I’m sure Jasmine saw worry in my eyes when I asked if I could borrow her computer. She was on her way out, so she let me use her room for an hour.
I sat on the floor, ready to hit record, and I didn’t have a clue what to say.
This was going to be the vlog that finally said something of substance to the people who had been watching my videos for the last few weeks. I had to deliver on the expectations that I’d built up.
The words will come if they’re meant to come, I thought. Just listen, and the words will come.
Without any script, I started the recording. Breathe in, breathe out.
One viewer would later point out to me that I spent most of the recording looking down and to the right while I searched for the words to speak. It was a sign that I was being honest, she said, that I wasn’t making anything up.
But I wasn’t actually saying anything either. For most of the video, I was frozen. I just sat there, thinking. Not talking. In front of the camera.
This is me, struggling. In about seven minutes, that’s all this video says: I don’t really know what to say anymore.
I posted it, and then I watched the view count rise. One hundred. Two hundred. Five. When I saw that it had been featured on the Godtube.com frontpage, I felt sick to my stomach—a mixture of excitement and pity. But the viewcount wasn’t nearly as powerful as the messages that streamed into my inbox from people who were trying to help.
Godtube was founded in early 2007, a safe space for Christians to share Christian videos online. Everything on Godtube was put through a more rigorous review process than YouTube’s, which was also relatively new in those days and allowed anyone to post just about anything. At the time, I was living on the Stanford campus in California. I wasn’t enrolled as a student because I’d been floundering in my studies. I was living in a large house with friends, and I was looking for work.
That’s when I learned about Godtube. I was perusing Facebook when an acquaintance posted a link. I clicked it, and here’s the video I saw featured on the front page:
The video, by Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron, argues that because a banana fits perfectly into a human hand and is pleasurable to eat, there must be a God.
Like my Facebook friends who watched the video and commented, I thought this whole Godtube.com thing was ridiculous—literally, worthy of ridicule. We LOL’d together. “Isn’t it hilarious what the Christians are doing now? Oh man…”
Unlike my Facebook friends, though, this wasn’t the first time I’d seen a Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort video. I grew up in a church that subscribed to Comfort’s ideas, that non-Christians are lost and eternally doomed, and that Jesus — and only Jesus — can save a non-Christian from a life of utter meaninglessness.
Godtube was founded in early 2007, a safe space for Christians to share Christian videos online.
As a kid, I listened to Christian music; I went to Christian school; I read Christian fiction. Throughout my childhood, I carried a fragile sense of superiority, holding onto the idea that what I had learned — about the Bible and also about science and how the world works — was Right with a capital R. The more fervently I believed in this superiority, the more devastating it was for me when I eventually realized, after I started venturing outside of my Christian bubble and interacting with non-Christians, how much there was to learn from people outside of the church.
Take bananas, for example. If I’d seen this banana video at the right age (say, ten, when I hesitated to listen to Christian Rock music, due to its aggressive sound), I may have bought into the idea that a fruit was proof of God’s existence. After all, isn’t it striking how the banana fits into a person’s hand, with three ridges on one side and two on the other?
But there’s a gaping flaw in the argument, which may be the reason why the banana video was later removed from godtube: Today’s cultivated bananas are very different from their wild counterpart, making them just as much a product of man’s intervention as they might be a product of the Divine.
But the banana argument, the existence-of-God argument, and the whole idea of arguing at all seemed to me like a huge distraction compared to the opportunity that the Internet offered, to foster communication between Christians and non-Christians. If Christians were flocking to Godtube instead of YouTube, the opportunity for communication was squandered.
In this website, I saw Christians attempting to isolate and protect themselves from the outside world, while feeding a sense of superiority among those on the inside. And it hurt me to see people segregating themselves in this way, living in a bubble like the one I’d been raised in.
I wanted to reach out and engage.
So I borrowed Jasmine’s computer, because Jasmine’s computer had a webcam on it (and I didn’t own a computer at the time), and I recorded a video. It was my very first vlog. I posted the video to Godtube.
The video is short and simple, and it has nothing to do with bananas or the existence of God. In it, I say that I’m not a Christian, and I’m here to talk, because I think Christians and non-Christians should talk to each other.
This was a toe in the water to see if people on Godtube.com were afraid to talk to non-Christians or if they were interested in meeting non-Christians. From what I found, there was a large interest in meeting non-Christians.
My video was featured almost right after it was posted; it shared the same space on the homepage as the banana video, “An Atheist’s Worst Nightmare.” Five hundred people watched it within the first day. This is nothing compared to today’s Internet metrics, but for me — a flailing college student in 2007 — this was life-changing.
The video is short and simple, and it has nothing to do with bananas or the existence of God.
Private messages streamed into my inbox, and it became very clear very quickly that the people on Godtube.com wanted to interact with me, a non-Christian, and the thing they wanted, more than anything else, was for me to become a Christian.
People told me they were praying for me; I thanked them. People told me their life stories: pages and pages’ worth, from people I’d never met, telling me all about how they came to know Jesus, and how I might also come to know Jesus. I thanked them, too.
Underneath this interaction was that sense of superiority that I’d come to do battle with, the sense that they were the ones who were going to help me, not the other way around. I thought I had gone to Godtube.com to teach something, and they thought I had come there to learn something. I thought I had come to breach the bubble that separated Christians from non-Christians, and there I was, being invited into the bubble.
I tried to set the record straight with a follow-up video.
“I probably am not going to respond the way you hope I will respond, by becoming a Christian,” I said. “I guess I’m here because I think I have something interesting to say.”
I had been getting into mindfulness meditation and Quaker Meeting at the time, so my approach was super-slow and super-quiet. Inside, though, the experience felt not unlike drinking Coca-Cola: It hyped me up to see the viewpoints rise on my videos. To wonder if a video would get noticed, then to see it featured. To get attention from total strangers, first hundreds and then thousands. I fed off that attention.
People responded to my vlogs with their vlogs. One guy asked if I was “lost and know it?” or if I was “lost and didn’t know it yet?” I got involved in some conversations, then left the conversations when I knew they weren’t heading in the direction I wanted to go in.
I wanted to focus on one idea: that Christians have something to learn from non-Christians. And, over time, this idea got turned back on me: If it was so worthwhile for Christians to listen to non-Christians, what was it exactly that I, a non-Christian, had to say?
I thought maybe I’d share my story with them. After all, so many people had shared with me their testimonies — stories of how they went from being a non-Christian to being a Christian. Could I tell them my story of going the other way? The people I was messaging with (dozens of people, at this point), were very interested.
And so I borrowed Jasmine’s computer, sat on the floor and made the video featured above, the one where I sit in stunted silence. I was now the token non-Christian friend of dozens of people, and the pressure was too much.
I thought about a woman whose screen name was “Harley woman.” She had said she was addicted to drugs before she got saved. For her, Christianity had literally saved her life. What did I have to say to her? At that point, I had nothing.
Rather than delete the video and wait until I had something more worthwhile to contribute, I decided to go ahead and post the thing. People were waiting. At least it’d show that I was thinking.
I thought I had gone to Godtube.com to teach something, and they thought I had come there to learn something.
Most people didn’t have a clue what to make of it. The comments were all over the place. I was compared to lonelygirl15, and someone said something about the Virginia Tech shootings.
I considered giving up, deleting all my videos and leaving the site. I had met a couple other vloggers who had done the same, and it was tempting. I could just put the whole thing behind me.
But there were a couple people who made me want to keep going.
There was Jim, who listened to me (via direct messages and emails) in a way that helped me feel truly heard. “Christianity is bigger than the world you grew up in,” he said, and I’d started to question some of my assumptions. I thought I was going there to teach, but maybe I did have something to learn, after all.
There was Athena, who was younger than I was and beginning to make her transition out of the church. She came out to me as a lesbian over Gchat; I felt like a mentor and confidant.
And there was Sam, who saw my quiet, awkward vlog—and the comments that followed—and then went out and bought a webcam and microphone, so he could respond. His video apologized on behalf of the Christians who trolled in the comments and invited other Godtube users to hear me out, to listen to whatever it was I had to say.
Sam and I engaged in pages-long emails about religion and beliefs. We’d had a similar upbringing, and the way that he interacted with the ideas of the world inspired me.
After continued conversations with Jim, Athena, and Sam, I decided that I needed to post at least one more video to tell my story.
I wasn’t ready to expose intimate details of my spiritual beliefs to people. My encounters with Quakerism and meditation were far too fresh and fragile for me to want to talk about them. I felt no bitterness toward my family or any specific people in my past, about the way I’d been raised—everyone was just trying to take care of one another, and to share the best truth they knew to share.
I also knew that there was something very flawed in the worldview of the culture in which I’d been raised, and I wanted to point out this flaw as delicately as possible.
So WWJD, right? I told my story as a parable.
In it, there’s a wise old man who everyone in the church follows without question. The wise old man is a powerful leader, and if anyone decides to question him, they must leave the church. I questioned the wise old man, and I left the church.
This video, more so than any other video I made, gave me a sense of wholeness after I posted it. If my first video tasted like drinking Coca-cola, this one felt like drinking V8: nourishing.
I didn’t feel afraid of how anyone might interpret it; I felt ready to let it go.
Some people from my childhood reached out to me and asked if the wise old man was a specific pastor, or a teacher. One person posted a vlog response, arguing that as long as the wise old man represented anything but the Bible, I was right to leave that church.
The wise old man didn’t exist, of course. He was a metaphor. Everyone saw something different in it, and each person saw something interesting.
When Jim saw the video, he said something particularly interesting—that when I walked away from the church I described in the video, I wasn’t walking away from the true church. Jim saw me as a believer who had entered into “the desert,” a scary and difficult and absolutely necessary time in any Christian’s journey, and he wished me well on my way. I’d made it to the desert, outside the bubble, and I was doing OK there.
Godtube is still around, but it’s a different community. The company has been sold at least once, and it briefly went under the name “Tangle.” Many former users I talked to, in writing this story, either want nothing to do with the site today, or they already cut off their connection to Godtube.com a long time ago. More than half of the videos that I searched for are no longer hosted on the site. Godtube no longer supports private messaging.
It still gets plenty of traffic.
You can follow Will Rogers on Twitter @spozbo
Illustration by Max Fleishman