Skepticism, faith and music in a minor key

Published 8:52 am Friday, August 16, 2013

Column: Notes From Home, by David Behling

The pew was familiar and uncomfortable. I felt awkward, as if attending church involved lying about my lack of faith to my mother. But then the organ began to play the hymn — “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” an ancient hymn in a minor key — and I felt my soul open up.

By the time I started college, I was already pretty much finished with church, restless as I sat in the pew singing hymns I found uninspiring, listening to sermons that made no sense. At college — freed from the boundaries and expectations of life at home — I was looking forward to the freedom to sleep in Sunday mornings and experience all that life offered without guilt or shame.

Email newsletter signup

In reality, those experiences I sought — sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll — never appeared as viable options. I may have stepped away from the rules created by my mother and the church, but my internal boundaries (Spock is my role model, after all) made all of that risky, irrational behavior unlikely.

Spirituality remained important, however, even if I found myself thinking about God and faith in less conventional ways. While my friends included believers from other branches of Christianity and other faiths — Mormon and Jewish — at college I became friends with agnostics and atheists. We had lively discussions that did not degenerate into name-calling and finger-pointing.

So when I sat in church that Advent, worship resonated in a way that was most unexpected. It was not an emotional resonance, either, or at least not solely emotional. This was about ideas, about an immortal creator voluntarily becoming a mortal to strengthen the connection between the divine and the human. I had gone to church that morning because my mother had made a special effort to invite me — with a delicious home cooked meal afterwards as my reward — but the result was that I ended up understanding how important faith was in my life.

All of those experiences were years ago, but as I continue to interact with young adults at church and at the college — once they find out I will listen without judgment — I find that their questions aren’t all that much different from mine: Why do we go to church? Why is there so much evil and suffering in the world, if God really is good and loves us? Or is God really a cruel puppet master? Or did we invent God because it makes us feel less lonely and vulnerable in a harsh and empty universe?

Youth programs at churches often emphasize activities and music that engage teens emotionally. Fundamentalist churches are particularly effective at creating and marketing programs that offer emotional experiences; they energize the youth through music-driven worship building up to Bible studies that are part standup comedy and part gut-wrenching testimonial, driving doubts and skepticism deep underground.

Youth programs that are successful in attracting and holding onto youth also build relationships, among the teens who participate, but especially between teens and the adult leaders. Unfortunately, many of those relationships are not completely genuine, because the whole purpose is evangelical and theological. Doubts are not suppressed, but they are often ignored or sidestepped, with conversations redirected away from the difficult to the simple.

My experience leads me down a different path, where doubts are acknowledged and difficult questions can be asked. Skepticism needs honest answers. This is not easy. Advent hymns will not resonate with everyone, and neither will Bible studies or jump-up-and-shout praise songs. Everyone will not end up reentering the life of the church they grew up in. Those young people might find other ways to worship and pray, use other names for God or no names at all. And that’s OK.

Members of traditional churches, with more conventional beliefs, need to be more respectful of the many directions spirituality takes the young people we care about, lest our judgment harden their hearts. We need to pray for them, of course, but also look beyond church attendance and the purity of their “doctrines” and beliefs. This will not be easy, but if we love our children, we will make the honest effort to be patient and help keep their eyes, minds and souls open.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.