Eight Years Later — Part One

bruce and polly gerencser 2015

On the last Sunday of November 2008, my wife and I attended a Christian worship service for the last time. Over the months prior to this, Polly and I spent numerous hours talking about what we believed about God, Jesus, and the Bible. We also spent numerous hours talking about the vapid emptiness of churches and how they were little more than social clubs. Our leftward move politically — we had just voted for Barack Obama — caused us to see Christianity in a different light. While we certainly knew of a handful of churches that were committed to liberal and progressive ideals, these kind of churches were nowhere to be found in rural Northwest Ohio — not that it would have mattered had we found such a church. By November 2008, our political and religious views were such that we believed Christianity was bankrupt and had become a corrosive, dangerous force in American life.

Our decision to stop attending church brought a sense of relief, but it also brought a deep sense of loss. Relief because we no longer had to play the church game, and loss because we were walking away from that which had dominated our entire adult lives. While we knew what we were leaving behind, we had no idea what the future would hold. Six months later, I wrote my infamous letter, Dear Family, Friends, and Former Parishioners. I sent this letter to our family, close friends, and a handful of colleagues in the ministry. I did not mention Polly in the letter. I wanted the disagreement and vitriol that was sure to come to be directed at me, not her. Unfortunately, doing so led people to wrongly conclude that Polly and I were not on the same page about matters of faith. This resulted in me being accused of leading Polly and our children astray, a subtle implication that they could not think for themselves. While Polly certainly processes things in a manner different from the way I do, and our reasons for deconverting were/are not exactly the same, we agreed on one thing: we had no interest in ever attending church again. And eight years later, we still have no desire to attend church. Outside of attending several funerals, weddings, and concerts, we have not darkened the doors of a church. Freed from bondage, oppression, and intellectual superficiality, we have no intention of ever returning.

In future posts in this series, I plan to detail how things have changed for us since our divorce from Jesus and organized Christianity. Before writing about what has changed for us, I want to detail what hasn’t changed. Character-wise, Polly and I are pretty much the same people we were eight years ago. We now enjoy drinking alcohol and using bawdy, colorful language, but outside of that — lifestyle-wise — we are still very much the same people we were when I pastored churches. What has changed is our worldview and how we view other people. I will write more about this in a future post.

Another thing that hasn’t changed is our relationship with Polly’s parents. Outside of telling Polly they are praying for us, Mom and Dad had not said one word about me leaving the ministry and our subsequent deconversion from Christianity. Not one word. Early on, Polly’s mom would invite her to events at the Newark Baptist Temple — their church home for forty years — but Polly’s terse no thank yous quickly put an end to such invitations. It’s been years since Mom has invited us to anything church-related. When we visit them, we make sure that there is no church event going on. We travel three hours one way to their home to tarriance with them, not to be reminded of the intellectual and moral emptiness of Evangelical Christianity. So the obese pink elephant of our relationship with Polly’s parents remains. I highly doubt that its presence will be addressed this side of eternity. And that’s fine. We don’t need them to “understand” as much as we need for them to respect our decision to live our lives sans God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity.

Polly and I must also respect her parents’ decisions too, even when they cause deep hurt. Fifteen months ago, Polly’s dad had ill-advised hip replacement surgery. The surgery was a miserable failure, resulting in Dad spending almost a year in the nursing home. Unable to walk for more than a short distance, Mom and Dad were forced to sell their two-story house they had lived in for almost 40 years. Polly suggested to her mom that they could move up here so we could help take care of them.  Polly’s mom replied, we could never do that, our church is here. Ouch. Such is the insidious nature of Evangelical Christianity, especially the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) variety.  The church “family” is Mom and Dad’s “real” family, even though this real family of theirs has largely ignored them during Dad’s recovery from hip surgery (and some of this is due to their unwillingness to ask for help, a fault that Polly and I suffer from too), Polly’s mom has wounded her with words many times over the years, but telling her we could never do that, our church is here was a step above the other in-Christian-love verbal assaults. This one caused a deep emotional wound that has yet to heal. When I suggest that we go visit her parents, I am often met with a frown, a look that says, Why bother. They have their church “family.”

In the next post in this series, I will begin to detail some of the things that have changed for us since we exited stage left from Christianity. Stay tuned.

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13 Comments

  1. Pingback: Be true to your cult (er, church family) | Civil Commotion

  2. JR

    Thanks Bruce for sharing. I don’t know the situation with Polly’s mum but I wouldn’t take the statement ‘our church is here’ to be an indication of the insidious nature of christianity or that she loves her church more than you. My godless grandmother didn’t want to move in with my parents because ‘her bingo club was here’. Old people like their independence and naturally don’t want to give up the things they love.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      They would be much more independent here than living in an apartment three hours away. Polly is their only child. Her younger sister died in a motorcycle accident in 2005. If Mom and Dad lived here they would have their needs met by a family that deeply loves them. Personally, Polly and I put family first. The only reason we live where we do is because of family. If it wasn’t for our children/grandchildren, we’d be living somewhere more in tune with our secular, humanist values. Instead, we live in the land of Jesus, guns, and right-wing ideology.

      Reply
    2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      I would also add, that in many IFB churches congregants are taught that water (baptism) is thicker than blood; that their “real” family is likeminded church members. Yet, when true need presents itself, this true family of theirs is nowhere to be found. Praying for you is about it…

      Reply
  3. JR

    Yes very sad. I supose to people with lousy families that is an appealing prospect. But a normal biological family won’t disown you if you take issue with 1 of 10 statements they have decided to believe.

    Bruce you have often said it is the Jesus of American evangelical christianity that you hate and not the ‘real’ Jesus. But it was (as far as we know) the Jewish jesus who said ‘hate your father and mother’, and that allegiance to him and the Kingdom must come before family. Would you say it is only fair that the real Jesus shoulder some blame too?

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      If he indeed said these things, then he indeed shoulders some of the blame. Sadly, the gospels are just gossipy letters written by unknown authors. It would have been nice if Jesus had taken the time to write a book or two. All we have now are unauthorized biographies written by ghost writers.?

      Reply
      1. Bob Felton

        “All we have now are unauthorized biographies written by ghost writers.” A wonderful précis of the state of Biblical scholarship regarding Jesus. I wish that were more widely understood.

        Reply
      2. JR

        Although as you know some scholars believe they can identify within the gospels the authentic teachings of Jesus. People like Vermes and Erhman I feel successfully argue that Jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed the world was soon to end and that ties to family are irrelevant in the light of God’s Kingdom. This means jesus was a Jim Jones character no different from cult leaders today who demand that followes sever ties with unbelieving family.

        If people looked at Jesus like this they may be less inclined to think he is worth ignoring family for.

        Reply
        1. Bob Felton

          Ehrman makes a strong case, and may well be right (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ehrman has settled Christology). There are far more questions than answers, and I wish believers knew that.

          Perhaps this is something Bruce can write about sometime, or already has? How do seminary-educated preachers stand in their pulpits and howl and bellow that they know this and know that, when they damn sure don’t know — and know they don’t know? This can be overlooked in a lay preacher, I suppose, but it seems to me to go to character when we’re talking about a preacher with some proper education.

          Reply
          1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

            Here is what Ehrman said recently on his blog about the dating of the gospels. I guarantee you 99.9% of Evangelical pastors have never shared this information with congregants.

            QUESTION:

            How are the dates that the Gospels were composed determined? I’ve read that Mark is usually dated to 70 or later because of the reference to the destruction of the temple. Is this the only factor that leads scholars to conclude that it was composed in 70 CE or later or are there other factors?

            I’ve heard that Luke and Matthew are likewise dated aroun 80-85 CE to give time for Mark to have been in circulation enough to be a source for them. Is this accurate?

            How is John usually dated to around 95 CE (or whatever the correct period is) since it is usually described as independent of the other Gospels?

            RESPONSE:

            This is a great question, and one that I get asked a lot. How do we actually know when the Gospels were written? It is actually a difficult question to answer, but the things you’ve already read and heard cover some of the important territory.

            So let’s start on some basics that I think everyone can agree on. (Well, OK, there is *nothing* that absolutely everyone agrees on, as I’ve learned with some chagrin with the publication of my most recent book….). First…

            First, Jesus died around the year 30, so the Gospels were written after that. The first really convincing quotations of the Gospels (there are probable allusions earlier than this, but these are the most certain ones) come in the writings of Justin Martyr, around the year 150. Justin does not name the Gospels as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but he does call certain books “The Memoirs of the Apostles,” he quotes them explicitly, and his quotations line up with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (it is debated whether he quotes John; but there are two quotations that certainly make it appear that he knows John).

            This means, for starters, that the Gospels must have been written sometime between 30 and 150 CE. And the question is how to narrow down the dates further.

            If it is true that the Gospels are based on oral traditions that had been in circulation about Jesus not just in Palestine (where Aramaic was the spoken language) but also outside of it (in Greek – the language the Gospels were written in), then that must have taken some time. So we’re not talking about the composition of these Gospels in the months after Jesus’ death. Years later? Almost certainly.

            One piece of evidence – maybe not the strongest, but certainly worth thinking about: the apostle Paul wrote his letters around 50-60 CE. He was widely traveled and knew a lot of Christian communities – certainly all the major ones in major urban areas of his day. And Paul gives no indication that he had ever heard that there were Gospels about Jesus. Maybe he knew of them and just chose to ignore them in his letters, but for a variety of reasons, that seems unlikely. And so it appears that the Gospels were not in circulation yet in the 50s CE. So that narrows the dates to 60 CE and later, probably.

            There are solid reasons, that I won’t go into here, for thinking that Mark was the first Gospel to be written. The question with Mark is whether it was written before or after the Jewish War with Rome, that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem, and the Temple, in 70 CE. Scholars debate the point, but the majority (outside of fundamentalists and very very conservative evangelicals) think the answer is “afterward,” in part because they see the comments of Mark 13 about the Temple (that it will be destroyed) as indicating that Mark was living after the fact. I’m not sure if this is right or not; I have tended to think that Mark’s description of the destruction is so vague that it’s not clear that he knows about it as a past event. But that may be simply because he is living outside of Palestine and has just heard the rumors of what it was like.

            Matthew and Luke were dependent on Mark for many of their stories, and so they must have been written later. How much later? Well, it is relatively clear that Matthew and Luke were written after 70 – at least in the judgment of most experts who deal with this question. The reason: they both appear to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem (see for example Matthew 22:7, “burned their city”!; and Luke 21:24).

            These Gospels were evidently, then, written some time between 70-150. The reason for thinking they were written earlier in that period (say, the 80s?) than later is because there may be allusions to them – though not actual quotations – in such works as the Didache (written around 100 CE) and the letters of Ignatius (around 110). All of that is disputed and the arguments are complex and detailed. But that’s the common view held by the vast majority of scholars (not all of them! Never all of them!)

            John has almost always been understood (since the second century) to be the final Gospel to be written, in part because its theological views are so much more developed than the other Gospels. Some scholars have thought that John knew the “Synoptic” Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke – called “Synoptic” because they can be “seen together,” since they tell so many of the same stories, often in the same words). If that’s right, then obviously he wrote after they did. But I’m not convinced that he knew the others. He does not tell the same stories in the same words, in any event.

            But John is so developed theologically, that it certainly appears to be the final one written. Some scholars have argued for an early second century date, but it is usually thought that John wrote sometime near the end of the first century, say in the 90s. In part that’s because the issues that he is dealing with (Jewish rejection of the Christian message) can be easily located then AND (these two arguments have to be given together, not treated separately) because he does *not* deal with the Christological “heresies” that are in evidence, say, in the polemics of Ignatius (docetic Christologies and the like). So he was probably before Ignatius but after the Synoptics – so near the end of the first century.

            These are all probability judgments, but it is relatively safe to say that the Gospels could not have been written much before 70 (despite the attempts of some to say so), for reasons I’ve given, and *probably* not much later than the end of the first century. I wish – everyone wishes – we could be more precise with our dating, but it is always very hard indeed to come up with precise datings for ancient narratives. Unless they refer to people (Pontius Pilate) or events (the destruction of Jerusalem) that can be reliably dated from other sources, or unless their authors actually tell you when they were writing, then dates have to be guestimated. But these parameters (between, say 65-100 CE for all four Gospels) are agreed on by most scholars of all persuasions, except fundamentalists and a few others.

  4. Alice

    It’s so nice that you two were able to make this change together.

    Reply
  5. Becky Wiren

    I’m glad you have all your children and grandkids close.

    We are in this area due to Bob’s job etc. I could see moving when he retires (IF we could find a place we like and can afford) but our sons aren’t necessarily wanting to leave. They have friends and/or jobs here. But I wouldn’t mind living just closer to a metropolitan area, because even in NW Ohio Toledo has to have more liberal places. (Or Ft Wayne.)

    There are way too many people here that believe the kook ideas that are now standard for the GOP, like that supposed child pedophile ring operating out of a pizza place? WTF? They don’t ask, gee, if everyone knows about this heinous thing why doesn’t anyone do anything? Seriously. A coworker of Bob’s was talking about this nonsense.

    Reply
  6. Lara Snider

    Very interesting info of the Gospels, we were taught only the good CRC approved bits in private school. I want Polly to know that, though I suspect her mom didn’t mean it ” that way” a comment like that would have knocked me down. I am so grateful for all you share, it keeps me continuing to think more and talk less. This is painful to me, to think that no-one can treat you with love and just meet you where you are at. I,need to be better at this too.

    Reply

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