We’re now onto Chapter 13 and Part III of Before You Lose Your Faith. On the home stretch, folks! Its largely hard-right, culture-warrior writers have now completely finished attacking strawmen and impossible-to-solve capital-P Problems. Sure, they also haven’t given readers a single good reason to believe, but they’re positive that their flavor of Christianity is now the Last Ideology Standing. Whew, I bet they’re glad that’s all over with!
Now their mission becomes one of reconstruction. Alas, they’ve chosen the worst way possible to start: by defining their tribalistic enemies using qualities that they themselves embody.
Projection? You’re soaking in it!
(This post originally appeared on Patreon on 12/27/2022. You can find an audio podcast of the post there as well. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron!)
Everyone, meet Jeremy Linneman, the writer of Chapter 13 of Before You Lose Your Faith
According to his blurb in the book, Jeremy Linneman has worked as a pastor for many years. First, he served as a staff pastor in Kentucky. Nowadays, he pastors Trinity Community Church in Columbia, Missouri. They’re a nondenominational church with a few women on the leadership team—but none in pastoral roles, of course.
That makes sense, because nondenominational, at least in America, tends to mean only “Southern Baptist Lite.” And here, that’s definitely what it means. These folks are basic culture warriors and Hell-believers. Interestingly, their statement of faith declares that anyone who deconverts was never a “genuine believer.”
You’d think that this position would mean that Linneman wouldn’t care much about those who deconstruct their faith, since obviously they weren’t predestined to show to what Calvinists call the perseverance of the saints. In fact, that phrase is the name for one of the five major tenets of Calvinists’ faith. It means to belong to the correct flavor of Christianity for life.
I mention this because Linneman’s official statement of faith calls lifelong perseverance “a mighty work of God” that “brings the assurance of salvation.” So yes, he’s probably Calvinist, too, though his church’s statement of faith tries hard to obfuscate that point.
But he contributes a chapter to Before You Lose Your Faith, which hopes to dissuade doubters from deconstruction.
I never did understand how Calvinists operate with predestination. Their actual behavior puts the lie to that entire tenet of the belief system. Anyway, that’s our writer.
The steelman synopsis of Chapter 13 of Before You Lose Your Faith
As we’ve been doing of late, before we get seriously into the critical part of the chapter, we’ll first steelman what Linneman says. A steelman is the opposite of a strawman. To do it, we summarize, to the best of our ability, what someone’s position is before we say anything about it.
Doing that, here’s what we learn about Linneman’s position:
The only way to find true belonging is to join a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ church full of TRUE CHRISTIAN™ believers. Nothing on the outside can possibly fulfill those functions. However, often even TRUE CHRISTIAN™ churches are toxic dens of infighting and hypocrisy. If that’s all a Christian finds around the area, then that person must resolve to build, from the ground up, the good kind for others to join.
If every Christian burned by hypocrisy would do that instead of leaving the religion (or church culture itself, which to Linneman is very much the same thing), then TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ would soon dominate all the flavors and would overwhelm heathens with its scorching purity and love. Hooray Team Jesus!
And to prove his point, Linneman begins his chapter by describing the earliest American settlers, who were overwhelmingly fervent Christians, who kept running away to join Native American tribes, who weren’t, um, Christian at all.
Yes. At the beginning of the chapter, Linneman offers a very Eurocentric view of the settlers vs the first occupants of North America. The white Europeans had “their economy, culture, industry, and technology,” which he says made them “the more modern society.” But somehow, it was white settlers who kept running way to join the Native Americans, rather than the other way around! Even when Native Americans kidnapped white settlers, once those settlers were freed they often went back to the tribes who’d taken them. Even Ben Franklin observed this same truth in 1753 in a letter.
It’s interesting that Linneman doesn’t touch on the fact that it was often white women who had trouble returning to settlers’ towns, particularly on the East Coast. Nor that that Ben Franklin quote ends with “… from whence there is no reclaiming them.”
No, Linneman only tells us this story to make a point: That because of “the seeds of radical individualism,” white settlers quickly “began to feel empty, disconnected, and lonely.”
Yes. “Radical individualism” is The Big Problem Here. Reframed this way, those white settlers only joined Native American tribes so they could feel like a truly-connected part of something better. He concludes (p. 112):
That is what this chapter is all about—the tragic loss of belonging in the West, how radical individualism has “de-formed” members of American churches (weakening the faith and causing many young people to run in the other direction), and why the more relational, connected way of life we seek is available only within true, historic Christianity.
By the way, “historic Christianity” comes up a few times in this chapter. It’s just Christianese that means the flavor of Christianity that the judge thinks is the best and most correct one. Otherwise, it’s meaningless. There’s no such thing as “historic Christianity.” Whatever modern Calvinist evangelicals think it is, it’d be completely unintelligible to first-century Christians.
I guess we’re just supposed to ignore that Native Americans weren’t Christian at all, since later on he’ll argue that only TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ offers even the hope of a really good community to members. Clearly, that wasn’t true in the 17th century, and it’s not true anywhere else.
Whatever. Forget it. He’s on a roll.
Before You Lose Your Faith knows exactly who to blame: the Christians their leaders created
Now that we’ve steelmanned this terrible argument, let’s dive into it.
Our first subsection is called “American Christianity’s ‘Me’ Problem.” In it, Linneman talks about being “an elder Millennial” who was born in 1984. He attended a Christian private school populated mostly with kids from “stable, church-attending families,” but only about 1/4 of them are still “walking with the Lord and participating in a local church 20 years later.” I suppose the rest of them just weren’t predestined to go to Heaven.
In college, he participated in a college-aimed ministry. There, he saw yet more people fall by the wayside. By now, he thinks that deconstruction is far more popular than “faithful spiritual life.” And he thinks he’s found a common thread in deconstruction extimonies (p. 113):
The deconversion script typically includes some variation of the following: “I was raised in a religious home, and we attended church (at least once) every week. But the people there were often judgmental and close-minded, while I discovered my non-Christian friends to be easygoing and affirming. My church experience was about what to believe and how to behave, but my experience with my unbelieving friends was about who I could become and how I was already enough.”
So often, my friends who have deconstructed and then left the historic Christian faith [<– see the dogwhistle?] have said that they experienced more grace, friendship, and community somewhere other than the church—whether it was a fraternity or sorority, a social club or place of employment, or even a political party.
He condemns the kind of Christianity these deconstructors talk about leaving as “a system of belief only and not a genuine faith community.” And he decries these communities, in turn, as manifestations of “the individualistic Western way of life than the relational, intimate way of Jesus.”
Unpacking the idea of individualism and America itself in Before You Lose Your Faith
Wow. That’s a lot to unpack. We’ll start by saying that I’ve never heard a single deconstructor talk about non-Christian friends who talk about “who I could become and how I was already enough.” Seriously, I’ve never ever heard such a thing. Usually, deconstructors express great relief. Finally, they can simply be themselves. There’s a huge difference between the strawman that Linneman builds and the reality of deconstruction/deconversion.
The people leaving evangelicals’ ranks had to wear metaphorical masks constantly among TRUE CHRISTIANS™. They feared their community’s wrath and judgment, should their true opinions ever leak through. Now that they’re away from evangelicalism, they don’t need to wear metaphorical masks anymore. Living authentically means a lot to most people, and that’s what non-Christian groups tend to focus upon most. Real friends would rather have you as you are than how you pretend to be. They’d be hurt and maybe even miffed if they found out someone had presented themselves dishonestly.
(Ironic, isn’t it, that the very group that most ferociously opposes literal mask-wearing in the Age of Covid might well be the one that requires the most metaphorical masking-up of members!)
But more to the point: the fact that so many Christian groups require metaphorical mask-wearing and inauthentic presentation has nothing to do with evil ickie individualistic Western life. Rather, it has everything to do with the exact kind of tribalism that his flavor of Christianity most often embodies.
Tribalism creates metaphorical masks for its members
In authoritarian groups, conformity and obedience are the two main qualities that leaders demand of members. The group itself polices both, and then those same members enforce their leader’s demands through vicious retaliation against any offenders. Within the group, most members are constantly seeking to gain power, while leaders seek to grow and protect their own power.
This emphasis upon conformity and obedience leads to the group developing into sociological tribalism. In tribalism, the group sets itself up as the ideal and its members as superhumanly good. In turn, the group declares all non-members (particularly people who’ve rejected their recruitment attempts) to be subhuman enemies, harmful to all and particularly to children, and possibly even genuinely evil. Against such evil, any and all action is not only justified but commanded; the ends fully justify any means.
A tribe’s members’ entire worldview consists of us vs. them. As such, members often reserve their most hateful and nasty behavior for those who leave their group—and those who openly dissent against or doubt the group’s beliefs.
Modern American evangelicals are both authoritarian and sociologically tribalistic. All signs point to them having gotten considerably worse along both lines over the past thirty or forty years. And all signs, similarly, point to them only worsening over the next few decades. Not one evangelical has ever been able to figure out a way to stop the tribe from acting, well, tribalistically.
And a big part of their problem isn’t individualism at all, but rather the loosening of their own control over American culture.
Individualism didn’t cause evangelicals’ worst problems, but it did make ’em possible
Without individualism, modern American evangelicals would not be able to exist. (I say the same thing about Twitter activists who gripe about capitalism.)
Let’s backtrack the history of individualism, then. Since Linneman likes to compare the state of evangelicalism today to the first American settlers, I’m sure he’d approve. (/s)
I’d be hard pressed to call the first settlers from Europe individualists. It’s true that many of them did come to America to make their fortune or to escape intolerable living conditions back home, yes. Some actually even achieved that dream. It took a few generations, but my own mother’s extended family on both sides made good eventually.
But very few of those early settlers could make it on their own without the help of a tight-knit, cooperative group. That’s why disfellowshipping was such a serious punishment. Getting turned out of one’s home village might mean death in the wild. People needed each other. Even the vastly-tidied-up Thanksgiving myth that schoolchildren learn focuses on the help that Native Americans gave to the earliest settlers.
Without that help, it’s true, many villages died or dissolved at the seams as members drifted to Native American groups or to other villages. (That’s exactly what happened to the so-called Lost Colony of Roanoke.)
Other early cities, like Jamestown, only barely survived —with extensive help from Native Americans and other cities. When that help dried up, Jamestown fell on very dire straits, even resorting to cannibalism just to survive. The city was nearly abandoned in 1610 before getting an infusion of new resources from back home.
Further, it’s clear that Native American societies were far more cooperative and meaningful to members than anything the first settlers had experienced—and were now busily recreating.
European culture wasn’t individualistic. It just had different expectations of group members. Very few people fit the mold that Linneman is calling “Western individualism.”
The Christianity practiced then does not look at all, either, like what we see described in Before You Lose Your Faith
Strangely, the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ among those early settlers likely practiced what Linneman likely thinks is “the historic Christian faith.” And they still didn’t bother to take a few hints from the Native Americans they were displacing so eagerly. They did not, in any way, create TRUE CHRISTIAN™ groups that he lauds for being so cooperative and meaningful.
Instead, what they created so alarmed Thomas Jefferson that he determined to keep religion the “hell” out of his newly-made country, to borrow the terrible phrasing from the last chapter. (I wonder if Linneman knows this.) Early on, Virginia had an official church. It was Anglican, the Church of England. And the way Virginian Anglicans treated anyone who didn’t want to be part of the CofE really bothered Jefferson. Later, he’d call the religious squabbling in Virginia “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.”
The actual behavior of dominant Christians made Jefferson realize that religion could not ever be enshrined into law in any country that wanted to stay functional and harmonious. Instead, Jefferson himself thought that religious faith absolutely had to be a personal and individual matter. If Christians were given real powers of coercion (as Catholics had had for centuries), then they’d make conversion itself meaningless.
Because America has never had an official state religion or church, individual Christians have always been able to belong to whatever church suits themselves. In recent decades, that freedom has also meant that they can leave, too, if they wish, and can even leave one church to find another that makes them happy.
The only losers in the American way of “doing church” are the pastors of unpopular churches. They’ve always railed against church-hopping, defined as repeatedly switching churches to find one someone likes best, and they’ve tried very hard to set rules in place to prevent what they see as frivolous switching. But these leaders lack the power to enforce their demands, so the flocks never listen. They can always find a virtuous reason to leave a church they just don’t like. (Weirdly, “Jesus” always agrees with their decisions, too. Very thoughtful, that Jesus!)
In a lot of ways, modern American evangelicalism could not possibly exist without this emphasis on individual conversion. Nor could its current focus on culture wars, white Christian nationalism, the capturing of government, and the control of women’s bodies. These were all very recent evangelical innovations that went against how evangelicals even 50-60 years ago felt and taught. Instead, it was individual evangelicals’ personal revelations that led to them branching off from their current churches and forming (or taking over) other churches to preach this strikingly new gospel.
Before You Lose Your Faith has forgotten what TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are even like
In Before You Lose Your Faith, we see three main criticisms of “the individualist worldview.” It’s very interesting to me to notice that all three are signal characteristics of almost all evangelical churches. Here’s his first one (p. 114):
1. The individualist worldview fails to recognize our nature as human. . .
Social psychologists have discovered over decades-long studies that having “a place to belong” relates to well-being more than any other factor does.
Yes, that’s absolutely evangelicals who fail to recognize our nature as human. Repeatedly, evangelical leaders insist that a real live god lives inside their heads, thus informing both their behavior and thinking. And that makes them better-than-human. They’re not like regular humans at all, goes the thinking!
So evangelical men are supposed to be entirely unlike mean old worldly men. (Worldly is Christianese for anything that doesn’t focus 100% on Jesus.) They don’t just want sex from women, ever, and they marry whoever Jesus tells them to marry. Weirdly, though, Jesus constantly tells hot, ambitious, fit young evangelical men to marry demure, fit, gorgeous, and significantly younger evangelical women. Somehow, for some wild-n-wacky reason, unattractive, fat, dumpy, middle-aged evangelical women never land the handsome up-and-comers in their churches.
And evangelical families are supposed to be picture perfect. There is no room within their homes for gay, bi, or trans kids. No room for atheists. No room for big doubts. There’s so little room for any diversity that overly-diverse kids might just find themselves kicked out of the home if they don’t pretend convincingly enough to their parents that they’ve turned out as expected.
For that matter, evangelical churches are a great place to feel like a total stranger who’s been lost in the crowd. I’ve never felt as lonely after deconversion as I did during evangelical church services. I volunteered tons with every church I attended, but I felt completely expendable. Nobody knew anything about me, or cared to know. I was just Pentecostal Girl #5154, and thus largely interchangeable with any other.
Before You Lose Your Faith also forgets how awful church relationships really are
Similarly, the second accusation Linneman makes in his chapter of Before You Lose Your Faith is actually how I’d describe his flavor of Christianity (p. 115):
2. The individualist worldview causes our relationships to be hollow and shallow.
Living from the mindset of the individual (as opposed to the interconnected person-in-community) will mean that relationships become transactional. They become a function of what we can give and take from each other. We are no longer fully known, and we certainly aren’t fully loved . . . Transactional relationships are, by definition, hollow (lacking true love and commitment) and shallow (unable to learn, grow, adapt, forgive, and enjoy).
This is, again, a perfect description of an evangelical church. All I have to do to contest it is to mildly ask what happens when someone’s doubts overwhelm their faith, or when someone just switches churches. Do the relationships made within the church survive?
Because I’m willing to bet that they do not. Church relationships are entirely dependent upon the people involved attending the same church at the same time. They’re as three-dimensional, fully-loving, and authentic as work-based friendships in that if one person stops working at the same place, the friendships made with coworkers die on the vine almost immediately. But true friendships always survive these changes. What true friends share transcends where we lived or worked or played together.
After my deconversion, only one friend I’d had in church bothered to hang out with me, and she only lasted once. We just had nothing to say to each other. I cared about her. I’m sure she cared about me—in a churchy way, at least. But our entire connection involved religious faith. Without it, we had nothing meaningful to share anymore. My other friends from that church, even people I’d considered close friends, simply abandoned me without a word. They forgot all about me.
Christian love, y’all.
By contrast, my old gaming buddies and best friends from Mobile were real friends. They wrote me beautiful letters—real ones, snail mail!—when I moved to Houston with my family. I still have and treasure those letters. When I returned to Mobile, we hung out again and it was like old times. Several old friends from Mobile even attended my wedding to Biff in Houston!
I’m saying there’s a reason why exvangelicals and ex-Christians are really shocked by what real friendship is like.
Lastly, Before You Lose Your Faith forgets how truly oppressive TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ really is
The third big huge criticism made of strawman “individualism” decries how it limits those practicing it. And again, see if you can spot the evangelicals here (p. 115):
3. The individualist worldview limits our well-being and flourishing.
When Jesus began his earthly ministry, some of his earliest and most important teaching focused on human flourishing. Recorded in Matthew 5-7, his Sermon on the Mount describes a person who is truly blessed, happy, thriving, or flourishing . . . The truly blessed are characterized by their relationships and the quality of their character. . . . Radical individualism might enable momentary comfort and pleasure, but true belonging will enable eternal connection and community.
That’s an absolutely bizarre way to describe Jesus’ teachings. I cannot even fathom how Linneman gets here from the Sermon on the Mount. He can only get there through pure equivocation: shifting the meaning of words mid-sentence. Here, he’s shifting from the conventional meaning of “blessed” as someone “happy, thriving, or flourishing” to being “truly blessed” by his Christian reckoning, meaning literally blessed by Jesus.
However, Jesus’ blessings do not translate into an easier or flourishing life on Earth. Instead, they translate into a nicer afterlife. In the afterlife alone, his followers can hope for a better life.
But he never once discusses human flourishing apart from following his orders. Jesus very famously didn’t care about human flourishing. That’s why, after he praises the widow who contributed her two “mites” to the poor, he didn’t send his followers after her to make her life any easier. Nor did he bother to tell humans to wash their damn hands. Or not to treat women like chattel possessions. Or anything about Germ Theory, or that epilepsy and leprosy don’t really happen because of demonic possession.
Any one of those revelations would have improved human flourishing a thousandfold. Somehow, Jesus forgot to say a word about any of it.
Also worth noting: today’s evangelicals, notably and especially and particularly the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ practicing Linneman’s preferred flavor of “the historic faith,” do not look even a little like the example given in the Sermon on the Mount.
Speaking of the limiting of well-being and flourishing
I realize this might be overkill, but I’ve got to say it all the same. The limiting of well-being and flourishing is also a signal characteristic of hard-right evangelicalism. There is no more soul-crushing variant of Christianity.
Not even Catholicism tries this hard to hem in people who don’t fit their culture’s mold. I mean, at least women who don’t want to marry or have kids have traditionally had the option to become nuns!
When I was Pentecostal, my church allowed only a couple of different roles to women. They could be wives and mothers. While being wives and mothers, they could work outside the home and do all the housework, or stay home with their children and do all the housework. In addition to being wives and mothers with outside or at-home jobs, women could also volunteer for very restricted church roles: Sunday School, music, and choir. Oh, or cleaning detail for the older ladies, or cooks for the potlucks and church camps.
My friend Angela (the one real friend I had in church, mentioned earlier) thought Jesus had told her to get a deeper education in the Bible. She applied to our denomination’s Bible College. When she tried to sign up for doctrine classes, she got told those were only for men. See, these classes were part of the pastor track. Women could not ever be pastors. So they were not allowed to take doctrine classes.
Our pastor had to write a letter of commendation for Angela to get into that class. In his letter, he stressed that she’d never, ever be so rebellious as to try to become a pastor anywhere. She’d never be a threat to men. So she got her doctrine class. As far as I know, she never used it to move into pastoring. But oh, the men in that class were so suspicious of her. They didn’t appreciate her presence there at all.
As for me, I was positive that Jesus had told me that my purpose would be found outside of motherhood. Not one man in my church believed it. Many argued with me about it. I told them that if Jesus wanted me to have children, he needed to tell me himself. Because their constant attempts to “share a word of wisdom” with me were a direct contradiction of what he’d already told me, I had to assume they were speaking “in the flesh.” Therefore, I wouldn’t listen to them.
Let me tell you: They hated that I would not allow them to limit my life or make my major life decisions for me. But because I was using Christianese against them, there was nothing whatsoever they could do about it.
And speaking of the quality of the relationships and character of TRUE CHRISTIANS™
Not to beat a dead horse even further to death, but when I think of Christians following Linneman’s preferred flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, the last thing I think of is quality character and fantastic, deep, meaningful relationships.
Even married couples in this flavor seem not to know each other at all. Years ago, I even covered a book written by what sounds like an inconsiderate, authoritarian husband who at least emotionally abused his wife, If Only He Knew. In that book, he repeatedly described his wife nearly ending their marriage. This happened repeatedly. Somehow, as Jesus-filled as he was, as big an impact on evangelicals as he had, he couldn’t even conduct himself compassionately in his own marriage. And somehow, Jesus kept forgetting to tell him to clean up his act until his wife had reached her breaking point yet again.
I’ve never yet seen an evangelical culture warrior in the Linneman-approved style, Calvinist or not, who seemed like he’d even be a decent friend, let alone an honorable person. I wouldn’t let a single one of them even water my houseplants while I was on vacation. When they gloat in their testimonies about having been liars, cheats, addicts, manipulators, and violent asshats, I know with complete certainty that they’re still like that.
And indeed, when the most shocking and long-running scandals erupt in Christian churches, they always come out of super-authoritarian churches like the ones these Christians like best. Earlier today, I ran across a blogger talking at length a few years ago about the wonderful TRUE CHRISTIAN™ Ravi Zacharias. Yeah. Him. The guy who sexually preyed on and abused countless women in his life.
I told her that that sentiment must have aged like milk.
Why so many evangelical hypocrites exist
I don’t think that blogger will appreciate my comment much. But it’s still true.
Almost every time a powerful evangelical can hurt and abuse other people without consequences, they do it. Jesus doesn’t hold back their hands. He doesn’t protect their victims. Nor does he hold them accountable in any way. He doesn’t even give special insight to that abuser’s congregation, so they can put a stop to it.
And yet evangelicals, particularly those in Jeremy Linneman’s flavor of the religion, steadfastly reject any suggestion that they institute real protection and accountability measures in their churches. They keep insisting that Jesus will protect the congregation’s most vulnerable members. Indeed, I have heard of one such church that told a mother that they didn’t use any child-safety procedures because Jesus would never allow their church’s children to come to harm! (Thankfully, that mom decided instantly that her kids would never, ever, ever attend that church. And she told that snooty church secretary exactly why!)
That’s precisely why there are so incredibly many evangelicals hurting and abusing people in secret.
That’s precisely why there are so many toxic, cruel, vindictive, power-mongering evangelical churches in America.
Nobody can feel safe around authoritarians. Nobody can feel safe in a tribalistic group.
And nobody should.
A truth that Before You Lose Your Faith tries hard to obscure
Evangelicals are both authoritarian and tribalistic. The systems that their leaders have evolved to hurt vulnerable people and grab for power have led directly to their current social systems’ operation. And to their behavior. And their scandals.
Jeremy Linneman can no more change this truth than he could grow wings and fly to Mars. He especially can’t do that while preaching the same exact doctrines that his abusive brethren all consider “the gospel.”
And as we’ll see next time, I have some serious doubts that his own church is really and truly the restorative balm of community and limitless love and freedom that he claims that it is.
Just as a sneak peek, here’s why I doubt that: His church is apparently part of the Sojourn Network. Seriously, maximum oof!
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