Just as we do not choose our biological families of origin, there’s a sense in which we do not choose our religious families of origin either. Those of us who have been birthed or shaped by evangelicalism will never not be affected by it. You can be a former evangelical or a postevangelical. You can be a neo-evangelical. You can be a recovering evangelical — even a reforming evangelical. But you will never not be defined by your relationship to evangelicalism.
At the same time, acknowledging your evangelical roots does not mean turning a blind eye to the challenges facing the movement, nor does it mean defining evangelicalism so narrowly that you can absolve yourself of responsibility for it. To extend the family metaphor, evangelicalism may be comprised of your crazy cousins, embarrassing uncles, and perhaps even dysfunctional homes, but it’s still your family.
One thing that I almost never see in the current Discourse about evangelicalism is an acknowledgement by people who were raised evangelical that their upbringing might have provided something, anything to be grateful for. When I hear people denouncing their evangelical or fundamentalist “family,” I remember something Auden said about Kierkegaard: “The Danish Lutheran Church may have been as worldly as Kierkegaard thought it was, but if it had not existed he would never have heard of the Gospels, in which he found the standards by which he condemned it.”
For decades now I have been puzzled, bemused, and sometimes frustrated by people who speak as though being raised a fundamentalist Christian is a uniquely terrible tribulation. And I have met many such people. I was not raised evangelical myself, and only in a nominal sense was I raised a Christian. We knew we were Baptists, because denomination was a social marker in Alabama sixty years ago, but we very rarely went to church. (Occasionally someone would feel a sense of responsibility and we’d attend for three or four weeks in a row, but then a year or more might pass before we returned.) We didn’t pray; I don’t believe I ever prayed or was prayed for at home. At some point in my childhood — during one of those brief spasms of church attendance, I suppose — I learned John 3:16, for which I’m very grateful! But I didn’t learn the Lord’s Prayer until I became interested in Christianity in college.
Moreover, my father was in and out of prison throughout my childhood, and the best years were the ones when he was locked up, because when he was home he was usually drunk and when drunk was often violent. Once, when I was 12 or 13, I injured my arm playing a pickup football game and came home holding it gingerly, which for some reason caused him to fly into a rage and smash my injured arm with his fist. The next day we learned that my arm was broken. On another occasion he became angry with me for something and snatched my glasses off my face and crumpled them in his hand. I’m very nearsighted, so I stumbled around at school for the next couple of weeks until he allowed my mother to buy me a new pair. He never once in all his life told me he loved me; never once offered me a word of praise. My mother, while peaceable, was mostly silent and didn’t express affection either, though I’m now sure that she felt it. (Curiously, I never once saw my father angry with my mother.) We lived with my paternal grandmother, who was very loving towards me; without her, I don’t know how I could have made it into adulthood in one piece. My father regularly berated her for “spoiling” me.
That was home life. At school, because I started first grade at age five and skipped second grade, I was two years younger than my classmates and therefore the subject of relentless bullying until in high school I finally grew to slightly-above-average height. So I spent my childhood in more-or-less constant fear. My only refuges were (a) my books and (b) the friends I hung out with during school vacations. On days without school I made a point of leaving our house right after breakfast every day and not returning until dinner. I spent a lot of time hanging out in friends’ houses or yards and sitting under trees with books, dreading the time when I had to return home. (Another thing I’m grateful for, as I have often remarked: we had a house full of cheap paperbacks so there was always something to read.)
I don’t know how much it would have helped if anyone had taught me to cry out to God for support, or explained that Jesus encouraged those who are heavily-burdened to come to him for rest, or noted that he had sent the Holy Spirit to comfort his disciples. But such instruction wouldn’t have hurt; and it might have been a lifeline.
So when people whose parents loved them and expressed that love, cared for them and prayed for them, encouraged them in goodness and consoled them when they were hurt, tell me that their upbringing was terrible because those same parents were legalists and fundamentalists, well … let’s just say that I have a somewhat different perspective. I am not referring, of course, to those who suffered genuine abuse, and I see how abuse done in the name of God can be especially traumatizing. But those whose parents were merely legalistic and moralistic, narrow in their views, suspicious of mainstream culture, strict about movies and music — sure, all that’s not cool. But it could have been so, so much worse.
To those people, I say: While you’re rejoicing in your discovery of a more gracious and merciful God than your parents taught you to believe in — which is indeed something to rejoice in! — try to extend to them some of the same grace and mercy that you’ve received. And while duly noting what they failed to teach you, seek to have some gratitude for what they managed to provide. It was more and better than a lot of us get.