Many of you may remember me from the days when I was a fervent believer, when I held high the banner of Evangelical Baptist doctrine. Many of you may also have noticed that this banner no longer defines me and my lifestyle. A few of you have asked me what happened, what caused my change in heart; I’ve responded, in personal channels, so that you may know where I stand now and how I got here. But with this blog, being read by mixed company, I’ve not hazarded a public statement on the matter. However, for some reason, I feel it necessary now to relate my story for the record so that I may point all queries to this page and be done with most of the conversation. It’s a method of saving my breath.
Hello. My name is Shawn Thomas. I am no longer a Christian, and here is my witness.
Let’s go back to junior high, 8th grade. It was a horrible, heavy, lonely time in my life. Through a string of weird circumstances, I found myself visiting Beech Street First Baptist Church in Texarkana for Sunday school and morning service. Being Baptists, they encourage visitors and guests to sign a card and provide their name, address, phone number, age, prior church affiliation, and so on (Baptists are crazy about this). That card goes into the hat for their visitation ministry; layman volunteers take the list of guests and go visit them during the week. I had one such visit by a delightful couple whose kids were near my age; they offered to drive from their corner of town to mine on the other side of the tracks to pick up my sister and I for church if we wanted to join. We gratefully accepted.
Eventually, I started attending youth group meetings and fell in with that crowd. Being in the worst year of my student life (up to that point), it was nice to be in the company of others in the same boat, most of whom weren’t as judgmental as my schoolmates. During a small group session one night, everybody speaking heart-to-heart, all it took was a comforting arm around my shoulder and I was hooked. I instantly felt that this was where I belonged. A month later, on a nondescript Sunday night, I walked the aisle, accepted Christ, officially joined the church, and was baptised a month afterwards.
Being an active youth ministry, we’d have regular meetings at church, travel to regional youth conferences, gather for small outings around town, and hold fellowships offsite at members’ houses. This was important to us (and to the Arkansas Baptist Convention) as it gave us something to do, something to be involved in that wasn’t destructive. It was our social thing, and if it helped us to learn doctrine while bonding, then the better for us, yeah?
One Wednesday, the youth minister had us meet at a member’s house; he had a special presentation to show us. It was a video (whose name and publisher has escaped me) that basically laid out in detail how the Devil, due to his expulsion and fall from Heaven, took one third of the angels and gained control of the airwaves, and that nothing spoken or broadcast can escape his manipulation (unless God forbids it…). This, of course, includes all popular media, especially rock music. On this thin scaffolding, the author gave a lesson on the lurking perils of “backmasking” (backwards messages buried in the music), which apparently was the preferred way for Satan to stealthily manipulate our impressionable subconscious minds in profound and unknowable ways. Because of its inherent dangers, it was in our best interest to know about it, and our duty afterwards to shine the Light of God into that dark corner and expose the truth to the world.
So the video continued on with this treatise…and then there were the examples. The author’s method was to show the album cover (the more grotesque, the better), print the band name and song title, and then play a select snippet of the song, printing the lyrics at the bottom of the screen. Then, he’d play the snippet backwards, printing the hidden satanic message on the screen. Among the songs on exhibit, the most notable was Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”; this song had a high number of hidden messages scattered throughout, lending to its high status as the most satanically-influenced tune of the bunch. During the section where Robert Plant sings, “Yes, there are two paths you can go by…”, the satanic backmasking says something to the effect of “The power is Satan.”
When I saw this on the screen with my own eyes, and heard it with my own ears, I got a hot, prickly feeling on my face as I felt the fear and terror of my newfound knowledge of the existence of Satanic influence on our media. Praise God, it was real! I finally saw a deeper Truth, a layer beneath the layers, and on that night, I had the fire of God scared into me. Spiritual warfare was real, and it was my mission, then, to do battle and bring the Light into the darkness. People had to know the Truth!
About two or three years later, I attended a week-long summer camp called Super Summer where there was a particular presentation by a guy named Michael Haynes who did a multimedia slide presentation (similar to the video) talking about Satanic influence over modern music. This fed on my prior disposition and reignited my passion, and I bought his book, “The god of Rock”. It became my handbook and guide for outing the Devil in all his evil rock plots. I read it, learned the names of the hit-list of evil bands who’ve sold their souls for Rock & Roll, and learned the trivia and minutia of how they’re being used to sway the masses for the Devil’s purposes.
And indeed I told everyone about it (they had to know, right? Their salvation depended on it!). In the process, I lost a lot of face among the less-than-devout crowd, I damaged friendships, I stunted the growth of my own personality. I was even so much of an asshole to my own family that my mother threatened to kick me out of the house during the summer before my senior year. I was incorrigible. I took her threat as a sign that I was on the right track, but that I needed to change my tactic if I was to survive to continue my mission. I needed to chill out, and so I did.
After surviving the year and crossing the threshold to graduation, I moved on to attend college at Ouachita Baptist University (turning down a full scholarship to Southern Arkansas University because “I feel God calling me to OBU”). Finally, I was in a faith-based school, in the fellowship of like-minded young adults and God-breathed professors whose aim was to ask the Big Questions, to think the Really Deep Thoughts, to dive into the scriptural depths to find treasures untold. I got involved in several student ministries like Noonday and W.I.S.E. (Workers In Street Evangelism) as well as several ad-hoc dorm room bible studies and friendly debates. The echo chamber was strong.
But, eventually, the actual burden of classload became a bit much and I had to pare down my commitments. Progress and migration being what they are, I moved along and found other avenues to find and share Truth. As luck would have it, I managed to cross paths with a tight-knit group of other fervent believers who also had Big Questions. To them, faith was less a social chore and more a personal journey; matter of fact, they actively sought to get away from the crowds and groups and instead would walk into the woods and fields, maybe go camping or float down the Ouachita river with a passel of books in tow to quench their thirst. (I’ve written about one such outing before.) Within this group, it was OK to have doubts as long as they made you stronger. Reality was, after all, a hazy, dirty affair, and you have to embrace it for what it is instead of nervously hold out hope that everything is in order even if it isn’t.
After semesters of taking classes where, in the coursework, we learn methods for examination, learn the importance of distinguishing objectivity versus subjectivity, learn that sometimes even truth is fallible, I came to have some heavy questions of my own. It was dawning on me that perhaps it was in my best interest to pick apart elements of this whole faith thing, to shine that beam of light through an objective prism to diffract it into the chromatic lines that made up such a pleasing, soothing shade of rose.
The beginning of the end was about 20 years ago, during the middle of the Fall semester of 1993. It was a nondescript Tuesday where, during the course of the day, I picked up snippets of conversation here and there around campus. For some reason these threads wove a narrative in my mind — if you hear disparate groups discussing backmasking, you tend to draw conclusions; quite possibly, a particular class was discussing the topic, and it naturally became the theme of the day. During dinner that night in the cafeteria, I heard a chatty group at the end of my table discussing it, and there again, a reference to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” being the worst of the bunch. It was at that point that I had enough. My mission that night, then, was to be one of objective truth-seeking.
I put away my tray, walked to my dorm, visited a friend to borrow his copy of the album on tape, and then I went to my dorm room. I turned on all the lights and shut out all distractions; just me, my custom-modified tape player, my headphones, my Bible, my friend’s borrowed copy of “Led Zeppelin IV”, and my open ears and open mind. I prayed to the Lord for wisdom and guidance. My procedure was as follows:
- Listen to the full song forward. I could detect no evil in the lyrics.
- Listen to the song and carefully transcribe the lyrics.
- Read the lyrics. Again, careful examination showed nothing wrong, even if it was rather fanciful and laced with references beyond my literature experience.
- Then, the final act: I flipped the direction switch on my modified tape player and listened to the song backwards.
Do you know what I heard? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I knew what I was supposed to hear; I remembered hearing it back in 8th grade. It was supposed to be there, but it wasn’t, not even in the areas where I knew it was. What I heard on my good headphones, with my own ears, without the text on the screen to prompt me, was unintelligible garbage. I was shocked. They lied to me, manipulated me, used me! The message on the screen of that video? It was less a spiritual education and more an experiment in youth psychology. I felt sold out.
So, if they lied to me about this one song, what else? This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But instead of bringing down the camel, it left me with a haystack of more questions. It would take another four months of questions and doubts before I eventually came to embrace reality in all its grunge and ugliness, to finally exhale, to say my final prayer. “God, thanks for putting up with me.”
The Bible provides the story of King Solomon who, being fervent in faith but wanting more wisdom, took a year off to walk among the world and live without God in the name of experience. By the end of his spiritual sojourn, he ran back and reported that “all is vanity!” Like him, I wanted out, to see life outside the stained-glass windows. Instead of taking it for granted as was written in scripture, I wanted to take Solomon’s walk for myself. If I myself find all is vanity, then yes, I have an out and can come back (anybody can come back; even the most diehard sects allow that even the most vociferous deniers can come back into the fold). And so I took the first step on The Great Walking Away and began life on my own.
Twenty years later, it has been quite a heavy, lonely, burdensome journey, but the benefit of time and distance allows me to continue diffracting that light into its component parts. I have some further ability now to distill exactly what it was that drew me in and kept me in, even to my own detriment. I can see the colors now: this wavelength is a propensity for service, that wavelength a hunger for truth, that wavelength there is a need to belong, and so on. Each person has their own mix of component colors to create their unique chroma, and through time, I am more able to discern my own.
I no longer believe in anything, which isn’t to say that I believe in nothing. My current standing is that I have no knowledge of the spiritual realm, of the afterlife, of any deity or godhead; some would call this “agnostic”, which is a heavily-loaded term that simply means “without knowledge” (“a” – “gnosis”). I want proof, objective proof, before I will have faith in something. I oscillate between this and “atheism”, another heavily-loaded term that simply means “without god” (“a” – “theo”). I’m not actively an atheist, just like I’m not actively an agnostic. I just don’t care.
I’m not spiritual; I feel no connection to the cosmos, no bond to something bigger than myself. I am but one individual, alone among billions, a collection of atoms and energy states in the form of a self-aware human, and when I die, my components will disperse and become something else. I’ve tried various and sundry lines of religion over the years, but every single examination crumbles under the weight of this whole “faith” issue; once you lose faith in one thing, what makes you think anything else will be more real and true? It’s a tough battle to believe again.
Lately, I’ve been thinking these Really Deep Thoughts again, asking questions. A craving, really. I miss the philosophical, theological side of my personality. Maybe there’s something to it, if even it’s just a chance for social bonding with other questioners. I think that’s the crux of it; personally, I’m in another nasty season of being so solitary that becoming part of something bigger than myself is looking very attractive. I shudder to think what could happen the next time someone puts their comforting arm around my shoulder and invites me in. I only hope the journey that begins there profits me well.
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.