rethinking faith.

I grew up evangelical, but the truth is that I never shared the “good news” with anyone because I live in the south where everybody already knows about Jesus and I was not having very much fun. Growing up in church ushered me into a certain subculture: I went to those concerts and I wore those t-shirts and I attended those purity rallies, but I mostly learned that being a Christian meant checking certain things off of a list. The best people I know in the world are evangelical Christians, and that’s not an exaggeration because I am talking about my family. But their sincerity and kindness and example couldn’t override the culture that I had immersed myself in. It was safe, this idea of believing certain things and reading my Bible every morning and always playing by the rules.

It was safe except that I kept catching glimpses of something more. I found myself on the fringes (or perhaps I placed myself there) and the questions I had did not seem to be the ones that anyone else was asking. I called myself a bad evangelical before I knew that I could shape my faith and my life in other ways. By college, I thought I was doomed to be a bad evangelical or leave the church entirely.

I did not want to leave the church because I love the Bible. I think it is the best story in the world and I want it to keep shaping my life.

I was happy to find a different kind of Christianity, and it was a relief not to have to worry so much about everything. I now consider myself a mainliner, but I was not one who necessarily put a lot of thought into what that meant until I became a parent. This year, I have been reading a lot about the current state of the Christian church (especially in America), which was timely with the election. In the past few weeks, I happened to read three books in a row that were essentially about looking at Christianity in new ways from different perspectives.

Diana Butler Bass makes me feel smart (for reading her books) and dumb (her books are so scholarly) at the same time. Christianity After Religion is about the ways the church has changed and the spiritual awakening that she believes that we are currently experiencing. I enjoyed how she pointed out that our traditional model of church has been for us to believe then behave then belong, and she is calling for a reversal of that order. I loved this particular quote even though I am not a knitter.

If you want to knit, you find someone who knits to teach you. Go to the local yarn shop and find out when there is a knitting class. Sit in a circle where others will talk to you, show you how to hold the needles, guide your hands, and share their patterns with you. The first step in becoming a knitter is forming a relationship with knitters. The next step is to learn by doing and practice. After you knit for a while, after you have made scarves and hats and mittens, then you start forming ideas about knitting. You might come to think that the experience of knitting makes you a better person, more spiritual, or able to concentrate, gives you a sense of service to others, allows you to demonstrate love and care. You think about what you are doing, how you might do it better. You develop your own way of knitting, your own theory of the craft. You might invent a dazzling new pattern, a new way to make a stitch; you might write a knitting book or become a knitting teacher. In knitting, the process is exactly the reverse of that in the church: belonging to a knitting group leads to behaving as a knitter, which leads to believing things about knitting.

Relationships lead to craft, which leads to experiential belief. This is the path to becoming and being someone different. The path to transformation. (Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion)

The second book I read was called A New Evangelical Manifesto and it was a series of essays edited by David P. Gushee about reconsidering applications of evangelical values. I thought a few of the essays were excellent, especially the chapter on race and the one on human trafficking, and I agreed with the overall message of the book on topics such as the global poor, peace, and global warming. My frustration with the book was that it seemed to be playing it safe on many of the issues. The chapter on eradicating preventable disease only focused on nets to prevent malaria. What about the United States? What about preventive health care here? I was also disappointed that the chapter on reducing the abortion rate didn’t mention contraception at all. It focused on things that I think are important such as child care and maternal care, but I wish the prevention of pregnancy had also been addressed.

Reading A New Evangelical Manifesto was enlightening for me as it helped me realize some of the ways that I have changed in my approaches to these issues. Since I no longer consider myself an evangelical, I am not the target audience, but it was an interesting read. It did make me wonder if “evangelical” is a term that should be discarded, at least in America, because it’s gotten tied up with political views as well as theological ones.

Over the holiday, I read The Awakening of Hope by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I heard him speak at the Wild Goose Festival over the summer, and I have his Common Prayer book. This book talks in similar ways to The New Evangelical Manifesto about certain topics, but it comes from a different idea: faith as a community endeavor rather than an individual one. Jonathan lives in what is called an intentional Christian community, which is a term I don’t love since I don’t think I am unintentional about my community, but it is also easy for me to say that as I write this on my own couch with my own family.

The Awakening of Hope talks about disciplines that have come from living in community that have affected Jonathan’s faith and offers those to the readers as an option. These disciplines are things such as considering where you live, eating together, and making promises. The book comes with a DVD which is intended for group study, and I think they would be best for people who are already interested in some of the ideas presented. It would make for great group discussion, but it is not a book that gives you step-by-step directions about eating more meaningfully or living in community. It is about ideas and how those ideas tie in to the message of Jesus.

When I look back at 2012, I think I will remember it as a year when I started thinking about faith in a more practical way. I would recommend Christianity After Religion for people who are thinking about practical faith from a left-leaning perspective, A New Evangelical Manifesto for readers who are frustrated with the current state of evangelicalism, and The Awakening of Hope for small groups who are interested in practicing faith together.

I purchased my copy of Christianity After Religion. Copies of A New Evangelical Manifesto and The Awakening of Hope were provided to me by Speakeasy. My opinions are my own. Sorry I just posted 1200 words on some books, y’all. How was your turkey?

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