Why I Go to Church

My grandfather's last name is Paul, like the apostle. Sometimes names are like prophecies to be fulfilled. Like Princess Diana whose name is an anagram for "die in a car spin;" like the man who made off with billions of dollars whose last name is Madoff; like the woman whose name was Neda, which means "voice" in Farsi, whose death on YouTube made her the voice of the Iranian protest of the latest elections; my grandfather, whose last name is Paul, became a highly successful preacher, baptizing perhaps a thousand people into the Church of Christ, a denomination that used to have pretensions of not being a denomination, because it claimed to be the one true Church. My last name is Tarpley. As far as I can tell, this just means my family originated in the village of Tapeley in Devonshire. There are no prophecies for me.

That my mother went to church, given who her father was, is no surprise. That she took me to church when I was young is also not surprising. What surprised us all was that my mother married my first step-father, who is the complete opposite of my grandfather in almost every way. My step-father was an anthropologist, a man with deep respect for every culture, every religion on the planet. And with so much respect in his heart, how could he hold one religion over any other? Instead, he showed reverence in every church, every temple. His religion was humanity, and I inherited this religion.

As a 14-year-old, I suffered the angst of any teenager, but I stacked on-top of this: anger over my mother's second divorce, culture-shock (I'd lived in Central America on and off for 5 years, and had to re-integrate into U.S. society as an awkward young man), and a growing resentment toward my grandfather's religion. Many of my fellow middle-schoolers were Christians, and I self-righteously asked them the following questions: Why believe in the mythology of the book of Genesis when the Big Bang and Evolution were enough to explain our existence? Where did Cain's wife come from? Why would God create us only to send the majority of us to Hell? Who would want Abraham as a father, when he was so willing to kill Isaac? Who would worship a God who asked Abraham to kill Isaac? Who would worship a God who commanded the Israelites to commit genocide on the peoples of "The Promised Land?" Out of all the people on the Earth, why did God appear only to the Israelites? If God is omniscient and omnipotent, why would he allow innocent people/animals to suffer?

Over the years, in order to refine my arguments, I read Skeptic Magazine. I purchased an anthology of atheist writings. I tried to understand Nietzsche. When I got my first computer, I read and posted on the alt.athiesm Usenet group. A friend and I attended the Bible club at middle-school in order to disrupt their meetings. Before Richard Dawkins ever mobilized his New Atheists, I was a militant young religion hater.

My anger and teenage rebellion boiled over the pot, and I spent a night in juvenile detention for setting a bonfire on a neighbor's driveway at 3:00AM. I failed the eighth grade. I looked at the wreck my anger had caused, and decided to calm down, to press pause for awhile. We moved to Tyler, Texas in order to be near my grandparents for various reasons, and in order to keep up appearances, we went to church. I hated every minute of it.

I hated every minute of it, until I befriended members of the youth group. As shallow as it sounds, I was thrilled to be around a group of people who thought I was unique because of my circumstances. I received attention, and soaked it up like a selfish sponge. Soon I was surprised by how much I cared for my newfound friends, how little I minded what they thought or believed. I became culturally indoctrinated into the church; I learned how to say the right things and act churchly. I think had the person I'd been six months before been watching me on video, he would've shaken his head and said I was being brainwashed. He might've been right: what's the difference between adapting to your environment and brainwashing?

Regardless of the amount of adaptation I underwent, at my core I remained highly skeptical. I still frequented the alt.atheism group. I still vastly preferred the sermons I heard on Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden albums to anything I was hearing from the pulpit. I was "playing church" and becoming quite good at it, but I was hypocritical at best.

The skeptical, reasoning, rational part of me would love to say that I eventually worked out all of the problems I had with Christianity before becoming a true believer. The reality is that I was attacked from behind, I was snuck-up on, swept up, and irrevocably changed before I knew what hit me. The cliché idea of a "religious experience" embarrasses me. The idea of "finding Jesus," of being "born again" was hilarious to me before I became a Christian. What happened to me, however, was 100% emotional, and to borrow a line from one of my favorite movies ("Playing by Heart"), trying to write about what I felt is like trying to dance about architecture. But here's my feeble attempt.

The youth group had taken a bus to Nacogdoches, Texas in order to have a "retreat." For kids in a youth group, a retreat is an occasion to retreat from one's parents, to pretend for a number of days that one is an independent person. For me, it was a retreat from my bedroom, a full immersion into this churchly world I'd only been dangling my feet into. It was a Saturday night. The lights were switched off. The time was approximately 11:30PM. The youth minister and the counselors decided we'd all stay up and sing songs until midnight so that it would be Sunday morning, and we'd all take communion before going to bed. A caricature of church people sitting in a circle, holding hands, and singing "Kumbaya" exists in our culture. This doesn't approximates what it feels like to be surrounded by a group of people who have grown up singing a cappela, harmonizing at the top of their lungs. This is what I experienced that night, in the darkness. Inside, a great tidal wave of emotion broke loose. I felt ashamed of all the anger I'd felt. I felt silly for having mocked what these people believed with all their heart. I felt a question quietly presenting itself before me: Why? Why had I expended so much negative energy? Why couldn't I listen, why couldn't I truly consider what this first-century Jew had given his life for? What had he given his life for? Wasn't it love? Hadn't he stood up against the religious establishment and shouted that unless they were feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and helping the poor they were whitewashed tombs?

It felt as though there were a giant, cosmic question that up until that point I'd answered with a "no," and now I was answering with a maybe, with a half-hearted, sheepish whisper of "yes." Had I said "yes" to the existence of God, to the infallibility of the Bible, to the doctrinal stances of the church? I don't think so. I think I was saying yes to Love, and the best example I could find of this love was in Jesus Christ, a man whose story spans a mere four out of the sixty-six books in the protestant Biblical canon.

Since high-school I've had a love/hate relationship with my Church of Christ heritage. I've had moments of religious zeal (I was the president of my high school's Bible club, I went to a private Christian undergraduate institution, I've preached at congregations, I was a member of a mission team headed for Peru); I've had moments where I couldn't stand to step inside a church building. While I'm good at being churchly, I also use salty language, drink beer, and hold liberal political views. I love Jesus Christ; I hate right-wing, politically infused Christianity. I love the bride of Christ (the Church); I hate the fact that the churches in my heritage are (implicitly) racially segregated places where (explicitly) women can't hold anything resembling authority. I get tired of being disappointed, of watching while the "good news" of Jesus Christ is pushed aside by petty squabbling. I get tired of being hurt, of having to be tactful when I'm in church. So why do I go at all?

To Learn
I've found that the majority of the questions I've struggled with have been picked apart for thousands of years by people who have devoted their lives to religious study. It is arrogant of me to assume I know all there is to know about these matters. Church is a lot like an Easter Egg hunt – sometimes the nuggets of wisdom are hidden deep in the grass, but once you find them, it's very sweet.

To Build Relationships
This can be the hardest, but most rewarding part about church. It's a lot like a family get-together. There are plenty of people in the room you don't like and have nothing in common with. For some reason, however, once you break that barrier and learn to love people you wouldn't have loved otherwise, you treasure those relationships deeply. It's proof that Love really can transcend.

To Recharge Spiritually
Spirituality is an ambiguous thing. Is it being in-tune with God? Is it simply stimulating a particular part of the brain? Both? I wouldn't presume to know. I just know that I've experienced it, and just like that feeling of healthiness and energy you get from working out, recharging spiritually is addictive.

To Further the Kingdom
Most people would read that title and think "evangelism." I'm not talking about converting people to Christianity. I'm talking about expanding the boundary of the place where the hungry are fed, the sick are healed, those who mourn are comforted, and the poor are provided for. These things are what characterize the Kingdom of God for me.

To Change the Church
If I want church to be less painful, I've got to work on changing it. I may be a single pebble on the road attempting to stop a runaway semi-truck. But if enough pebbles build a wall, maybe we'd have a chance?

Do you say "yes" to Love? If so, how does this look in your life?