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Sarah Lindsay

'More Buddhist than Baptist:' Christianity and Truth-Claims

mountains
Image via Pixabay

Last week, I was listening to an interview with Zachary Levi, star of Chuck (I’m still angry about how that show ended) and, most recently, the DC film Shazam. It’s a great interview; Levi talks about therapy, mental health, trust, gratitude, prayer, and his faith. I hadn’t known that Levi is a Christian, but he spends a lot of this interview talking about how important his faith is to him.

It’s always a pleasant surprise to hear a Hollywood celebrity passionate about their relationship with God, but one thing struck me in particular: as Levi described his Christianity, he said that it is “closer to Buddhist than Baptist.”

This line struck me because it encapsulates what I sometimes do when I talk about my faith. I’m a Christian, yes, but not that kind of Christian. I distance myself in particular from evangelical Christianity, the strain of American Christianity that constantly struggles with fundamentalism, mires itself in culture wars, and all too often confuses political power with the kingdom of God.

I partly do this because I have theological values and convictions that don’t mesh neatly with evangelicalism. But, let’s be honest: I also partly do it because I don’t want people to judge me. I don’t want people to think that I support conversion therapy and screaming at women entering Planned Parenthood clinics, that I deny climate change and think God appointed Trump as our president and might still be iffy on interracial marriage.

I know that the above is a caricature, or at the very least representative of a minority of American evangelicals. And I have no compunction over distancing myself from the actions and rhetoric of that minority of evangelical Christians (coughFranklin Grahamcough).

But I did grow up thinking that Christians were being persecuted in America. I was told that wavering on points of dogma was the same as rejecting Christianity. I believed that “the world,” especially pop culture, was separate from and even opposed to Christianity.

And then I discovered that actually, Christians disagree — have disagreed — about dogmas for centuries. I learned that Christianity is still culturally normative in America (with decreasing strength, but even Trump had to claim some form of Christian faith in order to win the presidency).

I even discovered that many “secular” cultural productions have deeply Christian themes (hello, Harry Potter) and that sometimes, culture is ahead of the church (#MeToo gave rise to #ChurchToo, not the other way around).

And as I threw off the baggage of the evangelical culture wars, I found myself more and more often making some version of Levi’s statement: I’m a Christian, but not like those crazy Baptists/fundamentalists/evangelicals over there.

But what’s the line? What’s the point where I say: yes, I do believe that, even though it’s unpopular. When I say: my faith does require me to take this stand, to reject that belief, to criticize those decisions.

I led youth worship recently, and we talked about the tension between believing that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life and living in a society that embraces, to at least some extent, religious pluralism. Religious pluralism asserts that all religions have some truth, so can’t everyone just coexist?

And regardless of whether anyone truly believes that religions are neutral or basically equal, religious pluralism certainly promotes respect and dialogue. (Whether it achieves those things is, of course, an entirely different question.) But that’s the rub: how do you simultaneously assert that your faith is True — while also respecting that others disagree for a variety of reasons?

In the churches I grew up in, I didn’t learn much respect for non-Christians; the assumption tended to be that they were either too ignorant to see its truth or that they willfully rejected the truth.

But the “more Buddhist than Baptist” approach pulls back from any truth claims about Christianity, reducing it to a personal faith that has little to offer the world and few distinctive elements. Zachary Levi certainly finds strength and meaning in his faith, but it’s not clear that he thinks others would as well.

I don’t have any answers on how to thread the needle. But I wonder: what if we invite people into the great story of redemption? What if we invite people to taste and see that God is good?

We don’t need to prove that the story is true. We don’t need need to demand that people make a wholesale intellectual commitment.

But the story of Christianity, of God’s love for the world God made, of Jesus coming to laugh and cry and sleep and eat and die with us, of the Spirit dwelling within us, is so much bigger than personal feelings of well-being. This is a story worth inviting others into.

I’m not always sure that God is making all things new, righting all wrongs, drying all tears. Sometimes it seems like a story that’s far too good to be true. But if it is true? It’s the most beautiful story and I want a place in it. So I believe, not because I know that Jesus is the Way, but because I hope he is.

I don’t want to be more Buddhist than Baptist, or the other way around. I want to say yes to God’s story and to live as if God’s story is true. And more: I want to live out God’s story in my own life and invite others to live in this story with me.

And yes, sometimes that might mean that I have to take an unpopular stand. Sometimes it means that I see God’s story woven into the world around me. But maybe it’s not about drawing lines, about dividing in and out; maybe it’s just about the invitation into story about God’s love for us.

Tagged: faith

The Mower Against Gardens

bench under a green tree
photo by Zosia Korcz | via Unsplash

I’ve been working a lot in my gardens over the summer: pulling weeds, pruning shrubs, spreading endless wheelbarrow loads of mulch. And, naturally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poetry of Andrew Marvell, particularly “The Mower Against Gardens.” Marvell is rivaled only by John Milton as the best English poet of the late seventeenth century, and his poems on gardens contain themes of Eden, formal gardens, breeding hybrid plants, the untamed beauty of nature, and the fleeting joy of wandering solitary in nature.

(I know, I’m a literature nerd. But I love these poems that think about the relationship of humanity to nature pre-industrial revolution; Wordsworth’s nature poetry is lovely, for example, but I’m wary of the often sharply drawn dichotomies between [bad] industry and urbanization and [good] untouched nature.)

In “The Mower Against Gardens” the speaker — the mower — complains about the unnaturalness of formal gardens, with their expensive flowers, grafted trees, and hybrid plants. The mower contrasts this with the wild meadows, watched over by benevolent Nature and populated by “fauns and fairies.”

But the irony here is that the mower, armed with his scythe, tends to both the meadow and the garden: cutting down the grass, pruning the trees, exerting human dominance (dominion?) over both spaces. And both the garden and the meadow as the mower describes are imaginary: no gods dwell in the meadows, and nature, hardly absent from the garden, instead thrives there thanks to human cultivation.

Although the mower highlights the dichotomy between the cultivated garden and the wild meadow, Marvell suggests that both are spaces where humans tend nature, their responsibility since God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and where humans come into conflict with nature, their curse since the Fall.

Both the conflict and the joy of responsibility ring true for me, as I find both deep satisfaction and profound frustration as I tend my garden.

I have a shrub by my front porch, and I love the deep green leaves that welcome everyone who comes to my front door. But I also have to fight it, pruning it back every year as its branches threaten to grow over the walkway and block, rather than welcome, those who walk up the pathway.

I feel a deep satisfaction when I clear the weeds from a flower bed, allowing my plants to flourish free from competing thistles and clover. But I also feel a sense of despair, since I know that I will have to do this again, and again. And I know that now the rabbits will have unfettered access to the tender leaves of my new plants. My sweat drips into the soil as I fight nature in order to tend it.

And I wonder: how much of this work is good? How much is broken by the Fall? One of the things broken in the Fall was the relationship between humanity and the natural world; it is now marked by struggle and exploitation rather than harmony and care. Marvell points to this in his poem as people twist nature to fit into unnatural forms. But even so, the mower exists to keep nature from taking over fields and dwellings; the mower, despite his spoken stance in the poem, is an antagonist to nature.

In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly uses the figure of the farmer in his parables. These agricultural illustrations would certainly have resonated with his non-industrialized audience. But I can’t help but think that Jesus' use of nature is more profound: our struggle to both care for and protect ourselves from the natural world is one of the oldest struggles faced by humanity.

I think of the Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds, found in Matthew’s gospel, where the farmer sows good seed but the enemy comes in the night to sow weeds. When both come up, the servants despair: what are they to do about the weeds growing up entwined with the wheat? The farmer says: let them both grow together. Let the good and the bad intermingle because it can be difficult to distinguish between the two; because rooting out the bad can damage the good; because the struggle can make the wheat stronger.

Just like Marvell’s mower, the farmer in this parable complicates the dichotomies we like to draw: natural and unnatural, good and bad, wheat and weed. My work in my gardens is a microcosm of my work in life, as I try to do good but sometimes cause harm, as I do work that must be repeated over and over and over again.

None of this invalidates the work. But our struggle with the natural world, even in as small a setting as the flowerbeds around my house, is one of the primal struggles faced by human beings. We can take hope in knowing that, in the end, the Farmer will separate out the wheat and the weeds. But until that day, we work in mixed ways in this mixed world.

Being a Woman in a Dual-Integrity Denomination

Eucharist
Image from Pixabay

The question shocked me for a moment, not because it was offensive but because no one has asked it of me before: what is it like to be a woman in a dual-integrity denomination, in an organization where some leaders do not recognize women’s ordination as valid and where women are barred from the highest levels of leadership?

This question was asked of me and the three other women in a seminary course held around the Telos Collective conference on Anglican missiology and ecclesiology. (The Telos Collective is a missional organization with the Anglican Church in North America [ACNA] that is led by my own bishop, Todd Hunter. I’m not writing about Todd, but he is the real deal. After spending just a few hours with him during the conference, I’m incredibly grateful to be in his diocese.)

For those of you not versed in the ACNA, two years ago it decided to allow bishops to choose whether or not they would ordain women, and to what level they would ordain women. Around a quarter of the bishops will ordain women to the priesthood, but women are barred from becoming bishops. And this is still a point of contention, with many unhappy that the ACNA ordains women at all. I wrote about the ACNA’s decision to be a dual-integrity denomination here.

The man who asked us what it is like to pursue ordination in this organization is not part of the ACNA; he came from a tradition with women at all levels of leadership. I appreciated his acknowledgement of the challenges we face and, even more, the space he created for us to share our stories with the men who have power but not the visceral experience of being a woman in the ACNA.

I certainly had opinions at the time and I did share them. But I keep thinking about this question and I want to write down my thoughts, because as much as I value unity in the church and as much as I appreciate the leaders — male and female — who have encouraged me as I move into church leadership, I sometimes struggle with being a woman in a denomination where some would deny the call I’ve been experiencing.

Being a woman in a dual-integrity denomination means never being sure whether I will be fully welcome in certain spaces or if I will, instead, be asked to make myself lesser in order to be accepted.

It means knowing that my peers and other leaders in the denomination deny my experience of a call to ministry, and likely to the priesthood, on the sole basis of my gender, not on any actual knowledge of me as a person.

It means not being represented at the highest levels of leadership. I don’t have models of women bishops. And, no matter how sympathetic my male bishop may be to the women in his diocese, he does not have the experience and perspective of a woman and so the policies that he and other bishops shape lack direct imput from the women who make up at least half of their congregations.

It means feeling like I have to be grateful for what I’ve been given and not make waves about wanting more. And I am grateful for male allies, since they do have power and influence. But I hate that my status is contingent on men deciding whether or not I should have it.

It means that, because I have to be grateful, it’s difficult to call out the deeply-rooted sexism that still exists even in dioceses and churches that ordain women. I don’t see this in my church very much, but often people think that simply supporting women’s ordination in theory is good enough; they don’t actively seek to encourage, include, and mentor women into leadership positions in their churches.

It means being made secondary to unity. People on both sides of the question point out that women’s ordination isn’t a credal issue, so we should be able to let it go. But I am not secondary. I am a person, created in the image of God just like my male peers. And I resent that my ability to serve God as God has called me might be curtailed in the name of unity — unity which is mostly about peace-keeping among male leaders at the expense of women.

All of this sounds very angry feminist, and I won’t deny that there is some anger (and plenty of feminism). But I can live and work and seek ordination in the ACNA as a dual-integrity organization; I’m not leaving because some bishops wouldn’t recognize my (hypothetical) ordination as valid. This space is significantly better than many others, than the churches of my youth that wholly denied women’s ordination.

But I also am not going to pretend that this is good enough.

I am grateful for the men who have advocated for my right to ordination. I value unity in the church. But I do not want my daughters, the girls in my church’s youth group, or the college women attending my church to feel pressure to be grateful for partial inclusion and to endure being made into a secondary issue for the sake of unity, which feels a lot like being a secondary person.

And so I am going to keep explaining why this isn’t good enough, to keep advocating for women’s full inclusion at every level from lay leadership all the way up to bishop. I understand that it will take time. But I hope I can see the day when no one is excluded from any level of service in the ACNA on the basis of their gender alone.

Remembering Rachel Held Evans

I’ve wanted to write this post for the last week, but I’ve dreaded writing it, too. How do I write a remembrance of someone I met once, briefly, in a signing line at a conference? How do I mourn someone who was a mentor, a pastor, an elder sister, even though she never knew my name?

I don’t really know how, to be honest. But Rachel Held Evans was precisely the voice I needed in my faith journey and I’m devastated that she cannot continue to point the way, to comfort and provoke, to show the love of God to hundreds and thousands of people through her words.

So I’m going to write about how Rachel Held Evans influenced my life, so that my story can add to the many others in a memorial to her faithful ministry.

I’m almost exactly the same age as Rachel: both of us were born in the summer of 1981, which makes us either very young Gen Xers or very old Millennials. Both of us were raised in the subculture of the evangelical church — I could have given her a run for her money in Sword Drills — and both of us, in our early 20s, began to be dissatisfied with evangelical Christianity.

For me, that discomfort arose in the context of graduate school at a state university. For the first time, I was outside of the (very small) bubble of the homeschooling world and the (slightly larger) bubble of my evangelical college. I was becoming friends with people who were Catholic and mainline Protestant and Jewish and agnostic and I was spending time with kind, compassionate, moral people who weren’t Christians.

More, I wasn’t persecuted or even ridiculed for my faith, as I had been told I would likely be; I didn’t need the apologetics I had learned. In fact, it was my agnostic friends who taught me how to listen with respect to other beliefs as they asked me genuine questions about my faith.

In addition, feminist theory was making more and more sense to me. And when my first daughter was born in 2009, I realized that I was indeed a feminist: I was ambivalent about advocating for myself, but when I looked into her tiny, perfect face I knew that I would do everything in my power to protect her from the destructive effects of the patriarchy.

Secular universities, agnostic friends, and feminists had all been presented as dangers (or conversion opportunities) in my evangelical subculture. But in the university, building friendships with agnostic feminists, I began to wonder: what else might evangelical Christianity have gotten wrong? But what would it look like to be a Christian without being an evangelical?

This is when I first found Rachel Held Evan’s blog. I’m not sure exactly when or how; it was before A Year of Biblical Womanhood was published, so perhaps 2010 or so. And she was asking the questions I was asking: can Christians be feminists, accept evolution, even (gasp) vote for democrats? Can we leave behind the legalistic dogma of evangelicalism while still loving Jesus and seeing scripture as inspired?

As it turns out, a whole lot of us were asking these questions. And Rachel, with her humor and honesty and vulnerability, quickly became a leading voice — a mentor, a pastor — among those of us who wanted to learn how to love God and love our neighbor and care about the environment and support egalitarian theology and work towards social justice.

I’m not one of the many people who kept their faith because of Rachel’s work. But she helped me to articulate my discomfort with some aspects of the evangelical church and, most importantly, she showed me that I could seek to be a faithful follower of Jesus even as I rejected many of the teachings I had grown up with.

Because of Rachel Held Evans, I can read Proverbs 31 without cringing and without despairing of ever being a “biblical” woman.

Because of Rachel Held Evans, I can better sift what is essential (as an Anglican, the Creeds) and what is non-essential (like a literal seven-day creation).

And because of Rachel Held Evans, I haven’t spiraled into anger and bitterness (or at least, not as much as I could have). Rachel was bold, but never cruel. She once said — perhaps on an episode of The Liturgists podcast — that she would gladly receive communion with a person who was, at the time, attacking her on social media. She said, simply, that he was a brother in Christ, so of course she would take communion with him.

This continues to challenge me. It’s easy, when we leave something behind, to decide that it was all bad, to want to burn it behind us. To want to treat others as they have treated us, questioning our salvation when we depart from evangelical dogma and cutting us out of the community.

But Rachel challenged, and continues to challenge, me to be more charitable. To remember that there was much good in the evangelical subculture. To recognize others as my brothers and sisters in Christ even when we disagree strongly.

I can’t believe that she’s gone so soon, that she won’t be with me through her words as I continue to work out my faith. It seems wrong and unfair: why her, when she was so loved and loving, when she helped so many of us stay with Jesus even as we walked through the wilderness?

I don’t know why her. I don’t understand why she died so soon. I’m angry and sad and stunned. But here’s what I do know: because of Rachel Held Evans, my faith is stronger and deeper and richer. And because of Rachel Held Evans, I found freedom and found my voice so that I, too, can help point people to Christ and to the rich freedom and community of life lived in the hope of the resurrection.

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