The Great Unmasking

Sharing a podcast link to a sermon, The Great Unmasking, from a famous white evangelical pastor preaching some Gospel, talking about social justice in our current context, preaching from the prophets and discussing things like defunding police. It’s Rob Bell, which to be fair, I’m not sure he’s actually an evangelical….He was booted out of his evangelical church years back, circa 2012.

Before I published this post, it occurred to me that one of the reasons why evangelicals have lost their anchor in justice and righteousness may have to do with the fact that so many good and decent persons were either kicked out of their churches, encouraged to leave, or else just found the situation so maddeningly unredeemable that they left. Hence there is likely far less diversity in evangelicalism today than ten or twenty years ago. So evangelicalism has likely become an echo-chamber for a right-wing, nationalist political ideology. That’s always kind of been the case, but the fact that there is no longer any sense of decency (and no biblical correctives) coming from evangelical leaders may well be the result of a mass exodus of alternative voices.

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Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

11 thoughts on “The Great Unmasking”

  1. In self-defense he shut out the light and day from his mind, for if he had thought of the sun’s rising and setting, of the moon or the stars, of clouds or rain, he would have died a thousand deaths before they took him to the chair. To accustom his mind to death as much as possible, he made all the world beyond his cell a vast grey land where neither night nor day was, peopled by strange men and women whom he could not understand, but with whose lives he longed to mingle once before he went…

    His mother and brother and sister had come to see him and he had told them to stay home, not to come again, to forget him. The Negro preacher who had given him the cross had come and he had driven him away. A white priest had tried to persuade him to pray and he had thrown a cup of hot coffee in his face. The priest had come to see other prisoners since then, but had not stopped to talk with him. That had evoked in Bigger a sense of his worth… He felt that his making the priest stand away from him and wonder about his motives for refusing to accept the consolations of religion was a sort of recognition of his personality on a plane other than that which the priest was ordinarily willing to make.

    – Richard Wright, Native Son, 1940

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  2. As a former evangelical and husband to an evangelical, I see much of the same disturbing trends you speak of. This isn’t the sum total picture, thankfully, as there are faithful believers among them who refuse to do obeisance to the idols of ‘merica and nationalism My wife and her father are among them, and I think also her pastor and my brother. But such thinkers seem far too few. Thankfully there remain some luminaries among the evangelicals who traverse directly against this disturbing grain, some of whom have had enormous impact on my thinking. Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, Stanley Hauerwas, Johnathan Wilson-Hartgrove, are the good ones among the evangelicals I can think of. My fear is that evangelicalism can hardly be said to be a subset of Christianity anymore, but is being successfully assimilated as a religious justification of American imperialism.

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  3. Thanks for your comment, Steven. I tend to agree with your observation: “ being successfully assimilated as a religious justification of American imperialism.” I would argue that this assimilation occurred at the beginning of the 2000s. My sense of the flow of our cultural history is that 9/11 is a far more pivotal event than most people recognize. I think that the U.S. reaction to 9/11 created the “us versus them” militant dynamic that has led to blind faith in “America” and the institutionalization of American Exceptionalism. I think that evangelicalism institutionalized American Exceptionalism in the 2000s.

    To me it seems imperative that evangelicals of good will get themselves out of this toxic environment. Yet I’ve been out of the loop for a while now. I left evangelicalism back in circa 2007.

    I wish there was an alternative to evangelicalism, something that retained the sense of mission and passion for preaching the good news of liberation but that abandoned the toxic pro-American ideology of enmity. Nothing, though, has emerged. We had the “emerging church” in the 2000s, but that never actually fully emerged. Rob Bell is sort of an example of what many of us did: either pushed out or just disenfranchised, former evangelicals leave our spiritual homes and then just sort of each go our separate ways….Was this your story, Steven?

    Sounds like you still keep in the loop with evangelicals. Do you see any desire for an alternative?

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    1. My own story is a bit convoluted, but ultimately the answer is that I entered the Roman Catholic Church. Initially, my leaving evangelicalism was a matter of coming to disagree with major tenets of its theology, as well as feeling like I needlessly suffered spiritually in a wasteland of shallowness. I was still quite the imperialist when I entered the Catholic Church, but over time the theology of Catholicism, specifically aspects of its social teachings, undermined my allegiance to ‘merica and the Republican Party and its nationalistic ideology, in conjunction with the serious cognitive dissonance I was left with thanks to my participation in the War on Terrorism. The writings and life of Dorothy Day, St. Francis of Assissi, and other Catholic radicals have made important contributions to my evolution to who I am now. I’m dismayed by how much American exceptionalism/imperialism exists among the rank and file and clergy of American Catholicism, however its strength in my estimation is that its contains quite a bit of radical potential within it, to withstand and subvert the imperialism of governments and culture, even though it tragically allows itself too often to be used by the system. Hope that made sense, I’m typing this in a rush as I head out the door to work. Will be glad to continue this conversation if you’d like.

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    2. Sorry for the rushed response. As far as desire for an alternative to the growing nationalism, I’m unaware of any major such movements within evangelicalism. There are pockets of fresh air that I’m aware of: intentional communities such as The Simple Way in Philadelphia come to mind, and free-thinking publications by evangelicals. Mere Orthodoxy blog is one such publication I follow; they have a nice mix of opinion, some of it is the typical conservative stuff, but much of it is more broad-minded intellectually weightier than what you normally encounter in the typical church. The Church of the Brethren and other Anabaptist churches may be hopeful pockets of reformation within American Protestantism. To be honest though, I don’t know of any cohesive anti-imperial, anti-nationalist movements within evangelicalism. Nationalism and American idolatry are a pan-denominational heresy spreading like wildfire through American Christendom, regardless of communion. But in my estimation, evangelical Protestantism has been far more susceptible to its malign influences, and has not the built-in protective measures to withstand its tide, that I see within Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and maybe Anglicanism.

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      1. I agree. evangelical Protestantism does not have the same safe-guards as Roman Catholicism, and they simply don’t have the history of engaging with issues of justice. There have been evangelicals who have been on the side of justice, but it’s now become fairly ancient history, going back to abolitionism. Evangelicals in the 20th century went all in with nationalism and capitalism.

        The other possible safe-guard is spiritual depth, and Roman Catholicism has that deeply rooted in their history. Evangelical spirituality, by contrast, has always been shallow, especially in the last hundred years.

        Some of the alternatives you mentioned give me hope that a new form of evangelical could emerge and split from the religious right. It can be done. All that needs to be done is to actually start preaching from the Bible.

        I still think there’s something beautiful about the essential core of evangelicalism, with the emphasis on the experience of rebirth. Evangelicals also emphasize the need to truly invest one’s heart and soul and mind and full strength into one’s faith, i.e., that faith is not merely a matter of going to church on Sunday and/or belonging to a particular denomination. As it currently exists, however, the form of religious tribalism that dominates the evangelical movement right now is just about as bad as anything I’ve seen.

        You said that your spouse is still evangelical? What is her take on this?

        Thanks for engaging with this issue. It’s always helpful for me to conversate.

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        1. My spouse is disgusted with all the nationalistic chest-thumping and Trump loving that goes on, on her side of the aisle in American Christianity. But on my side of the aisle I’ve got plenty of the same, plus the whole sex abuse scandal. In the end, where we are came after a long period of frustrating, at times painful, discernment and exploring various churches. We both find that where we are is where we each flourish in our own ways, despite the people who exasperate us. In the end, I think that’s just the ugly reality of church—the institutional church in every era is saddled with its own challenges and its own heresies to contend with. I’m optimistic God will raise up real believers from the ashes of the current catastrophe we call ‘evangelicalism’ to revitalize it. I don’t think evangelical Protestantism is completely dead, though I suspect its current form will have to die a horrible, ugly death in order for rebirth to happen. I agree with you that the strength of evangelical Protestantism at its core, is its emphasis on living entirely for Jesus, the importance of lay believers sharing the Gospel, and its high regard for the Bible. I still turn to some evangelical resources (largely the ones I’ve mentioned) to enrich my own spirituality, as I think Catholicism could learn a thing or two from the best of the evangelical traditions and their mission-mindedness.

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          1. Yes, indeed. Lord let it be.

            You and your spouse are clearly of those who be a shining light within those respective institutional contexts. It’s been encouraging to interact with your thoughts and experiences, Steven. Thanks.

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  4. I might add that Rob Bell’s “Unmasking” language is taken from Walter Wink, a theologian who wrote extensively and quite prophetically about Power. It resonates even three decades later. Perhaps now more than ever.

    Here is Walter Wink’s Power Triology:

    Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8006-1786-X

    Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986. ISBN 0-8006-1902-1

    Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992. ISBN 0-8006-2646-X


  5. Good discussion. Anglican, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, Evangelical — Protestant churches of varying stripes have historically been allied with The Powers That Be in this country. In the US the Catholic Church has traditionally been the church of underclass immigrants — Irish, Italian, Polish, now Latinx — probably accounting for its persistent progressive leanings. In Europe not so much: the Catholic Church was as strong pillar supporting the fascisms of Mussolini’s Italy and Franco’s Spain, not unlike the German Evangelicals’ support of Hitler.

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    1. Yes, right. To me, one of the key distinctives of Roman Catholicism is the monastic tradition. In the pre-modern era, vibrant monasteries provided a spiritual grounding for the church. And obviously the pre-modern church of Rome was very much one of the Powers-that-Be, but the monastics preserved the best of the Christian tradition, in terms of providing a place for spiritual seekers and emphasizing the importance of poverty and the danger of wealth and power. (The original “desert fathers/mothers” who were the precursor of the monastics went into the desert and eventually formed monastic communities as a counter-measure to the Christian embrace of the Roman Empire.)

      Martin Luther himself was a monk, whose initial impulse was to reform the church from within. Then he was like, fuck it. We out. Reformation time.

      The Reformation turned into something more akin to a religious revolution, due to the timing, coinciding as it did with the advent of modernity and the evil, dark shadow of modernity that was arising: capitalism. The upshot was that the Protestant churches did away with the monastic tradition and embraced (and helped to create) the new zeitgeist of individualism, for better or worse.

      Charles Taylor in his excellent work, A Secular Age, has a great discussion of this transition from the Medieval mindset to the Modern. I’m struck most profoundly by the impact of modernity ditching the monastic tradition. For Luther and Calvin et al., they wanted to establish a new form of faith that could be lived out by every believer, i.e., that each and every believer could fully attain and embody and exemplify the life of Christ, in their current lay occupations.

      The Reformers wanted to abolish the notion that there were some believers (monastics, hermits, etc.) who were at some higher/superior level of spiritual attainment. The Reformers got their way, because the monastic tradition is now all but extinct several hundred years later.

      I think this particular move of the Reformers was a lethal mistake, and since we’re just shooting the shit here, I’d go so far as to say that the death of the monastic tradition was the death of Christianity itself, in terms of ever becoming an institution that could have a meaningful impact on the world. In the contemporary scene, it’s primarily the secular movements that are impacting the world in a positive way and developing a robust vision of justice and seeking to implement progressive political reforms/revolutions. Most Christian institutions are lagging way behind and/or succumbing to irrational fears of change, thereby actively working against positive reforms and revolutions.

      In my own journey, I feel quite strongly that my life exemplifies a tragic irony of the current state of Christianity. The irony is that I had to leave the church in order to better understand the way of Jesus. I had to leave religion in order to better understand what the Bible had to say, at its core, in terms of the deeper life of the spirit and justice which was summed up by Jesus as “love thy neighbor.”

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