Finding good work to do—work that can enrich and satisfy the soul, not just for a moment but for a lifetime—is an incredible gift of grace.
That gift can enter our lives in such mysterious ways, however, that we often fail to see it for what it is. In fact, grace can sometimes appear in such profoundly negative ways—in defeat or despair or rejection, for example—that we often resist the very grace that can make us whole.
In my case, the grace that opened up a lifetime of good and satisfying work first appeared in the form of deeply troubling questions about the church in which I was raised, the Church of Christ.
Over the years, I have often thought that my birth-relation to that church was a little like being born Amish. Separate and all-consuming, my church defined the boundaries of my life, and I understood from an early age that I was separate, different, and other.
We were separate for one simple reason: ours was the one true church since we alone had restored the primitive church described in the biblical text. Not only was I separate, but throughout my teenage years, I also knew that I was better, more virtuous than the unwashed masses, and better even than my friends who belonged to what they claimed were other Christian traditions. But we knew better. Those churches weren’t really Christian at all. They were cheap imitations, phonies and frauds, though we used much nicer language to describe them. We called them “the denominations”—a label that could never describe the one true church.
I grew up a lot like Danny Saunders in Chaim Potok’s novel, The Chosen. The son of the Hasidic rabbi, a first generation immigrant to the United States, Danny thrived on mainstream American culture in his newly adopted land, but each afternoon when school was out, he returned to his deeply separatist Hasidic world, and the tension he felt between the two was palpable.
Like Danny, my life as a teen was sheer paradox. I thrived in the public schools in San Angelo, Texas, but my church was a world apart. My parents forbade me to attend the school-sponsored dances or even to learn to dance, for that matter. But they required that our entire family attend Sunday school every Sunday and church three times every week—Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. And when the week-long gospel meetings rolled around, as they did twice a year, we were there for every service.
One story illustrates well the tension I felt between my church and my school—a story that played itself in the context of Texas high school football. If you saw the movie Friday Night Lights then you will understand at least part of the world in which I grew up, a world in which high school football was king. For every home game, the San Angelo Central High School Bobcats packed the stadium—a magnificent partial bowl built especially for our team—with 11,000 screaming fans, twenty percent of San Angelo’s population.
As student body vice-president during my senior year, it fell to me to lead the invocation on one of those nights before the game began. Just before I climbed the stairs to the press box, the student body president caught my arm and offered some advice. “There are many Jews at this game tonight,” she said—though looking back, I’m sure she was wrong about that since the Jewish population there was small—“and out of respect to them,” she continued, “why don’t you just end your prayer with a strong ‘Amen’ and leave off the words, ‘In Jesus name’?’’
I had been taught always to pray “in Jesus’ name” since we believed that our prayers reached the Father only through him. But on this particular night and at this particular place, a healthy dose of compromise made good sense to me. So I prayed for the players and I prayed for the fans and I prayed for our country. And when I was finished, I simply said, “Amen.”
Two days later, on Sunday morning, several men in our church accosted me. They didn’t accost me one by one. They accosted me as a group. They clearly had talked things over among themselves and selected one to speak for the rest. That man got in my face and said, “Boy, that prayer you prayed at that game the other night didn’t get no higher than them light poles!”
I felt my face grow hot and red. These men had embarrassed me deeply. I had done what I thought was right in the context of my school, but it turned out to be wrong—profoundly wrong—in the context of my church. The tension I felt between the world of my school and the world of my church was unrelenting. In spite of the fact that I had found acceptance among my peers, I knew I was “other” and would never be like them.
Mine was—and still is—a profoundly regional church. It has always enjoyed considerable strength in a belt that runs from Tennessee to Texas, but its numbers plummet when one leaves its four-state geographical heartland. But until I was twenty years old, as far as I was concerned, it embodied the whole of Christendom. My growing up in Texas helped sustain my provincial view of the world which in turn reinforced my true-church mentality. As far as I was concerned, Texas was the only world there was. Michigan and Tennessee? India and Mozambique? Those were mythical places that might exist somewhere out in the great beyond, but they clearly held no relevance for my world and me, for my world was the all-encompassing universe known as Texas. The fact that I lived at the axis mundi—at the center of the world—never challenged my true-church mentality but only sustained it.
Then, when I was sixteen, my mother said something that began to open my mind to a larger world. A preacher in our tradition had produced a series of filmstrips designed to aid in the task of converting one’s friends and neighbors to the one true church. The idea was to invite them in for coffee and dessert and, in that non-threatening environment, to help them see the error of their ways.
When I discovered those filmstrips, I made up my mind to show them to my high school buddies. All my friends belonged to one Christian denomination or another. They were mainly Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians. But I didn’t consider them genuinely Christian and I firmly believed they would burn in the fires of hell if they remained outside the one true church. So one day after school, they came to my house to see and hear the great and marvelous truths that I hoped they might embrace.
When I reached the end of my filmstrip presentation, my friends ridiculed me. They thought my perspectives were astoundingly narrow, and that’s saying something, considering how narrow all our perspectives were when we were sixteen years old in Texas in the 1950s.
Richard Hughes and the staff of the high school newspaper in 1960.
But the most important truth anyone taught that day was imparted neither by the filmstrips nor by me nor by my friends, but by my mother, for once my friends had left our house, my mother spoke words that have shaped my thinking—and, indeed, my life—in far-reaching ways.
“Son,” she said, “if you want to convert your friends to our church, that is entirely up to you. But if you discover that they are right and you are wrong, then you must be the one who is willing to make the change.” As I reflect on those words my mother spoke over half a century ago, I realize that she gave me that day one of the greatest gifts a mother can give a child, short of life itself and a mother’s love. The gift was the charge to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
My mother’s words placed a dent in my true-church armor, but that armor began to crack in serious ways during my college years. One day a friend told me something I had never grasped before—that our church was essentially confined to four southern states—Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. As insular as I was, it somehow made no sense to me that all God’s children—all the saved from throughout the earth—were essentially confined to four states in the American South.
While still in college, I encountered religions other than the Christian religion in a world literature textbook that contained selections from the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita. Before reading those selections, I had never given the slightest thought to the fact that millions of people in the world embrace religions other than the Christian faith.
Making that discovery shook me to the core, for it forced me to ask if the fact that I was a Christian—indeed, if the fact that I belonged to the one true church—was more the result of having been born into a “true-church” family and a nation that was nominally Christian than anything else.
While questions about the religions of the world assaulted my sense of certainty about much that I believed, more devastating still was my belated discovery that the Church of Christ did not spring full-blown from the biblical text. As bizarre as it may seem, I did not discover that my church actually had a human founding and a human history in the United States until I was roughly twenty years old.
These questions were hardly academic. These were questions that assaulted my very sense of self since my sense of self was so completely bound up with my church’s claim to be true and right while others were false and wrong.
But what was that history? What were our roots? What were the cultural and religious forces that had produced this tradition and, by extension, the forces that had shaped me? These questions were hardly academic. These were questions that assaulted my very sense of self since my sense of self was so completely bound up with my church’s claim to be true and right while others were false and wrong.
Those questions tugged at my heart and mind with such urgency that during the twenty-second year of my life, I made a crucial decision: I would become a historian and focus my work on those deeply troubling questions for which, at the time, I had no answers.
Over the years, the answers I discovered led me to turn my back on true-church mythology. But I have not turned my back on the Church of Christ. Somehow I knew that turning my back on this tradition would amount to turning my back on myself. So instead of rejecting it, I have spent a lifetime seeking to understand it. And that decision has served me well.
The questions that prompted this journey strike me now as a gift of grace. Deeply troubling at the time, they opened for me a vocation that has enriched my life with good books, with good students, and yes, with even more questions that have set me on the journey of discovery time and time again. And that is another gift of grace.
Richard T. Hughes is professor emeritus at both Pepperdine University and Messiah College and teaches at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee. He is author, co-author, or editor of over a dozen books including Myths America Lives By: White Supremacy and the Stories that Give Us Meaning (University of Illinois, 2018) and The Vocation of a Christian Scholar: How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind (Eerdmans, 2005).