The screenplay I’m working on, A Eulogy for the Believer, deals directly with the subject of religious faith and the enigma of belief (a phrase I first heard from philosopher/theologian Peter Rollins). The script is inspired by my experiences, but the story itself is completely fictional.
The subject matter is risky because it can stir strong opinions. My objective with the screenplay (and with this post) is not to insist upon you an argument for or against belief, but to simply tell a story and let the story speak for itself.
I grew up in the rural Midwest, where my life revolved around the three pillars of family, church, and school. I was raised Christian. My family never missed a day of church. Church attendance, like school, was never optional.
The church played a huge role in my upbringing and very much informed my identity as a youth. I was an active member of the youth group. I went on all of the youth retreats and rallies. At my public High School, I was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. I attended the teen bible study that met before school. I prayed around the flagpole. In my high school class ring, I had a cross etched in the stone.
When I graduated High School, my friends went to college and partied. I went to a Christian college and studied the Bible. I graduated four years later with a degree in preaching. At the time, I was a fervent believer, and I thought I’d spend the rest of my life in vocational ministry.
My faith at this time could best be described as “certain.” I studied the bible and apologetics. I was confident that God’s word had all the answers to our deepest questions. And I was pretty good at answering people’s questions about God.
Then an unexpected gift arrive, and as a result, my faith began to unravel.
While attending a church conference in Seattle, I came across a film festival. It was my first interaction with the film industry. The town I grew up in had a two-screen movie theater and a Family Video where we rented VHS tapes to watch over the weekend. Hollywood could have been on a different planet.
At this film festival, I made a startling discovery: it was regular ordinary people with a passion for storytelling that made movies. I was captivated so much, that I went back a second day to learn more. When I left Seattle, there was stirring in my soul and desire to find out more about the craft of filmmaking.
When I returned to New Hampshire, where I was living at the time, I did some research. I discovered that the New York Film Academy offered 30-day intensive filmmaking course in Boston during the summer. I yearned to go.
The problem was, I was broke. The church I was working at wasn’t paying me a salary. I was living on the support of friends and family. I worked a part time job driving a wheel chair van to help make ends meet. My income was less than $9K that year. The filmmaking program cost several thousand dollars. I was convinced that film school was beyond my means, so I kept the desire to go to myself.
Then one Sunday afternoon I got a call from the church administrator. She asked me to swing by the church the next day. She said she had something for me. The next day, I went to the church and she handed me a check for $3,000. She said someone in the church had gifted it to me. There were no strings attached. I could use the money however I wanted. I used the money to go to film school. The giver wished to remain anonymous. To this day, I do not know who gave me the money.
At film school, I discovered a new passion: storytelling. The language of storytelling, specifically visual storytelling like filmmaking, made sense to me. It was my soul language, just like music, poetry, cooking, or yoga is the soul language for some, visual storytelling was my soul language. It is how I make sense of the world. Rhetoric will only get you so far. Eventually, you have to stop the rhetoric and tell a story. Jesus understood this.
My film school experience changed the course of my life and my faith. My belief system at the time - the narrative I had constructed about the world and my place in it - worked well as long as I was surrounded by people who believed the same things and I had limited contact with people with different worldviews. Film school introduced me to a whole new world of people.
After film school, I moved to Boston and then eventually to Los Angeles. Along the way, I became friends with people who were very different from me. They found my story as intriguing as I found theirs and over time, I began to see the world through a more grand, beautiful, messy lens. I became friends with social liberals, atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and members of the LGBT community. Friendship changes everything. That is why we are implored to love our enemies. Start with love and the tone of the conversation changes dramatically. I had to reexamine what I believed.
Over the next several years, I began a process of deconstructing my faith, of unbelieving everything to find out if there was anything left worth believing. The culmination of my deconstruction came when I was sitting on a plane reading an article about the discovery of the bones in the North African desert. They were the bones of a sea creature that lived hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of years ago. It was incredible to read about and struck wonder in me.
The article was also very troubling because it did not fit with my narrative for the world. If this was true – and it certainly appeared to be true - what else did I believe that was wrong? I put down the magazine, and a new thought emerged: I don’t think I believe anymore. It was the first time in my life that I thought I might be an atheist. It was terrifying.
This was an ugly time for my faith. I went from sitting in the front row of church with my hands in the air to sitting in the middle pews with my hands in my lap to standing against the back wall with my arms crossed to not attending at all. And worst of all, I became cynical.
My path back to faith started with the Bible. I decided to reread it. This time I would read it without any commentary. I would let the Bible speak for itself. I started a “read the Bible in one-year” plan, and three years later I finished it. I found that the Bible did not hold up to my old way of believing, but it held up beautifully to a new way of believing.
The Bible is the messy, imperfect story of humankind's wrestling, reaching, longing for God. The protagonists of the stories didn’t always get it right. Not everything in the Bible reflects the heart and will of God. Jesus, the Christ, remained the most compelling part of the narrative. He brought hope and light and a new way of living in the world with his message about the Kingdom of God.
I started attending a different church. Sitting in the sanctuary with sunlight pouring through stained-glass stories, with a pipe organ declaring and robed choir singing hymns of faith that have been sung for centuries. The rhythms of the liturgy provided a space for me to start to allow the beauty and mystery of faith back into my life.
After years in a spiritual wilderness, I began to emerge again. I let go of my cynicism and made peace with my constant companion, doubt. God is dead. Long live God.
I also made peace with my conservative Evangelical upbringing. I am grateful for the wonderful people that are a part of this faith tradition and are still a part of my life. I’m thankful for my upbringing and the path it put me on. But I’ve let go of the fundamentalism that hinders the path of love, compassion, justice, and peace.
The change in my faith came at a cost. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt. It is certainty. And I lost my certainty. I lost a God I could understand and diagram on a piece of paper. Honestly, there are days I’m not sure what I believe. I’m okay with that. I lost a little courage. Before, I took a lot more risks because I longed to live a life of complete dependence on God. Now my brain takes over and I tend to over-analyze things. I’m still working on that.
But in the process of losing and finding my faith again, I’ve gained much. I found a greater capacity for empathy. I would rather serve my Lord recklessly near the gates of hell than sit comfortably on his lap while the world goes to hell.
I gained a more profound wonder for the world around me. I find God in the beauty of creation, in the perplexity of science, in the nuance of art, in the subtlety of a good story, in the common humanity of those around me. And though I lost a God I could understand and diagram on a piece of paper, I found a God so much bigger, awe-inspiring, wondrous, and worthy.
I have learned to delight in the mystery of God and in doing so, I found my faith. My soul stirs again with passion and commitment to this loving God. And from time to time, my lips still utter Hallelujah.
A WRITER AND TRAVELER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES