Saturday, July 7, 2018

Can Evangelicalism be saved?

It’s hard to have a conversation with someone who thinks they know everything. And none of us wants to be one of those people. But hubris is a bit like body odour: it’s very easy to notice on someone else and very difficult to detect in oneself. 
The collective response to evangelicalism recently should therefore give us pause. Is everyone outside our tribe just poorly informed about what a healthy body is supposed to smell like or is it maybe true that we actually stink? 
Contrary to what it may feel like within large churches or within the organizations that serve their growth, evangelicalism is in decline on this continent. Millennials and younger Gen-Xers are now leaving or never signing up for evangelicalism in trends similar to their changing attitudes about another cultural monolith, Facebook. A global media company where users select friends and sources of information based on which ones best support their opinions, Facebook is increasingly known for its social shallowness, creepy leadership, susceptibility to political manipulation, and suffocating inescapability. 
Some people, it seems, find none of these things appealing. 
With so many leaving the evangelical party we’re fast approaching the point in the evening where we slip away to casually sniff our pits. (And, while we have a moment, maybe check our Facebook. As Providence would have it we might just find an encouraging post from one of those popular neo-Reformed churches about the way the gospel is offensive, about how being awkwardly bold is a sign that we’re probably doing something heroically right. Or, maybe we’d just find viral cat videos.) But let’s not get distracted.
We can be almost certain that Jesus, by modern North American standards, did indeed non-metaphorically stink. Nobody would’ve noticed at the time of course, Jesus being fully incarnate in his aromatic context, but anyone from our cultural context would’ve noticed the distinction immediately. 
Evangelicals love to talk about context. We like to hear about how people spoke and thought and lived during biblical times. But let’s be honest, we only like cultural context because it is chaff – that useless husk our sermons raise to the wind and blow away before the big reveal: a transcendent kernel of timeless truth.
We like to talk about context because it’s how we arrive at our real aim – culture-free “biblical” principles. We usually call these things the gospel.The message. The good news. Our namesake euangelion. It’s what we’re all about. 
But slow the reel for a second and zoom in on that sleight of hand in the middle: we take a decontextualized message and slide it gently into our own culture then we pack the two together and call the combination a single whole. It’s a subtle switcheroo but once it’s complete everything fits perfectly. Nothing is out of place or off script because today’s evangelicalism functions like a social media echo chamber – in here the news always sounds good because a hermeneutical algorithm has selected only what appeals to our culturally supplied tastes. In here we’ve persuaded ourselves that we’ve so thoroughly accepted the odourless Jesus into our hearts that our own sub-culture has simply become the gospel. 
If that were the whole problem we’d just be a boring and relatively harmless sect. No big deal, just a bunch of comfy white folks off on the side somewhere congratulating ourselves with God’s approval. But if there’s one thing everyone knows about evangelicals it’s that we insist on sharing. 
If I share a cat video with my “friends,” they’re distracted for a minute or two then eventually find their way back to more pressing concerns. But if I share a message that transcends and judges all cultures except my own – well, that’s a very different kind of virus. That is something we’re supposed to call sin, and something at the root of what everyone else usually calls colonialism.
There’s nothing morally bad about doing church on a small, even shrinking, scale. Size doesn’t matter and diminishing interest is certainly not about being persecuted. What is morally bad, what does deserve evangelical trepidation, is the way our biblical-cultural switcheroo means we’ve uncritically supported and exported some of the worst and most harmful aspects of our society – racism, misogyny, militarism, ecocide and systemic inequality among them. 
Historians will tell us that the term evangelical is much older than its current headline-grabbing iteration and that “true evangelical faith,” in the words of Menno Simons, has some very attractive and less newsworthy things to get on with. And long-time evangelicals will object to declaring deceased the only spiritual mother we’ve ever known. Academic and sentimental concerns aside, however, modern evangelicalism on this continent is in very rough shape. 
Can it be saved? 
The question is not rhetorical. 
Neither is it one that can be adequately answered by the same leaders we followed into this mess. It may turn out that the way ahead involves becoming more thoroughly evangelical rather than more intensely committed to the movement’s current forms. To figure out what that might look like we’re going to need some serious prophetic imagination – some speaking to power rather than from it – so our strongest and most hopeful voices are likely to come from the fringes. As Canadian Mennonite Brethren we are already doubly outside the dominant centre, both as non-Americans and as Anabaptists, and we’d be even further ahead by listening to more women, people of colour, indigenous Canadians, and Christians from other parts of the world. 
Evangelical hubris is more than just a lapse in hygiene or a knack for media bias, it’s something in our water. That may mean our party is over, it may not. Either way, everyone could benefit from some fresh air.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Dear Riley 2.0

Dear Riley,

Thank-you for writing to me again. Asking difficult questions is sometimes scary but you are a brave girl and I’m very proud of you.

“I’m wondering if God is real…”

I think God is real, yes. Or maybe it would be better to say, I feel like God is real (most of the time). For me, God is real like the way I feel about my kids, like how you feel about your mom and dad; that’s real, right? Maybe not “real” like a bicycle or a book or a pair of skis – like something you can see in front of you and pick up or put away – but real in a bigger (and better) way, like knowing somebody loves you.

“… for me it’s confusing and starting to bug me alot… ”

This is another way God is like love. Sometimes the love we feel is not confusing; it’s as obvious as a big hug or as simple as the floor we stand on. But other times love can be very confusing, like when your dad has to go away for work or your mom gets crabby (ha-ha, that’s my sister, I know she can be crabby sometimes!) But even when it’s confusing – and maybe especially when it’s confusing – we can know it’s real.

“… and I want to know if you know he’s real?”

I know some math, like simple algebra. And I could probably teach it to you. If I did, what I know about math (not much, tbqh) would become something you know. But knowing that God is real is not teachable like math.

I could teach you some things about your mom. I would tell you stories about her (oh boy, I have some good ones!) But I can’t teach you that her love for you is real. That’s something you learn by knowing her and trusting her yourself.

I could also teach you some things about God. I would tell you stories about him. But I can’t teach you he’s real. That’s something all of us learn (or don’t learn) and believe (or don’t believe) for ourselves.

“… how come my question is soo confusing and … what causes confusion? Thoose questions are real real bothering me. Why?”

Whenever I get confused about God I think about Jesus instead. Sometimes ideas about God are just too big for my brain. But Jesus – he’s not so confusing. He’s someone I can always admire and always get to know better. I think big questions should bother us at least a little because that’s what keeps us exploring. But sometimes explorers can get lost, so here’s a route I’d suggest: the bible says when we get to know and understand Jesus we’re actually getting to know and understand God. I know you like to learn and read; maybe if you focused on learning about Jesus, on knowing him as well as you can, these questions about God wouldn’t bug you so much?

Here’s something I know is real: I love you. Keep exploring, Riley.

Uncle Paul

P.S. a clever poet, Rainer Rilke, once said a good thing: “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves.”

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dear Riley,

Did you know that smart people have lots of answers but really smart people have lots and lots of questions? (You probably didn’t know that because I just made it up, but I’m pretty sure it’s true – and I am definitely sure that it’s true about you!) Thank-you for writing to me and thank-you for sharing your excellent questions with me.

Your first question, “Did God make all the fish and the Birds at once?” is a very good one. And if it weren’t for the last two words of it, it would be an easy one, too. Yes, God made all the fish and the birds (and everything else) – of course! – but did he make them at once? Hmm, maybe. Maybe God made everything quickly, like in a few days, but I think it’s more likely that he took a very, very long time. For you and I, it seems silly to take a long time to do something that we could’ve done quickly, but God is not impatient like us – in fact, it seems to me that God likes to take his time.

Your second question is: “Did God make all his creation from Dust?” Yes, that might be a good way to think of it. Of course, he made the dust, too. And he made whatever dust is made from. And he made whatever that stuff is made from, and also what it’s made from, and so on down to things so small that we can’t even see them anymore. (If you like, we can borrow Joe’s microscope next time you visit and look at all of the little bits inside a piece of dust.) I believe God made everything, from the very biggest things like planets and stars to the very smallest things like whatever is inside dust, and I believe he made it all out of nothing. I know that sounds impossible – making something out of nothing! – but God is able to do impossible things.
I think the reason the Bible says we’re made from dust is so we remember that all creatures – including you and I – we all depend on God at every moment: without his love and energy, we’d be like lifeless dust.

You also asked, “How old is the earth?” My best answer is: I don’t know. But I have a friend who studied physics and geology after high school, and she is very smart (like you). If you want, I could ask her how old she thinks the earth is. Or, if you’re in a rush, I could google it (ha-ha, LOL, jk.) But I can say this, Riley: people who think the earth is only a few thousand years old because they think that’s what the Bible says are kinda messy bible-readers, IMO. They’re very nice people – most of them – but nice people can make messy mistakes (for example, your dad: he’s very nice but sometimes smells stinky).
Imagine throwing rocks into the lake with some of your friends near Grandma and Grandpa’s house. Imagine that cousin Sean is there too, and that he is wearing his fancy baseball uniform. Wouldn’t it be strange if Sean said that you and your friends can only have three chances to throw your rocks properly, and that you have to run around a big square on the beach, and that if somebody catches your rock in the air then you have to stop playing and go sit on a bench? Those are baseball rules, silly Sean! We know that Sean really likes baseball and that he is very good at it, but I’d have to pick him up and throw him into the lake if he tried to make you and your friends play by his rules. Sometimes people who really like science and think they’re good at it try to make other people read the Bible according to their sciencey rules. But why do that? (Sometimes I think those people should just go jump in the lake!) The Bible isn’t a science book – it’s a totally different thing with different kinds of answers. Sometimes it doesn’t have the kinds of answers to fit the questions we want to ask – like this one of yours about the age of the earth. It’s a very interesting question, but I think it’s one of those ones the Bible doesn’t completely answer for us. The Bible does tell us some other important things, though, like however old the earth is, it was God who made it. In fact, the Bible tells us that God is still making it, every second of every day.

Your last question is my favourite: “Did God get burned when he made the sun?” To answer this, I’d like to ask you a question: did you get burned when you drew that picture of a sun on your note to me? (Ha-ha, of course not, silly uncle Paul!) I think God is so big and so amazing and so powerful that he made our sun and all the other stars even more easily than you drew that picture for me.

Riley, I hope you will always ask hard questions because they are usually the most important ones. But now let me tell you something that even a lot of adults don’t understand: many of the most important questions don’t have easy answers. In fact, sometimes the really hard questions don’t have answers at all. Or, if they do have answers, sometimes we only learn them slowly, over the whole, long stretch of our lives. We just have to keep asking, and keep exploring, and try to be patient.
Whenever I get an important and difficult question in my head I ask myself if God has already answered it for us or not. That’s when I think about Jesus. Jesus is God showing us who he is in a way that we can (usually) understand. Jesus shows us that even though God is big and powerful enough to make everything, he still loves you and I and everybody else very much.

And I love you very much.

Uncle Paul

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Eleven questions from a former friend

My friend moved away. But she's not willing to just let our thing drop. So she’s asked eleven questions ‘to get to know me better’. Okay, AJ. Thank-you. Here you go:

1. Describe your transition from secondary school to post secondary school.

Accidental. It was midway through July, 1989 when I realized Grade 13 (an Ontario thing at the time) was optional. I was smoking tea rolled in Bible paper on a clandestine deck in the woods at the summer camp where I was working, and it was raining. I had an important lifeguard for a girlfriend at the time so I couldn’t give the decision much more than a couple hours attention. The ink ran on the paper but I mailed that college application the next day. In retrospect I don’t regret much about that summer but a little more thought about my choice of college might’ve served me better.

2. Where is one place you’ve been that you would tell others is “forgettable”?


3. Who was your favorite teacher growing up and why was that teacher so great?

Easiest question of the lot: Mrs. Walker, my Grade Three matriarch. Of all the forks in my road, the one she patrolled was almost certainly the most crucial.

4. Favorite Canadian band?

At the moment it’s Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans.

5. What kinds of books do you read just for the heck of it?

Robert Frost, Czesław Miłosz, Walt Whitman, Joseph Brodsky – their Collected Poems.

6. If there was just one thing that you wish you could be a little better at, what would it be?

I’ve had a persistent prayer since I was maybe 18 based on a recurring theme in the Psalms; it’s about the way wisdom and humility only travel together. I don’t know why it first occurred to me to offer it, or why it keeps popping-up, but the request comes from somewhere either deep inside me or, more likely, from somewhere or someone beyond me. I’m pretty sure it’s true: I could be better at both.

7. What do you wish you knew when you were 16 that you know for sure now?

Here’s a bit from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry:

“You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out – perhaps a little at a time."

“And how long is that going to take?”

“I don’t know. As long as you live, perhaps.”

“That could be a long time.”

“I will tell you a further mystery,” he said. “It may take longer.”

8. How do you think you have the greatest influence in your work?

Probably in ways nearly opposite to what would be the most obvious answer to this question. Maybe it’s in whatever happens when I share a sandwich with my abrupt but gentle Ucwalmicwts tutor, or in that few seconds at my two o’clock appointment when I could’ve said something but didn’t, and just listened instead.

9. Describe what retirement will look like for you.

I expect Melanie and I will finally be finished with our adolescent jostling of wills and come again to naïve joy, holding hands.

10. You have a meeting with an important person to talk about an important thing. Who is that person and what are you going to talk about.

My guess is it’ll be with one of my parents about the recent or imminent death of the other. In a way I’ve been preparing for that conversation for years, but I won’t be ready for it.

11. What eating establishment do I need to go to if money, distance, and time were of no concern.

Buy a slab of Chinook salmon off the docks in Tofino and cook it in butter over a camp stove in Long Beach mist.

Saturday, December 14, 2013


The fullness of life can become either banal busyness or on better days something more like the marginally bearable heaviness of being. The choice is often triage. In a moment of stolen calm we can bend our necks and moan inwardly or look proverbially upward and sigh with gratitude. The decision seems minor at first because worry and prayer begin from the same place. But they are not the same: worry makes an immediate U-turn at the ribcage and festers ingrown while prayer rises off the soul like sweat from a horse’s flanks.

When Mr. Dale Wallace took the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ from his translucent thimble he threw it down the hatch with his chin to the ceiling and his eyelids shut in rustic ecstasy. Like he’d just busted through swinging saloon doors and slammed a gloved palm on the bar and growled for bourbon. His eyes wet with some unknown passion and his throat straight at the sky longing for more, it was clear to the other patrons that one should not come between this cowboy and his elements. The world itself waited as crushed grape blood clotted on the flailed wheat flesh in his teeth.

It still waits.