My Early Encounter with the Scientific Method

In my youth, when I wasn’t in school or playing sports or with one of our extended families, I was usually in church. My mother had been raised Lutheran, while my father came from a Catholic background. They met and married in their thirties after working together at a faith-based teen rehabilitation center in Colorado. A recovering hippie in the 1970s, my dad, especially, had stumbled upon and identified strongly with the Jesus Movement. Dad became what I like to call a drive-by evangelist. What I mean is, he can’t drive away from the tollbooth without telling the worker, “Jesus loves you!” No amount of discouragement from my siblings or me has ever persuaded him that this isn’t a helpful practice. When I have pressed him about things like that, I was apt to hear something about “sowing seeds.”

I suppose what troubles me the most about the seeds that he sows isn’t so much that believes something and wants to share it with the world. Rather what really irks me is that the trust to be able to speak into another person’s life is something you one earn by digging around in the mess of that person’s life. Do that for a while and trust can be built, but this doesn’t happen at the tollbooth. Nevertheless, it was this influence of charismatic, rootless Protestantism that would become the foundation of so much of my own childhood. We became that in-church-multiple-times-a-week family and twice on Sunday. We went to multiple churches and participated in several youth groups. Mostly we worshipped with the Methodists on Sunday mornings, and the Pentecostals on Sunday night. You can hardly find two traditions that are more different from each other, and I’ve been confused ever since.

The worst I got from the Methodists was church choir. It goes without saying that my siblings and I were to be a part of this choir, despite the fact that I couldn’t have had any less desire to stand up in front of a church and sing. Practice was a precious waste of my time, and it’s my best guess that any of my siblings who were also part of this scheme felt the same way I did. I found my “out” by accident. In response to something my sister, Angela, said, I turned to my friend and whispered, “She is so stupid.” The choir director heard me and tossed me out of the session. Although the choir director tracked me down at school to clarify that I could return if I wanted to, I wasn’t about to explain that nuance to my parents. Best. Escape. Ever.

To their credit, the Pentecostals were usually more interesting and exciting than the Methodists. You never knew what was going to happen. There was that time, for example, when the pastor’s wife tried to cast a demon out of Angela. Or those times in the church basement when Don (a few of the names are changed in this post), playing Sunday School teacher, would lay a few magazines out on a table and show us the hidden sexual messages in all the advertisements. Lest you misunderstand, I’m not referring to scantily-dressed women trying to sell products; that would have been too obvious and normal and agreeable. No, our teacher liked to point out actual words that were supposedly spelled out on cars or whatever. The problem was, I could never see what he was trying to show us.

Our family had come across the Pentecostal church when my dad met Pastor Jarod, who also refilled soda machines for the school at which my dad worked. Pretty soon, my dad was added to the preaching rotation. Of all that I remember from that church, perhaps none was more significant than when Pastor Jarod said – from the pulpit – that he didn’t think we would live past the year 2000. Fundamentalists were reading Left Behind novels at the time, and even people outside the church were freaking out about Y2K. The rapture was coming, so we were told. I took the warnings to heart and can remember walking home from school one afternoon with the clouds looking ominous and wondering, very honestly, if God was about to break through, swoop up the Christians, and leave everyone else behind for the Tribulation. And the big question was, of course, would I be taken up with God or left behind?

I like to think of Pastor Jarod’s declaration as my first conscious experiment with the scientific method. Now even as an adult, I’m not the kind of person who thinks all questions can be resolved by simply using the scientific method. Not even close. To live is to make qualitative judgments and decisions about who to trust on an daily basis. But Pastor Jarod’s claim was a measurable one, and even my sixteen-year-old brain understood that. This was a test. When the first of the year rolled around, either something crazy was going to go down or we would keep right on going with life.

Well, no one I knew disappeared, and no news stories reported any mysterious absences either. Even Y2K was a disappointment. As a teenager, I probably could have respected and forgiven the error had we simply revisited Pastor Jarod’s statement, admitted that a mistake had been made, that we had gotten too excited about things, and that really (as the Bible seems to suggest) we have no idea when the world is going to end. But no one at the church (or in my family!) said anything. We just moved the goalposts back. We kept right on going with the same rhetorical games, like when Pastor Jarod’s wife told us to sing the song one more time, and we all knew she really meant six or seven more times.

But something changed in me after the world didn’t end. Suddenly I had significant questions about whether any of this stuff had intellectual, historical, scientific, and for that matter, personal validity. I suppose you could say I’m still asking and living into those questions, but all questions are not quite as simple as whether or not I will still be standing on the planet after the New Year turns.

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