The following essay is an autobiographical reflection by Marc Boswell. He describes his experiences growing up in a fundamentalist, Southern church and how such an experience continues to impact him today. See his full bio below.
“History is a narrow bridge. We are naturally afraid of our memories, of the trauma of our memories. We try to forget, and in truth, some things we must forget a little bit, simply in order to function. And yet…if we truly allow ourselves to forget, history may well return to us.”
- Elie Wiesel
It may sound strange, but in the latter days of my graduate school coursework, some American religious scholars were turning their attention toward certain symbols that had largely had fallen into disrepute with the harder sciences of the Western world. Of all things, these scholars were using symbolic language of “ghosts” and “specters” and “spirits” in their religious writings to describe things that “haunt” individuals and communities. Their work emerged from a certain playful, postmodern position, though what they were describing was anything but playful or ironic.
Their language around ‘haunting’ and ‘ghosts’ and ‘spectral presences’ was meant to gesture to the lingering presence of trauma and the long-term consequences of certain negative social events, e.g., fascist violence, a grizzly murder, or systemic oppression. Scholars were using these terms, then, to remind their readers that long after actual material types of oppression or abuse had come to an end, the damage done could not simply be put away and forgotten. It’s neither fair nor realistic to ask victims and communities of trauma to simply get over what occurred.
Though a fascist regime’s reign of terror may have stopped, for instance, the consequential trauma of such violent measures likely continues to “haunt” or linger or bubble up within the fabric of affected communities. Though we’d be encouraged to box up this damage and put it away, the ethereal, intangible presence of these events finds a way to seep out of its packaging and to disturb our collective lives.
Thus, a ghost represents something previously real, in a material sense, but also something that now refuses to rest peacefully or to be forgotten; something that won’t quietly return to the earth to be absorbed and released in ways that lead to new life. The ghost or the specter plays by its own rules and defies a person’s wish to be brushed aside and ignored.
Though we may not often use the language of ghosts or specters, many of us know what it means to have a thought that haunts our minds, or strong, disturbing emotions that are “conjured” up by a song lyric, or a scene from a movie, or a line in a novel. Entire communities can share in collective trauma. We might also think back to biblical stories of the blood of the slain crying out from the earth – forever haunting Cain – or Jesus’ warning that if people are silenced, even the rocks will cry out.
Perhaps we can say, then, that ghostly or spectral presences are lingering reminders of intangible realities that refuse to be left alone and cannot easily be subdued. Just because a thing is in the past, it doesn’t necessarily stay in the past.
This is where I arrive at the concept toward which I’m pointing by the title of this essay: the ghost of God. Since encountering this ghoulish language, I’ve found myself returning to it to describe one of the damndest ghosts that continues to invade my life and my psyche in ways completely uninvited and unwelcomed. This is the ghost of the Christian fundamentalist God.
Though this deity has long since died in my theological imagination, I’ve yet to eradicate it from the deeper structures of my mind. While I wish it was possible to simply exchange one set of beliefs for another, I’ve come to question whether our minds work like that. Trauma doesn’t neatly or quietly subside due to the passage of time. Some things insist on haunting us.
In the following sections, I’ll describe what it was like growing up in a fundamentalist congregation in the South and what it’s been like on the other side of this “death of God” – how I tried to cope in mainline, liberal seminaries, and what I’ve learned along the way from my attempts to rid myself of this ghastly presence.
Part One: Childhood
“[Y]ou must tell your story. This is because, if even one person learns from it how to be more human, you will have made your memories into a blessing. We must turn our suffering into a bridge so that others might suffer less.”
- Elie Wiesel
Over the years, I’ve shared stories with mainline and progressive congregations about my experiences with fundamentalism in my childhood and adolescence. Well-heeled Episcopalians and legacy Presbyterians have laughed and expressed shock as I shared stories about the normal weekly Sunday services at my home church.
We never left a service, of course, without a reminder that we could be on our way to eternal hellfire if we hadn’t accepted Christ as Lord (and really meant it). We were constantly reminded that the rapture could occur at literally any given moment. I often share with many left-leaning congregations that I came to faith after having the hell scared out of me. Before the popular, evangelical Left Behind series was written or turned into feature films, there existed other novels and movies that depicted the scary, end-times apocalypse and the hellscape that would be waiting for those who didn’t get sucked up in the first rapture.
As a pre-teen, I watched a certain film (A Distant Thunder) that depicted teenagers who had been left behind after Jesus’ second coming. Realizing their mistake (too late, obviously), they managed to accept Jesus as their savior, though they still had to endure the Great Tribulation. Their decision to get right with Jesus put the teens at odds, in particular, with the military wing of the Antichrist’s new world order.
The movie ended with the resilient teenagers being led by military officials to a guillotine in a court square, robed in white, where they would place their heads in the execution device to be summarily lopped off by a swiftly falling blade. The final shot is of one of the teens screaming in horror as the audience hears the blade falling to execute her friend. As a nine-year-old, needless to say, I was scared shitless. I very much believed this dystopian future was waiting for me if my acceptance of Jesus didn’t actually take or if I sinned too much and became a backslider.
During these formative years, the God of this culture seeped deeply into my bones. Of course, we were told that God is loving, but this all-powerful God also set up and agreed to a set of rules that could potentially lead me to being utterly abandoned and alone at any given rapturous moment if I wasn’t a good boy. No, we weren’t taught that salvation came through being good, but, hell, if you weren’t good, then how could you be assured that you were actually saved? The glint of the guillotine blade always flashed in my fretful mind.
The love of this fundamentalist deity was a highly conditional love – which usually indicates some measure of abuse and manipulation. To make sure we stayed aware of the conditions, parishioners were reminded by pastors on a weekly basis of how undeserving we were of the love that was shown toward us. There was nothing metaphorical about hell – it was entirely real to us – and we knew without a doubt that God would send anyone on God’s bad side straight there for eternity.
We were also made to constantly consider just how “long” eternity lasted. There’d be no reprieve. Ever. There’d be no Lazarus to cool our tongues with a drop of water. One might think that even an abusive parental figure would – at some point – get tired of kicking their child’s ass. This fundamentalist God, however, would never tire of such abuse. Worse than direct abuse, it was a grotesque form of neglect. God and all the saved in heaven knew that people were eternally being tortured, concurrent with their own blissful circumstances, but they just didn’t care. The damned deserved it. Nevertheless, to call it abuse or neglect was out of the question because this whole unfortunate scenario came about because of our own sin and disobedience. It was our human fault that we were constantly threatened to be consciously burned forever and ever.
Reminders that there was a way out of this situation - remedied by the “loving” God - hinged on gory and graphic depictions of Jesus’ crucifixion. I recall hearing twenty minute sermons detailing the extensive physical trauma that happened to people who were crucified… how they suffocated, how their bones were broken, how their hearts would burst, how their ligaments would tear from their joints. God loved us, certainly. And because we were such bastards, God engaged in a masochistic act of violent love in order to gratify Himself.
Imagine being a child and learning every single week that the only thing that makes you worthy and valuable is the shed blood, torture, and suffocation of God.
And imagine being a child and constantly hearing that you were the one who brought this pain and torture on the innocent, loving deity.
This is the God that still haunts me.
Part Two: Young Adulthood
“Would we allow [our memories] to drown us in despair, or would they somehow give us strength to respond to other people’s suffering?”
- Elie Wiesel
Eventually, this fundamentalist theology proved both to be too psychologically taxing and too restrictive to contain the larger world I encountered as I grew older. (Just how these fissures and cracks began to occur is the topic of another essay.)
As this change occurred, I thought I was in a better place because I was moving intellectually away from this inherited theology. It was a relief to question the old and explore new ways of being religious. I thought, therefore, that I could replace one theology with the exciting new ideas I was encountering in college and seminary. I often imagined it to be like rearranging furniture in a room. If God was too angry, then I could just slightly angle that image of God in a different direction so that God’s love was a bit more to the forefront. If I quit believing in the rapture, then I could just discard that worn out piece and throw it in the trash.
Such was the hubris of my Western assumptions of how the mind works. Such is the advantage, also, of considering how certain things refuse to stay dead.
Throughout my twenties, I would encounter people who joked about being a “recovering fundamentalist.” I eventually started using the term - always good for a laugh - but I don’t think I ever stopped to consider the deeper truth beneath the phrase. I suppose my religious experiences growing up were still too close to the bone for me to delve much deeper at the time. This was ironic since I spent all of my twenties in religious studies or theological degree programs. Still, there wasn’t yet enough emotional distance from the whole religious edifice to acknowledge the strangeness of such an upbringing and the damage such a thing could render. Though I began to identify as someone with a liberal theology, I was still very much part of the “C”hurch and even my own original Baptist denomination where I was ordained.
In her book, Leaving the Fold, author Marlene Winell writes, “Some people leave a restrictive religious background and move on with their lives without being aware of any issues. Years later, however, it might still be important for them to examine the residual effects of indoctrination.”[i] Similar to another client she describes, I was “searching for some kind of spiritual life that wasn’t polluted with childhood images of a vengeful and judgmental God.”[ii]
Still, no matter how much I’ve searched over the past fourteen years, those vengeful and manipulative images haven’t gone away so quietly. Feelings of guilt and inadequacy and shame for simply being my fully human self won’t dissipate so easily. Perhaps what I needed, then, was to let the whole edifice crumble and fall to the ground and to decisively rid myself of the Church. To let it all fall apart, though, was too painful. I had invested too much in the structure – a career, professional networks, thousands of dollars of debt. Prior to this language of “haunting” and “spectral presences,” I still hadn’t considered the possibility that the trauma induced by this fundamentalism was even still with me in a meaningful way.[iii]
Part Three: A Heretic Goes to Seminary
“Whatever you learn, remember the learning must make you more, not less, human.”
- Elie Wiesel
Upon finishing college, I opted for a Presbyterian seminary that was squarely in the middle-class, white, classically liberal tradition, thinking this would give me a chance to breathe new air and dive into new theological waters, and in many ways it did. The great conundrum of most mainline seminaries, though, is that while we’re trained in modern, critical interpretations of scripture and theology, we also know that these helpful new ideas don’t usually translate into pulpits.
To paraphrase Reinhold Niebuhr, ministers educated in mainline seminaries are to be “deceivers yet true” with our congregations – affirming for parishioners the tenets of orthodox Christian belief, even if we don’t believe such ideas to be true in a literal sense.[iv] While we affirm classic Christian symbols that are meaningful to others, we can maintain our intellectual integrity by translating them metaphorically for others who may still believe literally.
While this sounds nice and probably works for some, I now recognize that it never gave me room to heal and to adequately address the deity I so wanted to be dead. For me, keeping hold of the basic orthodox structure of the Christian faith and having to translate it on behalf of church members led to a particularly painful situation – one that most non-recovering fundamentalists likely take for granted.
Ridding myself of fundamentalist beliefs, but still having to speak the language of the wider Christian tradition, meant that I had to keep making room for a God who lived somewhere in this haunting, betwixt and between state. This new theology didn’t fully allow that God to die in the way that I thought had already happened when I left fundamentalism. By not embracing my need to be rid of basic Christian thought and practice, at least for a time of healing, I was returning to that fundamentalist God all over again. Only I was doing so in a classic pattern of an abusive relationship. For vocational reasons, I couldn’t rid myself of God, and I kept going back to “Him.” God would dress up a little nicer, soften “His” voice, and promised to be kinder and less violent - this time.
Still, the trauma related to what that God had threatened – only a matter of years earlier – never left me, and, to this day, still hasn’t.
“If memory is to make a moral difference, we need to locate ourselves within it.”
- Elie Wiesel
What I realize now, years after the fact, is that a recovering fundamentalist’s trauma isn’t healed by simply reading books and writing papers about more liberal conceptions of the Sacred, no matter how intellectually satisfying such knowledge proved to be. Likewise, learning that the theology of my home community was distorted, so to speak, didn’t heal all of the attendant feelings of fear, guilt, and shame. In fact, the process of breaking from my home community carried with it its own measure of those very emotions. Leaving my fundamentalist God meant also leaving the God of my family, of the loving women and men who nurtured me, and of the people whose respect I worked so hard to earn. Simply being in relationship with those loved ones meant that there was ample space for that God to resurrect in a ghostly, haunting way.
I’d like to imagine that one day I could approach Christianity in some way that didn’t also evoke for me the pain that it did in my youth and young adulthood. I find myself wondering what such an experience is like for others who grew up in different branches of Christianity. I’ve studied and worshiped with mainline, liberal, progressive folks for years. I’ve mentally embraced new theologies, liberative theologies… but the infrastructure of my fundamentalist faith remains upright and intact. The edifice has been hollowed out, but like a dilapidated building that still stands, there’s still the lingering presence of that traumatizing God.
Some will ask what to do given all of this, or what can others do if they’re in a similar position? My first suggestion is to see a therapist who understands the abusive aspects of this type of fundamentalist religion. It helps. As one advisor who grew up in a similar environment shared with me once, that specter will likely forever pulsate through my bones. What I can do is decide how to cope with it – not wait for an imaginary future in which that damage is completely gone.
I also find myself returning to the wisdom of Paul Tillich, a mid-twentieth century German-American theologian. Tillich famously stated that even atheists aren’t exactly atheists, given Tillich’s technical definition of God. Our “God,’ according to Tillich, is that which ultimately concerns us. And if a pursuit of truth leads us to reject distorted and traumatic images of God – even the notion of God entirely – then that person is still in a position of pursuing something higher and eternal, i.e., truth. We still are grasped by faith, by something ultimately significant.
Thus, even in my rejection of the fundamentalist God, and even with my difficulty replacing such a deity with something new, I rest in the knowledge that I still have faith… not faith in that God, and not necessarily faith in a new and improved version of God, but faith in the sense of being ultimately concerned with truth and goodness and beauty.
These are the ideas that still guide me. These are the ideas that constitute some sense of ultimacy and meaning for me. I’m comfortable, intellectually, framing these concepts as what is meant when others refer to “God.” However, these are ideas that don’t give false hope or false promise or threats or abuse, and that’s what I need at the time. This is a faith, in other words, that can carry me on my journey of healing and finding mercy and actual love in the Sacred. While it may not work for some, it encourages me, and perhaps it might do the same for someone else.
[i] Marlene Winell, Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving the Fold, 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3.
[iii] This same culture, needless to say, didn’t normalize mental health care and getting therapy to deal with such things.
[iv] Of course in Niebuhr’s essay this isn’t only particular to pastors but to any modern Christian trying to make rational sense of the pre-modern symbols of the Christian faith. I interpreted it through the lens of a pastor as my colleagues and I were in seminary and training for such a vocation. When I originally read the essay, over ten years ago, I would have done so thinking of the conservative Baptist congregations of my denomination.
Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is founding editor of Progressive Southern Theologians. He currently serves as the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture. He is a proud alumnus of the University of Mount Olive and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary at Northwestern University.