the digital home of Lauren Tyree

Dirt and Magic

For decades I took the Bible’s creation account as historical fact. I knew the world’s first human was molded by the same hands that knit me together in my mother’s womb . 1 God’s own breath infused brand new dust to create a conscious body. Other species were spoken into spontaneous existence before having their naming ceremony casually outsourced, but Adam was fearfully and wonderfully made. 2

We humans were the big stars all along. Earth was a backdrop for our high-stakes drama- a prelude to eternal bliss or agony. Though God had worked on it to the point of exhaustion, He wanted us to be “in the world but not of it” 3 - divine beams of light trapped in fragile jars of clay . 4 We were doomed to our prisons of expiring flesh until our eventual homecoming in paradise. I expected that realm to be much more hospitable, since up there, no earth quakes, no cancer spreads and no heart splits in two. Mostly, I yearned for the boundless joy, unmediated worship and buffets overstocked with purely recreational eats. Sometimes, I secretly wondered how I’d survive the tedium of infinity.

But it wasn’t right to question God’s power. Saved by a measure of grace that no mortal could merit, I shouldn’t ignorantly evaluate the Kingdom based on my limited perspective. I should “live in light of eternity” 5 rather than cling to comforting conventions like space and time. And if things ever got hairy, I’d be a willing martyr- the highest calling. I was encouraged by the words of C.S. Lewis: “Has this world been so kind to you that you should leave with regret? There are better things ahead than any we leave behind.” 6 I mentally prepared for Judgment Day to avoid being caught off-guard. As a child, I daydreamed about the guillotine and mark of the beast, hoping Jesus would return before the Antichrist took power. In high school, the fantasy involved being singled out by a gun-wielding classmate with deep scars from Sunday School. When he spat in my face and asked if I really believed in God, I’d sob, nod, choke out a ‘yes’ and brace myself. 7 I hoped my loyalty would secure me a spot in heaven if my belief alone could not.

Driving my faith was a keen sense of my intrinsic worthlessness. God could’ve merely willed me to life like He did everything else. But He personally gifted His spirit, and I immediately betrayed Him with sin. I hadn’t lived in the Garden of Eden myself, but I was just as accountable for my “fallen” state, 8 and I couldn’t escape my estrangement from The Father by natural means. To willingly align myself with my traitorous flesh was to choose death over life. If only I’d offer myself as a living sacrifice 9 by inviting the Spirit to replace my instincts with God’s, I’d avoid the horrific fate of the unredeemed.

Now a few years removed from Christianity, 10 I can appreciate the symbolic power of the Genesis story. The book’s authors hadn’t yet examined their genetic heritage when they pinpointed humanity’s main ingredients. Whether manually molded by a personified deity or perpetually regenerating on the fuel of our innate intelligence, we’re essentially a mixture of dirt and magic. Either way, it’s clear our bodies are made of the ground beneath our feet. And our consciousness is still such a perplexing phenomenon that even the least spiritual among us are sometimes enchanted. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran writes, “How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe-inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago.” 11

So we really have been the big stars all along. But the makeup of our species isn’t unique; as writer Jostein Gaarder points out: “A hydrogen atom in a cell at the end of my nose was once part of an elephant’s trunk. A carbon atom in my cardiac muscle was once in the tail of a dinosaur.” 12 The imagery sets my heart on fire and my mind at ease. Since I literally belong to the earth, I can settle in for good. I can live this life instead of steeling myself for the next. I can trust my gut rather than compulsively censor thoughts that might summon The Enemy. I’m not ashamed of being human, and I don’t feel hopelessly alienated because of my personal relationship with an authoritarian god. The fact that I’m no more objectively significant than the chair that props me up really takes the pressure off.

Still, I am an inconceivable miracle- a bright flame of consciousness temporarily animating a tiny speck of Earth. While the matter will recycle, the light will flicker out- I hope not a moment too soon or too late.

1. Psalm 139:13: For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. (NIV)
2. Psalm 139:14: I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (NIV)
3. popular Christian phrase that I always took for a verse in scripture; may be based in part on Jesus’ prayer for new converts in John 17:16: They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.
4. 2 Corinthians 4:7: But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
5. another ubiquitous bit of Christianese that might as well be scripture.
6. June 17, 1963 letter to Mary Willis Shelburne, printed in The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume 3
7. Columbine victim Cassie Bernall was a martyr in her mom’s book She Said Yes , a story later undermined by eyewitness reports. Fact or fiction, it made a huge impact on me. I was intimidated by the daunting standard she set but inspired by her bravery.
8. Romans 3:23: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God
9. Romans 12:1-2: Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
10. Read my “Christian Extimony” here .
11. from the introduction of The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human
12. from his 1991 novel Sophie’s World

(also posted on )

From Eternity to Here: My Christian Extimony

I’m 29 and have been in recovery from evangelical fundamentalism for a few years now. I’m still trying to assemble an identity and a life apart from God.

I was born in Philadelphia and grew up in a ministry family. My father served at churches and non-profits in different regions of the US with wife and two children in tow. We followed God’s lead, no matter how indecipherable the directions. Dad was the official recipient of the Holy Spirit’s messages, and Mom was dutiful but strong-headed. Uncertainty, pressure and tension followed us wherever we went. My little brother and I cycled between imaginative play and overt hostility, riding atmospheric waves of marital discord. Common features among our childhood homes were egg-shell floors and thin walls.

God was the real head of our household. Authoritarian and perfectionist, he was never pleased. Heavenly Father’s nature kept my Earth Dad feeling just shy of the mark in every endeavor. Dad wore the frustration and self-loathing on his sleeve, often reminding us: we humans are weak and worthless on our own; “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 54:6)

Jesus was our counterbalancing comfort. I applied the warm salve as needed- an antidote to intrusive images of hell and demon-possessed Disney cartoons. Jesus alone could save me from an eternity of torture, for the price of one heart, one soul and my eternal consciousness. Never having bonded with my own heart or intuition, I considered it a small sacrifice. What’s the rest of my life on Earth compared to forever in paradise?

Throughout my teens, I sought to better understand and defend the doctrine by studying apologetics. As a naturally rational, literal person, I always fought cognitive dissonance when it came to biblical claims and miracle healings. But my rare moments of peace and reassurance all came from the Holy Spirit. God, in his three persons, anchored my intellectual, psychological and emotional experience. And I couldn’t imagine life without the Truth, now believing there was an air-tight argument for every Christian claim.

To reject God was dangerous self-delusion. But the fact that most people in the world were so deluded felt tragic. Does the bulk of each generation end up in hell? What did our God do to earn His monopoly on universal Truth? Why was this wasteful setup okay with Him? Of course, these were silly, petty questions coming from me. Who was I to question the Way Things Are? I knew better. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)

I sometimes debated with nonbelievers during my years at Vassar College, even as I enjoyed a new freedom to explore the taboo (philosophy, evolutionary theory, cheap vodka in plastic cups). Though I loosened up just enough to fit in, I remained decidedly chaste and avoided drunken flings in favor of the same innocent crushes I’d had since kindergarten. I was the sexually non-threatening good girl- not too uptight to party, but willing to stand strong in her faith when challenged.

My college friends’ carefree living and casual dismissal of fundamentalist beliefs had planted additional seeds of pesky doubt, so I opted for an evangelical graduate school (Regent U. in Virginia Beach) in an effort to get closer to my spiritual kin and re-cement my relationship with Christ. Immediately irked by some of my new schoolmates’ lack of intellectual curiosity, I gravitated toward the misfits who wrestled with doctrine and started debates in class. I was most at-ease with my small group of male friends; we’d stay up until morning talking, watching thought-provoking R-rated movies, and fishing for live lobsters from the tank at our favorite dive bar.

By the end of my Master’s program, one thing was clear: No one really had it all figured out. I started to entertain the thought that we were all just human, in the same boat, trying to navigate our way through life without clear intel. The people I’d expected to reassure me didn’t live as if they had the Ultimate Answer to Everything. I flirted with new terms- Christian anarchism, sola scriptura , liberation theology. Maybe my faith could be made more grounded, personal and practical. I applied for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. They shipped me out to Los Angeles to work full-time at a non-profit, in exchange for room and board at a South Central home shared with four peers.

There was no better place than California to encourage the free-spirit contrarian in me. The vaguely Catholic JVC program and its functionally agnostic members had me more disillusioned than ever. That idealized, workable brand of Christianity now seemed elusive and pointless. During my first year in LA, I started to understand the concept of pluralism, and I met my first serious boyfriend- a former Christian with boundless curiosity and creativity. Self-directed and oddly at peace with the troubling conditions of mortal existence, he patiently prompted me to ask myself the tough questions whenever I began to evangelize.

Soon, I was allowing myself to consider the possibility of thinking more critically about my worldview. Before I knew it, I was at a point of no return; one foot was firmly out of the fold. I removed the other after a short-lived re-dedication to church and small-group bible study. The moment of epiphany occurred during a routine devotional in my room one afternoon. What if the Holy Spirit is in my head? The intrusive thought interrupted my silent prayer. Why must I continue to stoke this fire each day? If this is the unavoidable Truth, why do I spend so much time convincing myself? Before I could squelch the urge, I pried my laptop open to search the internet: “bible contradictions.” I wanted to see if the inerrant Word of God could be legitimately de-legitimized, and I wasn’t going to restrict myself to the apologists this time. I was a nonbeliever almost overnight.

Some aspects of religion were easy to let go of. The fantastical, impossible claims and ignorant laws became laughable even as they began to make perfect sense in light of their context of human authorship and archaic social structures. But in the years since my de-conversion, I’ve struggled to build self-worth and a strong agenda of my own without the help of an all-powerful personal Savior. No longer does an infinite God pause to make me feel like the center of the universe for a minute or two. No more warm, fuzzy Holy Ghost visitations or words of discernment. No more miracles or speaking in tongues.

Now, thrilling epiphanies and occasional moments of meditative peace and transcendence promise spiritual wellness apart from religion. I still struggle to trust myself and my own experience without having to fit everything into a box. It feels unfair to accept this peace without also accepting the unfortunate conditions of judgment after death. It feels weird to claim my life as my own. I realize the need to self-parent, to give myself permission to make mistakes without repenting.

I’m just entering a new phase of faith-based living, where I put trust in what I know to be real- natural cause and effect, the transformative power of hope and love, the efficacy of strong desire and hard work when it comes to pursuing goals. Residual shame and fear often keep me from being truly vulnerable with myself and others, but I now seek community with those who understand the unique predicament of a former child of God. I hope my story will encourage someone else to share theirs.

On Solitude and Freethought

Back in high school, I chastised a close friend for embracing a new habit that brought much-needed tranquility to her life. “I’ve been learning how to meditate. It’s amazing so far.” she announced one night. The word sliced my gut with a dull razor. “Meditating! On what?!” I was as horrified as if she’d just admitted to torturing my family for sport. She jumped to defend her treasured practice. “On the silence! You just sit really still and start by repeating this word- ‘ soo-rah , soo-rah ’…” I winced and felt my body heat up. “Sura- like in the Koran ?! You don’t even know what it means; it’s demonic!” I lectured until she began to cry, and I felt too little remorse. As far as I was concerned, my clueless friend was standing at the altar across from Satan himself, and I wasn’t willing to forever hold my peace.

When you grow up entrenched in fundamentalist religion, you learn not to trust your own thoughts. Every fleeting sensation, every instinct of mind and body, is to be immediately scrutinized by your higher spiritual faculties. Your precious ruminations, critical opinions and profound epiphanies are worthless and even detestable in the face of an omniscient God. In 2 Corinthians 10:5, the true believer’s stance is made clear: “ We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. ” No wonder I felt so justified in my intellectual arrogance. I’d agreed to replace my mortal knowledge with my Heavenly Father’s perfect wisdom. And since I knew my brain and heart were blackened filth apart from His grace, it was an irresistible offer.

But there was still that mercilessly unrelenting battle to keep my mind in service to the Spirit of the Lord. It wasn’t a one-time deal; you really did have to manually take each thought captive to Christ. And I, like most other high-strung kids, had plenty of unruly thoughts to wrangle. The last thing I wanted was to be left alone with the lot of them, defenseless and scared. I hated to imagine what might spring up if I gave them the chance to run free. After all, what did the godless think about? Murder. Deception. Pleasure. Self. These things were evil in equal measure. Meditating on anything other than scripture could only lead to untold spiritual and psychological torment.

Intense guilt accompanied my every errant thought, and I could only relieve the discomfort brought on by sin with the help of nightly prayer sessions. Prayer was my chance to grovel, to apologize for all the “worldly” junk that’d slipped through the cracks throughout the day, for my careless lapses in judgment and vigilance. Since not a single one of my mental images or lines of internal monologue had escaped my watchful Master, the confession bit was just a humiliating formality. Despite any preference I might have, He was the Holy Ghost in the machine, the Ruler and Judge Eternal. To purposely seek out a private corner of my own imagination would be futile, and back then I wasn’t so insolent as to try.

As a relatively new apostate, I still find the concept of freethought thrilling and taboo. It’s also a challenging exercise for the weak, a sweet nectar for those of us who were never allowed a taste. The very first step was accepting that I just might survive if left stranded with a psyche stripped bare of dogma. I couldn’t have predicted the personal reward in store. Where fear and anxiety once ruled with an unshakable furor, I have placed a still hope and abiding trust. As it turns out, this is no wedding dance with the Devil; it’s a gently evolving harmony of reason and intuition, a peace I never dared to conceive of. I can see why a jealous God would refuse to compete.

Good Morning, Hollywood

Just after 7am on a Sunday, the boulevard is a foggy and wet empty stretch of gray road. I’m ashamed that I can’t remember the last time I was outside my apartment this early, but I’m thankful for the miles-long walk ahead of me. The gilded Walk of Fame looks strange without its usual population of costumed heroes, snap-happy tourists, panhandling stoners, retail shoppers and industry climbers. I imagine they’re still sleeping, next to cats or spouses on a needed day off, or in sanitized hotel rooms after a night of binge drinking and porn.

I love this quiet street, breezy and cool with no tour bus or promotional flyer in sight. Normally the crowds remind me of wading through Times Square fresh off the train. It’s a sudden bombardment of noise and smells- impatient suits bullshit into bluetooths, and wobbling immigrant models in stilettos duck from imaginary admirers. Wandering toddlers stop me in my tracks as their vacationing moms reach across my shins to nab them. Folks ask for cash I don’t have and offer rap demos I don’t want. To get from origin to destination is a chore. To make it through unscathed, and to avoid the discomfort of actively rejecting the pitchmen, I freeze my face and tuck my chin.

But this morning is so pleasant and gentle that my eyes are in the soft blue sky and even the crassly commercial billboards look romantic. Heidi Klum puckers up for the camera, and I don’t resent her at all for being so simply and conventionally beautiful. I smile in recognition instead, feeling just as gorgeous because now I’ve got this town to myself.

But soon, between Sunset and Santa Monica, more early risers emerge. After encountering several, I realize something strangely unnerving about these hard laborers, hustlers and retired men in baseball caps carrying small bags of groceries with today’s paper. Each one of them has met my eyes and uttered the same sincere greeting: “Good morning!” And always with a grin. As they continue to do so, I find myself easing into a comfortable response and sticking to it- a furtive glance and a rushed “G’morn.” I’m slow to adapt to this environment, ideal as it is. An imposter who doesn’t yet belong to the special early bird club, I wonder if maybe some of my neighbors are brothers and sisters in the urban struggle instead of just passing strangers. They nap on buses and wave from cars as if they trust each other. No one carries an iPhone.

This version of my schizophrenic city is a much better fit. Next time I’ll walk slower and try to enunciate.

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