Yesterday, I staked the claim that I’ll be writing a series about why I left Evangelicalism. Now I’m staring at the screen wondering if I have the courage to put these words out where anyone can read them.
I’ve been asking questions since I could talk. My husband deserves sainthood for not telling me “ask Google, why don’t you?” 300x a day. In the working world, my skillset would be defined as The Clarifier: the person who asks a lot of questions like, “Have you tried it this other way?” “Why do you think this process is breaking down?” “Wait, what if that isn’t the reason and it’s actually this other thing?” People tell me I’m a good listener, but I think what they actually mean is that I’m a good questioner, and people like talking about themselves and their own ideas.
Anyway, Fundamentalism is, well, it’s a whole bunch of adjectives: Oppressive. Well-intentioned. Fearful. Patriarchal. Legalistic. Self-righteous. Afraid. Religious. Tradition-bound. Limited. Simplistic. Naive. Rule-focused. Damaging. Tribal. Ignorant. Spiritually abusive. Terrified of questions.
Yeah. It’s hard to be a Clarifier in a religiously fundamentalist world.
I need to clarify right here at the outset two contradictory truths: First, I had a pretty gentle journey through Funds-Land. Bob Jones University isn’t the worst of that crowd by a long shot, and I have many good memories of my family, my home churches, my Christian school, and my college years.
At the same time, BJU and the entire sphere of Fundamentalism that raised me was absolutely (and, I believe, unwittingly and unintentionally) twisted and spiritually abusive. I was lucky to escape without a lot of obvious wounds….but new scars keep showing up in my emotions, spiritual practices, sexuality, relationships, intellectual assumptions, personal identity, womanhood, and understanding of God and His ways. I vastly under-estimated the genuine damage in my soul, heart, mind, and body from being raised in such a toxic culture. And as I began to explain in this post, my decade in the PCA started the healing process but then stunted it. The PCA suffers from many of the same flaws as Fundamentalism, primarily because its theological underpinnings give allegiance to a very similar core of legalism.
There’s a reason we tend to call ourselves “recovering Fundamentalists.” The “Exvangelical” moniker is accomplishing a similar purpose.
What’s “certainty” going to cost me?
Ask any student of mine from my teaching days what my mantras were. Hopefully they’ll list this one first: “A good kid isn’t a kid who stays out of trouble and follows all the rules. A good kid is one who DOES good.” (That, to me, is the core of understanding what biblical righteousness is all about, and it bingos the central error of legalism.)
But secondly, Never be afraid to ask The Truth a hard question. If it’s really The Truth, it can stand up to your questions.
I know my first crises of faith, when I was in single digits, came from worrying about whether I was “really saved.” That’s one pile of bullshit that a covenantal view of children and salvation does away with, and if we had kids, I would have happily gone through with infant baptism. But that’s a long post for another day.
My second, and much more valuable crisis of faith, came when I was around 13. It was fall and I was in 8th grade, probably my least-favorite grade until my sophomore year of college (likely for similar reasons). A lot of things were shifting in my life and I had some questions. I remember staring at my Bible, daring to say aloud (inside my head), “How do I even know this is true?”
Believe me, I was shook.
Within the entire swath of Evangelical theology (despite the sputtering that would ensue from the Fundy crowd, I’m going to lump them into the Evangelical camp for purposes of this series, because they’re merely the fanatic fringe of a single theological perspective), the Bible stands as THE FOUNDATION of thought and practice.
The reasoning is simple: God gave us the Bible to explain to us who He is and what He does. Therefore, you establish that the Bible is verbally inspired in every part, and binding for faith and practice, and then move on from there to understand God, sin, Jesus, salvation, whatever.
How do we know the Bible is true? Well, there are lots of books on this within Evangelical culture, but the answers always boil down to this:
a) we feel that it’s true (i.e.: the Holy Spirit makes us feel that it’s true in our hearts, or something like that), or
b) we give intellectual value to a pile of certain facts about its authorship and textual transmission, combined with awe at the miraculous nature of its textual preservation, or
c) God said it was true (and ignore the obvious circular reasoning thing going on there).
Hello, Modernism, my old friend
I’m not here to debate biblical inspiration. From what little I’ve read of Karl Barth (thanks to an outstanding course at an Evangelical seminary a few years ago), I think he’s got a better starting point in seeing Jesus as The Word, and the prophets and the Bible as equal Witnesses to the Word. Barth opens his huge Church Dogmatics with theology proper (who God is), not with a section on inspiration. That subtle shift taught me a lot about why I was becoming deeply unsatisfied with Evangelicalism as a belief system.
A lot of this whole mess is driven by the fact that Evangelicalism (and especially American Fundamentalism) was birthed at the height of Rationalist, Modernist thinking. Everybody — religious or no — was drunk on the idea of reason, logic, and/or science having all the answers. Cross that with the invention of digital tools like computer processors, and it was easy to believe that a large enough computer could predict the weather weeks into the future. (Spoiler: it couldn’t.)
In American Christianity, this punch-drunk fascination with intellectual-above-all gave us acerbic creation/evolution debates, stifling legalism based on biblical literalism, and insufferable evidence-based apologetics (combined with door-to-door evangelism and street preaching). Suddenly, American Evangelicalism had a whole lot to lose if people started asking questions.
I know it sounds counter-intuitive that the same Christians who are central to the target demographic of Fox News (all feels, not facts) were hoodwinked by intellectual Modernism, but hear me out. Yes, Evangelicals are happy to ignore facts for the sake of faith (evolution being a good example of this). But the very foundation of Evangelical theology is a Modernist understanding of texts, of inspiration, of parsing language to extract precise meanings.
This hermeneutic is stunted, incapable of wrestling with genre nuances and verbal ambiguity or acknowledge story-truth as a category beyond literal fact. It’s like literary criticism done by a 4th grader. (“But Mommy, why did they make her wear an A on her chest? Doesn’t that mean our neighbor should have an A on her chest too? She’s not married either!”) And it works itself out in Evangelicalism via spiritual practices that feel like someone left a toddler in charge of the house rules — rigidity of interpretation coupled with emotional immaturity when confronted with opposition. My word, if that isn’t an analogy for conservative Christian political discourse in the past 20 years…..
If you go all-in on a Modernist view of how the world works, then you fall prey to a closed-mindedness that runs facts through a fine sieve to make sure nothing gets through that will upset the system (again, biological or cosmic evolution are great examples here) and you lock yourself into a paradigm of biblical interpretation that cannot admit when it’s wrong. See also: women in church leadership, husband/wife roles, finding a place for LGBTQ+ folks to be practicing, communing believers.
I’m not saying Postmodernists get a pass here; a relativistic approach to “truth” also breaks down, leaving us living parallel realities with no agreed common truths (again, see 2016-2018 as a great example). But it’s not an accident that Evangelicalism starts its entire system with a Modernist view of biblical inspiration. Then, the Reformed folks add idolization of propositional truth over anything that isn’t happening in one’s intellect, and the straightjacket is buckled on pretty tight.
Side note: that Barth class was one of the most amazing intellectual experiences in my educational life – thank you Dr. Richard Burnett for introducing me to a much kinder understanding of a vital theologian who’s been unfairly smeared in America, partly because we didn’t understand him but mostly because his stuff wasn’t even translated into English until decades after it was published. Burnett is one of the premier American scholars on Barth (Amazon), and he’s a committed, faithful believer. He’s currently working to provide rich theological resources for laymen at Theology Matters.
A great related reading, if you’re interested, on Barth, Evangelicalism, and inspiration: Vanhoozer, Barth on Scripture (PDF)
TL;DR on inspiration: If you stop believing in the strictest definition of verbal, plenary inspiration, your whole religious world may not implode around you.
I realize I left you hanging there in my personal story: so what did I do, when at 13 it occurred to me that there are no observable, external proofs for the Bible’s inspiration?
First, I panicked a bit. It was a terrifying thought. What if my entire faith collapses?
This horror was an ever present warning in my young life: sermon illustrations, Christian literature, explicit teaching all told me that the path to Hell was paved with asking questions.
I calmed down and decided I should probably read the Bible and see for myself. (I’m proud of myself, in retrospect.) So I did. I started somewhere like Genesis or Matthew and “did my devotions faithfully” for a few weeks. (I’ll need a whole other post to delve into THAT.)
And….that was it. A few weeks later, the fear and anxiety were gone. I’m not saying that like we’re in a church service and you should now shout “Jeee-zus!” and raise your hands in worship. At the time, I considered it a gracious answer to prayer and the result of the work of the Spirit. Now, after a whole lot more education and life experience, I don’t know whether it was the work of the Spirit or a simple change in adolescent brain chemistry from “anxious” to “safe.” Probably some of both.
Do I think the Bible is the inspired Word of God? Sure, yeah. Do I mean “inspired” like you mean inspired? I dunno. Frankly, I don’t care. It’s the wrong question. If you push me for a more specific answer: I think Barth offers a better understanding of inspiration than the Evangelicals do (read the PDF I posted above for a thorough look).
If you need the Bible to be a book of magic words in order to believe in God, your faith may not survive.
Ask and you shall receive
Stop being afraid to ask questions about your faith. About whether God is good, about the problems of evil in the world, about the genocide of the Canaanites in the Old Testament, about people dying in countries where they’ve never heard the name of Jesus and being sent to hell.
Do I have answers? Hell, no. But you’re either going to ask those questions burning in your heart or you’ll bury them where they fester and poke you and make you afraid or angry.
Either God exists or He doesn’t. I believe that He does, but I can’t prove Him to you. I firmly believe that isn’t my job anyway. He can speak for Himself, He can act for Himself, He can explain Himself.
Jesus said (I’m paraphrasing Luke and Matthew here) that God isn’t like some dickhead father who gives his kids a rock when they ask him for bread. He hears and answers. So ask.
Are you angry at God? Tell Him. It’s not like He doesn’t know already. And it’s not like we don’t have multiple examples in Scripture — especially the Psalms, but also the Prophets — of people telling God what they think. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it’s terrifying, sometimes there’s silence. I’m not a divine being. I can’t tell you what’s going to happen.
But I encourage you to face up to your questions and fears, and to ask them honestly. Say them out loud. Search for answers. Search within community (a great read on this in Relevant Magazine recently).
If you’re in a congregation where such questions are suppressed, then get out — if you can. (Be safe!) If you can’t leave, look online for people with similar questions and find community there. But don’t stop asking questions. It’s the sign of a healthy heart and mind.
Faith rests on the courage to ask questions, not on the fear that doubts will unravel your faith.
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