I used to care a lot about what people thought of me. Like, a whole lot.
I used to make decisions based on how family and friends would respond. I used to champion causes that I knew were already popular. I used to live with a paralyzing fear of criticism and an addiction to affirmation. I used to use other people’s eyes as my mirrors.
When you live in a small, Southern town, you develop a reputation that likes to follows you around like one of Philip Pullman’s daemons. For most of my time here in Dayton, I was known as a smart and pious conservative Christian with a passion for Jesus, a talent for writing, and the tendency to overachieve. People always said to my parents, “You must be so proud!”
That all started to change about five years ago, when I went through a long and difficult period of religious doubt. Once the young apologist, I suddenly found myself wrestling with the notion that most of my fellow human beings would suffer eternal damnation in hell for being born at the wrong place and the wrong time. Once the cheerleader for young earth creationism, I grew fascinated with the science behind evolutionary theory. Once a hard-core Republican who wanted to “take America back for God,” I became disenchanted with the Bush administration, conservative politics, and the evangelical preoccupation with the culture wars. Once an advocate for unwavering certainty and a commitment to absolute truth, I watched in confusion as all the black and white in my life slowly bled into shades of gray.
The worst part of this struggle with doubt was that it caused me to lose some of my closest friends. They told me that they didn’t see the same light in my eyes, that they didn’t like the questions I was asking, and that they felt I was a bad influence. And so they distanced themselves.
I miss them still, and I pray almost every day for reconciliation.
By the grace of God, I managed to get through the doubts, but as I began to put the pieces of my Christianity back together again (with the help of theologians like NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Scot McKnight, and Clark Pinnock as well as “emerging” voices like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne, and Rob Bell), I quickly came to realize that, in the opinion of a lot of folks from this community, I wasn’t doing it right.
People began to talk.
Some of the rumors were true (“I heard she voted for Barack Obama!”); others were not so true (“I heard she was a Buddhist!”); others were a weird mixture of truth and fiction that either oversimplified or mischaracterized my positions on things (“I heard she doesn’t even believe in the eternal damnation of Muslims!” “I heard she doesn’t go to church!” “I heard she’s writing a book that makes Dayton look bad!”)
Those of you who followed the comments from Friday’s post caught a little glimpse of how talk like this can come back to me. For someone who used to care so much about what other people think, this has been tough, but it’s been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.
With Dan’s help, I’ve learned that confronting difficult issues publically is healthier than wrestling with them secretly. I’ve learned that being a writer means being misinterpreted, and that if I want to avoid criticism my whole life, I’ve chosen the wrong profession! I’ve learned that my parents are more supportive and understanding than I used to give them credit for. I’ve learned that true friends stick around for the good times and the bad, and tolerate one another’s idiosyncrasies.
I’ve learned that the criticisms that hurt me the most are not the ones that have no relation to reality, but the ones that, deep down, I desperately fear are true (“you don’t have any fruit in your life,” “you rebel for the sake of rebelling,” “you don’t care if you destroy other people’s faith”). I’ve learned that there’s something to be learned from every criticism, but that the opinions of others need not define me. I’ve learned that the decision to focus on the negative or the positive resides within me and is within my control. I’ve learned that some of the best, more rewarding positions to take are the ones that are not popular, but that I truly believe are just and right.
In fact, now that I’ve had some time to think about it, becoming the town heretic was one of the best things that ever happened to me! It’s made my faith stronger, my relationships healthier, and my sense of self more secure. I guess being a heretic has its perks.
I wonder how THAT will get spun in the rumor mill! :-)
Have you ever been the subject of gossip and scrutiny? What did you learn from that experience?
Also, if you are a local who has heard rumors about me (or my book) that you aren't sure are true, I want to give you the opportunity to ask me about them directly - either in the comment section or through thecontact page. Ask me anything!