In the book Before You Lose Your Mind, various progressive Christians—many exvangelical as well—discuss their deconstructions. Though written in very lofty language indeed, they all talk about feeling a deep, enormous sense of love after deconstruction. One writer in particular, Jason Elam, contributed such an interesting chapter that I had to stop reading to talk about it here.
Elam thinks his god has finally shown him divine love. That he’s finally figured out how to Jesus. But there are some problems with that interpretation. Today, we’ll check this whole situation out.
(This post first went live on Patreon on 8/29/2023. Its audio ‘cast should be available there as well!)
The god who wasn’t (ever) there
I’m about 2/3 of the way through Before You Lose Your Mind, a 2021 book of essays from progressive Christians about their deconstructions.
So far, not one chapter has even questioned whether or not the Christian god exists. Not one. Four chapters remain, and none of them look like they’ll deal with that assumption either. Not a single one of these writers cares at all if the god they’ve built for themselves actually exists or not.
I admit, that’s something I simply can’t wrap my head around. I’m incapable of understanding how someone can engage in Christianity and all of its flaws and evils and not even care whether or not a real god inhabits it.
I was specific there for a reason. Paganism—at least the Hellenic Reconstructionism I followed for years—didn’t fuss about the reality or unreality of its central gods. Its main concerns were, rather, community-building and the pursuit of personal excellence. Someone could certainly engage in its rituals, study its source materials (like my beloved Works and Days), and enjoy the benefits of its concerns without believing that real live gods live on Mount Olympus and are standing by to help their followers. With very few exceptions, nobody in that movement seemed to have gone too far overboard on literalism.
But Christianity is very different from that kind of paganism. It demands fervor and devotion, piety and adoration. Christians must find a way to love its god. Its only primary source material, the Bible, is considered to be historically accurate—to wildly-varying extents—by all Christians. Even the most liberal, progressive Christians think Jesus really existed and did at least a little of the stuff the Gospels describe, then died on a cross for all humanity, resurrected himself, and now lives in Heaven and is standing by to help his followers.
That simply blows my mind. Christians just don’t operate the same way I do. They’re wired very differently. They don’t care if this handmade god shares only a name or two in common with the one described in the Bible’s Old and New Testaments.
And that’s okay overall, of course. It’s their lives. But it’s this book’s consistent message about “divine love” that has caught my eye. If there’s no god to inspire that feeling, then something else is causing it.
That something else is what we’ll be talking about today.
How Hell-belief almost destroyed Jason Elam
Jason Elam contributed Chapter 10 of Before You Lose Your Mind. Its title is “Finally Becoming Who We’ve Always Been.” Unlike Before You Lose Your Faith, this book doesn’t give mini-biographies of its contributors. So I’ll give us one:
This guy is known for a podcast called Messy Spirituality. His Patheos column appears to exist to promote the podcast and other suchlike professional interests of Elam’s, which is fine. The podcast consists of interviews with various guests who have undergone changes to their “spirituality.” It doesn’t sound like he’s using “spirituality” to mean only Christianity, though. His guest list includes a whole lot of Christians, but I spotted a few folks who seem to be ex-Christians in the lineup of episodes. Elam also seems to be a close professional associate of Keith Giles, who edited Before You Lose Your Mind. I don’t think he works in church ministry anymore, though his bio at Patheos says he does volunteer work to help folks who’ve just been released from prison.
Please be aware: There’s another Jason Elam in the Christ-o-Sphere who is a hardline evangelical and an ex-professional football player. They are not the same guy.
Of course, our Jason Elam tells us plenty about himself at the start of his chapter. He started out as a hardline evangelical. After an intense near-death experience (NDE) in his youth, he got really fervent. In adulthood, he started a bunch of churches, only to see them fail one after the next. Eventually, he began to burn out.
It sounds like the doctrine of Hell is what caused most of his stress and burnout. This fear got put into him as a young child:
After the puppet show, the kindly old reverend very sweetly told us that we were sinners and that God can’t look upon sin. Because God was so disgusted by the sight of us, He had to murder somebody to punish them for all of the wickedness in our hearts. [p. 144]
That certainly tracks with how I learned to fear the same thing.
Elam rose up through the ministry ranks, eventually becoming a full pastor. As he tells it, his fire-and-brimstone sermons always got an overwhelming response. Alas, however, his churches tended to wither on the vine. Those sermons convicted listeners, which means it made them feel guilty and ashamed of their failures as Christians. But that guilt and shame rarely translated into them becoming lifelong, active congregants in his churches.
Finally, he reached a breaking point.
And then, divine love healed him
This short chapter contains hints from its very beginning of Elam’s feelings of divine love. Even as adults injected his vulnerable young mind with the notion of Hell, the most evil and pernicious doctrine ever created, divine love thrummed from behind it. As Elam grew up and learned to preach the way hardline evangelicals love best, divine love whispered to him. As he prayed endlessly for his god’s advice about how to build churches that last and grow, he writes that he stubbornly ignored the omnipresent rays of divine love bathing him:
I would ask my endless questions seeking answers about how to save my fledgling church, but He didn’t seem to have any interest in discussing that. He just wanted me to know how loved and accepted I was—exactly as I already was. I would talk endlessly about all of the ways I had failed to live up to the example He had set and been unworthy of His love, but He would just keep reminding me that His love had never been dependent upon my behavior. That was contrary to everything I had believed about God, so I would go back to the Bible and talk myself out of believing it. [p. 146]
At his breaking point, that divine love finally washed over him:
I wish I could explain what happened to me that day. Words absolutely fail me. The best that I can come up with is that it felt like waves of liquid love were crashing over me as I walked the track—every wave washing away years of fear and rejection. Tears of joy streamed down my face. [. . .]
When I got on the [walking] track that day, I believed most of humanity would suffer for eternity in hell having fallen short of the glory of God. When I left the gym that day, I believed that the love of God was big enough to include every human being who had ever lived and ever will. [p. 147]
At the end of his chapter, Elam advises readers not to worry about Bible-verse-slinging fundagelicals trying to scare them with threats of Hell. He tells them, instead, to remember:
God doesn’t love us because we have all of our beliefs in order. God just loves us because that’s who God is. [p. 149]
And now, Elam wants to share his understanding of this divine love with others—and to ease as much suffering as he can before he departs this good dark earth.
But there are a few problems with his conceptualizations.
THEN WHO WAS PHONE?
To examine them, first I must show you a Web 1.5 meme called “THEN WHO WAS PHONE?”
Fifteen years ago, a creepypasta began making the rounds on the usual meme sites (especially 4chan’s /x/ board). Here it is, complete with its original spelling:
So ur with ur honey and yur making out wen the phone rigns. U anser it n the vioce is “wut r u doing wit my daughter?” U tell ur girl n she say “my dad is ded”.
THEN WHO WAS PHONE?
Translated from pre-smartphone textspeak:
One fine and otherwise unremarkable day, you and your female romantic partner are enjoying a little canoodling together. The phone rings, interrupting the festivities. When you answer it, a presumably-male voice demands to know what you’re doing with his daughter. History does not record your reply. However, when you return to your partner and inform her of the call, she laments that her father is, unfortunately, no longer among the living.
That sobering fact compels us all to ask exactly who called you to ask that strange question.
There’s even a movie poster:
(As my editor at OnlySky told me recently, I inhabit a strange and freaky world. Yes, I’m guilty as charged. But that world helps me contextualize and give words to a lot of things I experienced as a Christian—and even stuff I encounter years later.)
In this case, Elam is assuming that this lifelong sense of divine love is coming from the god of the universe.
But if that god doesn’t exist, THEN WHO WAS PHONE?
Who is making Elam feel that way, if not the particular god he now worships?
The creepypasta is trying to frighten people into wondering if a woman’s dead father is demanding answers from beyond the grave. But ghosts don’t exist, nor does any kind of afterlife. Therefore, whoever made that call was not deceased. Perhaps it was a father figure, or a prankster, or even a weird new AI chatbot. Until someone provides credible support for paranormal claims, we don’t reach for the paranormal as even a potential answer.
Yes, I’m talking about Occam’s Razor here.
Similarly, not one single Christian has ever ponied up support for their god’s existence. And so we look elsewhere to figure out WHO WAS PHONE for Jason Elam that day at the walking track.
Believing in the Jesus who believes in you
In the first episode of the anime Gurren Lagann, there’s this fantastic bit of dialogue. Young Simon is very uncertain about a critical task he must perform. Kamina, his vastly braver and bombastically-confident team leader, tells him to “do the impossible.” However, Simon’s still uncertain. Kamina then tells him that he believes Simon can do it. But Simon says he doesn’t share that belief. So Kamina tells him not to believe in himself. Instead, Simon should believe in Kamina. Since Kamina believes in him, Simon can use that faith to find the inner strength he needs to “do the impossible.”
In the moment, it works. But in the eighth episode, Kamina turns things around again. Just before he dies, he tells Simon,
“Listen close, Simon. Never forget. Believe in yourself. Not in the Simon that I believe in. Not in the Kamina that you believe in. Have faith in the Simon that believes in you.”
All along, Simon’s faith in Kamina’s faith in him was simply a roundabout way of finding faith in himself.
In a very real way, Elam has set his feet on this same path. As divine love showered down on him that day, he believed in his conceptualization of Jesus, which loves him.
Maybe he won’t ever be put into a situation where he realizes that all along, he was simply loving and nurturing himself.
But I’ve been there, in that moment when the switch flipped in my mind.
When my switch flipped and I saw clearly for the first time
About five years after my deconversion, I saw the charming Adam Sandler movie The Wedding Singer (1998). In it, the eponymous wedding singer and his cousin Sammy have quite an interesting discussion about love:
Robbie: That’s it, man, starting right now, me and you are going to be free and happy the rest of our lives!
Sammy: I’m not happy. I’m miserable.
Robbie: Wha – what?
Sammy: See… I grew up idolizing guys like Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino because they got a lot of chicks. You know what happened to Fonzie and Vinnie Barbarino?
Robbie: Yeah, I read that Fonzie wants to be a director and Barbarino, I think… the mechanical bull movie? I didn’t see it yet.
Sammy: Their shows got canceled. Because no one wants to see a fifty-year-old guy hitting on chicks.
Robbie: So what are you saying?
Sammy: What I’m saying is all I really want is someone to hold me and tell me that everything is going to be all right.
And right after that, a drunk old man does exactly that: He hugs Sammy, holds him close, and tells him exactly what he wanted to hear.
Sammy smiles at him and seems appreciative, but very clearly that wasn’t exactly what Sammy really meant. It hadn’t been enough.
Just like that, something in my mind took root, grew, and flowered in a single instant.
You see, The Wedding Singer was a sort of love letter to the mid-1980s. It was as true to its setting as Dazed and Confused (1993) was to the mid-1970s. For a person who came of age in the mid-1980s, watching The Wedding Singer was like stepping into a time machine.
What Sammy said he wanted was something we had been saying we wanted all along. We really talked like that back then. We’d say we just wanted someone to hold us and tell us everything was gonna be all right.
But right then, I began to see that Sammy was externalizing his deepest emotional needs. He was offloading them—out-sourcing them—to others. The problem here is that when someone actually did exactly what he said he needed, it didn’t fulfill his wish.
Eventually, I realized that it really couldn’t—and why.
What Sammy really needed can’t come from outside
I’m not talking about basic socialization with others, or making friends, or building a community, or forging interpersonal connections.
That’s totally different from what Sammy needed—and what we needed in the 1980s. Sammy’s talking about a completing sense of love that he hoped would give him faith in himself. He ached for courage and self-confidence, self-acceptance and self-sufficiency and resiliency. Nobody else can give us those things. It doesn’t mean as much when others even try to be the source of those feelings.
What Sammy really needed was to learn how to love and accept himself. When others tried to love and accept him, doing that instead of him, then sure, it felt nice in the moment. But it left him hollow afterwards. If he could learn to be sufficient within himself, to give himself the love he needed, maybe he would feel whole at last. Unfortunately, he didn’t know how to do that.
Even more unfortunately, neither did my generation.
We midpoint-Gen-X kids were the first wave of the stuff ’em full of self-esteem school programs. We were the vanguard of the Gifted & Talented school track. As well-meaning as all of these initiatives were, all too many kids who participated in them ended up with problems in adulthood that even older-Gen-X Sammy would have completely understood. (Every one of those links applies to me somehow.)
Perhaps instead, we needed to be—in and of ourselves—our font and source of love and acceptance. We needed to believe in the ourselves that believe in ourselves.
It took time, but I finally figured out why Sammy’s scene had affected me so powerfully. And I’m sure I looked a little silly when I hugged myself and told myself that everything was gonna be all right. When I did it, though, tears sprang to my eyes, just as they are right now. It’s like I was giving myself permission to feel things I’d suppressed for years. I felt like a happy sigh given human form.
But those five years had not passed in a vacuum. I’d been very busy since my deconversion. In 1993, if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have believed myself. I’d have had no reason to believe such words.
Five years later, I was a very different person with a whole new set of life skills. So when I told myself that, I could believe it at last.
Sidebar: Growing into a butterfly
As the self-esteem initiatives’ designers discovered, there’s a lot more to becoming resilient and self-sufficient than just telling ourselves that we are. You can’t talk yourself into a self-perception that you don’t believe is true. It’s even harder to gain those qualities when you’ve spent years in an authoritarian religious dystopia, in a marriage that ultimately became terrifying and abusive, and generally making the most disastrous life choices possible in every single situation without fail. I couldn’t quiet the many metaphorical imps whispering in my ear about all my stupidity and ineptitude.
Thankfully, escaping that marriage and leaving Christianity helped set my feet on a far better path.
After that, I began developing regular adult life skills. I got treatment for the PTSD I’d developed amid all of those awful experiences. I discovered that I could live alone and find joy in living according to a budget, paying bills on time, and handling other such grown-up business myself. My old mental self-image as a timid, inept fuckup slowly receded as I learned computer skills and sewed elaborate historical costumes for my reenactment group.
Slowly, I found my people among tabletop gamers and SCAdians (members of the SCA, or Society for Creative Anachronism). As I learned to run my own tabletop games, I discovered that my skills as a gamemaster were in hot demand. I was already playing various online multiplayer games, so I ventured into building new zones and crafting code for them—and I found success there as well.
It went that way, too, with the knowledge I’d gained in a few niche areas of history. I ran a large history website for years that got very good traffic. With that experience and learning under me, I began successfully freelancing nonfiction.
Those imps of self-defeat suddenly couldn’t get a word in edgewise.
When I hurt my back about ten years ago and couldn’t handle a regular full-time job anymore, I began to think about how I’d spend my new abundance of free time. My husband, Mr. Captain, pointed out that there was always one topic I never tired of. A short while later, I set up Roll to Disbelieve.
Sometimes late at night I think back to those Before Times and just want to shake some sense into my younger self.
And then, I take a long breath. I give myself permission to regret and mourn what I have lost. My thoughts inevitably turn to considering how every one of those mistakes and mastered skills have led me to exactly where I am right now.
Friends, I would not want to be anywhere else. I am exactly where I want and need to be. I don’t need any gods to tell me that, either, and I wouldn’t want them to. It’d be about as useful to me as the old drunk guy’s hug in the bar in that movie.
You see, I no longer offload and out-source my self-acceptance and sense of self-love.
The source of divine love is not what Christians think it is
Going by Jason Elam’s writing, he overflows with love and self-acceptance in that same way. He wants to share that love and acceptance with others. He disavows the threats and coercion of his earlier experience with Christianity. Nowadays, his Christianity is one of pure love and kindness.
I’ve got no issue with that at all. He sounds really nice. And a lot of Christians end up in a similar position, one way or t’other. As long as I don’t have to play along and they’re not trying to interfere with other people’s rights and liberties, we’ve got nothing to fight about.
Of course, such Christians must do an awful lot of hand-waving to explain away the billions of years of pure suffering, struggle, and bloody carnage that their god has apparently allowed to unfold on Earth. There’s simply too much suffering in the world for me to buy the idea of a glorious god of infinite, overpowering love who just weirdly and against his nature maintains a completely hands-off policy even in the case of little kids getting abused or dying of painful diseases.
For that matter, if Yahweh/Jesus is indeed a god of infinite love, then there’s no way in the world he would ever allow any of us to come to eternal harm, either. Any explanation—and oh, there are many of these in Christendom—that seeks to rationalize Hell always ends up with a definition of “love” that is self-contradictory, meaningless, or grotesquely repulsive.
And really, that’s how it must be! Christians seek to square an impossible circle here. Nothing in the Bible leads any critically-thinking reader to suspect that Yahweh/Jesus is, in fact, a loving entity. So those Hellenistic concepts of omnimax goodness and ultimate morality—and most importantly the newfangled notion of souls that exist separately from our bodies—make for a very poor veneer to paste, all ramshackle and ill-fitting, atop the bloodthirsty, tribalistic god of the Bible. Incidentally, that description covers both the Old Testament and the New. Oh, I know Christians like to paint the New Testament as a cosmic do-over. But it really isn’t.
Likewise, the god of compassionate Christians like Jason Elam does not sound remotely like the Bible’s god either. He sounds a lot nicer than Yahweh/Jesus of the Bible, sure. But then, so do a lot of other gods—and their source materials are nowhere near as difficult to deal with.
Jesus may love us, but so does Apollo—and he’s a hottie with no record of global genocide.
Still, it hardly matters. No evidence supports the existence of the Bible’s god, nor Elam’s, nor anyone else’s. So we’re all safe from Hell anyway.
Here’s why I’m hammering at this point, though:
If someone feels a huge burst of love and acceptance, it isn’t coming from any gods. Not even from Apollo.
A love even better than divine love
That’s the best-case scenario for our entire planet, too.
Because you know what I do believe in? What does fill me with endless waves of love? What fills me with hope for the future and optimism for the next generation?
The love and kindness of actual people who see suffering, who see needs, and who try to help.
For instance, if my mother found out I was in Hell, she’d come rescue me. And she’s not even a god. In fact, I know that there is no explanation any god could offer her that could even make her okay with leaving me in a place of torment and suffering. She’d understand that the god of that realm was either evil or impotent, and she’d make tracks to get us both away from him.
Then, she’d return for all the others trapped there.
Yes, my mother was a five-star general in Love’s army. During her lifetime, she gave away a huge percentage of her earnings to charity, and she informally adopted a great many people of all ages who needed love. For weeks after her death, her friends and coworkers told me stories about the kindness she’d shown them. In the safe harbor of her gentle, warm, accepting love, all of her children—born and adopted—healed and found their centers. Again, and I can’t stress this enough, she’s not even a god. And yet she did far more than any god during her lifetime. Her love had working boots on its feet.
The volunteer work that Jason Elam is doing is similar in concept. What the gods of Earth have forgotten, overlooked, even abandoned, Jason Elam embraces and tries to help. I know so many people who are doing such things as well: Doctors who move about the poor and war-torn countries of our world, dentists who drive into far-flung rural villages to ease the pain and suffering of those who can’t afford that care, teachers who educate the children that evangelicals despise, soldiers who try to rescue prisoners of war, all the way down to the everyday people who write the checks to make it all happen.
Even the nice version of Jesus allows children to die of leukemia. But actual human beings fight to save those kids’ lives. They might fail, but they won’t just stand by and let it happen.
Where we’re going, we don’t need gods.
We’ve already got something better, something more reliable, something more understandable, something more moral and good within ourselves.
It’s okay to look past the dazzling mythology to ask important questions
I don’t expect Jason Elam to second-guess his new direction in faith. Nor do I want him to do so. He seems like a decent human being, and I would feel terrible if he or anyone else felt like I was slamming him for not fully deconverting. We all end up where we end up. Our individual, particular landing-spots are not victories for any factional sides in the culture wars. He landed where he is now, just as I landed where I am now.
It’s just that something Elam wrote really got my attention. He wrote that his interpretation of that feeling of love as divine in nature saved his very life, and “undoubtedly saved [his] faith” (p. 143). Several other contributors have expressed similar sentiments.
I’m only suggesting—in the truly gentlest and mildest way I possibly can—that it’s kinda remarkable that not one person in this entire book has second-guessed the value of Christian faith in the first place. Every single one of them takes for granted that faith in some form of Jesus—some flavor, some iteration on the theme of Jesus—is intrinsically priceless and definitely necessary, and worth fighting to keep alive.
I push back on that idea, is all. Putting a label of “DEFINITELY JESUS” on feelings of lovingkindness seems, to me, to put a superfluous and unnecessary filter on those feelings. Leaving Christianity let me eliminate the middleman, so to speak, so I could experience that love in an unalloyed, pure way. It also eliminated any need to reckon with the truly evil god of the Bible.
After all, there’s no need to hassle with annoying fundagelicals wielding Bible verses if we know the Bible doesn’t describe any real gods in the first place!
The best news humanity has ever had
Then who is phone?
Well, we are phone.
We’re the only phone there ever was. No other phone exists or has ever existed. We’re the only miracle-workers and helpers and kindness-showers, the only dreamers and artists and researchers there will ever be. If any love is shown, it’s one of us showing it. If any help is given, we are the ones engineering and enacting it.
We’re all in this thing together.
And that’s the best news humanity could ever possibly hear.
How you can support Roll to Disbelieve
Thanks for reading, and thanks for being part of our community!
And now, here are some ways you can support my work:
- Patreon, of course, for as little as $2 a month! I now write Patreon posts twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with patrons getting early access 3 days ahead of time.
- Paypal, for direct one-time gifts. To do this, go to paypal.com, then go to the personal tab and say you want to send money, then enter firstname.lastname@example.org (that’s an underscore between the words) as the recipient. It won’t show me your personal information, only whatever email you input.
- My Amazon affiliate link, for folks who shop at Amazon. Just follow the link, then do your shopping as normal within that same browser window. This link adds nothing to your Amazon bill, but it does send me a little commission for whatever you spend there.
- And as always, sharing the links to my work and talking about it!
Thank you so much for being a part of Roll to Disbelieve!