Matthew Paul Turner grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church, a place where people did strange things, like destroy secular music CDs, or stage theatrical, WWE-style smack-downs during which the pastor would taunt someone dressed in a Satan costume while the rest of the congregation cheered. If that weren’t strange enough, the pastor would make off-the-wall proclamations, such as, “a man’s hair should be tapered up the sides and in the back,” because Jesus didn’t have long hair, and anyone who thought he did was in cahoots with homosexual lobbyists. “Jesus was all man,” the pastor said.
There were two streams of thought that ran throughout Turner’s upbringing: the first being that the outside world was evil; and the second being that someone (or some thing)—the devil, Democrats, Disney, Hollywood, the ACLU, Catholics, tobacco, alcohol—were out to destroy Bible-believing evangelicals. Evil was around every corner, the world was going up in flames, and it was up to the redeemed to stand firm.
Out of this bizarre milieu, a writer was born. Turner didn’t know he was a writer at first. Not until after graduating from college and working a series of odd jobs, including waiter, factory worker, and manager of a Christian coffee shop in his home state of Virginia, did he even begin to put his church experiences down on paper. But put them down he did, eventually developing a reputation as an irreverent commentator on culture and faith and the bizarre ways that the two intersect. For instance, Turner’s first book, The Christian Culture Survival Guide (Relevant Books, 2004), was a quirky tome in which he explored evangelicalism’s propensity to churn out products and pop stars.
Today, Turner, 34, is the author of ten books and a contributor to several others. He is also the former editor of CCM, a popular Christian music magazine, and a past contributor to crosswalk.com. Yet of all his essays, books and articles, Turner’s latest—Churched: One Kids Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess (Waterbrook Press, 2008)—is the work he points to as being the most authentically connected to who he is as a writer. That’s because the book—more a collection of essays than a standard memoir—delves into his painful experiences with fundamentalism and how they affected who he is today. “Faith involves every aspect of your life. Even the most shallow person becomes changed by it, hurt by it, or finds freedom in it,” Turner says. “And I was a kid who felt everything and wore my emotions on my sleeve. I soaked everything in.”
Turner—who, unbeknownst to much of the reading public, is a deeply sincere, painfully thoughtful person—is best known for his Jon Stewart-caliber sarcasm, and Churched has it in full measure. While he hopes that his tongue-and-cheek style never glosses over the painful realities of life, Turner says humor is “a healing thing, and also something that you can combat fear with.” It seems to be working. After growing up in a environment so legalistic that Turner recalls smokers being relegated to hell by his fellow church members, he now says it’s no longer God he’s afraid of, but rather “the god with the copyright trademark, the manufactured god we’ve come up with in America.”
Turner recognizes people’s propensity to create God in their own image, and the evil and hurt that often result from such solipsism, but he still looks back on certain aspects of his fundamentalist childhood with fondness: the way people cared for one another, or the warm, homespun talks his father gave to his Sunday school class about being faithful people. Turner says that as he gets older, everything in the world seems more complex—more gray than black and white—and so it’s perhaps not surprising that even fundamentalists are often more complex than the caricatures they’re made out to be.
Yet in the end, writing about his childhood in all its complexity is about rejecting the fear that too often ran through Turner’s life and faith, and still creeps in. “When you were introduced to God by way of hell, that’s a springboard into a pit of being afraid on various levels of life; whether that’s afraid of getting in trouble or afraid of failing or afraid of revealing the real you,” Turner says. “Probably in the process of writing this book even, I realized that some of my closest friends don’t really know me because I’m afraid, and only recently I’ve been able to open up. I hope people who read this book ask, ‘Does my truth make me free, or does it make me lie?’ Truth will always set us free.”