It was reading the Bible that made Mike McHargue an atheist. The author and co-host of the popular podcast The Liturgists turned to Genesis during a difficult season in his life. He read through the Bible once and, having found more questions than answers, started back at the beginning. Again. And again. And again. Four read-throughs later, the lifelong Christian had lost what remained of his faith.
McHargue recently joined the Newbigin Conversations for the Common Good, where he was interviewed by Rev. Dr. Scot Sherman about his new book, Finding God in the Waves. Sherman noted that McHargue, with The Liturgists as well as his book and other platforms, had tapped into some kind of phenomenon that resonated with people who had had difficult experiences with the church in their upbringing. “How do you get your head around this phenomenon?” Sherman asked. “What do you think you’ve tapped into?”
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“I don’t get my head around the phenomenon,” McHargue responded. “At the end of the day, every day, we face a choice: Today, do I want to help create a world of peace or not? And everything that’s happening with the book and the talks and the podcast, to me, is simply responding to the suffering I’ve felt in my own life and seeing if I can help others in similar situations suffer less.” The church, he said, which “was meant to embody God’s love in the world, somehow ended up hurting a lot of people and making them afraid to be around the people of God.” So The Liturgists podcast was born, and with a bang–they had 25,000 downloads the day of the first episode, and they now have over 250,000 subscribers. Clearly, their conversations about faith, doubt, belief, and fear had struck a nerve.
So where did that come from in McHargue? What in his life had led him to that place? He started early, describing being a kid on the playground who felt like he didn’t fit in at school.”It’s not at all an exaggeration to say I never had one friend at school from kindergarten to grade 6,” he said. “When the recess bell would ring, my temptation was to run and play with the kids, but if I got to the playground equipment and tried to play with the other kids, I would inevitably find someone standing on my head, or someone making me eat out of a mystery bag, or they’d pants me.” So, instead, he found himself drawn to a grove of trees just beyond the property line of the school. There, he would pray. “I’d get really lonely out there, [but]
I had this gift in my life, that I started attending this southern Baptist church in the womb, and I’d heard every Sunday and Wednesday and the occasional Tuesday night that Jesus loved me, and that God listened whenever we prayed. So I would stand in these trees for 22 minutes at recess and talk to God.”
This led to a kind of intimacy with God at a young age–a sense that, “even if none of the kids liked me, God did. And so in the earliest years of my life, my faith was a refuge, my faith was a matter of survival in a hostile world.”
As McHargue grew up, he encountered depression and doubt. It was his father’s decision to leave the family for a woman he’d met at church that led McHargue back to the Bible, digging into it and encountering more and more problems. “I read the Bible in three months and then I did that again, and again, and I did it a fourth time, because if the answer to one of Dad’s questions was in, like, Malachi or a back corner of Leviticus, I wanted to have it. And a year of intense Bible study did precisely what you would expect–it made me an atheist.”
McHargue describes reading through Genesis 1 and wondering how it could be the case that, say, trees were created before stars, as the passage describes, when scientists assure is that it’s the other way around. And then in Genesis 2, we read an entirely different sequence of events than in Genesis 1. McHargue had a hard time squaring those things with each other, until eventually he couldn’t and didn’t want to keep trying. “I didn’t set out to disprove the Bible, I set out trusting the Bible to give me answers to a difficult question in my life, but ultimately it dismantled all of my understanding of God piece by piece and led to the loneliest, most frightening time in my life.”
That loneliness was his companion over the intervening years. McHargue even led his seven year-old daughter to faith while he was an atheist, an experience he recounts with a kind of bemused curiosity. “I remember the night my daughter came to me and said she was ready to receive Christ, and I was like, ‘oh my gosh there’s no Christ, what do I do?’ So I quizzed her, and I quizzed her way harder than I should have to make sure she understood everything she was talking about, and she did. So I led my daughter in the Sinner’s Prayer as an atheist. I remember the day she was baptized and she came out of the water and everyone was crying. I was 7 when I was baptized. I was crying, too. I was ashamed that I was lying to my daughter, but I thought it would be better for her to fit in in the South as a Baptist than to see the truth and be ostracized as an atheist.”
It was an encounter with God in an altogether different setting that brought McHargue back around to the idea of faith. He was at a conference for creative professionals–he worked in advertising–led by Rob Bell, the Christian author and speaker who has spoken at Newbigin before. Rob was leading the eucharist by talking about quantum physics. “I have this problem in my life that if someone starts talking about quantum physics I can’t leave. So Rob talked about the eucharist through physics and then decided to offer the eucharist to the room and people would go up and receive this thing. I didn’t want to leave,” he said, but wasn’t sure whether he should stay. “So I go to turn my heel, and I heard a voice, audible not like hearing my thoughts, and it said ‘I was there when you were eight and I’m here right now.’”
McHargue didn’t believe, he says, because he was suddenly convinced of Jesus’s personage as a historical figure. Instead, he recounted a time in his life he had felt ostracized and lonely to the point of being suicidal. He recalled a specific time he had felt that low, and said that it wasn’t historical accuracy that brought him back to faith. It was Jesus. “I did believe that the name of Jesus kept me alive.”
*You can read more of Mike’s story in Finding God in the Waves.
Laura is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. She also works part-time at City Church SF as the communications coordinator.