Recently I was talking with a dear friend about how the gift that our particular collegiate experience gave us could be summarized this way: It made it possible for us to disentangle “Christianity” from “stupid American evangelical crap.”
My friend talked about how when we were in college together, he could be this hotheaded punk rock kid whose politics veered toward socialism1 (he grew out of it… mostly), all of which was a pretty clear rebellion against much of the Christianity he experienced as a kid, and still through all of that never really seriously consider leaving Christianity entirely. And the reason for that is because he knew individual Christians that helped him see authentic Christian expression in the world in ways that were compelling and serious.
I had a similar experience. My pastor in college was a guy who grew up with no Christian experience at all, came to Christ through Cru in college, and never seemed to get over the strangeness and wonder that God would love him. Sure, he encountered plenty of mean-spirited Christians. In fact, he picked the seminary he attended largely because one of the professors had been such an influence on him through his books only to arrive there and discover that said professor was a jerk.2
So he knew the bad experiences. And if he didn’t experience it himself, he had a church full of people with plenty of stories to tell. And yet for all that he never stopped being amazed at the Gospel, fascinated by the many people he met who he knew that God had made and, therefore, loved, and never seemed to lose sight of the weightiness of Christian discipleship. Seeing all of this in front of me on a weekly basis helped me to have a vision of Christian practice that had virtually nothing to do with so much of what has come to define “evangelical Christianity,” in the eyes of most Americans today. I think both he and my RUF pastor would blush if I said “I saw holiness in them and that’s why I stayed,” but I also think that’s probably the truth.
Two weeks ago my church held its Christmas Eve service. Due to COVID, we met outdoors in the church parking lot. Most folks stayed in their cars. A few braved the zero degree windchill to go stand, with appropriate distancing, by one of the half dozen firepits we had set up that were blazing away near the stage. So we gathered together to hear our pastors and fellow parishioners, all bundled up in several layers, give the Christmas readings and sing the Christmas carols.
And you know what? That parking lot was full. We were a couple hundred people, observing all public health guidelines, creatively finding ways to safely gather together and rejoice in the coming of our king during a pandemic. As much as I tried to fight it, I couldn’t help myself: On the way home I asked my wife, “what would the church’s reputation in America be right now if our dominant response to the pandemic had been following public health guidelines, assisting the needy as we could, and finding creative ways to gather together and share the joy of the Christian story with others, even if it meant sitting in a parking lot or standing by a fire in zero degree windchill on Christmas Eve?”
I thought of all this, again, while watching the final video released in 2020 by the Petersens, a bluegrass family band based in southern Missouri, late last week:
I think the thing that has made their music such a joy to me this past year is something like the above: When you hear them singing and you know they are Christian you feel as if you’re encountering something that is actually recognizably Christian instead of simply being cheaply marketed Christian consumer crap, which is how a lot of public Christianity lands with me these days.
Here’s one way I’m thinking of what I want Mere O to do and to be in the coming year: I want us to be the kind of outlet that helps make Christian expression, speech, and thinking more accessible to people. I want us to be the kind of magazine that is as delighted by truth as my college pastor and RUF pastor were. I want us to be the kind of outlet that makes it possible for people to distinguish between white American evangelical crap and actual Christianity.
That, it seems to me, is one of the primary tasks before American Christians right now: how to disconnect orthodox Christian belief and practice from the drunken circus that evangelicalism has become.
Right now, an ideology some are calling Christian nationalism3 has essentially inserted itself between Christian believers and the moral teachings of their own faith. It has also inserted itself between non-Christian observers of Christianity and the actual creedal claims of the Christian religion.
Because of this, there are many many people who have not had the opportunity that my friend and I did in college: to be presented with visions of Christian faith that are accessible, attractive, and, let’s be frank, recognizably Christian in the small, ordinary things of daily life. Before America’s Christians can do anything else, it seems to me we need to do something about that.
- Since reading this my friend has texted me to inform me that he was an anarcho-communist. I regret the error.
- He decided to tell me this story while he and I were standing in a line to get Wendell Berry to sign our books. I finally had to tell my pastor that it was not the right time to tell me stories of how an author he revered was actually kind of a terrible person. I’m pleased to report that Mr. Berry was, far from being terrible, actually quite a delight once I got to meet him.
- I’m not sure this is the best name for it, but I’m also not sure what else to call it.