Theology, Writing & Publishing

The Church needs the questions that progressives are asking

Books introduced me to Christ, and it was books that led me back to him after deconstruction. But it wasn’t the writings of C.S. Lewis or Charles Spurgeon or any of those “spiritual giants.” I was re-introduced to Christ through Rachel Held Evans and Peter Enns and Sarah Bessey, leaders of progressive Christian thought whose works are frequently condemned as heresy. 

Christians who survived deconstruction with their faith intact find themselves in a strange position. We want to be a safe place for doubts and questions, while not wanting to affirm teaching that misrepresents the gospel. 

If there is objective truth, as Christians believe there is, then there is such a thing as false teaching. If Christ is a real person and not a mere construct of ideas, then we can be right or wrong in what we believe about him. 

But not all honest inquiry is equivalent to heresy.

The slippery slope between honest inquiry and apostasy

I’ve seen Christian influencer types get “canceled” in the comment section of their posts for recommending certain books, podcasts, or people: “Don’t recommend that person, she’s heretical.” “Stay away from his work, he’s progressive.”

My conversion memoir was written in the thick of my own deconstruction era, so there’s a part of me that feels almost personally wounded when this happens, even if it’s not my work getting called out.

Of course orthodoxy is important, and heresy is serious. Biblical illiteracy is a growing problem.

But there’s something dangerous about being told to never read something because it might bring up questions or make the reader uncomfortable. I may not recommend certain works to certain people, but I’m extremely uncomfortable with bans and boycotts of the written word. To me, that desire seems to come from a place of fear than security.

Some of the questions raised in my “heretical” books reignited my desire to find the truth. In some cases, they motivated me to start conversations on issues that tend to be dismissed in many churches, like racism or the effects of growing up in purity culture

That’s the thing with the “heretical” progressive authors: we need the conversations that they bring up in their work, because they’re just not happening in many Christian circles. If the theologically “correct” churches were better at, say, taking sexual abuse or racism seriously, or more welcoming of questions, maybe fewer Christians would need to deconstruct? 

If the truth is actually true, a book won’t destroy it. A series of questions can’t break it.

What both sides get very right and disastrously wrong

I’m not sure that the line between progressive and conservative Christianity is always as stark as people seem to think. I believe a genuine understanding of the gospel will make people uncomfortable in both camps.

In my experience, the passion that progressives bring to social justice issues is feared in many conservative spaces. It’s like concern for earthly justice implies that salvation is all about works rather than by faith. A homeless person can be given a meal and a job and still go to hell. But that same homeless person can be saved and still freeze to death on the street in a brutal winter. 

Likewise, a couple can successfully save sex for their wedding night, but that won’t bring them closer to Jesus. Neither will swearing less, getting sober, or dressing more modestly. People can do these things and still hear on judgment day “Depart from me, I never knew you.”

Read, ask, and grow together

It’s one thing to read the right books by the “right” theologians to rebuild your faith. But faith can’t grow in isolation. Reaching out to strong believers is also what helped me, though it wasn’t easy. It meant growing a new community from scratch, and it took years to build. I prayed every day that God would bring the right mentors into my life. And eventually he did (social media helped).

Find those Christians with strong faith and a strong desire to explore answers to questions rather than ignore them. Maybe read the “heretical” books together, with open Bibles, comparing the author’s claims with what Scripture says. Keep having hard conversations. And keep pursuing answers that are too nuanced and complex to fit on magnets or coffee mugs. 

If that requires dealing with a little discomfort, perhaps that can be chalked up in part to the whole “picking up your cross” thing that makes Christianity uncomfortable, period.

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