Before The Snarlers Grabbed Power

attack dog

This is a sampling from a book I’m writing, tentatively entitled The Intimidator’s Club. It wrestles with the question: “What do I do when the near-angelic choir that wooed me to Christ morphs into an attack-dog platoon?” The term, “evangelical” once described brainy believers who lofted the Scriptures high while remaining culturally engaged. They were just as likely to lean to the political left as well as to the right. Here, I describe how I came to the faith in the 1970’s — a very different time indeed.  

I blame my parents – and the church that wooed me to Christ. Neither prepared me for the bully onslaught. Maybe Mom devastated me once with an ill-timed frown and my opera-buff father played his music too loud, but our home was filled with hugs and laughter. The church, which I discovered in my teens, was the epitome of love and integrity. How was I to know that the big bad world was filled with domineering alpha-leaders suckling stress like bottom-feeding carp? And who knew that national evangelical organizers would transform their movement into a tribe of partisan pit bulls?

No one told me. I wasn’t warned. I hereby cry foul.

The story of my sheltered life begins at the apex of white America’s post-World War 2 triumph, when veterans drove their families into the suburbs on the back of the GI Bill. I was born on August 14, 1956, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in a typical middle-class family of the 1950’s mold: My mother stopped working shortly before my birth while my father kept his job in the insurance industry.  My only sister and sibling, Cathy, was born in 1958.  We moved to a Los Angeles suburb in 1960 and stayed there for eight years, then to New Jersey in 1969 and finally to Bloomfield, Connecticut, in 1972.  My family faithfully trundled to the Episcopal Church (often called “Catholic lite”) every Sunday morning, with Mom joining the altar guild and Dad singing in the choir and manning the vestry. I learned all about the Christian calendar in Sunday School and confirmation class, but not much else.

Maybe I was dense. Maybe my friendly priests and Sunday School teachers told me Jesus died for my sins and it just didn’t sink in, but I suspect I was one more casualty in the era’s Sunday-morning religion: Dress up the kids until they itch and hush them during the boring hymns. The ten-to-twenty-minute sermon invariably portrayed God as an affable and affirming great psychologist in the sky who wishes everyone would be nice. It was, in H. Richard Niebuhr’s words, a religion in which “a God without wrath brought men [and women] without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”

I wound up believing in this wishy-washy god. I also believed all religions were true.

Supposedly impious Connecticut, where church attendance sinks to near-Western European depths, was the scene of my spiritual birth. Modernism’s I’m-okay-you’re-okay deity crumbled before the redemptive, personal, and Almighty Being.

It happened in one of history’s most insipid born-again sagas. I admit it. My own conversion story embarrasses me. Others tell of the junkie-to-Jesus life, or the I-nearly-threw-myself-out-the-twelfth-floor-window life, or the Jesus-saved-me-from-the-workaholic-life. Me? I was a WASP teen, down and out in a happy family with a nice dog and a loud Siamese.

But I had fallen into the early-teen blues. Life looked bleak. Like all 1970’s youths, I longed to “be different.” Maybe I’d bum around the nation and pal-up with honky-tonk cowboys. I’d fix a barbed wire fence and brand a steer (the sky’s the limit) – except I knew I was weak and I’d swoon under the pressure of that malevolent beast, society. I’d join its treadmill. I’d fatten up in an office chair while dreaming away my unfulfilled dreams. Poor little me: There I was, saddled with loving parents, a good family, the promise of a stellar education, and destined to live at the world’s pinnacle. What could be more miserable?

I told myself I hated life.

Please don’t ask a demoralized, privileged teen for intellectual consistency. I didn’t know I was a half-baked nihilist (I hadn’t heard the word), so I failed to see the irreconcilable paradox between my pity-me philosophy and the reality of the risen Christ. When friends invited me to weekly Bible studies at the local Baptist church, I gladly accepted.

I quickly discovered my friends were weird. They sang together and prayed and never swore. And they were hilarious, a veritable fit. True, they were fundamentalists (they strode great strides to disprove evolution), but they didn’t condemn everyone. We were all emulating our mentor, Rich Ainsworth, a 25-year-old graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, the hub for Dispensationalism – a theology popularized by John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) and Cyrus I. Scofield (1843-1921), and which segments history into distinct phases culminating in a climactic “Rapture,” when the faithful will be snatched off the Earth before a Great Tribulation and Christ’s Second Coming. The Left Behind series dramatizes the Dispensationalist angle.

Rich did not fit the Dispensationalist rap of grim preachers condemning an apostate church. He urged us to honor our parents and attend their churches on Sunday mornings even while we lapped up the Bible on Tuesday evenings. Nor did he condemn tongue-speaking Pentecostals, who embraced the contemporary movement of the Holy Spirit and the application of God’s gifts. He disagreed with them (most Dispensationalists are cessationists: they believe the gifts died with the apostles), but he did not berate them from the pulpit or deny their Christian validity.

I’m forever grateful for this clot of fundamentalists, who nurtured the most loving, graceful, joyful and holy community I’ve ever seen. I still think of that church as my church.

The Bible studies dispelled my universalism – the world’s religions contradict one another and cannot all be equally true – and Christianity made intellectual sense. Humanity’s sin was self-evident, illuminating the necessity of Christ’s sacrificial death and physical resurrection.  I gradually came into agreement with classical Christianity’s doctrines, but it took me months before I gave God my whole being.  I plodded along in my hatred of life until that fateful day, July 6, 1973. I finally worked up the courage to invite a girl on a beach trip with some friends, but it was soon clear she was barely aware of my existence. I fell into my pity-party: Woe is me. Life is a treadmill until we part this mortal coil and I am but a cog, stardust, a miserable piece of flesh destined for a creaky office chair.  Nobody notices me and everybody hates me and …

The obvious slapped me: I enjoyed this.  Self-pity was fun. I could wallow in it all day and every day nigh unto the decades, convinced I was ever so profound. I could even write books and tour the talk show circuit and make millions promoting life’s misery. Call me Christian nihilism’s poster boy (Is that a concept?).

So there I was, confronting my self-centered absurdity in the back seat of an old Chevy on the drive home, crammed with five people. Evangelical theologians would – very rightly – say I saw the insidious, self-deceiving nature of Sin. They’d tell me to give myself to the God who redeemed us through the death of his Son on the cross.

I did just that, and I was engulfed in immediate peace.  I looked out the window and saw scrub pines, scrawny bushes and pale sand.  Nothing was ever so beautiful.  God had created each pine needle and each bush.  Creation had a purpose, I had a purpose and I now knew God would not abandon me. I was so happy I cried. I artfully shielded my face with my fingers.

*    *    *

Friends told me they marveled at my subsequent growth.  I devoured the New Testament and read a slew of books, including those of C.S. Lewis, John Stott, Paul Little, and Francis Schaeffer (I didn’t understand him then; I often disagree with him now).  I helped establish a Christian coffee house in Hartford, became a vocal participant in weekly Bible studies and led a small group in my family’s home. Several, including my father, told me I’d make a good pastor, but I was convinced my destiny was professional writing and I ran away from the very thought of seminary.

I leaned to the political left, but we did that in the early ‘70’s without fear. The most prominent Christian politicians were Republican Senator Mark Hatfield of Oregon and Democratic Senator Harold Hughes of Iowa.  Both were progressive. Both were pro-life. Born-again Christians rallied to Democrat Jimmy Carter in 1976, a year Newsweek declared “The Year of the Evangelical” partly because it lurched the nation leftward. Almost all my friends saw that politics dwells in the gray area of a necessarily secular society, so we could agree to disagree between Bible studies.

To be sure, we early ‘70’s Jesus freaks were flaky. Dispensationalism seemed prone to that. There was Dallas graduate Hal Lindsey and his best-seller, The Late Great Planet Earth, which compelled us to see the oncoming rapture behind every headline. The impending end times would snuff out the “church age” (one of the theology’s epochs) and bring on God’s Kingdom. And the six days of Genesis 1 were literal, 24-hour periods – never mind that the sun and moon weren’t created until the third day – and evolution was Satan’s unproven theory. Neanderthals and Homo erectus were mutants and the dinosaurs died in Noah’s flood. And, often, women could not teach men or lead a church – which made for awkward moments when they were Sunday-morning speakers. They weren’t preaching, of course. They were sharing.

I should be fair, so I’ll defend my church’s integrity even though I now disagree with its stance on women: Some biblical passages seemingly prohibit women from leadership – and I actually saw more respect for women there than in an outside world plagued with sexual harassment.  Women’s opinions were respected; men kept their hands to themselves; and the lewdest comment might be, “Betty looks pretty today.” I understand that outright chauvinism reigns in many churches, but here – and elsewhere – believers were merely trying to obey the Scriptures. Many women adamantly opposed to their own sex filling slots on the elder board.

I attended New Jersey’s Drew University from 1975-1979, with my junior year in Oxford, England.  After college, I quenched my thirst for adventure before settling down to a career: I hiked mountains with Colorado Outward Bound in the summer of ‘79, then drove a truck for six months, then pedaled across the country, down the West Coast and back again on a five-month bicycle trip in the summer of 1980. I was too busy camping in Mt. St. Helens’ ash to notice the in-coming right-wing tide courtesy Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority – and most in my church remained a-political.

My life soon became more routine.  I signed on as a newspaper reporter, first for a weekly in Connecticut and then a daily in Delaware. I slogged through late-night Planning and Zoning Commission meetings and murder trials and rape trials and daily deadlines and stomach-knotting office politics. I told myself I loved this go-for-the-jugular job.

So why did I feel like a hallowed shell? And why was God 10,000 light years away?

I prayed and thought and remembered. I saw prosecutors pitch thundering summation speeches. They sounded like preachers. I remembered giving a sermon myself. I wasn’t bad. I thought again as I watched my social worker friends, to whom I gravitated. They rushed to the aide of migrant workers while I scribbled notes and listened to manipulative lawyers, rapists, murderers, and county commissioners. My friends were in the thick of it; I was on the sidelines. I remembered those times I was involved, on the cusp and on the front lines: I helped lead those coffee houses and Bible studies and youth groups. I remembered rushing to the aide of kids as a summertime YMCA day camp counselor.

I fought off in-creeping doubts: Maybe the reporter’s life wasn’t for me; maybe Dad was right; maybe I’d make a “great minister,” as he put it: I’d probe the Bible, rush to the downtrodden’s aide, and give those thundering sermons – all in one job. I’d wed my love for God and people and thrive as a helpful, humble ham. That’s me all over …

Oh, stop it. I’d been writing ever since I was sixteen. I’m in this till I die …

Everything gelled in the summer of 1984. I heard a sermon based on Revelation 2:1-7 in a fundamentalist church I was attending in Delaware. Jesus compliments the Ephesians for their deeds but rebukes them for their lack of faith: “You have forsaken your first love … Repent and do the things you did at first.”  Two days later, I realized that sermon applied directly to me.  I awoke from a dream in which I was convinced I was 34 years old (I was 28 at the time). And I had made no progress. I was still a stressed-out reporter, scribbling notes for rags and lurking on the sidelines. I was one with the Ephesians, living the moral life but forgetting that God should be at my core.

I had been studying repentance in my morning devotions and discovered the word did not mean skulking the neighborhood with a guilt-riddled frown. It meant “change your mind” or “turn around.”  I repented out loud while still lying on the bed: “God!,” I said, “I hereby turn around!  I change my mind!”

I had no psychological file for what happened next. Something like electricity invaded my head and ran through my body. I felt cleansed of my career-reigns-supreme faith. God was God again and I felt born-again again – and, despite myself, I was convinced God was calling me into the ordained ministry. I telephoned my best friend, a New Jersey pastor at the time, and told him all about it. He wasn’t even half surprised. He said he’d enlisted several people to pray for me so I’d finally hear my true calling. Other friends said much the same thing and, just to seal everything off, my editor told me a week later I had no future in daily reporting.

I agreed. I submitted my resignation two days later and, in January of 1985, I unpacked my bags at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, about thirty miles north of Boston and near the Cape Anne Peninsula.

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern

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