I am accustomed to defending conservative Protestants (Evangelicals, Reformed, fundamentalists, and so forth) because I know many of them, and I know they get a raw deal from many in our secular liberal media culture. It’s not because I agree with them on everything, of course, but because I know that they are more complicated than many of their critics think — and often a lot more big-hearted. Yet it is also true that I have no deep experience with the harsher side of this culture. Almost all of my experience with these Protestant co-religionists has been pleasant, grace-filled, and upbuilding. I know this isn’t the whole truth. There is no subculture, religious or secular, that doesn’t have its nasty extremes. My point is that it’s often the case when I see conservative Protestants talked about in the media, I see a caricature that I know to be untrue, and I naturally want to push back against that. This is why I felt obliged recently to defend Marco Rubio and the Young Earth Creationist crowd, even though I believe they are quite wrong on the science, and on what ought to be taught in schools.
I should say that I didn’t grow up within a culture that valued this rigid, hard-edged expression of Christianity, so I am admittedly insensitive to the unpleasant realities within certain corners of conservative Protestantism. My wife did grow up more or less in that world, and has a much more jaundiced view of it. She remains conservative in her Christianity, but gets emotional when she talks about the fear (her word) that comes with fundamentalism and the more rigorous forms of Evangelicalism. I hear her talk about some of the things she heard and did in various church and parachurch organizations as a kid, and it floors me. Somebody of my background only really sees the good side of all that, not because that’s the only thing I want to see, but because I have never traveled in those circles (the closest I came was a couple of years in my adolescence, but that involved only reading books), so my experience with those folks has truly only been good.
I say all this as prelude to my telling you about something that happened yesterday that really bothers me. I’m not going to name names, because I don’t want to stir this particular pot any more than it has been stirred. Let’s just say that I read a book by an Evangelical author with whose work I was unfamiliar. She writes about her experience of God in a sacramental way — that is, how her experience of the beauty of creation awakened something in her, and brought her closer to God through her awareness of His presence in the natural world, and in the world of things His people have made to His glory. It’s the kind of thing that’s an ordinary part of Catholic and Orthodox theology and spirituality, and I thought she wrote beautifully about this awakening.
When I googled around trying to find out more about this writer, I was shocked — honestly shocked — to find so many articulate, educated Protestant pastors and writer cutting loose on her as if she were some sort of New Age crystal guru. It was very, very harsh stuff. Of course one doesn’t expect fundamentalists and other very conservative Protestants to agree with traditional sacramental theology, and I certainly see grounds for criticism of this writer’s book, at least from a conservative Protestant perspective. What shook me up was the vehemence of the theological attacks on this writer, and the absolute — absolute! — insistence that the kinds of things she identifies smack of “mysticism,” and are the first step to becoming a New Ager.
They are right: this writer does come from a mystical standpoint, but in that she is well within the tradition of the Christian church. The criticism of her work seemed to come from writers whose theology seemed to make no space for any kind of mystery, and certainly not for emotion. It was dry and syllogistic, and to this outsider, came across as extremely suspicious of joy. I thought of the film Breaking The Waves, and how the hardcore Scots Calvinist community in that film could not handle any expression of spirituality outside of its strict conceptual confines. One of the critics of this writer spited her for discerning something holy in an old Catholic cathedral, given how “pagan” the Roman church is.
I’m pretty sensitive to New Age mumbo-jumbo with a Christian gloss, and had this writer struck me as that sort of Christian, I would have picked up on it. Rather, she came across to me as someone with an acutely artistic sensitivity, and a passionate longing for communion with God in all her senses — a longing she communicates movingly, I thought. Here is a person who found holy joy in God’s grandeur. Her writing reminded me of the famous G.M. Hopkins poem:
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
She captures some of this in her writing — and there her people were, beating the heck out of her for stepping outside their narrow theological boundaries. (What did old Hopkins know? He was a Jesuit priest, after all). I don’t know this writer, but the nature of the blows she took, and the extraordinary lack of charity with which they were struck, given the irenic qualities of her writing, made me upset on her behalf, and even moved to the point of tears. I thought: if the God of these stern and severe men were the only God I was ever shown, I doubt I would ever have become a Christian, because God would have seemed to me to be grim and gradgrinding.
I hesitated to post this, because I don’t want the thread below to become an opportunity to beat up on conservative Evangelicals, who almost never catch a break in our media. Besides, I assure you that you can find extremely rigid, legalistic Catholics and Orthodox. Plus, nearly all of us, no matter how broad our own convictions may be, have been harshly judgmental from time to time (in certain conditions, the self-consciously “non-judgmental” folks can be the most judgmental people you’ll ever see). And finally, I think the Christian world in our time and place faces a greater danger from a lack of theological rigor than its opposite.
All that said, this experience yesterday made me angry and discouraged, chiefly because what these well-meaning pastors are doing, whether they realize it or not, is anathematizing awe and wonder, which is the beginning of a living faith, and making people whose souls are drawn closer to their Creator through the experience of beauty ashamed of it. This experience made me more empathetic with people who have fallen away from the faith, or who have gone to the opposite liberal extreme within Christianity, because of bad experiences with this kind of thing. I wanted to post this to say that I now have more understanding of where Turmarion was coming from in the YEC argument in this space, given his direct experience in Appalachia with fundamentalist rigorism.