"I was a teenage propagandist"


I've been, for a long time, wanting to write about what could be called my "journey of faith." I haven't really written about God, Christianity, or my take on "faith" in a quite a long time - it used to be a regular topic of mine for musing - because so much has changed, and it's so important to me, and to write it down would make things finalized in some fundamental way, but nothing is finalized by any means. I've been in a continuous state of flux for the last two years or so in terms of "faith." I just realized how appropriate it is that I should put the word "faith" in quotations, because it's really a meaningless word - in the sense that it has so many meanings to so many people that it cannot stand alone and have meaning, and needs some sort of explanation in order to establish context and, thus, meaning.

I wonder now whether a few of years ago I might have written "journey to faith," and I wonder whether six-to-twelve months ago whether I would have written "journey away from faith." I don't at present think either of those is accurate. Much of this was prompted by two very similar conversations I've had recently with two entirely different people about this topic - and my difficulty in having said conversations. Both were Christians, but one a sixty-something conservative friend's mother, and one a twenty-something very liberal very good friend of mine. The first was more difficult, but in both cases I didn't know how to describe my "relationship with God" (or whether I believe I have one), or even describe who I believe God is or whether I believe he or she exists, or really say anything substantial (or coherent) about how I view "faith."

I will make a statement here, which will hopefully serve to end these introductory remarks, assuage any non-Christians reading this, and hopefully not turn away any Christians reading it: I am not a Christian. At least, I don't think I am. I once was. I once knew things wholeheartedly - but I don't know if I really know anything anymore. That's sort of the point. This story is much more nuanced (and I believe that every human being's story is much more nuanced) than "coming to the faith" or "getting to know Jesus" or "falling away from the faith" or "becoming an atheist" or whatever. Maybe no one will want to read it. I'm sort of writing for myself, after all. But maybe it's interesting enough for you, reader, to read on.

The Teenage Propagandist

I grew up in a sort-of Christian home. By "sort-of," I mean it was like the majority of American families in that Christianity was presupposed but not overtly practiced - we said Grace at mealtimes, we went to church on Christmas and Easter and sporadically throughout the year. Once in a while my dad would be hit with a moderate form of religious fervor and would sit us down and read Bible stories to us from a Children's Bible stories book, probably the "Children's Book of Virtues," which I remember clearly, and which was a more secular moral primer for children. We also surely had more Bible-based childrens' books around the house.

My father also had some adult Christian books laying about the house, from authors such as Charles Swindoll and C.S. Lewis, which I assume he read at least once. My father was quite the voracious reader, and as I grew I followed in his footsteps (and eventually became an English major!) and ended up reading almost everything in the house, including these books. We never really had any overt Christian training; my father didn't force anything like Sunday School upon us (with any regularity, at least; I do remember some Sunday School in my childhood). Christianity was presumed the norm, but wasn't thrust upon us in any indoctrinating way by my parents. The indoctrination I later put upon myself.

In the sixth grade, I moved from Livermore, CA, where my brother and I lived with my mother, to Cupertino, CA, where my father had recently moved (they were divorced when I was about four years old, and I somewhat romantically want to believe that the reasoning for the move followed the plot of the film "Boyz in the Hood"). In Cupertino, I met my next-door neighbor, Kenny, who was my age and was actively involved in the youth group in his church.

He eventually invited me to go, and I did, and the rest is history, I suppose. I started going to youth group, then to church, regularly; I started to get involved, to learn about Christianity, and embarked on the path that led me to where I am today. By high school, I was very much a Christian, and joined the Christian club and learned worship songs on the guitar and was actively involved in youth ministry and went on "missions trips" to Mexico every summer, where we put on plays dramatizing the passion of the Christ and also built some homes and helped refurnish an orphanage, and I especially went to the Christian summer camps (where I "met Jesus" for the first time, I suppose, "dedicated my life to Christ," I think is the correct term. I was about 15). Basically, I got thoroughly involved with the church, and considered myself a Christian. My involvement eventually infected my family and they soon started coming to church every Sunday and my stepmom (who was my father's girlfriend at the time, I think) started helping out with hospitality at the church and stuff.

I remember two high school experiences clearly, which will hopefully illustrate the impact that this transformation had on my life. One was a decision I made at some point in high school to purge myself of all secular music. I have been a huge fan of music since I was a little child; one of my earliest memories is dancing with my father to Michael Jackson records in our living room; I remember owning my first CD (either No Doubt or Alanis Morrissette), I remember buying an iPod from a friend when they first came out (the huge, 5gb one) and being enthralled with music. But after a while I was convinced (by God? By the church? By my youth pastor? By my friends?) that true Christians didn't listen to non-Christian music. So I deleted all of the secular music off of my computer and gave away, threw out, or sold all of my secular CDs. And for literally almost a year I listened to nothing but God-praising tunes (Switchfoot, Five Iron Frenzy, the Newsboys, DC Talk, Barlow Girl, and so many more). I now think of this and think of the Nazis burning books. But at the time I thought I was being a good Christian.

Another time was once, when my family was on vacation with another family, I remember vividly debating with a member of this other family all of the reasons that gay marriage, and homosexuality in general of course, was an abomination. Anyone that knows me know would think that this is ludicrous, but I was literally a teenage propagandist - spreading the "love" of Christ to anyone that would hear. Almost all of my friends were Christian, I invited my non-Christian friends to youth group and almost ended friendships over their lack of interest in Christianity (I'm sorry Derek). I remember breaking up with my first real girlfriend when I found out she had lost her virginity and thus wasn't a "committed Christian" or something of the like (I shudder to remember this, let me tell you). I believed in Jesus, and in his resurrection and "saving grace;" I had all kinds of arguments to explain why only Christians would go to heaven, I would cry out in guilt, metaphorically speaking, at my inability to rid myself of lust (and would cry, literally, when I succumbed to, say, internet pornography). I viewed everything in terms of a cosmic battle between a just, loving God and an evil Devil. All of my relationships were colored with this view, all of my actions, all of my thoughts. It consumed me.

I remember when my grandmother, a die-hard Christian, died. I didn't know her too well, though I vaguely remember her sending me greeting cards in the mail every once in a while, and calling me her "little prince." She was a sweet, sweet woman, who mussed up your hair, smoked endless cigarettes, and always had a bowl of candy out on the coffee table of the apartment she lived in alone for nearly thirty years in Pasadena, CA (her husband, my grandfather, died when my father was young - long before I was born). As she succumbed to lung cancer about five years ago, in her mid-seventies, my uncle put her up with home care in the rec room of his house nearby. She hung around for maybe a year after the diagnosis, and I remember visiting her twice - once when she was at least still conscious, could smile if not talk - and once when she was in the final throes of a slow, painful death. At this point she was basically comatose, and the adults sent each of the children into the room to basically say a final "goodbye," if we chose to. When it was my turn, I went in and stood next to her for a moment. I didn't know what to say. I'd never encountered death. I said something along the lines of, "Well, you'll finally get to meet Jesus, grandma." And though I wasn't sure exactly what this meant, I believed it. I believed it.

The College Years

And so of course, when it was time to look for a college, of the five (yes, only five) schools I applied to, three were private Christian schools and two were UCs. I think I got into four of them (UC Berkeley rejected me) and I chose Pepperdine, the higher-ranked than Occidental or Chapman. I didn't really think about what I wanted out of a college. Now, I know that I probably would have been a better fit at UC Irvine. But that's neither here nor there, I of course don't regret my decisions (at the time, I would have said that God told me to choose Pepperdine, and I don't necessarily disbelieve this still - I did meet Lisa, and have a number of other incredible experiences that I might not have had elsewhere. Who knows?).

But I came to Pepperdine a bright-eyed, relatively conservative Christian youth. And now I've exited a more-or-less free-thinking agnostic. Interesting how that happens, isn't it? It took a Christian school, and a Christian book (which I'll get into a bit later) to rid me of my certainty about almost everything. I still wonder at everything that's happened. And to tell you the truth, like I stated above, I don't know if I'm a Christian because I can't denounce God just yet. I feel that at some level He, if He exists, must have had a hand in it. I suppose I'll never know.

I remember that near the end of high school our youth pastor took us, on Sundays, to a few different churches to practice "shopping around" for a church, which we'd have to do when we went to college.

This will be finished eventually.


  1. Dear Elliott,

    Happy Birthday. Your blog floors me. Find happiness and the rest will come.



  2. I don't suppose to have any idea where you're at, it sounds to me like you don't really know either... but I will say this, in my own journey I have learned to give up certainty in favor of fidelity. I have found this to be incredibly helpful.

    Also, I'd love to explore this with you, not to convince you, or to change your mind, or to "save" you, but to dive further into the deep of you, and to hear more about the things that led you to a place of dissatisfaction with christian belief.

    Again, loved your mwy post and am glad your living into the tension.