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Some Things Can’t Be Saved


During my junior year at the evangelical college I attended, a single course changed everything for me: Reformation History. The class introduced me to ideas with which I still grapple, historical figures that became interlocutors, and books that reshaped my soul. It made me want to be a church historian, an identity and vocation that would comprise my entire life.

And it raised serious questions. Among evangelicals, the Reformers — especially Martin Luther — were heroes. But the more I read, the more I wondered if the Reformers would approve of what passed for worship at the college-required chapel? What would they think about the Bible Church back home? The evangelical congregation I attended in a local warehouse? Or, even more disturbing, would my fellow students, my home pastors, or the laid-back preacher in the Hawaiian shirt in the warehouse church recognize Martin Luther if he walked in and started calling his opponents excrement, extolling the spiritual power of infant baptism, and all the while bombastically proclaiming the paradoxes of utter dependence on grace and complete freedom in Christ? The same Martin Luther who wouldn’t be bullied into submission and threw stuff at the demons who tormented him. That Martin Luther didn’t seem very “evangelical” in the least.

I was pretty sure that they’d kick him out of the sanctuary, preach a sermon series against him, write long editorials in Christianity Today about his disregard for authority, and tell their kids to burn his pamphlets.

Maybe my evangelical kin — who believed themselves to be reformers of lukewarm or dead faith — wouldn’t have welcomed a real Reformer in their midst. Because they were already right. They didn’t need reform. They certainly wouldn’t have embraced anyone who challenged their worship, theology, or leaders. Maybe evangelicals would be the Counter-Reformation.*

This insight, however, didn’t dissuade me from what came next. Not only would I become a church historian, I would become an historian AND a reformer. I became convinced that if evangelicals understood history — who they really were and their real theological pedigree — then all the narrowness and anti-intellectualism and the emerging political conservatism that threatened lively Gospel faith could be defeated. I would be part of a New Reformation that would rival the one of five hundred years ago.

I went about following that call. Within a decade, after attending an evangelical seminary and earning my doctorate, they ran me out on a rail.

Since then, I’ve wondered why I didn’t listen to my twenty-year old self. Maybe it is because I trusted them — I believed that true believers would always welcome reform.

* * * * *

All of this flooded back to me this week when The New York Times ran a column by David Brooks featuring evangelical reformers — “the dissenters trying to save evangelicalism from itself.” When I saw that headline, I shook my head and said, “Some things, especially things that think they are saved, just can’t be saved.”

The article itself was a mixed bag. Some of the “reformers” are clearly opportunists of one sort or another, as their idea of “saving evangelicalism” appears to mean “put me in charge.” Some were true believers of the most dogmatic sort. Others are genuinely smart and sincere people, not unlike smart and sincere reformers who have gone before them. If history is any guide, I’d gently recommend to the latter group that they brush up their resumes and find new friends — because they are going to need both.

The Brooks article reminded me of my dream of being an evangelical reformer. How I put my whole soul into the project, my heart and all my gifts. I believed them. I believed that the people who claimed the Reformation and dissent as their heritage wanted reform and welcomed dissent. But being booted some thirty years ago (most of my boot-kickers have passed away now), I learned (the hard way) that American evangelicalism isn’t a faith of reformers and dissenters — it is a religion of gatekeepers and patriarchs. And getting the boot follows a very particular pattern, one I’ve witnessed over the decades, and one that is being repeated right now.

At the first signs of any sort of reform, the power brokers seem to welcome new voices, especially those who might broaden their appeal, and who burnish the evangelical image by making the movement cooler, younger, more intellectual, and more, well, female or browner. See! We’re not hicks! We’re not bigots! We’re inclusive! We’re just following Jesus!

The gatekeepers appear warmly supportive, and often encourage the reformers and dissenters to say the things that seem radical or edgy — We know you are a woman, but would you be willing to write something about how women need to remain under male authority? How submission is actually power? We’re all for liberation, but how about preaching that being LGBTQ is actually slavery to sin? That marriage equality isn’t equal at all — but that it violates religious freedom? Or, better still: That western Christians protesting African laws against gay people is really imperialism? You know what we need? A powerful book about how you didn’t leave the church but that the church left you? Dear Black pastor, would you be willing to sponsor our resolution against CRT?

The youthful reformer is pleased to be included and says yes. The reformer may (or may not) agree with the request but the opportunities open more doors and the opportunities to speak and preach and write multiply. The dissenter is now an edgy insider. But, in reality, these sorts of requests serve two purposes — they secure the loyalty of the reformer by advancing his or her career within the group, and they cut the reformer off from those outside the circle.

In the process, an odd thing sometimes happens. The reformer might misread gatekeeper approval as personal approval (they really like me!) instead of being merely useful to a powerful movement or institution. Thus, while the reformer works to prove loyalty, they imagine they’ve been accepted and (ironically) become braver with their criticism of the gatekeepers. The safer the reformer feels, the more pointed and more public the critique becomes. And sometimes reformers say things that are uncomfortably, completely true about secrets the powerful don’t want revealed.

And that’s when it blows up.

When the gatekeepers realize that the reformer can’t or won’t be controlled, they scurry to bring the person back into the fold. If the unwelcome truth-telling persists, the next steps are gaslighting and shunning. If those strategies fail in their desired result, the reformer must be made an enemy — and a public one at that. The gatekeepers and institutions move to destroy the dissenter by any means necessary.

It doesn’t stop there, however. In evangelicalism, the enemy — even a defeated one — becomes a NonPerson. After the reformer is effectively silenced (evangelicals invented cancel culture), they actually disappear into the waste-howling wilderness beyond the warm certainty of evangelicalism. They have to go “outside” of the subculture to find new work, new friends, and a new faith, making their way in a world barely imagined and for which they are ill-equipped, all the while having to bear the stigma of having been educated or employed within evangelicalism. The reformer is left with nothing to reform because no one in the community they hoped to change even recognizes their existence. Secular people are afraid of you. You are left without a story, without connections, no support. It is the cruelest of exiles, this NonPersonness.

And I think that’s why American evangelicalism survives — it nourishes itself on the fear of NonPersonhood. Yes, there’s the threat of Hell for all eternity. But even worse is the Hell they can make for you now. Everyone inside knows NonPersons, speaks of them in hushed tones — What ever happened to….? I hear he’s teaching at a state school…She got a job selling insurance….They got divorced and she joined an Episcopal church…That figures…. — and no one wants to be like them.

* * * * *

It would be a miserable story, all very George Orwell if it ended there. I was made a NonPerson almost thirty years ago. The church historian with no church. A reformer with nothing to reform. I worried I’d spend my life as a homeless woman with a shopping cart full of The Church Dogmatics on a California beach.

But something unexpected happened on the way to my tragic end. I discovered that being an evangelical NonPerson means you can become a New Person. Having the powers-that-be throw you off the theological bus means — once you heal from the bruises — you are free. You are left on the road to becoming you. And what a journey that is, the adventure of a lifetime. Really. It is like being born again.

No more constraints, no more loyalty tests, no more looking over your shoulder. As my gay and lesbian friends insist, even an evangelical reject like me knows that O-U-T is another way to spell F-R-E-E.

Some things, I suppose, can be reformed. Maybe laws. Certain practices. Someone who has committed a crime. But not entrenched institutions, political parties, or religious movements. Even Martin Luther wasn’t a reformer. He didn’t reform one darn thing in the Catholic Church. He got booted and had to start over again. The wisdom of the Reformation is that very few things are ever reformed from the inside — and never by the people in power — but some things may be transformed by courageous New Persons on the margins.

So, here’s to everyone who has been kicked out, outed themselves, wandered out, or whatever. You ain’t getting an article for your efforts or noted for your heroic dissent in The New York Times. But welcome to the motley vagabond crew on the road to who-knows-where. The only thing that needs reforming here is the temptation to look back.

* “Counter-Reformation” is the term that was current then to describe the Catholic Reformation of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.


From Diana Butler Bass’ The Cottage

Review & Commentary