My Evangelical Earthquake

My Evangelical Earthquake

Last winter, as part of a family trip to London, we spent an afternoon at the British Natural History Museum. While we were there we encountered an exhibit that replicated what it might have felt like to experience of the 6.9 Kobe earthquake from inside a grocery store. I moved with the throng of other tourists onto the exhibit platform against my better judgment. For most of the crowd, this was going to be little more than an amusement park ride. For me, it would be reliving personal history.  

I was in my final semester of college the morning the Northridge quake literally jolted me awake at 4:45am with tremors so intense my head banged over and over against the headboard of my bed. So when the museum simulation began with its first jolt, the tourists chuckled and squealed, but I fought a full-scale panic attack. When it was over, I had to find a bench to sit on to collect myself.

It was 25 years ago, but the feeling of falling asleep in the safest place you know, only to wake up to pain and chaos, gets into your cellular memory and never leaves.

When I wrote about my journey to and through TMU, I omitted many of the specifics of my upbringing intentionally. The 6th commandment doesn’t come with an expiration date, and the process I’ve followed to try and separate what were objectively influencing factors from my subjective perception of them as a child is still very much in work. It’s sufficient for now to say what I did then –  that the baggage I brought to TMU as a wide-eyed freshman from Australia is precisely what made the Biblical blueprint for life I was taught there so attractive.

It wasn’t that the authority and submission framework was compelling in and of it itself- it was the promise of spiritual and circumstantial safety that came with it that drew me in.

The language of the spiritual danger of the evils of culture and lies of false doctrine spoken at TMU was the language I’d heard spoken all my life. Its familiarity was reassuring. Heresy was everywhere, and falling prey to it was as simple as reading the wrong book or accidentally striking a yoga pose at the gym. So we read books by all the “right” people (heavy emphasis on the Puritans, Calvinists and anything by John MacArthur), and were warned about all the “wrong” ones (secular psychologists, the Charismatics, anything by Beth Moore).  We learned which sociopolitical issues were essential for Christians to care about (abortion, marriage), and which were dangerous (feminism).

But while these outermost walls of spiritual safety were designed to protect our souls from dangerous theology or worldliness, we still needed a working system for living inside them.

That’s where complementarianism came in.

In the complementarian blueprint as I was taught it, men and women were created to function in very distinct, almost oppositional roles. Men lead, women followed. Men were made to crave risk, women security.

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https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/52-6/parental-pictures-of-spiritual-leadership-part-2

The woman’s domain was the home and child raising, the man’s, everything else. God made male leadership and authority to serve as a protective shield for women, to create an atmosphere where women would be happy, fulfilled and secure.  To live inside this framework was to enjoy safety, stability and the blessing of God; to step outside it was to be in step with the world, the flesh and the devil.

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https://www.gty.org/library/sermons-library/54-17/gods-high-calling-for-women-part-4

I didn’t grow up in this kind of warm, stable environment, and I felt its lack acutely. Moreover, as a young believer, I longed for God’s love and approval more than anything else. And so I built my life according to the blueprint I was taught, at a significant cost that I willingly paid as an act of sacrificial obedience to God, believing that God would bless me.

Eventually, my understanding of the gospel matured so that I came to understand and experience the freedom of knowing that the basis of God’s love for me isn’t my obedience, but Christ’s. And so I began to live more freely, even as the ecosystem of my family’s life operated according to what the complementarianism model taught at TMU and GCC would define as ideal – every aspect of it aligned with doctrinal orthodoxy and overseen by committed Christian men.

Then the tremors began.

It started with the discoveries that the history of my spiritual forefathers I’d been taught had been majorly revised. I’d been taught all about their orthodox doctrine, but next to nothing of their heterodox practices – their advocacy for slavery, their propping up of racial segregation, their passive and active resistance of the Civil Rights movement – all of it in the name of doctrinal orthodoxy.

Then, contemporary spiritual fathers began to be exposed, men in the church whose doctrinally sound teaching had nourished my soul and enriched my faith. Some succumbed to political pragmatism.  Others fell into personal impurity. In one case, the enormity of his sexual sin was so great that its exposure drove him to suicide. Another awaits sentencing after being convicted of two counts of aggravated assault of a minor.

With one story after another, the closely guarded trust I’d placed in these men because of the purported purity of their doctrine was shattered.

Then earlier this year, the greatest tremor of all happened. In the space of a few months, I experienced a collection of trials that intersected every axis of my life at once – relationally, vocationally, financially, and spiritually. So I did what I’d been taught – I took refuge against the spiritual safety walls I’d been told would hold me up. But as I leaned on them, they crumbled into dust.

I sat amongst the dust and the rubble, hurt and disoriented, for a long time.

But for the last several months I’ve been rebuilding the structures of my life with better material, using a very different blueprint – one I’ve been taught by the prophet Jeremiah.

5 This is what the Lord says:

Cursed is the person who trusts in mankind.
He makes human flesh his strength,
and his heart turns from the Lord.
6 He will be like a juniper in the Arabah;
he cannot see when good comes
but dwells in the parched places in the wilderness,
in a salt land where no one lives. — Jeremiah 17:5-6 (CSB)

Jeremiah’s perspective on the consequences of trusting in men is very different than the one I was taught at TMU and Grace Community Church. Jeremiah compares trusting in the strength of human men to being like a juniper bush in a desert wasteland, with no water in sight, and the ground so thick with salt that whatever drops of rain fall from the sky are instantly leached away. Entrusting ourselves to human strength isn’t a path to safety or prosperity; it’s a recipe for disaster.

There was a time when I would have read those words and nodded right along with them.  I would have assumed Jeremiah just meant the unrighteous, the amorphous “pagans” I was taught Christians were so different from.  But I was wrong, and now I know from personal experience how right Jeremiah is.

So do innumerable others.

Over the last five or ten years, an entire cottage industry of websites and social networks has sprung up for people, many of them women but not all, whose stories are like mine in kind, and far, far worse in degree. They built the framework for the Christian life they were promised would be safe, and it collapsed. Even worse, when they asked for help to fix the damage, those called of God to be conduits of care, inflicted more damage by ignoring or dismissing them and denying there was anything to repair.

Crushed by the very infrastructures on which they’d been taught to rely, many are walking away, rebuilding their lives with blueprints of their own design. I’ve never understood that impulse like I do today. But I’m not joining them. Jeremiah’s words remind me that  I’ve got no more ability to cover and provide for myself than anyone else.

But Jesus does.

7 The person who trusts in the Lord,
whose confidence indeed is the Lord, is blessed.
8 He will be like a tree planted by water:
it sends its roots out toward a stream,
it doesn’t fear when heat comes,
and its foliage remains green.
It will not worry in a year of drought
or cease producing fruit. — Jeremiah 17:7-8 (CSB)

Placing our trust in the LORD, Jeremiah says, is like being tree planted by a river, with roots that reach out into the water to draw from a constant stream of nourishment. The heat of trials can’t hurt us. The drought from a lack of human provision or resources doesn’t frighten us, because the source of our life doesn’t come from them.  

To paraphrase another Rachael, “I don’t trust the church. I trust Christ.”

Trusting in Christ as the source of my life doesn’t mean I’m building a giant bunker around myself, so it’s just me and Jesus. Trusting in Christ means trusting His words about what he’s building and the means he’s employing to build it. I’m still totally committed to my church, and to my family (the rest, to be honest, is still TBD).

Trusting in Christ means I’m not going to be building a giant platform for myself on the wreckage of the church’s wrongs, nor joining forces with those who have. And trusting in Christ means trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to be quiet, like Sarah (1 Pet. 3:6), as I have been for a very long time.

But trusting in Christ also trusting Him for the wisdom to know when to speak up, like Abigail did (1 Sam. 25:24), and Esther (Esther 7:3-4), and the woman of wisdom in Proverbs 8 (Prov. 8:1-8). It means trusting Him with what to say, and, especially, with what happens as a result.

If the Internet seismograph is accurate, the tremors that are shaking American evangelicalism are far from over, and it remains to be seen which structures, which institutions, will survive.

What Jeremiah promises, and what I’m learning afresh, is those who trust in the LORD have nothing to fear. Neither do those whose trust has been in other things – in other men, or in themselves. But that is if, and only if, they repent of their sin, receive the forgiveness that is theirs because of Christ, and commit to dismantling those untrustworthy structures and rebuild new ones on Christ, and Christ alone.

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Learning From My Black Family

Learning From My Black Family

I was raised in a Christian context that, in the name of vigilance against the dangers of revisionist history, actively taught it. I grew up believing that the Puritans were the pinnacle of American Christian orthodoxy and that Martin Luther King Jr. was little more than an adulterous heretic. I was taught that majority black churches were corrupted by the prosperity gospel, irreverent worship, and too many women in leadership.

Which is why, this week, as we’ve been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, I’m celebrating the irony of God’s mercy in using two African American hip-hop artists I’ve never met to expose my inherited ignorance, and lead me into what will be a lifelong process of repentance and relearning.

I don’t remember when or how I first heard of Shai Linne, only how it felt the first time I heard his music.  Like a lot of young, restless, and Reformed Bible college grad types, I had long ago set aside the childish things of CCM radio and fed my soul a steady diet of the Gettys and Sovereign Grace music. But what Shai Linne had created seemed to defy categorization.

Before the album “The Atonement,” all I knew of rap and hip-hop was the glorification of violence and misogyny. Shai Linne’s music was different. His lyrics were theologically solid and rich as the Westminster Catechism. But it was the lyrical approach – the discipline of the syntax, the creativity, the turns of phrases so tight that the only other artists I could compare it to were dead white men like Shakespeare and Donne – that gripped my soul. It was poetic, prophetic gospel preaching, creatively wrapped in the rhythms of rap. I remember the day I listened to “Mission Accomplished” as I folded laundry, and felt all the questions I’d ever had about limited / particular atonement finally fall into place. One three-and-a-half minute song settled what four years of Bible college had not. I was hooked.

Not long after, I learned about another artist named Propaganda. I read that he wrote in the spirit of Shai Linne, so I downloaded his album “Excellent” the day it released. As the kids say, I wasn’t ready.

“Excellent” was broader in scope than “The Atonement,” but every bit as gripping. This time, I was chopping vegetables for dinner as I listened. Suddenly, the lyrics of one track gutted my Reformed Baptist American sensibilities with such surgical precision that I had to set down my vegetable knife and click “rewind,”  just to make sure I understood what I was hearing.

“How come the things the Holy Spirit showed them
In the Valley of Vision
Didn’t compel them to knock on they neighbor’s door
And say “you can’t own people!”
Your precious Puritans were not perfect
You romanticize them as if they were inerrant
As if the skeletons in they closet was pardoned due to they hard work and tobacco growth
As if abolitionists were not racists and just pro-union
As if God only spoke to white boys with epic beards
You know Jesus didn’t really look like them paintings
That was just Michaelangelo’s boyfriend
Your precious Puritans
Oh they got it but they don’t get it
There’s not one generation of believers
That has figured out the marriage between proper doctrine and action
Don’t pedestal these people.
Your precious Puritans’ partners purchased people.

Why would you quote them?”

(Click here to listen to the whole song-it’s well worth your time)


The forcefulness and eloquence with which Propaganda called out the heroes of my faith sent me on a hunt for answers the minute the dinner dishes were dry. I combed the stacks of the church history section of the combined library of my Multnomah Bible College-graduate husband and my Master’s University-graduate self. My search yielded few and incomplete answers.  So I took to the Internet. There I found various Reformed theologians and bloggers, equally gripped by “Precious Puritans,” discussing the historical veracity of Propaganda’s claims, and arguing charitably over the different ways they could be viewed.

None of Propaganda’s detractors denied the substance of his argument – that many of the Puritans and later Reformed theologians I had been taught to revere had been slave owners, and/or slavery and segregation apologists. The allegations were, in truth, facts – facts I had never been taught.

But as shocking as these facts were to learn, what gutted me was that the main line of defense was not denial, but compartmentalization. Sure, the argument went, the Puritans had owned slaves and propped up the institution of chattel slavery, but that shouldn’t overshadow all the good things they did.

Propaganda had marched uninvited into the institutional halls of Reformed evangelicalism and ripped the closet door off its hinges, causing the rotting corpse that had been hidden inside it for centuries to come tumbling out onto the floor. And the strongest response his detractors could muster, as they shoved the corpse back into the closet and forced the door closed, was to keep waving their hands at all the pretty art on the walls.

The abruptness with which I learned these inconvenient facts about the Puritans didn’t shake my faith in their, and my, God. But it forever shattered my belief that the Puritans had a lock on what practical faithfulness to Him looks like. Not only that, it moved me to consider whether, and how, the Reformed Baptist tradition which held them in such unqualified high esteem might suffer from the same moral blindness. Most importantly, and most painfully, it made it necessary to consider how much of the same unchecked blindness – that sin,  had found its way into my own soul.

It didn’t take long to see it in my first thoughts about artists like Shai Linne and Propaganda.

One of the tenets of Reformed Baptist identity I had been taught to embrace was the importance of exercising discernment about our spiritual influencers – the pastors or theologians we listened to and learned from, the books we read, etc. (This was doubly emphasized to Reformed Baptist women, what with us being the gender of the more easily deceived and all.)

Of paramount importance was the depth and purity of someone’s theological orthodoxy – their Five Solas bona fides. But of nearly equal importance was how that theology was packaged. With what denomination was someone affiliated, and how theologically orthodox was their church? How closely did they follow the regulative principle of worship? What kind of clothes did they wear? What kind of tone did they employ, in their writing, their speaking, even their singing? With which contemporary cultural issues did their theology rightly intersect (e.g. marriage, abortion, taxes), and from which ones was it kept rightly separate (e.g. poverty, race relations, the environment)?

In other words, while the content of someone’s message was paramount, if the packaging wasn’t wrapped in the right way, or didn’t have the right pattern, the contents were necessarily suspect. And if the right packaging only came in certain colors, well, packaging in any colors other than those was necessarily suspect as well. Conversely, if the packaging was the right pattern and color, that automatically signaled that the contents were right – no need to look inside too closely to check.

Thus, what I saw modeled and was taught to believe, was that my default posture towards any white Reformed Christian teachers (and their Puritan forebears) should be unquestioning trust. But my default posture towards even self-professing Reformed Christians of any other ethnicity should be skepticism, until and unless they conformed to all the prescriptive cultural norms and biases of my tradition.

I could be challenged and convicted by white Reformed Christian leaders because they were inside the permissible circle of trust. But because my default posture toward non-white Reformed Christian leaders was skepticism or uncertainty, it was easy to dismiss anything they said that was challenging or convicting as proof that they weren’t sufficiently worthy of trust or attention.

When I first listened to Shai Linne, I did so from a default position of skepticism and mistrust. How could someone who sounded like him, who looked like him, pass the orthodoxy test? But the words he spoke, and the skill with which he wielded them, schooled my ignorance and exposed my prejudice for the sin that it was.

And the sting of this rebuke prepared me for the next one, courtesy of the pen and the voice of Propaganda, an African American brother in Christ who would have been viewed with suspicion at any church I’d ever attended up to that point, just because of how he looked, let alone because of what he had to say.

And from that day to this, I’ve been repentantly listening and learning from him, and many other godly African American family like him.

This week, the fruit of that repentance has looked like listening to the speakers at the MLK50 Conference. As I’ve listened, one part of me has been thinking about the future – about what God has yet to teach me about how He wants me to think, and especially do, differently in my own church context. Another part of me has been thinking about the past – how the old me would have responded to what I was hearing, and how the people I was taught to view with such mistrust and Pharisaical disdain, are the people who I count as valuable teachers, as family, today.

I saw a lot of stiffnecked disdain and self-righteousness circulating on social media yesterday – an experience that produced a simultaneous mix of sorrow and thankfulness in my heart. The old me would probably have been an enthusiastic contributor to it. But because of God’s work in my heart through the faithful witness of two gifted African American brothers, I wasn’t.  And I’m grieved over those who were.

I can, and do, pray for God to do the same kind of work in my white family He did in me, however He chooses to do it – whether through the words of faithful black brothers like Shai Linne and Propaganda, or the less eloquent words of their grateful white sister, Rachael.