Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Fundamentalist Begins His Pilgrimage

After walking into the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, I stared at The Gap[1] snubbing its capitalist nose at me as it occupied that very famous corner; and my world, which two weeks earlier in Denver had the foundation shaken, began to crumble. I walked several blocks back towards the financial district, found a vegetarian cafĂ© located on a side street, and ordered my food. There were no empty tables and few available seats. A lady in her late-twenties asked if I’d like to sit at her table, and I thankfully joined her. We didn’t talk at first. I didn’t want to. I needed to reflect on my disappointment and growing confusion. Pulling out the journal I had received only three weeks earlier, I began to write about my pilgrimage up to that point.

On the Road helped my wanderlust take shape, but the pull to explore new places and meet new people had been there since I was kid. Ever since I was a young boy, I’ve loved maps and travel brochures. Like many kids, far-away places captured my imagination. One of my favorite books was America’s Wonderlands. Published by the National Geographic Society in 1966, the book fueled my imagination and wanderlust with intriguing colored pictures and vivid descriptions of the national parks. I still have the book. Mountains were something that I always wondered about, but growing up in Florida meant that mountains remained in my imagination[2]. Large cities fascinated me. Up until high school, my only interaction with large cities was driving through Atlanta on the way to family vacations at Bob Jones University. Out of all the large cities that I had never visited, Chicago became my favorite city. I rooted for the Cubs; I memorized the size and shapes of the city’s most famous buildings; and I studied maps of Chicago. One of the things that I loved the most about this city that I had never actually seen was how Chicago haughtily thumbed its nose at New York City. Other cities seemed to bow down to the assumed superiority of NYC and embraced their “coolness” in relation to NYC. Not Chicago. In a show of defiance and assertion of identity, Chicago proudly sneered its nickname “Second City” back at NYC.

I wasn’t just the places that captured my imagination; in fact, it wasn’t even mainly the places. It was the beautiful, smiling people in the pictures. The people having fun seemed so far removed from fundamentalism as if to not be tainted by it. Mainly because I was a child, but also partly because we were poor, my experience with the world was limited to the people and places that my parents knew. In other words, mainly other fundamentalists often in fundamentalist settings. With the exception being our cousins, from both sides, who were allowed to listen to music that we weren’t and go to the movies. I loved my cousins, and thought they were all really cool. But those interactions with my cousins, or the wait staff in Pizza Hut, or the Sears photographer were, in my mind, unfortunately infected with the stench of fundamentalism that went everywhere with my parents. Fundamentalism was always there – big, wet culottes weighing everything down, even the cool people. I wanted to go places that were blissfully immune from the stifling uncoolness of fundamentalism. I craved people and places from whom and where I wouldn’t have to hide my fundamentalist upbringing because they weren’t aware of it – not only “it” in reference to me, but in reference to “it” just in general. This was evidenced in my opinion of foreign travel.

Foreign countries rarely occupied my imagination. In my young mind, foreign countries were inseparable from the parade of missionaries that visited our missions-minded church[3]. In fact, within the cultural fundamentalist mythos that I was raised in, it appeared to me that the large cities of this country were far more godless than the foreign countries that seemed, from my young perspective, overrun with KJV toting missionaries. Why in the world would I want to go overseas?  

Flash forward to 2003, and filled with excited anticipation, I began my Kerouacian pilgrimage.  

The first stop on the pilgrimage wasn’t on my original itinerary, and at this point I don’t remember what compelled me to make Pensacola my inaugural stop. Probably my mom. My brother’s son had recently been born, so he wasn’t there, but the rest of the family was. I always enjoyed seeing my family, but, while with them, the option to leave was important to my level of enjoyment; on this occasion, my options for leaving were very slim. I want to be clear, “leaving,” for one thing, was far more about being able to engage in extracurricular activities. For example, at this point in my life I was smoking cloves[4], and with my parents, my sisters, my sister’s husbands, and their kids around, sneaking a smoke was difficult. In order to smoke, I had to manufacture reasons to go to the store at inopportune times so that no one would volunteer to go with me. Same with drinking. One evening, I offered to buy everyone pizza from a restaurant that “served my favorite pizza.” Thing is, I’d never had the pizza, but I knew that the place had a bar. I went early to pick up the pizza.

The other thing about needing an option for “leaving” was firmly in the realm of feeling left out. That wasn’t my family’s fault. They went way above the call of duty in putting up with my bullshit with attempts to demonstrate their love for me. And those attempts went beyond eating vegan lasagna. Often those attempts looked like refusing to take the bait when I would, regardless of the actual topic of the current conversation, rant and rave about some aspect of Christianity, culture, or politics. As the rest of my family smiled and nodded, my mom would gently say, “John, I don’t want to argue with you. All I want you to know is that God loves you; I love you; and I pray for you every day.”

So, no; whatever or whomever was to blame for my feelings of exclusion, that blame was not anywhere near the shoulders of my family. This is a feeling that had gone all the way back, at least, to my days sitting by myself in the Bob Jones University Dining Common and wondering why many of kids around me seemed to be in existential possession of something that was utterly foreign to me. Eventually I concluded that they were just brainwashed and that the antidote to my malaise was segregating the brainwashed from my existence. That was hard to do when my loving and concerned family occupied the capital of brainwashedville.

Another problem had inserted itself in my mind’s dialogue – my attempts at segregation were proving to be a refutation to my theory. A refutation that I stubbornly resisted. It was hard to ignore that I craved being around my family, though. And, almost as important, no matter how far away from fundamentalism my friends seemed to be, a black hole sucked all meaning and existential structure out of my current relationships. Even worse, I would find myself thinking nostalgically about people from my BJU past; people like my hall leader roommate; or people like the BJU dorm supervisor who, while giving his own testimony that involved drugs, sex, and rock and roll, warned us bored and half-listening students about how vacuous a life is that is lived in rebellion of our Creator God. I hated those moments of unguarded thought.

My continued feelings of alienation coupled with the unsettlingly nostalgia meant that my childhood problem of identity was carried into my debauched adulthood. Growing up, I assumed that I once I escaped the constricting clutches of Christianity, I would be free. And the thing was, in 2003, I was at the point where my upbringing was no longer something that I felt compelled to hide out of embarrassment. In fact, people would accuse me of lying when I told them that I had attended Bob Jones University. I would make bets with some of them, and then have them call the BJU Campus Store pretending to be a potential employer checking past employment records. So, by my estimation, I had personally transcended Christianity and, hence, should be free and happy. But it hadn’t worked out that way. The only solution that I could see to my problem was that I hadn’t found “my people” nor “my land” yet. And that’s where reading On the Road comes in.            

As I wrote above, I have always wanted to travel; On the Road gave my existential need a specific solution. I believed that in order to complete my escape from Christianity, I needed to follow Jack Kerouac’s example and go find my people in my land. At the time, I didn’t understand that On the Road was the howl of desperate loneliness.

[1] I’m apparently not the only one. Google “The Gap Haight Ashbury” and read the Yelp reviews of this inappropriately placed and now defunct location.
[2] I didn’t see real mountains until I was in high school and went skiing in Colorado.
[3] Do not, for one second, assume that I am in anyway opposed to foreign mission work. I am not. In fact, I will unequivocally state that I support the spread of the Gospel through foreign missions.
[4] If you don’t know what cloves are, doesn’t matter. What you need to know about cloves is – 1. Everyone will assume that you are a douchebag, and 2. No one will try and bum one from you, even bums; unless you’re in Asheville. Stupid hippies love them some cloves.


  1. I find your journey fascinating to follow. My husband met up with his mission president about 20 years after the mission. (Calvin was in Franco's Spain in the 70s.) It was a happy reunion, and as they caught up with each others' lives and activities since the mission, the mission president said to my husband, "The Gospel works." It sounds much cooler in Spanish.

  2. I enjoy your candor. (Also called "spilling your guts.") Others have made the same journey. This line was wonderful: "That was hard to do when my loving and concerned family occupied the capital of brainwashedville."

  3. John! Just found your blog and I'm loving reading about your journey. Man, we need to catch up. Now we have three things in common: BJU, Chi Delt, and Mr. Bean, who is an old family friend. I guess I'd better say his history with my family is old, not him, or he'll kill me! I didn't know you knew him. Anyway, let me know the best way to contact you. I appreciate your writing.

  4. It's good to hear from you, Bevan! Are you on Facebook or Twitter? I've been accused of being a luddite, and, as such, am not sure if it's a good idea to post my email address in a public comment thread or not. If you have contact with Ron, I could get it to you through him.

    1. I'm with you--no Facebook or Twitter, but I will facilitate the exchange of info through him. Looking foward to talking with you.

    2. I am now a mediator! Can I put that on my resume?