On “outgrowing” American Christianity

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Every now and then a blog post or article will make the rounds in which the author claims to have “outgrown” church or religion or, in this case, American Christianity. 

I remember having similar feelings of emancipation, of starting over, from scratch when I first began to realize the evangelical faith I had inherited was not the only kind of faith there was.  And perhaps such feelings are a necessary and unavoidable part of growing up, of making that important distinction between oneself and one’s parents.*  

And yet, when it came time to write a book about church (which, like every book, began with the rather rigorous and uncomfortable exercise of confronting my own bullshit), I couldn’t deny the reality that, as much as I may dream of it, there’s no starting from scratch…for any of us. Our culture, our past, our biases, our experiences, our communities, our wounds, our healing—this isn’t the baggage we carry; it’s the skin we wear.  We can’t just slough it off. 

Sure, it would be easier to tell the story of my emancipation from the evil ways of those Christians who identify as conservative, evangelical, American. But it wouldn’t have been a true story... at least not for me. While my disagreements with many in that community are important and real, those Christians were, and continue to be, my friends. They were often the first to show up at my front door with a casserole when the family was down with the flu. They taught me to love and memorize Scripture, to change a diaper, to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, and to think critically enough to deconstruct and reassess some of their own teachings.  Most importantly, they were the first people to introduce me to Jesus, something I never want to take for granted.

Certainly others bear much deeper scars, but even the most painful religious experiences cannot simply be discarded. They must be confronted, molded, repurposed.  It's a messy, sacred process. This is why, in the wake of my last book release, I so strongly disliked headlines about my “leaving evangelicalism for the Episcopal Church.” While I’m happy to acknowledge that I’ve switched denominational affiliation, there is much about evangelicalism that I joyfully bring with me through the doors of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and which the people there joyfully receive.  Very little of my faith has involved leaving and arriving. The vast majority of it has involved wrestling, meandering, stretching, struggling.  As the saying goes, it’s a work in progress. My spiritual GPS has yet to chirp, “ You have arrived.” 

I suspect all these claims of having left empty religion to find the true faith are ubiquitous in both evangelical and progressive Christian publishing culture precisely because they stem from the same illusion—that we are each a blank slate, that we have the ability to start over. But the idea that an American can just stop being an American, or that a Christian can just stop being religious, strikes me as naïve at best, arrogant at worst. It’s no better than the Bible reader who insists he’s not interpreting the text, just reading it, or the white male theologian who insists his theological views are the objective default, while those of women, African Americans, or Christians from the global South and East are contextual.  It presumes that progressive Christians, unlike those conservative Christians, are totally unaffected by the trappings of American culture. If only it were that easy. 

Let’s be real, folks: If you’re reading the Bible, you’re interpreting it. If you identify as a Christian, you’re part of a religion. If you’re an American citizen living in America, you can deliberately surround yourself with global perspectives (a good idea!) but you can’t just opt out of American Christianity. It’s far better to acknowledge the fact that our contexts, privileges, affiliations, and blind spots affect our worldview than it is to announce we’ve managed to finally overcome or outgrown them. I find it odd that so many who claim to have a postmodern view of Christianity seem so entrenched in modern, Enlightenment-based ideas of objectivity and progress. 

Writing Searching for Sunday forced me to consider that perhaps real maturity is exhibited not in thinking myself above other Christians and organized religion, but in humbly recognizing the reality that I can’t escape my own cultural situatedness and life experiences, nor do I want to escape the good gift of my (dysfunctional, beautiful, necessary) global faith community. This consideration made the writing process infinitely more difficult and infinitely more rewarding. I suspect it had the same effect on my faith. 

The truth is, I am a Christian, which means I am religious. And I am an American, which means my Christianity is affected by privilege, by Western philosophy, by 17th century Puritanism, and by Psalty the Singing Songbook.  My American Christian heritage includes both Martin Luther King Jr. and the white segregationists who opposed him - a reality that is both empowering and uncomfortable,  but one I can’t escape, one I want to look squarely in the eyes. 

Loving the Church means both critiquing it and celebrating it. We don’t have to choose between those two things. But those of us who remain Christian cannot imagine ourselves to be so far above the Church - including the American Church - that we are not a part of it. 

Yes, we are called to grow and mature, and yes, our convictions and denominational affiliations will likely change, but I’ve found I’m a better writer—and a better person—when I’m more focused on outgrowing the old me than I am on outgrowing other people in my community. 

After all, this is Kingdom growth. There aren’t ladders, only trellises.


(*Note: I generally enjoy John Pavlovitz's writing. I obviously relate to many of his experiences and agree with many of the points of his post. My aim here is less to critique and more to add a slightly different perspective. This isn't a call-out, just a conversation.)  

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