Rainbows and Revelations

Every morning a miracle occurs. I open my eyes and by powers largely unknown to me, I am awake and I see. I see the sky and trees and cars and flowers and animals and people. Sometimes the colors are so vibrant, so rich and bursting with life that it’s hard to imagine there could exist anything beyond what I see. This infinitesimal fragment of reality is teeming with wonder already, and yet somehow the universe is still vast beyond all measure.

The colors that I see are my perception of that tiny portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. Strangely, this means an object that appears red is not itself red, but instead has physical characteristics which cause it to reflect, transmit, or emit wavelengths of light that stimulate the cone cells in my eyes, which in turn communicate to my brain the sensation of a particular color.

This is not what we tell children when first they open their innocent, shining eyes to absorb all the nuanced beauty of the world. We start with simple things. This is mommy, this is daddy. The sky is blue, the grass is green. But children mature, their minds develop, and slowly they come to understand that reality is more complicated, that it often transcends the simple categories we use to construct order and meaning.

Most electromagnetic radiation is invisible. This means that every second of every day, there is so much more to the intricate web of reality that is bubbling and pulsing all around us than we could ever hope to glimpse.

Outside of the human world, other animal species perceive light and color differently. For example, dogs see mostly blue and yellow. They can’t see red, because their eyes don’t have the same red sensitive cone cells that humans possess. Sparrows can see ultraviolet light, and so they enjoy a much broader visible light spectrum. Butterflies have more eye receptors than humans and can see colors within our own visible spectrum that we have no names for, colors that exist in between the subtle shades we can differentiate.

Interestingly, human perception of color may not boil down to genetics alone. Evidence from ancient texts suggests that throughout human history words associated with different colors have come into language gradually — as a general rule, red has come first and blue last. When a color hasn’t been naturally abundant in the surrounding environment, cultures have been less likely to invent a word for it.

The Himba in Namibia, for example, don’t have a separate word for “blue.” In the past, when researchers presented them with images of green and blue, the Himba had difficulty seeing a difference even though their eyes have the same capability as ours to differentiate these colors. So in some sense, having a word for “blue” unlocks the ability to perceive it as a distinct feature (Abumrad and Krulwich). In other words, the language we use shapes our reality.

I didn’t know all these things when I was a five year old. No one would have expected that of me. But as children grow, parents eventually start their sentences with, “Yes, but…” and “Well, actually…” And teachers take out their jewel-like prisms to magically transform sunlight into rainbows.

———

We live in a time of unprecedented access to information. Whether this is more a blessing or a curse is up for debate. On one hand, there is so much we can learn from one another through the tiny computers most of us carry in our pockets. On the other hand, as Christians some of what we learn will inevitably challenge our long held beliefs and force us to either rethink our worldviews, or become further entrenched in and defensive of them.

Today’s scientific research suggests that, like light, sexual orientation and gender exist on a spectrum. It suggests that there is much more to human sexuality and identity than I, a cisgender heterosexual male, can perceive from my limited perspective.

Several years ago claims like this were nothing new. But the internet, and social media especially, opened the door to a whole new world. I’d known a handful of people, mostly non-Christians, who identified as gay or lesbian, but this new technology brought the stories of countless others into view and amplified their voices so I could no longer dismiss them as extreme outliers in an otherwise heteronormative world.

They told heartbreaking stories, like Timothy’s, about yearning to belong, about being full of love and yet willing to make sacrifices far beyond any that I’ve ever made to remain within the good graces of their faith communities. They told stories, like Julie’s, about believing with their whole hearts that God would change them, and then after years of struggle realizing the devastating truth that He wouldn’t. Not for lack of trying, they would remain abominations.

These were powerfully emotional stories, like J.J.’s and Tabitha’s, of anxiety and depression and shame and suicide. Stories, like Josh and Lolly’s, of bravely embarking down the road of heterosexual marriage only to see relationships disintegrate. Stories, like Patrick’s, of forced celibacy and emptiness. Stories, like Rachel’s, of feeling trapped in bodies that could never accurately reflect to the outside world the persons within. All because God has one rigid design for human sexuality, and anything that lies outside it is unacceptable.

Deeply convicted by their struggles, I tried to walk in the shoes of my LGBTQ brothers and sisters — to imagine what I’d feel if my faith community told me that my way of being was fundamentally wrong. I knew I’d never made a conscious choice to be straight and that it felt completely natural to be a male. If suddenly the tables turned, I had no idea how I’d even begin to suppress, let alone change, my deeply-rooted natural inclination to share life with a woman if it were required to remain a faithful Christian. But I was still unwilling to go much further than this thought experiment, unwilling to ask the uncomfortable question of whether all this bad fruit might be proof that our traditional Biblical understanding of sexuality and gender needed to evolve.

Spurred on by the surge of LGBTQ Christian voices in my newsfeeds, I continued to learn more.

The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth, claims that LGB teens are up to 4 times more likely than other teens to attempt suicide, and 8.4 times more likely if they come from “highly rejecting” households. As a result of family rejection, discrimination, and other factors LGBTQ youth also comprise roughly 40% of the homeless youth population in the United States. Of that 40%, more than half are likely to attempt suicide.

In 2001, still several years before a majority of Americans would support legalizing same sex marriage, U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report that stated, “there is no valid evidence showing that sexual orientation can be changed.” In the years since, ex-gay and conversion therapies as well as other sexual orientation change efforts that became popular among Evangelicals in the 1980s and 90s have been widely discredited. Many former leaders have even united in opposition to the movement they helped create. Alan Chambers, who led Exodus International, the nation’s largest ex-gay ministry, from 2001 to 2013, stated in 2015 that, “99.9 percent of people I met through Exodus’ ministries had not experienced a change in orientation.” Exodus cofounder Michael Bussee who left the organization in 1979 has claimed that “conversion therapy is nothing more than abuse.”

While there are exceptions, mixed-orientation marriages — in which one partner is straight and the other is gay or lesbian — don’t seem to work. Dr. Amity Pierce Buxton, founder of The Straight Spouse Network, an organization based in California that provides support to people in mixed-orientation marriages, estimates based on the self reports of over 10,000 people that have been in contact with her organization that more than two-thirds of such relationships eventually end in divorce (Buxton, p. 317).

Sometimes the truth hurts. Sometimes our natural inclinations, whether toward anger, selfishness, hatred, or unrestrained sexual desire, are not the best things for us. It can be painful to admit we need to change or deny ourselves, and more painful still to follow through once we have. But the truth about human sexuality and gender shouldn’t be this painful — it shouldn’t lead to isolation and anguish — not for so many LGBTQ people who desire only to belong to a community and participate in mutually respectful, loving relationships with their partners of choice like so many of the rest of us do.

For me, the stench from this growing pile of rotten fruit finally became too strong to ignore, and the resilience of LGBTQ Christians striving to accept themselves as they are and still follow Jesus too radiant and lovely to denounce. These factors overpowered any argument, scriptural or otherwise, that would suggest that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer was fundamentally sinful.

Through social media their stories introduced new, achingly beautiful words into my vocabulary and made it impossible for me to continue seeing the world as I once had, like a prism refracting white sunlight to reveal the rainbow hidden inside — always present, but just out of sight.

———

I think that God, in His boundless love and enduring patience, has approached humanity’s development as a whole in much the same way that parents approach the educational development of their children.

Young children have the potential to learn about the electromagnetic spectrum and even the mathematics that physicists use to harness its power, but first they reach out their chubby fingers to discover there’s a world outside themselves and stare intently to memorize the contours of their loved ones’ faces. Starting with unintelligible mouthfuls of gibberish, they eventually learn to speak in complete sentences. At first cautiously sounding out each letter on the page, with time they begin reading entire novels and textbooks.

At each unique stage of development, loving parents communicate with their children in ways they will understand, knowing full well they are presenting a simplified version of reality that will need to be fleshed out when the time is right.

Now the time is right.

To start facing the facts about human sexuality and gender.

To recognize how, even if unintentionally, our words and actions have made those in the LGBTQIA+ community feel less than, unworthy, inhuman.

To open our eyes wide to see the luminous spectrum that is humanity.

In a recent podcast interview, author Paul Young said, “Not only is scripture an unfolding revelation of the nature and character of God, it is a revelation of the depths of the lostness of humanity. Within scripture, God submits to human beings who are lost in their religious ideology.”

Maybe we haven’t misunderstood the Bible’s teachings about sexuality and gender. But maybe we have misunderstood the nature of the Bible’s authority as a body of divinely inspired and yet utterly human writings, and therefore have lagged behind what the Holy Spirit is doing in the world, often through those whom we would least expect — the oppressed, the marginalized, the stranger. Through the disarming words of the least of these, She leads the way onward into all truth and beckons us to follow.

All the stories, all the brave people who have told them and continue to tell them, all their diverse, beautiful colors, their loves and heartaches, desires and dreams — I can’t unsee them. They are real, and finally I see they are good.

Advertisements

Grieving the Death of My White Christian America

The Grief behind the Blog

In response to this blog, an older and wiser friend of mine mentioned to me that she found the whole project of Dialogic Christianities to be an expression of grief. Clearly, she understood something about what I was communicating that I hadn’t understood myself. And the more and more I think about it, of all the terms you could use to describe this blog, grief is probably the most accurate.

Part of the grief is personal and specific to my own situation. The early posts came at the tail-end of my first year back in America after being on the evangelical missionary field for 7 years. Much of that writing is actually the fruit of a few years’ worth of faith crises I’d experienced overseas; three big highlights had to be 1) infertility in complementarian contexts; 2) an encounter with the pluralism of both the world and the Word (as in, Romans 14), and 3) some painful critical thinking about my own white-American-male-centric teaching practices and its roots in typical Christian school curricula. These specific processes were definitely motivation enough for me to start working out my faith identity through writing.

But it was the broader shared grief that compelled me to make this writing public for evangelicals to read. In 2016, I began to notice that the individual griefs I had been working through on my own were actually far more common than I had realized. American Evangelicals, both the conservatives and the liberals, all seemed to be faced with a grief that they could no longer keep to themselves.  At the time, it seemed to me to be a grief  of looming apprehension, a reckoning with the writing on the wall that we were all preparing for an ugly divorce. I saw a global and historical community of Christians becoming more bitterly divided by the hour, as tweets and posts and articles and comments were quickly marshaled to divide friends from foes.

Wanting to do more than play into the petty back and forth of Facebook debate (although I have had my weak moments), I naively imagined a Facebook transformed to generate as much life-giving dialogue as it did division.  I believed we—divided and dividing evangelicals—could talk/type our differences out. I believed that we, being inheritors of heavenly rewards, could easily afford at the very least to read/listen to each other with open hearts and minds. I believed that we Christians above all would be the most likely to find the courage to engage gracefully with the views that offended us most. We of all people ought to have been most ready for repentance  when faced with challenging realities. I truly believed that with the right kind of tone-management and humility, we could easily heal whatever bitter wound was stretching across our community.

But I was wrong.

Not a wound but a death

I was wrong about a lot of things. But my  biggest error was in under-diagnosing evangelicalism’s issue. If, as I had been thinking, we were dealing with a mere wound, then humility and tone-management could have helped as we strove toward healing. But what if the chaos evangelicalism underwent in 2016 wasn’t anxiety over what’s to come, but rather something more like an involuntary response to something that already happened. It’s possible that we’re not only already dead, but that we’ve been dead for a while now. What white evangelicals saw go down in 2016-7 may have been nothing but a post-mortem body spasm.

It was only while reading Robert P. Jones’s The End of White Christian America (2016; and his corresponding research institute, PRRI) that I began to entertain the possibility that my grief was not actually over a wound that had hope for healing. Instead, I’m grieving the controversial reputation this dead identity is leaving behind. I’m grieving my own disappointments and regrets as I think back over this identity’s long and complex history. Along with my grief I’m also processing what to do with the deafening silence that always accompanies death, a tormenting lack of responsiveness, a gaping emptiness where I once found life and meaning. And looming over everything is the intimidating question: What now?

So what exactly has died? I’m not talking about “my faith.” This isn’t a post about how Chris is now declaring himself an atheist. What has died is a tradition and a culture of thought that Jones calls “White Christian America” (WCA). Like any compound word (e.g.,  strawberry, hotdog, or parkway), its meaning is different than the sum of the individual words (neither “hot” nor “dog” on its own could possibly communicate the glory of a hotdog). Similarly, WCA is not simply White + Christian + America. I think there’s plenty to theorize about the meaning of each individual term– and for the record, I am still White, I am still Christian, I am still American. It’s the compound that has died. And so, like Nietzsche’s madman, Jones seems to be saying “WCA is dead. WCA remains dead.” But, unlike the madman, he’s not able to say who killed it. All the evidence out there suggests that it died of  “a combination of environmental and internal factors” (p.1).

Mostly Dead

After twenty-sum years of living and breathing it, you’d think I’d have gotten the memo that the main source of my identity was White Christian America– but no, when I joined the evangelical mission field in 2009 I had no idea that I was a valued member of WCA. Nor did I get the memo that WCA was in critical condition and that there was very little hope that WCA would make it out alive.

I didn’t realize I was a part of WCA because I — like many evangelicals– spent a lot of time between 2009 and 2014 responding to philosophical attacks from the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins. I was spending my energy trying to combat postmodernism, emotivism, pluralism, and, at times, evolution. I was so caught up in these abstract isms that I had very little patience for anything to do with conversations around the more concrete ones like nationalism, sexism or racism. I was trying to make the case that reducing the classical canon down to issues of race/gender/class was a godless and immoral enterprise. It took the events of 2014 to get me to realize that all of this was historically WCA behavior.

Jones illustrates the aftermath of WCA’s death with three particularly explosive cultural moments in the year 2014, at which point all evidence suggests that WCA was already dead. The three cultural moments he uses to put flesh on the statistical bones of his argument are: The 2014 Super Bowl ad “America the Beautiful”, a Grammy performance of “Same Love” by Macklemore, and the national attention paid to the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

The Controversy over America the Beautiful

Perhaps the fact that the descendants of WCA (white mainline Protestants and white evangelical Protestants) had slipped below 1/3 of the American population in 2014  made the Super Bowl ad all the more bitter for them to stomach. A twitter war erupted in response to the ad, with #speakAmerican on one side and #AmericaIsBeautiful on the other. But when I compare the sentiments of #speakAmerican to some of the professional development (PD) curricula my evangelical school was using at the time, it’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly where Christianity ends and where white supremacy begins. What is the difference between this tweet and this PD discussion question?

“We are English and Christian, mainly. #SpeakAmerican Let’s keep that in mind, @CocaCola” (cited in Hoffman, 2015).

How do we apply the [White Christian American] Founders’ ideas to a “multicultural” America where a flood of moral and spiritual perspectives – e.g., Buddhism, spiritism, Islam, Native American religions, and Wicca – have become part of the cultural fabric? (The Truth Project)

I remember in 2014, I was somewhere between being critical of the America-centrism I saw rampant in evangelicalism, while also feeling a strong allegiance to its values. When I look back to a post I wrote about the Coke ad for my teaching blog at the time, my ambivalence is painfully clear. It seemed extremely transgressive to me at the time to say anything positive about celebrations of pluralism, which is why I walked it back with the question– “Does the American song have any ‘wrong’ notes?”– and just to make extra clear that I wasn’t being transgressive I insisted I hadn’t meant it “in a political sense.” By avoiding the “political sense” I bought myself a bit more time before I realized not only that I was white, Christian, and American, but also that I was a child of the compound White Christian America. I see the following two and a half years after that as an awkward song and dance of trying to convince myself, my students and the world that this worldview (which I did NOT name as White Christian America) welcomed honest critical thinking. Had I known what it actually was and that it was already dead, I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

Macklemore and Same-Sex Marriage

2014 was also the year that Macklemore performed “Same Love”at the 56th Grammy award ceremony. Jones argues that this performance was symbolic of the shifting perspective of most Americans about the legality of same-sex marriage. As this gay-marriage-affirming performance was a rousing success by many standards, it was also taken as a direct affront to WCA. During the performance, not only did Macklemore perform in front of a backdrop of what looked unmistakably “churchy,” culminating in a mass marriage ceremony of thirty-three diverse couples (straight and gay, multiracial and interracial), but the song also directly spoke out against White Christian America’s homophobia with lyrics like:

America the brave still fears what we don’t know
And “God loves all his children” is somehow forgotten
But we paraphrase a book written thirty-five-hundred years ago

However, perhaps in anticipation of those who would want to accuse Macklemore of rejecting the wisdom of scripture, the performance ends with Madonna and Mary Lambert singing the words “I’m not crying on Sunday” over a Gospel choir’s refrain repeating the phrases from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “Love is patient, love is kind.” It would seem that Macklemore hasn’t completely disregarded biblical wisdom, but he and much of the country seem to be interpreting it in completely different ways than WCA is known to do.

2014 was also the year when same-sex marriage became legally recognized in several states across America– and not just states on the liberal coasts, but states like Indiana, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. That same-sex marriage had anything to do with the compound of WhiteChristianAmerica might seem a bit strange. What does sexuality have to do with Whiteness, Christianity, or America? Whether it makes sense or not, the fact is that this one particular issue continues to be a defining feature of white evangelicalism (as well a Mormonism). It continues to confuse me when the stereotypical family held up as an icon for WCA resembled something more like the Cleavers than any of the families I’ve seen in the Bible. The fact that I have a hard time finding anything like a “Biblical marriage” in the Bible tells me that we aren’t dealing simply with interpretations of scripture, but rather we are dealing with deep-seated cultural and political identities.

The Hashtag that Broke the Camel’s Back

Perhaps 2014’s most damning turning point for WCA’s descendants– the smoking gun that made young white evangelicals all over the US incapable of ignoring their WCAness– were the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, made nationally known through the famous hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a damning turning point not only revealing the structural racism in our society and judicial system, but also White Christian America’s dependence on and complicity in these structures. WCA would have liked to shut this hashtag down, and many of its successors tried to honor its wishes. WCA’s resistance to messages of racial equity and justice was nothing new, but it was this hashtag that made it difficult for WCA’s children NOT to see their communities rushing to protect their cherished anti-Blackness with defensive retorts like #AllLivesMatter or #BlueLivesMatter.

Franklin Graham expressed the attitude most clearly when he said: “Listen up–Blacks, Whites, Latinos, and everybody else. Most police shootings can be avoided. […] If a police officer tells you to put your hands in the air, you put your hands in the air. […] It’s as simple as that. Even if you think the police officer is wrong—YOU OBEY” (Jones, p. 148).

Significant for me at the time was the implication this had for me as a Christian school educator. It forced me to trace the history of my corner of the profession, which cannot be understood without a thorough exploration into the Brown v Board of Education act in 1954, which made it unconstitutional for schools to be separated into Black and white. It’s no surprise that it was not long after this act that many private conservative Christian schools began to sprout up. “The most immediate response to [desegregation of American public schools] was the launching of whites-only private academies—many of them church related” (Jones, 162). As a completely Christian-school educated person, from kindergarten through my bachelor’s degree, I cannot avoid the fact that “the leap to private academies provided an immediate mechanism for avoiding mixed race schools” (163). This fact forced me to realize that my resistance to conversations around racism were mostly due to the fact that my whole educational life had been historically designed to protect me from ever seeing it in person. It had me wondering where in my teaching my whiteness ended and my Christianity began? I still don’t think I can pinpoint that line.

 

The Five Stages of Grief

Jones’ book makes the argument that these three cultural events (a celebration of multiculturalism during America’s favorite pastime, a celebration of family-diversity, and a direct indictment of American racism) were not precursors to WCA’s death, but rather results of it. WCA’s children witnessed a world stretching it limbs for the first time after WCA restraints had finally been lifted. And we were left with an ideology that had few mechanisms to defend itself.

The book ends by re-examing the death of WCA through the lens of Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief. Jones shows how particular spokepersons of White Christian America seem to be exhibiting stages like Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance in response to WCA’s death. As I read this section I realized that all of my writing on this blog exhibits a stage in the grieving process. White Christian America’s death is the death of a life-shaping identity. I have struggled to know what I’ll do without it. Who am I if not a White Christian American?

Through these posts you can see my denial, especially as I continued to say things like “I have no intention of shedding the label evangelical” despite the fact that everything I was saying and doing was explicitly non- (sometimes anti-) evangelical by almost all definitions. You’ll also see my anger, especially in my post about Fart-Blaming and classical Christian education. I asked a friend to read that post and his feedback was: “I think that the tone of your proposal sounds a little dismissive and frankly a little ‘pissed-off,’ if you don’t mind me saying that.” – he was right. But now I believe that I’ve been “pissed off” because of grief.

You’ll also see me bargaining at times, attempting to postpone the inevitable. I have done it by trying to enliven an already-dead conversation, trying to invite white Christians to talk with me, to engage with me, to treat this conversation like there’s living potential here—to show me that there’s still a life worth living in White Christian America. But no matter what I try to do, it will not change the fact that the death of White Christian America is irreversible. If we’re to dialogue, we’re going to need a reason outside of WCA to do it.

Of course there’s depression. There’s not much to say about it, mostly because depression tends to work without words. But it’s been an important part of the grieving process for me. Kugler-Ross writes, “The harder [terminally ill] patients struggle to avoid the inevitable death, the more they try to deny it, the more difficult it will be for them to reach this final stage of acceptance with peace and dignity” (Jones, p. 213). I don’t know if you’ll find much peace and dignity in my own grieving process. But I’m working my way toward acceptance. Of course I believe there is life after the death White Christian America. I just don’t yet know what that life looks like. I certainly don’t know what a healthy life after WCA looks like. I also can’t say I know exactly which version of Christian in White Christian America is actually worth restoring. With WCA as my main teacher, how can I know know authentic Christianity if I saw it? I just know the dust is going to need to settle before I’ll feel ready for the search.

Of course, these are grieving questions. It’s possible that we– the children of WCA– have some sort of inheritance worth preserving; and I will say about that what I always say about the promise of bodily Resurrection that some people read in the scriptures: I’ll believe it when I see it.

Response to Rosaria

The following is a response to Rosaria Butterfield’s lecture featured on the Renewing Your Mind website.

I have given up on writing this post multiple times. I simultaneously want to torpedo, I mean just absolutely destroy, the “logic” Dr. Rosaria Butterfield assumes throughout this talk, while at the same time, I have little interest in spending my time trying to “convince” people who aren’t curious. It all started when Chris mentioned that I should “know my audience.” I immediately assumed my audience was Rosaria Butterfield and others who would agree with her. I mean, I’ve gotta change their minds, right? But it became abundantly clear that I couldn’t write that essay. So I stopped. I figured I’d tell Chris I just got too busy or something, or that I didn’t care anymore. But I was mulling over my dilemma with a friend, and she mentioned how many times she had read or heard someone say something that just gave her pause, or space, or more questions, and how life- giving those moments were, even if only in retrospect. And so, I am writing this to her, and to me, and to anyone who has ears to hear.

Coming from a background that was steeped in systematic theology as I did, it is so frustratingly, mortifyingly, enragingly easy to “hear the logic” in what Dr. Butterfield is saying. It’s almost creepy how her ideas, beliefs, theology, doctrine, system, whatever you want to call it get into my brain and I start to think, “Yeah, that sounds logical. Hey, self, why don’t we believe this anymore, anyway?” It is also frustrating, mortifying, and enraging how you can’t argue with a systematic theologian. It’s like talking to a brick and the brick is just waiting for you to agree with it. And I am no longer here for that. So, if you are still with me, here are just a few reasons why Dr. Butterfield’s “logic” is not as logical as she seems to think it is. At least it’s not anymore logical than what I believe or what you believe.

1. The Bible is NOT God.

Dr. Butterfield makes an error that I have found is very common among conservative/ reformed Christians: making an idol of “the Scripture.” She says, “If God is the creator, and the Bible is his word, then the Bible has the right to interrogate my life, not the other way around.” At face value, to my well-trained evangelical ears, this seems like a logical statement, but it requires such a monolithic set of ideas about “what the Bible says” that it becomes absurd. How the Bible “interrogates” my life is likely to be totally different than how it “interrogates” anyone else’s. And I think it is exactly true that our lives should “interrogate” how we read the Bible. Isn’t that what interpretation is? ANY understanding of “what the Bible says” is based on some “interrogation” of it from some human or group of human’s perspective. The insistence within systematic theology that they have somehow distilled the one true meaning of scripture without any human influence ignores not only the reality of humanity, but also history. There have been and always will be disagreements between faithful people about “what the Bible says.” IT IS ALL INTERPRETATION. The Bible is not God.

2. Canonicity

This is probably the part of Dr. Butterfield’s talk where I almost poked out my own eyeballs with a spoon. Here again, on the topic of canonicity, I believe Dr. Butterfield makes a classic mistake of systematic theology: assuming some logical solution to a problem where there is only mystery and unknowableness. To begin with, she never questions how we ended up with the canon we have, or who “we” even are, or which canon “we” are even talking about. To assume “the canon” is some simple, easily definable entity is a mistake at best and a knowing deception at worst. She tells a story about going to lunch with a colleague who tells her, in an attempt, it seems, to help her protect her sexuality, that, “The Old Testament can be dispensed with in its entirety.” She scoffs at this explanation and this colleague who has “so little understanding” of a text “he has studied even more than she has.” It is interesting and telling, not to mention condescending, that she assumes he has “so little understanding” rather than realizing that he simply interprets the text differently. This is the standard systematic theology response to all challenge— attack the intellect of the challenger. Dr. Butterfield believes her colleague’s logic breaks what she calls the “universal rule of canonicity: no creating canons within canons.” So, according to Dr. Butterfield, we can’t just dispense with the whole Old Testament, as her colleague apparently wants her to, because you can’t create “canons within canons.” In the same breath, she goes on to discuss, without any sense of irony, the “three narratives of the Old Testament: ceremonial, judicial, and moral.” And I think that it is obvious to most of us that Christians very easily “dispense with” more than one of these “narratives.” Under what logic would dispensing with the entire ceremonial and judicial portions of the Old Testament not also be creating “canons within canons?!?” Dr. Butterfield calls it a “hermeneutic of convenience” to “ throw out the whole Old Testament” without dealing with the convenience of throwing out 2 out of the 3 OT narratives she herself just named.  And let’s not forget that the canon itself is manmade, chosen by humans from a much larger swath of  writings available at the time, and therefore is itself a “canon within a canon.”

3. God

These parts of Dr. Butterfield’s talk just made me sad, more than anything. She says, kind of breathily and amazed, “Who is this God of the Bible who deals differently with people when people deal differently with him.” This takes my breath away, too, but I think for a different reason. I thought, “Well, shit, that’s how I deal with my kids, so if God can’t do any better than me, then what’s the point?” At another point, Dr. Butterfield says, maybe to a friend or maybe to herself, “If Jesus is the real and risen Lord, then we are all in trouble.” Wait, what?!? Why would that be the take- home message from that realization? I thought the gospel was supposed to be GOOD news. Next, she asks the question, “ Who is this Jesus who heals some and not others?” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a good question. Who is that guy? He doesn’t sound like someone I’d want to follow.” But she says it like it’s reassuring or something. Obviously, we know some people get healed and others don’t (today and back then, I’m assuming), but does that have something to do with WHO JESUS IS? And if so, what would that tell us about him? The only way that’s a positive or reassuring idea is if we imagine WE will be DESERVING of being part of the healed group at some point, like, “Finally, we have a guy who gives us credit for our right behavior/ beliefs/ doctrine/ insert term here.” Otherwise, to me, it just sounds like God is vindictive or capricious. I don’t know exactly what Dr. Butterfield’s “logic” is here, but it sounds to me like only people who are bad die of cancer. I think we should ask Job. But, if you believe in Total Depravity, it’s hard to shake this feeling that doom is nigh, isn’t it? Dr. Butterfield later talks about how we have to accept the “Jesus of the whole Bible, not the Jesus of our imagination,” as if there is some completely true, accurate description of “who THE Jesus of THE Bible is.” This assumes some monolithic idea of who the “Jesus of the whole Bible” is, or that anyone can conceive of Jesus in wholly objective terms. My contention is that the only Jesus we have is the one of our imagination.

In the end, all these ideas about God and the Bible play a really important role in how we interact with people and the world, which is the only reason I care to discuss them. And these feel like such a small conception of God. I want to believe in a God who is bigger than I can imagine, whose perspective is more expansive than I could ever dream. I want to believe in a God who deals with me like the parent I WANT TO BE, not the parent I am. I want to believe in a Bible that has something to say to everyone, wherever they are, not just people who can “understand properly.” God is BIGGER. Compassion ABOUNDS in her. She is not waiting for us to be lovable. She is only waiting for us to realize we already are. She knows. She made us that way.

Sacred Doubt

“You doubt because you love truth.”

― from Lilith by George MacDonald

“In the very struggle of life, you touch the absolute.”

― Peter Rollins

When you’re in the midst of doubt, it never feels like a good thing. And life experience has trained most of us to believe that it most certainly is not. As students, we’re told there are right answers and wrong answers. If we’re unsure of the answer, it means we haven’t done our homework. In the professional world, those who make decisions without hesitation and those who present their ideas with utmost confidence are the ones who tend to get ahead. The same applies in matters of faith – to many, doubt signifies weakness, it reveals layers of underlying sin, an unwillingness to believe the simple and straightforward truth.

But what if doubt – not confidence or decisiveness or certainty – though it seems to be the immovable barrier holding you in place, is sometimes the only thing that can push you forward? The thing that can wake us from our unquestioned zombie routines to the beautiful and terrifying holiness of life?

I’ve only witnessed one miracle in my life, and oddly enough, it occurred during a season of paralyzing doubt. I was a sophomore in college and still a very young, naive Jesus follower. Less than a year earlier I’d made the life-altering decision to transfer to a new school to pursue a degree in biblical studies. At the time, it just felt right. I felt certain that God had called me to gather my things, go to a new place, and gain a firm foothold in His word so that I could use this treasured knowledge to advance His kingdom in the world.

Life was going so well. I was in the right place, studying the right thing and absolutely loving it. Then for no apparent reason at all (almost as though someone were playing a cruel trick) – it suddenly seemed very possible that God was just a fairy tale, a clever lie used to shield us from the truth that life is actually random and meaningless. The feeling arose so suddenly and so violently, like an earthquake that rips apart the entire landscape in a matter of seconds and leaves it unrecognizable.

Staring out my dorm room window late one night, I saw a ghostly image – the thin, pale reflection of my own frightened face superimposed over the darkness blanketing our college campus. And I thought to myself:

“What if there is no God?”

“What if it’s just me…and darkness?”

Then came the crushing weight of meaninglessness, of precious time wasted on a lie. I don’t know why these thoughts popped into my head. Maybe the elation that accompanied my first magical glimpse of the divine had simply worn off, and I began to understand the inherent riskiness of giving my life to Jesus. But this is just a guess – if this was the reason, I wasn’t aware of it.

For weeks I prayed, unsure whether anyone was actually listening. In fact, I’ve never prayed more frequently, or with greater urgency, at any point in my life. On my knees with head bowed and hands clasped tightly, whispering along busy pathways between classes all but stripped of their significance, silently as racing thoughts slowed and gave way to restless sleep, I begged God to show me a sign that He was really there.

Then, one night, He did.

Friends from school had convinced me to attend a charismatic prayer and worship service in Boston. Even though I was unaccustomed to and somewhat distrustful of these types of gatherings, I knew that I had nothing to lose by going – so I went.

The night was almost over. I’d been kneeling on my prayer mat for what seemed like many hours, struggling to lift heavy petitions upward and make them heard. Then, a stranger approached slowly from across the room and stood before me. After a slight pause, presumably to make sure I felt comfortable and was willing to listen, the stranger said in a gentle voice, “God wants you to know that He loves you very much and that he’s proud of the work you’re doing. And He showed me an image of a baton with a tassel being thrown high in the air.”

Staring blankly at this stranger, I couldn’t find any words. A hot sea of tears swelled in my eyes and streamed down my face. In a moment at once so intense and so comforting, I realized I was standing on holy ground, that I had been the whole time.

You see, during my sophomore year, my friend and I had been serving as youth leaders at a small church on the southern coast of Maine. Many of the girls who attended our Wednesday-night youth group were members of a baton twirling team – something I had never heard of until working there, and something that I didn’t fully understand. In my mind, I’d imagined that they throw their tasseled batons high in the air to perform acrobatic moves before catching them. Besides my friend, who wasn’t with me that night, no one else knew this seemingly unimportant but unique piece of information. Upon hearing what the stranger said, my mind went immediately to the church in Maine, and an overwhelming sense of God’s loving presence surrounded me.

I don’t remember whether the stranger who spoke to me that night was a man or a woman. And as it turns out, the batons that baton twirlers use don’t typically have tassels. I also can’t prove that what happened wasn’t just a strange coincidence, that I didn’t attach meaning to an event that actually had none. But still, I am convinced that on that night God spoke to me directly, in an intimate way that only I would understand. And the simple words that He spoke allowed me to continue down the path I’d chosen with a renewed sense of awe.

Now that I find myself years later in a similar period of questioning and uncertainty, rethinking all that I thought I knew, my wandering mind often leads me back to that night. As I retell it, the story seems almost trivial. A self-absorbed sophomore who had never known real hardship, I thought the world was ending because I briefly questioned God’s existence from the comfort of my college dorm room. Truthfully though, this first experience of such intense doubt was excruciating – to think maybe I’d gotten it all wrong, maybe I’d wasted my time chasing a ghost. I also can’t help but think it was a profoundly good thing to surrender to this painful impulse, to be completely honest with myself and vulnerable before God.

I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but God did not judge me for my questions. He did not condemn me for losing my grip on faith and stumbling about in desperation. Like a loyal friend who comes alongside you to mourn the loss of a loved one in silence, and knows that companionship is infinitely better than any logical explanation for death, God gently reminded me through the kind words of a stranger that He had never left my side.

Author Peter Rollins has said that “In the very struggle of life, you touch the absolute.” I think what he means is that, in the moments when we tell our truth without reservation – perhaps in these moments we are closest to God and most resemble Him. Even if what we accept as truth is distorted for a time by the lens of our circumstances, it remains pure in the eyes of God – who cares more that we search, and strive, and live honestly, than that we arrive at the doorstep of certainty.

In a life of faith, doubt is sacred just like the ground I’m standing on, because God is present in it. The world may appear gray and dreary now, the truth far away and my path to it hidden. But I know not to be afraid. One day soon God will speak again, maybe not audibly or miraculously, but He will speak. And once again His words will illuminate the world, the scales will fall from my eyes to reveal a creation bursting with brilliant color and new life, and a path will emerge to a deeper, fuller truth that I never could have imagined before.

Am I an Evangelical? Part 1

AM I AN EVANGELICAL?

It was nice for someone to ask me that. Rather than tell me what I am. I’m finding myself questioning this a lot. I say, “Yes.” But it’s not for the usual reasons. I’m definitely not a good evangelical (as in, I can’t or don’t want to check all of the typical evangelical boxes probably).

MY FAITH

I am a Christian. I say that because I believe in Christ. I believe Jesus embodied for us the “person” of God. God is not a person; he is spirit, infinite, eternal, unchanging, all-loving, and a variety of other descriptors that probably only begin to grasp exactly what or who God is – all of them likely inadequate. Jesus, on the other hand, was a real person. It makes us more able to relate what God is from our human perspective. It gives us a pronoun we can use (i.e. “him”). Jesus embodied the nature of God perfectly; however, perhaps only the parts relatable to us humans. When we can understand the nature of God (limited as our understanding may be), we can understand who we are and what sort of nature we should be striving to have.

Understanding who God is informs all other aspects of my life. What are our lives made up of, if not relationships with other people? Understanding who God is helps me identify how I am supposed to relate to others. Do I get that wrong a lot of the time? Yes. Both who God is and also how that informs my relationships. How can anyone possibly not get that wrong a lot of the time? I’m only just beginning. I didn’t go to seminary. I’m studying this stuff in the moments between my government job and my mom job. So some people say, “Then just listen to what that seminarian is telling you – don’t have your own thoughts if they lead somewhere different.” But to me, that’s an unexamined faith. And I’m not into that right now. My faith has finally gotten really interesting. That’s courtesy of a lot of different smart people educating me about various things; but that doesn’t mean I’m going to adopt their view exactly. It also doesn’t mean I’ve written them off or even that I think I’ve discovered some truth that they missed.  

The process of sanctification, it seems to me, is found in that striving – to both know God better and in how we relate to others. Not striving to be perfect so that I can earn God’s love or earn salvation or whatever, but rather, striving to know God and to allow that to inform how I relate to others. And sanctification is not a nice, straight, uphill climb. That’s where grace comes in, again, and again, and again. I can never fall from grace. At least not God’s true grace. Grace is forever tries (phraseology credit: Glennon Doyle) in the process of sanctification. One of the things I have to strive harder for is giving others grace of the magnitude I have been given it. Of course, that will never actually happen, but I think that’s the point.

Because of the hugeness of God, the complexity of life here on this earth, and the limits of my time, knowledge, and understanding, I cling to Jesus to show me who God is and how that should inform all aspects of my life here on earth. Jesus himself says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). Jesus’s life exhibits to me his love for all people (his disciples, his mother, tax collectors, prostitutes, Jews, Gentiles, the poor, the sick, etc.). He has heavy rebukes for those not treating others charitably or lovingly. Jesus desires to bring all people to God through himself. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6). Because how can we know God, except through Jesus? Jesus perfectly embodies the spirit of God so that we can understand who God is.

MY RELIGION (OR: MY CULTURAL IDENTIFICATION…ONE OF THEM)

So that brings me to “evangelical.” I see “evangelical” as a term of religion (not that “Christian” is not also, but bear with me on this). Religion seems more like a societal construct than actual faith. Even “Christian” has meant different things at different times throughout history from the early church shortly after Christ’s ascension to now, and in different places, in terms of what it looks like (if you will, the “religion” part of it). Evangelical is one of those permutations of religious “looks.” And I’m squarely there. Does that mean I can check all the boxes that should identify me as evangelical (or that I even want to)? Since we can’t even decide what all those check boxes are and are not, I’m not too worried about it. It’s a social/cultural thing. It doesn’t change God, or Christianity (following Christ). Religion is where we try to define what following Christ looks like, how we relate our faith to our life. For me, at least right now, “evangelical” is how my faith looks.

I feel like I could actually fit in in a number of different denominations (versions of Christianity). They don’t actually define my faith. They help me to practice it. I think so often we look to our church to define our faith for us. Certainly the church does and should help with shaping and defining our faith. I certainly understand why churches define beliefs and set forth procedures for various practices. Just because I don’t fully ascribe to a particular church or denomination’s set policies and practices does not mean I cannot be a part of that church. (I realize some churches would exclude me and that’s fine – I won’t go to those churches, I guess.)

I had been letting my church define my faith, rather than letting my knowledge of and relationship with God (and again – my understanding of God is embodied in the person of Christ; hence: Christian) define my faith. That was uninteresting, impersonal, and not “real” faith in my estimation. My faith – my knowledge of and relationship with God – is real and important and informs everything. My religion is an institution set up within a particular culture to help me practice my faith. Realizing that has been life-changing for me. My focus is not on making sure I’m identified correctly or making sure I identify everyone else correctly. That’s a distraction.

I’m not too worried if where my faith journey (or process, if the “journey” thing is too much of a cliche) takes me strays outside the bounds of what someone has defined as “evangelical.” Because that’s all evangelical is: a set of things some people decided on (which are more or less in flux and not everyone can agree on anyway). One of my struggles with my evangelical crowd is that a lot of evangelicals don’t share that sentiment. Instead of my questions or doubt being evidence of me searching, studying, and critically thinking, they are evidence of a rebellious spirit or that I’m “lost.” I struggle to find people within my evangelical community to talk with, bounce ideas off of, study with, and just generally allow me to make sense of things. People who don’t take my questions as accusations, or evidence of my fall from grace (again – not possible). People who are as certain as I am that God can handle the questions. So can my faith. Can my religion handle them? Maybe not. That seems more fragile and maybe that’s why people are so defensive about it. I’m not so defensive about my religion anymore. If it breaks, I’m still good. Because I still have my faith. And that’s what matters. 

So am I an evangelical? Yes. Does that define my faith? No it does not. Do evangelicals want me? Undecided.