Why do some people stop being evangelicals and what happens to them are the sort of questions addressed by Losing my religion? Moving on from Evangelical Faith by Gordon Lynch. It’s a short book, just 92 pages, and despite the tricky subject matter is handled with a light touch.
Lynch, Professor in the Sociology of Religion at Birkbeck College University of London, has himself has walked this road and has made the journey away from evangelicalism and so speaks personally and quite fairly and the book concludes with two interviews, one with the well known post-evangelical Dave Tomlinson.
The first question to ask, has the author really ‘got’ evangelicalism in the first place? And the answer would seem to be a yes, Lynch has a decent grasp of what it means to be an evangelical and a reasonable understanding of what some of our strengths and weaknesses are. His list is not exhaustive but the fact that there is a list means this isn’t simply a book that slams evangelicals through straw-men arguments or bashing the caricature and not the reality.
Of course it’s not our strengths particularly that are the subject of the book, people don’t really ‘leave’ something for its strengths but for the weaknesses or problems they see. So what does Lynch see as the problems?
Lynch starts with the issue of power as he dissects the evangelical world view, ‘God is above me and I am a sinner, utterly dependent on God’s love and grace. A fair theological point, you might say, but if we think about this in terms of power relations then God is powerful and I am largely powerless.’ (p12) This seems odd because I can’t conceive of a theological system that deals with a Creator, Redeemer that could possibly see this as otherwise. But the problem isn’t really with God’s power but how Lynch sees evangelicals, and evangelical leaders in particular exercising power that is the real problem. ‘This becomes particularly problematic in the day-to-day lives of churches when ministers or church leaders become wittingly or unwittingly associated with God and these same power inequalities get played out between them and their congregations.’ (p12)
So there is a problem with hierarchy and then gender as he asks, ‘How many evangelical churches do you know whose overall leader is a woman?’ Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. But these are preliminaries.
‘Here’s the rub, then. God loves us and this is obviously a good thing. But the way in which this love is understood in evangelical discourse tends to support hierarchical and patriarchal structures, a dependence on ‘approved’ evangelical sources for finding out the truth about life, and a pressure to conform to certain standards of behaviour whether or not these are really essential to a morally and spiritually healthy life.’ (p13)
A bigger problem emerges in the next chapter as Lynch reflects on experience which ultimately leads Lynch to set experience as the highest form of truth. ‘Now the two different types of experience that can fundamentally challenge evangelical faith are precisely those that raise questions either about God’s loving goodness to us or about the true nature of the Christian lifestyle.’
Ah. Suffering and homosexuality then.
Lynch relates his friendship with Gareth who ‘came to the honest conviction that he could be in a gay relationship and retain the integrity of his Christian faith’ (p18) and he came to agree with that view which put him at odds with evangelicalism and he follows his experiences which leads him to reject the ultimate authority of the Scriptures based on (curiously) his reading of the work of American psychologist Carl Rogers.
Lynch elevates experience arguing that, ‘any attempt to live a life based on a fundamental denial or distortion of our own experience of ourselves, other people or God invites disaster for our own mental and spiritual well-being and for our relationships with those around us.’ (p21)
Lynch sees the problems this might cause for Christians so sets about redefining the place of the Scriptures away from an evangelical understanding that accords Scriptures the highest authority. Using his reading of Ignatius of Loyola he comes to the position that we read the Bible in the light of our own experiences rather than understanding our experiences in the light of Scripture.
‘To give an example, before I met Gareth I would have read the Bible as condemning gay sexual relationships. Having learnt from my friendship with him, I now believe that if the Bible is a source of truth then it cannot condemn the life that he leads. Taking our own experiences seriously therefore changes the kind of relationship that we have with the pages of Scripture.’ (p25)
Lynch still sees the problems with experience being our main guide but despite those insists this is ‘the best route to an intellectually, emotionally and spiritually healthy life’ (p26) and then has a pop at the other side saying we can have problems too because, ‘uncritical and unthinking use of Scripture can turn out to be as damaging a foundation for life as an unthinking approach towards our emotions’.
Absolutely but where did the unthinking or uncritical come from? You only have to read some of the evangelical scholarship around today to realise that those charges just can’t stick.
Having stripped Scripture of authority Lynch proceeds to do the same for God, remaking our understanding of God in the light of who we are and the experiences we have this time with encouragement from the mystic Meister Eckhart and the mystery of God. Now I wouldn’t disagree that there is mystery to God and knowing Him, but once you discard the notion that in Scripture and the person of Jesus we have the self-revelation of God to man, you then struggle to know anything about God.
So Lynch describes God ‘who stands beyond all beliefs and ideas’ which sounds quite close to the view that God doesn’t actually have any ideas or beliefs of His own, which would be an odd position.
Chapter 4 Lynch deals with the effects of leaving certainty, a sort of grieving, mid-life crisis with adolescent behaviour and then describes a variety of ‘spiritual abuse’ scenarios, some of which are legitimate and others which could easily be the less sinister but no less damaging human error and pastoral mismanagement. Mistake and abuse are not the same.
Chapter 5 Lynch offers some advice to those on the journey away from evangelicalism that amounts to little more than ‘follow your heart’ and ‘talk to people that agree with you’ but argues this is still the best way to holistic health.
Then follows two interviews. First up is a frankly bizarre interview with Jo Ind. There are some common struggles here, hell, truth in other religions, the often limited view of evangelicals and questions about language, meaning and the role of Scripture. All this is fair enough but then Ind says some very odd things as she reflects on God, sexuality and evangelicals (p70) one example is enough and it’s odd because Ind seems a very intelligent lady. ‘I can’t find anywhere in the Bible where it says that you shouldn’t have vaginal intercourse outside of marriage. I can’t see that idea was rooted in the Bible.’ Which makes you wonder what she thinks ‘Do not commit adultery’ (Ex 20:14) means?
The second interview is with Dave Tomlinson author of The Post-Evangelical which I remember having vigorous debates about while at university in the mid-nineties which is much better. Tomlinson values the Bibles, it’s one thing to engage with someone who deals with the Bible but comes to different conclusions and another thing to devalue it or disregard it.
And there we have it. The usual suspects of truth, judgement, sex, and the authority of scripture. Nothing new there but if you don’t know how to engage with those issues then get reading as these are crucial areas of apologetics in today’s western culture. Losing my religion? is written with humour, intelligence and sympathy but is ultimately one of little depth and offers no new critique nor any substantial answers.