And writing books about it.
Now 80, and theologically a ‘Reformed’ evangelical, I grew up (never missed a service!) in a Wesleyan (Arminian) Holiness church with an endless list of ‘no-no’s’, no theological teaching, l-o-n-g “Just as I Am” invitations to the altar, teen purity admonitions of no dancing and no mixed swimming (the top two items of our teen-sin-list), ‘losing’ salvation multiple times and returning to spiritual GO and starting over! Sin was defined by what you wore, where you went (and when--no shopping on Sunday!), who you went with, etc., etc. It was a lot of ‘work’ to stay saved!
Moving from works to Grace was a 25+ year journey in my middle 30’s to 50’s, followed by some years of bitterness over the teachings I grew up with, until the Lord, through his Word, identified my bitterness as sin, cleansed it, and changed my paradigm to appreciation of His Providence in my life. Now, my memories have been sweetened by his Grace, and I can say ‘thank you, Lord’. Now, not far from moving into life eternal, I hope to visit with the old saints I remember so vividly from those church services of childhood.
I've not read Ward's book, but I think there tends to be a bit of a "secret knowledge" to these narratives too. Only the narrator (clearly the protagonist) sees what these Evangelicals are really about. Purity culture isn't about following Biblical mandates as best as possible, but controlling women's bodies, etc. The outward stated motives are never the whole story, there's always a layer of deception (even self-deception) covering a rotten core. It's a deeply cynical approach, and often deeply unfair to the other people involved. It's possible to critique much of what makes up evangelical culture without assuming that everyone who participates in it is an unseeing dope or a duplicitous charlatan.
Fabulous as ever! And I can write as someone who also grew up Evangelical! The absolute truth of Christ's redeeming work on the Cross is not changed by whether or not you can watch TV on Sunday or go to the cinema (some of the legalistic issues of my youth). And thank God that in the UK you can be an Evangelical young person and vote Green because you believed that that is part of your Christian stewardship of God's earth! (I am not Green myself but you get the point...) What tragic times we inhabit! And thank God for the faithful remnant like Samuel James....
Samuel D. James wrote: "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..."
Where did Jon Ward show contempt for his pastors and his friends for pursuing sexual purity? Where did he roll his eyes about this? Where did he insist that his and his friends' struggles weren't genuine?I didn't see any hint of this in Ward's writing.
Instead, this is what Ward really said:
"... If I had to point to anything that made my years of intense religiosity a psychologically painful time, it was this. It wasted so much of my mental and emotional energy... It warped my view of sex and sexuality. I walked around most of these years battling a crushing shame. This led to depression... There were those within this group who confessed that they had actually considered self-harm in order to fend off unwanted thoughts and actions... I would spend most of my early twenties consumed with self-loathing and hatred of my sexuality..."
I’ve been an evangelical ( eventually Pentecostal flavor) since I was 14 years old, so not raised in but gladly chosen.
I haven’t read the review itself, which I will now since we happily subscribe to CT. I can say, Jon and I (and Mr. Mel ladi as well) are akin in this, our dislike/disdain for Trumpist Republicanism: The scales began to fall from our eyes during the Obama years when a few of nicest sisters and brothers in Christ had some of the ugliest, racist-adjacent (IMO racist period) memes featuring Barack Obama, occasionally featuring his (sic) Muslim faith. I should make it plain I’ve been a political independent for many years and voted for Mr. Obama twice.
Further, in the run up to the 2016 election I was in a group with church leaders and their wives, and was dismayed by comments about Kamala Harris being an anchor baby and (when COVID hit) the Facebook posts with doctored pictures and inaccurate information about a) COVID and b)the vaccine. I honestly felt as if my safe little Christian world had become unrecognizable around me. But now I see that the seeds were there all along.
This is what I didn’t do, and which has me fascinated by Jon’s (and others) journey: I didn’t leave the church, I didn’t leave evangelicalism. My bedrock beliefs have not changed in fifty years, since the day I met Jesus.
So why? (I’ll read the review, perhaps the book) Why did he and many others (including commenters here) leave the evangelicalism? Why do so many not only leave the church but leave many of the precepts and sometimes even the faith? What caused this? Perhaps the book will tell me.
Another thoughtful essay and I look forward to the next time.
I just started this book a few days ago. I grew up in the adjacent world of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism, and feel a kinship with some of Ward’s experiences so far. I also enjoyed your review and resonate with the perspective you offered. think it will give me a helpful framework through which to take in his story.
See Andy Crouch, Playing God, where he counsels that the best trustees of an institution are those who have been wounded by its flaws, have accepted/forgiven those wounds, and claimed the structure and mission as still worth continuing and preserving. “Trustees have seen, and borne, the worst that institutions can do – and yet they have somehow escaped the abyss of cynicism. Instead, they entered into the life of their institutions, embodying a better way, bearing the institution’s pain and offering hope.” (p 217)
Thank you for writing your review and this article. I have heard several interviews with Jon about his book (I have not read the book and don't plan on doing so). I have struggled with how to assess his viewpoints and your writing has been helpful.
It is highly likely that I had Jon in children's ministry sessions at our church-wide conferences. I have close family members and friends who seem to have gone through a similar journey as Jon has. I can also look back and agree with some of Jon's critiques. However, I simply cannot agree with all of his criticisms. I believe some of them are quite flawed and not reflective of what actually occurred.
Trying to understand why he seems to have a faulty understanding of what really was going on in his early years, and why he has drawn the conclusions he has, I believe your suggestion that he fails to engage adequately with Scripture is a central reason. I imagine there are other reasons as well.
He seems like an earnest, sincere, thoughtful person so I respect his perspective. However, many of his contemporaries who experienced exactly the same family and church dynamics have landed in a completely different place. I appreciate you engaging with his writing. It is helping me process my own unease with his conclusions.
I have not gotten to read the book yet, but I want to soon. I did listen to an interview with Jon Ward on the Holy Post podcast however. Here are some takeaways about evangelicalism that I resonated with also growing up as an evangelical:
1. Overemphasis on emotional experience as a barometer for being a Christian
2. Overemphasis on sexual purity as the end all be all of holiness in the Christian life
3. Hyper individualism and neglect of community
4. A desire for simple answers and control
5. Political identity overtaking religious identity
I think it’s important to pay attention to people’s stories, even if we didn’t have the same experience, and not just write it off as a one off or have it not be a description of our group or past. These takeaways don’t really have to do with motive, expect maybe the 4th one. They are just facts that happened. Maybe not in every church, and certainly not every evangelical. But it was common enough that we get these critiques and experiences told often. I do think there is something rotten in the core of evangelical American Christianity right now. I see signs of hope, but there still needs to be improvement. And this improvement can only continue if we carefully reflect, own our mistakes of the past, collectively, and actively seek to repent of them.
Interesting article, with a mention of “Christian witness” in Peter Wehner’s latest essay on MAGA in the Atlantic. Mr. Wehner is a strong Christian and a fine writer:
This article is on Trump Republicanism not on the e jean Carroll rape case, FYI.
PS: fabulous review in CT!
Well said, Samuel
I am one of those ex=evangelicals, i also feel very much burned by it too. For years i felt resentment towards evangelicalims, i think now in my 40's i have worked thru them and i do see some of the positives of being an evangelical in my teens and early twenties, but i still reject most of it. I feel like being in evangelical is really performance based religion. We are born in this body of sin and we will always sin until the day we die, i have come to realize that God loves me sinner and all. Yes i agree with you that when i was an evangelical as a teen i did believe all of those things and thought i needed to avoid all of those "sins" to be accepted by God, now i realize that is just performance based religion, God is alot bigger than that.