I had Cheryl Ramurath contact me from Joburg recently, and after reading the book she asked to interview me with the view to seeing it published somewhere in the near future. In the meantime I thought I would post it here for those of you who are interested. It’s a bit long so I’m posting it in two halves, but I hope in here you find some answers to your own questions. This is part 1:
You’ve taken a courageous approach to telling ‘the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth’ of your spiritual journey and experience with the Western church. What motivated you to write the book; when did you start and how long did it take?
The simple answer is that I began writing it properly when I left the church and it took me about 18 months, although, I had been collecting ideas as I went along so it wasn’t work done from scratch. I think it rarely is for autobiographical work.
The motivations for writing were pretty diverse.
Firstly, I wanted catharsis. I was fired from the last church I worked at and fortunately I was seeing a spiritual director at the time who was on hand to help me work through what happened. In our conversations on his well worn couches it became clear that there was a history of hurt to my time with church. He suggested that I take the time to write that story down to externalise it, and then be able to see it for what it was. In a real sense, you’re eavesdropping on my therapy sessions, but I like that this is what the book ended up being. I could have edited it to make it sound like I had all the answers, but the confusion felt more honest.
That said, I also wanted people to read and identify their own stories in mine. I have met too many people with similar stories who feel like they’re going crazy, often because that’s what they’re told. It’s very hard to acknowledge your own painful journey with church because it means being critical of the holes in the institution. Such people repress the things they know to be true to avoid conflict. Of course, this stuff usually comes to a head in uglier and more destructive ways in the future. I hope that my story gives people a feeling of safety in numbers. Perhaps as a part of this people would challenge their own churches in the areas where they are hurting people by obsessing about all the wrong things. On the other hand maybe it would give these individuals the peace of mind to finally move on.
I suppose I also had in mind that I wanted people who have left church altogether to rethink things, and realise that what they are actually running from is probably just ‘church done badly’, not ‘Church’ itself. I still think church is the best idea we have, and that’s why I think it’s so important to get it right.
My overall impression of the work is that by daring to be honest in your own journey, you succeed in giving the reader space to acknowledge those things that have been felt but are difficult to articulate. What intrigued me throughout the book was your passion for ‘The Great Task’. I wondered during each chapter how your experiences (which were negative mostly) of institutional church, and its leadership, affected your personal relationship with God?
I ask this question because you mention how you once heard God clearly during a difficult relationship and you touch on aspects of your connection with him, which you admit throughout the book is mysterious and not something that can really be neatly tied up and presented as “this is how I get with God”. I’d be interested to know how your relationship with Him has matured over the years and whether you feel as if everything you have experienced has eventually helped you connect with Him in more real ways?
I suppose the growth I’ve experienced has been slightly different to the average journey. I have had to aggressively ‘own’ my faith. I didn’t grow up in a family who went to church, nor did I attend from a young age. I had very few real mentors, and so I really had to learn to rely on my own connection with God. It was far from easy, but I suppose it did gift me with the ability to see things as they are, because I had no vested interest in the status quo. This goes not only for the institutional stuff, but also for my own relating to God in that if it didn’t work, I tried something else. For example, for a while I was guilt tripped into having traditional ‘quiet times’ until I realised I connected with God more meaningfully on a walk… so I did that instead.
I think there has been a lot of movement over time through the normal stages. I started out with the expected spiritual naiveté, which soon became over zealous religiosity and arrogant bigotry, mostly because it impressed the rest of the church. But at some stage (probably around the ’3 Guides’ chapter in the book) things turned and I began to unlearn my over simplistic views of God, and embrace uncertainty as an old friend. I was now relating to God on my own terms and for the sheer joy of it, not to impress. The angry and fearful edge fell away too, and, as Rob Bell often says, “I became less identified by the things I stood against, and more for the things I stood for”.
I feel a lot more free today in all areas. I still read the bible, obviously, but I see things in it very differently because I’m not reading to support preconceived ideas. I still pray, but not in such a ‘superstitious’ way. I am constantly ‘taking steps back’ too, in order to see the bigger picture. I don’t think standing too close to small ideas about life is useful; it’s how fanatics and bigots thrive. So now I get stuck into history and the science of the world, and the universe beyond, because by seeing bigger and bigger parts of the story I get a bigger and bigger sense of what He’s doing, and how I can get stuck in.
I think the reason that some people might be ‘afraid’ of reading your book, or might dismiss it as “heretical” literature, is because you offer something dangerous: freedom. We have been brought up with rules, with the ‘right way of doing things’.
So anytime anything threatens to ‘rock the boat’, as it were, people don’t know how to handle it. In your book, you say a lot of things about your experience with ‘institutional’ church, which I think most people experience, but are either too scared to say it – or don’t know how to put into words yet (as you mention in your writing a lot).
Do you think that, in some ways, the current model of church is preventing people from reaching spiritual maturity?
Good question. I suppose it was one of my biggest frustrations when working as a Pastor: that people didn’t want to ‘own’ their faith. Attending church, listening to sermons, and singing along with gusto seemed enough for most. They had none of their own opinions, they had just copied and pasted the dominant voice from within their church. To this day it is one of my pet peeves hearing Christians overusing the phrase, “My Pastor says…” in conversation.
But, that said, was it ever any different? I wonder how many people through history have sought for themselves, and asked the dangerous and liberating questions? Have the masses always just attended church, and is that as far as they are willing to go? The leadership, of any tradition, have rarely encouraged independent thought because the outcome is always uncertain, and that’s a threat to the status quo.
I can’t get away from the fact that Jesus seemed to be intent on getting people to think for themselves though. I, for one, and I’m sure it’s the same for you, can never go back. I know too much now, and I will go around and break as many others out as possible. I still have to be sensitive in the way that I do it though. Sitting over coffee with someone I have to feel out how much they’re ready for, because there are some rough times ahead for those who begin to ask for themselves, and they have to have the faith to deal with it.
So, yes, I think threatened church leadership has, and likely always will, discourage independent thought, and this can severely stifle spiritual growth. That’s why I think my job is important, because there has to be a way out for those who are brave and ready.
I’m going to be very honest and say that I haven’t dealt with this issue yet. It’s still very much in process and I believe it takes time to do well. That said there are some things which have helped.
I deliberately took some time after leaving my last church to work through some of my own issues. The problem with leaving church is that you can be quite black and white about it. You can blame the ‘big bad institution’ for everything, whilst letting yourself off the hook completely. But my own story was riddled with mistakes I had made, and it was important to take the space to work out where I was to blame, and where there were legitimate institutional problems. It takes time and distance to sort the wood for the trees on this one, but it’s essential if you intend to move forward, and not just run away from it all.
The inevitable happened though, and I quickly felt guilty for not attending some kind of church in the meantime. I had to learn to be kinder on myself and not rush because there is a certain organic process to the big picture story which is unfolding. I really believe that what is happening with my own story is indicative of a much bigger trend happening all over the Western Church. The old is showing some major holes, but the new is not yet formed in this latest movement of the church’s historical growth. We are in some major liminal space. That means that I won’t necessarily find some sort of church context to belong to, because it may not yet exist, and jumping back a step out of guilt is not growth. I have been actively looking, but haven’t yet found a group of people wanting to follow God with similar views on money, community, collective responsibility, cosmology etc etc.
Even the ‘alternative’ house church groups I have visited seem to be an anemic version of ‘big church’, and there is no point in rushing my own situation by joining “anything I can find” to alleviate false guilt, because I will quickly be frustrated. This doesn’t mean I’m not spending a great deal of time talking to people about what could work now, and exploring ideas and building relationships; but it takes guts to stay in that space and not rush to create or join something just to fill a gap.
I would suggest finding people who see what you see. Talk to them. Share stories. You will quickly discover that there is a bigger thing going on here. You have to share this journey too because otherwise you are in danger of just being reactionary. Look for the commonalities with your story and others; it will help you sift the macro picture from your own petty hurts. Deal with your personal wounds with a good spiritual director, and when you’re making headway, take a look at the big picture and what is happening with the western church around the world. Read authors from other streams. Read history. Get a bigger, broader cosmology. Use your new found freedom to expand your vision and see what God is up to globally. It will help you decide what to do next.
I really can’t give specific answers as to what people should do because I think there are as many answers as there are contexts. Some will choose to stay in their church and challenge from the inside. I know some who are starting their own cell groups within churches to explore this stuff. Some leave and join smaller house churches, or ‘fresh expression’ type groups. Some walk away and decide to simply go it alone (certainly not my recommendation). The fact is we are all still fumbling along in the dark here, but if we do it together we will discover the next mode in time. It will take lots of patience and personal security, but I can’t see a short cut.
(On a side note: we have to remember that whatever we move into will also not be “the answer”, it’s only the next step in a long evolution.)
To be continued…