On my extended adolescence in differentiating from evangelicalism

On my extended adolescence in differentiating from evangelicalism July 27, 2018

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My spiritual father read my daddy issues post yesterday and began watching Hillsong videos. He instantly regret it. I won’t get into details about how he will never be able to unhear what he heard, but suffice it to say that when we pray to our Father to lead us not into temptation, our temple will never be in danger of incorporating contemporary praise and worship – which really is dominated by the Hillsong sound, whether my evangelical sisters and brothers will admit it or not – into our liturgy, or even into our closing hymns. Fortunately, we do not do opening hymns in Richmond. Instead, someone reads Third Hour in Chinese, as the Divine Liturgy has already started before we know it with the Proskimedia. Therefore, we will never open a liturgy with Hillsong either.

I’ve written about how my spiritual father frequently decenters his own fatherhood in keeping with a truly Orthodox reading of the Byzantine tradition, so I am not very concerned with the irony of him reading my daddy issues post. It’s not like he’s a Latin priest, or worse, one of those fake starets who pose as Orthodox spiritual elders to gain more control over the Orthodox gullible than an evangelical authoritarian whose legitimacy rests in their self-proclamation about their divine calling. In keeping with the words of the Holy Apostle Paul to the Corinthians who really had a tendency to be seduced by charismatic self-styled leaders, my spiritual father’s fatherhood is literally based on him receiving me into the Catholic communion on his epitrakhil. Accordingly, he had a great deal to do with my catechesis, mystagogy, and growth into an informal de facto cantor who now has nightmares about the experience. There is therefore some spiritual direction involved, which I’m told is what spiritual fathers in the Orthodox churches actually do, although what my guy usually does is to listen to me tie myself in imaginative knots because of my undisciplined intellect and help me untie them. But otherwise, we enjoy a rather hilarious relationship – hence the Hillsong hilarity.

What my conversation with my spiritual father highlighted for me was the disconnect between how others, including us Eastern Catholics, see evangelicals and how evangelicals see themselves. For those of us on the outside, evangelicalism appears as a very confusing enterprise. We know that the tenets of evangelicalism somehow revolve around the inerrancy of the Bible, enthusiasm about sharing the faith, and congregational singing in which participation forms a community built around the propositions of the truth. It is rather jarring to us, then, to discover that our evangelical friends have discovered the pop psychology of the enneagram, the sensibilities of the mass entertainment industry, and a general indifference to logical coherence in their speech. Of course, given our ecumenical impulses, we do not want to be uncharitable, and the sins of Christians in other churches are not for us to confess. But there often seems to be an insurmountable gap between what evangelicals are supposed to be and who they actually are, and this is especially highlighted to us whenever they come to our churches, seek spiritual maturity, and unload their baggage. In fact, this is my story of conversion, and the stupidest thing about it is that now I have nightmares about evangelicals attending our liturgies. I wonder if I ever gave my spiritual father nightmares during my catechumenate. I suspect that I still do.

These reflections come at an interesting time for me as I come to terms with who I am as an academic. Recently, I attended the Asian Pacific American and Religion Research Initiative (APARRI) conference, which has been a kind of scholarly home for me since I was in graduate school. The difference between when I first started attending just under a decade ago and now is that I was an evangelical figuring out what Anglicanism was back then and I am an Eastern Catholic who has left evangelicalism now. I confessed to a colleague at this most recent meeting that my doctoral project on Cantonese-speaking Protestants and their engagements with Pacific Rim civil societies – which I conducted, wrote up, and have been struggling to publish from between that time and now – really was just me figuring out my own baggage with folks I thought of at the time as my people. The trouble is that I found myself pegged by those who met me as a Cantonese Protestant myself, and while that would have been true until after shortly after the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, the struggle to differentiate has been emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually taxing indeed. Perhaps some daddy issues were at play here too. My doctoral supervisor had mentioned to me early in my program that, in contrast to my previous writing, maybe I should not write so confessionally. What probably happened was that I continued to write confessions while denying that that is what they were. No wonder I found myself intellectually paralyzed later on.

I suppose this process of differentiation is what I have been terming recently my ‘extended adolescence.’ Adolescents sometimes do stupid things because they have to prove that they are adults, and I have been no different. I presented a paper at this conference that had been rejected more times than I can count. It was about Cantonese Protestants and First Nations in Vancouver, and I have been deeply insecure about this piece, mostly because it comes from my doctoral work and is therefore based on interviews with Cantonese Protestants, with no indigenous voices to speak back in the paper. I wondered if this issue was fatally problematic, and I solicited advice from my colleagues. In my session, they kindly informed me that the essay was not at all about indigenous peoples. Really, it was about evangelicals and their visions for social justice, often refracted through their imaginations about who the First Nations were. It dawned on me when they said that what the extent of the devastation of my intellectual immaturity has been. I was trying to demonstrate that I could do cool things in my research – look at me! I work on indigenous peoples too! But real adults have nothing to prove, and my colleagues were gently encouraging me to put on the mantle of adulthood and to write about what I’ve always written about – the evangelicals.

It is a weird place to be – to be so intimately familiar with what evangelicals really are without being part of their network. It is a little bit like my relationship with political conservatism: I can understand how someone who is caught in its ideological edifices might become a Trump supporter, but that world feels more like an alternate universe in which I used to live. I especially felt this way when I attended the recent ordination of a friend of mine to pastoral ministry in a Protestant community that my wife and I used to attend. They wouldn’t call themselves evangelicals because of the connotations of conservatism, but it is difficult to deny that they are, at least in form: they emphasize biblical proclamation, their understanding of Christian faith tends to focus on the individual, the stuff they read is still published in evangelical networks. In fact, they were supportive of my conversion to Eastern Catholicism, as they themselves are into ecumenical networking (with even some Catholics attending their services), icons, and sacred silence. Again, my noting these facts might be jarring to observers outside of evangelicalism, but those within the movement will not find these attempts to recover tradition, contemplation, and materiality unusual. Older evangelicals will remember the infusion of John Michael Talbot into their services and the works of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard in their reading. Those in my generation will recall the folk revival achieved in contemporary Christian music by Caedmon’s Call, Jars of Clay, and Sixpence None the Richer, especially in the closest thing that evangelicals have had to the guitar mass: the City on a Hill series where they set the Sursum Corda to a folksy melody. My friends younger than me inform me that Gungor, the Rend Collective, and Bethel Music have taken up this baton, and secretly, I consider Brooke Fraser’s secular music to be a kind of contemplative music within the loudness of Hillsong. And all of this does not include the attempts within evangelicalism to recover Protestantism as a tradition, whether in the updates to hymns by the Passion Worship Band or the anthems of Keith and Kristin Getty.

I thought I was still well apprised of the situation in evangelicalism when I attended this ordination, but the truth is that I was a stranger in that space. It had nothing to do with the fact that the friend getting ordained was a woman; those whose daddy issues make them insecure about the fact that Protestants ordain women should be reminded that Catholic and Orthodox churches would not survive without women cantors, readers, servers, monastics, and parish council heads and that our temples are not yet misogynistic enough to exclude women from our liturgical spaces (and that we feminists in the apostolic churches will not only fight the misogynists among us, but will also win because the defining feature of fragility is that they will break). Instead, it had to do with my own liturgical formation. It turns out that worshipping in a Kyivan temple week in and week out, and that playing hooky means that I am at a Novus Ordo mass where I can still take communion, retools one’s bodily comportment in the act of worship.

Somatically, I am used to a certain rhythm in the liturgy. As a Byzantine Christian, those rhythms include the flexibility to improvise as a lay person – to make reverences whenever I feel inwardly moved, to move freely around the sanctuary as if there were no pews, to venerate icons all around the temple as acts of worship. I felt a bit constrained by the compartmentalization of a hymn here, a reading there, a speech to listen quietly to, and the social need to match the lifting of one’s hands in ecstatic devotion in a praise-and-worship song to the chord progressions that are supposed to cue the ecstasy (not to mention that those who worship so ecstatically should be advised to douse themselves liberally with deodorant before attending these services). Much as I knew the nuances of evangelical networking and was familiar with the ways that evangelicalism denies that it is a self-contained tradition, I became keenly aware that this space was not my home. I am home in the Kyivan Church. When I am in an evangelical place, I am now a guest.

How do I write about a home that I have left? Those who are unfamiliar with the rhythms of academia might not understand why it is that I cannot simply stop publishing about Protestants, but alas, I am an academic and cannot be so naïve. The Cantonese Protestants make up the doctoral work that I still have to write articles about and revise from a dissertation to a book manuscript that will actually sell. My evangelical friends may therefore quip – and may get much agreement from Catholics and Orthodox who are annoyed that I still care so much about evangelicalism – that maybe I shouldn’t have left. I suppose they may have a point, but that sounds a little bit like the current discussion within academia about the perils of getting married and having kids while on the job. Falling in love is not something for which one plans, but it happens, and you go all in with your spouse (which I also did) – and in my case, with a church too. How much humanity one sacrifices at the altar of the career is up to each person. I’ve made my choices because I happen to enjoy being alive.

Here, I think my true difficulty with evangelicalism is finally revealed. At the end of the day, the main driving engine of evangelicalism is its subtle identity politics. Those who are quick to accuse liberation movements of employing the politics of identity usually forget about the identities that have been normalized – whiteness in terms of race, evangelical Protestantism in terms of Christianity. The subtlety of an evangelical ideology lies in its inclusiveness. Stripping Christianity to what it thinks is its bare minimum of the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of Scripture, to be evangelical is to be a mere Christian, in the words of C.S. Lewis. Unfortunately, there is nothing mere about either Lewis’s Anglicanism or its evangelical reception. Once received into the us of the mere Christian, one then learns what one has to give up all of one’s critical faculties in order to be ‘loving’ toward one’s sisters and brothers in Christ, which usually turn out not so much to be persons with flesh and bone, but institutions with bureaucracies and bylaws instead. One is gaslit into thinking that both engaging in critique is to risk dismantling the kingdom of God and that leaving the movement is to relinquish one’s critical voice, and this ideology works for the most part because one does not realize that one has completely conflated the institutions of evangelicalism with the Body of Christ.

The first rule of writing about evangelicalism, as I have been learning on my complicated journey, is to refuse the us. If I am really to engage in scholarship, the first thing that has to go is the politics of identity, the equation of what I write about with who I am. It turns out that going through the time of differentiating myself from evangelicalism not only brought on an extended adolescence, but was actually necessary in my process of maturation. At least I hope that’s true, and I pray that the feeling of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel is really the exit, and not – as Slavoj Žižek says – an oncoming train.

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