Patton Dodd grew up in a good Christian home with good Christian parents. But, like many other teenagers in good Christian homes, his adolescent years saw a certain falling away from the faith, not to mention indulgence in sex, drugs, and rock & roll.
In his senior year of high school, through the ministrations of his older sister, Dodd found himself attending a charismatic megachurch ("The exterior of the church looks like a Wal-Mart with half a paint job: a blue-and-light-blue concrete box surrounded by acres of parking"), and there, one Sunday, he answered an altar call. He confessed his sins; prayed with a tan, mustachioed pastor; and signed an informational card where he indicated he wanted to "accept salvation" and "renew my commitment to Jesus Christ."
Then Dodd walked out of the church, ready "to begin my life anew. Voila."
If this were an evangelical book of the old school, the altar call would come in the penultimate chapter, or perhaps even the last chapter. But Dodd's altar call is the beginning, not the climax, of this wonderful, rollicking memoir, and Dodd recounts his conversion in chapter one. There's some backsliding, and a lot more pot-smoking, and a good measure of existential angst before the story's through.
My Faith So Far is not just a spiritual memoir, charting the interior life of one pilgrim. It is also cultural commentary, with Dodd navigating the twists and turns of the evangelical subculture. Dodd dissects the social landscape of the megachurchjust as there are cliques in the high-school cafeteria, here too are preppies, granolas, punkers, all of whom happen to be baptized. He invites readers to peek in on his quiet time. And he leads us through the wacky world of contemporary Christian music, of which Dodd is a devotee.
Indeed, it is "bad Christian music" that taught Dodd "how to be religious. [Through ccm], I was learning how to have a relationship with God . For better or worseactually, for a bewildering mix of better and worseChristian music was informing the way I believed in God. Life with Jesus was exciting and every day was an adventure (so said Steven Curtis Chapman). God's love was unexpected and unlike any other (so said Pray for Rain). I was supposed to seek God in the morning and learn to walk in his ways (so said Rich Mullins). Popular Christian music was teaching me how to believe what I wanted to believe."
Dodd is a tad tongue-in-cheek, to be sure, but inside the slick and slightly snarky commentary, he offers a terrifically compelling apology for how spiritual and cultural formation actually happen.
After graduating from high school, Dodd lands at Oral Roberts University. There he makes some wonderful discoveries, the work of Francis Schaeffer among them. And at Oral Roberts, Dodd begins to have some doubts. He is bamboozled when a friend suggests that God-fearing Christians shouldn't study literature. He is troubled by the name-it-and- claim-it school of prayer his classmates embrace. One young prayer warrior entreats, "Father, you know I need a new truck, so right now I just claim a Toyota 4X4, 3.4 liter, six-cylinder, extended cab red with white trim. I need low payments and affordable insurance. I just claim these things in Jesus' name."
Such a prayer is enough to make even the firmest believer question the community he's landed in.
And here begins the real climax of My Faith So Farthe turning point of this narrative is not Dodd's datable conversion, but his entry into the terrain of faithful doubt and doubt-filled faith. He struggles to reconcile the happy-go-lucky, pal-around-town Savior he's heard about in church with the Jesus he meets while reading the Gospels, a Jesus who is sometimes caustic and angry, a Jesus who once likens a Canaanite woman to a dog.
He realizes his questionsdid the Flood really happen?are "banal," but they feel urgent. He fantasizes about life without faith ("If you had no faith you could smoke pot with no guilt. You could have sex with multiple partners. You could vote Democrat. You could spend all your time playing Frisbee golf"). He wonders if he should still raise his hands and dance in church, even though he feels hollow and would rather be knitting or tending a garden than praising the Lord.
The book, of course, ends (I was sad when it did), but Dodd's Christian journey does not. When a new Christian hits that first bump of doubt, what he wants most is a resolution. He wants the struggle to be Over. But, says Dodd, "there is no simple Over in terms of my faith, or my doubt. Both are still with me strongly. I still doubt. I think of it as an affliction, a disorder called Doubt. I wake to questions in the morning. Some days they hassle me all day long; other days they seem petty and foolish."
And so he comes not to an Over, but to "a silent rest in the middle." It is a middle, and a silent rest, that most of us know.
Patton Dodd may well encounter some naysayers, who will ask what business he has writing a spiritual memoir when he's not yet 30 (at least, some naysayers wondered that about me when I published a memoir at 24). And, to be sure, should Dodd turn again to the story of his conversion and his early Christian life when he is 65, he will likely write a quite different book. But the power of this memoir is how well Dodd captures the messiness of faithmessiness that surely is still there at 65, but is perhaps more obvious, even sometimes more vulgar, at 25.
My Faith So Far makes clear that one doesn't need to have everything neatly tied up before stepping into church; one doesn't have to have answers to all those nagging existential questions before meeting Jesus; indeed, it is being in church, and spending time with Jesus, that teaches us how best to ask the questions. My Faith So Far is good companionship along the way.
Lauren F. Winner is the author of Girl Meets God: A Memoir (Random House, 2003). Her book Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity will be published by Brazos in April.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
My Faith So Far is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More about Patton Dodd is available from his weblog.
More information, including two excerpts, is available from the publisher.
Dodd is also a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha, the Submission Director of the Independent Film Festival of Boston.
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