‘Walking, stumbling, on these shadowfeet’: re-visiting the ‘postevangelical’ as ‘postsecular’

‘Walking, stumbling, on these shadowfeet’: re-visiting the ‘postevangelical’ as ‘postsecular’ October 27, 2018

Brooke Fraser in Los Angeles July 2010 – by Crs management, 18 July 2010, 01:45:49 (CC BY-SA 3.0 [https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en]), via Wikimedia Commons
Two nights ago, I went on a whim to see what Brooke Fraser is doing these days. Her work had come up on my news feed, but honestly, I had not really thought about her since her album Albertine. In the good old days of my early Anglicanism, I used to put that album on my iPod and head out to a bench that I called my own on the dyke in Richmond, the Vancouver suburb that is not all Chinese after all. There, I’d put it on repeat, and it would play over and over and over again.

There are some very scenic, quiet, meditative spots in Richmond, especially on the south arm of the Fraser River. Only a corny evangelical as I could have thought to listen to Brooke Fraser on the Fraser. While I listened, I read Augustine’s Confessions, from one end to the other, which meant I must have listened to the album at least ten or twelve times in a go to get through the whole book from early morning to evening when it was just getting dark. I did that perhaps three or four times a year, a consistent practice from when I was firmly trying to integrate what I took to be the evangelical theology of New Calvinists like John Piper and Mark Driscoll with my accidental foray into Anglican praxis all the way past my burnout in 2008 and subsequent exploration of Catholic nouvelle théologie and Orthodox conceptions of the supernatural in the material. Albertine carried me through some dark times and theological crises, not least because I had a personal connection to it: canonically, I was an Anglican in the Province of Rwanda until I became Eastern Catholic, and Albertine is at its core Brooke Fraser’s C.S. Lewis meditation on the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide.. From the moment that first chord is hit and her voice croons, Walking, stumbling, on these shadowfeet, I don’t think of myself in some intellectually intertextual way in some C.S. Lewis fantasy, though that is what it was. I was in the zone, and it was there on that bench, my special place right off where No 3 Road ends and the dyke begins, that I read the Confessions perhaps a dozen times.

I confess, and do not deny, but admit freely that at the time my embrace of New Calvinist evangelicalism crumbled in on itself, the song that had attached itself to my consciousness was Hillsong United’s ‘Hosanna.’ You could say that it was Fraser’s baby, except that she likes to keep her secular and praise-and-worship careers separate from each other. It was a perversely glorious way to go out of evangelical ministry, in a blaze of glory with revival stirring a new generation and the King of glory coming on the clouds with fire and the whole earth shaking. The person that I hurt the most when I went out with a bang – someone I had let shoulder the blame for the ministry mistakes I had made – told me two things. First, it was imperative that I never do what I did to her to my future wife, or else, in her words, she will divorce you. The second was to keep singing ‘Hosanna’ as a form of repentance for what I had done. I obeyed the first injunction, but not the second, although the truth is that I am frequently reminded of it when we arrive at the Anaphora in the Divine Liturgy when we sing Hosanna and bless the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

I had not listened to Fraser for a while, but the repose this week of the (post)evangelical spiritual theology giant Eugene Peterson reminded me of her, for some reason. For all my criticisms of his ‘spiritual theology’ as overly privatizing and removed from the jungle of the real world, I think the free association may have occurred because Peterson is another one of these people who bridges my life in evangelicalism and my departure from that movement. I remember in high school not only reading The Message, but also his endorsement of Rebecca St James’s song and book ‘Wait for Me’ on sexual purity. When I was caught up in the New Calvinism of my undergraduate days, the link between my local surroundings of Regent College on the University of British Columbia campus where I was working out my theology as a student and the ideological network I had been sucked into was Peterson, with (of all people) Mark Driscoll and his pastoral staff frequently citing Peterson in their sermons on the Sabbath and the possibility of Christian art due to the saturation of the world with God’s grace. Even after my departure from the evangelical movement, Peterson’s sense of the supernatural introduced me to the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and assured me that reading Hans Urs von Balthasar did not mean that I’d need to become Catholic. In fact, I’d say that it was in some part because of Peterson’s readings of Balthasar that it took me eight years to convert, and when I did, I ended up becoming Eastern Catholic, and thankfully so, because it required a real conversion and not just an ecclesial transfer.

My research two nights ago into Brooke Fraser’s newer material yielded a 2016 single titled ‘Therapy‘ and a 2015 album called Brutal Romance, causing me to wonder if she, like me, had had a psychoanalytic turn (though I would say that I never turned toward psychoanalysis – it is more that I have come back to it). I assured myself that she was still leading worship for Hillsong, finding that the new hit song ‘What a Beautiful Name‘ came out at the same time (I have not missed that much, I don’t think). My pop psychoanalysis posse in the Kyivan Psychoanalysis Study Group was quite shocked by my discoveries, though. They’ve been going on and on about how Madonna, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey have a Catholic sensibility that finds the supernatural even in trash, much like Andy Warhol (lending this Catholic imagination to a Byzantine reading). I didn’t tell them who Brooke Fraser was and her dual-track career; I just told them to listen to it, to which they said that it was close to Lady Gaga and Ariana, which is when I dropped the bomb on them that she was part of the Pentecostal megachurch, making one of them remark that it was remarkable that Fraser could have written and recorded all of that without becoming Catholic. It doesn’t surprise me, though, as Charles Taylor does say in A Secular Age that one of the ways that people in a secular age might rediscover the spiritual constitution of the material world may be through Pentecostalism. The snobs may poo-poo Hillsong, even United. Brooke Fraser’s classics – ‘None But Jesus,’ ‘Lead Me to the Cross,’ ‘Hosanna,’ ‘What a Beautiful Name’ – will always have a special place in my heart, reminders as they are to me that I am a pastoral ministry dropout.

One of the people in this pop posse then piped up and told me to listen to Gungor. The truth is that I have only heard Gungor covered by Asian American evangelicals and had been completely unaware of their recent journey toward atheism and back again into the folds of some kind of Christianity. Indeed, what is relevant to Relevant Magazine is usually irrelevant to me, especially since this scandal of evangelical celebrities doubting God’s existence is really more of a predictable trope with a line that runs from Amy Grant to Rob Bell. If Michael and Lisa Gungor studied at Oral Roberts University, burned out at a megachurch, and had an atheist phase, it’s really more of the same as far as evangelicalism is concerned, especially in the music industry where even an Audrey Assad – a Catholic – can voice her doubts in the same register, and in Relevant Magazine, no less. This is the same messy scene where Jennifer Knapp and Vicky Beeching came out as lesbians, Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer became secular bands, and (for those who can remember) Sandi Patty had an affair and it did not end her career. For all that is said about evangelical conformity, the only conforming that I see is that thinking human people with sexual desires usually do not fare well in this world and end up dropping out, ditching God, and then finding him in some other way again. Time and time again, it is the story of Lonnie Frisbee, the hippie preacher without whom neither Calvary Chapel nor the Vineyard would have been possible and yet who was systematically erased from their history because his gay affairs with his congregants led him to contract AIDS.

Postevangelicalism, as far as I understand it, is really part of what it means to have gone through evangelicalism as a series of publics. Of course, one is schooled at an early age not to believe what CNN says about evangelicals as a voting bloc and to eschew all labels except for ‘follower of Christ’ or ‘Bible-believing Christian,’ but that such schooling takes place via the publics that constitute evangelicalism – the radio, the music, the Sunday school and Vacation Bible School curriculum, the books, the magazines – suggests that it really is just part of the machine. It’s like there is a corporate conspiracy toward evangelical shallowness. Those who seek a kind of spiritual depth soon find themselves crowded out by the glitz. Forced as if by inward impulse to leave the movement, they depart, but because of their dedication, it is as if their departures cannot but be public. The moment of doubt and darkness is when they become interesting: people pray for them, the evangelical press covers them, their sources of income disown them.

The only people who notice that there is nothing at all of interest in this story are those who have never been evangelical. This plot recurs too often for it to be novel. Doomed to predictability, those caught up in this narrative soon find that no one cares, especially not a world that has always seen evangelicalism for the delusion that it is. Their stories are thus published in the same magazines that gave them rise, their listeners the same people who occasioned their initial popularity. Sometimes there is a comeback, a return that is more muted, in which they are portrayed as wiser, when they pastor small churches that meet in homes, are ordained in rural communities, and brew their own beer. Usually, postevangelicalism is nothing more than the evangelicalism came before, its workings mystified by the spirit of capitalism instead of the Holy Spirit.

There is a strange irony that at the moment I proclaimed my departure from the networks of evangelicalism, mostly by fully diving into the Anglican Communion as a ‘Chinglican,’ I also fully dove into the vector of scholarly analysis that I have finally admitted is postsecularPostsecularism may sound like a fancy term, but there is an inferiority complex associated with it because there is hardly anyone who knows what exactly it refers to (except that it is whatever is after secularism, whatever that is), but also because one’s choice of theorists range the gamut from the bourgeois Jürgen Habermas to the idiosyncratic and monstrously vile philosopher Slavoj Žižek and theologian John Milbank. Charles Taylor, one might protest, is respectable; his book, I answer, is too long. To study the postsecular is to operate like an evangelical in more than one sense of the term: one insists that the supernatural is at work in the world despite scepticism, and one denies that one is engaged in what one is deeply invested. Just as an evangelical never identifies as such, those whose scholarship is on the postsecular seldom admit it, except to be vulgar.

I have referred to a number of phenomena in my recent posts as postsecular, especially the emergence of quasi-theological narratives about feminist empowerment in the face of rape culture from Ariana Grande’s ‘God Is a Woman’ to Christine Blasey Ford’s exposure of the world of elite Catholic education as the cesspool that spawned the sex abuse crisis in the Latin Church. When I listened to Brooke Fraser’s newest work with my pop psychoanalysis posse, I immediately free-associated it with the postsecular. It was fortuitous transference. I read afterward that in Fraser’s quest not to be seen as a ‘Christian’ artist, she wished to have something to say to her audiences that wasn’t preachy, but was more meditative, unquilted, with no easy answers. You could say that Fraser’s separation of her careers belies the secular. But the postsecular does not presume the erasure of secularity. It is simply to challenge its premises, and if Fraser is bringing the doubts and romances, erotic affects and spiritual musings, into her music, it fits within the rubric of the postsecular indeed.

And so it was the next day that I found myself in my office with my research assistant, the one who has helped me so much with the psychoanalysis, and put before him these two terms I am revisiting: the postsecular and the postevangelical. My student has never been evangelical, and in describing to him the phenomenon of postevangelicalism, I found myself having to assume nothing, to describe simply without editorialization, to evoke in him empathy with a world of which he had no experience. It was helpful, and at the end of it, I had a sudden realization. Describing the postevangelical as such required a distance from it, a break that I had achieved not only by sundering myself from the term, but also by leaving evangelicalism in an actual way in my conversion to Eastern Catholicism. Friends of mine have laughed at this delusion of a clean disjuncture, of course, pointing out that I talk about evangelicalism more than ever now than before. At least, I retort, I am not repressing it.

My final reflection, as I have listened endlessly over the past two days to Gungor and Brooke Fraser, is that they, especially Fraser, have my admiration. I am sure that they have seen more than what I’ve seen, and yet unlike me, they have not fully left that world. This, I reflect, is its own kind of integration, one that I attempted and was not able to sustain. What is interesting to me is not their rise, fall, and redemption. It is how they are able to encounter the supernatural that is there in the world regardless of our ecclesial homes and do their best to find a home in their deeply flawed networks, even as we in the apostolic churches have to adjudicate sex abuse crises, the relation of bishops to laity, ideologies of neo-imperialism, and problems of ethnonationalist misreadings of local church ecclesiologies. To see what they see and to stay – this is the marvel to me, though it is not entirely unheard of, given the ecclesial mess in which I too find myself in my home. But I admire them, and without sarcasm I can honestly say that when I hear their music, I am back on that bench on the dyke off No 3 Road in Richmond reading Augustine’s Confessions seeking the stillness that comes only from rest in the One who suffuses the world with his energies.

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