I think I’ve mentioned before I don’t think everyone is “led,” “called”— (not sure what word…?), to leave the FG world. And depending upon one’s history, it may not even be possible to leave that world completely. In some ways it may be like being raised in the South but then relocating at some point in life. Even if one never goes back, can they ever say they are no longer “southern?”
I also think some are meant to stay behind and remain a voice, salt, and light—a change agent. For those in really toxic fundamentalist environments, I of course believe they should leave. I know even in those situations such is easier said than done. Marriage, or being too young to be on one’s own, can make leaving, if not almost impossible, then very, very difficult. I get that.
I can also see where being in certain evangelical environments would make leaving difficult. I had many wonderful friendships—and I looked forward to interacting and being with those friends on a weekly basis. There are also very thoughtful evangelical environments where they are self-aware enough to sort of “get it” and they realize their own short-comings as a tradition. This is all to say that each person has to decide whether or not they can stay in that world or not.
I was led to think about much of this after reading this essay (see here) by Craig S. Keener (see here). Dr. Keener tells us he almost left evangelicalism, gives us the reasons why, and then tells us why he chose to stay. I can see why he chose to stay, whether or not I agree or disagree with any particular reason.
It made me realize there are probably many reasons one might leave the FG world, but I think there are two primary reasons. And the first one is why Dr. Keener thought about leaving. He writes:
“My problem with evangelicalism wasn’t theological. My theological beliefs were solidly evangelical. It was evangelical subculture—not evangelical faith—that I was feeling increasingly alienated from.”
For him, it was the subculture, and specifically, the either outright racism of some evangelicals or their cluelessness toward the lives of “others”–those who were different, that caused the most discomfort for Dr. Keener.
I think the other primary reason people leave the FG world is theological and such is mainly why I left. The election of Trump may have been the spark, but the kindling, the wood, had already been laid—and it was theological wood.
The reason Dr. Keener almost left, the subculture, was also a problem for me and was a problem long before the theological came into play. But it was other aspects of the subculture that bothered me. Frankly, I was blind to what I now look back and see was racism and prejudice in my own tradition (Southern Baptist). Of course, since I didn’t bear the brunt of those prejudicial attitudes, it didn’t register. I guess that comes from the privilege of being white. I regret that blindness now.
No, for me, it was the kitsch of evangelicalism, the banal worship music, the leaning toward a Thomas Kinkade aesthetic, the longing for a Hallmark world washed of any dirt or complexity that made me uncomfortable. The propensity to desire a world surrounded by a white picket fence enclosing a sort of religious Disneyland almost seemed more a hell to me than a heaven. I also see now that such a vision probably contains latent historical (current?) racial prejudices too.
For those who stay in the FG world, who like Dr. Keener, are simply uncomfortable with the subculture, I wish them all the best. Stay and be a prophetic voice. In love, be a change agent, even if such is a lonely and often misunderstood place to inhabit.
I would add a caution however. It may be the case Dr. Keener and others like him have missed a vital and significant connection. Dr. Keener notes the problem was not evangelical theology, but the subculture. I would argue the theology produces the subculture. Yes, there are other factors involved, but a tradition’s theology is a tremendously important one.
Further, it was conservative, right-wing, fundamentalist/evangelicals who seem to have had the most trouble coming to grips with integration, the Civil Rights Movement, and “seeing” people of color as equal. Why was that? For those who think the Religious Right (which was made up primarily of fundamentalists/evangelicals) arose over the issue of abortion, it might shock them to learn it was really over segregation—something many of them favored (see here).
And what about women? They are often still treated in the same way as people of color were (are still?). I would submit that such treatment is also part of that same subculture with which he had problems and is also linked to the theology, with which he didn’t.
I will also note that prejudices, racial or otherwise, are alive and well in every religious tradition, not just the FG world. Duly noted. However, we do have to ask if some theological sensibilities actually give credence to such, rather than them being incidental to cultural/historical bias and ignorance.
The subculture, the sensibility, the aesthetic, the prejudices, the art, the music, the institutions, the intellect and its products, books, sermons, etc.., the very ethos of a religious subculture is produced by its theology (which is not to say just in an informational sense, in the sense of an abstract framework, but rather in a total sense of heart, mind, and experience, of living). Its way of life, its manner of living, is produced by its confessions and traditions (theology), and names what it really believes to be true.
My fear is that Dr. Keener and many like him will one day realize that the problem wasn’t really the subculture, but the theology/tradition behind it. One may have created the other. And even if it didn’t produce the racism he speaks of, it certainly produced the negative aspects I noted. If that day of realization comes, that one produced the other, then what?