Re-thinking Born-Againism

Re-thinking Born-Againism

Black and white line drawing of 'the old-fashioned mourners' bench' with the word REPENTANCE across the bench, 3 mourners kneeling, with a word bubble above their heads reading "O God be merciful to me a SINNER".  In the upper left quadrant of the image, a bible quote, Luke 5.8, "Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance."

Just as I am, without one plea
But that Thy blood was shed for me
And that Thou bid'st me come to Thee
O Lamb of God, I come! I come

Re-thinking Born-Againism

 In my new book, Prisons with Stained Glass Windows, I irreverently contrast the hallmark evangelical experience of being “born again” to an orgasm. I note that evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians hype their process of becoming a “genuine,” “real” Christian as being the equivalent of starting life all over again – a rebirth. They claim the experience itself blows one’s mind, changes one’s heart and transforms the individual from that instant onward. It’s seen as a really big deal and without it, individuals are sentenced to an eternity of godly rejection and torture in hell.

But is it really the big deal it’s claimed to be? I say “no.” In the book I relate my teenage conversion experience, at the altar of my childhood Baptist church, and note that the experience itself was rather “blah.” You’d think, I wrote in the book, that anything as important as being “born again” would be far more than “ho-hum.” Why, for example, was the rebirthing in church so much less of a sensation than an orgasm? It seems it would have been prudent for God to dress up this all-important moment so it would stand out as something more important and memorable than an every-day climax!

“Over time,” I recalled in the book, “I came to the conclusion that the so-described magnificent conversion experience was actually a self-manufactured thing; an orgasm is the ‘real deal!’ And orgasms are repeatable!”

Was my born-again experience emotionless? No, but those emotions I did sense were related to two factors: (1) The excitement of the moment. I had walked to the front of the church during the traditional “altar call” following the sermon and being the sole object of gaze for the hundred or so people in the sanctuary is a somewhat scary sensation. The term “stage fright” comes to mind. These feelings had nothing to do with being redeemed in the eyes of God, however. (2) There was a personal awareness throughout this flood of thoughts and feelings that what I was doing was what I was supposed to do and that all those people watching me were approving of my actions. From my earliest days I was continually told that being born again was the acme of life’s accomplishments; “don’t put it off because you might die tonight in your sleep and then it’ll be too late,” I was coldly warned, repeatedly. So, what I was feeling down there at the altar was not God washing away my alleged sins, it was a sense of accomplishing something that was expected of me.

Looking back now at that moment more than 60 years ago, I wish I would have chosen an orgasm over the conversion!

Right now, I’m reading a great book by former, longtime Southern Baptist minister Tim Sledge — Four Disturbing Questions with One Simple Answer: Breaking the Spell of Christian Belief. The first of his four disturbing questions relates specifically to this discussion about the conversion experience. “Christianity claims to be energized by God’s supernatural power and promises to connect you as a believer with this supernatural power,” Sledge writes. “It promises to make you a new person and to enable you to bear the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, and more. Unfortunately, in real life, the results of faith in Jesus can be hit or miss.”

This observation brings Sledge to his first “Disturbing” question — “Why does faith in the resurrected, empowering Jesus generate such inconsistent results?”

While reading that question, my mind flashed back to my youthful experiences in the First Baptist Church of Albany, Oregon. The congregation was filled with mostly good, caring, loving folks but I was aware that some of these were considered to be “better Christians” than others. Judgmentalism is rampant in evangelical churches, it seems, and that observation is not just my own. As I communicate with those who have left conservative Christianity for good — as did career minister Tim Sledge — I hear judgmentalism listed as one of the top reasons for their walking out the church door. The truth is, Sledge is correct. Conversion does produce inconsistent results and that fact alone is reason enough to question claims made for it.

Sledge quotes one of his former parishioners who nicely summarizes my thoughts about Christian conversion: “What I found to be true was that ‘old things’ had NOT passed away and ‘all things’ had NOT become new. It was the same old, same old. Unless, of course, I pretended and continued with a fake smile!”

To summarize, then, I have to repeat that the salvation experience is not what it’s cracked up to be. To be fair, for a small minority of Christians, conversion does bring about positive change. But for the vast majority, the experience is a bland artifact from their past that can now be seen as a rash decision that produced mediocre results. Like the parishioner quoted by Sledge, many continue to pretend they’ve had an earth-shaking experience but the reality is that being born again is purely smoke and mirrors.

Thankfully, there are spiritual alternatives that do, indeed, result in positive, consistent outcomes but one is not likely to encounter them during the revival service altar call.

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