When Matthew Paul Turner was five, his parents informed him that they were becoming Baptists. And not just your regular-old, run-of-the-mill, Just-As-I-Am, Billy-Graham-type Baptists, either. Independent Fundamental Baptists. The kind that think the Southern Baptists are liberal. The kind that don’t like Billy Graham because he’s “too ecumenical”. Think Bob Jones University. Think Pensacola Christian College. OK, you’ve got the picture now.
Matthew gives us, in his own voice, what it was like growing up in an environment in which going to movies (even “Bambi”) was a sin, as was listening to any kind of “secular” music (which would include any “worldly” music with a rock beat, even–or perhaps especially–if it had Christian lyrics). He tells us of Pastor Nolan, at turns ridiculously weird and frighteningly oppressive, whose sermons were more harangues than reflections on biblical passages. Pastor Nolan tells his flock, for example, that it is an abomination for men to have long hair, so Matthew’s dad takes him to a barber shop to get his hair cut “like a Baptist.” Whatever Pastor Nolan says is law among his flock. And boy are there laws: lots and lots of laws. Oh yes, Pastor Nolan also gets in a wrestling ring once a year and fights the devil. (I am not making this up, and neither is Matthew.)
I did not grow up Independent Fundamental Baptist, or any kind of Baptist for that matter, but I found many points of contact with Matthew’s world, and I have known enough people in that world over the years to know that Matthew is not exaggerating. Reading Churched was, for me, a little like reading Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain. Not that the books, or the religious cultures they depict, are similar, but because of the effect they had on me. Before reading Salvation, the “snake handlers” were just a rumor I’d heard: something they do in some country churches “out towards Jasper” or “up there past Oneonta.” Now, thanks to Dennis, I’ve experienced a part of that world, and it frightens me. Matthew does for the Fundamentalist crowd what Dennis did for the snake handlers. Except where Dennis Covington’s tone is intense, emotional, and even sympathetic at points, Matthew Paul Turner’s is laugh-out-loud funny.
Even though Matthew’s upbringing was in what we would call “evangelical” Christianity, there is precious little “evangel” (Gospel) in his life. Instead of justification by faith, there is justification by moralism. Being a true Christian, in Pastor Nolan’s church, had little, if anything, to do with loving God, much less with being loved by God. Instead, a true Christian was someone who dressed a certain way, listened to certain music, “separated” from the world by avoiding such things as movies, etc. Sometimes, true Christians even have to call their mom into the living room so she can place her hands on the TV screen to cover an actress’ cleavage. Ah, the dedication of the true believer!
The most amazing thing of all is that Turner is able to relate this without once sounding mean or bitter. That is miraculous, considering he was denied the most amazing treasure–grace–throughout his childhood. I’m glad that, once he discovered that grace, he decided to extend grace to those who had withheld it from him all those years.
Churched: One Kid’s Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess is now available in paperback. It’s an easy, hilarious, and memorable read.