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Depressed, Repressed, and Oppressed by Jesus

Cartoon by Kirk Anderson

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Looking back on my 1988 valedictory address at an Evangelical Christian school, I would like to put my remarks into some context. Some of you may have read parts of my story in other posts, but the quick summary is that my mom and I left my abusive dad in Knoxville, Tennessee when I was three years old to live with my grandparents outside Nashville, Tennessee. My mom held some relatively progressive views on racial and gender equality, and she encouraged me to read and to ask questions. She even admitted that a lot of things in the Bible might be allegory instead of historically accurate. Sometime during my adolescence, I realized she had turned thoroughly Christian Fundamentalist, forbidding movies such as “Star Wars” which we had previously enjoyed together.

Additionally, due to rumors that students in my public school district were to be sent to a predominantly African American school district, my mom and grandparents decided to send me to an Evangelical Christian school for grades 5-12. This school taught everything from a “Christ-centered Biblical view” — which means we learned lame apologetics for Young Earth Creationism, were required to take Bible classes, attend chapel, and were forced to abide by a gender-specific dress code. I hated that school.

My grandparents were very active in the Southern Baptist church in our rural community. Grandma became a neophyte culture warrior, and Grandpa was a deacon who quietly helped anyone in the community (whether a member of our church or not) who he heard was in need. He was a master of connecting those in need with those who were willing to help. Grandpa also taught me that my education came first and that I should NEVER EVER be dependent on a man financially. His biggest dream was for me to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville. It became my biggest dream, too, and I determined to excel academically to make it happen.

In my endeavor to achieve academic excellence, I came to look down upon my peers as inferiors. In my estimation, popular culture was cheap, anti-intellectual, and as useless to one’s intellectual improvement as cotton candy is to one’s nutrition. However, I also grew to look down upon the pastors and leaders of our church as teaching anti-intellectual doctrine. I considered the (male) teachers at our school to be only slightly better. My viewpoint was exacerbated by my exposure to working with Ph.D. Biochemists at Vanderbilt University when I was 16 years old. My mom worked in the Biochemistry department as an administrative assistant, and due to our lack of automobiles, I had to work wherever was convenient for my family in terms of transportation. At 16 years old, I got a job as a dishwasher and lab assistant at the university. I was able to meet highly educated people from all over the world. I knew these were the people I wanted to be like, not the Christian Fundamentalists of my church and school world. However, I knew that the Christians among them were not Real Christians®, and some of the scientists weren’t Christians at all. It became difficult for me to reconcile the Fundamentalist teachings of church and school that these people were damned to an eternity in Hell with the reality that they were kind, intelligent, socially active human beings. These people became my mentors and my friends as I worked with them for eight years (two years before college, during college, and for two years afterward).

As a high school student, I did not have many friends. Students attending the Christian school came from far and wide, so some of my classmates lived a 30-45-minute drive away and I did not always have access to a car. I was not allowed to participate in activities outside school (except for piano lessons to which my stepfather drove me each week), so my goal was to excel in everything I was allowed to do. My competitive nature, coupled with my determination to gain admittance to Vanderbilt, fueled my path to academic and musical dominance. I refer to it as “dominance” because my goal was not merely to learn the material, it was to master the material and to score the highest grades. It wasn’t uncommon for me to “blow the curve” on tests, where I would score 100 and the next highest score might be 85 or even in the 70s. I was known as the “smartest” student in school, and I relished that title.

However, I was a depressed and angry teenager. I felt utterly trapped in a school where everything must fit within a “Christ-centered Biblical worldview.” For Bible class, it was easy for me to regurgitate the material. While there were gaping holes in our education about history (for example, we never learned about Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement), we weren’t required to recount history in a particularly Christian manner — just the facts were required (the facts as they were presented, that is). And looking back, I believe our English teacher was struggling with the confines of Fundamentalist Christianity as he only preached in chapel the minimum required number of times, and he walked a fine line with the literature he selected for his classes. (Years later I heard that he and his wife divorced, and he took a job as a truck driver, traveling the country, and no one seems to be able to find him.) In most classes, there would be discussions of some sort about God, the dangers of secular humanism, the ridiculousness of evolution, and the erosion of society due to people “turning away from God.” And let’s not forget that every chapel service was a reminder that we were all filthy sinners in need of the saving grace of Jesus in order to escape eternity in hell.

I resented that my whole life was supposed to revolve around giving glory to God. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman who needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15 KJV). This was one of the mantras of the school. The other was this: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12 KJV). As a student, I worked hard for my success and thought I deserved recognition for it. Maybe God had given me intelligence, but I had worked hard to use it. I hated hearing all the “God talk” where people were thanking God for this or that in which humans had more of a hand than an invisible deity seemed to. These praises seemed obsequious to me, as from someone seeking favor from a deity they feared.

Students in our school were encouraged to attend Evangelical Christian universities. The administration and faculty wanted as many students to follow a “Christ-centered Biblical” path as possible, both to promote this as a benefit to prospective parents and because they felt it was the right thing to do. Many of my classmates were personally steered toward these types of universities. I was the only one who was not steered in that direction. It was also a benefit to be able to promote that not only do most students attend Christian universities and become pastors or teachers, but the academics are so sound that they can also be admitted to nationally-ranked universities.

When it was time for me to write my valedictory address, I had a lot of different emotions. I was ecstatic to finally be free of the shackles of the “Christ-centered Biblical” education and able to pursue secular education. Additionally, I still looked down on the majority of my peers who were secretly (or not so secretly) listening to rock music and attending parties — to which I was not invited — instead of forging a path for their future (in my opinion). Furthermore, I considered graduation a celebration of my hard work and accomplishments, and I wanted to make sure that was evident to all in attendance. Neither did I want to sully my accomplishments with “giving glory to God.” I was a pompous jerk, excited about having the freedom to escape Evangelical education for the opportunities available in “the world.” While I did have some trepidation about navigating “the world” — partly because I was more sheltered than my public-school-attending peers and partly because I was still afraid of what God might do to me if I strayed too far from the fold — I was glad that no one tried to stand in the way of my pursuit.

My valedictory address reflects my contempt for my peers (hence no congratulatory message to my peers) as intellectual and cultural inferiors. It reflects my arrogance in my own intelligence and willingness to read what I considered to be intellectual books outside those assigned in class. It also reflects indoctrination regarding the “evils” of rock music, premarital sex, drug & alcohol use, and divorce. However, it also reflects that I did not refer to salvation due to a return to Christian values or praying to God or any other Christian trope. I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Christian school.

At the university, I was active in the Baptist Student Union during my first two years and attended church services at a large Southern Baptist Church near campus. However, I took courses that opened my eyes to the false claims of inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, which led me to question much that I had learned in religious circles about human behaviors, and overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence contrary to Young Earth Creationism. I befriended people from different religions, people who were LBGTQ — who were cut off from their religious families for just being who they were — and people who were from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Gradually I lost some of the intense fear of the Evangelical Christian God and was able to live my life freely. Again, I didn’t let the door hit me on my backside on the way out of Fundamentalist Christianity.


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    Hi OC. I reread your valedictorian speech and was, again, struck by how, almost certainly with the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly an intermediate stage to where you were heading. You mentioned all the good old fundie nonsense about rock music and drugs, but there was also a lot of careful thought went into it, and you didn’t mention god or Jesus.

    I compare with my own school days. We had a very discriminatory public education system in the UK which selected the best kids (supposedly) at age 11, based on an intelligence test, with the result that those who went to grammar school looked down on those who went to a ‘secondary modern’. I was one of the fortunate (?) ones who went to grammar school and religiously it was weird, when I look back on it. Daily religious assemblies at the start of the day were compulsory, with hymn singing and bible reading, then religion disappeared from the scene, except insofar as one had one lesson a week called religious instruction, lasting an hour and usually discussing general philosophy or politics. Evolution was taken for granted (presumably there must have been some who didn’t accept it, but they never dared speak up), abortion we didn’t even realise was a contentious issue, and when we discovered that one boy was thinking of becoming a priest we were astonished. Why are you wasting your life we asked?

    When I reflect I sense that the school was still heavily imbued culturally with religion, but that it had unconsciously realised that it was of no practical importance. We knew that most things in the bible were patently false, though I don’t recall anybody ever questioning the historicity of Jesus at the time. In the decades since I left school (1971) things have moved on, but there’s been no big changes, just a slow evolution away from religion. The Church of England is now almost dead on its feet, despite the Queen, and RC is in many ways back to having rather more ‘visibility’, though even that is receding.

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    GeoffT, it is interesting that the UK is so far ahead of the US in terms of dumping religion. Some of my ancestors were C of E priests, though eventually though migration to less populated areas, they ended up in the less intellectual sects like Baptist that didn’t require their pastors to be educated.

    When I wrote that speech, I was just a couple of months past completing a Biblical Womanhood course which described who I supposedly was and who I was supposed to be that I recognized as patently wrong. I wasn’t sure if the teachings were a lie or if there was something wrong with me for not fitting the gender stereotypes described in the course. I was angry and confused with no one to talk to about it. In fundamentalist religion where thi gs are presented as absolute truth and humans are depicted as incapable of discernment, there is only room for acceptance, not doubt. So you are correct, I was beginning my exit but didn’t know it yet. Had it been 2008 instead of 1988, the egress would have occurred much more rapidly with greater access to information.

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    And the exodus continues, the clergy wrings their hands and blames everything except for the fact that people are figuring out they’ve been scammed. The only way to perpetuate the system is to get the kids and keep them in line. 🙂

    When I was a teenager, the same assholes I went to school with were at the twice-weekly bible study, pretending to be Christian. Then the next day in school they were stuck up shitbags once again. I remember praying to have people be nicer. Wondering why God didn’t care about me.

    “I took courses that opened my eyes to the false claims of inerrancy and literalism of the Bible, which led me to question much that I had learned in religious circles about human behaviors, and overwhelming, incontrovertible evidence contrary to Young Earth Creationism. I befriended people from different religions, people who were LBGTQ — who were cut off from their religious families for just being who they were — and people who were from different cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds. Gradually I lost some of the intense fear of the Evangelical Christian God and was able to live my life freely. ”

    Different path for me, but I eventually got there, too.
    There was a LOT of fear in my life, but I wasn’t afraid of god, I was afraid of gay people and brown people and people who smoked and people who partied and people who didn’t pray all the time and people who wore revealing clothing and on and on and on down a long and carefully curated list of sins… ’cause that’s how they GET ya!!

    SO glad to be free now.

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    There are so many things to reflect on in your post. What a complicated childhood for one! Do you think that some of your looking down on others (the overly religious and the overly worldly) also had to do with the challenges of having left an abusive home, living with grandparents, etc.? I ask because my own childhood was not the same as my friends’, and to feel better about myself I tried to set myself apart academically and really valued intelligence above all things (although I think I must have come across as very pompous and not much fun back then.) For me academic achievement was a kind of mask for my social insecurities. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with the added stress of extreme religion.

    I am happy to say that I have evolved just like you and see the inherent worth in people who are different from me, who have interests different from mine, and who might not be academically gifted 🙂

    I’m always amused by how heavy-duty evangelicals talk about how pubic schools are ‘indoctrination centers’ and don’t even consider that they are doing the same thing. It’s just a different kind of indoctrination.

    Hope I’m making myself clear here!

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    Ami, you are correct that the exodus continues. With the quick access to a plethora of information on the internet, with the blatant and disgusting hypocrisy of Trump-worshiping evangelicals exposed, and who knows what other factors, younger people particularly are leaving religion in droves. Religion seems to keep hold in insular, less educated, and impoverished areas, as one would expect. But it’s easier now for even church-going kids to explore outside the confines of their religion, and exposure to friends outside religion can really have an impact.

    Glad to hear you were able to find a way out of the religious box!

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    Caroline, you are correct in your observations. I recall being the only kid at church with divorced parents, and one of the rare few at school. My mom was always telling me I was psychologically damaged because of the divorce and my dad’s abandonment. I didn’t think I was, but i was pissed off at her telling me that all the time. My grandfather ingrained in me the importance of using education to become financially independent, and he tried to train me to become the head of the family. I didn’t want that – i wanted to be free. But yes, I did hide my insecurities about not fitting in socially or even religiously socially (and that was a thing) behind academic overachievement.

    My kids attend/attended public school in a diverse community. Their indoctrination revolves around “there are a bunch of different cultures in the world” and “treat others equally and with respect”. How that’s bad I do not know. My indoctrination was that humans are a piece of crap without a deity, which automatically sets us up to think all others who don’t believe as we did were necessarily pieces of crap. Plus, there was a lot of fear of hell, sin, satan and demons, eschatology, secular humanists, Democrats, followers of other religions, apostate Christians, USSR and Eastern Europe, the Middle East except Israel, Hollywood, LBGTQ people, MTV, Planned Parenthood….probably lots of other things I am forgetting.

    I am glad that I learned in college that there a variety of different types of intelligence. Doing well in school is just one type.

    I am glad you have evolved too! We are examples that it’s possible!

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    Brian Vanderlip

    I did not endure a family breakup as you did, ObstacleChick, but I have long lived the abandonment that was my parents’ choice in being fundy Christians who went into the preaching business. My dad was a solitary non-talker preacher, a weird mix to say the least. He had no friends really, not ever but his brothers in Christ whom he never saw outside church functions. I lived the Christian depression and Christian anger life of adolescence too and later I came through therapy realizing that those painful realities were the result of belief, that particular evangelical self-loathing that is required to be in the club. People who are drunk on the Kool-Aid don’t have a clue what I am referring to in this regard, just as I was totally unaware of the problem until after I stopped blinding myself with scripture and dogma. Thank goodness our bodies, our selves, fight against the false impositions, the repression, suppression et al and make us sick with depression and anger. It is this somatic response that is natural and good and carried me further into why why why! When I finally went to college (to train in helping disturbed kids! Ha!) I was still well in the grip of master Jesus and it took several years for me to claw my way toward the light of non-belief. For me, poetry helped especiallly because it was full-feeling rolling in the aisles sensual and allowed me to explore my feelings, the harm done, the joy of breath and all the rest. Film and literature were dear paths out of the sanctuary of suffering that is the Baptist Church.
    I am very happy to know that your grandparents had some free-thinking to offer you. What a horror it is to see indoctrinated children tortured by being passed around among extremists. You kinda lucked out there! Though you would indeed have been marked by the loss of your dad, your mom sounds like she was a very strong person who was able to leave an unhealthy marriage in order to care for herself and you. I really appreciate your insights around here on Bruce’s blog. Thanks for the extra info about your ‘winner’s’ speech.

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