A Response to Natasha Crain’s uncompromisingly silly article on Progressive Christianity
In our front yard, we have your typical Michigan maple tree. Over the past few years, we’ve noticed an occasional evening of strong winds will leave branches littered across the lawn. I didn’t dwell much on the lost limbs at first, chalking it up to the inclement weather and maybe a natural purge that more seasoned homeowners were likely familiar with.
After all, if something’s been around for hundreds (or thousands) of years, why would the problems suddenly begin now?
Then, as the seasons wore on, the tree began to appear deeply weathered. Larger branches fell. Leaves absconded of their seasonal duties. The once rich brown hue of the formidable bark gave way to a musty, foul colored shell that could be peeled away to reveal deeper issues — decay was beginning to set in.
Also, it was really gross.
Especially when I caught the dog eating the fallen, rotting pieces.
If I were a bible literalist, I’d have sworn Christ was directing the tree’s demise from afar. Except it didn’t have figs. That, and that fig tree was a metaphor.
The problem, we learned, was a fungus lurking in the soil. A natural compliment to the tree, and supposed source of its structure, strength and outward growth, the earth itself had been slowly poisoning our friendly neighborhood maple at the root, destroying its potential for good instead of the life-giving nutrients and sustenance it was ordered to provide.
In this metaphor, fundamentalist Christianity is the fungus. It’s permeating the soil that’s supposed to nourish and spread Christianity, but instead, accomplishing the inverse. While distracted by its concerns with external threats such as atheism, public education and CNN, it has become its own worst nightmare.
If I had the time, I would write more often about the hostile threat fundamentalism poses to Christianity, children and the world at large, but I feel that Donald Trump is doing a fine enough job on his own.
What is Fundamentalist Christianity?
It’s fairly simple to define fundamentalist Christianity because it’s an umbrella term for “hate” that wraps itself in the Gospel, or the American flag depending on the holiday (or election season). The problem is that it doesn’t actually understand the stories told within the gospel accounts. Here’s the origin: Fundamentalism was born from a collection of essays in the early 20th century by Protestant writers who were pushing back against the historical-critical, or scientific view of the bible, which they (mis)understood as a threat.
Like most things humans do (and Americans in particular), there was an overreaction, and somehow any honest, academic assessment of biblical text was labeled as heresy.
In the subsequent years, Christianity hit a reset button, and fundamentalists decided ancient texts written thousands of years ago had, indeed, fallen from the sky, and should be read as such, and could and should be weaponized whenever suitable. They would use it to prevent women and blacks from voting, deny civil rights, support Just Cause wars, exile family members for divorce and/or remarriage* (does not apply to government officials), to ultimately OK’ing the destruction of the planet* (Genesis need not apply).
And sometimes, they even use it to chastise other Christians.
Now for a bullet list of fundamentalist Christianity so you can properly judge something you don’t yet understand:
- Proof texting bible verses out of context can be used to defend virtually anything developed in conservative tradition (even though verses themselves didn’t exist until the 12th century)
- “Facts” aren’t based on inquiry, but rather, are determined by pastor/trusted conservative radio host/blogger
- Historic biblical terms are not allowed to evolve past the medieval centuries, despite scientific and historical evidence that inform change in every other walk of life (like, say, modern dentistry techniques)
- The heart of the gospel is to remind people of how terrible they are, especially the poor, and to be thankful for the home in the new subdivision #SoBlessed
- Jesus is a gun-toting member of the NRA who once road a velociraptor into battle
The danger is that to the untrained ear, fundamentalist Christianity can seem compelling. After all, it will generally serve to reinforce whatever conservative traditions you’ve been raised within and never, ever force you to learn, grow and change. Nothing’s better than blind affirmation, am I right? Especially when God himself shares your hatred of things you don’t understand!
Why Fundamentalist Christians Don’t Like Progressives
Let’s stop with the labels for a minute, shall we?
Crain’s entire premise seems pretty divisive (which appears to contradict Paul’s concept of the Body of Christ, but there I go reading my bible literally … ). If you label something, you can demystify and control it. It’s sort of how fundamentalists roll.
(Note: I’m aware of the hypocrisy in that last sentence. The difference is, I’m right).
She leverages her demonization of one alleged group of Christians to promote apologetics (another), but naturally, only the apologetics that she happens to agree with. You see, like the 40,000-plus Christian denominations, apologetics is a giant tent under which there are many defenses of orthodox Christianity, including, of course, those that are more progressive.
Oh, and many contradict one another.
Progressive Christianity is Just One More Reason Your Kids and the Church at Large Don’t Need Apologetics
Crain is a walking, talking confirmation bias. It’s almost impressive.
She refers to the “objective, unchanging” truth of God, as though there is a singular, authoritative interpretation of the biblical text, which coincidentally aligns with her belief system.
She then lampoons experiences as immaterial to the Christian faith, even though it was Jesus that bathed the feet of the disciples, and Saul who was blinded on the road to Damascus. Hell, Martin Luther had his conversion only after a life-altering experience, and subsequently fathered Crain’s protestant faith!
But the aim to generate legalistic Stepford Christians is rife with fatally flawed tactics of fundamentalism. By making silly, misguided and inaccurate pronouncements, like “objective truth,” articles like this only cater to a nodding audience that merely calcifies an adherence to their cultural norm. It’s the inner voice that repeats, “Don’t change. Change is scary. I’ve always had this Christianity thing figured out.”
Crain’s problem is two-fold: first, her audience will double down on their efforts, buy whatever book she is peddling, and supply misleading education around Christianity that is always at odds with reality. Some might fall in line, but ultimately, it is bound to boomerang and cause even more departures from the faith.
Second, and here’s the twist: there is no such thing as progressive Christianity.
It doesn’t exist.
There’s Christianity, and that takes different shapes, but in reality articles like hers only affirm or create more divisions within a faith that is supposed to be united.
Crain whitewashes “social justice” issues as progressive replacements to sin and redemption, when the reality is that sin and redemption are social justice issues.
And that is an objective fact.
Jesus didn’t spend his time drafting religious doctrines to which we should adhere, but instead, lived out his precepts and demanded we do the same. When religious leaders tossed the law in his face, he responded with practical, lived experiences of all involved, revealing the broken system of oppression.
Jesus didn’t come to launch a religion that would require some absurd notion of apologetics 2,000 years later, but rather, he came to subvert systems of oppression — including those that were religious — to free us.
And the kicker is that we’re not to be mindless witnesses.
We don’t acknowledge Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection with pastel bunnies, we do so by becoming actual disciples, which is the laborious work of moving all of God’s creation forward. This can look like providing clean water to a village on the other side of the world, to defending a gay couple who bear the same divine image imbued upon all men and women.
What Crain and those like her cannot understand is that this unfolding narrative — from the Exodus, to the Reformation, to the ending of slavery, to women’s suffrage, to civil rights, to the inclusion of the LGBT community — is an arc in which they can freely participate, but are helpless to prevent.
Finally, either Crain knows her history extremely well, or is entirely ignorant.
The same era that gave rise to the Fundamentals was the Protestant-led Social Gospel movement. Or as Crain would call it: Progressive Christianity. Usurped by World War I and neo-orthodoxy, it was key behind the women’s suffrage movement and racial equality, among many other social justice initiatives that helped to lift the powerless.
It isn’t without a sense of sad, twisted irony that Crain is attacking the same stream of Christianity that advocated for women like her to have a voice in the public sphere in the first place.