Saturday, November 8, 2008
My earliest memory is of church. I distinctly remember toddling down the aisle at church in California: ambulating my pigtailed, three year old self past several rows of pews. I even remember what I was wearing. Grey flannel overalls with little black puppies peeking over the edge of the front pocket, like watchdogs set on guiding little me safely down to the stage. I am not sure what exactly I was headed towards, or even what the pastor had called me down for. I am not sure whether it was about Jesus or not. I only remember one thing: he was holding fruit snacks. And to me and my pigtails, he might as well have had the world.
Matthew Paul Turner has memories of church, too. In fact, that’s what his latest book is all about. Close on the heels of his quirky, provoking, and sometimes controversial books aimed at twenty-somethings, Turners proffers a new type of book: a memoir. He moves effortlessly through a graceful portrayal of life in a fundamentalist Baptist church, where legalism reigned supreme, and the mercy of God shone through in rare moments. Indeed, the grace of God weaves itself like a ribbon through the poignant and wrenching tale. And it’s funny. Did I mention that? I laugh and cry through a lot of books, but during Turner’s retelling of the creative censoring of cinematic masterpiece ‘Ben Hur’, I was simultaneously gasping for air and crying buckets. He narrates in painfully funny detail, his first haircut, which deemed him a satisfactory Baptist: “To my father, this haircut was about much more than doing away with my Bobby Brady mop. It was about me looking like a Baptist. I think my father thought that the angels in heaven would be a good bit happier once my head looked as clean-shaven as a Marine’s.” He discusses his first Sunday at the new church, describing the feeling as “being kidnapped by Puritans, except without the witch trial and the dunking booth”. He does such a masterful job at retelling the “Barbie burning”(a very innovative way of “scaring the hell” out of him and his Sunday school peers) that one very nearly can smell the scorched plastic.
Turner is a storyteller. With “Churched”, he joins the ranks of Donald Miller and Anne Lamott, with a loping, candid pace that carefully and meticulously shuffles along. ‘Churched’ is like those moving escalators at the airport: you step on and it moves so steadily you start to become comfortable and relaxed, and before you know it, you’re being shuffled off right back into the real world, thirty yards closer to your destination. Maybe this book will move people closer to a destination of a more genuine love affair with Christ’s bride, His church. “Churched” is not a stab at parish life. In fact, it is a kind, benevolent look at a life clouded by legalism, where the grace of God shone extra bright. Rather than bitterly recollecting the hurt and confusion he felt as a child, Turner approaches it with an optimistic cheer, urging us to examine how we view church, and what it means to follow Jesus. He ends with a moving paragraph, and I wept when I read it. “Last Sunday, Jessica and I went to church. It was Easter. A couple people got baptized. The guy sitting next to me took two smoke breaks. I closed my eyes during the praise and worship. Pete gave a sermon about hope. We took communion.
I wasn’t afraid.”
I’ve always admired Turner for his gritty and droll style, and was ready to leaf through another jaunty book where I would laugh and maybe learn something about being a college student in the twenty-first century. At least, that’s what had happened with his previous works. I was wrong. I read it through overnight. I couldn’t put it down.
And then I opened it and read it all over again.
I learned something about myself. How I view church. What my role is in the body. Why I come every Sunday, Why trips down an aisle don’t guarantee a heart right with God. That no matter how many sermons we annotate or people we convert, it comes down to loving Jesus with the abandon of a child and an eagerness to do His will.
Even without fruit snacks.
***I AM GIVING AWAY A COPY OF CHURCHED! COMMENT WITH YOUR BEST 'CHURCH' STORY AND I WILL CHOOSE A WINNER NEXT WEEK!***