Post-Evangelicals and Why We Can’t Just Get Over It

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. 

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Hearts of Flesh

'Field Day' photo (c) 2010, Kara Harms - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Fundamentalism erases people. 

I’ve watched as men once alive with ideas and passion surrender their curiosity and intellectual integrity to conform to the ideological boundaries that will let them keep their jobs.  

I’ve seen women literally shrink—a pound at a time, a dream at a time—as they conform their bodies and their spirits to a strict ideal, as they try to make themselves acceptably small. 

I’ve seen the light go out in people’s eyes when they decide it’s safer to embrace a doctrine or a policy that their gut tells them is wrong than it is to challenge those who say it’s right. 

I’ve watched open minds close and tender hearts harden.

 I’ve seen people pretend to believe things they don’t actually believe and do things they don’t actually want to do, all in the name of conformity to God’s will, all in the name of sacrifice and submission. 

Fundamentalism erases people.  It erases their joy, their compassion, their instincts, their curiosity, their passion, their selves.  And then it celebrates this ghosting, this nulling and numbing, as a glorious “dying to the self,” just like Jesus demanded. 

 

But is this really what Jesus asked? 

Is this really the sort of fasting God demands? 

Or is it to loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, and set the oppressed free, 

to replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, 

to have life and have it abundantly,   

to proclaim freedom for prisoners and sight to the blind, 

to cast out fear,  

to find rest, 

to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace”

 

You see, Jesus never asks us to die without promising us resurrection.  Resurrection is the whole point!

The selves we die to are the fearful selves, the sinful selves, the imprisoned selves. The selves we rise to are the free selves, the life-filled selves, the brave selves, the whole selves, the Christ-like selves. 

Ultimately, we are not called to die. We are called to live. 

As Paul told the Romans, “What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection… God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master” (Romans 6:7, 23, The Message). 

And later: “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”  (2 Corinthians 6:11-13, The Message)

 

If we are animated by the spirit of Jesus, we have nothing to fear. 

There is no need to shrink. 

No need to pretend. 

No need to check out intellectually or emotionally. 

No need to disengage out of fear. 

No need to conform to anyone’s will but Christ’s. 

 

God doesn’t want to erase us. God wants to bring us back to life. 

So take this gift of life...

Eat it, drink it, and breathe it in. 

Taste and see that the Lord is good and you are alive. 

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A Christmas apology, and the seeds of hope

I wrote a post about the incarnation for CNN today: 

This week we celebrate Christmas, and as a Christian, I want to say I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that this season has become about fights over manger scenes on public property, about complaining when clerks say, “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Happy Holidays,” about rampant commercialism and faux persecution.

I’m sorry that Christians in the United States can be so entitled when we’ve long enjoyed majority status, when we can be so blind to our own privilege.

It is ironic, really, because in the church calendar, the seasons of Advent and Christmas call us to reflect upon and celebrate what Christians believe was the most radical act of humility of all time – the incarnation....

Read the full article. 

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5 Reasons I’m Glad I Was Raised Evangelical

'RSDigby_1553' photo (c) 2010, Robert S. Digby - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to politics, theology and gender, but there are many reasons I’m glad I was raised in the evangelical tradition. For those of us who wrestle at times with the religious traditions with which we were raised, I think it’s important to remember from time to time the gifts those traditions gave us. These are just a few that come to my mind: 

1.  I know and love the Bible. 

Whether I was slaying the competition in a sword drill or racking up crowns and badges in AWANA, I grew up knowing my way around a Bible. The images, stories, and words of Scripture so permeated my life that they gave meaning and direction to my own story and helped me make sense of things. My evangelical upbringing taught me to love Scripture, to consult it, and to believe it. And to this day, nothing sparks my creative energy more than a difficult passage, a stack of commentaries, and a few hours to dig in. The Bible just keeps on giving; it never disappoints. While I certainly wrestle with the Bible more than I once did, it is the love of Scripture my evangelical upbringing instilled in me that keeps me wrestling,  that keeps me from giving up. I am profoundly grateful for this. 


2.  I have fond memories of being a teenager, primarily because of youth group.

Anyone who grew up in youth group will know exactly why I’ve titled the chapter about it in my next book, “Chubby Bunny.” I was fortunate to have had an amazing youth pastor—Brian Ward—who to this day remains one of my most important mentors, champions, and friends. (And who actually kinda hated Chubby Bunny.) High school can be a disorienting, angsty time, but because of youth group I made lifelong friends, I got to travel, I deepened my faith, I had opportunities to teach and lead and use my gifts, I learned to not take myself so seriously, and I learned exactly how many marshmallows I could cram into my mouth without chocking to death. I am glad so much of my identity was forged in the context of church and in the company of people who really loved me. Not everyone’s memories of youth group or of high school are as happy as mine, so I never want to take that (mostly) wonderful experience for granted. 

3.  I've always had a deeply personal faith. 

It’s often said that evangelicalism is characterized by a personal commitment to faith, and this was certainly true of my experience. The activism, the testimonies, the active prayer life, the hours spent reading the Bible—these things emerged from a deeply experiential and powerful relationship with Jesus and the church that until my young adulthood went almost totally unquestioned. (Check out Evolving in Monkey Town for the story of how things started to unravel.) I know not everyone who was raised evangelical felt that same connection to God growing up, so there may be a personality component involved, but I’ve never been afraid to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to Jesus already. And I think it was because my faith was so personal, so deeply important to me, that I couldn't just let it go the moment I started having questions and doubts. 

4. Potlucks. 

Evangelicalism introduced me to deviled eggs, macaroni-and-cheese casserole, chili cook-offs, and lemon squares…and to hospitality, and fellowship, and the value of just showing up with a chicken casserole in hand when your neighbor is sick or grieving or lonely. The healing power of a chicken casserole should never be underestimated. 

5. Grace at home. 

I didn’t always experience grace in the church. I saw my fair share of legalism, division, and exclusion there, and, like most people, I’ve been hurt by other Christians. But there was always grace at home. Always. My parents—committed evangelicals—taught me, by example, to be compassionate, empathetic, patient, forgiving, open, inclusive, curious, and kind. They taught me to focus on the most important thing—Jesus—and to hold the rest of my theological and political beliefs with an open hand.  They gave me the space I needed to become my own person with my own faith, and they were never afraid to say, “I don’t know” when that was the truth. No parents are perfect, but mine have been pretty great. And so when I’m at a progressive/liberal Christian conference and people start bashing evangelicals as closed-minded and exclusive, I pipe up and say, “Hey, that’s my mom and dad you’re talking about.” They totally ruined my ability to paint all evangelicals with a broad a brush, and I’m glad. 


Of course, this is not to say these experiences are unique to an evangelical upbringing. Certainly you can find a love for Scripture, personal faith, deviled eggs and Chubby Bunny in other Christian traditions as well. 

So I’d like to open the floor to all—those raised evangelical, those raised Catholic, those raised Presbyterian, those raised Mormon or Jewish or even as secular humanists….

What are you thankful for about the faith with which you were raised? What positive effects did that tradition have on your life? 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

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