Category Archives: Theology

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

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

Exit: An Intro

A pair of inciting incidents this weekend have convinced me that there might be value in writing about why I no longer consider myself an Evangelical. My journey is hardly unique, but Christian culture is insular and people outside the orbit of “normal faith experience” often find themselves isolated and marginalized.  Perhaps my words can help you clarify yours.

A couple clarifications to start:

First, I am deeply committed to the belief in God and to historic Christianity as stated in the Apostles and Nicene Creeds. If you’re here with popcorn hoping for a deconversion story, you’re going to be disappointed.

Second, and I realize this is hard to reconcile but hear me out, my critiques of Evangelicalism are not meant to blame or shame anyone who’s still happily in that tribe. You do you.  I fully trust the Spirit to do His job of leading Christians into full sanctification.

*****

I’ve written occasionally about the #Exvangelical movement, and if you find yourself wanting more, you may run into some helpful people on Twitter under that hashtag. It’s a broad swath of people, some who are still religious and many who are not, who walked away from Evangelicalism, often in the past few years.  I ran across them earlier this year, so I wouldn’t call that group formative in my thinking. But if you’re looking for more people who are trying to pick up the pieces of spiritual life in the wake of 2018, it’s a place to start.

*****

One of the inciting incidents was this convo on Twitter, which I read last night:

*****

I don’t know where all this series will go, but I think it’s going to cover how my thinking has shifted in the past decade and why. About why it’s so hard to pull the trigger on searching for a new church. About why I find myself in my 40s angry at the ringing injustices of the world in a way that wouldn’t even  have made sense to me in my 20s.

I will try to bang it out this month in short order, but we’ll see.

Waking up to questions you didn’t realize you had

This article in Relevant Magazine (Jul-Aug 2018) wrecked me today.

The Evolving Faith of Lisa Gungor – RELEVANT Magazine

This was rock bottom, the point in Lisa’s life in which she felt the most desperation. And she says the core question—the thing it all boiled down to was love. “What do I believe about love?” she says. “Love is the whole story that I’ve bought into about Jesus Christ, so what do I believe in?”

The answer to this question arrived through a lot of labor. Lucy, the couple’s second child, was born with Down syndrome. “And it was kind of this painful, epic, beautiful, wonderful climax for me,” Lisa says. “This little girl is born into a world that our society says is broken, and needs to be fixed and at the same time, I’m feeling that within my self. I’m broken, and I need to be fixed because I don’t believe like I used to.”

The peace Lisa found in Lucy was not a resolution to her doubts but the understanding that she could live with those doubts and they didn’t change who she was.

I was already weeping, reading the article. But that passage just stopped me dead.

*****

I can’t really tell you what I expected from my 40s, but it’s been a constant merry-go-round of surprises.

Just for starters — I never really expected that I’d be childless and thus was caught flat-footed in my late 30s without any career arc or plan (I’ve written a bit about that here).  My husband and I have watched multiple friends move far away in the past several years, coinciding with shifts into work for both of us that doesn’t inherently create community.  I feel like the world exploded in 2016 with Trump’s election, ripping the mask from a cesspool of racism and xenophobia and hatred that has been simmering unseen in American culture, probably since its founding. But seeing that ugliness on my Facebook feed from people I know? Painful.

And then there’s church. Hoo boy. Where do I start?

I didn’t mean to leave Fundamentalism in my late 20s, but it happened when what I was seeing in Fundamentalism didn’t match what the Bible says. I’d been taught in seminary at BJU to query the text and give priority to the text. When we realized the “doctrine of separation” was invented and unbiblical, we walked away from everything we knew.

That led us to the PCA, which was a good home to us for several years. Reformed theology gave me many gifts which I treasure to this day, not the least being an understanding of the Dutch Reformed stream thanks to our M.Ed. coursework at Covenant.   But the PCA has a big problem with legalism, one that they acknowledge (sort of) but cannot solve because of the presumptions they bring to their understanding of faith.

Also, the PCA along with nearly every Evangelical group harbors a lot of patriarchy-in-the-name-of-Jesus which I can no longer tolerate in silence. If I’d had a daughter (or a son), I don’t know how I could raise her in an organizational structure that entirely deprecates the role of women in leadership.  If anything, I’m more convinced now in the wake of #meetoo that women are endangered when they are powerless.  Traditional Church structures are built to disenfranchise women and locate power entirely in the hands of male leadership, using God’s name to justify this system. I’m so done with that.

All that aside though, I didn’t mean to leave my church in 2016. It just ….happened. I was just as surprised as anyone else.  I took some time off to change jobs and rest a bit, including absence on Sunday mornings for a variety of reasons. When I asked to get back onto the schedule for church musicians, my queries were met with….crickets.  My husband had stopped going anyway (for several of reasons), so it seemed like a clear indication that our time there was done.

I consider my faith to be important and central to my life, but I have struggled in the past 2 years to see “church” as a central practice.  At the same time, I deeply miss the sacraments and having fellowship with fellow believers. It’s just hard to know how to start “dating” a church again when I know how exhausting that process will be.

I haven’t been to church in nearly two years.  When I was reading Lisa Gungor’s description of the questions she could not ask in Church, I nodded along.  The Problem of Evil is lurking at the basis of her doubt, and any theologian who tries to hand-wave away the depths of evil, death, and pain in human experience loses respect from me immediately.  The older I am, the more horrified I am by poverty, murder, school shooting, abuse, rape, discrimination, racism….. not to mention disease, cancer, death. The Bible doesn’t give any glib answers to this.  Why therefore do so many churches refuse to allow its people to wrestle?

I have a friend who’s struggled to accept their sexual orientation.  They have also – understandably – struggle with their faith, and with the idea that God answers prayer. This friend begged God to take away their same-sex attraction, but He has never provided relief.   Is God a hateful Father to create someone who loves people of their own gender, and then condemn them as sinful?  The most faith-rocking experiences in my world stem from knowing several people who are gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender who are also (sometimes) people of faith.  My marriage to Evangelicalism fell apart when I realized I was being asked to act hatefully toward people whom I love, and whom I believe God loves.

*****

To have faith, you must confront doubt. You have to lay it all out on the table and be honest about it. You have to own up to the questions.  Look, if you’ve never wondered HOW you “know” that God is real, are you even a thinking human? Do you honestly just swallow anything anyone tells you?

I’m not saying “throw out your faith.”  I’m saying, Recognize that ‘faith’ is subjective.

If God is in relationship with me — and I genuinely believe that He is — then I have to give Him the room to do whatever He decides He’s going to do.  I also have to be honest about my own questions and acknowledge the ambiguity in that relationship and in the way the Bible uses many different genres to express complex and nuanced ideas that I don’t always understand.  Every church I’ve been in cannot handle a Bible text that isn’t iron-clad inspired, sparklingly clear in its statements, and applied with gale-force wind to the lives of people sitting through a 45-minute lecture on a weekly basis.

If you think Christianity is some easy cut-and-dried process, then…. good for you?      I think you’re nuts.

“My perspective is I’m trying to live in the way of love and the way of Jesus the best I know how. I know I don’t have it all right, but I love the way of Jesus. I don’t have a definition for that.”

I don’t know what to call it either, Lisa, but I’m right here with you.  Whoever said that people get more conservative as they get older apparently didn’t live the life of a GenX woman who’s just now waking up to a whole lot of questions.

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.