Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety-Jig

We used to sing:
One door, and only one, and yet its sides are two:
Inside and outside. On which side are you?
One door, and only one, and yet its sides are two.
I’m on the inside. On which side are you?

There's no line on the ground that shows the change between then and now. I can't identify the moment that I shifted from conservative fundamentalist to progressive Baptist. Or from abuse victim to abuse survivor. Or the moment I changed my mind about the role of women in the Church, or about what it is to be saved, or about how good Sunny D tastes (not good at all, as it turns out). Things changed without my noticing. Some things that were big changed so much that I don't see how I could have developed from the person I was twelve years ago. That was a life I couldn't wait to get rid of. At eighteen, I was off like a shot, five hundred miles away and never going back.
Now I’m going back.

When I was four, my family moved into a ranch house on top of a hill overlooking the Tennessee River. It had a big yard, brown shag carpeting, avocado and mustard appliances, and glittery popcorn ceilings. The toilet seat was one of those squishy ones that makes a soft farting sound when you sit on it. On the first day, I pushed the lever on the ice maker and ice fell out of the freezer onto the floor. I burst into panicked tears while the babysitter laughed at my reaction. 

It's funny outside of its context. I burst into panicked tears over a lot of things as a child. My father was an at-the-time-undiagnosed bipolar paranoid schizophrenic, and I was terrified of doing anything unexpected or possibly naughty, since there was no telling what his reaction would be.

Both of my parents taught at the local college for a while, until my father got fired, as he always did, and my mother continued teaching while he bounced around from job to job. During those first few months we church-hopped until my parents settled on a congregation.

Grace looked like an apple barn with dwarfism: a squat ground level with a wide dome on top. The building had been constructed when the congregation left a Presbyterian church. Nobody told me why they left, except that it had something to do with the Presbyterians becoming liberal, so I gathered that the attributes of liberality were too dark and evil for a five-year-old's ears. 

I learned a lot at Grace in those last years of the 1980s. I learned about being a non-denominational evangelical conservative fundamentalist Biblical literalist. I learned that the liberal media was in cahoots with mainstream science to hide the truth of creationism from the public. I learned about God’s special plan for women, which meant that God must really hate me, since that plan was so dreary. (Luckily, I had a Methodist grandmother whose life set a different example.) They scolded me for asking hard questions. They read from the NIV, because the King James is pretty but a crummy translation.
That big dome at the church was a piece of armor. It kept the people inside safe from the secular world. We could tell who was inside and who was outside.
And now I'm outside.

My parents divorced. My mother fought the divorce, because the Bill Gothard faction at Grace told her divorce was wrong. It was better to be abused, better to let your children be abused, then to dissolve a marriage that was deviant from day one. The institution of marriage had to be spared from scandal, which meant victim-blaming and looking the other way when a marriage went terribly wrong.

The Bill Gothard thing has recently blown up, another institution that brought scandal on itself by making the avoidance of scandal its priority.

Eventually my mother got fed up, but once the divorce was finalized, she got fired by Bryan College, the fundamentalist school affiliated with Grace. Christians, she says, shoot their wounded.
I've kept up with the Dayton news. These days, Bryan College is poised to lose at least a quarter of its faculty through a game of chicken, a new addendum to their statement of faith, requiring the professors to sign a profession of faith in a literal Adam and Eve or lose their jobs. Bryan is hard at work filtering itself, identifying those on the inside who ought to be on the outside.
After the divorce, we kept attending Grace. They were my rock, my certainty, the way I knew I was on the inside, even when the other members told me how sinful my family was and how wrong it was to be the child of divorced parents. When I left town, I worried about finding a real Christian church. After all, there were so many congregations that weren't non-denominational, fundamentalist, conservative Biblical literalists. The first compromise was joining a denomination. I wandered down the road and found a Baptist church.  Hey, it may have had a brand, but at least it wasn’t a liberal and shallow one like the Methodists, right? Maybe they weren't too far off base. My new church had a liturgy identical to the one at Grace. I settled in and expected things to stay the same.
But things changed, quietly and beautifully. Memorial took me in, fed me, gave me rides to work, freaked the first two boyfriends out with hospitality, and gathered around for my marriage to the third. They snuck Baptist theology up on me so quietly that I didn’t notice becoming a feminist or getting gung-ho about the separation of Church and State. When I asked hard questions, they asked harder ones. While other people scolded me for studying Theology in school (“It’s supposed to be in your heart, not your head!”), my church family sent its young women and men to seminary. They read from the NIV, the NRSV, The Message, and a host of other translations, but not the King James, which is pretty but crummy. They pinned their doors open on Sunday mornings to let the music out and the weather and neighbors in.
For twelve years, I have lived with a big, loud, happy family. And now I’m going back, taking my Catholic husband into the buckle of the Bible Belt, scoping out churches in Chattanooga (“Our first article of faith: we believe that the King James Bible is the literal, inerrant Word of God”). We’re renting an apartment on top of a hill overlooking the Tennessee River. The appliances are shiny and black. The floors are sort of like real wood. And there will be more money to save after the rent is paid, and more time at home after the commute, and someday a house, and someday a dog, and someday more children.
And hundreds of miles away, there will be Memorial, with its doors wide open.

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