Cultural narratives come and go. For instance, looking back at the movies of 50 or 60 years ago, narratives of patriotism and love of country were pretty popular. Nowadays, stories of suspicion and conflicted loyalties are far more common. I mean, in The Avengers even Captain America has to have his doubts-about-my-country moment before he dons the flag again, in order to be believable or appealing to us.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen one narrative, in particular, rise to ascendancy: the story of broken religious faith–either to be recovered, transformed, or possibly forfeited forever. While they can be found in most traditions, given my own context, I’m thinking of the “I had a terrible Evangelical experience” story in particular. An expanding number of blogs, long-form articles, and memoirs dedicated to telling these stories have emerged, and sold quite well. Indeed, it seems to be a wave with no end currently in sight.
Of course, even those specific to Evangelicalism come in different forms. For some, there’s a story of flight from churchly abuse and control. Others share their experiences in “purity culture” with its repressive and distorted teaching on sexuality and personhood. Still others give us insight into communities of scared, intellectual obscurantists set to repress all questions and intellectual honesty. A lot of it is really sad, heartbreaking stuff, for a number of reasons.
In the first place, like I said, the stories themselves are just sad. I think it would be difficult to read more than a few of them and remain unmoved by the pain of some of our brothers and sisters. Beyond that, at times, they seem to have the unfortunate effect of playing into the larger cultural perceptions/misconceptions people have about Christianity in general, and theologically conservative Evangelicalism in particular. To outsiders there’s a little bit of the “see, I knew it” effect at work. Of course, if it’s the truth, well, there’s no sense hiding it and it’s just something we have to deal with.
I think the thing that weighs on me, though, is that most of this doesn’t reflect the majority of my own very positive experience being raised in Evangelicalism. In other words, I’m saddened because I know it doesn’t have to be that way–I’ve seen it myself.
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way – Now, I won’t lie, I’ve seen my fair share of church wreckage. I’ve been at church at least twice a week for most of my life. My mom has led women’s Bible studies since before I can remember, and my dad’s been an usher and an elder of sorts, which means I’ve been there for the pettiness and hypocrisy. I’ve watched churches split because of pride and an overweening sense of power. I’ve sat in worship services that look like concerts and heard sermons that made me long for a Tony Robbins pep talk. I’ve mourned pointless, commercialized building projects put ahead of local service. I’ve even told my own story about the awkwardness of growing up Palestinian in a Pro-Israel tribe. In other words, I have plenty of criticisms of what we might think of as generalized Evangelicalism.
Overall, though, growing up Evangelical has been a mostly positive thing for me.
I’ve been taught my whole life that Jesus loves me like the Bible says he does and that cared about me enough to die and rise again for me. I’ve had a number of good, humble, and faithful leaders and pastors who have lived out that kind of Jesus-love towards me. I’ve had elders praying for me during sicknesses. I’ve had church families deliver meals to my house when my mom was recovering from surgery. I’ve had small group leaders guiding me and my friends through awkward transition years, faithfully pointing me to Jesus when I was tempted to look elsewhere.
I don’t think I was taught anything super weird or repressive about sex. I mean, I was in the kind of junior high youth group that made goofy videos with Barbie and Ken dolls to lighten the mood, while they encouraged hormonal 13-year-olds to pursue Jesus’ vision for sexuality without shame or fear. There was definitely A LOT of grace. And while I recently have gravitated towards the Reformed tradition, partially for it’s unabashed enthusiasm for cultivating the intellectual life, I’m not sure I ever felt mentally stifled in the churches I grew up in.
I’ve seen and been a part of really great, faithful, welcoming Evangelical churches. They’ve provided resources and teaching for cultivating healthy, biblical sexuality. They’ve cared about the outsider. They’ve ministered to the poor. They’ve funded overseas missions, built orphanages, and schools. They’ve created spaces for people with questions. They’ve pointed us towards God and our neighbor with humility and passion. In other words, I’ve grown up in a sort of gentle Evangelicalism that I don’t recognize as the background to these stories of broken faith, or betrayed trust.
So, once again, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.
Biography and Theology – Where am I going with all of this? Well, there are a few places I could go, I suppose, but the reality I’ve been working through, again, is recognizing how much biography influences theology, and working through the implications for our conversations with each other. A number of these stories of pain or frustration are told as the background to shifts in theological perspective. Some of these shifts are ones that, honestly, I think are wrong and ultimately harmful. From my perspective, they represent understandable over-reactions to the association of good doctrine with bad practice. I’ve said this before, but in theology, “abuse doesn’t take away proper use.”
Still, these are real experiences and we have to deal with that as we talk about the church, theology, and Evangelicalism. Often-times I’m so locked into seeing people as positions to be corrected, I forget that they are storied-people to be heard. People respond viscerally to words and concepts that have functioned fairly positively in my own life, many times because of our differing stories. My fairly positive Evangelical experience isn’t the only one out there, which is probably part of what accounts for the relative slowness with which I’ve embraced the theological changes I have made. I haven’t been in as much of an existential rush. If I don’t recognize that, I probably won’t be of much use to them as anything more than a sparring partner.
Of course, the opposite is also true. I suppose it’s very hard when you’ve had these difficult experiences to stand back and think, “Well, maybe that’s not the only way of believing X doctrine. Maybe there are sounder, more healthy ways to approach X.” Instead, I’d imagine it’s probably pretty easy to fall into, “You’re an Evangelical, and therefore you and your churches are probably just like the people who hurt me. Whenever you say X, you mean Y hurtful thing” and so forth. But, honestly, that’s not always the case. Just as those of us with positive Evangelical experiences need to realize our stories aren’t the only ones out there, it might help if those with more negative stories try to recognize that same reality in reverse. The positive stories are real too. It’s not all that bad.
Bringing it Back – Reformedish Evangelical that I am, I can’t help but see this as another invitation back to the Scriptures. If we’re going to have conversations that amount to something more than a back and forth exchange of invincible moral experiences, we need to, as I’ve said before, understand what we have in the Scriptures as a divinely-authorized set of interpretations of moral experience.
We need to see that in the Bible we have the normative, sacred story (made up of hundreds of little stories) of Creation, Fall, and Redemption that shines a light on all of our stories and experiences. Because we are sinful (fallen) and small (finite) we can’t even be sure of our interpretations of our experiences, but God gives us a new grid through which we learn to re-read our experiences properly. In a sense, when we submit to the Scriptures, what we’re saying is that God’s experiences and God’s story gets the final word over ours. It is the one story that we can trust because God’s perspective is not limited, weighed down with baggage, or ignorantly blind like ours tend to be. It’s the story big enough to encompass all of our stories without denying, or ignoring them.
As we re-engage the text then, there’s hope that the same Spirit who inspired these words might illuminate them, opening us up to his unchanging truth together. Those of us with comfortable Evangelical experiences might be awakened from our slumber to deal with the very uncomfortable struggles of others. And those of us with hurts and scars might be willing to receive healing medicines we’ve formerly rejected as poisons.
This was all a sort of incomplete ramble, of course, but for some of us it might be a start.
Soli Deo Gloria