Samantha Field deconstructs her upbringing in a "cult-like" church in the South—reexamining the language, theology, and perspectives she grew up with to find for herself a truer understanding of Christianity. Homeschooled, she attended a conservative Christian college and then came to Liberty University to pursue a Master's degree in English, which is how I met her.

I never knew about Samantha's struggles and spiritual abuse until after she graduated and began blogging about it. One of her recent posts—a compelling narrative of how taking parts of the Bible literally can go terribly, terribly wrong—was praised by the Slacktivist. Knowing now a bit more about the young woman who wouldn't stop asking questions, I thought the readers of Her.meneutics would be interested in her story, too. You can read much more of it at her blog, Defeating the Dragons.

Your blog post describes a scene right out of a Flannery O'Connor story. Was this really the kind of religious environment you were raised in?

When I was 10, my family moved to a rural town in the Deep South, and we began attending an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church. The last two churches we had attended had been conservative Baptist, and when we first joined this one it didn't seem that different. But a few years after we joined, I started noticing a pattern. Families were joining—but after a few months, they would inexplicably leave. After they were gone, the pastor would preach a message dedicated to explaining why they were gone, focusing on some sort of sin. They were in the wrong. We were following Christ. We were being persecuted.

During the 11 years we attended, the pastor established a totalitarian control of "his" church. He directly interfered in marriages; he meddled in personal family issues. He defined what was appropriate for us to wear, to listen to, to watch, to do, and to eat. Anytime my mother got a new haircut, there would be a sermon about how women are required to have long hair. Any time I wore a new outfit to church, it was subtly approved or disapproved. Women were always at fault for a man's wandering eye. When I was 16, I wore a knee-length skirt to church, and the pastor's son told me that seeing my calves had "caused him to stumble." When I developed tendonitis and had to stop playing the piano for church, he preached a sermon about how God would rip away my talent because my sin was getting in the way of God healing me.

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When did you start to doubt the tenets of this upbringing and why? Did you ever turn completely away from your faith?

My family left our church at the beginning of my sophomore year in college. I started challenging everything I knew. I had a fairly intimate understanding of apologetics, but all the pat answers I knew by heart were not enough. So, for the first time, I read one of those books that I'd always been told I shouldn't read: Dawkins' The God Delusion. When I got to chapter two, where he has his infamous description of a "genocidal maniac," my world shattered. Because I knew that god. That was the god I'd grown up knowing. I had never heard a message preached about a God of love—I was told that a "God of love" is an emasculated pansy. No, the god I served was holy and righteous and wrathful. So, for a year, I wanted nothing to do with him, or religion, or faith. I was stuck at a fundamentalist college but I didn't know if I was an atheist, or an agnostic—I simply didn't care.

A year later, for a class assignment, I read Craig's Reasonable Faith and Keller's The Reason for God. Those two books helped restore some of my confidence in the existence of an Uncaused Cause, but I still wasn't sure about Christianity. After breaking off an engagement with a man who abused me in every possible way, I went home where I spent a year in a deep depression.

What brought you back to faith?

…Art, literature, music… they opened up a whole new world for me. I'd always been a voracious reader, but I'd never understood art as being a reflection of a large, holistic, world-wide story. Art, I learned, contained Truth—and for Truth to exist outside of Scripture was a revelation, for me. I started reading books like Shelley's Frankenstein or Chopin's Awakening or O'Connor's Everything that Rises Must Converge, and truth began resonating with me. I was able to look at Picasso's Crucifixion and weep. I saw Bernini's The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, and Dali's Temptation of St. Anthony, and felt something inside of me leap up for joy, because I saw Truth—and Christ—in it. Art, more than anything else, told me I wasn't alone.

Also, in my second semester of graduate school, one of my friends invited me to his church—and it was the first time I felt safe in a church building. That Sunday morning, in a Presbyterian church, I heard the gospel with new ears. I also read another book—Licona's and Habermas' The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. That was when I realized that I didn't need to accept an entire system just to believe in Jesus. I could wrestle with individual issues—I didn't have to accept every single tenet of a particular denomination wholesale in order to be a Christian. Most importantly, I could focus on Jesus.

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You were once a Christian fundamentalist but now identify as a Christian feminist. Can you talk a little more about that?

The area of domination and control that affected me the longest isn't limited to just my small church. I was taught, from the time that I was eight, that women are inferior to men in the form of complementarianism. I have many friends that have complementarian relationships and marriages. It can be healthy, and is a system that works for many men and women. However, I grew up familiar with an extreme form of complementariansim—where women are explicitly told to stay in verbally and physically abusive marriages (this system does not even acknowledge the existence of sexual abuse inside marriage), and that having intelligence and simply being competent individuals is emasculating to men. I can hand you the books that expressly say these things.* These ideas were not implied, they were not subtle. They were ferociously enforced without exception. When I went to college, even though it was a conservative Christian college, I was told by nearly everyone at my church that I was either wasting my time or sinning against God and my future husband. I grew up believing that I did not have personal agency: I was the property of my father until he transferred that to my future husband, and the choice of who that future husband was to be was not my decision to make—my father was not nearly this patriarchal, but that was not the case with many of my friends.

How would you characterize your faith now?

Theologically, I'm a pretty middle-of-the-road orthodox Protestant. I still deeply struggle with some issues, but I'm learning that not having the answers to these questions isn't disabling, as I'd been raised to think. It's not only okay, but healthy and honest to say "I don't know."

I and my husband attend a non-denominational church that provides a safe environment for me. I'm taking a two-year theology program that is giving me the vocabulary and ability to discover some of the answers for myself. I'm going to a small group now—something I was taught was "divisive"—and I can discuss ideas in an open format where asking questions is encouraged instead of being labeled a sin.

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There are times when I am up all night long struggling just to believe that God loves me. I lost the peace and comfort of being convinced I had all the "right answers" and replaced it with constant doubt. But, in the end, I'm in a much healthier place now.

What do you think the church is doing most wrong today?

Spiritual abuse is so much more common than many people think. It exists in so many forms, and it is incredibly easy to miss. And it happens where people are honestly trying to do the right thing, to follow Christ, to pursue godliness.

It also happens when people stop asking why. Being handed a list of "this is what you should believe" is so very easy, especially when that list is handed to you by someone you respect. But when we stop asking questions, when we even begin to accept that asking questions is in itself a problem, that's when we can surrender our faith into the hands of someone who could misuse it.

Many times when I explain my religious environment, the focus is the legalism, when legalism isn't really the problem. It's the power and control that legalism places in the hands of a select few. Fundamentalism, in my experience, frequently results in the congregation surrendering control over almost every area of their lives to their pastor. In a strange twist, while fundamentalists preach in the complete "sufficiency of Scripture," in reality they practice whatever their pastor hands down from the pulpit.

I also find it troubling that in discussions about faith, we seem to confuse "having faith" with "being certain." I'm no longer comfortable with feeling certain about anything; certainty, I've found, is dangerous territory. It also bothers me when we frequently resort to statements like "the Bible is very clear on this issue," or that a specific interpretation of a passage is "plain" or "obvious." This type of language seems almost designed to shut down conversation, or to dismiss the speaker's opposition.

I think it's important for us to stay receptive to new and challenging ideas. To honestly engage with a concept we don't agree with, and see where it takes us. Instead of digging in even deeper when our faith system gets confronted, if we took a second to empathetically understand their perspective, we could have a change of heart and a change of mind. Being able to do this, I'm realizing, is much easier said than done. Most of the time when I'm challenged, I instantaneously start mounting a defense. It takes me a while to realize that instinctually defending your own idea almost automatically means you're not really listening to-- or trying to understand-- another.

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What do you think the church is doing right?

The best thing that I see happening in our churches is a general movement toward grace. I think, for the most part, we are starting to see that reacting against and separating ourselves from our culture can be a damaging, unhealthy approach. I've always appreciated the metaphor of being the "salt of the world," because in order for salt to act as a preservative, it can't just be a coating on the outside. The salt has to be rubbed and pushed deep into the meat, or it won't work. And I think we're starting to see that—we can't pull ourselves away from our culture, create our own subculture, and expect to retain our ability to cause any significant change.

Grace makes all of this possible. Grace lets us recognize our differences as small and insignificant when compared to larger societal problems. Grace teaches us to accept our brothers and sisters regardless if what they believe is exactly the same. Over and over again, I keep coming back to the motto "in essentials, unity, in non-essentials, liberty, in all things, charity."

*Created to Be His Help Meet by Debi Pearl, and Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin.