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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Sunday Superlatives 1/11/2015

Around the Blogosphere…

Best Thing You’ll See/Read All Week: 
Jeff Chu gave an amazing talk—the kind that reminds me why I’m a Christian— at the opening session of the Gay Christian Network conference in Portland this week, which you can watch here for a limited time, or read here.  An excerpt: 

“The table I long for—the church I hope for—is a place where we let others see where the spirit meets the bone and help heal the wounds. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has the grace of the Gospel as its magnificent centerpiece. The table I long for—the church I hope for—is where we care more about our companions than about winning our arguments with them, where we set aside the condescension that accompanies our notion that we need to bring them our truth. The table I long for—the church I hope for—has each of you sitting around it, struggling to hold the knowledge that you, vulnerable you and courageous you, are beloved by God, not just welcome but desperately, fiercely wanted.”

Then, just when you think it can't get any better, Vicky Beeching hits it out of the park with her presentation about what it was like growing up, living, and leading in the evangelical culture, while (until recently) keeping her sexuality a secret. Her perspective on how “a questioning faith is not a backsliding faith, but a maturing faith” is applicable to all and really encouraged me this week.  You can watch all the keynotes from GCN for a limited time here. 

Best Insight: 
Richard Beck with “Being Biblical Means Being Doctrinally Tolerant” 

“If your are going to accept the burden of being of Protestant, of living with sola scriptura, then you are going to have to learn to welcome doctrinal diversity.”

Best Interview: 
Mychal Denzel Smith interviews Ava DuVernay about ‘Selma’

“…It is rare to have a black storyteller have some autonomy over the story. Also it's just rare to have a black storyteller telling the story when it comes to history, period. So I think when you don't have that, you have this kind of groupthink that turns into a homogenization of the events, turns into us not being at the center of our own story, as people of color or women or what have you, and this kind of smoothing of the edges starts to happen, and that starts to contribute to this whole idea of "ugh, the same old thing." And so with this I was very focused on not letting that happen. For whatever people think about the film, whether they love it or hate it, it is the vision of a black storyteller undiluted. For whatever that means for the way we are presented as people of color on screen. I think part of the reaction that some people have to history, particularly around black history, is just the way that it's been told and by whom.”


Best Reminder:
Bronwyn Lea at She Loves with “The Secret of Hospitality (Hint: It’s NOT Space)”

“I breathed in deeply and heard my younger self speak kindly to me: “You have space enough. You may not have seats enough, or plates enough–but you have love enough, and that is enough.”

Best Perspective: 
Katherine Willis Pershey with “The Long Obedience” 

“A ‘long obedience in the same direction’ has its stretches marked by the strain of toil and the fret of care, but it also has its glorious mountaintop vistas and the camaraderie of good company. And sometimes—if you so happen to land in a place that knows how to party—a three-piece band playing Dixieland jazz sets up shop outside the sanctuary to fete you as you make your way to the fellowship hall to greet hundreds of people who love you because you have loved them so very, very well. If you ask me, nothing says “well done, good and faithful servant” like a tuba, a clarinet, and a banjo.”

Wisest: 
Rob Dixon at The Junia Project with “5 Reasons Not To Use Gender-Based Jokes in the Pulpit”

Funniest:
The Onion with "Dirty Slush Machine Provides Children In Florida Taste Of Winter”

Truest: 
Jamie Wright with “Depression is Not a Scandal” 

“…It's time to pull back the cover. It's time to give people the space and freedom to talk openly about depression without stigma, without shame, and without embarrassment. This is not a sin issue, this is not a prayer issue, this is not a faith issue – it's a medical issue and it should be treated like any other medical issue, with medication and/or therapy.”

Coolest: 
NASA produces vintage travel posters for newly discovered planets

Most Relatable: 
Jonathan Martin with “On Going to (an Episcopal) Church” 

“I loved that it never felt like the church was trying to sell me anything. I loved that really, nobody is fussed over at all—there is just is not that kind of VIP treatment for anybody. The vibe is, “this is the kind of worship we do here, and you are welcome to come and do this with us…or not.” The liturgy there does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience, but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God. I have commented to friends that I have never actually prayed this much in church before.” 

Most Unsurprising (But Important): 
Kathleen Davis with “The One Word Men Never See in Their Performance Reviews”
 

On My Nightstand...

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

This year I vowed that, before I spent a fortune on new books, I would read some of the novels that have been piling up in my office over the last few years. Well, the year got off to an amazing start with The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson (2012).

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this novel has everything: a captivating plot, complicated characters, drama, intrigue, and small but powerful moments of tenderness and humanity. Set in North Korea, a country that has long fascinated me, The Orphan Master’s Son follows the unlikely journey of one man, Jun Do, from a penniless childhood to the powerful inner circle of Kim Jong Il.

The most surprising part about the novel to me was its humor. In the midst of scenes of suffering, and even evil, Johnson knows right when to weave in a bit of levity. The book is masterfully crafted.  I stayed up until 3 a.m. finishing it. 

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward 

I first learned of Jesmyn Ward when I listened to her read from her memoir, Men We Reaped. I wanted to go back to her fiction and so I found myself drawn into the stark, breathtaking world of Salvage the Bones.

Set in the coastal town of Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, in the days before and during Hurricane Katrina, the story is told from the perspective of a poor 15-year-old girl who has just realized she’s pregnant. It’s a survival story that deals frankly with the realities of rural poverty, and there are moments I suspect many readers will find disturbing. (Much of the plot centers around dog fighting, for example.) But Ward keeps pulling you back with compelling characters, poetic writing, and an unforgettable protagonist who remembers her mother as a woman whose laugh “swooped up into the sky with the pelicans and flew away, wind-ready and wide as their wings.”

Just when you’ve developed a fondness for the protagonist and her dysfunctional family, Hurricane Katrina hits and you have to hold your breath through the last two chapters. 

On the Blog…

Most Popular Post: 
“The Parents” 

“Sometimes, all I hear are the first few words of a story and the next thing I know I’m hugging someone and crying and raging inside because it shouldn’t be so damn easy to guess that a story that begins with, ‘we’re evangelical and our kid is gay’ will end in heartbreak or tragedy…”

Most Popular Comment: 
In response to “The Parents,” Wendy wrote: 

‘“I am one of those parents you speak of in this article. Born and raised conservative, devout Mormon. My husband and I were raising our 5 children the same way. My then 13-yr old son came out to us 3 years ago. Turned my neatly ordered, predictable Mormon world upside down. But how grateful I am!! My gay son (as well as all of my children) is such a God-given gift. Blinders I didn't even know I was wearing have been taken off. I judge less. I love more. I see the person behind the stereotype. And I refuse to choose between my son and my God. If forced, it's my son 100%. But I will not be forced. My husband and I are vocal, public and outspoken on the LGBT issue in the Mormon church. We take A LOT of flack. But I cannot stand seeing so many stories of pain, fear, rejection, homelessness, suicide. This should not be!  There have been many stories written about my family. The most recent one was in the Huffinton Post last week. The Family Acceptance Project also did a documentary on my family. I refuse to sit out on this fight. The lives of our children are too precious. STAYING SILENT SERVES NO ONE.”

So, what caught your eye online or in a book this week? What's happening on your blog? 

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Follow Friday: Rev. Tiffany Thomas

I’m adding a new feature to the blog this year where I highlight smart and inspiring people to follow on both social media and in life. 

Today I’m thrilled to feature Rev. Tiffany Thomas, a twenty-eight-year-old pastor who is new to blogging and Twitter, but whose ministry I have admired for a while now. 

Tiffany is the Senior Pastor of South Tyron Community Mission Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. She answered her call to ministry at the age of 15, and has been preaching, teaching and pastoring in the local church ever since. A graduate of Spelman College and Duke Divinity school, she molds her life after the strong belief that we are called to be agents of social and spiritual change. 

To get a sense of Tiffany’s point-of-view, check out one of the first entries in her blog, “Shouting From the Front: Reflections of a Disorderly Woman Pastor.” An excerpt: 

There are many books written that expound on the topic at length, some great some not so great. But you know what I think?

I think it is out of order for a woman to be a pastor.

There. I said it. It is entirely out of order for a woman to head the institution of the church. It goes against everything that we believe and affirm about the ideal distribution of power. As a female pastor, I am out of order.

But you know what? I worship a God who is out of order. We worship a God who constantly disrupts our boundaries of what is normal, correct, ideal. A God who constantly confused all by favoring the younger son over the elder son…that disrupts everything that we understand about power. A God who calls out that the first shall be last and the last shall be first…That disrupts everything that we understand about place. 

You can read Tiffany’s blog here. Follow her on Twitter here. And check out this 2013 video from the UMC about Tiffany’s work. 

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Next stops: Chattanooga and NYC!

I’ve updated my speaking schedule for the winter and spring. Just like last fall, I’ve purposefully scaled back so I can be more present and engaged at the events in which I participate, though we may add a few more dates around the release of Searching for Sunday in April.

This Sunday, (January 11), I’ll be speaking just down the road in Chattanooga, Tennessee at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church during their Sunday School hour—9:15 a.m. For St. Pauls’ “kickoff Sunday,” I’ll be sharing pictures and stories from my year of biblical womanhood, inviting participants to think about the Bible as a conversation-starter, not a conversation-ender. You can learn more about the event here. 

Later, January 22-24, I’ll be headed to New York City and Trinity Wall Street to participate in a panel discussion around economic inequality at the Trinity Institute’s Creating Common Good event.  Speakers include Cornel West, Justin Welby, Barbara Ehrenreich, Nicole Baker Fulgham, and a bunch of other people who make me feel like I have no business speaking at this thing. 

A cool aspect to this event is that a production crew from Trinity visited several of the speakers’ hometowns to highlight how economic inequality has affected people around the world. I was thrilled to introduce the crew to my friend Karla who works at a food pantry here in Dayton (Tennessee), and eager to talk about the unique challenges faced by people struggling with poverty in rural America. You can watch that video here, and the others here.  Also, if you want to learn more about economic inequality ahead of the event (or won’t be able to attend the event), Cornel West—prominent intellectual, author, and cultural critic—will teach an online course on the subject in conjunction with ChurchNext, which is open to all from January 11-21. You can register here. (I already have!) 

Check out the rest of my schedule for winter/spring 2015, which will bring me to Austin, Little Rock, Lancaster, and a bunch of places in between, and let me know if I’ll be seeing you!

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