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Theology

folk and formal theology

My partner and I were taking our usual walk around our apartment complex and through the woods around it when I announced that I wanted to go to seminary. I had been thinking about it for a while, but by that evening I was sure that’s what I wanted. When he asked why I had several answers ready, and one of the most significant was that I wanted to formally study theology. As a lay person and average church goer I’d been obsessed with different theological subfields my entire life (bibliology being at the top of that list), and I wanted to engage one of my passions in an academic context. I wasn’t satisfied with approaching it through the “accessible” and “popular” texts anymore, but I didn’t know how to wade through the ocean of theological works and contexts on my own. I wanted the hand-holding, the guidance, that a solid seminary would give me.

One of the things that brought me to that reason was the church we’d been attending at the time. The head pastor had never gone to seminary, had no real intention of going to seminary, and I felt that a lot of my frustrations with his sermons stemmed from that. Often he’d include something I knew to be wildly inaccurate (but a popular myth among evangelicals) in his interpretations, or as illustrations, and I felt that a seminary education would have prevented some of that.

I was also in a two-year class the church offered called “The Theology Program.” Interestingly, I’d found the classes helpful in deconstructing fundamentalism even though the video instructors were themselves fundiegelicals who’d graduated from Dallas Theological. While I wildly disagreed with most of their conclusions and thought many of their arguments against “heresies” were strawmen, the act of going through a historical look into the Christian tradition and touching on most of the significant theories was informative. It gave me the words and the tools to go looking for things on my own.

One of the things I picked up from the instructors, though, was a condemnation of “folk theology.” Their use of that term was fairly loose, and generously applied– basically anything that didn’t belong in one of the major systematic theologies was “folk theology.” Essentially, if something you believed wasn’t straight-up Wesleyan, Calvinist, Catholic or in one of the catechisms (like the Westminster Catechism), then it was “folk theology.” In a way, this made sense to me. My experiences had showed me the harm that can be caused by reckless, inconsistent, pick-and-choose theological structures. I didn’t assume that every “systematic theology” was immune from problems because it was supposedly all-encompassing, holistic, and internally consistent; however, I thought systematic theologies had value because they at least had the benefit of being well thought-out.

I started seminary a few months before the election, and threw myself headfirst into as many theology classes as I could take. I became familiar with the theologians who were known for developing progressive systems and tried to absorb as much as I could about the structures and interconnecting ideas that shaped feminist, liberation, and queer theologies.

***

One thing that 2014 me would be surprised to learn is that I’ve almost completely changed my mind about both folk and formal theology.

I’ve loved (almost) every second of seminary and every day feel blessed to be able to access the wealth of knowledge and experience at United. I have learned and grown so much, and the sheer breadth of perspectives I’ve been introduced to is breathtaking. I will be exploring some of these authors and fields for the rest of my life, probably.

One thing I’ve come to realize through all these books and classes and discussions is that a heavy-handed emphasis on “systematic theology” is inherently oppressive. Most of the well-known “systematic theologies” are incredibly Eurocentric, and nearly all of them were developed by straight, white, upper-middle-class (or upper class, or noble) men … and it all comes with the implication that straight, white, well-to-do men are the only objective source of theology. Now, when I hear someone expounding on the importance of adhering to systematic theologies all I hear are empty words from someone who is afraid of engaging with varied and diverse experiences, or of allowing the voices and perspectives of marginalized groups into their theological conversations.

Systematic theologies tend to generalize the specific, make universal the contextual, and strip the humanity from our sacred narratives.

Many of the kinds of theologies I’ve been exposed to in seminary would fall under the “folk theology” umbrella I heard condemned in those video classes, but what I’ve discovered is that there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom in concrete, experienced, lived-through, lived-out theologies. A phrase that’s stuck with me came from one of my professors, Dr. Alika Galloway, who said she always preaches “with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.”

The upside of “folk theology” is that it is endlessly adaptable. It’s the theology that we make work for our lives, fit into our contexts, and shape around our experiences. It’s flexible, and practical, and real. Sure, a lot of it can go off the rails and loose all grounding in logic or fact, but the obverse is true of formal theology: experience and compassion can be sacrificed on the altar of internal and hermeneutical consistency.

I went into seminary thinking I’d come out on the other side with Samantha Field’s Very Well Thought Out, Consistent, Progressive, and Universal Theological System, and instead I’m going to leave seminary with Screw It, Believe What Works For You.

Photography by Tim Wilson
Theology

sin is not just a “heart issue”

If you’re a person who has frequented the internet over the last month, you’ve probably heard, seen, or read discussions around whether or not companies or governments should “ban” single-use plastic straws. On one side you have people who believe that we should eliminate– or at least reduce our reliance on– single-use plastics, and disposable straws are their current target. On the other side, disability activists argue that there aren’t good alternatives to single-use plastic straws and that disabled people’s need to stay hydrated without dying due to anaphylaxis or aspiration is more important than the 0.025% of plastic floating around in our oceans, especially when abled people can just stop using disposable straws if they want to.

Another facet of the discussion has tried to point out that if you actually want to tackle the problem of plastic waste polluting our oceans, we should look at elements like industrial fishing methods, since 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is plastic fishing nets and the rest is almost entirely other pieces of fishing gear. Any environmental or climate change concern is going to have similar elements: the bulk of the waste and pollution is caused by entire industries and corporations; altering individual behavior is good but ultimately ineffective. If we actually want to address plastic waste in our oceans, we need to change the behaviors of industries and entire economies, not whether or not Deborah gets a straw in her mocha frappuccino.

Unfortunately, changing the course of an entire industry is much more difficult than telling me, individually, not to litter or use plastic straws– and it is difficult because corporations have a vested interest in making it difficult. Moving away from single-use plastics will hurt their bottom line, so they throw money at lobbyists and politicians and regulators to make sure they can keep strangling our planet with their garbage. Starbucks can announce that they’re going to phase out plastic straws and get plenty of kudos and accolades … and keep on using unrecyclable plastic-lined paper cups to the tune of 4 billion cups per year. They could start using biodegradable, compostable, or recyclable cups, but they won’t.

Industries and corporations continuously point fingers at individual consumer habits so they don’t have to make any substantive changes. Take the “Crying Indian” ad from 1971– it was paid for by a conglomeration of some of the biggest polluters in the country in order to take the focus off packaging and throw-away containers and put that focus on individual consumers. That’s the whole point: make the conversation about Deborah’s frappucino and not how Proctor & Gamble is packaging its shampoo in the Philippines.

***

All of the above functions extremely well as a metaphor for the common American Christian articulation of sin as a “heart issue.” Maybe like me you’ve noticed a pattern of influential Christian ministers referring to racism or sexism as a “heart issue,” and found it as frustrating as I do.

Framing racism or other systemic social problems as a “heart issue” accomplishes a few things. First, it centers Christianity in the conversation. If racism is a “heart issue,” then the solution is conversion or repentance– all the individually racist person needs to do is repent and allow Jesus to change their heart. If a racist person accepts Jesus into their heart and once they’ve done so, follows the Spirit’s guidance away from prejudice and towards acceptance– then racism is solved with the Christian religion. Saying racism is a “heart issue” means that we don’t need affirmative action, we need Evangelical Jesus.

Second, it allows people and their communities to escape any feeling of responsibility or guilt. If racism is truly a single person’s heart issue, and the resolution is for that person to repent, then there’s nothing that Bob or Susie is responsible for when Jim is a racist turd. If Jim is a Christian, then Jesus and the Holy Spirit will handle it. If he’s not, then there’s nothing more for Bob or Susie to do– they just have to continue being Jim’s friend so they can be a “good witness” for Christ in his life. What good would it do to tell Jim that he’s being racist, if it’s a heart issue? No, we just need to “love on him” more and “be the only Bible he’ll ever see.”

Lastly, if racism is an individual’s “heart issue,” then it’s not systemic. An indiviudal’s heart issue does not require a church, as an institution, to change. Heart issues do not ask the Church to examine itself or shift course; in fact, if racism is a heart issue than most Christian churches are doing the exactly right thing by harping on a “personal relationship with Christ” and telling its members to repent of private, individual sin.

If we were to communally acknowledge that racism or sexism or ableism is systemic, then we’d have to commit to a massive undertaking. We’d have to take a hard look at how our seminaries and ordinations and denominations and alliances and conventions operate and be honest with ourselves for the first time in history. We’d have to overhaul power structures, ordination tracks, and hiring processes– and everyone who currently enjoys all the cultural power, who wield all the political influence, would lose their access and prestige. The leadership would have to admit that it’s not God who brought them to the position they hold, not their commitment to the faith, not their hard work, but systemic, structural practices that marginalize anyone who isn’t a cis, white, heterosexual man.

It’s not coincidence that the people who stand to lose the most power, influence, and money are the ones claiming that sins like racism are an individual problem and the solution is to maintain the status quo.

Photo by Kish
Theology

disappointment is the guide to happiness

For most of my life, I was not allowed to experience disappointment. That doesn’t mean that nothing ever happened that could disappoint me—just that when it did happen, I wasn’t allowed to feel disappointed. If I ever expressed my disappointment to a peer, friend, or adult in my life the standard response was that I should be grateful for an event, circumstance, or item because after all it’s only the saving grace of God that’s keeping me from being tortured in hell forever.

Writing it out like that it sounds like hyperbole, but it’s not. A few months after I’d gotten married I was talking to a trusted person about something that had gone wrong in my life and how I didn’t deserve what was happening to me, and their response was “well, you should be grateful because what you really deserve is hell.” They said it … almost glibly. They’d said it so often and to so many people that the sheer horror of it couldn’t even hit them.

This thread was woven into nearly every aspect of my life. I was forced to be “thankful” for any misery, unhappiness, disappointment, or discontent because what else could a hopeless wretch like myself dare to expect? I should be happy with what I’ve got and thankful it’s not any worse. The result of this mentality was twofold: I never learned how to deal with disappointment appropriately, and I never learned what gratitude is or learned how to be truly thankful.

The intended result of cutting me off from “negative” emotions like anger or disappointment was to prevent me from feeling them, but how anyone thought that was ever going to work is beyond me. I still experienced the entire emotional spectrum but was taught to ignore a significant section of it, to bury those feelings. With all their talk of not letting bitterness fester you’d think they’d be more conscious of what unresolved disappointment can do to a person, but no.

Stunted emotional growth doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Once I started deconstructing the fundamentalist ideology I’d been raised in, a lot of things started to grate on some incredibly raw nerves. I wanted to lean in to being disappointed—to throw massive pity parties and lay in bed and mope and do all the things children do when they’re learning to self-regulate. I was essentially trying to cram two decades of disappointment into a year so I could get it all out of my system and learn to cope with it better. During that time period I really learned to hate the phrase “an attitude of gratitude” and any of its linguistic compatriots. Anyone trying to tell me that gratitude is the key to happiness would provoke a run-screaming-into-the-hills reaction.

In my personal experience up until that point, gratitude was most definitely not the key to happiness. I’d been forced to try that for almost as long as I could remember and nope. I wanted nothing to do with the entire concept—no one was ever going to tell me to “be ye thankful” ever again if I could help it.

***

Recently, I’ve learned that part of the healing work, part of recovering from fundamentalism, is learning to separate out the parts that are true but that fundamentalists got wrong. For a long time I had to reject all of it wholesale, because tossing the baby out with the bathwather was the only way to set myself free from the entire toxic system. For years I didn’t believe that bothering to recover any of that would be healthy or helpful.

Last weekend, though, I realized that gratitude is actually woven through all my happiness. Because I’ve learned how to experience disappointment, I could finally recognize gratitude. In my experience, they’re two sides of the same coin. Disappointment has been an overwhelming experience for me over the last five years—nothing quite makes me want to curl up into a ball like disappointment. I’ve finally experienced the truth of a “hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” and the past few weeks have been a double helping. I actually went to bed in the middle of the day and cried myself to sleep a few times last week.

But, not just despite the disappointment but because of it, gratitude has shone even brighter. Now it’s a golden thread in my life, helping me to refocus and revealing the good things that exist in the middle of sorrow. I’m horribly disappointed that something I’ve been working on personally for the last year and half got ripped out of my hands and stomped on, but gratitude lets me see how it’s not been for nothing. I have friends I wouldn’t have made otherwise, connections and resources that are going to help me tremendously in other work I want to do. I’ve learned and grown and gained important skills.

I’m grateful.

What the fundamentalists got wrong is that I am not grateful instead of being disappointed. I’m both. I can recognize that what’s happening is unjust and unfair and sensible, reasonable people wouldn’t be behaving this way … and I can look at everything I’ve gained by being a part of it. I wouldn’t really be able to understand the full picture of my life right now without both of these feelings.

Gratitude is present in everything that makes me happy, or feel accomplished, or content; and it’s there in everything that hurts. Sometimes I’m so grateful it makes me dizzy—I can have a weekend full of good food, supportive friends, entertaining movies, satisfying gaming victories, beautiful landscapes and sleeping in and thinking about it makes my head explode a little bit how it’s possible for one person to be this happy. Gratitude is feeling so full of joy and contentment I might burst from it.

None of it would be possible, though, without disappointment as an emotional transition color. By embracing disappointment, I can understand my worth as a person. I can understand the way things are versus the way things ought to be and know where I fit, where my place is at the moment.

Disappointment guides me to gratitude by pointing out what’s wrong so I can see what’s right.

Photography by Peter Toporowski
Theology

for Thanos so loved the world

Note: lots of spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War

I saw Avengers: Infinity War a few weeks ago and have been ruminating on it ever since. I enjoyed watching it and am doubly excited now for Captain Marvel after what we saw on Fury’s souped-up space pager. There were a few elements that frustrated me a touch – you can’t love someone and murder them at the same time, whoever designed the Soul Stone “test” is obviously a monster—but on the whole I … liked it. I think. If I still like it next summer will depend a lot on what they do with the Snapture in Avengers 4.

I abandoned all pretense of separating the “secular” and the “sacred” back in my undergraduate days, and in the last couple of years I’ve become intentional about blending pop culture into my theological conversations. Lord of the Rings, A Wrinkle in Time, Wheel of Time, Mistborn … they’ve all given me tools and metaphors to chew on theological ideas.

When I saw Black Panther in February, I talked the ear off of anyone who would listen about the resurrection motif the film uses and how it relates to Black liberation theology, especially how Kelly Brown Douglas articulated the meaning of the Resurrection in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. What Black Panther had to say about resurrection was beautiful and incredibly meaningful, and I thought about it a lot over the Easter season. What if my Christian understanding of Christ’s resurrection looked more like what we saw in Black Panther, and less like what I’ve been handed by a European tradition enmeshed in misogyny and white supremacy?

But back to Infinity War and theology. Last week, a good friend of mine shared a meme that reads:

“For Thanos so loved the universe that he sacrificed his only daughter to save half of the universe.” ~ Avengers 3:16

It made me stop in my tracks with how piercingly accurate it is, and how thoroughly it eviscerates the common evangelical approach to understanding the Cross. I abandoned penal substitionary atonement theory years ago, and the reasons why are encapsulated almost perfectly in that meme.

Thanos is the villain of Avengers: Infinity War, one of the biggest “Big Bads” in Marvel comic history; he’s the despicable monster every single franchise in the MCU has been preparing us for. I’ve been curious to see how the MCU was going to adapt Thanos’ story ever since the “to challenge them is to court death” line from the mid-credits Avengers scene. Infinity War finally gave us the full explanation: Thanos is on a mission to save the world—he “kills and tortures and calls it mercy,” as Gamora put it. He goes from planet to planet, slaughtering half of its population and decimating its infrastructure, because he believes that every single sentient species in the galaxy is destined to annihilate itself by draining a finite set of resources. That’s taking too long, though, so he finds an faster way: get all the Infinity Stones so that he can eliminate half of the universe’s resource-consuming population with a “snap” of his fingers.

In the film we learn that Gamora discovered the location of one of the Infinity Stones, and Thanos … persuades … her to tell him where it is. Once they get to that planet, Thanos is told by a ghost-like figure that he has to sacrifice what he loves most in order to acquire the Soul Stone. Long story short, he throws Gamora over a cliff but feels really bad about it. It’s just the sacrifice he has to make to save the world.

That’s what penal substitionary atonement theory is. That’s what most American Christians believe about the Cross—their belief systems casts God in the same villainous role as Thanos.

In penal substitutionary atonement theory, all sentient species – in evangelicalism’s case, homo sapiens—are destined not for mere annihilation, but for eternal conscious torment. This is the only possible outcome for the decision two people made in our ancient history—God told our precursors what would happen if they consumed a certain resource, but they did it anyway. According to many Christians, God doomed us all to an eternity of conscious torment because of the sin we’ve inherited from Adam.

There’s an echo of that in Infinity War—Thanos shows a sub-set of the Avengers what his home planet, Titan, looked like when it was a paradise, like Eden. He warned his people of what would happen if their lust for the “fruit” of unrestrained consumption went unchecked—they would “certainly die”—and he was right. Titan ignored him, and his paradise was destroyed. He believes this will happen everywhere, on every planet … unless he saves them by electing some to survive in a New Paradise that he creates. He’s even more merciful than the American evangelical god if you think about it—he’s going to save half of everyone in the universe. American evangelical theology teaches that “straight is the gate, and narrow is the way, and few there be that find it.” The number of earth’s population who have ever been saved from the flames of Hell is far less than half.

There’s a gaping hole in both Thanos’ plan and penal substitionary atonement theory. Thanos and God are predestining everyone in the universe to death—or worse, eternal conscious torment, being tortured forever in a lake of fire—when with all their power they could choose another option if they wanted to. With all the Stones in the Gauntlet, granting Thanos the ability to shape the entire universe however he sees fit, he could double the universe’s resources. He could give every planet a renewable energy source capable of meeting any conceivable need. He holds the power and life and death in his hands, and he’s deliberately choosing death.

The same is true of penal substitionary atonement theory’s god. He could have decided that Adam and Eve were responsible for their own sin and that their descendants wouldn’t inherit their repercussions. But he didn’t. He could have decided against punishing Adam and Eve, along with the rest of us, with Hell. But he didn’t. He could have decided to simply forgive everyone’s Inherited Sin that he saddled us with in the first place. But he didn’t. He could have made Jesus’ sacrifice enough for everyone instead of Electing only a cosmic handful—or without requiring a Sinner’s Prayer from a scattered few.

But he didn’t.

In evangelicalism, Jesus’s death on the Cross is framed as the greatest act of love and sacrifice that has ever occurred in the history of the universe. Without Jesus dying for our sins, God would supposedly be forced to let everyone burn forever.

I’m sure Thanos felt the same way about throwing Gamora over a cliff.

Image belongs to Marvel Studios
Theology

smashing the church patriarchy

Since I’ve entered seminary, at no surprise to anyone, I’ve become friends with a lot of fellow seminarians and pastors. Something I’ve discovered is that being friends on facebook with one pastor or minister means that I’ll be seeing their interactions with a lot of other pastors and ministers. Over the past couple of years I’ve seen them like or comment on a bunch of posts, and many of those posts have been celebratory. Ordinations, baptisms, commissions, and all the rest are in the background of my life now in a way that they’ve never been before. The conversations around those topics are a steady staple of the discussions I see.

And I’ve noticed a pattern.

It’s a good pattern—considering the circles I run in, most of the people I know and who they know are feminists, queer folks, and other people engaged in justice and liberation work. I’ve seen a lot of celebrations over the last two years; ordinations of women and queer folks, electing women into positions of church leadership, marrying two queer women ministers. This week, the ELCA elected Patricia Davenport as a bishop, and she’ll be the first Black woman to serve as bishop anywhere the ELCA. Considering I know a lot of Lutherans (it happens when your seminary is in Minneapolis, apparently), many of the people I know were excited and happy about this—rightly so.

As a Christian feminist, a metric butt-ton of the work is laser focused on the gender imbalance in Christian ministry. It’s true across every single denomination, even the most liberal and progressive, that men far outnumber women at every level of ministry. Even in the United Church of Christ, only a third of all local church pastors are women, even though women are 47% of the UCC’s ordained ministers. Reaching gender parity is something many of my colleagues promote and are actively working toward.

In the evangelical world that I still have half a foot in, arguments in favor of women serving in church leadership happen basically every day. I’ve seen it happen so many times in so many venues that at this point I know the patterns of the debate by heart. I know what arguments each side will make, how those arguments will be picked apart, what evidence is going to be brought up, and I know when the conversation will either end or devolve into purposeless bickering. As you can probably guess, it’s not an argument I get involved in personally very often as I rarely think it’s worth my time. My experience being a feminist on the internet has taught me not to throw my pearls before swine.

But there is one thing that all these conversations—both the celebrations and the arguments—have made me question: is this the work Christian feminists should be doing? Is convincing everyone that women are indeed permitted to become pastors a good use of our time? Is promoting women in church leadership, reaching denominational gender parity, truly a Christian feminist goal?

I’m not sure.

The last time I was regularly attending a traditional church was in February 2015—I quit going after the pastor gave a Valentine’s Day-themed sermon that was absolutely infuriating and I couldn’t take the misogyny and queerphobia anymore. After that I tried the local UMC and ELCA churches, but neither was an ideal fit for me. It’s been three years since I’ve consistently darkened a church door, and honestly, those three years have been, on a spiritual level, the healthiest of my life. I’ve explored my faith more, and more deeply, than ever before. I’ve grown more as a person and a Christian since I stopped attending a traditional church. I’ve read the Bible more. I started seminary, with no intention of seeking ordination, but just to learn more about my faith, and it’s been an extraordinary experience.

However, there’s a reason why I’m using the term “traditional church.” In the last three years, I never stopped being a part of the church, and not in the “I’m a Christian so I’m a member of the church’s body” metaphysical sense. I go to church every Sunday: it’s just in my home and it’s seven people praying together and talking about our faith, Christianity, the Bible, and theological books (which includes books like A Wrinkle in Time). We call ourselves a “book club” or a “small group,” but that’s my church.

What this experience has taught me is the value of relational power (Linthicum’s Transforming Power did a lot to form my thinking about what “relational power” is if you’d like to learn more). Linthicum sets it up as relational vs. unilateral (“dominating” or “constitutional,” pg. 81) power, but I’m starting to see it as relational vs. hierarchical power. A question I keep asking myself is can we have equality in a hierarchical system? Can hierarchical power be feminist?

I’m starting to think the answer to that question is “No.”

In my church, there is no pastor. There is no leader. We all have different gifts, different perspectives, and we benefit from all of them equally. I’m in seminary and my gifts are toward research and recall—I can remember lots of useful factoids and references. One person in my church is incredibly emotionally intelligent, and she can be so amazingly perceptive. She has a knack for cutting through a lot of the academic bullshit that I can get stuck in to get to the heart of a passage. Another woman is endlessly full of questions, and challenges all of us to seek deeper, to know better. Two of our other members are really good at keeping all our questions and interpretations and applications in perspective—what would this really look like if we started acting on it?

We all contribute, and we do so on equal footing. None of our gifts or perspectives is seen as better than another—I’m in seminary, and that means exactly squat when it comes to the leadership of the group … because there is no leadership of the group. This hasn’t been intentional. It just happened, because we had no need for anyone to serve in that role. Without anyone “in charge,” there’s absolutely no reason to worry about whether or not power is being shared equitably. It just is.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there’s five women and two men. Given that, part of me wonders if this “just happened” because we are mostly women. Is this what a feminist church could look like? A group of equals where every gift is utilized and every person is valued?

Should we be really trying to make more women powerful so that they’re as powerful as men, or should we be eliminating the power structure that’s created all these problems in the first place? Is patriarchy intrinsically hierarchical? Can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?

I’m not positive one way or another, but I think progressive Christians need to seriously wrestle with questions like these if our institutions have a chance at becoming healthy, non-harmful, equitable spaces.

Photography by Allison Matherly
Theology

top 12 books for progressive Christianity 101

One of the questions I get asked most often is “what are the books I should read to learn about progressive Christianity?” or a variant of that, like “what are some good books to get away from evangelicalism/fundamentalism?” I get this question often enough I thought it might be a good idea to have a basic list to refer people to. Also, as I’ve been moving through progressive Christian spaces, this question comes up a lot and in my opinion the answers are usually … let’s just say they can be frustrating. Usually the responses are limited to recommending books by straight old white men. Not that NT Wright, Bart Ehrman, John Spong, Marcus Borg et al shouldn’t be read, but that it’s disappointing when these are always the first names on people’s lips. So, without further ado:

A Word on Bible Translations:

If you’re like me, you were taught that the King James Version is the only translation a True Believer™ is allowed to read and study. When I first got away from that mode of thinking, the translation I picked up was the English Standard which has… issues. I quickly moved on to reading the NIV, and then I discovered The Message. If you’re coming from a fundamentalist background where you’re used to being bludgeoned with Scripture or you have difficulty trying to read familiar passages with new theological lenses, The Message can be a really great tool in rediscovering the Bible.

For study, I primarily use two books: the Jewish Annotated New Testament, which uses the NRSV and is footnoted with commentary from Jewish scholars– it also includes some really great essays and the frontmatter for each book or letter is phenomenal. When studying what most Christians refer to as the “Old Testament,” I use the Jewish Study Bible, which uses the JPS Tanakh Translation. The commentary comes from both Orthodox and Reform Judaic scholars, and it’s been instrumental in how I explore the Tanakh.

Intersectional Feminism

I cannot say enough good things about Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne by Wilda Gafney. If you’re unfamiliar with midrash, it’s a Jewish approach to storytelling from Scripture, and Gafney infuses it with her African-American hermenuetical tradition; the result is beautiful and insightful. It is utterly unlike anything I’ve encountered in fundiegeliclaism, and I think it should be the starting place of anyone returning to the Bible as an post- or ex-vangelical. It’s a bit of a tome, but since it’s broken up into the individual stories it’s easy to sit down and read one story at at time.

Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible edited by Robert Goss and Mona West is a collection of essays by LGBT+ persons of faith, and is a solid introduction to looking at the Bible through a queer lens. It’s not too academic, but each essay explores its topic well.

No list like this can be complete in my opinion without recommending Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives by Phyllis Trible. This book is one of the most fundamental Christian feminist texts in existence, and is referenced constantly by basically every Christian feminist theologian I’ve ever read. This book forces us to reckon with the Bible as it is, not the sanitized version that gets preached from fundiegelical pulpits.

Ada María Isasi-Díaz is one of the most significant modern theologians, and her point of view on the Christian religious tradition is incredibly healing and hopeful. Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century is the place to start with her writing and exploring theology outside of the overwhelmingly dominant White Masculine way of experiencing faith.

For a bit of a kick and a lot of fun, Indecent Theology: Theological Perversions in Sex, Gender, and Politics by Marcella Althaus-Reid is … oh, it’s interesting. And different. And shocking. And thought-provoking. It’s a little bit out there, but it certainly makes you re-evaluate a lot of things. It’s also broken up into essays, so you can digest it one segment at a time.

If you have access to academic databases through your college or public library, “Anti-Judaism in Feminist Interpretation” by Judith Plaskow is a must-read. Anti-Judaism and antisemitism is rife in modern Christian feminism, and a lot of it is based in the idea that Jesus was a feminist in opposition to Judaism’s supposed misogyny. That argument is absolutely everywhere and we need to burn it down.

Bibliology

While I do think progressive Christianity should primarily look to women, LGBT+ folx and persons of color, that doesn’t mean I don’t think anything written by straight white dudes is worthless. The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture has Made Us Unable to Read It by Peter Enns is fantastic. It’s lighthearted and easy to read, as well as being a good introductory source to a more holistic, nuanced, and honest understanding of the Bible.

Scripture as Communication: Introducing Biblical Hermeneutics by Jeanine Brown is a textbook and is one of the denser books in this list, but when it comes to hermeneutics it’s probably best to read a introductory text like this– and why not read one written by a woman? This one goes down easier if you’re already familiar with literary theories like reader-response, but it can be read on its own. I’d recommend that you read it slowly and take a highlighter with you.

To be honest, this category is dominated by the old straight white guys. John Spong owns this category practically by himself, although Bart Ehrman comes in at a close second. I’ve got two entire shelves dedicated to this topic, but the only other book I recommend as an introduction is adjacent to this topic: God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson. For us former KJV-onlies, it blows the lid off all the lies. I was never the same after I read this book in college.

Liberation Theology

This category is difficult to dig into, as the fundamental texts by Gutierrez and Cone are not really on the 101-level, in my opinion. A Theology of Liberation and A Black Theology of Liberation are wonderful, but incredibly dense. I’d start with The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone. This book focuses on the American context, and is an incredibly powerful look into race and religion.

One of the most transformational books I’ve ever read is Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by Kelly Brown Douglas. It’s a short book with a narrow focus so some of her arguments can seem a little bit truncated– but trust me when I say that she’s got American Christian racism nailed to the effin’ wall. If there’s a single book on this list that helps deconstruct modern American fundiegelicalism, it’s this one. Read it.

Jesus

Marcus Borg dominates this whole section and Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary is great and all, but I tell people to start with Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi by Amy-Jill Levine. Levine is Jewish, not a Christian, and that’s one of the reasons why I recommend her book so often (she’s also one of the commentators in the NT I use for study). Getting a fresh perspective that doesn’t come with all of fundiegelicalism’s baggage has been crucial for me.

If you want to have lots of your ideas about Jesus challenged, you can start with Borg’s concept of “pre-Easter and post-Easter Jesus,” or just go straight to a perspective that pissed off a lot of fundiegelcals: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. It’s a good reminder that Islam and Christianity are close relatives in the arena of Major World Religions, and that who Jesus was matters to people who aren’t American Christians. I’m not sure it’s the best book out there on this topic (Bart Ehrman and Marcus Borg wrote more compelling books, in my opinion), but progressive Christianity, to me, is about forcing ourselves to grow.

***

This is of course not an exhaustive list– these are just the books I’ve read that have helped me grow the most, or prompted the most reevaluation. Most of these I’ve read over the last ten years, but a few have been my textbooks for seminary classes. In compiling this list, I’ve shown a deliberate preference for women and people of color– although I’ve read far more books by straight white men and own at least a half dozen by Borg, Ehrman, and Spong … each. Rob Bell, Brian Zahnd, Jonathan Martin, Preston Yancey: I’ve inhaled them all. But, I’ve come to the conclusion that being truly progressive means stepping over some of the more prominent, influential books to get to the heart of progressive Christianity, which is always found in the margins and among the ones pushed away from the table.

I hope a few of these can be as transformative for you as they were for me.

Photo by Ginny
Theology

Spirit of Prostitution: a bi reading of Gomer

This is an expository/interpretive paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance: Feminist, Womanist, and Queer Readings of the Bible.” I hope y’all enjoy it.

***

The whole LGBT movement is as phony as a three-dollar bill; look at this “B” thing in the middle; that’s just clear-cut straight-up promiscuity.

~Andrée  Sue Peterson

The ‘B’ stands for bisexual. That’s orgies! Are you really going to support this?

~James Dobson

Rebuke your mother, rebuke her, for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. Let her remove the adulterous look from her face and the unfaithfulness from between her breasts … She said, ‘I will go after my lovers, who give me my food and my water, my wool and my linen, my olive oil and my drink.

~Hosea 2:2-5

I thought that the redemptive love story of Hosea and Gomer was familiar to me. It was a metaphorical touchstone for the faith community of my adolescence, a story we referred to often as containing the Creation–Fall–Redemption arc we believed was at the core of Christianity. Gomer’s story was our story, because no matter how badly we sinned or how far we fell, God would still love and forgive us. Now, it is fascinating to me that although there are distinctive anti-Semitic tendencies in Christian fundamentalism, the way we interacted with Hosea was almost midrashic. This is demonstrated nowhere so well as in Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, which is a retelling of the story of Hosea and Gomer set during the California Gold Rush. However, attempts to give a narrative framing to Hosea exist in abundance—evangelical Christian-style midrashim of Hosea are at bible.org, Lifeway, and Christianity Today. These retellings were more familiar to me than the text itself, and had overwritten my understanding of Hosea so much that when I read it in the NIV and Tanakh Translation, I was surprised by how much I struggled to find the narrative structure I’d grown up with.

I have been deep in the trenches with the evangelical structuring of Hosea as I’ve been doing a close reading of Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love for the past year. Over that time, the character of Gomer—and Rivers’ character, Angel—have come to mean a great deal to me for the exact reasons that Rivers, and evangelical culture more widely, condemn Gomer. My participation in this class has shown me that I love Gomer because I read her from a bipanqueer perspective, and in resisting Rivers’ framing I’ve come to play a Trickster role with the text. After all, if there’s a biblical character that evangelical and fundamentalist Christians would compare me, a bisexual woman, to—it’s Gomer. Gomer and I represent a sexuality that cannot be constrained, women who exercise our autonomy in defiance of societal expectations, and even if we arrive in a place that is culturally approved, we still represent a queer threat of instability.

In Hosea, Gomer is figurative of both women and Israel as a nation. After her introduction in the opening of the text, she is not referred to by name again. Instead, as the text develops she is replaced by generalities: woman, wife, mother, adulteress, prostitute, whore. Gomer’s badness is just women’s badness and Israel is bad when she/he/it behaves like Gomer (or like women). As a bipanqueer woman, I am frequently forced by culture to be a similar stand-in for all other queer women—or their ideas of queer women are forced onto me, regardless of their accuracy. There’s no separation of our “badness”; queer women are bad like me, and I am bad like queer women. The same thing happens in Hosea when the specificity of Gomer disappears from the text. Who she actually is doesn’t appear to matter to the writer(s), and telling her story is irrelevant. I intend to subvert this approach to the text by bringing the specificity of my story and to return Gomer as the principal character of the book.

The writers represent Gomer as a woman whose sexuality cannot be controlled, restrained or limited. She is an adulteress, “burning like an oven … blaz[ing] like a flaming fire … devour[ing her] rulers.” In the evangelical narrative framing of her character, Gomer returns again and again to her old life, which is depicted as irresistible to her. All through the text she is described as having a “spirit of prostitution,” and her unrestrainable sexuality is shown as being the core of her nature. These patterns are often applied to bipanqueer woman—our sexual appetites apparently know no bounds. We are inherently promiscuous and incapable of loyal monogamy. Many lesbian women are unwilling to enter relationships with bi women because they think we will inevitably be unfaithful or leave them. For straight men, bi women’s sexuality is still seen as unquenchable except instead of seeing this negatively, some straight men believe we are willing to engage in any sex act at any time with any person—or persons. However, I take joy in my sexuality that is free and unbounded, and I’m delighted that Gomer is the same. She knew what society thought of her—that is inescapable—but she enjoyed her sexuality, was brazen and forthright. She expressed her sexuality freely with an “adulterous look on her face,” and she knows her worth and claims it in olive oil and new wine. For Gomer and myself, it is impossible to contain not just our sexuality but the whole of ourselves. My sexuality has given me the gift of ignoring boundaries.

Another thing that is integral to Gomer’s story and my experience as a bi woman is how we exercise our autonomy. Society wants to enforce its monosexist boxes, but we can choose to live outside hetero- or homo-normative spheres. I have chosen a cis male partner, but that does not mean I have chosen a “straight” partnership. My partnership is queer because I am queer. Likewise, Gomer may have chosen Hosea, but that does not mean she chose to be circumscribed by the limits presented in Hosea. Without the assumption that Gomer is innately promiscuous, the narrative structure that she was constantly leaving her husband and returning to prostitution falls apart—it is not even necessarily supported by the text, as scholars disagree whether or not the opening verse in chapter three should be translated “Go, show love to your wife again” or “Go, befriend a woman.” Gomer chose to live with Hosea, to mother his children, but something that is clear to me as a bipanqueer woman is that Gomer did not choose to destroy herself in the process. She remained independent and autonomous, even in the face of a “yolk on her fair neck.” She defied expectations, as all bipanqueer women do.

Another facet of Gomer’s story that is analogous to my own is that she does, ultimately, choose a role and a “lifestyle” that, on the surface, conforms to her prescribed roles. She became a wife and mother, and according to the writer(s) may have “reformed.” I married a cis man, and hope to become a mother. In the meantime, I am mostly a “stay at home wife.” In an ironic twist of fate, my “lifestyle” more closely resembles the fundamentalist, patriarchal ideal than many of the women who were my peers in fundamentalism and would still consider themselves fundamentalists. A brief glance at the superficial facts of my life reveal a woman who works from home, who performs many of the traditionally feminine domestic duties like cooking and laundry. My partner takes on many of the traditionally masculine ones—managing our finances, mowing the lawn, etc. These “facts,” however, are not because we are obeying a complementarian understanding of marriage, but because I am allergic to grass and obsessed with Food Network, while my partner is genuinely overjoyed by spreadsheets. A deeper look would reveal many aspects of our lives that would horrify anti-feminists.

The text does not offer readers a deeper look into Gomer’s inner life, but if we remove the typical evangelical narrative structure and all the assumptions about her character, I believe we can achieve a more subversive and hopeful telling. Reading from a queer perspective offers the ability to see Gomer as a consistently destabilizing force. Women like Gomer and myself will always remain threats, as our sexual identities will always introduce instability into patriarchal structures. We can refuse yokes, cajoling, or demands and stay true and loyal to ourselves; the men who surround us know this, and should fear their inability to control us. Gomer knows she can provide for herself without Hosea and that she can be content, even happy, without him. I know that I do not need patriarchy, heterosexism, or monosexism to sustain either my Christian identity or my marriage. Even when we arrive at a place or a time in our lives when patriarchy or queerphobia may approve of our choices, we do not make those choices for anyone but ourselves.

Feminism, Theology

finding new meaning in familiar characters

I’m working on another Redeeming Love post, but I took an actual break this weekend so I have to make sure all my seminary reading is completed by tomorrow. Hopefully you’ll see another review post on Wednesday, but no firm promises.

Today I’m posting a reflection paper I wrote for my “Interpretation as Resistance” class, in response to this prompt regarding readings on Ruth, Sarah & Hagar:

Choose one of the perspectives that differs from your own. What did you learn from that writer? How does that perspective on Gen 16 and 21 challenge, expand, sharpen your interpretation of those stories?

I’ll be referencing two chapters we read. Donaldson’s piece looks at Orpah from a Native American point of view, and argues that Orpah’s decision is an analog to the decision by Native Americans to preserve their culture and identity in the face of white colonialism– that Orpah is the brave hero in this situation, not Ruth. She challenges the accepted narrative that Ruth was the brave one for leaving her homeland and religion. Similarly, Williams explicates the ways the African American community has pointed to Hagar as a symbol and touchstone. Both were incredibly powerful readings.

***

Before I came to United for seminary, I completed the program for a master’s degree in English at Liberty University. I learned a lot there, but one thing that this class has already shown me is that I’m used to reading books the way the book tells me it wants to be read. I can’t think of a time previous to this class when that interpretive assumption was challenged: I almost always agreed with whatever text I was reading about who the “bad guys” and “good guys” were of every story. If there wasn’t a clear protagonist/antagonist relationship like that in the book, there were almost always clues about who I as the reader was supposed to identify with, or who I was supposed to “cheer on” as I read.

Sometimes a story takes advantage of that assumption, and subverts it. House of Cards, while not a book, is an engaging story that pulls the viewer into the internal world of Frank Underwood but instead of making the villainous character the “hero of his own story,” the show unabashedly admits that their main character is the villain. It’s a challenging point of view that is occasionally disturbing—how could I want Frank Underwood to win? And yet, sometimes, I’m delighted when he does. However, in the end, I’m still being told by the scriptwriters how I’m supposed to respond to their characters.

Reading two perspectives over the past few weeks highlighted this assumption for me: Laura Donaldson’s “Sign of Orpah” and Delores Williams’ “Hagar in African American Biblical Appropriation.” I’ve read the story of Ruth many times, and each time had a reaction much more like Celena Duncan’s in Take Back the World. I adore Ruth and what she’s come to mean to me over my life—Orpah, to me, was barely anything more than a narrative foil. Donaldson’s response to Orpah was amazing to me, and while I loved seeing such a beloved narrative in a completely new light I am still investigating why it never would have occurred to me to see Orpah as really a character in her own right and what she might mean to others. The text dismisses Orpah, so that’s what I did, too.

A similar thing was happening in my reception of Sarah and Hagar, as well. My mother has always identified very strongly with Hagar and her name for God as “the God who Sees Me,” as my mother puts it … but I never really felt that pull. Later in my life it was just a painful reminder that God most definitely does not see me, or if They do, doesn’t much care. I preferred Sarah and her pragmatic—even cynical—and sardonic reaction to God’s promises. I sympathized with Hagar and found much beauty in her side of the story, and always saw those two in tension with one another. There wasn’t a clear “bad guy” in the text, but there is still a narrative preference. Sarah is Abraham’s wife, the matriarch of Israel, and Hagar was just sort of an unfortunate blimp in their story, a mistake. A mistake God took care of, but still a mistake. I was much more like the rabbis trying to work out a way for Sarah to be the “good guy” more than I was listening to Hagar’s own story.

Williams showed me how that approach reveals a rather glaring bias I have. I haven’t been required much by the circumstances of my life to peer into the Bible and claim stories that other, more powerful, people have rejected. My queer point of view has given me the opportunity to see some characters much differently than others—like my conviction that Ruth is definitely bi—but I haven’t been required to think outside of the box in different ways. I’m thankful to Donaldson and Williams for helping me get outside my own head.

Theology

the purpose of prayer

I don’t understand prayer. I don’t understand what it is, or what it’s supposed to do, well, theologically. The traditional understanding of prayer that I was given as a child and young adult doesn’t make sense to me any longer. I was taught that prayer is a combination of a) something we’re supposed to do for God just because, b) a conversation where two people get to know one another, and c) the means we have for asking our deity for things.

None of those ideas work in the same way for me anymore. The idea that God requires us to worship Them in specific ways like prayer or church attendance screams social construct to me– and again, not because social constructs aren’t important or “real,” but because I’ve come to think that Christianity is not the only way of understanding the Divine. It’s the faith system I’ve chosen, but that doesn’t make it The Only True Religion. My religion uses a specific form of prayer as part of our worship, but that’s not nearly as concrete to me as it once was. I can worship God in a variety of ways, and the primary form I’ve chosen to do that is love their sheep.

Reason #2 illuminates one of the ways I’ve always been a skeptic: even as a child the idea that prayer was “getting to know Jesus by talking to him” seemed an incredibly bogus claim. First, a conversation requires two active participants and no one was claiming that Jesus swung by for afternoon tea to chat about the weather. Second, I clearly wasn’t “getting to know Jesus” and if God already knows me the way an omniscient being would, then prayer wasn’t a means for God to know me, either. I’ve never been able to think of prayer as having a conversation with God. Maybe I talked and they listened, but that felt … frustrating. Even therapists don’t spend 100% of their time in silence listening to me talk.

What seems to be the primary function and utility of prayer for the vast majority of American Christians is to ask God for things, and that’s the biggest part I struggle with. Even Jesus’ model for prayer includes this: give us this day our daily bread is pretty clearly a request. This aspect of prayer has created theological problems for Christians for millennia because they’ve struggled to comfortably answer “why didn’t God answer my prayer?” People aren’t saved from sickness or poverty or abuse or battle all of the time, and this flies in the face of biblical promises. Jesus in Matthew 7 seems pretty blunt: “Ask, and it will be given you.” Obviously this doesn’t happen, so either Jesus has been widely misinterpreted there or he was wrong/misrepresented.

I’ve read a lot of books trying to get answers to these questions. C.S. Lewis’s Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer was not as helpful as I was hoping, and while Gregory Boyd’s Benefit of the Doubt helped me articulate a lot of the problems I was having with the typical articulation of prayer and faith, it didn’t really settle any questions on what prayer is.

One answer that has been somewhat satisfying is the idea that prayer in Christianity was intended to function a bit like meditation in other religions. There’s a long Christian tradition of contemplative prayer, or lectio divina, as well as forms like centering prayer advocated by Thomas Merton. I think it’s possible that humans need some practice like this in our lives, physically and emotionally. Stress can cause so many health problems, and taking some time to de-stress, whatever that looks like for us, seems important. Prayer being a religious practice is significant to me: people thought taking the time to meditate, to sit in the silences and just be, so important that they made it a part of the Christian religion. It all sort of got hijacked, though, and then American religious conservatives threw in a heavy dose of yellow-peril racism (“meditation is inviting demons to possess you”) so now it’s harder to have conversations about these historic forms of prayer without people getting panicky about “Eastern Mysticism.”

In spite of all that, I and some of my colleagues have openly embraced the idea of prayer-as-meditation and have replaced “prayer time” in our “devotionals” with meditation apps. I spend a lot of time studying the Bible and theology, and I spend some time contemplating or meditating. I’m learning to enjoy the act of quietness, and hopefully it’s something I’ll be able to continue in September once my life gets hectic again. I don’t have solitary “prayer” anymore, and I think my life is better for it.

The one truly valuable thing I have discovered about prayer recently is in its communal aspects. I meet with a small group/book club every week, and we still formally share prayer requests at the beginning of our discussions. For a while I was doing it simply out of habit– we’re Christians sitting in a circle getting together to talk about a religious book, of course we’re going to take prayer requests. Over time, though, I realized that this action was doing something incredibly important.

For 15-30 minutes every week, everyone gets to share what’s on their mind and heart with a group of people whose only job is to listen. It’s not a problem solving session, and while common experiences and advice might get shared that’s often absent or not the point. The entire point is that a person gets to share what they care about, or what troubles them without interruption– and they’re doing it in the context of the belief that this moment of vulnerability is sacred. Each week, I’m asking them to care about what I care about, and the response is always unanimous: yes, we care. Yes, we will listen for as long as you need. Yes, we will bring this to God. You’re important, you matter, and not just in a metaphorical sense. We will purposely set aside time and space to listen to your heart.

That’s a pretty incredible thing we’re doing, and it occurred to me that we don’t often see it occur naturally in other sorts of interactions. Usually the closest thing only happens with intimate friends or family, people that we trust quite a bit. But in the context of sharing prayer requests, there’s a formal method we all follow, and it’s been culturally ingrained into a lot of us. Create a sacred time and space for people to talk, and others to offer comfort. My small group is intentional about it, and there are a few rules in place to help prevent some of the abuses we’ve all experienced through “prayer time” at other churches. Nothing ever gets shared or talked about outside the group without express permission, and anything that gets shared in that time will never be weaponized against us later. We’ve acknowledged that what we do can only be done in trust, and we literally hold that trust as sacred.

So, long story short, I don’t understand what prayer does between me and God– but I do think I’m starting to understand what prayer does for me personally and my friends communally. If the only actual purpose of prayer is to get us to really listen to each other and form a community based on trust, then perhaps it’s worth doing whether or not it makes perfect sense.

Photo by Michael Dorausch
Theology

why Christians can’t trust psychology

At PCC, one of the classes I had to take was “Educational Psychology,” and I was initially puzzled that PCC had a class like that, let alone required every education major to take it. The world I grew up in has a deep, deep distrust of psychology– I can’t even number the times I heard it referred to as as a pseudoscience, like there’s no more truth in psychology than there is in phrenology. There’s an entire cottage industry inside conservative Christianity for “biblical” or “nouthetic” counseling as an alternative to secular therapy methods, which I strongly recommend everyone avoid.

When I got into the class, though, the confusion evaporated. The only “textbook” we were going to read for the class was called Why Christians Can’t Trust Psychology, and the class only covered two topics: why every psychological theory about education is wrong, and how to emotionally abuse children in a classroom setting (which they called “classroom discipline”). Unfortunately, it was a class I did extremely well in.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog talking about Christian culture’s aversion to psychology– there’s a fivepart series on “biblical counseling” and an entire review series on Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression. Most of that time has been spent trying to show how that point of view is at odds with the evidence: therapy is helpful and can be an incredibly healing experience, while the “methods” that nouthetic “counselors” pursue have been demonstrated to merely re-traumatize victims and cause even more harm.

However, many Christians are willing to speak at length about why they don’t trust psychology, and most of it revolves around how they think it’s impossible to treat spiritual problems — because all mental health issues are of course really spiritual problems– without recognizing the Truth. Psychology, they say, tries to tell us that we’re fine and good and we just need to talk things out, while the Truth of the matter is that we’re not fine and we’re most definitely not good and we need repentance, not therapy.

Interestingly, I’ve never really addressed this claim. I’ve largely ignored it, because I was trying to show that Christians can benefit from therapy, and that the nouthetic approach to “counseling” is damaging and dangerous. However, the more I learn about psychology and therapy, the more I realize that these Christians are right to identify psychology as a threat to their faith system. Modern psychology and therapeutic techniques are fundamentally at odds with evangelical and fundamentalist theology.

I’m hardly the first person to notice this. Most of the Christians I knew growing up have been shouting about this as long as I’ve been alive or could remember. I just didn’t really see it the way they did. How could something capable of bringing healing and peace– backed up by rigorous study– be diametrically opposed to a theological system? All therapists are doing is helping us identify and respond to our emotions in a way that doesn’t cause more harm, and psychiatrists are just trying to find chemical imbalances so we can fix them. How is any of that opposed to Christianity?

And then I started looking into things like cognitive behavioral therapy, EMDR, and encountered a concept known as negative and positive cognitions (link opens a PDF). As you can see, essentially every single “negative cognition”– the side of the chart that CBT/EMDR therapy methods are attempting to counteract with a “positive cognition”– is not just openly acknowledged by conservative Christianity but actively taught as essential doctrine. Evangelicalism is trying to get everyone to believe in the “negative cognition” side of the chart, while modern therapy wants the opposite.

I am a bad person. Mark 10:18, “no one is good.”
I am shameful. Isiah 64:6, we are “filthy rags” (or used feminine pads, עִדָּה means “menstruation“)
I deserve only bad things. … basically every verse interpreted as “you deserve hell’s damnation.”
My judgement cannot be trusted. Jeremiah 17:9, our heart is “deceitful” and “desperately wicked.”
I am not in control. I Chronicles 29:11-12, God is the “ruler of all things.”
I have to be perfect. Matthew 5:48,” be perfect as God is perfect.”
I am permanently damaged. Ephesians 2:1-3, we are “dead in our sin,” and wrathful “by nature.”
I am in danger. Hebrews 9:27, we are “appointed to die” and then face “judgement.”

All of the others from the chart are echoes of these, in my opinion, and I’m sure we could all sit down and think of many more verses that are used to badger us into believing that we are disgusting worms condemned by a mighty god to eternal torment. These are ideas identified by modern psychology as being harmful to our mental and emotional health, and should be overcome– and I agree. These are also just some of the theological foundations of the Christian evangelical and fundamentalist religion. The Sovereignty of God, Original Sin, and Eternal Conscious Torment … you can’t get any deeper into the bedrock of that theological system. Contradicting these also means that you’re contradicting another foundational idea: the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture.

I didn’t see this before. To me, therapy became just a helpful tool and equally as routine and normal as getting my blood pressure checked. I left behind fundamentalist teachings about psychology long before I started looking for secular therapy, so I didn’t realize how deeply it contradicted the faith system of my childhood. And because I started interacting with more “normal” evangelical Christians who also thought therapy was a good idea and “biblical counseling” is a load of poppycock, it didn’t really occur to me to examine how the fundamental assumptions of each might gainsay each other.

I take all of this as just another indication that American Christian evangelicalism and fundamentalism are unhealthy to their core. They do not promote mental, emotional, or spiritual well-being and instead lead to lifelong damage. A few years ago I adopted what I think was Jesus’ hermenuetic: a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. If an interpretation or application of Scripture leads to harming myself or others, it is bearing bad fruit and should not be considered a credible interpretation. Doctrines like eternal torment and original sin cause harm; therefore, they should be rejected. I will prefer readings and interpretations that prioritize love and justice–not empty, meaningless wrath and shame.