Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious, Chris Stedman (Beacon Press, 2012) $22.95
The first four chapters are spent introducing and grounding Stedman in plum evangelical youth culture, with memorable and detailed accounts of altar calls, Bible studies, hushed prayers with friends at school, complete with religious paraphernalia, clothing, and reductionist bumper sticker-theology. But rather than stay there and perhaps explain why he rejected the faith of his childhood for an educated and “liberated” atheism, he begins to tell a different story. Slowly, he begins to introduce what it means to realize you have same-sex attraction in evangelical culture. He tells about his first tentative “dates” with boys, his crushes on television swimsuit models and Justin Timberlake, and his first breakup. Underneath the tension of sin and shame is still another story – how he realized, again ever so slowly, that he had given up on God.
What struck me the most was how relatable Stedman’s experiences are to me, as a straight evangelical. The fear of his “sin” being exposed, the musical interests, the life-long desire for community, frustration with the things done in God’s name, and the lingering resentment of a God who rarely – if ever – shows up. Like a modern Holden Caulfield, Stedman chronicles his journey through evangelical culture, disillusionment and disenchantment, college, first loves, and the screw-ups of the early twenties. But unlike The Catcher in the Rye, Stedman possesses the requisite maturity to make meaning of the chaos. He went to college to study religion, trying to make sense of it all – his life as a gay man, the faith of his childhood, and the irreconcilable incongruency between the two. He find himself working in an assisted-living home, reading the “Lutheran Prayer for Courage” at the request Marvin, a developmentally disabled resident.
I realized that though I couldn’t decipher why the prayer was so important to him, it was. It touched him in a profound way. And because I shared in this significant element of his life, our relationship was more honest and real… I realized that a relationship that didn’t account for this important piece of Marvin’s life was an incomplete one.
Stedman goes on to have an epiphany of sorts. Even though he no longer believes in God, or any god for that matter, he sees the value in helping people – even people who do not believe the way that he does. He decides to devote himself to interfaith engagement, inspired by a copy of Eboo Patel’s Acts of Faith, concluding that,
I wanted to learn from my mistakes and take concrete action to bridge the vast divide between religious communities and the nonreligious. The anger I felt after years of struggling with Christian theology and my sexual orientation transformed into something deeper, richer, and more complex: a combination of humility and empathy, a stance of conviction, curiosity, and compassion.