It’s strange how the ghosts of your last church haunt the new one.
You’ll be doing the hard part, the showing up part, and suddenly a word or a song or the presence of a plate of deviled eggs grinning back at in you in the fellowship hall will flood every sense with memory—at once nostalgic and painful, comforting and sad. You will eye the nearest exit, wondering if the ghosts can follow you out the building, if you’ll ever really shake them for good.
I remember when I first heard the term “post-evangelical,” how I hated it and loved it at the same time. Oh, I rolled my eyes at its pretension, its unapologetic smacking of smarter-than-thou. And yet I glommed on to the label, to any label really, because a label means you’re not alone. A label means you can be classified along with species of a similar nature. A label gives you a family, an order, a name.
“It’s nice to be Episcopalian now and not post-evangelical,” I told Dan on the way home from church one cloudy afternoon, feigning a security I didn’t actually feel. “Who wants to be defined by what they’re not?”
“I don’t know,” Dan said, calling my bluff. “Seems like we’re all a little post-something.”
I’ve been reading articles lately about how people like me need to just get over it already, either suck it up and embrace evangelicalism or pack up and move on. The writers accuse us of painting with broad brushes (this is often true), of consumerism (this is sometimes true), of abandoning orthodoxy (this is rarely true), of deconstructing just for sport (this is almost never true). Then they charge us with printing up silly, oversimplified labels to slap onto all that we condemn, and I can’t help but recall all the labels I learned from them—feminist, liberal, postmodern, evolutionist, nominal, lukewarm, heretic—and think, where do you think we learned how to do this, folks?
Sure we tend to over-share. Sure blog posts recounting 10 Ways Evangelicalism Failed Me are a dime a dozen. But when you grow up believing everyone outside evangelical Christianity is going to get spewed from God’s mouth at best or cooked for eternity in hell at worst, when the people you love most in the world belong to the evangelical community and want you to belong to it too, making a deliberate step out of that tradition is a big deal. When you grow up believing that your religious worldview contains the key to absolute truth and provides an answer to every question, you never really get over the disappointment of learning that it doesn't.
It’s a lonely, frightening journey and most of us are limping along as best we can.
My little evangelical church in Birmingham, Alabama was the first place, outside of my immediate family, where I knew I belonged, where I knew I was loved. It was the community that introduced me to Jesus, that lowered me into a still pool of water and called me child of God. It was evangelicalism that taught me to value the Bible, to give and receive testimony, to totally slay the motions for “Father Abraham,” to make deviled eggs. And it was evangelicalism that first told me that being a woman limited my potential, that science was not to be trusted, that democrats and gay people and Episcopalians were my enemies, that asking questions about these things was wrong.
It was evangelicalism that told me who I was and it was evangelicalism that told me who I wasn’t. You don’t just get over that. You don’t just trash it all and walk away.
Like it or not, our religious traditions help forge our identities. The great challenge, the one that took me a book to articulate and which I suspect will take me a lifetime to work out, is to hold every piece of my faith experience in love, even the broken bits, even the parts that still cut my hands and make them bleed.
We are all post-something.
We are all caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles.
There’s no just getting over it. There’s no easy moving on.
So I ask for grace—from the communities that now receive me and from the one that first taught me what that word means.