Between a Church and a Hard Place
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"This not a story about struggling with God; it's about struggling with whether to struggle with God. It's about the pros and cons of taking a leap of faith at a frighteningly uncertain time in the perilous occupation of modern dad." (p. 21)
Andrew Park expected changes when his first child was born. However, the journey he found himself on was something he was entirely unprepared for. Although Andrew and his wife were "faith-free", they were undecided on whether to provide religious experiences for their son. They found themselves confounded by questions of whether to baptize, bless, have a naming ceremony, or to do nothing at all. Would their son grow up without morals because they had denied him religious affiliation? Was Andrew's aunt correct in asserting that their son would lack "comfort, security, and self-worth?" (p.11) The questions were endless and the answers were few.
Growing up, Andrew wasn't introduced to faith by his parents. Disenchanted with their own religious upbringings, Andrew's parents raised him and his brother without a religious affiliation. When Andrew's brother became an Evangelical Christian in high school, his parents were wary, going so far as to attempt an intervention. Andrew shared their view that his brother had become religious as a form of rebellion. As he explained, "Being born-again was to our family what stealing a car or getting pregnant or huffing glue in the garage were to most others." (p.135)
Due to his experiences with religion, Andrew thought it better to avoid the topic all together. Andrew explains: "…the space that in some people contains belief and in others disbelief has in me always been somewhat barren, filled only with fleeting, tentative guesses that blow through like discarded candy wrappersa vacant lot between everyone else's seeming towers of certainty: Who would want to hang out there for long? Better to avoid it. Which is what I've always done." (p.10)
This thought process prevailed until Andrew's son reached the age of three and started asking questions about God. Plagued by parental doubts and questions, Andrew decided to embark on a spiritual journey to understand what it means to be religious or not. "At some point after hearing my son utter one simple word, I resolved to take the most serious issue humans face a bit more seriously." (p.21) Andrew relentlessly searched for answers as he delved into family history, church history, statistics, and Humanism.
Between a Church and a Hard Place is a raw and honest exploration of one man who conquers his apprehensions of faith in an attempt to do right by his children. Andrew shares his painful struggle with uncertainty and his deep concern that it will be his fault if his children experience the same fate. Andrew tackles the issues of faith debated today to uncover whether morality, good character, and conscience can be achieved without religion. He touchingly recounts his family's struggles with faith and his reconciliation with his brother after many years of estrangement. Ultimately, Andrew's quest leads him to finding a delicate balance between being true to himself and the responsibilities of parenthood.
Andrew Park is a former correspondent for BusinessWeek, whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, Wired, Slate, and other national publications. He lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife, Cristina Smith, and their two children.
Q. If you could have asked your parents one question while writing the book, what would it have been?
If they believed in God. I honestly don't remember them ever saying one way or another. Not during my early childhood and certainly not during the years they spent fighting with my brother over his belief in God. I would still like to know.
Q. Do you feel content with what you gleaned from your exploration or do you think you will continue to question and search for answers?
I learned a great deal while writing this book, but I hate the idea that I might have achieved some stasis and I can now just put these issues behind me. Part of what started me on this path was a desire to engage certain questions in an authentic and deep way and I hope that I will be doing that my whole life. If nothing else, it will allow me to model introspection and doubt for my children. They need to see that those are necessary parts of life.
Q. What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
It wasn't easy accepting the fact that this was a story with a beginning but no ending, at least not one that would fit neatly in the pages of this book. At first, I expected to reach some sort of closure; later I realized that really wasn't what I was going to get, nor what I wanted.
Q. You touchingly recount your reconciliation with your brother in chapter five. Do you have any words of wisdom for anyone wanting to repair a strained relationship because of faith differences?
Over the years, I had made many assumptions about my brother's faith that turned out to be dead wrong. Some of these were based on my interactions with him, but others were just generalizations forged watching the Culture Wars play out. The first step in our reconciliation was for me to drop those prejudices and acknowledge that Evangelicals, like any group in our society, are a diverse and multi-dimensional lot.
Q. How does it feel to write about so many personal details of your life? Did any of your friends or family object to any aspect of the book?
That was tricky. I didn't have much problem sharing my own foibles with the world, but it didn't seem completely fair to be sharing my loved ones' most embarrassing moments. Let's just say there were some intense negotiations that went on once they saw the manuscript. One should not enter lightly into the publicizing of family history, even if it seems like ancient family history.
Q. In chapter six, you recount your experiences in attending a Life Group and cite statistical evidence that having a support system is of benefit to one's health. Do you think that you would ever be interested in forming your own group to share your life experiences with?
Oh, definitely. I've been wanting to start a commune since I was a teenager. I'm constantly trying to get my friends to commit to regular gatherings where we can share our life experiences, but they're too busy having life experiences to do that. The Life Group model isn't easy to replicate without the structure and authority of a church, particularly an Evangelical church, backing it up.
Q. What part of the book have you received the most response to?
That would probably be the description of the gratitude my wife and I felt after our son was born, which we experienced on really a spiritual level. That's a familiar sentiment for believing and non-believing parents alike.
Q. What statistic startled you the most in your research?
I am most fascinated by the studies showing that young people today are less likely to go to church than their parents were at their age but more likely to believe in God. That really speaks volumes, both about the decline of the church as an institution and an authority, but also about the strength of the human impulse to have faith in that which we can't see. I think the next 25 years are going to be a really interesting chapter in the history of religion in America.
Q. Have you considered writing a sequel to Between a Church and a Hard Place after your children are grown-up?
When my children are grown up, I fully expect that they'll want to write their own sequels, which probably won't be entirely flattering to the author of the original.
Q. After your research was complete, did you feel compelled to change your faith affiliation or do you still consider yourself faith-free? What ultimately made up your mind?
No, I think I emerged less certain than ever about which religious label fits me the best. I suppose that means I'm still a "None." But as I said, I'm not looking for closure on this subject. I suspect I will be questioning and experimenting right up until the end. Why not, right?
- In Between a Church and a Hard Place, there are several examples of individuals rejecting their parents' beliefs. For example, Andrew's grandfather raised Andrew's mom with religious principals she eventually rejected. While Andrew's mother and father chose to avoid religion, their oldest child became a devout Christian. Considering the outcomes in his family, what internal struggles do you think Andrew experiences when deciding how to parent his children?
- Andrew's parents seem to desire to raise their children in an environment where they can form their own opinions about faith but when faced with their oldest son's choices, they were not pleased. Why do you think they were open to some outcomes of their rearing and not others? Andrew seems to also desire to raise his children in an environment where they can make up their own minds. Do you think he will be able to accept any decision they make?
- At a young age, Andrew's son formed a strong concept of God without his parents' active influence. Do you think his parents' ambivalence about their own beliefs influenced his susceptibility to outside influence? Why weren't Andrew and his wife more upset that people were teaching their son ideas they did not agree with? Do you think it is appropriate for adults to teach religious beliefs to children without parental consent?
- Why do you think Andrew focused so heavily on his family's religious history in his search for answers to some of life's most difficult questions?
- Andrew and his brother are able to open-up to each other after many years of estrangement. How did this part of Andrew's story affect you? Did it encourage you to have any open discussions that you wish you would have had long ago? If so, how did the discussions go?
- Are you faith-free or do you identify with a belief? Why do you identify that way and what do you think led you to this belief?
- If you have children, how have they changed your perspective on life and faith?
- Do you know your family's religious history? Did reading Between a Church and a Hard Place make you want to know more about your family's religious history?
- Can you describe a time in your life where you felt propelled to answer your questions about faith? What made you decide to attack these challenging questions? Did you find what you were looking for?
- In Between a Church and a Hard Place, Andrew and his wife Cristina have to face challenging questions about faith and sometimes they don't see eye to eye. Have you had a similar experience with your partner? If so, how did you reconcile your differing opinions?
- Andrew gathers statistics in his exploration to learn about current popular beliefs. Why do you think Andrew thought statistics were important? Do you think statistics are an effective way to learn about religious beliefs?
- In chapter 6, Andrew recounts his experiences at a Life Group and gives statistical evidence that having a support system is of benefit to one's health. Do you agree with this statistical evidence? How has this group benefited your life?