Leaving the fold
By Marlene Winell
I was one serious kid. Despite my healthy sense of humor, I worried
a lot about the Big Questions. When in bed with a severe cold, I pondered
my death. Especially as I hit puberty, I had to understand everything
thoroughly. I wanted to get it right and make it mine. No hand-me-down
religion. I was going to feel it for myself and work it out intellectually
too. At sixteen, I decided to chronicle my spiritual life.
Every child finds a way to meet basic needs, and from an early age
I chose a religious path to find the satisfaction that I craved. I
grew up a middle child in a missionary family of seven. Both of my
parents were kept busy establishing churches and Bible schools in
the Orient. The Christian view of life was the only one I knew. So
when my family struggled with continuing conflicts, I deepened my
involvement with faith and church. The semitropical climate of my
childhood meant sundresses and bare feet, cicadas and lizards, and
our own little aboveground swimming pool to survive the summer. My
parents employed a Chinese couple to help with the house, and they
stayed with the family for eighteen years. The wife was my nanny.
She taught me to speak Cantonese before I learned English.
My sister and I played games with our dolls. Our favorites were "hospital"
and "orphanage." In bandaging the dolls perhaps we bandaged our own
psychic hurts. We fought a lot as kids. Our parents had their own
problems, and as missionary kids themselves, knew little about what
to do beyond punishment and prayer. I have warm memories of family
life too. Dad made wooden stilts for us. Mom sang with us at bedtime
from a beautiful homemade scrapbook of Christian songs. One of them
went "Mommy talks to God, Daddy talks to God, And so do I, And so
do I." We had fun filling in with other names of people we knew. The
lullabies gave sweet assurance of God's love and protection. A classic
picture of a guardian angel helping children across a bridge in rough
weather hung on the bedroom wall.
I began school in a Chinese kindergarten, where I was popular for
my blonde hair and origami skills. My sister and I rode to school
in a pedicab, past beggars on the street, and jostled by the crush
of bicycle traffic. After kindergarten, though, we were largely sheltered
by the American subculture in Taiwan and had little contact with the
Asian culture around us. Our family was in a foreign, heathen land
for the purpose of teaching, not learning. Sadly, I remember strong
sights, sounds, and smells in the Buddhist temples, associated only
with pity and disgust.
In spite of the inconsistency of our public and private family life,
the core message of Christianity still made sense to me. It was my
personal relationship with God that counted. I became infatuated with
Jesus, in love with Him. It didn't matter what anyone else did. I
was determined to mature into an ideal Christian. I wanted to be part
of God's family with all my heart and soul. Only much later did I
understand the acknowledgement I sought.
During a furlough back in the States, I was introduced to the charismatic
style of worship in the Assemblies of God. I loved it. Since I had
always been demonstrative myself, the emotional expressiveness felt
so warm and real. I did not "receive the Baptism" until later, but
I became more involved in my faith.
My family traveled to many supporting churches in California, reporting
on missionary progress. We kids helped by dressing up in traditional
Chinese clothes, saying a few words in Chinese, or singing a song.
I felt uncomfortable, but I wanted to do what I could for "the Lord's
work." When we headed back to the mission field, I shared my parents'
sense of purpose.
In junior high, I was sent to the same private Christian boarding
school intended to provide a good education to "missionary kids" in
a Christian environment. Bible classes were taught daily, chapel was
weekly, and church was required twice on Sunday. I became intensely
religious and fairly outspoken about it. I wrote a paper for school
entitled "My Beliefs" and turned it into a huge project. On my own,
I wrote treatises on topics like, "Why dancing is wrong."
The Second Coming was one of my major concerns. I wrote a paper discussing
all the biblical evidence for the "tribulation" and the question of
whether the Christians would be "raptured" (taken up to heaven) out
of it beforehand. I studied and wrote about predestination and "eternal
security," scouring the Scriptures for hints about the theological
problems of whether a Christian was "once saved always saved" or had
to work at staying in a state of grace.
I made a great effort with all these study projects, but I continued
to have emotional needs that were unfulfilled. The energy and time
that went into my faith is actually rather amazing in retrospect.
It is sad now to look back and understand the tension between my normal
teenage need to belong in a peer group and my desire for spiritual
acceptability. My faith taught me to glorify the idea of being different,
which psychologically fostered a feeling of alienation that I tried
to justify in my writing. Sometimes I also seemed to be fending off
sexual interests. With awakening hormones I delved more deeply into
my Christian faith.
I continued feeling discouraged and was struggling with the concerns
of growing up. Finally, one weekend in eighth grade, I "received the
Baptism of the Holy Spirit" - the experience Pentecostal Christians
seek after being saved. It means that you are filled with the Spirit,
and usually speak in tongues as evidence.
My "baptism" experience was an ecstatic forty-five minutes of speaking
in tongues, which felt like ten minutes. Even now, I believe it was
a very special mystical experience, one which I am not sure how to
interpret. It certainly was an altered state, with overwhelming feelings
of total love and acceptance comparable with the spiritual transcendence
experienced by people in a variety of spiritual traditions.
I returned to school with a new confidence and contentment. My prayer
life included speaking and singing "in the Spirit" (in tongues). I
felt happy and loved. I had meaning and I belonged. For the rest of
my adolescent years, my faith was central to my sense of well-being.
At school I shared my enthusiasm for the "Spirit-filled" life. Some
friends went with me to Pentecostal Fellowship meetings, and two of
them also "received the Baptism" when praying with me in the dorm.
For a while I spent my Wednesdays fasting. I got special permission
to miss meals so I could go to the dorm rooftop and pray. I was convinced
that the Second Coming was very soon. This was frequently preached
in Pentecostal circles along with ominous warnings about "the world."
I was keenly aware of an imminent end and the urgency to spread the
word. This produced a seriousness in my communications with others
and, at the same time, a thrill in my private longing to be with Jesus.
Other aspects of teenage life proceeded. I became involved in sports,
grades, piano, dorm life, and plenty of the "good, clean fun" that
comes with the camplike atmosphere of a boarding school. I worried
about acne and agonized with the best of them about my latest crush.
Flirting was always a bit of a mystery.
Dancing became a point of confusion for me. We were not allowed to
dance at school, but I went home for weekends. My friend Laura invited
me to a record hop at the American military teen center. I kept it
a secret from my parents - and felt guilty about what I expected to
be a sinful, sensuous grinding of bodies that would heat up lustful
thoughts and lead directly to sex. So I was surprised to find out
that it was mostly great fun. Rock and roll didn't really seem like
the devil's music, and getting a little attention from boys felt pretty
After that, I alternated between sneaking off to record hops and declaring
to Laura that I did not want to be caught dancing when the Lord came
back. She was pretty tolerant. Although she was also a Christian,
since I had "led her to the Lord," she suffered little guilt for having
fun. At a slumber party with her non-Christian friends, we stayed
up all night playing pinochle. I was developing little chinks in my
armor against "the world."
But I remained puzzled about ordinary human faults. My own failings
were very disturbing. I desperately wanted the "fruits of the Spirit"
(love, joy, peace) and not just the "gifts of the Spirit" (tongues,
healing, prophecy). Speaking in tongues was wonderful, but to me the
real miracle of Christianity was a transformed heart. I was more in
awe of true love than any healing or fulfilled prophecy. But no matter
how zealous I became, I did my share to contribute to the pain and
conflict in my family. I felt guilty for my part and I blamed the
others for theirs. How nice it would have been to have learned something
about communication or how to express feelings! But nowhere in our
belief system was there any help for working on these things _ only
hope that God would do miracles. Troubled relationships only meant
lack of faith or submission to God. I remember sadness and unrelenting
guilt for disappointing a God who had sent his son to die. I wrote
in my diary:
I want to be perfect. I want Jesus Christ to control me completely
- my thoughts, words, and actions. I want people to see Him in me
and believe because they've seen what He can do for a person. I have
a long way to go but with Jesus' help I'll be a blessing.
My main trouble is at home. Oh God, I'm sorry. Please forgive me.
Thank you for your healing spirit. I need you to mend me so many times.
At the end of tenth grade, at the age of sixteen, we moved to Southern
California. I thought it was a year-long furlough but it turned out
to be permanent and created much grief later. The good-byes at summer
camp with my friends, were sad. For four years I had lived with them,
playing pranks and saying prayers, singing songs and studying for
exams, shouting at ballgames and whispering secrets. In my yearbook
Thank you, Marlene for being the mirror through which Christ reflected
Himself to bring me back to Him. Your witness has meant much to me.
You're about the best Christian I know.
You've been such a great friend to me this year. It was through your
concern I as eventually filled with the Holy Spirit. Praise the Lord!
My religion at this time of my life met my many needs perfectly. Upon
arriving in a strange country, I was able to fit in immediately with
the youth group at church. We understood each other because of our
common belief system. My faith also gave me a continued meaning in
life. My huge high school was full of potential converts, and street
witnessing was a dramatic addition to my Christian experience.
To top it off, I soon had a Christian boyfriend at the church. He
demonstrated to me how to talk about Christ to "hippies," emphasizing
the natural high we could get from Jesus. Most of our relationship
occurred over the telephone. He instructed me in ways of being Christian
and cool at the same time. For this I was grateful. Coming from overseas,
my clothes were wrong, and I had a lot of slang to learn. The adjustment
wasn't always easy; mood swings and low self-esteem became a problem
for me, as they do for many teenagers.
I always sought a spiritual solution, so God filled in. My love relationship
with Jesus eased the rough edges of those years. I rarely had a "steady,"
but I always had Jesus. I remember feeling a serene calm inside, knowing
at least one person that always found me totally acceptable.
Leaving my faith was a very slow process. It was in many ways a reluctant
parting and it's hard to say how many years it took. Some changes
began when I was sixteen, but it was ten years before I stopped calling
myself a Christian.
Overseas we were taught to feel lucky to be Americans, to be patriotic
and anticommunist, and that our culture was superior to the one surrounding
us. There was little discussion of the Vietnam War, even though it
was right next door. We met GIs who were on leave, but they didn't
talk about the war. I didn't give it much though, other than that
it was a shame but somebody had to stop the Communists. From our Christian
point of view, the turmoil of the war was simply another sign of the
end times. It was inevitable. We thought that war protesters should
get right with God instead of trying to change history.
Despite world travel, my life had been sheltered. High school in California
was for me the beginning of provocative new information: existentialism,
Eastern philosophy, Black literature, modern poetry. Studying Shakespeare
taught me that profound thought wasn't limited to Christians. I read
_Siddhartha_, _The_Stranger_, _Catcher_in_the_Rye_, and _Stranger_
in_a_Strange_Land_. I was both intrigued and upset, unwilling to simply
screen out what I was learning. Sustaining my faith was taking more
and more effort.
The "Jesus Movement" came into full swing in Southern California at
about this time. We had the Christian version of flower children:
going to Calvary Chapel in jeans and bare feet, baptisms in the surf,
Christian rock and roll, and being different from our parents. There
were converts by the hundreds, and I was excited. We had a sense of
A memorable highlight was a week of organized witnessing in San Francisco
with "Youth With A Mission." The group received continued training
in evangelism and assorted topics. Walking into the hip subculture
was for me like Dorothy in the Land of Oz - "Drugs and occult and
sex, oh my!" I was treading carefully through Satan's territory. Witnessing
to a long-haired man in Golden Gate Park who said he was Jesus left
me stumped! Every evening we tallied conversions, and compared notes
about the challenges we had faced. We memorized more Scripture and
refined our arguments to handle the tough cases. Of course, we interpreted
objections to the Gospel as "darkness" rather than honest reasons
people had for not being Christian. We prayed for the souls we had
spoken with each day and asked God to "convict" them of sin and lead
them to the light.
In June 1968, I graduated second in my high school class and made
an evangelistic speech at graduation. For a basically shy girl, in
front of a stadium full of people, it was quite a pitch. Evidently
I had become more entrenched in my beliefs as a way of dealing with
the new, discordant information. The school administration neglected
to read my address beforehand, which I considered an act of God. I
recall delivering my words with fearless enthusiasm because I was
That we as graduates are now going into a confused, embittered, and
violent world is a fact which no one can contest. Our goals must be
above the all too common and somewhat glib rhetoric of graduation
speeches of the past. Our goals must be to work for the genuine brotherhood
of mankind - true peace - based on love and mutual respect of our
fellow man. This can only be brought about by the transformation of
individuals through the power of Christ.
I debated between Oral Roberts University or the University of California
at Irvine and chose the latter - so that I could be a witness there!
The Christian students there took evangelizing seriously. We met for
Bible studies in the park on campus. For a while I even lived with
them in a Christian commune, getting the family warmth I always craved.
I enjoyed college for the intellectual stimulation and challenge.
My exposure to new ideas continued. In a multidisciplinary course,
I learned about the history of Western culture from the time of Plato
and Aristotle to the present, covering major movements in philosophy,
political science, literature, and art. We read St. Augustine, Descartes,
Mill, Marx, Freud, Beckett, and many others. It was interesting to
find out about religious assumptions that were challenged by Copernican
astronomy, the rise of empirical science, and Darwinism. I was surprised
at how many philosophers had tried to prove the existence of God.
Most of all, I was intrigued by analyses of core existential dilemmas.
I wrote a paper about Dostoyevsky's _Notes_from_the_Underground_ and
"The Grand Inquisitor," ending with, "The tragic grandeur of humanity
is the struggle to be free in constant fear of freedom." For me, the
notion of free will had always been a problem in the contest of an
omniscient and omnipotent God. How could we possibly choose our lives
or choose salvation if God knows all and controls all? I felt increasingly
compelled by notions of personal freedom.
In psychology I learned about behaviorism, which asserts the then
mind-boggling thesis that everything is learned. This meant that,
in theory, all human behavior is predictable. In response to B. F.
Skinner's book _Beyond_Freedom_and_Dignity_, I wrote a paper defending
free choice. But the idea that behavior is learned was also liberating.
It was revolutionary for me to think that personal problems or "bad
habits" could be the result of environmental conditioning rather than
sin. I noticed a growing softness in my judgment of human beings.
We were all in the same boat, struggling to meet our needs.
From Eastern thought and existentialism, I soaked up ideas about awareness
and responsibility. I fell in love with the notion of being fully
present in every moment and thereby creating one's life. This was
personal and powerful. The individual was all important instead of
"mankind." Choices were not only available but were critical for identity
and existence. I wrote about paying attention to small pleasures and
participating in the dance of life:
Time moves on, in rhythmic step, relentless but not unpleasant. We
can dance to the beat, weaving in and out, sometimes ahead, sometimes
behind, back and forth crisscrossing the steady advance. Always knowing
however, that we must keep moving. There is no sitting down to rest.
So try to enjoy the dance, baby. It can be beautiful at times as well
as terrifying. We must savor those segments of beauty.
For a New Year's resolution, I wrote "Enjoy the dance" but later "I
weep for the struggle, longing to be set free yet wanting my fetters."
I read Ram Dass's _Be_Here_Now_ and tried to convince myself to give
up desire and attachment. I wanted contentment and inner peace. "Extricate
from desire," I read, "the fire of internal struggle."
Majoring in social ecology meant pursuing my interest in a multidisciplinary
approach to social issues. Six quarters of field study got me out
into the community and learning skills. In my preschool placements
the children were wonderful - natural, curious, creative, affectionate,
alive - which led me to question some of the Christian precepts I
had accepted before, all based on original sin. Learning child development
was quite the eye-opener. For example, a child's behavior that appears
"selfish" is often part of learning identity and self-worth.
In my desire to help people, I took courses in counseling. Early on,
I thought that secular psychology had something to offer Christians,
particularly in the skill of good listening. Christians don't tend
to concern themselves with this. And as I learned the art of facilitating
a person's personal change, I couldn't help developing a respect for
natural, intuitive growth processes. People are for the most part
well-intentioned, I realized. A good therapist provides loving support
the way a gardener tends her plants. A humanistic view of humans made
sense to me. It seemed to work in practical ways, and it felt good
to me emotionally.
Nevertheless for a long time I tried to integrate my new awareness
and skills with my faith. For one of my field studies, I worked with
another woman to start a 24-hour hotline and walk-in Christian counseling
center. The experience brought my growing frustration with the church
patriarchy into sharper focus. To my surprise, we were told we could
only get support from Calvary Chapel if we had male leadership. So
we prayed for a male director! The first one we were offered by Calvary
soon created problems - he canceled our phone service and left town.
We had the service reinstated and carried on. Finally one of our male
counselors, a newly converted Christian, stepped into the director
position. Saying he had been led by God. At the time that was enough
for me. I had been taught well enough to repress my anger. Personal
feeling and individual credit are of no importance compared to getting
the Lord's work done, I believed. In the end, the One Way Help Center
(audacious name!) operated for four full years.
Just as I was disappointed with sexist and hypocritical Christians,
I was soon influenced by non-Christians who impressed me. When I made
friends with two people involved in an Eastern religion, I found they
were just as enthusiastic about their religion as I was about mine.
They were happy and loving and delighted with their marriage and I
saw more "fruits of the Spirit" in them than I saw in most Christians.
I couldn't simply dismiss this perception the way I had been taught,
chalking it up to "Satan disguised as an angel of light." These people
were real. I was becoming tired of twisting everything to fit. But
I tried to hang on. Jesus was still precious to me.
For an anthropology class, I wrote an extensive paper about the cultural
context of sexism in the Bible. I maintained that the comments about
women in the Scriptures were understandable by examining the times.
I said that they were descriptive, not prescriptive for us. I wanted
to think that our faith could be relevant, that Christianity could
change with the modern world and still be the viable truth. But despite
my effort, sermons at church about "women's place" became more and
more intolerable to me.
All through college, I worked as a waitress, meeting people and overcoming
my shyness. This helped me leave my religious cocoon. The demands
of the job first taught me to function more competently in the world.
Then, as I learned to relate more openly to a variety of people (since
everyone has to eat), I became more accepting and appreciative of
human diversity. Gradually I stopped filtering and twisting information.
I learned more and more and felt better and better. I didn't want
to see people only as potential converts. I wanted to love them for
who they were and I wanted to love life here and now. Eventually I
stopped categorizing people as sheep and goats, saved and damned.
I was on my way out.
In the course of taking art classes in college, I thought the dada
and surrealist movements were fascinating because they rebelled against
the established order, exalted the irrational unconscious, and honored
the absurd. Perhaps because of my mystical experiences, I was attracted
to the surrealists' interest in dreams. Weary from my efforts to understand
everything, I became more accepting of my own dream life, my visual
appreciation, and my enjoyment of the unusual.
A film history class introduced me to Truffaut, Bunuel, and Bergman
and the beautiful innocence of children in "Small Change," the agony
of the personal decision in "The Exterminating Angel," the terrible
strangeness of humanity in "Un Chien Andalou," the immense profundity
and fragility of existence in "Cries and Whispers."
One night I dreamed that I was in outer space at a space station that
was trying to contact Earth for help. We were in danger of blowing
up any minute, and I watched a technician calling desperately on a
telephone. He did not know that the other end of his telephone line
was not connected to anything. I remember the horror of realizing
that no one was listening. The next day I knew the dream was about
God. But rather than feeling terrified - or in addition to being terrified
- I felt an incredible awareness of being alive. The dream had felt
real; I had faced certain impending death. Being alive the next day
felt like a wonder, as though I had woken up. I walked slowly that
day and allowed myself to actually feel my footsteps. I can still
remember the crisp air and the clear edges of the leaves on the trees.
The day was long and full and I felt like I had learned something
at a very deep level - something important that I wanted to always
remember - to notice my life.
Journal entries and letters from my college years reveal swings between
anguished frustration and renewed faith. I always heaped blame for
the problems on myself, looked to God for help, and thanked him for
any improvements in my life. Looking back, I can see that self-respect
was a near impossibility:
There is a secret of being a Christian which I have not managed to
master. Every time everything seems to be going fine, I lose control
of myself in some way. Then I hate myself, feel estranged from God,
and start despairing. It frustrates me so much that I can't know the
will of God. Or when I do know it and can't fulfill it. But my hope
is irrepressible. I'll never stop trying.
I think God speaks in a very soft voice. I think I've been hearing
it but I'm not sure.
The Lord is becoming very real to me, and I'm finding out how very
slow I am to learn things.
I was also becoming very confused about sex. My college boyfriend
was not raised the way I was, even though my first success was to
take him to church and see him converted. Our hormones ran high, and
I had trouble with the usual female gatekeeper responsibility. Somehow
we managed to avoid going "all the way," but that was more of a technicality.
My sexuality was a wonderful discovery, but the guilt was also tremendous.
I broke off the relationship several times and suffered just as much
guilt for hurting him. I was convinced on more than one occasion that
God wanted me to let go. The effort to figure out God's will was exhausting.
Finally after three years we got married. At that point, we felt led
by God. I allowed myself to fall in love more deeply. I stopped debating
and began enjoying the happiness of commitment with another human
being. Very unintentionally, I prayed and studied the Bible less and
less. I gradually realized that I no longer felt emotionally needy
all the time. Being loved and held daily was wonderful. The closeness
with a real live person had a profound effect: It broke my addiction
I continued on to graduate school, pleased to be learning about domains
of human interaction that we could work on - not everything was spiritual
after all. My helplessness and shame and dependence on God were being
replaced with real abilities.
I learned counseling and teaching skills, marriage and family therapy,
and behavior change techniques with children. My husband and I ran
a home for emotionally and behaviorally disturbed boys. Then we received
a federal grant and worked together with the county to create a shelter
for troubled teenagers. At the university I helped with programs on
male-female relationships, assertiveness, sexuality, and empathy.
Retaining an existentialist regard for the power of choice and responsibility,
my doctoral dissertation concerned self-direction. After graduate
school I taught briefly on the university level and then began a private
practice as a psychologist. In the course of my work and my own growth,
I became interested in the long-lasting influence of religious involvement.
My personal growth has taken quantum leaps with the experience of
parenting. With my first husband I had a son who has taught me immeasurably
- about life, about myself. I am convinced that we all need to listen
to the wisdom of our children.
My divorce and a move to Colorado made for a very challenging time.
Being on my own with a child and working full time forced me to dig
down and find the inner strength I needed. I also had a lot to learn
about self-love and self-care.
A second marriage, a step-daughter, and a daughter have given me more
to treasure in my life. I continue to be impressed with the options
we have to create the kind of life we want to live. My family enables
me to be myself within a nurturing environment. True love is quite
possible, and families don't have to be dysfunctional all the time.
Most recently, my work in California again involved teaching at the
university level, this time focusing on issues of human diversity
and skills to enhance communication. The need to learn tolerance and
cooperation in the world today is obvious; it has been gratifying
to continue toward this in some way and to watch students find that
they can learn relationship skills to match the ideals of their rhetoric.
I looked forward to more work in the domain of cross-cultural and
Along the way, it has also been fascinating to learn about the function
of art in human expression and social statement. I recently curated
an exhibit with sixteen artists and a group of art therapy clients,
as well as work of my own. The show, called "Thou Shalt Not," used
a variety of media to express feelings about religious indoctrination
and spirituality, offering both protest and hope.
I left the faith of my childhood because of old promises that were
not fulfilled and new promises that were. The diaries I kept made
it clear to me later that being a Christian did not solve my personal
or interpersonal problems. I had mystical experiences which seemed
to give me a glimpse of the divine, and I had the hope of future union
with God. For these I am still grateful. But in my everyday life I
lived with enormous guilt and frustration over not being the person
I thought I should be. Good things were always due to God and failures
were always mine.
Encountering other ideas gave me new options. As I became armed with
alternatives, I was more willing to confront the problems in my religion,
such as sexism, the notion of original sin, and the dichotomy of saved
and damned. Allowing myself some intellectual integrity was an enormous
relief. Then I allowed myself to be in the world. By letting go of
judgment, I could participate in the joys and care about the problems,
instead of focusing on the hereafter. I could be close to people and
realize the warmth of human love. And very importantly, I developed
a framework for thinking about myself that included self-esteem. With
all of these developments, there was no turning back. the mental and
emotional doors to the future had been opened. The honesty and gut-level
confrontation with my humanness - the good, the bad, and the ugly
- was delicious.
This is not to say that I haven't had much pain and struggling. The
loss of an all-encompassing belief system has profound consequences,
including ambiguity and responsibility. Over the years I have dealt
with all the issues addressed in this book. Family relationships have
been forever changed. Like a lost child, I have had to reconstruct
reality. I have had to examine and recreate a great many assumptions
- about the meaning of life, the world, myself, others, the past,
present, and future. Automatic thoughts and behaviors are difficult
to change, and I continue to wrestle with old beliefs that are powerful
and often unconscious.
_Reprinted_with_permission_from__Leaving_the_Fold_ by Marlene Winell._
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