Rewriting History: The Problem with a Flattened Narrative

This past week, much of the discussion of the Christian blogging world has been obsessed with this piece from Christianity Today, about the ongoing discussion on “leaving the church.” Kevin Miller brings together the examples of Donald Miller, Brian McLaren and Rob Bell as famous “defectors” from the American Evangelical church. He writes: “Are we willing to grow in our love for Holy Church? To accept her teachings, her worship, her cultural rejection? Will we embrace not just the Head but the Body, and love not just the Groom but the Bride?”

McLaren, writing in response on his own blog, commented that he has not “left the church,” but merely left the pastorate: “Although I did leave the pastorate 8 years ago, I didn't in any way leave the church. I'm a quiet and grateful member of a congregation in the community where I now live.” 

McLaren’s critique of Miller also brings up a very important point, which I’ll quote here:

Kevin Miller is right - nobody should make choices based on pride, popularity, fear of persecution, celebrity, or selfish and stupid individualism. But Evangelicals will not be helping themselves if they assume the only reason people like us are critiqued in articles like this is because something is wrong with us. It would be good for Evangelicals, especially in places like CT, to go deeper in thinking about why they tend to lose (or drive away) so many of their promising young leaders.

McLaren here (full disclosure: McLaren also publishes with Jericho Books, though I have not met him) is absolutely right in that part of the reason many people are walking away from evangelical church bodies and membership is not necessarily because there is something wrong with us. But I also don’t think it’s because there’s something wrong with that particular brand of church, either (though there are a lot of things that don’t help them). 

I stopped attending local church services in part because of my intense anxiety that arises any time I’m in a large crowd. This anxiety is compounded by the fact that I can’t turn off my brain when I walk into a church – it’s impossible for me to sit quietly and not dissect the ideas that are presented to me throughout the service. I also feel that I shouldn’t have to turn off my brain when going into a church service, which compounds my intellectual angst over the theology I hear.

Kevin Miller’s assumptions about why people leave the church or leave the pastorate are shallow at best, but are often the given acceptable reasons amongst a lot of evangelicals – “they left because their theology changed, because they became selfish, because they wanted to embrace the world.” Whenever I tell my story to people of how I became a feminist, how I moved away from the church-as-institution, there’s a part of me that knows exactly what responses I’ll get from “orthodox” evangelicals. I don’t doubt that at least a part of the criticism of my work, now and in the future, will center on how I “left the church” (though I haven’t) because I wanted to embrace “the things of the world” (though it’s far, far more complex than that).

This lack of complexity is important to note. Miller simplifies the stories of all three pastors whom he talks about, drawing lines and parallels and writing his paragraphs in a particularly structured way: A. Pastor “flirted” with universalism. B. Pastor “left” the church. C. Pastor’s view on homosexuality changed.

Miller boils down a complex, lifelong exploration into a few sound bites, into a neat and tidy narrative that places the fault on the pastors for not “accepting the church’s teaching” and implying, as McLaren rightly points out, that there is something wrong with the pastors, not with the church they supposedly left (but really didn’t).

I don’t think it’s a mistake that these three white men were selected for this treatment. Choosing only white men allows Miller a shallower reading, an ability to treat these men as stand-in’s for the more liberal and progressive movements within the church without also bringing in the complexity that gender, race, and sexual identity brings to the table. Miller here purposefully avoids the complexity of discussing the real world impact of a lot of these theologies – if one of these pastors had stepped away to come out of the closet or if they happened to be gender or racial minorities, the narrative would be much harder to accept and to flatten.

The voices we choose to represent history also allow us to rewrite that history. And it is no surprise that the narratives we tell about peoples’ journeys often deny them their own voices. Miller could have chosen to talk about Anne Lamott, Phyllis Tickle, or any number of major female voices from ten years ago. But he didn’t, because such a piece would require an in-depth discussion of how the evangelical church has failed women. By selecting only white men, Miller gets to ignore the mass of new theologies and new discussions that are happening outside the walls of the evangelical church.

Perhaps it’s selfish. Perhaps it’s individualistic of me. But one of the major reasons I have chosen to continue not attending church, even after getting my anxiety problems under control, is because the church is no longer having conversations that are relevant to my life and to the lives of people I talk to every day. I’m involved now in conversations about liberation theology, about queer theology, about how God is a God of Justice and Love and what that means practically for us as we bring the Kingdom of Heaven to bear on earth.

Not being a local congregation does limit me in some ways, but what the local church looks like is changing, and it’s not just because a few pastors had a change of heart on one issue. It’s changing because we know more people, we have access to more stories, and we are developing our own ideas about what God means.