Outgrowing Evangelicalism: It’s Not Just for Scholars Anymore

In July, Dan Haseltine of Jars of Clayposted on his website his experience of being a Christian, a  musician, and why he finds it hard–maybe more than just “hard”–to do that within the world of evangelicalism.

The band’s in a studio trying to finish their latest record–music is down, lyrics are getting polished–and Haseltine has this nagging thought, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

What he really wants to say probably won’t be accepted by the evangelical community because his faith experience is moving him beyond mainstream evangelical views. Yet, those outside of the evangelical mainstream, who might actually like what his band is doing, don’t know who they are because of their long connection with the evangelical subculture. This leaves him in a “middle space,” as he calls it, a socio-religious no-man’s land.

Haseltine isn’t worried about what his evangelical audience might think. In fact, he’s relieved not to feel he has to bend his spirit to conform to an ideal he does not embrace. But he’s not angry. He’s just plain tired.

I am pretty weary from years of pretending to be more of something than I am.  I am tired of carrying evangelical expectations on my shoulders.  I have never been so sure of my faith that I was able to find a true home in the church communities where we played most of our shows.  Our particular style of writing and the perspective that we have written from has not been an easy fit into an artistic community that has such a massive agenda and only a single idea of how that agenda gets accomplished.  I don’t fit there.  I may have at one point.  I did grow up as a youth group kid wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Jesus on it.  I did drive a car with a “Christian” bumper sticker on it.  And at one point, I was sure of who God was, and how God operated.  But I am not that way now.  And so it is impossible to write from that old version of myself. I am in the middle space

Yup. That about says it. I used to belong, but don’t anymore. I am growing but my community of faith doesn’t know what to do with it.

Haseltine no longer wants to write songs that are only accepted if they support an evangelical agenda. He wants to write about love, pain, loneliness, hope, and doubt rather than “settle for the Jesus cheerleaders or worship songs that have been loaded with sentimentality but not reality.” (The irony is that what Haseltine wants, and the evangelical subculture that sells and buys records doesn’t, is part of the Bible–in Ecclesiastes, Job, and nearly half the Psalms–but that’s an issue for another time).

For Haseltine, evangelicalism’s boundaries aren’t working–or to put it in scholar-talk, evangelicalism has ceased being an explanatory paradigm for his experience.

I have to believe that if God wanted to, we would be blissfully entrenched in a subculture, happy as clams to just rehash the same words to describe or even impose a right wing, conservative “Jesus figure.”  I imagine if God wanted us to have that kind of perspective, he could have barred us from so many enlightening conversations.  He could have kept us away from Africa or China.  He could have bent our ears away from the music of Depeche Mode, or U2, or XTC or David Bowie.  He could have kept us away from the magnificent artistic expressions of others walking this world in search of meaning.  He could have kept us away from the hard questions.  He could have blinded our eyes to the suffering of the world.  He could have never let “Blood:Water Mission,” with all its orbiting theologians and faithless figures and their coinciding conversations happen.  He could have never let us fall in love.  God could have never let us feel the weight of hard relationships.  He could have kept us from having children of our own.  He could have left us unscathed by the deaths of friends and relatives.  He could have done all of this, and we might be different.  He could have removed our longing to describe these things.  He could have removed the longing for connection that permeates every tone and syllable of a “Jars of Clay” song.  God could have kept us from asking good questions.

Hasseltine is articulating very eloquently what many others write about, particularly younger (post) evangelicals (Rachel Held Evans being a good example). They were raised in evangelicalism or something like it but have been on a journey that evangelicalism was never set up to handle.

Contemporary evangelicalism has a “defensive” DNA going back to the 19th century. It grew to resist liberalizing movements from within the church. It drew boundaries of what belongs and what doesn’t.

Boundaries are designed to protect, not to allow exploration what lies beyond them.

A movement set up to defend doesn’t do a good job of handling pilgrims who want to–need to–move off the beach blanket. This scenario leads to a problem for people like Haseltine: where do I go and what do I believe? That is the “middle space.”

My little world of Christian scholarship parallels Haseltine’s world of Christian art. Wanting to be Christian is not the problem; wanting to speak with clarity and conviction within a paradigm that has well defined boundaries (which is good) but protects them at all costs (which is bad)–that is the problem many post, progressive, recovering (pick your adjective) evangelicals are trying to work through.

Misery likes company, but I still feel for Haseltine and I wish there was a simple way forward–for him and for many others. The answer probably lies in finding communities of faith, with others on the journey, where who you are is an asset, not a liability.

And, if I can give Haseltine and Jars of Clay any advice–don’t assume you are alone. There are many out there, waiting for people like you to put into words what they can’t. They are looking for new vocabulary to articulate their own journey through the middle space. You can help.

Anyway, I hope you have a chance to read Haseltine’s post.

Originally posted on Peter Enn’s blog “Rethinking Biblical Christianity”.

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