May. 17th, 2011

applespice: it is a sparkly fairy ([girls] run away)
When I tell people that I grew up Pentecostal, there are a few reactions that I typically get. There is always at least one joker who thinks he's going to be the first person ever to ask me if I’ve handled snakes (I haven’t). Some people have no idea what I’m talking about. Others have vaguely heard of Pentecostals, but don't know much about them. The most common reaction, though, is a semi-disgusted, semi-terrified stare, as if I’m going to break out into tongues or start rolling on the floor in paroxysms of religious fervor any second. If the final reaction would have been yours, don’t worry – I am no longer Pentecostal and I don't take it personally.

Truthfully, I didn’t even realize there was anything weird about being Pentecostal for a long time. I think I was probably eleven before the full significance of my difference started to come clear to me. Before that, sure, I had noticed that I was the only little girl at school who didn’t wear pants, or jewelry, or have my hair cut. Apart from that, though, I was still a fairly normal kid, and other kids accepted me (albeit in the role of elementary-aged brainiac).

Even at eleven, when I began to feel the shame of wearing super-modest, handmade clothes and never having the right haircut (because I’d never had a haircut), most of my life was still palatable to me. My limited world was all I had ever known, and I didn’t think to look outside it. Attending three to five church services a week wasn’t strange to me, just necessarily tedious. Seeing people dance in church aisles and weep openly while the pastor preached wasn’t scary; just a typical Sunday night. And speaking in tongues wasn't eccentric – it was salvation.

I “spoke in tongues” for the first time when I was eight years old. I remember being held up at the church altar, dozens of hands on my back and shoulders and head, a hundred voices in my ear telling me to keep praying, keep repenting. What did I have to repent for, anyway? Not waiting my turn for the swings at recess? But I remember feeling so proud when everyone congratulated me on being saved. It would take another decade to admit that I had only muttered gibberish up there at the altar that night – because I didn’t want to let everyone down, and because I was terrified of Hell.

I was sixteen when I began to really question my faith. The tiny world I had inhabited for so long was suddenly blossoming into a fantastic realm crowded with people of all stripes – most of them, according to my church, among the legions of the damned. My friends were good people, I knew that. Why should they be condemned to Hell (still my greatest fear, eight years later) for things they couldn’t help, like loving someone of the same gender? Or for insignificant trespasses (like swearing, wearing short skirts, or putting on makeup) that had no bearing on who they were?

I didn’t understand, and so I asked. I asked religious teachers, church elders, veterans of a thousand Bible studies. And none of them – not a single one – could really explain to me why. Not that they didn’t try, of course, but nothing they said ever made the least bit of sense.

In undergrad I learned the dictionary definition of “circular logic,” but by that time I was already well aware of its tactical use in a real-world argument.

“It’s true because it’s in the Bible.”
“How do you know that the Bible is true?”
“Because the Bible says so.”

These people were supposed to be Bible scholars, and that’s the best they could come up with? I was not impressed.

Still, I heard worse during my years of questioning. I heard that all feminists were lesbians (a barb directed at me by a Sunday School teacher when I self-identified as the former – though by that time I had realized that there was nothing wrong with being a lesbian, which took any sting out of his would-be “insult”). I was told repeatedly to “hate the sin, not the sinner,” a phrase that I loathe to this day. I was chastised for speaking out against the concept that thinking about committing a sin was just as bad as actually doing it – though admittedly, part of that may be because I stood up in front of the youth group and asked that if that was so, did that mean I should go ahead and murder my little sister, as the thought had crossed my mind more than a few times?

My breaking point came during a Bible study one Thursday night. I was barely eighteen, and barely hanging on to the tattered remnants of my religion – once the defining factor of my life. Two years of questions hadn’t turned up any answers for me. At best, I had found willful ignorance. At worst, I uncovered homophobia, misogyny, racism, and a resistance to openmindedness so strong that Jesus’ own words couldn’t convince these people to love someone they considered a sinner.

That night we studied the creation story. There was plenty of stuff about Eden, of course, and the seven days of God’s creation. Never one to keep my mouth shut, I decided to hit them with a theory that I had heard recently (and that I have since discovered is fairly common in certain theological circles) – that Earth was not created in a mere seven days, but over eons, and that God worked with science (practically a dirty word in the Pentecostal church I attended) and set evolution in motion.

I should have known better. Not only was the idea dismissed (after being laughed at), but I was told that I was committing a sin by even entertaining it as an option. The Bible study leader was aghast. And me? I’d had enough.

I don’t know why this relatively minor occurrence was what pushed me over the edge, but it is what I will always remember as being the moment that I stopped being Pentecostal. For two years, I clung to the beliefs I had grown up with as they grew increasingly slippery, but on that night I realized I didn’t want them anymore. It just wasn’t in me to suck it up and accept a place in that closed, intolerant world. It was Bibles all the way down, and for me that just wasn’t – and isn’t – enough.

I still believe there’s something out there. Whether it’s God or something else, I couldn’t say. I feel weird even giving it a name. And I’d really feel weird – downright wrong, in fact – if I were to judge other people on its behalf.

Nowadays, if I judge someone or something, it’s all on me. If I make the wrong decision or think the wrong thing, it's my fault. I’m the one who has to own up to it. On the one hand, this is pretty scary. It means that I don’t have anyone else to blame for my mistakes. On the other, I feel freer now than I ever have.

I don't hate Pentecostals, or even Pentecostalism as a denomination. Most Pentecostals are decent people just trying to make their way in the world, like I am - like we all are. I can't stand the judgment and I can't stand the proselytizing, but I'm sure there are plenty of things about me that Pentecostals can't stand, either. It's not about what you can't stand, though - it's about what you stand on. And while the ground sometimes feels shakier now that I've left the comforting closet of my former faith, overall I've found that I much prefer walking on the outside.

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