Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: The Fame Monster

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.

Today we are going to talk about one of contemporary evangelicalism’s worst tendencies: namely, its addiction to chasing extraordinary, or as I would call it, chasing the fame monster.

Over the past several years I have volunteered at the Passion gatherings that typically happen in January.  It has frequently been emphasized to us as volunteers that somewhere in the room was the next John Piper or Louie Giglio Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin, and we get the opportunity to be on the front lines of serving them during these days and facilitating their encounter with God.  There is the story of Matt Chandler, who attended one of the very first Passion gatherings ever, had his world wrecked by God during those days, and went on to found a large megachurch in the Dallas area.  He is now widely considered to be the next John Piper.

Of course that is true.  Given the laws of mathematics and the size of a typical Passion gathering these days, it is entirely likely that the next John Piper or Beth Moore or Chris Tomlin is somewhere in the room.  But what they don’t say is that the vast majority of students passing through these gatherings will go on to what we would consider an ordinary existence.  The vast majority of these students will go on to be doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, nurses, paralegals, teachers, IT professionals, plumbers, carpenters, electricians–you name it. The vast majority of these students will live in the city as young professionals, or get married and move out to the suburbs and start families. There they will live as husbands, mothers, fathers, wives, and strive to raise children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.

But in much of evangelicalism these days, that is not good enough.

In so many parts of evangelicalism, Paul is held up as the standard to emulate and strive for. Look at his zealous, singlehearted, radical devotion to Christ! Look at what all he went through in order to spread the Gospel throughout the known world of that time! Look at the passion he felt, that drove him forward in all he did to advance the Gospel! Shouldn’t you be ashamed if your life is anything less than this?  That stuff will preach at conferences for zealous young evangelical college students these days.

But who received Paul’s letters? Not other apostles. Not even other pastors. Paul’s letters were written to ordinary, rank-and-file believers. Bet you didn’t notice this, did you?

These people, the recipients of Paul’s letters, were carpenters, farmers, traders, sailors, fishermen, shepherds, mothers, fathers, and children. Compared to the apostles, these people were nothing. Their lives were quite mundane. They were ordinary people who gathered together in someone’s home to drink their wine and eat their bread and hear the Holy Spirit speaking to them through the words of an apostle.

And then they went home.

And then they got up the next day and lived a perfectly normal life.

And they came back the next week and went through the exact same drill.

And on and on it went, all the way to the very end of their days.

Then they died, and now they are all forgotten.

For most of these people, the most extraordinary thing that happened in their lives was the day they trusted Christ and joined the Christian community. After that, their lives went completely back to normal. They listened to the words of Paul, learned from him, then in faith stayed exactly where they were, doing exactly what they were doing before, after he left.

Never in any of Paul’s writings do we get the sense that he was asking his readers to stop being who or what they were. He never challenged them to pack it all up and go overseas to preach the Gospel. We never get hints that he is making them feel guilty for living in relative comfort and ease, compared to his lack of it.

For some of you, this idea of identifying with the ordinary rank-and-file believers who received Paul’s letters may seem like a sort of death. Death to the dream of being extraordinary, of being someone special.

I get that. I once dreamed that I could one day be the next Chris Tomlin. I once dreamed that I could stand on a stage and preach or sing in front of thousands.

Matt Chandler, as noted above, attended the first ever Passion gathering in Austin as a college student back in 1997. During those days God turned his world upside down and sent him out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory. Stories like that are routinely celebrated in the world of Passion. You too can be just like Matt Chandler. You too can be just like Chris Tomlin, who is now living the dream, married to a former Miss Auburn who is now the woman whom every young Christian woman on the face of the earth would give her very life to be. Just pray harder. Surrender more. Dedicate more fervently. Live with even greater zeal than before.

I wanted it. God, how I wanted it. I have been going to Passion gatherings for over a decade now, just hoping and praying that God would rock my world as he did Matt Chandler’s, and send me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory.

Hasn’t happened yet.

So if this seems like a death to you, death to the dream of being extraordinary, death to the dream of being someone special, I get it. Really I do.

But for countless others of you, this idea of identifying with the rank-and-file believer instead of the Apostle Paul is the greatest news you have ever heard in your life, next to the Gospel itself.

As noted earlier, we in evangelicalism are addicted to chasing extraordinary. Meaning that we have GOT to make a good name for ourselves. We have GOT to do big things for Christ that will be remembered by God and by others for all of eternity. It is not enough to run your business ethically or raise small children to the glory of God unless you are doing it on another continent, with bullets flying overhead and malaria crouching at your door. Why? Because we approach life needing desperately to succeed. To fail is to die. Success equals life.

But because of God’s grace, we are free to be ordinary. We don’t have to go out and turn the world upside down. Jesus Christ already did that when he won the victory over sin and death at the cross. We don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter.  Because Jesus was extraordinary, it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.

Don’t you just love how I was able to wrap that up and put a nice little bow on it at the end there?

At this point some of you who have been tracking with me for a while have probably noticed that this sounds a lot like something I wrote a few years back at Life in Mordor (I am nothing if not all about shameless self-promotion.  But you knew that already), where I was a guest contributor at the time.  (That blog has long since gone dormant, but I still like to throw them a bone every once in a while just to let them know I’m still out there.)

I wish that were the end of the story.  It isn’t.  That is the way of things out here in the post-evangelical wilderness.

One of the things I alluded to in the prior post is the awareness of hopes, dreams, wishes, desires, and aspirations that I had back when I was still a young hot-blooded evangelical, which remain unfulfilled to this day.  One of these is the aspiration that I would serve God via full-time ministry and/or missions.  Since that time my perspective has broadened on what it means to serve God faithfully via ministry/missions.  And I have this blog, which is making a difference here in this little neck of the Christian blogosphere at least.  Yet that differs significantly from what I was hoping for, and from my perspective it feels as if I have offered myself to the Lord to be used in His service, and He has said “Sorry, but no thanks.  You are not what I am looking for.”  That is something I have had to carry with me out here into the post-evangelical wilderness.  It has defined me going forward (“Well, if the Lord doesn’t want me then I’ll just go on about my business, living a normal life and having normal relationships with normal people, and moving forward in the best way I know how, according to such light as I can find for myself.”)  I have made a fairly nice life for myself here in the city, yet I cannot help feeling that this is significantly different from what my life would look like if the Lord had turned my world upside down and sent me out as a flaming arrow across the sky for His glory a la Matt Chandler, as I had earnestly desired so long ago.  The better wisdom and counsel that I have received along the way tells me I shouldn’t feel this way, yet still I cannot help it.

Here is the other piece of this:  I said above that we don’t need other people to love, respect, or approve of us in order for us to matter, that because Jesus was extraordinary it is perfectly OK for us to be ordinary.  I wish I could believe that for myself.  Yet we as humans were made to live in community and in relationship with others.  I yearn to feel as if I belong and I matter, and I certainly don’t expect to get that all by myself in an experience of what some would call the presence of God but in all likelihood is just a good feeling.  Evangelicals talk a lot about the “fear of man” which prevents us from speaking truth when it needs to be spoken, yet I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that ultimate significance can be found apart from human community, that I can matter if I do not matter to others.  Call it “fear of man” if you will.  Say that I am addicted to pleasing others and this makes me unfit for ministry so no wonder the Lord has never called me.  That may be true, yet it is part of who I am, a part of me that I cannot let go of and don’t want to let go of even if I could.

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This Is Not Prayer

ICYMI:  Franklin Graham called upon Christians to set aside last Sunday, June 2, as a special day of prayer for our president Donald Trump.  Some of you may have heard about this.

As Christians, we are called and even admonished to pray for our leaders.  I get that.  But this is not prayer.  It is something else altogether.  It is using the institution of prayer to advance a partisan political agenda, and not just any partisan political agenda, but one that is inextricably linked to a president whose life and message are the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.  It’s…no.  Just no.  That’s all there is to it.

Snapshots of My Post-Evangelical Life: An Old Favorite CCM Album

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.

Goodbye RHE

Rachel Held Evans is dead.

To put it in language more comfortable to those of you who are of the evangelical persuasion, she “went home to be with the Lord”.

But I am not here to make people comfortable.  She fucking snuffed it.

About two weeks ago she began to experience severe brain seizures.  Emergency medical treatments failed, and now here we are.  You can read the full story here.

Some of you may recognize the name.  She was a Christian author who wrote a number of provocative books, including “A Year of Biblical Womanhood“, in which she set out to literally follow all of the biblical commands toward women for a full year.  Many leading evangelicals dismissed this as a publicity stunt.  She also wrote “Searching for Sunday“, which unpacks her complicated relationship with the Church, and “Inspired“, which reimagines our engagement with the Bible.

Rachel Held Evans was a faithful companion to those of us who are on the post-evangelical journey.  She will be dearly missed.

Do Not Grieve the Loss of the Evangelicalism of Not Long Ago

Today we are going to jump into the way-back machine and go back…back…back…

Business meetings are an inevitable fact of church life.  Some of you could probably tell some horror stories about church business meetings featuring more violent deaths than a Game of Thrones episode.  Today we are going to look at the first business meeting that ever happened, or at least that was recorded for posterity.  It certainly fits that curve; while there were no violent deaths (that we are aware of), it was still a very contentious thing.

The stakes were high.  The Christian movement–which at that point was basically just a knockoff Jewish sect–was growing by leaps and bounds in the Jerusalem area.  People had seen Jesus, one of many wannabe Messiahs who seemed to litter the landscape around Passover time every year, die a horrifically violent death–and then saw him walking around just a few days later.  And when a guy predicts his own death and resurrection and then pulls it off, well…you just go with whatever he says.  So many in Jerusalem came to accept this Jesus as Messiah and join what would eventually be known as the Christian movement.

Now these were almost all devout Jews who had grown up all their lives keeping the law of Moses–the circumcision thing, the dietary regulations, and all the other stuff.  This was, in their way of looking at things, how they identified themselves and distinguished themselves to the world as God’s people.  Anyone could join via conversion, you just had to get circumcised (if you were a guy) and do all the other stuff.

Then word began to trickle back that things were happening up at Antioch, some three hundred miles to the north.  Paul and Barnabas were up there and many were coming to Jesus as Messiah.  But here’s the thing:  These were Gentiles.  And they were joining the Jesus movement without first becoming Jews.

This caused no small amount of consternation back in Jerusalem.  So they sent a delegation up to Antioch–the first recorded missions trip in church history–to set things straight and lay down the law, as it were, for the Gentile believers up there.

Luke records how this went down in Acts 15:

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers:  “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”  This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them.  So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.  The church sent them on their way, and as they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria, they told how the Gentiles had been converted.  This news made all the brothers very glad.  When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything God had done through them.

This being a business meeting, it did not take long for shit to get real.

Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the Gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He made no distinction between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

At this point Paul and Barnabas got up to tell what was happening up in Antioch.  And all were amazed.  Then James, the brother of Jesus (what would your brother have to do to convince you that he is the Son of God?  No less than what Jesus did), got up.  After citing Old Testament prophecy, he issued his decision:

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.  Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.  For Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

The money quote:  “We should not make it difficult for [those] who are turning to God.”  James then followed this with some quasi-Mosaic directives whose only purpose was to keep the peace by asking Gentile believers to show some consideration for their Jewish brethren and refrain from the most over-the-top outrageous and outlandish Gentile/pagan practices.

Now we come to this piece which recently appeared on Roger E. Olson’s blog.

In it, Olson mourns the loss of a certain form of evangelical Christianity which was widely prevalent back in the 1940s and 1950s and possibly before.  As I read the piece and read through the distinctives which Olson identifies as substantive that are now missing from today’s evangelicalism, I am struck by the impression that the kind of evangelicalism presented here made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  Church was seen as an extended family which–to my mind, at least–had serious boundary issues.  Witnessing (the language used for it back then) and personal evangelism were expectations placed heavily upon every church member, including those who had no personal gifting or inclination in that direction and were required to struggle mightily against every fiber of their personalities in order to perform to the expected level.  Churches required an insane level of commitment to serving and Sunday service/Wednesday bible study attendance, and those who did not rise to that level of commitment were considered backslidden or unspiritual.  If a person attended church regularly but failed to demonstrate what they considered to be a satisfactory level of spiritual growth, he or she would be asked to leave.  Evangelicals had their own alternative culture (this one hasn’t changed much since back then) which all were expected to accept as a substitute for normal, mainstream secular culture.

In short, the evangelicalism of that period made it very difficult for those who were turning to God.  It was a closed system very much centered upon those who were already in the system.  Insane levels of commitment and conformity were the expectation, those who failed to rise to those levels were deemed unspiritual.  I do not join Olson in grieving the loss of that evangelicalism.

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.

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.