Self-reflection: Black and White thinking

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

The congregants of this fellowship ordered their lives by its events: Sunday morning communion and services that lasted into the afternoon, Wednesday evening Bible study class, groups for youth and married couples to socialize in a righteous setting, and at least once each year, a missionary or prophesy conference during which the leading lights of the faith shared their interpretation 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 a human being, prayerfully divining the word of God, could find important meaning for him/herself and his/her fellow believers. Each of them, through the same means, could test or contest that interpretation.

My father enjoyed arguing interpretations of scripture, I believe, because it reminded him of happy Sundays at his River Forest home, when his mother would host visiting missionaries or preachers and engage in lively conversations about God’s word with them.

My grandmother, Mae Gibson Bendelow, never went to school after she was 14 , but her reading of scripture and its expositions could rival a doctor of divinity’s (see her memoir for proof).

Although I felt growing up that my family’s religion was an embarrassing “freak” religion, the same tenants of the Austin Gospel Hall and other Plymouth Brethren assemblies were found 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, more or less, promulgated 24/7 on the 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 that the best criterion of a belief’s veracity and validity is one’s own felt experience, and not necessarily received, authoritative opinion. Very unscientific. Very prone to wrong conclusions.

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. I accepted, even reveled, in my lack of popularity. By aligning myself with “outsider” groups, I gained a sense of identity and uniqueness.

Certain verses of Jesus’ lent dignity to this loner, marginalized status, and comforted me, 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.”

Out of my evangelical upbringing, I developed a black-and white worldview, premised by Jesus’ “those who are not with me are against me.” I felt calm in my oddness, confident that there would be eternal hellfire for the wicked, the counterpart of eternal salvation for the righteous. 

As an adolescent at OPRFHS, for instance, I embraced fringe political groups like the Christ-loving, conservative John Birch Society, which reinforced my sense of being in the world, but not of the world. I derived great confidence and hope from this group’s simplistic worldview. In it, the universe made sense. 

As late as age 17, I was a chauvinistic American exceptionalist, believing that our country was clearly the greatest of all times and places. I was a fan of Ronald Reagan‘s first presidential run in 1976, and I fantasized that our military, with its advanced MX missiles and neutron bombs, would obliterate the evil communists of China and Russia while sparing their buildings to the USA’S benign influence.

reagan

I knew that it was un-Christian to want to kill, but John Birchers told me that God sanctioned the destruction of atheist communism.

I also recall that at age 13, after Richard Nixon resigned from the White House to avoid impeachment, I spoke up for him at Sunny Valley Camp, where my school had its outdoor education experience. I was the only one to do so. But steeled by feeling alien to the norm for as long as I could remember, I felt comfortable standing out this way. 

And as late as my first year in Chicago, 1985, at age 24, 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, and I felt superior to all the strong young men and women eating fried foods and meat.

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 rigid thinking, I now believe, derives from a strong compulsion to avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, and doubt. It is an addiction to feeling in control, at best an elusive and short-lived sensation.

Now I strive to be loose in my grasp on principles. I know they cannot suffice for long. Lao Tsu puts it best in the Tao te Ching:

2 responses to “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.

    Like

  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!

    Like

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