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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).

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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.

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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…

 

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