I was born – by luck, karma or the will of the lord, as you choose to understand it – into a staunch Southern Baptist family. My great-grandfather and my grandfather were both preachers and both were on the faculty at Mercer University, a small Baptist college in Macon, Georgia. My grandmother believed fervently that the Baptists were not Protestant because they predated the Catholic Church. Yes, I know that’s a bit hard to believe, but it was common among her generation in the church to assume that the Baptists could be traced directly, historically, to John the Baptist of New Testament fame.
Though not an ordained minister, finding local newspapers as his preferred pulpit, my father was a sometime preacher, and a good one. He also was determined that if you spent Saturday night under his roof, you would be in church on Sunday morning. Probably Sunday night as well. So my religious education was a bit of a force-feed.
It took, though, and at seven I responded to an altar call during a revival service, professing my faith and my desire to be united with the body of Christ – in this case, the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia. After some counseling involving my parents, the revivalist (Brother Russell), and our local pastor, I was baptized and became a member of the the church. Oh yes, I also received eternal salvation in the process.
That part, despite my youthful sincerity, did not take. The onset of puberty seemed to begin my drift away from the arms of the church, and I began to misbehave in Sunday School, question the necessity for being in church every time the doors were open, and eventually question the assumptions underpinning the whole operation.
My best friend in the last couple of years of high school was the pastor’s son, and he and I spent many hours in free-ranging discussion that led us both to highly unapproved conclusions about the religion of our fathers. As I became braver and began to hint at these thoughts to my parents, the impossibility of finding my way through the forest of Christian theism began to be clear to me.
I remember clearly a discussion with the pastor himself, as lovable and loving a parent as were my own, but also as convinced of the inerrant nature of his beliefs. After I made some hesitant remarks to him about my own questionings and wanderings, he said something to the effect that it was fine for me to roam about, but just be sure I remained tethered to that rock of truth that is the Lord and the Lord’s Word.
Which was big of him.
But remaining tethered was exactly what I was not prepared to do.