September 21, 2015
Separated as we are by age and distance, I decided to write to you rather than phone or Facebook message. A letter gives me freedom to speak without interruption, and gives you the option to read or disregard it without any pressure of feeling like you need to react or respond in any way. (In other words, it’s non-threatening for both of us…ha ha.) Although we are only marginally acquainted with each other, you have nevertheless been in my thoughts at various times in the past couple of weeks. This is strange — of course it’s very strange — but from my perspective it cannot be a mistake and so this letter.
I think you and I have much in common. We both grew up in dysfunctional families and, to make things more interesting, also a dysfunctional church environment. We’re both smarter-than-average and think about the world and what it all means, this life. We’ve both wrestled with others’ words, opinions and actions and have had our worldviews shaped by those experiences. I do not write now to change your worldview, but hopefully to challenge you to do one thing, and one thing only, which I will come to shortly.
Let me briefly tell you about my past. I grew up in a “Christian” family. My parents were both very expressive in church. Most mornings I’d wake up and walk into the living room to see my father sitting with a cup of coffee and an open Bible. They bought me lots of Christian books and we prayed at bedtime and before eating dinner. We wore ties to church on Sundays. I sang, I tried to pray. Pretty typical stuff.
My father was also the scariest person I’ve known in my life. He was prone to fits of sudden, extreme rage. He drank, a lot. He smoked. He and my mother fought constantly. He used drugs sometimes. He spent time in jail a couple times. The last time I saw my Dad alive, he was jonesing for heroin. When Jessica and I were first married he stole a car of mine (he and I had the same name) and junked it, spending the received money on who-knows-what. He said things to me when I was a teenager that were very cruel and cut me to the quick…things that made me question whether I could make it in life or whether any woman could ever love me. My father hid all these parts of himself in public — especially in church — where he would lead worship and preach and people would hear what he was saying and cry and “get blessed” and all that stuff. It was basically the same thing with my mother: she would pick fights with him intentionally, belittle him in public, try to make him look bad and herself look good. She used me as her emotional support person, talking to me for hours on end about all the ways my Dad had made her suffer. My parents were financially irresponsible. We were dirt poor, always. (I didn’t start getting medical attention for lifelong problems until I was working and paying for my own insurance.) Dad wouldn’t hold a job for very long, and we moved constantly. I grew up about as lonely and shy and socially maladjusted as a kid could get; every time I tried to make friends, we moved.
For most of my childhood, I was afraid to go to sleep at night. Sometimes I would wake up to the sound of their screaming and throwing things, glass smashing, walls breaking. Once or twice my mother ran terrified into my bedroom saying my father had just tried to kill her. He was prone to disappearing for days at a time and would come home all bandaged from where he had gone berserk on drugs and tried to kill himself. I remember detectives in suits arresting my him once and he was gone for eight months or so. Turned out he had kidnapped a girl and tried to use her as a hostage to rob a drug store. Our house was always in turmoil, and the suddenness with which chaos reared its head made peace nearly impossible.
Even as a kid I knew their behavior was crazy. But when I got to about 14, I seriously started to question just about everything. Naturally. That’s an important time in life when you try to figure things out. One of the questions that sprang up and grew bigger every day in my heart was the issue of our family’s faith. If God were real, why hadn’t He changed my parents? Why was our home life one of secrecy, lying and wearing masks? If God were good, why had He placed me in a family that was so full of pain and sin — sin, mind you, that wasn’t my fault, but whose painful effects rippled into my life from other people’s’ bad choices and stupid decisions and immaturity? And of course because my parents were often in ministry and we had other people in our house, talking, with me listening to everything that was said though they were unconscious of my being there, I also knew that most people calling themselves Christians were a lot like my parents. If God were real how could His people be so screwed up? How could God allow people like my parents to misrepresent Him so badly, unless He were powerless, or a fool, or a sadist, or didn’t exist at all?
And that is the conclusion I came to for a time: He couldn’t exist at all. I felt this the logical conclusion. It made sense to me, based on my experiences. My Grandpa Hobbs died on Thanksgiving Day of 2005. His son, my father, died suddenly three days later of complications of heart disease and drug addiction. My aunt (his sister) wrote to me that she questioned whether my father’s faith ever did him any good — which was the very question I now reeled under. After he was gone I thought of all the times I had seen him with an open Bible, or even praying with tears and sobs to be changed and delivered from all his torments and failings. If there was a God, how come He didn’t change my father?
But juxtaposed against all the madness were a few moments that impressed on me the reality of God. For example, during the peak of my angry atheism, I was convinced to go to a conference at a Bible school in upstate New York. I mainly wanted to get to the mountains for a couple of days and hike the trails, but while there I prayed, once, like this: “God, if you’re real at all, you’re going to have to help me out. I don’t see any evidence for you. I don’t think you care. I don’t think I could live WITH you, let alone FOR you. And I don’t like your ‘people,’ either. I hate them. I think they’re fakes and liars and morons. If I were you I’d wipe out the whole human race.”
During one of the services — right in the middle of the service — a little bespectacled old man, a total stranger who wore his pants all the way up to his chest, came up beside me and put his arm around my shoulder. His head was bowed. He spoke quietly. He said, “God heard what you said. He wants you to know He cares about you. He loves you. And He says very certainly that it doesn’t have to be the way you have seen it all your life. The things you have witnessed in your home and in the church, it doesn’t have to be that way. He created you for this time, to partner with Him and others to bring about change in the church and in the world. It need not be the way you have seen it.”
There were a couple of things like that, Isaac, just little inklings of hope that eventually convinced me. I don’t say that all my questions were answered, but that I was convinced.
At one point I encountered a Christian who challenged my atheistic thinking. He said, “How can you disprove God without actually being God?” Wrestling with that question made me realize an important truth: both atheists and believers place their trust in propositions that require an exercise of faith, because neither viewpoint can be proved empirically and beyond a shadow of a doubt. Both viewpoints are indeed faith propositions. I thought about what had made me arrive at the conclusion that God didn’t exist, and it wasn’t that someone like Dawkins or Hawking had lectured me with flawless logical execution the reasons God couldn’t exist. It was because I saw people naming His name who were just first class jerks. They were broken and flawed and sometimes evil but pretended to be perfect and happy and good. I was angry about that — furious, even.
After talking with him I had to “downgrade” and admit that I wasn’t much of an atheist, after all, because my viewpoint was shaped by emotional reaction (anger). If anything I was an agnostic: someone who just says, “We can’t know one way or the other.” Atheism never makes sense, in a purely logical way, any more than traditional belief in God. A closed-minded, dogmatic atheist is just as bad off as a closed-minded, dogmatic Christian. Really they are two peas fighting in the same pod, more alike in nature than they are different in rhetoric. But agnosticism can be argued with some success as long as you can get comfortable with never knowing anything for certain. (Ha ha ha. I’m not one of those folks either, though. The truth is that I always wanted to believe.)
One of the most talented, creative people I ever met was a writer and filmmaker named Torrey Meeks. If you Google his name I’m pretty sure some of his stuff will come up. We were acquainted for several years. He was an atheist, I a Christian. He played an integral role in my life because he was the person who gave me the idea to go to trucking school in Memphis and drive a truck all over the country. As long as we talked about writing or music or art, he was fine, but whenever we discussed things like marriage or sex or anything having to do with morality, he would get very angry and frustrated. Finally he removed me from his contacts but had the decency to write and tell me, “Steve, I like you but I just can’t believe someone as intelligent as you can believe all that God stuff.” My belief disturbed him so much, made him so uncomfortable that he couldn’t “have me around,” so to speak. He referred to me as “that dude who has a boner for the Lord,” an insult that cracked me up and made me like him even more.
He killed himself last August at the age of 31. I think of him and miss him often.
Maybe that’s the difference between dogmatic atheism and dogmatic belief in God. Maybe, sometimes, belief can save you from the razor and the rope, even when life is horrible. While Bertrand Russell or Stephen Fry might point to a child dying of cancer and say, “How could there be a God?” what, after all, could they say to that child to comfort him? What do they really offer that dying child? And why should they feel compelled to care about him? And if I DON’T care, indeed if I were even a murderer of children, on what grounds could they call me — a mere animal trying to survive — immoral or evil?
An atheist has no real reason to try to be good, to do good, has no foundation for explaining morality or conscience or even the persistence of religious devotion in every culture on earth through all recorded history. He has no reason to get married or stay married, or to take care of his children or ailing parents. Everything is an accident, all people and animals everywhere, and himself. Nothing has purpose or intrinsic meaning.
My favorite atheist, Albert Camus, understood this need, the need for belief. Camus, like C.S. Lewis, became an atheist for the same basic reason I did: observed and experienced suffering in the world (the crucible in their youths was WWI). I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of his works, but you should. I love his novels. His most famous work is called The Myth of Sisyphus. To boil it down, he says that while the world is totally accidental and absurd, we have to live like it isn’t. We have to pretend, in other words, that our lives have purpose and meaning. They don’t, but we must live like they do in order to be happy. He understood that you had to pretend to believe, because if you didn’t you couldn’t answer the most important question of any worldview or philosophy: Why shouldn’t I kill myself?
By now it’s obvious to you that I’m writing to encourage you to keep an open mind about God. That is the one thing I hope you will do, Isaac. There are a number of insane things that go on in this life, things I can’t explain, things loopy, uncorrected, undisciplined Christians can’t explain either, try as they might with bumper sticker slogans and slick formulas and attempts to turn truth into politics. But just because we don’t always have the answers doesn’t mean the answers don’t exist.
Maybe like me you have observed some of these inexplicable things in your family, or in the lives of others you know. Maybe like me you have felt the greatest opposition to your existence and personhood has come from those who should love you the most, who should know better. And maybe you have been let down by Christians, those people who speak of love all the time but rarely seem to have any idea how to display it. Perhaps you understand the bitterness that can well up inside your throat like bile and turn to rebellion in your stomach, rebellion that turns a heart stone-cold and lashes out.
It’s easy to judge others and God by our experiences, which are very limited when you stop to think about them. I write to encourage you to fairly judge your own heart, your motivations for adopting the views you have embraced. It is my fervent prayer that you have only half-heartedly embraced them because of world-weariness and the questions that gnaw at us when things don’t add up, when cruel words cut, when disappointment seems like all we know. There is no doubt that the brute force of circumstances and environment have much to do with the types of people we become, but the question is whether we will be men of hope or despair. This is a choice we must make.
I don’t write with a holier-than-thou attitude, or with any rotten, snotty motive. I am not brow-beating you with the Bible, or with history lessons. I am less than you, Isaac. I am your servant. I am older by chronological age but that means little in life because older people are not necessarily wiser. I have met many old fools. So have you, probably. We might even know some of the same ones.
Keep an open mind, brother. My friend Torrey was threatened by me but I didn’t feel the same way. I kept an open mind, I was open to hearing his ideas and grappling with them, discussing them without a chip on my shoulder or trying to force him to believe what I believe. His mind, despite his wit and humor and intelligence, was as closed as a steel trap. I have known many atheists but I have never interacted with a single one who wasn’t boiling in anger, seething with it like a soaked sponge.
And, if you ARE angry, I would never say your reasons for being angry are illegitimate, or should be dismissed. I hope you have enough of my personal story to see that I understand that there are good reasons to be angry. But not at the expense of missing out on becoming what we are supposed to be, my friend. Not at the expense of missing out on life. Not in self-destruction or the destruction of the foundation of our lives: our family and faith. I also know from personal experience that when anger is placed in God’s hands it can become a force for goodness, for building people up, for healing, for making the world a better place in actuality and not just in theory. And God isn’t afraid to be questioned; He isn’t mad at us. He loves us.
I leave you with this: it doesn’t have to be the way you’ve seen it. You have potential inside you, an ocean of potential. Potential to become a man who leads people, a man of truth, a man of love, a man who is not blown away by circumstances or emotions or convenience. You can be an agent of change for the good of everyone around you. Right now you might be railing against some of the wrongs and injustices you have witnessed and experienced. I don’t know this, but maybe you also realize that you also are capable of being a giant douchebag — an important personal realization whenever we are contending with the question of God, His existence and nature. I have realized this again and again, that I myself am capable of being just as awful (and much worse!) as anything I witnessed from my parents or Christian friends and acquaintances. We are all stuck and helpless in the same quagmire, all covered in the same muck, which is why we need a Savior.
Either way, as you wrestle with these questions, I implore you to WRESTLE with them. Don’t be like so many Christians AND atheists who just accept everything they’ve ever heard. Don’t become a parrot. Don’t be an atheist just because you think rebellion is cool or because it twists your parents’ nipples or those of other Christian people. In other words, don’t be an asshole. Be a thinker, man, a truth-seeker. Atheism is the norm now, it’s the new conformity. It’s easier to get along in America while disbelieving rather than believing. I am so sick of half-hearted, lazy atheists, people who read one or two Wikipedia articles about Dawkins or Hawking and think it validates their worldview and go away frothing at the mouth and saying, “Christians are stupid.”
But I am even more sick — to tears — of half-hearted, moribund Christians who read the Purpose-Driven Life or some other drivel and think they know what it means to be a Christian, all the while leaving Jesus outside their lives and daily experience and wondering why they feel like tired little gerbils running on a great cosmic wheel.
Be courageous and keep an open mind. If you’re feeling really brave, ask God to speak to you. Give Him a chance to show you, to prove Himself.
I am enclosing a book I read recently. My first reaction to it was that it’s just very well-written. The way the author says things is quite punchy and entertaining. It is his attempt to tell the story of his own personal wrestling and grappling with questions of God and faith.
If you ever feel like talking, hit me up. I am available. If not, that’s cool too. As stated at the beginning, no pressure.
Whatever you do, Isaac, BE REAL. Authenticity is what’s missing in the church, but it’s really missing everywhere.
Best wishes on your journey.