Apostasy Lit: Why Do They Leave?

Stephen Nichols Articles
Categories of literature have expanded well beyond the tragedy/comedy paradigm of earlier days.  Genres, in other words, have been fruitful and have multiplied.  Into the mix, I propose a new addition, apostasy literature.  Definition:  a genre, usually taking the form of a memoir, in which the protagonist reflects on and recants her Christian, usually of the fundamentalist variety, upbringing; may also include film.

Martha Beck has even provided an example with a Mormon twist in her memoir, Leaving the Saints.  Older examples of the Christian variety would include the films of Paul Schrader, a Calvin College alumnus, and almost any of the writings of formerly Plymouth Brethren Garrison Keillor.  More recent examples of the Christian variety include the 2004 movie Saved! by writer/director Brian Dannelly, a self-described "survivor" of a Baptist church high school; essays by NPR's Sarah Vowell, a former midwestern Pentecostal; and Jesusland:  A Memoir by Julia Scheeres, formerly of the Dutch Reformed Church and a Calvin College alum.  Not to mention the more complex example of Randall Balmer, both in his eerily cathartic Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory:  A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture, which took the form of movie and book, and his memoir, Growing Pains.  And then there's Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back.  David Hempton has recently called these "Disenchantment Narratives," the reverse of conversion and enchantment narratives (Evangelical Disenchantment:  9 Portraits of Faith and Doubt).  These are tales of disenchantment indeed.
    If American fundamentalism and evangelicalism has its demons, then apostasy literature, is their exorcism.  Those who remain in the evangelical fold, but are at least worldly wise enough to have come across these pieces, rightly bristle at many of the portrayals of Christianity in apostasy lit.  Apostasy lit, however, also compels a closer, even sympathetic analysis, especially by evangelical parents, the typical antagonists in apostasy lit.  These antagonists range from alleged inflictors of child abuse in Jesusland to Garrison Keillor's penny-pinching father who grits his teeth every time the furnace kicks on to drive out the chill of Lake Wobegon winters.  But, unified characteristics of the antagonist parent/authority figures emerge:  sternness, typically to extreme lengths and typically for entirely unreasonable causes; frugality, actually most are just plain cheap; and coldness, apparently they are unable to hug or to mutter the words "I love you" to their children or their charges.  

And, in apostasy lit the antagonists are anti everything.  Anti-sex, anti-alcohol--Julia Scheere's parents from the Reformed tradition are a bit of an exception here--anti-drugs, all points held in common with any morally upstanding parent.  But then one adds to the list a strange set of quiddities of what makes one truly Christian in apostasy lit:  anti-rock or "secular" music, movies, books, magazines; anti-school, as in public school or "secular" university--with its cadre of liberal, elitist teachers and professors, who form the phalanx of Satan's attack in the battle for the hearts and minds of youth; anti-abortion, while also anti-gun control; anti-welfare, anti-affirmative action, and even, at least during the 1960s, anti-civil rights; and, one may add to the list, anti-anti-war protestors in the Viet Nam era and oddly enough in our very own day.  Anti-secular in toto sums it all up nicely.  As fairly flat characters in apostasy lit, only the names of the antagonists change.  These antagonists aren't just parents.  They're pastors and school principles.  Or, all in one, as in the case of the movie Saved!, where Martin Donovan's pastor-school administrator-former missionary-parent character "Pastor Skip" does back flips onto the stage to preach in the school's rockin'--"Get your Christ on"--chapel service.  

The protagonists of apostasy lit, also become fairly flat characters in these portrayals, despite the authors' best efforts at trying to portray them as round characters, developing and progressing.  The protagonists, who are of course the authors, take the literary notion of the omniscient narrator to be true indeed.  They tend to always be right, the ones who always see with clarity if not with grace.  As infants their highly-tuned powers intuit that something's not right in Denmark.  As teenagers they're sure of it, and smugly so.  As adults post-therapy, they're mad as hell about it, though their anger lies beneath, surfacing only in their too-self-assured judgments and pronouncements of their past.  

While apostasy lit has its rules for its characters, it also follows a pattern for setting.  It's stifling inside their world.  Christian radio is on all the time, booming over the intercoms in the farmhouse in Jesusland and oozing out of transistor radios perched on the rails of Lake Wobegon porches.  It spills over car radios, presumably in cars fixed at Christian garages, which, of course, have Christian radio stations on instead of those unseemly secular ones, not to mention Bible verses, instead of amply-endowed and scantily-clad women, splashed across the pages of their calendars hanging on the wall.  In apostasy lit Christian music provides the perfect atmosphere for strolling through the shelves of the local Christian bookstore, and it crackles out of the loudspeakers at Christian camps.  There are Christian comic books, magazines, and fiction to counter the secular ones, and Christian bookstores to counter the ones with the dirty magazines on the racks--some of them even egregiously placed at eye-level for a teen-ager.  Friends must be Christians in apostasy lit, the Roman Catholic family down the street is most-assuredly off limits.  It's good, however, to have casual acquaintances who are non-Christian.  Whom else would you invite to evangelistic events?  But, non-Christian friends, especially of the opposite sex are to be avoided.  Christian kids in apostasy lit are told that these non-Christians don't even want to be your true friend.  They just want to use you, as in sexually, and one cannot be unequally yoked--a metaphor lost on most suburbanites but sounding dangerous enough to have gravitas.  

Speaking of sex in apostasy lit, there are Christian sex manuals, which, when they do venture into illustrating the event, do so with rather less-than-detailed illustrations of nearly androgynous figures.  Speaking of speaking, there are Christian "cusses," like darn or heck or, in the more progressive Christian homes, crap.  But never muttered are the counterpart words.  Speaking of words, literature or film, as already mentioned, is proscribed rather narrowly in apostasy lit.  Even the classics are off limits.  Kitsch is art, and creativity must have its limits.  Speaking of limits and (again) of sex, hand-holding is okay, but anything else is a slippery slope, causing these teen-agers to be nearly at explosive levels, thirsting, hungering, desiring for touch, for beauty, for love only to come home one evening and find a fresh copy of Josh McDowell's Why Wait? prominently displayed on a pillow.  Was it placed there by a parent, or did it drop right out of heaven? our protagonist wonders, as she bends the book covers, creases a few pages, and--if she's feeling especially charitable or simply wanting something from her parents--dog-ears a few choice pages, before setting it prominently on the dresser for the morning inspection.  

And then there's the plot of apostasy lit.  The protagonists were born with a hermeneutic of suspicion, confirmed all along the way that this world of their existence, despite appearances, is rather screwed up (a saying used only, of course, by the more progressive type of Christians).  But alas, there comes the moment of illumination, the moment of conversion, just not the type of conversion hoped for by the parents, pastors, Christian school administrators, and Christian bookstore clerks.  This is the moment of apostasy, usually occurring before age eighteen, but not consummated until later, after the legal age of independence has been reached or until that senior year of college has been paid for.  The rest of the story finds the protagonist author conflicted over whether to return home for funerals.  

The protagonist typically, if desirous of holding on to something of her past, constructs a new world in which a loving, accepting Jesus wins out over a wrathful, judging God.  A love for humanity, played out in kind and caring actions like a stint with the peace corps, wins out over the desire to witness to every soul you see in the off-chance that in the very next moment they'll die in a car crash.  In a rare case, the protagonist succeeds in bringing her parent with her, ala Saved!.  Movies always trump books, especially memoirs, for the happy ending.             

Despite the predictability of characters, setting and plot of apostasy lit, and despite the grating self-assured stance of its author protagonists, apostasy lit is one of the most valuable genres for those who, despite all the potential pitfalls, actually take their Christianity seriously.  What's more, apostasy lit is valuable for those Christian parents who care for their children and hope that their children embrace and not run away from the faith.  Among the many potential teaching moments apostasy lit provides, two stand out:  the warning against sternness or harshness and the warning against creating a stifling environment.  And herein lies the lesson that should not be ignored by readers of apostasy lit.  If harshness and sternness coupled with a stifling environment are what make a piece of literature apostasy lit, then those two may be guilty of causing the apostasy in the first place.

Marilynne Robinson, author of the critically acclaimed Gilead, uses apostasy lit as the perfect foil against itself.  Her character Reverend John Ames is winsome and compelling.  He loves his own son, and even his wayward namesake and son of his best friend and fellow pastor, John Ames Boughton.  Rev. Ames's capacious heart and mind brings John Ames Boughton back from the brink of self-destruction.  Ames's Christianity matters deeply to him; he's reading his Calvin right up to the very end of his life.  Boughton can't even sit through a church service.  Yet, as the novel closes, Ames dispenses grace in his blessing on Boughton.  The sinner's prayer isn't uttered, but one is left with the abiding hope that the days of stumbling for his namesake are over and young Boughton has now found his way.  Robinson has pointed us to the antidote for the sternness rife in apostasy lit:  grace.  "There is a balm in Gilead that heals the sin-sick soul."  Gilead isn't merely the name of the fictional town in Iowa that is the setting of the novel.    

Perhaps this harshness and sternness derive from a desire, albeit well-intentioned, to control.  Christian parents, and I readily identify with this since I am one, desperately want their children to be at peace with themselves and at peace with their world, and they know that such peace will only come when they are at peace with God.  They want to, in the words of Jonathan Edwards to his daughter, meet there at last in heaven as a family.  And this desire can be strong, so strong that it morphs into something precariously close to ugliness.  I'll drive it into them, and it will be for their own good, becomes the impulse.  This inclination towards sternness, towards doling out justice over grace, is inched along as a reaction to the cultural pressures of an acceptance-no-matter-what value.  Christian parents should be able to fret over their teen-ager's sexual activity.  Christian parents do believe that actions have consequences and that some actions shouldn't be overlooked.  Nevertheless, sometimes the sternness overtakes otherwise good intentions.  No doubt, this gets complicated.  Only God has mastered the dance between grace and mercy and justice and wrath.  All we can do is strive to approximate it.   

The second teaching moment of apostasy lit concerns the Christian environment.  Thankfully, correcting the stifling environment is far less challenging than responding to the sternness problem.  This is, after all, God's world.  His kingdom does not stop at the gated entrance to the Christian camp or the security detectors at the doors of the Christian bookstore.  Can the rest of the radio dial also be tuned in from time to time?  Christians, despite there being some good ones out there, aren't always the best writers, painters, and musicians.  Beauty, justice, even truth may live in those seemingly dark corners untraversed by the Christian family.  Even non-Christian friends may turn out to be not sired by the devil after all.  Finding one's way here could, admittedly, be tricky at times.  But it's not as treacherous as we think.  Even Christian parents may learn a thing or two by getting "out there" from time to time.  We might even learn something, even though our hackles may be raised in the process, as we reach to the secular shelf of the secular bookstore and purchase a secular book in the new genre of apostasy lit.  We may wince at parts.  We may curse, Christian curse of course, at parts.  We may cry at parts.  And, we may even be led to prayer at parts:  Lord, have mercy upon us; Lord, be gracious to us.

Stephen Nichols is research professor of Christianity and Culture at Lancaster Bible College and Graduate School in Lancaster, PA.

Recommended Resources
Jesus: Made In America by Stephen Nichols
God's Truth, Man's Lies: Pursuing Integrity in a Dishonest World by Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology 2008,  Includes the teaching of R. Albert Mohler & D.A. Carson