The Religious Education of Charlie Johnson – Born Christian

I was born a Christian. That statement may confound evangelicals, who put little stock in being born compared to being “born-again,” but it is an accurate description of my childhood. Some of my earliest memories are of my father praying over me before putting me to sleep. One night, when I was 5 or 6, he left my room without praying, because he realized he had forgotten to bring the dog inside. He forgot to come back, and without my bedtime prayer, I did not sleep that night.

My parents were (still are) devout Christians, and my home was filled with Christian paraphernalia. Every room had at least one Bible. Over my bed hung two framed cross stitches by my ancestor, Mable A. Peckham. One was the opening line of the Pledge of Allegiance. The other displayed the beloved Christian lullaby, “Jesus loves me, this I know / For the Bible tells me so.” (The juxtaposition of God and America is a recurring theme in my evangelical upbringing.) We went to church, a Bible-believing Baptist church, every week. Sometimes we went 2 or 3 or more times per week. I memorized Bible verses and catechism questions to “store up God’s word in my heart.” Everyone I knew was a Christian. I was, as most children are, completely oblivious to the religious diversity of the wider world.

“God is dead.” Friedrich Nietzsche (died 1900) elegantly summarized what he saw as the present and near future state of western culture. The dome of Christendom had cracked. God or any godlike metaphysical absolute seemed unnecessary to explain the workings of the cosmos. Even ethical absolutes appeared to him to be mere human constructs that covertly benefited the rule-makers at the expense of the rule-followers.  The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor speaks of the rise of the “buffered self.” Pre-modern people, he said, felt that they were surrounded by supernatural forces that could and often did directly influence their lives for better or worse. Modern science replaced those living, unpredictable powers with inert physical laws. Angels and demons, sprites and fairies, everything numinous and transcendent was banished to somewhere outside the everyday world of predictable functioning. A buffer had been erected between humanity and God, and the experience of living in the presence of God was slipping away from many people. Matthew Arnold captured the feeling in a wistful stanza:

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

In my evangelical household, God was very much alive, no buffers isolated me from the divine, and the Sea of Faith roared in my ears. God was present, or rather, omnipresent. A good turn of events was surely the blessing of God. A string of misfortune could be God punishing someone, or “trying to get their attention,” or testing their faithfulness. No event, from running into an old friend in the grocery store to the results of a national election, was devoid of supernatural import. God knew everything I did, everything I wanted to do or even thought of doing. There was no hiding from God; he poured through every crack. If I behaved well, God was happy. If I didn’t, God was angry, or at least disappointed. (Who knew a child had such power over God’s emotional equilibrium?) At times, the intensity of God’s presence was overwhelming, even terrifying, and the revivalist churches of my youth had no problem exploiting that in their evangelistic zeal. Margaret Miles, reflecting on her childhood in Augustine and the Fundamentalist’s Daughter, describes the weight of God’s infinite presence as so oppressive and invasive that it reduced her to nothing. God was too present, especially in the form of her overbearing parents, to allow her self any space.

For the most part, though, I was comforted by God’s presence. God took care of me. He had a plan for my life. He held me in the palm of his hand (whatever that meant). He would keep me safe, like Daniel in the lion’s den. He would talk to me through the Bible, and I would talk back to him in prayer. He would convict me when I sinned and take me back when I repented. As the cross-stitch said, I knew Jesus loved me, and that I loved him. I was born Christian. But that wasn’t enough.

The Sinner’s Prayer is what really matters most. At least, it’s the preferred method of Baptist parents for ensuring that their children won’t go to hell.  It’s a form prayer, which would normally be bad because Catholics use form prayers; but this one gets a pass because it is absolutely central to the dynamic of revivalist evangelicalism. It goes something like this: “Dear Jesus, I know that I’m a sinner and that I deserve hell for my sins. But I believe that you sent Jesus Christ to die on the cross to save me from my sins. And he rose again the third day. Please forgive me for all my sins and give me eternal life. Thank you for saving me. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” It’s best to stick to the form pretty closely, though God allows some flexibility on the wording, since you are praying for eternal salvation, after all.

I first prayed The Prayer when I was, I think, 5 years old. I asked my older sister how to get saved, and she proceeded to lead me in prayer, making sure I got it right. Instructing me in the way of righteousness was one of my sister’s hobbies growing up, doubtless due to her sinless perfection, which my family swears persists to this very day. The Sinner’s Prayer has drawbacks, though, including doubt. Did I do it right? Did I mean it? Enough? Am I supposed to feel something? From time to time, just to make sure, I would pray it again. It couldn’t hurt. This cycle, in which (usually young) Christians struggle with “assurance of salvation,”  is a hallmark of Baptist churches, particularly where aggravated by revivalism. More on that soon.

This semester at Villanova University (my employer) there will be a graduate  class entitled Christian Spirituality after the Death of God. Much of the world struggles to re-establish a connection to God that the culture has severed. Several strategies have been suggested by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to “re-enchant” the world so that God can once again be perceived. The death of God is a real issue that deserves careful thought, and I do not wish to make light of it, but I find myself able to relate to it only in the most distant way. After all, it’s difficult to feel estranged from someone who has been in your life since before you can remember, someone who speaks to you and listens when you speak, someone who holds you when you cry and inspires you to nobility. I don’t know how to fix the problem of the death of God, but I wonder what would happen if every child had a Bible in each room, a Jesus-loves-me stitch over his bed, and a daddy to pray over him at night.

Next: Raised Fundamentalist

Series Home

Published in: on August 23, 2012 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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