Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Aberration

In the history of the Christian church (all expressions, ethnicities, denominations), 20th century American evangelical fundamentalism is a blip on the computer screen of time. While it still has some evidence of a pulse, I'd say like Billy Crystal in "The Princess Bride": "It's mostly dead." The short life span is good news for the future of faith. It's not such good news if you were born in the sixties.

That life span, unfortunately, coincided with mine. Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ) turned evangelism into a door-to-door sales strategy with little booklets and Four Spiritual Laws that paralleled (somehow) the physical universe. John MacArthur (Grace Community Church Sun Valley) redefined the sermon with his lengthy word by word exposition that had the look and feel of a college lecture rather than weekly nurturing from the "head of a flock." The US Center for World Mission approximated the number of "unreached people groups," never remembered to update the number and expected young Christians to give up everything to live in some of the most hostile, unreached parts of the world to win the lost to Christ... all by the year 2000.

Dr. James Dobson (Focus on the Family) "took back the family" from Dr. Spock by advocating wooden spoon spanking and following it up with strict patriarchy. Not content to merely take back the family, he created a following bent on taking back the country as well. Randall Terry (founder of Operation Rescue - pro-lifers who gladly went to jail to save babies) proof-texted the Old Testament to shame evangelicals into civil disobedience until he got tired of jail himself and started a bad radio show. John Wimber discovered that Christian pop worship music was big business and then proceeded to believe all he'd been taught about the Bible being literally true. (I admit to admiring that about the guy.) Unlike the rest of the conservatives on the landscape, he tried to "do the stuff" that Jesus did. Depending on who you ask, it's hard to say whether or not he ever succeeded.

Mary Pride led a revolution of large family-ism, home business, home education and home collapse. I remember back in the day explaining to my mother that Jon and I were going to go off of birth control to have as many kids "as the Lord wanted us to have." My mom's memorable response: "We're Catholics. We already tried that. It doesn't work."

New models and methods for "sharing" our faith were being fast forwarded into an exhausted movement of people who had prayed the prayer, had burned bridges with old friends, bosses and family by standing up for the Gospel, who had prayed for intimacy with God in tongues, in closets, on 40 day fasts, who'd studied the Bible until the pages wore out, searching for insights that would reinforce evangelical doctrines. Husbands were keeping promises to wives, wives had given up careers to stay home, children were being raised to distrust the culture, the public schools, Hollywood, and to expect men to lead and women to submit.

Evangelical Christianity became its own self-reinforcing loop of similar people who spoke one language, who saw themselves as embattled good people victimized by the ever-intensifying secular humanist American world. But even more than that, they saw themselves as reflecting true, orthodox, original Christianity, just updated by pop music, Veggie Tales, theater style buildings, television and radio shows, and hip male pastors.

It's so glaringly obvious now that this thing, this culture of evangelicalism, had more to do with a reaction to the slide into postmodernism than anything to do with Christianity of the historic formulation.

Some smart people in my life have tried to tell me that the Christianity I believed in was not the "real" Christianity. Gawd, how that used to bug me. I was living in this massive arena of evangelical interconnections that included superstars, the biggest publishing industry in the country, the most easily spotted Christian movement the media could identify. How could these non-evangelical Christian friends not know what I was talking about or who the heroes of this "true Christianity" were?

Even more, as I began to surf ex-fundamentalist sites, it was clear that there were loads of people like me who had thought that Christianity equaled the evangelical version of it. Proof that the version I knew was legit, representative of real Christianity, literal Christianity... at least by that measurement.

In a classic "baby and bath water" argument, a few of my friends on the outside of this suffocating movement have pleaded with me to reconsider my faith so as to retain a better version of it. Honestly, this is how I wound up in graduate school. I have never liked the "I was this, now I'm that" feel of ex-fundamentalism. I was no more qualified to evaluate arguments for evolution post-evangelical than while living as one. So the quick move to trusting some other "expert" (usually science for ex-fundamentalists) to define my worldview worried me a lot.

Worse, I still found things to like in the Bible, in Jesus and in Christianity. It wasn't all smoke and mirrors. The "commitment to marriage and family" arc of evangelicalism actually served my marriage and family (though I know it hasn't always worked that way for everyone). I loved my community of close friends in the homeschooling movement. I loved the community, period. And the themes of redemption, forgiveness and suffering, valuing the "other," and being a part of lasting change still speak to me loudest through Christian writings, theology and teachers.

Graduate school became the place where I discovered this big huge world of Christianities that I hadn't ever known, loved, understood or considered. It was like leaving the McDonald's playland for Disneyland. No comparison. Made the old version of faith look childish and insufficient.

As a result, I've come to agree with those critics in my life. I was in an aberrant form of the faith.

So now what do I do? Adopt another? Reject them all? Instead of Disneyland, I'm hanging out at the beach for awhile. I'm not ready to get the annual pass; I don't feel ready to commit to one location and call it home. My beliefs? Who really cares? They've not defined me very well for most of my adult life. I'm a bit gunshy of declaring "new convictions" given my history of changeableness.

I decided to try something else. Today, I live by faith, not sight. I got the idea from that one guy in the Bible, in fact. It's a really nice way to live, with lots of different people dropping in for tea and a chat.


Kansas Bob said...

"Today, I live by faith, not sight."

Sounds like you are living from your heart.. yeah.. you knew I'd say that :)

I am seeing change inside the four walls.. though it is coming very slow.. maybe that is the way that lasting change comes.. maybe reformation is more about a process than an event.. or maybe I am just thinking too much :)

Nice post Julie!

julieunplugged said...

I'll take "living from the heart" too. I like it. :)

Bilbo said...

Hi Julie,

I see you have brought back some of the golden oldies...MacArthur, Bright, Dobson, and Mary Pride. I was really into Mary Pride at one time, although I confess I never could get up the nerve to give up birth control. We were a one salary family and I didn't make much money so I rationalized it would be suicide to take her up on that one...But, we did do the mom stay at home routine...So, I guess I wasn't a total reprobate...Thanks for the memories....

Elleann said...

Hey Julie ..

What I love about your posts is how you are able to take all the stuff I'm thinking and feeling about my journey away from evangelical christianity and put it into words that make sense!!! I'm one of the 70's kids whose world was for years defined by my involvement in the Charismatic Renewal movement - remember 'Nine 'o Clock in the Morning' by Dennis and Rita Bennett? - and I remember and relate to so much of what you write about. But because I don't have your theological training nor your intellect, I'm often unable to explain where I am currently 'at' spiritually-speaking, nor how I got there and why! But your posts on 'Beyond Faith' resonate with me every time! Thank you for them and I really really hope you get your book written and published soon!

Gregster said...

I feel like Elleann. Your posts give voice to my feelings. I have embraced a more universalistic Christianity and have found, with great interest, that many others have embraced this heretical view over the last 2,000 years. I had no idea that early theologians like Origen existed. And I was very disappointed to learn that the Billy Graham Evangeilcal Assn. edited out Hannah Whitall Smith's thoughts on universalism before reprinting her books. The post-evangilical Greg has also found great beauty in liturgy and historical Christianity.

julieunplugged said...

Bill, I didn't know you were a Mary Pride fan too! Unlike your more sober judgment, we went ahead and had our five kids sans b.c. on one income while living in Orange County in a tiny rental with no backyard. There was one year where I really wonder how we made it financially looking back.

Btw, I finished Crazy for God. I agree with you. Such a good read, such a good book at this time. I kept thinking of you as I read it. :)

julieunplugged said...

Elleann, thanks. :) I don't actually remember the Bennetts, but just the name of their program alone fits right in with all the kinds of stuff we're talking about.

Greg, I edited/ghostwrote a book about Hannah Whittal Smith's The Christian's Secret to a Happy Life based on sermons by John Wimber. He did a rather lengthy series in our church on this book. We got working on turning that sermon series into a short readable book for the rest of the Vineyard when some of the board members determined that Whittal Smith was a "heretic" and her doctrines were contrary to the Vineyard theological values.

Wimber hadn't cared about universalism. He was more interested in Hannah's approach to God (which had similarities to his own, I think).

I went through the path of universalism as I walked away. It is encouraging to see that that belief has roots in historical Christianity.

Watchman said...

You summed up my faith development in a nutshell. Its is affirming to see another person, completely unrelated and unconnected to my story, coming up with the same conclusions. This indicates to me that maybe, just maybe, the same Wind blows over all of us.

As a recovering evangelical, I was a poster boy for my collegiate ministry. I did everything right. Problem is, it worked for me for a while. It worked for all of us to some degree, till we started to realize how limited our world view had become and how much of what was promised to us never really had any power.

I recently quit the vocational ministry to open a restaurant. I compare Bill Bright to Ray Kroc. Both were opportunists. Both had signifcant impact in their respective fields. Both saw people come to love their product, but eventually find out what they have been sold. I now get to provide food to people made the old fashioned way. And I am in the process of trying to figure out how to do church that way as well. But when you have several years of ingrained lifestyle patterns, its going to take a while to see real change.

I'm sure we will look back on the evangelical experiement the same way as fast food, coming to the same conclusion--"What were we thinking?"

I enjoy your thoughts in writing.

Dave said...

Does calling pop evangelicalism an "aberration" imply that there's a standardized or normative Christianity? I think Christianity's future is going to be based more on its adaptation to new circumstances than a restoration to how it "used" or "ought" to be in some traditional sense.

julieunplugged said...

What a great question Dave! I like it. I think you're onto something. I don't have any interest in returning to an ancient cosmology or historic liturgies as some proof of connecting to "official Christianity."

On the other hand, I see evangelicalism's insistence on being the "true" and "valid" form of Christianity as equally flawed.

I think we have "Christianities" (plural), not one we must all adopt.

Good comment.

rmkton said...

I think Dave's question is a good one and one that I spend a lot of time thinking about. As we are being swept away by postmodernism what will “normative” Christian faith look like…or more specifically what will the evangelical branch of Christianity evolve into? There are of course many speculators out there writing about this now.
I think it is very likely that we will move to a more universalistic approach as Greg mentioned...I find it interesting that many evangelicals praise George MacDonald for his early writing but they are quick to point out his bend toward universalism toward the end of his life. I think it is no mistake why MacDonald ended up here.

R. Michael

Seeker said...

what I keep feeling is like I am looking for the genuine fire like in the New Testament book of Acts - real experiences with God & the Holy Spirit, real LIFE, action, results, personal growth - all the time, every moment, every day. I mean really hearing from God on a daily basis, really having all my prayers answered, BIG prayers - healing the sick, raising the dead, being so full of spiritual life that it is catching, like a real fire. My 'ears' seemed to be filled with so much metaphorical 'wax' that I can't hear (hah-my typo said heart) God clearly. I think a lot of that is the guilt/condemnation because I am not the perfect Christian.
I keep looking for someone who really has it, not who talks about it, but who has IT - or, I am looking for a revolutionary experience in myself so that I have IT -

I think we have all been through an era of what I heard titled 'religious abuse' and we can't shake it off.

you know the Dobson people & religious right feel they have to point out people's sins to them, shout it in their faces, speak about it behind their backs, label them etc, etc, etc - but the New Testament said we are not to be concerned with the sins of people who are 'without' (the body of Christ) - and also in book of Romans Paul ch 1, Paul says - that people are aware of their own sin. but this past 20 years has been a time when the shepards have been 'beating the sheep' instead of loving and nurturing them.

to Jesus I say - COME, COME, COME BACK TO US - don't leave us alone. Bring us back to Life, the hope and the promise we all saw when first we believed.

Drew said...

As someone who came to the faith in the 90's as a college student, the same media Disneyfication of evangelicalism was taking place, but in a hyper-real state of abstraction. We make you feel good, then we make you feel bad, only to make you feel good again. It was, if I may mix concepts, a comedy in form, but a tragedy waiting to happen. By that I mean the happy ending was something manufactured for you - as it is now for so many youth in the form of Battle Cry (the military metaphors are so persistent there its quite appalling actually).

I think we see one generation of evangelicals fading as symbolized by the plight of the Right's confused state in politics, the death of Jerry Falwell which brings a certain powerful symbol, the drama unfolding with Ted Haggard, etc. SO there is a shift happening in the political side of the evangelical media monster. But it also just seems to take new forms to match whatever cultural material there is.

The postmodern in me sees it as so many bricoleurs pasting together the media of the predominant cultural norms in order to create a hyper-real subcultural niche. It speaks of being counter- and sub-cultural, but in form it is a reflection of that against which it rebels. This has been going on since the Scopes trial in the 20's when we can point to a clear fracture between the fundamentalists and more moderate to progressive evangelicals in the church.

However, among youth, the 70's liberalism is alive and well on the inside even though it is contained in evangelical wrapping. The National Study for Youth and Religion calls it "moralistic therapeutic deism" and this is how our kids really believe - as a reflection of their boomer parents. It's the virtual Crystal Cathedral, I'm Ok and You're Ok mentality where God makes us feel good and is there to help us when we need it.

But while that may be a sign of our future, we also have to remember that it is this kind of pet rock religion out of which evangelicalism and its relationship to the political right was born!

Rob said...

Good stuff. I say, enjoy the beach for as long as it feels warm and liberating, and only get an annual pass *if* and when that becomes more compelling than the freedom of the beach.

Many folks would say that'd selfish of you, but that's only cuz they selfishly want you next to them in Disneyland. They're secretly kind of jealous that you're getting a good tan, so they're going to start talking about the dangers of skin cancer.

doug said...

Hi Julie,

I found your blog via Jesuscreed and have been grateful for your thoughtful reflections on your experience- evangelical and "post." We have a couple of slight connections- I heard you and Jon speak in Santa Barbara in about 1992, right before I logged some time with Frontiers, where I continued to hear the buzz about your leaving Morocco. In a post last year you mentioned your mom, too. I was one of the pastors at her old church in San Diego before during the time of "the troubles" there. In any case, I appreciate your thoughtfulness a lot. I haven't read all your posts and have found much that I could relate too. It has also crossed my mind to wonder whether you have interacted at all with the "emergent conversation" especially McClaren and the related missional church stuff. It is trying to take on modernistic evangelicalisms presuppositions, it seems to me, and is ending up I think quite far afield from Dobson, Macarther and so on. (I get what you said about not wanting to land in historic christianity- one of my teachers at fuller was a vineyard pastor who found the True Church and became Orthodox, perhaps you heard of Father Sam.) Mcclaren helps me because is at least one voice loudly "giving permission" to me to be a person in process and not one who is supposed to just get rid of all those pesky questions...anyway, thanks for your posts and ineraction with books like Franky schaeffers, which I'd have otherwise missed...(the last I'd heard of him was "Sham pearls...")

julieunplugged said...

Hi Doug.

Great to hear from you. We have been involved in the emergent conversation for sure. Jon worked with Jim Henderson (Off the Map) putting together the very first of those conferences. The speakers were Len Sweet and Brian McLaren.

I spent time in a yahoo group devoted to Brian's works which led to my involvement in Dave's (see pomoxian blog) yahoo group dedicated to postmodernism and Christianity.

I found JC through those connections.

There's more to say about the emergent folk, but I won't write about it here. I appreciate McLaren's breaking open the conversation. I probably line up more, though, with the Jesus Seminar writers in terms of where my theological sympathies lie.

Anonymous said...

Julie -

Thanks for sharing your journey so openly, honestly.
Just finished a wonderful read that you might enjoy - "Speaking of Faith" by Krista Tippett.
Blessings on ya.