is "progressive" christianity a useful distinction?

Some of my peers have gravitated away from labeling themselves "Christian," even if they've largely kept the faith. They just follow Jesus or perhaps consider themselves to be more spiritual than religious. Others add modifiers like "progressive" or "post-evangelical" to differentiate their beliefs from the faith of their fathers.

My faith has evolved, too, as I've grown, which I imagine is the case for most people. I've never felt drawn to exchange labels, but I recognize also that I hold the advantaged position of not bearing deep wounds related to the Church. I've been a Christian since I was a kid, and I'm still a Christian. I'm not particularly concerned that you'll think I'm one of those Christians, whoever they are. Christianity is diverse, and while I claim all Christians as kin, I speak only for myself.

Even when my bag was pinned with a "Who Would Jesus Bomb?" button and my feet marched in protests, I didn't really consider myself a "progressive Christian". My politics were surely formed by my faith, but I considered myself as ordinary a Christian as anybody else at church, even if we cast different ballots.

Recently I stumbled across a conversation on Twitter about the difference between "liberal" and "progressive" Christians/Christianity. One respondent offered that in the UK, progressive means "hyper liberal", but in the U.S. it seems to indicate "moderately liberal".

I don't think he's wrong; that does seem to be how the terminology can function in the admittedly narrow lexicon of post-evangelical, post-fundamentalist American social media users, but it also reveals in part why the label  is so profoundly unhelpful.

For one thing, on the political spectrum, although progressive and liberal are sometimes used interchangeably, progressive does not functionally mean "moderately liberal". By and large, political progressives are more radical and populist than liberals, rooted historically in the United States with activist movements for labor and education reform, environmental conservation, and women's suffrage, among others. Liberal politicians today are generally establishment Democrats, while progressive candidates are more likely to represent third parties and more radical reform platforms. Candidate Obama was fairly progressive, but he isn't a progressive president by any real stretch of the imagination. Progressives, who by definition seek greater progress, exist further to the political left of liberals.

Then there's the other problem, which Fred Clark explains: "The theological spectrum does not mirror the political spectrum for many, many reasons, the most important of which being that there is no such thing as the theological spectrum.'”

You could try telling that to third way-ers whose theological identity seems to hinge on a unique ability to mediate the allegedly hostile, polar wastelands of progressive and conservative Christianity, but I don't think it would go over any better there than with the crowd who narrowly defines orthodoxy as whatever they believe, branding anyone and everything else "liberal," regardless of affiliation. (Adding to the confusion, liberal theology is a historical thing, but it's worlds apart from what most of us would recognize as postmodern or "progressive" Christianity.)


I suspect that growing up in evangelical communities for whom "liberal" was akin to a Scarlet "L" pushes post-evangelicals to embrace "progressive" as their preferred signifier, but does progressive indicate anything meaningful in the context of popular theology?

Blogger Zach "Quitting the Progressive Christian Internet" Hoag "heartily embrace[s] the progressive label in its simplest definition of 'not conservative or fundamentalist evangelical.'” I agree with Zach that plenty of Christians claim the label as a static "Not Like Those Christians" badge of distinction, but that sort of definition by negation is a weak baseline for an identity (particularly for one employed by a progressive Christian website). Failing to adequately define one's terms leads to the unhelpful lumping together of disparate theologies, people, and groups as well as throwing other Christians under the bus in ways that aren't entirely charitable. Fundamentalism isn't interchangeable with evangelicalism, and I'm left wondering what exactly sets Hoag's or anyone else's faith apart as a progressive? Comfort with mystery, tension, and questions? Affinity for liturgy? Less rigidity? More diversity? Social justice? I'm not trying to pretend that I have no idea what folks mean when they say "progressive Christianity", but many of the popular signposts aren't peculiar to Christians of a more progressive bent. Christians across time and tradition, including those typically thought to be conservative, practice a generous orthodoxy.

Hoag expresses concern for "unhealthy conversation...which so often wields the 'progressive' label as a weapon against anyone less 'progressive,'" seeming to argue that interrogating a self-identified progressive is off-limits: folks are progressive if they say they are, and any challenges to aim higher, go deeper, or listen closer to the margins will be dismissed as unhealthy and even violent. That's certainly played out in his comment threads lately, where queer, female, and other dissenters have been deleted, blocked, and branded as toxic trolls (while a sexist, sexually demeaning joke is left to stand). Also perplexing is the cake/too desire to don the progressive label, transcend it by exemplifying Jesus' own alleged "third way", and then grump should anyone point out that the left is more progressive than the center by definition.

If this is "Progressive Christianity," the theobrogians can have it. But unfortunately for them, "progressive" remains a political label. It doesn't function particularly well as personal branding, but as long as they claim to be progressive, we will ask to see their work:

  • Are they/(we) practically oriented toward progress, justice, reform, and the margins?
  • Do they/(we) pass the mic, or do they/(we) prop up entrenched hierarchies further benefiting them/(our)selves?
  • Are learning, change, and liberation ongoing, or is a one-and-done changing of the mind on an issue good enough?
  • Are they/(we) affirming of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer Christians and people, or is nicer/gentler discrimination sufficient progress?
  • Can they/(we) recognize and subvert oppressive power dynamics--even if personally implicated? Do they/(we) caution patience, civility, better humor, greater reason, and less emotion across lines of privilege, assuming faux-neutrality and a moral high ground they/(we) are perhaps not worthy of?
That's some of what I mean when I use the term progressive, and as long as we're operating from different definitions, worldviews, assumptions, and expectations, progressives are bound to conflict. More than that, we are talking right past each other in what amounts to different languages, and the ways we speak often reinforce rather than subvert established hierarchies and systemic injustice. Perhaps acknowledging that self-described progressives aren't on the same theological or political pages (as opposed to being hyperbolically at war) is the first step toward understanding and even progress.

As a Christian whose politics are progressive and whose theology leans feminist/liberationist, I'm looking for a demonstrated commitment to justice, peace, and liberation among those who'd claim the progressive label, and I want to know that you believe in inequality. In Christian terminology, I'm seeking to loose the chains and break every yoke. I'm looking and working for repentance, resurrection, and all things made new. Yesterday's victories are worth celebrating, but the harvest is plentiful, and there's much yet to do. I name white supremacy and misogyny among the "powers and principalities" for which Christ died and over which he rose, and I admit that the rules are different according to privilege and power. There are times to listen and times to move our feet, and those most accustomed to leading are not automatically the best equipped for the work of birthing and building better paths forward. 

Progressives of faith, like all humans across time, won't agree on everything, but at the very least, might we affirm a commitment to progress? Can we pin down a definition more meaningful and motivating than "Not X"? Can we interrogate whatever's standing in the way of our movements toward justice, unafraid of "surfacing tensions already present" and seeking the sort of peace that's hard-won?

I dare say we'd be making progress.


#FaithFeminisms: i believe in inequality

My feminism is (almost) done talking about equality. 
If we take folks at their word, it would appear that almost everyone already believes in it. We wouldn’t dream of being racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, or otherwise discriminatory. We know better. We’re good, welcoming people with the best intentions, but if Wisdom is truly proved right by her deeds, something is deeply amiss.

The conversations happening around #FaithFeminisms this week are tremendously challenging and inspiring. It's rare to find evangelical, liberal, and radical voices in one place, but it's happening here, and I'm excited to contribute my voice in print (and literally, as well). Spend some time on the site and consider linking up a post of your own. Good things are afoot.


#FaithFeminisms: A Calling Out


Pssst. Exciting happenings are afoot, and you're invited to contribute. The Spirit is making ways in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. Come by and have a look.


nevermind the gap

Women not employed by the beauty industrial complex will tell you that your thirties are better than your twenties, due to increased confidence and comfort in one’s own skin. It’s counter-intuitive, perhaps, for a culture as youth obsessed as ours, where magazines whisper that happiness is proportional to the gap between one’s thighs, but I suspect that part of contentment lies instead in the spaces one takes up without reservation or apology.

I'm at Deeper Story again today with a piece about growing up, turning a gaze outward, and learning to live into my own strengths. Click over to read the rest.


a beautiful disaster {giveaway}

Marlena Graves is a wise woman who loves Jesus and knows the Scriptures intimately. Our paths crossed at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring where she appeared on an engaging panel about race and Christian publishing. Graves writes with the winsomely rare combination of authority and humility, and her new book, A Beautiful Disaster, is a study of truths hard-learned in the wilderness. 
There are no pat answers here--just the wisdom of one who's walked the valley of the shadows and kept the faith. She doesn't romanticize or trivialize the desert but illumines how God can utilize even heartbreak for growth and good, drawing from the wisdom of the Desert Father and Mothers as well as modern mystics like Kathleen Norris, Dallas Willard, and Thomas Merton. I'm so happy to have Marlena here today with an excerpt from her book, a worthy title for personal or group study.

Stability in Community (Especially When Community Irritates Us)
We cannot love well unless we are continually being transformed into loving human beings. How are we changed into more loving people? Through reliance on the Holy Spirit while observing those who love well, allowing ourselves to be loved well by others, and being open to receiving the love of God. Bernard of Clairveaux notes, “The more surely you know yourself loved, the easier you will find it to love in return.”i
We cannot love well and be loved ourselves if we are not committed to a community of Christians. Loving and being loved require that we become stable and active members of the local body of Christ. Drawing on the wisdom of Abba Moses, Bradley Nassif advises that we “stay put and be content with our lives. . . . We must not move from place to place or dwell on what we do not have. . . . We are to learn how to deal with ourselves and our environment where we are as we are.”ii
It is very important to find a good community. A good community doesn’t mean it will be a perfect community. And sometimes God places us in communities we would not have chosen had the choice been ours alone. Initially, none of the life-giving communities I’ve belonged to met all my expectations (as if they exist to serve my preferences). I had to give up some of my expectations in order to accept the work of God in my life and the work God wanted to do in the community, some of it through me. Once we’ve found a community that accepts the way God has made us and is within the bounds of orthodoxy, we stay. We grow roots. We take a vow of stability.
Stability becomes a spiritual discipline when the theater seating, contemporary music, and strobe lights get on our nerves. Or when the uncomfortable pews, organ music, and liturgy irritate us. Maybe the messages leave much to be desired—or the building blandly frames a Sunday experience devoid of beauty. Nevertheless, we stay, grateful for the many gifts of grace God offers through the community. We don’t flit place to place, rootless, like souls without a home.
I am not advocating that we remain in a toxic and abusive community. That we do not do. In that situation, we do what needs to be done for our health and the health of our loved ones. Employment and other familial circumstances may also remove us from a community. But I worry that too often we let superficial reasons, like laziness and being too busy, keep us from living a life of discipleship in our communities. Dennis Okholm writes, “Stability means being faithful where we are—really paying attention to those with whom we live and to what is happening in our common life.”iii
Changing into a more loving and generous human being is a slower process than we’d prefer. It takes longer than we want it to because our unloving ways are so deeply ingrained. But change in general involves, as James Bryan Smith says, “adopting new narratives, spiritual disciplines, community, and the help of God.”iv These modes of change do not have instantaneous powers of transformation in and of themselves. But together, over time, they transform us.
We might wonder what a transformed, loving person within community looks like. Jan Johnson provides a concrete though not exhaustive list of loving capacities that will develop in us as we abide in Christ—which as we have noted entails abiding in Christian community. She tells us that abiding in Christ will turn us into people who:
• live with joy and gratefulness
• bless enemies (difficult people)
• don’t hold grudges
• care deeply about others
• don’t run off at the mouth but offer caring words
• go the extra mile
• live with purposeful intentionality
• are humble (letting go of pride and not grabbing credit or engaging in power struggles)
• never, ever judge (that’s God’s job) (Matt. 5–7)v

Learning to Love Well
We grow the most and learn to love the best when we are around those who are different from us. If our ability to love is never challenged, how will we know if we really and truly love? There’s nothing wrong with befriending and hanging out with those who are like us. But if we are to live with joy and gratefulness, not hold grudges, and learn to go the extra mile, we must be open to living among and befriending those in our communities who aren’t like us.
We might ask ourselves if we have good friends who are of different races and ethnicities, friends with different political views, friends from different socioeconomic statuses, and non-Christian friends. If not, why not? We are limiting our experience of the life of God and our resemblance to Jesus if we do not frequently and closely relate with those who differ from us. We need to tear down walls, not erect walls. In our cultivation of friendships, we must be careful not to exclude others. Our relationships aren’t for us alone.
The wilderness opens our eyes to the intrinsic value of Christ’s body by stripping us of our independence. It shows us how dependent we are on the gifts and graces of God. Most often God infuses these graces into our lives through the lives of other believers. Among others we can better figure out what is good for us. With them we can discern what is necessary for our well-being. It’s together that we live a robust life in the kingdom of God and bring life to others. It’s together that we survive in the wilderness.

Marlena Graves, A Beautiful Disaster, Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2014. Used by permission.

Want a copy of Marlena Graves' A Beautiful Disaster? Leave a comment related in some way to community, the wilderness, or books, and I'll draw a winner Sunday night.

i Bernard of Clairveaux, “On Loving God,” in Bernard of Clairveaux: Selected Works, The Classics of Western Spirituality Series (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 179.
ii Bradley Nassif, “The Poverty of Love,” Christianity Today, /2008/05 (accessed September 24, 2008).
iii Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2007), 91.
iv James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2009), 189.
v Jan Johnson, Invitation to the Jesus Life: Experiments in Christlikeness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2008), 19.


we're here to stay, we're here to stay, we're here to stay

They took down the post. Late last night, the president and C.E.O. of Christianity Today and the editor of Leadership Journal took full responsibility, removed the destructive article, and issued what may be one of the best apologies I've seen, which you can read in full here.

The conversation is changing, and our work is bearing fruit. Evangelicalism's flagship media group, read by 2.5 million people a month, is starting to address consent and taking steps to change harmful language and ensure survivor care. Because of a grassroots movement aimed at accountability and concern for child protection, sexual abuse prevention and after care is on the hearts and minds of thousands of pastors, laypeople, and church leaders this week instead of functioning as a niche concern for survivors, therapists, feminists, and activists.

We are kicking at darkness, and daylight is breaking through. Abusive patterns and oppressive systems, once hidden in plain sight, are being named and dragged into the light, and this is a big deal! There is so much work yet to do, but what happened this week is no small thing, and we should celebrate that victory.

I'm so grateful for the work and witness this week of Dianna Anderson, Tamara Rice, Emily MaynardBecca RoseSamantha Field, Bethany SuckrowMary DeMuthHännah Ettinger, Elizabeth Esther, Micah Murray, and so many others.

They'll call you firebrands, gadflies, and honey badgers, but we know you're lionhearts, the lot of ya. xo


what kind of leadership blocks dissent & privileges predators, christianity today?

Last night, after a flurry of attention in social media, there were dozens of dissenting comments on the youth pastor abuser narrative at Leadership Journal. The comment count was around eighty, but today there are just eighteen.

My comment was the first on the piece, and it's gone now, too, so I decided to post it here:

this is disgusting. you were not involved in an "extramarital relationship." "extramarital relationships" don't land people in prison. you are a child predator, an abuser, and possibly a rapist. you say that "we gave the devil a foothold", but that was all you, bro. you abused your power and a young person whose care you were charged with. no minor can consent to sex with a adult. have you learned nothing in prison? five pages of this junk? really, CT?

Oddly, the following response comment to me still stands on the piece, and without my own comment, it shapes another sort of imaginary narrative about the behavior of people who are sickened by a leadership publication allowing a predator to cast his teenage victim as an adulteress:

Hey Pastor Tim and're both SO full of's not a wonder people don't want to stop sin habits in life (no matter WHAT they are) when the response is so grace-filled as the ones both are missing the point - he is admitting that he will be labeled (and rightfully so) a sex offender for the rest of his life - but what he IS doing with his story is warning ANY of us about ANY sin pattern that will destroy ANY one who ignores God's plans and ways. instead of calling him names (which may be true or not) we should be confessing, forsaking, and finding mercy for the sin that can so easily entangle ANY ONE of us...we should be saying 'Thank you for sharing your story' and then 'Father, keep working on him (and me) to be more like Your Son.' This isn't five pages of junk...this is the story of the beginning of a restored heart - the kind of story that Jesus began regularly with "Go, and sin no more." Thanks, Name Withheld and CT

I didn't engage in any "name-calling." Adults who prey on minors are very much abusers and predators. If he was convicted of statutory rape--and the piece asserts plainly (and problematically) that he had a "physical relationship" with a minor--he is a rapist. Obscuring those truths--and calling it Christian leadership--is deeply troubling and dangerous.

We're gonna keep dragging this into the light, as my friend Sarah Bessey exhorts. Downgrading rape to "a sin that can so easily entangle ANY ONE of us" is not grace--it's a manipulative sleight of hand favoring abusers and re-victimizing the people whose trust, bodies, and childhood they violated. Deleting comments and blocking critics on twitter (as editor Drew Dyck has done) will not make this important conversation go away.

People don't abuse kids--or fail to "stop sin habits"--because "ungracious" Christians won't let them paint young victims with their shame. I rebuke any abuse-enabling, oppressive grace-talk that lays the fault for abuse on anyone but abusers and the cultures and systems favoring them. 

Grace and good leadership protect the vulnerable, not power and predation. Take down the post, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today.

UPDATE: They Took Down the Post


because purity culture harbors rape & abuse

Content note: child sexual abuse, victim blaming, Christians behaving abominably

Last week I got the chance to talk to our summer staff about sexuality, challenging them to rethink some of the ways we traditionally frame the discussion for young people. We talked about how "sexual purity" marries the language of dirt and shame to sex and bodies in ways that misrepresent God and cause a great deal of harm, and we talked a lot about consent, which most purity teachings erase from the equation altogether.

According to the purity script, any sex and even attraction apart from heterosexual marriage falls under the category of sexual sin: consensual pre-marital or extra-marital sex are indistinguishable morally from sexual abuse and rape, and victims are rendered "impure" and at fault alongside their abusers.

In the purity culture framework, fooling around with one's girlfriend is the same as a youth pastor sexually abusing a minor: just erase consent, harm, and exploitative power differentials, and file together under sexual sin and selfishness.

I wish I were exaggerating, but this specific example played out at Christianity Today's Leadership Journal this week, when they offered up their platform to a convicted child predator, giving him five pages to convince readers that what he was involved in, what got him sent to jail, was an "extra-marital relationship." Nevermind that this "relationship" was with a teenager that he was in a position of spiritual authority over, whom he groomed for sex.

In this abuser narrative, the victim and crime are wholly erased. Instead, the youth pastor and his teenage "friend" are presented as being mutually seduced by the "allure of sin." They both are to blame for "giving the devil a foothold" and "quenching the Holy Spirit", and this is held up as worthy lesson for Christian leaders to learn from:

The "friendship" continued to develop. Talking and texting turned flirtatious. Flirting led to a physical relationship. It was all very slow and gradual, but it was constantly escalating. We were both riddled with guilt and tried to end things, but the allure of sin was strong. We had given the devil far more than a foothold and had quenched the Holy Spirit's prodding so many times, there was little-to-no willpower left.
We tried to end our involvement with each other many times, but it never lasted. How many smokers have quit smoking only to cave in at the next opportunity for a cigarette? We quit so many times, but the temptation of "one more time" proved too strong.
Like David, my selfishness led to infidelity.

Leadership Journal allows a convicted child abuser a platform to manipulatively frame this as a story of personal selfishness and infidelity without one word about molestation, statutory rape, sexual grooming, or the abuse of power and children entrusted to the care of adults at a church. [A "clarifying" author's footnote hardly cancels out five still-standing pages suggesting and flat-out asserting the polar opposite.] Also alarmingly, the article is tagged for these "related topics": accountability, adultery, character, failure, mistakes, self-examination, sex, and temptation.

This is not leadership. This is rape culture, abuse apology, and re-victimization under the guise of education and grace. It's not even a bad redemption narrative, as the youth pastor, publication, and many of its commenters fail to demonstrate a most basic understanding of the fact that what transpired was the rape of a minor, not an adulterous affair. Repentance requires actually accounting for--not glossing over--the actual harm one commits.

An affair is a mistake, but sexual abuse and rape are crimes, and good leadership recognizes the difference, particularly for survivors. Good leadership understands that there is no preventing sexual abuse without also dismantling the systems obscuring and favoring coercive abuse of authority. Good leadership doesn't privilege the stories and presence of abusers over the humanity, recovery, and safety of children and victims and then have the audacity to call that "grace".

Abusers aren't "monsters," and they aren't "just like us," either. The former leads to disbelieving victims and prevents us from seeing abusive dynamics close to home. The latter actively obscures exploitative power differentials, encouraging sympathy for abusers at the expense of those they continue to harm.

If we care about ending abuse, we must expose the systems that prop it up everywhere. Abuse isn't just an isolated or interpersonal problem: it is supported by theologies, policies, editorial guidelines, language, assumptions, and even biblical interpretations.

In the piece, the youth pastor likens his own moral failings to King David's adultery with Bathsheba. He uses the Bible to frame his own sin as adultery instead of abuse, but the stories are similar in more ways than he lets on. A "yes" is only a "yes" if a "no" or a "yes" is possible. A minor cannot consent to "sex" with her youth pastor, and in David's time, what woman had the right to say "no" to a king (or at all, for that matter)?

It matters tremendously how we tell and interpret stories. Abusers are masterful at sweet talk and spinning webs. They manipulate, coerce, shift blame, lie, erase their victims, and then collect congratulations for being so brave while those who object are chastised with myriad bible verses for their lack of grace and "unresolved victim issues".

That's not grace. Abusers aren't entitled to platforms, mics, or teaching positions, and actual grace exists alongside justice, accountability, and consequence. Grace protects the vulnerable. Using grace to favor the powerful over the hurting isn't grace at all: it's oppression-as-usual and the way of empire rather than the upside-down Kingdom of God.

Take down the post, Leadership Journal and Christianity Today. Host a conversation--that does not center abusers--about the need for working Child Protection Policies in every Christian church and organization. Talk about consent, and then talk about it again. Don't let anyone on your watch--particularly convicted abusers!--frame rape as a personal moral failing or sexual sin, neglecting the ongoing impact sexualized violence has on survivors and communities.

Care about survivors, never assuming that your audience of leaders doesn't also include survivors of abuse. Moderate your comment sections. Give a platform to those in recovery. Don't imagine that you can fight sexual abuse without actually calling it abuse or interrogating the assumptions and exploitative power dynamics that enable it to thrive.

And please don't publish another judgey article about why entitled Millenials are leaving the church until you can show your work on what you and other Christian organizations are doing to combat abuses of power and people in the the name of Christ.

We've got to dismantle the frameworks that enable, hide, & baptize harm in our midst.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...