In 1990, I had a falling out with Christianity, a rift caused by an epiphany I experienced in the very throes of trying to see the Light. In today’s rising tide of evangelicals and our neighborhood flood of Hasidim, I am reminded of that falling out, a turning point at which I became fundamentally opposed to fundamentalists. In the years since, though I have grown increasingly spiritual, my tolerance for organized religions has sputtered and died, unlikely to miraculously rise again.
Love and inclusion. Amazing how men allegedly interpreting God’s will can put a spear through the heart of that message and bury the lead under a blizzard of self-righteous judgments, justifications, dogma and doctrine. I utter “Jesus Christ” with increasing frequency, but out of frustration, not devotion.
It turns out I’m not a Christian.
This was a truly stunning revelation. How could I possibly have missed it? I grew up Christian. I said grace. I knew the short and long versions of the Lord’s prayer. I had a Presbyterian father, a devout Episcopalian mother, a Christian Scientist Grandmother and a Catholic nanny. I was baptized at age 3, confirmed at 14, genuflected through 5 years at an Episcopal elementary school, and played the roles of (quite brilliantly, I might add) a holy cow, a wooly sheep, a wise man, an ass, and a gracious good shepherd in a string of elementary school Christmas pageants.
More to the point, or so I thought, I have walked the walk. I do good things unto others, turn the other cheek, am generally my brother’s keeper, and except for a very few reactionary, provoked and admittedly childish outbreaks with strategically placed superglue, I have left vengeance to the Lord. And for three years of my life, immediately prior to my non-Christian revelation, I produced and promoted an aspiring, underpaid, and infinitely inspiring Christian music artist.
Yet I failed to make the Christian prime cut.
This unsettling epiphany hit me in the ebb and schmooze of a 1990 Gospel Music Convention reception in a hotel ballroom in Nashville, TN. It came as I drifted alone through the angelic flock of Christian DJ’s – white males, silver suits, snake skin boots, republican, organized, big rings, bigger hair, omnipresent handshake – the Prozac and cons of the Christina music machine. I was thanking one DJ for the airtime he had so generously afforded the artist I was promoting, when a program director from KRST radio graciously interrupted, took my hand in both of his, pulled me close and trumpeted a single question.
“When did YOU accept Jesus Christ as your PERSONAL savior?”
This question is the Christian equivalent to the domestic landmine of, “Honey, do I look fat in this dress?” There can be no pause, no trace of uncertainty or insincerity in the answer. I not only paused, I froze, a paschal lamb in the headlights of the divine. My silence to his question resounded like the fatal sound of a twig snapping on the plains of the Serengeti. A pride of DJ’s spun their heads toward me, eyes wide and ears pricked. They circled me, culling me from the herd at the bar, their fundamentalist dogma ready to chew me clear through to the bone.
Not only was I unable to answer the question, I had no clue what it meant. In 32 years, not one priest, acolyte, altar boy, minister, or any member of any congregation had ever asked me that question. And as I stammered hurriedly through my litany of Christian merits, including the holy cow piece, I knew instinctively I had missed something. Something big. In a heartbeat, I was having more doubts than Thomas. I was becoming a stranger to my own faith.
Then the evangelical tide flooded, and the man from KRST suddenly laid his hands on my shoulders, asked me to close my eyes and kneel in front of him. I spilled my red wine, dropped my breadstick and instinctively blurted that I was a happily married man.
He held fast, dismissing my comment as an additional misguided testament of my questionable status as Christian. If I could find it in my heart to trust him, he could steer me toward the Light and away from my naïve assumption that Christianity was simply a set of traditions and guideposts for living.
I stayed standing.
“Close your eyes,” he said passionately. “Imagine a door.” He called me brother. With a creep of faith, I closed my eyes.
“Do you see the door?” he asked grandly.
I told him that I saw the door. I even specified – four panel, colonial with a chrome handle. He asked me to focus.
“Stand before that door, and hear the knock, son.” I heard the knock and noted that our familial ties were becoming more complex. My brother, my son, my brother, my son.
He lifted his hands from my shoulders and shouted, “OPEN THAT DOOR!” In my mind’s eye, I opened the door and snuck a cautionary peek to check on the man from KRST.
After a dramatic pause, he asked in almost a whisper, “Have you opened that door?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Standing before you is JESUS.” He sang the word “Jesus” with a sense of awe and great majesty. He placed his hands back on my shoulders.
“Let him in.” The crowd that had formed around us said Amen in unison, an enraptured congregation.
This was the moment, my rebirth into my own faith. The multitude around us waited excitedly for my affirmation, my epiphany. They had encouraged me to “Let Him in.” But the only thing I could visualize was me in 9th grade Trigonometry, frozen at the chalkboard staring at an undecipherable set of numbers.
I opened my eyes to see the smiling man from KRST looking back at me with the expectant intensity of a surgeon who has just applied a defibrillator directly to a dying man’s lifeless heart.
“Jesus Christ,” I thought.
I put down my wine. He continued to look at me, squinting as if blinded by the light I had almost seen. He asked me if I had seen the Light, and called me “friend.” I noted I had been demoted from the family, from brother, to son, to friend. I turned and addressed him.
“Close your eyes.” Faster than you could say narcoleptic, his eyes were shut, his head tipped slightly back, ready for the rising waters of salvation.
“Imagine a door.”
“AMEN!” His words were again echoed by the congregation assembled around us. The excitement was building again.
“Now hear a knocking on that door,” I coached.
“HALLELUJAH, Brother.” Bingo, I was back in the family, and the congregation chanted another “Amen.” He was reborn once, he could be reborn again. Maybe I would be swept up in his rebirth.
“Now open that door.”
“It’s wide open!” He spread his arms out wide, tipped his head way back, his closed eyes facing directly up toward the roof of the Hyatt atrium.
“Standing before you,” I said, “is Ken Herkenhoff. Let him in.”
His eyes snapped open like I had hit him square in the face with a cold mackerel, awakening him from the brink of a wet dream.
He glared at me and roared, “Who in the Hell is Ken Herkenhoff?”
“That,” I said, “is exactly my problem.”
The congregation sounded the ecclesiastical 911 and rushed in to save me. They invoked Jesus and his Dad. The Resurrection. Dying for my sins. A choice between salvation or damnation. Lights. Doors. Metaphors. Quotes from scripture. Many began to place their hands on my shoulders and head. They were killing me softly with their Psalms, and I had to physically push my way through the pack to reach the ballroom doors, parting a red faced sea of hyperbole. As I threaded my way to the exit, I became convinced that their unchecked tendency to touch and trumpet might well have been the initial catalyst for feeding them to the lions.
The man from KRST had been Born Again on March 15, 1981 as he changed a tire in the rain on some Texas turnpike. In between lug nuts, he had seen a light, heard a knock, and let Jesus in. I was born again in Nashville, May 15, 1990 after a sliver of truth had twisted through the fundamentalist babble and let the air out of my faith. I had heard the knock, knock, knocking but couldn’t figure out who was at heaven’s door. I was as untenable as a Jew for Jesus. I was Christian without Christ.
I stood in the street outside the hotel stunned, dripping with fundamentalist platitudes and judgements, stripped of the comfort of a religion I had called home for a lifetime. I had fallen from the Christian fold, been theologically mauled, aggressively pawed, and unceremoniously unlabeled. I was no longer one of “them” or one of “us.” I would have to floss through life on the strength of my own moral fibers and to make judgements without the unarguable backing and support of God or his Son.
Rebirth is not for the meek.