This summer here at Thinking Through Christianity, I’ve decided to talk a bit about why I still believe. Last time, I talked about how the teaching of David Naugle opened my eyes to the beauty of creation, helping me to see an argument for Christianity in every beautiful thing. This week, I’m taking it back to the beginning: my Christian upbringing, my “personal testimony” of salvation, and the threads of love and faith that continue to bind my heart to Jesus.
I don’t remember a time my family and I were not in church. My mom served as the daycare director at two of the churches we attended when I was young. My dad always helped with the music ministry, singing specials and playing piano. At one church, my parents were both involved in the annual Easter play, a dramatic spectacle that walked through Christ’s passion with drama and song. My mom was renowned for her moving performance — with real tears — as Mary, the mother of Christ. My dad played guitar and sang “He’s Alive!” There were no dry eyes in that congregation.
Later, at another church, I once embarrassed my parents by asking our red-faced, fire-and-brimstone preacher why he had to yell so much. That was the first of many questions.
One year, when I was around 5 or 6, my family was planning a vacation to San Antonio to see the Alamo, and I started learning about heroes of the Alamo, like Davy Crockett. Until that time, I had only known Davy Crockett as a character, with his own theme song: “Davy Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier.” In my mind, he was in the same category as Paul Bunyan or Bigfoot. One day, on the way to work with my mom, she told me that Davy Crockett was a REAL PERSON.
My little mind reeled with the implications. I had so many questions. At the top of the list? “I wonder if I’ll see Davy Crockett in heaven some day?”
Well, that got my little wheels turning. “Will I even be in heaven to meet Davy Crockett?” I wondered.
Heaven in my mind was an image from a Sunday school coloring page: a happy group of children dancing hand in hand in a circle with long-haired, laughing Jesus. I sure didn’t want to miss that — or to miss meeting Davy Crockett!
Apparently, I was in some distress, because my mom noticed and asked one of the daycare workers to speak with me. She walked me through the sinner’s prayer, and I dutifully repeated her words.
If there was an official moment when I gave my life to Jesus, I believe it was then, though I can’t in all honesty tell you I understood what was happening at the time. To what extent were Santa Claus and Davy Crockett and Big Foot and Jesus conflated in my mind? How much was “real” and how much a rote repetition of the “sinner’s prayer?” I can’t answer those questions. But I can tell you that I grew in faith and in the knowledge of Christ after that.
Later, as a fourteen-year-old burgeoning singer songwriter, responding to the heightened emotions of youth camp, I wrote these words:
“You can talk about your theories, how the earth exploded into space/ You can debate for endless hours the existence of a God you can’t see or touch His face/ but if you ask me I know the answer won’t hide/ I may not be able to see Him but He fills me up inside. Who else but a living God could make my spirit soar so high, make me laugh and make me cry? Who else but a living God could touch me?”
Thirty-eight-year-old me rolls her eyes at fourteen-year-old me. Now that I’m an adult who often teaches college students about logical fallacies and cognitive biases, I know confirmation bias when I see it. Of course I attributed my soaring spirit to the movement of God. All my life I had been taught to see God’s hand in such experiences. I had been raised to believe, so of course everything confirmed that belief.
Maybe it’s not so crazy to think that the Lord of the universe could use something so random as Davy Crockett to lead a young, curious mind to Himself. Maybe it’s even crazier to think that it wasn’t God’s hand at work.
In my teen years, I embodied every millennial evangelical stereotype. I attended every youth group event, including camps, disciple nows, and lock-ins. I even had my first kiss at church, though later, I would join many others of my generation in kissing dating goodbye. I wore a purity ring. I knew all the words to “Jesus Freak” by D.C. Talk. I attended “See you at the Pole” and was vice-president of my school’s Bible Club.
But I still had plenty of questions, and I was blessed with wonderful pastors and teachers who demonstrated unconditional love and helped me learn to read scripture well and think critically about my faith. Unlike the churches of some of my generation, the church of my youth was safe place to grow and bring my questions.
I still have a lot of questions.
But what I don’t question is my own experience, even if I look back at it with some skepticism today. One such example is purity culture. Today, I can acknowledge its damaging and problematic aspects. But I am also truly grateful for how “kissing dating goodbye” helped me focus less on guys and more on developing myself as a person with my own interests.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that nothing was wasted. My experiences have made me who I am today. Cynics may say that I only believe because of my particular background, because I had been taught to interpret certain thoughts and feelings as a relationship with God. Perhaps they are right. But since I was blessed with teachers who helped me think well, who helped me love God with my heart and my mind, all I can say is that I’m looking at these experiences clearly. My little story of Davy Crockett and Jesus on a Sunday School coloring book need not convince anyone else. What matters is that it convinces me.
I also don’t question the love of my parents and the love and acceptance of pastors, teachers and other Christians in my life. They demonstrated Christian love to me, they never shamed me for my questions, and they let me be myself as I grew. Because of that, I recognize that I am very lucky and very privileged. Others have not been so lucky, and it’s their stories I’ll turn to in part three of this series next month.
These days, I spend most Sundays in an Episcopal church. Each week, I stand and proclaim the words of the Nicene Creed alongside a group of fellow believers. I mean what I say, and each week as I say it again, I believe it anew:
“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth…And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only Son of God…And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. […] We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and to life in the world to come.”
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books. All views are solely those of the author and do not reflect any of her places of employment.