Losing My Religion: 5 Experiences Which Pushed Me to Reread the Bible

It’s time to talk about the theologies which have been percolating in my mind and heart as I’ve continued studying the Bible in various cultural settings. As I’ve mentioned, I grew up in a marvelous church in Portland, Oregon and a major reason I can still call them marvelous, is that they’ve never been intimidated by my questions. There is an underlining sense that the God they serve is big enough to withstand questioning.

I experienced God from a young age. He speaks to me and has always been a close companion, emboldening me to leave a wonderful community in order to go where He led. I didn’t know exactly what theology had sunk into my developing brain until it was challenged by the microscope of church ministry, missions and Bible college.

I’ve identified five major experiences that made me question my understanding of the gospel. Maybe you can relate to at least one.

ONE: Disrespect of Women

Something I’ve never quite been able to shake, was just how horribly the men at my Bible college treated women. It was very manipulative and covert, but certainly demeaning. There weren’t many ladies, to begin with. At one point, I was the only woman in a cohort of twelve. The faculty never meant it to be this way, and always scratched their heads about why so many guys at the school managed to be a-holes. I propose: some of this thinking trickled down from the top.

For instance, the college held strongly to the belief that women can never teach men. This was displayed by the fact there was only one female professor and only girls could take her class. It was also reiterated in that women could, graciously, take the communications course, but guys had the option to walk out when a woman practiced a presentation. Although the theology classes preached a kind of equality guised as complementarianism, the fruit was many males feeling superior to females. We gals were probably just in Bible college in hopes of marrying these gentlemen, so it was only good and fair for them to be mean to those of us they didn’t see as possible mates, in order to not “lead us on”. So thoughtful.

Throughout my time attending this school, I had 10 different roommates. Only one married a guy from the college, three married Christian guys in other states after dropping out. The rest left town, a little bit pushed out of the community, mostly for choosing to date a non-Christian guy who was actually nice to them. Those are not great statistics.

Why is the fruit of applied “Biblical Theology” so detrimental to women? I rolled my eyes and spoke out against much of this, but of course that got me in trouble. Eventually, I served a silent, discipleship-of-women-only role throughout the school year in California, and secretly spent summers emceeing a major camp in Oregon to scratch that itch: functioning within my God-given gifting.

Because these two cultures claimed the same Bible and had different rules, I had to wonder: who was more correct?

TWO: Excommunication

This also happened during my time at the California church which ran my Bible college. There were two major instances of excommunication from the pulpit and both of them royally sucked.

The first was of a dear friend, who had started struggling with homosexuality. He had come forward and the pastoral staff met with him regularly for a few months. Then, when he wasn’t “getting better”, unbeknownst to him, they announced in all four services that he was an unrepentant homosexual and we were all supposed to cut ties with him. The goal was that he would miss the fellowship so bad he would come crawling back and give the whole thing up.

I was his friend, and God has always taught me to love unconditionally, so when I kept being friends with him, I got in a lot of trouble with church leadership. I was undermining the whole operation!

The second was a woman who had become very close with my cousins, as one had lived with her and her family for the year I wasn’t around to be a roommate. This woman’s husband was the missions pastor at the church and had been caught in a form of infidelity, which was, of course, announced to everyone. This mega church made our town really small, and our friend had to leave to escape the shame. When her husband decided he was repentant, the pastoral leadership came around him to “restore” him, then looked to his wife to see if she was going to take him back. She had since moved on with her life, and this decision to follow through with the divorce got her excommunicated as well (they had weirdly decided to crack down on divorces that year).

This whole kerfuffle made me look deeply into Matthew 18:17 and ask, “what is going on here?!” since it had been extensively cited as the validation for treating people this way. “If he refuses to listen to even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” All things aside, aren’t we still supposed to lovingly and graciously pursue Gentiles and tax collectors?

THREE: Christian Nations

The United States regularly boasts of being a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles. I didn’t notice it until I traveled to other countries, but I realized this often breeds a mindset where Christians in those countries put themselves in the shoes of the Jews in the Old Testament narrative. Suddenly they can mow over pagan peoples like Israel mowed the Canaanites. There’s a racial superiority dynamic at play. Suddenly they can claim promises of eventual military victory. Suddenly they are “God’s chosen people” in a way which is unequivocally married to their nationalism. Suddenly someone is Christian because they’re American, like how someone is Catholic because they’re Italian, or Hindu because they’re Indian.

It makes sense until you have multiple nations claiming the same identity, but all have different expressions of what it looks like to be a Christian, which is largely informed by their national history, instead of Biblical exposition.

I was never formally taught church history, but researched it on my own after living awhile in Thessaloniki, Greece. You can read more about what I gleaned on syncretism in this blog post.

Christians in Oregon are much different from those in California, or Texas, or South Carolina, or Mexico, or Brazil, or Argentina, or Colombia, or Costa Rica, or Italy, or France, or Armenia, or Greece. Part of it can be a cultural swing away from Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic roots and some of it has a lot to do with the denomination of the missionary who got there first. The Baptists, Assemblies of God and Presbyterians have left noticeably different marks in their international church plants.

Unfortunately, and I feel it’s important to point it out, much of this proselytizing has roots in colonization. “We must first make the savages {insert nationality of missionary here} in order for them to properly adopt Christianity as their religion.”

Well folks, there is no nationality in the kingdom of God. In fact, it is international (every tribe, tongue and nation) by nature. So if your theology only makes sense in your nation’s context it is, at best, incomplete. That was when I began to aggressively remove American tradition from my faith. Otherwise, it cannot apply, or be good news, to the foreigner.

FOUR: The 2016 Election

I hope I don’t lose some of you here. It’s been a rough time, largely because of how divisive it’s been. I hadn’t engaged in much political talk leading up to the possibility of electing Biff Tannon (I mean DT) as our president. I grew up Republican, because my parents were, and hadn’t really questioned it. It’s too easy to make fun of “those crazy liberals” right? Until the moment my political party–deeply rooted in a love for money and the belief that anyone can create their own wealth (from the privileged perspective of the white middle class who have inherited at least some of it)–became personified in a sleazy, racist, sexist businessman, and those crazy liberals started pleading for their lives.

Most Republicans I know, in the more compassionate PNW, voted for DT begrudgingly, focusing on the issue of abortion. Others liked his brass rhetoric and ideas to close our boarders.

At the time, I was heavily invested in the refugee crisis; feeling the call to help, serve, love and be a good neighbor in a divine calling way. So then, It was alarming to get a kick back from “fellow believers” who venomously insisted on keeping those terrorists (Muslims) out of our country. That was when I decided to move somewhere I could be around them. People called me brave. I tried to bite my tongue.

In the fallout of DT’s America, we’ve seen a lot of things happen: Sure, a hike in the stock market (loud cheers from lovers of money), an empowering of bullies, a caging of children, an increase in gun violence, a persecuting of civil rights movements, a removing of health care from the poor and no statistical change for abortion.

As an American Evangelical Christian, what shook me the most was seeing people like Franklin Graham, whom I had grown up respecting, praise this President. This assaulter of women. Franklin is an evangelist! He’s supposed to share the “good news”! What exactly does he think the good news is??

FIVE: Befriending Muslims

For whatever reason, I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. As diverse as my high school was, it seemed most people were either Christian, atheist, agnostic, Sikh or Buddhist. Looking back, I am sure my Muslim peers felt they had to hide their faith. That is a shame. I had one friend who is Iranian, but what you maybe don’t know is how nonreligious most Iranians are.

Finally, in my thirties, I had the pleasure of befriending Muslims and I felt like I had been robbed, kept out of a marvelous secret. Being an Old Testament nerd, I was fascinated by how the principles of the Torah came alive in them. Most Western Christians like to throw the OT out, because it doesn’t make sense, or it was seemingly made void by the New Covenant. But even a lot of what Jesus said in His parables and Sermon on the Mount goes over our heads. Not so with these guys. The Bible was written to Middle Eastern people! They don’t have to do all the hermeneutical gymnastics I was taught in Bible college to directly apply the Bible to their lives. In fact, meeting them in Greece underlined much of the fact that the task of Paul was to try and explain an Eastern Religion to Western people. That’s why we, in the west, looooooove Paul. Even though he confuses us at times and causes a lot of misunderstandings about how to treat women.

I saw a fear of the LORD in them that I rarely see in believers. Not in the way that you might assume either. Fear, as in, “I care more about what God thinks, than what you think.” I think we, western, NT loving evangelicals miss that wisdom.

SO WHAT IS IT?

I read the Bible every day. Not out of a religious obligation, but because why wouldn’t I? The more I read it, the more I need it. God’s words and laws are right and true. There’s a reason the “Shema” (Hear O Israel, The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. Deuteronomy 6:4-5) is instructed to be everywhere (6:6-9). We need constant reminders of truth in our daily life.

After years of pondering why these five things didn’t sit right, I’ve decided: it is because they all come down to abuses of power. Men’s power over women. Religious power over laypeople. Social-political powers over the poor and oppressed. How do these power plays have any place in a group of people who are fundamentally supposed to:

“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians‬ ‭2:5-8‬)

Jesus was granted all authority in heaven and on earth by proving He could be trusted with that power.

I rewatched “the Jesus film” a few summers ago. It’s an old movie from the 70s on Jesus’ life with all dialogue being direct quotes from the gospels. My main take away was, “Man, Jesus will not shut up about the poor!” He was all about meekness–strength under control–and humility. He directly told His disciples that their leadership style would be servanthood (Luke 22:26) and His major introduction into being a teacher was claiming he fulfilled Isaiah 61 (Luke 4:16-21), which is good news for the poor, release for captives, and sight for the blind.

Something which has helped me put in to words some of theses thoughts, is a podcast I’m listening to called “Almost Heretical“. They’re not end-all experts, but they’ve done their research. And my spirit resonates with so much of it.

One assertion they made was how rich slave owners adjusted “the gospel” to be good news for them. It seemed to be for their slaves, but bad news for them. That’s nothing a new theology can’t fix! The idea of penal substitutionary atonement, I’m sure, isn’t that new, but making Jesus the volunteer in the court room who takes the death sentence from God, gets a lot of people off the hook. The Mosaic law theme of restitution was cut off. When slavery was “over” we “forgot it” and we didn’t have to give anyone “40 acres and a mule”. We didn’t even apologize.

Jesus wasn’t saving us from his angry dad, He was showing us a new way to be human. He was surgically removing a heart of stone and giving us a heart of flesh. He was radiating the cancer, without killing the patient. He was showing us how to walk out our God-ordained roles as King’s and Queens in His kingdom. All of us. Every tribe, tongue and nation. Jesus was restoring our identities and setting things right.

We, His people, are supposed to be ministers of reconciliation. Serving as unto the LORD, in all humility, submitting to His designs because He’s smart, created us, and knows what’s cancer and what’s benign.

He made Christ Jesus the judge, not any of us. Maybe it’s time we stop policing each other and answering violence with more violence.

If your definition of the gospel isn’t good news for everyone–if that pesky limited atonement theology keeps creeping in–maybe it’s time to prune it out. Even when I considered myself a Calvinist, I could never wrap my mind around that one. Too many places in the Bible indicate that Jesus died for the whole world, not just for some of us. It felt more like a forced then after a series of possible ifs.

To my friends who have lived in one culture and haven’t had to consider any of this: Think about it! Study the Word! Jesus is looking for people who can live like Him in meekness, humility and service for others.

To my friends who have experienced some of these same things and are losing your religion: Lose it! And instead, “press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3)

Cetti Family Love Stories

2018 will go down in the Bethany Cetti history books as the year I spent pursuing Italian citizenship. The possibility crossed my radar in February of 2015 when a Brazilian friend traveled with us to Costa Rica on an Italian passport. I found out, then, it was possible to trace family blood lines back to the homeland and gain citizenship. I was busy the next few years, working on other projects and figuring out why exactly I would need such a thing. Three years later, the process was in full swing. Birth, marriage and death certificates. New names, dates and information on the journeys of my ancestors. It’s begun to weave a story I am happy to continue to share. I found out it was a 5+ year wait to do this application in America, but only a matter of months if I moved to Italy and did it in person. You can bet if there is a fast and adventurous way to do something, I’m going to find it. Maybe that fact circles back to the people I came after.

Abbondio & Natalina

My great grandfather, Abbondio, left his deeply rooted family in Tremezzo, Lago di Como, Lombardia, Italia when he was 28, a wife and child in tow. They settled in beautiful Santa Barbara, California where he found employment as a farmhand, she had more children. Four more children, two of which died, and her along with the last one. We never knew much about this woman, the first wife, but I later was forced to meet her: Maria Lingeri. Her family also had deep roots in Tremezzo. It is said one of her five children was the product of infidelity, but we aren’t 100% sure which one, because Abbondio raised him as his own. A woman who left home at the age of 21 and spent her whole adult life having and caring for kids in a land where she never learned the language. She died in childbirth before she turned 30 and was buried in a humble grave along with her little girl, Mary Josephine. This mystery woman almost cost me my citizenship in all the-not-knowing-about-her. A fire, flood and earthquake swept away official records and I almost was unable to prove she died before Natalina came along. Flawed as she was, and unrelated as she may be, something felt important about telling the world that she was. As a writer and woman who feels the importance of being known I don’t want to leave anyone a footnote in their own family history.

My great grandmother, Natalina, was the response to a letter Abbondio wrote his family after the death of Maria. He wanted a new wife. This part of the story usually makes people chuckle. Does this service still exist? one man joked at me. Yes, I believe it does. All over the world. Grow up. What makes me wonder about this point, is that Abbondio was looking for an arranged marriage by his parents. Maybe he felt his chances with the local Californians were slim. Maybe he wanted something familiar. Maybe he wanted to make sure he was considered good enough for someone and not have it debated by in laws forever. In any case, the brave Natalina Fraquelli boarded a ship alone and sailed to America. She ported in New Orleans and saw so many black people she thought maybe they’d accidentally cruised down to Africa. From there, she took a train across the country, to meet Abbondio at the Santa Barbara station. They were married within days. While I don’t know much about Natalina, either, I know she had to be something to do this. To start over on the other side of the world takes a spirit of adventure. I know she only had one child, Guido, four years after they married. Neither she, nor Abbondio ever learned English, and they didn’t teach it to their son.

Guido & Katharine

Guido was in junior high before he started wearing shoes. He repeated grades in school as he struggled to learn English. He was funny and had a great work ethic. I feel I know he gained this ethic from his father, but I wonder where the funny came from. On the night he met the lovely Katharine Jean Potier, he was doing card tricks in the corner at a party. It was a thrill for Katharine, a girl with deeply Conservative Baptist roots, to see such a handsome Italian man doing such a scandalous thing as play cards. His ice blue eyes picked her observing smile out of the crowd and he asked her to dance. Scandal upon scandal! Dancing? She agreed. When during the dance he kissed her neck, she began to sweat. The next day as Guido was driving with Don Hollister, he spotted Katharine walking to school with a friend. Urging his friend to pull over, they invited to give the girls a lift. Because of a lack of space, Katharine had to sit on Guido’s lap and things got pretty official. Is it obvious I got the bulk of this story from Grandpa’s perspective? I’m sure Granny would have included different details.

They dated for the rest of Katharine’s high school years and married at the ages of 19 and 23. My dad was born two years later, the oldest of four. Guido continued to work hard, starting out as a salesman and eventually starting his own glass business. Katharine stayed hard a work at home with the family. She had a gypsy heart, and through all the hard working of her husband, announced she would be taking the kids on vacation each August whether he joined them or not. This started a pattern of travel for the family. In 1990, the two of them were exploring Europe together, the kids grown and gone, when they got word their home had burned to the ground in the Painted Cave Fire. Katharine looked at Guido and remarked, “I didn’t much care for the wallpaper in the dining room anyway,” and they didn’t hurry back.

They lived happily and generously. Granny died in 2003, leaving a brokenhearted Guido who begrudgingly lived a healthy ten extra years before allowing prostate cancer to get the better or him. He accepted the diagnosis as his ticket back to Kathy and stated, “Don’t give me a bunch of drugs and drag this out. I don’t want to finish my life constipated.” He rounded out his life by staging the epic finale to a 5 year prank he’d been playing on his best friend and taught me just how much I still had to learn about comedy.

David & Deborah

Dave met his best friend, Bob Cryder, at Westmont College. On the occasion of Bob’s wedding, my best man dad saw the beautiful Deborah Rehkopf float down the isle as the show-stealing maid of honor. He knew at that moment this was the woman for him. However, Dave is a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy, and didn’t make any major moves for a long while. In fact, during a well timed visit to Portland, Oregon (where Bob and his bride, Jenny had settled), Bob broke a friendship vow to never interfere with each other’s love lives and pushed Dave to make some sort of move on Debbie. She was about to embark on a 10 month missions trip. At the prompting of Bob, my dad asked if they would write each other. Mom said yes.

The following Christmas, after no conversations whatsoever about their relationship status, Dave visited Debbie’s hometown to meet her parents and ended up asking her father’s permission for her hand in marriage. He agreed, solely on the assumption my dad must be legit to be Bob Cryder’s best friend. When they moved on to Santa Barbara, visiting Guido and Kathy, mom and dad went for a walk. This walk turned into a proposal. They shared their first kiss and came back hand in hand. What had gotten in to these two? Everybody wondered.

Dave had moved to Portland to become the Bible teacher at Portland Christian High School, meaning after they got engaged they went back to long distance and planned a wedding. They married the following July and had my sister Natalie three years later, followed by me and our little sister Brittany.

Now, both sisters are married and I’ve returned to the scene of the crime: Italy. A single gal full of bravery, comedy, hard work, gypsy heart and prone to scandalize her Conservative Baptist roots. It’s anybody’s guess what happens next, but in all cases, I will be a dual citizen by 2019.