The Long Theological Shadow

The Long Theological Shadow September 5, 2018
Image credit: Pixabay

You’d be forgiven for thinking that many American churches these days are desperately trying to be something they’re not. A drive through my North Texas suburb takes one past massive churches bearing names like “Freedom,” “Sojourn,” “The Ridge,” “Bent Tree,” and—my personal favorite—“” Stodgy designators like Methodist and Presbyterian and Lutheran are out; sleeker, more “seeker-friendly” names are in. (Some groups conceal their crypto-Baptist sensibilities better than others.)

On some level, though, these rebranding campaigns make sense. Broadly speaking, organized religion has fallen out of favor with my generation. “I’m spiritual, but not religious” has become ubiquitous to the point of banality. And skepticism—though less of God than of His institutional representatives—is undeniably the order of the day (often, sadly, for good reason). While some argue that millennials will be back to the pews as soon as they have kids—following an age-old pattern—it’s hard to avoid the realization that something is different this time. Any honest observer has to admit that many likely won’t be coming back.

Though I was brought up in conservative Lutheran parishes—not exactly known for their embrace of cultural fads—my upbringing was inflected (by osmosis) with 1990s-2000s evangelical sensibilities. And true to form, I was a typical “church kid”—reading in church, helping lead youth group classes, doing service projects, and so on. (At one point I even went to a youth retreat for potential future ministers.) I later headed off to a small Christian college near Washington, D.C., with a student body composed of people with histories much like mine. We were all full of enthusiasm and energy, and we were going to change the world. At least, we thought so.

Over and over again, the same pattern would play out. A couple years in, something would happen—usually a bitter disappointment of some sort—and students would find themselves calling their foundations into question. I’m sure this is the case at any college, but I have to think the effects were particularly pronounced at mine. Once that disillusionment set in, it was very difficult to shake. To this day, many alumni from my school continue to post extended screeds on social media about the poison of evangelical culture, the horrors of homeschooling, and the evils of the patriarchy. (It’s worth noting that despite all their claims of liberation from their oppressive upbringing, most still strike me as profoundly unhappy. We called them the “bitter alumni” for a reason.)

In recent years, there’s emerged a cottage industry of “exvangelical” books and podcasts catering to this specific demographic—those raised Christian, but now seeking forms of spirituality or authenticity outside the constraints of church. Besides the big names like Rachel Held Evans and Rob Bell, one thinks of Peter Enns and Jared Byas’ The Bible for Normal People, Kevin Porter and Caroline Ely’s Good Christian Fun, Mike McHargue and Michael Gungor’s The Liturgists, and many others. Most echo a common refrain: You just do you, folks. It’s cool if religion works for you, but it’s also cool if it doesn’t.

This message is both temporarily reassuring and ultimately dissatisfying. Perhaps it’s a message some folks long to hear—especially those emerging from distinctly toxic environments—but it provides small comfort in the long run. You do you necessarily transforms matters of core conviction into optional window dressing, forcing any seeker of truth—real, foundational, objective truth—to leave disappointed. (Although, as it turns out, most “exvangelicals” do have their own absolute, core convictions after all.)

I find these “exvangelical” perspectives interesting for a different reason: namely, the common thread in their accounts of why they left the church behind. Many talk about hypocrisy among church leadership, sexual abuse scandals, disagreement with traditional attitudes towards homosexuality, and so forth. But one criticism stands out as nearly universal: I never felt like I could ask questions. I never felt like I was allowed to wonder “why.”

This is a shame, because perhaps paradoxically, the engagement with such questions is one of the church’s profoundest strengths. In fact, it’s what kept me in—and more specifically, what kept me Lutheran.

At the same time one contingent of my college peers was abandoning their upbringing, another cohort was evolving in a different direction. They were realizing that the liturgy of centuries past was rather more substantive than the latest praise-and-worship jam. They were appreciating the gift of a vast historical tradition that had long ago reckoned with every question my generation could throw at it. (There really is nothing new under the sun.) Most importantly, they were beginning to explore the shadowy and largely misunderstood (for American Protestants) expanse of centuries between the era of the apostles and the beginning of the Reformation. Some went on to swim the Tiber to become Catholic, others swam the Bosporus to become Orthodox, and still others became Anglican or Lutheran or magisterial Presbyterian.

Sometimes it takes being a bystander to others’ journeys to realize what’s most important in your own. That’s precisely how I began to see the church universal—my church—through different eyes.

I awakened to the understanding, first and foremost, that Christianity had always been much more than hellfire insurance. The church had grappled with the most important issues in existence—questions of duty and free will and politics and sex and art and so on—for millennia. In fact, most of the history of the West was a story of engagement with the truth-claims of the Christian tradition. Those truth-claims form the groundwork for contemporary cultural debates over equality, liberty, identity, and countless others. Far from being a question-free zone, the church had always been the epicenter of engagement with those questions.

A necessary consequence of this insight was the recognition, with St. Augustine, that “all truth is God’s truth.” That is to say, it makes little sense to carve out “sacred” and “secular” categories of reasoning. Rather, everyday reality is saturated with matters of eternal concern, whether or not we’re aware of it. I’m a touch leery of using the term “worldview” here—but that’s really what we’re talking about. To put it simply: everything we encounter is ultimately “theological,” whether we admit it or not. All aspects of our experience implicate questions of ultimate concern, as Paul Tillich might say. The real question is whether we’re willing to acknowledge that.

Perhaps the churches of today’s seeking millennials and “exvangelicals” went astray when they sought to disavow the uniqueness of their role—the wonderful joy and privilege of engaging those foundational concerns. And I’m certainly not the first to suggest this, but the megachurches maybe lost a generation when they sought to rebrand as something more akin to a spa or corporate retreat than a place of reverence, a site of encounter with the ultimate source and end of all reality. Such a rebranding, after all, concedes far too much to the desaturated cultural landscape of late modern life.

Perhaps in the end, all those pesky questions were never really threats, but signs of a heartfelt longing to know God more deeply.

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  • Good_Samaritan

    “It’s worth noting that despite all their claims of liberation from their oppressive upbringing, most still strike me as profoundly unhappy. We called them the “bitter alumni” for a reason.”

    Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation, but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.

  • TinnyWhistler

    You say that you didn’t experience the same things that the “bitter alumni” complain about. Have you considered that maybe they DID and that’s why they have issues with the church?

    My home schooling experience was pretty good, and the only really “bad” thing I can point to is that it allowed me to put off dealing with some symptoms of mental illness that came roaring back the moment I went to college.
    Even though I had a good experience, I know there were many, many kids who did not. One woman at our church used the flexibility and autonomy of home schooling to be pretty darn terrible to her kids and then threaten to pack up and leave if anyone tried to intervene. At one point she left and we didn’t see any of them for two years. There were a number of families I knew who looked great on the outside but had horribly abusive parents. One of my close friends almost committed suicide and another only still talks to her parents at all because she’s the only way her siblings get to leave the house. As soon as her youngest sister turns 18 and moves out, she’s going to cut ties completely. I have more stories from people I know personally, if you like.

    Simply dismissing people as bitter without listening to WHY they might be that way is horrifically unkind. These people I know will have physical and mental scars for the rest of their lives.

    Is this sort of thing universal within conservative, evangelical, home schooling communities? No. Is a conservative, evangelical worldview used to excuse it? Yes. Is it very easy to hide when the kids never leave the house? Yes.

    I’m glad that other people’s pain has made you have some sort of spiritual epiphany. Maybe now that you’ve gleaned such great insight you can find some empathy for them rather than just dismissing them as “bitter alumni” who don’t know what they’re missing.

  • NorrinRadd

    “[T]he liturgy of centuries past was rather more substantive than the latest praise-and-worship jam.”

    As a Pentecostal/Charismatic who has lately been engaged online with people of the John MacArthur “Strange Fire” way of thinking, that line is a bit prickly. It’s my observation on the one hand that there is no obvious “liturgy” in the New Covenant, while Psa. 149-150 seem strikingly like “the latest praise-and-worship jam.”

    One might, therefore, wonder a bit about the “substance” of that “substantive” descriptor.