Next time I fall

Next time I fall July 23, 2022

Speaking of Amy Grant … Adam Kotsko has reposted his 2019 essay on “The Evangelical Mind.” It is, among other things, what our people would call a “personal testimony,” as he explains:

I do not mean to present myself as a scholar of the evangelical movement, but as a primary source. I am not just an observer of the evangelical mind, but an example of it. While some may question my ability to speak from the evangelical perspective as an apostate, I would contend that I am an ideal representative of my generation of evangelicals. I lived through the inner contradictions of evangelicalism in a particularly intense way, and I believe that I ultimately found an evangelical way out of evangelicalism, through the habit of relentless self-examination that we were encouraged to cultivate—albeit not quite in the way they intended. I am not alone.

This is his de-conversion story, presented in the same way that he once learned to present his conversion story, which is mainly what we meant by that term “personal testimony.” That was a difficult and confusing exercise for people like Adam and I who were raised within white evangelicalism from childhood. “Getting saved” or becoming “born again” was, for people like us, one of our earliest memories. We weren’t really “converts” at all, given that we hadn’t really been converted from some prior state or converted to anything notably different from the lives, beliefs, or practices we’d had before we’d followed along and prayed our “sinner’s prayer” and gotten saved.

That happened for me at Vacation Bible School when I was, I think, six or seven years old. It was, I was taught, a moment of enormous, transformative importance and eternal consequence. Before that moment I was not saved and not a Christian. And after that moment, all things were made new, I was a new creation, destined for eternity in Heaven rather than for a well-deserved eternity in Hell. It was the very biggest of big deals.

Practically speaking, though, the pre- and post-conversion me was otherwise no different. I was a very young child who prayed before bed and before meals, read the Bible and Bible story books and Narnia stories, and who went to church three times a week. And then one day, apparently, one of the prayers that I’d been praying ever since I had learned to speak and to think turned out to be a Very Special Prayer that, I was told, placed me in a wholly new category of being, even if everything else about my life and childhood remained exactly as it had been.

I didn’t doubt any of that. But I had no idea what I was supposed to do when I was asked to present it as a story. There was no beginning, middle, or end. No conflict or resolution. Just a kid who grew up learning about Jesus and praying and going to church who then, one Very Special Day, became a kid who … continued learning about Jesus and praying and going to church.

This is where what Adam describes as “the habit of relentless self-examination” comes in. It was the only way to turn our stories of being born into Christianity into stories of being born again.

I’ve sometimes described this weird “personal testimony” dilemma as being like the grandchild of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. Your grandparents tell those stories about gripping the rail of the ship as they caught their first sight of the Statue of Liberty, about learning a new language and culture and struggling to create a new home in a strange new country. And now you’re being asked to tell those stories too, but you were born here. You’ve never been anywhere else, never spoken any language other than American English. You’re a natural-born citizen who’s been saluting the flag and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every day since kindergarten. And now you’re expected to get up in front of the congregation and tell them all about the day you risked everything to leave the Old Country, sailing across an ocean.

“Tell us about Ellis Island,” they say. But you’ve never been to Ellis Island. So how on earth do you tell your story and make it sound anything like they expect? How do you make your story into what it’s apparently supposed to be? To tell your story the way you’re expected and taught and subtly required to tell it, you have to change your story.

Kotsko’s essay is particularly incisive on this point:

Children represent a special problem for a movement centered on conversion. The evangelicals of my parents’ generation came to it as adults, for the simple reason that evangelicalism as we know it did not exist before the late ’70s. Most underwent some kind of conversion experience, and most were reacting to the religious formations of other sects of Christianity. Especially for those who walked away from the highly structured and impersonal atmosphere of the Catholic Church, like my father, the simplicity and immediacy of evangelicalism was a breath of fresh air. Now that they had found the authentic, unmediated Christian experience, they naturally wanted the same for their children.

But for a child raised in the evangelical community from birth, the formative experiences of modern evangelicalism are absent. Evangelical children have no artificial tradition to reject, because they are already growing up in the unmediated, correct form of Christianity. With the important exception of sex and sexuality, they have no occasion to struggle with sin, as they have been imbued with righteousness from a young age. Yet they can’t simply go with the flow, because the core conviction of evangelicalism is that faith and salvation are things they must choose to surrender to on their own. Still, evangelical parents are confident that they know what the end result of a genuine salvation experience looks like (i.e., themselves). Every evangelical child must somehow be induced to undergo—authentically, spontaneously, individually—the exact same fundamental experience that their parents underwent.

This explains the power and the allure of what we’ve come to describe as “purity culture.” That “important exception of sex and sexuality” becomes the only path these born-into-born-again child “converts” have to making their story into the kind of story they’re required to tell — to others or to themselves. We can’t get up to present our “personal testimony” about walking down the gangplank onto Ellis Island, but we can tell about our “struggle” with sexual purity. And so, in a sense, the personal testimony of every child-convert, once they pass into adolescence and youth group, becomes something akin to that Seinfeld episode about being “master of your domain.” We don’t have the conversion narrative expected by first-generation converts, and so we start to sound like we’re sharing at a 12-step MA meeting.

“MA” meaning masturbators anonymous. You got that, right? And you also get how deeply effed up it is? And how it alters and deforms the substance and the meaning of the faith we chose and received and learned from that earlier generation of evangelical converts? And how, as Kotsko goes on to discuss, it gets channeled into a weirdly sexualized and sex-policing variety of politics?

In the passage I quoted above, Kotsko includes a footnote following his assertion that “evangelicalism as we know it did not exist before the late ’70s.” He recognizes that will set off alarm bells for historians and religion scholars who will want to raise objections about, say, Billy Graham “crusades” or Carl Henry books from the 1940s and ’50s. So here’s that footnote:

This claim may seem extreme. On the level of substance, however, it is impossible to understand contemporary evangelicalism as anything but a reaction to the counterculture of the 1960s. And on the level of style, it was only in the 1970s that the idea of a Christian counterculture — led, as always, by Christian music — really began to take off. 

I think that’s right. White evangelicalism “as we know it” changed in both substance and style in reaction to the social upheaval of the ’60s just as surely as America as we know it did. (And, again, we should understand that “the ’60s” always means, primarily, the Civil Rights Movement and feminism, not the Beatles and Woodstock.)

But I also suspect Kotsko’s on to something more than that. It may be that, because “children represent a special problem for a movement centered on conversion,” every subsequent generation of evangelicals is bound to be raised into a form of “evangelicalism as we know it” that will be different from whatever it was that the people who raised them converted to. Second- and third-generation immigrants are bound to be shaped by experiences that their parents and grandparents couldn’t have imagined.

The “Christian music” in Kotsko’s footnote there has more to do with Larry Norman than with Amy Grant, and I’ve already gone on way too long about his essay without even mentioning the way he weaves Grant’s iconic subcultural status and lyrics and travails into his exploration of white evangelical identity. So it’s probably best if I just encourage you to read this whole thing, including his mini-sermon based on the text of Amy’s “I Have Decided” (from 1982’s Age to Age — the white evangelical Thriller).

Here’s that song:

I’ve got some half-formed thoughts about the way this song takes Springsteen’s dictum of “blues in the verses, Gospel in the chorus” and turns it into “Country in the verses, Gospel in the chorus” but that, again, might take more time and effort to unpack than I can manage just now.

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