From Fear to Faith (Joel Watts and Travis Milam) -- Review
FROM FEAR TO FAITH: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls. Edited by Travis Milam and Joel L. Watts. Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2013. Viii + 214 pages.
Fundamentalism comes in many forms. There are versions of it to be found in most religious traditions. Martin Marty and Scott Appleby devoted considerable resources to explore the variety of fundamentalisms. It’s no surprise that the journey from fundamentalism to a more mainstream faith can be difficult if not impossible. Fundamentalism is not only narrow in its focus, but fundamentalist groups often go to great lengths to control the minds and hearts and lives of its adherents. Many times the people are well-meaning and gracious, but fear is often a factor in keeping members of a community true to their beliefs. If someone does break free, there is a tendency to swing to the other end of the spectrum. From belief to unbelief. We’ve seen many cases of this happening, but not everyone moves from extreme to extreme. Some, even some who have been hurt badly, find a middle ground – they move out of narrow visions, but don’t lose their faith.
The contributors to From Fear to Faith, a compilation of testimonies, edited by Travis Milam and Joel Watts, tell stories of how they managed to walk away from the kind of fear engendered by fundamentalism to a true faith, one that is not defined by coerciveness and threats, but by a sense of God’s love and grace. Joel Watts writes in his introduction that there are those who will dismiss or even laugh at stories of transition, but “it is nothing to laugh at.” Why? Well, “if it goes wrong, the victim will be as militant an atheist as they were once militant Christians. If the transition is handled sloppily, it may result in severe emotional trauma” (p. vii).
The book is composed of sixteen stories, told by fourteen people, all of whom are people that Joel knew through is blogging at Unsettled Christianity. There are similarities and there were differences. Some transitions went remarkably well, while others left damage that needed to be dealt with professionally. All the writers remain people of faith, in spite of the challenges. Perhaps the most challenging of the stories is that told by Joel Watts. Early in the book he writes about King James Onlyism – the belief that the King James Bible is the true divinely inspired word of God. Amazingly – and this is new to me – among some adherents of this view, if the KJV differs from the original manuscripts, even the Textus Receptus, then one must go with the KJV. There are stories about how study of scripture or sociology helped break the cycle. There are discussions of more traditional conservative movements and the more extreme versions, such as that to which Joel was an adherent. These communities often engaged in what we can call spiritual abuse – whether physical or emotional in nature. Many people find it difficult to leave, in spite of this abuse, because they’re convinced that to leave would jeopardize their souls. It is either stay and receive the abuse or face an eternity in hell.
Not all the stories, of course, are quite as dark as that told by Joel Watt, but sometimes we need to hear the starkest of stories to get a sense of the danger. Fear may come in degrees, but it’s still there. One of the chief areas of concern is in terms of knowledge. Education and reading that might challenge ordained beliefs is not only discouraged but banned. Interestingly, for some of those whose stories are told here, there was a person in leadership that gave them permission to explore outside ideas – but this is the exception and not the rule. Many of them experienced a context in which all forms of reading outside the King James Version of the Bible was banned. No critical examination was allowed. Women were to remain subject to the males in their lives. For some who write, there are still fond memories of good people who they came to know and love, even if the theology was narrow and the practices stifling. For others, however, the previous life was so traumatic that there is no going back.
Readers will find themselves gravitating to different stories, especially if these stories are similar to their own. For me, it wasn’t a specific story, but a number of them that resonated with my own journey from a narrow fundamentalism of my late high school years through my growing openness during college and seminary to a more liberal but relatively orthodox faith. That is the way it often is when it comes to encountering a collection of narratives.
There is one contribution that seems to have a place in the book, but placement seems odd. Chapter 10, written by John Morehead, focuses on transitions out of Mormonism into evangelical Christianity. This is the most "academic" of the articles, and focuses more on the complexity of transitioning from one faith to another. The author doesn’t seem to have made the transition himself, but works with people who are making the transition. It’s more methodological than a testimony – thus it might fit best as an appendix.
The longest, and to me the most gripping, story is told by Joel Watts. The suffering he endured along with his wife and daughter as he grew up in and spent a majority of his life involved with what many have called a cult – the Church of Jesus Christ. This is an oneness Pentecostal group that reads only the King James Bible and puts heave emphasis on the authority of the pastor, which leads to all kinds of abuse – spiritually, physically, and emotionally. All elements of life, from friendships to the way one dresses or cuts their hair (women can’t cut their hair). Joel was being groomed for leadership. He was a preacher. But learning of the sexual abuse of children led to questioning the authority structure – and then his wife could take it no longer and threatened to leave, which put him in a difficult place. Why? Because you can’t be a leader and not control your family. Indeed, that is the key to the realities of these movements and groups – it’s all about control. This is a powerful and even frightening story, which is unfortunately marred by typos and grammatical issues. More than any of the essays in the book, this needed the most editorial attention.
As to the intended audience, it would seem to me that the book speaks to those struggling with the transition. That is, its audience is to found among those who have left fundamentalist groups, but seem unsure how to move forward. They are tempted to leave it all behind – including God. These essays offer encouragement to stay the course.
It is an intriguing book, and worth considering. The essayists are not well-known figures. They are simply people whom Joel and Travis have come to know as they took their own journeys. Even if you’ve not made the transition, perhaps reading it will help you better understand those who have been or are making that transition.