Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Another Conversation (About Growing Up Evangelical)

Another conversation has opened up online that I have been invited to be a part of by my friend Colin. It is something of a discussion group for those wishing to work through some of the struggles of being a contemporary evangelical. You are free to look on and comment. It begins with each of the contributing members introducing themselves, thinking particularly of their own back-story in regard to the perceived foibles of evangelicalism. I have posted my own introductory entry below.

It is odd telling such stories because they inevitably involve other people, especially when we are talking about generational generalizations. I also hesitate to tell such personal stories, but then again I don't see how we can discuss such matters without being personally honest. All that to say: I want the stories of my church upbringing to read more like a tribute to my parent's faithful dialogue with me through some messy evangelical decades than like an indictment of everyone who ever had an influence on me.

I say this with fear and trembling: I'm not entirely sure I would be a Christian today if not for spending thousands and thousands of dollars to get a theological education, thus discovering Christianity to more relevant, life-giving, complex, beautiful, intellectual, and communal than I had ever realized.

I'm not trying to make a statement with that, I'm just saying that's my story. I'm not trying to say the evangelical churches I grew up in never had any of that, I'm just saying I never caught much wind of it (and still don't very often). I'm not saying I have my own theological education to thank for my faith (as if it is mine in some way), I'm just saying that key professors and authors have been the part of the church which God has graciously used to keep me. (I think this does speak to a problem in evangelicalism, but we'll get to that later I'm sure.)

Reading Robert Webber's Younger Evangelicals a couple years ago I realized that being born in '75 put me between generations---and this explained to me why I've always felt tugged in two directions at once. It has never been incredibly difficult for me to join in on the postmodern critique of modernity; the Gen-X critique of Boomers; the emergent critique of the seeker-service; and so on. Whatever you want to call it, I feel it in my bones.

But it isn't so easy: I am just as suspicious of my critique as I am of the one I critique. I am postmodern enough to believe that it isn't so black and white as all that---as if modernity is all bad and postmodernity all good; as if my generation will be able to right the wrongs of evangelicalism past without in turn bringing new and even worse wrongs to evangelicalism future; as if we are the enlightened ones whose first step ought to be to shrug off the lies and errors of our fathers. Uh-uh. I'm with Elijah: My ancestors may have had some problems, but the harder I try to fix them the more I discover that I am no better than my ancestors. We've seen generation after generation err by over-reacting to the one before. Too many babies have been thrown out with the bathwater. The errors of today's evangelicalism are the over-reactions to the evangelicalism which preceded.

But lest this become a rant instead of an introduction, let me give a couple anecdotes from my life that illustrate why I look at it this way.

When I was a boy of 12 I was for the first time listening to rock music on my headphones---and it was so good. I was loving it. I had never really heard anything like it and new vistas of experience were opening on my horizon.

But all the time I listened I was full of this debilitating and deathly fear that I'd be found out for being so rebellious; I'd be in huge trouble for brushing the dark side---and this new world of music that had just opened up in front of me would be taken away by my parents forever.

Then one day it happened: I was listening to this music and my mom was trying to talk to me. I couldn't hear her, so naturally she spoke louder to get my attention. When I noticed, well, I thought my time had come: I was busted!

I don't recall exactly what happened next but I think I burst into tears. Turned out she was just telling me we had to go somewhere. That's all. She couldn't understand what I was so fearful of. What she and I both didn't realize, I think, was what a hold guilt and fear had on my young Christian heart. I felt guilty for pretty much everything and I was afraid of even more.

Now here's the crazy thing: The music was Micheal W. Smith! And my parents had not only overseen the purchase of the cassette but had given me the walkman! Why was I afraid? For the life of me I can't figure it out except to say that the fear (and guilt) that I felt crippling me growing up was part and parcel of the evangelical air I breathed.

I'm not going to try to say that guilt and fear don't have their place, but they are not the beating heart of the faith. Something went seriously wrong in my corner of the 2oth century evangelical world and many like me have not survived it. I am thankful that by the grace of God somehow the faith still has a hold of me, but at times it has been barely. Eventually the icy grip of guilt and fear squeezes the life out of it and you either run for cover or you find that there is something deeper to the faith.

I hope this doesn't sound like therapy, but one more anecdote: In grade 7 the San Francisco earthquake happened right before my eyes while I watched TV. Given my upbringing I was fairly certain the rapture was about to happen any moment. Unexpectedly, I became very afraid of being raptured. I did not want to go to heaven. I did not want to go to hell, either, don't get me wrong, but all I could think of when I thought of heaven was this eternal extension of my current experience. At the time I did not appreciate things like love and grace and peace and reconciliation and hope. Those things had certainly been taught in church but I didn't hear them.

I had sure heard about the "slippery slope" though. And it certainly kept me out of trouble. Something good might still be said about it. I had heard conviction of sin. And in some way it certainly led me to Jesus. Something good might still be said about that too. I had heard all about the end-times. It certainly made me aware of the urgency of life, and something good might still be said about it as well, but beneath them I had nothing but a gaping hole where Jesus (and Christian community) ought to have been thriving but instead were barely breathing for air. Here I was petrified of heaven because all I could picture was me sitting alone in a crowded church feeling completely out of the loop . . . for ever. I was beside myself. I really was. Few things are as frightening in my memory as that time of my life.

What got me through was my dad praying with me. Notice that? I had the evangelicalism of my ancestors partly to blame for the trouble I was in, but I also had my living breathing ancestor to thank for leading me in Christian communion to engage the Jesus somewhere behind it all.

20 years later I am still working through all of this (and it has been interesting now to laugh about those stories with my parents, and also together to ask quizzically: "What was going on there?") My church upbringing is something I have become very thankful for. But it is also something I want to build on. Hopefully little conversation groups like this one can be some good therapy---ahem, I mean edification!

I doubt that ours is a period of transition which will smooth out the church experience for our children. I shudder to think of the messes I am leaving for my kids to clean up. But I take solace in the grace of God and I make it my goal not simply to pass on a heritage of my own achieved perfection, but ultimately to pass on the ministry of reconciliation that (whether it has always been realised or preached or not) has been the beating heart of the evangelical church all along.


Tony Tanti said...

I've heard more than one person say that the freedom from this guilt you speak of is the greatest thing about being disengaged from the church now. Scary if you think of it, being away from church has left some people in our generation feeling more free. Shouldn't it be the other way around?

These stories and statements resonate with me Jon, I don't remember feeling as much guilt as you've described here but guilt was certainly the biggest part of my faith probably until I was well into my twenties.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Wow. What a great read. I found myself amening along with all your tales of guilt and fear. Unfortunately (or fortunately) I couldn't hold on to faith anymore. I got too exhausted. And yeah, I feel SOOO liberated in Atheism.

I'm gonna have to check this discussion out.

jon said...

i appreciate what you guys are saying. i definitely think we're "resonating". intriguingly, both of you mention the idea of feeling freer outside of the faith. i think this is a feeling i've had at times, when the extra gunk has been peeled away. however, i'd like to elaborate a bit more on this idea of freedom because, as you know, i do believe it to be something other than the liberation from Christianity.

but let me back up a second. to be clear, i do think guilt and fear have their place. each has an important place actually.

i think that without a sense of fear of God one is probably dealing with a pretty watered down version of God. in a sense, anyone who even talks about the idea of God is entering into a fearful task. something huge is on the line. either God exists or does not. either way, we're talking about God here, not some trivial something-or-other.

my problem in evangelicalism i guess was that fear just seemed to be used like a tool. most of what i remembered from christian circles was "what to be scared of." this is entirely different from the healthy fear of God, I think. it was more the fear of the world that i was hearing. so the legalism of my private school and sunday school upbringing and the incessant end-times scare-factor which left me only remembering the fear part and not grasping the perfect love that casts it out.

i do not want to say that the love of Christ was not communicated to me. it was. my family was very loving that way. it just took me a long time to see or understand what it had to do with christianity.

as for guilt: i also think guilt has its place. after all: if i am complicit in what's wrong with the world; if i am wrong in the way i am treating people; if i am not totally right in the way i am treating people; if i am not rightly related to the God i was made to commune with; if i am not totally right as i could be as God's free creation----well, dang it, it sure helps me to know that!

(of course, if there are no moral absolutes or imperatives, guilt is just a tool of manipulation. far as i can tell, those with such a belief are still left asking which manipulations are for the good of the human, or the human society, and so in that case will be just as prone to mis-use guilt as any religious person would be.)

as a Christian believing in some kind of moral imperatives to being truly human, one of the worst things that can happen to me is the searing of conscience and the loss of awareness of guilt. i have no problem with being aware of where i fall short of what i am made for.

but once again, the christian message does not end there. guilt is not foundational. part of the christian message is that God in Christ provides (not just felt but actual) freedom from guilt, while sustaining the grounds and hope of justice.

so, like fear, my problem is the central place guilt took in my understanding of christianity. it is almost like God needed it to get me on his side. it was like everything came down to felix culpa (good fall). the fall may have brought some bad stuff, but it was good because it brought us into dependence on Jesus. i needed guilt or i'd drift from him. it was like God had orchestrated the whole thing to enslave me.

i had it all backwards, of course. i sorely needed to understand that God had always made us free to enjoy and grow in communion with the Father by Spirit through the Son; that GOD is the greatest champion of human freedom; that sin was the loss of the freedom to love and grow uninhibited by the enslavement of selfish desire; and that Christ was always going to be with us---sin just meant he had to go even further to do so.

could a 12 year old hope to articulate or understand any of that? maybe not all at once. i do think i had glimmers of it. but it just got so overshadowed and oversimplified i think. obviously i am not a big fan of sunday school curriculum or evangelical worship practices back then, or today for that matter. we need the grander vision of what God is about, for God's sake!

here's the thing: In Christ we can be free of guilt AND still believe in justice. in Christ we can fear God AND experience the love that casts that fear away. in Christ we can be free, not in the sense of being liberated to achieve autonomous self-fulfillment (for that is slavery if you ask me; that is the heaven (and hell) i was afraid of!), but in the sense of being freed to thrive as creature in communion with Creator, and creation.

this freedom is what i long for. this freedom is the kingdom of heaven. this freedom is what redemption and reconciliation drive toward. this freedom is at the heart of evangelical Christianity (in its truest sense).

Anonymous said...

Im going to write down what thoughts reading this inspired:

In the past few years, I have stepped farther away from my faith than I ever thought possible. But in the end, I see that I am closer to what I believe is real faith - distance from "faith" is really distance from the totalizing views that I had been taught growing up. In this way, I agree with jon.

The hurtful and segregating faith that I knew as a child isnt mine any longer. At times I feel unsure as to whether I am right or not, but in the end, this is how I am friends with and fearful of God as well as a good member of the world he created.

In the past (and still) My faith journey brought me into contact with far too many christians that were not good at anything but talking about how good they were at Christianity, at going to bible schools, at leading bible studies, at censorship, at "purity" and judgement. Something in me always told me that this wasnt how I was supposed to be- i was supposed to mirror something else.

As life goes on, and my view of faith becomes more inclusive, I am able to feel less hurt and see more truthfulness than before. My life is harder, because of the constant questioning that is going on - am i still a christian? Do I really believe in God? What is sin, and should I even try to define it? Where is my place in the world? Are my struggles punishment of some kind for not believing the right thing?

One answer Ive come up with is that my place in the world is NOT as a judge. It is as a giver of grace, and solace.

Another answer that I am building is one that says Im to give those things to myself as much as to the rest of the world - guilt no longer needs to be a reason to torture myself. ie, the only one punishing me is me.

Freedom comes in bursts and leaks. And im driving toward it in my own way. I feel certain that I could never feel more free in the absence of christ. I also think that those of us who let him go are still in his presence - their freedom is still his.

Sorry this isnt much of a critical response, i hope it can add.

Tony Tanti said...

Awesome comments Jon and Forrest.

I hear what you're saying Jon and I haven't felt this freedom apart from my faith, I have felt it apart from the church. That's been hard to grasp for me as someone who believes that God wants the church to exist.

I guess what I would say is that my faith is now about striving to find what God wants me to do, not in some "call" idea or specifically what God wants me to do on Thursday night, but what does God want me to be. What kind of man should I be? What kind of husband, brother, son, friend, uncle... I think that by focusing on the positive (what to DO) I have been freed from the stress and guilt of constantly worrying about what NOT to do.

There is still good guilt and there are still things I try not to do, but that is a natural reaction when you're a person striving to do right rather than avoiding sin being the sole focus of my morals.

I think Forrest has hit the nail on the head when talking about Christians trying to hard to be "good at" Christianity. How about being a good person.

The grace of God in the story of Jesus is the still the most freeing thing I've ever believed in, at least when the story is told right.

jon said...

Thanks for sharing that Forrest. I think you are asking some really good questions there, and I think your conclusiong that you (we) are NOT JUDGE is a very good one. I agree with it 100%.

Doesn't mean I do it all that well though. It is a short walk from critical thinker to judge.

Tanti, I like that perspective of focussing on what you are supposed to be. I think the Bible would have us get that right first. It is all interconnected with what we do, of course, but as Jesus said (to paraphrase incredibly) the cup is only as clean as its inside.

Its weird, ever since I've posted this I've had all these things coming to mind that I am thankful for from the evangelical church, and I've been thinking about all the great stuff I got from my parents. I have real serious criticisms of modern evangelicalism, but it is easy just to focus on the negatives and even to blame institutions for things that were just going to be problems anyway. I was an introspective and short boy growing up and my guilt and fear could have had just as much to do with my own way as anything else. I have to be fair.

But I do want to think critically about what it means to be an evangelical; and to be a person. That's why I'll be in a conversation group like the one mentioned here. I am less and less interested in just trying to distance myself from the problems of my community.

What flames up my bitterness about my evangelicalism is more my experience of church today. It just doesn't feel like the same faith as the one I hold. That is really really hard to wrestle with.

But I really want to mention what Deitrich Bonhoeffer said in Life Together, which someone brought up in that "other conversation" (paraphrased): I want to be incredibly wary of the danger of “loving one’s image of the community more than the community itself.”

I think that's pretty much what the Pharisees were doing. I've done it. I don't think I was doing it here, but I come close sometimes.

Bonhoeffer wasn't telling us to eject our critical minds from the equation, of course. I think we can love our community by contributing to it with critical minds intact. This is something I'd like to learn to do.

Probably the hardest thing I face is the perception that critical minds are not allowed to have a voice in the church. We need to put on a unified face and a polished message for the seeker. That's how I feel it is today in many of the churches I go to. I don't think the pastors would want to put it that way. I like the pastors I've had. But this is our evangelical ethos today, I feel, and it frustrates me. I don't know how to be a part of it.

I think we may even have worse problems to sort out today than when I was a kid. The fear thing was a church focal point then, but it is a societal one now. Our society is built on fear. The guilt thing was a problem then, but the reverse may be the problem now. I feel like I'm part of a huge loss of scruples. As if we are trying to prove the "slippery slope" argument right as a society.

I just wish the church stood out more, because I really do think it has the light and the truth, and just so often is "hiding it under a bushel" or else just isn't aware of what it has at all. But I can't sit on it as judge. I need to find a way to engage, to love the community, and to speak truth in love---and not just wait until someone pulls it together.

But that is really really hard. Especially when you are new to a church, or haven't found your voice, or feel like if you started a dialogue you might be shunned, or just don't want to sound like a know-it-all, or judgmental, or whatever. Silent bitterness is easier. But it erodes.

This isn't so much about the church I grew up in, it is about today for me. I really really really want to feel at home in church, to see why Jesus loves it so much. I can see it in theory. I want to live in it. It is the only outpost of the kingdom of heaven that we get on this side of eternity. By grace I want to see it alive in its humble imperfection, rather than dead in its false sense of perfection.

Tony Tanti said...

Love that last line Jon, that's a good challenge to us cynics as well. I can't just be a complainer who does nothing to affect change, I guess I got discouraged after seeing very little change while I was heavily involved in church, but I don't want to give up.

Colin Toffelmire said...

tanti, if it's at all encouraging to know, after pastoring in Regina, which was probably the most frustrating church experience of my life, Jin and I found our way to the best Christian community we've ever been a part of in our next church. It still had its foibles but we were allowed to be ourselves, we were valued for our contribution, there was a real sense of community and love. That's the place I had my faith in the Church restored. Those places do exist...though I freely grant they don't exist everywhere.

jon said...

that's so good to hear colin.

curiously enough, colin's frustrating church experience coincided with my best ever church experience and he was my pastor at the time! figure that one out.

Philbert said...

perhaps this is digressing, but I'd love to hear you elaborate on how Regina was your best ever church experience, Jon.

How much of your (Jon and other concerned individuals) concerns regarding the state of the evangelical church would be felt or understood by the the average Christian in North America?

Do you think they are wrestling with this or is this just a concern of the church intelligentsia?

Colin Toffelmire said...

Like philbert, I am curious what about Regina was your best church experience ever Jon. I suppose my frustrations there had a lot to do with being on the inside trying to change things.

And philbert, I don't think that these are the concerns of some kind of "intellectual elite" in the church. I know people from every demographic in the NA evangelical community struggling with these issues. Actually the contributors and commentators on the blog Jon's talking about in the main post represent people from all over the evangelical spectrum and the sense is that they resonate quite deeply with these kinds of issues.

Philbert said...


being that I know most of the people involved in the blog mentioned, and that most are either former bible college students, pastors, ex-pastors, PHD candidates or potential PHD candidates, I hardly see them as representing "people from all over the evangelical spectrum".

jon said...

I have fond memories of my Regina church experience because of the tight small group we had. It could be pretty much any worship service and if we had people we were sharing life and christianity with it made all the difference in the world. we all know there were points of frustration in that church, but that was the "best" (ie. richest) community of Christ I've been a part of outside of college or seminary. I really felt like we got to know and appreciate and love the people outside our small group too, don't get me wrong. i think that's important.

but by no means am i saying that church was ideal. there is a huge intangible to being in a group that is willing to wrestle through issues together (even inner-church issues). even if it is frustrating at the time (and we all know it was), there is something rich about it as i look back.

(i wasn't thinking of my own church pastoring experience though. i'm just thinking of my experiences as a "parishioner". i can totally see why colin's experience on staff could be more troublesome than mine in the pew. wish i could have been there for him, but then again i know that the people in the pew can't always know everything)

as for whether this is an intellegentsia thing, i don't know. i wish it wasn't. i feel like the non-academics who have big problems with the church either don't go anymore or have found a group similar to the one i'm talking about that they work things through with. or they are just in really great churches, which happens, praise God!

i feel like my problems are not because i'm an academic. i actually think i was driven to academia because of the problems. i spend years trying to articulate them and then am amazed and relieved often to find in theological and biblical study that these problems are real, people have had them before, and usually come down to some sort of theological issue.

thing is, whenever you start trying to refine something, be it a church or a coffee-brewing procedure, you end up getting into technicalities. this ends up getting branded as only for the intellectuals, and certainly some of the detailed terminology (such as supralapsarianism, etc) can stay in the textbooks, but the issues are there to be discussed and wrestled with by all.

Philbert said...

That small group was amazing. I don't think I have ever experienced community within the church to that degree. It was a true blessing.

Colin Toffelmire said...


I guess I don't really count ppl who've done a year or two of bible college as "intelligentsia". That isn't to say I don't think they're intelligent, but they certainly aren't academic theologians. I'd actually say the same of most pastors I know. That being said a lot of the commentators are just regular pew sitters these days.

I do admit that the contributors lean a little heavy towards the academic end of the setting. That's just a by-product of the fact that they're the kind of people I'm friends with and my friends are the people I invited to contribute.

I do think that the things that are important to me on a Sunday morning are generally the same things that are important to non-academic Christians that I know. And as Jon says, though terms like "supralapsarianism" or "hermeneutics" can stay in the classroom, it's very important that we all wrestle with the idea of being fallen or of how the Bible works in our lives.

Philbert said...

fair enough, Colin. I guess my question comes from a position of reading your blog and Jon's and enjoying them, but feeling somewhat disconnected from these topics and concerns. It seems too high brow for me. The people in my faith community are wrestling with topics like "how do i raise my children to love Jesus?" or "how do I live a life pleasing to God?"

I'm not saying there isn't validity for you guys to work this out for your own sanity/continued faith. I'm just wondering if the average Joe christian is wrestling whith these issues. But, perhaps they are not able to put their finger on the exact issue that is troubling them.

jon said...

the academics are joe christians trying to "put their finger on the exact issue that is troubling them" and finding that there most issues have been talked about before. pretty much no matter what you bring up, it has probably been talked about before. it probably even has a long history and even a name. there are probably precise terms that have been coined or used to that people that have waded into the historical discussion can try to talk about the same thing with the same word.

when an academic reads all of this he or she really wants to share it, and really believes it is relevant. sometimes sharing it means using that learned language, but it should always be with the intent of benefitting the one being shared with. it probably ends up not benefitting or being merely high brow and staying in the ivory tower if that academic doesn't bother to engage or if nobody bothers to engage him. often that engagement involves asking questions, even questions like "so what"?

sorry if i ever seem to be trying to be high brow. sometimes i'll just write about something technical and leave it at that, but i don't wish to come off that way. if the relevance of something i'm talking about is not apparent, i would love to be asked "so what". okay, maybe you can use words that sound less sarcastic, but you catch my drift. people that ask such questions are really really important, they are smart, and they are courageous, and they are contributing more than they think they are.

i think of the times i've taught adult sunday school and sometimes i get a little technical in the language just because i'm having trouble expressing it or appying it any other way. often it is then that someone "unschooled" will take a stab at translating it for everyone, and succeed! or, more often, together we'd succeed at working it into everyday language and life. in a sense, that person showed they were way smarter than i, because on one listen they could get into the point, apply it to life, and enter into a five minute back-and-forth with the teacher that would ultimately bless and edify the whole class, teacher and student included. that's what SS class; that's what church; is all about! its so good. so rich.

thing is, if joe christian doesn't engage with mr. ivory tower, they are both in serious, serious trouble. they need to believe they need each other.

case in point, the question you asked here, philbert. of course, you are a college grad yourself, but it was a simple, honest, and relevant question. i've been thinking about it since i read it last night and now i'm rambling on because of it. and even if i'm answering it in a bit of a defensive way, it has me thinking and it has reminded me of how important i believe it is to make sure that i don't get stuck too far in the ivory tower.

while some in the ivory tower have certainly stuck their heads in the books too long to look up for a second and be of any good to anyone, i think the way they get that way is part their fault (for not engaging with the local church and trying to dialogue on that level) and part their church's fault (for excusing themselves from any dialoge with them and for pushing them to the fringes so that church can run more smoothly). and most of them are probably just dying inside wishing someone in church would get over their fear and just talk to them.

so, good question philbert. good challenge too. really.

Tony Tanti said...

Good points by Philbert. It's a valid challenge to academics to keep their head in the average persons world, at least some of the time. Of course those of us that know Jon know that he does this well.

Even with your examples Philbert of questions the average Christian is dealing with (as opposed to what is discussed by intellectuals) I would hope that a big part of the answer to those simpler life questions comes from reading those who've studied the Bible more in depth that I will ever have the time to do. If I want to know what the Bible tells me about how to be a good person it's not enough to just read the Bible, or a devotional by Dobson, I need to read the Bible as well as get help interpreting it from someone doing the hard work of historical, cultural, contextual... analysis. This is why you must continue Jon. Obviously you know all that philbert and as I said your challenge is a valid one.

Jon, I think you need to keep one foot firmly planted in the average Christian persons world, but never stop striving to go deeper as you are. The Christian world needs scholars, otherwise we end up with a bunch of people doing what Benny Hinn and James Dobson tell them.

Colin Toffelmire said...

Philbert, you're absolutely right, and Jon's response is also wonderful. I've felt all of the same feelings he describes and often in exactly the same situations or similar ones. After awhile in academia it starts to be the language you know. I worry sometimes that it might become the only language I know but hopefully friends like you will keep leveling that critique.

And as far as the task of academic biblical studies is concerned, to quote my academic supervisor "It's theology, stupid!" If it never ever connects with a person in a church, then what the hell good is it?

Philbert said...

Tanti, Jon and Colin;

Thanks for being so affirming with your responses. I am glad you found my questions challenging. However; i can't say my motives were always so altruistic. Keep up the hard thinking and the good work.