9 Things I Learned in my 15 Years as an Evangelical, Bible-Thumping Christian.

With apologies to my friends who might remember those years differently.

Ken Preston

12 November 2023

The last thing I remembered I was standing up, but now I was lying on my back on the floor, coming round from what I can only describe as some kind of gloriously wild, out-of-body experience. As I gazed up at the circle of faces looking down at me, I wondered where I was and what had happened to me. While I was out, I had been somewhere else, but the details were slipping away faster than I could catch them.

And then I remembered. I was in the second year studio at art college, these faces belonged to my friends, and I had just demonstrated to them how I could faint on purpose.

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It was a neat trick, taught to me by my best friend and co-conspirator in all things mischievous and drunken during the heady two years we spent together at Accrington College in the early 1980s. You had to do the fainting thing in pairs, because someone needed to catch the one doing the fainting. Obviously, we took it in turns. I loved doing it for the high it gave me.

A few years later and I was regularly falling over, almost every Sunday evening in church, as the Holy Spirit filled me with the love of God and left me powerless to stand. I spoke in tongues, sang His praises, and thanked Him for saving me, a miserable, wretched sinner.

It’s funny, really, but I’ve only just seen the connection between those two acts of self-harm. I think the mechanics of the way they worked are very similar, as both involved a degree of hyperventilation. And a desperate willingness, (no, a need), for it to happen.

From 1985 to sometime around 2000/2001, I was part of an evangelical church in the West Midlands. I attended church twice on Sundays, house group on Wednesdays, and youth group on Fridays. I was all in, one hundred percent committed for most of those fifteen or so years. I was baptised by full immersion, (twice!), I spoke in tongues, testified to my faith before non-believers, read my Bible from start to finish several times, tithed, prayed, and pretty much everything else you’d expect.

So, how did that happen? And what happened after? Read on, my friend, for all the gruesome details, but be aware that names have been held back or changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty).

And, because I love lists and a catchy title, this Substack is called, Nine Things I Learned in my Fifteen Years as an Evangelical, Bible-Thumping Christian.

1. Open Your Heart to Jesus, (but Close Your Mind to Everything Else).

By February or March 1985, I was in a bad way. I like to look back on that time now as part of ‘The Preston Curse’. (Just got to say here, there is no such thing as ‘The Preston Curse’. It’s just something I made up, because it sounds very dramatic and attention-grabbing. Sorry.)

Anyway, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was seriously depressed. I knew I was lonely, but what I failed to recognise was, I had no safe place to go to. At the time I was living away from home, in a halls of residence. I felt vulnerable and bullied. But going home wasn’t an option, as the toxic atmosphere there was no respite.

I wound up seeking refuge in Christianity. I attended a church service where the speaker finished his sermon by inviting sinners to the front where they could receive the forgiveness of Christ.

I couldn’t get up there fast enough.

I was twenty years old, depressed, lonely, and desperate for help.

In other words, a perfect candidate.

So I opened my heart to Jesus, and he stepped in and gave me faith, hope, and love.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13.

I’m not going to lie, I’m convinced the events of that night saved my life. They certainly changed my life, and for the better. Even now, almost forty years later, I still have friends from those days. And a wife.

Anyway, I opened my heart, and Jesus forgave me my sins and told me he loved me.

But…

Wait a minute, let’s backtrack here. This twenty-year-old art student had already been on a journey of discovery in the years since finishing school. He had grown up in a working class culture of bigotry and alcoholism, and was now opening his mind to new experiences and new ideas, and to the possibility that there was a different way of living.

But opening his heart to Jesus was a trade-off; this vulnerable young man now had to close his mind to those new ideas, because he was a Christian now, and this particular brand of Christianity had extremely narrow views on what viewing, listening, and reading material was acceptable and good.

Which leads us to…

2. Don’t throw all those books away, you’ll just have to buy them again.
The books I read in my teen years; Night of the Crabs, The Fog, The Shining

I was a massive horror fan. I started reading James Herbert when I was twelve or thirteen. (I used to read the sex scenes out to my mate, sitting on a hill overlooking Lumb valley.) Guy N Smith made me cry — proper ugly cry in absolute terror — with Night of the Crabs. Of course I went back for more. And Stephen King made me terrified of looking in mirrors after reading The Shining. I’d watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre before it was banned, along with scores of other horror movies.

By the time I joined church, I had amassed a complete collection of James Herbert books, many Stephen King and Guy N Smith, and others.

And then I threw them all out.

You see, horror is not suitable reading or viewing material for Christians. The Devil can get in and corrupt your heart. Turn you away from the righteous path.

I will not set before my eyes anything that is worthless. I hate the work of those who fall away; it shall not cling to me. A perverse heart shall be far from me; I will know nothing of evil. Psalm 101: 3-4.

So I stopped watching horror movies, and I threw away all my horror books and I only read what was recommended as being good and suitable and elevating. Which led to some terribly dry years for a bookworm and movie geek like myself. I did manage to sneak in the occasional forbidden work — American Psycho was one, and boy did I feel guilty reading that! — but on the whole I read only wholesome fare, which mainly consisted of ‘How To’ books on Christian living.

3. Clever people can be stupid too.

No, I’m not talking about me, although I can be very, very stupid. In fact, I’m not going to dwell on this too much. It’s kind of embarrassing. Especially the part where I believed the Bible is a book of history. As in, it recorded actual historical events. So, that part where it says God created the world and everything on it in six days… All right, let’s move on.

But I wasn’t the only one. There were people in that church far cleverer than me who believed that Noah gathered animals from all over the world and put them on a large ship to save them from a worldwide flood. And that Jesus turned water into wine, healed people with a prayer, and raised Lazarus from the dead.

Actually, stupid is the wrong word, and insults the people I mixed with and worshipped with at that time. The reality was, we were all suffering with symptoms of cognitive dissonance, which takes us back to points one and two.

And part of the problem here is, being in a ‘club’ like this often means you’re part of an echo chamber. You only get exposed to one point of view. Which leads me on to…

4. Before the ‘Marvel Movies aren’t Cinema’ scandal, Martin Scorsese was in even bigger trouble for this…

Remember the howls of outrage when Martin Scorsese said that Marvel movies aren’t cinema, they are more like theme park rides? That was a storm in a teacup compared to the release of his film The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.

Christians protested outside cinemas showing this blasphemous movie, Bill Bright, the founder of the American Family Association and Campus Crusade for Christ, wanted to purchase all the film's prints and destroy them, many theatre chains refused to show it, and Blockbuster refused to stock it when it was released on video.

Even back then, I was a fan of Scorsese’s movies, and I wasn’t so sure what the fuss was all about. From what I’d read about Scorsese and his film, The Last Temptation of Christ was a thoughtful examination of faith and doubt, of humanity and divinity, and of Jesus as someone fallible, who overcomes anyway.

I even tried discussing that with the church minister, but he wasn’t having any of it. When I asked him if he’d seen the film, he replied, ‘I don’t have to see it to know what I think about it.’

That might well have been the beginning of the end for my relationship with the evangelical arm of Christianity, even if it took over a decade still before I finally cut the cords and set myself free.

5. Imagine if The Simpsons lived in Twin Peaks.

That could only be described as Hell.

Two years after the furore over Last Temptation, Christian Evangelicals went on the warpath again, but this time they had television in their cross-hairs. I can remember it vividly, being sat in church on a Sunday morning, and the speaker warning us of two new American TV shows airing soon in the UK. TV shows we must definitely, absolutely, not watch.

First up was The Simpsons. This cartoon took aim — apparently — at Christian values and family life. Even Barbara Bush had criticised it!

But, far worse than The Simpsons, was Twin Peaks. This show was denounced as EVIL. Apparently David Lynch was EVIL. After all, he was the man responsible for Blue Velvet, and… shock, horror, Eraserhead. Of course nobody in church had seen Eraserhead, but with a title like that it had to be EVIL, right?

David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan

David Lynch and Kyle MacLachlan at the Twin Peaks premiere. Obviously these two are EVIL

Anyway, remember point 3? Clever people can be stupid too? That’s me again, except I’m starting to think we can forget the clever part from now on and just go with stupid. Because, despite my earlier misgivings about the response to The Last Temptation of Christ, and despite my misgivings about these current warnings of spiritual warfare and the EVIL contained in these shows, it would still be another nine or ten years before I thought my way out of church. I mean, come on! What was wrong with me?

6. Sure, you can cluck like a chicken, but can you raise the dead?

Meanwhile, I was still enjoying falling to the floor in church and the blessings of the Holy Spirit, while gabbling away in tongues, and trying not to think too hard about what was going on.

Because things were getting wild. (Yes, I realise now, things were already wild, but what did I know?) We’d had a new influx of members into the church, and these converts were SERIOUS about the blessings of the Holy Spirit. No longer was it enough to fall over at a touch from the minister’s hand on your forehead, now church members were screaming and laughing and clucking like chickens. Every Sunday evening, church service began with songs and a sermon, before rapidly devolving into a farmyard madhouse.

There were some evenings when I got home where I was not just exhausted, but… well, a little worried. Stories of miraculous healings began circulating, and we seemed to have entered into a competition with another church across town over which could be more outrageously spiritual.

God was moving across the Black Country. And yet, despite all the falling over, speaking in tongues, the screaming and the laughing and the clucking, and everything else I witnessed during that time, I never actually saw a miracle.

Not one.

7. JK Rowling might be a TERF, but she’s definitely not Winnie the Witch.

I must point out here that my legal team has required me to emphasise the MIGHT BE in that sentence above. To be honest, I have no idea if Rowling is a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist or not. I’ve tried following her arguments on trans rights and gender, but I just end up confused. Half the time she seems to be making sense, and the other half she is spouting mean-spirited and ridiculous statements about trans men and women.

Anyway, we do know that she is a witch. No, wait, I got that wrong. We know that she is NOT a witch, or even Winnie the Witch. She is the author of a series of books about wizards and magic, which of course placed her in the spotlight of evangelical Christianity. Obviously, she was going to be denounced as a practising witch. And this time I didn’t have any misgivings. Nope, this was becoming downright ridiculous. (Yes, Winnie the Witch was also targeted by Christians as being unsuitable reading material for younger children.)

So, this was the point at which I escaped, right?

Er, no.

8. God doesn’t care about your fillings.

I know, seems obvious, right? Try telling that to the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. Compared to them, our falling over and clucking like chickens was amateur hour. They were the real deal. They were roaring like lions.

And they were experiencing an honest to God miracle: regular fillings in some members’ teeth were being transformed into gold fillings, purely through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Wowsers.

This was known as the Toronto Blessing. And our church was desperate for some of that shit, I can tell you.

Yeah, I think it was about then I decided it was time to leave.

9. All you need is love.

It’s been over two decades since I last saw anyone fall over and cluck like a chicken. I don’t miss it. And it’s been even longer since I last fell over, either at the touch of a minister’s hand or because of that stupid trick me and my mate used to do. I don’t miss that either.

But there is no doubt in my mind that responding to that call for sinners to repent, on that cold winter’s evening in 1985, changed my life for the better. If only because, at that incredibly dark and lonely point in my life, at a point where I felt not just unloved but invisible, I was seen and loved by a group of people who had no reason to love me.

They just did.

Everything else is a distraction.

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