Thursday, June 08, 2006

Check Your Brain at the Door, Please

UPI Column

I have a few words of caution as you read today's column. First, I didn't pick the title. My original title was too long and it read: What's a Smart Girl Like You Doing in a Belief Like That? The new title is a bit stronger than I intended.

Evangelicalism gets a black eye in today's column. I felt the need to expose the unnerving experience of losing confidence in my faith... My anger and frustration and even embarassment are a lot more common than many of the "still faithful" would like to believe.

My goal in the next several columns is to take an unflinching look at how evangelicalism creates a loyal following even while expecting adherence to outrageous beliefs. There are brilliant people who are evangelicals. I'm not saying that evangelical Christians aren't smart. I am also not saying that all evangelicals hold identical views about the stories recorded in the Bible (not all evangelicals believe in six day creationism, for instance).

On the other hand, most evangelicals are pressed to adopt beliefs after conversion in order to retain "membership" in their communities. These beliefs do not develop through personal discovery, but through systematic teaching combined with powerful community. In the end, this combination leads to unreflective belief-ism rather than thoughtful evaluation of doctrines. This is the key weakness in evangelical conversion and subsequent discipleship, in my humble opinion.

It is this tendency to expect adherence to doctrines without the natural process of inquiry which leads to later-in-life rejection of faith and consequent anger by most ex-evangelicals. Their leave-taking of the faith is usually dismissed as anger at individuals or at church politics or God rather than accepting that the ex-evangelical is angry at a system that coerced her into beliefs that she never seriously evaluated in the first place.

All that to say: read ahead with caution if you still hold fond feelings towards your evangelical heritage.



xianchick said...

hey julie!

am not an evangelical xian (am a quaker), but am curious to know if it is true that 'most evangelicals:'

a) are pressed to adopt beliefs after conversion in order to retain "membership" in their communities.

b) tend to expect adherence to doctrines without the natural process of inquiry which leads to later-in-life rejection of faith and consequent anger

c) take leave of a faith -- usually dismissed as anger at individuals or at church politics or God rather than acceptance that the ex-evangelical is angry at a system that coerced her into beliefs that she never seriously evaluated in the first place.

sounds fairly general, but i don't really know any of them, so am curious to know more...

hope i don't come across as critical, i don't mean to. am just curious is all.


julieunplugged said...

It will be fun to see what the vangelicals say who read this column! :) I'd say that my representation of evangelicalism will resonate with ex-ev's more than current ones and I hope to explore why in some depth later.

When I say "membership" I put it in quotes because there is usually no offical roster or membership in evangelicalism itself. Rather, I meant that we learn (without being taught) that it is risky to not adhere to the basic tenets of evangelical faith (because by denying them or challenging them so that you change positions means that you can't sign statements of faith or are considered "not a Christian" or are seen as dangerous).

I have stories to tell! :) But I'll save those for later.

Also, I do credit my evangelical heritage with my deep familiarity with and love for the Bible and Jesus, as well as some of the kindest-giving community I've ever had the privilege of being a part of.

I'll write more about the conversion process in a future column. :)


Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I suspect alot of folks become Christians because they were either born into the subculture or it meets some deep psychological need. Really don't think it has much to do with people searching for the truth and finding it with Christianity. Just my take on things.
Agree that "most evangelicals are pressed to adopt beliefs after conversion" which makes it very difficult to jump ship later because by the time one get's around to examining the numerous assertions made by the Christian subculture most folks have already established a strong bond with the local community. Evangelicals also do a bang up job of indoctrination. They are much better at it than their catholic and mainstream counterparts which creates a strong loyalty within the evangelical community. My biggest ax to grind with my evangelical past is their failure to be fair to the complexity and nuancy of the historial/theological and philosophical record both past and present. At present time the subculture has monopolized information on numerous fronts which provides a pseudo comfort for most folks until they find out later that things may not be as neat and tidy as they led to believe...and...if that day comes there will either be a backlash to their experience or they will become even more entrenched than ever and you see both examples in and out of the church.....

P.S. (an after-thought) said...

Your assertions seem valid, at least from my outside, superficial, viewpoint towards the EVs.

The sub title of my blog contains: God gave us minds: Let's use them!

At one time the CHURCH seems to have relegated things of the body to the category of sin. Maybe nowdays the EVs consider using the mind as sin.

However there is at least one branch of the Christian Church that has deep Biblical roots and acknowledges that there are many paradoxes in life that can't be explained away. Lutherans accept that life is lived in the tensions between the two sides of many paradoxes, or those things that seem to be paradoxes in this life.

Sacred Center said...

Hi Julie, I have no personal history with the evangelical church as a Catholic (and pretty progressive/liberal one at that) but have worked with a lot of "recovering evangelicals" in spiritual direction and teaching.

Karen Armstrong wrote a really good book you may have read titled "Battle for God" which was a history of fundamentalist roots and why that approach is so appealing to folks. Not that evangelical is equated with fundamentalism, but I think some of what you are talking about, including literal interpretation of scripture does fall under this heading. I think it goes back to your previous articles on images of God and the ways we try to put God and faith in a box because the world feels too chaotic otherwise. In a time when there is a whole range of values and cultures we are exposed to, it must feel comforting to be so very sure of something. To me, it seems to be another form of power and control. Fortunately, God is too wild to be contained by human means and must eventually be released from the stranglehold.
Peace, Christine

jim said...

Hi Julie,

Good column as usual.

While I had begun my own ex-evangelical journey prior to leaving my adopted home of New Orleans, it really took geographical distance from church and friends as well as study in a seminary where I felt it was okay to explore my own pathway in the faith (it wasn't too 'liberal' that I felt an agenda was being pushed on me or too conservative that I was being told what true Christians must believe.)

The problem I now face is that I don't fit comfortably in either liberal or evangelical circles. In liberal circles there's too much of the faith that I hold essential and in conservative circles not enough.

What I really wanted to respond too though in your column is how lonely the whole process can feel. I hardly ever talk to the friends I left behind and when I do I feel such a tremendous disconnect. There were a few compadres in seminary but even most of them were too conservative for my comfort. Thank God, I met my wife in the midst of this journey; without her it would have been one hell of a lonely trip.

julieunplugged said...

Christine, The Battle for God is a good choice for examining the attractiveness of fundamentalist doctrine in any faith. I have an online friend who calls the brand of conservative I was "fundagelicals." I think that fits.

p softly, thanks for your comments! Paradox is a part of any kind of faith, though for me, in my conservative history, it was often pushed too far (cognitive dissonance can become feeling insane... blue pill or red pill). I hope to explore "the mystery box" of faith in next week's column.

Bill - Peace. I resonate with your comments.

Jim - lonely for danged sure. I have had a few friends who've stuck with me the whole way online and without them I would have felt like I had truly lost everything.

The Internet has been a way for me to continue to ask my questions without fear... though even there, as public a person as I am, I have gotten into some hot water interpersonally and locally on occasion.

Which gives me pause anyway... why is there such a strong need to protect beliefs over human beings?


jim said...

That's one of the funny things about the internet; a public forum that seems quite privat.

One of the reasons I think I started blogging was to publicly put some of my own views and thoughts out there. Things that I might not necessarily say, as a bit of a chicken, in the physical presence of my more conservative friends and even my own family.

Yet now they are out there for them to read (those who know about the blog) and discover (those who don't know about it.)

Chuck said...

Great post as usual - lots to latch onto. I'll choose two items:

1) "...I believed that the voice in my head was often God's...". I think one thing that makes conservative theology attractive is that it gives clearcut definition to those voices/forces we sense within ourselves. We may not want to be personally responsible for that voice not having an external source. I was a psych major in college, and heard well over 200 explanations or metaphors for our personalities and behavior. Theological explanations seem to have a corner on the market as far as explanations that place responsibility outside of ourselves. I'm sure that feels safe to many, even though it doesn't stand up to reason or research.

2) "It's like spiritual molestation. You feel guilty for ever having allowed that nonsense space in your brain, yet you feel responsible for inviting it in." Deb and I had talked about this very thing recently - at least I had. Some of my frustration around the futility of church is that I see so many people having to spend time in "recovery" mode from the damage that has been inflicted by bad theology and organizational control.

As one of those Corona drinkers the other night, I've recognized that I struggled deeply with many of these issues since an early age. I just found myself in cultural settings that didn't encourage inquiry, so I had to "leave the building" for 20 years or so. The "faith system" that I've come back to the table with has very few characteristics in common with the old view. And along the way it is disheartening to experience being ignored and alienated by former members of one's community.

Dave said...

Hi Julie. I agree, the headline "Check your brain at the door, please" is a TERRIBLE choice and I hope your editor reads this comment, or that you feel sufficiently comfortable in your relationship with him or her to pass it along from me, because that cliche is worn out and does not reflect the tone or spirit of your column (your original title is much better and would have fit just as easily.) It actually really bugs me to hear that line used because 1) that's NOT what evangelicals ask their members to do and 2) they often quote that line in their own self-defense when launching into extended apologetics regarding their own theology. Using the line this way only justifies that they continue using it when I think the time is long past to move beyond dismissing evangelicalism as "anti-intellectual." Theological liberalism and conservatism and agnostic/atheistic perspectives all have their intellectual and anti-intellectual practicioners and defenders and it is inappropriate to label any one of those views as cornering the market on "brainlessness."

So now that I have that out of my system...

What you're hitting on is the sometimes irrational nature of belief itself - what we believe, and why we believe it, often has little if anything to do with "evidence that demands a verdict." Surely, evidence is often compiled and presented as a means of persuading or defending particular beliefs, but religious and community affiliations have much more to do with social relationship needs and psychological temperaments that we each bring to the situation. Beyond those "mundane" considerations, I also harbor enough "faith in God" to believe that there are times when we are drawn in by circumstances larger than our own minds, plans and ambitions to fulfill larger purposes, or to put it more piously, "conform to God's plan for our lives." We can point to "larger than life" individuals like the usual suspects (Jesus, St. Francis, Gandhi, MLK, Bono, etc.) to draw the inference that they are the right people at the right time to address a significant cultural, historically transformative crisis in ways that set "markers" in the ever-unfolding history of humanity. But even in much smaller and humbler ways, I do believe that God uses people (again falling back on conventional religious language) to make a difference in the world in specific ways.

But when we try to explain just how all that works, we wind up saying all sorts of things that are dreadfully prone to dogmatization and other forms of confusion as to what we are actually referring to or trying to signify. Our struggling attempts to describe and clarify what we experienced becomes definitive and sacred, and when the forces of institutionalization get their hands on particularly evocative metaphors and symbols, they become mandatory and non-negotiable.

What we have in evangelical Christianity is a kind of crystallization of long-standing traditions that on the one hand attract a lot of the kinds of people who really admire and appreciate such a systematically structured and self-referential interpretation of reality, and on the other, presents a powerful alternative to the vague, nebulous and often unsatisfying "whateverism" that a lot of us have to work through in the absence of a more coherent philosophy of life.

I think that you, and I and others reading this, all got caught up in the dragnet at times in our young lives when we really couldn't come up with a good reason to say "no thanks" to the warm beckoning invitations of evangelical Christianity. But like other long-term relationships, there's a huge risk of buyer's remorse developing over the course of time if the terms of the agreement change significantly, and I think that's what happened with us. We were willing to overlook or even go along with some of the quirks and eccentricities (Noah's ark, for instance) because it just wasn't worth wrecking the relationship over something that seemed so important to the Other and could be "managed" by us. Until so many of these accommodations became necessary, that is. Then we began to envision a relationship where we didn't have to be so false to our conscience as much of the time, and that began the unraveling process.

For most evangelicals, I think the inerrancy thing is really the strongest key - not all evangelicals are as strict about the inerrancy doctrine as "most" are, or as they used to be, but I think that this is still the primary means of enforcement and the biggest sticking point between conformers and dissenters in that particular wing of the church. Inerrancy, or nuanced water-downed versions of it, is what gives the preacher and teacher so much power and influence - the ability to cite a Bible verse as "last word authority" on any number of subjects is just too effective and convenient to give up without a fight. And by now the terms have been cast in drastic all-or-nothing stakes. So we get caught in the squeeze.

Good column! Keep 'em coming! You are getting close to the heart of the matter!

julieunplugged said...

Dave, thanks for your strong comment about the title. I did cringe. Trouble is, my editor is out of town at his father's funeral. He posted and left town. I haven't felt like badgering him over it just yet. Will bring it up when he returns. He's the most obliging and wonderful guy, really, so I am sure it will change eventually.

Your other points and chuck's are terrific. Thanks both of you for adding to the conversation. You are both so articulate. :)


SusansPlace said...

So you don't believe in miracles? ;-)

Very provocative article Julie! As you know, I'm questioning lots of the biblical stories and wondering whether they were real live miracles! If they were myths or metaphors or tall tales, then what place do they have in our lives?

Look forward to next week's continuing story.


Deb said...

Julie, your questioning is like a breath of fresh air.

I am probably going to say much of what others have already stated - but in my own context,of course. In my fascination with spiritual formation I can't help but continue to observe the vast difference between religion and spirituality. Does buy in for the stories such as Noah's Ark affect the religion or the spirituality of a person? I am at the place where I know that I can be a very spiritual person and still hold the belief that the ark story sounds more like a "forty day floating food chain." (almost made the alliteration work there) But, as Dave pointed out, am I threatening my place in my community if I actually voice that thought? I agree it's not just a evangelical dilema but more of meeting the religious criteria to remain in the in-group vs. the out-group.

I think we are no longer content with community just for the sake of community. We know this faith will move us to a better version of ourselves if we find a community that is not threatened or defensive as we explore our spirituality together. Much like those gathered around a table with Corona in hand, able to dialogue in the unjudemental atmosphere of authentic conversation. I know, personally, more spiritual formation took place for me there than any time I've had the typical study guide in hand being spoon fed the information. I hope these conversations keep us all searching for community that keeps our heads and hearts actively engaged and searching for connected souls.

Chuck said...

Had another thought or two to pass on related to this post and the dialog it has elicited. I think the pain and frustration is a bit more acute for those of us who were in some sort of vocational role within the church or "parachurch" organizations. When we confront our doubts, as I did 20+ years ago, it usually involves rethinking job, family stability, and many other aspects of ordinary life. So I do think it is hard for people who are not tied vocationally to the church to fully understand the anguish and sense of betrayal that takes place, even if the betrayal comes largely from an inadequate view of God that we held personally. Usually a pastor or parachurch worker has all their eggs in one basket - income, friendships, spiritual journey, etc. I'm glad to see some church communities moving away from paid staff and into house church movements, as it puts everyone on an equal or similar footing in the community at large.

Carol said...

I have brains that have always been in my head. I wouldn't leave them at anyone's door because they are my brains. I used them and came to a totally different conclusion.

I believe every bit of it. :) Noone came to me and brainwashed me. I went searching and found Him. I wasn't raised with it either. They were conclusions made by a mature adult with a fabulous and wonderful mind.

But you already know that, don't you?


julieunplugged said...

Hey Carol! :)

Remember - title not mine. I definitely felt I was using my brain as an evangelical. I just don't think I was giving as much consideration to the total belief package as I should have.

One thing to keep in mind with my column for UPI is that I am writing for an audience who doesn't know me personally or my journey. I am revealing my process and my perception of it. Interestingly enough, after seven years of evaluating my evangelical heritage, I have come across a large number of ex-ev's who have very strong and similar feelings to what I've expressed here. I think it's important to express those feelings and to consider the origins of them.

Painful as it may be to read it, I think it is good for currently happy evangelicals to get a feel for what drives their friends out of that arm of the church.

I never meant to indict personal friends with whom I have discussed theology most amicably over the years. :)


Carol said...

Didn't take any offense. :)

Kansas Bob said...

I guess, since 1976, I have been an evangelical ... at least in some form. I sort-of line-up with Michael's thoughts about why he is still an evangelical.

For me there is a difference between Campus Crusade fundamentalism and evangelicalism ... some of what you describe is more fundy stuff than EV stuff. I am still on a journey out of the legalistic fundy world ... maybe I'll get to where you are ... maybe not.

It would be helpful me to understand where you are on some of the essentials like the divinity of Jesus and His resurrection.

julieunplugged said...

Thanks for the links, Bob.

I would definitely say I was in the evangelical camp with fundamentalist leanings. Campus Crusade was my origins, but I spent time in Presbyeterian churches, the Vineyard, missions in a non-denom agency and was a big fan of Focus on the Family and parachurch ministries like that.

I've attended John MacArthur's church as well as John Wimber's.

And as far as my thoughts on the resurrection and divinity of Christ... easier to get a sense of my beliefs through reading over time than for me to adopt a stance for you to evaluate so I'll let you discover what you think over time. :)


Kansas Bob said...

MacArthur! Yikes! How did you homogenize he with Wimber?. I attended a Vineyard church for a few years (was in leadership as well) and found it to be a mixed bag of evangelicalism and fundamentalism with a bit of charisma thrown in.

Look forward to reading more ...

brian said...


Great article. I have to say though that as a recovering (not recovered) fundamentalist and semi-evangelical, that I don't feel pissed off or wonder how I could have been so gullible. I think that you'll find most Christians who take everything in the Bible literally were fed this interpretation from the time they could talk. It takes quite a bit of discomfort to challenge things that are placed in you at such an early age. I think most of us never go to the bother. Then, when you do decide to question, there are those who are willing to give us answers to keep us in that belief. When I really started examining things in my early 30s, I found things like Answers In Genesis and books that explained "difficult" biblical passages were all readily available to the Christian who wanted to maintain this illusion of an inerrant, literal Bible that had dropped from the sky.

As a person who has learned to appreciate the value of myth and how important it is to understand that the Bible is not necessarily inerrant, I want to remain sensitive to those who have not come to this same conclusion. The fear that many have of viewing anything in the Bible as myth is that we'll take it ALL as myth and no one will know where to draw the line. That fear is being realized as some of us more "enlightened" people are now running around claiming that nothing in the Bible is historically true and that you're a fool if you believe in any miracles at all. I think that's running straight from one ditch into another. I do believe in the possibility of miracles and I certainly don't find any fault for those who take some of the Bible literally (no one, no matter what they claim really takes it all literally).

The other night over Coronas we discussed the Noah story and whether it really has any value. I think on some levels it's a dangerous story (God wipes out His enemies for example) and on some levels it's a useful story (God takes care of those who are faithful to Him). We also talked about how we should explain God to our children. As I grow older I realize that any concept of God need to be held loosely because "He" is beyond on all comprehension. But, I can't explain that easily to a my six year old. "No honey, God is not a man or a woman, has no body, isn't a person." I leave her with NOTHING to relate to. The picture of God as a Father is someone everyone can relate to. As small children, the story of Adam and Eve has one meaning. As we grow older and can move beyond the literal history of the story, we can appreciate the deeper meaning and the importance of it being literally true fades away. There's nothing to be bitter about there- except those who tell us we HAVE to believe it's all literal to be Christians or even to be "saved".

So, I'm not pissed that they told me the stories were literally true. What I'm pissed about is that they told me even if I questioned them, I was being disloyal to God and would go to hell for it.

julieunplugged said...

Hi Brian.

Love you thoughtful reply here. Really. You have a very moderate and kind tone and your viewpoint is one that I embrace.

I think one difference between me and some other recovering evangelicals/fundamentalists is that I wasn't raised in the church at all, these weren't childish beliefs on my part that I had to learn how to navigate later in life. I came to faith in college, at a time when my mind was expanding and the ideas I encountered were stimulating and engaging. I was a history major and full of interest in all kinds of philosophical and historical trends and themes.

I remember after conversion, though, sincerely questioning the idea of predestination, not believing in a literal hell, wondering how God could punish eternally those who had never heard of Christ, and rejecting the concept of a God who would not accept the faith of Jews without Jesus (for instance, because I grew up in an 85% Jewish community) when I was first "saved."

My Campus Crusade staff leader, my pastor at the local church, and my friends who were "already committed Christians" showed me quickly the error of these thoughts and questions. One went so far as to say that I might not have been saved to begin with if I didn't ultimately agree with the typical evangelical take on these issues.

As Dave expressed it, I was "provided" materials that were intended to set me straight... to show me the reasonableness of the evangelical position. I was shown that these writers had better educational credentials than mine, that they were better versed in the Bible, that they had considered all of these matters in more depth than I had as a new Christian.

I was to trust them and the Holy Spirit who would help me understand what I in the flesh did not.

My question to myself now is: why did I accept those presuppositions so readily? Why did I take "Josh McDowell's word for it"? I hope to explore that in this coming week's column.

So my column from this past week was perhaps overly dramatic in my characterizing of the evangelical wing of the church and I'm glad that you have not or are not now experiencing anger or being pissed off like I have. Though I have moved beyond the original anger, I can call it up when I allow myself to revisit the feelings (which was the purpose of this column). The reason for stating feelings directly at times is so that others who are suffering in a similar way know that they are not alone, that they do not have to contain or moderate those feelings while they are deconstructing.

It is an important and common part of the process.

I am not advocating being angry as a way to manage recovery from fundamentalism, but rather, am describing how it is or has been a part of mine... because like it or not, it is a part of the process for so many.

And in this comment, I will add - I don't actually feel threatened by or the need to debunk other people's beliefs in miracles. I am much more interested in being a point of connection for those who are asking "Is it just me?" in order to say, "Nope. It's not just you."


brian said...


I meant in no way to say that your anger is not a legitimate response. I remember when I was in counseling having to learn to stop making excuses for the bad behavior of others that eventually put me there.

I guess there is a certain amount of anger that I have. And, I can certainly understand why others would be angry. You and I came to the faith through very different paths. Those who were filling your head with the crap should have known better. I was taught by people who uncritically accepted what they had been taught. I don't think they really meant to deceive me. They just didn't know any better and didn't know the answer "I don't know." is acceptable. So, if they didn't know something, they'd make something up. If their common sense told them something that was contrary to what they had been taught, this is where they had to apply "faith".

I do know there has been conscious and intention deception done by the "church" (and there still is). That, I am angry about.

I'm looking forward to reading your follow up articles.


Emily said...

Loved the article even though it struck nerves. I was lucky to grow up in a church that reinforced a "search for yourself" attitude. Or maybe it was just my dad who always told me to question everything...he was my Sunday School teacher, so I guess it all gets wrapped together. I wonder if they realize how subversive he is...
Anyway, I agree with you that it is important for people to study what they choose to believe. I certainly don't see much evidence of Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels, telling people to believe without thinking!