The Best Christian Ever

I was the golden boy of my spiritual sphere growing up.

I mean, look - it is a commonly accepted indisputable fact (did I do that right? Taking cues from 45) that from circa 1987 when I officially asked Jesus into my heart at the age of 5 until I graduated high school in 2000, I was the de facto good Christian boy/spiritual leader/goody-two-shoes of my Sunday School classes, and AWANA club, and church youth group. When it came to memorizing verses, having the answers to Bible trivia, singing special music in front of the whole congregation, I was the the go-to youth.

I have literally had old ladies pinch my cheeks on more than one occasion. That’s like the evangelical equivalent of the angel marking Jacob with a limp, right? A special dispensation.

This spiritual superiority was also a major feature of my life at the Christian school I attended. Bible classes were kind of a breeze. Teachers commended me for my spiritual insight - one time the headmaster told me my understanding of Scripture was far beyond my years.

I was even elected Student Body Chaplain my senior year, which, yes, was an official executive committee position of our school’s student government association. I think this moment was what cemented my legacy - dare I say legend? - as godliest 17-year-old in Appalachia.

It all culminated at graduation - class of 2000, represent - when I received the Citizenship Award, the highest non-academic award the school gave. It was essentially a gold-plated stamp of spiritual approval: this one, right here, he’s tip top. Just a little bit closer to Jesus than the rest of these spiritual pedestrians.

Look I’m not bragging, but only because I’m no longer proud of it. I sure as hell used to be proud of it. At the time, I would have held my Christian credentials up to anyone’s.

“Let me take the stand, attorney Jesus. I’m your star witness.”

I took a lot of shit for this too. I was the target of plenty of bullying over the years. Even this, though, I took as evidence that I was on the right path. We had been promised that the righteous would be persecuted, hadn’t we?

Side note: do you remember that episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon recounts how mean everyone was to her in high school because she was such a nerd, and then she attends her reunion and it turns out she had been the bully all along, belittling and condescending to classmates that she didn’t think were on her level?

I did not go to my high school reunion, and have thusly avoided a similar fate.

Talking this way reminds me of the several times Paul, the early church apostle, got a little smug in his letters to Christians who were figuring out their new religion.

Like in 2 Corinthians 11, where he engages in this hypothetical spiritual pissing contest. Check this out:

16 Let no one take me for a fool. But if you do, then tolerate me just as you would a fool, so that I may do a little boasting. 17 In this self-confident boasting I am not talking as the Lord would, but as a fool. 18 Since many are boasting in the way the world does, I too will boast. 19 You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!
Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. 22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. 23 Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more.

Or how about Philippians 3 where Paul contrasts what he calls “confidence in the flesh” with true spirituality:

Watch out for those dogs, those evildoers, those mutilators of the flesh. 3 For it is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh— 4 though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

Side note number 2: Does Paul sound a little like your friend who constantly needs to make sure everyone knows they don’t give a fuck what people think of them? The one whose perpetual pomp and bravado distills into a deep insecurity once the people are gone and the unfeeling walls of solitude close in at night while at the same time an unspeakably deep and expansive void of squandered opportunity unfolds to their waking horror as this existential dread seeps into their consciousness, bringing with it a murky tide of regret and fears of inadequacy with the blunt force of a cosmic apathy?

Just… wondering - if anyone else has a… friend like that.

Anyway, back to me being the best Christian ever.

Most - not all, but most - of the reasons for my apostasy come from the bad taste the church itself has left in my mouth as I’ve come to see it as a gatekeeping agency - God’s self-appointed security firm, a bouncer tasked with assessing whether an applicant is worthy of skipping the line and getting VIP access, or whether she has to do penance in this long line of regular folks putting on their best duds and trying to amass spiritual clout by association, or good deeds, or self-righteousness.

The point is: I never had to worry about waiting in line. As the golden boy, I had VIP access. Yeah, it was a lot to live up to. But I could manage, right? I mean, so much of it came naturally. And the parts that didn’t come naturally, well—I learned to compartmentalize.

Two lives. Two selves. The golden boy, and the kid who wanted to twirl around in his mom’s pretty green skirt. The Bible whiz, and the adolescent who had a crush on his male PE teacher. The student body chaplain, and the teenager who found possibly the only other Christian closet case at his tiny school to fool around with in the dark.

The thing was, if I was so good at compartmentalizing at this, the earliest stages of my planned lifelong career in Christendom… If I could earn the pinched cheeks and get elected Chaplain and win the Citizenship Award… If I could fool the gatekeepers… who else around me was doing the same thing? If I could, at such a young, naive age, curate such a deeply divided double life, then what depths of hypocrisy were shrouded by the people who had committed 20, 40, 60 years to this shared faith?

And, furthermore, what good was a faith that can be turned on and off at whim anyway? A faith that gives you access and clout and privilege inside church walls, but forces you to hide, ignore, deny, or change the most essential, foundational parts of what make you, you?

You know, I still grapple with this desire to be seen as the golden child. It’s one of the many ways I’m fucked up. For a long time, it deeply skewed my moral compass. 

I’ve always wanted to do what’s right. But early on, doing what was right meant doing what I had to do to get that Citizenship Award. It meant lying about who I was, and condemning others for the very things I did in the dark. It meant going through years of conversion therapy that promised it could make me straight. It meant, even after coming out, publicly committing to a single and celibate life so that I could continue to serve in the church.

If I’m being entirely honest, the temptation to be the golden boy persists as an undercurrent even as I make a podcast called Heathen. Somewhere in the back of my consciousness, questions pop up, like how can I be the kind of heathen people will look up to? What kind of accolades can I get for occupying this space of godless spirituality?

It can sometimes feel maddening to balance the desire for something real - connection and spiritual grounding - with the desire to get credit for it.

All I know to do is acknowledge it, to let you know: hey, the struggle is real. And to make my promise to continue this quest of spiritual deconstruction and redefinition while contending with the inevitable inclination to have someone pinch my cheeks.

I mean, listen: unless that someone happens to be my boyfriend and we’re talking about a different cheek. I’m totally cool with not having to do that in the dark anymore.

Matthew Blake