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On Growing Up Evangelical
And writing books about it.
The May/June issue of Christianity Today features a book review by me. It is one of the most negative book reviews I’ve ever written. There is a common writing trope that says that deeply critical essays are the most enjoyable to write, but my experience was hardly so. Jon Ward’s book Testimony confused, grieved, frustrated, and alienated me, all while eliciting a sense of solidarity due to our very similar backgrounds. I have a feeling that I responded as negatively to his book as I did because we apparently have so much in common, and reading his reflections on his upbringing in conservative evangelicalism felt at times like reading an alternative history of myself—a multiverse glimpse that I recoiled from.
Testimony is a memoir, and nearly everything in the American psyche insists that memoir is beyond meaningful criticism. A person’s story is their truth; you either identify or not, but you certainly cannot object to their story. Well, I did. I objected to Ward’s book not because I disbelieved the facts he was relaying, nor because I thought he told them in useless way. I objected because I believe Ward has imposed on the people and institutions of his past a moral narrative that is false, and one that only exists because the people and institutions of his present tell him this narrative must be true.
Like Jon Ward, I grew up conservative evangelical. Like Ward, my father was a pastor, and probably the most deeply genuine and honest Christian in my life. Like Ward, I’ve seen how the ministry sausage is made. Like Ward, I’ve been in “those” kinds of accountability groups, I’ve been in “those” youth group meetings, and I’ve heard “those” sermons and talks and backchannel conversations. Like Ward, political views were often seamlessly attached to my religious upbringing, and I was not encouraged to think outside the box when it came to that package.
In his book, Ward takes these scenes from his evangelical life and interprets them in a way that only someone who has already left the evangelical fold could. In one particular passage that I didn’t mention in my review, Ward remembers his teenage pursuit of “purity.” There’s a lot here that I can sympathize with, especially the way evangelical rhetoric about sexual purity can frequently produce a pathological fixation on sex. What’s surprising to me about Ward’s narrative is how brazenly he holds his pastors and even his friends in contempt for genuinely believing in this. He writes about one of his accountability groups, offers some cringey quotes from his fellow group members and how (despite his membership in the group) he was rolling his eyes the whole time at his buddies’ desperation and struggles.
Here’s the thing: I don't actually believe that Jon was rolling his eyes in those meetings. I believe that, right now, he wishes he had rolled his eyes, and that this desire—the desire to be far, far away from anything that touches conservative Christian theology or politics—is revising his personal history.
For all the talk about evangelical purity culture, the one thing that is absolutely true of you when you are immersed in it is that you are genuine. The fear is genuine; the confusion is genuine. The insecurity, the desires, the aspiration—they’re all very genuine. I’ve been in those accountability groups too, and I’ve never seen anybody roll their eyes when a guy confessed to having not looked away fast enough as he walked by Victoria’s Secret. You can laugh at that, you can call it patriarchy if you want to. But it’s genuine. Nobody there is flagellating themselves over pornography because they want George W. Bush or Donald Trump to be president. They’re there because, at some level, perhaps even a level that will change over time, they want to be there.
Ward’s understanding of evangelicalism was utterly transformed by the 2016 election. That much is absolutely clear from his book. But it seems to me that letting your hatred of Trump or the Republican Party convince you that the people whom you were confessing sins (or maybe not-sins!) to, who were preaching to you, and who were checking in on you, were bad people, is precisely the kind of thinking that gets us elections like 2016.
I grew up evangelical. The Lord knows there’s a lot of stuff that has to be worked through once you’ve done that. Particularly for people who struggle, who don’t seem to have a natural affinity for rule-keeping, or who get pinned down by some very socially unacceptable besetting sin (you’re much better off in the evangelical culture I came from if your besetting sin is explosive anger, rather than porn), evangelicalism can be a difficult experience. There can be shame you don’t know what to do with. There can be gospel vocabulary that merely hides a “you sow what you reap” church culture. Let me tell you: there are some wounds that can only come from people as close to your heart as church people.
But evangelicalism, for everything it might be, is absolutely not a theological pretense for politics. The evangelicals who shaped me were people who might have been straight party Republicans, but that’s not why they taught Sunday school, or chaperone youth trips, or got coffee or lunch with me. There’s a vulnerability in evangelicalism that’s somewhat unique: when you really, truly believe that something is supposed to happen in your heart between you and Christ, then your heart becomes something you have to get to know, and maybe even show sometimes. This creates the chance for wounds, but also a lot of love, and a lot of hope. And frankly, I think even people who eventually weigh the wounds of evangelicalism heavier than its hopes should be honest about that.
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