I’m back!

Well, it’s been months since I’ve had a chance to sit down at the computer and even log in, but my “season of life” known as “kids home from summer vacation” is over for the year, and just like that I can hear myself think long enough to string together a complete sentence again! My blog is pretty dusty- the biographies that I’ve written so far are out of date now (John-David is engaged, whaaaat?!), and I feel like I’ve barely even gotten started on everything I want to cover- but rest assured my hypothetical readers, I’m about to start writing again. Stay tuned for:

-Updated existing biographies, plus new biographies (I’m currently working on Jessa!)

-Counting On Season 8 episode recaps

-Research into the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP)

In the meantime, thanks for visiting!

The Illusion of Choice: A Fear-Based Faith

When I started to work on the biography section of this site, I was surprised to find a quote from Jim Bob Duggar that I could actually relate to. In the book The Duggars: 20 and Counting!: Raising One of America’s Largest Families- How They Do It, Jim Bob says, “I was born on a Sunday in 1965, and the next Sunday I was in church.” Okay, so I was born on a Thursday, and it definitely wasn’t in 1965, so in that our stories differ. But my parents did bring me to church from the very beginning, which is where many of my first memories took place.

A lot of it has been lost to childhood amnesia, so my memories before the age of six or so are rather vague. I remember pictures of sheep, dressing up in uncomfortable clothes (I hated wearing tights!), and playing the part of Mary in a preschool rendition of the nativity scene before I recall actually listening to the lessons I was being taught, yet they were repeated so frequently that all of the most well-known Bible stories felt like they had come preloaded onto my brain at birth. As far as I was concerned, they were just a part of history, and I was far too busy with my life listening to cool Steve Green music and watching The Donut Man on VHS to give any thought to the boring past.

That changed when I was close to seven years old, and began to realize that my parents had expectations for me beyond the absolute obedience they had required from day one. As my Sunday School lessons gradually became more grim (a little less “Noah’s Ark” and a lot more focus on Jesus’ crucifixion, graphic details and all), it dawned on me that they were waiting for me to make a choice. I knew I was supposed to feel lucky, for being born into such a devout Christian family and having all of the “right” answers already there in front of me, but instead I was scared.

Although based on the information I was presented with, becoming a Christian was the obvious way to go- after all, who in their right mind would pass up a chance to go to heaven, especially when the alternative is hell?- what bothered me is that I didn’t really “feel” anything. At that point I was a voracious reader, and a lot of the books that were available at home had been hand-picked by my mother, who must have spent hundreds of dollars on catalog orders from Christian booksellers over the years. The characters in the books I read- even the ones who experienced doubt- all seemed so much more certain in their faith than I ever was, and not for lack of trying. In addition to my participation in church, which was a given, I earnestly read my children’s study Bible, memorized verses, thoughtfully completed my devotions (supplied by my parents), tried my best to be obedient, sung hymns and worship songs with enthusiasm, and above all I prayed.

I prayed with the innocence of a child, initially thinking that it would be easy to communicate with God, who I had been taught was everywhere, even inside my mind! But when I tried to speak to him- first silently, and then eventually out loud as well “just to be sure”- all I heard in response was silence, and that made me feel a little nervous. Was there something wrong with me? I reassured my seven-year-old self that God probably had more important things to do than directly respond to prayers from a beginner, but as I kept trying and still didn’t receive even the slightest indication that anyone up there was listening, I continued to feel uneasy.

Meanwhile, between Sunday school, church service, and the strict religious environment that my parents had carefully cultivated at home, I was hearing left and right that if I did not “ask Jesus into my heart” before I died, I would spend an eternity burning in hell. I wasn’t allowed to watch cable television because my parents didn’t want me to be exposed to the evils of the secular world, but I WAS allowed to listen to and read about Satan, hell, and eternal damnation. I didn’t know why God wasn’t answering my prayers, but I did know that hell was a terrible place that I wanted to avoid at all costs.

The problem was, even though I knew what I needed to do in order to be “saved” from the fiery fate that I had been taught I deserved just for being born, I felt uncomfortable committing my soul to a God who I still hadn’t personally experienced. From what I had learned at church, I knew that I would need to recite the “sinner’s prayer” in order to receive the “gift of life” (or in other words, to avoid being burned alive for all of eternity), but I also knew that my prayer needed to be sincere, and that’s where I was worried. As much as I wanted to genuinely believe in the message that had always been presented to me as the absolute truth, and as much as I wanted to perform the logical next step and officially become a Christian, the continued silence from God made me worry that to go any further without some sort of sign would make me a fraud- and I would end up getting sent to hell anyway. Yes, I was still seven.

The summer before third grade, my family moved for the seventh time since I had been born (relocating about 500 miles away, to a suburban town we had lived in several years before), and we settled back into the familiar-to-them church community just in time for me to participate in the church’s traditional rite of passage for rising third graders. I had probably only been a member of the Sunday School class for a few weeks before I was lined up in front of the congregation with a bunch of kids who I was supposed to remember but didn’t, and presented with a fancy (to me) study Bible as a symbol of my growing spiritual responsibility. If it hadn’t been clear already, I was now more aware than ever that I was expected to make a declaration of faith, and soon.

Ultimately, what I thought was logic at the time won out- even though I hadn’t ever felt God for myself, I knew (based on everything that I had been taught) that I was living in his universe, so if he hadn’t bothered with my prayers yet, it was up to me to have faith that someday he would. Given the options- heaven or hell- the obvious choice was to play by the good guy’s rules, and while I still worried that my empty acceptance of this “truth” wouldn’t be enough, I figured that it was in my best interest to make the most sincere attempt at faith that I could, so that when Judgement Day rolled around, God would see my effort and maybe show me mercy.

When I was about eight years old, I earnestly recited the sinner’s prayer privately at home, fully believing that I was making a life-or-death decision. Even though I knew that telling others was a necessary step in taking on my new identity as a Christian, I dreaded the obligatory conversation with my parents, who always treated any situation involving emotions with a weird mix of awkwardness and disdain. Talking to them about something that I felt was a personal matter of the heart would undoubtedly be uncomfortable, because I knew that they would react with the fake affection that they pulled out when they knew they absolutely had to acknowledge a significant milestone. And while it did feel wrong to celebrate what was supposed to be such a profound moment with two people who otherwise couldn’t have cared less about me as a person, ultimately my most vivid memory of the event was just the relief of getting it over with.

But even though I had checked off all the boxes and my name was now supposedly written in the Book of Life, I still experienced intense doubt, especially when it came to my salvation. I thought that officially becoming a Christian would ease my fear about my fate in the afterlife, but now that I had crossed over the threshold and still didn’t feel any different, I was convinced that there was something wrong with me. I blamed myself for not having enough faith- a belief that was reinforced by what I was taught about doubt at church- and I sent up many desperate, pleading prayers to the God who was supposed to make me feel complete. I had been taught that without his love, I would never feel whole, and I did truly feel empty- but that probably had more to do with being raised by cold, authoritarian parents than being ignored by their God.

By the time I was nine years old, I had become so consumed with anxiety about hell and my salvation that I began to exhibit my first symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I was formally diagnosed with as an adult. Although my illness presents itself in a much different manner today, my first experience with obsessive thinking came from the fear that despite all of my exhaustive efforts to be a good Christian, my thoughts would end up betraying me. I was so terrified of the possibility that I would accidentally allow my mind to slip into sin that I became convinced that the only way to prevent that from happening was to repeat the phrase “I don’t like Satan” over and over again in my mind. My original idea was to say “I hate Satan,” but I changed the wording out of the fear that I would be condemned for hating even the devil himself. You can read more about scrupulosity, the form of OCD involving religious or moral obsessions, here, although I hope to eventually address the topic in greater depth myself.

Looking back on my childhood as an adult who has now had years of freedom to learn about about the world around me, it is so clear to me that what I experienced was religious indoctrination, although I had virtually no frame of reference to recognize what was happening at the time. Jean Piaget, a psychologist who is known as a pioneer in the study of child development for his theory of cognitive development, describes the way humans acquire, construct, and use knowledge in four stages. According to his theory, children are first able to use logic in the concrete operational stage, which begins around age seven. Well, by that point I had already been educated by my Christian parents and their Christian church for years, and despite my public school attendance (which my parents worked furiously to counteract every second I was at home), the only truth I ever really knew at that age was that Christianity was the one religion that had all of the “right” answers.

And as far as the capacity for abstract thought goes, which is necessary to fully grasp religious and spiritual concepts, metaphors, and symbols, Piaget’s theory asserts that this emerges only in the formal operational stage, which is the final stage of cognitive development that begins around age 12. I’m not going to say that I didn’t at least somewhat understand the intended metaphorical meaning of some of the most basic teachings of Christianity- for example, when I became a Christian at age eight, I understood that the dry crackers and grape juice that we solemnly consumed once a month weren’t actually the body and blood of Christ- but mostly because all of these metaphors had been explained repeatedly to me for as long as I could remember, not necessarily because I could grasp these concepts on my own. I remember being amazed by Jesus’ parables when I was first introduced to them in Sunday School, because I thought it was just so clever that Jesus could tell a story about lost sheep and turn it into a profound lesson about redemption- with such wisdom, surely he must have been divine!

It took me a really long time to learn how to think for myself, because I had been so conditioned to believe that my parents’ religion was the only answer to all of life’s questions. I don’t want to go so far as to say that parents shouldn’t teach their children anything about their personal beliefs, because I don’t think that’s realistic. On the other hand, I do believe that it is wrong to teach children that their parents’ religion is the absolute truth, and that to choose any other path will result in eternal damnation.

I don’t necessarily think that parents who do this are all evil dictators who sit around plotting how to control their children’s lives, but at the same time, many parents, like the Duggars, do take their efforts to provide spiritual guidance for their children to unhealthy extremes- and based on my own experience, I can at least somewhat understand why. If I truly believed that all non-Christians will go to hell when they die, I could see how the fear that my children might end up there would motivate me to do everything in my power to secure their salvation as soon as possible. I remember worrying about the fate of my friends from school, and as a parent now I can imagine how the fear for your own child would be exponentially worse. Why risk exposing your child to an “incorrect” belief system when you already have the knowledge that will save their soul? I see many parents patting themselves on the back for raising their children without any “worldly” influences, but there is nothing honorable about taking away a person’s choice to explore the rich landscape of human religion and spirituality for themselves.

Even though my parents were certainly strict in their own right, I’m well aware that their (still not great) approach to godly parenting was far less restrictive than what we know about Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar’s methodology. I may have been somewhat of a social outcast due to my frumpy appearance and complete cultural naiveté, but my public school education gave me access to the outside world that the Duggar children have never had. Having been raised in such a sheltered environment where the only available educational material is hopelessly inadequate, and access to the open Internet is heavily monitored and restricted, it is no wonder that so far, all of the adult Duggar children appear to have taken on their parents’ core beliefs as their own. Here are several of their testimonies, which all have elements that remind me of what seems like another lifetime:

 

Jill (Duggar) Dillard

On the “About Us” page of the Dillard family website, Jill tells readers that she became a Christian at the age of 12, and she cites uncertainty about her fate after death as a significant factor in her decision. In her prayer, she specifically asked God to take her to heaven when she dies, which suggests that at least on some level, she was motivated by fear.

Jinger (Duggar) Vuolo

In a videotaped interview between Jinger and her brother-in-law, Ben Seewald, she tells viewers that at the age of six, she “realized” that she had a sinful nature and was in need of a savior, which prompted her to imitate her siblings’ prayers even though she admits that her faith was not genuine. When she was 14, she worried that her sins would prevent her from “getting to heaven,” and in her self-described brokenness, she prayed for forgiveness.

Joy-Anna (Duggar) Forsyth

Although to my knowledge, Joy-Anna has not shared her testimony with the public, at the rehearsal dinner before her brother Joseph’s wedding last year, she talked about her struggle to take on her parents’ faith during her teen years. Considering Joy-Anna’s dramatic transformation from tomboy to teenage bride and her tendency to echo her parents’ ultra-conservative beliefs so far as an adult, it’s pretty safe to say that whatever doubts she had, her parents’ expectations won out.

 

I don’t include these testimonies to mock or belittle the Duggars listed above, but just to point out that although they have obviously made the choice as adults to continue following their parents’ faith, their experience has undoubtedly been rooted in obedience and fear. Yes, many of the beliefs that the adult Duggar children (and their spouses) have publicly expressed are repulsive, and I don’t think the childhood conditioning they endured should necessarily give them a free pass. However, I do at least somewhat understand where they are coming from, and when I think about young Jill, Jinger, or Joy having some of the same fears as I did, it’s a little easier to see them as human beings rather than characters on a TV screen.

 

In my next post, I plan to talk about experiencing Christianity as an adolescent, specifically as a young girl being raised as a “daughter of Christ.” In the meantime, feel free to share your own story in the comments below.

 

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Growing up Christian: Losing my faith as told through books

From a very young age, I have been an avid reader, and although my love of reading can be partially credited to encouragement from my parents, at some point I looked back on my childhood and realized that despite having thought that learning was encouraged in my home, that really was only true to a certain point. I read all the time, we had tons of books in our house, and we visited the library frequently- but I was only allowed to read material that met my mother’s strict approval, and as I grew older, it began to dawn on me that there was a whole world out there beyond what I had been allowed access to. It’s a little saddening (and also cringe-inducing!) to go through this list and remember just how sheltered I used to be, but I still find it interesting to reflect on my literary journey and watch my spirituality evolve over the years. Here are some of the Christian books I read as I was growing up:

 

The Three Cousins Detective Club series by Elspeth Campbell Murphy

I had zero memory of this series until I started Googling and unexpectedly recognized a few of the covers. Seeing the author’s name brought up the memory of writing some of her book titles on a reading list- possibly for a summer reading program, but just as likely one of the many personal lists I kept as a kid. I would have read these when I was about 5-6, so it’s no wonder that I can’t really remember anything about the books, but a description I found online tells me they include lessons about Proverbs, the Ten Commandments, and the Fruit of the Spirit- in other words, it’s not exactly a shocker that these were floating around in my house.


The Mandie series by Lois Gladys Leppard

Even just looking at pictures of the book covers from this series gave me an all-too-familiar headache, because apparently my mind still associates these books with the impatience I felt towards the boring main character. I read quite a few of the 40 books in the series (I was reading these in the mid to late 90s, so the last several were published well after I lost interest) and multiple times at that, yet I can’t really remember anything about the series other than the headache.

The Young Women of Faith: Lily series by Nancy Rue

This series from ZonderKidz (the children’s division of Christian publisher Zondervan) was aimed at pre-teen girls, in case it wasn’t obvious from the “funky” covers that definitely succeeded in catching my eye when I was that age. I didn’t read all of them because they were fairly new at the time, and my church library only had the first few. When I looked up the series to refresh my memory, I was surprised to learn that each book also has a non-fiction companion that explains the lesson the book was supposed to have taught you- but somehow I don’t think the extra reading would have told me anything I hadn’t learned already in a Sunday school lesson.

The Christian Heroes: Then & Now series by Janet Benge

I have always had an interest in history, and as a kid I enjoyed that aspect of this non-fiction series, although obviously, that’s not all I was supposed to be getting out of these books. For awhile, my mother used to give me a new biography from this series every Sunday, and I would usually be done with it by the end of the day (if not by the end of church). I envied the missionaries who were so certain in their faith that they devoted their entire lives to sharing it with others, and I used to wish I felt the same way. Some of my favorites: Gladys Aylward: The Adventure of a LifetimeAmy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems (pictured above), and Corrie Ten Boom: Keeper of the Angels’ Den.

The Trailblazers series by Dave and Neta Jackson

This was another series about Christian missionaries that we had on our bookshelf, and from what I remember it was a little more fictionalized than the biographical series listed above. I enjoyed these books too, partially because I could get away with reading them at church, and the adventures that played out on the page were always far more interesting than the droning sermon that was going on in the background. Interestingly, the series’ take on Amy Carmichael (The Hidden Jewel, pictured above) was one of my favorites, and looking back I have to wonder if my interest in this particular missionary was related not to her work, but instead a subconscious curiosity towards some of the beliefs of the people she was trying to convert.

The Brio Girls series created by Lissa Halls Johnson

I had to link to Amazon because apparently this series is so obscure that it doesn’t even have a complete Goodreads page- but I can’t be the only one who remembers these literary masterpieces from Focus on the Family! They were a companion to Brio magazine, which was basically the Christian, “good girl” version of Seventeen magazine, and if there was ever the slightest doubt as to the type of young woman who my parents expected me to be, I had the Brio gold standard to remind me. Interestingly, the creator of the series, Lissa Halls Johnson, only wrote 5 of its 12 books- I wonder if that’s because even she got bored by these sermons in chapter book form.

The Jennie McGrady Mysteries series by Patricia H. Rushford

Once upon a lifetime ago I had the whole series in a boxed set- if I remember correctly, it was three boxes with five books each. I really don’t remember the books being too preachy, and even though I’m sure there’s plenty that would make me roll my eyes these days (which can probably be said for a lot of young adult fiction), the overarching “is her father dead or alive?!” plot held my interest, and with a little suspension of disbelief the individual mysteries were highly entertaining for my not-allowed-to-watch-television younger self.

The Cooper Kids Adventures series by Frank Peretti

Out of all the Christian books I read growing up, the one pictured above, Escape from the Island of Aquarius, is among the top few that affected me the most. I did read a few of the other Cooper Kids books- my small church library didn’t have the entire series- but my memory of the first time I read this particular title is quite vivid, and was probably the most alert I had ever been in the middle of a church sermon. I was part horrified- in the context of what I was being taught around the same time about hell, the plot was terrifying- but also part fascinated. I’ll give him credit, Frank Peretti knows how to tell a good story, especially for a reader who shares the Christian perspective that provides the basis for his writing. Reading this book sparked my lifelong interest in the supernatural, and although it also contributed to my fear, ultimately my strong emotional response planted a lot of questions that would eventually help me see the world from a much grander perspective later on- even if that’s probably not what the author intended.

The Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis

I don’t think any list of Christian children’s fiction would be complete without mentioning this classic series. The picture above shows the same cover art from the boxed set I used to own, which brings the memories flooding back- along with images and emotions from my childhood nightmares about the White Witch, which feel important even though I don’t know why. In spite of these negative associations, and in spite of the fact that I felt a little bamboozled when I realized that the series was chock-full of religious symbolism, I still feel a little bit nostalgic towards this series because its most well-known installment, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, was just as familiar to me as some Bible stories. My brothers and I watched this movie version of the book I don’t know how many times, which in retrospect is probably where some of my nightmares came from. My favorite book from the series, however, was The Magician’s Nephew, which gave my soul another tiny nudge with its description of “The Wood Between the Worlds.” Something about this concept resonated with me, and I always wished that Lewis hadn’t limited this part of the story to just one book.

The Christy Miller series by Robin Jones Gunn

This series was another top influencer, and not necessarily in a good way. Christy was the godly girl I knew I should have been- sure, she had her “tough decision” teen moments that were clearly included to teach a certain lesson, but ultimately she was a good Christian girl who was eventually rewarded with a perfect, godly, surfer husband. Reading about Christy formed so many unrealistic expectations in my mind of what my life “should” look like, and often made me feel “less than” for not being as dedicated as her in my own attempt at faith. The series, not surprisingly, also sends some damaging messages about purity, and having read it at such a formative time, it directly contributed to the low sense of self-worth that I struggled with as an adolescent girl. Did I enjoy the books when I read them? Yes, maybe because their fairy tale quality gave me a sense of escapism from a not-so-fairy-tale life. But when I look back, I wish I had realized that I didn’t need a Todd, and that I would end up being glad that I wasn’t a Christy.

The Sierra Jensen series, also by Robin Jones Gunn

The “Sierra Jensen” series is a spinoff of Robin Jones Gunn’s Christy Miller series, and as far as entertainment value goes, as a teen I thought it was much better. Sierra was spunkier than Christy, she wore cooler clothes, and she worked at a bakery! Ever time I read one of these books I craved cinnamon rolls. But ultimately, the same underlying themes from “Christy Miller” were present in “Sierra Jensen,” and perhaps to an even greater degree. There was a whole book about sexual purity (“With This Ring“), and yes, it includes a full-blown explanation of the “wrapped present” metaphor. Gunn may have succeeded at creating a more relatable character this time around, but it’s just a prettier package for the same ugly message.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl series by Melody Carlson

I only read the “Caitlin” and “Chloe” installments of this series, but that was more than enough to make it clear that whether I was a straitlaced believer like Caitlin, or a “punk” with a a dark side like Chloe, the only way I would ever feel whole was to follow this “right” way to believe. I actually did strongly relate to Chloe because I read these books at a time when my own life felt pretty dark, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t duplicate her enthusiasm for worshipping a god whose presence I didn’t feel. As a teen, I was bummed that Chloe’s part of the series only included four books, because I really wanted to see how her story played out with her more free-spirited approach to faith (I could totally see her becoming “spiritual but not religious” later on down the road).

The Left Behind: The Kids series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

This was another church library find, and just like Frank Peretti’s Cooper Kids Adventures series, these books used fear to get readers hooked- and boy, did it work on me. I can’t remember if I had been introduced to the book of Revelation before then, but I definitely studied it in depth (as much as I could with the resources available to me) after beginning this series, which is the children’s version of the well-known Left Behind series for adults. I was TERRIFIED at the prospect of being “left behind,” and I was almost certain that I would be, because no matter how hard I tried over the years to make my faith “real,” I could never feel anything. I read probably the first half of the books with a sort of morbid fascination, but I never bothered to find out how the young characters’ stories ended before moving onto the adult version as a teen, which I did read in its entirety.

The Left Behind series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye

I mostly said it above, but after reading this series, it’s no wonder that I continue to have apocalypse-themed nightmares over ten years since I finished the last book. Obviously the fictional plots weren’t exactly solid Biblical doctrine, but that didn’t stop me from worrying how I would hold up in the Tribulation, which I felt doomed to endure. I looked forward to the last installment because I knew it would end in heaven, but I was surprised to realize that I didn’t actually find this Biblical interpretation of the afterlife very appealing. It was the first time that it dawned on me that an eternity of worshipping the Christian version of god sounded more like my idea of hell.

Karen Kingsbury

Oh, Karen Kingsbury…I’m not going to list a specific series because I read so many of her books, and a good number of them took place in the same “world.” She’s the Danielle Steel of Christian publishing, and her heart-wrenchingly emotional plots always made for a good cry. I started off with the Redemption series, which I found copies of in the church library, and over the years I made my way throughout the entire collection of books related to the fictional Baxter family, in addition to reading many of Kingsbury’s stand-alone novels along the way. The Baxters, and also the later-introduced Flanigans, were the picture of loving Christian families, and everything my family pretended to be but wasn’t. Kingsbury’s books gave me a temporary escape from my home life, but whenever I turned the last page and returned to my reality, I realized that it wasn’t a perfect Christian family that I wanted, but a life free from the confines of religion altogether.

FUN FACT: The first series featuring the Baxter family is co-authored with Gary Smalley, who confronted Bill Gothard about his inappropriate behavior in the 1970s, and later refused to help Gothard remove a Wikipedia article that described an incident in which Gothard was witnessed having a nighttime visit with a young woman who was wearing a nightgown and sitting on his lap, because Smalley himself was the witness.

Ted Dekker

I discovered Ted Dekker as a freshman in high school (pictured above is Blessed Child, the first book of his that I read- interestingly the newer cover pictured on Goodreads lists Bill Bright’s name in much smaller letters) and I was immediately drawn to the supernatural elements in his stories. Nobody actually ever talked about things like that out loud, at least not at the various conservative churches my parents were members of (we moved a lot), and I tore through his books without realizing that my soul was looking for something beyond what I could find in writing that was confined to the Christian worldview. Some of Dekker’s books are kind of weird (The Circle series in particular) and his later books became too grim for my taste, but the books I did enjoy (Blink, the Martyr’s Song series, as well as A Man Called Blessed, the companion to Blessed Child) all stoked my curiosity in the supernatural, even though the significance of my interest didn’t become clear until much later on.

Frank Peretti

Sometime around the beginning of high school, I decided to give one of Frank Peretti’s adult books a try, since I had enjoyed his Cooper Kids Adventures series when I was younger. My first pick was his 1999 book The Visitation, which definitely delivered on the supernatural elements I had been hoping for- with a large dose of fear to go along with it. However, as I read several of his other novels over my freshman and sophomore years of high school, I began to experience a subtle shift in my perspective as a reader, although I didn’t fully realize that a change was happening. Somewhere along the way, even before I admitted it to myself, I just…stopped limiting my thoughts to the worldview that is centric to Christian fiction, and after that Peretti’s stories just weren’t as entertaining anymore.

Dee Henderson

I didn’t read any of Dee Henderson’s books until after I had already stopped regularly attending church (around age 15), but even though I managed to put my foot down when it came to waking up on Sundays, I still had to deal with my parents’ restrictions in other areas, including their strict standards for my reading material. By that point I had long since perfected the art of smuggling contraband books in and out, but if I wanted to read out in the open, it had to be something that would meet my parents’ approval. These books fit the bill and are pretty much exactly what you’d expect from Christian fiction- even though Henderson does her best to keep it interesting by giving her main characters impressive careers designed to generate suspense (hostage negotiator, forensic pathologist, and U.S. Marshall just to name a few), a few books in and you begin to realize that the plot details are just an interchangeable vehicle to get to the character’s inevitable “come to Jesus” moment, which is the true climax of each story.

Beverly Lewis

By the time I was 16, I had pretty much admitted at least to myself that I no longer wanted to be a Christian, but even though I didn’t go to church and spent most of my time doing other things (the academic rigor of junior year, a part-time job, and a new boyfriend kept me pretty busy), I still managed to keep the peace with my parents because I didn’t really have a desire to rock the boat while I was still living under their roof. So although I may not have been studying the Bible in my free time, I wasn’t against curling up with a mildly religious book every once in awhile to give the impression that I still had enough of an interest in Christianity to keep them from taking any drastic measures. Reading Beverly Lewis’ fictional take on Amish life gave my mind an occasional break from an otherwise stressful schedule, and getting a peek into an unfamiliar world that I had always found intriguing was enough to make up for the religious themes that are present in her books. Even though at that point I had no interest in a faith of my own, I appreciated the distinction that Lewis made between genuine and obedient faith, and I enjoyed her stories because they didn’t feel like preaching in disguise.

Bibles

In case you’re wondering what Bibles I used growing up, the first one I distinctly remember owning was the NIV* Adventure Bible. Although the cover pictured above looks similar to what I remember, I couldn’t say for sure whether or not it’s the exact same one. My grandmother gave this Bible to me as a gift when I was about 6 or 7 years old. She had come for a visit from out of state, and brought me on a special trip to the Christian bookstore without my younger siblings. Her purchases for me that day included the Bible, a copy of the book Christy (which even as a precocious reader was a little over my head), and a sparkly “WWJD” bracelet.

The very next year, I was presented with this beauty in front of the entire congregation, at a special ceremony for rising third graders at the beginning of an otherwise unremarkable church service. It was a Big Deal to be receiving this fancy Bible with its holographic cover (the above photo doesn’t do it justice!), and the fact that it was a “study Bible” was supposed to encourage me and my Sunday school classmates to become personally committed to the religion that most of us had been born into, now that we were reaching the age of accountability.

Somewhere along the line I graduated to the teen version of the study Bible, which was pretty standard amongst my fellow church-going peers. Because I am super cool, I turned the cover into a collage of words that related to Christianity/faith. I must have spent hours on the project (it received tons of compliments at the all-girls Christian summer camp I attended!), which in retrospect was probably because I was sick of reading the actual book.

 

This isn’t an all-inclusive list- many titles have long since been forgotten- but I think it provides a pretty good picture of the “Christian bubble” that helped form my worldview when I was growing up. I was allowed to read books that didn’t belong to the Christian genre, which I will list in an upcoming post, but even with the influence of the limited selection of secular books that were permitted in my home, I was still incredibly sheltered. Even so, I consider myself lucky, because going back to the main theme of this blog, I have no doubt that at least a few of the books on this already tame list would NOT be allowed in the Duggar household.

Could you picture any of the Duggars reading some of the books from this list? Did you grow up in a Christian household and have your own memories of these titles or others? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Image Sources

  1. The Mystery of the Zoo Camp by Elspeth Campbell Murphy
  2. Mandie and the Secret Tunnel by Lois Gladys Leppard
  3. Here’s Lily! by Nancy Rue
  4. Amy Carmichael: Rescuer of Precious Gems by Janet Benge
  5. Stuck in the Sky by Lissa Halls Johnson
  6. Too Many Secrets by Patricia H. Rushford
  7. Escape from the Island of Aquarius by Frank Peretti
  8. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  9. Summer Promise by Robin Jones Gunn
  10. Without a Doubt by Robin Jones Gunn
  11. Becoming Me by Melody Carlson
  12. The Vanishings by Jerry B. Jenkins and Tim LaHaye
  13. Left Behind by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
  14. Return by Karen Kingsbury and Gary Smalley
  15. Blessed Child by Bill Bright and Ted Dekker
  16. The Postcard by Beverly Lewis
  17. NIV Adventure Bible
  18. The New Adventure Bible
  19. Teen Study Bible

*NIV stands for “New International Version” and was created to be a more modern, easier to understand translation of the King James Version (KJV) Bible. I am pretty sure all of the Bibles in my home growing up were NIV translations.

Introduction

For the past few weeks I’ve been toying around with the idea of starting a blog to talk about the Duggars, an ultra-conservative Christian family from Arkansas who has been on TV since 2004, when they participated in a one-hour special called “14 Children and Pregnant Again!” The Duggars went on to film several subsequent television specials about their growing family, and they eventually landed their own TLC show, which first aired in 2008 with the name 17 Kids and Counting, and ended as 19 Kids and Counting in 2015, amidst a series of scandals involving the oldest Duggar son, Josh. The show was then rebranded as Counting On at the end of 2015, which continues to follow the lives of some of the married adult children, and just wrapped up its seventh season.

Although the Duggars have worked very hard to brand themselves as a model Christian family by making an exhibition out of some of their most extreme values to give themselves a niche (i.e. strict courtship rules, over-the-top modesty standards, condemnation of television and secular music,  and perhaps most notably Michelle and Jim Bob’s renouncement of birth control), the reality is much darker. Even just a quick Internet search will tell you that the Duggars are strongly associated with the Institute in Basic Life Principles, a non-denominational Christian organization which is widely considered a cult because it promotes a strict belief system that is designed to control every aspect of its’ members lives. I will talk about the Duggars’ involvement with the IBLP (and its homeschooling program, the “Advanced Training Institute”) in MUCH further detail later on, but I bring it up now because learning about this sinister side of the seemingly wholesome Duggar family is what motivated me to do more research on their beliefs.

I found this topic particularly interesting because I was also raised in a very conservative Christian home, and while my parents weren’t nearly as strict as Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar, I could still relate to the Duggar kids. I went to public school and was very lucky in that regard, but otherwise most of my time was spent in a Christian bubble, where I interacted with many children from families who really were very similar to the Duggars. Even though I did get to attend school, I was still extremely sheltered, and my home life was governed by rigid, Bible-based expectations for my behavior. However, by the time I first stumbled upon the Duggars on TV (which wasn’t until I was an adult and they had already entered the 19 Kids and Counting era, since my parents didn’t allow cable TV when I was growing up), it had been years since I had regularly attended church, so while I could relate to the children on some level, I kept up with the show from the perspective of someone who had “broken free” from that culture. The first storyline that I remember specifically tuning in for was Jill’s courtship, and I watched with a sort of horrified fascination at what the devoutly religious version of my life could have been, since she is the Duggar who I am closest to in age.

What really affected me, however, was not the show itself, but finding an online discussion forum where users had some really thought-provoking things to say about the negative impact of Christian fundamentalism, particularly on girls growing up in that sort of rigid religious environment (I want to say it was Free Jinger, but I really don’t remember for sure). At the time, I was no longer attending church and had definitely made a conscious decision to lead a secular lifestyle, but I had never really addressed how my childhood had affected me, and it had never even occurred to me that much of my experience (which was my “normal” for so long) was actually rather traumatic and likely contributed to the mental health issues I had struggled with for years.

I was still very much afraid of hell, and up until then part of me had always believed that I deserved any hardship that I had been through because I hadn’t been faithful enough to hack it as a Christian. I also didn’t really know how to express or even acknowledge the resentment I held towards my parents, because according to the religion that they still very actively practiced, everything that they had done in their quest to raise an obedient Christian daughter was perfectly acceptable, and questioning their actions would have been seen as a moral failing on my part. It wasn’t until I read about the Duggars that I realized I had a right to be angry about the way I was raised, which actually ended up marking the beginning of a long period of bitterness that in retrospect was probably something that I needed to go through as part of my deconversion, but at the same time is not a “season of life” that I ever wish to revisit.

For awhile I didn’t really think about the Duggars, mostly because my own life was too overwhelming to care much about theirs. Jill’s wedding happened around the same time that I was separated from my husband, so I was busy easing the pain by binge-watching Pretty Little Liars on Netflix. By the time Jessa’s wedding rolled around I was onto Gilmore Girls, and it wasn’t until Josh’s first scandal in 2015 that I started paying attention to the Duggars again. I was shocked that their hypocrisy had been exposed on such a massive scale, and saddened not only for Josh’s victims, but also for the rest of his siblings, who have all undoubtedly been affected by their oldest brother’s actions. When I heard about the Ashley Madison scandal a few months later, my heart ached for Anna and the children, and like so many others I hoped that she would have the courage to break free from the cult, or at least her unfaithful husband.

Instead, as readers probably already know, less than two years later Anna and Josh had not only reconciled, but had also conceived a fifth child. In the Duggars’ world, Anna’s pregnancy was a shining testimony of forgiveness and redemption, but the public announcement was met with loud criticism. I was disappointed too, not because I wanted her to sell out and write a tell-all book (although I won’t lie, I would have read it), but more out of sadness that even with Biblical support for a divorce, Anna chose to stay with Josh. Her decision was such a heartbreaking consequence of being immersed in a culture in which women are given virtually no opportunities to succeed in any role other than daughter, wife, and mother- and even then, only under the strict supervision of her male headship.

The ensuing discussion online motivated me to gradually become more involved in the growing community of people who follow the Duggars (and several other well-known fundamentalist families) not as fans, but rather as critical observers who gather on sites like Free Jinger and Reddit (including here and here) to talk about all things “fundie” related from an outsider’s perspective. Participants in these forums come from a wide spectrum of sociological backgrounds, and each site has a distinct tone and unique take on the overall discussion. Personally, I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading what others have to say and occasionally piping in myself, to the point where I’ve become an embarrassingly thick encyclopedia of knowledge when it comes to the Duggars. But even though I do usually find the snarkier side of the conversation entertaining (I know I’m not the only one who considers it a guilty pleasure!), I believe that it is also worthwhile to explore some of the more serious points in greater depth.

After all, we are aware of the Duggars because they are on TV, but how many other families are looking to them as role models? How many other fundamentalist parents have isolated themselves from normal society in the name of religion, often to the detriment of their children who are so sheltered from the bad parts of the world that they are also deprived of the many good things that it has to offer, including access to quality education and even in some cases basic healthcare? I would never say that religion is bad in its entirety, because I know that many people do find value in their religious beliefs, which can have an undoubtedly positive effect on the lives of those individuals. However, it is clear that extreme forms of religion often have an ugly relationship with abuse, as well as a laundry list of various other mental, emotional, and physical problems that can impact a person throughout the course of his or her entire life. As someone who continues to struggle with these issues well into adulthood, I want to do everything I can to make sure that we keep talking about this long enough for even the most adamant defenders of fundamentalist religion to realize that they too have the choice to live free of legalism and fear.

So what am I going to be covering in this blog? Honestly, I’m just going to see where my thoughts take me, although I do have a number of topics that I know I want to address. I definitely plan to talk about the Duggars’ specific beliefs and lifestyle, as well as include more general discussion about their culture as a whole. I also want to give this tiny corner of the Internet my own personal touch, so even though I absolutely intend to post about the latest Duggar news, discuss specific episodes of Counting On (both old and new), look back to even earlier Duggar TV from the perspective that we have today, and provide related links that I think readers might find interesting, I’m also going to be writing about my own experience- mostly how it relates to the Duggars and their world, but maybe occasionally my thoughts on religion and spirituality in general. I realize that not everyone who follows the Duggars wants to take their interest in this direction, so I welcome all visitors to read what you like for you own entertainment, and not feel obligated to care about anything that has to do with my personal reflections. For me, this blog is just a way to channel my own admittedly unusual interest in the Duggars into a project that also ties into my personal journey, which has also been pretty unusual so far.

As a final note, please feel free to leave comments below with your thoughts, opinions, and criticism. I’ll try to reply in a timely manner because I am always open to further discussion! Thanks so much for reading this far, and I invite you to check back frequently as I work on getting this blog up and running!