the movie, of course, but my fascination with it was mainly driven by the narrative surrounding its journey from page to screen.
The short version of the story goes that buddies Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both struggling and unknown actors at the time, had miraculously sold Miramax the rights to their script. A true rags to riches tale. Granted, none of that is how it really happened, but I didn’t know that at the time. In late 1997 and early 1998 the tale of two unknown actors plucked from obscurity resonated with me. So, I began writing my own screenplay.
That screenplay is in a box, hidden somewhere in my house. One day, maybe I’ll pull it out and let people laugh at read it. Until then, all that needs to be known is that the protagonist was a high school student trapped in a strict fundamentalist family who finds her true self through art.
The irony of it, provided by hindsight and much personal and spiritual growth, is that at the time I truly believed that I had attained to a perspective on the other side of that story. As a newly minted ex-fundamentalist, I believed that I had escaped and found my true self. The truth was that I hadn’t. Which may be why I was never able to finish the screenplay. I had yet to live the ending.
I was correct on one point, though; I had obtained my freedom. Well, I was “correct” based on my definition of freedom. The thing was, I still didn’t really know who I was or what I believed. And I also didn’t understand that Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin (John 8:34).”
At first, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with my new-found freedom. With all my high school buddies either still in college, the military, or married, I really didn’t have anyone in Pensacola to hang out with. I also didn’t really know how to make the most of my new freedom. One night, alone and bored, I decided to visit Seville Quarter – the famed Pensacola night club that had earned legendary status in my mind for the reported debauchery that took place inside its walls.
About five years later, I landed a job bartending at Seville Quarter, and was pleased to discover that the rumored debauchery paled in comparison to the actual debauchery that took place inside the club’s walls. During my time working there, I basically lived at the club. But that’s a story for a later chapter.
In the early winter of 1998, though, nightclubs were still well outside of my comfort zone. I had been to bars, but not a nightclub. I stood outside Seville watching the long line of clubbers waiting to enter and realized that I didn’t have a clue about what I was supposed to do – neither the process of getting inside nor what to do once I was inside.
One of the dangerous things about the first couple of years of my “freedom” was that I was terrified of anyone discovering my background. I was afraid that Christianity still clung to me, and that it was obvious that I had grown up in strict fundamentalism. I was mortified at the thought that people might consider me a Christian. That fear compelled me to do anything and everything to demonstrate that I was not a Christian.
However, while standing outside of Seville Quarter that night, that fear worked itself out in the opposite direction. I went home.
During the first month or so of 1998, my loneliness drove me to attend my parent’s church on Sunday nights. In a theme that was to reemerge from time to time during my twenties, regardless of what I thought about the beliefs and rules of the church, there was no denying that the people were friendly and welcoming in ways that helped assuage my growing loneliness. Plus, they had a big bonfire after the Sunday evening services over which they roasted hotdogs and marshmallows.
The young adults of the church were mostly PCC students, and they were quite confused by me. By this time, my parents had begun traveling in a new ministry and were on the road the first few months of 1998. I don’t know what my parents had told the church about me, but whatever it was the young adults were not expecting me.
With really nothing to lose, knowing that they would never deny me hotdogs as long as I wanted hotdogs, I was completely honest about who I was and what I did and did not believe for the first time in my life around fundamentalists.
We’d stand around the bonfire, and I would openly (and obnoxiously) brag about drinking, smoking, and my incredulity at Christianity, trying to impress them with my rebellion. In turn, they would attempt to answer my questions about things like the problem of evil, the veracity of the ancient book that they claimed was written by God, and the validity of the rules that they were voluntarily placing themselves under. I enjoyed the attention brought to me by what I viewed as a game and didn’t feel badly in the slightest that it was not a game for the PCC students. They were genuinely concerned for me.
Those Sunday evening conversations abruptly ended once I got a job delivering pizzas for Pizza Hut.
I had been working in the shop at a Thrifty Car Rental. But the pay was terrible and the job incredibly boring. Stuck by myself in the shop all day with nothing to do but wash cars and change the oil, I began looking for a different job almost as soon as I started working at Thrifty.
I had also found part time work at the local concert arena(s), but the work was way too sporadic to be considered my actual job.
Wanting to be an actor, but not really sure of where to start, I had walked up to the box office of Pensacola’s Saenger Theatre not long after arriving home that December, told the attendant that I was an actor, and asked who I needed to speak to about employment. She directed me to a door on the side of the theatre.
The door led to the theatre’s office and I repeated my objective to the receptionist. She smiled, reached in her desk, and pulled out an application. As she handed it to me, she asked, “Do you know where the Bayfront Auditorium is?”
Confused why she would ask me that, I told her that I did. Confusing me even further, she informed me that that was where I would be working most of the time. “You’ll also occasionally be working at the Civic Center,” she added as I sat down to fill out what I still thought was an application to be an actor.
Filling it out, though, my confusion was quickly cleared up and I realized that I was sadly mistaken. It wasn’t an application to be an actor (it didn’t take me long to find out that that’s not how the theatre and movie worlds work); it was an application to help unload trucks and set up for the acts performing at the Bayfront Auditorium, Civic Center, and Saenger Theatre.
Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I filled it out, handed it to the receptionist, and left. A couple of weeks later, after having forgotten about it, I received a phone call letting me know that a job was available. The gig was unloading trucks and helping setup for the Matchbox 20 concert. Upon hearing that, I immediately said that I’d be there.
As much as I thought that I knew about the ways of the world, as “cool” as I believed myself to be, working that gig was a huge eye-opener for me. When I showed up at the Bayfront Auditorium, I was relishing the opportunity to work a rock concert and proudly considered my transition complete. I had gone from being a preacher’s kid trapped in fundamentalism to not just attending rock concerts but working them. As I strode around the arena in the direction of the loading docks, I smugly became more self-assured in my perceived coolness. “If only the people at BJU could see me now,” I wished.
Once I got to the loading docks, that smugness lasted all of two seconds, if that long.
I can’t begin to explain the contrast between the people that I knew, even my experience with unsaved co-workers up to that point, and the carnival atmosphere that roadies and groupies for a rock band raucously live while working and living behind the scenes. I later learned that the lifestyle is found in basically all touring events – circuses, theatre, fairs, et al. In winter of 1998, though, that lifestyle was utterly foreign to me.
During that long day that turned into night, while unloading the trucks and helping set up the huge speaker stacks and lighting rigs, I was astonished at the things I heard and saw and was offered. Sadly, much of what I heard and saw and did while working that concert helped set the bar for my expectations moving forward for how I wanted my life to be shaped.
For some reason, and something that I still occasionally struggle understanding, right out of the gate the behavioral bar for my life as an open and “outed” heathen was set far lower than it is for most people. I entered a world of darkness that the vast majority of people, including non-Christians, have zero experiential understanding of, even if they’re aware of its existence. In my own heart, I have to guard against ignoring that I was being given what I wanted and then being tempted to ask God why He allowed a totally unprepared Christian school kid to step into that world. I didn’t know where to find it, but less than two months after having been a BJU student, almost every conceivable vice was within my rebellious reach.
Sadly, that Matchbox 20 gig was just the appetizer.
I had never delivered pizzas before, but I heard that it was good money. The first pizza place at which I applied hired me.
The store’s manager was a friendly man who was single. He was also unethical in more ways than one. It was a rare work shift that I didn’t leave with free pizza and buffalo wings with the manager’s encouragement. So much free food walked out of that store, that I marvel at his ability when he did the books to match the stock he was ordering with the stock being sold. His lack of ethics also extended to his hiring practices and interactions with his employees.
Like all Pizza Huts at the time, the store had a sit-down restaurant. The wait-staff reflected the manager’s taste in women. And most of my female co-workers clamored for his attention.
The manager loved throwing parties at his house for his employees. His was the first house that I ever entered that had a fully stocked bar in the kitchen and a stripper pole in the living room.
No matter how much I try, I’ll never forget the first party I attended at his house. It resembled much of what the authority figures of my youth had warned me about, and I remember thinking, “It’s even better than they said!”
As the action swirled around me, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. However, at parties like that, you don’t really need to know what to do, you just need to be willing to do whatever is offered or suggested. My earlier referenced fear that my fundamentalist past would be discovered came into play in a bad way that night. Afraid that if I said “no” to anything, I would be found out, I said “yes” to everything.
As a side-note – if you’re a parent, teacher, or anyone who interacts with kids on a regular basis, be very careful about how you discuss vices. With good motives, to be sure, my authority figures failed to discern between things like marijuana and cocaine. When you have it drilled into you that all drugs are bad with no gradations allowed, your reasoning becomes, “Well, I did this, may as well do that.” I recognize that chances are I would’ve made the same decisions no matter how well I had been educated, but I heard that same sentiment ruefully expressed by individuals during my time in the drug culture. With my own culpability acknowledged, the fact remains that I entered that world without the knowledge needed to make better choices if I had wanted to make better choices.
I had a lot of firsts that night, none of them good. My education in how to embrace depravity was continuing at an accelerated rate. Among other things, that night, or, rather, that early morning marked the first time that I drove drunk (and high).
I didn’t want to drive home, and I was terrified the entire drive. But I was more scared of being exposed as a novice to the party lifestyle. I mistakenly assumed that admitting that I was drunk would mean that I was admitting to not knowing how to drink and handle my liquor. So, I white-knuckled it the whole way home. While seemingly a small thing in light of that night’s events, driving drunk the first time represented a larger willingness to embrace an utter disregard for others in order to serve myself.
I arrived home safely, but once you stark checking off boxes like that, the successive boxes become easier and easier to check off.
Sin is corrosive, and none of us can control it. None of us. Over the years, I’ve met people at various stages of rebelling against their Christian upbringing. After sharing my story, I’m inevitably told, “I’m not you. I’m never going to be that stupid.”
Sadly, and predictably, I will frequently later hear about the tragic trajectory of their life. By then, if I’m allowed the opportunity to speak with them, their perspective will have drastically changed since our previous conversation. Their definition of “stupid” will have moved quite a bit. Repeating myself from earlier, there is a reason that the Bible teaches that we are slaves to sin.
Because of my desire to leave my Christian upbringing far in the past combined with some of my initial experiences into a world of depravity that most people only ever hear about, I embraced a lifestyle that took me to depths of depravity that I didn’t know how to escape from and that eventually almost killed me. By God’s grace, and only by God’s grace, I’m not dead or in prison. More importantly, God has made me alive in Christ. But that didn’t happen until years after that party.
In just a few short months after having been a dorm student at Bob Jones University, I had managed to enter a world of depraved darkness that fascinated me and that allowed me to do whatever I wanted. I had almost everything that I believed I wanted. All that remained was my acting career. But I had a plan.
That March, I drove to Greenville, SC to visit my girlfriend who was at BJU for her final semester.
On the permission slip to stay off campus for the weekend, she listed that she would be staying with her parents. Often, rules only serve to restrain those who want to be restrained.
Afraid that she would get busted if anyone saw the two of us together, we stocked up on food and alcohol and holed up in our hotel room for the weekend. While there, we made plans.
She had been offered a job at WMUU upon graduation, the radio station that was owned by BJU. And she was already in the process of looking for an apartment in town. We decided that after graduation, I would move to Greenville. Knowing that it would be risky, but believing that we could pull it off, the plan was for me to move in with her. I also proposed to her that weekend, and we decided to get married that August. We’d only have to hide our living arrangement for a little over two months.
Our ultimate goal was to move to Los Angeles. While still mostly ignorant of how the entertainment industry worked, I knew that if I was going to become a movie star I would need to move to L.A. I also knew that living in L.A. would be much easier to manage on two incomes.
I’m not entirely sure what she was thinking; I know some of it, but her motives that were driven by her past are not mine to confess. My motives, though, are my sins to own. And as I write this, I’m reminding myself that I am now a forgiven child of God whose sins are covered by the blood of Jesus, because this isn’t easy to remind myself of, especially in front of others.
My sole motive for proposing to her was because I needed her help to get to LA. Once there and once my acting career was well on the way to being established, I would no longer need her. I proposed to her with the intention of eventually leaving her; sooner rather than later, I hoped.
I had fallen so much in love with sin, I was incapable of thinking about anybody but myself. Free from the constraints of fundamentalism, I was constructing my life with the sole purpose of fulfilling the desires of my flesh. Seated firmly on the throne of my heart, I served myself at the expense of everyone else around me.
For those who want to glorify my past, know that you are glorifying a despicable human being who was only just beginning to live for self in 1998. I will go to my grave bearing scars from the decisions I made back then. Thankfully, by God’s grace, upon entering my grave, I will be awakened fully sanctified in the presence of my Savior. My scars will be no more. But until that day, I’m afraid that I will always struggle with deep shame. You do not want my life.
In the previous chapter, I mentioned my dorm supervisor who is now serving as a pastor in Colorado. He had entered BJU an older student, saved from a life filled with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Whenever he would share his testimony, I would sit back and think, “That sounds cool. I want that life.”
That’s my fear whenever I share my testimony – that someone will sit back and think, “That sounds cool. I want that life.” Because that person is ignoring what I ignored. During his testimony, Mr. ****** would always say something like, “I was miserable in my sin.”
Years later, when I would be huddled somewhere, fighting thoughts of suicide, I would cry to myself, “Mr. ****** was right. I hate this life.” And in those moments, all of his words would flood my mind, including, and most preciously, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It took a couple years of total despair before I finally turned from my sin and submitted to God through faith in Jesus, but Mr. ******’s testimony became a light shining the way.
If you’re reading this, and all you’re hearing is fun found in freedom from constraint, know that I pray that you will one day despair like I did. And during your despair, I pray that you will remember that true freedom only comes through repenting of your sins and placing your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In 1998, though, my despair, while beginning to peek out, was yet to fully arrive. I believed that I was well on my way to my heart’s desires.
Early that summer, I packed my belongings into my powder-blue, 1988 Buick Century and drove to Greenville, SC.
After we moved in together, the two of us fought almost every evening. Screaming obscenities at each other, I would eventually leave before the neighbors could call the cops. A couple of hours later, I would return, and we would apologize to each other. I apologized so that she wouldn’t kick me out; she apologized so that I wouldn’t leave. We were the definition of dysfunctional.
It was obvious that our parents were aghast at our engagement, and for good reasons. Her parents pushed back on it a little bit. Mine didn’t really say anything but asked lots of questions. Years later, I asked my dad why he didn’t tell me that it was a bad idea. He responded with the rhetorical question, “At the time, would you have cared what I thought?”
I don’t know about her, but the fighting never really bothered me. My only concern was getting from her what I wanted. The arguments were the cost of doing business. As we both began to increasingly sink into altering our minds, we became strangers with shared memories. By the time our relationship ended three years later, we didn’t even know each other.
In the meantime, we built whatever relationship we had on rebellion against our pasts. In some ways, her job at WMUU made that easier. It’s easier to rebel if you have a foil.
At the time, she still considered herself a Christian. Frankly, I didn’t really care what she considered herself to be so long as she didn’t allow any standards and rules stand in the way of what I wanted to do. There was little chance of that happening, though.
Hungover from the night before, she would drag herself to the daily devotions that opened the work day at WMUU. Since her job was selling radio ads, she wasn’t really required to be in the office. After making an appearance, she would return to our apartment and we would laugh at the gullibility of her bosses while we mocked that morning’s devotions.
At the beginning of the summer, we attended a BJU approved church. We did so because we were worried about her BJU bosses becoming suspicious.
Our conversations after attending church were usually centered on picking apart the sermon and finding reasons to dismiss it. Eventually, the conversation would turn to a mutual reinforcing of why our beliefs were correct and strict Christianity’s were bigoted. As the weeks wore on, we became more and more upset at the stance against things like abortion and homosexuality articulated by Christianity. It didn’t take long for us to begin ignoring the potential for her getting fired, and so we stopped going to church altogether.
One of the nice things about large churches with over a thousand members is that it’s easy to slip away and nobody notice. Nobody ever questioned us about our church attendance, or lack thereof. Nobody at her work ever took the time to inquire into her spiritual state, even when red flags were everywhere. The sad irony is that the few months of my post-college adulthood, when I was the closest to Christians than I would be again until nearly a decade later, it was also the time in which I was confronted the least about my need to repent and place my faith in Jesus. The years following that summer saw Christians popping up in unexpected places to call me to repentance. I can’t remember a single instance throughout 1998 when anyone asked me if I was a Christian. And, outside of my parents, I can’t remember a single individual that year that told me that they were praying for me, much less shared the gospel with me. We should never assume that the quiet couple sitting in our pews are Christians.
By the end of that summer, I had begun to embrace a cognitive atheism. The writings of Bertrand Russell, Sartre, and others had begun to work on me. No longer content to simply dismiss the faith of my parents, I began to openly embrace the opposing worldview. It was also around that time that I booked my first theatre gig.
Less than a year after my career as a BJU student had ended, I had discovered and embraced hedonism, finally jettisoned Christianity completely, and started my acting career. During the fall of 1998, I believed that I was destined for fame, fortune, and all the pleasures that I could ever dream of. Sin is pleasurable for a season. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my season of embracing the darkness without any real cost was quickly coming to an end. I had no way of knowing that around the bend of my life’s journey lay years of pain. Apart from the victory found in Christ, sin will always have the last laugh.