Earlier today, Answers in Genesis posted an article titled There Is Hope for Atheists! In this article, Ken Ham writes about witnessing to atheists. He explains that when he reads the “blasphemous and vitriolic” comments of atheists he understands that most of them have never heard sound apologetics arguments.
At Answers in Genesis, through our resources, conferences, and other outreaches, we do our best to defend the Christian faith using apologetics against the secular attacks of our day. But in doing so, we need to also point people to the truth of God’s Word and challenge them concerning the saving gospel. We use apologetics to answer questions and direct people to God’s Word and its message of salvation.
There’s no greater thrill in this ministry than to hear how God has used what has been taught by AiG to touch someone’s life—for eternity. Last week, I was introduced to one of our new volunteers, Donna, who is helping sew some of the costumes for the figures that will be placed inside our full-size Ark. She had responded to my Facebook post asking for seamstresses.
I discovered that she became a Christian in 1993 after attending one of my seminars (called “Back to Genesis” with the Institute for Creation Research ministry) at Cedarville University in Ohio. The Bible-upholding seminar was such an eye-opener to her about the reliability of the Bible that she became a Christian.
We asked if she would share her testimony.
Donna begins her testimony as follows:
The Lord opened up this atheistic evolutionist’s eyes decades ago, through exposure to Ken’s ministry.
I was a die-hard evolutionist, completely convinced that the fossil finds in Olduvai Gorge supported the “evidence” that we evolved from less-complicated, early hominid creatures, like the so-called “Lucy”.
To keep a long story short: I attended a Creation Seminar at Cedarville College [now Cedarville University], sat in rapt attention as Ken Ham told me “the rest of the story,” and I realized that all of the fossil finds I believed supported evolution were, in all cases, misinterpreted. I was blown away! So, learning the truth about evolution preceded my realizing that God was real (after all!) and that the Bible was His Word. I became a creationist before I became a believer in Christ.
Ken Ham goes on to write that atheists are “walking dead people” and that he likes to remember, when witnessing to atheists, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and that even so God’s Word can convert atheists. He finishes with this:
If the Lord has used AiG, including our Creation Museum, in your life to bring you to salvation, would you please let me know? Thank you.
So, here’s the problem. I actually credit an Answers in Genesis conference with letting the air out of the last of my young earth creationism. Yes, that’s right, in a sense you could argue that an Answers in Genesis conference led me to give up my creationism.
I was in college. It was there that I first truly came into contact with individuals who accepted evolution. The only time before this that I’d engaged a defender of evolution in debate was the time I was stuck in a car with my aunt for ten straight hours, and I’m pretty sure she was humoring me. I grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family. I read creationist literature from my church library starting when I was very young. I attended Answers in Genesis conferences as a teen and bought Answers in Genesis literature at homeschool conventions with my own money. I knew my stuff.
The problem was that when I was in college I came in contact with individuals who deconstructed my arguments without any trouble.
It was uncanny. I returned time and again to my creationist literature—the Answers in Genesis website received a lot of traffic from me during those months—and came back with new arguments and information to throw at my opponents, only to have those arguments soundly deconstructed as well.
There was one young man in particular—Sean. I later married him, as my regular readers will know. Sean and I spent hours debating the fine points of creationism and evolution. Sean had been a creationist himself some years before, but high school—and arguing on the internet—had changed his mind. But even as he pointed out flaws in every argument I could come up with, I had hope. I had an incredible amount of respect for Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, and I was sure that if I could just get Sean to an Answers in Genesis conference that would do the trick. You may imagine my excitement when I learned that an Answers in Genesis conference was coming to a church in our area! Sean agreed to come, and I was sure our arguments were coming to an end.
That conference was an utter failure for me on more fronts than I’d realized going in. For one thing, Sean was unconvinced—and it wasn’t because he wasn’t listening, he was. But the real problem was that I was unconvinced. I hadn’t realized that hours of listening to Sean deconstruct creationist arguments would change the way those same arguments sounded to me when I heard going forward, but it did. I sat there in that church sanctuary with an instant rebuttal springing to mind for each point the speaker made, and I knew some of what he said was simply factually false.
I spent some time perusing the creationist literature they had for sale at the conference and kept running into the same problem—I knew rebuttals to everything I saw printed there.
I realized with growing horror that much of the material there was either flat-out lying or skillfully misleading people.
As we drove away from the church, I was quiet—shaken. I had seen this conference as a way of finally convincing Sean that I’d been right while at the same time reinvigorating my own beliefs, and it had failed on both accounts. Not only did this conference not give me new arguments and rebuttals, it shattered my trust in Answers in Genesis in particular and creationist literature more widely.
I spent a few weeks reading and researching, looking beyond Answers in Genesis’ materials to wider scientific resources. Answers in Genesis may have shattered my faith in creationism, but I still had a few questions about evolution that needed answering. After several weeks of study, I was satisfied. I left aside young earth creationism for good and became a theistic evolutionist. It was difficult, at first, because I was afraid my entire faith would fall apart after accepting evolution. After all, I’d heard Ken Ham repeat time and again that Genesis was the foundation of the Bible, and that without Genesis, the gospel story would collapse.
I’m no longer a Christian today, but evolution isn’t to blame there, strictly speaking. I spent some years as a progressive Christian, and even converted to Catholicism. I loved Catholicism’s embrace of the natural world and science, and its willingness to accept historical scholarship on the Bible. It was ultimately the fallout from a near-cult experience that led my faith to collapse. but in a sense, it was the collapse of my faith in young earth creationism that made me willing to see the beliefs I’d been taught as fallible, and open to asking questions.
I can’t speak for Donna, whose testimony is quite above—her journey is her own. Still, I find Ken Ham’s request to hear from his readers about the way “the Lord has used AiG . . . in your life to bring you salvation” highly ironic given my own experience.
We were visiting my dad’s childhood home in New York, and we went to the house of an elderly lady who used to be his neighbor. She had a caretaker, a single mom homeschooling her son, who was around my age.
My favorite TV show was Barney the Dinosaur, my only 30 minutes of live television once a week. I also played my Barney’s Favorites cassette tape every day and I knew all of the songs by heart.
The little boy and I started chattering and playing on the floor, and I sang “Do Your Ears Hang Low?” for him and his mom, very enthusiastically, with all of the hand motions and marching.
“Do your ears hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie ’em in a knot?
Can you tie ’em in a bow?
Can you throw ’em o’er your shoulder
Like a continental soldier
Do your ears hang low?”
His mother turned to my mom and said, “Isn’t this why we don’t send them to public school, so they won’t be exposed to garbage like this?”
I remember this deep sense of shame and wanting to crawl under the carpet. I felt like I’d humiliated my mom and I wondered what was so terrible about my song. I think the little boy’s mom called him to come sit on the couch next to her, away from me, and we weren’t allowed to play together the rest of the visit.
This was the first time that I was that child, the bad influence.
Usually it was my parents keeping me away from other children that could lead me astray. This time, they hid their children from me. My mom didn’t understand at all why the other mother objected to the song.
The fear would follow me for years.
Later on in my teens, we ended up in a church with mostly other homeschooling families, some of them Quiverfull. All the other churches we’d gone to before were mainline denominations, and their children went to public school. But homeschooling was becoming more common by 2004.
I’d hear stories from the other families, pick up things in snatches of conversation.
My sister got a craft book for her 8th birthday party, the only party she ever invited friends to since we stayed to ourselves. The other children said, “Oh, look there’s a witch on this page! We’ll have to cover that up.” Their mom glanced over and said, “Oh yeah, you can just cut out black construction paper and glue it over those pages like we do at our house.”
I called my Bible Buddies partner during the week, we got into a theological discussion, and I asked, “Well, have you ever read Narnia?” “No,” she answered. “My parents don’t like that they talk about magic, and they think it’s too confusing for children to read about Jesus as a lion.” I explained that magic is like a substitute for divine power both in creation and redemption, and I read her some dialogue between Aslan and the Pevensie children. She said she thinks it’s probably safer not to read it and seemed uncomfortable, and I dropped the subject.
A homeschool mom traded some used A Beka textbooks with our family. The pages of the only Greek myth in the 8th grade literature book were stapled together. “Why should they learn about pagan literature when they could be reading the Bible?”
My dad bought clearance books and films from the Focus on the Family bookstore. He sent the kids Ten Commandments VHS series to a Quiverfull family we knew with 13 kids. My mom explained to their parents that the only time there is music with a beat in the series is the scene where the characters worship false idols.
I was always watchful around the other families, struggling to balance being honest about the books and movies I enjoyed but with the fear of not being allowed to talk to the other teens if I’m considered a “bad influence.”
In this patriarchal world, if one of the parents decided I’m not spiritual enough or too worldly, I might not be given space to defend myself.
I know because it happened to others. Teens and young adults were called into the pastor’s office and questioned about their music preferences, asked to stop hanging out with their children.
Because, you know. This is why we don’t send our kids to public school.
Last week Homeschoolers Anonymous posted this photo, “an actual graph Reb Bradley created for his mental health curriculum.” You can see it here:
So you know what’s strange? A lot of Protestants argue that before the Protestant Reformation, most people were duped by the Catholic Church into believing they could work their way to heaven. These individuals weren’t really saved and weren’t really following the Bible, the argument goes, and the priests and monks—the ones who did read the Bible—were corrupt wolves who took advantage of the people. I’m wondering how this sort of chronology—which I imagine Bradley himself holds, given his other writings—squares with the graph in the image above.
There’s something else I find most people don’t know. During the middle ages, most Europeans were much more pagan and much less Christian than people today realize. People used charms, spells, and old folklore and ideas that the Catholic Church had never been able to fully root out, and that Protestant Reformers weren’t able to root out either. In fact, some historians have argued that early European settlers to the U.S. were more pagan than they were Christian, and more apathetic than they were churchgoers, and that it took until the mid-1800s for the American people to be fully “Christianized.” In other words, the idea that people before the mid-1800s were “relying strictly on the Bible for wisdom for life” is utter bullshit.
As for the idea that children were obedient before the mid-1800s, I’d say two things. First, there were disobedient children. Anyone who has read Romeo and Juliet knows that. It was also wasn’t that uncommon for children to run away from home during adolescence. But second, before the mid-1800s it was both legal and socially acceptable to beat one’s children if they didn’t obey. In fact, child abuse was not recognized as a thing until the mid-1800s. It’s not that it didn’t happen—it did—it’s just that before this, it was considered normative. So maybe we can stop saying how awesome it was back then, because children obeyed their parents in fear of a beating?
As for the divorce rate, it’s worth noting during the middle ages priests struggled a great deal to prevent spousal desertion and bigamy, things that did happen and were in fact surprisingly common. Many people practiced “common law” marriages, and the church was often hard put as to how to regulate marriage. I mean gracious, priests spent centuries working to eliminate concubinage, and initially allowed it (provided a man did not also have a wife) because of its prevalence. Similarly, the church was so concerned by the amount of sex taking place outside of wedlock that they ultimately decided that a verbal promise to marry at some point in the future (no witnesses required), when followed by sexual intercourse, instantaneously created a binding marriage. That in itself created problems, because there were plenty of cases where a pregnant woman a man had promised to marry her before they had sex, and he said he hadn’t—in those cases, the courts had to figure out whether or not the couple was already married. This didn’t change until the Council of Trent in the mid-1500s.
In other words, marriage and sexual relations during the middle ages were complicated, and the church didn’t have near as firm a grasp on the issue as people like Bradley appear to think. Domestic violence or other disturbances were common, and in some cases wife-beating was legally sanctioned. Even where divorce was banned, and couples were typically allowed to legally separate if they did not remarry, and they could also seek annulments in some circumstances. In many cases couples simply moved out and moved in with new partners, the church be damned. In a way, the middle ages is the story of the Catholic Church attempting to control and regulate an unruly mass of people who were more interested in simply living their lives than in following a list of rules.
The suicide rate is a bit more difficult to speak to, as statistics are nearly impossible to find. We do know, however, that murder rates were extraordinarily high, and that the common people consumed alcohol in rates that would be considered excessive to the extreme today. And that’s not even touching child mortality.
History is complicated, and fascinating, and profoundly messy. The narrative Reb Bradley tells in his graph above could hardly be more ahistorical. The same is true about just about every declension narrative I hear today. Did you know that one study of marriage and birth records in the colonial Americans found that one in three women who married was pregnant at the altar? Listening to conservatives, you’d think having sex before marriage was just invented yesterday. For their part, narratives about increasing crime rates after removing prayer from school ignore the reality that crime rates today are at a historical low. I am extremely skeptical of declension narratives as a genre, because history isn’t this simple, one-dimensional story just waiting to be plugged into your talking point. This shit’s complicated.
The first time I watched M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 film, my head hurt and one of my roommates asked me if I was okay. I didn’t have words. Sometimes I find those books, those films that resonate so strongly with my own experience, that the bittersweet rush of knowing takes my breath away.
The Village became the movie that I showed all of my friends who’d been affected by a cult environment. As they started to question their high control group, I’d find a way to sneak a movie night with them.
It became our movie, something that we refer to when discussing our past.
There’s a few reasons for this:
1.) The whole thing was manufactured like a utopia to protect innocence.
Many of our parents chose homeschooling to create a new generation, protected from negative influences and intellectually superior to the rest of the world. But our parents grew up attending public schools, something we never experienced.
The elders in the Village came from the Towns, but none of their children can remember the outside world. This is the only life they know. Ivy Walker’s father says in a moment of crisis, “What was the purpose of our leaving? Let us not forget it was out of hope, of something good and right.”
When I was young, my dad told me his middle school classmates used to throw small knifes at each other in the playground and my mom remembers hash being passed around in bags around her Houston high school in the 70s. They and others who grew up in the 60s counterculture movement wanted a better life for their children and believed that removing them from the public schools was the answer.
Just like our parents often told us they’d done things they regretted growing up and we had a unique opportunity to be different, the elders in the Village keep a black box of memories, “so the evil of my past can be kept close and not forgotten.”
Mrs. Clark’s sister, Mrs. Hunt’s husband, and Mr. Walker’s father all died through violence and tragedy. Edward Walker tells his daughter Ivy, “It is a darkness I wished you would never know. There is not one person in this town who has not been so shaken that they questioned the value of living at all.” Ivy says, “I am sad for you, Papa, and for the other elders.”
2.) They sought protection from evil in the ways of the past.
In The Village, a history professor decides to take a group of people and recreate 1840s pioneer America. In the 90s conservative Christian homeschooling movement, our moms taught us to sew our own clothes and we all wore homemade skirts and dresses.
I wore one of my pioneer dresses nearly every day when I was 12-14 and pretended that I lived in the colonial era. I checked out and devoured every historical book on the colonial period and Civil War that my mom would allow from the local library.
A friend once said, “I get why they wanted this life for you guys, they meant well. But it turned out to be the Little House on the Prairie fan convention from hell.”
3.) They used euphemisms and emotional repression to ward off what they most feared.
Growing up homeschooled, we didn’t get sex education. Purity culture often adopted a “see no sexy things, hear no sexy things, speak no sexy things” approach. One of my friends never heard the words penis and vagina until college. I was told that dancing was basically “a vertical expression of a horizontal desire,” something to be avoided.
This kind of approach extended to anything considered “evil” or a “bad influence,” including peers, extended family members, and movies or TV shows with magic or profanities. Often, the avoidance became obsessive over time. The circle of safety was ever narrowing.
The settlers in The Village use phrases like “Those We Don’t Speak Of” to refer to the creatures in Covington Woods, or “The Old Shed That is Not To Be Used” for a shack on the edge of town. Red is the bad color, yellow is the safe color. In the opening scenes, two girls sweeping on a porch run out to the yard to uproot and bury a red flower.
Later, Ivy tells Noah, a young man with a mental disability, “This color attracts Those We Don’t Speak Of. You ought not to pick that color berry anymore.” When the villagers find skinned carcasses of livestock, the schoolchildren assume, “Those We Don’t Speak Of did it.”
The light as well as the darkness in humanity becomes repressed, and this affects romantic attraction. Ivy knows Lucius cares deeply for her but won’t act on it. She tells him, “Sometimes we don’t do things we want to do so that others won’t know we want to do them.”
There’s a parallel scene when Lucius tells his mother that Mr. Walker is in love with her.
“He hides, too. He hides his true feelings for you.”
“What makes you think he has feelings for me?”
“He never touches you.”
When Ivy chooses to travel through the woods in spite of the creatures, the other young men sent to protect her are too afraid to go against the rules. “Why have we not heard of these rocks before, why is it that you wear the cloak of the safe color? I cannot go with you, it is forbidden.”
We homeschoolers also had arbitrary rules and standards, always shifting according to the preferences of our authority figures. We were taught to “abstain from all appearance of evil” (1 Thess 5:22) and that “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph 5:12).
Just like in many homeschool communities, Noah’s mental illness is dealt with by only natural remedies. Noah dies a monster, which seems to enable stigmatization of mental illness.
Noah becomes the example of what not to be for the other villagers. He becomes the creature, one of Those We Don’t Speak Of. He embodies the darkness that they sought to eliminate from their little world.
“Your son has made our stories real. Noah has given us a chance to continue this place if that is something we still wish for.”
But the one line that echoes in my mind when I think of how I grew up is this:
“I tell you this so you will see some of the reasons for our actions. Forgive us for our silly lies, Ivy, they were not meant to harm.”
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “Latebloomer” is a pseudonym. Latebloomer’s story was originally published on her blog Past Tense, Present Progressive. It is reprinted with her permission.
There was always an expectation in my family that I would go to college. Both of my parents had a college education and saw its value, and they didn’t cave to the general attitude at our homeschooling cult church that higher education wasn’t appropriate or necessary for girls.Even though my parents’ expectation was for me to attend an extremely fundamentalist Christian college simply to get a skill to “supplement my future husband’s income, if necessary,” that expectation was more than what many of my female peers at church had, and I’m grateful for it. And, unlike many homeschooling families in our circles, my mom also put in the necessary work to make sure I wouldn’t encounter any roadblocks on my way from homeschool high school to college–she made a very professional-looking and detailed high school transcript that included my GPA, she signed me up for the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) so that I could have a legal high school diploma, and she made sure that I took the SAT.
With no end in sight, the darkness of those years gradually increased my sense of desperation until it was finally enough to overcome my inertia. I decided to be a moving vehicle that God could steer, and I would simply make the best decisions I could until I heard from him. I started taking a full load of classes at my local community college a few months later.
I entered my classes confident in my academic ability. Thanks to my mom’s willingness to administer yearly standardized tests and my scores from the SAT, I knew that I was an above-average student. As I expected, I performed well on tests and got great grades. But I had other college struggles that caught me off guard. For instance, I was used to simply reading textbooks for the info I needed, so I had no idea how to take good notes in class, and my handwriting and rushed spelling looked like a child’s. In class, I’d get distracted occasionally by hearing the pronunciation of words that I had only ever seen on paper and had been saying wrong in my head for years. I sometimes had questions, but no idea about the etiquette of asking questions during the lecture. Additionally, my teachers were surprisingly fond of group work, something that I had no experience with, and I was at a loss as to how to collaborate or give/receive feedback.
But for me, the worst thing of all was my discomfort with myself, my body, my existence. While everyone around me seemed to just plop down easily on any available floor space or chair in order to study and eat and chat, I simply couldn’t do it. I could never relax and be at ease where there was even a chance I might be seen by another person, and attempts to talk with others left me breathless and sweaty, with my heart racing. At this time in my life, I couldn’t even eat in front of another person–not because of an eating disorder, but because of anxiety. The pressure of eating and chatting at the same time made me physically shake, because I had only really experienced eating silently together with my family, and we never had people over for meals. Because of these issues, I couldn’t handle being on campus for a second longer than necessary. For breaks between classes, I would sit in my car or drive home and come back just in time for the next class. The stress of being in public and being surrounded by people was too much.
But over time, my continued practice and effort started to have positive effects. As I went into my second semester in community college, I wasn’t constantly teetering on the edge of panic, and I started to notice positive things happening despite my social stress. People around me didn’t seem bothered by me. People sat by me in class. People smiled at me. People tried to talk to me. I started to feel a spark of human connection and see that people could be kind and decent even when they didn’t share my beliefs and even when they had no agenda and nothing to gain from it. It confused me because it didn’t fit the narrative I grew up with, but it also gave me a vague sense of hope about the life I might be able have as an adult out on my own.
Meanwhile, I was ramping up to transfer to a conservative Christian university far from home, in a place where I didn’t know a single person. It sounds like a big deal, except that I really had almost nothing that I was leaving behind–really, just one close friend that I had made several years before and that I’d been able to confide in, a person who was similarly sheltered and homeschooled. The thought of a fresh start somewhere was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time. I figured that the culture of the Christian university campus would feel at least a little familiar, and that having my own room on campus to hide in would be a welcome relief. I made sure to request an international roommate so that my weirdness–my odd clothing style, my poor conversational ability, and my nearly-total ignorance of my peer group’s slang, movies, music, etc.–wouldn’t be as obvious.
In the environment of gender-segregated dorms, no alcohol, no sex, no drugs, and no dancing, there wasn’t too much around me to shock me at my Christian university. Instead, it was the little things that made life challenging. One of my daily challenges was dealing with the shared dorm bathroom, where there were always at least a couple other people milling around. Even though it was set up so that there was no need for public nudity, I didn’t have any idea how to pee or shower in a shared space. I couldn’t stand around casually wrapped in a towel doing my hair and makeup and chatting with the other girls, not a chance. I couldn’t even pee while other people were listening. This was a completely foreign experience to me and one that took me months to get used to.
For the first semester, my life on campus consisted of going to class, doing homework in my room, and hanging out in my room, which was luckily often empty since my Chinese roommate, despite having just arrived in the country, already had a life and friends. It sounds like a recipe for homesickness, but this is something that I never experienced the whole time I was in college. Instead, I was the happiest I’d ever been (really, it was just that I was less severely depressed, but at the time it felt like happiness in comparison to the previous years). Even though I had no idea about how to connect with the other girls in my dorm and was too anxious to really try, I saw that they were nice people and I felt like the future was full of possibilities.
Things started to change after a few months, thanks to a couple good dorm events that brought me out of my room. This proved to be just enough for one of the outgoing girls in the dorm to seek me out later and start to pry into my little closed-clam-shell of a life. Friendship with just one outgoing person in the dorm served as a bridge to making more connections and boosted my confidence to attend other school events. Although at first I just drifted along trying not to cause anyone any trouble by having opinions or problems, during the next few years I was able to start figuring out more about who I was, what my interests were, and where my place in the social scene of life was.
Figuring out my place in life turned out to be much more complicated than simply getting past the worst of my anxiety though. Even though I was several years older than my dormmates and classmates, I had years of catching up to do, learning about things like cliques, gossip, power dynamics, the art of self-deprecation/teasing/complimenting, and how people seem to group themselves based on life habits, clothing choices, and hobbies. It’s hard to explain, but I simultaneously felt I was decades older than my peers, and also much much younger, which meant that I either felt like I was taking someone under my wing or basking in their glory. I had no idea how to connect to someone as an equal, and I didn’t even start to learn that until I was about to graduate from college.
Looking back now at my transition from homeschool to college life over a decade ago, I feel a sense of pride in how much I grew and changed in a few short years. I finished college able to relax in class and chat comfortably with friends. I no longer hid away in my room all the time. I stretched myself. I attended dorm events. I cheered with enthusiasm at sports games. I worked out at the school gym. I went to parties. I dated. I asked out a guy. I got away with breaking the campus rules about gender segregation and alcohol. Years of pushing through my anxiety paid off, and I finished college feeling ready to tackle life and live on my own as a working adult.
Given my set of issues, I can’t imagine how I would have transitioned to adulthood any other way. The most important things I learned in college were not academic, but instead life and social skills that paved the way for me to have a satisfying life today.
At my homeschool graduation ceremony, I received around a thousand dollars in gifts from friends and family. I decided right then and there that I would spend it on the first month of classes at the community college in the city. I didn’t have a plan, I only knew I had to do something, had to get out of our house, had to fill my time while my boyfriend and I tried to talk my parents into letting us court and marry. (You can read that story here.) I had an idea that I would take all music classes so I could be better educated to teach my piano students. I didn’t know anything about how to fulfill certain credits, or what credits were, how to get a degree, how to plan your college years.
I was completely ignorant about how it worked. But that didn’t stop me. I’ve always been stubborn like that.
I walked onto campus the first day of school and sat down with an advisor. He was a little baffled about what my plan was and why I’d waited until the first day, but said it wasn’t too late. I handed him my GED and SAT scores (I had taken the COMPASS test just for kicks a few months before). He determined I wanted to be a music major (I didn’t know what that meant but I figured he knew what he was talking about), and signed me up for Theory 101 and several other classes, including some general education classes and an art class that fit an elective credit. I was euphoric. I was going to college!
The next day, I drove the 1 hour drive from our home in the mountains to the college campus in town. I was nervous as hell. A real classroom?! But I put on my confidence face and walked into my first class, an art class. I was amazed at the diversity of people there, and a little scared of them, but determined to be friendly and make friends. I still remember that I was wearing a very long, full blue skirt with a large, collared button-up blouse that was 3 sizes too big. With my long hair in braids, bangs curled to perfection, I was the perfect model of a stereotypical homeschooled girl. And everyone knew it but me.
The teacher was not excited to have a new student that started a day late, and had no supplies. I didn’t know I needed supplies. She gave me a list and I was appalled to find out how much they would cost. But I had a couple hundred left over from paying tuition so I knew I’d be OK. Until I discovered with each class that I’d need textbooks and that textbooks are outrageously expensive. I will never forget standing in the campus bookstore, totally lost, and handing my list to a helpful volunteer who found everything for me. Between the books and my art supplies, my leftover cash was wiped out. I knew my parents could never afford to pay for me, I didn’t know what financial aid was, and I would never be allowed to get a real job to pay for myself. But I was determined to have one great semester and not think too far ahead, just figure it out as I went.
There are so many stories I could tell about those two years.
I could fill pages with memories, some funny, some cringe-worthy, all that point to a spirited young woman who had determination and resilience, but who was thoroughly unprepared to be an adult.
Who didn’t even know what she didn’t know. Who gradually went from a skirted conservative homeschooler full of trepidation and fear of the world, to a person in her own right.
I could tell about how when my art teacher asked what our favorite artists were, everyone said various contemporary artists whom I had never heard of. I blurted out “Thomas Kinkaid”, much to the amusement of several students and the outright disdain of the teacher. Apparently Kinkaid was not considered a real artist in real art circles.
Or the time I finally found out what “gay” and “homosexual” meant after someone told me one of my friends at school was gay and I had to look that up in the dictionary. At 19 years old. I was fascinated and figured he was a cool person so it didn’t matter. He didn’t seem like more of an evil sinner than any other evil sinner. He was an educational friend to have for a girl who had never heard the word “penis” before and had no sex-education. He treated me with friendliness and thought my ignorance was hilarious and endearing.
Then there was the time I explained to one of my instructors that I couldn’t get the scholarship he was offering because I didn’t have a social security number. His reaction told me that this was so far from normal and it was the first time ever that I questioned the weirdness of not having identity. I credit him with helping me go through the grueling process to finally get one.
I cringe at all the times I was asked out on a date but didn’t really know what was happening.
Then there was that logic class that pretty much was the beginning of the end for many of my Fundy homeschool beliefs. Now I know why they say college and education corrupt good Christian kids. Because the majority of everything I learned from the likes of Bill Gothard and Joshua Harris and Ken Ham and our Abeka history books didn’t stand a chance against critical thinking and logic.
Explaining why I had a secret boyfriend but didn’t go on dates was another awkward memory I’d rather forget. Also explaining why he was secret and why I was so worried about my parents when I was an adult, not a child.
I cringe thinking about the clothes I wore that were ill-fitting and “modest” and frumpy. When friends took me shopping and I tried on real clothes that fit me right, I realized I was attractive and an adult and maybe I didn’t have to dress like my parents wanted me to all the time. I bought shorter, more fitted skirts and tall boots and tights and tops that were cute and fit me well. I even bought my first pair of jeans and sometimes changed into them in the car before going in to school because I didn’t want to deal with my parents freaking out over my clothing. I wanted so badly to have some freedom and independence but was still so afraid of what my parents would say, even to the point that I was worried someone who knew them would see me and tell them I was dressing immodestly at school. Eventually I got over that, with much fighting and “rebelling” and standing up for myself. You don’t get over having “obey your parents” drilled into you from birth overnight.
I ended up getting a job as a live-in nanny for the remainder of the two years I was in community college. I moved out of my parent’s home under much protest from them, but determined to find my own way and finish school. Caring for kids was something I knew and did well, and we were happy, my charges, their mom, and I. I paid my way through the next two years of school by nannying. I started buying my own clothing and got a stylish haircut at a salon, and realized I needed car insurance. My employer gave me a cell phone and I was able to talk to my boyfriend whenever I wanted to, which was heavenly.
In those two years, I grew up a little bit. I grew a backbone. I discovered the world was so much bigger and better than I’d ever imagined.
As my relationship with my parents got worse, I became more confident in who I was and what I wanted in life. It would be another decade before I really broke free from all the crap that was my past, but those two years were a good start.
I look back, and I cringe. About everything. I was so unprepared for the world, for being an adult. I had to figure it all out by myself and it was overwhelming. I understand now the funny looks I would get from my instructors and friends. I knew nothing about financial management, banks, insurance, medical services, dating, sex, rent, bills, taxes or anything else that suddenly I was responsible for. I made a lot of mistakes and didn’t know it til years later. My parents were neither supportive nor a hindrance. I think they thought this was just something I got in my head to do and they didn’t really care. They gave me gas money to get to school until I moved out. They wouldn’t sign the FAFSA so I couldn’t get financial aid once I figured out what that was. They didn’t like me “out from under the umbrella” of their authority where they couldn’t see what I was doing and who I was with. I never really talked about my life in the city with them. I hid much of my self and my new, blossoming thoughts and changing beliefs We fought a lot when I went home on weekends. Our relationship continued to get worse until I got married the end of my 2nd year in school.
They had no idea how to prepare a child to be a functioning adult outside their homeschool bubble, and no idea how to have a relationship with an adult child.
I had no idea that I could be an adult, or what that meant, that I had a right to make my own decisions and plan my own life. It was a gradual dawning and a painful process.
Due to a number of reasons, not the least of which was my ignorance on how degrees worked, I ended those 2 years with 70 credits and no degree. I got married, started having babies, and my husband and I went through a lot in the first 10 years of our marriage. I am now 31 years old, and at 29 with four small children, I made the decision to go back to school. I’ve been taking classes online to finish my BA and have plans to go on to grad school when my youngest starts Kindergarten. I’m now a senior at a state university. I know the ropes this time. I’m doing well. Still pulling great grades and enjoying the learning experience. I’m planning a career and that makes me happy and gives me hope for the future. I wish I had known more and finished my Bachelor’s before having children, before life got more complicated, but here I am. Hind-sight can’t help me now. There is only the future and it’s a bright one.
My kids like to say fondly that I’m not a real grown-up because I’m still in school. They have no idea the irony of that. Someday, maybe I’ll tell them.
Here’s the overwhelming difficulty one faces when talking about Christian Reconstructionism (CR):
Most people have never heard of it.
Those who have are usually divided between worried liberals and ignorant conservatives who think it means theocracy. And when they envision theocracy, they’re thinking about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale brought to life.
Worried liberals see CR everywhere in the Religious Right, prompting them to believe a secret, cohesive group of Christian extremists are engineering a theocratic revolution at this very moment. The ignorant conservatives think the worried liberals are tilting after windmills of their own religion-hating, secular imagination. And while both the liberals and the conservatives are wrong in their own ways, it is — ironically — the conservatives who are more wrong.
Published by Oxford University Press this year, Julie J. Ingersoll’s book Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstructionis a clarion call to both worried liberals as well as ignorant conservatives to more accurately understand the nature of CR. By more accurately understanding that nature, both groups of people can hopefully better grasp how to respond. And by respond, I mean the same thing for both groups of people: how to properly challenge the ways in which CR has infiltrated popular society and is slowly eroding the healthfulness and vibrancy of American Christianity and the American political system. I believe the task of making that challenge belongs to both liberals and conservatives alike.
Ingersoll is a scholar. She earned a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of California Santa Barbara and is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Florida. However, she is also a former insider of CR. She was married to Mark Thoburn, son of Bob Thoburn, a prominent Reconstructionist within the Christian schooling movement who founded Fairfax Christian School.[i] Her “insider” status does not lead her to histrionics against a movement she left, as conservatives might fear. Nor does her “insider” status lead her to play up potentially “juicy secrets” of the movement, as liberals might hope. Rather, she uses her intimate, personal knowledge of the movement to buttress her impressive academic skills. She combines the level-headedness of a scholar and the precision possessed by only someone who grew up in a insular subculture could have.
Ingersoll describes CR as “more a school of thought than an organization (or society)”.[ii] Originally fashioned by Reformed theologian R.J. Rushdoony, CR targets “secular humanism” as the biggest threat to contemporary Christianity. To do so, it posits three core beliefs: “presuppositionalism, postmillennialism, and theonomy.”[iii] Presuppositionalism argues that knowledge about anything – whether it is science or history or educational pedagogy — must either begin with the Bible or be damned as “secular humanism.” Throughout her book, Ingersoll traces presuppositionalism’s either/or emphasis and how it has led to “the all-or-nothing character of contemporary American conservatism.”[iv] Postmillennialism is the belief that “the Kingdom of God is a present, earthly reality.”[v] Christians are supposed to work towards creating Heaven on Earth, which will eventually materialize as God sanctifies more and more people. Finally, theonomy is the belief that Mosaic laws are applicable to modern society and binding on Christians. Ingersoll cites CR advocate Greg Bahnsen, who says, “We must recognize the continuing obligation of civil magistrates to obey and enforce the relevant laws of the Old Testament, including the penal sanctions specified by the just Judge of all the earth.”[vi]
What I would argue is the consistent and reoccurring theme of Building God’s Kingdom is that both liberals and conservatives have misinterpreted and thus misunderstood the overwhelming influence CR has had on 21st century American Christian conservatism. “Both the alarmists and their critics misunderstand the influence of the Reconstructionists,” she writes. “Their influence is subtle, implicit, and hidden.”[vii] This is often intentionally so, Ingersoll argues: “Reconstructionists often argue in favor of bringing about these changes in ways that won’t be recognized by the rest of us for what they are. They call it ‘being wise as serpents.’”[viii]
Reconstructionists have been wildly successful in their efforts. “Little slivers of Rushdoony’s work seem to be everywhere,”[ix] Ingersoll says. She highlights how CR ideas, which run counter to so much of the ideological foundations of other conservative and fundamentalist Christians, have infiltrated those conservative and fundamentalist cultures so thoroughly that the foundations of the CR ideas have replaced those other subcultures’ foundations, even when the ideas themselves are either rejected or unknown. That infiltration is deliberate and intentional by means of the CR pioneering of the Christian schooling and Christian homeschooling movements: “Reconstructionist ideas made their way into evangelical and fundamentalist churches through study guides and Christian school (and later homeschool) curriculum, giving rise to an integrated worldview and a distinct subculture.”[x]
Most of Ingersoll’s book is dedicated to the task of tracing Reconstructionist ideas and how they fed into those movements. The depth and breadth of that influence surprised even me, who grew up in the Christian homeschooling movement. Ingersoll shows how Rushdoony and his many influential followers shaped the very contours of the Christian schooling and Christian homeschooling movements; how he aided young earth creationism in becoming the biblical (and only biblical) perspective of Creation within those worlds; how his ideas about providential history inspired Marshall Foster and David Barton; and how his ideas about patriarchy and multigenerational faithfulness undergird the ideologies of Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull. But even more astonishing, at least to me, is that the very language that conservative Christians use today — language about “religious freedom,” “parental rights,” and “government schools” is evidence of CR’s influence.
One element that I felt was missing in Ingersoll’s book is a presentation of orthodox Christianity by which one could compare and contrast Christian Reconstructionism. For example, Ingersoll makes salient the fact that Christian Reconstructionists believe parents (and only parents) are the rightful teachers of their children. For parents to give the role of teaching their children to anyone else is a sin. Rushdoony promoted replacing the phrase “public school” with the “government school,” and everyone from HSLDA to the National Center for Life and Liberty to Fox News to John Stonestreet now uses the latter. The phrase itself is loaded with Rushdoony’s belief that any and every government school system is tyrannical because it usurps the rightful authority (and God-given obligation) of parents to educate their children. Hence why people like the late Chris Klicka of HSLDA said parents who put their children in public school “sacrifice their children,” comparing such parents to Israelites in Ezekiel 16:20-21 who “slaughtered [their] children” by fire[xi]; or why people like Brian Ray of the National Home Education Research Institute argue that Christians putting their children in public school is “antithetical to Biblical teaching.”[xii]
I think it would have been helpful to contrast this extremist position with the history of Christian thought. This would help readers understand that the CR position is a severe departure from not only Christian beliefs on education in general, but specifically even Reformed beliefs on education. For example, it is Martin Luther, Reformer par excellence (and not Protestant homeschoolers’ favorite target Adolf Hitler) who is the genesis of the public education system.[xiii] Indeed, Luther believed that “when the natural parents prevent able youngsters from pursuing an education,” “the interests of the state [are] superior to the rights of the parents.”[xiv] The other grandfather of the Reformed tradition, John Calvin, also believed in a centralized education system.[xv] And the Prussian education system, which is blamed by homeschoolers for the American public school system as much as Hitler is blamed, was inspired by A.H. Francke, a Lutheran Christian.[xvi] Francke, in turn, was a significant influence on the Puritan Cotton Mather, also a CR favorite — who was, incidentally, also an outspoken advocate of government involvement in education.[xvii]
Another example is when Ingersoll says that an important characteristic of Christian Reconstructionism is sphere sovereignty. Ingersoll describes CR’s idea of sphere sovereignty in the following manner: “Biblical authority is God’s authority delegated to humans, who exercise dominion under God’s law in three distinct God-ordained institutions: the family, the church, and the civil government.”[xviii] The fact is, sphere sovereignty transcends CR. One could argue that Jesus himself established some species of sphere sovereignty when he declared, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”[xix] But not everyone knows this. So someone less versed in Christian history might think that any belief in sphere sovereignty indicates adherence to CR.
This isn’t merely an academic concern. For people interested in challenging CR and its widespread influences, it is vitally important to be able to pinpoint exactly where and how CR departs from orthodox Christianity. One example of this is how CR advocates sphere sovereignty: by means of a new wave of “church courts.” Ingersoll writes that, “Rather than take their troubles to civil court, church members bring them before ruling elders who have authority to issue punishments, demand repentance and restitution, and threaten excommunication.” This is not an insignificant phenomenon: “Some 10-15 percent of American Protestant churches, and churches associated with Vision Forum, now follow this model.”[xx] Ingersoll cites Rushdoony’s vision of church courts: “To go outside the family is to deny the family and break it up. When a husband and wife, or parents and children, or brother against brother, go to an outside court, the family life and government is in most cases dissolved or at least shattered… The Christian denies the reality and power of the Kingdom of God if he seeks justice outside the Kingdom.” Ingersoll illuminates how this “church court” system was used by Vision Forum’s Doug Phillips to make it difficult for his abuse victim, Lourdes Torres Manteufel, to seek justice.[xxi]
One very real, very present threat of CR is, then, that its interpretation of sphere sovereignty directly threatens the well-being of child abuse and domestic violence survivors trapped within churches with these revisionist church courts. We have seen recently, time and time again, how churches that try to handle child abuse and domestic violence cases “in house” further traumatize and terrorize victims and survivors. Peter Leithart, a Christian Reconstructionist[xxii] who severely mishandled a child abuse case within his own church[xxiii] (and recently apologized for that mishandling[xxiv]), continues to call church courts “highly commendable.” He writes that, “It is better to be defrauded and wronged than to take a brother to court.”[xxv]
Being able to articulate the way in which CR has taken an orthodox Christian belief — a belief directly from Jesus, like, say, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” — and transformed that into something like these revisionist church courts is crucial. Because the real threat of CR is not that it believes unorthodox theology. It is that CR applies theology — orthodox or not — in a particular way that hides and fosters child and domestic abuse.
Some of these ideas are tangential to Ingersoll’s purpose for the book, so I understand their omission. But the fact that her book inspired so many thought processes and rabbit trails is, in my mind, an indication of its power. Ingersoll’s book is provocative in the best sense and I highly recommend it. It pushes the reader to re-examine the origin of ideas widely held within 21st American Christian conservatism. It urges that we might not know as much about that origin as we thought we did.
Most importantly, Building God’s Kingdom dares to suggest that while conservative Christians were busy straining out the gnat of “secular humanism,” they unknowingly swallowed the far more diseased camel that is Christian Reconstructionism.
[i] Milton Gaither, International Center for Home Education Research, “BUILDING GOD’S KINGDOM: Christian Reconstruction’s Influence on Homeschooling and More,” September 7, 2015, link, accessed on September 29, 2015.
[ii] Julie Ingersoll, Building God’s Kingdom: Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction, Oxford University Press, 2015, p. 238.
[xi] Chris Klicka, The Right Choice: Home Schooling, Noble Publishing Associations, 4th printing and revised edition, 1995, p. 104-5.
[xii] Dr. Brian D. Ray, Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, “Is Homeschooling Biblical?”, link, accessed on September 29, 2015.
[xiii] Aaron Smith, Mises Institute, “The Cost of Compulsory Education,” June 22, 2011, link, accessed on September 29, 2015.
[xiv] Jane E. Strohl, “The Child in Luther’s Theology: ‘For What Purpose Do We Older Folks Exist, Other Than to Care for…the Young?’”, The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 152.
[xv] Barbara Pitkin, “’The Heritage of the Lord’: Children in the Theology of John Calvin,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 179-80.
[xvi] Marcia J. Bunge, “Education and the Child in Eighteenth-Century German Pietism: Perspectives from the Work of A.H. Francke,” The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001, p. 249: “Francke’s ideas significantly shaped school reforms and social policies in Prussia. Largely as a result of his influence, wealthy citizens and nobility became interested in the establishment of public schools. And in 1717 Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia, who knew and respected Francke, decreed compulsory education for children between the ages of five and twelve and established about two thousand schools, modeling them after Francke’s schools.”
[xvii] Cotton Mather, “The Education of Children,” link, accessed on September 29, 2015.
Parents expecting more of older siblings is typical in secular culture, but not usually with the same connotations like in fundamentalist homeschooling. As the oldest in my family, I heard things like:
A good older sibling sets the example for their younger brothers and sisters. Even if you don’t think they look up to you, they do. They watch your every move, and often, they’ll try to walk in your footsteps. So it’s important that you behave in ways that set a good example for them. Just like we look to Jesus to be our example, that we look to live how he lived and behave like he behaved, our younger siblings often look to us that way, too. —Taken from Christian Teen About
Statements like this put an excessive amount of pressure on older children.
We’re not just expected to protect younger siblings from danger, we’re responsible for their eternal salvation. And fundamentalist parents often manipulate this idea to check rebellion. To squash any behavior they didn’t like.
I couldn’t get angry if Dad was controlling and demanding, because that wasn’t having a meek and quiet spirit. Suffering without complaint was more like Christ, I was told, and a better example.
If I wore a fitted sweater, I was not being an example of modesty to my sister.
When I asked to have a curfew of midnight instead of 7:30 p.m. in college, I was not demonstrating submission to authority for my siblings.
My mom often said: “What will your little brother and sister think? They are always watching you. You know what Jesus said about those who lead little children astray. It would be better for you to have a millstone tied around your neck.”
So when Dad said things that hurt, when the house felt like a cage, when I thought of running away in the middle of the night, I didn’t. Because of my siblings. I was responsible for them.
When I thought my parents punished my brother and sister unfairly, I’d try to anger them into spanking me instead.
Junior year of college, I moved out because my parents said the alternative would be transferring to Bob Jones University. I went back and forth, uncertain what my decision would mean for my brother and sister. I’d be the first to leave home.
I told my professors that I wanted to be a good example for my siblings, that I didn’t want to run away or rebel if it would hurt them, that I’d go to Bob Jones if I had to, even if it killed me.
They told me that I could be a good example by moving out, that I could show my siblings that freedom was possible.
But I worried. I knew I couldn’t live at home anymore, but I still wanted to be a good big sister. That fall, I struggled to set limits as my parents barraged me with visits and phone calls, begging me to reconsider.
A couple of classmates, both named Cynthia, asked me what was wrong after one of our Saturday writers’ group meetings.
I gave my fears a voice. I didn’t understand taking care of yourself before helping other people. Fundamentalism taught me the reverse: don’t be selfish, sacrifice everything for others. Shouldn’t I just put up with my parents’ behavior for the sake of my siblings?
One of the Cynthias looked at me and the other Cynthia. She said, “Are you familiar with New Life’s teaching about confronting lies that you’ve believed? You identify the lie, you replace it with truth, and you pray against the power of the lie. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself for your siblings. You’re free to make your own choices.”
They each laid hands on me, praying with me that I’d heal and live in freedom.
I can’t save my siblings. All I can do is be a good human.
My little sister is going to BJU, and my little brother is a serious, quiet teenage boy. I lost contact with them for two years after leaving, so I can’t just speak my truth to them openly.
Content Warning: Depictions of emotional and physical abuse
I’ll now turn to the authoritarian parenting. I should prefix it by saying my mother was subsequently diagnosed with major depression. For a fair proportion of my teenage years she ceased any real parenting or homeschooling. I believe her unstable, neurotic personality portended the impending collapse and joined in a perfect storm with the disciplinarian approach to parenting she had internalized.
I was accustomed to a certain pattern in familial life. Every few months, mum would blow up, ostensibly raging against the accumulating liberties I had taken since the last eruption.
Anything could set her off. One memorable occasion I omitted to say ‘goodbye granny’ upon taking leave of my grandmother earlier that day (I spent ions of time being dragged around doctors waiting rooms, hospitals, and at my grandmother’s house as mum sorted out her endless problems). Mum was obsessed we signed off respectfully, lest granny kicked the bucket and the last thing we said to her wasn’t optimal. To be frank, I grew largely indifferent to my grandmother, including when she died. You can probably detect a somewhat shocking harshness in my tone, but her unintentional, primary effect on my life was negative. That night after dad arrived home from work, she did her war dance and required me role playing saying ‘goodbye granny’. Dad regarded mum, probably out of necessity given her forceful personality, the expert. So he would make a show of playing second fiddle. What most annoyed him wasn’t so much what I’d done, but the fact it had triggered another maelstrom of ‘carry on’ he had to ‘put up with’ after a long day at work.
The worst (and I believe first) of these rages occurred when I was 8. Mum had arranged for a professional photographer to come out and take milestone photos of my brother and me. At the time, I had adopted a silly objection to having my photo taken. I derived considerable satisfaction from thwarting the photographer’s efforts to get a good shot. Mum didn’t say or do anything at the time, but after she left I realized a delayed reaction set in which followed the classic development of a plot. The photography session was the exposition. Later, came rising action. She was distant and somewhat unresponsive. She went for a nature walk with us. On the phone to dad, I heard her saying I had be uncooperative. That was a warning sign. Ringing dad up instead of waiting for him to come home indicated she considered by antics are higher echelon of misdeeds. She then started reading to my brother without calling me, which was unusual – we typically were read to together. Entering the room where that was happening, I was told to leave. I was definitely getting ‘extreme weather’ warning signals. The climax came soon. She had cornered me in the lounge, and proceeded to lash herself into a rage. I can’t remember what was said, but I do remember, indelibly inked in my brain, the climax. ‘YOU CAN GO TO SCHOOL!’ she yelled, beside herself, ‘and sit in a class room all day getting told by a teaching what to do, to draw pictures of ugly Maori tongues poking out! Is that what you want? I think you do want that, because you won’t obey me!’
Bear in mind making this threat played directly on the deep seated fear she had instilled about schools through her attitude and pronouncements.
If you went to school, your life was a failure. Only a lucky few escaped the fate, and that lucky few had better be grateful for it. Manifestly, I was not. I grabbed the phone to call dad. He seemed like the last life line. ‘What do you think you’re doing? You think he’s going to help you?’ She snatched the phone back off me, pushed me out the front door, and instructed me to check myself into the local primary school a few hundred yards down the road. Instead, I hid in the bush outside my front gate. She came out in a few minutes and dragged me back inside. Things are a bit fuzzy after that. I stayed outside and tried to play in the sand pit. Mum came out to tell me how she’d talk to dad, and I would be getting a good whacking when he got home. I was somewhat relieved. The whackings were the ‘falling action’. They signalled the end of the yelling was not so far away. So, dad gets home and does the dance for mum. He’s very disappointed, I’ve rebelled against her, bend over etc. Mum was still running white hot, however and had gained a new lease of life from a new audience. She served up tea, shouting, yelling, berating. Finally, the resolution. For once in his life, dad managed to pry himself out of his lethargic resignation to her tantrums and tell her ‘that’s enough’. The whole incident is one of my most vivid memories from childhood.
Mum wielded the threat of school pretty consistently every time she went from standard mad to full orbital rotation. She often harped on about how I could never survive in school – getting to classes on time, sorting out my books and lunch and so forth. So fond of this line was she it continued on about university.
I can cast my mind back to other major blow ups. At the splinter group church I mentioned earlier, I liked to run around with my friend. It was, after all, the only time I got to play with someone my own age. Mum objected to us running around on a Sunday after church, and so was royally incensed upon discovering mud had found its way onto her home-made ‘good church pants’. She came roaring into my room, absolutely spitting mad. I was reading, propped upon the bed. She started off the discussion by smacking the pants across my face like a whip.
Another one happened after mum visited a Catholic lady whose daughter could read time on an analogue clock.
Mum just assumed I, a homeschooler, at 10 or so years of age would know that.
She twigged I could not read time that afternoon after I asked her to tell it for me. Her awe inspiring crescendo was ‘a three year old, Roman Catholic girl can tell the time, yet you can’t.’ Dad said mum got mad because if I didn’t know something like that, it reflected badly on her. ‘Well, maybe she didn’t do such a bang up job, in this case,’ I thought. Similarly, at an event where a group of children had to write down the contact details, she became angry it took me longest (I’d never had to do it before and didn’t know them).
There was the shower incident too, in which suddenly enraged about something, she came in to the bathroom while I was taking a shower, wooden kitchen spoon at the ready. She opened the door and used it against my bear thighs and calves. ‘I will have respect for your father, I will have respect for me, I will have respect for your brother, and I will have respect for the cat’ was the takeaway message this time, each phrase interspersed with a crack on the leg for my greater edification.
On the day we went into town for our music lessons and mums round, we were supposed to have completed a number of jobs before getting in the car. I didn’t, on one occasion. Mum hauls me inside for six of the best, then sends me back out to the car. What turned this rather run of the mill spanking into a particularly egregious one for me was that she decided the initial six had been insufficient. I was required to submit myself again to the same punishment.
I was 13 when the boy next door and I planned a trip into my Aunt’s horticulture farm. He was bit of an arse really, but when you were short on friends, beggars couldn’t be choosers. Under his influence, I got caught nicking some chocolate coins from the on farm shop. It was an End of the World scenario for my parents. It wasn’t that I had clearly made an error of judgment.
It was simply unthinkable I could be that unrighteous; Mum moped for days and frequently noted how lucky I was I had been allowed to stay in the house.
‘We will not hesitate to kick you out in future’, she said. At 13, she may have been on some shaky legal ground, though. There were more whackings involved here too; I think the last one (for an unrelated offence) was at 15.
My nature diary, where I was supposed to make entries and drawings every month was a constant source of conflict. I hated drawing and the long laborious neat writing. It generated more threats to send me to school than anything else, a place that would make me paint ‘ugly Maori drawings’ instead of beautiful flowers (it was one of her favourite comparison between the ‘righteous’ homeschoolers and ‘evil’ schools).
There are loads of other, lesser instances, but they still serve to illustrate a staggering ability to disregard nearly all facts of a case and solely rely on her initial reaction. I had to be perfect in front of her family in order to demonstrate what a grand success our family was in contrast to them. My aunt was having some ‘do’, and I had been eating cheese and crackers from the sideboard. I’d only had a few pieces, but they were the last ones. My dad strolled up, and my aunt flippantly remarked ‘the kids have eaten all the cheese and left none for their dad’. Mum immediately went Defcon 1, giving me the come hither finger to follow her into the deserted passage. ‘Do you see that?’ she hissed. ‘You’re being observed. And people noticed what you just did.’
The appearance of Godliness – being nicely turned out in what she considered decent, being well behaved while we waited for her and granny in doctor’s, wearing smarter clothes than my friend’s family at church – exercised her mind constantly.
I was said to be guilty of many things I thought unreasonable. I kicked a ball through a window just once in my childhood, quite by accident. Mum insisted dad whack me for it. ‘Do you want them terrified of me when I walk in the room?’ he protested. The whacking went ahead as scheduled. It was discovered I had fallen arches. Without hesitation, mum berated me because it would not have happened if I had worn runners everywhere (the cause is completely genetic). And in one of her most confounding leaps of logic, she proposed dad reading me Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books about ‘adventure’ had somehow influenced my chocolate coin robbery.
For the first few of my teenage years, I used to keep a few hundred dollars stashed in an envelope ‘just in case’.
What really highlighted to me her conduct was abnormal was dad taking my brother and I away for a weekend together. Dad’s natural parenting method, if mum wasn’t goading him, lay at the relaxed end of the spectrum. ‘Now look boys,’ he’d say, ‘I just want a nice, relaxed weekend way, so let’s not have any trouble.’ And we would have precisely that. Drama, conflict, and mistrust between authority and the objects of authority evaporated if mum was removed from the picture.
To be fair, mum has changed her ways a lot and admitted she made many mistakes, and often interacted poorly with her family. She now is attempting to embrace grace in practice as well as theory. Moreover, she did a lot of good things while we grew up. She would put on birthdays for us, bake and decorate fantastic birthday cakes, and do her very best to ensure we had the best possible educational resources. Both parents read to us extensively, and so I came to read extensively, a factor to which I credit my tertiary successes. They paid for us to have private music, and speech and drama lessons. And there were times as a family we all got on well.
The problem is, the bad can cancel out the good easier than the good the bad.
By way of analogy, a stock market can make consistent gains for a decade, then have it wiped out in a single day. Nevertheless, I don’t blame my parents. I realize the real perpetrator was close minded thinking, a system we spontaneously adopt. Our minds are attracted to certainty, however chimerical. For me, it’s enough they recognize the wrong.
In any situation, my mum excelled in introducing some socially disruptive element. For example, I participated from ages circa 12 – 14 in speech and drama competitions. All the other competitors were dressed in mufti, but she insisted I wear formal black pants and white shirt.
They were ‘sloppy’, and ‘we are not going to be dragged down to their standards’.
Conforming to a dress code which mum arbitrarily deemed ‘decent’ was far more important than my feeling like a fish out of water. Mum was totally oblivious to that anyway, as, you see, I was not ‘peer dependent’. And because I was not peer dependent, I could only frame my opposition to the clothes in terms of stylistic preference (to no avail, of course). For a competitive class known as ‘reading at sight’, in which each participant expressively read a passage from a book they had not seen before, all involved had to be taken together out of ear shot so no one heard the passage before their turn. For some reason, the demographics favoured girls in speech and drama at a ratio of 5:1. You can imagine my predicament. Firstly, it took me a while even in homeschool situation to leave behind self-consciousness. Second, I related very poorly to socialized school children. They knew how to strike up interactions between each other, so the child with poor social skills is always in an out group among his more gregarious peers. Third, being all dressed up impressed itself as another me vs. them barrier. Lastly, I had no idea at all how to even platonically talk to girls. It turned out I and a rather competitively prominent girl were penultimate and last in the competitor order, in the particular instance I’m channelling. We spent an awkward few minutes alone together. I didn’t know what to say, and given my anti-social body language, nor did she probably. Later, my mum had the nerve to ask what happened. That really pissed me off inside. Why the hell would you ask that, when you should know I have no concept of how to navigate that sort of social terrain? Some voyeuristic desire to know every detail of my inadequacy? Describing my internal state like this seems rather solipsistic. Sometimes I wonder if I have the right to single out events like these after reading through what some of you in America went through.
Naturally, mum found fault with the other families who attended.
Their children performed unbiblical pieces (about witches or wizards, or worse, dictatorial parents). The girls wore ‘disgusting’ clothing. I recall in crystal clear quality after one competitions ended, we went to Subway. Across from where I was sitting, in my line of site, sat the same girl I mentioned earlier. Leaning forward to eat her subway, her top rode up, exposing her lower back. Mum then insisted I swap places with her so my back was to this 14 year old hussy.
This is the kind of sexually repressive culture endemic in fundamentalism, and fundamentalist homeschooling. Teenagers can be granted no sexual agency. It’s not just they abide by the teaching of abstinence before marriage. The unwritten rules consider the idea a post-pubescent male would like to insert (consensually) his organ into the female, and that she would like to receive it, to be thoroughly improper. That would be part of the Marxist plot to destroy families by ‘teaching the kids about sex when they’re young’. The point of allowing someone to be a sexual being relates to socialization, because the repressive approach perpetuates a self-enforcing segregation. If boys and girls wanting to fuck each other silly is ‘dirty’ according to the unwritten norms, then the cognitive dissonance of the unconditioned response (sexual desire) clashing with an internalized mindset that completely gaslights the desire’s legitimacy, demands eschewing any sustained contact with a member of the opposite gender.
So during their sexually formative years, fundamentalist Christian youth subconsciously ascribe each other the role of toxic triggers.
Cultish, homeschooling conventions run by the likes of ACE (Accelerated Christian Education) confirm the behaviour by insisting on the ‘six inch rule’. All male female haptic interaction is sexually fetishized. You can never make a fundamentalist understand an argument, as their dogmatic modernism cannot really grasp post-modern deconstruction. That the statement ‘Sex is God’s gift to married couple, and we see no problem with it in that context’ does not decisively plant them in the garden of healthy sexual attitudes is an anathema to them.
Anyway, handling myself around girls was something I had to consciously learn mechanically at (a secular) university. I’m sure some female readers can attest to their version of that experience too.
Another dysfunction of isolation derives from the concomitant dynamics of habitualized isolation and the perception interactional partners are scarce. By habitualized isolation I mean the point at which the negative interactional outcomes owing to substandard social skills, overcome the desire to socialize.
You learn to do without social interaction, and thus lose any desire for it.
You become, effectively, asocial in a tightening, downward spiral. Only now do I have the objectivity and critical tool kit to see what happened; at the time I drifted aimlessly on a sea of calm, functional depression. It’s like moving in suspended animation. I couldn’t stand being on Facebook and seeing group oriented behaviour. A wall of unmotivated inability stood between me and pro-social activities. Now from time to time, for a variety of reasons, certain people will break through your bubble of isolation. Since the mind perceives them as scarce, you become emotionally fixated on them, a sure recipe to destruct a relationship. You obsess over the slightest signal of non-reciprocation. You need them more than they need you. You feel small, and constantly unwanted. And you must constantly deal with a power imbalance. He who cares least about a relationship controls it. In a way, it’s an objective scarcity too. Few people understand the unique personal histories of homeschoolers.
There’s often an outsized intellect compensating for a bereft emotional state.
Adults laud your academic achievements. Children feel jealous and push you away in spite. You condescendingly look at the ‘ignorant fools’ around you, trying to pretend you’re not envious of their social capital. To this day, I still struggle with these two dynamics. In quiet moments, I feel quite fucked up. Sometimes, a wave of intense loneliness sweeps over me, and in one of them I wrote these two poems/songs:
I feel the reservoir press against my spirit
A weight of water unmarked by morning light
Or cheerful souls drifting on the edge of my ken.
This mortal current sweeps my soul within it
And against the firmament I wage an unceasing fight.
I want to go beyond the 12 mile limit
Join two streams into one
But you are lost and never found
Beyond the horizon to which I tend.
Let me stretch out my hand away from the sirens in my mind
And live in hope I’ll feel your grasp before we sink in sorrowful seas.
In my sleep I found it
Found the glow that lights our path
Took the meteor to bits with my bare hands
Strew my dreams through the aftermath
Yeah they don’t know what I want to know
They don’t know where I wanna go
down the river in my mind, down the the river in my mind
I’ll flow, I’ll flow, through grains of time
I stretched out my heart
Touched the cheek of the girl next door
Her candle light eyes lit up my face
But I let the fire fall apart
If you want to see me
Before the man comes around
See the shooting stars in the north
Then turn the other way round
Embers scattered in the snow
Red white red white red white glow
Melting heat melting flakes
ceaseless fusion, silent sound
If there’s any good news, it’s that my mother realized her mistake when my brother, around 12 or 13, exhibited all the signs of a nervous breakdown – obsessively checking switches were turned off, checking under beds for interlopers, and general neurotic manifestations. He’s had a vastly more natural social life.