What would my mom think if she could see me?
I wanted to ask a question. But I couldn’t post to Facebook, where everyone knows me from childhood, college, my current church, or the past year of motherhood. I wanted to ask a question that could leave my conservative friends thinking I was questioning more than just the definitions of masculine and feminine. I’d already lost friends and attracted anger for taking political stances more progressive than they’d like. I wasn’t ready to let them know of my doubts. So I turned, naturally, to the safe haven that is Twitter.
“Is there a word for deconstructing while keeping fairly orthodox theology? Asking for a friend.”
I’ve been wrestling with doubts, not about my faith, per se, but about the Christian culture in which I’ve been immersed most of my life. Books like Jesus and John Wayne and The Color of Compromise have challenged my understanding of the American church. The best term I could think of to describe this process was deconstructing.
Yet most people I saw on Twitter who said they were “deconstructing” were also throwing aside elements of theology I could not give up. I questioned the religious culture around me, not the Apostle’s Creed. Was I the only one who was wrestling while holding onto orthodox teaching?
My mom passed away when I was seventeen. She kept me within the limits of conservative nineties Christian culture. I was homeschooled with what I now recognize was a very strict, perhaps even fundamentalist, curriculum. I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter or trick-or-treat. I attended all the youth conferences, Bible studies, and Christian summer camps.
Would she be ashamed that I’m now a proud Hufflepuff, or that I am identifying much of purity culture as trauma? Or that the child who sang at then-presidential candidate George W. Bush’s political rally cried tears of relief when a Republican left the White House? I can’t help but fear that she would be disappointed in me for deconstructing the faith that she’d helped me build.
But then again, maybe she could relate to the struggle of questioning everything you thought you knew.
My parents were lured out of their Midwest hometown to Washington State by my uncle and aunt, who promised the beauty of Minnesotan lakes and trees with a fraction of the winter. They were right—it was beautiful, but it was also new territory. Even my uncle and aunt would soon move to Colorado, leaving my parents the only ones of their family to live in the Pacific Northwest. Perhaps it was this longing for family that led them to attend The Church in South Colby.
The pastor spoke of purity, living lives separate from the world. He meant it in a godly way, like the pilgrims desiring to practice their religion in peace. He was caring, was rumored to have the gift of healing, and seemed to know exactly what God was saying at all times. He insisted church members call him Brother Rob, not pastor. His name was an equalizer because everyone was considered family—everyone called every other member “Brother So-and-So” and “Sister So-and-So.” Anyone who slipped and addressed the leader as Pastor Rob would be reprimanded.
My parents drove at least forty-five minutes to visit the church in the middle of the woods. They sacrificed time, gas, energy, and money. But it was a community, a community that embraced my parents and encouraged them toward a holy life.
According to Brother Rob, separation was necessary to holiness, so somehow living in a separate culture might make the members holy. The church was not part of any denomination, for it was the only true church (besides one congregation in Texas who happened upon the same truth). Likewise, members were encouraged to distance themselves from friends and even family members who did not align with their teaching.
My mother followed their teaching, homeschooling me and keeping very few friends outside her church family. My dad sold his extensive, valuable baseball card collection and gave the money to the church. My parents tried their best to follow the crowd of fifty or so faithful.
And yet my mom rebelled in little ways.
When Mom insisted on keeping a Christmas tree, Brother Rob’s wife, Sister Chris, called on Christmas morning to yell at her. “Don’t you know that when you put presents under the tree, you’re literally kneeling down to an idol?” Mom went on decorating every year.
Mom allowed me to watch the taboo Pocahontas and collect its themed merchandise. In fact, I was allowed to watch most Disney movies, not just the collection of approved ones in the videocassette library upstairs in the church building. I was told to keep it a secret.
When children misbehaved, the elders dragged them onstage to spank them in front of the church. I was a good kid, and my mother refused to let the church believe otherwise.
After my mom was told she could not sit with me in Sunday school, despite my panicked crying, she refused to send me back.
Perhaps it was these little acts of rebellion that planted the seed of deconstruction in my mom’s heart. After several years of only knowing The Church in South Colby, after long nights of anxiety and prayer and long days of fasting, my mom secretly took me to another church.
Praise Chapel was tiny, maybe thirty people, run by a Latino couple in a storefront surrounded by Vietnamese restaurants. As we came in the doors the first time, I was shocked by how many people smiled. They clapped and sang along to the music—something we never got to do at church. It felt more like a celebration of life and less like a meeting to discuss an impending apocalypse. Everything felt new and strange and wonderful to me, even as a young grade-schooler.
Maybe things would have gone differently if I were better at lying, if I’d been able to keep our church visit a secret. But I couldn’t contain my giddiness when I next saw my dad, so I blabbered on about the singing and the happiness and the nice people. He didn’t respond, just told me to go to my room.
Jezebel was the evil queen of 1 Kings in the Old Testament, known for killing all the Lord’s prophets, replacing them with her priests of Baal. She was so hated, her own servants pushed her out the window in the middle of a coup, leaving her body to be eaten by the wild dogs of the city. Her name has become synonymous with wickedness and idolatry in the Christian church—and it’s still a favorite pejorative within certain realms of Twitter.
Brother Rob and Sister Chris called my rebellious mother Jezebel. I overheard Dad use the name as he argued with Mom in the kitchen, me cowering under the table. It was whispered throughout the holy congregation, both before and after Mom stepped through its doors the last time.
Then Dad disappeared.
Mom’s friends at The Church in South Colby refused to answer her calls. There was no hint as to where Dad had gone. Suddenly, all the money was gone from my parents’ joint bank account. Then, without a word, the divorce papers arrived.
I was too young to recognize the abuse around us. I didn’t know that my mom sacrificed her friends, her money, and even her marriage to deconstruct the faith she’d held. She’d questioned her church community and the decisions of her leaders, she’d rethought everything she and her husband had believed, and she’d come away rejecting it all.
Yet she held onto her faith in God, as flawed or traditional or real as it may have been.
If I’m honest, I know my mother was deconstructing much more bravely than I ever have.
I didn’t put much thought into my tweet, and I was shocked at how popular it became. While a handful of trolls littered the comments and some simply did not understand what I meant by orthodox, I found that I was not alone—in fact, hundreds of people could identify with my sense of displacement.
It’s so easy to watch those older than me, those who formed the culture that harmed me, and wonder why they didn’t do better and also worry that I’ve let them down. To feel a chasm between what they wanted for me and where I am now.
It’s tempting to feel like I’m alone in my struggles, the first to question the life I took for granted.
But perhaps, for some of us, our parents and grandparents and leaders were doing the best they could. Perhaps they were questioning the culture around them, they were deconstructing in their own way. Maybe there is just more work to be done.
And maybe we all have to go through a process of disentangling ourselves from the culture we’re in, keeping hold of what is true and discarding the rest. Maybe we’re not alone as we feel. Maybe we need to look for a legacy of deconstruction for bravery and inspiration, so we might start our own processes of rethinking everything we’ve known—for our own good and to pass on this legacy to the next generation.
Cover image by Annie Spratt.