Jonathan Dudley’s Evangelical Pedigree

This long excerpt is taken directly from Dudley’s book, “Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics.” Dudley represents what is becoming more and more common: another person with evangelical credentials who no longer embraces traditional evangelical beliefs AND who now seems to want to evangelize the Church into his new-found liberal value system.

I spent the first twenty years of my life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a capital of modern evangelical Christendom . . . . My family was similarly saturated with evangelicalism. For most of my childhood, my family attended the First Evangelical Covenant Church, where much of my time was spent memorizing Bible verses. “Hiding God’s word in your heart,” as it’s called, is quite important in the evangelical community. And hide God’s word I did— roughly two thousand verses’ worth if my calculations are accurate. At the end of each year, I would recite the entire year’s verses from memory for a gift certificate from my church to a local Christian bookstore. My dad wrote the Bible-memory curriculum for the church, and my mom directed the church choir and orchestra. She also conducted the choir for Children’s Bible Hour, America’s oldest Christian radio program for children.

Both of my parents, two of my grandparents, and half of my aunts and uncles attended Moody Bible Institute, a flagship fundamentalist Bible school in Chicago started by the revivalist Dwight L. Moody. In addition to requiring faculty to sign off on standard evangelical beliefs— that the Bible is inspired by God, that Jesus is divine, that one must ask Jesus into one’s heart and be “born again” to attain salvation, that Christians must evangelize, that the Bible is the ultimate authority for Christians— Moody Bible Institute also requires all faculty members to reject the theory of evolution, to believe the Bible does not contain any errors about history or science, and to believe that Jesus will return at any minute to take the faithful out of this world. D. L. Moody was famous for his dismal view of society: “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel. God has given me a lifeboat and said, ‘Moody, save all you can.’  ”

My family regularly listened to James Dobson of Focus on the Family on the radio and received fund-raising letters from similar ministries. Both sources played a significant role in shaping our perceptions both of what the Bible says about particular issues and of the world outside our relatively homogeneous community. According to Dobson, the Bible was quite clear on whom we should vote for and what we should believe about everything ranging from foreign policy to abortion to taxes. But the outside world portrayed in his broadcasts was a scary place, populated by liberals, practicing homosexuals, and other disreputable groups— who wanted nothing more than to destroy the family, America, and Western civilization as we know it.

I have to admit from the start that, for most of my childhood, I was anything but a model Christian. As a child, I was plagued by doubts about Christianity. It all started with a children’s song, from which I learned how to be saved: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead— you will be saved!” The requirement for salvation set forth in the song was one I could never seem to meet. My eternal salvation hinged on whether or not I believed that Jesus died for my sins and was raised from the dead— whether or not, in other words, I had enough confidence that a rather improbable event occurred in ancient history. Thus, every night before bed, I would inform God in prayer that I was 100 percent sure Jesus died and was raised from the dead, and quite grateful for it as well (I made sure to conceal my doubts, thinking that if I didn’t let on, God would never know). In reality, however, I was not sure that Jesus was raised from the dead, any more than I was sure about any other contested aspect of ancient history. Racked with guilt, and always fretting over my eternal destiny, I recall asking Jesus into my heart several dozen times throughout childhood— just to be safe.

Things didn’t get much better in high school. My family switched churches during my time in high school (mainly because my sisters and I wanted to attend a popular megachurch with our school friends), and my mom resigned from her job as choir director to come with us. But as luck would have it, shortly after we arrived at our new church, the director of music resigned. My mom applied for the position, along with one other person. It should have been no contest. My mom had more than twenty years of experience directing church music, had obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and was highly recommended by both her former choir and various choir members at our new church. The other applicant had little experience, did not have a master’s degree, and was largely unknown to the choir. But the other applicant had one small asset that my mom lacked: a penis.

Although the church’s theological position did not prevent it from hiring a woman for the role of choir director, some of the elders (all men) felt uncomfortable with such a change and pulled some strings behind the scenes to ensure that the male candidate was hired (as a member of the board later confessed). And although several friends in law told us it was a clear-cut case of gender discrimination that invited a lawsuit, my parents did not want to tarnish the church’s reputation. The older male in charge of hiring called my mom into his office to offer a bizarre, tearful apology, then sent her off “in the name of the Lord” to keep quiet about what had happened.

That soured me quite a bit on evangelical Christianity and also taught me that the Lord’s name can be used to support just about anything— sexism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, you name it. (Although unqualified for the job of choir director at our local church, my mom went on to graduate summa cum laude from a doctoral program in choral conducting and now directs a choir and teaches music at a university.)

Although I kept going to the church, things went downhill throughout high school. The church youth group would frequently host speakers I could relate to, people like me, who could never seem to get the Christian thing right: shooting heroin, having unprotected sex with everyone in sight, and generally making the worst possible decision in every situation. But at the end of each story— each of which utterly captivated me— while lying in a jail cell or a pool of vomit or standing on the edge of a bridge getting ready to jump, it would happen. The narrator would give his life to Jesus and enter a personal relationship with God. These former drug users, school dropouts, and sex addicts were the heroes of our culture, the main speakers at our most important events. Having this route to spiritual satisfaction inscribed in my subconscious, and very much wanting to achieve herohood among my peers, I set out in high school to destroy my life as utterly and comprehensively as possible.

Fortunately, I didn’t succeed. I did smoke marijuana a few times, watched R-rated movies with friends, and during a moment of utter abandon, used the “F-word” in front of my dad, but for some reason, perhaps because I was so thoroughly shaped by evangelical morality, I couldn’t bring myself to enact more damage upon my life. I resigned myself to face the fact that my testimony would never be as cool as those of the youth group speakers— if I ever had one, that is.

But as it turns out, I would have a testimony. It all started my senior year of high school, when I worked out a deal with my dad to get out of going to Sunday school. Rather than suffering through the well-meaning but painful antics of a middle-aged youth pastor (“PRAISE THE NAME OF JESUS!!!!!!” he would yell several times throughout the service, with sweat dripping down his balding head, to which everyone would yell “YEAH!!!” or “You know it!”), I would stay at home and read books about theology and Christianity. I started off reading arguments for and against Christianity and then continued on to read about theology, Christian history, and ethics. To my surprise, there were quite a few smart people in the Christian tradition and many of their arguments were convincing. Although I wasn’t convinced that Christianity is true, I was at least convinced that it wasn’t irrational. And I think that’s about as far as you can get with arguments for a particular religious perspective anyway.

That summer I decided to go on a ten-week mission trip to Europe with my church. Mostly, I just wanted to see Europe. But in the training camp before the trip, where we memorized the Four Spiritual Laws (a tract summarizing how to be saved), practiced evangelism, and learned street theater skits to present the Gospel message, something unexpected happened. I asked Jesus into my heart for what was probably the six dozenth time, and I was born again (again).But for real this time. Many evangelicals will describe their conversion experience as follows: “I came to a realization of my sinfulness, my need for forgiveness and Jesus as Savior, and began a personal relationship with God.” Many people, including me, find such rhetoric mostly opaque. But somewhere in those words, struggling to get out, is an ineffable experience of something more, of grace, second chances, and regeneration. And all who’ve experienced it know exactly what that means. In my case, it meant I began praying every day, reading my Bible more often, attempting to cultivate the virtues I saw in scripture, and trying harder in school.

Then it was off to college— I majored in biology at Calvin College— and off to a series of intellectual experiences that eventually led to this book. Since most of my teen years were spent rebelling against my parents and their beliefs, I wasn’t as firmly wedded to “the big four” positions as many of my evangelical peers. Although I went to an evangelical college— as happens in many evangelical homes, it was either that or my parents wouldn’t pay— I nevertheless encountered strong opposition to many pop-culture evangelical beliefs. In my freshman biology class, I sat riveted as the professor explained why scientists believe in evolution (I had never learned about the subject in high school). The summer after my first year, I pored over a summer-school psychology book by an evangelical professor, who argued (shockingly, to me) that gay people don’t choose their orientation and cannot readily change. Over the course of my second year in college, I learned why scientists think there is an environmental crisis. And during my last year of college, a bioethics professor argued against popular evangelical thought on abortion. . . . Nevertheless, my bioethics professor reinforced a conclusion I had drawn from my undergrad and seminary years: There is a significant gap between the opinions that dominate the popular evangelical culture (which is the only part of evangelicalism with political muscle) and the opinions that prevail among leading evangelical scholars.

Taken from Dudley’s book, Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics (2011-04-05). (Kindle Locations 79-163). Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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