Two born and bred Southern Baptist women wrote books about keeping the “best” of their faith and discarding the rest. I don’t know if their readership overlaps at all. Jen Hatmaker’s For the Love is a folksy, funny plea to moms and burnt out church ladies to be kind and activated. Macy Halford’s My Utmost is a literary, scholarly wrestling for the beauty of grace from the arms of churchiness, accessible more to the coastal elite in its style, though perhaps not its context.
Halford’s feels like an inversion of my story. She and I were both history majors at elite colleges, desperately love ideas and literature, and are comfortable in these contexts. These things modified her experience of her childhood faith, changed it. It’s not like she gives a statement of faith, but she sees in Oswald Chambers an expression of full blooded life, life which chooses risk for the sake being truly alive, finding love and purpose. This is her center of Christianity. Her faith ends up with no place for any tenets that would offend her New Yorker friends.
Hatmaker is relatable more broadly because of her warmth, her humor, and her insight into real life. While Halford reads like a literary prize winner, Hatmaker sticks to her blogger roots. Yet she too has a faith that has been modified by exposure to the world. This makes sense, of course. It would be unreasonable for 40 year old women to have the faith of their 10 year old selves.
These women ended up in similar places, despite their ostensible differences. They champion a faith that emphasizes action, love of people, discovery of self, and freedom from religious chains. They shun rules, and the full Jesus. Hatmaker is pleased to declare Jesus beautiful and give him credit for our freedom in For the Love, though he is not much discussed beyond that fact that the he really loved people. Halford, on the other hand, skirts Jesus and his role in the faith he founded.
Both call themselves Christians, yet both reject outworkings of their faith that are historical and, more importantly, biblical. How did this happen?
It happened because they found it a successful coping mechanism for the scars of cultural Christianity. At this point, I write as an outsider. Growing up in California, and spending my adult life in New England, I have no meaningful personal relationship with the Bible Belt. But these two women lived and breathed the Southern Baptist machine of the 1980’s and 90’s. Church meetings, abstinence pledges, conferences, Christian music, and the Religious Right. A Church culture wed to a conservative political posture, that unified the will of the Lord with the platform of the Republican Party.
This is Christendom. This is Church which saturates society, but doesn’t communicate the whole gospel. They saw the holes in their traditions, the ways that their churches didn’t reflect Jesus, and they over-corrected. The Bible Belt has not stewarded the gospel well, and its children are susceptible to syncretism.
In every culture there are priorities that line up with the gospel; we are made in his image, and so we reflect him. It is easy to affirm the parts of culture that line up with God’s words. In the 1950’s, that was things like sexual purity. Today, it’s love for those on the margins.
But every culture has things that directly contradict the gospel; we are sinners who break his image. It is terribly hard to reject what feels normal culturally because of God’s Word; we bristle against it, justify it using logic and emotion. In the 1950’s, that was racism. Today, it is sexual purity.
Halford and Hatmaker have adult faiths that have changed emphases, but ultimately mimic their childhood faiths. Both stages of faith affirmed where the Bible agreed with cultural priorities and dismissed or reinterpreted the culturally gauche parts. The only thing that shifted between now and then was a whole chunk of cultural priorities. Let’s not throw stones though; this struggle belongs to all of us who want to relate to the Bible.
My encounter with the gospel changed my childhood faith, too—my childhood faith in the salvific power of ideas and literature. Jesus shows me, continually, that He is, and things only come together in him—especially the things which make no sense to my current culture. I’m certain I don’t know everything, I’m certain on some things I’m wrong. I’m also certain that we need to read the Scriptures together, and expect that God will say things that we dislike. I pray he will give us faith to trust him where he does.
We’re all in this together.