Tough love for my fellow post-Evangelical Christians

Over a year ago I started a closed, hidden Facebook group for a few of my friends and me so that we could share links and discuss issues swirling around our rejection of inerrancy. It was an experience of much empathy and encouragement that most all of us really appreciated.

Then around the time my blogging slacked off in the late summer of last year, I also began frequenting the group less and less. I was recently asked by a dear friend from the group to explain what was going on with me. He was specifically referring to my less frequent interaction with the group, but as it’s related to my coincident lull in blogging, I thought I’d put more words into explaining what I think lies behind it all.

I do often miss the “good Christian fellowship” of those days. At times I also miss the probing discussions we had, but to a markedly lesser extent. This isn’t because they weren’t good discussions: it’s just that I’m not as much in that stage of my journey right now. I don’t know…I suppose I’m just tired of all the over-thinking, the second-guessing. After studying and reading and hashing and rehashing, the simple fact is that when it comes to the most fundamental questions (regarding the existence of God, the problem of evil, soteriology, etc.), one of two situations obtain: I know what I believe on the subject and I know enough about why I should and shouldn’t believe it to last me for some time, or at least I am content to abide in hopeful uncertainty. My faith is a choice, a step out into the unknown, not because, as Evangelicals do, I’ve convinced myself that I’m sure I’m headed the right way or that what I’m stepping onto is secure, but because my deepest hunches and most profound philosophical speculations lie in that direction alone. But I don’t pretend to know it’s true. So I stand here shrouded in uncertainty where I have ventured. The fruitless effort of obsessing about these questions about which we can never have full certainty has once again brought me into a forced humility. My consequent unwillingness to trumpet my tenuous conclusions around as the solution to everyone else’s searches is one part of the equation that has led to my being much quieter of late.

Another part of disentangling myself from the world of biblio- and theoblogging is something I’ve just finally worked out in my mind. Although I had managed to avoid these feelings for quite some time, in the last year I finally succumbed to a constant state of annoyance and even disgust at the constant self-justification, drummed-up confidence, and especially the rarely restrained personal vitriol and arrogance on the part of one group of people I had long counted among my closest allies: atheists. Not all of them are like this, I’m obliged by fairness to qualify, but these attitudes generally correlate directly with the degree of satisfaction they get in proclaiming their unbelief; sad to say, the distribution of atheists on the Internet is a rather lopsided (and I hope, unrepresentative) ratio in favor of this genus of atheist. It’s gotten to the point that if I find out someone’s an atheist within five or ten minutes of encountering him, I can depend on his being obnoxious on the subject.

Around the time I started recognizing that the New Atheist “civility” was spreading among even more mainstream non-theists, I noticed the disease showing up among many of those even closer to my ilk, i.e. post-Evangelical and otherwise “liberal” Christians: the ones who seem to take every opportunity to belittle and shame conservative Evangelicals, a group of believers whom I also consider to be sorely in need of correction. By all appearances, it’s not enough to be convinced that Evangelicals and other theologically conservative Christians are wrong: they’re obviously [blankety-blank] morons, due no more attempts at civil, intellectual interaction than the clinically insane. Ridicule is the medicine prescribed to those who believe that the Bible is inerrant, the world was created in 6 days, and that conservative American politics are the direct reflex of biblical morality. Frankly, the eternal obsession with bawling about the idiotic, hypocritical foibles of Evangelical Christianity has gotten really, really old.

But on further reflection, this exposed in me something I didn’t like: God forgive me, I also had been letting my disgust for things like inerrancy, creationism, and penal substitution displace my loving concern for those who believed those things.

My dissatisfaction with this state of affairs led to a number of posts on my blog (this one included) targeting a different audience than was originally intended for it. I had always focused on “challeng[ing] unquestioned Evangelical assumptions about Scripture, theology, the creation/evolution debate, and biblical studies.” My efforts were for them, but in reality it was no less for me as well, as I hammered out the wrong things I thought important not to believe. But at the bottom of the slippery slope, having stripped away many if not most of the beliefs that conservative Christians hold as sine qua non‘s of Christianity, the loss of which were the last straws for ex-Christians I have encountered in my journeys, somehow I found my faith afresh. The tide turned from finding thing after thing to disbelieve towards finding new ways to act on things I found worth believing. I’m sure I’ll never really stop thinking about these things and finding new things to question and/or critique, but at some point you’ve just got to live it and hope for the best.

Look, I know it’s hard dealing with some of these conservative Christians when it comes to theology. OK, most of them. And I know there are some pretty harmful consequences to some of their beliefs that we need to stand up and counter. I’m certainly not calling for détente, or for burying our heads in the sand while the victims of bad theology pile up. And I realize that sometimes there’s no better way to show someone an idea is wrong than to show them how silly the idea is. But trying to force people to laugh at themselves as hard as you’re laughing at them is simply not realistic. Yes, in many cases we’ve got to shake them, raise our voices, and tell them to snap out of it — but always after examining our motives and our methods to ensure we are speaking the truth in love.

The temptation of Internet exchanges to be entirely immune to the checks of face-to-face interaction has fairly well saturated the church, I fear. I’ve gotten much further convincing my Evangelical friends to soberly reanalyze the harmful behavior driven by their bad theology by engaging them in confrontational yet personal conversation than I have with exasperated, sarcastic, snarky retorts thrown at them in disembodied e-text. I’m ready for these people to come around, and I don’t think shaming and gleefully castigating them is cutting it; in fact, it alienates them yet further by giving them a martyr complex as they understandably suspect that their positions are more righteous due to the manifest unrighteousness of the anger being hurled at them in response.

Although we might like to think of our diatribes as humorous constructive criticism, by examining my own heart I can see that much of what is passed off as well-intentioned criticism serves another, ulterior purpose: like a teenage girl desperately trying to be popular by disowning her annoying, dorky brother in front of her friends, we want to show everyone that we’re not as unreasonable as those other people so no one lumps us in together. My friends, Jesus didn’t seem to suffer from this form of pride.

We all want to battle dangerous forms of ignorance and lessen its influence in those groups (such as many conservative forms of Christianity) that seem to defend it the most confidently. And I don’t doubt that you can lampoon, mock, and marginalize a group of people into oblivion. But it’s wrong: we have to remember that conservative Christians are not just perpetrators but also victims of bad theology, and my religion tells me not to hope for the physical, spiritual, or emotional destruction of those who are wrong but their deliverance. Granted, if you’re one who doesn’t believe there’s anything transcendent that stands as the basis for ethics or morality, I can understand wishing for the former, even as I shrink back in horror from such a world as yours. But I should be able to count on other (theologically) progressive Christians to show more patience, sympathy, and love for others — in short, living in the way the founders of our faith told us should be our hallmark. The authors of the New Testament consistently advised believers to nurture one another and shore up unity within their community of faith, so much so that many scholars have expressed doubt that the first Christians cared for anyone outside of their community at all. Rather, I think the sensible plan was always “Jerusalem first, then Judea, then the uttermost parts of the earth,” a strong, healthy core with influence rippling outwards in concentric rings. Make sure your own house is in order first — and that means tidying up the messy rooms rather than demolishing them. One of the many sound critiques of Evangelical culture is that they tend to “shoot their wounded,” which is something sensitive and responsible “progressive” Christians have disavowed. Yeah, well, I’m just not seeing it, folks, and neither is the watching world: liberals hardly less than conservatives round up the ones who we think hold us back and/or make us look stupid, bind them to piles of sticks and dry grass, light the match, and hold a public spectacle of the whole affair.

I realize I’m laying it down pretty hard on my own allies here; I don’t really mean to bust anyone’s chops – how hypocritical would that be! – and as I alluded earlier, I think this problem is in large part attributable and endemic to the medium of online interactions, which tends to desiccate interpersonal exchanges into impersonal ones. It’s just that I care for everyone involved in these debates and want to insist that tough love can be shown without it looking indistinguishable from a drive-by shooting. I emphatically agree that we need to make taking care of the oppressed, marginalized, and suffering in this world our chief priority as Christians, and that Evangelicalism doesn’t seem to have the tools or even the motivation to help us, but it’s really not too much to ask to insist that we treat them with concern as well. In actuality, we are harming our world if we let our disgust poison the portion of it that sits in conservative churches. “Love your enemies” applies even if those enemies are family. And honestly it looks a lot different than what I’ve been seeing.

I expect to be dismissed by many as preaching sentimentalism and maybe even, despite my protestations above, a non-violence that enables more violence: “Easy for you to say, Steve: you’ve never suffered gender discrimination for church office or been kicked out of Christianity for being gay.” But I’m not saying we shouldn’t address those issues: I’m reevaluating how we’re going about it. If you haven’t noticed, our results in getting these people to both a) change their minds and b) not become disillusioned, bitter atheists are pretty abysmal.

I write this for those in whom the all-inclusive heart of God is being cultivated. It’s not easy to show patience and speak the truth in love in this environment, and those of us earnestly attempting it really need all the help we can get. I’m just asking that you consider how inadvertently destructive your publicly posted incendiary content might be. Meanwhile, if I decide that I can be of some use by continuing to keep up this blog, I’ll try to refocus on exemplifying the kind of engagement that I have advocated above. Engage them, get to know them and love them, bring them alongside. As we tell the Calvinists who insist that God’s “justice” trumps His love, there is no justice without love.

From no dark came I, but the depths of light;
From the sun-heart I came, of love a spark;
What should I do but love with all my might?
To die of love severe and pure and stark,
Were scarcely loss; to lord a loveless height–
That were a living death, damnation’s positive night.

– G. MacDonald

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  • Brooke Reich

    “I write for those in whom the all-inclusive heart of God is being cultivated.” Yes, you do! Please continue to share what you’re wrestling with here on the blog for the rest of us to benefit from and be moved by. It is important and it is appreciated, though unfortunately vitriol often speaks louder than appreciation, especially here on the internet. Wonderful post and so very true.

  • “…tough love can be shown without it looking indistinguishable from a drive-by shooting.” Amen! Thanks for writing this, Steve. As an–sure, I’ll take the title–Evangelical Christian interested in growing in my understanding of Scripture and Christ and how I should follow Him, as well as how my theology can help and hinder my doing so, I have much appreciated your blog. May we, as Christians, find a unity Christ begged for us and a love He said would be the sign of our following of Him.


  • Maim Kim

    Beautiful!  Right on.  Please keep posting more!

    We must always reform ourselves, not just in theology and mind, but in character and heart, or else we will fall into the same problems of the institutions we seek to overcome.

    People need to hear more voices like this!

  • Alex Woods

     “judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.”

    May we be merciful to believers and non-believers alike!

  • Jon Norman

    Your blog is very much appreciated, at least by me. Please continue to contribute to it. I have certainly been guilty of the detachment you speak of:
    “Do you really believe the Earth is 6000 years old?!””Nah those Christians are crazeh!”I guess it is a reaction against the perception that to have faith, is to be blind to the reality of this world and trying to distance ourselves from being judged with the label of “Christian” and any preconceived notions.

  • Brian, Australia.

    The body has many parts
    and fundamentalist Christians are not ours to correct. If our
    adaptations of belief are truly beneficial, we should out-compete our
    brothers, or at least carve-out our own niche. There’s no need to
    stop them, in fact, I would argue that Jesus expressly forbade it*.
    Should we, as so many have before us, think that we have found the
    one true interpretation of the Bible? Are fundamentalists hell bound?
    If not, for what purpose would we risk their faith? It’s possible to
    respectfully distance ourselves from literalism but we do well to
    remember that all of our interpretations are also doctrine. It’s also
    worth mentioning that, living in the English speaking world, it’s
    easy to forget that the majority of Christians, worldwide, belong to
    churches which subscribe to an allegorical interpretation of Genesis
    and at least partial preterism. Jesus didn’t mince words with the
    Pharisees when it came to legalism vs love but many issues of
    literalism are not at odds with love and I would suggest that,
    however important we may feel our revelation or interpretations are,
    that importance will never outweigh the commandment of Jesus in John
    15:12 “Love each other as I have loved you ”… Could God ever
    need our help that badly?

    *”Don’t stop him!”
    Jesus said. “No one who performs a miracle in my name will soon
    be able to speak evil of me.” Mark 9:3

  • lac

    I’ve always appreciated your writing. Your post touches upon some of the reasons I’ve abandoned writing or reading blog posts. It is all too easy to attack with the security of the anonymity of the internet!

  • Travis Jacobs

    Steve, how are you coping with all of the backlash over this piece?

  • Pingback: how are some more certain of everything than i am of anything?…. » Blog Archive » supposed to get lottsa rain today()

  • ” I know what I believe on the subject and I know enough about why I should and shouldn’t believe it to last me for some time, or at least I am content to abide in hopeful uncertainty.” The same reason I quietly disappeared a few years back, Steve. Now I feel a little regretful not writing an explanation as eloquent as yours.

    • You know, I always wondered what had happened. Thanks for filling me in! 🙂

  • Jeff

    Interesting post, and you make some good points that I hope will be well-received by your audience.  I can’t count how many online conversations with non-believers and liberal believers have devolved into an investigation into whether I personally am stupid, deluded, delusional, naive, malevolent, or some combination thereof.  To be fair, plenty of conversations with fellow “conservatives” have gone this way as well, so it’s really more a problem of poor rhetorical form than of one’s theological persuasion.  (Or of course, it could be that I’m stupid or deluded or malevolent, but I prefer to disregard that possibility!).
    But, I’m sorry to say, you don’t seem to exactly escape the criticism that you legitimately direct at some of your theological compatriots.  I can say that statements like this:  “We all want to battle dangerous forms of ignorance and lessen its influence in those groups”, and others like it, don’t really achieve the conciliatory tone that you sound like you wish to cultivate.  What I think is absolutely foundational to a productive dialogue, and what I see so infrequently from “your” side, is genuine intellectual engagement.  Not that you necessary leave yourself open to being persuaded to the other point of view (because that’s a lot to ask), but that you at least allow for the possibility that the person on the other side has legitimate and coherent reasons for holding the view that he espouses.  I don’t personally have the slightest ounce of interest in having you patiently bestow your wisdom on deluded people like me who have been unwittingly led astray down the dark, destructive path of Evangelicism.  I’m sure that you don’t think you sound this condescending, but respect for your audience doesn’t simply mean respecting his humanity, but also his intellectual cogency, at least until he demonstrates a lack thereof!
    I am probably risking painting with too broad a brush, but it seems like what happens is something like this:  many intellectually engaged non-believers and liberal believers were at one time extremely conservative, perhaps having been raised in ultra-conservative church environments.  Through some process of intellectual inquiry, they came to reject those conservative beliefs.  Some exhibit bitterness and antipathy towards those who promulgate such beliefs (and some do not), but nearly all exhibit disdain for the beliefs themselves.  And this almost inescapably leads to a negative evaluation of people who hold those beliefs, that makes useful dialogue very difficult.  There is a strong sense of “I used to believe those foolish things too, until I turned on my brain and grew up.”  If you can’t take those beliefs seriously, you can’t take the person seriously, and if you can’t take the person seriously, it’s hard to see how a productive dialogue is likely to result, unless you somehow manage to find that rare person who is just dying to be told how very wrong they are about everything they believe.    

    • Jeff, thanks for this. You’re actually singing my song here: how many times have I explained that people believe what they do for actual reasons beyond, “They’re idiots”?

      But remember, I wasn’t writing this to conservative Christians. My subject was engaging with conservative Christians. Finding common ground with those you seek to gain something from is a necessary bargaining tactic: I hope I can be forgiven for finding common ground by admitting to my interlocutors that we do actually think some of your beliefs are silly! I was primarily speaking in a concessionary way: even if conservatives are often hard to deal with (as are we, hence this post!) and their beliefs ill-considered, we must engage with them as people and not as mindless drones. (Please note that I did not use the term “deluded”.)
      Thanks for the pushback.

      • Jeff

        Thanks Steve. 

        If my suggestion is of any value, I think a great place to start with a programme of engagement would be with this statement:  “I emphatically agree that we need to make taking care of the oppressed, marginalized, and suffering in this world our chief priority as Christians, and that Evangelicalism doesn’t seem to have the tools or even the motivation to help us.”

        At face value, this seems to me to be a manifestly absurd statement (the latter half, not the former half), but I’m sure it didn’t come out of nowhere.  It would be interesting to hear you motivate this, and hopefully start a dialogue about how this commendable goal can be realized by those on all points of the conservative/liberal spectrum, and whether there are any structural barriers you see that prevent us from working arm-in-arm towards it.

        • I think I have talked a bit on the blog about the reasons this social consciousness has been stymied in mainstream (American especially) Evangelical circles.

          I could indict the emphasis on evangelism as a prerequisite to meeting physical needs because the life-changing power of the Gospel is presumed to do most of the heavy lifting. We fund missionaries only enough to keep them alive over there long enough to tell unbelievers about Jesus, not envisaging the kind of large-scale, massively coordinated efforts that are needed and that we really could work arm-in-arm on to help. Whole swaths of dispensationalist futurists tell their congregations that the world’s going to hell in a hand basket and Jesus is about to return, so we needn’t bother rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It’s just a matter of saving the lost while we’ve got a chance. There’s also the burden of Republican ideology, to which most American Evangelicals are rather beholden, that stresses personal responsibility so much that the poor are looked on as reaping what they have sown, and so much sympathy is lost.

          I could go on. But I’m more than willing to hear suggestions as to how to get the people I mentioned, a huge portion of conservative Christians, to change their mindsets so that they feel more motivated to put social action as a primary goal. It’s just this sort of thing I want to happen.

          • Jeff

            I guess it’s not fair to criticize a comment to a blog post for lack of rigor, but…this list isn’t terribly rigorous, and seems based more on impressions and generalizations than on hard facts.  I was expecting something more along the lines of data showing that evangelical churchers and believers compare unfavorably to mainline Protestants with respect to some metric of comparison.  You might, for instance, start with charitable giving as a possibly useful metric, although I’m not sure that one actually supports your case.  Anyway, as I said, it’s the kind of subject that could be interestingly expanded on in a full post.

            In the spirit of offering a suggestion rather than just nitpicking, how about this:  end government-sponsored welfare.  If this responsibility reverted to private organizations, churches would have no choice but to become more directly involved in ministering to the physical needs of those in need.  This gets more believers off of the sidelines, which you will like, and it removes the government pass-through that eviscerates charity of its moral quality.