I grew up in a small, industrial suburb of Houston that was populated mostly by Southern Baptists and Methodists. There were a few other odd denominations of the Christian variety but no Jews, Muslims, or Others. In my little town of Jacinto City, Texas, the dominant Baptist and Methodist churches faced off across from each other on Wiggins Street and the Baptist church had the much larger buildings and congregation.
My family belonged to the Methodist Church and we only saw inside the Baptist Church when there was a wedding or funeral of a friend who belonged to the “dunkin’ church” across the street. Whenever we did get to go inside the Baptist Church, we kids were mostly interested in the transparent tank behind the altar with its painted desert scene complete with palm trees on the wall behind. My Methodist parents told us kids that Baptists believed dunking was required to effect a good baptism. They explained that Methodists felt that a sprinkle of water, done in the right spirit, would have the same result.
It was one of my first encounters with a basic difference in the way members of our demographically similar congregations thought about the symbols of faith. Over time, I would come to see that it also extended to the way they thought about the Bible, their morals, the world at large, and how they dealt with “exceptions to the rule of faith” that they encountered in their own lives and in the lives of others.
Park that phrase, exceptions to the rule of faith, for I shall come back to it.
My Baptist friends at school always seemed a little more pious, although, they were no better behaved or moral than the rest of us. In high school, the Christian Student Union was one of the most socially proper clubs you could belong to after school and, although it was open to members of all Christian denominations, it was mostly the Baptist kids who participated. Methodist kids were too intimidated by their Bible literacy, piety, nice haircuts, crisp shirts and dresses so we stayed away.
Of course, I was a little jealous of the popularity that seemed to favor being a Baptist. It was just behind the football/cheerleader syndrome. But we had something so much better, although we didn’t know it then: the freedom to use our minds and to follow those little rabbit trails that truth and inquiry would lead us down – not to hell, but to a better understanding of the beauty of a universe so filled with wonder that it stood as its own miracle far surpassing the stories of creation, healing, the parting of the waters, and all those things we read about in the New and Old Testaments.
Neither they nor we knew it at the time, but one of the basic differences in what went on in the two buildings on Wiggins Street was the degree to which we were trained – no, required – to entertain contradictions. By the time I was in high school, it was becoming clear to me that my Baptist friends lived in a suffocating environment, particularly on Sundays. The rest of the week they could be pretty regular teenagers, sometimes even more so than the rest of us. The most pious of them were straight arrows strutting the halls of Galena Park High School and staying late for CSU, but they all seemed to want some of that same pure, fresh air that God seemed to have breathed into us Methodists.
It isn’t that we didn’t have a good measure of that kind of thinking at the Methodist Church but, now I know after reading Goodbye Jesus by Tim Sledge, it was nothing like the kind of hell-reinforced pounding the Baptist kids received.
I found Tim Sledge’s book, Goodbye Jesus: An Evangelical Preacher’s Journey Beyond Faith fascinating although I hadn’t expected much when I started reading. Things written by evangelicals are generally of no interest to me and, in fact, I find them insulting and oppressive. Trying to read them, is to crawl into a gray mass of depression, not from any guilt or meaninglessness they imply, but because of their glib treatment of things supernatural and contradictory to experience. You can’t help but feel terribly sorry for the writer who praises God every sentence or two then rejects some of the greatest gifts that have landed in our laps in this creation: science and logic.
Well, Doctor Sledge’s title was enough to keep me going all the way to the finish line in Chapter 103. Had I not known from his title and preface that he was going to win the battle against the dread sucking of the Southern Baptist quicksand, I couldn’t have stayed with him if there was any chance that it was leading to a final victory of Jesus over Satan. That’s pretty much the way all evangelical texts end. There is not much reason to read them if you already know the arc of the story.
But his honest telling of his own experiences growing up and in his work as an evangelical preacher (extremely successful, by the way) gave me a look inside the mind of the Southern Baptist that I could not have had any other way. In fact, I could identify with the serious and inquiring young Tim Sledge and even see myself as perhaps following a similar path if I had grown up in a Southern Baptist church where the adults whose approval we so desired smiled upon teenagers who were openly and annoyingly devout.
When Tim Sledge described the day he took his walk up the aisle at the age of 16 and gave his life to Jesus, I could see myself so easily doing the same thing if I had grown up in the environment of his experience. In the Southern Baptist world, a seminary degree and a lifetime of preaching and studying the scripture could appeal to an earnest and cerebral sixteen year old as the height of intellectual and spiritual endeavor.
Early on in his education for the ministry, Tim Sledge began to notice that not all the holier-than-thou Baptists in church and university leadership were immune to behaviors he labeled as exceptions to the rule of faith. Drunkenness among the dries, a very believable tale he heard about a group of Baptist ministers at a conference enjoying their time in the hot tub fondling one another, illicit sexual affairs among the married members in the congregation, suicides of teenage members of the church, and, perhaps worst of all, congregations that would turn their backs to the needs of suffering people. He saw these as contradictions to everything he believed about the presence of God in the lives of the saved and the church offered no guide to understanding this type of behavior. He saw all the contradictions and, being unable to understand and explain, he faithfully noted them in his journal hoping to return some day with a fuller understanding of God’s plan for mankind in general and these violating members of the church in particular.
Sledge gives detailed accounts of his work as a pastor at Kingsland Baptist Church in Katy, Texas, over a period of twenty years as he built the church at a much faster pace than even the exploding Houston suburb where it was located. And all the while, he was developing tools for helping people troubled by their past to overcome those barriers and move on to happier and more successful lives. His programs were built on truth telling and the development of empathy through group processes. But he was doing this at a time when the fundamentalists were taking over the Southern Baptist churches and educational institutions. The movement was not kind to thinking preachers like Dr. Sledge who saw the purpose of religious life as something beyond piety and self-satisfaction with having followed the rules. He felt strongly that the message of love and salvation meant love for the unloved and salvation from the aching loneliness caused by the many forms of abusive behavior, both those inflicted on self and on others.
Not too surprisingly, in this environment congregations were often of two minds (he talks about Congregation One and Congregation Two and the constant strain of trying to balance his work to meet the needs of both). After long, faithful and effective service, Congregation One (the traditionalists and original members) got the upper hand and the Deacons turned on him and terminated his ten year ministry at Kingsland. The termination agreement even called for him and his wife to not even return to the church where they had been members for years. It was a devastating experience for Sledge and his family.
Ultimately, his marriage dissolved, he began to raise questions about his faith and he fell away from the church entirely. He became successful in software development, said goodbye to Jesus, the Christ, and became a non-theistic humanist.
There are no plot spoilers in this review. Basically, there is no plot to spoil. Sledge is pretty up front from the beginning where the story is heading. The reason for reading it is surely not for entertainment; it is to get a candid and detailed look inside the mind of a good, decent evangelical fundamentalist Christian and see what can happen once he begins to think outside the tight box formed by biblical literalism and inerrancy, tradition, congregational social controls, and Hell with a capital H to make sure you know it is real.
Reading Sledge’s account of his life gave me something I thought I would never have: an ability to understand Christian fundamentalists with sympathy and to be able to see their destructive intellectual and social behaviors as problems that can be changed with a little outreach and understanding.
Thank you, Dr. Tim Sledge, for helping me understand the people I knew in high school who wore their Christianity like a homecoming corsage and grew up to support people in public office whose lives were, surely, exceptions to the rule of faith.