Why Fundamentalist Religion Did Not Work For Me (Letters from Kalien)

Screen Shot 2015-02-24 at 9.23.55 AMDuring my earliest years while sitting in church, starting when I was about seventeen, my mind would wander to the people I had begun reading about but was not allowed to talk about—John Galt, Johann Sebastian Bach Smith, Valentine Michael Smith, Tom Sawyer, Guy Montag, and Helmholtz Watson to name just a few. The church I attended was a fundamentalist church. There mental correctness (for as a young man thinketh in his heart, so is he) and uniformity were always the aim—thwarted constantly by my natural high spirits and by the natural mediocrity of most of the preachers—but when thwarted always exacting vengeance.

Free-thinking and intelligence were in everything replaced by rules, and by a long ago outworn—hence, threatened and fanatical—moral dogmatism. The highest aim of the church was to produce a perfectly obedient, militarist, puritanical moron who could quote scripture—but ONLY from the inerrant, infallible King James Version (if it was good enough for Paul and Silas, bless God, it should be good enough for me).

That aim, or lifestyle, inspired leaders that were wonderfully vindictive against anything that threatened to be creative. And having a lively and independent mind, I slowly became the natural enemy of those leaders. I realized much later that I scared the heaven out of them.

Take a simpleton and give him power and confront him with intelligence—and you have a tyrant. I was once publicly tongue-lashed by one of those preachers for quoting Arthur F. Holmes and another time was openly reprimanded for reading a book by Madeline L’ Engle. The only Walking on Water to be done was by Jesus Christ himself—I was often unfavorably compared to Peter.

I waged thirty years as a minister in sustained rebellion against most everything fundamentalism stood for, paying the cost both necessarily and willingly. I was not, during those early years, well equipped for such a struggle—though I was a conscious evangelist of resistance, and got pretty good at it toward the end.

I had, maybe because of the prolonged awkwardness of my youth, an enormous craving for personal dignity—and in the fundamentalist church dignity simply was not possible for one who was not a zealot and who could not regard mechanical obedience as the summit of virtue. I don’t think I could have survived those three decades of brainwashing intact if I hadn’t had a Mom who somehow—in spite of her raising—introduced me to the joy of reading, even though the characters from the books I mentioned earlier, found hidden under my pillow, made her shudder.

Thankfully, I had lived days of my own wandering in the mountains—during the magic of my youth—when my life seemed to come to me naturally, with an ease and a rightness, as life must come to the red-tailed hawk soaring above the meadow. When other boys were fantasizing over Playboy, I was dreaming of Galt’s Gulch.

I know now that these next days will be my best days, and I know they will not come to me on the orders of anybody or because of anybody’s opinion of them or because somebody has allowed me to have them. I know they will be holy days, my sabbaths, and they have come to me freely because I am free. I have realized that sitting in pews under the command of close-minded dictators is the least becoming thing I can do. Though I sat on hard wooden pews every week for over four decades of life, my privilege was that my mind was not in that pew. It didn’t have to be. It had better places to go.

(Author’s note: I’m very indebted and credit is due to Wendell Berry and his thought-provoking essay Long-Legged House for the inspiration and framework of this letter.)

One Response to “Why Fundamentalist Religion Did Not Work For Me (Letters from Kalien)”

  1. Randy–

    I’m so sorry that you were so scarred by your upbringing. Your anger is palpable and surface, and it’s clear that Jesus has not finished his work healing you.

    Jesus modeled “overturning the tables” in the synagogue for the things that “did not honor his father.”

    “Turning over” the legalism and closed mindedness of some of the fundamentalist practicioners is a fine exercise which tends to remove the hurt, because we are then righting the wrongs we perceive.

    Scott

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