The subtitle of Matthew Paul Turner’s biographic novel, Churched, reads “One Kids Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess.” Turner takes the reader through a journey that calls to question just what effects the peculiar faith experiences of our childhood have on our future conceptualization of God. The book describes the author’s childhood deeply rooted in the world of Baptist Fundamentalism. That word fundamentalist makes many people cringe, but I can totally relate. I was a fundamentalist too.
When I read the words “I’m hear because Jesus doesn’t like men having long hair, and my hair is long” I knew that I shared more than just a last name with Turner. I doubt the testimony of one can validate the stories of “Churched,” but as far as the fundamentalist upbringing that I experienced, Turner was dead on, and the hair was only the beginning. If reading this book you find it unusual that a pastor would actually craft sermons around the virtues of hairstyles, I can say, the author is not overstating for effect.
As I read stories of Matthew’s youth group going door to door evangelizing, it brought back vivid memories of flooding the grocery stores to hand out tracks, or even sitting in perfect strangers living room with my dad as he explained the path of salvation to anyone willing to listen. Just when I thought our stories couldn’t be more similar, Matthew describes his church’s decision to open its own school to provide an alternative to the secular institute of education. Our paths diverge on this experience and I am still thankful today that my parents chose to continue my education in the public system.
Turner’s story simply unfolds relatively chronologically as he describes various episodes of his life from the time his parents first connected with the Independent Bible Baptist Church. From the moment of this connection, the family’s life merged with the life of IBBC . It is not as if the church consumed the family so much as the family lived through the church, faith was not the most important part of life, it was the very context through which life was lived. This too rings true to my experiences of childhood.
A more disturbing thread that makes its way through the book is the fundamentalist preoccupation with judgment and Hell. But without understanding the depth of belief in the fundamental truth that without Christ, the soul is destined for eternal suffering, one cannot appreciate the ultra-evangelical and morally disciplined behaviors that seem alien to outsiders.
An outsider to this experience may find some of these episodes disturbing and messy. I’m sure that Matthew found them so at some points of his life. I certainly looked to my fundamentalist past with disdain for a season of my life. Turner says “there were times when I envied my father for having the right personality to be Baptist. He was stubborn, could be closed-minded toward anything that wasn’t his idea, and was fully convinced that Pentecostals were a bunch of nut jobs… Dad found something in our church that gave him hope. Regardless of where it comes from, someone else’s hope is difficult to devalue.”
I attended the funeral of my aunt a short while ago, and the pastor of my parent’s church officiated. All of my years of hating church and looking back at my experiences with resentment faded away. Behind the façade of strength and confidence I saw the struggle of faith that plays out in all religious traditions. More so, I saw the hope that only comes from this frailty and understood the role that this Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher played in God’s big plan for spreading that hope. In that moment, I appreciated him, the church, and the messy fundamentalist history that my parents bequeathed to me.
Somehow, after reading this book, I believe that Matthew Turner may share this appreciation with me. If you’ve never experienced fundamentalism, the honest, bittersweet, and sometimes ironic retelling of the episodes of Matthew Turner’s life may help you appreciate how God can works through any holy mess.
Disclaimer: this book was received as a complimentary copy for review by the publisher.