When you grow up a godless heathen—a once nine-year-old running wild through your neighborhood, competing with the older kids to devise the most creative combinations of cuss words, jumping freight trains while your single mother works two and sometimes three part-time jobs, a fifth-grader sipping and passing a bottle of cheap vodka some sixth grader stole from his parents and passed around to other kids on the school bus—it’s hard, then, to become the wife of an evangelical Christian pastor.
In 2006, four years after we were married, my husband Sam became licensed to minister in a small denomination headquartered in Indiana. Fascinated by theology, he wanted to teach at a university and swore he’d never become a pastor. I believed him. I shouldn’t have. Not that I blame him. He was only doing what he ultimately felt called to do. I certainly would never tell him he can’t fulfill his vocation.
Because of his job, there are expectations for both of us. Since Sam grew up in a fundamentalist bible church in rural northern Indiana, he can more easily navigate expectations. Those expectations tend to embody the following: “We don’t smoke, drink or chew, and we don’t go with girls (or boys) who do.” Even though he married a girl who did, growing up among those who didn’t helped Sam fit in with this crowd. But these same expectations often reveal my inadequacies as a Christian and someone who’s supposed to be an example—I like being with people who smoke, drink and chew because they’re often more forthright and authentic. We Christians tend to hide our authentic selves with each other for fear of judgment. For good or ill, people in our church and our Christian community watch us, they watch you, Sam tells me. This makes me uneasy.
While in graduate school, a semester away from earning a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing in 2012, a professor assigned to read my thesis said he viewed my project (a memoir about growing up with a homosexual parent) as partly about a woman coming to terms with her religion and spirituality within a conservative evangelical context. He said he saw the narrative “I,” of my memoir as a sort of “accidental Christian.” That phrase has gnawed me. A perceptive teacher and brilliant writer, his characterization of the narrative “I” within her religiously conservative world forced me to evaluate how honest and vulnerable and authentic I could allow myself to be once I began publishing my work. My ultimate goal—as it is for many writers—is to publish. But I began questioning how authentic I could be in my work with so many expectations that need managing. Not because I care too much about what people think of me, but because I care about what people think of Sam and his work within the church.
It is true I’m an accidental Christian. As a wild kid with few boundaries who had a mother with few financial resources, I grew up angry. Poverty is a mean life that sometimes begets meaner children. Uncertainty, instability, and want forced me to take a cynical view of the world much earlier than I might have normally. When my grandmother, who was a Christian, forced God on our little family, I wondered why a supposedly good God would force children to suffer, to hunger, to be cold? That wasn’t any kind of benevolence I wanted. And since my grandmother beat my mother when she was child and was often verbally abusive to my brother and me, I wanted nothing to do with Christians. Ironically, my grandmother became a licensed minister toward the end of her life in 1992. Truth is, if my husband had been a pastor before we were married, I would have run in the opposite direction. But when I discovered the teachings of Christ in 2000 when I was a newly-divorced 25-year-old, I found a God of peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and most importantly, love. I couldn’t resist a message that embodied such grace. A God so different from the hellfire one I’d learned from my grandmother and the countless televangelists I remembered her watching from her vinyl brown La-Z-Boy, crusted over with cigarette burns.
But I’m often torn about my writing—torn between authenticity and a desire to manage the perceptions of those in the church community for my husband’s sake. In a culture where Christians lose more and more credibility because they worry more about whether homosexuals can marry than whether their neighbors have enough to eat, I find that I become less and less torn about whether I need to manage expectations or be my authentic self, especially as it relates to what I write. Authenticity of self is a lost virtue within Christian culture. In truth, it is not my gay neighbors and their desire for marriage equality that worry me most. It is my Christian culture, my Christian neighbors so distracted by which moral precept is ruling the day’s news cycle, who worry me, so far from our authentic selves, managing others’ perceptions of what those who are not Christians should and should not do. It is our man-made Christian culture that tends toward pharisaical piety, stripping us of Christ-centered authenticity that calls us to love, peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Who knows? Maybe this makes me more akin to that nine-year-old godless heathen, but at least she was a authentic. At least she was herself.