*Editor’s Note: For Part 1 (“How to Read the Bible like a Progressive”), click here.
In 2014, the late Rachel Held Evans wrote an autobiographical account called Faith Unraveled. It was her story of plunging from robust evangelicalism into cynical unbelief until she settled for a proud progressivism.
Although progressivism is often not the ending to such stories (for many, progressivism eventually becomes an off-ramp to Christian faith altogether), an increasing number of “exvangelicals” are telling similar stories of going from a solid faith to a fuzzy progressivism via seasons of unbelief.
In what genre do such stories belong? A heroic epic that ends well? A cautionary tale that ends in tragedy?
It depends on who’s telling the story.
It should come as no surprise that it depends on who’s telling the story.
Different versions of the same story often read like opposites. Remember the classic story of “The Three Little Pigs”? I was in elementary school when a competing version of the fairy tale was released called The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs. Written from the perspective of the wolf, this record-straightening version involved a victimized wolf who was wrongly blamed when his involuntary sneezes wrecked the pigs’ real estate. Interestingly, as of today, the wolf’s version has almost twice as many 5-star Amazon reviews as the classic Golden Book version of the story published by Disney.
Parents understand how this works. In the aftermath of a sibling fight, one sibling will explain what happened by telling a story of an angel getting mistreated by a demon. The other sibling will follow it up with a somewhat similar story, but this time assigning the role of angel and demon to different siblings. As a parent myself, I’ve decided to save time and encourage honesty by responding, “If you’re not going to tell the whole story, then I’m not going to listen.”
Anyone familiar with the tale of Dr. Faust knows that it’s sometimes muddy who’s the angel and who’s the demon. One of the most famous plays of all time is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust. It’s the tale of an ambitious scientist who makes a bargain with the Devil. The Devil will grant him unlimited knowledge for his pursuits, but at death, Faust’s soul will belong to the Devil. Thus commences a lifetime of impressive accomplishments, but sometimes at the cost of running over human lives in the process.
Goethe wasn’t the first to write about Dr. Faust or his bargain with the Devil. Legends and fictional writings had built up around the figure. What made Goethe’s play fundamentally different from these other versions of the story was the ending. Previously, the story had predictably ended with the ambitious but corrupt Faust dying and going to hell. In Goethe’s 19th century version, angels intervene at the end and take him to heaven instead. It was an age that celebrated progress. Goethe’s retelling turned a quintessential villain into a hero of sorts.
We are in a cultural moment which celebrates spiritual progress.
Believers who remain steadfastly committed to ancient beliefs are often pitied as being unimaginative and repressed. This is why many of the deconstruction stories Christians would traditionally interpret as tragedies are being retold as epic journeys where the heart finds its true home.
There are 3 main ways to tell the story of how a progressive is made. The following stories are fictional accounts of the same person having the same slide into progressivism, but being told from a different perspective, based on what counts as a happy ending. As you’ll see, the person being described here has embraced a pretty advanced form of progressivism, though still claiming to be a Christian in some sense. Not all who claim to be progressives are going to be this extreme. (However, I’d bet there are more people embracing this advanced form of progressivism than you’d figure.)
As you read these, you might examine your own heart to see which ending is most worth celebrating: being authentic to yourself, being true to your tribe, or being faithful to God.
If the happiest ending is when you are authentic to yourself…
He grew up in an evangelical home. Church was important to him, youth group was fun, and the Bible was the word of God with all the answers to life’s most important questions. There were parts of the Bible which always seemed weird to him, but he never really questioned the Bible. That is, until he started really thinking about some of its harder teachings. For example, there were the stories of God’s wrath in the Old Testament—which, as a kid, he had seen as interesting, even exciting—which now began to feel wrong to him. Wasn’t God a God of love, not of violent wrath? And the idea of hell which he had just accepted as a given began to feel grossly at odds with the concept of a loving God. Even the cross began to feel like a cosmic overreaction—especially when personal sin (which the Bible obsesses about) was beginning to feel less and less like a big deal. Eventually, his old convictions about the Bible’s truthfulness and God’s goodness had unraveled until very little of his old faith was left. He still believed in a God of love. He still believed Jesus was a good example of love for the marginalized. Those beliefs still deeply resonated with him. Beyond that, his relationship with the Bible blended cynicism toward the inexcusable with ambiguity toward the unexplainable. Yet having more questions than answers strangely made him feel more secure than he had felt in a long time. Building moral convictions of his own based on his growing social awareness felt more right than accepting ancient prohibitions from men who couldn’t have envisioned today’s world. Although it wasn’t an easy process, his journey to progressivism was a liberating story of deconstructing a theology which felt inauthentic and reconstructing a theology that really resonated with his truth.
If the happiest ending is when you are true to your tribe…
He grew up in a loving, Christian home—or so he thought. Then he became aware of a whole world of oppression which his evangelical upbringing had insulated him from. He learned about systems of inequity—misogyny, racism, homophobia, and transphobia—which were so deeply rooted in the culture that true change could never come about through nice evangelicals pretending to care. In fact, he began to see evangelical Christianity as complicit in the oppression he saw all around him. After all, white evangelicals did things like vote for villains, champion political policies which perpetuate inequity, and use the Bible as a club to beat people into accepting their narrow version of morality. Their views on LGBTQ issues went far beyond being restrictive to being downright hateful and abusive. The more focused he became on cultivating solidarity with oppressed people, the more of his evangelicalism he realized he needed to jettison. This went beyond moral issues to issues of salvation as well. Although it was one of evangelicalism’s central practices, the pressure to evangelize people of no faith and of other faiths had never felt comfortable to him. Now, evangelism felt increasingly oppressive. Why foist Christianity—often the religion of white colonialist oppressors—on people whose native religions were beautiful and transformative in their own way? After all, what made these people of other religions worse humans than the Christians in his church—many of whom struck him as legalistic in their morals and uncaring in their politics. When he decided to give up his evangelicalism, it felt right because he knew it meant being true to marginalized people. And, if the concept of a loving God meant anything, it meant that, unlike the evangelicals he had grown up around, God would be on the side of the marginalized too.
If the happiest ending is when you are faithful to God…
He grew up in an imperfect family yet they nonetheless tried to teach him life’s most important lesson: even when life crumbles around him, he can still trust God. Yes, they wish they had done a better job of engaging his tough questions about the Bible. Yes, they wish they had done a better job of reaching out to the poor and marginalized. But they surmised (accurately) that, even if they had both had PhD’s in Christian apologetics and even if they had volunteered every evening of their lives in soup kitchens, their son had developed hostilities against God and the church that they could not have prevented. In prioritizing his own opinions (what he called “his truth”), he inevitably found himself angered by Jesus’ claim to be the way and the truth. In choosing to side with a coalition of people he felt were perpetually on the losing side of injustice, it was only a matter of time before he reinterpreted his ethics to fit his new tribe’s view of right and wrong. With God’s wrath as inexcusably wicked, personal sin as relatively unimportant, Christian evangelism as pretentious and harmful, Christian ethics as outdated and oppressive, the cross as cosmic child abuse, and Jesus’ divinity as legendary and untrue, he was no longer holding to “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3). Tragically, he was now in the camp of those who deserted Jesus for a different gospel (Gal. 1:6). No longer willing to “put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim. 4:3), he was suffering “shipwreck with regard to the faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). Perhaps he felt he was being authentically unique or even “a true Christian,” but he was really only “conforming to the pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:1). He had responded unfaithfully to God’s faithfulness in his life and heritage.
This third version of the story is no fun to read. But this is how to read a progressive like the Bible.