My father was ordained as a pastor in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), one of the largest, predominately African-American, Pentecostal Holiness Christian denominations in the United States. My mother was also trained as a missionary in the church. To some people, I had a strange childhood. My parents’ main focus was to raise me in accordance with biblical principles. They strived to do what was best for me and wanted to raise me up in the way that I should go, so when I was old I would not depart from it. As a result, attending church services were never an option but a requirement and attending church multiple times a week was not uncommon. I probably went to a total of three sleepovers my entire childhood, one of which was a church lock in. I was only allowed to listen to music, which “glorified the Lord.” If it wasn’t gospel music it was simply not permitted. I was expected to memorize bible verses and was told that I needed to keep these verses in my heart so that Satan could not have me and so I would not sin against God.
By the time I was 15, I was teaching Sunday school, leading the church’s praise dance team, and a singer in the church choir. Oh, I was saved and sanctified and everybody either loved or hated the preacher’s daughter, but that’s another story for another day. Despite my role in the church, something was not right. Outwardly I was vivacious and sold out for Christ. Inwardly, I was having a struggle. There were some things about my faith I could not wrap my head around. So naturally, I began to make some rather bold inquiries. Why are women viewed as second to men in my faith? Why is the purity concept pushed on young women? How on Earth did Noah really get all those animals on the ark? If God loves me so much then why would he send me to hell if I don’t agree with him? How and why would God have sex with Mary? He is not married to her; Joseph is at least engaged to the woman! Why would God tell Satan to bring misery on Job just to prove that Job is faithful to him? Why do we have to read the King James Version? Why is it so important? No one was able to answer my questions. I was dismissed as lacking in faith and was told that prayer, fasting and reading my Bible would help me with these issues and release the spirit that was plaguing me. But the more I read my Bible the more confused I became.
At the age of 20, on a dreary October morning sitting in a European history class the lecture that day made me realize what exactly was stirring within me. That day my professor began to talk about King James I, and of course he had no choice but to talk about the King James Version of the Bible. He said something that hit home with me. He eloquently explained that there were different versions of the Bible prior to the completion of the KJV.
The KJV was authorized by King James I of England in 1604 and was completed in 1611. Around fifty scholars were commissioned to translate the Bible and King James gave the guidance and instructions regarding his expectations for the new translation. The new version was to be utilized as a tool for unification and reinforce the structure and practices of the Church of England. King James needed to assert his authority during a time of blatant dissent among various Christian scholars and sects. There were various translations during the time period due to different interpretations of scriptures and King James sought to resolve all of this. The bottom line is the monarch made political moves and used the Bible and religion as powerful tools.
Growing up in an environment where God and religion was everything, it always baffled me about how sure people could be about their faith, but yet never questioned anything their preacher said or what was written in the Bible. It was even more surprising that people did not know the history behind Christianity and the Bible. That October morning I gained the courage to admit to myself that I simply was not sure about my faith or path to godliness. My family and church community had always told me that living a particular way, following biblical standards, and abiding by church doctrine was the key to salvation. Now that I had received knowledge about the conception of the very book I had been taught to guide me in all aspects of my life, I had no choice but to question everything.
In this world, with so many different ideas, agendas, and options it is good to do research, weigh our options, and use analytical and critical thinking skills. We use these skills when searching for a new car or a new house. They are also used when people need to find a good school for themselves or their children. We sometimes can’t accept the outrageous figure on our cell phone bills and do not hesitate to call the company in second demanding answers. I was always encouraged not to take things in the world at face value, dig a little deeper, don’t be naïve. However, when it came to religion asking questions was not a reflection of curiosity but just a lack of faith and a symptom of spiritual weakness.
No, I’m no Bible scholar or have a PhD in religion. However, the lecture on the King James version that October morning made me realize that the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach all those years was a reality that was fighting to come to the surface. I was always told I needed to read the King James Version because it’s the “right one.” I was told I needed to be a saved, sanctified, holy, and a pure Pentecostal woman in order to satisfy God and those in my community. For years I followed these ambiguous guidelines for the hope of becoming Godly. Let’s be frank, what do all these terms, holiness righteousness really mean? How do I meet these standards? I never asked questions because I had always been taught never to question the authority of the church as God ordained them. After all, who wants to end up in hell? Let’s not forget the pressure and expectations of not just those in authority but also those in the religious community. Groupthink is a powerful phenomenon.
It’s no secret, King James like many monarchs had an agenda and let’s be honest things have not changed. History makes it very clear: people in power who have a platform often have an agenda and do what they believe is necessary to push it forward. Preachers and people in positions of religious authority are no different from the kings of the past. Is that not enough to invoke a sense of curiosity about the teachings in the bible and religious doctrines? Is it not enough to realize that a red flag should be raised at the mere notion that the bible is the infallible written word of God but inspired man?
Seeking knowledge and grappling with the inaccuracies of faith inevitably leads to doubt. This is the fear of the pious. This is the fear I cried over and sought to reconcile. My comfort would come eventually, but not in the form of a new found devotion. I was not a prodigal daughter. I did not return back to what I was taught. Instead I began to study the religions and philosophies that I was taught to fear.
The KJV is not inherently a bad book. Actually it is one of the greatest literary works ever written. I guess the problem with the book is the motives that gave it life and how it has maintained its prominence for centuries. To me it symbolizes the issue with fundamentalist religious thought: This is the way it is, don’t ever ask any questions, make sure you follow all the rules accordingly and be prepared for backlash if you don’t in this life and the next.
We need to ask questions. We need to talk to those people who don’t agree with us. My journey to agnosticism was not due to the over simplistic idea of not having enough faith or Satan getting me. It was a careful journey that included late night readings and research, more Google searches than I can count, and long conversations with people more intelligent than I am in the fields of science, religion, philosophy, linguistics, psychology, biology, and anthropology that help explain the world and the human story. We can’t be afraid of exploring and challenging our beliefs. Yes I wandered, but J.R.R. Tolkien said it best: “not all those who wander are lost.”