Monday, November 9, 2009

Separated From the World

I have often wondered if I should write about my religious background and how it has changed in the past five years, and now that lots of people Beck expressed interest, I've decided to write about it. It may end up being too long for one post, but I'll try to give you the picture without too many extraneous details.

First, some background. I am a preacher's daughter--third-generation Pentecostal on my mother's side and fourth-generation on my father's. My dad, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all pastors, so that gives you an idea of how deeply rooted our family was in our denomination. When I was growing up, church was the center of our lives, not only for worship, but also for almost all of our recreation and entertainment, mostly because we weren't allowed to do so many other things that were "worldly." We also had a church-school, so of course I attended it. Therefore, I spent my youth in a very small, sheltered world in which it was possible to hold on to the beliefs that separated us from the secular world outside.

What were we allowed to do? It's easier to list all the things we weren't allowed to do: drink and smoke, of course; dance; curse; gamble; listen to secular music; swim with members of the opposite sex; go to the movies; and TV was frowned on by my grandparents' generation and still forbidden for ministers. Women were not supposed to cut our hair at all, wear pants or shorts or skirts above the knee, wear anything low-cut or sleeveless, wear makeup (fortunately when I reached puberty, my mom interpreted this rule as "no colored makeup," so I was allowed to wear foundation and powder over my pimples ) and no jewelry, except some churches allowed wedding rings. Men had it relatively easier: they were not to wear shorts or tank tops; and long hair and facial hair was frowned on.

These were the unspoken rules at our church. Some churches were much more strict. I know a woman whose former pastor banned bows in the girls' hair. Bows might have been an unfortunate fashion choice in the eighties, but were they really evil? Even at the time I thought that rule was silly. My parents once sat through a sermon titled "Five-Dollar Red Shoes" which were apparently too expensive and a dangerous color. And on and on--whatever a particular man (I almost hate to call them "ministers") was against, he railed against as sinful and many people were obedient. It was almost sinister, the amount of control these men wielded over their congregations.

As I got older, the rules began to relax--or, rather, we stretched them. My dad let us do some things on vacation, like watching TV or wearing a bathing suit in a motel pool, that we couldn't do at home. I now know that he was starting to feel ambivalent about the guidelines he had been raised to uphold, and he must have decided that what the church didn't know about would be okay for us to do.

Of course, that led to more hypocrisy--although we would have been shocked to hear ourselves called hypocrites. In reality we were trying to rebel, but for a long time it was a secret rebellion, because my parents were too afraid to openly proclaim that they didn't believe everything their denomination stood for. I don't really blame them. After all, their whole livelihood was at stake. But it wasn't that they cynically decided to espouse beliefs they didn't hold in order to keep a job. No, I think they genuinely didn't know what to believe, because they had been taught for their whole lives that if you maintained the "holiness standards" (that's what we called the rules), you were holy. And by contrast, if you didn't--if you trimmed your hair, or snuck into a movie theater, God wasn't going to be pleased with you. I never got the impression that God would cast me into Hell for wearing jeans, but he would be disappointed and upset and would punish me in some way that I was pretty sure I wouldn't like. (My view on this probably had to do with my father's discipline style, which worked well on me because I hated to be disapproved of. My dad would say, "Ali, I'm so disappointed in you," and I would dissolve in a puddle of remorse and wish he would just spank me. But other parents and pastors certainly did imply, or even mandate, that God was marking down all your transgressions and you were just about this close to getting on his last nerve, and then if the Second Coming was that night, you were getting Left Behind.)

Next installment: how I started to realize that maybe God didn't care as much about outward appearances as I'd been told.



  1. It is so hard to step away from something that is so instilled in us. I grew up Catholic, and when my Dad stepped away from the church it was the hardest thing for him, but he didn't agree with it. I don't still, and haven't looked back.

    It must have been so hard to watch your parents go through this struggle.

  2. Oh Wow. Thanks for sharing. I am surprised, both because I thought all you said was going to be from the Bretheren faith and not the Pentecostals, ad also because - if I am honest - because you are so "normal"! And obviously on the (gasp) computer and internet!

    I can't wait for the next instalment. I'm loving hearing where you're from and where you're going. God has given me a good friend in you!

  3. I had to come back and read again. This time I was struck by the sermon "Five Dollar Red Shoes" - it's hard for me to imagine a sermon that isn't exploring something from the Bible (denouncing red shoes isn't there, so far as I know) or applying some teaching of Jesus to our lives.

    It's hard to imagine a sermon simply telling me that if I wear the wrong thing, I won't be "holy" (though Jesus' death is what it's about, hey?!) or making me feel sinful or unacceptable to God instead of reminding me how loved I am by God that he sent his Son to die to make me "holy", or right with Him.

    Wow I am excited to hear the next bit! I love hearing people's stories!

  4. I remember my mom telling me the most rebellious thing she did growing up was to sneak out of the house to see a movie.

    Guess which movie.

    The Sound of Music.

  5. This is great reading, and I was there. It's almost hard to believe now.

  6. I can hardly wait for the next installment. Being a Catholic (going to Catholic schools all my life) I feel what you are saying so deeply...

  7. Oh my!
    That is a list of 'NOTs' that I will have a very hard time obeying...
    then again, when you are that young and being brought up in that environment, what can you do right? other than obeying your parents.

  8. Kate, thanks for saying I'm normal. Coming from my background, I always take it as a compliment, because I so easily might not have been. :-)

    I should also say that my dad never really denounced things from the pulpit. He focused on the Bible, but the church members all knew the traditions and anyone who didn't follow them stuck out like a sore thumb. Now a few have kept to the "old ways," more of us have gravitated toward the mainstream, and at church, we praise God for the grace of God that sent Christ to die for our sins!

    I think my dad's non-dogmatic approach is a big reason why I was able to think for myself when I grew up. More on that in the next post!

  9. WOW.
    One of my daughter's friends is growing up in a very strict Pentecostal home - the girls have very long hair and only wear dresses, they're not allowed to date or wear makeup... but the parents seem actually pretty relaxed about everything (the girls are now allowed to wear jeans, because, as the mother told me, the congregation decided that making their daughters stand out so intensely was in itself a form of immodesty.). But as for me, having grown up in a very liberal Protestant background, this is all very foreign. Thank you SO MUCH for writing this - it's fascinating and heartbreaking at the same time.

  10. How difficult it always is to separate church tradition from Biblical teaching! Jesus said that we weren't of this world, yet he was sending us into it. Paul always explained himself well, joining in with traditional practices where necessary, but knowing that we're saved only by grace.

    You've done some good soul searching!