I’m about to publish my review of Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and after that a review of When We Were On Fire by Addie Zimmerman. These are two books that explore religious zeal and the associated evangelical sub cultures that go with this, and gender tensions and a manifesto and vision for the mainstream Christian evangelical church. This small piece is to try and explain whyI am reviewing these books. I’m sure that some of the eclectic readership here may wonder why talking about faith and culture matters in this space that doesn’t particularly identify with or for the sake of the Christian evangelical community? Why do these stories and issues matter? By way of introduction to the reviews here’s some ideas:
1) Because this is in many ways a recovery space and because I am not naive or immune to my background, lenses, formation or culture.
This space works stuff out, puts ideas together and presents them and shares stories. I have been quite taken aback as I’ve moved through adulthood to discover individuals and groups who tentatively come forward and say ‘hey, that’s just like me/us’. They tell me that they don’t know where to go to talk about the way the church and evangelicalism has shaped their relationship, their marriage and their sex life. They tell me that they don’t know how to talk about and ask questions about theology without feeling like they’re being corrected/guided/fixed or told. Or sometimes they’re just plain angry and alienated from anything of meaning whether its a community or their own values.
A local friend of mine jokes about what he calls “disaffected’ Christians gathering to see certain artists and bands due to the sacredness of the music they make and the holiness of the gig moments with other fans. What I have found in my adult life, reassuringly so, is that there are thousands and thousands of people of all ages, gender, background, religion and education etc who have been hit by an experience of God whether that is a supernatural religious experience, contact with a faith community and culture or particular choices to pursue faith. But they have often been subsequently hurt, damaged, alienated and/or excluded by the doctrines, communities and certainties that grow up around these experiences. In my view as a critic as well as a valuer of theology, faith and its communities and cultures, disaffectation is a wound brought about by fear, it is inflicted upon questions, doubts, diversity and otherness as a way of removal or homogenising a faith group and/or an individuals’ ideas. I hope this space isn’t afraid. I hope this space is safe and therefore I hope it is a place where we can talk about God and faith and why it matters. It’s a space where we can identify the residue that is left from unhealthy or unhelpful faith cultures, we can clean it off together and explain and understand it, as well as discovering the residue we are happy to keep, that we value and trust and want to share.
2) Because this is a legacy space; let’s not pretend that we are immune to the impact of religious faith culture, and in this particular context the impact of Christian and evangelical religious faith culture.
Whether we are talking about gender, sex education, being gay, abortion or size and beauty (as some of the topics that get explored in this space) we are all impacted by the legacy of theology, of faith culture and communities. I have these brilliant friends from an entirely atheist background who ask wonderful questions all the time like what does ‘advent’ mean, but similarly they are also asking why does everyone have to get drunk in Northern Ireland to show their affection for each other and relax and have a good time? They are aware the longer they live in this non-atheist culture that the conservatism in this part of the world is profoundly shaped by beliefs about identity, purpose, God and society that has been massively influenced by the interpretation and application of scriptures, church doctrine and theology and this impacts the way they will raise their kids, put their family together, the schools they send them too, where they can socialise, how they create and experience art and who with and when. This is a lighthearted example but despite an increasing distance between church and state let’s not ignore or be naiive about the formation of our morality and ethics, of our legal system, of our economy or our social structures, despite what many fundamentalists and conservatives may lament – theology, faith and its cultures are everywhere and robust desconstruction and theology conscious discussion are what will bring change rather than halt it.
We have to talk about the legacy, we have to be conscious of it. But I think more importantly we have to consider how and when we start to value it as well as question it. At this time of year when we get a little swept up in the myths, folklore and legends of the Christmas season, with the imagery, magic and mysticism of nativity, of the ghosts of Christmas past, prsent and future. Or perhaps the times we see a child born or the last breath escape a loved one’s body, every time a fury rises within us at the hunger and sickness and oppression that smothers our world, the desolation of suicide, alzheimers and strokes that strip back personhood to such a scraping that we wonder what is it all for? Seeking meaning is a human enterprise, religions are one way that humanity has sought, constructed and tried to meet this need.
I’d be sad in a world absent of faith and it’s associated cultures. I’m the first to criticise them, and the first to distance myself from them at times, but there are these moments when I remember why I value it, why I stick with or at least near it and for these reasons talking and writing about it is good.