Category Archives: Theology

Musings on God and His ways in the world, and how we humans interact with Him/them.

Unintentional #Exvangelical

I often read about social movements on Twitter long before they hit any sort of mainstream discussion. If you can put in the time to curate your Twitter following, you can find quite a world of stimulating (and sometimes asinine) discussion.

One subset of people I follow happen to be Christians or ex-Christians who are trying to shine the light of #metoo on sexual abuse in the church. Some of these folks have coined the hashtag #Exvangelical to describe their abandonment of Evangelicalism, especially in the wake of the 2016 election and its aftermath.  This started with #emptythepews and #churchtoo, a couple hashtag discussions about unchallenged rape and sexual abuse in Christian circles that hasn’t yet forced much of a behavior change or policy changes. But the community grew to include thousands of Tweeps who flocked (haha) to share their stories of abandoning a faith they were raised in.

I didn’t mean to become an #Exvangelical…. until one day, I realized I was already there.  

This is going to get messy if I try to write a post about it. Let me do a Frequently Asked Questions instead – I can probably hit all the salient points, reassure some fears, generate others, and keep it shorter.

Q. So, if you’re an #Exvangelical, does that mean you’re no longer a Christian?

A.  Not at all. I’m 100% committed to the Gospel and to faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. I affirm the historic creeds of Christendom.  I’m not here to tell anyone else how they should feel about their church affiliation.

What I’ve abandoned is Evangelicalism: that particularly American, individualistic strain of Christianity which prioritizes a personal conversion experience above all else, tends toward extreme biblical literalism, and is currently lusting after political power and a “win” in the “culture wars.”

Q. Wait, you can’t have it both ways. If you aren’t an Evangelical anymore, then you are left with only apostate, liberal, compromised churches for fellowship, right? And not all Evangelical churches are power-hungry or harboring Tea Party conventions. 

A. Way to be judgmental? Also, I’m not sure you asked a question.

Ok, this is a critical point, and I understand why people who’ve been thoroughly taught that there are only two options — in the tribe of the True Believers or standing outside in the wrong –struggle to see alternate pathways for genuine Christian belief.  It would take me weeks of blog posts to untangle this point. If you care that much, either Google till you find others who’re writing about their faith journeys, or have a cuppa with me and we’ll talk it out.

The short response to your query is this: the world isn’t a simple “you’re in or you’re out” with regards to Evangelicalism being the only right way to be a Christin. If you genuinely believe that, then we probably aren’t going to do anything except disagree over fundamental assumptions.

The Church is larger than I was led to believe. This has happened to me twice in my life: first, when I was in Fundamentalism and left it for the PCA.  I remember how betrayed yet happy I felt to discover that Evangelicals didn’t worship Satan’s devil music, and they were pretty great people.  And now, I’ve learned that Evangelicalism never had a lock on being “right.”  There are good, faithful believers in many faith traditions.  Romans 14 speaks to this pretty strongly, IMO, and I recommend reading it and taking a deep breath if this post is making you angry or anxious.

Q. So what’s changed for you? How are you different than you were, say, 5 years ago?

A. This will be easier as succinct bullet points. Again, I’m not inviting you to come argue with me over the bullet points. They’re here for reference, not as an invitation for argument.

  • I believe the study of theology should begin with an understanding of God and His Ways, and then move to a discussion of the inspiration of Scripture.  Karl Barth explains this way better than I can, and before you burn his Church Dogmatics, you might consider reading it.  His view of inspiration is far more vigorous than anything I found in Fundamentalism or Evangelicalism, and it avoids the bible-olatry that continues to plague the American conservative church. Christ is The Word. The Bible witnesses to Him. He is the center, the beginning and ending.
  • I reject the individualism that plagues American Evangelical Christianity, including the excesses of revivalism and dispensationalism.  I think we were created for community, and prioritizing the experience of the individual above the powerful voice of the Church through all her ages and expressions is dangerous.
  • I reject the dominating narrative of the American culture wars.  I reject the assertion that American Christians are a persecuted minority.  I reject the combative personality by which Evangelicalism is known, especially after the 2016 election. The battle line between good and evil runs through, and not around, every single human movement or institution or idea or group. “Us” vs “them” tribalism is toxic.  White Evangelicals have bought hook, line, sinker into a racist, xenophobic vision of America, and I’m just not ok with it anymore.  And the culture war’s main fronts – the creation/evolution battle and the anti-abortion movement – are generally doing more harm than good. Why are people walking away from the Church in droves? Because they have the frikkin Internet and can read science articles for themselves.
  • I condemn Donald Trump as a pathetic human whose morality is in the sewer. Watching “Christians” like Dobson fall all over themselves to paint Trump as a believer, rather than defending the victims of his abuse and rebuking his lechery and misogyny and greed and corruption, is what broke Evangelicalism for good, for me.
  • I cannot in good conscience be part of denominations where the only functionally acceptable political position is to be a Republican or a libertarian. You’re welcome to be part of those camps, but to assert that no good Christian could be a Democrat is ignorant and unwise — and just plain wrong.  Good Christians have historically fallen across the entire political spectrum.  Again, I’m somewhat stunned this is even a point of contention among people who claim that we should be reading our Bibles every day in order to be good people…    (Sorry. This is an area that makes me rather angry these days.)
  • My LGBTQ+ friends have never been welcome in Evangelicalism.  I don’t know how to reconcile the fact that a loving sovereign God has created humans who are wired from birth to love the same gender, or humans who experience such gender dysphoria that they cannot identify as the person their body parts would suggest that they be.  I don’t disagree that a literal reading of the Bible would suggest that LGBTQ+ are, in a word, “born wrong.”  But I can no longer deny a place within the church to my gay Christian brothers and lesbian sisters and transgender friends who’ve been beaten down by the church again and again.  God’s going to have to sort this mess out Himself. Till I get a chance to ask Him in person, I’d prefer that we accept LGBTQ+ Christians as full citizens of the kingdom.  Even if they’re wrong. Especially if we’re wrong about them being wrong.
  • If I had a daughter, I’d be angry that she would never see a woman in a legitimate position of authority within 99% of Evangelical churches. (Small exception for a few ARP churches that ordain women and the AMIA Anglican congregations who hold to conservative theology but make room on their platforms for women to teach and preach.)  You’re welcome to bar women from being a preacher if you want, but to bar them from every single position of church leadership except running the nursery or children’s Sunday school seems ….well, blatantly misogynistic.  I don’t think the New Testament was trying to define church leadership primary by who does/doesn’t have a penis, and I certainly don’t think male-only leadership makes for healthy organizations.  A whole lot of sexual abuse by powerful men might have been avoided if women had been given a voice – any kind of voice – and genuine power within the church.  Conservative Christianity has been sleeping with abusive patriarchy for a long time. This one is an easy fix, folks: women as deacons, women as ruling elders, women as equal teaching partners per those obscure little sentences in I Corinthians 13 that nobody wants to talk about (“a woman, when she prays or prophesies, must cover her head”). Just….start somewhere…..

Q. I think you’re dead wrong. 

A.  You know what?  I sometimes wonder that myself.  Like, how do we know anything about anything?

One of the worst things about any Fundamentalist system – and Evangelicalism has a whole lot of Fundamentalism in its DNA, despite its rock worship bands and willingness to let megachurch pastors say “shit” in a sermon or talk about masturbation — One of the worst things about this system is the way it stifles doubt.

The opposite of doubt isn’t faith. It’s certainty. And certainty can be dead wrong. Faith is hopeful; it can co-exist with doubt because faith IN God means I’m ok with letting Him catch these details I can’t make sense of myself.

I’d be a fool if I were so arrogant as to think my little mind can contain the universe, the whole of God’s will toward mankind, the order of events of salvation – ha! what hubris!

When you let the world get perfectly quiet all around you, what do you hear?  Do you hear little tiny questions creeping into your mind? “What if I”m wrong? What if, once I die, I’m just….dead?  What if there isn’t a God? What if the Hindus or the Jews or the Muslims are actually right?”

I’m not saying you have to doubt to be a good Christian; that seems a bit backward. But good Christians can –must!–be honest about their epistemic uncertainty.

I left Evangelicalism because I’m tired of people telling me they have The Answer. You don’t.  You and I are in the same place: we seek wisdom in the Word to see God for who He is.  And we shake our heads at the ugliness in this world.   And those two ideas conflict in uncomfortable ways.  Can’t we be honest about that for just a minute?

And once we’ve got this honesty train going, how about we be honest about a few more things we shouldn’t claim certainty about…. like whether life actually begins at conception, or how exactly this world came to be and the processes of creation, or pretending like every issue has a clear-cut moral answer just waiting out there along the side of the road carrying a big ol’ “I AM THE RIGHT ANSWER” sign. 

Q. So where are you going to church these days?

A. You aren’t going to like this….but truth is, I haven’t been to church in a while. I didn’t mean to leave…. it just….happened.  I stepped away from music ministry in 2016 because of a job change, and when I tried to come back, all I got from the guys in charge was crickets. :/   So …I left.

I want to find a new church home, I really do. I miss the sacraments and how they shape our understanding of what really matters in this world.

But I also needed to detox from the grind of the “Christian lifestyle,” where everything is matchy-matchy and sorted out.  I’d been uncomfortable about that for years, but I genuinely enjoyed the worship ministry team and the fellowship I found among my fellow musicians. It’s a special thing to lead a congregation in praise, and I was honored to do it for as long as I did.

Aside from the bond I had with my fellow musicians, I have very little in common with women my age in an Evangelical church.  I never had kids (wasn’t on purpose; just never happened) so my #1 function as a woman in the PCA went completely bust. I don’t enjoy babies or little kids. I don’t have endless stories about diaper poops and elementary escapades to link me to these women whose lives are so different from mine.  I hold two masters’ degrees and am married to a man who’s practically earned two PhD’s.  I love video games, science fiction, and progressive metal.  I can read the Bible in the original Greek and Hebrew, and — if I’m being truly honest here — am more qualified (if we’re talking about education) to teach the Bible than nearly all of the male elders at the churches where I’ve been a member. (Except I don’t have a penis, so…. )   Making “small talk” with adults at any church function will always be a struggle, unless there’s a gamer/metalhead church out there somewhere I haven’t found.

It wears me out to think of jumping into the church dating scene again – I mean “finding a church.” Because that’s what it is, right?  A bad dating game.  A church is a collection of people, and honestly, it’s the camaraderie and community that differentiate two congregations.  The trappings and faith statements and liturgy have their own effects, but the day-in, day-out experience of being a member of a particular church rests entirely on the group of people who meet there.  The only way to find a new one, unless you’re going to go all Fundamentalist and filter out all but a couple based on their statements of faith, is to visit around and smile politely and be the weird stranger and listen to people constantly tell you how much they SO HOPE YOU’LL KEEP COMING.

Gah, the sheet awkwardness of it gives me hives.

And, to be frank, I don’t know where I belong. Where we belong.  I want a church where Grace is central (and not just talked about, but lived out as Grace); where sermons are short yet meaningful;  where people are open about their struggles; where Christian lingo isn’t so pervasive that people from outside are turned off; where the prevailing theme isn’t “how to do the right things this week so God will love me more.”

With kickass music.

Q. Last question: Aren’t you afraid people are going to be disappointed in you? What about all your former students? You could tear them down too!

A.  If my students are willing to throw out their entire belief system because of what they see me do (or don’t do), then I failed as a teacher. I never wanted robots, or students who would accept what I said as THE right answer.  I pushed my students to wrestle, reason, challenge, think for themselves. So I’m 99% sure they’re going to be ok, and I’m also sure the Holy Spirit is in charge of bringing people to faith and holding onto them.  If you think my actions are going to overwhelm His work, well, that’s the disagreement right there.

Are people disappointed in us for leaving the PCA?  Hell if I know. I’m not sure anyone really cares.  If you’re a committed Evangelical, then good for you. Please, for the love of all that’s holy, question the connection between your faith and your politics, your power systems, your views on social injustice and the culture.  But have at it.  (See: what I just said about the Holy Spirit, above.)

I wrote this post because I know thousands of people– mostly Millennials–have left the Church in the wake of the 2016 election.  You’re not alone, friends, and please don’t throw out your own relationship with God just because you’re not happy with how things are going in the American Church.

I don’t think Evangelicals really grasp how UGLY this power-grab has been.  You have sold the Gospel for a pot of beans. Actually, Esau got a WAY better deal than you did on Trump and the Tea Party, because at least his mess of beans filled his belly for one night. This whole moral-majority nonsense has cost you pretty much everyone under the age of 40…..and people like me who didn’t sign up to ride this crazy train all the way to the final destination.  American Evangelicalism is nearly all white. And as the cultural influence of white people (especially white men) wanes in the face of America’s changing demographics, it’d be nice if you didn’t drag Jesus down with you as you howl in despair at your loss of power and influence.

Jesus TOLD Y’ALL THIS.  He TOLD YOU that following Him means picking up a cross and dying.  Y’all.  What part of “a corn of wheat must fall into the ground and die” made you think you’d get to run America?  What makes you think worshiping guns and libertarianism and America and military might and “family values” is the equivalent of “taking up your cross” and following Jesus?

*raises hands*  Peace.  I’m done.  I’m not trying to start a fight.  We could go have a beer instead.

I’m an #Exvangelical because I love God and the Gospel. You may disagree with me, but at least you know where I stand.

 

Link: “6 ways Fundamentalists need to grow up”

A while back, Mike Pence publicly referenced that he abides by the Billy Graham Rule, which is to never eat a meal alone with any woman who is not his wife. I wrote about the fiasco and said this about fundamentalists,

“…what frustrates me most about the BG rule used by grown ups is that living by rules is still the framework that dictates ethical living. I often feel as if evangelical adults do not move past the developmental phase of differentiating.”

Scaffolding is an educational term that can be used to apply to parenting. It basically means providing a structure to help children function as they are developing their capabilities. But the purpose of scaffolding is to be dismantled once the child reaches maturity and no longer needs the prop. 

I think of rules functioning as scaffolding. When our children are developing cognitive and intuitive skills to make wise discernment choices for their own lives, we can provide some rules to help them—to keep them safe from devastating consequences and give guidance for their own maturity. But the rules should fall away and autonomy extended so our children learn to independently forge their own paths. 

In this and other ways, I find that fundamentalists never grow up. They never acquire the skills necessary for mature, adult-appropriate behaviors. These immaturities result in dysfunctional relationship patterns which they then pass on to their children, causing harm to themselves, the children, and to the world.

via 6 Ways Fundamentalists Need to Grow up – Unfundamentalist Parenting

I do think the author paints with a rather broad brush, supporting points with anecdotes and some argumentation rather than research and supporting facts. But my experience growing up in Fundyland doesn’t contradict the author’s applications. And that opening section (above) nails it.

Fundamentalism (and legalism in general) stunts the growth of people’s faculties to reason and to discern.  That’s not horrific when somebody is 6 or 14, but it gets uglier and more dysfunctional as the person grows into adulthood without the coping skills needed to function in the world as it is.

It’s also worth noting that the downsides of Fundamentalist legalism are alive and well within Evangelicalism too. Reading Cindy’s post, I found myself nodding along as the PCA provided many examples of her points. Despite the irony of offering the same broad-brush statements supported by anecdotal evidence, here I go….

  1. Dependence on authority – this is the very backbone of the PCA’s leadership structures. Rule by a group of elders is far, far better than the one man dictatorship of the IFB churches I grew up around, but that doesn’t mean the leadership team exhibits much diversity in the PCA – it’s white, male, solidly middle class (or higher), and WASPy. Many subgroups within the PCA celebrate a view of masculinity that’s very one-sided: husband, gun-toting hunter, manly-man drinking and pipe-smoking, virile father of many children. I certainly heard plenty of PCA parents teaching their kids that obedience means “obey me right away without delay.”  If you start listening to the subtexts of the PCA conversations about parenting and Christian living, you hear a lot of the same legalism that I left Fundamentalism to escape. Squashing questions, dissent, or challenge delays those problems till later, when they’re much bigger in a kid’s mind.
  2. Lack of emotional boundaries – a lot of nouthetic counseling and weird crap has crept into conservative Evangelicalism.  Many PCA folks are just as resistant to the idea of eschewing spanking as the average Southern Baptist. Telling people they can pray away their depression or follow a 10-step Scripture program to restore their marriage is unhealthy and unrealistic. I saw a lot of bad boundaries in my sojourn through the PCA.
  3. Naivete about the world – while Reformed teaching is a better basis for living than crackpot dispensational pre-millennialism, it can easily fall prey to a creeping fear that generates just as many rules as Bob Jones had in its rule book when I was there. Fear of sex. Fear of “weird” music. Fear of pop culture. Fear of losing power within the American political system. Fear of non-white cultures when they’re expressed outside of White boundaries. And (most damning of all, IMO) a simplistic, knee-jerk-Republican view of economic systems, injustice, and systemic oppression. The denomination would rather bicker over whether it should pass a code of conduct to prevent sexual abuse in its churches or acknowledge its racist founding in the civil-rights-era South. Even better is the theological pin-dancing over minutiae while blindly wondering why more Black people never bother to visit.  Or why almost no one who’s poor and not-college-educated bothers to attend a second time.
  4. Incomplete sexual education – ever try to convince a Christian school community that someone besides the parents might should teach some sex ed to kids of any age? It’s a blast of a discussion, let me tell ya.  Purity culture is dangerous, no matter how you package it. If you worship virginity, you’re going to break the faith of a lot of kids once they go off to a party in high school or college, get shitfaced drunk, and wake up in bed with a guy they barely remember. That’s a hell of an introduction to sexuality, but it’s not uncommon for kids whose primary sex education has been simply “don’t do it” and a video on the basics of their anatomy.  And girls bear the brunt of the shame once it happens.
  5. Anti-intellectualism – the PCA prides itself on its high standards of education for ministers, demanding post-graduate education that’s expensive and exclusive. So we could talk about the inherent racism expressed in the way most conservative Presbyterians choose to fight anti-intellectualism. But I think it’s important to note how few adults in any church are willing to confront their own doubts or assumptions. I think that’s why doubting people struggle so much in the PCA, where intellectual argumentation forms the core of faith.  James KA Smith has done a good job pushing back against this, asserting that our loves run deeper than our beliefs or worldview. I’m surprised an angry mob of Presbyterians haven’t burned down his house yet.
  6. Lack of healthy conflict resolution – This may have as much to do with upbringing as denomination, honestly. But there is a lot of weirdness in relationships within conservative religion. If you’re a woman working for a man, you’re always trying to suss out the boundaries of authority and appropriate behavior. The politeness codes and morality codes are also unwritten yet brutal in their consequences if you break them.  The few times I’ve worked for non-religious organizations (as I am now), I’ve seen far less organizational dysfunction. People “out in the world” seem to have a better grasp on how to interact with their fellow humans.

I fully admit that my examples hold no more weight than curiosity or fodder for discussion or disagreement.  But my central thesis is this: conservative Presbyterianism suffers from a deep-set legalism that’s just as insidious and damaging as what they decry among Fundamentalists.  Our hearts crave the surety and simplicity of a rulebook rather than a relationship with the Creator.

 

NYT Opinion: A Christian Case against the Pence Rule

When the NYT writer understands that we can’t make a rule big enough to solve the problem of sexual harassment, I have to stand up and cheer… and repost.

The answer is not to ask women to leave the room. It’s to hold all men in the room accountable, and kick out those who long ago lost their right to be there.

via A Christian Case Against the Pence Rule – The New York Times

And this too…

{R}easonable people know the difference between a business meeting over breakfast and drinks at a hotel bar at night. And what the Pence rule fails to grapple with is that the Weinstein story wasn’t, at its root, about attraction but abuse of power. The producer’s behavior wasn’t fundamentally about lust gone wild. It flowed from male consolidation of power in Hollywood, and the lack of opportunity and influence that women have there and in many other industries. Mr. Weinstein could prey on women because of his undue influence over actresses’ careers. He knew they would have little recourse if they spoke out. Those women wouldn’t have been helped by greater isolation from men. They needed a stronger voice in the industry and greater agency over their careers.

The Pence rule arises from a broken view of the sexes: Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away. Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, “I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you.” If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve.

Worth your time to read

A few good reads to kick off your week. One should never approach Monday without a good read around.

To kick off, this piece by Kutter Callaway of Fuller Seminary really hit home with me today when I read it in a back issue of Fuller Magazine that we got at work a few months ago. (Yeah, I know, I’m behind.)  He discusses the way that chronic pain distorts our view of reality, usually attacking our sense of hope the most viciously. And how Christians dealing with chronic pain gain insight into the hope offered by the Gospel. A powerful read.

Restoring Hope: Being Weak and Becoming Well – Fuller Studio

*****
From the same issue of Fuller Magazine come two excellent pieces about Christians and hospitality. This ancient set of practices has worn very thin in our modern age, and these scholars take time to explain why Christians should pursue hospitality even more fervently now.  In fact, hospitality might create a space where Christians and Muslims can gather on common ground. 

Restoring Hospitality: A Blessing for Visitor and Host – Fuller Studio

A Moratorium on Hospitality? – Fuller Studio

*****
Time is not just money. It’s also power.  And one of the significant discrepancies between working women and working men lies in their access to uninterrupted free time to think, create, or connect.

This article by Brigid Schulte gives a name to the fragmented craziness that women experience as they try to juggle work, parenting, and marriage:  leisure confetti.  

While many working men are able to access blocks of uninterrupted time, most women — especially mothers — get their leisure time only in snatches, and even then it’s dirtied with the mental anxiety of carpool logistics, supper planning, family scheduling, budgeting, etc.

Confetti. You can’t build or create anything or even feel like a real human being if the only time you get to yourself comes in scraps.

Brigid Schulte: Why time is a feminist issue

*****
I never talk on the phone much now, and aside from my teenaged spurt of nightly phone sessions with my best friends (or calls home during my college days), I’ve never been a huge phone talker.  Texting was (and is) a god-send: concise communication that people can read when they’re ready, apart from the disruption of a ringing phone.

This Slate writer disagrees, and wonders if we’ve lost something…

The Death of the Telephone Call |Slate

*****
This next one may make some folks mad…. but that’s not my intention. In fact, I’d like to post this as much to invite critique as suggest alliance.  But I think Americans need to turn a critical (in the sense of objective / evaluation) eye on football. It’s a dangerous game – one that grinds up the bodies (and brains) of players for the violent pleasure of the masses. This bothers me.

And here, this author suggests an even more troubling link – that the US military is happy to keep Americans confusing patriotism with team loyalty, to see football as  a kind of American war.

I’m not a peacenik but it doesn’t take a 60s hippie conscience to question whether Americans can tell the difference between patriotism and nationalism, between bandwagon-riding mob behavior and common sense.

How the NFL Sells – and Unabashedly Benefits From – the Inextricable Link Between Football and War |The Cauldron (Sports Illustrated)

*****
A powerful reminder that ministry which sees the recipients as “needy” will fail to be as successful as it should be.

“Do you want to know why we love him [another missionary]? He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

What’s Wrong with Western Missionaries? | DesiringGod

*****
I may not be in a classroom any more (an experience that I genuinely miss pretty often), but I want everyone to read this wonderful piece directed to young teachers.  It’s a great reminder of why I taught, and why I want to spend my life trying to make education better.

In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer suggests that we teach who we are and thus, no matter what we teach, our students judge us as “good” or not according to how we communicate who we are.

Letter to a Young High School Teacher | Comment Magazine

 

I’ll be back with some book reviews soon. Currently reading 2 or 3 that have been good reads for sure.

The value of artists for the church

This thought struck me today:  Do the “worship wars” exist in our churches (and I’m thinking of conservative Evangelicals mostly) because we lack a deep and meaningful theology of art?

Do we devalue certain kinds of music or performance because, generally speaking, we devalue the artists among us?

I realize that I’m generalizing here based on mostly my own experience, the echo chamber that is my Facebook feed and my friend groups, and articles I tend to see on the Internet. But hear me out — let me know if you think there’s something here.

Worship music exists on a settled continuum at this point in American church history. Since the 1970s, rock and pop (and country) sounds have become more and more mainstream as part of the Sunday service. What began as “praise choruses” (thanks, Keith Green!) grew into a huge Christian music industry by the 80s (who hasn’t heard of Amy Grant) and a juggernaut of Christian media, praise and worship music, and performance styles. But it’s not been a smooth ride. New forms alienate traditional worshipers. And I think we can agree that a lot of Christian music – like secular music – is at best mediocre, from a musician’s point of view.

It seems like the worship wars have cooled to an uneasy detente: traditionalists scoff at “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music that repeats the same line 25 times. Contemporary worship leaders value traditional hymnody but want to get away from the funeral dirge of organ/piano/face in hymnal that they probably grew up with.

I think the two positions can be summed up easily thus:

And if you need a third example, find the Eddie Izzard clip (from his stand-up routine) about Anglicans singing in church …. (it always goes through my head when I’m singing “O God Our Help in Ages Past,” not my favorite tune).

Thing is, both approaches to music, traditional and contemporary, can serve up skill and artistry. And both can fall into the traps of mind-numbing boredom or lack intentionality.

And – with a gentle nudge to my hymn-loving / repetition-hating friends – repetition is a valid song-writing technique. To say otherwise is to deny the artistry of the psalms – and not just the famous ones like 150 or  136 (which repeats “for his mercy endures forever 36x…. just saying…..).

So I’m wondering.  Do we war over music (or simmer silently when the worship leader picks a song we hate) because we lack a cohesive theology of art?

Think about your church. Aside from the main platform musicians who are playing for worship regularly, how many artists and musicians get the chance to integrate their skill set into the ministry of your church?

How much art hangs in your worship space?  If you’re from a Reformed denomination like I am, perhaps not much. Maybe word art of some kind, cloth banners with verses on them, or perhaps a long-established symbol of something non-controversial like the Trinity.

Any art that isn’t totally unambiguous?

Any music that speaks to the more difficult passages of Scripture, like the prophets or Revelation? Any music that doesn’t always resolve to a happy ending?

Any physical movement? Any dance? Any theater?

Many churches are working to incorporate art, music, dance, and other aesthetics into the worship and life of the congregation. For those churches, I am deeply thankful and hope they lead the way for the rest of us. 

This morning at church, teens from our congregation led us with tambourine and dance. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s usually just one song, but there’s so much joy sparking out of their hands and feet. It nudges even our congregation to move, to smile, to reflect the God Who rejoices over us with singing. 

If we put 90% of our worship energy into making or listening to propositional statements, I think we lose the power of space, time, sound, and sight to shape our understanding of God-given beauty. And then we end up throwing shade at the people who don’t worship like us. “They have a band.” “The drums are too loud.” “It feels like a concert instead of a church.” “The music is old and boring.” “I hate the organ. It sounds like death.”

We must learn to worship. Learning to appreciate different types of music, song construction, liturgies takes time and intentionality.

And one of the best resources for that work often lies untapped among our congregations – the artists among us, those who are honed to see a more complex beauty, those who are wired to feel truth as much as know it.  Let’s value the artists among us for the gift that they are.

*****
I recommend James KA Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom if you want to explore further the ways in which the incarnated practices of liturgy train our hearts at a pre-conscious level. Here’s a condensed lecture version.

 

Why all the fuss over RHE?

The amount of controversy kicked up by Rachel Held Evans never fails to amaze me. She says stuff I disagree with, stuff I agree with, and a lot of stuff in between that just represents …. ideas. Not brilliant or heretical or life-altering. Occasionally perceptive, deep, and moving.

So it was with when I sat down to read one of her more famous books. After noticing how the mere mention of RHE turns many of my (otherwise nice, kind, normal) male Christian friends into raging assholes, I started reading more of her works in an attempt to make sense of what kept happening on my Facebook feed.

51T8OyRMLiL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_A Year of Biblical Womanhood punches all the buttons of someone who wants to hate RHE’s books: She’s happy to pick and choose theological and religious experiences in her pursuit of living for a year like a “biblical woman.” She rejects several standard, beloved Evangelical positions. The whole book is written as if it should be a Big Deal… when it really isn’t.  But hey, I remember being 30 and uncertain and searching.

On the other hand, RHE always turns up (IMO)  ideas I find worthy of contemplation. Several moments of her yearlong experiment in living through loosely defined ‘biblical womanhood’ resulted in moving passages in the book. I nodded along and underlined sentences and starred words which encapsulated some of the same critiques I launch at the “evangelical establishment” – though usually only for the tiny audience of my husband.  Baptizing patriarchy and calling it holy through years of tradition and cultural syncretism is bad, even if challenging the status quo makes people uncomfortable.

Her ceremony to honor the female victims of the “Texts of Terror” is a good example of what makes her so infuriating to Evangelical men and endearing to me — a section both controversial and very touching. Rachel and her friend met in a modernized vigil similar to the commemoration of the Jephthah’s daughter mentioned in Judges 11:39-40 but lost in history. They lit candles in honor of the women who lived (and often died) in horrific circumstances, preserved for all time an eternity as “stories” in the Biblical text: Jephthah’s daughter. Tamar. The Levite’s concubine cut into pieces.

It pisses off Evangelicals to label as “texts of terror” the Old Testament accounts of brutal rape, murder, or mutilation of women. But RHE has a point: By normalizing these stories (or simply ignoring them – when’s the last time you heard a sermon from Judges 19?), we never force ourselves to come face-to-face with the difficult questions presented in the narratives of Scripture. Our world is seriously fucked up. Evil is really really really evil. Saying “it’s not so bad! God can make it good!” doesn’t make the evil less evil. But it’s way easier to ignore this than acknowledge it.

Or take Proverbs 31. A simple search for “Proverbs 31 woman” on Amazon brings up 100 pages of title results.  To say it in emoji:  O.O

This text is so revered as the sine qua non pattern of perfect womanhood, most of us won’t even speak out loud how deeply this text shames us:  The Proverbs 31 Woman, as archetype, is unattainable. Within the Evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, this woman may be prized as far above rubies, but the daily failure of any of us to live up to the standard makes it hard to smile through the Mother’s Day sermons. “She shall be praised,” yes, but the rest of us women live with the consequences.

RHE brought to light the fact that, within Judaism, Proverbs 31 is a blessing, not a command. How ironic. The “woman of valor” (eschet chayil) uses her gifts to bless her household, and within Judaism, it is the husband who memorizes this passage, that he may quote it for his wife in acknowledgment and gratitude.  Reading that section on Proverbs 31 in A Year of Biblical Womanhood released the passage from its status as oppressive overlord and gave me eyes to see instead beauty and grace. “Women of valor” exist everywhere in my life and they should be praised!

*   *   *   *

The conversation on “biblical womanhood” revolves around three fights:  1) equality vs submission within marriage; 3) women’s roles in the church, especially relating to the  pastorate; 3) modesty.

I appreciate RHE even when I disagree with her exegesis, hermeneutics, or conclusions because she reminds me that those fights are not as cut and dried as we insist on making them.

Good people – men and women with whom I will share the New Jerusalem – do not agree whether women can be pastors or whether the pursuit of egalitarian marriage is misguided or what makes something ‘modest.’ And when our response to an opposing viewpoint is to label it as dangerous liberal heresy and refuse to engage in the ideas or even acknowledge the writer herself as having a legitimate voice at the table, we fall into a blindness of our own making. 

RHE is a signpost for the changes in 21st Century American Christianity. A Millennial, she speaks for many who simply do not operate under the older “rules,” especially the tinge of Modernism that shaped the Christianity I grew up in. For postmodern Christians, story trumps propositions. Community triumphs over sectarianism and denominational divisions. Significance means seeing the Gospel heal the world in both tangible and spiritual realms, not ‘being right.’ Faith anchors in a living relationship with The Word (Christ).

Obviously many of my male theological friends disapprove (if Facebook is an accurate thermometer), but I happen to think the young’uns are headed in a better direction.

Faith UnraveledThis particular book of RHE’s will not move any mountains, and in some ways it’s as much an experiment to provide content for her blog/book than anything else. But others – like Faith Unraveled – are absolutely worth your time to read.

And I am glad that Rachel Held Evans (alongside many articular women) is writing, speaking, and provoking responses in the Church. We need her – and many more like her.

 

 

Why we need blue-haired people

A few weeks ago, I dyed my hair blue. This has caused a bit of a stir.

I’m not surprised. I find it quite stirring myself.

I did some experimental color last summer and fall, but this was a step well beyond the reds and even dark purples which don’t seem to scare people. I guess blue screams, I’m breaking away from the norms!

I’m sure people think I’m having a mid-life crisis. I don’t feel all crisis-y, so I doubt that’s it. I just honestly wanted to do something cool for once and this seems pretty innocuous and non-permanent. And fun.

*****
Having blue hair has been a revelation in some ways.

For one, total strangers are way more likely to give me a shout-out now. “I love your hair! Blue is my favorite color!” I’ve heard that at least a dozen times now, usually in the grocery store.

I’ve seen kids’ eyes get wide as they break into huge grins. They know what’s up. Sorry, parents, if your kids are using me right now as leverage in their argument to let them dye their hair…. By the way, you should totally let them do it….. Be prepared for some weird colors left behind in the shower though.

*****
We need blue-haired people in this world. We do. And tattooed people, and people with nose rings, and people who wear weird colors or look androgynous or who play D&D on the weekends with their friends in a basement somewhere.

We need the people outside the “norm.” They show the rest of us that it’s ok not to be all matchy-matchy with what the world tells us we should be like.

*****
We’re called to love those who are different, difficult, or outside our comfort zone. If you can’t get past the fact that I, a woman in the middle of her professional career, assaults your eyeballs with hair displaying about 5 blue hues — what are you going to do with the genuinely odd people you’re called to love?

Further, young people need to see all kinds of people living healthy, productive lives. Offering one standard model of a Human creates the impression that all the others are somehow deficient.

We crazy-haired people are pretty normal. Some of the nicest employees at the mall work at Hot Topic. Their body modifications (a typical trait of a HT employee, I’ve noticed) has no bearing on their friendliness, their capabilities as workers, or their value in this world. Likewise, I’m not sure why schools tend to jump all over things like crazy socks or crazy hair colors. Who cares what your socks look like? Or your hair?  “It’s distracting.”  Really?

God doesn’t care (I’m pretty certain) what my hair looks like. He created it brown, but I’ve never put much stock in the “if God wanted you to have ——, He would have created you that way” line of argument. Adam and Eve, apart from the Fall, would have still been working toward the New Jerusalem. From a Garden to a City was always the plan. (Read more about that in Al Wolters’ excellent little book, Creation Regained.)

Growth and development have always been the tasks of humans who create, being in God’s image.

*****
Evangelicalism is really struggling right now to handle the LGBTQ+ movement. What I’m seeing, for the most part, is a willingness on the part of most Christians to love individual people (people they know, people they’re already friends with) even after they find out those people identify with an alternate sexuality …. but a deep-seated resistance to loving LGBTQ+ people as a group.

Somehow, in the aggregate, what is non-normative is more threatening. To extend marriage rights (some argue) diminishes marriage. To bake a cake implies approval. And Godforbid we imply that in any way, we condone anyone’s aberrant sexual behavior, identity, or leanings.

Apparently the Holy Spirit has lost His ability to convict people of sin, righteousness, and judgement (cf: John 14) in these latter days. The LGBTQ+ movement broke Him?

A decade of teaching taught me that I can’t change anyone. I can love them, encourage them, cajole them, and warn. But I cannot change anyone. It’s simply not my job. And it’s also not my job to function as someone else’s conscience, certain that I identify the areas in his life where he’s clearly wrong and sinning to make sure he knows that he’s messing it up.

I grieve when a friend tells me they’ve spent a lifetime trying not to be gay, not to be weird, not to be trans*, not to be different. I don’t have easy answers for them. I don’t even know how I’m supposed to think and feel about these issues – I cannot reconcile the Bible’s words (as I understand them) with the narratives I hear from people I love.

I’ve read the arguments from Christians working to reconcile biblical narrative and systematic theology for those who claim both faith in Jesus and a non-heterosexual identity. Ken Wilson’s Letter to my Congregation is one of the few I find compelling — I like his recommendation that churches provide a pathway for gay Christians to remain in communion with the Body while the larger Church sorts this stuff out. The Holy Spirit is big enough to handle Christians who are behaving non-normatively and – if they’re sinning – convict them of sin.

I’m certain that breaking people in the name of Jesus isn’t the right way to handle this.

*****
Friends, if we cannot bring ourselves to tolerate oddball hair colors, a non-threatening behavior that lies outside our accepted norms, how are we capable of loving God and our neighbor when that actually gets hard?

Loving God doesn’t mean making everyone around me worship Him the same way I do and for the same reasons. It’s God’s job to call people to His name – He makes that clear.

Loving my neighbor doesn’t mean co-opting the Holy Spirit’s job to sanctify those who claim faith in Jesus. It means …loving.

Perhaps it means allowing myself to live in the uncomfortable region where I cannot exactly see how to reconcile my theology and my faith with my friends or their narratives, while remaining genuinely hospitable and welcoming to anyone who shows up at my door needing a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. Perhaps that is what Grace looks like – giving up my comfort zone for the sake of another.

Perhaps we Christians need more blue-haired people around.

Because if you can learn to stop thinking of my hair as an unnatural aberration, maybe you can also stop seeing your LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ only as misguided, disobedient Christians … and simply care for them instead.