By Edward Kelly Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his 1963 book Why We Can’t Wait: “The truth was revealed that hate is a contagion; that it grows and spreads as a disease; that no society is so healthy that it can automatically maintain its immunity.”
I was a vicious carrier of that disease, marked by the symptoms of fear, hatred and bigotry. I carried and spread it as a contagion for 25 years as a fundamentalist Pentecostal preacher. I took great pride even referring to myself from the pulpit as a “bible bigot,” as if intolerance based on scripture was morally acceptable.
A bigot! What else do you call someone who believes that only he has all the answers — the absolute truth — and condemns everyone who does not fit into his theological box: Buddhists, Muslims, liberal preachers, humanists and homosexuals. It is ironic that I have become what I once condemned — a humanist.
Twenty years ago, while still a fundamentalist, I saw the movie “The Matrix,” which made me stop and think. It was not so much the action, but rather the story that fascinated me. The theme of the movie was that the material world was not reality, but merely an illusion created by artificial intelligence machines. The real world was a ravaged wasteland and most of humanity has been captured by a race of machines. The humans were made to live out their lives in pods that collected their energy and continuously fed sensory stimuli to their brains via plugs attached to their bodies. These sensory stimuli gave them the illusion of leading ordinary lives.
This computer-driven dream world is called the Matrix. There are two main characters: Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne) is the leader of the resistance and Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is a young man who Morpheus was able to release from the Matrix. Neo asks Morpheus, “What is the Matrix?” Morpheus answers: “It is the wool that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it yourself.”
In a certain sense, the wool had been pulled over my eyes for the first 50 years of my life, including 25 of those as a minister. The Matrix was my box, my set of beliefs. The Matrix plug that I have lived with since I was a child was that God was an angry old man sitting on a throne way out there, waiting to punish me when I did something wrong. This angry monster-god illusion was the root of my “fire and brimstone” preaching as a fundamentalist. This was my religious box, my Matrix.
Using “The Matrix” is not an exact analogy for my life. Neo was pulled out of the Matrix all at once, but, for me, the change was not immediate. I did not wake up one morning and say, “Well, today, I think I am going to be a liberal,” or “Today, I think I am going to be kind and compassionate to gays.” No, it was a slow process of removing the illusions that clouded my mind, or, to use the image from the movie, of pulling out one Matrix plug at time.
My transformation began when I began to think for myself. That’s when I began to look at my belief system — my box — and question everything. But, understand, for me as for any fundamentalist to think outside the box and to question and doubt one’s beliefs was a frightening experience.
The first Matrix plug I pulled out, the first illusion that I discovered and dealt with, was the teaching of the rapture, which was a source of most of my anxiety and fear in my life. It is not a simple teaching, but a very complex system, a schematic timetable of “last days” events.
But it was in my own personal life that the effects of the rapture belief were clear. I had decided that there was no time for furthering my education, no time for looking at my career, only time for getting souls into the Kingdom of God. Everything took a back seat to the ministry, including my family.
I do not remember why I began to study the rapture, but as a pastor in 1993, I started to look at the biblical references and the history of the doctrine of the rapture. I uncovered two things. First, the bible verses that were used to prove the rapture did not match the context in which the verses were found. Secondly, I learned that the rapture was not as old as Christianity, as I had been led to believe. It only appeared in 1830. I slowly and quietly began to remove references to the rapture from my sermons and altar calls.
I also began to breathe a little easier, realizing this wrathful God was not due yet and that the promised seven-year period of “hell on Earth” was a myth. My life became easier. I began to think about returning to school. I had discovered one of my perceptions was wrong and I removed it. My theological box was beginning to unravel.
In 2000, I went back to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree in business management from Buena Vista University. In 2005, I started a Master’s in theology program at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. The first class I took was “Introduction to the Bible.” It was revolutionary. It introduced me to biblical criticism. In a strange ironic way, I am thankful to that Catholic institution for introducing me to a way of studying the bible that delivered me from reading the bible literally. The basic underlying principle of biblical criticism is that, although God is an absolute being, the bible does not have an absolute value, but is conditioned on the historical and cultural setting in which it was written.
Then I made a terrible mistake as a Catholic theology student. I began reading other scholars: James Barr (Princeton and Oxford bible scholar), Hans Kung (the dissident Catholic scholar) and Paul Tillich. I discovered that education and reading outside one’s theological box was a key to freedom — freedom from religious blindness, anxiety and fear. I came away with a new perspective of the bible. The bible was never meant to be a historical, economic, legal or scientific textbook. But, most importantly, it was not meant to be the defining theological textbook, the final word or the only word about God. In less than three months, I lost my fundamentalist lenses through which I had viewed the world. Another matrix plug removed.
After this class, in 2006, I began to think: “Had I in the past, in my zeal as a fundamentalist preacher, misinterpreted the scriptures about the fundamental moral issues of our time?”
I will limit my comments to one issue that dominated most of my fundamentalist preaching: homosexuality. Almost every fundamentalist preacher focuses on this issue. You cannot tune into a Christian radio station and not hear how this “sin is destroying the foundation of our country.”
The question I asked was: “Is it a sin?” My study covered the seven main bible verses that I had used to condemn homosexuality. I was shocked by my findings. It revealed my ignorance. Some of it was just simple basic grammar. I learned that no ancient text — Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic — contained the word homosexuality. The word “homosexuality” did not appear in any language until the 19th century. I discovered that none of those key verses had anything to do with today’s understanding of committed same-sex relationships. I discovered that I was wrong in judging, that I was a bigot and that I had committed acts of prejudice in the name of God.
It was here that I realized that I needed to change my behavior. I took personal responsibility and stopped what I called the essence of fundamentalism: I stopped being a judging meddler in people’s lives. I stopped being a spiritual vulture, going around looking for the supposed sins of others and gorging myself in condemning them. I stopped being a gnat strainer, a nitpicker or fault finder. I began writing and speaking on gay rights and other social justice issues.
I realized that by thinking and using reason, I could come to ethical decisions without God or a religion. As a matter of fact, religion and God can lead to serious immoral discriminations and atrocities. I had come to the decision that I had a right as a human being to judge a religious text when it conflicted with a human right. It was then I realized that I was moving closer to the atheist view of the world. I no longer believed in the monster-god. I had stopped praying. I could not pray to a god who judges, murders and commands “his people” to murder. I no longer believed in a bloodthirsty god who sent his only begotten son into the world to have him die on a cross as a sacrifice to save humanity.
I began living in freedom. I am no longer living with a god in my mind. I am no longer living according to the authoritarian law of God (religion), but I am living according to the reasoned dictates of my own conscience.
I discovered late in life that my arrogance, the kind of arrogance that I used to live and thrive in — the arrogance of fundamentalism, of putting God in a box and saying “He only works in my box” or “I only have the truth” — was a dangerous extreme religion. Yes, it was a malignancy that I removed little by little from my mind and heart. The final Matrix plug had been pulled.
Edward Kelly Jr., a former Pentecostal minister, is a nurse and lives in Iowa with his wife.