Preston Sprinkle, a Christian blogger on the Patheos evangelical channel, recently wrote a book called People to Be Loved that he was apparently hoping would help his tribe interact with LGBTQ folks and maybe even repair some of his tribe’s tattered credibility.
Alas, it does not accomplish either of those goals.
We’re going to be talking this week about the book, but first I wanted to briefly touch on why it exists and what question it’s trying to answer.
A Wild Need Appears!
Christianity is definitely having a serious image problem these days, and a lot of that problem comes from many Christians’ insistence on clinging to their culture war against LGBTQ people. Conservative Christian denominations’ anti-gay stance is increasingly causing young people to flee churches as soon as they can–some while living with their still-Christian parents, others after leaving home for college. Indeed, the younger the American, the more likely it is that that American will support LGBTQ rights.
But as Barna points out above, while Americans are evolving quickly on the topic of LGBTQ equality, fundagelicals remain far, far behind the needle. Barna quotes David Kinnaman, who wrote the book unChristian:
This new study confirms how the Christian community responds to the LGBTQ community is, in many ways, the defining social and moral issue of the day. Many churches and Christian leaders are going to rise or fall based on how they address it.
So yes, definitely, Christian leaders are aware that how they respond to Americans’ increasing support for LGBTQ rights is of crucial importance to the long-term future of their religion. Indeed, slews of similar books are coming out these days discussing exactly the same matter that Preston Sprinkle’s book does.
The problem is, Christian leaders now find themselves in a serious predicament.
Having spent the last 30 or 40 years convincing fundagelicals that there’s a “gay agenda” and that scary gay men and “men in dresses” want to do unspeakable things to their loved ones and children, Christian leaders are now suddenly staring down the double barrels of public censure and fast-fading power as a direct result of their smear campaigns and fearmongering.
And they can’t do a substantive thing about it because they have painstakingly arranged the situation to hoist themselves with their own petards.
They can’t pull back on the hate-and-smearing throttle because they’ve been busy teaching their flocks that doing that would be”compromising,” and “compromising” is the worst thing any Christian can possibly do. If they let up on their smear campaigns and fearmongering, they will be seen as “condoning” sin.
It gets even worse, though, for them. If these leaders magically find a way to twist Bible verses to support the idea of LGBTQ rights, the flocks–having been taught to do exactly this–will howl about “evil liberalism” and immediately fire those leaders or flee to churches whose pastors teach what they have been taught is TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Any conservative Christian who dissents from the party line can expect the tribe to react with shocked disapproval (and abuse).
That is why one cannot possibly expect a fundagelical leader to “prayerfully examine” the question of LGBTQ equality and come out with a markedly different position than the one he started with–not if that leader wants to keep his job, his reputation in the community, and a private life that is blissfully free of violent threats. After years spent as part of the apparatus ensuring that change cannot possibly happen, such a fundagelical can hardly be expected to suddenly experience a change of heart.
If it wasn’t resulting in so much cruelty against innocent people worldwide, there’d be something comical about where Christians find themselves nowadays thanks to their ceaseless demonization and harassment of LGBTQ people. I’m sure they thought this was one culture war guaranteed to shock Americans back into churches nationwide; the people responsible for the hatred probably had no idea in the world that anything could go wrong with a smear campaign against that group. The whole thing probably felt like a total slam-dunk. And now it’s all gone hideously pear-shaped.
Christians put a lot of stock in apologetics books, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that once they finally realized what kind of damage their culture war has done to their religion’s credibility and reputation, not to mention its membership numbers and incoming funds, that these books would sprout up like desert flowers after a rainstorm.
Hence, People to Be Loved.
Finding the Right Position.
Dr. Sprinkle’s book makes clear that he feels sympathetic toward LGBTQ teens and young adults, and one can’t blame him for feeling that sympathy: the bullying they face at the hands of vicious Christians often leads them to suicide and lives of broken despair and hopelessness. And that bullying is almost exclusively done by people who belong to his end of Christianity.
Almost every LGBTQ person I’ve talked to describes their experience with Christians and the Christian church in frightful terms. They were isolated. Physically assaulted. They were dehumanized. Kicked out of their homes. Mocked. Shunned. Made fun of over, and over, and over. I would guess that at least 90% of the LGBTQ people I’ve talked to have had some horrible experience with the church and were treated like some sub-species of the human race.
(I’d say the percentage is higher than that, but you get the point.) He blames this horrifically common mistreatment on “a posture problem.” In other words, the big problem here, as he sees it, is positioning, marketing, and teaching. He thinks that the theology he’s arrived at is correct–and he just needs to find a way to teach that theology that doesn’t result in cruelty toward LGBTQ people (and their families and allies, for that matter). He is totally positive that there is a way to rescue his theology to make it all work. That’s what his book is actually all about.
And I totally get that desire.
I was there once myself.
Desperately Seeking TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.
I really thought, when I was Christian, that there was a perfect Biblical theology that could be expressed by living a perfectly Biblical lifestyle in a perfectly Biblical community. All these abuses I saw, all these injustices, all these evidences of mistreatment, they were only happening because sinful people weren’t doing something correctly. I didn’t know quite what–maybe they were sinful at heart and greedy, or proud, or in rebellion, but one way or the other, their sinfulness was getting in the way of that vision.
If I could only find that group of Christians that I just knew was out there somewhere, happy and living that vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, I’d be fine. I just had to find them.
Alas, every single group I considered joining had a dark, twisted heart. They all seemed happy-happy joy-joy at first, all living a sparkly, squeaky-clean Happy Christian Illusion, but if I dug into their group culture I quickly discovered abuse, pain, division, heartache, and mind-bending hypocrisy. The more “Biblical” the group said it was, the worse they were.
At first I thought it was just a one-off–just something that one first group suffered. But then I ran into another group, and another, and another just like that.
My conclusion at the time was that these groups simply weren’t Biblical enough. I became increasingly polarized and extreme in my thinking as I sifted through doctrines and denominations in my quest. I almost ended up joining a cult down the road from David Koresh’s encampment the very summer that all went to pieces. Even after that harrowing near-miss, Biff talked longingly about joining this or that commune of Christians–Keith Green’s widow Melody ran one at the time that he particularly wanted to join, but thankfully we were never able to swing it.
It wasn’t until the end of my time as a Christian that I realized exactly why I hadn’t been able to find a single group of Christians who seemed to be fully living like TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
Lipstick Won’t Help Here.
Here is the bare-bones reality of the matter:
In two thousand years, nobody’s yet managed to establish a truly good and truly sustainable society based on its basic teachings.
And there’s a reason for this religion’s utter, catastrophic failure: It’s based on ideas that simply don’t work in the real world, ideas that form a very shaky foundation that collapses under its own weight. The more people who join the groups created with those ideas, the greater the likelihood becomes of one of those people being predatory–and subsequently, the harder the whole assembly collapses. The harder the group flogs the hateful, unworkable ideas at the religion’s base, the more likely it is that it will attract abusive people who need an outlet for their hatred–and then the more likely it is that the group will find itself powerless to stop those people from harming others.
There just isn’t a way to teach people that men should lead and women should submit that can possibly result, in the aggregate, in anything except abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
There just isn’t a way to teach people that their bodies do not belong to themselves that can possibly result, in the aggregate, in anything except abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
There just isn’t a way to teach people that some of them have a right to control the private lives of other people that can possibly result, in the aggregate, in anything except abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
There just isn’t a way to teach people that they have a right–even an obligation!–to judge, condemn, or mistreat other people that can possibly result, in the aggregate, in anything except abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
There just isn’t a way to teach people that children (or any other group) have negotiable and dismissible rights that can possibly result, in the aggregate, in anything except abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
And there is simply no way to teach people that some folks, purely because of who they love, are intrinsically worthy of being particularly called out as sinful without it resulting in abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals.
There are lots of other fundagelical teachings that simply cannot be salvaged besides and beyond these. (One of the hardest parts of deconversion, for me, was realizing that every one of my beliefs was just as broken as the ones I’ve named.)
Teachings considered canonical by right-wing Christians are the common thread in just about all of the abuse scandals we’ve seen erupt out of the religion, from the Catholic pedophilia scandal to the recent ones coming out of right-wing Christian universities facing sexual assault cover-ups.
But for some reason, those teachings are the ones that are the most off-limits to Christians to examine, change, or criticize. And these are also the teachings that Christians claim are the most important to their faith and their cultural practices and defend the hardest.
Doing It All Wrong.
Christian leaders–and oodles of their followers–are always quick to dismiss examples of abuse, injustice, and shocking scandals away with a wave of their hands. Oh, those people are just doing Christianity all wrong. They’re sinful. Real Christians would never behave like that.
(If you’re wondering, yes, Preston Sprinkle certainly falls into this thinking. Several times in the book I noticed him talking about how “real Christians” would never condone this or that sexual practice or idea. He takes the idea for granted that his type of Christian is the right kind.)
It never occurs to toxic Christians that the theology they believe and the doctrines they teach result in fertile fields for abusers and wrongdoers hunting for victims. They never wonder why it seems so impossible to put into motion a society that actually works using their theology–and why it falls to secular societies to set up rules to keep everybody honest and behaving, to bring Christian wrongdoers to justice and stop them from preying upon innocent victims, and to set Christians on a path of social progress when they bitterly dig in their heels about new ideas.
Progressive strains of the religion are definitely not immune to scandals, but they sure don’t seem to face the sheer boggling number that conservative churches regularly endure while they preach sexism and inequality as the BONUS PLAN.
But Preston Sprinkle thinks he can fix everything.
He just needs to find the right way to “position” his perfect theology. He sees that the way his theology is taught results in shocking cruelty and abuse toward LGBTQ people, but he comes away thinking that once he finds the right way to put that theology into practice, Christians will quit cruelly mistreating LGBTQ people and everything will be just hunky-dory again.
If he can just find that perfect way to teach his theology and talk his recalcitrant, criticism-averse, belligerent tribe into adopting it, which is itself a decent illustration of the phrase “reckoning without his host,” then LGBTQ people will come trotting back to churches–along with, hopefully, the massive numbers of people who’ve left the religion (either by disengaging or full-on deconverting) over its cruelty toward their friends and family members. He wants to ask how he can keep his theology and have the return to dominance and power that he craves.
Indeed, that’s what all of these other recent books like his are about: how can Christians keep their theology but handle it in a way that won’t produce flagrant abuse and mistreatment, that will reverse the decline of their religion’s power and credibility, and that will bring back the people they’ve lost?
Every one of the fundagelical Christians writing books on this topic thinks they’ve found the magic answer to that question, because every one of them takes for granted that it’s possible to perform this emotional and mental sleight of hand.
And that ain’t how this works.
That ain’t how any of this works.
Preston Sprinkle’s answer to that question is what we’re going to be talking about this week.
I’ll see you next time! Happy weekend!