Our Dysfunctional Family Values: On Believe Me by John Fea

img_9395.jpegThere is nothing quite so painful nor so beautiful as delving into the study of your own family.  Where there are wounds or unresolved questions, such study becomes all the more necessary yet somewhat halting and – even, at times – haunting. As Oscar Wild wrote in his classic The Picture of Dorian Gray, “I can’t help detesting my relations. I suppose it comes from the fact that none of us can stand other people having the same faults as ourselves.”

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, by John Fea, offers fellow white American evangelicals a chance to study the harsher realities of our family legacy by illuminating the detestable parts of our past and laying bare the faults of our present.

For many of us within the church the current era of Trumpism has confirmed our worst fears and challenged our most defensive reflexes about the faith community we call home.  This has been a time of reflection and repentance, but also one of bewilderment.

In describing his first reaction on election night Fea shares his emotions, which to many of us are all too familiar. “I was shocked. I was saddened. I was angry.”  Trump’s victory brought about disillusionment not really because of who lost, but rather because of who and what so many of our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ appeared willing to endorse, enable or empower.  As Fea notes, realizing that eight out of 10 of his fellow church goers most likely voted for Trump “seemed to reflect deep divisions in how we understand the world, and it was deeply distressing.” (5)

For those who, like me, share these sentiments of shock and uncertainty, Believe me offers a renewed explanation for why this happened and sketches tentative suggestions for the road ahead.  He offers us a historical framework mixed with contemporary analysis through which to understand our present time, particularly by focusing on the religious leaders and prominent Trump supporters Fea terms “Court Evangelicals.” In all, the book reads as a satisfying catharsis for unresolved questions about why and how we got to this point in our family history.

Grounded in an overview of the modern dance between evangelicals and the Supreme Court, Fea describes how and why evangelicals have turned to political solutions as a means for devotional salvation, especially in the second half of the 20th century. Also acting as primer on the darker moments in religious American history, from the faults of Salem and Massachusetts Bay Colony, to the theological justifications of slavery and Jim Crow, to the rise of the “Know Nothing Party”, the Scopes Trial, Operation Wet Back and many more, Fea’s book offers us a colorful family album of evangelical foibles, sins, and woes.  He explains:

“Evangelicals have worried about the decline of Christian civilization from the moment they arrived on American shores in the seventeenth century.  They have celebrated values such as ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ while simultaneously building exclusive communities that do not tolerate dissent.  They have revealed their fear in the ways they have responded to the plight of the people who do not share their skin color.  White evangelical fear of newcomers – those who might challenge the power and privilege that white evangelicals have enjoyed in a nation of Protestants – has been present in every era of American history.” (65)

Seen in this light, the voting habits and rhetoric of the 2016 election were a continuity of our worst impulses, an almost inevitable outcome for a people who have yet to reckon with the their own darker past.

Playing up the thesis that the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump is driven most prominently by fear, Fea recounts the events leading up to the election by wryly noting, “The evangelical candidates stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame.” (33) The rhetoric, developed over almost forty years by the leadership of the Religious Right, mixed with age-old concerns about foreigners, criminals, and encroaching secularism, is not to be seen as an abrogation but rather as a continuation of the more troubling legacies within the American church.  As Fea explains: “In a sin-cursed world, we should expect anxiety-induced emotions to rise in response to social change.  But evangelicals have not always managed their fears in a healthy way.” (65)

Crucially, he identifies how the over glorification, or nostalgia, of our past has led to a confused mentality of how best to confront the concerns of the present.  While addressing the complex historical implications of the controversial campaign slogan Make America Great Again, he asks for us to question more deeply what message that fourth word conveys.  Which America, which season of American evangelicalism, do we wish to reclaim? What is meant by great AGAIN?

“It is easy for white evangelicals to look back fondly on American history.  There is, of course, a lot to celebrate… At the same time, America is a nation that has been steeped in racism, xenophobia, imperialism, violence, materialism, and a host of other practices that do not conform very well to the ethical demands that Christianity places upon our lives.”  (137-8)

Looking back to this darker past is the key to understanding a path to a brighter, more hopeful, future.  It also helps us put in perspective the widening political gap between white evangelicals and our minority brethren in the faith.  As Fea pointedly queries, “Why would any African-American want to ‘reclaim’ a history steeped in racism?” (134) Yet somehow these voices remain unheard or unheeded and the sins of our forefathers, or perhaps the sins of our own hearts, are the reality we still must confront, repent, and mourn.

What then should we do about these dysfunctional family values?  Fea ultimately concludes with a call to hope over fear, humility over power, and history over nostalgia.  Through further self-reflection and an embrace of values exhibited in the civil rights movement, he thinks we can find creative and faithful ways to respond to the unique (and not so unique) challenges of our times.

Moreover, Fea suggests that we should respond in such a way that is inclusive and welcoming of the entire multi-racial, multi-ethnic body of Christ, seeking after an understanding of the great promise offered by this land of the free that is relatable to all.  “For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear,” he says, “real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.” (154)  Adopting a posture of humility, we should therefore see both the future of our faith and the future of our polis as one in the making, a work in progress ripe for healing and new growth.

While Believe Me is a helpful and insightful addition to the burgeoning literature seeking to explain how a thrice married, notoriously bankrupt (in more ways than one) former reality tv star ended up as President of the United States of America, I do have three critiques to offer.

First, for a book that proclaims to specifically offer an understanding of the evangelical embrace of Trump or Trumpism, Fea fails to adequately define the distinct roots and branches of our family tree.  Since the 2016 election there has been an ongoing discussion, particularly among scholars of theology and church history, regarding the meaning of the label “evangelical” and the authenticity of the poll numbers which Fea readily cites as the basis of his book.  Not only did Fea choose to overlook this discussion about the contemporary use of the term, but his historic examples of “evangelicals” are quite generous in definition, including faith groups as diverse as puritans, members of mainline protestant denominations, prosperity gospel preachers, and pentecostal churches, among others.

The closest Fea comes to defining what he means by American evangelicalism is found in his categorization of the so-called “court evangelicals” who “come from three primary streams of American evangelicalism: the Christian Right, the followers of what has come to be known as the ‘prosperity gospel,’ and the Independent Network Charismatics.” (106)  While I found this to be a helpful way to group the personalities he features, I am certain some of his peers will question if these are all fair representatives of evangelicalism as a historically defined religious movement.

Even if these are all fair representatives of white evangelicalism, Fea still fails to define with greater clarity what he means by the term. (Personally, I am inclined to give him some latitude for accepting this type of self-identified “evangelicalism” as representing an important sociological grouping, if not a precise theological label.)  A significant part of reflecting on our family roots is looking into our DNA, the unique genetic ties that connect us together throughout time.  In Believe Me, Fea fails to even attempt to make these ties apparent.  He uses the term “evangelical” so broadly at times it ceases to mean much more than just a generic, interchangeable, title for the American Christian.

Second, I am afraid this book is not written in a way that makes it fully approachable to the 81% who voted for Donald Trump.  While the dedication “to the 19%” who voted for someone (or no one) else in 2016 seems quite fitting, this book offers an opportunity to bridge the political divide and invite us all onto a mutual path of familial reflection.  Unfortunately, where Fea diverges from the necessary detachment of historical inquiry, there is a touch of off-putting bias.  More than once I caught myself noting how he describes the fears of those who have embraced Trumpism as merely reacting to perceived threats, while at the same time he qualifies the prejudices of both the present and the past as definite and real.  This pattern is particularly evident in his discussion of the Obama presidency where, for example, he fairly critiques the racism behind birtherism but understates both the political and judicial threats to religious liberty posed by the Obama administration both at home and abroad.

While I concur that the Christian Right, among others, ginned up excessive hyperbole and fear in our recent history, I also think that Believe Me as a whole misses the mark in examining the trends in European and American culture that elicited genuine fear and anxiety among orthodox Christian believers.  As many astute observers of our age such as Rod Dreher in The Benedict Option have noted, some evangelicals (presumably including those within the 81%) are responding to shifts in belief and behavior which could lead to actual persecution over time – more than mere social change or inflexibility as Fea implies.  We certainly need to debate the best, most Christ-like way to respond to such threats, but it is folly to gloss over the actual ways these changing public policies and mores may inhibit our freedom of religion in the days to come.

Fea’s overarching thesis, that our fears should be met with hope and humility, remains timely and significant.  Yet by discrediting most of these fears as over exaggerated, or simply as part of a legacy of religious bigotry, he limits his most likely audience to those already inclined to agree with the prescient warning that fear and nostalgia can all too easily lead to ungodly racism, bigotry and exclusion.

Finally, any great examination of family history eventually needs to look fully and fairly at the entire family tree.  When newly exposed to the foibles and abuses of our elders or peers it is only natural to want to keep digging, to find all the hidden or forgotten skeletons, and to reflect upon them through grief.  This process of emotive truth-telling is an important part of healing, but it is not the entirety of the healing process.  What Believe Me starkly overlooks, a bit oddly given the intended audience, is the historical context for evangelicals who currently dissent.  Be they the 19% who didn’t vote for Trump, or part of an unknown percentage who cast their votes for him but still vocally object to policies and behavior which run counter to the Christian Faith, these white evangelicals are standing in an important tradition that also reaches back before our founding.

Family histories are complex, and any readings that are all positive or all negative tend to miss the mark and fail to give complete justice to the truth of our heritage.  Where Fea fairly derides the positive revisionism of David Barton and his ilk for an all-too-simple storytelling of a mythic Christian America, reading Believe Me in insolation risks leaving us with the impression that the legacy of white evangelicalism is mostly negative: a long, sad, solitary tale of bigotry and hypocrisy.

Such a uniquely sordid picture could not be further from the truth.  Look to every moment of ugliness and shame in our nation’s history and there you will find evangelical dissenters, missionaries, and advocates.  While the darker parts of our past must be reckoned with, a feat Fea does quite well, we should not lose sight of the many ways throughout our own history that evangelical Christians have stood with the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed.  That story of compassion and sacrifice is just as if not more significant to tell, not so as to lead us into a nostalgic triumphalism but rather to inspire those who are currently distressed with the knowledge that we are not alone.  Others have stood here before us and stayed faithful to God, upheld human dignity for the downtrodden, and fearlessly spoke truth in the face of persecution, isolation, and apparent powerlessness.

I find Fea’s ultimate answer, for us to look to the civil rights movement as a model to follow in these times, quite compelling.  But I also hope we do not forget the legacy of the abolitionists, the suffragettes, and the urban social movements of the 19th century, among so many others.  The examples of fear and hatred in our past run deep and wide and current events suggest this legacy still lives with us, possibly within each of us, to this day.  But there are also so many examples in our history of rugged perseverance, crusaders for justice, and generous biblical hospitality.  Those saints, many of whom were white American evangelicals, offer us ready examples of what it means to live our lives with a bold, unapologetic, public witness in often dark or confusing times.

These concerns aside, Believe Me is a helpful and ultimately hopeful read worthy of further reflection.  Going into this week of national celebration, I hope we can come to see the role of our familial engagement within the public square not as an opportunity to worship the perfection of what we think our country once was, or what it might already be, but rather, using Fea’s description of the outlook found within the civil rights movement, as “a gesture to what” we hope “the United States might become.” (164)

 

Fea, John. Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018).

I received a free advanced copy of this book to review.  Special thanks to Eerdmans for this opportunity and apologies for not publishing sooner! Reading and writing with four under five is quite the adventure. 🙂 

 

Testing the Waters III

For my third and final book concept, I have outlined a devotional for the unemployed, particularly the young and unemployed.  More generally, this book would address the question, ‘How do we hope for the future when living in a dark and disappointing present?’

Below is a tentative introduction, which explains the project in greater detail.

How does this idea compare to concept 1 (the allegorical novel) and concept 2 (the popular theology of the imagination)? Which book do you think I should write this summer? Which one is your favorite?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

While We Wait

Hope For A Generation Unemployed

Introduction

This is a book written in the midst of weakness.  I have no great story of success, at least not of the kind that we are used to hearing about.  My only true credential for writing on such a weighty topic as hope is that I strove to reject the ever present temptation to despair in the face of unemployment, rejection, and uncertainly.

Perhaps we often expect too much of hopeful thoughts and sentiments, or more accurately, we misunderstand them.  We hold onto someone else’s success because we desire that our lives will soon follow in their path.  In essence, we chase after hope because we are trying to escape from the reality of our present sufferings by willing them to end as soon as possible.  Yet hope filled messages are not meant to act as glib prescriptions slapped onto our circumstances after some great deliverance has come.  Rather, the province of hope is the place of unfulfilled desires, broken dreams, and anxious nights.

My own quest for employment was filled with its share of highs and lows; moments of laughter and months of tears.  Some days I awoke with great enthusiasm and faith in the future and other days it was a true accomplishment to simply find my way out of my bed and into a pair of jeans.  Through the changing of the seasons I have felt the cold fears of winter, the optimism of spring, the exhaustion of summer, and the pensive reflections of fall.  The ideas found in this book are simply the lessons, stories, and prayers of my heart from the journey I have taken.  In my writings I have tried to understand and share what it means to walk with Christ through the valley of unemployment, and more generally, in times of darkness and confusion.

I once heard hope defined as the posture of life that always rejoices in the future which lies in the hands of God.  There is great depth to this definition and, as I am no expert, I fear that my own fragmented exploration merely scratches the surface of why and how we can find joy in all things.  But I know for certain that it begins and ends with the truth of God, the great I Am.  I cannot think of hope without first thinking of God for without Him there is no joy, no goodness, no love, no purpose, and no future.

If you do not know Him, then I pray that these words might help you to understand a fraction of who He is and how much He loves you as His creation.  I can promise you that He is there, waiting for you to reach out to Him in the midst of your disappointments and pain.  For those of you who, like me, knew the one true God before your struggle, may these words strengthen your faith and by the power of the spirit lead you closer to his heart.

Waiting is uncomfortable, but it is not impossible.  So while we wait, let us do so with hope; rejoicing today for the blessings of tomorrow.

Testing the Waters II

For my second book concept I am contemplating authoring a work to outline a popular theology of the imagination.  The draft of an opening segment is below for your feedback and thoughts. 

Would a book like this be helpful for you?  Would you read it?  Which do you prefer, this idea or my first concept of an allegorical novel?

The Creative Witness

Reclaiming the Christian Imagination for Every Day Life

Part 1: The Vision of a Baptized Imagination

ImageWho cannot help but remember with fondness those days as a child when we were so easily amazed by the ordinary and saw the mysterious as commonplace.  It is to this whimsical world of a child’s imagination, one of fairy tales and dreams, that we long to return – when we are brave enough to admit it.  The beautiful truth of redemption is that the fulfillment of this longing is not beyond our reach.  In fact, for those of us seeking to follow in the way of Christ, our imaginations have already been as much redeemed as every other piece of our body, mind, and spirit and lie ripe for cultivation and harvests of bountiful fruit.

Flowing forth from our redeemed imagination comes the ability to envision the intangible and distant elements of faith that are otherwise lost in the mundane and stressful distractions of our daily routines.  Once awakened by the work of the spirit, our imaginations can guide us towards the perfection of holiness and help us to overcome the inevitable seasons of doubt and despair that we all face in this life.

There is an unfortunate misnomer in our culture that the imagination is the currency only for a creative elite; those who are deemed by connoisseurs and critics as the artistically gifted.  It evident that some among us have been specially called to make artistic works of superior form and beauty.  These creations, skillfully crafted by our anointed brothers and sisters, ought to play a central and vital role in the work of the Church.  But what I want you to hear me say to you, above all else in this book, is that each one of us has been given the faculty of the imagination as a blessing from our Creator to enable us to more fully see Him, to learn from Him, to glorify Him, and to love and adore Him all the days of our lives.

The calling of the Christian imagination is one that we must reclaim for the entire body of Christ. This is not a matter of having an eye for aesthetics, the voice of an angel, or the pen of a poet.  This is a matter of being fully equipped to taste and see that our Lord is good.  Once the Christian imagination is rekindled within each of us, the church as a united whole shall stand stronger and brighter as that prophetic city on a hill; seeking day by day to dwell in the light of truth and beckon lovingly, yet boldly, to the surrounding world.  The unfolding pages, chapters and parts shall endeavor to cast a vision for what our imagination is meant to be, discuss the barriers that we all encounter which hinder its proper use, and ultimately suggest a way for each us to reclaim the Christian imagination for every day life.

Testing the Waters

I am in the midst of deciding which of my book concepts to take up for the rest of the summer.  The following is a tentative beginning and mock up for one of my options: a fictional, semi-autobiographic, novel told with tinges of allegory.

Would you want to read more? Let me know!

Purifying Grace: The Making of A Woman

For my beloved down here, whose love
Draws me ever closer to my Beloved up there

Part 1: Beginnings

“I was born in the way of truth: though my childhood was unaware of the greatness of the benefit, I knew it when trial came.”

~ St. Ephrem the Syrian

Chapter 1: At Birth, A Name

SHE was born precisely at the stroke of three on a warmer than average autumnal morning.  Nothing about time would ever be precise for her again.

There is a quality about birth that will always remain a great mystery for us humans; even for the mothers who have been through labor, or the fathers who stood present and in awe, or the doctors who have aided in hundreds or thousands of deliveries.  No matter how many births we witness, or how many children a woman may carry to term, we will never be able to remember our own entrance into this world.  It is the fundamental event of our earthen bound lives and yet we can only learn of it through legend.  How strange a fate to know of our beginnings merely second hand.

She was no different than your average little newborn of medium length and less than memorable weight.  Overcome by her timely entrance and subsequent wails she was quite ready for a nap. Her parents, tired themselves from a long night of labor, were quite predictably also ready for some rest – yet their joy at the arrival of a person much hoped for and long waited upon compelled them to stay awake for the time being.  As they clung together in that moment the early threads of a family were woven; threads that would one day form a beauteous tapestry worthy of hanging in the grandest of halls.

So engrossed were her parents in the birth of their little family that they hardly heard the doctor enter their plain little room to inquire, “Well now, what is her name?”

What a heavy laden question!  The burden to name another rests all too easily upon the apathetic shoulders of our thoughtless generation.

There was – for a brief moment – uncertainty in the air.  In those days the methods of determining gender were not as advanced and these parents had been prepared to have a little boy.

They had no name to give.

At long last, after gazing at the little miracle she held in her arms, the girl’s mother smiled and said, “Pure.  We will call her Pure.”

Her father nodded and then added, “Her middle name should be Grace, after some of our bravest ancestors long since gone.”

Looking lovingly into each others’ eyes as only newly crowned parents can, they knew that they had found their daughter’s preordained name.

And so it was that the journey of Pure Grace in this strange place called earth ever so simply began.

This piece is cross-posted at my Tumblr blog.

Happily Ever Always

Why aren’t we able to create or sustain heartfelt images of goodness?

image

Everything I have ever learned about writing or story-telling, either in classes or through the media of our age, emphasizes that there is no plot worth telling without a crisis, a climax, or a great trial.  The characters of depth – the roles which actors clamor over and are in turn praised most consistently for portraying – are the ones who are dark, twisted, and complex.  Genius, we are taught, is displayed through intricate articulations of the hardships, disappointments, and perverse things of this life.  In short, you cannot have a good story without having a great evil.

Goodness is most often thought of and therefore portrayed as flat, dull, and even insincere.  The tales which tell of good things or redemption typically hold off to depict these values until the very end and we are left with the iconic, and perhaps now ironic, “happily ever after” which no one actually dares to maintain for anything longer than a fleeting moment.  The evil may be vanquished and overcome in the final minute or on the last page, but I would wager that most of these yarns were only able to show the good in contrast to a more complete vision of the bad.  A triumph can mark an end but it rarely, if ever in our stories, becomes a genuine beginning.

It is natural for our anecdotes and legends to mirror the experiences of our lives and the sad truth is that evil, sin, and injustice are an undeniable part of our existence.  It is therefore little wonder we glance askew at happy tales, thinking that these must either be shallow in message or that they couldn’t possibly be the whole or real story.  This reality, we assume, must involve hypocrisy, tragedy, and the truth of our depravity laid out naked and bare.  Even through our occasional sappy tears at “feel good” plots we undercut the happy endings of our times, ever aware of the foibles of humanity.  The climactic marriage scenes, you think, could easily follow into divorce; the sports triumphs may lead to tales of drug abuse, injuries, and public disgrace; the redeemed man will more likely than not lapse back into the problems and addictions of his past.

But what of redemption that lasts?  How can we claim that salvation is transformational and the ultimate fulfillment of our existence if we cannot even sustain images, characters, and tales of goodness without dabbling in evil to keep things interesting or “real”? I am not an advocate of smoothing over the difficulties of this world or the truth of our own flaws and sinful natures, but it certainly seems that we should consider more intentionally how to restore a proper sense of the the good in the sagas we write and tell.

If we all acknowledge that the need to depict evil in our stories stems from our daily reality, then why is it that we attribute such imaginative mastery to those who craft these dark characters and plots?  The hard thing is not to tell of what we already know but to tell of that which we do not know, or rather, of what we can only see in part.  It is a much higher calling to depict the good – with the penetrating and rich qualities this ought to entail – than to merely replicate the bad which we are constantly mired in.

Evil, even in its most startling forms, requires little creativity or inspiration to conjure up.  We find it every time we read the news, step outside our front door, or examine our own hearts.  Perhaps this is why we see so few examples of genuine goodness in our art, because “the good” is what demands true talent, imagination, and hours of reflection to fashion and bring into being.

I don’t necessarily advocate the perspective of artists like Thomas Kinkade who seek to depict life as they think it would have been without the introduction of original sin into the order of creation.  Neither do I think it possible to achieve complete perfection or holiness in this age, either in our lives or our creative endeavors.  But what I do promote, and what I earnestly desire a new generation of artists and writers to undertake, is a concerted effort to depict what life can and will be like through the active and complete redemption of this world. These efforts will be incomplete, perhaps some will even be false or misguided, but why else have we been gifted with the power of the baptized imagination if not to envision something beautiful and whole amidst the destruction and brokenness of our present reality?

I am daily convinced that our redeemed imaginations are to be used as a means of communicating hope to this world.  God’s goodness as a rich and constantly unfolding actuality, not merely as a foil for the more compelling evil or as a line tagged on to the end of a story, is what we all hunger for.  May we ponder anew how to be vessels that introduce this true good into the world through the stories we tell, the characters we devise, and the images we create.

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the LORD
in the land of the living.
Wait for the LORD;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the LORD.

~ Psalm 27:13-14

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

~ Romans 12:21

This essay was originally posted April 8, 2011 on my tumblr blog.