Memoir Self-reflection: Black and White thinking

As suggested elsewhere, a big part of my family’s culture was centered around the Bible-believing Plymouth Brethren. In the Austin neighborhood, on Leamington Avenue, this group of fundamentalist Christians that included my father’s grandparents established this “Gospel Hall” (photo from 2018) in the 1910s.

The congregants of this fellowship ordered their lives by its weekly calendar: The Lord’s Day first, Sunday morning with communion and services lasting into the afternoon, also Sunday evening worship; then Wednesday evening Bible study, where you could read deeply through the Lord’s Word, and finally groups for youth and married couples to socialize in a righteous settings on Friday and Saturdays.

Also, at least once each year, a missionary or prophesy conference, during which the leading lights of this rather exclusive faith shared their interpretations of scripture and reported on their efforts to bring the gospel of Christ to the farthest reaches of the sinful world.

The PBs held to the anti-clerical, democratic doctrine of sola scriptura, or “only the Bible,” which meant that any of the brethren (not the sistren), prayerfully divining the word of God, could find important meaning for himself and then share it with his fellow believers. (In assembly, only men ascended the pulpit to teach or lead services. Women played the pianos and organ, and were in charge of the nursery and Sunday School classes, as well as the sizeable kitchen and pantry on the basement level). If you were a man in this church, you were encouraged to test or contest a proposed interpretation, and if moved to, declare publicly your counter-arguments.

My father enjoyed arguing interpretations of scripture in our home, I believe, because it reminded him of happy Sundays in his River Forest boyhood home, where his mother hosted visiting missionaries and PB preachers and engaged in lively conversations about God’s word with them.

My grandmother, Mae Gibson Bendelow, never went to school after she was 14, and she would never violate the brethren code forbidding women to speak aloud in assembly, but at home, over her Sunday dinner table of fine china and silver, she ran a kind of salon for PB thought. Her vast library of scriptural exegesis and her own study of scripture and its expositions equipped her to dispute with a visiting Plymouth Brethren preachers or missionary. My grandmother’s memoir gives a sense of how much she enjoyed exploring the deeper meanings and connections of her faith.

In my working-class, Irish Catholic neighborhood growing up, I felt embarrassed by my family’s “freak” religion. In shame, I did the exact opposite of what my Sunday School urged me to do, and hid my faith from my peers.

But as extreme as they seemed, the same fundamentalist tenants of my family’s Austin Gospel Hall were in the popular doctrines promulgated by Dwight L. Moody in Chicago at the end of the 19th century.

Dwight L. Moody, popularizer of evangelicalism in America

My grandmother looked forward to the annual missionary conferences at Moody Bible Institute. And even today, one can hear the same faith, somewhat modernized, broadcast 24/7 on radio station WMBI, flagship of the Moody Broadcasting Network

Here I am, unwilling to go to church as a three year old, 1964.

Although I no longer profess a religious faith, my family’s anti-clerical religion left its mark on me. To this day, I feel a bit skeptical of received, authoritative opinion. I think subjectively, seeing better criteria for judging a claim’s veracity or a doctrine’s validity in one’s own embodied experience or judgement. Such a stance is unscientific and very prone to lead one astray. It leads to a diversity of views.

I also inherited, and have mostly outgrown, I hope, a dogmatic, dualistic perspective that flowered in my late adolescent and early adult years. The PB belief that their interpretation of scripture is the only true one, and that the straight and narrow is the correct path that only the elect can walk is something I felt in non-religious areas of my life.

For periods of years in my life I accepted, even reveled, in being a “freak,” or at least unpopular. I aligned myself with “the other,” allied myself with the “outsider,” and thereby felt validated when alone, and a sense of solidarity with other weirdos elsewhere, reviled just like me.

As a boy, I took comfort in certain verses of Jesus, which lent dignity to this loner, marginalized status, like John 15:18 & 19:

“If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

My evangelical upbringing nurtured my black-and white worldview. I heard it implied in Sunday School lessons, and Jesus’ “those who are not with me are against me” confirmed it. So what if I felt isolated from my peers? My faith consoled me in my oddity,

When I turned on my black and white TV in 1968, seven-year-old me learned that on the entire planet, there were but two social systems–the free and prosperous one, such as we had in the USA – and the Communist, atheist, impoverished one. I saw the Vietnam War as a mortal combat between Justice and truth versus totalitarian thuggery. 

Once a week on the nightly news, I saw rows of human silhouettes projected on the screen behind the announcer. Each stood for a dead or wounded soldier in that week’s fighting. Each little human shape had a helmet outlined on its head and held a little rifle. And while they all had the same shape, the left side of the graphic held a larger number. These represented our enemies, and were shaded. On the right side of the screen the brave US troops who fell that week were not shaded, and lighter. I can’t be sure (we didn’t have a color TV set) but I imagine the US soldier figures were rendered in light blue, and the Viet Cong and NVA in, obviously, red.

At age 13, after Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment, I spoke up for him at Sunny Valley Camp, where my school had its outdoor ed experience. I was the only one in the entire class to support Nixon. But having felt alien for as long as I could remember, and charged up by the free coffee from the mess hall, I comfortably stood out from my apolitical peers and liberal instructors. 

My binary view of the world persisted outside of the church, when, as an adolescent, I investigated political thought. I felt drawn to the most extreme right wing voices. In the paleoconservative messages of people like Phyllis Schlafley, I heard a that familiar apocalyptic tone. As a student at OPRFHS I was fascinated by the far-right, Christ-loving, and Communist-hating John Birch Society.

Even though some of their claims were hard to accept (like Eisenhower being a Kremlin puppet, or the UN a Communist play for One-World government), their publications, American Opinion and The Review of the News, reinforced my sense of being in the world, but not of the world. So long as I had hope in the simplistic Bircher conspiracies, I felt assured–the chaotic world made sense, and I breathed easier, imagining myself among the few who saw the world correctly.  


As late as age 17, I was a bigoted American exceptionalist, believing that my country was clearly the greatest of all times and places. I advocated for Ronald Reagan‘s first presidential run in 1976, and privately I fantasized that our advanced MX missiles and neutron bombs would obliterate the communists people of China and Russia once and for all (while sparing their buildings).

I knew that I should love my enemies and that it was un-Christian to want to kill, but John Birchers sanctioned Christians defending His church by any means necessary.

College and a year in western Europe turned my completely politics around, but by 1985, my first year in Chicago, my black and white practice came home to my kitchen, as i adopted for myself the puritanical dietary principles of Mishio Kushi, George Ohsawa, and other proponents of Macrobiotics.

Eating simple meals of brown rice, miso, seaweed, and adzuki beans, I recall a fierce sense of defiant, if lonely, righteousness. There I’d be, eating my simple food in a university cafeteria, my weight barely 150 pounds, feeling superior to all the strong young men and women eating the rich and sickening foods of the standard American diet.

In subsequent years, I have been a zealot for the following causes:

  • Baseball, football, and hockey teams
  • Musical acts (I was a terrible music snob/critic)
  • Anti-American imperialism and Socialism
  • Ecological approaches to living

My family ancestors found in their faith a place to come together with friends, relax in an alcohol-free space, and cultivate certainty in an ambiguous, fearsome world. Their assembly was a shelter from the violence of unchecked capitalism outside church doors–first in Victoria’s UK, then in the states through the Roaring Twenties and Great Depression.

As it was for my ancestors, Church for me as a boy was a place of calm. Yet after I stopped attending services, and in different ways throughout my life, I have consistently sought out the dopamine rush of confirmation bias.

My aspiration now, in my last years, is to grasp principles loosely, knowing they won’t be right for long or in every circumstance. My hope is to one day be a “moderate man,” as described by Lao Tsu in Tao te Ching no. 59:

Out here in the flow of real human life, beyond the false anchors of objective truths, I’ve found real joy in helping my fellow humans, people wonderfully unreducible to zeroes and ones. 

2 responses to “Memoir Self-reflection: Black and White thinking”

  1. Andrew,
    Thank you for sharing. Your entire post made me think of my own journey into, through, and (mostly) out of religion I was immersed in for a bit. The questions our upbringing brought us then – and bring us now – circulate through my brain and heart at times.
    I love the last bit from Lao Tsu. I’ve learned at this point in my life that being “moderate” and simply being on this sphere to be nice to others is a worthy cause. Let’s keep trying.


  2. Thank you, Joy! Now that I’m retired from teaching, I have more time to reflect. I really appreciate your response. Hope all is good with you and your students!


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