The Gospel Coalition published an article by Kevin DeYoung decrying the Supreme Court decision that extended workplace anti-discrimination protections officially to LGBTQ people. DeYoung calls for a “culture war strategy” in which conservative evangelicals have more babies and disciple them rigorously in order to take back American culture. Here’s the problem: rigorous evangelical discipleship doesn’t always produce dutiful culture war foot soldier clones; it often produces ex-evangelicals like me.
I have been all-in on the Jesus thing from the beginning and my family legacy is strongly Christian. I am the great-grandson of Luther Weigle, the Yale Divinity School dean who chaired the translation committee of the RSV version of the Bible and played a pivotal role in the early 20th century Sunday school movement. My maternal grandfather Ralph Storm was a regent at Baylor University and the moderator of a national Baptist bulletin board in the early days of the Internet. I got to watch Baylor Bears football from the sidelines as a young boy. When I did my college visit at Baylor, we dined with President Herbert Reynolds who made a personal pitch. I wasn’t just an evangelical; I was evangelical royalty.
I read the Bible cover to cover multiple times in my childhood. I memorized hundreds of Bible verses because that’s the main thing Baptists train their kids to do. I went to Sunday school and worship every Sunday and Royal Ambassadors every Wednesday night. I spent most of my summers playing ping pong and connect-four at church camp. I got baptized when I was 8 and then rededicated my life to Jesus at Young Life camp when I was 16. So I don’t think I could have been any more rigorously discipled as an evangelical child.
As I think about how the culture war failed, the first thing that comes to mind is not my own evolution, but my mother’s, which happened alongside mine. When I was a young child, my mother bought me a science book that was mostly about dinosaurs. She glued the front pages shut because they talked about the Big Bang and gave an account of the Earth’s creation that seemed to contradict Genesis. She was adamantly opposed to the “women’s libbers” who were ruining motherhood. And for what it’s worth, her being a stay-at-home mom made a tremendous difference in my upbringing as a young autistic boy.
My mom was a reliable Republican as was everyone we knew in our Texas Baptist bubble. But we were avidly anti-fundamentalist. We were moderates because it absolutely wasn’t okay to be liberal. But then the culture war took a Rush Limbaugh turn in the nineties and people like my mom got alienated. The crumbling took a couple of decades. Now my mom’s favorite political commentators are Rachel Madow and Ari Melber. She is all-in on the resistance.
When conservatism became a culture war predominated by sneering commentators like Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, et al, it lost a lot of pure-hearted, moderately conservative Christian ladies like my mom, and it alienated the kids in my generation because it seemed so utterly out of step with the spirit of the gospel that was supposed to be everything. It became increasingly clear to us that the evangelical movement was blatantly self-sabotaging its purported evangelistic goals by waging culture war. We were taught that we were supposed to win the world for Jesus by being above reproach in our character, not by scornfully ridiculing others, which is what we saw being done.
I read Fred Hartley’s Dare to Be Different. I thought we were supposed to be lights in the world. I looked for every opportunity to evangelize my friends in high school. When I got to college, I was on fire for Jesus as a freshman. I attended at least four different campus ministry gatherings every week. I spearheaded an evangelism rally called the Lovefest on Valentine’s Day.
One thing that burst my bubble was watching one of my college apartment-mates slide into deep depression after reading very thick Calvinist tomes by J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, and Charles Spurgeon. When the content of books like those turned me off, I thought it was because of my rebellious spirit that I would eventually grow out of. But seeing my apartment-mate have a mental breakdown, I thought if that theology makes people lose their minds, it can’t be right. (We’ve actually reconnected over the past several years, and he’s now an amazing advocate for church abuse survivors.)
The real problem for culture warriors like Kevin DeYoung is when evangelical kids like me crack open the Bible, it’s impossible not to see them on the wrong side of the gospel narratives as the smug Bible teachers who consistently nitpicked Jesus. A straightforward reading of the gospels reveals Jesus’ nature to be subversive and anti-authoritarian. It just doesn’t land when you try to say that the Bible teachers who opposed Jesus were “rebelling” against God. They were fastidious about their personal holiness and stringently devoted to God’s honor. That’s why they handed Jesus over to be crucified, because they thought he was a blasphemer (like that unruly blogger lady from Dayton, Tennessee).
And then we see a similar dynamic in the battles the apostle Paul fought with those he called the “circumcision party.” Paul ferociously opposed any attempt to put a legalistic wet blanket on top of the gospel of God’s grace. The evangelical church needs to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians again and wonder if we have been “bewitched” the same way the Galatians were into adding socially conservative ideological circumcision marks to the gospel. It sure does seem like “Don’t be gay” is right up there with justification by faith for Kevin DeYoung and others like him.
It’s absolutely the case that we should seek to feed the spirit instead of the flesh, which is to say that we should live in a sacramental, imaginative way that relishes life (breath) instead of letting our lives degenerate into gluttonous, nervous consumption (meat). But the way that Paul talks about the spirit and the flesh makes it clear that the why of holiness is not authoritarian legalism; it’s pragmatic mysticism. Paul wants us to experience God’s glory with the full mystical intensity that he was able to experience. The more idols clutter our heart, the less we can taste the real glory.
Regardless, hypervigilance about moral purity is not how people live when they truly experience themselves to be under God’s grace. To live under grace is to relax, to have a lifestyle of shabbat. Somehow we decided to scorn shabbat by applying our feverishly capitalist Protestant work ethic to “holiness.” When what justifies us is correct doctrine confirmed by morally stringent living, rather than the blood that is offered only as a gift, then we drive ourselves into the ground with hypervigilance instead of becoming children whose trust in our father’s perfect mercy lets us live in his kingdom. The gospel is so simple and so incredibly difficult for neurotic overachieving white capitalists to submit to: just accept God’s mercy and become it for the world.
When we turn the gospel into knowledge of good and evil instead of mercy, we are playing the part of Lucifer in Genesis 3. We need to take another look at the Eden story. Instead of focusing solely on Adam and Eve’s disobedience, we need to pay attention to the exact description of the fruit that does so much damage to them. That fruit of knowledge of good and evil is being sliced up and passed around instead of God’s grace by Lucifers in pulpits at evangelical megachurches throughout our country right now. When knowledge of good and evil replaces the visceral experience of God’s grace as the unstated goal of discipleship, the church is damned.
And that’s precisely what has happened when we warp the joy of living in spiritual freedom into a stringent purity culture where white children avoid premarital sex in order to be utterly unlike those ghetto welfare mamas who can’t keep their legs closed. Purity culture has always had a very strong racial subtext in the contrast between white purity and black promiscuity. I knew by the time I learned what sex was that if I didn’t wait until marriage, I would be like those poor black people in the Fifth Ward on the other side of Houston. Purity culture is simply the sublimated version of segregation; it was the reason we had to be homeschooled or sequestered in Christian gated communities.
When evangelicals like Kevin DeYoung and Rod Dreher (of the “Benedict option”) talk about circling the wagons and gating their communities in order to reestablish purity culture, they’re not proposing anything new. We already did that in the nineties. That’s how suburban megachurches formed. And it didn’t work. At least not the way Kevin DeYoung and Rod Dreher desperately hope for it to. Because too often Christian gated communities produce ex-evangelicals like me.
I have no idea what the percentage is, but I suspect evangelicals mostly lose the kids who think too much in addition to not being pretty or athletic enough to be popular. There are certainly some kids who can perform the saccharine evangelical banter without throwing up inside their mouths, but I don’t think it’s a high enough percentage to build a stable movement.
The problem is you can’t force the gospel to fit in the box of purity culture. It just doesn’t work. In Luke 7, Jesus publicly shamed a Bible teacher who invited him to a party by telling all the guests that a sex worker who snuck in and gave him an erotic foot massage was showing him better hospitality than the host of the party in a culture where hospitality was everything. Bible stories like that sabotage the message that the main way we show love for God is by leaving room for Jesus in between us and our teenage date when we’re slow-dancing or by making girls wear extra large t-shirts over their swimsuits at youth group pool parties. Let me say this again: Jesus identified a socially inappropriate and even arguably erotic expression of love as the goal of God’s forgiveness, just like when he praised a woman for wasting expensive perfume by dumping it all on his head.
It’s flabbergasting to me that anyone could actually read the Bible closely and remain a culture warrior, because the text screams out that culture warriors are the ones who crucified Jesus for going to the naughty high school parties where the parents weren’t home and premarital sex was happening in every bedroom. The tax collector parties Jesus did attend were as scandalous to first century Bible teachers as fratboy keggers are to twenty-first century Bible teachers. That’s what it means to say, “This man eats and drinks with sinners.” Jesus was at the party at the moon tower where everybody was passing around the reefer and having a good time.
So the only way Kevin DeYoung will be successful in his venture is if his tribe is able to keep their children from reading their Bibles for themselves. Maybe if they only read Paul’s letter to the Romans over and over again and skip over the part in Romans 11:32 where Paul lays out the dramatic conclusion to his whole preceding theological discourse that “God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.” The devastating thing about the Romans Road for evangelical culture warriors is that even though it gives you lots of good red meat about humanity’s wickedness, its final destination is God’s universalist mercy.
So really the only way it’s going to work this time is if Kevin DeYoung’s culture warrior clan just doesn’t let their children read the Bible directly at all. Only let them read carefully curated commentaries by trusted authors like John McArthur or Michael Brown that selectively pluck out anything suggesting God to be overly merciful. But if you do that, they’re going to get suspicious and somehow the real Jesus is going to bleed through anyway. Jesus’ blood always stains the white carpet of purity culture like water carelessly turned into wine. Sorry guys, you can’t win because God is kicking your ass right now. He has cast the church’s demons into a herd of pigs who are throwing themselves into the lake of fire so that the church can wake up clothed and in its right mind on the other side of this apocalypse (Mark 5).