Maybe in a few days, this will all blow over. Both sides have dug their trenches, formed their alliances, and clearly identified their moral position, and now we’ll sit here in a complete stalemate for a few more months until the next battle arises, and then we’ll resume throwing grenades at each other. But, for some of us, it’s not that simple.
It’s so easy to choose a side and throw out a few scripture passages to defend yourself and then move on to the next controversy, but I think for many of us, this one is deeply personal. It’s personal for me, because I was raised in this Christian culture that is now at war with itself to the point where some are calling this the official divorce of evangelicals from progressives. When 2,000 Christians dropped their World Vision Children on Wednesday, their justification was that they don’t want anything to do with an organization that is accepting of homosexuality, even if it means putting children at risk (Which is not to say that Evangelicals don’t care about children at all, but just that they are now withholding funding from these specific children who were receiving sponsorship). By the same logic, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me either, a person who is accepting of the people who they call “unrepentant sinners”. And honestly, it feels a little bit like being disowned by my own family. (I should be very clear that I am talking metaphorically here, because fortunately, though I don’t always agree with my real family about everything either, I’m grateful that we all love each other).
You know, in high school I used to have this idea in my head about what the Perfect Christian Girl should look like, probably inspired by Brio magazine covers and a steady diet of young adult books from Family Christian Bookstore. She is and naturally beautiful without makeup (or maybe just a touch of mascara). She is always positive and upbeat and sometimes funny, and has this magnetic personality that people are just naturally drawn to. She carries her Bible around in her backpack, ready to point someone to the Romans Road every time they walk up to her and say “What is it that makes your life so different? I want what you have!” Her Perfect Christian Boyfriend is equally good looking, and leads a well-attended Bible study at their school. When they’re not attending church together or volunteering at a local children’s club, Perfect Christian Girl and her Perfect Christian Boyfriend sometimes go to PG-rated movies and hold hands. Because she is so naturally responsible, she always gets good grades and gets along with her Perfect Christian Parents, or calmly submits to their authority every time they seem slightly unreasonable. She makes time every day to pray and read the Bible, and because of God’s leading in her life, everything just seems to naturally fall into place. Eventually Perfect Christian Girl goes to Perfect Christian College, marries Perfect Christian Boyfriend, buys a house in the suburbs, and has three Perfect Christian Children.
This is who I wanted to be, and when my life didn’t turn out quite like this, I felt ashamed. I didn’t “shine” like I was supposed to. I sometimes made bad decisions. I didn’t magnetically attract people, I didn’t have a Perfect Christian Boyfriend, and my life didn’t point anyone towards Christ. I struggled with depression and body issues, felt perpetually socially awkward, and couldn’t find a date to save my life. Believe me when I say that no one wanted to be like me. I felt like if only I were good enough, God would use me in a more powerful way and give me the life I wanted. In the end, I just didn’t feel like my faith applied to the real world, which was so much messier and scarier than the uncomplicated world depicted in Christian books and magazines.
I remember the first time I realized that I didn’t quite fit the mold of conservative Christianity. I was an angry 16 year-old, fed up with beliefs that felt empty and meaningless to me. I had heard plenty of testimonies from people who had a “personal relationship with God”, but to me, God still felt more like a distant cousin. I’d heard about him, but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t experience God in the ways I was supposed to, but instead I experienced God in all of the music that Focus on the Family told me not to listen to. I experienced God when I sang classical music and when I took walks alone.
I remember the liberated feeling I had when I discovered this whole sect of Christianity that said “there is room for you”. I felt relieved that I didn’t have to feel personally responsible for the eternal destiny of my friends who didn’t believe. I didn’t have to make use of every opportunity to quote scripture to people who might not be a Christian. I didn’t have to carry tracts around in my pocket and walk up to random strangers and ask them about Jesus (a thought which still terrifies me to this day). For the first time in my life, I could be myself AND be a Christian.
Ministry began to feel more like forming real relationships, rather than just trying to give a few more people free tickets to heaven. (Literally, I used to have tracts that said “Free Ticket to Heaven”) It began to feel more organic, like buying a meal for the homeless man outside of McDonalds, or volunteering at my church, or just lending a hand to friends in need. I remember a season of my life in college when Christianity itself stopped feeling unnatural or forced, and became a deeper part of who I am.
As I read more books and had real conversations about this new Christianity, I expected to disagree with the Gospel of social activism, but I mostly found myself nodding in agreement. Though I felt challenged to do more and to love more, I no longer felt like I wasn’t enough already.
One of the most common criticisms of progressive Christians that I’ve heard this week is that we should be seeking to influence culture, rather than being influenced by culture. That kind of makes me feel like I’m not the only one who has an idealized version of Christianity in my head. We desperately want to live in this world that is uncomplicated and “Safe for the whole family”. We desperately want to live in a world where others are looking to us as the model of how to live. We desperately want to protect this safe, Christian world by requiring people to confess their sins and change their lifestyles before they can enter into it, because we think that inviting messy, complicated people into our club will make the Christian faith less attractive to the outside world. I can understand how sometimes it feels like persecution when we want to be looked up to, but are ridiculed instead.
The hardest part to accept is that for a little while, this was almost a reality. For a period of our history, Evangelical Christians were able to shape culture, pass legislation, and be respected. But, even during this time, there was so much more going on underneath the surface. There have always been people who don’t fit the mold. There have always been people who face life experiences that we can’t talk about in church. There have always been Christians who lose their credibility because they don’t practice what they preach. Not everyone can be easily sorted into the categories “saved” and “unsaved”.
The world is changing. Christianity is changing, and change is hard, especially when that change is taking us farther from an ideal. It’s so difficult to reconcile the world we imagined for ourselves with the world we actually live in, which sometimes looks more like abstract performance art and less like a Karen Kingsbury novel. I can imagine that it might be difficult to raise children in a world that doesn’t seem as safe as it once was. In this respect, I disagree with anyone who says Evangelicals are motivated by hate, because I honestly don’t think that’s the case. I think we all are motivated by the love of an ideal – we just have different ideals.
When the real world doesn’t measure up to the one we imagined for ourselves, we have two choices. We can fight against it any way we know how, shutting out people and ideas that don’t fit into the world as we want it to be, or we can take the harder road and imagine something new.
Over Christmas break this year, I binge-watched Dr. Who, and there’s a quote from the episode “Love & Monsters” that stuck out to me. “When you’re a kid, they tell you it’s all… grow up. Get a job. Get married. Get a house. Have a kid, and that’s it. But the truth is, the world is so much stranger than that. It’s so much darker. And so much madder. And so much better.”
The real world is so much bigger than the worlds we try to imagine. There are so many big, messy problems that can’t always be solved. There are so many diverse people and ideas that we can’t even begin to contain in our finite understanding. But if we stop trying to live in an ideal and begin to accept ourselves as we really are, I think we can start imagining a reality that is so much better.