I grew up in a fundamentalist church. I didn’t know it was fundamentalist at the time. I thought everybody looked at the Bible through the dispensational viewpoint of the notes in a King James Scofield Bible. I thought everybody watched odd and terrifying Rapture-themed movies at Halloween (and that was a full two decades before Left Behind). I thought everybody had a list of rules—verbalized and silent, written and assumed—by which daily life was shaped and measured.
So for me, Matthew Paul Turner’s Churched (Waterbrook, 2008) is a return to a familiar world. The steady telling of his story helped me relive mine, with one huge exception: I don’t remember my world being nearly this funny. There are too many laugh-out- loud moments to count. Turner is an engaging memoirist – an unusual perspective among Christian writers—whose quirky eye for the bizarre in his upbringing meshes beautifully with his reflective appreciation for the mercies that shaped his heart. Thus, the subtitle of the book: “one kid’s journey toward God despite a holy mess.”
Turner’s story begins at age five, when his family decided to join an independent fundamental Baptist church. He had to dress up for church, with a clip-on tie (one that he insisted “got fresh with my clavicle” by licking his neck). But his mom said, ‘I think you look like a perfect little Baptist”. That was just the beginning of years of managing appearances for religion’s sake.
Within weeks, Matthew was learning about a more narrow view of faith and life. “ I had only been a Baptist for a few weeks, but it was already clear that the God who came to the Baptist church was a lot more particular than the one I heard Methodists talk about—or he was schizophrenic.” (p. 30) Pastor Nolan became the center of defining the standards of right and wrong, “shining examples for us to follow and obey” (p. 37) whose fiery (and loud) sermons authoritatively shaped a new view of God. “Our Sundays felt different after we joined Pastor Nolan’s flock. It wasn’t simply the sermons and the people that changed, but to me, God seemed to be changing. I didn’t have him all figured out at the time, but one thing I did notice about the new God we worshiped; he followed us home.” (p.41)
Over the ensuing months and years, Turner encounters what we now call a worldview that defined God, dress, speech and manhood as well as keys to Christian living like holiness, evangelism and spiritual warfare. The fundamentalist way is an all-consuming way. Basic to it all is the idea that the world is the enemy and to be avoided at all costs. ‘Gettin’ to Glory was what our lives were all about. The way we saw things, it didn’t matter that God had created the heavens and the earth—he didn’t want us excited about living here.” (p. 43) Joy is always suspicious to a fundamentalist.
The first step in this life was, of course, to ask Jesus into your heart, which was a day to celebrate.
“Pastor Nolan told us that all the angels in heaven threw a big party on that day….I asked Pastor Nolan if he thought any of the angels danced during the celebration. ‘No, Matthew,’ he said. ‘Angels don’t dance when they get excited. That would make them demons.’….’ Well, maybe the angels skip.’ ‘They might skip, but not seductively.’ The angels skipped—modestly—a lot for me during my childhood because I asked Jesus into my heart often. It happened anytime Pastor Nolan preached about hell, the Tribulation or communist China….Sometimes I did it just to be sure I wasn’t going to hell. Other times it happened because I felt scared, and asking Jesus into my heart numbed my fear until the next sermon on the End Times.” (pp. 55-56)
Fear is a major motivator in the fundamentalist approach to life—and it sticks deep in the soul for a long, long time. There’s fear of the world, fear over gender identification (“Jesus doesn’t like men with long hair”, p.62), fear over breaking the holiness code, fear over messing up after the age of accountability, fear over hell (“being a fundamentalist is pointless without hell….It was our fear of hell that fueled our motivation for living the way we did” –p. 108), fear over public schools, fear over the devil’s wiles and fear over thinking of a God who doesn’t fit a predetermined picture. This fear is meant to be attacked with personal bravado that is renamed faith. After telling about being reprimanded in Sunday School for coloring Jesus with green and tangerine crayons, Turner observes:
“A part of me has always believed that God was bigger than how the people at my church talked about him. They thought of him as big, of course, and strong….But the big God that my pastor and Sunday School teachers talked about seemed like an if-he-ever-stepped-on-me-he’d-smash-me kind of big. It always made God seem unloving and uncoordinated. The people at my church were always very certain of God. All of the most difficult questions about him seemed to be easily dispatched with a couple of Bible verses. “His ways are not our ways” was the standard answer for the unanswerable. Imagining God as anything less or more than how Pastor Nolan described him was borderline abomination. I suppose that’s why a green and orange Jesus was ridiculous to Mrs. Snover. Coloring outside the lines was a chance no one was willing to take.” (p. 93)
That consuming fear of messing something up reveals a suspicion that grace in our faith is really for wimps. Once, when he was caught cheating in his Christian school classroom by the teacher (Pastor Nolan’s mom), Turner writes, “I did what I always did when I felt the pounding ache of anxiety and I couldn’t find a guillotine; I prayed. God, I thought. Do you help sinners? Do you even like sinners? If you do, please help me. P.S. You are awesome.”(p.131) Hear the unnamable suspicion: God may have made me, but doesn’t really like me much—especially at my point of mess and weakness. Turner struggled with easy distraction and “made a deal with Jesus hoping that he would help me at least concentrate on the things that truly mattered, or at least the ones that mattered to my mother” (p. 141) There’s little freedom and room for being human in this striving to get it right that often stays for a long time with those who adopt this approach to faith.
Turner confesses, “fundamentalism made me weird…I think some people at my church believed that was the point, that somewhere in the Bible, Jesus declared, ‘ Blessed are the weird’ Our weirdness was a form of obedience unto God.” (p. 148) That way of living faith is held forth as a badge of faithfulness and love for God. But for all the laughs (and again, this is a truly funny book) there is also a certain sadness in it, for the pursuit is impossible by design. Following Jesus by “doing the right thing” and singing to faith presets installed by somebody else’s view of God is a profound and wounding experience.
That’s where Churched leads. Like a movie that tells a true story and uses the last scene to update the character’s lives, the last story of the book is about Matthew and his wife looking for a new church. He has come to a sobering conclusion: “fundamentalism has little to do with Jesus.” (p.213) So, over the years, when he visits churches and talks with the pastors, he is simply looking for Jesus. He has run the gamut of contemporary expressions of church in the United States—big and small, slick and simple. He doesn’t much trust pastors, but over coffee confesses to one that he is “not very good at doing church…” but says “I’m passionate about Jesus…and what I’m hoping to find in a church is a place all about joining God in the resurrection story.” (p.222)
And in the end, that’s the strength of Churched. It is one man’s spiritual journey: compelling, poignant, funny, pointed, sad, scary—and yet hopeful. A part of me wonders if it connects as strongly with folks who haven’t had the fundamentalist experience. But Churched is not just a memoir; it is a cautionary tale of what can happen when Jesus is named and yet safely shrink-wrapped in our lives and churches. It’s a plea to name and live Jesus—real, raw, outside the lines and full of resurrection life.