Every once in a while we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and keep on talking about it until there is nothing left to say.
If you have been tracking with me on this blog for any length of time, or any of the other blogs where I hang out regularly, you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. Despite what you may think, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is not simply some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around all day in front of their computer screens and write whatever strikes their fancy. This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to borrow an oft-used (around here, at least) quote from Rachel Held Evans, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.
It occurs to me that some of you may not have any idea what I am talking about when I speak of the “post-evangelical wilderness”, so I am going to offer some snapshots over the coming days/weeks of what this looks like on the ground in my world.
As you may have guessed, today’s snapshot is an old favorite CCM album.
There are some of you out there, I am sure, who don’t have even a clue what CCM is. CCM stands for “Contemporary Christian Music”, which is pretty much almost exactly what it sounds like. This is a GINORMOUS industry within the evangelical universe. It is a self-contained world encompassing everything from the worship music that is played on Sunday mornings in evangelical churches to music that is played on the radio, on stations devoted exclusively to this musical genre. Every once in a while a song breaks out of this world and crosses over to the world of mainstream pop, such as Amy Grant’s “Find A Way” (1985), Michael W. Smith’s “Place In This World” (1990), or MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” (2003). When this happens, there is no shortage of joy and glee within the evangelical world. There are artists who make their entire careers writing and/or performing this music, and when one of them steps outside this genre, or gets divorced, or expresses doubts about some key evangelical distinctive, or (God forbid) comes out as gay, it throws the entire evangelical universe into fits and convulsions. In short, it is an alternate universe of pop music that exists alongside the universe of mainstream pop music but is almost completely contained to the evangelical world.
I used to love this music–so long ago, back when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical. There were numerous artists whom I counted among my favorites. Now, much of it is something I would not listen to unless I wanted to punish myself for some terrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly.
Part of the self-punishment aspect of things is knowing how much this music meant to me back then, knowing who I was back then when it meant so much to me, and feeling the full force of the disconnect between who I was back then and who I am today. Also, the awareness of many hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, etc. that I had for myself back then, which to this day remain unfulfilled.
The album I choose for this exercise is by Steven Curtis Chapman, and it is called Declaration.
The year was 2001 back when this album dropped. It was a heady time to be an evangelical. George W. Bush, a president whom many evangelicals would count as a close friend and ally, had just outlasted Al Gore in a very close and contentious election marred by voting irregularities that took weeks to sort out (remember the phrase “hanging chad”, anyone?). With all that over with and Bush safely in office, we could all exhale and begin to chase the bad taste of the Clinton years out of our collective mouth. We were winning in the broader culture on abortion, gay marriage, and other such issues of concern to us (or so it seemed at the time), and damn it felt good. The purity culture movement spawned by Josh Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, about which I have written in prior posts, was in full flower. We threw purity balls for the evangelical youth, and rejoiced mightily to see mainstream pop stars and other A-list celebrities rocking their purity rings. (Don’t know what any of that stuff is? Be glad you don’t.) John Piper’s Desiring God was flying off the shelves and setting the world on fire, enlivening a whole generation of young Neo-Calvinists to go out and live all for the glory of God.
As for me personally, I was in full flower as a lovesick young evangelical punk. There was a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world, and any day could have been the day she said to me “YES!!!!!!!!! I’M YOURS, TAKE ME AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (This has been a recurring theme in my life. And we all know how this story ends, without fail. But we won’t talk about that today.) As I listened to this album (usually on road trips) I had fantasies of riding the open highway in a red convertible with the top down, and her in the passenger seat, and this music blaring from the speakers. I now have the red convertible (I am on red convertible #2 at this point), yet still the passenger seat remains vacant. But I digress.
We won’t go track-by-track through this deal, as this post is already long enough as it is. But we will go through a representative sampling.
We start with the lead track, a song called “Live Out Loud”. The song asks us to imagine the folly of winning the big prize on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”, a reality-based game show that was all the rage back then and the precursor to much of today’s reality TV–and then just keeping quiet about it. (Actually that kinda makes sense to me. If you come out and publicly announce that you just won the big prize, you set yourself up as a target because there are lots of people running around out there who would resort to any means to get that money from you.) We as Christians have been given a much bigger prize–eternal life in Jesus Christ–and it is time to bust out and let the whole world know.
Back then, I would have totally been on board with this. Now, not so much. This sort of tell-the-world-with-reckless-abandon goes against every fiber of my being, and I am much more convinced of the value of living quiet lives of humble service to those around us. If you’re the sort of person who can tell the world with reckless abandon, great. You do you. But don’t make that the standard for the rest of us.
About midway through the album we come to “God Is God”, a song which dances with the themes of God’s sovereignty that are all over the place in John Piper’s writing and the Neo-Calvinist movement that his work spawned: that the proper response to suffering and mystery in life is to bow down and worship and confess that only God is God. (A song called “Much Of You” that would appear on a subsequent album is pure John Piper through and through. Incidentally, John Piper was one of my favorite authors back then, and Desiring God was very formative to me in that season of life. But he completely and totally lost me with “Farewell Rob Bell” a few years back, and has been on my shit list ever since.) That may be so, but it completely misses the point of the book of Job–namely that for some things, all explanations are inadequate. Even the explanation that God is God. I have seen much out here in the post-evangelical wilderness for which the answers that God is God and our place is to bow in humble submission and worship are hopelessly inadequate.
Shortly after this we get to “Bring It On”. An easy thing to say in the face of trouble when you are young, as I still was back when this album came out. Be very careful what you wish for, because you just might get to the other side of it and find yourself in the same place as me. I am sure Steven Curtis Chapman knows that at this point. He later devoted an entire album to processing the tragic loss of a young daughter through the standard evangelical framework, a framework which I find hopelessly inadequate.
The emotional climax of the album–and by far the greatest point of disconnect between who I was back in happier times when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical and who I am today–is a song called “Magnificent Obsession”, a soaring and glorious anthem of single-hearted, all-consuming devotion to God alone. How easy it seemed back then, to believe myself capable of such a thing. I know better now. And even if I were capable of living up to that level of devotion, I am not sure I would want to. The song is representative of the sort of evangelical devotion that refuses to allow any space for our humanness–that our human struggles, wishes, dreams, desires, aspirations, etc. are all things we must abandon in order to rise to the level of devotion that God requires.
In this stage of life I find it very hard to trust that level of devotion to God alone, knowing that God is committed to people–the Scriptures bear this out–and any sort of devotion to God alone that does not translate to the people God loves and is for–especially those on the margins of society–is worthless. After seeing 81 percent of American evangelicals enthusiastically and unabashedly support a president whose message is the exact opposite of God’s heart for people and especially marginalized people, I’m calling bullshit on this.
But more to the point, I am so over attempting to abandon my humanity in order to rise to the level of devotion that God requires, in the evangelical milieu, at least. If I come to God I am bringing all of me. Including all of my very this-world-centered joys, sorrows, hopes, dreams, troubles, wishes, desires, and aspirations. If He will not accept those parts of me then He is not a God that I wish to follow.