Evangelicalism: It’s Not Just a Messaging Problem

Evangelicalism: It’s Not Just a Messaging Problem October 21, 2014

Rachel Held Evans recently wrote an honest and courageous reflection on the biblical story of Abraham nearly killing his son, Isaac.  She knocked it out of the park, in fact, and I think it’s one of her strongest posts to date.  Following the lead of Peter Enns, she challenges the notion that a high view of scripture must necessarily be accompanied by a high view of one’s own way of interpreting it.  It’s a valid point to make, one that I wish my Evangelical friends would more thoughtfully consider.


She calls out influential preachers like John Piper, who said:

It’s right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases…God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good.

As a graduate of Reformed Seminary, I struggled with this notion plenty myself in the past, and as far as I’m concerned Evans puts her finger right on the heart of the ethical dilemma this approach to theism cannot avoid:

But why would the very God I believe imprinted us all with a conscience—with a deep sense of right and wrong—ask me to deny that conscience by accepting genocide as just?

Indeed, that is a key contradiction.  You cannot tell me in one breath that God is the source of our own sense of morality and then in the very next breath tell me that God cannot be expected to be consistent with that sense he placed within us.  Or at bare minimum, if we cannot expect him to be subject to any moral codes himself—and if whatever he does is right—then it wouldn’t logically follow that anything can be called “wrong” since anything you can come up with could presumably be “right” under the right circumstances.

A Moral Relativist?  I Know You Are But What Am I?

When I tell people I’m an atheist, the most common (and most exasperating) response I get is: “Well, without God, where do you get your morals from?”  Inevitably they will tell me that I cannot have an objective framework for morality if I don’t believe in spirits and afterlives (which is rubbish), but the irony is that between the two of us, my challenger is actually the one who cannot categorically condemn any moral choice we could make. John Piper will tell you in a heartbeat that killing your child is totally legit if God tells you to do it, because the Bible tells him so.

In the end, if whatever God tells you to do is right, then morality is fundamentally relative.  Once you’ve decided on that way of thinking, it inevitably devolves into a theological debate about God’s feelings.  This is a highly subjective discussion, of course, since one of the key tenets of monotheism is that if there is a God, you’re probably not him.  So how is it that you feel qualified to determine what he wants and what he doesn’t (and for that matter, why it has to be a “he”)?  It’s your word against another man’s word, not God’s word against everyone else’s.  You can try saying “but the Bible says,” except that’s really the word of more people just like you.  Any attempt to deny this leads to untenable absurdity because the Bible isn’t even consistent with itself.  Biblical writers didn’t all see everything the same way.

But enough about that.  I’d rather call out one of Evans’s critics, who responded to this brilliant post with typical Reformed condescension.

Predictable Push Back

A guy I’ve never heard of chastised Evans on his blog for not toeing the party line on the Doctrine of Biblical Perfection, patronizingly patting her on her pretty little head and saying:

She was never mature enough (as far as theological training) to tread the waters she started treading…

Bless her undereducated female heart.  If only she had credentials like whats-his-name has from, let’s see, Multnomah Bible College?  And Multnomah Seminary?  Ah, yes, those powerhouses of theology that brought us The Prayer of Jabez.  If only.  Or maybe if she had subsequently fallen in love with Reformed theology and had learned her place in the order of things.

But more than just accusing her of lacking credentials, whats-his-name goes on to accuse her of mental laziness, saying she “isn’t willing or able to do the hard and rigorous work of theological contemplation.”  That’s funny.  It seems to me that’s precisely what she’s doing.  It seems to me that between the two of them, only one of them is thinking hard enough about the consequences of Evangelical hermeneutics and theology to critically evaluate each of them all the way down to their most basic assumptions.  Evidently she can handle doing that.  This fella has to pull back before getting too deep into that and then belittles her for not doing the same.

His criticism of her lacks originality as much as his theology does.  “Farewell, Rachel Held Evans” as he titled his post only imitated Piper’s previous dismissal of Rob Bell for daring to question the notion of eternal conscious torment.  It’s very important to Evangelicals to make bold and clear distinctions between who’s “in” and who’s “out,” and when one of their own steps outside the prescribed boundaries of acceptable speech, they must be made into an example.  That would perhaps explain the aversion to originality.  In fact, I recall vividly how during my first few days at the seminary I was called in to discuss the results of my personality inventory and was told that I scored very high on creativity, to which the counselor replied, “That’s very unusual around here!”

Evidently this blogger’s wrist got slapped for his condescending tone, and he responded the next day by offering a narrowly-focused, qualified apology for calling her a “girl” instead of a woman, as if that were the sum total of his mistake.  He made sure to clarify that he regretted nothing else he said, only the condescending tone in which he said it.  He also anticipated that this wouldn’t be sufficient enough for Rachel’s fans, and he indicated that maybe he posted in haste. If he had thought before typing he might not have come across in such a patronizing way.

Not Just a Messaging Problem

But I’m not so sure. Maybe he could have chosen his words more carefully, yes; but when you talk down to women, you’re not misrepresenting Calvinism, you’re typifying it.  Complementarianism, which I like to call “Patriarchy Lite,” really does look down on women, especially when it comes to wrestling with matters of theology.  Calvinists, ever the slaves of ancient Mediterranean cultural biases, view women as great for things like cooking, cleaning, running a home, and raising kids, but they’re supposed to leave the deep thinking stuff to the men. It’s part of the God-ordained order of things, you see.  Piper himself edited some of the authoritative texts on Complementarianism, and the Reformed tradition has been very consistent on these matters. The problem isn’t that whats-his-name should have concealed his tradition’s disdain for people like Evans more carefully; the problem is that the condescension is there in the first place.

The Republican Party has a recurring problem that parallels the one this guy represents.  Their congressional and gubernatorial candidates keep putting their feet in their mouths and then get in hot water with their party for actually saying out loud what the rest of them apparently think but never say in mixed company.  The cardinal sin among conservatives is telling the rest of the world what they think without sufficiently burying it under obfuscating verbiage.  They’re certain that blacks, Hispanics, and women would vote in greater numbers for the GOP if only they could word their sales pitch just right, or maybe find a representative from each of those demographics to say the exact same things they’ve always been saying, only now with the right gender or color of skin.

They call this their “messaging problem.” But it’s not a messaging problem; it’s a thinking problem.  It’s a problem rooted in a faulty and outdated ideology.  Until that root problem is addressed, these little slip-ups will be inevitable because they’re deeply rooted in the ideologies of the groups that keep having them.

As for Evans, I thought her analysis was spot on.  She masterfully elucidated the problems inherent in the story of Abraham and Isaac, all from entirely within the parameters of the Christian faith.  I’ve posted some of my own thoughts about it (along with those of my friend Brian over at A Pasta Sea), but frankly her post needs little reinforcement from me.  It stands on its own as ten times stronger than anything I’ve seen from the majority of her detractors (they usually come from Camp Calvin). It’s frankly refreshing to see an honest wrestling with the assumptions of a religion coming from within.  I can relate to that because it’s how I lived most of my own Christian years.  I probably have more in common with a Christian who ruthlessly questions her own indoctrination than I do with an unreflective lifelong atheist.  If your tradition recoils at honest, hard questions, the tradition you’re protecting probably doesn’t deserve it.



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