I heard this story on “This American Life.” I want to offer it as a kind of amelioration to the many posts about religion here, because I think it needs to be added. I did my best to transcribe the story, but you can listen to it here.
David Ellis Dickerson tells the story of heading home to Tucson after six years away, having rejected the evangelical Christianity of his family. David came prepared for war, armed with new beliefs. But his family had something else in mind:
I was fully aware that I was the black sheep. I had rejected my faith and had rejected Tucson. I was sitting with my dad in a booth in a diner. It should have been just this innocent thing, where I was sitting with my dad after six years and I want to catch up but it wasn’t like that.
I was at war. I was at war with all Christians and I was just waiting for the chance to fire a shot. I was raised an Evangelical Christian—you know, a conservative, Bible-believing Christian. I loved it so much I wanted to be a Pastor. I went off and majored in religious studies at college. And in my very first scholarly class of the history of the bible my faith began to crumble, and there was nothing left. And I now had this game I could play where if you opened the bible to any page, I could find five flaws in it.
So I spent this entire time with my dad just waiting for the chance to pounce—just waiting for him to mention the virgin birth just once and I’ll tell you it’s a mistranslation from Isaiah. You know, just mention the anti-Christ, Revelations, the end times—please, please! And I have a screed set up so blistering that it would make Billy Graham feel ridiculous. I had all this ammunition and I couldn’t wait to use it. It had turned me into a bit of a jackass.
Now, what my dad didn’t know was that one of the reasons I was so excited was that I was just coming off of a victory. The previous night, I had argued my brother-in-law to a standstill. He had mentioned how proud he was about being a Christian because everything in the bible was so scientifically accurate. And I went a little nuts and I said, “Oh yeah?! Well what about this thing? What about here where it says God caused the sun to stand still during this battle? Do you believe this actually happened?”
And my brother-in-law said, “Well OK, that’s weird. I wish it weren’t in there. But if I doubt that, where do I stop?” And then I knew that that was as close I was going to get to him saying I was right and he was wrong. It was 5:00 in the morning. I had argued this one point for seven hours. I realized, this is like my job. I had just put in a full working day! Obviously, I was obsessed. At the time I was 28 years old.
I was also a virgin, because until then, I believed that that’s what God wanted from me. I had lost ten years of my life before my faith collapsed. I felt betrayed. I was furious and I didn’t know who to blame. But I knew I could help other people from having the same horrible experience. I looked at my brother-in-law and I knew I could save him.
So while I was sitting there in the diner with my dad, that whole victorious experience was still kind of humming in my head. But a brother-in-law is one thing and a dad is something else—I needed to save him. And so I said, “Dad, so what’s your life like right now?” He said, “Well, I found a new church home.” I heard the word “church” and perked up! But there wasn’t enough to argue about just going to church. But then he said, “You know, I’ve been praying about it and I think I’m going to be a missionary.”
I sat up—that struck a chord. I asked him where he was going to go, and he said, “Oh, Spain.”
I snapped! I said, “Oh, of course. Of course you’re going to go to Spain. That is so arrogant! Only an Evangelical would think they had to go to Spain because those poor benighted Spaniards have to learn about Jesus.” I went into this long rant about Evangelicals and all their beliefs and how they are just a tiny sliver of Christianity. “Oh, and dad—I guess you think you’re saving people. What do you think you’re saving them FROM? Hell? Well, ‘hell’ is just a mistranslation of…” and one and on I went. And I told him that by using hell anyway, you’re only undermining Good because a morality based on fear can never bring out the best in people. And I just rambled on like this and I knew while I was doing this, I was also assaulting his dream; you know, saying that everything he was excited about that he was sharing with me was misbegotten. But all he had to do was admit I was right and then we would be OK.
During all of this, he just quietly let me do my thing, and when I’d gotten my piece out he said, “David, I’m really proud of all you’ve done and really glad that you enjoy studying all these things and thinking all these thoughts. But I’ve got to tell you, before I became a Christian I was miserable; I wanted to kill myself. I wanted to get a divorce from your mom.”
And I remembered, suddenly, I was six years old, and I was back in the car. I remembered driving in the station wagon with my dad from South Dakota to Tucson because dad had had a nervous breakdown. He was rebuilding everything. I remember that he was holding a cigarette out the window the whole ride down—I remember it made a strong impression on me as a child. About half way through the trip he simply threw away all his cigarettes and never picked them up again. That was the conversion—the start of the change in his life.
My dad continued, “You now, when I first went to Grace Chapel (that was the church where he converted) I thought those people were crazy.” When I was 8 years old, I had gone to Grace Chapel with him. It was a charismatic church, where people speak in tongues and raise their hands and they anoint people with oil, and they pray for miracles and sometimes roll on the floor. Dad said, “I was just staring at the stuff people were doing and I thought ‘This is crazy!’ But I could not ignore the love in that room. And the care they had for each other and I kept going back, and back. And I wanted it. And I wanted it to makes sense to me, so finally one night I prayed, ‘God, if I have to cut my own head off to be happy, I will do it’. So I know you’ve gone to college and you learned all these things. Here’s what I know, David. I followed Jesus and the Lord gave me a family.”
My parents had almost gotten a divorce. I remember once I had come upon a notebook, where my mom and dad had divided everything up on paper—you know, who was going to get the TV and that kind of thing. They had gotten that close but then my dad converted and he said, No, we’re sticking this out. We’re gonna make this work. And it had.
And my brother too—he’s real conservative and I’m sure he thinks I’m going to hell. But one time when I was a student, he gave me $300 and he said, “Don’t worry about paying it back.”
I looked at my dad and had expected to argue sort of like I had with my brother-in-law –not to win, but to come to some sort of truce where we could say we’d agree to disagree, but they would say they saw my point and it was a good point. I hadn’t expected to lose completely, but you can’t argue with decency. You can’t argue with goodness.
The thing about the bible is, it’s huge. I could pick at it because I could pick out anything I wanted: talking snakes, virgin births. Eventually I came around to thinking: maybe religion doesn’t have to be consistent. Maybe you can just like it enough for it to be good. Maybe religion can be like, like, well, I’m a big Star Trek fan. If you asked me I would say I like Star Trek, but if you asked me to defend individual episodes I would be at a loss—I can’t defend everything Star Trek did; I just love the concept. Maybe religion is like that.
So what I said to my dad was, “Oh, look here comes the waitress.” We got our Cokes and our hamburgers and we looked at each other, raised the glass, had a bite, and, my dad didn’t know this but we were having communion.