it’s probably just me; it usually is

At this time of year a lot of Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals and pseudo-spiritual Jesusy types (and all and none of the above) head to a big festival in Cheltenham called Greenbelt. It usually has an audience of around 20,000 – pretty impressive. They say: “Our mission is to create spaces, like festivals, where art, faith and justice collide.” It’s a combination of food, drink, Christian teaching, discussion, drama, art, music, dance and poetry. Lots of pretty big-name bands have made an appearance over the years – usually the kinds of artists who lay claim to spirituality in some way – like Billy Bragg, U2, Moby, Sixpence None the Richer, Asian Dub Foundation, Ron Sexsmith, Bruce Cockburn and The Proclaimers. I’ve never been, as it’s my idea of hell. The husband-unit went last year and had a jolly old time drinking ale in the Arms of Jesus (really – that’s the name of one of the beer tents), but he admits himself the best bit was just being with his companions. I stayed at home, drank cheap wine, watched terrible films and generally enjoyed myself immensely, mud and noise-free.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Greenbelt is a great idea. It’s just not, in many, many ways, my cup of tea. I love all of the things it comprises – Christians, non-Christians, food, drink, Christian teaching, discussion, drama, art, music, dance and poetry. I just don’t like them all together in a big crowd. And I really don’t enjoy the vibe of tortured post-Evangelical that follows it around. The culture appears to have an air of “here is finally somewhere where those of us who don’t fit in to “traditional” churches can finally fit in!” Maybe that is unfair. Speaking as a perpetually disillusioned soul who has genuinely failed to fit in anywhere, I feel okay with making this comment.

In some ways it is unclear what kind of a Christian I really am. I like a bit of worship from all the traditions, really. Thankfully, as Christianity is not a product that I consume, I neither have to select and deselect the bits I do and don’t enjoy, nor do I have to craft and create the kind of community that I would find ideal and that would carefully shave off the bits of doctrine or culture with which I am uncomfortable, leaving space only for those just like me. Because that would be shite, and it would have nothing to do with the Gospel, in which I still passionately believe.

People on Twitter go crazy retweeting quotes from popular speakers at Greenbelt. These quotes are invariably pseudo-spiritual sound-bites from post-Evangelical teachers. Sorry, but it’s true. I’d give a dozen specific examples, except I don’t want to get into a war with other Christians (sadly we’re known for our notorious war-mongering and mud-slinging). These quotes more often than not make me puke with annoyance at the total lack of depth and genuine meaning. And I shudder at the term “post-Evangelical”. Why a movement would define itself in terms of what it is not breaks my brain. Reactionary beliefs are empty beliefs – that goes for both the spiritual and the unspiritual. This is coming from someone who has actually rejected the label Evangelical for myself, but gladly acknowledges its value and history and its importance to the whole Body. I think Christian Orthodox is about the only label that works for me, although lots of people of the same genre would class me as a liberal (…you just can’t win).

Anyway, what’s the point here? you ask. The point that I am slowly making is that the point of life is not to find a community into which we can fit comfortably, at least not for the person looking to follow after Jesus. Nor is it to become so open-minded that there’s no space left in the brain for actual learning and actual conclusions. Nor is it to keep hunting for that elusive thing that will finally make us feel okay or belonging or whole – people, we were not made for this world! We were told that from the beginning. If this world fails to satisfy our deepest hungers, why would that be surprising?

Forgive me if this all sounds a bit nihilistic – that’s not my intention (although Ecclesiastes has been known to have a Nietzsche-ian bent) . It’s more of a first principles issue. What do we believe, and why…and are our reasons why – good enough? And how is it lived out? Therefore, if one finds oneself mysteriously drawn and compelled by such post-Evangelical suggestions as “it’s time to start thinking with your soul,” one might pause for a moment before retweeting to acknowledge that your soul, whatever that might be, does not have a brain, and therefore simply cannot think. One’s soul certainly needs attention, but allowing it to think simply means nothing. I’m fully in favour of a holistic approach to loving Jesus, but a holistic approach means not only looking to new and progressive ways of expression, but also engaging, perhaps for the very first time in our generation, with the saints that have actually done it right in the past. Namely, not us. Sometimes when Christians of all their kinds get together, if the focus shifts away from the Triune God and the saints who have loved Him, and back to us, it all just sounds like mutual ignorance. Remember, being “true to ourselves” is a hell of a lot more Oprah Winfrey and Elizaeth Gilbert than it is Jesus Christ.

But that’s probably just me.


22 Responses to it’s probably just me; it usually is

  1. I’ve been thinking along similar lines of late. It’s like all my angst slipped out of me, and now I just want to poke people in the eyes when they retweet quotes. Been trying to compose a post like this for a while.

  2. debbierea says:

    A retweet doesn’t always mean endorsement. it can be a facetious quip, a statement that makes me question, or something I think is abhorrent.

    In terms of thinking with my soul, that made sense to me.
    If I thought with my head, I would never be a Christian. It makes no sense to me. My soul feels, believes different things. everyone’s life experiences are different. I’ve had the holistic, lost it, and am crawling back because my soul craves it. I am lost without it.

    We all know how ambiguous language is. I guess we hear different things from the same words.

  3. I think you need a little Derrida in your life. And by little, I don’t mean a small person dressed as Derrida following you around.

  4. Richard Cronin says:

    I agree with this post.
    As far as i know ” being true to ourselves” is the bassline narrative that comes from the outworking of existentialism which as far as i know is the ism that is the driving force behind post-modernity/hyper-modernity. In other words Christians are only catching up with the rest of the world whilst thinking they have found something new.

    I would have no problem with a little derrida following me around. As long as he didnt try to wrap me in plastic i think we’d be ok.

  5. Mmm. I nervously note that this post is doing the rounds on facebook and getting five times the normal readership…and I have no idea what kind of discourse it’s provoking.

    Sorry debbie, one of your retweets got the hatchet. :) It’s by no means an attack on you. It was however one quote (of many) from the Greenbelters so irritating to me that it led me to research its author, who is the author of the book ‘Post-Evangelical’ as it happens.

    You say, “If I thought with my head, I would never be a Christian.” Please unpack this statement, as it makes absolutely no sense from where I stand. I’m hardly some unfeeling lout (I’m actually very sensitive and unhelpfully emotional) but I am in no doubt about where my thinking takes place – in my big delicious brain. Are you telling me that you have rationally pieced it all together and found it wanting, so you rely on feelings to carry through? For me it’s the opposite. I’ve rationally pieced it all together and found it deeply coherent, and I cling to this reality when the feelings are scarce. Spirituality, I now believe, is something practiced, literally, rather than experienced.

    Sharon I’d also love more of your thoughts on the matter.

    Eoin, I’m plenty existential as it is, ta. Although I could prob do with reading up on the deconstruction theory as it might relate to the Evangelical/Post Evangelical problem…

    Richie I dunno if it’s about Christians catching up late with an older idea. Well, it’s not just about that alone anyway. Someone made the point to me a few years ago that people generally have little or no faith in God: their faith is in the church. Then, when the church fails (inevitable), they lose their faith. One of my many questions is why so few people in the church have any faith in God.

  6. “…people generally have little or no faith in God: their faith is in the church. Then, when the church fails (inevitable), they lose their faith.”

    Yes. This is very true. I plan to blog more on it soon.

  7. weeirishbreakfast says:

    ‘the vibe of tortured post-Evangelical ‘

    but could it be that it’s far more than a vibe, people have been genuinely f*cked up by the Evangelical side of things and want shot of the whole thing?I don’t think it’s a vibe, I think many people have felt genuinely hurt and frustrated and are trying to make sense of things. Especially when it comes to community. There is community (of sorts) but only if you fit into certain boxes and tow the line. If you don’t you will be excluded or feel unwelcome, which can be hard for free spirits or artistic types. And it why we gravitate towards somewhere like Greenbelt.

  8. When I say the vibe of the tortured post-Evangelical, to say it’s a vibe is not to suggest that they haven’t had bad experiences with the church. I have had a huge amount of bad experiences with the church. I have actually disengaged from self-identifying as Evangelical. What I was trying to convey, as I said above, is “The point that I am slowly making is that the point of life is not to find a community into which we can fit comfortably, at least not for the person looking to follow after Jesus.” Surely being a Christian isn’t about just finding other people who are as unhappy with the church as you are – to find somewhere new to fit in? (I’m not suggesting that is what Greenbelt does, rather that this is the kind of person it tends to attract – the tortured post-Evangelical.) I believe Christians have a responsibility for their own spiritual life and practices. If we are searching endlessly for the elusive perfect church that meets all our needs, sadly, we are not going to find it. Because we are the church.

  9. What is a free spirit by the way? Not being funny. I just want to know what you mean.

  10. ah, free spirit. I guess that I was thinking of someone like Isaiah who served God by walking around naked and bare footed for 3ryrs…I guess some who loves Jesus but does things a bit differently or something…like some of those old saints you mentioned…not that it’s the best term to describe it

  11. Dare I be naughty then then and suggest that by your (very nice) definition of free spirit, that Greenbelt might have a higher proportion of consumers than it does free spirits!

  12. you know, when you say ‘We are the church’ it reminded me a bit of the Borg in Star Trek. I guess this maybe what has been bothering me from things other people have said recently with regards the church.

    It’s almost like ‘We are the church, resistance is futile, you are assimilated’. Well obviously not as bad as that, but that is how it feels sometimes. Or a bit communist or something? Or institutional? Cult like?

    My dad is a great believer in ‘the point of life is not to find a community into which we can fit comfortably, at least not for the person looking to follow after Jesus.” and so has sat miserable in the same pew for 60 yrs of his life through sermons that have never spoken about depression or mentioned sex, he just makes comments that you would ‘get more fellowship in a group of monkeys’ He’s never been comfortable in his local church but that is just tough I guess?

    I don’t see a huge problem in jumping from church to church. Sure it is all one church, so why not? Church is church. Maybe things can be a little more dynamic and fluid?

    I don’t think Greenbelt tends to attract the tortured post evangelical crowd either, at least from the years I’ve been there. It tends to attract all sorts, which is why I’ve loved it.

  13. you are being naughty suggesting things about Greenbelt if you’ve never been:)!

  14. FF says:

    Hi chip monk and others,
    I also think that it’s important to note that Greenbelt (celebrating it’s 40th birthday next year) is largely a CoE slightly leftist English Christian festival – for the most part…. It’s probably just the people that you know who are going who may quite possibly fall into the post-Evangelical category (Or maybe you also know a huge community of CoE types a la the TV show Rev). I also think that for those who were raised in the language/culture/story of fundamentalist Christianity it is not entirely surprising that another language might be sought or used for expressing relationship with the Divine. I am entirely comfortable with all that mysterious, tentative word-play for I have moved from a childhood certainty of boxes and black and white, to an adulthood awe and mystery. A word like Truth doesn’t begin to capture the Divine/YAWEH/G-D….

  15. debbierea says:

    Hi Claire, I wasn’t ignoring your question, I have missed this whole dialogue over the past few days.

    In answer to
    “Are you telling me that you have rationally pieced it all together and found it wanting, so you rely on feelings to carry through?”

    Yes, I think that is exactly what I am doing. Wanting is a good word.

    I am cursed with being able to see the counter argument for everything all the time. I can’t accept arguments for the infallibility of scripture, I can’t accept water tight theological theories about redemption and grace and who is in and who is out etc etc.

    I wouldn’t even say I have been “hurt” by the church; my faith fell apart the more I thought about it, tried to argue for it intellectually.

    I have only reached a place of relationship with God again through suspending my intellectual thought processes and yearning from deep within my soul for grace and love, through prayer and simple worship. I write to God, spill my guts and I find comfort. This is one example of thinking/ behaving with my soul and not my head.

    I hope this makes sense….

  16. Kevin says:

    I find the responses to this post baffling.

    The author states that Greenbelt is significant (20,000 guests), quotes their mission statement approvingly, cites their legacy of attracting serious artistic talent and says ” I think Greenbelt is a great idea.”

    Then she goes on to say it doesn’t sound like something she would personally enjoy.

    So the extensive lyrical waxings on the merits of Greenbelt seem as misplaced as a John Piper sermon at GB’s Sunday communion! :)

    The introduction dealing with Greenbelt was obviously written to set the scene for the majority of readers who are not Irish or British evangelicals. A Greenbelt-based tweet was the catalyst for the author to diagnose what she personally sees is a malaise within “post-evangelicalism”. The responses comparing church to the Borg, lamenting capital T truth and the proposal that intellectual thought processes can be suspended are not so much responses to the (alleged) malaise as symptoms of it. I wonder if the post had been written without the context of Greenbelt then this response wouldn’t have followed and genuinely think that reveals something about the inherent reactive quality to post-evangelicalism. It can’t escape being defensive.

  17. weeirishbreakfast says:

    hi Kevin

    I’m a bit baffled as well because I have rarely heard the term ‘post evangelical’ used in my whole Christian life, even at Greenbelt. So I didn’t really agree with C saying that there is a vibe of post evangelicalism following Greenbelt around as hasn’t been my experience. Perhaps I’d been under a rock or hanging out at the beer tent too much but it didn’t to be an accurate reflection on the festival from what I’ve seen. I’m not trying to be a GB fan boy, that is just my experience.

    I guess that I didn’t understand how the author could so passionately talk about Christians not being allowed to ‘carefully shave off the bits of doctrine or culture with which I am uncomfortable, leaving space only for those just like me.’ but then a few sentences latter was talking about shuddering at the term of post evangelicalism or puking at annoyance at the shallow things they are saying.

    I’m also a little more baffled because you seem to have labelled me as having some type of undesirable post evangelical germ because I offered a different angle on Greenbelt, or was defensive and reactive. Is labeling people as this or that not reducing them a bit?

    For instance, I love the “it’s time to start thinking with your soul,” line and think it’s a good Biblical thing to say. Like in Genesis 2,KJV it talks about God making us living souls. Is it not good to thing with the whole person rather than just thinking with your brain?
    Have to go, my good wife wants the computer machine:)

  18. Kevin says:

    Post-evangelical might be a phrase that has just been made up. If it is a neologism its purpose is self-evident. It describes people who want an identity formed by not being evangelical anymore.

    Now that is an interesting thing to write about. Evangelicalism (following Bebbington) been understood around four nexus points- biblicism, activism, crucicentrism and conversionism. As an actual convert, I am interested by how something like post-evangelicalism appears sociologically to function like a self induced conversion out of a conversionist social culture into which few people actually converted. If I was to blog about this, the post would be 1400 words long and would be very thought provoking for my key readers who tend to be theologians and social scientists.

    The author of this piece is also a convert into the culture of evangelicalism. She made what now appears to be the massive mistake of trying to introduce this fascinating phenomenon through the use of an arts festival, Greenbelt. Because her readership is broad and large and not primarily Christian, she gave a positive introductory paragraph discussing this festival to create context for most readers for whom evangelicalism evokes “Sarah Palin”.

    Reading this with care, it is hard to fathom how anyone could have taken this post to either be negative towards Greenbelt or about Greenbelt itself. It was about the trend within adult evangelicalism across the western world to simultaneously decry the accomodationist stance towards the wider culture WHILE AT THE SAME TIME protesting in a fashion that absolutely fits with the prevailing social and cultural mores. To quote the piece, “The point that I am slowly making is that the point of life is not to find a community into which we can fit comfortably, at least not for the person looking to follow after Jesus.”

    Going back to Bebbington’s quadrilateral, there is a strange mirror image between the very areas in which people express dissatisfaction with the evangelical identities they have (often) inherited and the core historical priorities of the movement. Biblicism has historically had a tendency to slide into anti-intellectualism. Arguably that is evident in post-evangelicalism. Crucicentrism has run the historical risk of creating a theological package that is inordinately soteriological in nature. Post-evangelicalism displays a strong opposition to eschatological articulations of the Christian narrative. Conversionism, as I have already discussed has a fascinating counter-image in post-evangelical circles. And the activism of the historic evangelical streams is perfectly replicated in the post-evangelical political awareness (although largely without the subversive refusal to toe the prevailing line of the zeitgeist).

    I understand I’ve dropped quite a load in this comment. It is probably more suited to a separate post on my own blog or indeed an academic paper but suffice to say, you can’t think with your soul, the Bible does not encourage that and the title of this post is “It’s Probably Just Me”, which has been ironically ignored.

  19. weeirishbreakfast says:

    Kevin! Chip Monk! You’re my friends, the author is my friend, and significantly some of the other people who left comments are my friends as well.

    I have never taken this post to be negative towards Greenbelt but I did find it (and those who agreed in the comments afterwards) to be negative towards the type of person who might going to Greenbelt and be re-tweeting quotes from speakers. etc

    I’ve always understood that the point of the post was “that the point of life is not to find a community into which we can fit comfortably, at least not for the person looking to follow after Jesus.”

    But the reason why I’m commenting all the time is because it sounds like you, the author, a few of those who left comments are looking down on those who you are (unfairly?) labeling as ‘post evangelical’ in that community and suggesting that they haven’t really got it or are spiritual babies.

    It sounds like you and the rest are uncomfortable with their presence in the church as their presence waters down the faith and so there is all that puking and shuddering and breaking of the brain and I think that is a bit unfair. I think it is unfair because the suggestion is that ‘post evangelicals’ haven’t really thought about things, which I don’t believe is true.

    I know that the author said ‘It’s probably just me’ but the thing is it wasn’t just the author, it was a few of the other comments as well.

  20. Sharon Gilmore says:

    As someone who broadly agreed with the general thing about re-tweeting quotes, I wanted to weigh in to say that I have no strong objections to Greenbelt (I mean, as it’s essentially a big muddy field full of people, there’s no way in a million years dead horses would drag me there (cue me ending up there next year)), or post-evangelicals or any of that. It’s not my cup of tea, but, whatever.

    My main issue is the constant re-tweeting of quotes, which I find irksome. I think this is because my Twitter stream seems to be full of people re-tweeting bland stuff and then saying how original and true it is. This peaks during events like Greenbelt, but happens all year round. Now, this is not (in my experience) limited to post-evangelicals, evangelicals, emergents or any other group; I appear to have the knack of attracting quote-retweeters as friends in every area of life (including non-Christian areas… I assure you I have seen bland crap posted about quilting).

    The specific thing that irks me is that often this leads to the particular conference/event/book being touted as some kind of ‘forward-thinking cure’ for all ills in the church. My point is that they seem to think they’ve found the next big thing, and they’re not going to engage with me and my type unless I buy into it as well. I would love to have these people in my church, but as a genuine part of the community, not as people who are looking in to see if my church is ‘up to snuff’ or whether they need to move on to somewhere more acceptable. Many of them seem to go from church to church, never finding the community they seek, and constantly being a bit dissatisfied. But we should always be a bit dissatisfied by church, surely? It should never be good enough, because it can’t be. But we can’t look down our noses at it, because the church is what it is, and the only part I have any influence over is that part that I’m in.

    My response is probably due to a number of specific instances with specific people over a number of years, who don’t engage with stuff in church, then get into some new ‘awesome’ community, leaving behind their previous church as no longer good enough, to join a new fabulous church (about which I seem to hear every freaking day on social networks), before again deciding that that one’s not sufficient either, and moving on again. They leave a trail of started-but-not-built-up-or-nurtured worship teams, youth groups, prayer ministries etc, and often a lot of people who have turned to them for help and find they’ve suddenly vanished. It may be that I’m reading it differently from how the author intended it, and also differently from how others are reading it. Maybe I need to write my own blog post about this, rather than hijacking someone else’s.

    Also, I particularly hate the re-tweeting of quotes, even good quotes (hell, even my own quotes), because it leaves me wondering what to do with it. I’d much rather a blog post which explains why the retweeter liked/disliked it, and inviting discussion.

  21. John says:

    “I’m hardly some unfeeling lout (I’m actually very sensitive and unhelpfully emotional) but I am in no doubt about where my thinking takes place – in my big delicious brain. Are you telling me that you have rationally pieced it all together and found it wanting, so you rely on feelings to carry through? For me it’s the opposite. I’ve rationally pieced it all together and found it deeply coherent, and I cling to this reality when the feelings are scarce. Spirituality, I now believe, is something practiced, literally, rather than experienced.”

    I want to print this out and frame it, Claire. I won’t, but that’s mostly because I’m lazy (and where would I put it anyway?). Anyway, it’s brilliant, thanks.

  22. Hey everyone. Thanks a gazillobags for all of the debate. There has been a very strong response to this post and I’ve had lots of emails about it. I appreciate all of your perspectives. I’m sorry for leaving you all to stew in my juices over it but life has gotten in the way the last while. This post reminds me of when someone said to me that my contribution to an argument is sometimes a bit like a bottle of lighter fluid being thrown on a lit barbecue. :) This blog takes thought and time and I haven’t been able to devote either of those things to it recently.

    I will make a couple of short comments and leave it at that.

    Firstly as I have been at pains to express, and as others have done so for me, I have no problem with Greenbelt. None, really. I have offered one person the chance to write a guest blog extolling the wonderfulness of all it entails. He hasn’t yet taken me up on that offer, but if anyone here like debbie, weeirishbreakfast or ff would like to do so, I hereby invite you. I have no difficulty with people loving the festival and wanting to spread its good news. Feel free. I hope this demonstrates that I consider GB a Positive Good Thing.

    Secondly, as others have clarified for me (and thank you for doing so), what I do have a gripe with is the anti-intellectualism of the post-Evangelical movement. Debbie I appreciate your comment on your decision to leave your head out of such matters. It is such a decision that leads to the kind of comments I am criticising. So I suppose we are left at odds there, as I believe that a holistic engagement of the person necessitates being able to reconcile our thoughts with reality, even if we can’t plumb reality’s depths. If I felt Christianity was untrue (as a philosopher I would be inclined to write, “If I felt Christianity was a lie…”) then I would reject it, and no other action would satisfy me.

    weeirishbreakfast I apologise if you took what I said personally. I hope you recognise that I wasn’t speaking in my post to a person but to a collection of ideas. Therefore my post was about a rejection of ideas, as opposed to a rejection of persons. I did say that GB was composed of all the people and things that I love. I am not looking down on post-Evangelicals; not a bit. However I have a strong and visceral reaction against certain kinds of muddy thinking that are espoused as enlightenment by the movement (this was well expressed by Sharon). Again, I am not addressing anyone in particular, but a culture.

    So Sharon, Debbie, Eoin, Richie, Dave, Sarah, Kevin and John and all the others who have emailed me and sent me private messages, thank you for your thoughts and input. I’ll need to be more gentle in expressing myself; I am a work in progress. Maybe I’ll have to see you all at GB next year…

    PS I find it funny that nobody commented when I told a teenager to fuck off to his face, but I got a lot of anger about criticising post-Evangelical culture. ;) (Just one last squirt of lighter fluid.)

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