I grew up in a church environment that shunned people who didn’t believe exactly the same things about God and culture that I believed in. Our community wasn’t built on love, peace, and understanding; its foundation was agreement. Disagreements often caused huge conflicts, many of which ended with somebody being asked to leave or leaving angrily on their own. Those people became like ghosts to those of us who remained. We didn’t talk to them, look at them, and went to great lengths to avoid them whenever we saw them around town.
I left that kind of religiosity on purpose, because it was emotionally and spiritually suffocating.
A gathering of any kind can certainly fall prey to the behavior of fundamentalism, though it seems to favor groups of people who commune together because of a belief or conviction. Belief and conviction are the two ingredients that make fundamentalism so prevalent among conservative Christians, evangelicals, charismatics, and the like.
But lately, I’ve encountered the spirit of fundamentalism among those who consider themselves progressive. This isn’t new trend, of course, but among progressive Christians, fundamentalisms are difficult to pinpoint because there’s a good bit of belief diversity among progressive believers. Assuming what most evangelicals believe isn’t a perfect art, but it’s certainly much easier to do than trying to assume what progressive believe. Our assumptions about progressives becomes much more accurate when considering the numbers of ways and reasons they challenge conservative and moderate Christians. So while fundamentalist tendencies have always existed among progressives, they tend to remain at a much lower volume than those from our more conservative sects.
But lately, perhaps because progressive Christianity is gaining in popularity or because it’s becoming more visible online, the mean spirited, anger-ridden, must-agree-on-everything spirituality that I grew up in has been boiling up among those who identify as progressive Christians, open-minded believers seemingly enraged with self-righteousness and intoxicated by the assumption that they have it right.
While progressive fundamentalism isn’t as common as the conservative evangelical variety that we’ve all encountered, it’s happening often enough that we need to start talking about it. Because it’s getting louder and more and more laced with God-and-self-inspired hatred. And because many of us progressive types have fought the good fight against American Christianity’s better known fundy culture for so long that it would be very easy for us to become tacky, mean-spirited believers without even realizing it, the kind of people who rally, complain, and shun each other just like those we have called out.
Last week, Benjamin L. Corey and I chatted about progressive fundamentalism on That God Show. I hope you’ll give it a listen.
**The following is a guest post by M. Dolon Hickmon**
I was attracted to Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace (Zondervan, 2014) by the back-jacket copy: ‘“Why does the church stir up such negative feelings?” Philip Yancey has been asking this all his life as a journalist. His perennial question is more relevant now than ever: in a twenty-year span starting in the mid-nineties, research shows that favorable opinions of Christianity have plummeted drastically—and opinions of Evangelicals have taken even deeper dives […] Why are so many asking, “What’s so good about the “Good News?”’
My own experiences suggest a few answers: I was raised in an independent fundamentalist Baptist church, where rigid gender roles and authoritarian parenting blurred into severe physical child abuse and scenes of bloody domestic violence. Groaning beneath our pastor’s harsh version of ‘Christian child discipline’, I lost faith in the power of prayer and in the goodness of god. During my mid-20s, I gave religion a second chance; but when I discovered the exact messages that had marred my childhood still going out from the pulpits, I became solidly confirmed as one of the “Nones”.
Still, I can’t help remembering the promise: a welcoming community headed by a benevolent pastor with answers for life’s thornier problems. I’m sure that I will never return to the fold of believers, but I do cling to the hope that future Christians might raise their children in churches that have learned from the past and adapted to become more protective of their youngest members. Because of that hope, I was drawn to Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace.
Out of the gate, Yancey impressed me with his willingness to engage with the width, depth and breadth of the church’s problems: ‘Divorce rates among Christians mirror the rest of society’s, as do the rates of physical and sexual abuse; sexual promiscuity among Christian teenagers is only marginally lower; only 9 percent of evangelicals fully tithe their money; evangelicals are among the most racist of any groups surveyed by George Gallup; Catholics have more abortions than the national average.’
Additional research spans across centuries and continents, touching on everything from high-profile scandals and private hypocrisy, to the enmeshment of religion in politics and the destructive power of hierarchal and authoritarian thinking in relations between the genders and generations. Yancey includes figures from surveys and polls (‘In total, 52 percent of those surveyed judged that religion does more harm than good.’) as well as anecdotes from private conversations with the disillusioned (‘“I tried religion […] The whole time I was sitting there I wanted to get out.”’)
In the early portions of this book, Yancey seems intent on following the advice of Lutheran scholar Martin Marty, who he quotes in chapter two: ‘”Hold up the mirror if you are a believer, and ask whether anything anyone is saying or doing gives legitimate grounds for anti-religion to voice itself and creates a market for [anti-religious ideas]”’. Unfortunately, the rest of Vanishing Grace veers away: after outlining all of the ways that churches have harmed the spiritual, emotional, and physical wellbeing of individuals, families, and entire communities, Yancey spends the remainder of his book strategizing about how evangelical Christians might win over new converts. By chapter three, it is evident that Vanishing Grace is not about correcting destructive doctrine and behavior, but rather about new ways to market the same old brands.
‘According to Barna surveys, 61 percent of today’s youth had been churched at one point during their teen years but are now spiritually disengaged,’ Yancey writes. On the previous page, he details the common experiences of many ‘postChristian’ youth, who carry memories of ‘a domineering parent, a youth director or priest guilty of sexual abuse, a nasty divorce which the church handled clumsily’. But rather than suggesting that churches get serious about rooting out problems that flourish in of their own congregations, Yancey frames the wounded as little more than hardened targets, who he likens to bitter divorcees: ‘A divorcee won’t easily fall for sweet nothings from a suitor — she’s heard them all before — and has a basic distrust of romance.’
With this view in mind, Yancey’s advice boils down to various strategies for psychoanalyzing the seriously aggrieved in order to come up with more sophisticated emotional manipulations and smoother, more tailored pick-up lines: ‘To communicate to postChristians I must first listen to their stories for clues to how they view the world and how they view people like me’; Yancey writes, having apparently forgotten a previous and very salient point, made using a quote from a woman of his acquaintance: ‘“It seems to completely undermine sincere relationship building if you are looking at people as ‘targets’ to convert.”’
Ultimately, Vanishing Grace does a fair job of explaining why people are abandoning the burning ships of modern evangelical faith. But rather than recommending changes that might put out the fires, this book is mostly about how to lure the previously burned back on board. In my opinion, this kind of ‘gospel’ is the worst of all bad news: it spells another trip through the ringer for those whose battered faith can least afford it; and it is also bad news for those who are born into churches that are best at turning vulnerable seekers into hardened spiritual divorcees.
To my mind, the weakness in Yancey’s logic is his conviction that those who have fled from toxic religion are left in a perpetual state of spiritual longing. Making this point, he quotes author Henri Nouwen: ‘“God help me to see others not as my enemies or as ungodly but rather as thirsty people. And give me the courage and compassion to offer your Living Water.”’ But for me, letting go of religion meant releasing an endless source of unhappiness and pain. Looking back, I don’t feel the least bit wistful about it. Eventually it doesn’t matter how much you polish up the promise: people will remember your faith for what was delivered. [Grade: C]
Vanishing Grace is available at Amazon and other fine retailers.
M. Dolon Hickmon is a freelance columnist for The Freethinker and OnFaith. He explores the intersections of religion and child abuse in essays published around the web, as well as in the pages of his critically acclaimed novel, 13:24 – A Story of Faith and Obsession. You can follow his writing on Twitter @TVOS1324.
On Sunday, I walked into my church, dropped Elias and Adeline off at their classrooms, grabbed a cup of coffee, and found a seat in the auditorium. I was early, so as I waited, I scanned my Instagram feed and soon learned via one of the photos I saw that the church service I was getting ready to experience was apt to make me very uncomfortable. In fact, I was already uncomfortable.
It wasn’t the topic that caused me to feel uneasy or the obnoxious light show they often display, but rather the special guest they invited, somebody closely connected to a Christian organization that I think is toxic, a company that I personally find gross and impossible to support. At first, I silently panicked, scrolling through the Rolodex of sporadic thoughts running through my brain:
I shouldn’t be offended.
I need to leave.
I don’t want to pull the kids out of their classes.
Should I pull the kids out of their classes and leave?
I don’t want to make a scene.
I sort of want to make a scene.
I’m offended but I don’t want to be offended. But why do I feel offended?
Having somebody like me as a member of your megachurch can’t be easy—I fully realize that. It requires a lot of grace, trust, and humor. I’m survivor of church abuse. I still carry baggage. While I’ve grown a lot, sometimes, when caught off guard, I can quickly fall back into making uncomfortable experiences like the one I was encountering last Sunday all about me, about me being hurt, about me not feeling safe, about my church not considering me. On top of that, I often write about church abuse. So yes, sometimes having me as a member of your church is a big ole pain in the ass.
But Pete and I have chatted about this a good bit. And despite our differences of opinions, he and I are friends and we trust each other. (He’s quite honestly one of the friendliest and sincere people I know).
But trust is a funny thing. Because trust doesn’t mean that I’ll never walk into an uncomfortable church experience. Trust doesn’t mean that I get to control or even influence the decisions my church makes. Trust doesn’t mean I’m entitled to become offended and voice my offenses in whatever way I want.
Trust means that I can be me. I don’t have to like every decision my church makes. Trust means my church and my pastor are free to make choices and decisions that might offend me. Trust means that, when necessary, we can talk about things. Trust means that our differences in opinions do not define our friendship.
Trust means that if something makes me uncomfortable, I can simply walk out of the service and sit in the lobby and play Words With Friends.
And that’s what I did.
One person, an employee of the church, asked me if I was okay. I sighed. And I hesitated.
But trust means I get to be honest.
“I’m not really okay at the moment. I’m not a fan of fill in the blank.”
She smiled, “that’s totally okay! We all have our likes and dislikes. And that’s okay.”
And that was all that was said. I didn’t tell her what made me uncomfortable. She didn’t ask. We sat their and chatted about kids, school, life for the rest of the service.
And you know what? I felt OK. I was OK.
And then I picked up Elias and Adeline and went home.
Trust isn’t always an easy journey, especially when it involves a church, friendships, and personal feelings and baggage. But trust gives me permission to not make every decision that my church makes about me. Trust gives me the ability to feel safe and listened to even when I disagree. Trust means that I don’t have to be one the congregation’s “yes people”.
Trust allows me to write this blog post…
I love my church. I don’t love it because I always agree with every decision the leadership makes. I love it because I trust the people making those decisions, even when they decide to invite a special guest from an organization that I don’t like.
I found this vintage pamphlet at Christian Nightmares. I Googled its title because I was curious what mini skirts talk about. I found Don W. Hillis’s text at ABaptistVoice.com. Here’s a short excerpt:
Unless I am misreading the situation we seem to make our wearers a bit self-conscious. At least the girl who wears me is always tugging at my hem. Though I am not an expert on human nature, this appears to indicate some kind of complex.
I have also noted that we miniskirts have the ability to attract a good deal of masculine attention even at church. At first I took pride in the fact that men are fascinated by my pattern and color design. However, just this morning I heard the preacher say that this was not really what the young men (some not so young) were looking at. Though I was all ears when he started to preach, “The Appeal Of A Miniskirt,” I was embarrassed before he was through.
He claimed that the miniskirt does not appeal to the aesthetic. According to him, there are dozens of other dresses more beautiful than I am. His blanket statement that miniskirts do not make an aesthetic, academic, economic, moral, or spiritual contribution to their wearers left me with a feeling that I was not such a great Christian after all.
He said the only appealing thing about me was my appeal to the flesh. Then he spoke for ten minutes on the carnality of human nature. He publicly accused me of contributing to the lust of the flesh. I felt a hard tug on my hem when he said that!
That’s a mouthful, even for the 1970s…
You can read the entire text here.
A long time ago I performed a 3-minute skit at a mega-church in Washington DC. After the fourth or fifth service, a talent scout approached me, handed me his card, and said, “You, son, are an actor… we should talk… How about Wednesday? I’ll call you.”
That 45-second one-way conversation changed my life for nearly three days. I’m not kidding. Those words—you, son, are an actor—sang over and over in my brain like an annoyingly catchy song. By Sunday evening, I was daydreaming about what my life as an actor would be like, contemplating whether or not I’d be forced to move to New York City or L.A. By Monday afternoon, I had started to describe that short conversation to friends as being my “Road to Damascus” experience, like a calling from God.
By the time the talent scout called me, it was late Wednesday afternoon and I was a nervous wreck. We talked for 7 minutes. He stroked my ego a bit and then he started talking to me about his “amazing acting courses…,” courses that would take my “raw talent” to the next level. Even thought I knew I was being politely swindled, I signed up for his acting courses, partly because I can’t say no but also because I really wanted to believe that I was an actor.
But I wasn’t an actor—not really.
I mean, I’m not horrible when performing in a church skit but that hardly makes me an actor. Of course, the talent scout knew that. But he just needed me to believe that I was an actor long enough to get me to sign up for his $300 acting classes. And it worked.
But that’s one of the woes of being a creative—I turn into a giant sucker anytime somebody, especially a somebody with a fancy title, uses my creative nature as a gateway into my soul which is in close proximity to my wallet.
As a blogger/writer, I can’t help but notice how many “experts” use the same kind of lingo to wield wannabe writers into buying their books or signing up for their courses, they twist the truth just enough to make it seemingly true for all.
There are two lies that I see most of all.
The first lie is this one: “YOU ARE A WRITER!”
That’s a lie. The truth is YOU MIGHT BE A WRITER. Or YOU’RE PROBABLY NOT A WRITER.
Because the truth is 98 percent of us are not writers. It doesn’t matter that we feel like writers or that somebody who writes tells us that we’re writers—we’re probably not writers. And that’s okay.
Now, the reasons why most of us aren’t writers vary: Some of us can’t write. Some of us shouldn’t try to write. Some of us feel like writers but aren’t capable of constructing complete sentences. Some of us have nothing to write about. Some of us have the chops—that is, we’re technically capable of written communication—but we lack any unique voice or passion or work ethic or good idea. The reasons why 98 percent of us probably aren’t writers goes on and on and on.
And again, that’s okay. We don’t have to be writers. Probably not being a writer doesn’t mean we shouldn’t blog or journal or purchase Moleskine notebooks. It simply means we’re probably not a writer, at least, not in the way we might have hoped or have been told.
The second lie is this one: “YOUR STORY IS ENOUGH!”
Or “All you need is your story.”
Or “Your story is a powerful tool—use it well!”
Or “Just tell your story! The world will listen.”
I really wish this were true. I really wish that all we needed was our story to make people interested in what we have to say or do or write. But it’s not true—not for 98 percent of us. There was a time when I wished that all of our stories were the kind of stories worthy of books or well-known blogs or TED talks. But honestly, considering how heartbreaking and difficult those kinds of stories usually are, that’s a terrible wish. Most stories that get written in books or read by millions on blogs are the kind of stories that nobody should wish on anybody—there filled with struggle and death, loss and hardship, depression and disease—those stories are lived every day but they usually aren’t the stories that people hope they live.
But for the most part, the majority of our stories are all pretty unspectacular, just everyday kind of stories of common struggles or experiences that aren’t bad or boring, just not the kind of stories that most people really want to read about because their too similar to the stories they/we are living.
In order for most of us to be able to use our ordinary stories, we must have a secondary ability—we must be able to tell our stories in a way that makes people laugh or utilize our stories in a way that helps people learn something useful or compound our stories with the stories of other people in order to inspire.
That our stories are likely not enough to make us the most interesting people in the room is okay, too. While it goes against our culture’s obsessiveness with individualism, the truth is, most of us aren’t Moses. Sure, that’s not a sellable truth. That truth won’t sell books or classes or get you to sign up for conferences. But nonetheless, it’s indeed true. It’s the realities that 98 percent or more of us are living every single day. And that’s okay.
Still, today we are inundated with people who tell us that we are all writers with profound stories that we must tell the world about. Because that’s what we’ve been trained to want to hear. That’s because that’s the kind of message that sells books and ideas and it’s the kind of message that builds platforms and fills up auditoriums.
Neither of these lies means that we should stop writing or stop telling our stories. It just means we might need to edit our expectations, to live in the truth that is true for 98 percent of us.
It’s almost Christmas! One of the biggest stress points for many of us over the holiday involves spending time with our families, who are less than happy that we no longer share their worldview. So how do we do it? How can we still enjoy the holidays while navigating these difficult family waters? Benjamin L. Corey and Matthew Paul Turner sit down in this special Christmas episode to help you develop a game-plan to get through those challenge family visits.
So… how do you survive? What’s your best advice?
As you may have heard, a recent poll found that American Christians are more likely to support torture than non-religious Americans. The poll, conducted by Washington Post/ABC found that 69 percent of white evangelical Americans “believe the CIA treatment was justified.”
Are we surprised. I’m not. I wish I was surprised. But it’s par for the evangelical course in this country.
But my gosh, enough is enough. Right?
Hasn’t ENOUGH been ENOUGH for many many years?
I mean, like so many of you, I’ve long been tired of watching Jesus get dragged through America’s evangelical mud. And for some reason, 2014 has felt more exhausting than most. I mean, how far are America’s evangelicals willing to take Jesus in order to maintain (or keep safe) their cozy straight white American middle-to-upper-class lives? American evangelicals hate when other groups poke fun or mock Jesus in the public square, all the while crucifying Jesus themselves with their beliefs, fears, and actions.
How far will they go, friends?
I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of American evangelicals owning the copyright on Jesus in America. I’m tired of them treating Jesus however the hell they want to.
Way too long ago, they confiscated Jesus, stealing him away into their camps to use him as a foundation on which to stand up for or stand up against whatever best fits their own needs, their own desires, their own worldviews, and their own economic gain.
How long are they going to hold Jesus hostage in their theopolitical clutches?
How long are they going to abuse Jesus with their intolerance?
How long are they going to speak with their lips of Jesus being a healer and then use him as a weapon against the poorest Americans?
How long, friends?
So to the American evangelicals who believe that Jesus would support the unrestrained use of torture on those that they or the American government deem our enemies, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who have long mixed Jesus into every aspect of their political agendas, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who think Jesus would approve of their church’s sexist bylaws and the misogynistic culture they protect, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who think Jesus would promote, honor, give two cents about their right to own guns, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who use Jesus as an excuses to be racist and refuse to listen to the stories of people whose lives/experiences don’t line up with theirs, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who downright homophobic, just a little bit homophobic, or think they’re homophobia isn’t homophobia, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who use Jesus as a foundation on which to promote financial gain, financial prosperity, or so-called financial peace, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who believe Jesus loves illegal immigrants but would send them home in a New York minute, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who use Jesus as an excuse to harbor abusers and silence victims, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who think Jesus has ordained America’s earthly power as sovereign and without boundaries all in the name of keeping us safe, I say, let my Jesus go.
To the American evangelicals who make Jesus into a bag of unbelievable magic tricks and spiritual hocus-pocus, I say, let my Jesus go!
To the American evangelicals who still believe in the war on Christmas, think Left Behind is a biblical concept, and share those terrible Christian memes on Facebook because they think Jesus would be proud, I say, let my Jesus go.
You’ve enslaved my Jesus for too long. You’ve used my Jesus for your agendas for too long. You’ve mixed my Jesus with your hateful platforms for too long.
Let my Jesus go.
Let my Jesus go.
Apparently a lot of people who are parents hate Elf on the Shelf. And trust me, I get it. Or at least, I got it.
In 2009, I hated Elf on the Shelf, too. Heck, two weeks ago I sort-of-kind-of still hated Elf on the Shelf. I didn’t really hate the idea, I just made fun of it when my kids weren’t around.
In fact, when Jessica informed me that we were joining what I thought was the godforsaken elfing craze, I rolled my eyes and voiced with unmeasured passion my displeasure in the idea.
I knew I was fighting a losing battle considering my wife’s face was bursting with an uncanny amount of excitement, a kind that is a fortress to my negativity.
“Our kids will love it,” she said. “And it’ll be fun.”
It’s likely that I rolled my eyes one more time right before going on small rant about the concept being silly, shallow, and too popular and the toy and book being ridiculously expensive. Jessica just smiled and said, “it’s cute and fun and you just wait and see, mister…”
A few weeks later on the first of December, Elias was introduced to Sam, our elf on the shelf. He was only 3 and a bit of a doubter at the time, but soon, he was seemingly enjoying Sam’s daily antics. And though I kicked and screamed a little bit (sometimes a lot), I eventually participated in the nightly “moving Sam around our house,” helping to convince my son (and in the years that followed, Adeline, too) that Sam their elf was magically traveling 3313 miles to the North Pole each night, informing Santa about who in our house was being naughty and who was being nice.
God only knows what Sam has told Santa about me over these past several years. Though I’ve gone along with the whole elf routine, chances are, Santa puts me on his naughty list because I’ve long been a cynical jerk about the elf.
But last Monday—December 1—that changed. Last Monday I became a huge fan of #ElfOnTheShelf, a diehard advocate for our little Sam. Why? Because of what happened that morning when Elias darted from his bed, down the stairs, in hot pursuit of finding Sam. In the days leading up the first of December, as Jessica reminded Elias and Adeline of Sam’s soon-coming arrival, both of them became overwhelmed with excitement. But especially Elias—every time somebody mentioned Sam, his 6-year-old face lit up like the Christmas tree section at Target.
As he hunted for Sam on that first morning, I witnessed Elias’s imagination—pure and untouched by cynicism and/or reality—run wildly around our house. Then, when he discovered Sam sitting on our dining room table with a note addressed to him and Adeline, he shouted in delight, “He’s here! He’s really here!! Come see!!” The expression on his face was so filled up with belief and joy, it almost appeared unnatural.
I have to confess that his childlike wonder brought tears to my eyes. Partly because he’s my kid and I adore him, but also because I haven’t felt that kind of unbelievable joy since I was a kid and it was a glorious sight to behold.
Nothing washes away cynicism like seeing childlike wonderment. I mean, it’s a kind of redemption that is unexplainable until you experience it and it washes your soul clean of what ails you. And that’s what happened. I fell in love with Sam. I’ve started looking forward to moving him around after the kids go to bed. And I delight each morning in hearing Elias and Adeline search the house until they find their little elf.
This morning Adeline came downstairs and said, “You wanna hear the big news, Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Sam was in my room! And guess what he was doing?”
“He was hugging on my Cinderella doll. He’s so funny.”
“He is funny, isn’t he?”
“Yeah, I love Sam being here.”
Is Elf on the Shelf a cheesy popular holiday trend that’s possibly shallow and sometimes annoying? Sure. But it’s also just toy elf with a made-up story that inspires the imaginations of my kids… and I’d never want my grownup cynicism to harm my kids’ spirits.
As their daddy, I want to be a champion of their imaginations, an inspirer of their creativity, and a proponent of their childlike joy-filled delight.