A shiver hopscotches up my spine. The air is sticky and hot in this school gym in Florida, soaking the underarms of my T-shirt. Loud music rubs its way through the air. I’m 16 and I am just learning how to desire.
My desire at that moment was for Jesus, or as 30-year-old me wants to declare in hindsight, what I earnestly believed was Jesus. Whatever “it” was, it was powerful enough to bring a girl who grew up in a non-churchgoing family to a sweaty school gym for youth group every week, and binding enough to yoke me to a conservative faith for most of my formative years. From ages 17 until about age 23, I was a born-again Christian, something I’m usually embarrassed to admit here in New York City.
To use the jargon of my former life, I became a “believer” in Christ shortly after my mom “got saved” — the term evangelicals use to mean a conversion to a very specific kind of Christianity, the Billy Graham and gay Teletubbies kind that preaches Jesus as the only path to salvation. My Ohio-bred parents had grown up in Catholic households and, suffering from organized-religion hangovers, raised me and my sister totally unchurched. That is, until we moved to Florida. A friend invited my mom to her sprawling Southern Baptist megachurch, where she prayed to accept Jesus. (The “sinner’s prayer” is the engagement chicken of born-again Christianity: Realize and confess in earnest that Jesus died for your sins, and he’ll return the favor with eternal life.) My sister and I did the same soon after; my dad, then and now, remained unconvinced.
I made a lot of mistakes in my six years as a Christian, some of them cringe-ier than others. Once at a college party, I tried to convince people not to drink by asking them to think deep existential thoughts about why they drank. (A beneficial thing to ponder, probably, but not one undergrads are dying to muse on between keg stands.) I ran for chaplain of my sorority mostly so I could surreptitiously proselytize. In 2004, I voted for George W. Bush.
I’m not the only millennial with what author John Jeremiah Sullivan calls “a Jesus phase.” A BuzzFeed post I made aimed at people who grew up going to evangelical youth group continues to be among my highest performing; anecdotally, I’ve talked to scores of people in all walks of life who also used to go on mission trips and know all the words to “Lord I Lift Your Name on High.” Statistically, exiting your Jesus phase is also a real phenomenon: According to polling organization the Barna Group, there’s a 43% drop in Christian church attendance between the teen and early adult years. Statistics show that younger people are currently leaving evangelicalism at faster rates than older people, which many credit to differing beliefs on topics such as same-sex marriage. For me, it was a traditional soul- and spirit-crusher: graduate school.
After college, I moved to Connecticut to study religion at Yale. My faith had gotten me more interested in the Bible, but I also wanted to study it from an academic standpoint. Anyone can be a secular student of religion, examining the Bible as a historical work of literature in the same way one would analyze Shakespeare or the Euthyphro. This scholarly approach to the biblical text was the one taught at Yale. But still, I entered my program with both feet planted in my evangelical sandbox. You can study the Bible like any other book but still keep your faith, I told myself. If I really believe that this book is true, then it should hold up to even the most rigorous historical-critical scrutiny.
During my master’s degree program, my plan of going on to do a Ph.D. gradually dissolved — Exhibit A: me working full time at BuzzFeed, hi! — but something else materialized: a swelling doubt about the faith I’d set out to preserve, which hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God. As I learned ancient Greek and Hebrew and pored over the biblical text in its original languages, and read it in larger quantities than I’d ever read it at church, its discrepancies began to shine a hot and uncomfortable spotlight on my personal religious views. Pieces of the gospels contradicted each other, I realized. Greek words, like the ones we’ve translated 2,000 years later to mean “homosexuality,” didn’t quite mean what modern evangelicals wanted them to mean. Early Christians disagreed up to the fifth century on which portions of texts should even be in the biblical canon.
More and more, I realized that the Bible was a flawed, messy, deeply human book — and that in treating it as an unimpeachable guidebook for life in the 21st century, many conservative Christians were basing their entire worldviews on a text that, in my opinion, wasn’t that much different from any other historical collection of letters and stories. I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.
This was something the evangelical students in my program at Yale talked about often: the behemoth of doubt that sets in as your airtight hermeneutic of scripture is drained from the bottom. Christians from other traditions didn’t have it so bad. Catholics, for example, could fall in the same academic dunk tank and emerge with the same doubts about scripture, but they could still lean on other things their denomination held sacred and used to interpret the text, like the Catechism, papal infallibility, and the sacraments. We evangelicals, with our infallible view of scripture ripped from our hands, were left gasping for air. If you crumple and toss out a literal reading of the Bible, then what does it mean to talk about Jesus literally dying for your sins?
Losing Jesus, someone I talked to both hunched over in prayer groups and in the darkness of my bedroom, felt like losing a friend, even if he was an imaginary one all along. Many people would call this a good thing, this kicking of the “opiate of the masses” habit, and I would too. Putting on my existential big-girl pants. Confronting the fact that God didn’t get me through any hard times. I did. Considering that heaven isn’t a gentle ledge I can lean my elbow on when confronted with the sadness of death. These were hard truths to swallow, but like tablespoons of fish oil, they were good for me.
But my secret is this: Even though I staked my life on an arbitrary historical document for six years, I liked who I was when I was born-again. I woke up each day determined to conquer my “sinful nature,” i.e., my id that was prone to thinking only about myself, and determined to put others first. I was more selfless. I was a more caring and giving friend back then; I listened deeply, instead of waiting for my turn to talk. I prayed for people and made care packages and wrote nice letters and volunteered. With a divine outlet compelling me to focus on something besides self-preservation, I felt free from the prison of ego.
Which isn’t to say that I can’t do any of these things now. Today I can go to beautiful and inspiring concerts instead of worship service. I can join a weekly book club instead of Bible study to find community. I can still volunteer at the same homeless shelters and make the same damn care packages. I want, desperately and intellectually, to believe that you can feel those selfless feelings and be this others-focused person in secular minds and realms. But that omnipresent inner light or whatever it was that compelled Christian me, as Jesus says in Luke, to “deny myself daily” has long flickered out.
I know — I think — that Christianity isn’t real, but I miss believing it was real. When I got confused in my career, or hurt by a broken relationship, fellow Christians assured me that it was all part of God’s plan to lead me to the right calling or the right person, something that made me calmer and more willing to take risks. Now when things don’t go the way I want, I cling to a vague “everything happens for a reason” sentiment or confront the fact that shit, maybe life IS meaningless, because now I can’t view trauma as just a rolling ball in some cosmic Rube Goldberg machine.
Some days I wake up in my bedroom in Brooklyn and I just don’t know what to do, in an existential sense. Christianity gave me something to do. A large reason I converted to the faith as a teen was because I felt a weird void in my life, like something was missing that no relationship, amount of money, or enviable career could fill. The Christian message was packaged and sold to me as the only thing that could fill that void. And for six years, I let it.
Maybe that warm feeling I miss is the true scary part of religion: that it can become this numbing hive mind of false comfort that brainwashes at best. Agnostic might be too clinical a word for my current beliefs; apathetic is probably more accurate. (My mom and sister have also cooled down in their levels of orthodoxy, so luckily leaving the faith didn’t make me a familial black sheep the way it does for many people.)
But sometimes I still feel that weird void tugging across my stomach, like jam spread on toast. Sometimes it’s when I’m walking outside at night and a warm breeze whispers past my ears and flashes of summer nights from years past flick into my mind. I felt it on Ocean Beach in San Francisco recently, as fog inched its way along the horizon, and as I stared out at it, I felt a wave of something truly ineffable, a surreal flutter in my soul that the world was vast and overwhelming and rich and meaningful and also not really fucking meaningful at all.
In my heady born-again days, I flew from Florida to New York City for a missions trip. I was 18, and my earnest Christian comrades and I set up a table offering “FREE PRAYER!” against a wall in the Union Square subway station. “FREE PRAYER!!!” I screamed at the streams of jaded New Yorkers who walked past, wearing a Campus Crusade for Christ T-shirt and waving a neon-colored flier filled with Bible verses. The most enthusiastic passersby smiled thinly.
That was 12 years ago. Now I’m one of the thin smilers. I often pass street preachers on the sidewalks of Manhattan and think of wide-eyed teenage me in that youth group gym in Florida, singing praise songs at the top of her lungs and feeling like I held this precious gift that made me so happy I wanted to share it with everyone else in the entire world, right down to total strangers.
John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in Pulphead that even now, years after he got out of his Jesus phase, he still feels drawn to his old beliefs. “The sheer sensation of life that comes with a total, all-pervading notion of being, the pulse of consequence one projects onto even the humblest things,” he writes of his former faith, “the pull of that won’t slacken.” Socially, I sometimes miss Christianity. Intellectually, I’m OK being rid of it. Spiritually? To be honest, in a tiny crack in my soul, I’m still figuring that out.