Many people with strong convictions can attest to a simple yet insightful fact: beliefs are double-edged. They have potential to guide to deep truth and compassion, but can also devolve into hypocrisy and self-righteousness, and thereby contradict the very values promoted in the first place.
This is my story with the conservative evangelical church.
Since I became a Christian nearly half a decade ago, I felt (and feel) constant tension with the conservative evangelical church’s theology and methodology. For the past three years, I’ve written about my process making peace with worshiping in a space where I am often on the fringe because of the questions I raise that challenge orthodoxy (read here). There were times I almost gave up on God and the church institution because of the sanctimonious offensiveness of many modern day evangelicals (read here). I’m still unsure where I stand in relation to the Christ-figure and have serious misgivings when evangelicals assume there is one correct way to interpret the Christian Scriptures and they thus dismiss the important role the interpreter plays (read here). (For more clarity on this last point, read Rachel Held Evans’ article on the dangers of assuming there is one biblical approach to certain behaviors such as biblical marriage, biblical families, or biblical womanhood.)
All this is to say that while my writings and online persona may reflect a spirit of humility and reconciliation, what the reader does not see is the intense distress I experienced, and the angry and judgmental attitude I harbored towards those I disagreed with. At my peak times of frustration, inside I was anything but humble. I tactlessly seized every opportunity to challenge another believer who diverged with my beliefs. I entered small group discussions not with the goal of growing spiritually, but wanting to find fault with the lessons taught or trumping another’s arguments with my own point-of-view. I embarked on angry crusades to recruit other church members to convert to my ways of thinking. Every conversation where I broached these topics was my way of secretly hoping to change their minds to adopt the values I saw as important.
All along the way I had talks with trusting friends who listened patiently to my frustrations with the church. These friends knew I was not looking to debate, so they did not challenge the ideas I expressed, merely the attitude I expressed them in. Each conversation, each patient push back, and each reflection on the state of my motives was another a-ha moment that helped me to see the self-righteous and pompous ways I behaved.
The confirmatory blow came while reading a book about the pop cultural impact of the TV show, The Simpsons, called Planet Simpson. In a chapter discussing the social conscience, political activism, and counter-cultural sympathies embodied in the character of Lisa Simpson, author Chris Turner explores if America’s most beloved animated TV show has an overarching political bent. “Definitely,” is his answer in short as he explains:
[The Simpsons’ political slant is] a uniquely Simpsonian liberalism, a general fondness for the kind of progressive ideals espoused by Lisa Simpson, tempered with an abiding conviction that extreme beliefs of any stripe inevitably produce the kinds of hypocrisy and pomposity that the show is genetically predisposed to satirizing. (pg. 222)
Put another way, the character of Lisa, while possessing an undercurrent of progressive thought, often subverts the political left (and extremists in general) by showing their sanctimoniousness and grotesqueness and what happens when one forces their beliefs onto others, even with the best and most righteous of intentions. As Turner says, the lesson of Lisa’s in-your-face-convictions is that “progressive voices are no less prone than conservative ones to shrill authoritarianism.”
In essence, I realized that in my quest to be right I forced my beliefs on others and became the very thing I disliked about conservative evangelicals. Damn.
Yes, I realize now that it was in this triumphilistic attitude that I tarnished parts of my reputation and burned a few bridges. Some of my relationships will never be the same, and I regret that. Finding the right balance between strong convictions and living with contentious relationships is all the more important to me, and something I’m still searching for.