Derek Webb: A Post-Evangelical Poster Child

Today I wish to introduce you to Derek Webb.

I believe that the Spice Girls are everything Point Of Grace ever wished they could be in life, and then some.  In all honesty, the vast majority of Christian music (and I used to love Christian music back in happier times when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical) is something that I would not listen to unless I wanted to punish myself for some terrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly.  Derek Webb is one of a few–a very few–Christian musicians whom I can legitimately listen to when I do not wish to punish myself.

Some of you may recognize Derek Webb.  Once upon a time he was the frontman for Caedmon’s Call, then a popular Christian band.  He has since gone solo and has been performing solo for several years now.

Webb has long been on the outs with the CCM establishment, which is no small part of his appeal (from my perspective, at least).  Back in the early days, evangelicals of a Neo-Reformed Calvinistic bent fawned over Webb because he was a good-looking, masterful crooner who could sing the TULIP like a boss, though he did ruffle some feathers by calling the Church a whore on his solo debut album.  (TULIP is an acronym in which each of the five letters represents one of the major theological emphases of Neo-Reformed Calvinism, the new black in evangelicalism.)  But when he started dropping lyrics like “Don’t teach me about politics and government, just tell me who to vote for / Don’t teach me about truth and beauty, just label my music / …Don’t teach me moderation and liberty, I prefer a shot of grape juice” (from his 2006 album Mockingbird), that hit the powers-that-be in CCM and much of his fan base (back then) uncomfortably close to home.  His 2009 album Stockholm Syndrome was even edgier and more provocative as he took up issues and positions long considered out of bounds within the evangelical universe.

These days, Webb is squarely in the post-evangelical camp, and likely the post-Christian camp as well.  In recent years he has undergone an excruciating spiritual journey involving a thorough housecleaning of much that he had previously accepted; his 2017 album Fingers Crossed chronicles the journey and the associated grieving process.  He hosts a podcast called The Airing of Grief in which listeners can share their post-evangelical stories by calling or writing in.  The album and the podcast cover many themes of post-evangelical life, such as grieving the loss of certainties you had held for much of your prior life, finding yourself a stranger to you because of all the changes that have happened inside of you, living in that strange space between who you once were and who you are becoming, and finding community and belonging and even worship in unexpected places, including places which we as evangelicals have long been taught to regard with deep-seated fear, suspicion and distrust.

As I have said before in this space, the “post-evangelical wilderness” is not some fanciful construct created by young punk bloggers living in their parents’ basements with nothing better to do with their lives than sit around in front of a computer screen all day and write whatever strikes their fancy.  It is a real place, inhabited by real people with real stories.  It is a space where we are, to borrow a quote from Rachel Held Evans which I have used before, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.

It would not surprise me to see some evangelicals who have followed Derek Webb’s trajectory over the years count him as no longer one of us and no longer Christian.  John Piper did essentially the same thing to Rob Bell when Bell published that book back in 2011.  But for those of you out there who, like me, survey the evangelical landscape and find yourself a homeless stranger in a tradition that has formed you spiritually for much (if not all) of your life to this point, know that in Derek Webb you can/will find a faithful companion for your journey.

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Nadia Bolz-Weber and Christian Sexuality

ICYMI:  Nadia Bolz-Weber, an iconoclastic Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado, of whom some of you may have heard, made a vagina sculpture (had it made, actually; she’s not a sculptor) and gifted it to feminist icon Gloria Steinem.  She did this partly to promote her new book Shameless, and partly as a protest against the damage caused by evangelical purity culture, one of the themes in her book.  She invited women who had come out of evangelical purity culture to send in their “purity rings” (these were a thing back in the late 90s and 00s when young people would wear them as a public display of their commitment to not have sex until marriage), for which they would receive a certificate of destruction.  She had them melted down and used to make the sculpture.

Ironically, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures long before Bolz-Weber ever came on the scene–as in, like, all the way back to the 4th century–but for different purposes.  More on this later.

I like Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I read one of her earlier books and found it to be a compelling tale of unvarnished Gospel grace in her own life and the lives of her congregation, a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ.

But the current project falls squarely, and disappointingly, in line with the progressive sexual ideology of the age in which it’s all about consent baby and consent is all you need!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Consent as a sexual ethic is woefully inadequate.  For example, how to tell if you know someone well enough to gauge whether or not you feel or should feel uncomfortable about consenting to his/her requests for sexual intimacy?

But there is a more fundamental issue with consent and it is this:  Sex is an act of intimacy and self-exposure so intense and profound that it requires the protective fencing of marriage.  Imagine exposing yourself on that level to another person, knowing full well that he or she could ghost you the next day.  Lasting damage has occurred in the lives of people to whom that very thing has happened.  The ideology of consent does not account for this.

As noted above, the Church has been doing vagina sculptures since long before Bolz-Weber.  There are examples going back all the way to the 4th century of baptistries designed to look like a human vagina.  The reason for this choice of imagery is found in the gospel of John:  In John 3 there is an exchange between Jesus and a Pharisee named Nicodemus in which Jesus tells him that “no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).  Drawing upon this, Christian artists, architects, pastors and theologians wanted baptism to look like an actual birth–like you were literally emerging from a human birth canal.

As a consequence of this birth, you have died to your old life and been raised to a new life.  When you enter Christian community via baptism, you submit to a whole new way of doing things and are integrated into realities much bigger than yourself.  You are no longer your own, no longer an autonomous, disembodied unit.  You are now part of the Body of Christ, and you should conduct yourself accordingly.

Sexually, this means you are called to an ethic much greater than mere consent.  Your sexual ethic should be based on love–doing for others what love requires of you.  The New Testament authors, especially Paul, are excruciatingly clear on what this looks like.

But while the inadequacy of consent-based progressive sexual ideology is so glaring as to make for easy pickings, the much harder, and necessary, task for us as evangelicals is to take a good long look at our own failings and see how they have given a book like this such a powerful appeal.  Towards the beginning, Bolz-Weber recounts how two of her parishioners grew up in evangelical purity culture, believing all the promises that if you follow God’s blueprint for sexual purity you would have more exciting and fulfilling sex than those who have sex outside of marriage.  When they found that not to be the case, they experienced disappointment, frustration, and self-doubt.

I have argued before in this space that while the Bible is clear in its sexual demands, evangelical purity culture is a distortion which goes way beyond anything in Scripture.  It places impossible burdens upon people, the weight of which fall disproportionately upon women, while making empty and unrealistic promises.  Stories just like the one Bolz-Weber relates are all over the place among those who have left evangelicalism, and even among some who remain.

Jesus is universally recognized, even by those who do not believe in him, as one of the holiest people ever to walk the face of the earth.  Yet his appeal and his following were the exact opposite of what you would expect:  The holiest people (as they defined it) in all of Jewish society wanted nothing to do with Jesus and indeed he reserved almost all of his harshest words precisely for them, while those who were the exact opposite of holy, as the Jewish society of the time defined it, were attracted to Jesus and he seemed to relish their company.

Luke records an occasion (Luke 15) in which Jesus was teaching before just such a crowd.  Some Pharisees, representatives of the religious elite of the day, were at the back of the crowd, murmuring in discontent.  Picking up on their discontent, Jesus tells three unsettling parables, which I am sure at least some of you have heard.  The underlying theme of all three is that, as Jesus says, there is “more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (Luke 15:7).  The third and most over-the-top is about a son who squanders his father’s fortune in dissolute living, is reduced to utter destitution, and eventually returns home to beg for a position as a servant in the household.  Astoundingly, the father welcomes him back and throws a huge feast for him:  “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24).

In Jesus’ parables, one lost sheep/coin/son is cause for immense anguish, searching, and effort to find.  But in our day it is not just one; it is an exploding number of young people who want nothing to do with evangelicalism, or even with Christianity at large.

Many of these have been impacted by evangelical purity culture.  As noted above, stories like the one Bolz-Weber relates near the beginning of her book are all over the place.  These are the lost sheep/coin/son in Jesus’ parables, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that God’s #1 priority is to bring them back.

That needs to be our #1 priority as well.

I am not talking about returning to evangelicalism.  For many who have left, returning to evangelicalism is simply not an option.  That ship has sailed.

What I am talking about is doing the hard work of honest, contrite self-reflection.  Why do we promise mind-blowing sex to those who do the right thing sexually (as we define it) while ignoring, scolding, or even blaming those who do not?  We need to grapple head-on with questions like this and come to terms with our own part in the sexual brokenness we prefer to offload to others.

The son in Jesus’ parable had gotten about as low as it was possible to go.  As soon as the money was gone, a famine hit the land where he had relocated.  He had to beg for work and finally found work with a farm where he was allowed to feed the pigs.  And he wasn’t just feeding the pigs, he was living with the pigs.  Eating their food.  Or wanting to eat their food, at least.  Pork is unclean according to Mosaic law so this touch was an excruciating insult to Jewish sensibilities.

It was easy for those in the crowd to see the son in that position and believe that he had brought it all upon himself.  After all, the manner in which he asked for his portion of the estate was astounding, as was the manner in which he squandered it.  But that is not the attitude that the father had.  The father was watching for him and saw him from a long way off, and was astoundingly enthusiastic in his welcome.

At least Bolz-Weber is out there trying.  She has created a community that is immensely attractive to the very people who are leaving evangelicalism in droves, a safe space where they can hold on to faith in Christ, living in community with each other and dependence upon Christ.  Even though the progressive sexual ethic to which they subscribe is woefully inadequate.

You see, the parable does not end with the father throwing a scandalously huge feast when his profligate son returns home.  There is another brother in the story.  This brother had stayed home and remained faithful to the father.  He was still out in the fields that day when he heard the noise of partying inside.  He asked one of the servants what was going on inside, and when he found out, he became more than a little upset and refused to go inside.  So the father went outside.  “Look!” said the brother.  “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.  Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.  But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:29-30)

The father responded thusly:  “My son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.  But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:31).

We can talk all day long about the inadequacies of the consent-based sexual ideology of progressive Christianity.  And we would be right.  But in this cultural moment, we would sound a lot like the other brother in Jesus’ story.  In this cultural moment we need to recognize that God’s sympathies are with the lost sheep/coin/son in the parables and whoever would fall in that place.  Finding them is His #1 priority, and it needs to be ours as well.  We need to do the hard work of repentance for our complicity in the damage caused by purity culture, and then prayerfully discerning a way forward in reconciling these people to Christ.

There’s No Going Back To Your First Love

Today I will start with a quote to set up where I would like to go.  It is from Christian Wiman’s book My Bright Abyss:  Meditations of a Modern Believer:

In fact, there is no way to “return to the faith of your childhood,” not really, not unless you’ve just woken from a decades-long and absolutely literal coma. Faith is not some half-remembered country into which you come like a long-exiled king, dispensing the old wisdom, casting out the radical, insurrectionist aspects of yourself by which you’d been betrayed. No. Life is not an error, even when it is. That is to say, whatever faith you emerge with at the end of your life is going to be not simply affected by that life but intimately dependent upon it, for faith in God is, in the deepest sense, faith in life—which means that even the staunchest life of faith is a life of great change. It follows that if you believe at fifty what you believed at fifteen, then you have not lived—or have denied the reality of your life.

The idea of “going back to your first love” is all over the place in evangelicalism.  Perhaps the best known example is that Matt Redman song “I’m going back to the heart of worship / And it’s all about you, it’s all about you Jesus”, but there are other examples too numerous to mention throughout the world of evangelical worship.

The idea is that you can basically hit the reset button as it were, and be right back where you were when you first accepted Christ.  When everything seemed so simple, all the answers so clear, and the presence of God so close and so thick you could cut it with a knife.  When things aren’t going right, or you feel stagnant in your relationship with God for whatever reason, it’s time to go back to your first love.

I wish it were that simple.  But I don’t think I can go back, even if I wanted to.  And I’m really not even sure I want to.  It isn’t as if I’ve lost the way and all I have to do is find my way back to the last place I was where I knew the way.  No, the very roads and the very landscape have changed, and all the old landmarks just aren’t there anymore.

That’s just how it is.  A life of faith is a life of change.  There’s no going back, like a king returning triumphantly from exile, dispensing the old wisdom and driving out all the rebellious, insurrectionist parts of yourself by which you’d been betrayed.  Life is not an error, even when it is, and if you still believe at the end of your life what you believed when you first accepted Jesus then you haven’t really lived.

And This Is Precisely Why TGC Is On My Shit List

Today we’re going to talk about the Brethren in Christ.

The Brethren in Christ is not a big deal here in the US.  Unless you are one of them, know someone who is, or are a complete and total theological wonk who stays up on such things because you have WAY too much spare time on your hands, you probably never heard of them before in your life until I mentioned them just now.

The Brethren in Christ (BIC) is a small Anabaptist/Mennonite-ish sect that originated in eastern Pennsylvania in the late 1700s, when they broke away from other Anabaptist and Mennonite sects over various and sundry fine points of pietistic practice.  They were happy to stay small and in their own little fishtank until the mid 1900s, at which point they became more outward-focused and ditched all the pietistic stuff and came into line with mainstream American evangelicalism, for the most part.  Yet they remained small and failed to register even a blip on the radar screen of mainstream American evangelicalism.  When evangelical leaders came together to craft the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, they weren’t even invited to the table.  For this reason, inerrancy and other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC radar.

But in Canada, they are kind of a big deal.  Bruxy Cavey is a rockstar megachurch pastor who presides over The Meeting House, which started in 1996 as a small church plant but now has morphed into a multisite church network with 14 campuses and a combined Sunday attendance north of 5,000.

Of course you can’t have that kind of growth without people sitting up and taking notice.  Some people got concerned; Cavey and the BIC are at variance with the traditional evangelical way of looking at things on a number of issues.  As already noted, inerrancy and many other such issues of concern to today’s evangelicals aren’t even on the BIC’s radar.

One of the parties taking notice and expressing concern was…yep, our good friends over at The Gospel Coalition.

In an exercise suggestive of the first-century Pharisees questioning Jesus on his teachings or the medieval Catholic church sending Johannes Eck to debate Martin Luther on his 95 Theses, TGC had one of their writers up in Canada investigate Cavey; the results can be found here, here, here, and here.  I would recommend that you read the series; you will find it illuminating as to what Cavey and the BIC actually believe on several issues of interest to those in the Reformed world.

I could easily have seen John MacArthur or Tim Challies seizing upon some quote from Cavey’s teaching and using it to denounce him as a universalist or whatever other epithet strikes your fancy.   To his credit, the TGC representative eschews that tack.  Instead he gives Cavey ample space to explain his teachings and make a compelling case that they lie fully within the pale of Christian orthodoxy.

But even so, the whole thing feels less like a conversation and more like an exercise in “Brace yourself Bruxy Cavey, we will question you and you will answer us.  You don’t get to question us on, say, whether our treatment of women presents a barrier to the Gospel or why some of us are so viscerally anti-gay.  That’s not how this works.”  It has TGC showing up suddenly at Cavey’s door claiming to be the gatekeepers of Christian orthodoxy.  You pass muster, they say.  You’re good.

Does anyone else out there find the whole thing just a little pretentious?

This is precisely why TGC is on my shit list.

John MacArthur Is Doubling Down

ICYMI:  John MacArthur, everybody’s favorite charismatic–and all-around–hater, published a blog post a few weeks back about how social justice is a threat to the Gospel.  He went on to expand that into a whole series of blog posts.

Not content by any means to quit while he was ahead, MacArthur got together several other like-minded Christian leaders and produced the Statement On Social Justice and The Gospel.  This is yet another of those point-by-point “We Affirm xxx…We Deny xxx…” deals that evangelicals are so excruciatingly adept at producing, which codifies many of the points made by MacArthur in his blog series.

Once more, with feeling:  The Gospel has inexplicable implications for how you treat other people.  The Bible makes it quite clear that God is intimately concerned with how you treat other people, and therefore you cannot be right with God if you are not right with other people.

This ain’t rocket science, people.

Social justice is not merely the province of those godless liberal mainlines.  It is not merely a passing fancy that evangelicals have only lately begun to catch.  Instead it is something which has been embedded into the very DNA of evangelicalism ever since the days of abolitionism, women’s rights movements, and many of the other great social movements of the prior century.  These movements all arose because the evangelicals of that era were dialed in to the reality that the Gospel message has implications for how you treat other people.

Jesus came to reconcile all the world to Himself and put all things under His rule, not just to assuage the guilt of individual consciences.  Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

Go Away Pastor Tullian And Give Us A Chance to Miss You

Tullian Tchividjian, the grandson of Billy Graham with the funny name, was pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Miami, Florida until 2015 when he resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair.

Tchividjian is back.  He has written a blog post along with Chad Bird, a former pastor who likewise committed adultery, in which he calls upon Christians to extend forgiveness to disgraced leaders.

Here are some choice quotes:

The grace of God is not reserved for the “well-behaved.” Yet that is the message we send every time the word “fall” is used in reference to someone who is by nature already fallen. These people are sinners, just like everybody they ever led. That doesn’t justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices. But if we’re only okay with preaching grace in theory, but not when someone—even an esteemed leader—is actually in need of it, then perhaps we should all take a sabbatical. As someone once said, “People love it when preachers say they are broken just like the rest of us, until that preacher does something that the rest of us broken people do.”

…It is anti-Christian to remember people primarily by the scandalous things they’ve done. We love to whittle an entire life-story down to a single season. Then, with the authority invested in us by the state of self-righteousness, we proclaim, “This, and nothing else, is who you are.” But the truth is, all of us (including disgraced Christian leaders) are more complicated than the singular narrative by which most people identity us. We have done very bad things, very good things, and plenty of cocktails of them both. Sadly, most people remember only the bad. Thankfully, we have a God who remembers only the good. And the only good he remembers is the good that Christ has done for us, in us, and through us. So, if we want to reduce our life story down to one adjective, if we want to whittle our biography down to a single word, then let it be this: Beloved.

…If the church truly wants to stand apart from the world, it will stand alongside those who have been disgraced. It will risk being falsely attacked as “soft on sin” because it knows how hard life is when guilt and shame are one’s only companions. Rather than shooting its wounded, it will pick them up and carry them to safety, to rehab, to repentance, to whatever it takes to make them whole again. While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil. In other words, the church will be exactly the kind of church Jesus established. Not a gym for spiritual muscle flexing but a triage for the wounded, where moral insurance isn’t checked at the door, but all are welcome and treated, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.

Okay.  I am with you on that.  As the Church, we talk a great game on grace but are largely AWOL when it comes to showing actual grace.  As Michael Spencer would say:

“Amazing Grace” may be the church’s favorite hymn, but I’m not the first person to notice that the subject of God’s actual grace seems to give many Christians a case of hives. Singing about it is way cool. After that we need a team of lawyers to interpret all the codicils and footnotes we’ve written for the new covenant.

That should not be.  The Church should be a place where people are scandalized not by sin but by the forgiveness shown to sinners.  If you are truly dealing in grace then there will be no shortage of voices saying that you are soft on sin.  And you never said, and you made it clear you were not saying, that grace and forgiveness involved restoring fallen pastors to their former positions.

BUT…

You don’t get to go around waving forgiveness in the faces of family, fellow pastors, former congregants, and others impacted by your poor decisions, while continuing to build your brand and profit from your story/ministry.  That’s not how this works.

At this point your calling is to quietly and humbly receive the scandalous grace God has extended to you, and to–quietly and humbly–walk the path God has laid before you, working quietly and humbly for restoration of the relationships damaged by your poor decisions, to whatever extent that is now possible.

I now live with ghosts because a beautiful young woman whom I liked a lot and wished to go out with could no longer feel safe or comfortable in my presence after I expressed that to her.  That is the path God has given me to walk at this time.  That is hard enough.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for you–you had a wife and a family and now you have lost all of that.

But that is your path to walk, and walk it you must.  Quietly and humbly, before God and the community of faith where he has placed you.  You don’t get to put this part of your journey on blast for all the blogosphere to see, building your brand and driving sales of your book (I have a copy.  I got it back in happier times before all this broke).

Just go away and let this part of your journey be between you and God and your faith community.  Go away, and give us a chance to miss you.

Michael W. Smith Thinks He’s Going to Spark The Next Great Awakening

I am not making this up.

Christian singer/songwriter Michael W. Smith apparently thinks he is going to spark the next Great Awakening.

I have learned over the years to cultivate a healthy skepticism towards anyone who claims that whatever event they are putting on is going to spark the next big move of God.

For starters, Michael W. Smith hasn’t graced the CCM top 40 in a decade and a half.  And he thinks his deal is going to launch the next big move of God?  Or is this just a way for him to get himself out there?

But here is the larger issue, and I’ve touched on this in prior posts.  We live in an age in which 81 percent of American evangelicals are completely and totally infatuated with a president whose message is the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  The black evangelical world has been rocked over the past few years by scandals involving prominent leaders in that world.  The Catholic Church has a grease fire on its hands because of a basic failure to protect its youngest and most vulnerable members.  Willow Creek, one of the most prominent churches in all of American evangelicalism, also has a grease fire on its hands because its leaders have taken a deny-everything-blame-the-victims-they’re-all-liars approach to handling allegations of sexual misconduct by its pastor Bill Hybels.  The SBC just escorted Paige Patterson, one of its longest-tenured and most influential leaders, out of the building because a pattern of wrongheaded counsel to women in abusive marriages and failure to report domestic violence made him too toxic to keep around.

What we have here is a basic failure of justice, a basic failure of love, a basic failure of Christlikeness that is pervasive throughout the American church, and especially evangelicalism.

To his credit, Smith seems to realize this.  Sort of.

“It all started with the Surrounded record, the worship record that I did. I just felt like, it has a lot to do with unity, honestly. It has a lot to do with justice,” Smith told The Christian Post earlier this month.

He referenced the Amos 5 in the Bible where God corrects His children despite their worship to Him.

“He (God) says ‘I’m tired of your sacrifices and I’m tired of your music.’ That really got my attention. He said, ‘Turn it off. I can’t stand it.’ He said, ‘You know what I’m looking for? I’m looking for justice to roll like a waterfall.’ And it rocked my world,” Smith revealed.

And yet what is he doing?  Planning a concert that is going to draw a lot of people and be broadcast on TBN this fall.

And that is supposed to launch the next big move of God that will right all the injustices in the American church and in our world.

Let me know how that goes.