My Week at the Full Armor Lectures: the Shocking Truth

14

February 27, 2013 by jmar198013

I started writing a short story several years ago about a guy who goes to a Bible lectureship and is deeply damaged by the experience. I never finished it. I never could figure out how.

Those of you who have been following this series know this. This thing never got any further than Wednesday afternoon–not officially. I made a couple of stabs at finishing it, but I never did like where the story was going.

You see, it isn’t just a story: it’s my story. Calvin Luther Edwards, III is me. And I didn’t like where my story was going.

But then again, it isn’t just my story to tell. Other people’s stories have been conflated into it. Even people I didn’t know, or even know about, when I started writing this story in 2007, recognize themselves in it. Or people they have known. And many have seen the church they have known. Some didn’t want to admit it at first, but they saw it, eventually. For instance, one of my schoolmates wrote me a couple years back and said:

When I first read some of those short stories I was found them irreverently appalling, even though deep down there were spices of truth seasoned throughout. A couple of years have passed since then, and a couple of suppositions have changed. I now read them and can accept the humor, cruelty, reality, and irony of the stories. Calvin’s trip to the Zoo is a perfect summation.

I was born and raised in a church fellowship known for being ornery. Many of us are trying to change our path, and many have suffered greatly because of it. Not a few have departed. I have been asked why I still stay. The truth is, I don’t know how to be anything else. Beyond that, for all its crankiness, oddness, hypocrisy, self-righteousness and self-justification, its absurdity, its cruelty, its bellicosity, and its sometimes downright bizarre and anti-social behavior, I still love my church. Call it loyalty, call it a fondness for the particular, call it the path of least resistance, call it masochism, call it sheer stubbornness–it is what it is. I love my church. They are stuck with me, and I with them.

I do not pretend to be in the mainstream of my fellowship–never have been, never will be. I cannot speak for the mainstream. I can only speak for myself, and hopefully for the myriad others who have been whipped with their Bible belt and still feel the sting.

When I wrote these, I wrote them for children who were told that dancing is tantamount to sex. For girls who were taught that their bodies were shameful by preachers who blamed Bathsheba for David’s sin. For families where brothers and sisters were not even allowed to swim in the same pool for fear of arousing unnatural passions. For those who have lived in constant fear of hell because of a soteriology that can only be described as, “Once saved, always in jeopardy.” For those who have been deprived the comfort of the Holy Spirit’s presence in their life by preachers who told them that the Spirit dwells only in the Bible. For entire families of preachers who have literally been kicked to the curb without notice because of a homiletical misstep or a personality conflict with a power-hungry eldership. For those who have been told, “We will not even baptize you until you divorce your wife, because your marriage is unscriptural. It is better to break up your family than to burn in hell.” For the women who have been “put in their place.” For the LGBTQ family members who have spent hellish years trembling in the closet. For the young alcoholic booted out of the Christian college without so much as an offer of help or treatment. For the young man with a porn addiction who confided this to an elder and was threatened, “I’ll bet your momma would be real ashamed if she knew what you were doing.” For the men with porn addictions who were told in the Open Forum of a Christian college lectureship: “I don’t see how it’s a problem. I love to go fishing, but if Jesus told me not to do it, I’d get rid of my rod and reel. It’s that simple, boys.” I wrote these for everyone who has ever felt the need to pray, “Lord, protect me from my brethren.”

In my excerpt, I always wrote these sort of funny disclaimers about how none of this stuff really ever happened. That’s not entirely true. The truth is, most of these things have happened in one form or another. It’s just they haven’t all happened to me personally, and certainly not all in the same week. But I assure you, the shocking truth is, most of this stuff has happened. And if it didn’t happen to me personally, it happened to someone I know, or I heard about it from someone who knew whom it had happened to.

For instance, in the last post of the series I reported how Calvin was fired from a preaching job when a conversation he assumed was private was surreptitiously taped and then replayed, out of context, to the elders of his church. In my excerpt, I wrote: “No one has ever secretly taped a preacher, played that tape out of context for the elders where that preacher works, and gotten him fired … There are no scoundrels like that among us.” Truth is, I was being taken out to dinner by some church leaders I knew once during a lectureship, and they brought along a preacher I didn’t know. He reported with glee during the course of the evening how he’d gotten a rival preacher fired by sneaking a tape recorder into a gathering of local preachers and taping him explaining his position on a doctrinal matter so trivial I have forgotten it in the ensuing decade. What I have not forgotten is how brilliant this guy thought he was; how he felt he was justified for robbing his brother of his vocation and livelihood over a trifle; and how the people taking me out to dinner that night were impressed with what he had done. I was shocked and told them so. They looked at me like a potato had suddenly sprouted from my forehead. “He was only defending the truth!” they told me. I vowed never to let those folks pay for me another meal again.

In another of the posts, I had Calvin visit the zoo, where he had an epiphany:

I decided to skip the pre-lunch lectures and go to the Memphis Zoo. It dawned on me that the Full Armor Lectureship—indeed, our entire fellowship—was its own menagerie, a stationary Noah’s ark whose inhabitants refused to leave, all blaming one another for the stench in there. We are not exotic breeds from faraway lands in the First United Primitive Christian Church, however. We are more like stubborn relics of the recent past, looking at the world through nauseatingly garish Technicolor lenses. We live on in the rubble of Modernism, proudly making no concessions to the rest of the world as it evolves without us, flinging our filth at each other. I felt quite at one that day with the animals in the zoo, for it came to me that I, too, had been bred in captivity.

Looking back on it now, that may have been a bit unfair. Some days I think it was, some days I think it wasn’t. One thing I can say now is that while Calvin was a victim of this church machine, I also see clearly now that the sorts of folks represented by characters like Skeeter McDoogan, Herb Sharp, Remus Philbert, and Mack Snipes are victims, too. They can’t see it, but they are. This machine is crushing their souls; their participation in the soul-crushing of others damages them, too.

I pray for the day when their eyes are opened. I pray for the day when my eyes are opened wider. I pray for the day when we are not gazing in mirrors darkly. The Scripture says: “God said that light should shine out of the darkness. He is the same one who shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4.6 CEB). I pray for the day when that word becomes flesh for my people, for my church.

Until then, I pray that others may have the courage to throw themselves–as I fancy myself to have done in stupid moments when I think too highly of myself–into the spokes of this machine. It hurts like hell, but I don’t know how else to stop it.

It may be that the reason I never finished the story is that my story isn’t finished. I do not feel entirely redeemed, even though much of my Babylon is homemade. But I believe in a God of Exile and Exodus, of Cross and Resurrection. I pray, finally, that I will find my redemption, and Calvin will find his, as well.

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14 thoughts on “My Week at the Full Armor Lectures: the Shocking Truth

  1. Caleb Coy says:

    When I first encountered this I suspected that only a couple of these incidents were true. I’m glad that you chose to stick to your people, partly because that’s what I’m doing. If we think it’s bad here, we’ll find it in places anywhere. Maybe worse. We’d be mistaken to assume it’s exclusive to our….”denomination”. Oh, we may find less of it in groups that may take the opposite route: Don’t debate anything about the meaning of scripture; if Jesus loves us he means for us to embrace all fellowships regardless of teaching. We are bred in captivity, but at least this grants us zeal. That same zeal brought you to compose this. By the way, I really wish you had found a way to get this out other than via blog posts. It really is a fine work.

    • jmar198013 says:

      “When I first encountered this I suspected that only a couple of these incidents were true.” More like only a couple WEREN’T. The church that required its members to sing a hymn and exit after the Lord’s Supper, for instance–that’s a true story I read from F. LaGard Smith. My embellishment was that once it was pointed out to them that “after they had sung an hymn, they departed to the MOUNT OF OLIVES,” the church actually went out and made up a fake “Mount of Olives.” So I mean, some details get changed or added, but the root of the story is basically how it happened.

  2. Caleb Coy says:

    We are bred in captivity, but it has created zeal within us. That same zeal led you to compose this. Also, I wish you had found a deserving outlet for this, not just blog postings. It really is a fine work.

  3. jmar198013 says:

    Thanks, Caleb. In response to your offering that you wish I’d found a better venue than the blogosphere, just ask yourself (as I have asked myself): Who’d publish it? Gary Freeman basically already wrote this 40-some-odd years ago when he did A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Heaven. The folks who “got it” then are way past there now.

  4. Caleb Coy says:

    It’s completely a worthy question. Those who would get the references don’t appreciate the literary value or have the attention span. Those who would value the literary value won’t get the references.

  5. Caleb Coy says:

    I value this so much, the least I can do is reblog a link to each of these myself.

  6. Jamey says:

    I’ve been reading all the installments, and I just wanted to say that I’m really glad you wrote this. Unlike Mr. Coy, I have little doubt in the veracity of all of it, as I have witnessed similar shenanigans myself, having lived the live of a preacher and the child of one.

    Lectureships are a time fraught with peril. In my last full-time job, my time away at the FHU Lectures was the time when the detractors back home ganged up and plotted my firing, for no other reason than that someone else was coveting the “power” and “prestige” of my position.

    You and I must have been at the same lectureship at least once, because I feel like I had to have been there in that lecture that was devoted to ripping apart LaGard Smith’s book. This was right after “Radical Restoration” came out. This book is near and dear to my heart. It knocked the scales off of my eyes and opened my heart and soul to the deep and treacherous flaws in the Church of Christ, and it was the catalyst that ultimately led to my departure from that church. I remember the speaker’s visage quite clearly, though I can’t recall his name. He skewered the book and impugned LaGard’s character so gleefully and smugly. His eyes were wild, and I could swear there were flames licking in the background of their irises. I remember thinking that this might just be what a demon looks like. He was countered several times by a Scottish fellow, who was an associate of LaGard’s, but he brushed it off. My friend and I approached him after the lecture and asked him where he got off saying such things without the man there to defend himself. (LaGard was there, but, as you alluded in your story, was in the sales room signing books that were flying off the tables.) We also asked him why he didn’t feel the biblical directive to first approach your brother in privacy didn’t apply to him. He gave us the same demonic glare and half-smile and started to light into us. We didn’t give him the chance to finish.

    I appreciate what you say about “not knowing how to be anything else.” I felt the same way, too, but in the end, you learn to be something different. I don’t know that the passengers on the Titanic could justify staying on board by saying “I don’t know how to sail in a lifeboat.” I can’t imagine the prisoners at Auschwitz saying “I just don’t know how to not be gassed.” For my own part, I just couldn’t handle the growing chasm of difference between my beliefs and that of the Church of Christ. Jesus told us that we would know his people by the fruits they bore, and quite frankly, I was sick of biting into rotten prunes. People always tell me “well, you can’t judge the church by one person,” but these kind of stories happen so often that you just can’t say it’s a minority of churches that experience them. When you can relate a story such as this and have people in numerous other Churches of Christ pinging back and saying “hey, that happened here too,” what you have is not just a few infiltrators, but rather a systemic culture that, in the end, defines the whole denomination.

    I disagree with Caleb’s assertion (and please feel free to correct me if I’m misconstruing it) that we will face these things regardless, so we might as well stay where we are. That kind of thinking doesn’t work in any other facet of life. We don’t stay at a job we hate just because we might hate the next job. We don’t move to a new house just because it might someday have termites too. When we’re eating at a restaurant that has bad service, we don’t keep coming back because the one next door might not be great either. So why do we treat Christianity like that? A lot of people have told me that if I disagree with the church, I ought to stay there and work to change it from the inside. The problem with that, though, is very clearly illustrated by the story. The Church of Christ WILL NOT be changed, and there are people working very hard to keep it that way. Preaching what we believe (when it does not coincide with “the party line”) will earn us a write-up in the brotherhood journals, an actual blacklisting from gospel meetings, forget about lectureships, and don’t even think about getting published unless you own a publishing company. You will get disinvited from preachers’ meetings. And of course, if you depend on preaching to support your family, you may as well just plan on living on the street, because you will be out. The Church of Christ has no room or mechanism for change. It bites the heads off of and banishes those who even begin to question their pet doctrines. Even if you’re not a pulpit preacher, you can find yourself disfellowshipped faster than you can say Rubel Shelley.

    In any case, the options are not just “stay Church of Christ” and “join another denomination.” My mother asks me all the time which denomination I am going to join if I am not a member of the Church of Christ. The answer is that I choose option C: live a spirit-filled life independent of any denomination and fellowship with Christians as I’m able. I may find a church that fits with my beliefs someday. I may not. But one thing I absolutely will not do is to settle for a church that constantly does so much harm to others, just because that’s what I’m comfortable with.

    I really appreciate your work here. It has been most uplifting to me, as always.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Jamey, I am grieved beyond words that you have been so damaged by our church. I do think it helpful to keep in mind that our fellowship is not a monolith. There are Christians from Churches of Christ doing amazing things, just as there are some doing terrible things. Most of us, I think, are just trying to muddle through. We walk with a limp; I pray it is a victorious limp–that like Jacob wrestling with God, we come away from our struggle blessed even as we hobble. There have been those too who have courageously, as I pointed out earlier, thrown themselves into the cogs of the machine. They are those who have spoken personally and paid professionally and personally. Many of the most compelling Christians I know are from our fellowship. You said, “I may find a church that fits with my beliefs someday. I may not.” Brother, you won’t. That’s not even what it’s about. I am in deep theological disagreement with some of my favorite brothers and sisters about a myriad of issues. I pray that you will find fellowship; discipleship was never meant to be an army of one.

  7. Ty says:

    I just discovered this from a link at coc peace fellowship facebook and I have to say it really speaks to me (btw, I once . . . decided to use . . . all of the “Word Only” tracts delivered by a guest speaker when i was in college because I didn’t think it would be right to let them out in public, too bad we can’t always do the same with certain people).

  8. Ty says:

    By the way, I have stayed not only because I love so many people here, but also because every time we lose people who are radically different, we lose our chance to change and grow, therefore, when I find myself radically different than those around me, I try to have some effect instead of abandoning others to their isolation.

    • jmar198013 says:

      Ty, I think your reason for staying is closely related to mine, in the final analysis. There is something Christlike indeed to seeing others in their struggle and suffering and saying, “I’m staying here with you, I’m staying here for you, even if it kills me.”

    • Jamey says:

      I appreciate the sentiment, Ty, but as I queried above, how can one possibly effect change in an organization that not only is overwhelmingly adamantly opposed to change of any kind (good or bad) but also has mechanisms in place to squash such things quickly and viciously? I wish that I knew a way to change the Church of Christ, but to be honest, there are precious few Churches of Christ out there that, when they learned of my difference in beliefs, would not immediately command me to repent of them or disfellowship me! They’re certainly not going to allow me in their pulpits or to teach these things in Bible class.

      As an example, let’s just take the issue of instrumental music. I no longer believe that it’s sinful. But you and I both know that if I got up in the pulpit of a Church of Christ next Sunday and preached that belief, along with a well-thought-out defense and scriptural support, I would be shown the door very quickly. I may not even be allowed to finish the sermon. And forget about other congregations around town, because word of your “liberalism” and “change agent” status would be in their ears before you could even get to their door. You might even get written up in “Seek the Old Paths” or “Contending for the Faith.”

      I wish you guys could’ve seen the controversy surrounding a sermon I preached on Hebrews 10:25. It was my stance that the verse is not appropriately cited when used to condemn those who don’t come to services on Wednesday and Sunday nights. I thoroughly exegeted the passage, incorporated all the context, and picked apart the Greek. I went through and showed the congregation every single other instance of the Greek word for “forsake” and how it was used elsewhere in Scripture. It was perhaps one of my best constructed, most thorough sermons ever.

      But when I got done, you might’ve thought that I had just preached that God commanded us all to murder puppies in the middle of a gay orgy. I did not have that job for much longer. There are just some things that the church won’t tolerate, no matter what you show them in scripture.

      Believe me, if I thought I could foment change in some way, I would, but by and large I fear the Church of Christ is too far gone.

      Jmar, I understand the need to commiserate, and I appreciate that you’re there to help souls that are hurting. I do the same thing in a support group for people who have come out of that denomination. I wish more people in the Church of Christ would be like you, but sadly what I get the most is an unceremonious “unfriending,” and distance for fear that my apostasy may rub off on them. Lifelong friends have cut off contact with me without so much as a word because I happen to disagree with how the Church of Christ interprets the word.

  9. […] “My Week at the Full Armor Lectures” by Jeremy Marshal the Shocking Truth: […]

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