We’re now cruising into the home stretch with Before You Lose Your Faith. So far, its many contributors have given us absolutely no evidence to support a single one of their claims about their religion. Instead, they’ve built and knocked down strawmen galore. They’ve trotted out all the fashionable logical fallacies. And they’ve made all the usual toothless, fangless threats we expect out of their flavor of Christianity. In everything they’ve done, they’ve demonstrated some downright dealbreaking ignorance about what community is, how to build it, and how to wreck it.
They don’t get it at all here, and it’s what really spells the writing on the wall for their project. Today, let’s have a general retrospective about what the writers and creators of Before You Lose Your Faith don’t understand—and can never understand—about good communities.
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The communities we find in Before You Lose Your Faith
The last chapter we talked about was Chapter 13, contributed by Jeremy Linneman. Like almost all of the contributors in Before You Lose Your Faith, he belongs to an extremely repressive, regressive, oppressive flavor of Christianity: hardline, right-wing, ultraconservative, abuse-fostering and abuser-shielding, misogynistic, culture-war-fighting, Calvinist evangelicalism. This one is really the worst of the worst, at least in the major, commonly-accepted flavors. You have to get into the more obviously abusive cult flavors, like the one my friends joined years ago when I was Pentecostal, to find worse.
In Linneman’s chapter, I noticed that he wrote something truly damning about the communities that can be found in and out of his flavor of Christianity (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.”
We’ve already discussed the strawman at the very end. In truth, unbelieving friends tend to focus on who we actually are, not on who we can become. They do reassure us that we’re already enough when we are. They also encourage us to improve—if and only if we ask if we need improvement in some area. He’s made a signal error here, one that significantly shows his hand. But he doesn’t realize it. Indeed, he can’t ever recognize this fact.
But today, I want to focus more on the distinct contrast between the communities within Linneman’s flavor of Christianity—and perhaps more importantly, those outside it.
As we talk about them, remember one thing: Jeremy Linneman has no clue in the world what he’s revealed here. None. Of course, neither do any of the other writers in this book who’ve similarly shown their hands. He’s just the most blatantly revealing.
Before You Lose Your Faith keeps pushing a vision of community that does not exist and can’t ever exist in their flavor of Christianity
In Before You Lose Your Faith, we’ve often seen writers talk about the ideal community in their flavor of Christianity. They’ve also revealed what actually exists there.
Trevin Wax, Chapter 1 (p. 10): “In some church contexts, it would be far easier to suppress questions and shut down doubts than to risk the crisis of identity that comes from wrestling with deep matters of faith.”
Ian Harber, Chapter 2 (title): “‘Progressive’ Christianity was even shallower than the evangelical faith I left.”
Ch 2 (p. 18): “The answers given in church seemed shallow compared to the legitimate critiques that were a Google search or YouTube video away.” And (p. 22): “I’m grieved there are not more places where you can feel safe with your doubts and questions. . . I cannot promise that your questions will be met with grace and good faith where you are, and that saddens me.”
Hunter Beaumont, Chapter 4 (p. 34): “Most of my interlocutors have questions or concerns that their ‘Christian upbringing’ hardly seems to care about. They also have new friends who lead fulfilling lives without religion. A Sunday morning of Eggs Benedict, Bloody Marys, and brunch conversation is a more invigorating liturgy than songs and sermons.”
Ch. 4 (p. 40): “A church who loves the gospel and the surrounding culture is glad to welcome people who wrestle with hard questions about Christianity.”
Rachel Gilson, Chapter 5 (p. 47): “But instead of being the safest possible place to understand sexuality, churches have often felt like minefields. [. . .] What if we became churches where youth could grow into understanding why God made us sexual beings?”
Ch. 5 (p. 51): “What churches have taught can feel backward, hateful, and small. Meanwhile, what the world sells looks full, vibrant, promising.”
Claude Atcho, Chapter 6 (p. 56): “Maybe the Christianity you’ve experienced is wedding to the functional denial of racism, or the knee-jerk proclamation that all lives matter, or a general disregard for the plight of black people.”
Ch. 6 (p. 57): “The greatest critiques against Christianity’s distortions is Christianity lived faithfully and Scripture read plainly.”
As the night the day: The writers of Before You Lose Your Faith make this same mistake, over and over again
The evangelicals in this flavor of Christianity tend to constantly and consistently make the same mistake: They believe that if you believe the correct package of nonsense, then you will consistently and reliably display the correct behaviors. You’ll be impervious to the temptations of hypocrisy.
I call this mistake as the night the day, after the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the play, Polonius is lecturing his son Laertes in how to be a good man:
This above all,—to thine own self be true;
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
I first noticed the mistake while we were talking about Preston Sprinkle’s bigotry-for-Jesus book, People to Be Loved. And these particular evangelicals love this mistake. They make it all the time. In Sprinkle’s book, he began with this mistake.
And Before You Lose Your Faith makes the same mistake in almost every chapter.
In Chapter 4, Hunter Beaumont criticizes evangelicals’ laser-focus on their culture wars. He then praises Matt Chandler as a counter-example. That’s the creepy pastor had to take a leave of absence from his church because of his spicy texting. He’s also the pastor whose church elders stomped on someone for broadcasting a pedophile’s presence in the congregation and annulling her marriage to said pedo without permission. But in his chapter, Beaumont presents Chandler as someone who totally gets the gospel. So therefore, his church will totally get how to handle someone with big huge doubts.
Man, I’m sure that pedo’s former wife would have a few things to say about that.
Before You Lose Your Faith blames the wrong thing for the failure of evangelical communities
In Chapter 13, Jeremy Linneman’s chapter, he has a lot to say regarding what exactly has “de-formed” congregations. (Those are his words. All quotes in my work indicate actual quoted material in sources, unless I say otherwise.)
He blames “radical individualism.” That’s his term for the strawman he’s created. This so-called “radical individualism” creates a church environment that leads to the deconstruction script we’ve already seen today, the one about churches telling people “what to believe and how to behave.”
What actually causes this focus is not any kind of individualism, but rather authoritarianism. Authoritarian groups tend to act alike in a lot of ways, even if their beliefs differ markedly. Their leaders focus almost completely on extracting obedience and conformity from their followers.
Everything about the group structures that authoritarian leaders create contributes to this goal. In these groups, power is a zero-sum game. If one person gets some, then someone else had to lose some. The only way to be safe is to be controllable by as few people as possible. The more people who can order you around, the less powerful and safe you are.
How authoritarian groups lead to authoritarian behavior
So leaders strip as much power from their followers as they can, reserving that power for themselves and their own trusted lieutenants. They encourage their followers to curry favor from leaders at all levels. In turn, those followers who curry favor start snitching on and backstabbing anyone who doesn’t obey and conform.
Not uncoincidentally, the rules in these groups that must be obeyed and the standards they impose that demand conformity tend to be ever-shifting goalposts that are impossible to hit perfectly all the time. So it’s usually very easy for an overeager follower to find something about an enemy to attack.
Once one follower initiates an attack, the other followers find it very easy to join in. If they attack very well, then their own sub-leaders might notice them and grant them more power. Their group’s main leader might even notice! Just imagine the benefits they’d get!
One of the most attractive benefits, of course, is being able to ignore more of the group’s rules.
An example of what I mean from Before You Lose Your Faith
This is how Hunter Beaumont presents his praise of Matt Chandler in Chapter 4. First, he describes the evangelical purity movement, which presents young women who have unapproved sex as tarnished, less-than, hopelessly stained, and unwanted. In the story Chandler tells, they’re like a rose passed around dozens of people, all mangled and torn up by the end.
That is how evangelicals see desirable young women who have unapproved sex. It is how they have always seen them, at least ever since I myself first became evangelical in the mid-1980s. It is definitely how evangelicals talk even now about such young women.
But here’s Hunter Beaumont to thwack evangelicals on the nose for believing exactly how their leaders have always presented this image. No, now they need to draw inspiration from Matt Chandler, who declares, “Jesus wants the rose! That’s the whole point of the gospel!”
Of course, Chandler’s grand noggin-thwackening won’t change how evangelicals see these young women in the here-and-now. I’ve personally seen those men piously, ever-so-graciously allow such women to access forgiveness from Jesus and Heaven after they die. How nice, right? They just won’t ever marry them, which is the entire teaching of the rose exercise.
Individualism vs authoritarianism
No. It is not individualism that makes evangelical churches focus so hard on correct beliefs and behavior. Instead, it is authoritarianism. The behavior I describe here does not result in benefits only to the individuals involved. Rather, it results in improvements to their positions within the group itself.
And all that separates functional authoritarian groups from dysfunctional ones is how beholden its leaders are to their group’s rules, and how highly leaders and members alike prioritize the group’s objectives and reputation over the safety and fair treatment of its members.
Using that standard, not many authoritarian groups manage to be as utterly dysfunctional as the ones we find in Jeremy Linneman’s flavor of Christianity.
And using that standard, it suddenly becomes very easy to understand why the worst scandals and abuses always erupt out of these exact groups of Christians—even though they hold what even he would consider to be the perfect beliefs given to Christians by Jesus himself.
Very few evangelical churches look like the ideal presented by Before You Lose Your Faith, for a reason
In Before You Lose Your Faith, its writers consistently assert that if a church’s congregation holds the correct beliefs about Christianity, they’ll always create the kind of community that welcomes even the people who are hardest to steer into obedience and conformity.
That is completely untrue. And we can see that in how those writers describe the vast majority of churches in their own flavor of Christianity.
By the way, I’m being extremely generous here in saying “the vast majority.” In truth, it’s likely that the kind of churches who actually act like the ideal presented in this book can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And I don’t think any of those rare birds maintain this utopian ideal for very long.
Over the past thirty or forty years, evangelical leaders have waged a series of culture wars that have steadily increased the polarization, tribalism, and extremism of members who have chosen to remain in that flavor.
By now, it is absolutely impossible for any evangelical to vocally support reproductive rights. Even in this book, evangelicals who decry what they see as optional culture wars write of the mandatory nature of this most cultural of all culture wars. It’s also impossible for any evangelical leader to support equal marriage.
We’ve already talked about how Karen Swallow Prior did that last one. Ever since, these exact Christians have been trying to cancel her for it.
Dysfunctional authoritarian groups cannot allow questions and doubts to exist
I’m still laughing about this book offering up Matt fuckin’ Chandler as an example of a great church leader who totes gets “the gospel” and knows exactly how to treat the noncompliant and out-of-step.
In truth, his kind of church is the very last place that noncompliant, out-of-step evangelicals should expect to find grace, kindness, or even acceptance.
The power of dysfunctional authoritarian leaders is built upon the members’ fear of retaliation. And they have very good reason to fear it: they’ve seen it many times being inflicted on others.
So many of the doubts that we’ve seen in Before You Lose Your Faith are presented as easily-answered, easily-reframed, easily-batted-away gotcha questions. Even the capital-P Problem of Hell just gets a quick li’l one-step dosey-doe reframing as totally the fault of the hellbound themselves. Those who reject the salespeople of this flavor of Christianity get draped with strawman disguises, then vilified and demonized.
And this is how doubts must be presented and framed. These Christians, more than any other, have no real evidence to support any of their various claims. They don’t even act like they even somewhat-believe any of their own twaddle. So they have to lean hard on emotional manipulation and threats to keep everyone in line.
Meanwhile, building a good community in Reality-Land
There’s also a reason why evangelicals in this flavor of oppressive, repressive authoritarianism look longingly to the friendships and group dynamics of heathens outside their flock.
Most people find it natural to want to belong to a great group, and to want close, enriching, mutually-enjoyable relationships with others. Humans developed and evolved as social creatures.
But building a good community requires a number of factors that dysfunctional authoritarian groups absolutely cannot ever allow:
- Trust between members to treat each other with grace, kindness, and respect. Dysfunctional authoritarians are always on the lookout for an attack opening. They betray each others in every way and at every level to get more power for themselves. They live in a permanent police-state mentality.
- An easy yoke and a light burden at all levels. Yes, I’m riffing off something Jesus is supposed to have said. Ironically, it’s also something that you can’t find in this flavor of Christianity. Their rules are onerous, as well as difficult to express in concrete terms. If someone rejects any part of their rules, they can expect nonstop attacks till they fall back into line. Worst of all, these rules apply less and less the higher up the power structure we look. At the top levels, its most powerful leaders follow almost none of the group’s rules. This fact tends to be an open secret among the first few levels of leadership.
- A price of membership that compares well with the benefits gained by joining. A good group’s rules are easy to understand, with enforcement that is understandable and fair. You’ll find none of that in this flavor of Christianity, either. The more dysfunctional the group, the more its leaders demand obedience and conformity, and the fewer benefits they extend to its rank-and-file members. To get better benefits, they tell members implicitly, gain more power.
In essence, a good group will offer members benefits they want at a price that is fair. Its members will be people those members want to be around. And its activities feel like a worthwhile expenditure of members’ time and resources.
When Daddy knows best; listen to your Daddy
In discussing the previous chapter (13), commenters zeroed in very intently on the gaslighting going on there. And they well should have. It’s like the song “Mother Knows Best” from Rapunzel:
Except for evangelicals it’s Daddy Knows Best, of course.
In the song, the villainess tries her best to utterly demoralize and scare Rapunzel into obedience. She tries to get Rapunzel to start doubting her own strengths and skills, lies about how dangerous the outside world really is, and then finally seals the deal by guilting Rapunzel about both the effort required to raise her thus far and how much the young woman’s disobedience will hurt her. Sounds familiar, hmm?
And like Rapunzel, we’re also meant to forget that almost every single one of the Christians who contributed to this book have something major to gain through readers’ buy-in. Most of them are pastors or what my Evil Ex used to call “professional Christians.” At least a few contributed riffs on their usual body of work, then referenced their other books in hopes that readers will trot out to buy them too. A couple are there for plausible deniability, really, so the book’s creators can feel like they’ve well and truly addressed that topic, and these chapters mostly just validate their writers’ own beliefs.
But as we’ve seen, nothing presented in this book works the way its writers say it does. Nothing! That most especially includes their vision of the ideal TRUE CHRISTIAN™ community. Even they themselves concede that their communities are awful.
Unfortunately, the only solution in their entire toolbox is Jesus-ing harder. And that’s what we’ve gotten, time and again. To fix awful communities, the congregations involved just have to Jesus harder. And if that doesn’t fix their hypocrisy, dysfunctionality, cruelty, and demands for conformity? Well, clearly they still have some Jesus-ing harder to do.
And they always will.
That’s the beauty of beliefs that aren’t based on anything real, you see:
There’s no way to tell when those beliefs’ objectives been achieved or not.
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