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.

Benjamin L. Corey on Being a Christian Outsider

Today I direct your attention to a piece by Benjamin L. Corey entitled “A Few Things I’ve Learned As A Christian Outsider“.  Corey blogs at Formerly Fundie.

Corey wrote this for those of us who, like him, and like me to a certain extent, “feel like outsiders– out of place everywhere, at home nowhere…exhausted, and on the margins of faith.”  He gives these lessons which he has learned along the way:

1. I’ve learned to get my identity from Jesus– not the tribe.
2. I’ve learned that the key to happiness is contentment.
3. I’ve learned who my friends are.
4. I’ve learned to forgive– not out of desire, but necessity.
5. I’ve learned that sometimes theology becomes more important than people, and that I don’t want to ever be on the wrong side of this equation again.

Corey concludes thusly:

Sometimes I think that those of us who feel like outsiders focus a little too heavily on the negative, so these are some positive things that I’m learning– things that are helping me feel like I’m slowly finding life again.

What things have you learned from life as a Christian outsider?

 

More on Carroll

Last time we looked at a column by James Carroll at The Atlantic in which he issues a poignant call for a complete overhaul of the Catholic clerical system in the wake of the sexual abuse scandals of the past two decades.  A former priest himself, Carroll is a newspaper columnist whose work was instrumental in exposing the clergy sex abuse scandals in the Northeast back in the early 00’s.

This time we are going to take a closer look at how all this lands in my world.

First, as I have already mentioned, many of the themes from Derek Webb’s “Fingers Crossed” album are present in Carroll’s story.  There is the idea of divorce from God, though in Carroll’s case it is merely a divorce from the overt practice of his Catholic faith.  There is the immense grief over his loss of ability to continue overtly practicing his Catholic faith with integrity.  There is the notion that the true markers of Catholic spirituality are works of mercy–feeding the hungry, caring the poor, visiting the sick, and striving for justice–things which you can take with you wherever you go and over which the official Church establishment has no control.  There is the notion of life on the margins, and possibly finding community and even worship in places that are looked upon with deep distrust and disdain by the established Church.

There is an episode in “The Airing of Grief” podcast in which a caller relates his experience of growing up in evangelicalism and working for several well-known evangelical ministries by “hiding in plain sight”.  In evangelicalism, there is the expectation that you will always be down front, with arms high and heart abandoned, as it were.  But if you’re the bass player in the worship band or the guy running the lights or the sound, you get a pass on that.  You are there–right there in plain sight–yet no one notices you.  You are just part of the furniture.  No one even thinks to check with you to see if you are questioning it all or if you’ve left the building spiritually.

Carroll calls for something similar, a “hiding in plain sight” in the world of Catholicism, but for people to practice this intentionally.  Leaving the Catholic Church would accomplish nothing–it would make it smaller and more rigidly orthodox, as the establishment defines it–which is exactly what the reactionary elements wanted all along.  So what he calls for is for people to remain, but make themselves invisible to the established clerical structures while recongregating outside those structures, carrying the works of mercy noted above that are the true marks of Catholic faith/practice with them.

We in evangelicalism are going through something similar.  Our version is called complementarianism.  We don’t have an ordained clergy, except perhaps in the loosest sense.  But we have a theological framework that is staunchly committed to denying women the opportunity to live out their God-given callings, if those callings in any way involve exercising authority over a man in a church setting.  We have pastors, seminaries, publishing houses, blog networks, and other such nodes of influence that are all built around supporting and maintaining this theological framework.  It is this framework that enabled Donald Trump to rise to the highest office in the land with the enthusiastic support of 81 percent of American evangelicals and the vociferous backing of many of our most prominent leaders, including Wayne Grudem, Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress, and many others–despite (or perhaps because of?) his blatant misogyny, xenophobia, and other characteristics which show him to be clearly the exact opposite of anything even remotely connected to Jesus Christ.

But there are cracks in the foundation.  Beth Moore, who has long existed, made her career/ministry, and wielded tremendous influence within the complementarian framework, is now pushing back.  This past Mother’s Day she tweeted the following (several tweets rolled into one):

“I am compelled to my bones by the Holy Spirit-I don’t want to be but I am-to draw attention to the sexism & misogyny that is rampant in segments of the SBC, cloaked by piety & bearing the stench of hypocrisy. There are countless godly conservative complementarians. So many..

There are countless conservative Complementarians I very much respect & deeply love even though I many not fully understand their interpretations of certain Scriptures as the end of the matter. I love the Scriptures. I love Jesus. I do not ignore 1 Tim or 1 Cor.

What I plead for is to grapple with the entire text from Mt 1 thru Rev 22 on every matter concerning women. To grapple with Paul’s words in 1 Tim/1 Cor 14 as being authoritative, God-breathed!–alongside other words Paul wrote, equally inspired & make sense of the many women he served alongside.

Above all else, we must search the attitudes & practices of Christ Jesus himself toward women. HE is our Lord. He had women followers! Evangelists! The point of all sanctification & obedience is toward being conformed to HIS image. I do not see 1 glimpse of Christ in this sexism.

I had the eye opening experience of my life in 2016. A fog cleared for me that was the most disturbing, terrifying thing I’d ever seen. All these years I’d given the benefit of the doubt that these men were the way they were because they were trying to be obedient to Scripture….

Then I realized it was not over Scripture at all. It was over sin. It was over power. It was over misogyny. Sexism. It was about arrogance. About protecting systems. It involved covering abuses and misses of power. Shepherds guarding other shepherds instead of guarding the sheep.

Here is what you don’t understand. I have loved the SBC & served it with everything I have had since I was 12 years old helping with vacation Bible School. Alongside ANY other denomination, I will serve it to my death if it will have me. And this is how I am serving it now.”

This is huge.  Beth Moore has measured the complementarian gender roles and hierarchies that are so deeply embedded into our evangelical expression of the Christian faith against the image of Jesus Christ, and found them lacking.

I will have more to say on this going forward.  But for now, just stop and let that sink in.

James Carroll: Abolish the Priesthood

Today I direct your attention to a column by James Carroll at The Atlantic, in which he issues a poignant call for a complete overhaul of the Catholic hierarchy.

Carroll is a former priest who served for about a decade during the Vatican II era.  He went on to become a columnist with the Boston Globe, and his work was instrumental in exposing the clergy sexual abuse scandals in that region back in the early 00’s.  Now Carroll is on a spiritual journey very similar to that of Derek Webb, with respect to his Catholic faith.

This piece is a lengthy read, but one that is well worth it.  I shall quote liberally from it today, then come back later with some thoughts on how all this lands in my world.

Carroll begins with a retrospective of the clergy sex abuse scandals, not just here in America but all over the world, including his ancestral home of Ireland.  The scandal and the cover-ups, he says, “will produce an avalanche of scandal for years to come”.  Yet Carroll remained fully committed to his faith through all that, placing a “desperate hope” in Pope Francis and the possibilities for real reform that seemed to arise with his ascension to the papacy.

Then he reached a breaking point.  At this point his journey begins to look and feel a lot like what Derek Webb has related on the “Fingers Crossed” album.

For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.

Carroll then goes on to express appreciation for the virtues of Catholic faith and the selfless love and service of so many who put that faith into action via care for the sick and the poor, especially in developing regions of the world.  Like many Vatican II-era Catholics, he had high hopes for the possibilities of change at that time.  This is what prompted him to join the priesthood.  He joined the Paulists, one of the most progressive religious orders in all of Catholicism.  There he was intensely passionate for Pope John XXIII’s vision, codified in Vatican II, of the church as “the People of God”, with liturgical reforms intended to make the liturgy more accessible to the people and an emphasis on the ordained hierarchy as servants of the people rather than rulers over them.

But Vatican II was limited in how far it could go, and this led to Carroll’s eventual departure from the priesthood.

What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.

In arguing against clericalism Carroll argues from history, that it was with the rise of Constantine that the Church began to shift from the egalitarian structures that existed since the time of Christ and take on the hierarchical form we see nowadays, which was patterned after the Roman Empire:

But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.

At about the same time, Augustine came onto the scene.  His views of human sexuality swept everything away as they rose to prominence, with adverse consequences that persist to this day.

This character was reinforced at about the same time by Augustine’s theology of sex, derived from his reading of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine painted the original act of disobedience as a sexual sin, which led to blaming a woman for the fatal seduction—and thus for all human suffering down through the generations. This amounted to a major revision of the egalitarian assumptions and practices of the early Christian movement. It also put sexuality, and anything related to it, under a cloud, and ultimately under a tight regime. The repression of desire drove normal erotic urges into a social and psychological netherworld.

Celibacy had, up to that time, been an ascetic discipline reserved for only a few as a pathway toward deeper intimacy with God.  But in this Augustinian milieu, with its devaluation of anything having to do with human sexuality, celibacy acquired a cult-like status.  In time it became a mandatory discipline for all priests.  Carroll notes that there were practical and economic considerations in play as well:

In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.

Consequently…

The Church’s maleness and misogyny became inseparable from its structure. The conceptual underpinnings of clericalism can be laid out simply: Women were subservient to men. Laypeople were subservient to priests, who were defined as having been made “ontologically” superior by the sacrament of holy orders. Removed by celibacy from competing bonds of family and obligation, priests were slotted into a clerical hierarchy that replicated the medieval feudal order.

Today, Carroll observes, those most fiercely opposed to Pope Francis are those who are most firmly committed to the present clerical order.  This is so tied together with sexuality that any attempt to revise or loosen traditional Catholic teaching/practice in this regard–such as admitting the divorced and/or remarried to communion–draws fierce opposition.  Simply put, the current power structure of the Church is dependent for its continued existence upon a very rigid code concerning sexuality, of which an all-male priesthood and priestly celibacy are two pillars.  This code is enforced by the hierarchy, who historically have had little to no accountability to anyone save themselves.  This creates the perfect setup for the sex abuse scandals and their consequent cover-ups.

Carroll is not saying that all priests are pedophiles or sexual abusers.  Only a small percentage are.  But a much greater number have looked the other way.  Why?  Carroll suggests that many priests have found themselves unable to keep their vows of celibacy.  Their unfaithfulness to this vow causes them to feel compromised and therefore powerless to speak out against the evil of sexual abuse by their fellow priests.  But on a deeper level, priests are called to live up to an impossible standard, of which they fall short:

At a deeper level, Catholic clerics may be reluctant to judge their predatory fellows, because a priest, even if he is a person of full integrity, is always vulnerable to a feeling of having fallen short of an impossible ideal: to be “another Christ.” Where in such a system is there room for being human? I remember retreat masters citing scripture to exhort us priests during our seminary days “to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Moral perfection, we were told, was a vocational mandate. That such hubristic claptrap came from blatantly imperfect men did nothing to lighten the load of the admonition. I know from my own experience how priests are primed to feel secretly unworthy. 
Whatever its cause, a guilt-ridden clerical subculture of moral deficiency has made all priests party to a quiet dissembling about the deep disorder of their own condition. That subculture has licensed, protected, and enabled those malevolent men of the cloth who are prepared to exploit the young.

Simply put, this does not lend itself to a healthy view of self or others, and it eviscerates the very possibility of accountability.  The laity are not off the hook either, in Carroll’s view.  The same theological culture described above has caused an overwhelming majority of Catholic laypeople to ignore official Church teaching on divorce, remarriage, and other matters of human sexuality–acting as if it simply does not exist.  In Carroll’s words, “Catholics in general have perfected the art of looking the other way.”

But Carroll refuses to give up and walk away.  Such an act would ultimately give free rein to Catholicism’s worst impulses while leaving its best impulses unsupported.  It would ultimately give the most reactionary elements exactly what they want–a smaller and more rigidly orthodox Church.  Instead, what he proposes as the way forward is nothing short of a second Protestant Reformation, one marked by taking seriously the Vatican II conception of the Church as “the People of God”:

What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sex-abuse crisis has shown the Church leadership to have become, were to detach themselves from—and renounce—the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church and reclaim Vatican II’s insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God. The Church is a community that transcends space and time. Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a predator priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me.

The Reformation, which erupted 500 years ago, boiled down to a conflict over the power of the priest. To translate scripture into the vernacular, as Martin Luther and others did, was to remove the clergy’s monopoly on the sacred heart of the faith. Likewise, to introduce democratic structures into religious governance, elevating the role of the laity, was to overturn the hierarchy according to which every ordained person occupied a place of superiority.

…I propose a kind of internal exile. One imagines the inmates of internal exile as figures in the back of a church, where, in fact, some dissenting priests and many free-spirited nuns can be found as well. Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical; having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of holy orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”

Morgan Guyton: Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos

Today I direct your attention to a post by Morgan Guyton entitled “Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob)“.  Guyton is a Methodist college pastor on the campus of Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.  He blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

In this post Guyton draws a contrast between democratized theology and a theology of the “demos”.  “Demos” is the Greek word for “mob”, which is the root of our word democracy.  So democracy is, literally, mob rule.

Democratized theology is theology in which each individual is empowered to formulate and express his or her understanding of things.  There is no pressure for everyone to come to the same conclusions at the end of the day.  The professional scholars/theologians have an important part to play because they provide resources for helping each member of the faith community understand and interpret the truth more effectively, but they are not the end-all, be-all.  Democratized theology is intentional about hearing and recognizing all voices because all voices have value, but especially seeking out voices that have traditionally been silenced and/or marginalized, as these voices are seldom heard otherwise.

Theology of the “demos” is essentially the opposite.  Everyone in the faith community is expected to submit to uniform agreement on matters of theology and doctrine that are of concern to the community.  An imperfect understanding and/or articulation of these matters is believed to have eternally catastrophic consequences.  Tremendous energy is devoted to delineating who is inside and out; the insiders are superior, orthodox, going to heaven, etc., while the outsiders are depraved, heretical, going to hell, etc.  There is excruciating competition among insiders to show their insider credentials, with kudos going to those who can articulate the insider view most provocatively and radically, with the greatest possible contrast between insiders and outsiders.  Scapegoats are chosen frequently and it becomes a litmus test of orthodoxy to see how vehemently one can oppose the chosen scapegoat (Rob Bell, for example).  Demagogues arise and become the singular expression of the faith community’s will/voice by telling the community exactly what it wants to hear.

Read:  Democratized Theology vs. Theology of the Demos (Mob) by Morgan Guyton