Escaping the Spooky Christian Spy God

A Review of Drew Bekius’ book, The Rise and Fall of Faith

I was a lucky teenage Christian, way back in the 1950s, in rural northern Indiana. I was one of three brothers, and our devout Methodist mother bequeathed us her faith. It was never an option not to go to church on Sundays. We said grace before meals and read the Bible. But there was never anything extreme or heavy-handed about this, so I was lucky.

We never know as much about our parents as we would like, so it’s a mystery to me that my mother, born in 1905 in southern Indiana, never drifted into fundamentalism. Moreover, she had great distaste for evangelicalism. Although she never went to college, she had made a great effort to expand her horizons; she was a voracious reader, especially biography and history. Even our minister was surprised when she purchased the 12-Volume Interpreter’s Bible, a product, for the most part, of liberal Protestant scholarship. She wanted to study the Bible, and I too dived right into those books.

I count myself lucky also because, under my mother’s tutelage, I was spared creepier versions of Christianity, those that are full-blown Jesus cults. These espouse personal theism with a vengeance: God is watching every move you make. The folks who have gone over this edge want to know if you have let Jesus into your heart (or “Do you belong to Jesus?”), and can ask, “How is your walk with the Lord going today?” This is a form of arrogance, i.e., “Look at me, I have become the center of the universe. I have God’s undivided attention.”

I first encountered folks of this mindset when I went off to college; these days, of course, they are among the most high-profile Christians. How do people get captured by this brand of piety? What is this level of religious intensity really like? We get a fascinating insider tour of this world in Drew Bekius’ book, The Rise and Fall of Faith: A God-to-Godless Story for Christians and Atheists.

From the perspective of the extreme Jesus believers, Bekius is the worst kind of apostate: he was a minister who abandoned the faith. And there can be no doubt whatever that Bekius was a true Christian. I am commonly told by believers that I never was, even though I had become a minister. I hadn’t truly accepted Jesus into my heart—so they say—and they’re right about that. Bekius, however, was hard-core, as he tells us in the book’s Prologue:

“For nearly twenty years I had lived and breathed nothing but Jesus. From ages fifteen to thirty-three, I followed ‘Him’ as hard as I could with everything I had. The sojourn of faith had consumed my entire life as I devoted every waking breath to the pleasure and service of the King of Kings. And it was more than exciting. It was rich with majesty and wonder. It was intimately personal, adamantly hopeful, and saturated with purpose. Eventually I followed the call of Jesus into pastoral ministry, where I served him tirelessly for twelve years at two churches…” (p. 19)

Naturally, this kind of cult obsession finds its justification in Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:37, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is one those texts that makes Christians feel warm and fuzzy, but that few take seriously. ALL your heart, soul, and mind? Who does that? Unless they retreat to a cloistered life, how would they do that? Who even tries?

Bekius was among those who tried. Skeptics, atheists, and moderate Christians should listen up. It’s important to understand how this religious mentality works, and why it is usually so impervious to critical thinking. These folks know God. Bekius broke away, and we can benefit from paying close attention to his story, especially since he tells it so well. I found this book hard to put down.

Bekius describes at length how three youthful prayers helped to lock in his faith.

• He had attended an “evangelical super-conference” designed to “get teens especially serious about a lifestyle of evangelism—that is to say, about the development of their Jesus excitement…” (p. 28). But he couldn’t imagine promoting Jesus to others—no matter how excited he was. He overcame this reluctance by praying: “If you are God…I dare you to change me.”

• In the sixth-grade Bekius also struggled from crippling depression, and he describes his decision to ask God for relief. “I cried out to him with a prayer that set my body aflame with goose bumps as I told him how much I truly needed him in my life. Now more than ever. With a great gust of Baptist informality, I told God that I was no longer sure anything could heal my depression, but that if there was any hope for healing, it had to be in him.” (p. 37) He reports that God lifted the depression immediately.

• The third big prayer brought relief to his love life! He knew he could never date a non-Christian girl, so God answered his prayer by bringing a girl with whom he was smitten into the Christian fold. And they eventually married.

All this is harmless enough, but there is a sinister side to belief in a god who pays such close attention; even teenage angst doesn’t escape his attention. At one point in the book, Bekius says that he was in love with God (p. 49), but what about folks who aren’t? This was the alarming stuff that flooded his thinking:

“While walking through the hallways to my next class, I would suddenly see all my classmates burst into flame. Or I would be working my cashier job at the grocery store, when all my coworkers and all the shoppers would abruptly catch fire. Or while driving down the street, a small blaze would ignite inside every passing car. At least a couple times a week for months on end, I witnessed this unseen event take place over and over and over again. And regardless of location, the details I envisioned were the same. Everyone around me continued on their way, having no idea they were on fire. But they were. Their entire beings consumed by the flames of hell…”

How can the idea that God burns millions of people be helpful? I’m not sure that this thought slowed him down much, and even at the Moody Bible Institute he assumed that troubling thoughts—e.g., about Bible texts—could be finessed by the professionals: “…if anything seemed particularly confusing or illogical or even offensive, I’d just set it aside. I’d assume that that’s what we had trained pastors and theologians for. I’d assume it made sense to them, that that’s why we had them.”

Bekius was eager to get out into the parish ministry, even with the discipline of the weekly sermon, which took seven to nine hours of preparation: “At times I felt like a sermon-machine, pumping them out, one after another, week after week. But I nonetheless loved it. It was in my soul and had become part of me.” (p. 65) And he felt “like a theological gladiator” as he helped his parishioners study the Bible: “I wanted to equip them for following Jesus more vibrantly.”

The Unraveling

How does someone like this crack? He knows that one of his teachers “had a hard time trying to figure out what the hell was going on inside my head.” (p. 56) And we do too as we watch in awe as his hyper-faith fell apart. He was super busy, embracing his pastoral role with amazing gusto, and yet…this is what he reports:

“I recognized a growing gloom. And it was becoming impossible to overlook. Even as my faith propelled me out further and further into new ministry opportunities and adventures… a looming darkness was gathering. A mounting storm was already seizing upon my robust and indestructible faith. And sure enough, the winds of a tornado were about to tear through, dismantle, and obliterate it…it was silently cracking and crumbling from within. I could save others, but I couldn’t save myself.”

He uses the metaphor of the ‘little desk drawer,’ where he filed away doubts; eventually the drawer got too full. Among other things, the Bible can’t bear the weight that evangelicals assume that it can and must. Unless you are committed to magical thinking, no book can be perfect; but this reality must be denied, at all costs. “Never underestimate,” Bekius warns, “the determined creativity of the evangelical mind.” (p. 94)

In his splendid Chapter Six, “Cracks in the Wall,”(about 25 pages) he highlights ten Bible contradictions that have caused so much anguish. He describes his own ‘determined creativity’ to reconcile the two irreconcilable stories of how Judas died, which he displayed teaching a Bible class. But nobody was buying his tortured apologetic, and one guy in the class suggested that the different authors had indulged in poetic license. The details didn’t even matter. The Bible didn’t have to be flawless. Oops.

“I had an answer in my arsenal, but I then realized it to be pathetically inadequate. So after a brief moment of pause, I transitioned and moved on with the study, my soul defeated. I felt defeated not by the alternative our friend had suggested, but rather defeated by the Bible’s own lack of cohesion.” (p. 100) My kindly mother would have said, “Oh please, get over it. There’s quite enough in the Bible to grab hold of.”

Bear in mind that Bekius was in love with God, and “had lived and breathed nothing but Jesus.” So it’s no surprise that the unraveling threw him into the deepest crisis imaginable; he often worked late at his office, but the isolation brought on torment:

“It started mild yet unshakable, steadily growing in its intensity. By 1 a.m, I would find myself spread across my office floor in petition, as if I had cast myself before a king declaring my surrender to him. An emotional mess and petitioning for some respite from the spiritual agony that had been boiling just beneath the surface of each moment of every day…by 2 a.m., my desperation would escalate so frantically that I’d be curled up in a writhing fetal ball, fingertips clawing at my scalp like some character from any film featuring an asylum.”

He tells the dramatic story of actually confessing his doubts to his pastor support group; he said to them:

“…I am being overwhelmed by my doubts. My faith is being consumed by doubts, completely overtaken. The depth of my doubt is so fundamental, I’m not even sure I believe in the existence of God anymore! My faith is on the brink of complete and total collapse and I don’t know what to do!”

There was a pat on shoulder from one of them, but nothing more: “A whole room full of pastors avoiding eye contact. Zombie stares into outer space and nervous awkward twitching.” And there was no follow-up curiosity. Maybe he had hit too close to home.

• Perhaps he wasn’t alone: “…we practice a faith we don’t believe and preach doctrines that fail to convince us. Because, after all and at the end of the day, we’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed.” (p. 131)

• “I was beginning to wonder if the hard honest truth was that those least likely to truly believe in the Christian god were those who had studied him and sought after him most diligently. In other words, pastors. Maybe you just can’t see the imperfections until you’re close enough to kiss without the makeup on.”

We follow Bekius’ story as he navigated his departure from the church, doing as little damage as possible. It was quite a feat to engineer his escape, probing alternate career options; I give him high marks for courage and integrity, dealing with job and family life as he discovered there is much more to life than obsession with Jesus. He also discovered The Clergy Project, and ended up playing a major role in this support organization for clergy who have left the faith.

It’s not hard to see that Bekius excelled as a pastor, because this is the approach he follows in the book. Just being so truthful is a major asset, but at the end of each chapter he asks for truth and trust from his readers. He poses questions for “everyone,” then for “Christians,” and finally for “atheists and skeptics.” I appreciate his patience and calm willingness to dialogue with the folks in the pews he left behind. He urges people to listen to one another, without judging and attaching labels—while acknowledging that we can hit a brick wall trying: “Now maybe they will eventually give us good personalized reasons to conclude that, yes, in fact, they are evil or stupid or a corrosive waste of time, and if so, we will handle them accordingly.” (p. 188).

For the last three years I have been assembling what I call The Cure-for-Christianity Library© (after Mark Twain’s witticism, “The best cure for Christianity is reading the Bible.”) There are now well more than 200 titles, and quite a few are by clergy who have left religion behind. We do have a story to tell, after seeing the faith close-up “without the makeup on.” We’re fortunate that Bekius has written his story to add to this catalogue. He has given us a gracious, careful, thoughtful—and highly readable—account of his escape from faith.

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

The Cure for Christianity Library can be found here.