Update: After a little more careful evaluation and reflection, this post has been modified a little.
During the summer of 1996, I attended a Christian rock concert that would help nudge me into the most serious questioning of what I believed that I'd ever experienced.
Up until that point, I'd been a preacher's kid who took a lot of faith stuff for granted and I was dating a girl who kept encouraging me to ask the serious questions (in retrospect, one of those serious questions, implied, was "Are you going to heaven?" I think she was trying to "get me saved"). This encouragement was beginning to permeate, but it was really that concert that did it.
Brian White and Justice. Ever heard of them? Probably not. That's okay. Think of them as a very poor man's Christian Bon Jovi. A couple of them even had mullets. Anyway, they sang a song that night called "Living in the Sight of Water," where a guy walks in circles in the desert not knowing that there's a oasis that will save him just over a nearby dune. The night didn't end in an altar call, but rather circles of small groups, during which I was told about God's love for me. At that moment, whatever I was wrestling with came to a point where I "got it" in more than just the intellectual sense.
The music had a lot to do with it. The music that I heard that night hasn't aged particularly well, but nevertheless the music had a lot to do with it. No doubt someone is tempted to pass this off as emotionalism, as a cheap contrived ploy using music as the vehicle to drive everything home. Such cynicism misses what I'd been thinking about off and on for 17 years. Faith isn't just a mental thing, and last I checked we mainliners, no matter how frozen the chosen, still talk about the Holy Spirit moving minds and hearts. Whether we actually allow the Spirit to do both...well, anyway...
If you want real cheap emotionalism, fast forward a couple months to word getting around that the local Assembly of God church was holding a bonfire. The kindling on this particular night would be kids' CDs that contained offensive words and messages, so that we would be able to keep our little virgin ears and souls pure of such filth. I'm not exactly sure what motivated me to make my own contributions to this righteous little exercise. Maybe it was my newfound passion for All Things Jesus and lack of discernment about same. Maybe it was holy peer pressure, wanting to fit in with the new Christian crowd I was beginning to run with. Maybe it was simple guilt at owning some of these CDs while still trying to figure out this new commitment of mine.
Regardless, I handed over a nice stack for the big box. I remember a couple MTV Party to Go albums, Janet Jackson's janet. album, Wreckx-N-Effect, Soundgarden, I think there was a Nirvana CD in there...
I don't miss a lot of these now. Wreckx-N-Effect? Seriously.
Regardless, this act would be the first of many over a few years' span of my attempts to keep myself from "stumbling," or to "be holy as I am holy," or keep my mind pure, or stay on the narrow road, or any other number of phrases to which I'd turn. At times it was the passion of a guy newly committed, at others holy peer pressure, at still others unquestioned guilt.
Here's where my pathology starts to spill out onto the screen.
Whatever it was that caused me to burn those CDs followed me to college. All the passion, all the guilt, all the tendencies to bow to holy peer pressure followed me to Heidelberg.
It was here that an 18-year-old kid threw himself into various campus ministries: chaplain for the UCC group, drummer for the Evangelical group's worship band, resolved to join a third group's on-campus house the following year. At the same time, he'd thrown himself into his Religion studies, especially after he'd fully embraced the permission and need to question and examine beliefs for himself.
Throughout this kid's college career, his goal to graduate with a Religion degree and pick up whatever ministry experience that he could along the way was a near-obsession. He read extra-curricular theology books, even at times at the expense of his actual classwork. He sought out opportunities to preach on-campus or off. When his relationship to the Evangelical group began to come unraveled, his ego, his felt-need to stick around just because it was a ministry, wouldn't allow him to quit even though he should have.
All this and much more because this kid wanted to take as much in as he could in preparation for his career, his calling. While not completely singularly focused, anyone watching at certain points would have figured otherwise.
He barely ever drank, if only because he didn't want to deal with other Christians' judgmental crap.
He quit a play because he'd feel guilty about saying bad words.
He cut himself off from fully paying attention to the world around him because some other theological issue needed to be sorted out.
Years later, he regretted (regrets) not spending more time with his fraternity (who, incidentally, were much MUCH better at working out their differences than the Christians on campus), allowing aforementioned guilt and peer pressure to infiltrate his love life, and making his call to be a pastor so central to his identity that he'd have to deprogram himself in St. Louis so as to figure out what it means to be fully human.
But that last one is another story.
Lately, I've been thinking about how much a lot of this embarrasses me. I'm embarrassed at my own willful naivete, my allowing guilt and other Christians to dictate my choices the way they did. I'm embarrassed at how my narrow-mindedness about my studies and career path limited my experiences.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't acknowledge the good things about that stage of my journey: the encouragement I found within my Christian niche, the amount of growth in my faith that I enjoyed, the amount of commitment that I showed toward learning about theology and ministry, the piety and spiritual disciplines that I learned and maintained, the breadth and depth of experiences I had in worship styles and in playing in a band, the times that I did stand up to some of the judgmental crap, even if I got burned for it.
If it hadn't been for some of the strong commitments I'd made during that part of my life, a lot of that stuff wouldn't have been experienced either.
And truth be told, the more I reflect on those years, I think about the wide variety of people I was friends with, outside my own subculture: homosexuals [Since those days, I've changed my theological opinion of this subject -ed.], pagans, druggies, hippies, people of many different cultural and religious backgrounds. And it was my interaction with such diverse people that helped keep me from being completely cut off from the larger world around me. I value their impacts on me, I value my slowly developing sense of self and awareness of such a complicated world, and the way I was forced to mature after this part of my life--which, truthfully, only spanned some three years--began to give way to something new.
All things considered, it wasn't just peer pressure and guilt and all that. Looking back now, I can definitely see where those things played major roles. But when it comes down to it, a lot of it was probably just basic immaturity coupled with being faithful the best way that I knew how at the time.
But to think that it all started with a concert, and continued with a bonfire. I've made up a lot of ground since those days, for which I'm thankful. But I suppose that in retrospect, I have to be thankful for that stage of my life as much as anything else.
To read other posts related to this stage of my journey, read this and this.