calfThere’s a story in the Hebrew scriptures, about the people of Israel after they had escaped from Egypt. In the story, which is absurdly rich in symbolism and image, the people are making their way through the desert when their leader Moses climbs a mountain to commune with God.

To cut a complicated narrative unreasonably short, the impatient Israelites get fed up waiting for Moses to return, and decide to melt their golden jewellery to create an idol – a golden calf, which they then proceed to worship.

Moses, who has spent 40 days on the mountain eventually returns to find all this going on, loses it a bit, and a load of the Israelites pop their clogs. When you read serious Jewish interpretations of the story, it grows more complex around the edges, considering the motivations of those who built the calf, and so on.

So here’s the thing: as with many Bible stories, there are two predictable dangers when we read the story: 1) The story is written off as complete nonsense: “It didn’t happen, and it has nothing to say to us.” 2) The story is taken totally literally, as though it is a modern historical account: “This is exactly what happened to a ‘real’ people, in a ‘real’ place, at a ‘real’ time.”

Neither of these two approaches manage to capture the complex subtleties of the story, which was almost certainly written down or collated from oral tradition as part of the process of nation building while the Israelites were in captivity a few centuries BCE. While this whole question – the historicity of the text – makes for fascinating reading and discussion, I’m not about to run through all that here.

I’m more interested in the question of the Golden Calf: what does it represent?

I think there’s a strong case to be made for the Golden Calf as representative of certainty.

Moses’ disappearance up the mountain was for ’40 days’ a term used to represent a long time. Faced with the disappearance of their spiritual leader, the people grew upset, and eventually chose what they felt to be a logical course of action.

“Give us a god to go before us,” they said, “for we don’t know what has come of this man Moses.” (Exodus 32:1)

What the people wanted was some sense of security, a kind of certainty that they could cling to. Moses, a man who had difficulty communicating at the best of times, had left them to wait for him while he communed with an invisible, unknown God. Would he ever return?

To put this in to a framework with which people who read this blog are familiar: Moses led the Israelites into a period of major league deconstruction. He took them out of the brutal certainties of Egypt, where they had suffered, but at least they knew what was what, and into the wilderness.

And then he had left them…

Extended uncertainty, lets be honest, really gets to you. It grates. maxresdefault

And after a while – a long time – they began to crave some sense of certainty. ‘It’s time to reconstruct, to rebuild: give us a god to go before us…’

When they eventually came to act upon this craving, they constructed something which would have been culturally very familiar – and they gave a lot to it – this was no petty endeavour. A lot of gold went into making that statue.

This is precisely what happens to many who try to find some solid ground on which to stand after deconstruction, they go for something familiar, they invest in it, they give it their all, and in the end they create another idol.

I feel huge sympathy for the Israelites, mainly because I think I may have felt just as they did. And yet from the benefit of some elevation, looking down from Mount Sinai, Moses who was a somewhat absolutist sort, could see the futility of this search for comfort. And lost his rag. Understandable yes, but harsh, Moses, harsh: dwelling in uncertainty is difficult.


Are you struggling with deconstruction? Taking apart beliefs and ideas with which you’ve lived for years?

Are you considering reconstruction, and wondering if that is right for you, now? I’m running a retreat for people like you in November, you can book here. Or alternatively, contact me to find out about other ways I can help. 

bible1

An evangelical pastor, who was going through something of a evang-exit process of his own, once asked me if I thought evangelicalism was a cult. My response was “no,  it lacks many of the markers of being a cult, but I think it is, to some extent, an addiction.”

This sense of being addictive is strongly linked to its association with certainty. There is definitely a sense in which people positively want certainty at particular points or stages in their lives, in some ways they even need it. But the danger that this comfort blanket is never dispensed with, and one becomes addicted to, or reliant upon it. And this is tough, its a tough process to go through. I recognise it in myself at times too, I can feel uneasy at times living with uncertainty, and I know that in some ways I’m a certainty addict too. And part of the recovery from any addiction is to recognise it, as long as we deny it, we will never be free from it.

So in the natural process of spiritual development, there comes a stage for an individual or community, where their maturity must lead them to recognise the problems of certainty. And due to the strong link between the tradition and the condition, this is very often a first stage exit point from evangelicalism, or indeed from any social structure that relies upon certainty as a founding dogma.

The diagram below shows a curve which represents movement from spiritual knowledge, to spiritual wisdom, from certainty to uncertainty. We are all somewhere on this curve, and the general idea is that as we mature, we move upwards from bottom left and then tip over the top, and begin to fall down the other side. But as anyone who has fallen down a hill knows, this process can be a profoundly uncomfortable experience. Particularly if there is nobody to help you.  Very often we get stuck at one point on the curve for a protracted period of time (clinging on).

certainty2

On this journey, the point marked as the Christian ministry stage is the most productive place, this is where a lot of the ‘work’ of the church gets done. This is also where the majority of adult evangelicals are too, and it reflects the remarkable and laudable productivity of that tradition. Bluntly though, it pays churches to keep people there.  Keep people certain, and they will remain productive. Let areas become gray, and you have trouble on your hands!

And of course once people do tip over, they can sometimes demonstrate the apparent folly of their move by becoming insufferably arrogant – looking down on those who are at the stage they have just left. ‘I pity the fool…’ as Mr T might say.

 

Very often, what precipitates a movement from the more comfortable stages at or around the top of the curve, is some kind of crisis. Possibly the death of a loved one, or maybe an episode of mental or physical illness. This is important, because it’s once again about certainty. Crises can also move people forward or backwards on this curve, it’s not as linear as the diagram makes it look, its not simple, its dynamic and complex.

After tipping over the curve, to save their sanity, the individual may need to leave the church or deconvert altogether. This is difficult for all concerned, those who are at a stage of certainty can look on in horror at this process, wondering what has become of their friend/loved on. The person undergoing the transition feels the intense discomfort of leaving their addiction to certainty behind, as well as their community, and to some extent free falling into an abyss. It’s notable that many people who have gone through this process eagerly pick up some new form of addiction, or obsession. Witness the very many young progressives with a strong penchant for cigars, whisky, real ale, or a particular genre of music, or even a new religious tradition for instance. Now this departure is not always necessary, a wise pastor or parent may be able to help people who are part of a community or family to go through this process with support, with the potential result that they may remain part of the tradition, but with a new understanding of its dogmas. If all concerned are comfortable with that, then great.

But that’s not usual, generally the process leads people out of fellowship in some way. And that’s difficult, and often painful. There is though, a word of comfort for those looking on: this is a natural process. And it’s not the last word, towards the bottom of the curve is a greater acceptance, a universalising sense of self which recognises the value of a variety of spiritual expressions, and often even finds renewed energy in Christianity. People at this point are moving beyond the duality which is at the core of certainty to a very positive place indeed. But it takes time, sometimes it takes a very long time indeed, to get there.

Next time I write about this, it will be about the usefulness of silence in this journey, and the importance of finding someone who can act as a guide.

Interested in coming on a retreat to explore deconstruction with me? Express your interest here…

 

file000881450729Surviving the death of the tradition that raised you.

It can be difficult growing up as a Christian, perhaps particularly an evangelical.

But if that’s tricky, for many, worse is yet to come.

For many who are born into an evangelical tradition, or were nurtured through it, a spiritual or existential crisis which eventually propels them out of that tradition is profoundly unsettling.

Often, such is the singular emphasis of evangelicalism, that to be anything ‘other’ than evangelical, is not to be Christian at all. And for an evangelical, to not be a Christian can literally mean a fate worse than death.

But there are more approaches to Christianity than the one enshrined in contemporary evangelicalism. The broader Christian religious and spiritual tradition is one that has spent 2000 years in development, and has a vast array of  schools of thought. Some ancient, some modern, some post-modern.

Whatever reason may have propelled the newly ‘ex-evangelical’ from the bosom of the church, it doesn’t necessarily need to mean that Christianity as a whole is lost to them forever. And for some people, that’s important: research shows people who no longer identify as Christian, often maintain some of their key beliefs and motivations. The person of Jesus, for instance continues to get enormous respect from a variety of directions, very often people continue to believe in a god of some sort, albeit perhaps not the God they were taught about. Alternatively some continue to believe in the kind of God that evangelicalism taught them about, and they have come to reject that idea of God, often for very good reasons.

While evangelicalism does a number of things very well, it has its weaknesses too, just as every tradition does. For instance, one of its great strengths is that many of the great social reforms have come from evangelicals, and today its often people from that tradition who are actively engaged in issues of social justice. What helps to keep people motivated in engaging in this kind of activity though, is precisely the sort of thing that can cause other problems. There’s a single mindedness that spurs many on to great things, but which doesn’t always handle questions well. A crisis of faith, a period of mental ill health, profound existential angst, questions over gender identity or sexuality, disillusionment with a leader, any of these can prove to be very difficult for an evangelical church to manage,  and these are frequently ‘exit points’ for the disenchanted.

And there are other things too, profound moral convictions can come into conflict with the kind of theology expounded in evangelical churches: environmental issues, human sexuality, politics, and many more ideas become flashpoints for those struggling with an evangelical identity.

Image result for christ of maryknoll by robert lentz ofm
Christ of Maryknoll, by Robert Lentz OFM

So what becomes of those, who some describe as ‘ex-vangelicals’? Very often feelings of disillusionment lead to a wholesale rejection of church, and they find themselves removed from the embrace of community altogether. Some find that this suits them, that in fact church had been, or had latterly become, more of a hindrance than a help in the development of their personal spirituality, or corporate involvement in matters of great importance. Others find a new home in another tradition, yet others decide that not just evangelicalism, but all of Christianity has become a toxic brand, and they want no more to do with any of it. They say there’s nothing like an ex-smoker to bemoan the ills of smoking…

But where an interest remains, it can be very difficult for a church leaver to reconnect with Christianity in a meaningful form, years of hearing how ‘other’ traditions are, if not evil, at best only ‘kind of’ Christian, can mean that one is disturbed by the idea of engaging with any of them. Quakerism, for example, which has provided a home for many who have left the evangelical church, is roundly derided in some quarters of the church for its open stance on matters theological and social. Mystical traditions, which actually share a huge amount with charismaticism, are distrusted and seen as being aligned with ‘new age’ thinking – a huge evangelical bug bear. Apophatic or negative theologies are often thought of as ‘atheism lite’, or even atheism writ large. In other words: not Christian. Orthodox and Catholic traditions are often seen as ‘too religious’ or ‘idolatrous’ (because of course, evangelicalism has no idols…) Process theology, which offers (among other things) a new way of looking at the power of God, is considered heresy by conservative evangelicals.

But in all of these traditions and more, there are profound treasures to be discovered, and the ex-vangelical can find in progressive and liberal circles, in Orthodoxy and other traditions cadres of dedicated, engaged, love filled people just like them, who are struggling through life with questions, doubts, sincere commitments, phobias, and querks. As well as all the other usual collection of failures, mess-ups, and disaster zones that constitute the human race.

If you or your friends are struggling with these issues, and want to explore what kind of tradition or theology you could begin to engage with, I’d love to come and talk with you. It’s not about finding something we all agree with, after all, we all have different opinions, and our opinions change over time. That’s kind of the point.

My work and my ongoing research has led me in to contact with a wide range of traditions and theologies which represent something of the breadth of Christianity as we know it. I also identify with, and have a profound sympathy for those who leave, or have left evangelicalism. I now offer ‘house conferences’ which are basically privately hosted talks and discussions, on precisely this subject. If you are interested in hosting a house conference, drop me a line and lets talk.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to post a short series of blogs about ideas and places that may be worth you exploring after evangelicalism. I’ll also aim to answer questions as I go, so feel free to tweet me, facebook message me via my page, or bung me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

Beaten

Stripped

Torn

Sweat stinging

Ears ringing

Heart straining

Lungs straining

Eyes staring

Eyes aching

Thorns cutting

Nails.

Cut up

Hung up

Left

Inexpressibly alone

Just waiting

So thirsty

And hungry

Aching

Fading

Breath weakening

Heart slowing

Pain growing

Overwhelming.

Bones shattered

Strength gone

Blood congealing

Flies buzzing

Flies landing

Legs rubbing

Surrounded

Infinitely alone.

Flesh

Not

Stone.

Black descending

Fading

Gone.

Fin.

 

On this day in history, approximately 2000 years ago, a Jewish revolutionary and mystic known as Jesus of Nazareth died after being executed by the Roman authorities.  In his mid thirties and of a peasant background, Jesus was a charismatic figure and is believed to have amassed a small army of followers who welcomed him to Jerusalem where he provoked the occupying powers in a series of political ‘stunts’. After a few days of increasing tensions, he was captured late one night and swiftly tried. His execution is thought to have taken place at approximately 9 am, on a rubbish dump on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

He left behind no writings, and founded no religion or political party, and yet is regarded as one of the most influential and controversial people to have ever lived. His teachings of non violent political resistance and radical ‘love for others’ inspired some of the greatest political thinkers, and some of the worst, from the intervening centuries.

 

Image result for #meetooA recent article doing the rounds concerning the sexualised nature of the the violence Jesus experienced at his crucifixion, the controversy surrounding the gender identity of the first Gentile convert to Christianity, and a brief reminder of the possible implications of Mark 14:51, have reminded me of one of the most obvious pointers towards progressive sexual politics in the Gospels. The #MeToo women in Jesus’ genealogy.

Generally speaking ancient genealogies don’t include women, they are a tool of patriarchy. But something interesting occurs in the genealogy of Jesus found in the New Testament book of Matthew.

There are five women in “Matthew’s” genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Of these, four were definitely what we might now consider to have been sexually exploited.

Tamar, was a widow in a very precarious social and economic condition (no status or inheritance and in danger of remaining unmarried) and at the mercy of her father in law, Judah. The patriarch was reluctant to let his third son Shelah marry his twice widowed daughter in law (She’d already been done out of conception by her second husband the now infamous ‘Onan’). Without any other obvious means of survival, Shelah tricks her father in law into impregnating her by posing as a prostitute.  The self-righteous Judah at first condemns Tamar, but when he realises that he is publicly on the hook for her condition relents and acknowledges his paternity. One might say that Tamar is hardly a ‘victim’, she was clever enough to trap Judah after all, but she lived at a time when women were little more than property, what choice did she really have? (Matthew 1:3, Genesis 38)

Rahab “the harlot,” who assisted with Joshua’s invasion of the promised-land. Rahab was a ‘genuine’ prostitute, a foreigner living in Jericho, a woman who used what little she had to try and get by. I don’t imagine she grew up looking forward to a life of selling sexual services in order to survive, but she had a family to care for, and she was certainly keen to escape from Jericho when she eventually got the chance. Needless to say the male Hebrew spies took advantage of her ‘hospitality’ when visiting the city. (Matthew. 1:5, Joshua 2)

Then there’s Ruth, another gentile and another widow, who was desperate to find a way to survive. Her route to survival was to effectively seduce her future husband (Rahab’s son), Boaz. When Boaz woke up to discover Ruth in his bed, he covered her with his blanket and eventually proceeded to do the honorable thing by marrying her, but not before uttering some tell tale phrases: “Stay here for the night” and “No one must know…” (Matthew 1:5, Ruth 3).

Then there’s the woman who is not even named in her own right: “Uriah’s Wife” aka Bathsheba, the victim of sexual assault or coercion by King David who then arranged for the death of her husband. There’s a weirdly distorted view of the power dynamic in the day to day reading of this story, poor old King David, just lost control of himself when he ‘saw’ her bathing on another roof,and then ‘they committed adultery’, as if she were complicit. Yeah right. In reality the most powerful man in the country saw a woman having a bath, summoned her to his house, had sex with her and got her pregnant, and then killed her husband. Then we victim blamed.  (Matthew 1:6, II Samuel 11).

The final woman in Jesus’ genealogy is his mother Mary, a young woman, probably only a girl by our standards who was betrothed (not yet married) when she found herself pregnant. What message we are supposed to extract from her inclusion in this #MeToo list, one can only speculate on. For whatever reason, Jesus often found himself referred to as ‘Mary’s son’ – in a patriarchal society there’s something odd about that…

 

Starting on Easter Monday (2nd April 2018) my new ‘Email Meditations’ series. Weekdays only, maximum of three paragraphs each day, on some sort of thought provoking topic. Sign up here (it’s free) if you fancy coming on the journey with me.