Faith Unraveled

I wish I’d had this book ten years ago. I had questions the church couldn’t answer, and it was wrong to even ask them. Things in the fundamentalist sphere didn’t line up for me, but it was the only thing I knew, so I assumed I was just missing something. I wasn’t smart enough, or spiritual enough, or didn’t do enough for God. Though I’m past that initial questioning stage, I recognize the fear and curiosity in Rachel’s story.

I’d described her as a “former fundamentalist” before reading any of her material, but I think I’m wrong. I was waiting to hear where she’d ended up, what church was finally her church, but the answer never came. Maybe it’s better that way. This isn’t a conversion story—it’s a book of questions. It questions the things you’ve been told to accept. It questions the fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture. It questions where she belongs in this church, but she never quite leaves this church. She just tries to make sense of it, which I can respect.

Even when Jesus hung on the cross, when God had been insulted to the highest degree imaginable, left naked, humiliated, beaten, and bruised, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

We had a lot of the same doubts: Like, it doesn’t seem possible that Baptists are the only ones in Heaven. Or, how can people who’ve never been exposed to the Gospel be saved? She realizes there’s a lot of focus on the afterlife and not much focus on this one, a theme that always unsettled me. She spends a lot of time trying to unravel these doubts, so I’d expected a big reveal at the end. The last section is titled “Change,” after all, so I was waiting for her grand answers. But there are no grand answers. Slightly disappointing, but also realistic. Any 20-something who claims to have all the answers is either delusional or a liar. The point of this book isn’t to lecture—it’s simply to explore.

It reads like one big blog post, understandable from someone who started as a blogger. It’s often entertaining, especially when she tells stories of the church’s evangelization efforts. (It’s all so… familiar.) I recall my own frustrations when she’s told “Be careful of what you say” when asking questions, and I laughed when she described the altar call and the droning “Just As I Am” in the background. This is someone who knows something is off, even if she can’t describe it.

Rachel was around my age, and died in 2019. Knowing this threw me into a weird loop as I was reading. She certainly knows the answers now, and it feels like I can just call her up and ask. I hope she knows the impact she’s had on many questioning fundamentalists.

The problem with fundamentalism is that it can’t adapt to change. When you count each one of your beliefs as absolutely essential, change is never an option.

Mark of Cain

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.” And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.
—Genesis 4:8

Cain gets a bad rap: He offered a paltry tithe to God. He killed the first-born child of humanity, making him the world’s first murderer. His name is synonymous with the worst evils. But someone recently made an interesting point: Is Cain really at fault? How would he know that he did anything wrong?

Killing other humans is bad. After the revelation of the Torah and thousands of years of history, we know this. We also know how to avoid killing people. We’ve learned the body’s weaknesses, and God-fearing people abstain from taking advantage of that. But Cain wouldn’t have known any of this. Genesis 4 doesn’t go into detail about how he killed Abel. It simply says he “rose up against his brother.” As I read the text more closely, I find it easy to believe it was an accident.

He had anger issues, certainly. When God rejected his offering, Cain got mad. But God tried to console him, offering a chance of redemption. If only he try harder, he could bring a worthy offering to God like his brother had. Maybe Cain was angry with God, or his brother, or both. Either way, he chose to ignore this divine advice and take out his anger on poor, devout Abel.

He’s definitely punished for his actions. God curses the ground he tills; Cain is forced to wander the earth in exile. This is as much of the story as most of us remember. But in a way… he receives salvation, too. Cain laments his fate, crying out to God that he’ll be murdered in his exile. I’m not sure if he actually repents, but he accepts the punishment. In retrospect, we can look at him and say, “Good, Serves him right.” Luckily, God is not us.

Then the LORD said to him, “Not so! If any one slays Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the LORD put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him.
—Genesis 4:15

The Mark of Cain has been grossly misinterpreted. It’s often seen as a curse, but it’s anything but. Cain is still exiled, but the mark protects him. It’s a barrier that prevents others from harming him the same way he harmed his brother. Isn’t it great how we can royally screw up but still receive His blessing?

What happens to Cain after that? I don’t know. But God does protect him, because he ends up with a wife and kids in a foreign land. The fate of his line is questionable, and he’s certainly not the father of nations. But he’s not the most evil of all evil: he simply didn’t know. Maybe he punched Abel in the face. Maybe he whacked him with a shovel. We don’t get a lot of details, so it’s easy to peg him as “Murderer: bad.” But Cain acted out in anger, and that anger resulted in death. Had anyone even died yet at that point? Would Cain and Abel even know people could die? He was probably scared out of his wits, but still accepted his punishment—even though it was “greater than he could bear.”

You don’t hear much from him after that, besides a few scattered verses about Abel’s death. Maybe Cain repented and lived a simple life. Maybe the rest of his days were happy. At least, I doubt he ever killed someone again.

Flatten the Curve

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from the pandemic, it’s what people put their faith in.

I’ll admit to being fearful in the beginning. I don’t do well with the unknown, and the virus was a worldwide unknown. I actively touched nothing on the train. I wore gloves to shop that I immediately threw away. Whenever I went outside, I’d anxiously wait two weeks to see if I had symptoms. We didn’t know what to expect.

Over time, I went outside. I saw other people. I ate at restaurants and crossed state lines. “Flatten the curve!” they cried, and joyously watched the numbers go down. But people were still getting tested every time they stepped outside. More and more companies were producing masks. “Flatten the curve” became “not until a vaccine.” That’s when I realized that none of this would ever be good enough. It’s not enough for numbers to go down. It had to be eradicated, and then the world would be safe. Then, there would be faith.

There’s faith in a mask, which prevents the spread.
There’s faith in COVID tests, to ensure they haven’t caught it (often multiple times).
There’s faith in politicians, who preach promises of health and safety.
There’s faith in a vaccine, which makes the virus go away.

None of these are completely trustworthy. And what happens when there is a vaccine, but there aren’t enough to go around? Or when people can’t/won’t get the shot?

“It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in man.”
—Psalm 118:8

I have no faith that a mask protects me from anything. I haven’t received a COVID test, because I never showed symptoms. (“What if you’re asymptomatic??!” Who cares?) I don’t listen to the news, and I won’t get a vaccine. I don’t have faith in any of this. I have even less faith in the people in charge, who reopen the country step-by-step like that’s supposed to protect us. They’re not protecting us. Staying cooped up indoors and wrapping your face in fabric is detrimental to your physical and mental health. I don’t need a doctor/scientist/”expert” to tell me that.

I have faith in God. He is the only constant, unchanging, compassionate One. Not to belittle Him, but it’s also easier. Life is full of scary unknowns. This isn’t the first time I’ve sat at home by myself, wondering what’s going to happen. It’s scary to move to a new town, cope with an ailing relative, or convert to Catholicism. But life doesn’t stop because I’m afraid. I lean on His wisdom and guidance to keep going. I won’t say I’m never fearful, because sometimes I am. But you can’t shut everything down.

But that’s what we’re doing. We’re shutting everything down to be careful. We’re past being careful. We’re steeped in this endless fear, because there will always be something else that needs to be done to feel safe. That’s no way to live. Don’t put your faith in manmade materials or ever-changing rules and regulations. Everything’s not going to be okay once a vaccine exists, just like everything wasn’t okay when we flattened the curve. These aren’t the things we’re meant to put our faith in.