Almost immediately upon birth, I was plunged deep into Evangelicalism.
All of my family and most of my friends were Evangelicals. I went to church at least twice a week. I was the kid who actually memorized the weekly memory verses for Sunday School, the kid who could rattle off each book of the Bible in order without stumbling on the minor prophets.
Around the time that I became a teenager, my faith became experiential and existential. I had moving, transformative spiritual experiences. Then I went off to college and became a Bible study leader at an Evangelical campus ministry. My faith was the center of my social circles, my hopes and dreams, my day-to-day life, my spirituality, my hermeneutic for interpreting everything. I’ve spent most of my life happily submerged in Evangelicalism like a fish in water.
But then, over the course of nine months, I realized I was drowning in this water, and a storm was raging at the surface.
At the beginning of one semester, I had never had an openly gay friend. By the end, I had three. I told each of them what I thought a straight, gracious, Bible-believing Christian should say. I could see in their faces that I was wrong… But how could this be?
Before I had a chance to reflect, I came across sharp postmodern critiques of Evangelicalism. Soon after that, I discovered historical criticism of the Bible. And then I found theological take-downs of penal substitution. And then I learned that some Christians don’t believe in Hell. And then I found the quest for the historical Jesus. I was pummeled by relentless waves of unwanted revelations, and no orthodox or biblicist apologist was able to rescue me.
If you turn to faith in times of crisis, where do you turn when your faith is the crisis?
I found myself reading theology, and I was profoundly confused. Of course I struggled with their terminology and winding arguments; I was a teenager with no formal theological or philosophical training. But even more incomprehensible than the texts themselves was the fact that I was reading them. I wasn’t just reading them, either; I was scarfing down book after book like a starving person who just stumbled upon a buffet. Theology seemed irrelevant and trivial to me when I was a happy Evangelical, so why the sudden 180?
In hindsight, it makes perfect sense. I was lonely. For fear of losing my leadership position at my Evangelical campus ministry, the center of my social life, I kept most of my doubts to myself. When I shared them with my most trusted friends, I was quarantined. My friends didn’t understand why I was so concerned with “intellectual” questions, nor did they want to understand, lest they contract my disease in the process.
But in the pages of my books, I found something like solidarity. My mother didn’t understand why it mattered to me what mainstream scholars say about the historical accuracy of the Fourth Gospel, but Marcus Borg understood. The unraveling of correspondence theories of truth put my housemates to sleep, but JKA Smith cared. My closest friends couldn’t fathom how these sorts of questions kept me up at night, tossing and turning, but Tillich understood the ultimacy of my concern. With the theologians inside these pages, I was no longer alone.
Eventually, the storm receded long enough for me to assemble a makeshift raft out of nearby debris. At this stage, the theologians who had kept me company during the storm came in handy once again, now suggesting new and exciting routes beyond the wreckage of Evangelicalism. My theological canvas has been erased; what shall I paint now?
That brings us to today, to the beginning of this blog, nearly five years since I first began to doubt Evangelicalism.
Hopefully by now you can see why I chose to title this blog “Theology after Evangelicalism”. I left Evangelicalism years ago, but I’m still shaped by my Evangelical upbringing, still captivated by the questions that first swept me away, still dreaming of what shape my faith might take next. This blog is a place to process that mess using the language of theology.