One of my favorite genres of literature to read is religious memoir. Off the top of my head, I can think of six or seven I’ve read in the last year – Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God, Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God, Jon Sweeney’s Born Again and Again, Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church – A Memoir of Faith, and a couple from Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets. Philip Yancey’s Soul Survivor might also fit in that category. There are different things that I like about all of them. For some, it’s seeing someone else who is close to the end of their journey, looking back at the things that happened in their lives that brought them to where they are now, like Buechner – on the back of his book The Longing for Home, there’s a blurb from the New Oxford Review that says, “Journey on, Frederick Buechner. We need your stories to help us make sense of our own.” Others, like Lauren Winner’s and Donald Miller’s, are thought provoking because they are a little further down the path I’m on, or at least a similar path. Schaeffer and Sweeney both come from a somewhat similar background in fundamentalism. Sweeney even begins one chapter in Born Again and Again: Surprising Gifts of a Fundamentalist Childhood by quoting part of a sermon by my Great Grandfather, John R. Rice. (Winner mentions Rice and his book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers in her chapter on Fundamentalism, but from an historian’s perspective instead of a personal one.)
But while I can find similarities between their stories and my own, it’s not often that I read someone who not only comes from a similar background but who also has many of the same stories, someone who heard the same preachers growing up (to say nothing of Patch the Pirate). Enter Matthew Paul Turner. I read Matthew’s first book, the satiric Christian Culture Survival Guide, back when it was published, in 2004, and found it hilarious. After noticing his stories of Patch the Pirate and about a certain college founded by a friend of my Great Grandfather, with the name changed slightly, I sent him an e-mail. Turned out, he even heard my Great Grandfather preach when he was about 5 years old. In the 4 years since then, Matthew has written ten or twelve books. His newest – his first hardback – is due to hit stores on October 7th. Churched: One Kid’s Journey Towards God Despite a Holy Mess is his first memoir, and hopefully the first of several. He sent it to me after he finished the final draft about four months ago, and I read it in two days. And it resonated with me, not only because Matthew started out in a similar place, but because we are both in about the same place now, more so than with any other memoir I’ve read.
Matthew’s trademark humor is evident throughout, although much of it is a little painful because it is so close to the truth. For instance, when he writes about his pastor telling the church how he can spot sin in another person’s life just by looking in their eyes, Matthew recounts, “For a fundamentalist, spotting sin was like going to Disney World.” And after enduring the yelling of a Sunday school teacher, Matthew ends the story with, “That’s when I began seeing a therapist.”
On Sunday school: “I was trained in Sunday school to spot the Devil. My teachers told me to watch out for roaring lions, disgruntled angels, women wearing low-cut blouses, and Billy Graham.” On his pastor: “Pastor Nolan’s sermons were cruel and unusual punishment for people who had imaginations, sensitive eardrums, or someplace better to be.” And, on movies: “A few months later Pastor Nolan proved my mother’s theory about Hollywood correct. Or at least, he supported it. He preached to my junior church class and told us that it didn’t matter if a person went to see a porn movie or Bambi, all of the money eventually trickled down to fund people who made the X-rated stuff.
I didn’t know what pornography was, but the way Pastor Nolan described it, I was pretty sure miniskirts were involved.”
The book closes with a chapter Matthew has titled “Benediction.” The first words you read in the chapter are, “Fundamentalism has little to do with Jesus.” And I’d have to agree, at least the brand of Fundamentalism that Matthew and I grew up with. It wasn’t about Jesus or Hope or Resurrection or a better way, it was about scaring people until they looked and acted exactly like us.
In his 20’s, for the first time, he tells us, Matthew found a small community in Maryland where he found hope, “a Jesus kind of hope.” He writes, “The pastor wasn’t the most dynamic preacher, not according to fundamentalism standards, but every time he spoke about the good news, he cried. He felt something. He couldn’t always communicate the hope effectively, but he felt it. I had moments when I felt it, too… [F]or the first time in my life, I worshipped God without feeling afraid.”
The chapter, and the book, ends with a sentence that I’ve been quoting every time I’ve told friends about the book. It sums up a key difference between what Matthew and I grew up believing, and what we believe now. Fundamentalism is about fear. And if I had to give you one word to sum up what I believe now, it would be “hope.”
In Matthew’s words, “Last Sunday Jessica and I went to church. It was Easter. A couple people got baptized. The guy sitting next to me took two smoke breaks. I closed my eyes during the praise and worship. Pete gave a sermon about hope. We took communion.
I wasn’t afraid.”
Matthew will be on tour this fall with Dan Merchant, the director of Lord, Save Us From Your Followers, reading excerpts from Churched and then interviewing Merchant. There’s a list of links on Matthew’s blog to the different sites where you can pre-order Churched. And if you’re in the Nashville area, join us on October 14th at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Green Hills for a book signing and to hear Matthew read a couple excerpts.