An Angel of the First Degree: Art and Wholeness After Evangelicalism

 

My life as an Evangelical can be characterized as being of two minds: there was what I felt in my heart to be right, and what I knew the Bible required of me. For me, being an Evangelical was constantly trying to reconcile two incompatible sets of facts: the things I saw with my own eyes, and what I knew God wanted of me. The first time I felt this split was in confirmation class. I was eleven; our class was being drilled on the catechism.

“What is the chief end of man?” Our confirmation teacher asked.

“To worship God and enjoy him forever,” we dutifully repeated.

The words stuck in my throat. I turned this question over and over again in my mind. Our teacher explained that it meant something akin to “What is the meaning of life?” It wasn’t the answer itself that bothered me, but rather the fact that it was written down in a book, handed to me, and I was expected to memorize it and hold it as true. This was to be my purpose in life. I was conscious in that moment that I was only eleven and that people spent their entire lives trying to figure out what the purpose of life was. And I was just supposed to accept this answer? I felt divided, but when the time came, I was eager to please the adults around me, and to please God (my wrathful father in heaven) so I smiled and said the right words. I tried to accept this answer. If I couldn’t, surely it was a sign of my own sinfulness? In any case, I prayed harder.

But the doubts didn’t stop there, in fact, they multiplied. Doubt grew in high school when my biology teacher gently destroyed my memorized “Focus on the Family” argument against evolution. Doubt grew when my friends started coming out of the closet and I realized that LGBT people weren’t the evil perverts that Christian media had warned me about, but ordinary people who wanted ordinary things like love and respect. I could see these things, sense what was “right” in my heart, but was told repeatedly that I must be wrong, because the Bible clearly said so. I wanted to obey this Evangelical God, and yet every fiber of my being told me to do otherwise.

I buried myself in contemporary Christian music, read Left Behind, and other, even worse, Christian books. I watched wholesome movies and spent most of my time with youth group friends, convinced that if I immersed myself I could change my sinful nature toward one that desired the “right” things. And yet most Christian art left me cold, with its easy answers, two-dimensional characters, and the call to repentance rung like a gong at the conclusion of each story. There was no subtlety, no sense of catharsis. I never saw myself in these thinly-drawn characters; their stories were so unlike real life.

One morning in an introductory college course taught by an ordained minister/theater professor, Dr. George Scranton, we began talking about Rent. I knew this play was godless and immoral because it featured premarital sex, drug use, homosexuals and a drag queen, but it spoke to me at a deep level I could not explain. I expected Dr. Scranton to rebuke me, or to point me toward some lesser Christian equivalent, as is so often done in Evangelical circles. To my surprise, he positively gushed about Rent, proclaiming it a “modern-day inclusive gospel.” I hung on his every word.

During those classes I learned many things; that “art is the lie that reveals the Truth,” and if Art reveals Truth, and there is one eternal source of Truth, then there is no distinction between sacred or secular art. Something clicked into place for me. I wanted Truth. Not a tidy truth memorized from a catechism or gleaned from Christian radio. Not a fragile truth that could never be interrogated. Not a truth whose only underpinning was “because the Bible says so.” I wanted a Truth that didn’t pit me against my own sense of what was right. I wanted Truth real and eternal.

Thus began the process of deconstructing my Evangelical faith. It’s still a work in progress. These days I hold much more loosely to the Bible. Having been deceived before, I am skeptical of those who claim to interpret it with certainty. I find that my spiritual experiences come more often in theaters, galleries, or while reading novels than they do in a sanctuary. I no longer concern myself with fitting into the image of “good Evangelical woman” and have, instead, fashioned myself an artist. My life as an Evangelical was about careful footing, one false step, one strong doubt or wrong question could send me tumbling into the abyss. Instead, I find it more like flying.