Why the Christian middle ground is no place for me

Why the Christian middle ground is no place for me June 4, 2015


When I was thirty-eight years old, I felt broken. I had a terrible past I couldn’t psychologically shake. I smoked too much weed and drank too much booze. I had no career and didn’t want one, because the only thing I’d ever cared about being was a writer. Two years before I’d had a spate of good luck in that regard, when, within a one week period, I had fourteen short stories accepted for publication in as many solid little literary magazines located all over the country. One was published by Eve Ensler, of The Vagina Monologues fame, who was then editing a magazine out of New York called Central Park. She sent me a handwritten letter saying how deeply she loved the short story of mine she then published as the lead piece in her magazine. My writing career was officially launched.

And then I promptly killed it. I choked. I suddenly found that I didn’t, after all, want so many people reading stories that came from such a deep place within me. So I took my pen and my notepad and crawled back into my little, private life.

One day I went to my flunky job sorting mail and making copies at a law office stoned. I don’t hide the fact that I’m stoned well at all—though, like every stoner, I thought I did.

The following day my boss called me into her office. She was, to say the least, displeased with the way I had behaved the day before. She let me know that I was still employed, but only just—and might not be by the end of that day.

This created for me a crisis. My brain collapsed. The difference between who I imagined I was and who I very clearly actually was made for a chasm I fell down into. It was a long, dark fall.

It was in that moment—while I was at my job, of all places—that I had my conversion experience.

One minute your life has cracked all apart; the next you’re going, “Oh, c’mon, God. You couldn’t hit me with a car? Run me over with a bus? Anything but turn me into a [bad wording-ing] Christian?”

I loathed Christianity. My suddenly becoming a Christian was like Heinrich Himmler suddenly becoming a Jew. It was that unlikely.

And yet, there I was.

My point—which is born of my post yesterday, about having no trouble at all “judging” Caitlyn Jenner—is this: Never look to me for a position in the middle ground when it comes to the issue of homosexuality, or hell, or the exclusivity of the Christian heaven, or complimentarianism, or any of that sort of stuff.

I have no place in the middle ground. I don’t know the middle ground.

I’m not like Rachel Held Evans or Brian McLaren or Benjamin “Formerly Fundie” Corey, or Matthew Paul Turner, or any other progressive Christian leader I know of. Because, unlike them, I didn’t come from an evangelical or fundamentalist background. I didn’t have to overcome what I used to believe to believe what I do now. My theology showed up complete and finished, live and in living color. I knew all there was to know the moment God decided I was too … stupid to grow into my knowledge, basically, is about the way I figure it.

It was too late for me to evolve. If God wanted me at the party—which, apparently, he/she did—then it meant my showing up already fully dressed and knowing how to dance. So that’s what happened.

I greatly value and sincerely appreciate what leading former fundies and erstwhile evangelicals do. What could be more valuable than helping people take their first steps into a new, more loving and open Christian theology?

But what they do, I cannot. I’m way too much of an outsider for that. Unlike them, I have never been invested in the Christian system that I’m happy to say today we’re all working together to change. I never had to sweat hurting my church-speaking gigs, or my Christian book publishing deals, or offending my wealthier conservative congregants. I never had to transition. I just … appeared on the sidelines, and started yelling from there.

All I ever was—and all I’ve really ever been since my conversion experience—is a writer. Not a pastor; not a ministry leader; not a seminary student; not a degreed theologian.

A writer. With a blog. And a bunch of things to say in the name of the God that I felt showed him/herself to me. And all of the things I had to say were, to me, moral issues that needed to be addressed and fixed now, because on account of them people were getting hurt. Lives were being destroyed. Christian beliefs were causing grief.

So those beliefs needed to change.

Anyway, just wanted to say: Don’t look to me for the middle ground. Not because I don’t appreciate the value of the middle ground. Not because I don’t know the good done by those working in the middle ground. But, rather, for the simplest of reasons: I can’t speak from a place I’ve never been.

Love to you all! Thanks for listening.


Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MJW

    Wow. As a former fundamentalist mime, I loved reading this. While I was afraid of being put into an imaginary box, or having to walk against the wind of adversity, you had already settled things between you and God. Go you! Thanks for giving the world some insight into your transformation and I *think* I might have smelled the faint scent of weed coming off my screen. Thanks, John!

  • Hello, MJW! (Folks: MJW once wrote me a letter which I published and answered: I Was a Christian Mime. That’s Just F***ed. It’s one of my all-time favorite letters.

  • MJW

    Still honored by that – I just re-read what I wrote 4 years ago. Thanks for yelling from the sidelines, John. I had to laugh when you listed the other Progressive Christian bloggers at the top of your piece … I read all of them.

  • Wow oh wow. So beautifully written.
    What would happen if we read the bible without the baggage? I think you’ve given us a good glimpse here – and with terrific humility. Thank you (again) for your voice.

    Can I just underscore something you alluded to…
    We’re all at this dance together and God sent the invites. I pray for a day when I’ll simply be able to delight in all people without my personal baggage getting in the way.

  • I cannot imagine someone as unique as you are, with your unorthodox experiences and insight to ever view any thing from a middle ground stance. I don’t think any of your many fans would want you to be. We need the viewpoints you offer, to help the rest of us odd-uns to not feel so odd.

  • What an extremely kind thing to say, Allegro. Thank you so much.

  • I’ve yet to see you be anything but exceptionally gracious to others, Ford. It’s a real gift you have.

  • We need believers from all grounds, all walks of life, all tribes, all nations, all tongues to see the picture that is the gospel in full living color. The more we narrow down which is the ‘right’ ones or which are the ‘best’ ones, that’s the more colors we grow blind to and the less of the overall picture of grace we get. It is only when every voice is heard, every concern is considered that we arrive at a balanced Christianity. An unbalanced Christianity is a dangerous thing – too much of one school of thought means that there’s not enough of the others. We need people at both extremes to help us define the edges of the middle ground and to helps us find our way out of where we’ve been and teach us to find our way forward. By all means – continue and don’t give up, you’re doing more good than you know.

  • Well, that proves it. You haven’t been paying attention.

  • BarbaraR

    I tried so, so hard to fit in with the “right” brand of Christianity, but simply could not find it in my heart to feel the same way everyone else seemed to. I wanted to. I prayed hard. I attended all the right services and hung out with the right people and listened to what the elders said. And I was so afraid because I was repeatedly told that straying from THE WORD meant Satan was at work and that believing something different from what was being preached meant I was being led astray, and you know what that can lead to. I was such a bad fundie.

    I never did – never could – evolve. I always felt like I wasn’t enough. But eventually I found there were a whole lot of people just like me, who got fed up with the way Christianity is practiced in America, and realized just what John said: If God wanted me at the party—which, apparently, he/she did—then it meant my showing up already fully dressed and knowing how to dance. I was already enough just the way I was.

    The moral issues of the Christian right are killing people. Thank you John for providing a safe place and not putting up with the Party Line, the bullshit, all the rules and regulations that Christianity has become.

  • Timothy L. Northrup Jr.

    thanks again, for this, John. I was quite surprised at the headline to that last post of yours. and yet it was so very you. there is a certain simplicity and beauty to your testimony and your unique take on the fight for justice because of it.

    I sometimes look at how far my theology has come, from the time when I was a young Jehovah’s Witness to the early, fanatical Pentecostalism I evolved into first, and then into this person I am now, who helps preside at my Lutheran church at Pentecost still feeling all the power but none of the hate and judgment, of myself and others.

    and then it only takes a moment to slip. usually a bad reminder of where I’ve been. I’m slowly learning that the middle ground doesn’t suit me either. It reminds me too deeply of what i was, which was tragic for me. My life really started when I was 18 and I really started to live in a real meaningful sense at 21. just as you can never understand where you’ve never been, some of us can’t go back or stay there.

    it makes me all the more proud of those that can and do, and in awe of the people who never had to. If anything, my job in the church is to help those two sides see each other, I found. so there is that as well. a job for each perspective, for each person.

    so keep up the fight John. it would be so much less fun without you. and we’ll promise to keep up each of ours.

  • Maura Hart

    thanks for writing

  • Slurpasaurus

    Personally, I would prefer that progressive Christians stop using the slur “fundie”. Its kind of counterproductive, since progressive Christians say they want to eliminate hate, stereotyping and prejudice. It does not good to preach that if you’re just going to use stereotyping and prejudicial words of your own.

  • lrfcowper

    1) How is a simple and common shortening of “fundamentalist” used by those within and outside fundamentalism a “slur”?

    2) You do realize that Benjamin Corey, the blogger who prompted yesterday’s post, goes by the tagline “formerly fundie”? He’s applying *Corey’s own chosen label*.

  • Dani

    Hey John, thank you for all your gracious and witty writing, it’s a wonderful gift God gave you, and it’s changing my life everyday. Well, i, unlike you, was born in a southamerican context of the evangelical fundamentalist belief (of hell, complimentarianism, indifference to poverty and environmental problems, condemnation of lgbt people etc) and, although my life has changed considerably since then and my political views turned to radical thinking and my faith led me to progressive christianism, none of this transformation could pluck me out off the “middle ground” (yet?). Don’t know why, fear maybe. I’m very grateful for the ppl that (partly) showed me the love of God, but the thing is that most of this time of development brought me suffering, rebuke and even bitterness, some people treated me like an ingenuous kid or have told me that i’m an arrogant unbeliever for telling then i’m not in accordance with their world views (some other, the close ones, reconized me as a pious and lowly kind of guy). In the “middle”, most of us, young aged even more, christians are struggling everyday, fearing, holding on, or even some, loosing faith (in church, in God, in life, maybe everything?). Some of then, like me, are enduring the social boundaries of unveiling their true sexual identity. I always knew you already know that. I’m here just to say that, i’m not looking for you just for the “middle ground”, i’m looking for you just because i feel solidarity comming out of this words of yours. I’m just feeling, by reading you, like i’m not going to the fearful ideological “void”. That is what i’m wanting to say, you’re our witness and the living proof that our spiritual way is leading people to God’s amazing grace and love, all without the dogmatic baggage of the institutional church. Keep doing this, John, please.
    In hope to know you personally someday, see you soon. Greetings.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Simple, its because its a term used pejoratively to refer to conservative Christians. Or in fact, pretty much just any Christian that leftists and leftist Christians disagree with. Ask yourself, would you or other leftist Christians approve of using the word “homo” to refer to a gay person? Even though its a “simple and common shortening” of “homosexual”? Probably not.

    Of course Corey doesn’t care about using the word “fundie”, because he’s using it pejoratively himself. Hence, “formerly” fundie.

  • lymis

    And yet, oddly, it doesn’t stop conservative Christians from routinely using dismissive slurs against LGBT people and progressive Christians. Have you included conservative Christians in your crusade for graciousness, or just the progressives?

  • How about just referring to someone who is gay by their name?

  • I so agree. I’ve spent so much time trying to figure out how to fit into Christianity. John has helped me figure out how to make it no matter and to be able to operate within the faith on my terms.

  • lymis

    Beautifully written, John. Don’t ever change. Unless you do.

  • BarbaraR

    Personally, I would prefer that fundies stop hijacking blog posts with thinly-veiled attempts to control the direction of the conversation.

  • JenniferD

    Thank you for shouting from the sidelines! We need more people like you. I was raised Catholic and found the United Methodist Church through my first marriage and now am married to a United Methodist minister and we both want so many things to change…accept and love all, focus on the poor, etc. Keep up your great work!

  • Thanks, Jennifer. I will.

  • Ha! I won’t. Unless I do. You too.

  • I hope to meet you someday too, Dani. Thank you for these lovely and very encouraging words.

  • thanks for reading!

  • So lovely. Thank you, Timothy, for all you do.

  • Thanks for this, Barbara. It means a lot to me.

  • Lori Wells Mang

    I guess I thought you used to be a Baptist pastor. I don’t know where I got that from. Anyway, I am glad that I can through the fundamentalist side. I can understand them and even empathize with them. Many are more gracious than their theology. I have a few friends that are still fundamentalists. I used to be scared to “come out” as a liberal Christian. But once I did, I felt so empowered. It’s affected every area of my life. I feel so much stronger and more powerful. I am glad I went through the journey. I am a much better person for it.

  • I don’t think you needed me to help you figure anything out, Allegro–but I sure to appreciate your kind words, and all the support you give me both on this and the UC blog. We’re all real grateful to you.

  • Good. This is good for me to hear. Thank you, Jamie.

  • Yeah, no, I’m no Baptist pastor. What IS good for me is that I spent my first six years as a Christian in what (as it turned out) was a very conservative church. And because by the time I learned that I had become such good friends with so many of the people in that church (including its pastor), and learned so much about the faith from them, I’ve never been able to simply demonize the right as a whole. Those first six years, for that exact reason, have been invaluable to my life of publicly challenging so much of what’s wrong with Christianity. I never forget that good people can believe terrible things.

  • Slurpasaurus

    I do, I was just using that as an example.

  • Slurpasaurus

    I can only speak with certainty for myself, but I don’t use anti-gay slurs.

    I agree, conservatives shouldn’t use slurs, and neither should liberals.

  • BarbaraR

    good people can believe terrible things

    This should be on t-shirts.

  • Sheila Warner

    “I knew all there was to know the moment God decided I was too … stupid to grow into my knowledge, basically, is about the way I figure it.” So, I guess for me the question is–are you ever still surprised by God? Do you think there are any areas in your Christianity where you can still learn? Not sure I understood what you said, here.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    Yes but it’s fun to make fun of fundies! I love to laff at them otherwise i’d cry!

  • Matt

    Merriam-Webster says that a slur is either: “An insulting or disparaging remark or innuendo” or, “A shaming or degrading effect.”

    LGBT people have been stigmatized and shamed throughout history and denied dignity, employment, housing, and even their lives. So have black people, who in the US have also historically been denied freedom and legal personhood. Both groups are still social and political minorities, facing inequalities in multiple aspects of life. One of the ways this inequality is enforced socially is by using words that are intended to degrade that group.

    Fundamentalists of any stripe, however, have historically enjoyed social power, especially since the 1980s. They have promoted or encouraged narrow doctrines that harm the same minorities I mentioned above, plus women. They have stretched freedom of speech and religion to their very limits in order to continue these harmful practices. In other words, they don’t need protecting from hate. They more often than not perpetuate it.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    slurp aren’t you ‘shoulding’ all over yourself & everybody? howza bout ‘live & let live? love you buddy!

  • Slurpasaurus

    Disagreeing with the author or other posters is “highjacking”?

    For what its worth, I’m not what you would describe as a “fundamentalist”, I left Protestantism, so you are mistaken.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Interesting. I guess you missed the part of the article about having loving and more open dialogue.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Interesting. The definition you posted would include pejoratively using “fundie” as a slur. Yet, you don’t seem to care.

    What I gather from your post is that you think its OK to use slurs against certain people, but not others.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Live and let live? Good idea, how about you do the same?

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    not sure i’m getting what you mean. are we having a loving dialogue yet?

  • BarbaraR

    The post is not about semantics or word usage. It’s John’s personal take on his conversion and his faith and where he stands, so derailing the conversation with a complaint that is unrelated to the post is indeed hijacking.

  • BarbaraR

    Fundamentalists also have chosen that path, whereas LGBTQ people, women, people of color, and so forth have not.

    Call them fundies or fundamentalists – it just takes longer to type out the entire word. I do not see fundie as any more of a “slur” than fundamentalist. Same word, shortened for convenience.

  • Slurpasaurus

    I’m aware of what the article is about. And in fact, in the article he talks about moving towards a more open and loving theology. (His words). And yet, in the same article he employs a rather unloving and unopen term to describe his opponents. Me pointing this out is quite relevant.

    I don’t think john shore is being sinister or willfully malicious, but he, and other liberal Christians, ought to think about that. After all, words mean things.

  • louismoreaugottschalk

    good idea! how can we have peace bt us? i’d lay down my life for you.

  • I don’t generally use Fundie either because it can be understood as pajoritive (even if that’s not the way it’s intended).

    While we’re swapping peeves….I wish conservative Christians would stop using quotation marks to denigrate the beliefs of others. E.G., progressive “Christian”, gay “marriage”, liberal “church”…

    Can you help with that? Maybe call it out when you see it and refrain from doing it yourself? Because pajoritive comes in many different flavors and none of them taste great.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Maybe a bit. I’ve had worse.

  • Slurpasaurus

    Cool. Ditto.

  • Hi Barbara.

    I use the word “traditionalist” often because it is technically correct and generally understood in an intellectual way to describe many conservative beliefs. I often describe my beliefs as “revisionist” because they are sometimes contrary to tradition and sometimes unorthodox. I’m surprised at the conservatives who take umbrage at the former and the liberals who take umbrage at the latter.

    That being said, “fundamentalist” is also a technical term that doesn’t necessarily apply to the whole of the conservative branch of our faith. So I can understand how it might sometimes cause unintended offense.


  • Slurpasaurus

    I don’t usually do that myself, but that’s a fair request.

  • No, I’m never surprised by God. I’m surprised by people.

  • Slur: I’m aware that words mean things. I choose every one of mine very, very carefully. Religious fundamentalism is brutish, toxic, and destroys lives—especially those of women and children. Your dithering over the appropriateness of shortening “fundamentalist” to “fundie” implies that “fundamentalism” and is a word worthy of respect. It’s not. I always want to make that very clear. I’ll leave it to someone else to take care that the sensibilities of fundamentalists aren’t offended.

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    Reminds me of that old (evangelical?) chestnut — “The gospel isn’t about good people getting better, it’s about God raising us from the dead everyday.”

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    So would you really prefer the descriptive term “fundamentalist”? 😉
    I use the term ‘fundie’ as shorthand for the more stilted “fundamentalist” …

  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    The Wikipedia entry on “fundamentalism” correctly points out that the term ‘fundamentalist’ came into vogue in America about a century ago as part of a movement to “reaffirm key theological tenets and defend them against the challenges of liberal theology and higher criticism.” The term came to refer to Christians who affirmed the five fundamentals of faith formulated at the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church:

    — Biblical inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture
    — Virgin birth of Jesus
    — Belief that Christ’s death was the atonement for sin
    — Bodily resurrection of Jesus
    — Historical reality of the miracles of Jesus

    Is this the fundamentalism you’re calling “brutish, toxic” and destructive? And do you consider ‘fundies’ real Christians? Honest questions from an agnostic minister here!

  • That’s what Christian fundamentalism looks like in theory. Here’s what it looks like in real life:


  • ObscurelyAgnostic

    John, I’m an agnostic parish minister in a progressive Christian tradition. Although I no longer have a personal faith in God, I still esteem and extol the ethical teachings of Jesus as having unique moral power to change the world by changing one life at a time. I joined The Clergy Project (TCP) — a support group funded by Richard Dawkins for ministers who have rejected supernatural beliefs — and spent two years discovering that my agnosticism was actually a controversial middle ground.

    My question is how would agnostic Christians like me fit into your spectrum? Would also love to hear from other non-supernaturalist supporters of religion out there — maybe even ministers too?

  • I don’t really have any sort of applicable “spectrum” that I’m aware of. I have no idea why you would even bother with the “parish minister” once you’ve called yourself an “agnostic,” but that’s certainly none of my business. Takes all kinds! I can’t imagine your position brings harm to anyone, so … yeah. It’s all you.

  • “Artfully dodged”? Wow. Didn’t take you long to become cantankerous.

  • and confusing…

  • and offensive…

  • And all three at once. G’bye. (And thanks for deleting your own comments there. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone to do that…!)

  • Well said, John, I love your honesty and bluntness.
    In my opinion, we love the middle ground a little too much in Christianity.
    But that’s my journey, where even the middle ground has burnt me.

    (Did you know I came out as bisexual recently? I discovered along the way that even the softly-softly, middle-ground people can be really painfully discriminatory. But they’re nicer about it, of course.)

  • I have no experience with members of the “softly-softly” Christian crowd, as you so wonderfully put it, being any less hostile than anyone else. They’re simply invested in seeming less hostile, for reason that serve their own egos. But they’ll slip a knife into you just as quickly as anyone else will.

  • Andy

    Even those of us who look like we have our shit together sometimes need help. You do great work.

  • Andy

    Or perhaps you’re so eloquent that people don’t even know when you aren’t being gracious.

  • Timothy L. Northrup Jr.

    John, I do see her point, though. Your enthusiasm at least does occasionally remind me of a Baptist pastor I know. (no one puts on a more entertaining wedding, no one.)

  • Timothy L. Northrup Jr.

    I’m still trying to figure it all out, as are we all. I just know large numbers of my friends have never been able to understand why I hang with the others. A lot of the progressive/gay/athiest-to-affirming believer spectrum and a lot of the well-meaning, but conservative people I know are aware that they talk past each other sometimes and not others. and none of them can understand.

    In some ways I am the most conservative believer I know (I once congratulated a friend of mine who broke up with a bad news fiancee on his divorce, for instance, because to me it was a marriage), but I am also a gay man and a political liberal. That and being the eldest of 8 makes bridge building so logical, and yet it is a skill I have tried to avoid for a long time. I’m just now realizing that I can’t escape it if I try, and that I’m good at it.

    Funny how sometimes you can’t avoid things.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    People have a tendency to believe whatever they wish to believe. We create our own realities for good or ill. I did notice that many people are deciding christianity is not for them. Period. End of discussion. I have to admit it takes guts to question a culture that is deeply engrained in the idea that you must believe in Jesus to be a good person. Some will follow suit and i commend them for their bravery. Although i do realize they arent doing it for me, they are doing it for themselves, it gives me a sense of joy knowing that just because i walk my own path, others sometimes walk it with me.

  • Lookingup73

    Does anyone convert to Christianity in mid-life who ISN’T broken? I have never met a born again or a convert who wasn’t a drug addict, alcoholic, nympho/sex addict, criminal, you name it. I am happy I was raised in Christianity and since I led and continue to lead a good life, I was able to LEAVE the religion lol.

  • Graham Nicholls

    Is there anyone who has reached mid-life who isn’t broken, Christian or non-Christian?

  • Lookingup73

    Good point! I’m 42 and I suppose I was broken (only because I was Christian for the first 20 years of my life!). I meant it seems many converts/born-agains lived some pretty crazy lives until they found Jesus. It always cracks me up – I suppose when you don’t go overboard in life you don’t have a need for the mumbo-jumbo of religion. Now I have converts constantly telling me how my life is wrong because I don’t accept J.C. as my personal lord and savior. I am always like – hmmm, might want to think about how I was living my life while you were partying, drugging, sexing, etc. Come back and talk to me after thinking about it. I never did anything as bad as they did! now that they had their fun they want to prohibit others from doing anything fun lol. (I always remember when I studied Pascal, my professor said – a convert is like an ex smoker – they now think they are superior and blast you with their new enthusiastic views non-stop).