Am I still a Christian? This is something that I wonder often, and I suspect that my friends—Christian and non-Christian alike—sometimes wonder the same thing about me. This essay is for both kinds of friends. A couple of years ago, I experienced what trendy podcast hosts call a “deconstruction,” but for some reason still couldn’t shake the whole faith thing.
There is a story in Exodus, the second book in the Bible, about how the Israelites were enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians, but after ten brutal plagues on the Egyptians, the Pharaoh reluctantly freed God’s people. As they fled, the Pharaoh changed his mind and pursued them with his army. The Israelites found themselves at the edge of the Red Sea, a huge body of water over 1200 miles long, 200 miles wide in some places, and an average of 1600 feet deep. There are literally submarines in the modern day Red Sea.
The Israelites possessed no boats, no way across, and they realized that Pharaoh and his army had them trapped. They knew he was not coming to take them back. They had humiliated him, and he brought an army to punish them.
The Israelites panicked. They contemplated surrender in hopes that the Egyptians would let them return as slaves. They became accusatory toward God and Moses, angry to have been led out into the desert to die.
Exodus 14 says that “Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.” Thousands of Israelites crossed, and the Pharaoh pursued them. Right as they finished crossing, the Red Sea crashed down on the Pharaoh, wiping out him and his army.
Afterward, the Israelites burst into song. In modern times, the tag line would go something like this: “We never doubted you for a second!”
This is the pattern of the Bible. Doubt, divine rescue, faith, and then doubt again. Throughout the Bible, God and his prophets constantly reminded his people of the events at the Red Sea. This is about my faith journey and my own Red Sea crossings.
Until a few years ago, I was in a place with the Bible where most of my Christian friends remain, and that most of my non-Christian friends might find baffling. To the latter, let me clarify that not all of Christianity is Jesus Camp, Billy Graham, televangelism, or Westboro Baptist Church. As loud and stereotypical as those brands of Christianity might be, there are dominant and mainstream sects within Christianity largely removed from those caricatures. To answer for every divergent view would be impossible, but it might help to narrow the scope.
Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism doesn’t have a dominant hierarchy or pope. Rather, it is broken down into various denominations—some more similar than others—that each have their own internal structures. Some Protestant churches even consider themselves non-denominational and can be as different as the denominations with which they don’t affiliate.
Some smaller pockets of the Church can be noisy and eclectic (read: controversial), and play a large part in the Church’s money-grubbing, racist, and political reputation. Though quite fractured in their beliefs, their presentation to the public is much the same, and therefore often becomes the representation of the Church to the larger world. I do not mean to diminish the impact of these types of churches, but it is more to the point to talk about the type of churches in which I was raised.
As a small child, we were Baptists. Without getting into the rather schismatic term that is Baptist, perhaps it is best to leave it at this: The Baptists with which I grew up believed that the Bible was the Word of God—without error, fallacy, or contradiction. This informed strict views on a young earth, abstinence prior to marriage between a man and a woman, a woman’s submission to her husband, and firm doctrines around disassociation with those they consider hostile to their beliefs.
To many, this sort of belief system may seem domineering and oppressive. Some churches have used it to generate money from their congregation, others to justify spousal abuse, and others to oppress scientific progress. That may all be true: There are certainly clergy and churches who take advantage of these beliefs to exploit those in their congregations. However, the majority of conservative Christians in my early life where genuine believers and possessed the best of intentions when it came to what they believed about God.
It’s almost impossible to explain to someone on the outside-looking-in, but as I tell my story, it might become easier to understand. I have met some terrible Christians, but most Christians that I have known like this are true in their convictions. One such Christian was a busy seminarian who always took time away from his studies to answer his son’s questions.
I would like to think that workplace open-door policies always disappoint me because they never lived up to the open-door policy that existed regarding my father’s study. I could always ask questions and was encouraged to do so. My third grade teacher taught evolution and my church upbringing was enough to tell me that this was dangerous. Dad already owned shelves and shelves of books, and I knew of one book on his shelf called Darwin’s Black Box that was too difficult for me to read, but that supposedly had the answers. I asked him about the Ice Age and monkeys and how long it took God to create the earth.
I knew that Dad was familiar with the book’s content, but I remember being frustrated by his answers. While some of the conversation detailed the importance of reading the Bible as it was intended and some potential flaws in evolution, I remember Dad telling me that it was something on which there wasn’t a firm answer. According to him, I was going to have to think for myself. As frustrating as it was at the time, I’m thankful for it now.
When I was around the age of nine, my father earned his Master of Divinity at a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of America. It is important to distinguish the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) from the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA). After a nasty mid-20th century schism, the former retained a more conservative stance, and the latter went a more progressive route (I use the terms “conservative” and “progressive” relatively and only inasmuch as they are useful).
Not to be dramatic, but there was a nasty schism happening in my own life: My parents divorced. Even though we lived in Orlando and I attended a public elementary school, it was 1995 and I was the only child in my class with divorced parents. When my father and I moved to Tifton, a small South Georgia town near family, we soon connected with a local PCA church. I was still the only child of divorce in my church, but the church boasted a strong and accepting homeschooling community.
My grandmother joined my father and me in Tifton, going so far as to pause her professional career to homeschool me. My grandmother and our faith community taught me to ask questions, to be kind, and to love God.
During this time, I was around ten years old and prone to melancholy at nights and cried in bed. Dad always tucked me in. We had the same conversation over and over: Why did the divorce happen to us?
I don’t know how he was so strong during those times. Freshly divorced, he likely hurt more than I knew a person could hurt, but he was always there. My dad taught me Romans 8:28. “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” On those nights, he would tell me that whatever happened, God was using what happened for the good.
I came to believe that God was using my parent’s divorce to work for the good of my relationship with God. We believed that God often allows pain and suffering to draw us near to him, and so I believed that my pain and suffering were for that reason.
For some—Christian and non-Christian alike—it might be easy to see the flaws in that thinking.
Another night, my father heard me crying in my bed. I was probably 11 years old and I was terrified of Hell. I thought that I believed in Jesus, but if I was wrong or my faith wasn’t strong enough, I was in danger of being burned and tortured for all of eternity. It occurred to me that I would suffer every second of the day, and then the next day would come and I would suffer every second of that day. I thought about the minor physical pain I had already experienced, and was terrified of experiencing something worse day after day after day.
My father explained—in much simpler language, I’m sure—that because Adam and Eve sinned, we all sin, and that means that God cannot justly allow us into Heaven. Jesus came as God-among-us and died for our sins, and because of that, those who believe in Jesus can go to heaven.
I tell these stories to show that problematic, fallacious, and even damaging beliefs don’t always come from angry, spiteful Christians. There was some tone of that, but it arose mostly out of fear that the outside world was mounting an attack on Christianity. The liberals would win the election, and then just anybody could get an abortion, and they would tell Christians that they can’t pray in schools, take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance, and darken public universities with secularism. For the Christians in my life, that didn’t necessarily lead to public outcry, but rather protectiveness for their families.
It was not that we were isolationists. Almost all of my best friends growing up were non-Christians, and my family was intentional about forming relationships with people who didn’t call themselves Christians, even if it may or may not have been with some evangelistic ulterior motive. Yet, there was definitely fear of the non-Christian agenda, and we may have had an agenda of our own. So, I was homeschooled.
We used Abeka textbooks, which taught that the earth is young, that Adam and Eve were historical figures created by God and not evolved from apes, and implied that scientists who said otherwise were either uninformed or dishonest in the name of their secular agendas.
At the time, an uncle of mine was the host of a Christian music radio show. His guests gave him promotional material, and that’s how I got my hands on Audio Adrenaline’s album Some Kind of Zombie and the Newsboys’ album Take Me to Your Leader. I had already grown up on Rich Mullins and Michael W. Smith, but by Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) standards, this was real rock n’ roll. Another uncle took me to my first rock show in which Audio Adrenaline opened for the Christian country singer Steven Curtis Chapman.
As I took on the tone of my textbooks and favorite musicians, I became more imbedded in the suspicious and exclusionary nature of evangelicalism. I told my non-Christian friends that “they don’t serve breakfast in hell” and that “I kissed dating goodbye.” If my friends didn’t like it, it was because I was a Jesus Freak.
My saving grace was that I liked rock music, was a closet potty mouth, and had a family that encouraged me to ask the hard questions. That final element seems to be unique among ex-evangelicals, many of whom left the church because their questions were discouraged. For me, the door was always open with my family and my church. I would eventually learn that this was not always the case and that for some, there were limits such inquisitiveness.
I encountered exposure to more virulent pockets of Christianity. When I was 12, I went on a trip with Teen Missions. It was two weeks of boot camp and then another few weeks abroad, which for me happened to be Sweden. We did boot camp in Merritt Island, Florida. We were not allowed to talk about secular movies or music. We were steeped in the Bible and prayer with nightly speeches that ended in altar calls.
The speakers—often accompanied by music—were always energetic and engaging. They often told emotional stories that usually involved some sort of complete turnaround from a life of sin.
There was always talk of how we deserved to burn for all of eternity because of our sin, but that if we believed in Jesus, we would be saved from Hell. They would then call anyone forward who wanted to be saved. I know I went up once just for good measure. It was so emotional, particularly for such a young crowd, that I’m pretty sure that everyone did.
While in Sweden, I read a biography of David Livingston, who was a missionary to Africa. He was an anti-slavery explorer and the book painted him as a person who gave up everything to bring Christianity to Africa. He fought lions and dysentery, but never gave up. I wanted to be a doctor and missionary in Africa just like him, and told anyone who would listen. When my family later visited Westminster Abbey in London, I made it a point to visit his tomb.
Before moving to Tifton, I had always been picked on, but there I found that I was welcomed in spite of my awkwardness and obsessive tendencies (in retrospect, I was more obsessed with Star Wars than God). My conservative Christian bubble began to fracture when my dad took a job as a pastor in Thomasville, another small South Georgia town about 45 minutes north of Tallahassee, Florida. When we moved, I became a part of a youth group that either attended public school or a rather affluent private school. My peers liked sports, secular music, and worst of all, didn’t like Star Wars.
By this time, I was a teenager in public school, and my awkwardness and ego made me the perfect target for bullies. It didn’t help that on the first day of school I boasted a “Satan is a Nerd” t-shirt, which wasn’t even cool in the Bible Belt.
I was left with little choice but to grow out of some of my obsessions, to let up a little on the Jesus Freak stuff (to be honest, by that time, I was really into All Star United), and learn that not everything not-intrinsically Christian was meant to undermine or destroy religion. My grades in science and math were enough to dissipate any real hopes of becoming a doctor, and the more I learned about Africa, the more I didn’t want to be a missionary there.
I liked hard rock, and in those days, it was difficult to find good Christian hard rock. This forced me to explore non-Christian music, much of which was unlike anything in my prior catalog. It was harder, more complex, and more relevant.
And, of course, there were girls. It was easy to kiss dating goodbye with puberty still pending, but my teens brought a new kind of interest in the other sex.
I still had an evangelical chip on my shoulder, but my circumstances forced me to loosen up a bit. This left room for the analytical part of me to thrive. My interrogative and over-analytical nature took over and I began asking more questions than ever. Theology became a mainstay interest among music, video games, and girls.
Even though my father attended a PCA seminary and later a PCA church, it took some time for him to accept the PCA’s theology. From my vantage, they weren’t so different from Baptists, but the nuances were enough to keep the dividing lines intact. He eventually accepted PCA theology, and this is what led to his eventual job as a pastor in Thomasville.
By the time my theological interests piqued, my dad had adjusted to being pastor of a small congregation, and was delighted to have a shared interest with his son. The PCA is like any other denomination, in that every church is a little bit different, but there is something distinct about any given PCA church. Whether they have a pipe organ or acoustic guitar, there’s a certain tone, a way of doing things, that isn’t quite as liturgical as something like an Anglican service, but in its own unique way, far more stiff and rigid.
Presbyterians believe in two things that set them apart from other denominations: Predestination and paedobaptism. The former is the belief that God determines who will believe in him. God calls some people to belief, and they believe, completely unaware that they have no choice. Paedobaptism is the belief that baptism is for infants. Many times in the Bible, when someone is converted, it says that they and their entire household were baptized. Presbyterians believe that included infants, as baptism was less a sign of conversion, and more a sign of inclusion into God’s family, and so they sprinkle infants.
However, I had not grown up PCA, and therefore had not been baptized as an infant. Many Christians believe that baptism is a sign of a person’s willing conversion to Christianity. When they make this choice, they are immersed in water (“dunked”) and brought back up out of the water, as a symbol for being born anew into God’s family.
When it came time for me to be baptized, I was late to the game by Presbyterian standards, and was baptized by my father as a teenager. In front of the whole congregation, he sprinkled water on me in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It was comical, but not irreverent.
Not to over-generalize, but the PCA considers itself Reformed. Before the 16th century, all Christians were Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Martin Luther was the catalyst for a schism in the Catholic Church, and the opposition was called the Protestant Reformation. Any Christian not Eastern Orthodox or Catholic is considered a Protestant that was part of the Reformation, but when the PCA uses the term “Reformed” they are speaking very much to the theological brand of Protestantism popularized by John Calvin. Presbyterian, Reformed, and Calvinist, however, are not always interchangeable terms, but Presbyterians are definitely capital-R Reformed and Calvinists.
The core doctrine of Calvinism is predestination (also called “election”). On the surface, it may seem like a cruel theology, that God would decide who goes to Heaven and who goes to Hell. However, it’s a very systematic doctrine, and has some surprising elements of grace. One of the foundational tenets of Calvinism is that humans are “fallen” and therefore incapable of being or doing good on their own. It’s only by God’s grace that our fallen nature can be redeemed. This also means that those who are chosen to believe are secure in their in their belief.
This was a theology that resonated with me. I knew that I was inadequate compared to God, but believed that God had “saved” me from Hell by attributing his own adequacy on me.
Most Christians would not say that they believe that a person can get into Heaven by good works or by being good. If God is perfect, and we are imperfect, there is no amount of good that we could do to make up for our imperfection. Rather, it took God becoming one of us and taking on the punishment that we deserve to ‘save’ us from that punishment. Views on Heaven and Hell range, but most Christians believe that those who have faith in Jesus are “saved” and go to Heaven when they die.
Humanity already has a cultural penchant for self-sacrifice, and the evangelical story is the ultimate story of self-sacrifice. Calvinism compounded this even more. This tightly-woven, systematic doctrine became foundational to everything that I believed. If the Bible is authoritative—that is, its words and commands are true, even if there are some minor inconsistencies—then Paul’s words in Romans 8 and 9 were a profound treatise on what it means to be saved.
Around this time, in my early teenage years, I went to a seminar in Colorado called Summit Ministries. It was supposed to be a place where young Christians could meet and really get the answers. It was founded by a man named David A. Noebel, most known for his tome Understanding the Truth. Noebel was a powerhouse opponent against what he labeled “secular humanism.” He believed that the Beatles hid messages in their songs, that non-Christian universities harbored a secret agenda to systematically dismantle Christianity, that mainstream scientists knew in their heart of hearts that evolution was false, and propagated it as an anti-Christian conspiracy.
The seminar featured a credentialed scientist who once accepted evolution but changed his mind and accepted young earth creationism, a former pro-choice proponent who had undergone an abortion, an evangelist, and more engaging and convincing Fundamentalists that came to tell us that our Christian nation is under attack by public universities, liberals (a word used as a pejorative), and other secular humanists.
Fundamentalism is an interesting sect of Christianity. Like any pocket of a given religion, Fundamentalism is diverse in its beliefs. The most notorious Fundamentalist group is Westboro Baptist Church, who picket funerals and wave anti-gay signs. They are the most extreme. The Fundamentalists that I encountered at Summit were tame by comparison, but still viciously conservative.
Fundamentalism was not new to me. My mother’s side of the family was and is steeped in it. However, Summit’s form of Fundamentalism was sharp, intellectual, and combative.
Summit reinforced most of what I already believed: that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, the earth is only a few thousand years old, that all of the events in the Bible were historical and literal, non-Christians go to Hell and burn for all of eternity, and that the United States is a Christian nation.
It gave me a newfound vigor to fight for and defend Christianity. There were two things that happened at Summit that were especially formative.
Mark Cahill started his lecture by snapping his fingers once a second. He explained that every second over 100 people die and that only so many of them were saved. The rest were going to Hell where they would be tortured for all of eternity, and if we really believed that, then the most important thing one could do is “the one thing you can’t do in Heaven” (which was also the name of his first book).
Cahill talked the talk and he walked the walk. He had tracts and books that you could purchase, but he would give them away if you couldn’t afford it. He lived in a cheap apartment with no furniture and rarely paid for food. He put his money into travel, going to events, malls, and parks to tell people about Jesus. He even witnessed to Michael Jordan once.
Years later, I was working at a Chick-fil-A in a Chattanooga mall and saw him in action. I offered him a free sandwich, which he declined, but he gave me a copy of his second book.
He taught us how to ‘witness’ to someone, and we came out of that lecture ready to tell everyone about Jesus. I witnessed to two people on that trip.
After lectures, we liked to walk down the mountain and get hot drinks at a place called the Mate Factor, which is owned and operated by a commune called the Twelve Tribes. I overheard someone at a nearby table describing how he almost died in a motorcycle accident. I interrupted their conversation and asked him what he thought would happen if he died. He told me he didn’t know and didn’t care. I asked if he had died, and arrived at the gates of Heaven, why God should let him in. He told me he wasn’t interested in religion. I pressed and he got upset, swore at me, and turned his back on me and continued in his conversation.
It hurt and I was let down, but I wasn’t giving up. On the flight home, I tried to start another conversation with a fellow passenger. I asked similar questions, but eventually he told me that he was Catholic and that his hearing wasn’t very good.
These interactions would later be the catalyst by which I began to rethink evangelism.
Summit also boasted an opportunity for the attendees to picket a family planning clinic that offered abortions. It was optional, but I was eager to go. With our signs, we walked in a narrow loop on the sidewalk. I began to notice two things. The people that agreed with us would honk their horn and wave and cheer. The people that disagreed with us honked their horn and yelled at us and made rude gestures.
We weren’t changing anyone’s mind.
Noebel, the founder of Summit Ministries, was there overseeing the protest. I broke from the line and asked him why we were picketing. We were only making people more upset with us and not changing their minds. He said that the protest was optional and that I was welcome to get back on the bus or get back in line. I got back in line, but it continued to bother me, so I approached him again. I reasoned that this was supposed to be the kind of place where teenagers like me could ask questions, and that I really wanted to know to what end we were protesting. He told me again that I could get on the bus if I didn’t like it.
I don’t recall what I did, but I was starting to learn something about evangelicalism: It is okay to ask questions and form opinions until it’s not.
Still, I returned home excited about everything that I had learned, ready to defend my faith. I got into apologetics (the defense of the faith) and started to learn everything that I could to prove that Christianity was true and the Bible was God’s infallible word.
It wasn’t just about defending my faith. I was interested in the Bible and saw it as a book that, with enough study, could come to life, often in unexpected and fascinating ways.
Because my parents were divorced, I had to regularly go to Orlando to spend time with my mother. She attended a church called Faithworld, which was a charismatic mega church. At one point, Benny Hinn, a popular televangelist, was the pastor of the church, and it definitely had an air of his energy and style even after he moved on. There were cameras on cranes, loud music, and cheering. It was a party. I was disgusted. It felt superficial, self-indulgent, and shallow. After over 45 minutes, no one had so much as cracked a Bible, and when the worship leader implored the audience to say Jesus’ name over and over, it felt even more meaningless. I walked out, and began to walk around the sprawling church campus, where I spotted the pastor’s stretch limo.
I attended that church one other time. It was the same thing: God wants you to be happy and rich and prosper. I walked out again.
To me, it was no different from the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which my family was both critical of and amused by. Though the antics of the TBN televangelists were often humorous, it was not lost on us that they were using Christianity to extort the very people that the Bible says we should give our generosity. It is still something that makes me frustrated and angry.
I didn’t think that God was particularly preoccupied with our earthly happiness, and that we were actually called to be sober-minded, sacrificial, and humble. I wouldn’t say that I’ve changed my mind on that.
I wasn’t all piety. As aforementioned, circumstances forced me to grow out of that a bit. Additionally, I started to become interested in women. I was told that I had to be attracted to women, as opposed to men, but that I couldn’t act on it until I was married.
It’s strange to look back on it now. The Christian sexual ethic was clear: one must feel attracted to the opposite sex, but they are under no circumstances to enjoy it, until they are married, and then they can only enjoy it with one person. That sort of self-denial made my sexual appetite all the more voracious. I would give in and act on my urges, binge on them, knowing that I needed to get as much in as possible until I felt guilty enough to stop.
When I started dating, it was the same thing, just with another person. I didn’t have intercourse until I married, but I had my fair share of teenage indulgence.
The guilt became nerve-wracking, but I kept it to myself. If I really believed that Jesus loved me enough to die for me, and if truly loved Jesus, I wouldn’t sin. I used to lay awake at night begging God to forgive me, hoping I was truly one of the elect.
To any Presbyterian, it’s no surprise that I attended Covenant College. I have to credit Presbyterian academia. I once had a non-Presbyterian pastor called Presbyterians the smartest Christians, and I wouldn’t argue with him. Covenant College is a PCA liberal arts school that has rightfully earned prestige among several denominations, though I am critical of it for other reasons.
There, I fell in with a friends group that erred religiously and politically conservative, and profoundly intelligent. Most of them were history majors, and they knew well that it was debatable as to whether or not the United States is a Christian nation, and largely separated church and state. They were still pro-life and anti-gay marriage, and though their own convictions were founded on teachings they believed to be Biblical, they didn’t need the Bible to make their case politically.
By that time, I was more or less like-minded, and also like many of them I was cynical and arrogant. We were frustrated that the world didn’t see things the way that we saw them. If someone didn’t believe in God, how could they have morals? How could anyone claim to believe in the Bible and not see that Romans 8 and 9 are clear on the issue of predestination? How could someone be a Christian and vote Democrat?
We thrived on mockery, sardonically attacking the televangelism, charismatic movement, liberal professors, people with bad taste in music, and especially anyone that we perceived to be more heart than head. For me, this cynicism led to a rather bleak view of life. While pain is always present—whether physical or emotional—pleasure is temporary and fleeting. I thought that one day even the greatest of legends will be forgotten, and everything that exists now will be gone, so there was little point in hope.
My classes at Covenant College ranged from confirmation bias to offensively liberal. Professors talked about things like racial reconciliation, which disturbed me at the time. I had never owned slaves, my step-father was black, and I didn’t think that I had an advantage as a white person. After all, I was working hard. I was a straight C student and my family was paying for college. I was earning my place in society.
To Covenant College’s credit, I did loosen up a bit more. I was no longer intimidated by secularism, and didn’t really think about the term anymore. Certainty began to give way to more and more questions. I didn’t know what to do with evolution, and my demeanor towards liberals was less that they were nefarious or had an agenda, and more that they saw things different for frustratingly inexplicable reasons.
I was fresh out of a difficult relationship, and stir-crazy to date again. I was semi-dating a girl, but she wasn’t showing much interest. A friend introduced me to Brittany, who would later become my wife, and we formed a close friendship. The problem with Britt was that she was hot off of a mission trip to India, and eager to dedicate her life to missions in India. India didn’t intimidate me (we would later honeymoon there), but a lifetime outside of the United States did. By then, the dreams of following in the footsteps of David Livingston had faded.
Still, Britt had my attention, and I was increasingly disconnecting from the PCA. It was less of a doctrinal issue, and more a frustration with Covenant’s micro-managerial nature. There were rules on rules, many of which felt present because of donors or prestige or some other arbitrary reason. The PCA’s rigidity was also infuriating. They are known as the ‘frozen chosen’ because of their dry, dull unwavering nature and emphasis on predestination. I loved their doctrine, the way their pastors spoke, but something about the culture never made me feel at home.
I wasn’t enthusiastic about my Chattanooga PCA church, and already set to leave Covenant College and attend a public university. Britt was attending a Vineyard, about which I was apprehensive. Vineyard shared a building with a Seventh Day Adventist church whose services were on Saturdays. Vineyard’s services were on Sundays, so it made sense for them to share a building.
It had likely been years since I went to a non-Presbyterian church, but I decided to give Vineyard a try. If nothing else, it would tell me much about this girl in which I was interested. I walked in ready to walk out, just like I walked out of my mother’s church. The Vineyard is a denomination known for their involvement with the Toronto Blessing, a known charismatic movement fiasco. All I knew is that the Vineyard had distanced itself from that event, but it was still suspect as far as I was concerned.
It was the best church service I had experienced. I thought that I hated worship music, but this music was incredible, well-played, and moving. The sermon was fresh and inspiring. The people were welcoming.
Britt and I eventually married. We eloped, in fact, but that’s story in itself. We continued to go to the Vineyard, and that church challenged me on multiple levels. For me, the emphasis of the Jesus story was always around predestination, but the pastor never really talked about predestination or free will. Additionally, I knew that they believe in tongues, and I kept waiting for the awkward moment to come.
For two years, I assumed that someone at the Vineyard would do or say something that made me uncomfortable enough to get up and leave. But every Sunday I left feeling like I had participated in something wonderful, informative, and bigger than me.
Early Jews did not seem to believe in anything resembling conventional concepts of Heaven or Hell. However, as the first century approached, some sects of Judaism began to believe that one day God would send them a Messiah (“Christ” is derived from the Greek version of the word), and this Messiah would deliver them from the nations that had conquered and oppressed them. At this point, God’s everlasting and good world would intersect with our own, their long dead Jewish ancestors would be brought back to life and given new bodies, and the world would be made new.
When Jesus first started his ministry, his harbinger, John the Baptist, sent followers to Jesus to make sure he was the real deal, the Messiah, come to bring God’s kingdom. Jesus told them that the blind see, the lame walk, and accordingly, God’s world was indeed coming. In other words, there is no sickness or sadness in God’s world, and when it intersects with ours, it undoes sickness and sadness.
While many modern Christians emphasize that “Jesus died for our sins,” his resurrection would have served as proof, not only that he was the son of God, but that he was the Messiah. His resurrection marked a sort of down-payment that was a sign of things to come. The difference in this first century Jewish view and what Jesus taught was that God’s coming kingdom wasn’t just for the Jews, but for the world.
In the shadow of this, all other views felt like a matter of emphasis. The Presbyterians emphasize election, the Liberation Theologians emphasize the freeing of captives, and the Episcopalians emphasize the Eucharist. Emphasis on the resurrection, however, felt all encompassing.
Simply put, when Jesus prayed “Your kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven” he meant just that: God’s kingdom of peace, love, and restoration would intersect with our broken world and redeem it. Jesus’ healing and restoration of others and his coming back to life with a body that didn’t deteriorate or break were signs of things to come. As Revelation 21 put it:
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’
One Sunday at Vineyard, the pastor began his sermon with Acts 2. I thought that this would be the one that caused me to never come back again. Acts 2 is a proof-passage that charismatic Christians use to make the case for tongues. Tongues is something to which I had only been exposed on the rarest of occasions. I never witnessed it in the PCA, as they are cessationists. That is, they believe that tongues, among miracles in general, died out—or ceased—with those that knew Jesus.
Vineyard, on the other hand, was technically part of the Charismatic Movement. I knew that this particular Vineyard was tame by comparison to some other Vineyard churches, but I was terrified that I was about to become trapped in a service where everyone was speaking in tongues.
I should have known better. It really wasn’t that kind of church. In Acts 2, one of Jesus’ followers is speaking to a multinational crowd, likely full of people who didn’t know his language. God’s spirit showed up and dwelled in the people there, and suddenly the language barrier was broken; Babel was undone.
In the Old Testament, God is ‘holy’ or set apart. His people eventually built a temple for him (two actually), and believed that God’s spirit dwelled in the “Holy of Holies”, an inner-sanctum that required copious amounts of ritual cleansing before entering. When Jesus died, the entrance to the Holy of Holies was torn. After his resurrection, Jesus told his followers that he would no longer be with them, but that his spirit would eventually come and dwell in them instead of the Holy of Holies.
Vineyard taught that in Acts 2, God’s spirit, which had left the Holy of Holies, could now inhabit his people. If Jesus’ miracles and resurrection were a down-payment on the things to come, then God’s spirit dwelling in his people meant that we were to continue Jesus’ work through natural means with the hope of the supernatural breaking through.
About that time, our church moved into the auditorium of a low-income school. We truly believed that God was redeeming all things, and that if God dwelled in us, then we were also catalysts for the redeeming of all things.
It may sound strange, but I saw evidence of this theology.
Britt and I were sitting in a service at Vineyard and one of her eyes started to bother her. The white of her eye was bloodshot, and no amount of rinsing seemed to work. We were starting to consider a trip to the emergency room, but something told me that we should pray for it. Though less skeptical then, I didn’t think prayer was going to work, but we asked one of the pastors for prayer. I remember it was brief and uneventful, but my wife opened her eyes and the previously injured eye was no longer bloodshot, but perfectly white. The problem was gone entirely.
I’m prone to start a long list of explanations, but the reality is that something was wrong, we tried the basic fixes, they didn’t work, we prayed, something wasn’t wrong anymore. Who am I to ask God for a miracle and then look for other explanations when I witness one? There may be a scientific explanation, but it’s difficult to assume a scientific explanation for timing.
This was a Red Sea crossing.
Vineyard’s theology is rich and nuanced, and it shows how some Christians can have an uncrushable and enthusiastic optimism. Up to this point in my life, I was a content armchair theologian, but I began to feel a strong sense that I should become a pastor. I knew that I would never be a professional musician, and was cynical that my writing would ever take off (or that I would have the proficiency required of a professional writer). I was in the restaurant business, and loved my coworkers, but hated the business, but I couldn’t see myself entering the corporate world. It made more sense than anything for me to become a pastor.
In 2008, Britt and I got around to going on a honeymoon. We had eloped, mostly due to our circumstances at the time, and had foregone a honeymoon until then. We backpacked India for just over a month. As month-long roughing-it trips to India tend to be, it was formative.
During the long plane and train rides, I did a good bit of reading, among which was a reread of The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Those books have always been influential to me. My father read them to me when I was young, and I have reread them many times since, each time finding something new and profound in its allegories.
When we were staying in Jodhpur, it was Britt’s turn to get sick. We lay around our hotel room, her trying to get some sleep and recover, me reading Narnia. At one point, I felt the urge to pray. Even at my most religious, prayer was always a strange, suspect thing to me. It seemed that most of the time, my mind wandered, and when it didn’t, nothing happened or came of it.
I had what I would now call a mystical experience. Something bigger than myself came into the room and enveloped me. It poured into me, for lack of a better term. My finite emotions could not handle the infinite love and power that I felt. I shook, cried, and was finally still.
I am talking about movement through or out of shape altogether, yet not into vacuum, not into emptiness. Into fullness rather.
…And now I’ve forgotten to breath, because the shining something, an infinitesimal distance away out of the universe, is breathing in me and through me, and though the experience is grand beyond my powers to convey. It’s not impersonal. Someone, not something, is here…I am being known; known in some wholly accurate and complete way that is only possible when the point of view is not another local self in the world but glows in the whole medium in which I live and move. I am being seen from the inside, but without any of my own illusions. I am being seen from behind, beneath, beyond. I am being read by what I am made of…I am being carried off on the universe’s shoulder.
It would be difficult to describe beyond that. It was as if I could only handle being loved so much, and that something infinitely loving had broken the damn, flooding my emotions.
I had no previous experience to inform this one. Maybe I had heard stories, but even still, I was cynical at best. There is no proof that this was anything more than psychological, but having experienced it, a psychological explanation is wholly inadequate.
This sort of experience is something I would encounter once more during a Vineyard worship service. In no audible voice, I felt Jesus telling me to let my shame fall away and to allow myself to receive his love. He told me that his love was so real and so encompassing that my soul and emotions could not bear to hear it. It was overwhelming, but it felt like he was holding back.
These are my Red Sea crossings.
These stories are usually only significant to those who experience them. To others, they may seem small: My wife had something in her eye and then she didn’t. God has bigger things to care about it. They may seem explainable: What I experienced in an India hotel room can be experienced via meditation by people who don’t identify as Christian or even theist. Yet, I insist that in spite of all alternative explanations, I encountered the divine and had a transcendental experience. Had anyone else experienced things as I did, they would say the same. This is not unique to Christianity. Ask anyone with a spiritual experience. From the outside-looking-in, it may feel small or explainable, but to the person who experienced it, there is no other explanation and it is bigger than life.
I have been on the outside-looking-in. Vineyard had a regular keyboardist, and then it didn’t. I did not know what had happened to him, but the pastor later described that keyboardist’s illness and healing. This was the account of multiple pastors, staff members, and members of the church. None of them had anything to gain from this story. Our pastors and staff were either unpaid or underpaid and disinterested in money. These were not the type of people to lie, much less collude in lying.
The keyboardist developed internal shingles, which were so debilitating that he had limited mobility, usually via a wheelchair or walker. They prayed for him, and when he could attend church, they prayed with him, but it was all to no avail. After months of this, there was one Sunday in which they prayed for him and something happened. He was barely able to use a walker, and hunched over it as they laid hands on him and prayed for healing. He walked out of the church completely healed. The doctors were perplexed and he never relapsed.
I didn’t witness it, so I wouldn’t expect anyone else to believe it, but I still trust the people who told this story. This was someone else’s Red Sea crossing. I don’t know why God chose to heal this man while so much other wrongdoing is happening in the world. I don’t think it was a matter of his faith or the faith of those praying. I just think that sometimes God’s world intersects with ours in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable.
In one of my final semesters at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga (UTC), there was a flyer going around. It offered a philosophy course on atheism and agnosticism. I took the course. The professor was a leaning agnostic who had written an essay arguing that if there is a Heaven that he would rather not go. If he had some afterlife encounter with the divine, he would put the divine on trial for insufficient evidence.
We read many New Atheists, David Hume, the professor’s own paper titled “I Don’t Want to Go to Heaven (or Hell),” J.L. Schellenberg, and other known skeptics and atheists. Just to balance things out, we read Christian apologist Alvin Plantinga and watched Collision, a documentary in which Reformed pastor Douglas Wilson debated the now late Christopher Hitchens, my favorite of the Four Horsemen.
We also were assigned a book called Philosophers Without Gods, a collection of essays by known atheists and skeptics. In some of the more autobiographical pieces, I noticed that many of these skeptics started with a negative experience with the Church. It seemed to me that for all of humanity’s constructions, philosophies, and ideals, that much of what we believe is really the result of experience. It is not that objectivity isn’t important; it’s just that it is impossible, and we need to acknowledge that.
When I finished the class, I felt that I was a stronger Christian, but not without a better perspective. Going into the class, I would have said that atheists hold no basis for morality, but by the time I finished the class, I found that many atheists are more moral than the Christians that I know, and in fact, Christianity is littered with a concerning history of immorality and oppression.
I have never been quite comfortable with many of my beliefs. Though I had grown out of my apprehension towards evolution, it still got under my skin. If the Bible was true, I couldn’t see a way through towards an old earth. If I dismissed the Bible on the issue, then it felt like I was giving up God and worshiping man and my own desires instead.
If there is a God, then that God would be the ultimate authority. We are finite and fallen, and God is infinite and all-good and all-loving. Accordingly, there are bound to be things about God that don’t make sense to us because we are limited by our fallenness. Therefore, I believed, we had to trust the Bible as an object of God’s authority. Though it was written by men, and not necessarily divinely dictated, it was inspired by God, and therefore equivalent to his word. Any other view was simply a rejection of God’s authority and therefore idolatry.
I couldn’t wrap my head around a way to both view the Bible this way and accept evolution. My pastor at Vineyard did a sermon on the creation story in Genesis. He explained that the structure of this narrative looked much like poetry, and even had comparisons to other Ancient Near Eastern religions. It was a way for a people to understand how they fit into their world. I recall writing him a long, anxious email. I was taught that the world was good prior to Adam and Eve sinning (the Fall), and that through their sin, death and decay entered the world. However, if evolution is true, then there would have to have been natural death and decay prior to the Fall.
Around that time, my sister wrote a paper on evolution for one of her classes at Covenant College. It too was challenging, explaining how the Genesis text was ambiguous on the length of a day. It wasn’t clear at all if Genesis meant a literal day, or was using “day” to denote the passage of time. Another friend introduced me to BioLogos, a website dedicated to the intellectual pursuit of reconciling the Bible and an old earth. I found that more than one theologian that I respected contributed to the website, including N.T. Wright, as well as Timothy Keller. What got my attention about Timothy Keller is that he is a PCA pastor, and therefore relatively conservative. He had a paper on the website that answered my questions well. Through it, I was able to start reconciling evolution and the first passages of the Bible. I learned from the paper that C.S. Lewis, a much beloved theologian among almost every Christian I know, didn’t even believe Adam and Eve were historical figures in the traditional sense.
I conducted a thought experiment—which I have since conducted often with other issues—in which I pretended that I accepted evolution just to see how it would look. To my surprise, I found that it resolved more cognitive dissonance than it created, and eventually changed my mind.
I was able to sit comfortably in my anthropology classes at UTC. There remained a few subjects that bothered me. Among other passages, Romans 1 seemed clear that same sex intimacy was wrong. I was working in restaurants, so I was surrounded by gay friends. I had attended a Thanksgiving dinner in which I was one of two straight men present. On a political level, it was clear that they should have equality, and I accepted them as my friends, but to accept them as LGBTQ+ meant that I would have to reject God’s authority for my own.
After college, Britt and I decided to get out of the South. After exploring several cities, a friend convinced us to move to the Twin Cities. We packed up our belongings and made our way to Minnesota. We thrived there, but had difficulty finding a church home. We tried a Vineyard, and it was the exact brand of evangelicalism that we had left in our much younger years.
We ended up at an Assemblies of God church that met in a local coffee shop. I was practically begging the pastor to let me get involved. The food service showed me that church is for a very specific kind of person. One had to have Sunday mornings available, a consistent evening available every week for small group, and members had to like mornings if they wanted to meet with their pastor. I dreamed of a church plant that catered to those who had ever-changing calendars because they were working so hard.
We met a great community in that church, and I’m still friends with some of those people. We had intimate and meaningful conversations, attended weddings, and drank together. Yet, the church didn’t feel like home, and we ultimately ended up leaving. We tried another Vineyard, and for the first time in a long time, felt like we were home. Yet again, I still felt like I had entered a time in my life in which God was silent. There was no sense of his presence, no zeal for him, and I felt guilty that I felt nothing. It seemed the more I longed for a connection with God, the less I felt like he was in my life.
Mercy Vineyard was a church plant in northeast Minneapolis intended to minister to the poor non-white community. A bunch of white hipsters would bicycle in, and the church looked very little like its neighborhood. The pastor did his best to promote a more diverse community, and the first fruit of his effort came from an unlikely place. African American middle school kids started showing up. Before they knew it, the church had a youth group, and I started volunteering.
My white privilege afforded me to learn about racial inequality the easy way: in a college classroom. While I was initially resistant to the notion that racial and gender inequality still exists or at least was something for which I was responsible, a degree in Sociology helped me see that the United States still systemically favors white males.
My work with African American kids of low socioeconomic status was real-life view into how the system is stacked against people of color when it comes to upward mobility, access to education, and other things that I take for granted.
I was still determined to church plant, but wasn’t sure if I should attend seminary or not. My father emphasized the importance of seminary, and offered to pay for my first quarter if I tried it out. It was there that I took a class under Dr. Christena Cleveland, and read books like Divided by Faith, where I gained additional insight into how much the Church has and continues to perpetuate inequality. I started to learn that the version of Christianity in which I believe was very white and very Western.
I thrived in seminary and loved my classes in Hermeneutics, Church History, and the Old Testament. Hermeneutics is the branch of theology concerned with Biblical interpretation. It’s how we read and interpret the Bible. This professor was deep, difficult, and thorough. The class taught that we all interpret through different lenses. One solution to this problem is to deconstruct meaning, and allow room for multiple interpretations. The other solution is to do our best to remove those lenses, and to use the tools available to us to get at the author’s intended meaning. Through historical and cultural contexts, a more systematic understanding of the Bible and the nature and personality of the author, we can often get an approximation of the author’s meaning. The view on authorial intent left room for errors and conflicts, but still kept the integrity of Scripture intact. In other words, when Paul said that men should not be intimate with other men, he meant just that. As a good Jewish scholar, he would have known the passages in Leviticus 18 and 20, and in his Greco-Roman context, would have been describing and condemning exactly what many of the Romans around him were doing.
This locked down the argument for me, but then I met a fellow seminarian who is queer. I don’t describe him as gay, because he was clear that he not only didn’t fit neatly into that category, but that he believed that how we do gender and sexuality is much less static and categorical than we might think.
The food service continued to introduce me to people from the LGBTQ+ community. In 2011, The Advocate magazine named Minneapolis as the gayest city in the country. On the surface, it seemed ridiculous, but there was something special about the LGBTQ+ community in Minneapolis. They were accepted and normalized. The second largest parade in the Midwest is the Twin Cities Pride Festival, which I attended twice in political support of my LGBTQ+ friends. However, among the tongue-in-cheek flamboyance was also a serious side that truly wanted the LGBTQ+ community to be recognized as normal. Just like I met and married my wife, lived in an Uptown loft, and worked a regular job, so too did the LGBTQ+ community want to be recognized for and given that same life.
The days of mixing my beliefs with politics were over. A good U.S. History class at Covenant College drove away any remaining convictions that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation or that the founding fathers ever intended for faith and law to intersect. I kept my religious convictions on the issue to myself, but continued to question what I believed.
Matthew Vines’ lecture on same sex relationships and the Bible went viral in the Christian community. He was young, and it showed, but he gave a compelling argument for a Biblical view that allowed same sex relationships (this view is called “affirming”). However, there were those like Kevin DeYoung who also released lectures that reinforced what I already believed. I hoped that Vines would persuade me, but I found those like DeYoung more academic, thorough, and convincing. As Stanley J. Grenz put it in the title of his book, I was “Welcoming but not Affirming.”
The Sunday after Minnesota legalized same sex marriage, Jay Bakker broke open the communion bread and it was rainbow colored inside. I first heard of Jay Bakker while still living in Chattanooga. He is the son of Jim and Tammy-Faye Bakker, famous televangelists known for their prosperity theology and financial wrongdoings.
When Jay was younger, he became critical of the Church and left it for substance abuse and addiction. When he became sober, he came back to Christianity, the Prodigal Son returned. The celebration was short-lived. Jay came out in support of the LGBTQ+ community, which made him an instant pariah in mainstream Christianity.
He started Revolution Church which met in a bar. While patrons enjoyed beers and cocktails, he would just sit at the front and talk about the Bible, faith, and life. He then relocated to Minneapolis, where he started another Revolution Church. There is a bowling alley in Minneapolis called Bryant-Lake Bowl, and it’s like something right out of The Big Lebowski. Bowlers even have to keep score by hand. The same bar that serves this bowling alley also serves the cabaret theater next door, which is where Jay’s church still meets.
During our marriage, Britt has always been more progressive than me. I have always been too analytical and academic for my own good, so while I was still ambiguous on female clergy, convinced same sex partnership was wrong, and presumptive about the historical accuracy of much of the Bible, she was moving away from those things. She didn’t feel like she could be herself among our more conservative Christian friends.
She worked days. I worked nights. We had a terrible year of marriage, and when it came to a head, we seriously considered divorce. There was a lot of forgiveness on both ends, and we decided to reinvest in our marriage. Although I was in seminary and richly involved with the Vineyard’s youth group, it was time for us to leave the Vineyard.
We started attending Jay Bakker’s church. Every Sunday we would drive or bicycle over to Revolution Church, and drink cocktails while Jay, sitting on a stool, drank an Arnold Palmer and talked about faith and life. There was no worship music, and to my knowledge, the only time he ever did communion was in celebration of Minnesota legalizing same sex marriage. Sometimes when he prayed, he would admit that he wasn’t sure he believed in God on that particular day. Instead of opening the Bible, he would often read passages from whatever books he was reading at the time, many of which weren’t even about Christianity. He made fun of Michael W. Smith, but not without some vulnerability.
It was not a large church. Some Sundays, less than a dozen people would show up, and some of them were outspoken atheists. This made Jay approachable, and he was amiable when I asked if we could have dinner to discuss the issue of the Bible and same sex relationships.
Jay and his wife met us for dinner and it was a lively conversation. Jay, much like Matthew Vines, argued that in Paul’s world, there was no concept of same sex relationships like we have today. I argued that there were plenty of same sex relationships in Paul’s time, and Jay said that Paul probably didn’t even write some of those passages. Then he said something that shocked me: Even if Paul wrote those passages and Paul meant what I thought he meant, then Paul was wrong.
To me, Jay had crossed a line. He had given up the authority of the Bible—and therefore God—for his own authority. However, something interesting came out of this conversation: I still thought of him as a Christian.
The lines on who was in and who was out were increasingly blurred. As I became exposed to more kinds of Christians and different beliefs and people wholly other from me, it became clear that what I thought was just one way of looking at things.
Rob Bell was a larger-than-life pastor in Grand Rapids that was known for his exciting and powerful teaching. He remains a gifted communicator who can take the difficult stuff and make it easy and take the boring stuff and make it interesting. I had read Velvet Elvis, which served as a sort of contemporary version of C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity for me. When he released his book Love Wins, a great deal of controversy surrounded it. He was vilified for teaching universalism, which is either a belief that all beliefs lead to heaven, or that through Jesus everyone—regardless of belief—goes to heaven.
I felt guilty that I believed that many of my closest friends were going to be eternally punished in Hell after they died, and I had hope that Love Wins would persuade me otherwise. I enjoyed the book, but it wasn’t as much about universalism as I expected. Francis Chan released a book called Erasing Hell that was a much more thorough and academic examination of Hell as a place of eternal punishment, and I read it, and found little of which to be critical.
I hope that I am making the pattern clear: I haven’t always liked everything that I believed, and have continued to challenge what I believe, and have done my best to pursue the truth, regardless of whatever else I may want. I was in seminary and reading much more than these books, doing my due diligence in every way that I knew how.
On Hell, I eventually leaned annihilationist after studying a passage in Revelation 21 that describes a “second death” for non-believers. It seemed apparent from this and other passages that those who don’t go to heaven simply cease to exist in the afterlife.
The first time I began to truly question the authority of the Bible was in seminary. Mimi Haddad‘s chapter in Curtis Paul DeYoung‘s Coming Together in the 21st Century made a thorough case for female clergy. This was a subject that I thought I knew well. Back at Covenant College, our Doctrine professor would assign students competing views on which to debate. I had to argue for female clergy, and another student had to argue against it. He had it easy because the PCA does not ordain women to any church office. I had to argue for something in which I didn’t believe, and it turned out that our debate would take place during Covenant College’s campus preview weekend, so there were several prospective students and their parents (mostly mothers) sitting in on the class.
The other student had prepared poorly, and I—always relishing a good debate—had prepared well, much to the bewilderment of many of the mothers sitting in on the class. Based on this experience, I thought I knew exactly what it was that I didn’t believe.
One of the proof-texts against female clergy is in 1 Timothy 2 in which Paul says “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.” In this same passage, Paul appears to claim that women are saved through childbearing, which fundamentally conflicts with the belief that everyone is saved through belief in Jesus. Either Paul was contradicting himself or I was reading the passage wrong. I found that every explanation of this passage left much to be desired. Much later, my sister would offer a reasonable explanation of this passage, but in the meantime, this caused much cognitive dissonance for me. I think it sat in the back of mind, causing me to question other things.
While the theology around God’s kingdom was at the forefront of my thought, I still would have said that I believed in predestination, even if I didn’t emphasize it. After reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I decided that I did not believe in predestination anymore. It became apparent to me, and remains apparent, that determinism only goes so far, and that humankind’s greatness is its free will to react to fate and chose a different path.
This caused me to revisit Romans 8 and 9. The theologian N.T. Wright has a series called “Romans in a Week” and it helped me understand those passages better. Still, I didn’t feel fully aligned with the Bible.
This does not mean that I felt at odds with the Bible. I was in seminary and enjoying it more than ever. In my Old Testament courses, I had to read entire books of the Bible in one sitting (bathroom breaks were allowed). This is where I began to see the theme of the Red Sea crossing perpetuated through the Hebrew story, poetry, and prophecy. God and his prophets constantly reminded his people not to forget the ways in which he had been there for them, and frequently pointed back to their emergence out of Egypt and crossing of the Red Sea.
While at Bethel Seminary, I did an internship as a chaplain at a nursing home. This was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. It is difficult to feel optimistic and hopeful when caring for people who don’t have hope. They are lonely, their bodies are failing, and it is only going to get worse. Heaven is hardly a consolation. It didn’t even feel real. I had been confronted with brokenness and despair—particularly after witnessing poverty in India—but the nursing home was unknown territory.
My apologetics fell to the wayside. It didn’t matter if I could philosophically account for the existence of an all-loving and all-powerful god and also the existence of pain. No rationalization could do away with pain, even if it could account for it.
Not everything about Bethel Seminary was great. I had some financial help from my dad, but I was accumulating student loan debt as well, and didn’t feel that I was getting my money’s worth. The more academic courses were invigorating, but classes that focused more on personal spiritual formations were lacking. I am not opposed to expressing myself or being emotional, but these classes felt overly-sentimental and sappy. When we read the poem “Footprints in the Sand” in a Masters-level accredited class, I knew I needed to leave.
And it was time that we left Minneapolis. Three winters had been enough and we missed our family. We still didn’t feel ready to return to a small or mid-sized town, so Chattanooga was not an option. We talked about multiple big cities like Atlanta and Jacksonville, and in the end, Miami made the most sense to us. It was multicultural, progressive, and known for its great food and beverage. My dad, his wife, and my little brother lived about an hour and a half north of Miami, and Britt’s family lived between Tampa and Jacksonville.
We eventually made it to Miami and got jobs in the restaurant business. It was there that I did something that I had never done before. It’s almost an unspoken requirement in the restaurant business that servers have completely open availability, particularly on weekends. I almost didn’t get hired at a restaurant because I refused to work Sundays. I needed church and I needed a day of rest. However, in Miami, we got desperate and didn’t feel like we could ask to have Sundays off. It turned out that Sunday brunch was our most lucrative shift, so we never pushed to have them off again.
I felt more apart from God than ever. There were things in reality that I knew conflicted with the Bible. One of my best friends in Miami was gay and lived in a community of LGBTQ+ people that I got to know and enjoy. There was a lot of brokenness in Miami, and that community had its share of drama, but very few of them were broken people, and even their broken were hurting because of their place in society, and not because of their gender identity or sexual orientation.
I held firm to my belief, because I could see no way around it. I met a transgender Christian who chose not to act on the desire to be a woman. “I don’t want to be this way. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. It’s just the way that I am.” I have heard that from so many of my gay friends, but this was a person who was in the same tension that I was in, but it was compounded by the fact that this person was transgender. Christians have a terrible habit of forming opinions about people they know nothing about, with whom they have never formed a relationship, and maybe never even held a conversation with. But this person lived it.
If this person was going through so much more than me and chose to stick to their convictions, then it was all the more reason for me to stick to mine.
I tried desperately to connect to a church in Miami. In the year and a half that we were there, we went to church once. We got out of a brunch shift early enough to book it to a church we had heard good things about. It was a fine church, but not enough to keep us rushing out of our brunch shifts to drive forty-five minutes on the rare Sunday we wrapped up a brunch shift early.
One time, I looked at my schedule and was off for the Sunday shift. That morning all I wanted was go to church. I got dressed and began walking to the closest church, which meant passing the restaurant where I worked. When I was nearing the restaurant, I received a text. The bartender, also a very good friend, was sick and needed me to cover for her. I contemplated taking another route to the church, much like the passersby in the Good Samaritan parable who went out of their way to avoid the man beaten and dying on the side of the road. When I thought of that parable, I knew that I needed to pick up the shift for her.
Miami is a great city for some people, but it was not a fit for me. It’s the same for the food service. Some people live for it, but it always brought out the worst in me. It was taking its toll on my mind, body, and spirit. We formed some great friendships in Miami, but I needed to get out of Miami and the food service, and settle down.
I had revisited Chattanooga for my sister’s wedding, and fallen in love with the city all over again. My brother-in-law and I got along well, and I really wanted to be in a city with them and their friends. When I unexpectedly lost my job, we decided to pack everything up that week and move to Chattanooga.
We stayed with my sister and her husband while we got on our feet. They were more than patient and gracious. Britt got a job at Covenant College and I got an office job. Best of all, we started going to the Chattanooga Vineyard again, and I started playing guitar for the worship team. Through the Vineyard community, I became friends with someone with a similar enthusiasm for theology and a higher aptitude for it. Chris also happened to be affirming of same sex relationships, and I was interested to finally meet someone that could interact with me academically and had the time and patience to do so.
I was also reading Peter Enns, a former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary, which shares its core doctrine with the PCA. Enns lost his position at Westminster when he came to a different conclusion on how to read the Bible. To Enns, the Bible is not a neat and tidy book, and in fact, contains some things that are troubling if we really admit it. I wasn’t ready to change the way that I read the Bible, but he had my attention.
When I told Chris as much, he loaned me a book called Beyond Fundamentalism by James Barr. This opened up a whole world of concerning elements about the Bible. It didn’t let me sweep problem passages and glaring contradictions under the rug. Barr points out irreconcilable inconsistencies, not just errors or alternate accounts, but events and ideas that are in direct conflict.
My small group was also divided. On one side were the more traditional evangelicals who liked worship music, were enthusiastic about prayer, and optimistic about God. On the other side were several people who had been hurt by the church, who felt unaccepted, and like they couldn’t voice their beliefs.
This became apparent when I made what I thought was a benign suggestion. One small group member said that she felt bad that she didn’t evangelize more. This was an area of focus in my undergraduate and graduate studies. I suggested that evangelism was ultimately about relationships with no ulterior motives. I urged her to simply form relationships and love people regardless of whether they will ever become a Christian. I discussed various academics and sources (Rodney Stark, Paul Hiebert, J.D. Payne, et al.), only to be met with what felt like fear and anger. It seemed that I had hit a sore spot.
I was becoming more aware of the other side of the debate. Beyond Peter Enns, I was listening to the Liturgists podcast, paying more attention to Rob Bell, and starting to watch YouTube videos from more progressive academics like Richard Rohr, Walter Bruggemann, James Brownson, et al.
Many of these were Christians who had somehow let go of the reading the Bible the way that I was taught, but had not lost their love or respect for the Bible. They didn’t skip over the part where Deuteronomy 22 says that a woman has to marry her rapist; they didn’t condone it, but they didn’t take it as the irrefutable word of God.
They weren’t dismissive of other points of view, and even when someone came to a conclusion different than their own, they were patient, listened, and even considered the position.
My dad was a pastor in the PCA up to this point, but had also changed his mind on predestination. We hadn’t exactly coordinated changing our minds on predestination, and we talked about it surprisingly little until after it happened. We had independently, yet serendipitously, drawn similar conclusions, which has happened often since. Our current worldview isn’t so different. His parting from the PCA and deconstruction is his own story, but suffice to say, the way that the PCA handled it left a bad taste in my mouth.
I had moved well outside of Reformed theology, but Britt and I were also starting to find ourselves at a distance from Vineyard, and we parted ways amicably. I continue to play guitar on their worship team once a month and I have recommended the church to those for which I think it may be a fit.
I think we left for a few reasons. We needed a break. We were suffering from what Britt called “evangelical PTSD.” The way we viewed God and wanted to do Christianity just did not match the way that some members wanted us to view God and do Christianity. Second, we felt distant from that congregation. A few members lived in or around downtown, but most of the members lived a significant distance away.
The third reason is more universal: the Church in general is extroverted and Britt and I are introverted. I am left-handed, but it is a right-handed world. I have to make sure that I do not bump elbows with my right-handed neighbor at dinner, often use scissors with my off-hand, and be grateful that I don’t use a school desk anymore, which are almost always built for right-handed students.
As a left-handed person, I can navigate the right-handed world with minimal inconvenience.
I am also an introvert, meaning that I like people, but find interactions with people draining. Extroverts tend to feel energized by personal interaction, but introverts recharge by taking a break from people.
As an introverted person, I can navigate the extroverted world with minimal inconvenience. But as an introverted Christian, I find Christianity too extroverted and too ununderstanding and inconsiderate of my introversion. It is like being left-handed in a world that really wants to force everyone to be right-handed. Get involved: evangelize, attend a small group, come to the weekly potluck, help set up on Sundays. It’s enough to make any introvert want to give up.
Vineyard Chattanooga was and remains accepting and loving. Their co-pastors are unpaid, and pour much life, love, and kindness into that church. It was really for my own reasons that I left, and I retain much affection for that church.
As my thinking started to shift, and I began to engage my Christian friends, I was realizing what I would later come to know as what Mark A. Knoll calls “the scandal of the evangelical mind.” Academic rigor, hard questions, and thorough study were only as important as the conclusions that one draws. If one comes to the wrong conclusion, then he or she will be met with head shakes and disappointment, as if they went wrong somewhere. It’s condescending and frustrating.
This is why both my Christian and non-Christian friends wonder why I would stay a Christian at all. I was always taught an all-or-nothing approach to the Bible. If we start picking and choosing the passages that we like and cutting out the passages that we don’t like, why believe the Bible at all? Except I wasn’t cutting any passages out. I was just reading them differently, and it felt like I was reading them for what they really are.
It likely goes back to my rereading of the creation account in Genesis. The story that the Hebrews told themselves wasn’t a historical account of the founding of the world. It was a way of understanding their place in the world and distinguishing them from other cultures. It echoed the Babylonian mythology (Enûma Eliš), but it improved on it. In the Babylonian myth, amoral gods warred with one another, and the world was fashioned out of the carcass of an evil dragon. Humans were created as slaves for the gods. In the Hebrew meaning-making myth, God is good and the world that God created was good. Humans were created in God’s image, to partner with God in cultivating creation.
This belief was foundational to how the ancient Hebrews saw themselves, and it impacted every crevice of their scriptures. By today’s standards Deuteronomy 22, which says that rape victims have to marry their rapist, is appalling. By Ancient Near Eastern standards, where women were considered property and their value was in their virginity, it was a provision to protect women. Compared to Assyria, it was progressive.
I am not making excuses for ancient laws that are categorically misogynist. The point is that a person who believes that this is the literal command of God has to accept laws that are misogynist. They have to admit that if the New Testament claimed that this law was still in effect, that they would follow it. Instead, they choose not to interact with it, just like they do with the New Testament verses that say that women should cover their heads in church and never wear gold.
So, on one hand, I can still have utmost respect and affection for the Bible, but on the other, those who claim to submit to its authority, don’t actually do so.
The Bible is not always useful for the rules themselves, but rather the trajectory set forth by the rules. Deuteronomy 22 would have been seen as pushing the boundaries of women’s rights. It didn’t go far enough, but it set the precedent. This is why Jesus included women in his ministry, why Paul in some passages praised women leaders, and why today we continue to push for equality for women.
The writers did not treat the scriptures that preceded them as static texts, but rather something with which to interact, improve upon, and move forward. The writers were always calling their people to be better than the other nations and religions around them, and there is no indication in the Bible that this forward thinking stopped.
While I think that there is a solid historical case for Jesus and his resurrection, it’s my Red Sea crossings that remind me that Jesus is very real to me. Sometimes I am ashamed to be associated with other Christians, but I am not ashamed that I believe that in the first century, God became one of us, died for us, and was resurrected as the inaugural sign that God is making everything new. I don’t know what that looks like, and perhaps there is a sense in which I’ve lost sight of something, but I’ve gained sight as well.
I believe that I can finally reconcile reality as I know it with my faith. No longer does what is right in front of me conflict with what I believe to be true.
So, did I just throw the passages on same sex relationships out? There are some unsavory passages in the Bible, but I would not disregard them, but rather live in their tension. It no longer has to be neat and clean and systematic.
Leviticus 18 and 20 both have a long list of verses about who can have sex with whom. There are many laws about incest, but here also are the laws that prohibit a man from having intercourse with another man. What is curious is that it does not condemn a woman having intercourse with another woman. In The Bible Now, Jewish scholars Richard Elliott Friedman and Shawna Dolansky argue that this is because these laws were written in a polygamist society. In other words, why would a person with multiple wives ever limit themselves by saying that women cannot participate in intercourse with one another?
I believe that the extensive laws around sex with relatives were to prevent a husband with multiple wives from incidentally having two of his wives commit incest. And, by the way, there is the whole modern taboo around polygamy, which the Bible never condemns.
These verses are in quotation marks, claiming that God actually said this to Moses who wrote it down. It should make anyone uncomfortable to attempt to take this at face value. I’ve come to a point in my life where I no longer can take it at face value and the same goes for Romans 1.
What is interesting about Romans 1 is that Paul condemns both gay and lesbian intercourse. Paul is already playing fast and loose with Leviticus 18 and 20, which do not condemn lesbian intercourse. Paul is adding something. This is a great example of how the writers of the Bible were constantly playing with the texts written by their predecessors.
It’s important to make the distinction that Bible condemns gay and lesbian intercourse, but never condemns gay or lesbian relationships. That is because the Biblical writers likely didn’t have a concept of gay or lesbian relationships. Paul would not have understood the idea that someone who is LGBTQ+ doesn’t have a choice, nor would have he believed that there are LGBTQ+ people who want to enter into a quiet, monogamist marriage. Paul would have been preoccupied with the way the Greeks and Romans did things, which was unhealthy (pederasty, temple prostitution, sex slavery) and is unlike anything the LGBTQ+ community is asking for today.
In the context, Romans 1 is not really a passage that should make anyone uncomfortable in today’s more inclusive culture. It’s simply not talking about the same concepts of sexuality and gender in modern society. The reason same sex intercourse is prohibited by the Bible and not same sex relationships is because the Biblical writers had no concept of same sex relationships. Therefore, their opinion on the matter is motivated by culturally antiquated factors.
If I am wrong, and the God of the universe is truly preoccupied with how two consenting adults choose to have relationships, then this is a theological issue. However, if I’m right, then the trajectory set forth by the Bible is freedom and equality for all and it’s a social justice issue. The Bible is then useful for empowering the engines of social justice, not restricting them.
In Acts 8, Philip approaches a eunuch to evangelize to him. Philip would have known well that Deuteronomy 23 says that a man that has been emasculated cannot be “admitted into the assembly of the Lord.” Philip completely disregarded an Old Testament verse and welcomed a eunuch into the assembly of the Lord. The trajectory, therefore, is inclusion of intersex people, and arcs even further towards the inclusion of trans people.
This is not to make the case for LGBTQ+ affirmation in the Church, although that would be a welcome benefit. Rather, this is how I came to where I am at now. To my Christian friends and family, I still find the Bible dear, God-breathed, and full of life. I believe that it arcs towards social justice, love, and the renewal of broken things. I know that for many, this means that I cannot fit inside their view. A friend told me that Satan is whispering my ear. Another said that people like me are following a “made up Christ.” Yet, I feel more at peace with God than I have felt for a long time. I haven’t rejected anything creedal, and it’s debatable at best if I have rejected any core tradition that emerged out of the early church, much less Christianity’s Judaic roots.
To my non-Christian friends, as embarrassing as Christians can be, I cannot ignore my very real experiences. There is a side of Christianity that is full of acceptance, action, love, and consideration. There is no scandal in drawing different conclusions, because frankly, I don’t think there is a Hell. I truly believe that there is something unique and vibrant about Jesus that makes Christianity and the Bible worthwhile, and I think that it is because of Jesus that no one goes to Hell. I would invite any of my non-Christian friends to explore that path, but regardless, there is always room at the table.
Richard Rohr points out that conservatives construct too much. Everything is so tightly-woven and systematized that they cannot step out and understand or appreciate another person’s view. Liberals deconstruct too much. They dismantle everything until it no longer has meaning. Rohr says that a healthy person will deconstruct, but also reconstruct. There have been so many patient and kind people in my life who have helped me on this path. I will still require that same patience and kindness, and I hope to continue to extend it to others. I’m not enlightened, and am by no means finished learning and rethinking what I believe. I am reconstructing.
In fact, this radical shift in belief did not diminish my moral compass, but rather challenged me to evaluate what really matters to me. I started to realize the disparity between my moral convictions and eating habits. I couldn’t both imagine a world without suffering and world where we kill animals on the whims of our appetites. We all know this about the animals we keep as pets, but for some reason don’t make the same connection with the animals that we eat, many of which are just as intelligent as our pets. I thought it was enough to give up meat, but when I started to understand animal agriculture, I eliminated animal products from my diet.
Even though in the creation story God only allows for the eating of plants, after the flood, God concedes on the issue of eating meat, saying that humanity will be the objects “fear and dread” for animals. Old Testament laws command the slaughter of animals, and the Gospel writings in the New Testament indicate that Jesus at least served and probably ate fish. In Romans 14, Paul calls non-meat eaters weak depending on how one interprets that passage.
Are there slaughterhouses in Heaven? If there is some divine redemption plan, then that must extend to the whole earth and everything in it. Renewal, redemption, and restoration will not have come in fullness until it has come for all. Meat may have been a necessity in the in the ancient world, but for most of the civilized world, it is a luxury item.
The things that we do are either life-giving or they are not. When we consume death, we wrong ourselves and our world. I mean this on a spiritual or mystical level, but there is a sense in which this is literal. As we consume meat, we also consume the leading cause of greenhouse gases, which is destroying the very world in which we live.
It’s tempting to be legalistic about veganism, but I understand that it’s not as easy for everyone as it is for me. All I want is for people do what they can to make the world a better place. Of course I wish that there were more vegans, but most of all, I wish the least amount of harm to come to animals, so if a person truly lacks the resources to eat a completely vegan diet, all I ask is that they make better choices about their food whenever and however it is within their means.
It takes a tremendous amount of resources to make many of our everyday tools and I doubt all (or even most) of those resources are ethically sourced. As much as I’d like to see a world with less suffering, I know that going vegetarian or vegan isn’t easy for everyone. I think it’s important that people find something that important to them that is low effort and high impact.
It is not lost on me that it was so easy for me to go vegan because of my privilege. I used to roll my eyes at things like affirmative action, but I have come to understand that growing up as a middle class, and perhaps wealthy by some standards, white male that my life has been much easier than it would have been had I been born a person of color. Not all white conservative Christians are racist or blind to their privilege, but conservative Christianity has a history of criminal racism and sexism. Even after leaving more overt brands of bigotry behind, it still harbors residual inequality. As a conservative, I was blind to that, but I have come to recognize those racist and sexist tendencies in myself. When someone says that she is speaking truth to power, I know that she is talking about me, and that it’s my responsibility to empower her to lead with her message.
I think most of my non-Christian friends will understand. There has been almost nothing but respect and curiosity, and their levity about religion has never been anything that offended me. It is my Christian friends that have been less than understanding. I hope that no one will perceive this as an attack or attempt to persuade them on one topic or another. I only want to persuade my audience to understand where I am coming from.
If, after all of this, I have caused someone to bristle, post farewell Tweets, or take me less seriously, I would encourage him or her to take on a few challenges.
Christians should get to know the very people that they believe are doing something wrong. That goes for heretics, the LGBTQ+ community, women who have had abortions, atheists, Democrats, immigrants, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and everyone else various sects of the Church have spent decades and centuries marginalizing, persecuting, and condemning. The Church and individuals in the Church should form relationships with them, and instead of trying to teach them, be open to what they can teach each and every Christian bold, generous, and blessed enough to get to know the very humans that the Bible says bear God’s image.
For those who don’t know where to start, the internet is full of people telling their stories. There are videos and podcasts of people talking about what the human experience is like for them. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking, but it’s so often life-giving.
I would also ask those cynical about my claim to due-diligence to conduct due-diligence of their own. While I feel that I have made personal breakthroughs, there is no way that I am finished with my own progress, and I am surely inconsistent in my beliefs. However, I confronted the challenges presented by the Bible and my own lifestyle and will continue to do so.
I don’t think there was ever a time when it was okay for a woman to be forced to marry her rapist. For 29 years I thought this passage was the word of God, but I didn’t want to think about it too much. I also think that almost everything in the Bible about meat-eating from Genesis 9:8 forward is in direct contradiction to Genesis 1:29-30, and that Christians are obligated to work towards a world where we no longer torture and exploit animals. I grew up hunting and fishing. For 29 years, I made fun of vegetarians and vegans.
It would be sanctimonious to insist that others draw the same exact conclusions that I have drawn. All that I would ask is that anyone at odds with what I’m saying to challenge what is at odds within themselves and their belief system first. However, I am not beyond reproach and I remain open to correction and dialog.
To my Christian and non-Christian friends who find solidarity in this or feel marginalized by Christianity, please be patient with Christians. Get to know them as well. There are the mean, hellfire and brimstone vitriolic Christians, but most of them are just like anyone else. They are just like me. I want to get this life thing right—not to be right, but to do right by the other image-bearers with which I am doing life.
To everyone, regardless of belief, I would encourage what Paul calls the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do that which is life-giving. No one person can do everything, but every person should do what they can to make the world a better place. Reduce dividing lines, form relationships, love even when it is difficult, and try again after failure. Learn to forgive even when it’s not deserved. Construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct.