Lately, we’ve been talking about Christianity as a fandom. It certainly shares a great many characteristics with secular fandoms: Object(s) of devotion, ritualized behavior, participation in a niche culture, infighting both within the fans’ own particular groups and with other groups in the wider fandom as a whole, and more.
But of course, there are some major differences, as well. These go far past Christians threatening punishments galore for leaving the fandom. One major difference involves how easy it is to lose passion for this fandom, which in turn necessitates copious amounts of advice about regaining that lost passion. Today, we’ll check out how and why Christians lose passion for their fandom—and how their leaders, in turn, advise them to regain it, and why their suggestions just don’t work.
(From introduction: Bonhoeffer Delusions; my 2016 post criticizing Eric Metaxas’ book; the “we have food at home” meme; the dumb thing Metaxas did lately; the Twitter thread itself; the hip-hop site’s concerns; List 1 and List 2 of successful people who love pot; the list of Jefferson biographies. Bonus Atlantic article about just how awful Metaxas is, and Warren Throckmorton’s glorious takedown of both Metaxas and Barton. Discord invite for Movie Night at 6pm Friday: Apollo 13!)
(This post originally appeared on Patreon on 5/11/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there as well, and both should be available by the time you see this! <3)
Passion is a requirement in the Jesus Fandom
Somewhere along the way from Judaism’s earliest beginnings to the second century CE, someone injected the idea of thought crimes into its newest offshoot: a weird little sect that would eventually become Christianity. And then, that person made thought crimes just as serious an offense to Jesus as most real crimes always had been.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
But the anonymous creators of Christianity did something else, too: They made passion an absolute requirement for the followers of this new sect. We can find this requirement in Matthew 22:34-40, when Jesus’ followers ask him what the most important Jewish commandment was:
And when the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they themselves gathered together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested Him with a question: “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest in the Law?”
Jesus declared, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
Incidentally, this conflict represents quite a reversal from the earliest bits of Gospel writings. Those bits don’t depict Pharisees as the big villains of their hero’s story. We only see hints of friction in the earliest Gospels, even. But within a fairly short time, it’s clear that the Pharisees set themselves against Christians. Other Jews simply rejected Christian claims out of hand. Early Christians needed to differentiate themselves from their Jewish predecessors. The requirement of passion from a god’s followers must have sounded perfect for the job.
In this quoted passage, these freshly-minted villains try to trip Jesus up by asking him a no-win Just Asking Questions question. But he stymies them there by sharply reminding them that above all, passion for Yahweh and his law was always meant to be the beating heart of Judaism. And now, passion was to be the main focus of the variant he was starting.
(Undeterred, the Pharisees immediately tried again by asking Jesus about the Messiah’s relation to King David. His reply was so incredibly sly, the Gospel writer marvels, that his enemies were too scared to ever again ask him anything else like that. Sick burn, dude!)
The entire Jesus People movement began with seeking lost passion
Not long ago, we discussed Jesus Revolution, a movie about the Jesus People movement. That movement began in the first place because a number of young Christians wanted a Christianity that felt all-consuming, alive, and vibrant. They wanted passion, and their parents’ churches sure weren’t offering anything like that.
We’re still living with the aftershocks of that movement. Today’s evangelical leaders were the early converts of Jesus People. They still teach and preach a kind of Christianity that’s on its adherents’ minds from the moment they wake up till the moment their eyes flutter closed in sleep. It’s not a Christianity that can be safely sequestered to a few hours’ devotions on one morning per week. Instead, it informs and radiates through everything adherents do.
It also largely doesn’t exist. Its adherents often end up getting into really abusive groups and relationships because they’re seeking what those leaders keep telling them is out there somewhere. For example, I almost ended up joining a cult in Waco in my doomed search for Original Christianity. Whoops!
Unfortunately for Christians, their fandom’s claims aren’t true at all
If Christians’ claims were true, it’d be really easy to maintain lifelong passion for Christianity. Imagine: Not just a god, but THE god of the universe, on speed dial! He promises to give you whatever you want in prayer as long as you super-really-truly believe you’ll get it! Magic healings, mountains moved, even resurrections at your command! Fatherly comfort whenever you feel blue, encouragement whenever you feel defeated, and a guaranteed mansion in Heaven after you die. Maybe your life wouldn’t be all rainbows and puppies, though it’s hard to imagine how given those promises about prayer. But whatever rainfall you faced in this life, you’d make up for it eternally afterward.
Yes, Jesus’ fans promise that he’s the ultimate embodiment of goodness, love, justice, and mercy. And for the low, low price of lifelong love and obedience, he’s your sugar daddy forever, sugar baby girl.
Just let him rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Fear him. Love him. Do as he says. And he will be your slave.
If Jesus were real, and his recruits actually got what this fandom keeps promising them, it’d be one difficult deal to resist.
But he isn’t, and they don’t. It takes a long time to realize none of it’s true, sometimes those recruits’ entire lives, because this fandom comes with a number of self-perpetuating delusions.
It’s all too easy to lose one’s passion in this fandom
For all that blahblah in the Gospels about Jesus wanting his followers’ passion, for many centuries the religion didn’t seem to inspire much of it. As it turns out, being forced to participate in a fandom tends to have the opposite effect of igniting passion.
The first time I ever encountered passionate Christians, it was in 1970s and in the context of Charismatic Catholics. Those are Catholics who do evangelical stuff like speaking in tongues. I was around eight years old when I found a magazine article about them in the stash of Catholic magazines under my grandmother’s bed. It described a kind of Christianity I’d never before imagined: passionate, zealous, consuming, engaged. But Grandma seemed singularly disinterested in letting me see any of it myself.
Catholicism could move me to endless daydreaming, but it was definitely not what anyone could call exciting. I was interested in the stories and concepts it offered, but I can’t say I was excited to go to church every Sunday. Various Protestant denominations gave me glimpses of the way they did church, to use the evangelical Christianese, but none of them were what I could call exciting either. Even the Southern Baptists were clearly not actually all that enthralled, for all their rah-rah talk.
Pentecostals? Now, they seemed extremely passionate at all times. At first, I threw myself into this niche fandom. I prayed all the time—and for everything under the sun: peace in the Middle East, for my family to get saved, for diseases and injuries to be magically healed, for this-or-that natural disaster to spare all human life, and more besides. I attended church almost every night of the week, and I volunteered in various capacities as well.
But eventually, I started noticing that prayer in reality didn’t work the way the Bible promised. That all that passion didn’t translate into obeying Jesus—or even into becoming a decent human being. In fact, my church community’s passion seemed to be their handy, divinely-approved substitute for self-improvement.
It would take me years to figure out that none of my fandom’s promises were really true. What I found instead of what was promised was far more often frustrating, scary, and disappointing than exciting, consuming, and engaging.
How Christian leaders realized they needed to help their followers reignite their passion
Today’s post grew out of two chance discoveries:
First, a 2008 sermon by Rick Warren. He contributed it to one of those big sermon clearinghouses. He titled it “Reigniting Your Passion for God.”
Second, I found another ebook on Freebooksy, Hungering for God (2021) by Andy Ripley.
Thirteen years divide these two offerings. And yet they offer nearly identical advice.
That got me curious.
Until about the 1990s, not many Christian leaders discussed “reigniting” passion or excitement in their fandom. The concept didn’t really exist yet. All-consuming, engaging Christianity, yes. But nobody seemed to have a conceptualization of someone who’d been excited once, but now no longer felt that way.
(There’s a book billed as being from 1916 that looks like it fits that bill, but that Google search is lying through its teeth. It’s really from 2016.)
I deconverted around 1994. Years later, I learned that I was on the cusp of the first trickles of what would become a mighty wave of people walking away from church membership. Some of us deconverted, like I did. Others simply disaffiliated. They still identified as Christian, just they no longer attended church.
It’s no surprise at all that in the 1990s, then, advice about reigniting your passion for Christianity pops up like dandelions after rain.
In the wild: The advice itself (is very similar)
At first, I was primarily interested in Warren’s sermon because of this tasteless complaint near its beginning:
Here’s the amazing thing. In America it’s ok to be passionate about anything except God. [. . .] That’s a no-no.
He means that his fellow Christians can be counted upon to look down their noses at him if he gets too demonstrative.
But then, the concept of reigniting passion for Christianity caught my attention. He has a listicle, you see. Here are the seven danger signs of losing passion in the Jesus fandom:
- Being overworked or underworked.
- Not using your divinely-granted talents
- Unconfessed sins
- Unresolved conflicts
- Spending too little time with other TRUE FANS™
- Not knowing your purpose in life
- Not Jesus-ing with regularity: talk to the ceiling, study the ancient book of myths, and always remember that Jesus totes for realsies was tortured and died for your sake and, in Warren’s words, Jesus would “rather die than live without you” (because sure, that’s an entirely healthy relationship)
Hungering for God provides much the same advice. In fact, it begins with a John Piper quote:
The key to Christian living is a thirst and hunger for God. And one of the main reasons people do not understand or experience the sovereignty of grace and the way it works through the awakening of sovereign joy is that their hunger and thirst for God is so small.
As so many other evangelicals do, author Andy Ripley makes the mistake of thinking that all he has to do is show people why the Bible says they should be super-passionate about their fandom. Once someone does that, the desired feelings or behavior automatically follow—as the night the day. So that’s what he spends almost 90 pages doing: demonstrating that Christians should feel passionate about their faith.
More ‘in the wild’ advice, just because
Now, let’s check out more advice in the wild. I found these just typing “reigniting passion for Jesus” into a search engine and picking the first links that looked relevant.
- Fireplace Faith: Tells Christians why they should be passionate, then suggests they need to repent and quit being hypocrites.
- Robert Jeffress: Tells Christians they’ve just forgotten who Jesus is, then suggests they need to repent and quit being hypocrites. Elsewhere, he advises mimicking Jesus’ behavior. (Ouch.)
- Rosalind Djukic: Asserts that passion flows forth from new converts, but must be “cultivated” by “seasoned Christians.” To cultivate passion, Jesus harder, sing Christian songs, repent, and hang out with TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
- ABACC, a Christian club for businesspeople: Compares new-convert zeal to a fresh new battery for a gadget. To recharge it, they suggest four completely nebulous non-suggestions from Bible verses: “Put on the new self,” “Renew your thoughts and attitudes,” “hope in the Lord,” and “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” I don’t think they’d be able to describe what any of these things look like in lived reality even if I offered them a million dollars to do it.
- Jessica Cox: She titled her post “This Little Light of Mine,” which bothers me because it reminds me of Christa Brown’s website, Stop Baptist Predators. Christa shined her little light to illuminate predators in evangelical ministry. Cox is just riffing on the old gospel song, but still. She offers three suggestions: Schedule Jesus-ing into your day, hang out with TRUE CHRISTIANS™, and volunteer somewhere.
- Bayless Conley: He asserts that if you just figure out what Jesus wants you to do with your life and start doing it, then you’ll have more passion than you can shake a stick at. Also, Christians need to “connect with” TRUE CHRISTIANS™. (Bonus: Don’t miss the weird atheist anecdote that totally for realsies sounds like an actual big-name atheist and not even a teeny bit like just a disaffected Christian backslider.)
They share a common through-line with our first two sources. Did you notice it too?
It’s not him, it’s you—and it’s always you, in this fandom
Every one of our sources assumes that any Christians losing their passion are simply Jesus-ing incorrectly somehow. They’re sinning and not confessing their sins. They’re failing to talk to the ceiling enough or in the correct manner. Or they’re not hanging out with TRUE CHRISTIANS™ often enough. Or they don’t know what the Bible says about Jesus and why Christians should be passionate about their faith.
In other words, Christians’ lack of passion is entirely their fault.
The system is always perfect. It can’t be scrutinized, much less criticized. It is sacrosanct. So if any Christians have a problem making the system work for them, they are the only weak point it contains. Therefore, their lack of passion is due to their shortcomings somehow.
Right about now, I reckon you’re seeing exactly why it took me years to figure out just how my Pentecostal churchmates always seemed so completely 100% gung-ho passionate (as well as how I almost got sucked into Amway right around the same time).
And remember, I’d deconverted! So I was actually able to scrutinize my old fandom. Imagine how much harder it’d be for a still-believing Christian to do that! It’d be impossible, I suspect.
You might also have noticed something else: Restoring one’s fandom passion in Christianity apparently requires lots of tangible action and self-education on the part of the fan, but asks nothing whatsoever from the object of the fandom. But I can see why.
There’s absolutely no new material coming from Jesus. He blew his mana wad 2000 years ago, and he’s evidently been sleeping to recover it ever since.
Everything new in Jesus’ fandom since then has come from fans themselves.
In some fandoms, that’s fine. As I said earlier, Remington Steele has been dead for almost 30 years, yet it still inspires discussion and fanfic! But at that point, the fans themselves need to be perfectly content with making their own fun.
Unfortunately, Christian groups don’t tend to be really welcoming, affirming, inclusive, compassionate bundles of love.
For a while, participation in the fandom was compulsory, so the quality of individual Christian fan clubs didn’t matter all too much. Now that participation is a lot more optional and voluntary, the toxicity of the fandom matters enormously. And Christians have no idea how to fix that even if they wanted to fix it, which they very obviously don’t.
How to really rekindle passion in a fandom
Any secular fan could tell Christians that you don’t find passion like that. It springs from within you. It’s inspired by the object of adoration. If you want to recover your adoration of Star Trek, joining a super-hardcore Trekkie fan club or forcing yourself to study old ST:TOS scripts won’t make that happen.
Instead, connect with brand-new fans. Perform Shakespeare in the original Klingon for a library or an appropriately-nerdy high school audience.
Get in touch with your crafty side! Sew your very own Wrath of Khan jacket:
Share your love of Star Trek with someone special.
Of course, if Star Trek just doesn’t spark joy in you anymore, maybe it’s time to explore SuperWhoLock. Or take up crochet. Fandoms don’t have to last forever. Nobody’s obligated to force themselves to stay.
You can come and go from any fandom as you please. You don’t owe William Shatner a personal explanation of why you’re no longer a Trekkie. He’d probably find any such attempt completely cringey—as he damned well should!
Besides, any god who provides as little support to his followers as Jesus does loses the right to anger when his followers get bored and wander off from his fandom. Hey, maybe he needs to release a nice holiday special. That worked marvelously to keep Star Wars fans’ interest alive between the first and second movies. Right?
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