It has long been my conviction that the one group that it is safe to ridicule in our politically correct culture is the fundamentalist Christian. In our scientistic secularist culture where cynicism and a lack of faith are seen as signs of wisdom there is no room “true believers.” People who hold on to their “outmoded” views against the crush of modernity are often viewed as a threat when they are not viewed as weirdos. Words like theocracy and intolerance are tossed about very easily these days.
It is this cultural setting that makes Born Again and Again such a refreshing book. Its author, Jon Sweeney, is an editor and writer who grew up in a fundamentalist family in suburban Chicago. Sweeney could easily have written a memoir that traced his movement from fundamentalist wonder kid to a less black and white spiritual home in typical fashion. He could patiently explain how he was duped into believing such nonsense by his intolerant family and detail how he finally came to his senses and rejected all that ridiculous certainty as he became an adult. These type of stories, which are a dime a dozen, are really just the flip side of religious testimonies; with the now secularized person revealing how he “saw the light” of rationality and science as opposed to spiritual brainwashing and superstition.
But the book’s subtitle (“surprising gifts of a fundamentalist childhood”) signal that this is not one of those stories. Instead of relating how Sweeney broke with his family and their traditions, it relates how he came to “own his faith” while still respecting and valuing the ideas and experiences of his youth. Sweeney’s tone is tender and thoughtful. Instead of looking to blame or criticize those around him, he looks inside himself for answers.
As an adult, Sweeney clearly felt the pressure and uncomfortability that comes from growing up in this stigmatized group. He relates in the introduction how he once kept his childhood under wraps:
I have gone out of my way not to tell these things in the past. Long ago, I deliberately dropped my first college off my resume. For more than a decade, I intentionally avoided mention much of my childhood faith in casual conversation with people I did not trust completely. But I understand now that my early religious experiences were essential to the formation of who I am and who I will become, and that even though I am no longer there – spiritually, physically, maybe emotionally – I am grateful for the journey and for what I learned along the way.
Born Again and Again is a look back at that journey. In looking back Sweeney seems to be attempting two things: describing as best he can his feelings and thoughts growing up in this environment, and tracing his own spiritual development. The first is almost sociological and historical; he is relating the past so others might understand it better. The second part is almost devotional; he is trying to highlight the spiritual truths that he carries with him to this day.
As he weaves these two threads through his childhood and into adulthood, marriage, and parenting Sweeney notes the values and ideals that he still carries with him. He sums them up this way:
God and life matter; we all need saving again and again; rebirth is the experience and optimism of forgiveness; we ought to love scripture and study it; protest is necessary’ older friends add value and wisdom to our lives; and we all must own our faith and say it out loud.
Clearly, he is not easily pigeonholed or labeled; neither religious right or left.
In tracing his childhood experiences Sweeney succeeds in giving the reader insight into his faith whether you had a similar experience or find it totally foreign. He captures the tension inherent in fundamentalist faith:
I was not taught to be a mystic – in fact, quite the opposite. for fundamentalists, faith was something clear and unaddled, like listening carefully in order to follow directions properly, or simply getting your facts straight. We found the answers to our questions about life in the pages of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. We believed that everyone who read the Bible without prejudice would see things exactly as we did. The Holy Spirit would make sure of it.
But in reality, our lives were full of mysticism. We believed that God was active inside of us – listening, speaking, guiding – creating what we called a sanctified, individual conscience and will. This mystical new identity was the only safe guide to correct understanding and reliable decision making.
This is one of the clear benefits of Born Again and Again: you get the story from the inside but without the bitterness that often comes from those who have left their faith. Whether he is describing the effect of theology on a child’s imagination, the impact of the Scofield reference Bible on fundamentalist culture and theology, or the expectations of training and service, Sweeney illuminates what it was like to live in this community of believers.
The second thread, the more devotional or spiritual one, has many insights as well. I would, however, have enjoyed a fuller explanation of where Sweeney landed in his spiritual and theological journey. The book traces how Sweeney began to question the certainty of his faith as he got older; how he tried to reconcile his wider experiences with the world, and his changing thoughts and emotions, with the faith of his parents and grandparents. He describes this as “finding my way from religious certainty to reasonable doubt one step at a time.” This path was not necessarily a radical one, however, as “the notion of leaving Christianity behind was completely out of the question.” Sweeney speaks of arguing with his faith and relates how having his children question aspects of faith challenged him. While he drops hints about his decisions about dogma (that he may “no longer believe in a literal hell,” that he will “never be a great fan of organized and denominational church,” that he is a “communicant” rather than a member of his Episcopal church) he never real lays out any conclusions he has reached about the foundational doctrines of the church. It may be that this type of theological critique is outside the scope of the book. He is looking to relate the ideals he took from his childhood faith rather than outline the different positions he would take today.
One area where what you might call the conservatism of his upbringing stayed with him is in the area of sex:
I might wish a fundamentalist childhood for my own two kids for no other reason than that they might know what it is like to save the intimacies of marriage for marriage itself. It is easy to poke fun at fundamentalist sexual ethics, but I don’t . . . the ideal of union with a single partner (sustained perhaps only in fundamentalism today), and the ideal of becoming one in marriage, are still the most beautiful possibilities of human love.
This thoughtful, tender, and artful look at growing up within a religious community, with all the expectations and experiences that involves, is the story of a spiritual and emotional journey. It is a journey that is still with him today:
I first saw the light and screamed as a baby in Christianity – and somewhere unspoken and unthought of, I remember and still believe. Today, though, what I no longer believe intellectually, my body and emotions still understand as faith . . . The sensuous, more than the dogma, binds me like a slip knot, loosely but decisively to my religious place.
Sweeney’s deep and continuing connection to his spiritual past permeates the book.
Born Again and Again is a short but insightful rumination on one man’s spiritual journey; about how the past informs the present and the future. I would recommend it to anyone no matter what their religious background.