Browsing Tag



“Radical” review: 23-42

And we’re jumping right back into the Radical review. After I did the introduction and first chapter, I tweeted something about how the subtitle should have been “I take hyperbole literally,” and after reading through the second chapter again (titled “Too Hungry for Words: Discovering the Truth and Beauty of the Gospel”), I’ve realized it’s not just hyperbole. It’s everything. David takes everything as literally as possible.

I have the tendency to interpret things overly literally, especially when I’m tired, and even I can recognize sarcasm, hyperbole, metaphor, and the distinctions between exposition and poetry. Like, look at this:

Jesus told us everyone who sins is a slave to sin, and Paul went so far as to say that we are captive to the devil himself. (31)

Honestly, fellow, if you have to premise something with “they even went so far as to say” maybe, just maybe, you should take a step back and ask yourself—if they’re really going so far, do they mean it literally?

David also has a pretty serious problem with taking his own understanding of Scripture and elevating it to something pretty close to Scripture itself, and that’s me being generous. There’s this:

We are each born with an evil, God-hating heart. Genesis 8:21 says that every inclination of man’s heart is evil from childhood … (30)

And this:

Why is [Jesus] in such agony and pain [at Gethsemane]? The answer is not because he is afraid of the crucifixion. He is not trembling because of what the Roman soldiers are about to do to him … (34-35).

Three things: first of all, if the verse you’re about to quote says “the imaginations of a man’s heart are evil from his youth,” running around making the claim that means we’re all God-haters from the moment we’re born doesn’t make much sense. Second, while it’s entirely likely that Jesus was also worried about whatever is in the Cup he’s asking to be passed, it seems dismissive and uncompassionate to point-blank declare that Jesus wasn’t afraid of the crucifixion. Jesus was human like as we are. Assuming he couldn’t possibly be afraid of the coming crucifixion (35) seems just a touch Arian to me.

The third and last is that David is a pretty committed Calvinist, and he’s refusing to even acknowledge that there are other approaches to Christian theology. According to him, he lays awake at night terrified for all the people who aren’t an avowed Calvinist like he is. To him, everyone who isn’t a Calvinist is completely and utterly wrong and we will die in hell.

He does this sort of thing throughout the book, and it never ceases to be frustrating. I’ve never been impressed by men who are this arrogant.

The second biggest problem I have with Radical he also introduces in this chapter: asceticism. If you’re not familiar with asceticism, it’s typically a religious attempt to abstain from indulgences or pleasure. There are varying degrees of this, ranging from things like Lent to wearing a cilice and whipping yourself. In my case, it showed up in things like my Sunday school teacher telling me to wear uncomfortable shoes in order to “mortify the flesh.”

In many respects, Radical is a modern argument for Christian asceticism. If David wasn’t so virulently Protestant he’d probably have realized he’s really just recycling St. Francis of Assisi and stopped writing the book. Here, he questions music, padded chairs, air conditioning, decorations, and a bit later on, even sermons (27, 40).

Why all of this bothers me is that it has gnostic overtones. When we buy into a harsh divide between our souls and our bodies, it’s easy to take some passages from the Bible and make them be about all bodily impulses as being evil and corrupted. There’s a long tradition in Christianity of sexual abstinence—in fact, it’s possible that at least one of the early church fathers castrated himself (Origen, according to Eusebius). Even if they didn’t go as far as castration, you can see the leftover movement in the modern Catholic requirement for priests to abstain from sex and marriage.

The problem is, this leaves out things like other Scripture passages (like Paul’s instruction that we sing psalms and hymns in Ephesians), and ignores the fact that the Christian religion is one very much concerned with embodiment. Jesus is God made flesh, God with us, Immanuel. The two sacraments we all agree on—the Eucharist and Baptism—are fundamentally about recognizing that our bodies and our souls are inseparably the same, and that spiritual acts are physical ones and vice versa.

In my opinion, arguments for asceticism—whatever religious or secular place they come from—always ignore this reality, and arguments that ignore reality can’t be successful. I’m especially sensitive to this as a chronic pain sufferer—take away indoor heating and padded chairs and I’m unable to come to your church service. Make church services last six to twelve hours like what he talks about here and I will not be able to fully participate in your church.

The third and last significant problem with this chapter is that he’s very much of the “Christians talk about how God is love too much, we need to focus on how God is wrathful and hateful and a holy judge” persuasion. Like here:

Yes, God is a loving Father, but he is also a wrathful Judge … And in some sense, God also hates sinners … On psalmist said to God, “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong.” (29)

Leaving aside for the moment that the psalms are poetry and therefore treating an outpouring of a psalmist’s emotions as literal factual truth about the nature of God themself is more than a little ridiculous, let’s take a crack at his “God is also hateful and wrathful” assertion. He positions their wrath as being in tension with their love, as though God’s love and wrath are opposites. I’d like to posit that they are not opposites, but that one results from the other. God is wrathful because they are loving.

This springs from my understanding of the context—if you examine almost every time that God is being portrayed as wrathful, it is in response to someone being oppressive. In almost every case it’s the Israelites doing things like refusing to observe the Year of Jubilee, like in Amos. Supposedly God gave them every opportunity not to turn into an oppressive Empire that preferred the wealthy and powerful over the poor and needy, and they took every opportunity to become precisely that. And when that happens, the prophets and the psalmists spend a lot of time condemning it, writing about how they believe God feels about it, too. According to them, God’s usually pretty upset and for good reason.

During Jesus’ ministry, it seems he spent most of his time addressing the injustices he saw. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, lifted up the poor in spirit. The times he’s shown as angry are in reaction to the elite using their positions to abuse those below them—like the moneychangers in the temple, or the Pharisees giving their followers a “back-breaking burden.” Jesus loved, and because he loved, he grew wrathful when he saw oppression and injustice.

But, according to David, God is wrathful, and because someone thousands of years ago sinned, we’re all born completely and totally evil – “you are an enemy of God, dead in your sin, and in your present state you are not even able to see that you need life” (32)—and Jesus had to bear all the fury and wrath “stored up from the beginning of the world” (35) in order for God to be able to come down from his mountain again (33) and tolerate being around us.

Just … is God actually that petty?

There are a few things in this chapter that I could almost agree with him on, like his rejection of a “superstitious sinner’s prayer” (37). I’ve even compared the sinner’s prayer to a magical incantation, so obviously this idea is something we both dislike. But we almost immediately diverge from each other, because he’s a Calvinist and I’m not. He’s still viewing Christianity in terms of saved and unsaved and I’ve moved past that to being a Christian means following Christ.

Maybe somewhere in this book we’ll fall more in step with each other. I doubt it.

Feminism, Theology

learning the words: safe

father and daughter

Today’s guest post is from Claire Jones, who blogs about feminism, theology, and the intersection of faith and everyday life at The Art of Uncertainty. “Learning the Words” is a series on the words many of us didn’t have in fundamentalism or overly conservative evangelicalism– and how we got them back. If you would like to be a part of this series, you can find my contact information at the top.

I was never really aware as a teenager that the church I grew up in was far down the conservative end of the evangelical spectrum. I just knew that we what we believed was right, and that most people who called themselves Christians were really only liberals, those people with compromised theology and a diluted gospel. I was sure I’d never end up as one of them.

Mine was certainly not an abusive church, and almost all of my experience of it was as a loving and supportive community. I still consider them my friends, my family. But no matter how warm and genuine the people, the ultra-conservative theology took its toll on me. It’s only now that I’m sorting through the messages I was taught, with the freedom to choose between them. And while I’m doing my sorting, my wondering, my puzzling, I’m claiming back the word safe.

It’s a strange word to me, because safe is exactly what that theology was supposed to make me feel. The formula was easy– if you’ve said your salvation prayer/invited Jesus into your life/given your life to Christ, if you’ve made that step– then you’re safe. I was on the inside. I’d said those prayers at multiple Christian conferences and festivals, just to make sure I really meant it each time. I grew in theological understanding quickly as a teenager, I read the Bible one-on-one with mentors, and went to group studies with older university students while I was still at school. I could articulate all the right doctrine, and argue well over difficult questions. I could share the gospel clearly and boldly, and annoyed my friends at school no end in my attempts to convert them. I knew all the right things and I did all the right things.

But there were two reasons why I could never feel really safe:

Firstly, I was troubled by the people who “fell away.” If Christians who’d said their salvation prayer were really safe for eternity, what happened to the ones who threw in the towel and stopped believing? It’s an age-old question, and I was usually given the age-old answers. If they stopped believing, they couldn’t really have been saved in the first place. If they were saved, they’ll come back. But only God knows the heart.

That answer satisfied me until I saw it happen to my friends, ones who I knew really believed at the time. Ones who were just like me. If they hadn’t been safe, how could I be sure I was? I sometimes wondered what life would look like if I stopped believing and concluded that I’d lose everything I ever knew; the idea terrified me. The only answer was to struggle really hard to make sure I kept believing all the right things and never let my curiosity and questioning look like doubt. I had to keep myself safe.

Secondly, there was the big issue of sin. And when I say sin, I mean sex. Because while I was good at evangelism and leading Christian meetings,  wasn’t too selfish or gossipy, didn’t drink or smoke, and was generally well behaved – my relationships with boys were the one area of my life that I was constantly confessing, repenting of, and feeling suitably guilty about. Sometimes I’d sit in church and be genuinely sorry I’d kissed so many boys that week. Sometimes I’d be having such a great time with a boyfriend that I couldn’t be bothered to feel guilty. Sometimes a youth minister or an older friend would sit me down seriously and get all the details out of me until I was as repentant as I should have been. It was such a running theme for so long that even now, whenever I hear of sin, repentance, or “parts of our lives that we’re holding back from God,” I can’t think of anything but my sex life.

In the context of the ups and downs of my teenage exploration and relationships, I could never feel really safe, because I could never be totally sure I was saved. In the language I knew at church, I was in “persistent sin” and had not truly repented of because I kept doing it. My life wasn’t showing the “fruit” it should have been, and I was warned a number of times over the years that I couldn’t be sure of my salvation if I wasn’t living a sexually pure life.

As I say, that takes its toll. But I’m claiming back safe. Safe, not because I believe the right doctrine and can articulate the five points of Calvinism. Safe, not because I’m sharing the gospel or leading people to Christ. Safe, not because I draw the right physical boundaries, keep my underwear on, or stop after only one drink.

None of those things are particularly true, and yet I’m claiming my safety in the God I believe in, who loves me whatever I do, whatever I say, whatever I believe. I’m claiming my safety in the love of my family and friends, who seem pretty determined to share life with me whatever direction it wanders in. I’m claiming safety in the community of so many others who are also questioning, exploring, working out who God might be, if anyone at all, and who they are and who they want to be. I’m safe in myself, starting at last to trust my own decision making, my own sense of right and wrong, and my instincts about my boundaries.

Safe in being me.


looking for monsters under my . . . theology


We paused, me, Martha*, and Peter*, the second we stepped out into the sunlight. It was one of those pristine, gorgeous spring days: the kind where brick and stone soak up all the sun, the air is clean and balmy, and you want to sit outside, lean back in an Adirondack chair, and close your eyes. We’d just walked out of a classroom discussion that could have only been had by literary majors– we’d just spent close to an hour dissecting “My mother is a fish” in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. None of us had anything pressing, so in a spontaneous decision that was clearly prompted by the spring breeze and an azure sky, we went for some coffee, then settled into the courtyard.

Many of our conversations lately had been of a theological bent: Peter was fascinated by the fact that both I and Martha had graduated from a college that had expressly forbidden any discussion of Calvinism or Reformed theology whatsoever. Martha had become Reformed, and I — well, I still haven’t decided. Peter, however, had grown up familiar with Reformed theology; it was his first language, and he was passionate about theology– and discussing it. He’d become a resource for me, someone who had enough of a handle on Calvinism to explain it to me, and someone who had the time to do so.

That afternoon, sitting in the dappled sunlight of a mostly-abandoned courtyard, I encountered something I didn’t know how to name, even though I recognized it– and it frightened me. Sitting at the vaguely Grecian concrete table underneath the swaying arms of a redbud tree, I listened to a man who was saying words I’d never heard before– but saying them in a way that was so familiar to me I trembled.

He laid out the full breadth of the hyper-Calvinist, neo-Reformed theological movement. In a sweeping scale he took me through much of the New Testament, pointing to verses and passages and using them to paint a landscape of God’s sovereignty in colors that were so vivid and garish it overwhelmed me. I continued asking questions, trying to understand, trying to think through what he was saying, to analyze it and contextualize it. But for every question I had, he had three triumphantly delivered answers.

Two hours later, I was weeping, and Peter was exulting. “Don’t you see?” He kept repeating. “You know the truth, but you’re denying it! You’re denying the plain word of Scripture. You’re denying God when you reject this truth.”


A few weeks later, I was at the Sonic drive-in with Martha, listening through my new Iron & Wine album, and we were talking about some of what Peter had said.

I made soft peaks out of my Oreo Blast with my spoon, pulling it up and twirling it until the peak curled over. “Do you agree with him?” I asked her, my voiced barely louder than the music.

It took her a minute to answer. “I . . . don’t know.”

“I can’t believe what he said is true, Martha, I can’t.”

She waited. Took a sip of her strawberry shake.

“That can’t be who God is. I can’t accept that kind of a god as real. It would break me. I’d never be able to love him.”

“Why not?” her voice was so gentle.

Broken and quiet, I showed her the smashed, glittering pieces of my story, the ones I was struggling to place into a mosaic I could understand. “If that’s who God is, then I’d want nothing to do with him at all. Because he’d be responsible for that. He’d be a monster.”


Today, I am still incredibly uncertain of where I am theologically. I appreciate a lot of the beauty I see in Reformed theology, and I choose to believe that people like Mark Driscoll and John Piper don’t really speak for it. I’m working through the tensions, enjoying a beautiful spectrum that I don’t really understand, struggling to piece together my faith one sliver at a time.

But something I’m coming to understand about my approach to faith and theology is that logic and reason don’t really matter to me — at least, not as much as they once did. Which, for me, is a shocking statement. I’m an analytical person. I examine, I reason, I think, I ponder. For much of my life (short as it is), my approach to faith has always been highly cerebral. I prioritized evidence, support, logic– I took “love the Lord your God with all your Mind” as my personal motto. I absorbed scholarship, I studied apologetics intensely, I searched for people like Lewis and Chesterton– thinking Christians.

Today, though, I’m in a different place.

I’m still the same person– nothing fundamental or radical has changed about me.

What has changed is that I found a monster under my bed, and in my closet, and hiding behind corners and in shadows. It’s the monster I created by believing that I could think my way through theology without any other guiding star. When I embraced the consuming desire for a cogent, structured, rational theological argument, I  abandoned ethics, morality, emotion, and humanity. Theology without heart, theology without a human awareness of hurt, pain, joy and beauty, isn’t theology at all. It’s a back-breaking tyrant.

On the first day of class, there was something I liked to tell my students: just because an argument is logical doesn’t make it right.


straight and narrow paths, and how I left mine

My experiences with the “moment of salvation,” were, I discovered later, fairly typical among children who grow up in evangelicalism. Many of us grow up pretty familiar with the concepts of Christianity and the principles of the gospel– at least, the Protestant rendering of the gospel. While I am still fairly Protestant in my theology, I can honestly admit that the faith systems of Catholicism and orthodoxy have components that I find attractive– and helpful to understanding my own faith.

However, for kids growing up in an Protestant/evangelical environment, there’s a standard script for us. We pray a prayer, with the help of our parents, usually, somewhere between the ages of 4-7. At some point when we’re slightly older, and we’re more capable of understanding, we look back at the “fuzziness” of what happened when we were 5 and start wondering. Did I actually “get saved”? Did that count? This usually leads into a re-dedication of some type, usually a public announcement that we’re going to commit to God in some way, to serving him more faithfully.

In my experience, the question was articulated to my pastor’s wife as “was I sorry enough?” Did I repent enough? Do I feel bad enough about my sin? I don’t actually remember her response, but I remember not being comforted by it.

I was still plagued by this question when I entered college. Was my repentance genuine? Did I merely say the words because I was afraid of the Rapture, afraid of Hell? Was I foolishly believing in a child’s prayer that really didn’t mean anything?

It took me a long time to realize where these doubts sprang from– they all came from the phrase: “you should check up on your salvation, then!”

These words were repeated to me, from the pulpit, practically every Sunday, and they were always accompanied by a sermon on temptation and sin. The abuser who led our church* would rain down from the pulpit (an area of the stage he called the Holy of Holies, and where no one else in the church was allowed to stand) a vitriolic barrage. He would rage against sin, corruption, unholiness, and temptation, to an extreme so profound it would be impossible to really articulate.

But if you struggled with any kind of continual temptation– if you were addicted to anything, or if you were constantly discontent, or if you couldn’t maintain constant rejoicing, if you were depressed, or if you constantly disobeyed your parents . . . anything in your life that strayed from his conception of a “holy Christian life,” well, then, you should “check up” on your salvation, because you couldn’t possibly be a real Christian if you struggled. Being a Christian meant “conquering” our sin, of being reborn as a “new man,” of “putting off the old man.” If we still had an ongoing battle with “sin,” then, well, Jesus couldn’t be dwelling in your hearts, then, could he?

This constant battering was not limited to my church, either. I went to two separate Christian universities, and people struggling with “doubt” over their salvation, specifically, was a consistent experience. Especially as we got older, because, as adults, we start encountering serious ideas. Calvinism. Arminianism. Molinism. Universalism. Lordship. A lot of terms get thrown around, and when we get confronted with them, it’s usually troubling. We’ve usually been told, quite harshly, that to question anything about our particular system or approach to the gospel is inherently sinful. It’s simply not to be done. This sometimes results in the kids I knew clinging even tighter to their particular brand of a salvation experience.

In graduate school, I somehow ended up in an intense conversation with a young man who was . . . well, an intense adherent to Reformed theology. He asserted that if God is truly sovereign, the reality of our world is one that fits better with Determinism than anything else. It was the first time I had really, honestly tried to understand a different perspective from the mostly-Arminian view I’d grown up with.

The psychological dissonance was so bad I ended up sobbing, hysterically, for three hours.

My point isn’t to make some claim about a “true methodology of Salvation” because I’ve realized that’s… a teensy bit ridiculous. Sorry, Calvin. And Luther. And… basically everyone else who’s ever taught anything about soteriology. I’ve decided that whatever road brings you to God is the road you needed to take, and it doesn’t matter what philosophical word you could apply to it.

My point is that in IFB, in evangelicalism, in most of our different denominations, the human need for questions and answers frequently leads us to where I ended up– in a place so narrowly defined, in a methodology so constricted, that your approach to faith simply can’t be flexible. You’re right, everyone else is just wrong.

At Liberty University, there’s a video that makes fun of the Calvinist-Arminian debates that happen everywhere (not an exaggeration). The video has the two debaters arguing:

Calvinist: You are just quite obviously pre-destined to be wrong!

Arminian: And you have the free will to be stupid!

And . . . that is where most of the debates end up. Because nearly everyone I’ve heard is terrified of being wrong, because, if they’re wrong, then maybe they’re not “saved,” and maybe they’re not going to heaven, and maybe (*gulp*) they’re going to hell. And that’s a “reality” that can’t be faced easily.

A truer reality, I think, is one where you can realize that God loves us all, unconditionally, and that what he most wants from all of us it to have a relationship with him. It’s a “got milk?” question without a whole lot of baggage.

*to this day, I have a difficult time with the word “pastor.” I can use preacher, minister, evangelist, father, reverend . . . but not pastor. “Pastor,” to me, was this man only. He exerted so much control and domination over my life that his demands for absolute loyalty were accompanied by the “right,” he claimed, to call him “Pastor.” That was his identity, and I still can’t break away from it. It causes some psychological tension for me, whenever I mentally think of my church’s leader now, who I simply call “Matt,” although everyone else refers to him as “Pastor Matt.”

Photo by Tim Green

Christian fundamentalism is about avoiding questions

My junior year in college, along with taking British Novel with Mrs. E, I took Acts of the Apostles with Mr. C. It was my first non-survey Bible class, so in that respect I enjoyed it. Mr. C seemed to take “context” more seriously than some of my other Bible professors had, so I liked him.

That semester saw the Meteoric Rise and Apocalyptic Fall of Dr. S as the pastor of the college’s church. When the administration made the announcement, two of the stated reasons were “militant fundamentalism” and “hyper-dispensationalism.” Dr. S had already become famous for pronouncing the word  concupiscence as “con-COOP!-see-ence” with a ridiculously heavy accent on the “COOP!” (it’s actually pronounced cun-coop’-ih-sense).

No one knew what any of these words meant.

A few weeks later, a Bible professor was dismissed, supposedly because he was a hyper-Calvinist. In retrospect, that’s really odd. I’ve met hyper-Calvinists since then, and he was definitely not hyper-anything. Also, no one on campus really knew what it meant to be “Calvinist,” although I’ve since learned that calling them “Calvinists” is rather silly, and the actual term is Reformed theology.

Suddenly, people around campus were being forced to encounter theology in a more dynamic way. Before this, the most that anyone interacted with theology was in the Bible Doctrines class, and in that class, theology was certainly not up for discussion.

We were at a loss. What’s hyper-dispensationalism? What’s dispensationalism, for heaven’s sake? What do Calvinists actually believe, anyway?

Mr. C announced that he would be setting aside a class period to specifically talk about these terms and explain what they mean, and that we could come to him after class with any theology or Bible-related question we had.

Essentially, a hyper-dispensationalist believes very firmly in the line between the Apostolic and Church Ages. Things that the apostles could do, we cannot do now. There are no more miracles, basically.

Militant fundamentalism . . . Westboro. Basically. I can remember Dr. S. saying the words “God hates homosexuality as an abomination” more than once. If he could have gotten away with saying “God hates fags,” I’m pretty sure he would have. However, people who claim to be militant fundamentalists usually phrase it as “contending for the faith.” If you hear those words, anywhere, you should probably run.

And Calvinists — oy, that’s a complicated bag of crazy when Arminians are saying “Calvin” like it’s a swear. But. Mr. C laid out the “five points of Calvinism” for us without an insane amount of bias, as far as I can remember.


At this point in the semester, I’d had my “something is horribly wrong with what I’ve been taught about God” epiphany about nine months before. I’d been doing a lot of surreptitious reading on the sly. A few books that changed how I thought about my faith were God’s Secretaries and Reasonable Faith. I also started reading apologetics books like crazy, completely fascinated by the concept that people had bothered to think about their faith, and to ask the hard questions– and found answers.

There were answers.

It was a shocking revelation.

One of the things I also started doing at this point was throwing any ideology or assumption I could identify in myself under harsh examination. No longer was I going to accept something as “truth.” In fact, I started assuming that I didn’t have the truth at all, and I might not ever have the truth again. Some days it is a bit overwhelming, but I’m much more comfortable with the idea of never knowing . . .  now.

One of those things I took away was my, until then, unshakable belief in the King James Bible– which is why God’s Secretaries was so influential. No longer was I going to assume that the Alexandrian Texts were the incarnation of evil. No longer would I believe that the Textus Receptus was the product of some divinely-inspired copying process. Humans are fallible. Humans make mistakes. The Bible doesn’t have to be a perfect replica of the autographa in order for it to be reliable. The Bible being “in the hands of the Catholics” didn’t have to be an atrocious crime that I intellectually avoided by believing in “pockets” of Christians around Europe that had the “real Bible.”

I also started considering really crazy ideas, like —


What if Mark 16:9-20 weren’t written by Mark, but added later?

Honestly, after several years of research, I decided I don’t much care about this issue as they don’t really affect anything. Also, they’re kinda crazy. Jesus tells them they can handle snakes and drink poison.

Eh, not so much. People die from that. It’s stupid. Don’t do that.

However, they also include Jesus appearing to people after he died, so that’s rather a big deal.

There’s also Matthew, Luke, and John, but these verses in Mark are crazy important to fundamentalists. They’re contending for the faith, you see.

But, I figured I’d ask my Bible professor about it, since he was also the head of the biblical languages department. If anyone would know, he would, I figured.

I asked him that day in class.

His answer was such bullshit. Even as a twenty-something ignorant kid I knew his answer was evasive and misleading — and the exact same words as my BI 102 curriculum, produced by the college. Either he knew the answer and didn’t want to tell me because he’d get fired, or he thought I was stupid enough to not recognize a bullshit response. I tried to pin him down, but he refused to stray from the party line.

That’s the day I stopped trusting authority figures. I learned to take everything they said with a grain of salt– and I had gotten very good at that. My college had been very thorough in teaching me how to sift through “secular” texts looking for bias and presuppositions. I just don’t think they expected me to apply that training to them.

Photo by Eric