5 Things You Don’t Have to Leave Behind When You Leave Fundamentalism

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

…although sometimes you have to rediscover them: 

1.  Love for the Bible

Fundamentalists often treat the Bible as a set of propositional statements designed to conform to modern, enlightenment-influenced expectations. It is flattened out and simplified, used as a weapon against other people and a prop for pet political and theological positions.  And so I see a lot of people leaving their Bibles behind on the bookshelf when they leave fundamentalism. This is understandable, but heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Leaving fundamentalism means learning to accept the Bible on its own terms, loving it for what it is, not what we want it to be.  It has been such a joy to rediscover the Bible in a way that respects the cultures and contexts in which it was written and assembled. For example, the creation account of Genesis 1 is arguably more meaningful and more profound when we understand it, not as a modern science text, but as an ancient Near Eastern temple text that honors Elohim as ruler over creation.  Similarly, it will not do to simply shrug off as irrelevant those sections of the epistles that seem to relegate women to certain roles. Instead, we have to get a better sense of their context and purpose, which in my experience has revealed them to be radically progressive and Christ-centered, meaning quite the opposite of what they are often said to mean. Of course, there are still those text that trouble me profoundly—the genocidal conquests of Canaan, for example—but I’ve come to believe that wrestling with the Bible is better than ignoring it. To those willing to keep digging, the Bible will not disappoint.

2.  Church

This one has been a real struggle for me, and I know it’s a struggle for others as well. One of the hardest things for a recovering fundamentalist to find is a community of faith where they feel safe yet challenged, included yet taught. I don't know about you, but sometimes it seems like cynicism follows me through every church door, nipping at my heels like a pesky dog as I find my place in the pews. If you’re like me, you’re a little bit scared, a little bit picky, a little bit tired. You’re rolling your eyes about the American flag in the corner, or the special music, or the building fund, or the lack of diversity. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay in bed. (Okay, often it’s just easier to stay in bed.) But we have to be careful of applying the same fundamentalist attitude we’re trying to leave behind to our thoughts and reactions to church. It’s not about finding the perfect community; it’s about helping to build the right community. …Now if someone could tell me exactly how to do that, I’d love to know.

3.   Discipline

There’s legalism, and then there’s discipline. One is practiced out of guilt and fear; the other out of love. One sucks all the grace out of faith; the other nurtures grace and helps it grow. I know a lot of people who, after leaving a more legalistic church environment, go through a period of detox in which they avoid any sort of spiritual discipline—prayer, fasting, tithing, etc.— altogether, as these things had always been used as measures by which Christians judged one another. This detox period is understandable and perhaps even necessary. But it can be helpful to reintroduce these disciplines into your life when you’re ready, when they can be practiced out of love and commitment to Christ rather than guilt.

4.  Friendships

It can be tricky navigating relationships with old friends after you’ve left fundamentalism. Some will inevitably be changed; others will be lost. Often, in an effort to get a new start, folks will cut off all their connections to a certain faith community. In some extreme cases, this may actually be the only healthy thing to do. But most of the time, it’s worth putting in the extra effort to maintain relationships with friends and family with whom you disagree. This may mean some uncomfortable moments over coffee or at the dinner table, but as much as it depends on you, look to Christ as your example and try to live peaceably with the people around you, even when they start yelling about Barack Obama being the anti-Christ. (Check out our series on changing faith and changing relationships.)

5.  Holiness

This is a scary word because it can be easily manipulated and lorded over people to require submission and conformity. But I’ve known many people to leave fundamentalism only to make a string of bad choices that alienate them from God, themselves, and other people. Folks who had once been forbidden from drinking any alcohol at all find themselves getting drunk every weekend. Those who had once been forced to find their identity in their virginity end up swinging the opposite direction by growing reckless with their sexuality. Those who had once been made to feel guilty for each purchase end up succumbing to materialism. Perhaps the hardest part of being released from prison is knowing what to do with your freedom. But leaving fundamentalism doesn’t mean leaving behind your self-respect or your commitment to imitating Christ. It means pursuing holiness out of love, not fear or guilt. 

One person who is great at all of these things is Justin Lee, who blogs at Crumbs from the Communion Table and recently released a book entitled Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians DebateHaving been subjected to some of the worst that fundamentalism has to offer, Justin has managed to emerge from his negative experiences in the Church as a man of wisdom, grace, and love. So be sure to check him out. 

So what would you add to this list? What have you struggled with leaving behind as your faith has changed and evolved?

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