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Post-Evangelical Lilith Fair in the Spiritual Wilderness

Statistics do not tell half the story. They are bloodless and unfeeling facts. So one does not fully appreciate the faith shift gripping the American church until one is immersed in their collective fears and aspirations. Such was the benefit I received in attending the “Evolving Faith” conference in Montreat, North Carolina.

As a sociologist I viewed the phenomena of this event with growing interest. I have written about this “faith shift” in my book, The New Copernicans. But for all my interest and understanding, I lacked an existential appreciation of the personal emotions this shift entails. Mine like the statistics was too much a tearless analysis provided at arms length. This depersonalized naïveté evaporated over the course of this conference. I am a better person for the experience thanks to the people I met and the moving stories they shared.

The “Evolving Faith” conference was the brainchild of authors Rachel Held Evans and Sarah Bessey and sponsored by the Chaffee Management Group under the leadership of Jim Chaffee. They rightly observe that there are few safe places in the American church for those in the midst of a faith shift to express their anger, doubts, and confusion aloud. Yet even they were shocked by the hunger for such an event. A small conference of several hundred swelled to 1,500 with 500 live streaming sights worldwide. Their logistics were soon overwhelmed by the national interest in the conference. It sold out in less than two weeks.

All of the speakers were associated or had been associated with the Chaffee Management Group: an author, artist, and event management company. Jim Chaffee has an extensive background in music promotion. For more than eighteen years Chaffee sat on the Gospel Music Association (GMA) board of directors and served as the chairman of the board in 2003-2004. His experience is not New York or Los Angeles, but Nashville. Chaffee Management Group today manages many of the leaders in the post-evangelical conversation including Sarah Bessey, Austin Brown, Jeff Chu, Pete Enns, Rachel Held Evans, Bob Goff, Mike McHargue, Christian Platt, and Sandra Van Opstal. Cynics might scoff at the commercial underpinnings of this conference. Certainly lots of books were sold. But there is more at work here than merely commercial interests. Jim Chaffee has curated a powerful collaborative community of emerging organic intellectuals in service to the emerging post-evangelical church. This is a collective dense network of some significance. From this group additional conferences are being planned, a slightly edgier “Why Christian” conference in San Francisco in April 2019 and a repeat of “Evolving Faith” in Denver in October 2019.

The "Evolving Faith" audience in Montreat was about 90% women and women who tended to age in the forties and fifties. This might be partially explained by the very popular hosts and authors, Bessey and Evans. Bessey is the author of Jesus Feminist. Whether through misogynist indoctrination or physical abuse, many of these women have experienced the dark side of evangelicalism. They are evidence of the unspoken shadow of the #metoo movement within the church. Anger and pain was a common denominator among the attendees. One attendee's celebrity evangelical husband divorced her when her faith began to shift. Her marriage had no room for doubt or spiritual struggle. So there was clearly a theme of female empowerment at the conference that was refreshing, timely, and well deserved.

The recurring theme of the conference was spiritual destruction and reconstruction or in the repeated parlance of the speakers, “Burn shit down.” An evolving faith is one where one’s spiritual commitments are in flux. The attendees were all over the map in the process—some just beginning, others in the midst of their faith crisis, and others moving tentatively toward acceptance. Most of the speakers were further along on their journey of faith shift and they spoke as guides.

A faith shift out of mainstream evangelicalism is deeply traumatic. It is characterized by an overwhelming sense of loss: of certainty, of identity, of friends, and of family. Displacement and disorientation are the norm. There is no way to sugarcoat the pain involved in this transition. Author Jen Hatmaker recounted her story of alienation from institutional evangelicalism (due to her acceptance of same sex marriage) toward finding new acceptance within this evolving faith community.

The first day of the conference was dedicated to welcoming these bruised and battered spiritual sojourners into this new community gathered together in the metaphorical spiritual wilderness. The wilderness is the place of creatives and prophets, we were told. Sarah Bessey called this temporary encampment a “liminal space.” Jeff Chu and Jen Hatmaker recounted their spiritual journeys. You will survive; there is hope. An oft-repeated phrase was “You are so loved.” The wanderers were warmly embraced and were encouraged to realize that they belong before they believe.

The practical problems of a faith shift were also explored from the vantage point of mothers of young children. How do you raise children in the faith when your faith is deconstructing? When your child is being called to integrate his or her faith within the totality of their lives, how do you manage this when your own faith is disintegrating? Cindy Brandt reminded these parents that our children are not us; that we are our stories; and that genuine faith in our children stems from encouraging their agency. A faith shift can actually encourage healthier parenting and less toxic religiosity. Kathy Escobar, author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, encouraged the conferees to be gentle with themselves.

The second session dealt with authority and the challenges to religious authority namely the church, Bible, and science. There was nothing offered here to slow the spiritual skid. We are called to re-imagine God in new ways. Pete Enns stated, “An evolving faith is faith.” Science, Mike McHargue added, has kicked the ass of the church many times. Cheryl Johns warned of “disenchanting” the Bible through the typical Enlightenment reading of Scripture. And Wilda Gafney encourages the conferees to be aware of the hermeneutical lens worn when interpreting Scripture. She advocated a womanist theology that clarifies the intersectional identity and structural oppression that is found in Scripture. In the end, it was autonomy not authority that was affirmed.

I left the first day with a nagging undefined uneasiness. I am aware that my white male privileged not tempered by a personal crisis of faith—in spite of being post-evangelical—makes my perspective somewhat suspect. And yet the nagging persisted.

I am in agreement that many need a faith shift out of a toxic evangelical culture and theology. I am increasingly aware that this shift is painful and difficult. I am also glad for this new gathering in the wilderness. But there hung over the conference the fading shadow of a bounded set theology. It was still a reaction to the past rather than a call to a new direction. Nowhere was this bounded set frame challenged as being an inauthentic and historically unique expression of faith. More could have been said to point to an alternative vision of spirituality. Much of traditional evangelicalism has aspects of toxic religiosity.

Pete Enns used Jonah and Ezekiel as examples of reimagining what God is like. Cheryl Bridges said that when you get thrown out of the evangelical church you land in a pretty great place. Science Mike called us to environmental activism. So there were efforts at reframing God and spirituality.

Yet messages of destruction are much easier than reconstruction. As such I was reminded of Philip Rieff’s warning: “The wisdom of the next social order would not reside in right doctrine, administered by the right men, who must be found, but rather in doctrines amounting to permission for each man to live an experimental life.” This amounts to celebrating autonomy, which on the face of it is counter to a healthy spiritual journey. To counter authoritarianism with autonomy is too easy a reaction. Genuine spirituality demands more of us. One needs to guard against this tendency.

Because the audience was so diverse in its beliefs—or lack there of—it’s understandable that little concrete direction was provided. There were exemplars of hope shown, but little guidance was given as to the process of reconstruction. More than anything permission was simply given to simply burn things down. Phoenix-like a renewed spirituality was somehow to emerge from the ashes of the traditional evangelical church.

I’m of the opinion that some additional guidance could have been useful.

When strong feeling or specific behaviors of abuse are involved, genuine therapy is called for before the process of spiritual rebuilding can begin. Toxic religiosity may require professional help to overcome. One may need to process the anger before one can return to the spiritual longings that are buried under these scars and wounds.

One could have been told that God’s shoulders are large enough for the skepticism and doubts of an emerging atheism or period of intense questioning and disbelief. It’s OK, even expected that churchy rituals and language will be triggering of negative feelings. At the conference, it was assumed that everyone would want devotional time and worship. In some sense, the speakers were too far away from the pain of their own deconstruction. The loss of faith is a death and it comes with the uncertainty and anxiety of physical death. Somebody could have said, “It’s OK, even expected, not to believe anything at the early stages of a faith shift.” Mike McHargue was the first of the speakers to welcome the doubters and atheists in the crowd. Prior to him only believers were welcomed.

It could be useful to remind those in the midst of the shift that spirituality is a pilgrimage not a light switch. The uncertainty of the adventure and even the destination is to be expected. If the evangelical church squashes doubt and unbelief, the evolving faith community needs to embrace them, acknowledge them, and live comfortably with them.

More important is to embrace the journey or the process of faith transition. The wilderness is not a final home but a liminal space, a threshold or doorway. One needs to maintain a spiritual quest even if it is away from the certainties of one’s childhood faith. For it’s a truth of reality that “only seekers find.” The evangelical church demands instant closure. But reality is not like that. Most of our testimonies of faith need to be open-ended stories that are not neatly wrapped up in a bow of reconstituted faith. “I ‘believe,’ help my unbelief,” is a biblically supported cri de coeur.

The conferees might have been told to find solace in other forms of alternative spirituality that keep their spiritual quest alive without the triggering pain of churchy spirituality. There is always some spiritual truth to be found in all of these other forms of spiritual seeking. Learn from them and keep moving. The only danger is to avoid a spiritual pilgrimage.

Anger and paralysis is not your friend. Neither is self-loathing. Move toward love and others. Find a community of like-minded gentle seekers—even if it is only a virtual community. We speak of the arc of the universe bending toward justice, but it also bends toward love and community. Bend that way as well.

There are those who have walked this road before us, whose memoirs are an encouragement and beacon of hope for our own journeys. Read widely. Look to the ancients and to the mystics.

Spend time in nature and read poetry. Go on walks; sit quietly under the trees. Go on long walks on a beach. If you can, talk to the Unknown God. If that proves difficult, then talk to nature. In doing so you will find that you are a part of a bigger reality than your own bruised ego.

Rather than seeking for “truth,” seek for “meaning.” They are obviously related, but meaning necessitates the engagement of the whole self, putting skin on truth. Meaning is found in belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The use of reason in search for truth tends to narrow the search to right and wrong whereas the imaginative mind opens it up to new vistas. Reason works within a frame. Imagination establishes new frames. Your faith needs to be reframed so lean on the imaginative mind. We need an “ah-ha” experience not more facts and arguments.

And finally, reframe your pain and suffering. It is not a closed door, but a potent reminder of the natural force field of life, death and life, decay and rebirth. Father Richard Rohr writes,

"The mystery of the cross has the power to teach us that our suffering is not our own and my life is not about 'me'; instead, we are actually living inside of a larger force field of life and death. One moves from 'me' to 'us' inside of this field of deep inner experience. This is the gateway to compassion, and thus redemption. When I can see and accept my suffering as a common participation with Jesus and all humanity, I am somehow 'saved' and I become 'whole in him.' I fully admit this is often hard to do when we are still in the midst of our suffering, and we just want to be delivered from it."

For most people a painful faith shift is the only way to achieve a deeper spirituality. This experience is not a personal failure, but a spiritual graduation. It is the higher road to authenticity. It is a gateway to new spiritual horizons. Embrace the process.

There is comfort in being welcomed to the wilderness. Here one finds a new tribe of nomads of spiritual sojourners. There is wisdom there that places the emphasis on relationship not belief, on direction not destination, on poetry not propositions, on dependence not independence, on community not isolation, on love not apathy, on hope and not despair, on wells and not fences. The wilderness is the new starting place. It is not the destination. To this end keep moving humbly forward.

Such could have been said at the Evolving Faith conference. While the conference speakers knew most of this wisdom, it was largely left unsaid. There was a palpable fear of being too spiritually direct, too authoritative.

Nonetheless, churchiness prevailed. This was particularly evidenced in the choice of music, which shifted from folk to gospel choruses. Here one felt a discordant evangelical churchiness. Paste’s Nick Purdy’s informal survey on Facebook found that about 70% of people at the conference felt this way.

Speakers spoke casually and frequently about Jesus. One even suggested turning over the losses one has experienced in one’s faith shift to Jesus. A struggling friend of mine wrote in her notes angrily, “Fuck you” to the suggestion. The alienation from the church that many were currently experiencing was not fully recognized in the choice of music.

One might have expected the evocative soul searching of Isaac Slade of the The Fray in “You Found Me.”

I found God on the corner of First in Amistad Where the west was all but won All alone Smoking his last cigarette

I said where you been? He said, ask anything

Where were you When everything was falling apart?

All my days Spent by the telephone That never rang And all I needed was a call That never came From the corner of First and Amistad

Lost and insecure You found me, you found me Lying on the floor Surrounded, surrounded Why'd you have to wait? Where were you, where were you? Just a little late You found me, you found me

Or perhaps even more to the point would have been Sarah Mclachlan’s cover, “Dear God,” from the British band XTC:

Dear God Hope you got the letter and... I pray you can make it better down here I don't mean a big reduction in the price of beer

But all the people that you made in your image See them starving on their feet 'Cause they don't get enough to eat From God

I can't believe in you Dear God Sorry to disturb you but... I feel that I should be heard loud and clear

We all need a big reduction In the amount of tears And all the people that you made in your image See them fighting in the street

'Cause they can't make opinions meet about God I can't believe in you Did you make disease And the diamond blue?

Did you make mankind After we made you? And the devil too? Dear God

Don't know if you noticed but... Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book And as crazy humans wrote it You should take a look

And all the people that you made in your image Still believing that junk is true Well I know it ain't and so do you, dear God I can't believe in

I don't believe in I won't believe in heaven and hell No saints no sinners no devil as well No pearly gate no thorny crown

You're always letting us humans down The wars you bring The babes you drown Those lost at sea and never found

And it’s all the same the whole world round The hurt I see helps to compound That Father, Son, and Holy Ghost Is just somebody's unholy hoax

And if you’re up there you'd perceive That my heart’s here upon my sleeve If there's one thing I don’t believe in... It’s you, dear God.

Some conferees had to go outside during the music for a smoke to calm down from the overwhelming sense of rage and disrespect caused by the musical selections. Jim Chaffee is in the music business, so I imagine that this is easily fixed. The conference leaders seemed to lack an agreed upon vocabulary and path of exploration when it came to spirituality.

Not so on politics. Day two the tone and frame shifted markedly as the topic turned to justice, which in turn morphed into politics. Here there was no hesitancy to provide direction and absolute moral categories framed according to the politically correct dictates of progressive politics. The appeal to state power was unqualified. There was a mixed message. On one hand we were told, “If you marry the empire, you will fall with it.” And on the other hand, “There is no worship without justice” and “Politics is the greatest tool to be a neighbor.” There was no general critique of Constantinianism, of the uncritical marriage of faith and politics. Here “empire” only applied to Trump. The political leanings changed, but if it is politics from the margins or for the margins, it appears that anything goes. “We have no time for civility.” “We have no time for your feelings of victimhood.” “I don’t have time for your narcissism.” Affirmations of justice were here spiritualized as progressive political will-to-power. No one hinted that such reliance on left-leaning politics is just as corrosive to faith as right-leaning politics. Public affirmations of faith here were limited to expressions of political defiance. There was no ambiguity, no open-handed inclusiveness. A republican vote was framed as “thirty pieces of silver,” a betrayal of Christ. The lines were clear and the boundaries high. One conferee said, “It felt like I had swapped a shame based evangelical spirituality for a shame based progressive one.”

Even if one is critical of the Trump administration and all that it stands for, even if one is sympathetic to the policy recommendations made for those in the margins from the left, as I am, this uncritical appeal to Constantinian power, all be it power wielded by the Democratic Party, suggested that the evolving faith movement may have shifted its theology, but not its habitus. The majoritarian impulse of evangelicalism remained dominant. An “alt-empire” prevailed.

This is disappointing for two reasons. First many young people are alienated by the binary, black and white manner in which politics is framed. This in part explains why fresh candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bento O’Rourke are so appealing. While such binary demonizing may fuel a self-justifying self-righteousness, many recognize that lived reality in the trenches—on every public policy consideration whether immigration or women’s rights—is much more complicated and messy than such simplistic binary demonizing of one’s political opponents warrants. Some humility and ambiguity would be welcome.

Second, and most importantly, an expression of “faithful presence within” as an approach toward cultural engagement demands that one abandon such Constantinian impulses from either political direction. Faith needs to be disentangled from the coercive power of the state. To assume as many of these speakers did that “public” equals “political” is the flip side of the same mistake made by the political right. To mirror the errors of framing by the right is not adequate faithfulness to Christ in my mind. One can be critical of the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, but one must avoid at the same time a smug self-righteousness and resort to power politics. A Nietzschean impulse is just as ugly on the left as it is on the right. Christ demands more from us. Voting is important, but it is not worship.

So I left the conference conflicted. It was the right gathering. It is a meaningful start. The organizers deserve much praise and gratitude. But more will need to be offered, if the pent up feelings of these wanderers is to find direction out of the chaos of our partisan, conflicted, and judgmental social order. Christ, I believe, calls us to a stateswomanship that is above the political rancor and deeper than the superficial clichés of gospel choruses. The appreciation for this conference cannot be overstated. The points of critique are only reflections on caring about its future. And they, no doubt, have all the biases of an old privileged white male.

We “went down to the river to pray—doubters, dreamers, survivors, and children—good Lord, show us the way.” Otherwise, I fear, we’re going to get lost in the wilderness.

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