Laci’s Journey (Pt 1): Hell & Kid Conversions

Laci is a 19-year-old woman in California.  She likes pretty piano music and talking about stuff that matters.  In this four-piece-and-growing series, she talks about her experiences in the Mormon church as a child and adolescent, culminating with her coming out as an atheist to friends and family this past spring.

Take a look:

I appreciate Laci’s thoughtful reflection on her religious experiences, and I thought this was an interesting video because she touches on few things that I think are often seen as problems by kids of evangelical families of origin, as well as Mormon: hell and “making a decision” about faith early in life.

With regards to heaven/hell, I wouldn’t say that at this point most of my evangelical friends–who tend to be more moderate theologically–put a lot of emphasis here, but I don’t think that’s true of evangelical churches as a whole.  Many of them, I believe, still are quite into talking about heaven/hell as one of the big reasons to become a Christian.  I think fundamentalists use this as a scare tactic, while many evangelicals would say they try to emphasize the importance of a relationship with God instead…

But here’s the thing.  I don’t think the rest of us (who aren’t fundamentalists using hell as a scare tactic) have figured out what we really think about hell or how to talk about it.  Especially as some of us have begun to embrace a larger understanding of the gospel that focuses largely on God’s renewing this earth and establishing a kingdom here, we don’t know what hell is anymore (especially since various Greek works are translated as “hell”…  *sigh*), and we do a poor job explaining this aspect of Christianity to ourselves and others.

So from one evangelical to another: let’s figure it out.  Let’s keep asking questions, let’s acknowledge all we don’t know, let’s think carefully.  And while we are not ever going to know everything there is to know about the world, let’s try to come up with a better alternative to silence.  Because if there’s silence, all Laci or anyone else has to go by is what fundies say.  And that doesn’t seem fair to Laci or us either one–it’s not a representation of what many of us think Christianity is about.  I haven’t taken 90% of my seminary courses yet, so maybe I’ll come up with some fabulous answer before you know it, but the fact is, if I, a seminary student who was raised in church and has a lot of experience in the evangelical world and also has read more than one nerdy book relating to Christianity…  if I don’t know what to think about hell, many regular people in pews who aren’t wacko-nerds are at least as clueless as me.  And that’s a problem.  If we don’t give people good theology, there’s a vacuum–and people will absorb somebody else’s theology without even engaging in a dialog with ours.

Secondly, Laci talks a lot about how strongly she was encouraged to make a faith decision as a young child (as well as how excited she was to make one), and it seems she now resents this.  I am not saying we shouldn’t talk about religion with children, but I wonder if we emphasized conversion as a process rather than a moment this would be less of an issue.  I also wonder if we are foolish sometimes to think a kid so young can really know what they’re doing.  In some ways, this is the beauty of infant baptism.  Everyone knows a kid isn’t making a decision then, and that’s ok.  We help them make decisions big and small as they grow up and move toward being able to really decide what they believe.  Addtionally, we often offer classes for teens that allow them to learn about our faith more formally.  It doesn’t always work out, of course (not only do some leave the faith but some remain Christian but of a very nominal sort which is possibly much worse), but it offers a little more autonomy, perhaps.

I know a lot of people feel strongly about “believer’s baptism”–requiring a profession of faith before baptism rather than baptizing babies–and I can respect that.  But as someone that has spent a good deal of time in traditions on both sides, I think we need to figure out ways to better shepherd kids that do make “decisions” at a young age.  In some ways, I almost feel it’s appropriate to downplay those decisions and let them know that, yeah, we understand they’re sixteen now, that they have bigger questions than when they were six, that, in a sense, they do need to decide again at sixteen, and maybe at twenty-six, and maybe at thirty-six and eight-six, too.

I think there are ways to still emphasize conversion as a process even if we like to make a conversion moment with baptism.  And I think that the better we emphasize this faith journey, the more freedom teens will feel to actually ask tough questions.  They need to know that they’re not locked into a simplistic form of Christianity forever, that it’s ok to have doubts and struggles and to wrestle with them honestly.  That’s the only way, I think, for anyone with questions to make an authentic adult decision to remain Christian.

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