Doesn’t it always go this way? You think you have everything figured out in this nutty ride of a life, and then another curve ball comes your way, and you realize: “Oh woo-wee-woo, I was way off”? The good old tale of repentance (rethink everything) and ego check, right? Well, let me tell you a little story of my journey from growing up in Mormonism, finding my way to Evangelicalism, then breaking free (so I thought) into Progressive Christianity. There and back again– a layman’s clueless tale of the journey through this crazy religion called American Christianity (Bilbo Baggins doesn’t have shit on me, ok?).
Now before I get into this, let me just say that when I say American Christianity, I am coming from the perspective of how Christianity in America has become more American than Christ-like. As a citizen of the United States and a student of the Jesus tradition, I’ve seen some interesting “stuff,” to say the least. Not to say America is this hopeless place where the devil reigns and Hollywood elites conquer all who get in their way (relax my conservative peeps). Also, I am not saying that America is a God-awful nation due to its history with racism and colonialism (just breathe, my progressive friends). America as a country has amazing qualities and some major flaws (like all countries, right?).
All I am getting at here is when it comes to the Christian Religion in America, it has been more of an American mascot (civil religion) rather than a countercultural movement. Alas, I guess it’s hard to find the Jesus Way in our current western cultural climate…but that’s ok! I believe it (I.e., The Gospel) is, was, and always been an invitation to all cultures…we all just need to step into that seekers-mindset to experience it.
Ok, back to my story through my stint in denominational American Christianity and how it formed and shaped my experience with Christ. Look, I am going to be as “graceful” as I can here. Disclaimer: These stories that I experienced are more about the issues with isms than the people. This is in the similar spirit to what Brian Zahnd wrote in his new book When Everything’s On Fire,
“I’ve benefited greatly from Orthodox soteriology, Catholic practices of spiritual formation, Anglican liturgy, mainline scholarship, Anabaptist peace studies, evangelical energy, and the Pentecostal emphasis on the Holy Spirit.”
When Everything’s On Fire, pg. 57
Thankfully (I know this is not everybody’s experience), I am at a place of no regrets and have nothing but gratitude for the things I have seen on this loopy-train I call American Christianity.
Like most Americans, we all have some type of Judeo-Christian influence in our early upbringing. My cup of tea (or poison, depending on how you look at it) was the L.D.S. faith. Both my parents were converted at an early age and never looked back. We were full-fledged members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My parents still have their temple recommends and are serving a couple’s mission in Cancun, Mexico (enjoying a non-alcoholic margarita and helping the poor). Out of my four siblings and I, only one is still an active member of the church.
All the rest of us, I guess, fall in the nones and dones category. Mormonism has its issues (like all sects in Christianity). Several Christians consider them not part of the Jesus tradition due to various reasons – mostly due to the whole Jesus not being God and being our literal older brother – but I don’t know? Yes, throughout my history growing up in this faith, I did have some strange and unhealthy encounters.
Take, for example, Bishop’s interviews. Nobody should be asking if you masterbate regardless of how “holy” the setting is (religious trauma, anyone?). But I also had some Jesus moments – like having my Pops lay hands on me when I came down with the chickenpox and feeling that spirit of healing. So, who am I to say that some of the people within the Mormon faith aren’t part of The Way (again, it’s about the people, not the isms)? Anywho, I never really attempted to dig into my faith when growing up. I eventually stopped participating in my late teens and never gave Mormonism a second thought until I met my future wife. We dated about six months, she became pregnant (premarital sex…sinners!?), and we were still both in college.
I decided to go back to my Christian roots (I guess big life events have that effect). My wife was part of a big megachurch in North County, San Diego, at the time. Wow, what an experience the megachurch was. Such a different atmosphere versus Mormonism. You had fog light machines, flip flops, Hawaiian shirts, rock bands, free coffee, big screens, and altar calls. It was freeing in a way compared to my other experience in Mormonism. But the Mormons always say, “We are the true Church,” so I wanted to dig in the L.D.S. faith to put that to the test. What I found wasn’t so great, to say the least. I don’t want to get into that much here due to the “internet,” but long story short, I felt that I was not told the whole truth of the history of Mormonism and its founder Joseph Smith. It was difficult to say the least, but I felt like I found the “truth” at my evangelical church…until I started digging into their history as well.
In the end, it was more of an issue with the fundamentalist aspect of their doctrine stance. Eternal conscious torment, penal substitution atonement, and original sin are the God-ordained truth, and if you differ, you are on a slippery slope to heresy. Now, I never was accused of any “heresies” (most likely because I didn’t really get into too much depth in email conversations with the head pastors…megachurch, remember?), but I think it was more of listening to the sermon every Sunday and seeing these doctrines oozing out, became just a little too much for me to engorge. I am not trying to tell my kids, “Jesus loves you, but if you don’t love him back, he will burn you for all eternity” (I know it’s not that simple, but you get my drift).
After 3 years of doing Evangelicalism, I was over “church” because what I saw was just a small group of people trying to control the masses (God damn oligarchy). Fuck that mess. I also realized a lot of the way it was being presented was a more conservative presentation (similar to what I saw from Mormonism). So, I went into the wilderness for the next couple of years and deconstructed my faith. Talk about the dark night of the soul. It was a schizophrenic two years, Lordy lord! Atheist one day, agnostic the next (which I still am at times, so it works). All seemed lost until…drum roll, please…Progressive Christianity! Man, what a breath of fresh air! I stepped into a mainline church and didn’t feel judged for my interpretations of what this faith was all about.
For the next four years, I made it my home. I even started a little ministry called Hazy Divinity – where I brewed homemade beer with my pastor and talked about theology in creative ways. Shoot, I was even on the board as an Elder. I was in Flynn, and it felt great! Until it wasn’t. Covid hit, and everything changed. It has been a shit show of the last couple of years, and what was my progressive church doing? Their part, I guess. Look, they did and are still doing great things. It just shouldn’t be the only option for Jesus’ people to choose from. Let’s say it felt like I was more part of the Democratic Party than Jesus’ church. Not that in itself is right or wrong. I just feel we need more of a balance.
It’s a divided landscape right now in this country. Taking part in us vs. them paradigm is just making it worse. Progressive Christianity seems to be another dualistic way of “doing” church. Yes, I am all for inclusion with all walks of life–but Progressive Christianity seems to be becoming just another club that, whether it realizes it or not, has excluded other groups. I am not trying to preach some type of “bothsideism,” but maybe “allsideism”? Didn’t Jesus eat with Pharisees and prostitutes? Didn’t he make disciples of Simon the zealot and Matthew, the tax collector? I wasn’t seeing this type of diversity. My soul couldn’t hang. I had to step away from my progressive church and step back into the wilderness…
Wokeness isn’t the be-all and end-all of reality. Traditionalism isn’t the foundation that never falters. How about we learn to dance it out with Grace? It seems like what it always boils down to is this: Are we really going to love the other despite all the challenges with relationships (from personal to communal)? A church can so easily fall into the trap of groupthink, which will eventually always bring about division instead of unity within adversity. Right now, isn’t the most countercultural thing to do as “Christians” is to unite despite all our differences? It seems pretty un-American to me (no pun attended).