An Evangelical (Millennial) on the Canterbury Trail

Photo Illustration of Canterbury Tales created by Tom Gulotta with The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper from the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University via Wiki Commons. Faces L-R: Bono, Randall Balmer, Luci Shaw, Rachel Held Evans, Ian Morgan Cron, Robert Webber, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.
Photo Illustration of Canterbury Tales created by Tom Gulotta with The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper from the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University via Wiki Commons. Faces L-R: Bono, Randall Balmer, Luci Shaw, Rachel Held Evans, Ian Morgan Cron, Robert Webber, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

Highlighting the protean nature of contemporary religious identity, a 2008 Pew study found that 28 percent of adults had left their childhood denominations for other groups — a “remarkable amount of movement by Americans from one religious group to another” in a lively religious marketplace.

How else could a region settled by Anglicans and Presbyterians be transformed into a Baptist and Methodist Bible Belt?

How else could the “sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners . . . sit down together at the table of brotherhood”?

Though such trends may have accelerated in recent decades, America always has been a land of religious conversions.

Rachel Held Evans author of the new book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Photo via the author's website, RachelHeldEvans.com

Rachel Held Evans author of the new book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. Photo via the author’s website, RachelHeldEvans.com

Enter evangelical darling Rachel Held Evans, author of the popular A Year of Biblical Womanhood and other memoirs, including her most recent Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Churchwhich chronicles her journey from the evangelical subculture to the Episcopal Church.

Raised in the American South, Evans was “baptized by Martin Luther King, Jr. and George Wallace and Billy Graham.” In Evolving in Monkey Town (set in her hometown of Dayton, Tenn.), Evans describes her transformation from the “girl who knew all the answers” to an earnest spiritual seeker.

While technically a member of Generation X, Evans identifies “most strongly with the attitudes and ethos of the millennial generation.” Like many millennials, she is skeptical of large institutions, including the evangelical megachurches of her youth. Tired of “strobe lights and fog machines,” she rejects the gimmicks of the church marketing gurus.

Like so many of her cohort, Evans is “tired of the culture wars” and supports the civil rights of LGBT Americans. While 43 percent of white millennials in evangelical churches favor legalizing same-sex marriage, 51 percent support laws prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Going further than many younger evangelicals, Evans actively celebrates the spiritual journeys of LGBT Christians. A strong supporter of the Gay Christian Network, Evans no longer feels at home in conservative evangelical congregations. Such discomfort has contributed to religious disaffiliation among millennials (31 percent say that negative treatment of gays and lesbians may have led them to leave a childhood faith).

In After the Baby Boomers, sociologist Robert Wuthnow describes the “spiritual tinkering” of America’s 20-somethings. Evans uses a similar metaphor, arguing that “we’re all cobblers…piecing together our faith, one shard of broken glass at a time.” Rather than reveling in brokenness, she works to transform these shards into a stained glass window.

“Though religious switching to the Episcopal Church remains quite rare (0.7 percent of Americans have left a childhood religious group for the Anglican/Episcopal tradition), it is fairly common among evangelical writers and intellectuals. From the historian Randall Balmer and the author Ian Morgan Cron, to the poet Luci Shaw and even Bono of U2 — evangelicalism’s creative class is loaded with Anglicans.”

This quest for wholeness leads her to the doors of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tenn. Organizing her memoir around the sacraments of baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing the sick, and marriage, she longs to “touch, smell, taste, hear, and see God in the stuff of everyday life.”

Evans is not the first evangelical to describe the allure of liturgical Christianity. Though religious switching to the Episcopal Church remains quite rare (0.7 percent of Americans have left a childhood religious group for the Anglican/Episcopal tradition), it is fairly common among evangelical writers and intellectuals. From the historian Randall Balmer and the author Ian Morgan Cron, to the poet Luci Shaw and even Bono of U2 — evangelicalism’s creative class is loaded with Anglicans.

Parts of Searching for Sunday could have been lifted from the works of Thomas Howard. While Christ the Tiger: A Postscript to Dogma (1967) chronicles Howard’s journey from Philadelphia fundamentalism to literary Christianity (under the tutelage of C.S. Lewis enthusiast Clyde S. Kilby), Evangelical is Not Enough (1984) recounts his discovery of ritual and ceremony, altar and sacrament. An Episcopalian at the time of its publication, he later entered the Roman Catholic Church.

502289In both content and tone, Searching for Sunday has even more in common with Robert Webber’s Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail (1985). Quoting Webber’s observation that “God works through life, through people, and through physical, tangible and material reality,” she is on a similar pilgrimage.

Like Evans, Webber struggled with existential questions, questions he articulated in a 1969 chapel talk at Wheaton College. Lamenting the “silence of God” in the face of human suffering, he concluded with a simple prayer:

“O God, break your awful silence. Amen.”

Frustration with evangelical rationalism pushed Webber “in the direction of worship and the sacraments.” Instead of looking for God “in a system,” he turned his attention to the “mystery of God’s saving presence in Christ.”

Like Webber, Evans celebrates orthopraxy more than a system of beliefs, noting that “it was the sacraments that drew me back to church after I’d given up on it.” Despite this emphasis, she is quick to proclaim her reverence for the Apostle’s Creed, arguing that “If that’s not Christian orthodoxy, I don’t know what is.”

BobFounder

The late Robert Webber, author of “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail.”

In the introduction to Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail, Webber affirms his “high regard for my conservative past.” Searching for Sunday is more ambivalent, balancing affection for evangelicalism with sadness about its current direction.

Is Evans still an evangelical?

It all depends on your definition. At several points in the memoir, she confesses her doubts, acknowledging, “I may not worship in an evangelical church anymore or even embrace evangelical theology.”

Though plenty of Episcopalians self-identify as evangelical (it’s not clear if Evans does), most denominational classification schemes locate the Episcopal Church within mainline Protestantism.

While she may or may not endorse the doctrinal distinctives of evangelicalism articulated by social scientist Lyman Kellstedt and his colleagues (these include support for the “truth or inerrancy of Scripture”), Searching for Sunday is saturated with biblical content, the fruits of a childhood spent in scripture memorization.

Truth she can affirm. Inerrancy, notsomuch.

Evans clearly has no problem meeting a less scientific test of religious identity. According to the historian George Marsden, an evangelical is “anyone who likes Billy Graham.” Quoting Graham on page 94 of Searching for Sunday — “It is the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and my job to love” — she passes with flying colors.

Evans’ feelings about the evangelist’s son are far more complicated. A recent signatory of an open letter to Franklin Graham, she rejects his divisive approach to American politics.

Like an estranged member of an extended family, Evans remains invested in the evangelical subculture. As she notes in Searching for Sunday, “I can no more break up with my religious heritage than I can with my parents.”

As long as evangelicalism makes room for friendly critics, she will continue to return home.

Photo Illustration of Canterbury Tales created by Tom Gulotta with The Canterbury Pilgrims Copper engraving printed on paper from the McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University via Wiki Commons. Faces L-R: Bono, Randall Balmer, Luci Shaw, Rachel Held Evans, Ian Morgan Cron, Robert Webber, and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

  • Judith Maxfield

    I knew by the time I was 18, the christianity I saw in members of my family and the church I attended, something weird was going on with the rise of a more conservative practice and belief. There had to be more. I didn’t just walk out – I ran as fast as I could. I’m glad to see some good news here about my church, the Episcopal Church. In my town, very left wing and hedonist, we are growing. As an artist and in love with creativity also in liturgy, my first venture in the the Anglican way, the “via media” was introduced by a visit and worship in Westminster Abbey. I knew I found a home. Our style in England is sometimes called “potty” even by the priests. Visitors marvel at the hospitality, gentleness, and patience. All forms of the sciences are respected. We are in the vanguard in ordination of all prepared candidates regardless of gender. My new church campus is environmentally green. I see God around around me every day.
    We are known for speaking up and actively being involved for social justice. I can go on and on. Our Bishop is the first woman Bishop (I believe) in Calif. Some Episcopal churches are more conservative in the red states. We believe in keeping the conversation open with brothers and sisters who feel differently, even when its painful. So, I am glad to see there are other Christians who want more from their worshiping communities. The Holy Spirit is on the move. I’d love to hear more. Thanks.

  • Judith Maxfield

    My below entry may seem to be bragging. The Episcopal Church tends not to advertise itself or knock on doors of homes hoping to convert you on the spot. We don’t have a pope and we don’t have dogma. We don’t exclude for any reason. The Gospel is experienced in how we treat each other in acceptance and love, how we show our care for supporting healthy communities, education, and social justice. Where I live, protecting the environment as God’s Creation is the practice – praxis – of who we are. These all reflect in the liturgical worship and sharing the Eucharist together with members and Seekers. So, i glad to have read Evan’s story.

  • John and I are professors at the same university! We’re even in the same building. (The philosophy department is one floor up from religious studies.)

    Nice piece, John!

  • The problem with non-liturgical religion — and with any religion that does not have a substantial and authoritative body of interpretive literature — is that it is both shallow and entirely subjective. This actually lends itself to predatory demagogues, whose rhetorical skill and clever manipulations of crowd psychology, allows them to convince large numbers of people that “they’ve got the Spirit!” and that therefore, their interpretations of scriptures are true and necessary.

    This is virtually impossible to do in liturgical/hermeneutical forms of religion, in which the accumulated traditions and authorities may be millennia old and thus, cannot simply be overturned by fiat, when someone comes along and claims special insight.

  • Thursday1

    “[E]vangelical darling” = puff piece.

  • Craptacular

    “This actually lends itself to predatory demagogues, whose rhetorical skill and clever manipulations of crowd psychology, allows them to convince large numbers of people that “they’ve got the Spirit!” – Daniel A. Kaufman

    I could not have described the apostle Paul any better myself.

    “This [manipulation] is virtually impossible to do in liturgical/hermeneutical forms of religion…” – Daniel A. Kaufman

    I disagree. It just requires the “predatory demagogue” to stay within the strictures of the liturgical dogma in order to operate. It basically provides a more rigid framework to follow, but is exploitable, nonetheless.

  • Well, I disagree back. A Benny Hinn or Ted Haggard is simply not possible in the Greek Orthodox or Roman Catholic Church. That doesn’t mean, of course, that the liturgical/hermeneutical traditions don’t have their *own* distinctive problems. But they’re not *this* problem.

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  • Scott Shaver

    And did fleeing the religion of your parents and home-town result in a purer, kinder, gentler and more biblical form of Christianity?

  • Judith Maxfield

    I’m thrilled with your statement. You are absolutely spot on. I’ve learned that liturgy is the actual experience – the praxis – of the body, the mind and heart – all at the same instance, changing your world view and self; your own attitude for the better. However, it also means the clergy and people are outwardly practicing what they claim is true. Also, only God knows how long it takes a person to evolve, i.e a life time. It really works when you trust deeply the story and its truths. One must go beyond the rules/dogma and be open to the “Why”.

  • Judith Maxfield

    Why bother with this question? Its in my statement. YES it did. Your addition of biblical bugs me. If its purer, kinder and gentler, it is Biblical. What do you think Jesus was trying to teach? Gathering the left wheat on the Sabbath is a good teaching moment for that question. Its in the experience of mercy, compassion and love one receives. Go and love one another as i have loved you so that my Father may be glorified and the people may know this, (paraphrased). This is in the reading for Maundy Thursday in the liturgical churches as we as servants wash each other’s feet and experience the Eucharist together, real wine and real bread.
    To some, the written word, Bible, is their idol, not how they treat each other and the unfamiliar “Other”.

  • Judith Maxfield

    One important thing I learned from a good nonreligious source is that we humans are wired to need a unique story, saga, or legend that offers a worldview outside of our preconceptions by which we can question what is in reality true or not. This has always been present in world cultures throughout the world. Religion does the same if it stays true to the better aspirations of our longing and ability to show compassion for ourselves and for the unknown Other. The presence of human suffering has been and is a question since time began. In a quote from “Teahouse of the August Moon”, the author states, “Suffering makes man think, thinking makes man wise, Wisdom (my capital) makes life bearable”. I heard once that there were three questions one must answer before death, “Where did I come from, why am I here, and does it matter?” To me, the last-does-it matter is amazing. What I see now in the U.S., the generic we will do anything to avoid those questions. If not, we remain children and its not only unbecoming in what should be adult behavior, its dangerous for humanity.

    What is this for me? My liturgical church (Episcopal) deals squarely with the three existential questions mentioned above. Its honest, and its asking us to let go of our childishness, self absorption, and for God’s sake and for the world, grow up! You are killing the Creation I gave you.

    The poet Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet wrote that it was good to live the questions rather than the answers because you were not ready to have the answers, but someday without trying you might find you grew into the answer. That is Wisdom and a sweet one.

  • Scott Shaver

    I rest my case/point.