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What Has Shaped My Beliefs
Growing up in the church, and being born again inside it.
Two facts about my life have, I think, shaped my beliefs more than almost anything else. First, I grew up in the conservative evangelical church. Second, I was saved—born again as a true Christian—as a 20-year-old, having grown up in the church. The first fact has made me more sympathetic to ideas and attitudes that are labeled “liberal.” The second fact has made me sympathetic to ideas and attitudes that are labeled “conservative.”
I’m not saying I am a perfect 50-50 blend of conservative and liberal; on the contrary, I am a thoroughly conservative evangelical Christian today. But as I’ve written over the past few years about evangelical culture, I’ve attracted a fair share of criticism from folks convinced I lean left. The reason for the confusion isn’t just ideology; it’s that I have a very particular experience of what it means to be a Christian.
When you grow up in the conservative evangelical tradition, you see stuff. Boy, do you see stuff. There’s a reason that most of my fellow homeschooled peers have abandoned the faith of their parents (and many have abandoned faith altogether). Even the most idyllic Christian upbringings bring you face to face with unsettling realities. Indeed, secular progressive critics of Christianity who have never darkened the door of a church don’t get it. It’s often worse than they think. Ministers carrying on a double life, cheating on their wives, their finances, you name it. I’ve seen the family lives of influential men and women in the church completely betray the image they projected on Sundays. Purity culture? You bet. It’s real. For teens in the church who stray sexually, re-conversion is often the only option rather than repentance, because re-conversion is easier to explain to everybody. “I wasn’t actually saved” garners sympathy that “I sinned and need help” doesn’t seem to.
Living inside institutional Christianity means that I cannot pretend I don’t know what its critics are talking about when they mention racism or sexism or abuse. This knowledge and these experiences naturally prop up an instinctive defensiveness whenever people want to talk about spiritual authority. You say “church discipline,” and I can see faces of those who were blamed for the failings of others, because the church could not afford to confront the “others.” You say “theology matters,” and I can see faces of people whose doubts and questions really were ignored because they made people uncomfortable. These postures are described as liberal within the frustrating bifocal that is American politics, but they don’t come to me from exposure to liberal ideas. They come from exposure to reality. Way more of this stuff is true than a lot of people want to admit, and the fact we don’t want to admit it is itself evidence of the problem. For many evangelicals, we don’t know how to repent, because it’s possible we’ve never actually had to.
The second experience that has shaped me is the fact that, while growing up in the church, I became a grossly selfish, porn-addicted, deceitful hypocrite. Only when my life reached a crisis point (through events I did not initiate; “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray”) did I realize that I was actually a sinner who deserved death, and that Jesus had come on my behalf so that my suicidal ideations would find justice and satisfaction, not in my death but in his. To this day I can still feel the light of clarity that came to me: the realization that there really was somewhere to go with all this shame, and it was to the One whose name I had taken nearly my entire life but had not seen until just then.
You see stuff growing up in the church, but I’ve seen stuff in me. Boy, have I seen stuff. Being the kind of person I was, inflicting the kind of damage I did, and coming to Christ in this way had a pretty thorough conservatizing effect on me. I saw depths of depravity in my own instincts that reenforce my conviction that human nature is indeed fallen and corrupt. I saw a love of sin and a hatred for anything that interfered with it that convinced me anew that normal human beings will not seek the true, the good, and the beautiful unless something compels them to. Instead, we will seek to slake our own lusts, damn to hell anyone who tries to stop us. And those lusts don’t stay manageable. They grow and grow. You can wake up one day and realize that you find satisfaction in things you never imagined. You didn’t decide to become that kind of person. You just made choices that that kind of person would make, day after day, year after year. That’s sin for you.
So, the LGBT revolution, the self-help regime, the identity-obsession that defines our age: these things I see fundamentally as expressions of the self-centeredness and craving that I know for a fact live inside the human heart. “Society” does not create bad people. Bad people are generated in neonatal units. Our desire to get out from under the authority of Scripture, whether on the question of the exclusivity of Jesus or on gender, is a desire finally to be in a locked room. There are all kinds of ways to rationalize a disobedient heart.
So these two different experiences have played a part in generating two very different sets of instincts. But they’re not actually that different. What these two parts of my life agree on is this: I (and you) am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior. My sinfulness does not end where my membership in the church begins. I do not get to ignore hypocrisy among God’s people because I don’t want to give the Left more ammo. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” But I also don’t get to ignore the self-serving spirit of the age, even when it uses the failures and sins of the church to justify itself.
And I think for some, this tension is just frustrating. It’s far easier to say in your heart, “Christians are good, the libs are evil,” than to say, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” The first sentence will go viral. It will win battles. It will trample people you dislike and build strong coalitions among people you do. The second sentence—well, nobody wants to hear that.