My newfound anti-Christianity was not something I shared with many people. My parents back in Africa didn’t know about it, and most of my old high-school buddies had no idea. There was a small handful of old friends who I trusted deeply enough to be open about my own beliefs. For a missionary kid, the confession “I’m not a Christian” can be very difficult.
These good friends were experiencing their own mighty struggles. But we cared for each other and supported one another. One friend, who I’ll call Anna, just wouldn’t give up on me. Even as I attacked her Christian faith, and even as she fought her own tough battle, Anna prayed for me and took the time to hear me out. I also witnessed God at work in her life, sustaining her through tragedy and pain.
And then I reached my own crisis, two years into college. The details are unimportant; what is important is that my individual limitations were made apparent. I simply couldn’t cope on my own. Anna’s life and that of others showed me that people could cope with the help of God. I really didn’t want to believe in God. But I needed him.
So finally I did what I knew how to do: I asked Jesus into my heart again. And I again started calling myself a Christian. But all the issues, all the anger, and all the bad history with what I knew of Christianity—all that was still there and I still rejected it all. I would be a Christian, I decided, but it was up to me to decide what being a Christian means.
Another literary interest was in Russian Studies, and I was reading a lot of Leo Tolstoy. Not the big famous novels but the parables and essays that were written in the latter half of his career, after his own spiritual awakening. Tolstoy founded his own religion and it was an attractive religion—all the moral teachings and disciplines of Christianity without the miracles or the Resurrection. Tolstoy thoroughly rejected the Church, going so far as to replace the word “Pharisee” with the word “Orthodox” in his personal translation/ interpretation of the Gospels.
It was in Tolstoyism that I found a Christianity I liked, because in Tolstoyism I could dissociate myself from all the poisonous history of Western Christianity in Africa. In Tolstoyism I could look to Christ as a virtuous example but avoid the scandal of the Cross. I could call myself a Christian without the pesky details of believing what Christians believe or participating in the life of a Christian community. This reliance on God could be something entirely inside my own head and entirely under my own control.
And as this kind of Christian, really in name only, believing in a God who I get to order around, I embarked on a seven-month study abroad program in Moscow, Russia. Everything was about to change...