Book Review: Losing my religion?

losing religionWhy 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.’ (p.12)

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.’ (p.12)

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. (p.13)

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’ (p.18) and he came to agree with that view which put him at odds with evangelicalism.  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. (p.21)

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.’ (p.25)

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’ (p.26) 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.

In chapter 4 Lynch deals with the effects of leaving certainty; it’s 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 attributed to the less sinister but no less damaging human error or pastoral mismanagement. Mistake and abuse are not the same.

Chapter 5 sees Lynch offer 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 (p.70) 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, which is much better, is with Dave Tomlinson author of The Post-Evangelical which I remember having vigorous debates about while at university in the mid-nineties. Tomlinson values the Bible, 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.

 

 

13 thoughts on “Book Review: Losing my religion?”

  1. DaveW says:

    “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 argued with some of the “evangelical” community on gender and sexuality issues for a number of years I think you are missing the point here.

    a) The number of Evangelicals willing to engage in critical thinking on these issues is close to vanishingly small.

    b) The number of Evangelicals willing to trot out proof texts, anger and aggression on this issues is huge.

    c) I know many women who have articulated the response they have got from trying to engage with many Evangelicals on issues of power and gender. Evangelicals do not come out of this well at all.

    d) Your response to Lynch “Having stripped Scripture of authority” is a common refrain. One I have frequently heard from people who live by proof texts and refuse to engage in any real way with the complexities of Holy Scripture. It is frequently used as a way of dismissing people and is typical of the lack of Evangelicals willing and able to do a) above coupled with the aggressive uses of Alpha male stereotypes of right & wrong and the use of power.

    e) I find the way you glibly reject the argument of the Hermeneutic Circle a concern. I have seen many Evangelical men show a lamentable lack of (and often even a disdain for) self-awareness. Rejecting the influence of our own experiences on how we interpret Scripture is a visible indication that the writer is not self-aware nor able to reflect on the dynamics of the relationship with Scripture and with other people.

    Without having read the book yet I would say that sadly my experience supports the notion that Lynch has hit a number of nails squarely on the head.

    1. Phil Whittall says:

      Dave, I’m obviously not going to agree with you here. It’s not about ‘rejecting your own experiences’ it’s about whether you elevate the authority you place on your own interpretations of those events above scripture. Lynch does that. He very clearly came to the view that experience and scripture disagreed and he was going with experience. He’s not only changed his interpretation of scripture but consciously relegated it’s place. Scripture is subservient to experience. He is clear and honest about that. I think he’s wrong but at least he’s clear.

      Lynch is honest enough to recognise that his new stance causes some issues with having any sense of a common and shared authority in the church if everyone’s individual experiences are the place if ultimate authority but thinks it still remains a better path to a healthy life. As a result he’s made the decision to move away from being evangelical. I disagree, but again at least he’s being honest and clear.

      I’ve reviewed this book as fairly as possible, I admire the honesty, searching and integrity with which he expressed his journey. I’ve quoted it at length but the end result is that I disagree with his conclusions and explanation.

      The fact that I disagree both with Lynch’s conclusion and the means by which he got there, says nothing about whether I’m self-aware (or not), whether we can reflect (or not) on the dynamics of Scripture or with people. Trotting out proof texts, anger and aggression while sadly a fault of evangelicals is not their fault alone, nor is the lack of critical thinking a purely evangelical fault.

      However, in your response you seem to imply that I’m guilty of all your complaints? Perhaps, for the benefit of those like me unable or unwilling to engage with critical thinking you could be clear?

      1. DaveW says:

        “However, in your response you seem to imply that I’m guilty of all your complaints? Perhaps, for the benefit of those like me unable or unwilling to engage with critical thinking you could be clear?”

        Sorry, I thought I was clear by using the quote at the top that I am referring to “evangelical scholarship” in general and “Evangelicals” as a group, not you specifically.

        Personally, I use the Wesleyan quadrilateral (Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience) in that order and done as a community. So Scripture should always be the top authority. Yet because I do not accept the modern way of adding to the definition the idea of inerrancy I am told I do not accept the authority of Scripture.

        I do not believe that anyone can come to scripture except through the lenses of their Tradition, Reason, Experience and community. We cannot pretend to be entirely objective yet this is so often what the hard edged (for want of a better term) Evangelicals do.

        AKM Adam addresses this issue very well in “Faithful Interpretation: Reading the Bible in a Postmodern World” where he talks about the Christian Community as the place that validates whether a reading of Scripture is orthodox or not. I like this quote from the back cover:

        For as Adam rightly reminds us, for that community called church, the practice of reading the Bible is not primarily about ‘getting it right,’ but about being transformed into a more faithful embodiment of the gospel.

        As for the critical thinking, just one example: Please point me to somewhere where a “hard edged” Evangelical wrestles properly with the texts from Leviticus on homosexuality and while doing so critically looks at the whole of Leviticus and addresses the logic behind the inconsistent application of that book today.

        Trotting out proof texts, anger and aggression while sadly a fault of evangelicals is not their fault alone, nor is the lack of critical thinking a purely evangelical fault.

        Agreed. But it seems to me that the impact of these faults is far more dramatic in the hard edged evangelical community. We see that in appalling articles about wives needing to endure abuse for a season, in hateful treatment of people whose sexuality is rejected, in the way critics (especially women and homosexuals) are ignored or attacked. We see it in the eagerness to describe people as heretics, blasphemers and consign them to hell.

        For me there is a two pronged attack on my self-identification as an Evangelical. 

        First, there are the continual attacks by those who are seeking to redefine the understanding of Evangelical in a far narrower and stricter sense (on issues such as inerrancy, only Penal Substitution as a model of Atonement, male headship).

        Secondly, there is the desire to not be associated with the hateful comments and actions towards others (particularly women and homosexuals).

        I am constantly torn between 

        a) wanting to continue to stand for the historical understanding of Evangelical eg from Bebbington (biblicism; crucicentrism; conversionism; activism) and present this as an alternative to the hard edged Evangelicalism that is so loudly proclaimed.

        b) recognising that Evangelical is not understood  in the same way today and that I am being aligned with people who do not accept or respect me and who have no interest in working with me.

        I know many faithful Evangelicals in the old understanding who have been driven away from identifying themselves as Evangelical and I find it very sad but completely understandable.

        Sorry to be so wordy.

        1. Phil Whittall says:

          Thanks Dave, apologies for misunderstanding your comment. Let me ask you this question regarding your quadrilateral taking them in the order you use and let’s use the current key debate validity of non-celibate gay relationships as examples, if I recall right you are supportive that the church affirm their validity.

          If you place yourself within the both the Methodist & Evangelical tradition then the first two steps of Scripture & Tradition seem to go against the revisionist position, don’t they? Both Wesleyan and Evangelical tradition would be negative towards your view.

          So is it that experiences set the direction for reason which we then use to to shape Scripture and so change our tradition?

          Also how would you define your Christian community who challenges or validates our reading of Scripture? Is is simply the local church, our wider denomination, our theological heritage, the history of the broader church over the last 2000 years?

          As you say we all come to the text ‘from somewhere’ and we can all work hard to justify our positions. So if there is a revision to an established position (and I’m not saying all revisions are bad, I’m on the side of the reformers!) the burden of proof rests with the revisers to show that their position is the better one. So coming back to say, homosexuality in the church, the burden of proof is to show how this understanding is a better one, a more faithful one to scripture, and if remaining within say the evangelical tradition, how this is the more ‘evangelical’ view.

          1. DaveW says:

            That is a lot for a narrow reply column 🙂

            Anyway, I’ll jump around your questions a bit to an order that feels logical to me:

            So coming back to say, homosexuality in the church, the burden of proof is to show how this understanding is a better one, a more faithful one to scripture, and if remaining within say the evangelical tradition, how this is the more ‘evangelical’ view.

            I think this highlights a significant difference of approach. I don’t expect all evangelicals to move to my viewpoint. I do expect there to be a willingness to not exclude people because their understanding is a little different to my own. I do expect holders of different views to show respect for each others. I do expect all views to aim for Christ like treatment of those they consider sinners (that would include eating with them and while challenging them also not condemning them).

            So I do not claim a “more evangelical” view but another evangelical view.

            Sadly the harder Evangelicals are unwilling to consider this. Remember the statement of the so called “Together for the Gospel” on gender which accused those who do not interpret scripture in the same way as them as “damaging the gospel”.

            Sadly dialogue is difficult when one group start by rejecting others so harshly.

            [more to come]

          2. DaveW says:

             the current key debate validity of non-celibate gay relationships as examples

            This is not the current key debate for me with Evangelicals. You are right I do support the rights of gays. However, the key debate with many Evangelicals for me has to be the 50% of the population they exclude on the basis of gender rather than the 10% of gays that they exclude on the basis of sexuality (especially as 1/2 the gays are already excluded  because of their gender).

            The exclusion by gender involves a many stepped process of failing to allow scripture to speak. Typically those excluding women from equality mistreat scripture in the following ways:

            – ignores the 1st creation story in Genesis 1 where both women and men are created in the image of God

            – ignores the Hebrew neuter gender of Adam in the early parts of the 2nd creation story (the human is created and later God takes part of the human and we then have Adam and Eve (male and female).

            – claims that Eve is inferior as she is simply a helpmate ignoring that the word is use of God as well so can hardly be a subordinate role.

            – ignores the women in positions of leadership in Scripture. Deborah & Priscilla being a classic examples

            – create manipulative arguments to avoid the plain meaning of Scripture eg to claim Junia in Romans 16 is either not a woman or not outstanding among the apostles

            – create bogus translation theories (eg representative generics by Wayne Grudem) to falsely challenge gender accurate translations

            – ignore the evidence from translation experts who give good examples of words such as adelphos, pater, aner and ish all not being limited to men only (or even only limited to men and women as there are also examples referring to women only)

            – manipulate a single verse 1 Tim 2:12 that has no other support in Scripture to ban all women from leadership

            I agree that women as equals is a change from the tradition as it has been for many centuries (although there is strong evidence that women were treated as equals in the very early days of the church in a very counter cultural way).

            However, the evidence in scripture for this change is very significant and it does not rely on re-interpreting it in the light of our experience (although the experience of Churches who have accepted women as equals and opened every role to them does suggest very strongly that the Holy Spirit welcomes the inclusion of women and showers them with gifts). It does rely on looking at our traditions based on a critical examination of the actual scriptural evidence which requires us to admit our traditions have got things wrong in this area, just as we got things wrong about slavery in the past.

            Scripture is being abused to protect power for men and those doing the abuse are always the first to accuse others of not taking scripture seriously.

            Many who refuse to accept the authority of Scripture over tradition and their experience in this area are trying to claim people like me, who are trying to submit to scripture, reject it’s authority and damage the gospel.

          3. DaveW says:

            Also how would you define your Christian community who challenges or validates our reading of Scripture? Is is simply the local church, our wider denomination, our theological heritage, the history of the broader church over the last 2000 years?

            I guess the key thing is accountability. 

            For example I blog in my own name. My blog is read by members of the Churches I serve and by my Superintendent minister and beyond them I am formally accountable to the Methodist Church for what I write. I am an elected member of the Methodist Council and so that also places a level of accountability for my representation of the Church. That means I accept the Methodist Code of Conduct relating to the use of Social Media.

            It means that I read enough to know when I am being orthodox (and when my critics are not), it means that I read varying viewpoints and try to fairly evaluate the special skills, qualifications, experience and biases of others.

            It means that I don’t consider only the views of my own Church or my own culture,

            It means I am wary of redefining Christianity in ways that exclude saints of previous generations.

          4. DaveW says:

            current key debate validity of non-celibate gay relationships as examples, if I recall right you are supportive that the church affirm their validity. 

            I have studied the key “clobber” texts closely. My understanding is that this is highly complex and the standard hard Evangelical position does not properly address  the complexity and is far too simplistic.

            Key problems are:

            a) The way verses about Homosexuality are lifted from a holiness code that we otherwise ignore and without recognising this hypocrisy. 

            b) The inability to recognise that there is a huge gulf between the modern understanding of a loving, long term, partnership between two equals of the same gender and the original text (the use of homosexual in some translations is a key hindrance as it is very unlikely that the writers meant what we understand by the word and realistically we do not always know what they did mean).

            c) The unwillingness to deal properly with what it means to be created in the image of God and be created gay. We continually lose sight of the individual person, created by God, loved by God & for whom Christ died

            d) The way the issue of intersex is totally ignored in favour of a simplistic binary state (male or female) rather than the spectrum that is reality. 

            e) The focus on one “sin” as being so much more important than all others. Where is the focus on greed? Or for that matter on adultery? Or on the failure to love our enemies? Or the lack of justice for the poor? Jesus actually spoke on these issues yet this one is made more important.

            f) The way the total silence on the issue in the gospels is ignored. How can be something that is not touched on at all by Jesus (unless you take J John’s interpretation of the healing of the Centurions servant) be so critical?

            g) The way that media lies and hype are misused, the lies about gay men and paedophilia is a good example.

            h) The way the hurt caused to individuals is ignored. How can ignoring the impact of  what we teach on individuals not be subject to the 2nd greatest commandment?

            i) The lack of willingness to consider the practical implications of what we teach. How much has the lack of support for stable, loving, long term, committed single sex relationships by the Church ended up driving people into a culture of casual sexual relationships. Without offering recognition of same sex relationships I cannot challenge gay people to lives of celibacy outside marriage & fidelity within as I do to heterosexual people.

            j) The lack of willingness to recognise the fruits of the spirit in gay people and their calling by God. Experience shows that God accepts, loves, equips and calls gay people to all kinds of roles as disciples. I totally agree with Lynch if he says this should challenge us to look again at Scripture to see if we have interpreted it correctly. That is precisely what the Wesleyan Quadrilateral requires.

            I still wrestle with the texts, they are difficult and they are absolutely not as clear as many pretend. But a one tine minister of mine liked to remind me that it is better to be loving than to be right.

            k) Every time we have interpreted the Bible to say some people are not equal and do not have equal rights time has proved us wrong (slavery, apartheid, gender). To make such a huge deal of segregation in an issue with so little Biblical witness is a very brave position to take.

            Just a few of my thoughts.

    2. Peter Kirk says:

      Dave, I don’t think you are being fair to the considerable number of evangelicals, like myself, who have engaged in critical thinking on these issues, concerning what the Bible teaches and how this should be applied in the modern world. Many of us, but not all, have come to the conclusion that there should be no barrier to women in leadership in the church and the home. Some, but not so many, have concluded that there is nothing wrong with homosexual practice within a committed relationship. We are not all sexist homophobic fundamentalists as you seem to suggest.

      1. DaveW says:

        Peter,

        I have tried to be clear that I am addressing the “hard Evangelical position”, in other words the Evangelicals who take a hard line on issues such as gender and sexuality and who eagerly condemn those who disagree with them.

        The so called “Together for the Gospel” statement is a good example where you and I are condemned as damaging the gospel for our views on gender.

        It seems to me that these “hard” evangelicals are the ones who drive Gordon Lynch and many others out of Evangelicalism.

        The “hard” evangelicals are aggressive in proclaiming that their views are the only acceptable ones. We both know that you are not in that group and that you also speak out about them.

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  3. DaveW says:

    Phil,

    I have repeated my comments in a post on my blog (better format control and wider column for easier reading, plus it places me better under the authority of my community). The post links back to the original and all the comments here.

    Dave

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