All posts by RameyLady

I write. I design. I cook. I read. I make music. I talk to people -- all kinds of people. I used to teach and hopefully will do so again someday. My dream job would be a cross between barrista and consultant, with a large helping of international travel and bohemian wandering through concerts, museums, galleries, and open spaces. Somewhere back in time, my students started calling me "RameyLady" and the name stuck. I like it. There's a Ramey-man too. He's a much better writer but he seems to be too humble to share it with the world....at least, not yet.

Exit: The heart must sing | Music in the Evangelical church

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here


You want to know a secret?

Although I eye-roll rather hard at pretty much all “Christian” media for its moralism and general cheesiness, sometimes when I’m in the car alone I’ll crank up the local praise & worship station and – if I actually recognize anything – sing along.

*gasp* I know right? lol


Music: Let the people sing

People who know me know that I’m really into music. I sing, I play the piano, I pretend to want to put in the work to learn to play the guitar, I listen to music from all genres all the time. But if you ask me what category of musician I am, I have to answer “church musician.” It’s been the heart and soul of my musical career.

Since I was a kid, one of my primary acts of service has been music for worship. As a little fundamentalist, I banged out (too loud) piano solos as offertories or “special music.” I started playing the piano for chapel singing in middle school and never really stopped. I learned to sing in school choirs and sang in church choirs from age 13 until my adult church stopped having choirs when I was in my 30s. (Casualty of the worship wars.)

For over 10 years I was a primary musician at my church, usually at the piano and – if it was the “contemporary worship service,” singing a strong alto line at the same time.  I can reconstruct nearly anything from a string of lyrics and a set of chords.

And this is perhaps the thing I miss most about leaving church.


Nobody sings like Christians

There’s something powerful about corporate worship, something no other sector of Western culture can even begin to approach.

Think about it: Aside from screaming lyrics at a live concert or singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the 7th inning stretch, when do Americans sing together?

I’ll wait.

The art of corporate singing is dead in our culture, aside from formal civic chorales. Our folk culture no longer prioritizes singing together a set of common songs that might unite us across our differences.  Well, aside from Happy Birthday or Auld Lang Syne.  Even then, people mumble and laugh nervously and get it over with (unless they’re New Years Eve drunk enough not to care).

I’m not saying music is irrelevant — clearly, the American music industry is huge and thriving. (Whether the current pop stuff is good is a totally different argument, but I’ll abstain.)

A lot of the “belt it out with a bunch of other people who know the same song” is gone from American life, and we’re the poorer for it. The people who come together to SING are, primarily, Christians.  And they do it weekly.

Granted, the hard Right within Christianity hates the modern worship music for replacing the complex beauty of hymn text with what they deem to be inferior, repetitive mush.  And the modern worship folks find a lot of hymn tunes to be pretty terrible and hard to sing using amplified instruments (which are almost a requirement in a large hall).  Honestly, I think both sides are right to an extent. And I enjoyed the way my PCA church blended old and new.

I’m afraid I’ll never experience anything like this again.


Did you know you can sing “Softly and Tenderly” to the tune of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”?    You can also sing “Angels We Have Heard On High” to “Yellow Submarine,” but it’s such an earworm that I’d never suggest it to anyone lest you hate me forever.


Leading worship: It’s a dance

What’s it like to lead worship rather than participating in it? I can speak only to my own experiences.

Significantly, there was a weight, a deep sense of responsibility about playing well because the music itself was an offering to God. Worship leaders are simultaneously proud of and protective of and touchy about their place in the pecking order of ministers.

Music ministers grab onto that passage in Chronicles where musicians are labeled as part of the priesthood. They cling to the passage in Psalms about singing a new song to the Lord; the Nehemiah passage about God rejoicing over us with singing; the Ephesians 5 verses the command believers to sing to one another.  Good musicians hate bad musicianship (for good reasons), so it’s natural to elevate the role of music in worship, and speak about it in weighty terms.

Looking back, I honor the earnestness of this and recognize the value of taking leadership seriously.  Yet I hesitate to laud the feelings of guilt and responsibility that seemed to drive many worship leaders into constantly doubting their own motives or quality of work. Christianity can be a very guilt-driven place. Who gets to be on stage? Who determines when the worship leaders are spiritual enough?

Those who bear the worst of this guilt are the souls who question their motives at every turn, blazing a hot light into every corner of their heart to find any hidden sin or dirt or ambition or pride. It’s hard to be a church musician in a milieu where acknowledging your talent is seen as sinful and thankless.  It’s even harder when you’ve been trained by the church to feel guilty if you ever do anything but “give God the glory.”

By raising worship to the level of preaching – and I’m not saying this is wrong; I think the exegesis may support it – we force worship leaders into the same toxic patterns that plague Evangelical pastors in general. We made so much of leaders. They had to be “special” (otherwise, why pay a pastor if anyone could do his job?). By definition this comes with a lot of pressure and expectations.

Should we be expecting worship leaders to earn a masters or D.Min. in worship ministry? Should musicians be church-grown instead? I’m honestly asking.  The church runs like a business more than anything else in America, and capitalist theories of management aren’t necessarily congruous with biblical norms.

worship music piano


How the music gets made

The responsibility of worship leading aside, (speaking now of myself) I was always running a series of parallel processes in my brain when I joined the worship band each week for rehearsal and then service. As an ensemble musician, you’re constantly listening for how your sound fits or clashes with the group. (Or you should be.) This ‘meta’ is what differentiates an outstanding worship band from a mediocre one. And at NCC, when we were all “on,” we were REALLY good.  I’m proud of that.

I’m afraid I’ll never find anything like this camaraderie again.

At any given moment on stage, I’d say 50% of my brain was occupied with the physical and mental work of producing the right notes at the right time in the right places. The other 50% was spit between paying attention to the group sound and paying attention to everything else about the experience: the congregation’s response (or lack of it), my own emotions, the joy or passion or beauty of the music itself.

Occasionally, everything just clicked and I floated out of my own body on the waves of sound, on the waves of emotion and joy and Jesus and feels and ….

Was this the Holy Spirit? Was this spiritual ecstasy? Does Lady Gaga feel the same way in the middle of a concert when suddenly every note is right in a way it wasn’t 10 minutes ago?  If I feel a shade of the same tingle when Coldplay’s “Something Like This” comes on the radio, does that mean God inhabits the joy of all music, or that the elusive moment of ecstasy I experienced on stage from time to time is merely an outcome of playing music live?

I don’t know. I just know that I really miss it. With my whole heart.


The CCM elephant

Look, I fully acknowledge that Christian music has a serious problem. Well, several.  For one, many of the CCM tunes are just shit. They really are.  Four chords, that’s it. Teach someone D A G Bm on a guitar and they can immediately play pretty much anything on the radio right now.   Simplest cadences in the world.  Too much of that in one service, and I’d have to bang my head on the piano lid till the pain gave me something to keep me interested.

Despite all that simplicity, many of the worship song melodies are nearly unsingable by the average person. The verse (so-called) wanders around using a few notes in a dull chant-like way, or leaps like a frightened rabbit around the scale. The songs always follow the same damn form: Intro / Verse 1 /  Chorus / Verse 2 / Chorus / Bridge / Chorus / Outro.  You hear it on the radio every day, in any pop music genre. I get it, the format works. But let’s be honest: at best, people might learn to sing the chorus. The verse is always a mumble-fest.

My guilty pleasure might be scanning our 3 CCM stations for tunes when I’m driving alone, but that doesn’t mean I find things I want to sing along with very often. When I had a 30 minute commute, I used to put in an earbud and play some of my favorites off my iPhone so I could sing along.

Christianity is keeping corporate singing alive, and at times they’re doing it with heart and soul and skill.  Depending on your personal music tastes, you can find something to sing with.  But there’s also a sea of mediocrity out there — of knock-off pop boy bands, of wanna-be Demi Levatos crooning while wearing more modest blouses to avoid alienating their audience, of 30-somethings trying desperately to be hip, of indie musicians squeezing so much earnest belief into their songs that it makes my teeth hurt.

Sing a new song

To prove that I’m not just an ass, here’s a short list of recent worship songs I think nearly anyone can get behind. They’re good arrangements that sing well, tunes that anyone can learn to sing.

Look, the music  you listen to in the car or at your picnic probably isn’t the same music that’s going to work for a worship service. At NCC we built these songs out with a full band and gave them a lot of energy without being obnoxious. But they’re also good with a single piano or guitar. The tunes themselves are very singable and I can lift my voice and sing happily anytime I hear them.

If you’re hip and cool with the CCM charts, you’ll laugh at how old these are. But I believe most songs ned a few years under their belts before we’ll know for sure they can stick.

I hate that one’s hymnody is an outgrowth of one’s tribe. If you’re from a different tribe than me, chances are we’ll have only a very few songs in common: Amazing Grace, the doxology.  Maybe Heaven has huge singalongs and everyone somehow loves all the songs chosen. Or maybe in heaven, with sinless hearts, we will enjoy music as the simple offering that it is, instead of some deep theological / political statement about Big Important Things. We’ll simply love it for the beauty that it provides, a channel for worship.


If we can pray to God, we can sing to God

I don’t know how many Protestants realize that we owe much to John Calvin for making sure that hymnody stayed in the hands of the congregation. As debates raged about what God does or doesn’t permit in worship, church leaders in the nascent Protestant movement were taking a pretty hard line (at least in Calvin’s circles; Luther was waaaay more chill about some of these things) about not allowing anything into worship that God Himself hadn’t expressly commanded.

Calvin famously derived that the Scripture celebrates believers praying to God in their own words. To him, singing to God fell into the same category. Thus, if prayers were ok, congregational singing had to be ok too.  *whew*  I can’t even imagine how much I would’ve hated church if there had been no corporate singing.  I’m going to give Calvin a huge hug in heaven if I see him. I’m not sure how that works. Can I get a punch list or something?

Calvin even hired a guy to write some fantastic, fun, syncopated tunes for his psalter (hymn texts drawn from the psalms). He wasn’t so much into letting people sing just anything, mind you, but he wanted the psalms sung with joy and beauty.  If you think hymn tunes are boring, don’t blame Calvin or Luther (who happily took pop tunes for his poetry, having none of Calvin’s qualms about any of this).  Blame the English Protestants, who had to make sure no one was having any fun ever. Who ironed out all the great syncopation in the Geneva tunes? The English. *sigh*   Would you believe the “doxology” (tune: Old Hundreth) was originally gloriously bouncy and happy?  Yup.  All the way back to the 16th century…. until the English church got hold of it, stripped it down, and then shipped it to America with the Puritans or Pilgrims.

I’m simplifying here, so don’t come at me if you’re a hymnologist. But my Church Hymnody course in undergrad was one of the best in my program, and I’ve thanked Calvin ever since for helping me get through every church service ever.

church music women
Photo by FOTOGRAFIA .GES on Unsplash

Confession:  I just can’t do a church with poor music. I don’t mean “small church, zero talent, so Martha plays on Sundays and we’re thankful for her.”  You go, Martha. I don’t want to attend your church, honestly, but I appreciate your service.

No, I’m talking big churches with the means to do music well, but it’s boring. Or badly skilled. But mostly just….dull.  Trying too hard to be either hip or traditional.  *sighs*  That goes for the megachurch concert approach too. Dude. If I wanted someone to blast my ears with big power chords and soaring tunes, I’d follow U2 around for their world tours and throw in a few shows from every other famous band ever.

Maybe that’s unfair. I don’t know.

It’s my curse. I know it’s possible to do joyful, energetic, interesting worship services that invites everyone to sing, and I’ve got zero interest in doing church without it.

But honestly, one of the things that’s kept me from heading out on a scouting expedition to find a new church is that I can’t bring myself to mumble through a pile of songs I’ve never heard accompanied by a wailing guitar, an earnest 25-year-old on an acoustic, or a somber organ.

The music thing hits really close to home for me, and I’m going to be a recovering church musician for a long, long time.


Confessions of a recovering church musician

  • I stayed at my Evangelical church way longer than I “fit” there because I truly enjoyed the fellowship of my fellow musicians. We played well together. They were my band peeps, and I loved them for it. Genuinely.  I miss them right now, and writing this post makes me sad.  Giving my music to the church week after week helped keep me connected to the community of faith.
  • I’m also sad because, when the end came, it came because I wasn’t welcome back to their stage.  I don’t blame them, since I think by that point everyone could tell I wasn’t in that camp anymore. But it’s a painfully Evangelical thing to rob someone of a gift they love to give because the Evangelical no longer agrees with the gift-giver.
  • When I can’t handle the suffocating blanket of organized religion, I can sing to God. I can give Him my songs.  I can play for Him. I can play TO Him.
  • America really ought to get back into the corporate music thing. I guess we’re going to need something newer than Stephen Foster songs. Are the Beatles enough?
  • I haven’t touched a piano since July 2016, the last time I played for corporate worship at NCC. Not even to play for weddings. Like everything else in Evangelicalism, that too is tribal. When you’re out, you’re really and fully out.
  • I sense how this is deeply and personally tragic, like someone knocked me out and amputated a limb without asking first. But now that it’s gone, I cannot drum up any interest in going back to the grind of rehearsals and early Sunday mornings. I have zero desire to hire on as an underpaid musician at a church of any flavor.  And believe me, they are ALL underpaid.
  • If you’re in a church somewhere, and you’re reading this, and your church musician(s) are good at what they do, please make sure they get compensated somehow. Please. Give them a Christmas bonus. Argue for them to get a monthly stipend or a quarterly perk. Church musicians are hardworking people, and music is expensive.

This post is part of a meandering series about why I left Evangelicalism and the aftermath. You can find the first post here

Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

I know this is going to sound crazy, but I ran across this slow-fry recipe for making French fries at home a couple years ago, and it’s honestly THE BEST for that one time a year you think, “Hey, I’m going to throw caution and wisdom to the side and actually fry these frozen potato sticks.”

In essence, you dump cold, frozen french fries into a deep pot (I use a thin T-Fal 4-quart pot that I also use for making pasta, because it’s sturdy enough to work well but thin enough to transfer the heat quickly).  Cover the fries with oil,  preferably with an extra inch of oil above the fries.  (I’ve done it with less in a pinch.)  Turn the heat to medium and walk away for about 15 minutes.

From there, you’ll stir the fries occasionally for the next 20-30 minutes as they cook through. Once they’re cooked, crank the heat up to medium high and leave them alone for 10-15 minutes to brown thoroughly and get crispy.

Pull them out (I use tongs) onto paper-toweled racks or baking sheets and salt them.  They end up crunchy and delicious, without spattering grease all over the kitchen (the normal outcome of throwing cold food into a hot fryer). De-lish!

via Slow-Fried French Fries Recipe | Bon Appetit

PS. You can usually get more than one fry-session out of the oil, unless you’ve got weird potatoes coated in seasoning or whatever.  Let the oil cool off on the back of the stove, and later that night (or the next morning), use a funnel to pour the clean oil back into your oil bottle. Leave the bottom layer, because the fry bits will have settled.

As long as you didn’t scorch the fries, you can get another round of frying out of that oil. It’ll be a darker color, but it’s perfectly fine for a second batch.

PPS. This is a great recipe to pair with my favorite Belgian beef stew, using this recipe …   which ranked as one of my favorite discoveries of 2014.  Our local Belgian pub, The Trappe Door (oh how I love them!), serves their flemandes stew with crunchy fries and fry sauces, and it’s lovely.

Music Monday: A Time to Feel

Current Track: Underoath Album Cover

It’s been a week, no?

I just learned that a friend of a friend has passed away, a man with a brilliant mind in a broken body. I’d met him only a few times, but my friend could barely speak of the disease that had chewed through his friend’s life before the man had even reached 35.

There are no glib comments that can counteract the pain of death, of losing someone in their prime of life.

This is tender ground for many people, and well-meaning folks rush to make themselves feel better about grief and sorrow by pasting a platitude atop the pain:  “At least he didn’t suffer.” “Well, maybe he’s in a better place now.”

At these moments, in the silence, we must stare into this void and face the deepest questions of our existence. Religious or agnostic, brave or terrified, we humans cannot escape the truth that our lives are short and uncertain.

A time to die – and a time to feel

I love the “time” poem in Ecclesiastes 3, made so famous by the Byrds in one of the most earworm tunes of the 20th century.  There’s a time for everything under the sun. Figuring out what’s appropriate to when is an outgrowth of wisdom.  The Preacher goes on to say that God makes everything beautiful (or fitting, appropriate) in its time.

I appreciate Ecclesiastes more in middle age for its brutal honesty. The speaker brings up problem after problem of life: it’s unfair; rich people get all the perks by stomping on poor people; rich people still die and someone else gets all their hard-earned wealth (which bugged him, since he was pretty rich).  He wonders about the point of life, since we’re all just dead at the end. If this is how the whole thing turns out, what makes life better for me than for a baby who died stillborn? At least the baby didn’t have to deal with all the shit of this life.

Ecclesiastes is so bleak at times that most Christians are highly uncomfortable with the book. They act like God must’ve made an oversight by letting it into the canon. Surely it’s here just to show us how “worldly” people think, right?

Faith is no excuse for thoughtlessness or cowardice. This life throws questions at us that we cannot hope to answer. Why do good people die young? Why do evil men prosper? Why don’t some people give a shit that life is so bad for other people?

Music as a channel for what we cannot say

Look, I know this isn’t rocket surgery insight here: when I can’t put words to the badness or to the beauty or to the sadness or to the fear, I can feel it through music.  I can play it out with my fingers on the keys of a piano. I can click Play on the tracks below, close my eyes, and let the sounds wash over me.

There have often been times I could not even understand the emotions or name them. I just knew that I felt, and it was a place to begin.

I composed about 6 different posts for this blog over the course of last week’s media circus around the Kavanaugh hearings. I’m angry. I’m tired.

I need a place where my soul can rest and find respite before heading back into the mess.

After a while, it’s tempting to shut off the spigot. I mean, I’m writing this right now instead of doing the project I really need to work on, because I decided it was more important to mourn the loss of a person than to plow through my day as if nothing had happened. I made a conscious choice to feel instead of turning off that sense of loss for my friend who grieves.

There is a time to mourn and a time to dance. A time to be born, and a time to die.  A time to feel.

Feel with me today

If you’d like to channel a few feelings with me today, whatever you’re feeling, here are a few of my favorites:

Chanticleer sings Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” with the US Naval Academy men’s glee chorus. You’ll have to crank the sound, but it’s worth it. I cried from the sheer beauty of this when I first heard it sung live by Chanticleer in performance at Clemson University:

Another from Chanticleer, but it’s easier to find this one on Apple Music or Spotify.  I adore about half of the tracks on Chanticleer’s album Wondrous Love (listen on Apple Music, Amazon). Put everything aside, find a pair of headphones, and listen to them sing the old Scots tune “Loch Lomond.”  Don’t miss the last 6 chords–I don’t care if the building is burning down around you.

The Fire Tonight album coverNext up is a track you’ll have to find on one of the streaming services – I’ll provide links below – because it’s not on YouTube. The band is composed of friends of mine, and I think this is possibly the best song they wrote. The entire album is fantastic (IMO) but this song in particular.

Le Cote Sombre, by The Fire Tonight.
Listen on Apple, Amazon, Bandcamp

And finally, a word about the track I led with for this post. For personal reasons, this song is deeply associated with grief over the loss of a young person.  Underoath is a hardcore band (read: yes, there’s some screaming) who used to matter about 15 years ago. (Sorry, Underoath, if you’re still out there.)  Their music isn’t amazing to me, but this song is burned into my emotional circuits for its lyrics and for the way it builds to a MOMENT of intense emotion. The singer continues with lyrics about faith and grace and mercy while the screamer yells JESUS I’M READY TO COME HOME (if this were a dubstep track, it would be the “drop” moment).  Truly, there are days when I’m just ready to come Home.

Oh sweet angel of mercy
With your grace like the morning
Wrap your loving arms around me
Hey unfaithful I will teach you To be stronger
Hey ungraceful I will teach you To forgive one another
Hey unfaithful I will teach you To be stronger
Hey unloving I will love you
And will love you

Jesus I’m ready to come home …

Unfaithful
Ungraceful
And unloving
I will love you

(Listen: Amazon or Apple Music)

 

Snippet from “Men are more afraid than ever”

The conclusion from a strong piece by Lili Loofbourow in Slate on why we’re seeing men speak out so forcefully on behalf of Kavanaugh’s actions at 17 being irrelevant — despite Kavanaugh himself denying he did what he’s accused of doing:

It’s useful to have naked misogyny out in the open. It is now clear, and no exaggeration at all, that a significant percentage of men—most of them Republicans—believe that a guy’s right to a few minutes of “action” justifies causing people who happen to be women physical pain, lifelong trauma, or any combination of the two. They’ve decided—at a moment when they could easily have accepted Kavanaugh’s denial—that something larger was at stake: namely, the right to do as they please, freely, regardless of who gets hurt. Rather than deny male malfeasance, they’ll defend it. Their logic could not be more naked or more self-serving: Men should get to escape consequences for youthful “indiscretions” like assault, but women should not—especially if the consequence is a pregnancy. And this perspective extends 100 percent to the way they wish the legal system to work: Harms suffered by women do not rate consideration, much less punishment. (I recommend Googling the mortality rate for women when abortion was illegal.)

via Brett Kavanaugh assault allegation: The locker room is now the bedroom.

Exit: Get used to change

*Part of a series that started here*

I don’t know that my journey makes a lot of sense apart from a bit of context, so let me chronicle the “leavings” and upheavals that have marked my journey through Christianity.  Skim down to the conclusion at the bottom if you lose interest in the details. 

When I was still in single digits, my parents went through a messy exit from the first church I’d known, the one with the soft green pew fabric but hard linoleum floor. (Always fascinates me what elements “stick” in a memory. I’ve always got color.)  Western PA had a large number of non-Baptist Independent Fundamental churches.  I’m going to write a side note about that in a minute.

My first church had a cool name (The Church of the Open Door) and a pretty, simple building with a traditional steeple and a basement for Sunday School classes and one of those attendance/offering boards at the front.  It was the church my mom landed in when, tired and angry after divorcing her cheating husband in the late 1950s and striking out as a single mom long before that was ok to do, she found Jesus and got some IFnonB religion. (IFB = Independent Fundamental Baptist, the most common “flavor” of Fundy church out there, except that my church wasn’t Baptist, as I’ll get to in a minute).

I’ve written about this all before, so I will just summarize here. Because IFB teaching+American social mores aligned in the mutual condemnation of divorce, my parents were in trouble as soon as they tied the knot. My dad spent the remainder of his life angry and hurt that his brand new faith was immediately squashed by his pastor calling him an adulterer for marrying a divorced woman. The church folk banged on our door every Tuesday night as part of “weekly visitation” to try to get him to come to church. We used to turn off the lights and hide until they went away.  Social condemnation does weird things to people.

My parents finally said “Nope” and left that church when they realized that the condemnation would extend to me too. Conveniently in IFB churches, as long as you can put juuuuust enough distance between your old church and your new one, you can sort of start over at the new one. So we ended up at Mt Carmel Community Church, the church which also housed the Christian school I attended.

My dad rarely went. He felt judged and unwelcome. My mom went because I think she found a lot of good in it, and we got to do a few things together.  I have good memories of that church, overall.  I got married there. My dad walked me down the aisle, though I know he felt awkward about being thrust back into that world. My mom was dead (cancer) so I don’t know how she would have felt. But the Mt Carmel people were very kind to my parents when she was ill and dying, and I will always be thankful for that.

*****

About IFB and IFnonB: The history of Fundamentalism in America is complex and one’s mileage definitely varies based on the particular stream they landed in.  By the time I left Fundamentalism (around 2002), the Baptist stream had won pretty much everywhere except in a few pockets. Ohio had a strong non-denominational tradition among their “Bible” churches, for example, which managed to hold out against the Baptist juggxrnaut   Much more I could say, but that’ll have to be a post for a different day. 

Why does it matter?  Well, before the Internet, your experience of Christianity was very much mediated through your church and pastor. If your circle of Jesus said divorce was the ultra evil, that rock music was African sex beat trash, and that no self-respecting woman would be caught dead in pants — that circumscribed your experience. The Baptist flavor of Fundamentalism is 95% the same as non-Baptist Fundamentalism, but in my experience, there were a few critical differences. 

First, Independent Fundamental Baptist churches tended to follow a rigidly authoritarian and usually abusive structure of church leadership. An IFB pastor was an unassailable bulwark of unchallenged power….until he wasn’t. It was really feudal. The deacons could throw wrenches in a pastor’s “rule” over the church; a scandal could push him out; acrimony could lead to a congregation telling their pastor to move on.  I saw all of those things, either in my own church or in nearby churches.  But the non-Baptist IF churches included Bible Methodists, Bible Presbyterians and Free Presbyterians, “Bible” churches (independent and Fundamental churches who are NOT Baptist), and others.  They tended to be joined to loose affiliations that provided some counterbalance to a pastor’s monarchy, and some (like the Presbyterians) persisted in following elder-rule despite that being anathema to the Baptists.  Other differences: Baptist churches required baptism by immersion, usually by that church’s pastor, for church membership, and tended to beat a Baptist history (usually unfounded bullshit) drum so hard it gives me a headache just to think of it. Oh, and suffocating, rampant God-and-countryism. The whole pile of beliefs is laughable, folks. If you need a list, this one will do:  I heard every single thing on that list at some point.  

Second, I wasn’t raised with the typical IFB, completely narrow-minded intellectual straightjacket thanks to being in a non-Baptist church. I had exposure to different mini-views within our wider circle of churches.  We had preachers from across the Fundy landscape visit our church monthly, more than was typical for most IFB churches.  I didn’t know that IFB churches were so nasty about being closed-minded until I went to college and saw how some of my classmates reacted when I espoused a slightly different view. 

All that to say: I wasn’t raised Baptist, and I refused to call myself one when I attended a truly IFB church in Greenville. My husband told me that was totally illogical to be a member of a Baptist church and refuse the label, but I didn’t budge. The IFB people were a level of crazy I couldn’t be part of.  Even as a Fundamentalist, I wasn’t willing to go that far. I attended Bob Jones University, which is officially non-denominational but practically 99% Baptist. But still — not in the name or the creed–not until I was leaving around 2002.

*****

My shift to a new church and world came with college. It took me a few years to find my place, but I genuinely loved college life and everything it brought to me intellectually and socially.

Bob Jones University is a complex topic for me. I’ll make that a separate post entirely. I’m gonna need time to unpack all that.

Sticking with a theme of churches and CHANGE…  I finally landed at Mt Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, headed by Dr. Mark Minnick.  For the IFB world, MCBC did me a lot of good:

  • MCBC made the earth-shattering decision to use the NASB Bible translation in public worship and for preaching. I can’t even begin to explain to non-Fundy people the rancor and hatred around the King James Version debates. It was worse than the American political discourse, if that tells you anything. MCBC could shift away from the KJV only because it was such a large and notable church in the BJU camp, and because Minnick had so much personal credibility.  It took him years to inch the church to this point. I learned a lot from that.
  • Minnick is a careful expositor. I can see now how there’s a downside to parsing single Greek verbs for 40 minutes and calling it a sermon. But it punched a button in my seminary-trained brain for precision, and I’m genuinely thankful for what I learned.
  • I’ve never seen a more careful and joyful building campaign / fundraising campaign.
  • MCBC proudly follows a more presbyterian structure for church leadership. It was still 100% male, but at least it’s run by a group not a single man.
  • The founding pastor’s wife was invited to the pulpit to speak to the wife of a ministerial candidate at his ordination. I can’t emphasize enough how shocking it was in the IFB to see any woman allowed to speak from the pulpit, and that offered me a tiny ray of hope as a woman that I might be allowed to use my brain and think my own thoughts.

Mt Calvary was a massive, formative influence in my intellectual life. But the dream shattered for me around 2000 — it’s a long story and involves the personal lives of some of my friends at the time, so I won’t share it on my blog. But I watched MCBC leadership make decisions that may have been well-intentioned, and fit within the logical paradigm of Fundamentalism, but they were wrong, and they hurt people I cared about.  The glass shattered, and I started to question everything. How can godly men be so blind to the harmful effects of their teaching or decisions? 

*****

Our move to Presbyterianism shocked me, honestly.  I was sitting at Sunday lunch with my husband, who was finishing up the coursework portion of his PhD in Old Testament Theology at the BJU seminary.  To put it mildly, experiencing IFB theology as a future minister is a whole other world of batshit crazy.  And Coart has zero tolerance for bullshit. He just does not bend to anyone’s strong feelings about things; he has to be convinced through good argumentation, verifiable facts, and evidence of good motives.

So I was a bit stunned when he said to me, “Lori, I think I might be a Presbyterian.”

At that time, we’d been married a couple years. The only things more shocking to come from his mouth would have been “I don’t believe in God” or “I don’t want to be married to you anymore” or “I’m gay.”  Nothing less.

I remember being scared, wondering if we were about to lose everything and make a horrible mistake. See, I mentioned above that American Fundamentalism is overwhelmingly Baptist. And they aren’t kidding. If you aren’t in the Baptist club, you lose access to the halls of power nearly everywhere. There are a few exceptions (in parachurch organizations like mission boards, rescue missions, camps, and colleges), but Presbyterianism is barely a sliver among the IFB.  For Coart to tell me, in essence, I can’t play by the Baptist rules meant his ministry career would be either relegated to the absolute margins of an already marginalized group, or non-existent.

We spent much of that year on a “walkabout” to visit a wide variety of churches, both Evangelical and beyond.  It was healthy and invigorating. I recommend that everyone do this at least once every decade — go visit every other flavor of church in your town. It’s good to see what the Body of Christ looks like, whether you agree with those people or not. 

I think, looking back, that Coart had already seen the cracks in the IFB theology and the mental backflips required by his seminary professors to keep the house of cards standing. The Bible just doesn’t back up the Dispensational, Fundamentalist viewpoints.  He was being slowly convinced through his Bible study that the correct approach was Reformed theology.  And the IFB folks *hate* Reformed theology.

That moment over Sunday dinner was the beginning of the end of our days in Fundamentalism. Within a year, we were wondering when it would be time to leave. By the fall of 2001, we got our answer.

*****

We came to the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) because a friend asked us to come teach in his school.  Really. That’s how I ended up in the classroom for 10 years — probably the most influential decision I ever made. And how we ended up at our church, where I was an integral part of the music team for more than a decade. Of all the things I left at NCC, the music ministry is the thing I miss the absolute most. It’s left a gaping hole. I haven’t touched a piano in 2 years.

Deciding to leave Fundamentalism and deciding to join the PCA were two equally grueling decisions.  Leaving the Fundy world meant all of our networking contacts would be irrelevant. You can’t play for the other team in any way and expect to be part of the Fundy world.  I still have the letter Minnick wrote Coart, personally, to express how disappointed he was in Coart to abandon his faith. Within a year, Bob Jones was on the verge of expelling him from his PhD program (he was in the dissertation stage) because we were no longer Fundamentalists. So he walked away from 90 credit hours of coursework.  (BJU was unaccredited, so…. not really a loss once we got into the “real world” and realized unaccredited degrees were worth absolutely nothing outside of the bubble of Fundamentalism. Still hurt a bit though.)

But the didn’t mean the PCA was right for us.  We came to the PCA because it was Reformed, because it followed the presbyterian structure for church government (we’d seen enough horror stories of the IFB authoritarianism), and because it is quite conservative in faith and practice.  I still had to go through a lot of soul-searching to be ok with paedobaptism, Reformed soteriology, and drums in worship music.

In other words, we were willing to join the PCA because it wasn’t all that big a step to the left from Fundamentalism…..but it was big enough to break all of our connections to Fundamentalism, for sure.

Now, to be fair: The PCA “gets” Grace much more than the IFB churches do.  It’s where I read Michael Horton’s wonderful book Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, which helped rescue me from the guilt-driven Christianity I’d learned growing up and had reinforced at Bob Jones.

But the PCA is still very much bound up into propositional truth > heart and belief; it’s tribal as hell with plenty of nasty infighting; it worships its theological definitions and Reformed theology in ways that I find deeply troubling.  A lot of what is wrong about Fundamentalism and about Evangelicalism in general is embodied in my PCA experience.  But if I’d joined a Southern Baptist church or a Sovereign Grace congregation or NewSpring or any other mainline Evangelical church, I’d be writing a lot of the same words.  All I’m trying to do is explain what I’ve walked through, so maybe others can hear their own journey echoed here, and we can mourn together what we’ve lost. 

We joined our PCA church in 2002 and slipped out the door for good in 2016. Seismic changes during those 14 years.. That’s why I’m writing this series. And why I have no clue where to find a church home in 2018.

Catalysts for change

I think it’s fair to the readers who don’t know me to understand a few moments in my spiritual journey that serve as key waypoints. If you know me, then none of these will be a surprise.

1986, summer camp:  After hearing a week of preaching by a missionary to Spain, I felt called to full-time missions. Went home and told my parents, and broke their hearts. They’d always wanted me to be a doctor.  I was a Christian Missions major instead, and went to BJU instead of staying in PA to attend Pitt or Penn State or one of the many little liberal arts colleges up there.

1998, marriage:  I’m not exaggerating when I say that Coart, my husband, is a remarkable man of both heart and intellect. My journey is bound up with his. He somehow knows how to bash up against my hard head yet let me come to my own conclusions. Somehow he’s been doing it since we first met.

1999: I mentioned above a deep disillusionment with our church leadership at MCBC. That broke a spell over me about not wanting to even consider any other viewpoints, and in many ways it was the beginning of the end of our time within Fundamentalism.

2002, teaching:  I can’t possibly give teaching enough of its due as a critical formation tool for my conscience, spiritual understanding, maturity, and career arc. Best decision I ever made, hardest job I’ve ever had. Nothing else has been as rewarding.  Combined with my MEd degree from Covenant College (earned 2003-2006), teaching has been the #1 thing God used to shape my understanding of how He works in this world.  Since I’m not a parent, this is as close as I can get to parenting-as-sanctification.

2005, the year from hell:  Uh, I don’t want to put this stuff out in public. Let’s just say there was a lot going on in our own lives and in the lives of our students. We learned some critical lessons about how to care for others, and the inadequacy of things like “Christian counseling” for mental illness.   (I’ll summarize the worst day of 2005: Within a 24-hour period, I talked someone out of suicide, had to tell that person’s loved one how they had almost committed suicide so I could make sure they got help, and got a call from my pastor asking me to take over a big chunk of music duties at the church because of a “scandal” involving our minister of worship, triggering many questions from my students who’d had him as a teacher. It was a pretty horrible day.)

2005 was the year I learned that Grace always costs the giver.

2007: I watched a lesbian live a more truly righteous life than nearly any other person in her group of friends/colleagues, and it upended pretty much everything I thought I knew about Love, Grace, and the church’s attitude toward LGBTQ+ folks.

2011: Heard about Paolo Freire’s writing on education for the first time. World-changing. Why hadn’t I been told to read this before?  Critical pedagogy and all that.

2016: When the bulk of Christians I knew happily voted for Trump to get SCOTUS votes against Roe v Wade, I knew my sojourn in Evangelicalism was over.

What’s the point of all this?

Just this:  People who leave a religion or cult or close-knit community of  any kind are walking away from multiple things at once: from your network, from your friends and social circle, from a sense of personal history and identity, from your safety net, sometimes from your job and/or education, from a hard-earned reputation or respect.  It can be staggering to be thrust into decisions about your faith, your career, your identity, and your friendships all at the exact same time. (And I’m not even a parent — it’s got to be 100x harder when kids are involved.) 

It’s important to acknowledge the good that you found in those places, even if there were bad things too, because that’s honest.  It’s good to recognize the people who genuinely cared for you, even if others were abusive dicks. It’s important to mourn what you have lost.

 

I feel like this was a dull post.  If you read this far, well, you’re a saint ….or committed…..or bored. lol

I’ll keep writing. Thanks for reading.

“Separation” in the age of Bannon

I haven’t thought about “separation” much since leaving Fundy-land, a less-than-magical place where every decision I made as a Christian had to be run through a sieve of questions to be sure I wasn’t running afoul of the Doctrine of Separation.

Separation from sin is what defines Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism in their minds (and I’d say that’s essentially accurate, though it’s not the entirety of the difference).  It boils down to this: if someone is “sinning,” and you call them on it, and they don’t stop sinning, then you don’t hang out with them or do ministry with them or whatever. This idea extends to individuals, to entire churches or denominations, and to whole movements (basically any group in Christendom that doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way the Fundamentalists do).

Because Separation is THE critical doctrine in Fundy practice, Fundy Christians have to separate from people who don’t separate. The hall of mirrors is infinite. And no one can escape it once they’re labeled “someone who must be separated from.”  It’s one of the reasons my husband and I left the BJU orbit in our late 20s: with apologies to those who attempt to defend this as a legit biblical doctrine, it doesn’t hold water.

Here’s the most fair defense I can find of the doctrine of separation, as explained by Fundamentalist pastor Mark Minnick. I have a lot of respect for Minnick and sat under his teaching for several years. He’s a careful expositor. Though I disagree with his conclusions, he presents the best of the Fundy arguments here:
Mark Minnick on Separation (9 Marks-audio interview)
Article by Minnick on Separation (Frontline magazine)

I could have a whole ‘other discussion of how separation and legalism are related, and how separation is — at its core — a critical misunderstanding of how sin works.  If you’re interested, I wrote some posts about it a few years ago:  On Sin and On Sin Revisited.  I believe the central flaw of Fundamentalism in general and all Evangelical legalism is the rejection of Paul’s teaching at the end of Colossians 2: you can’t make enough rules to make yourself holy. Sin is on the inside, if you accept the traditional doctrine of the Fall and of sin, and as such it’s something that must be changed by God via redemption and Grace. Sanctification is active and ongoing, but it is also internal as much as it is external.

Fundamentalists talk a lot about how sin is inside us all, but they ACT as if it can be regulated and “solved” through shunning, excommunication, and rule-keeping.  [Side note: if you read that last sentence and thought, “Huh, that sounds like the tactics Evangelical conservatives are using to drive the narrative of a ‘culture war’ within American politics,” then you may understand why I think Evangelicalism has lost its Grace, and why I don’t want to be in that tribe anymore.]

In the end, Fundamentalism boils down to a lot of gate-keeping by the tribe to make sure everybody is following the rules, although not all rules are equally accepted…. and thus you have many small islands of Fundamentalism rather than a monolithic whole.  My BJU experience was qualitatively different than that of someone who attended PCC or Ambassador Bible College or Hyles Anderson or Northland or Detroit Baptist Bible Seminary or the Free Presbyterian Church’s seminary or ….  All of these little islands have their own rule book. Fail to play by the rules, and you’re voted off the island.  It’s been 100 years (or so) since Fundamentalism really came into its own as a movement, and most of those islands have merged into a few larger camps.

It’s important to note that “preserving a good testimony” is the club used to control people within Fundamentalism if there’s no clear biblical rule against doing something.  Take movies, for example.  Moves are BAD EVIL HORRIBLE NOOOOOO in Fundamentalism because of sex, language, violence, whatever. Mostly sex.  So no good person would dare set foot in a movie theater, right?  Even if you were going to see The Incredibles 2, how do people at the theater not know you aren’t there to see Slenderman or Sexx69?  So you’d better not go.

If you just spewed your coffee, I sympathize.  I lived this stuff, folks, and I thought it was Gospel truth well into my 20s.

Your “testimony” is everything in Fundamentalism because it’s about the only currency you have to gain prestige or power.  If someone can mount a credible accusation against your testimony, especially if you’re in ministry, you’re done.

Well, maybe.  There’s a stunning irony here that isolation + patriarchy + misogyny + ignorance + authoritarianism tends to work to the advantage of pedophiles and serial abusers, and that’s rampant in Fundamental churches.  (See my post about the GRACE Report at Bob Jones for a wee taste of that delightful topic.)

What’s separation got to do with Steve Bannon?

This morning, I read John Scalzi’s interesting post on the situation with Bannon and the New Yorker.  It’s a good take, and I recommend you take a minute to go read it. (Scalzi is a sci-fi writer and his blog Whatever is always a great read.)

The Whatever Digest, 9/4/18 (Scalzi)

Here are two paragraphs that grabbed my attention:

As a former journalist, I can understand Remnick’s thinking on this one: He’d been angling to interview Bannon for a while, and the idea of getting that festering lump of white “supremacy” on a public stage where he couldn’t equivocate or finesse his way out of his shitty racist ideas seemed like a good one. The problem was that Remnick was thinking with his journalist brain and not his event coordinator brain. The event coordinator brain should have realized that inviting Bannon to a New Yorker-branded “festival of ideas,” complete with travel expenses and honorarium, was in effect paying Bannon to take on the New Yorker imprimatur for his ideas. It’s not reportage; it’s the New Yorker saying “these ideas are important enough that we paid to get them on our stage.” And note well that Bannon was meant to be the headliner.

Which is of course the New Yorker’s, and Remnick’s, privilege — it’s perfectly within its rights to book a fascist piece of shit to its festival and hope people pay to see Remnick chat that fascist piece of shit up on a stage. But Remnick’s event coordinator brain should have probably realized there was going to be a backlash to that. It’s not just the New Yorker’s brand associating with shitty fascism up there on that stage; it’s the personal brand of everyone else on the program as well. Strangely enough, a fair number of other people didn’t want their brands smeared with shitty fascism, and theywere perfectly within their rights not to participate for that reason. Remnick’s problem then, as an event coordinator, was realizing that soon his “festival of ideas” would be nothing but shitty fascism unless he dropped Bannon. Oh, and that his staff hated it. Oh, and that social media hated it too.

Huh.  That, my friends, is the EXACT argument made by Fundamentalists (though for different reasons and with zero curse words) for refusing to share the stage with Billy Graham, and for then refusing to share the stage with any pastor who had shared the stage with Billy Graham.

If you’re new to all this and that example made zero sense to you, well, lucky you for not growing up in the weirdness that is Christian Fundamentalism and separatism.

Also, it’s worth noting that even the most moderate of Christians who doesn’t believe in The Doctrine of Separation™ as it’s practiced by Fundamentalists still holds to a line that he/she will not cross, though in general progressive Christianity is much more likely to take someone’s faith claim at face value and treat them like a brother/sister in Christ unless there’s evidence to the contrary.

It’s usually the Evangelicals and Fundamentalists who demand receipts before they will accept someone as legitimate.  This might explain the shocked and horrified response of many moderate Christians to James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr, Eric Metaxas, and other Christian “leaders” who have rushed to affirm Trump as a baby Christian despite zero evidence to this being true (and plenty of evidence that Trump is using them for political power but they’re too stupid or power-hungry to see it).

Vox has a really good explainer on this, and it’s fair to the Evangelicals IMO.

And Metaxas got dragged hard on Twitter last week for playing into this ridiculous charade by Trump instead of seeing it as outright pandering to a group of people willing to trade away their conscience for the sake of some political power. But I digress….

Anyway, back to Scalzi….

John dives deeper into the question of when it’s right for an author to bail on an event to avoid appearing with someone distasteful like Bannon, and when it’s probably a poor decision.

Again, I was somewhat stunned to see the exact same style of argumentation happening here as was discussed in my ministry classes at BJU. How far is too far?  When is an author’s “testimony” on the line in the age of Bannon, Trump, and alt-right fascism?

Scalzi takes time to parse out which types of people would provoke him to withdraw his presence from an event (separation from the event because of the presence of others) vs when he’d be wiling to attend but not be on the same panel (personal distance) vs just avoiding being on a panel with someone because it would generate into a mess (or the person is a jerk).

Notable:  Scalzi defines his rules based on a mix of factors, and he progressively intensifies his “distance” (and the lengths to which he would go to enforce that distance) from someone based on how reprehensible their ideas are (or their actions as a person).  So, for example, he has no desire to be anywhere near Ann Coulter (and I agree with him, having heard her speak myself) but he wouldn’t pull out of an event just because she was there.

The question I’ve been chewing on today:  is this qualitatively the same species as Fundamentalist separation, or different?

It’s common in Fundamentalism to reject anyone outside the tribe because of their loose moral code and “anything goes” associations (and thus loss of testimony).  I think Scalzi is a great example of how this simply isn’t true. He’s got a clear and well-organized set of principles plus a clear plan for implementation and flexibility to judge things case-by-case.

Why do I reject Fundamentalist separation but laud Scalzi for his “separation” from alt-right fascists?

I think it boils down to this:

  1. Scalzi isn’t pretending he’s gaining brownie points from a higher power because of his rules.  Legalism can be defined as using my actions (especially rule-keeping) to gain favor with the Higher Power, and it’s linked to self-righteousness. It operates on both the personal level and the group or institutional level.  Do progressives fall prey to self-righteous legalism? Oh, hell yes. I’ll take that up below.
  2. Scalzi owns the pragmatism of his rules. For example, he’d avoid being on con panels with particular authors because he thinks they’re jerks or annoying or whatever, not because they’re morally evil people.  Fundamentalism had no categories for something in the grey area, a simple preference. It’s “rock music is evil because Satan invented it and also a bunch of racist ideas about African beats!” rather than being honest about not enjoying a particular genre of music or the subculture around it.  Again, liberalism is in danger here…..
  3. Scalzi increases distance in proportion with the nature of the offense. I never understand why Christians can’t make strategic alliances to accomplish a greater purpose. How many discussions did I have at BJU about whether it was wrong to, say, cooperate with Catholics to run a crisis pregnancy center?  Even at the time, I had to shake my head at some people’s inability to weigh some issues as more critical than others.  Life is all about strategic compromises. To pretend that you can live as someone separate from all the bad and dirty stuff is just arrogant.  On the other hand, boundaries are healthy and helpful. Everybody needs them. Just avoid turning your personal boundaries into a statement of what everyone else needs to do.

Takeaways for these turbulent times

My colleague (and former headmaster) Dennis used to talk about wisdom a lot, about how Wisdom gives us  a framework for making well-informed decisions in the grey spaces in between moral laws. Wisdom enters into the questions where we aren’t sure what we’re supposed to do to ensure that a “judgment call” is based on something sound.

I’ve had a thousand discussions with my friend Jack about how there’s an intellectual fundamentalism on the Left that’s corroding people’s ability to enter into discourse with anyone who isn’t already allied with liberal ideals.  Problem is, you’ll never win anyone over to your way of thinking if you can’t even find a way to talk to them, or if you start screaming at them as soon as you realize your views differ.

Are men wrong to not enjoy every argument a feminist throws at them on Twitter? Is every man “mansplaining”? What does justice and redemption look like in the wake of the #metoo movement?  Do we burn bridges or extend a hand?  Does the Democratic party have room for socialists just like the GOP made room for Tea Party libertarians? Will the result be just as caustic?

See also:  America in 2018

I think we can learn from Scalzi (and many others like him — I’m using him as an example because of his post this morning) and avoid the errors of American Fundamentalism.

But that leaves us with some really difficult judgment calls, like….

  •  It’s all well and good to say “punch Nazis in the face,” but there’s a relativism in that approach which breaks down quickly as soon as the mob decides some other group is equally deserving of face-punching. Progressives lose pubic arguments (about immigration, for example) because they don’t “fight dirty,” because “when they go low, we go high.”    We can learn from Scalzi that it’s ok to implement different standards for different fights (if you will), and to raise the stakes if the situation demands it.  But we also need to acknowledge that we’re on dangerous ground here — just like when Lincoln suspended habeas corpus or FDR took America into a total wartime economy.  The Constitution doesn’t protect us from evil men who might refuse to hand power back to the people once the crisis is over. And mobs never give power back.
  • How do you engage in civil discourse when the other person’s presuppositions disgust you, repel you?  Scalzi notes the critical error of the New Yorker journalist: this event would have handed an alt-right POS a microphone and a mantle of respectability.  Idiotic.  The Press has been doing this for Trump’s ideas for a few years now. It’s frustrating, and it deserves a whole separate conversation. But if we get to the point that we cannot find ANY space for discourse — a smaller, more private one-on-one conversation where there’s less shouting and piling-on and “performance” for the sake of one’s tribe — then I don’t think democracy will survive.
    As more and more issues explode (like sexual harassment, or the sex abuse scandals in churches, or deciding what America’s health care system should look like), we’re going to be left with a lot of ad hoc line-drawing if we aren’t smart enough to realize what’s going on.
  • Universities must find a middle ground to allow conservative faculty and students a place in the tent, and not a begrudging one.  But that doesn’t mean letting just anyone and anything into the tent of Intellectual Discussion. Someone is drawing boundaries, practicing separation. The problem is, universities aren’t honest about who holds that power or where the lines are.
  • Intellectual authoritarianism and stifling questions are close cousins to healthy boundaries and “taking a stand.”  Only wisdom and experience teach us the difference.  Therefore, we need to be charitable toward those in our camp who draw those lines differently, and reject the Fundamentalist habit of writing off someone because they “soiled their testimony” in our tribe by allowing or rejecting something we want to see as good or sacred.   On the other hand, some ideas need to be thrown out of any public sphere anytime they’re offered as a serious alternative.Educational spaces should run by a different set of rules.  I never support banning or censoring books like Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird for using the n-word. Students need to confront those books as the authors wrote them, or not read them at all.  Students need space and time to reason through their views on an issue, even if I find their views ill-formed, just plain wrong, or dangerous.  Depending on the level of danger (or foolishness), I might be more or less direct in how I point out those problems to students. However, people don’t change their minds because we yell at them hard enough to change.  It takes patience, time, careful explanation, and – above all – kindness. 

I want to dig into that final point a bit.  This is the crux of the problem for Democrats, progressives, etc right now in 2018.  It’s what Hillbilly Elegy was trying to communicate to us.  It’s why I’m worn out by all the NYT think-pieces about Trump voters (which probably need to stop) but also feel committed to remaining friends with people in my life who hold very different political views than mine.

If America is going to own up to its racist, ugly history and find restoration and healing, we must find ways to talk about it honestly.

If American democracy is going to survive past 2020, we need to unite around core ideals that are larger than the tribalism that’s torn us apart.

If you’re going to convince your cousin to see immigration in a better light, you can’t throw facts at her. You’ve got to locate her anger and fear, figure out what’s feeding those emotions, and defuse them before your arguments will stand a chance.

And if you decide that you need to draw the boundary and walk away, don’t cloak your separation in self-righteousness. Acknowledge it for what it is: a personal boundary that exists for your emotional and intellectual health.

Exit: The Courage to ask questions

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.

Questions, Questions

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.

I grew up in Fundamentalism…. if you don’t know me or what that means, then read this post and also this series.  And be thankful.

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.

You might find these posts helpful:

Waking up to questions you didn’t know you had

Quotable: Faith Isn’t About Finding Answers | RELEVANT Magazine

A Taxonomy of Doubt

Questions, Faith, and Doubt: Why all the fuss about Rachel Held Evans?

Unintentional #Exvangelical