On at least two occasions, my father found himself in public showdowns with Mad Max, an itinerant “Turn or Burn!” preacher who loved to make a spectacle of himself on college campuses by fulminating over Led Zeppelin T-shirts (“Satanists!”), women in shorts (“Whores!”) and men with their hands in their pockets (“Masturbators!”). My father was working for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as an evangelist-minister to students at Indiana State University, and Mad Max was napalming his mission field. His solution was to set up shop opposite Mad Max and simply out-preach him. It worked: Students would peel away from the would-be Jonathan Edwards and crowd around my father and actually hear the gospel. Mad Max would fume for a while and eventually head home to sulk, surely, on a mattress stuffed with Chick tracts.
Whereas my father grew up unchurched and was born again in his early twenties, my mother was raised in the austere Gospel Holiness church of her grandfather. Reverend Turner was a devout man who loved his congregation, but—possessing only a third-grade education and a faith in the perspicuity of Scripture—he clung to a hermeneutic that was rigid to the point of brittleness. Bare arms and painted fingernails were verboten in his church, as were beards. Not even the wise men in the nativity play were permitted beards. My mother remembers sitting in a pew as a little girl and believing the breeze on her naked forearm was the Holy Spirit admonishing her to cover up.
My parents have been in campus ministry for forty-five years. For my mother, a good portion of that time has been spent helping people heal from wounds inflicted by dysfunctional families and churches. Much of my parents’ understanding of what makes for healthy Christianity has been shaped by long acquaintance with what does not.
I was taught from an early age to distinguish my evangelical faith from the religion of fundamentalism. Christianity in its pure form was not a religion but a relationship—a relationship with God, built on a bridge of unmerited grace. Fundamentalism was a religion because it ignored grace in favor of works, like Catholicism, like Islam, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. We were on Team Luther, even if we weren’t Lutherans. Evangelicals understood we were saved by faith alone, but those regressive fundamentalists had tried to smuggle the Law in through the back door. They might sometimes call themselves evangelicals, but we were to guard the distinction jealously, lest the association damage our witness.
This distinction has been a theme at every evangelical institution I’ve been involved in, whether churches, para-church ministries, summer camps, or universities. We’d shoehorn anti-fundamentalism into the Apostles’ Creed if we could get away with it.
Increasingly, though, much of elite evangelical discourse speaks as though contemporary evangelicalism were identical with old-style fundamentalism. Theological liberals, including self-proclaimed #exvangelicals, conflate the two in an effort to shame the church leftward on social issues. Orthodox evangelicals do so for more complicated reasons, and not always in bad faith. Elite Baby Boomer and Gen-X believers struggle to make sense of Donald Trump’s purchase among their brothers and sisters because they’ve been conditioned to think of evangelicalism-proper as a Goldilocks movement—not too liberal, not too legalistic, just right. (On this account, the Trump-vangelical phenomenon, being “bad” and not recognizably liberal, must be resurgent fundamentalism.)
Russell Moore and Philip Yancey demonstrate in a recent episode of Moore’s podcast how personal and generational experience can blinker otherwise penetrating thinkers. Yancey discovered the God of grace as a young man and has spent his career writing against the malignant vision of deity responsible for the spiritual abuse he suffered as a child. Although Moore’s church upbringing was healthy, he speaks of regularly meeting Christian college students who are haunted by the suspicion that God is a cosmic bully eager for an opportunity to vent some almighty spleen. Moore and Yancey both speak as if the bogeyman of fear-based religion were what is plaguing evangelicalism today.
“Somehow we miss that [God is love],” Yancey insists. “It becomes all tied in with an institution and structures and rules. We miss that the core of the universe, the core of the message of the gospel, is God’s love.” But for much of the church in America those institutions, structures, and rules have succumbed to such dilapidation that for most would-be catechumens, love has been evacuated of its content. Love wins. Love is love. It’s an empty signifier, a polished shell casing for the propagandist’s bullet.
The discovery of abundant grace goes a long way in treating the wounds of legalism. But when a movement emphasizes grace to the exclusion of discipline, grace is cheapened. It ceases to heal and merely anesthetizes—yet another instance of moralistic therapeutic deism. Cheap grace also creates its own wounds, and for me these have been more substantial than any caused by an excess of discipline.
The course of my life was altered irrevocably the summer after my freshman year of college, when I attended a month-long leadership training program run by InterVarsity at its flagship retreat in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Boasting five hundred acres of forest and nearly six miles of shoreline along Lake Huron, Cedar Campus was less camp than resort. It was also my family’s unofficial second home.
At the end of every spring my parents would take my brother and me along for the four or so weeks they staffed Cedar’s student programs and turn us loose—to adventure in the woods, sail the bay, lose ourselves in books, and sit in on Bible studies and sermons with the college kids. It was deeply formative, a concentration of the best that evangelicalism had to offer: missionary zeal, joyful and earnest worship, intellectual fellowship, a sense of spiritual freedom heightened by the beauty of the inland sea.
The evening seminar during the first week of the leadership program was led by the New Testament scholar D. A. Carson, who taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago, the seminary of choice for many people in InterVarsity’s orbit. Carson led us in a close study of John’s Gospel, modeling for us a rigorous exegetical method. The pastor of my family’s church, a former Hebrew professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, took pains each Sunday to unpack the original language of his chosen passage, but Carson was operating on another level entirely. I simply hadn’t known a text could do that—unfold like a flower in sunlight, at once yielding and withholding its mysteries. The experience recurred the following week, when Carson’s Trinity colleague Peter Cha taught. Lightning had struck twice and I knew I must learn Greek.
Within a year I transferred from my prestigious engineering school to a small Christian liberal arts college in northern Indiana to study biblical literature and languages. My parents were supportive but concerned; after two decades of living paycheck to paycheck as campus ministers, they had been looking forward to their son’s securing a handsome salary as a chemical engineer. But there was a silver lining: Whereas women made up only 15 percent of the secular engineering school’s student body, at staunchly evangelical Taylor University they outnumbered men three to two. My financial prospects were less certain, sure. But at least I might find a wife.
Graduates of Christian colleges will be familiar with the idiom “a ring by spring.” You’ll never again be in an environment with so many members of the opposite sex who share your faith and values, so you’d better capitalize and get engaged by spring of your senior year. One of the first events I participated in at Taylor was a “Pick-a-Date,” in which the men living on my dormitory floor paired off with women from our “sister floor” for an outing. It was low-stakes fun, but part of a larger atmosphere that injected an intimidating gravitas and urgency into interactions between the sexes.
As it happens, Taylor University, like my mother, emerged from the Holiness movement. A hint of those origins lingered in oddments like a prohibition against dancing and an injunction against the university’s ever installing a swimming pool. We used to joke that the Life Together Covenant, the pledge of conduct students sign upon admission, banned sexual activity not for biblical reasons but because “sex leads to dancing.” On the whole, however, the LTC was quite sensible, fostering a habitus in which the soul and mind, if not the flesh, might flourish.
So I think today. As a student, I resented the arbitrariness of being forbidden alcohol on and off campus, even on breaks, except for summer break, as if our conduct became less consequential once the air got muggy. But what I most resented had nothing to do with rules. A certain type of “good Christian guy” had been elevated into a romantic ideal at Taylor. He was handsome, but not too handsome; capital-E extroverted; smart, but not especially intellectual; played guitar and sang well enough to lead worship; self-identified as a “servant leader”; was enthusiastic about buzz words; naturally cozy with people in authority, especially administrators; usually from an upper-middle-class family; high in agreeableness; and ideally played soccer. Imagine a better-looking, more athletic, less heretical Rob Bell. These guys were the bugmen of evangelicalism and I found them repellant.
I acquired much at Taylor: lifelong friends, mentors, an intellectual awakening, deepened self-awareness, an enlarged soul. But not a wife. Not even a girlfriend. I came to despise the “ring by spring” phenomenon, and I resented those for whom it all just seemed to fall into place. Strictures of campus life, even transparently sensible ones like the dorms’ limited visiting hours for opposite-sex guests, came to feel arbitrary, legalistic even, because I believed I had been denied a principal good they existed to deliver. Having absorbed my peers’ intense valorization of marriage, I felt my singleness as a spiritual failure.
#Exvangelicals invariably indict “purity culture” for inflicting their formative wounds. The rap on purity culture is that it induces shame over unchastity and promises self-fulfillment if chastity is preserved. (Not only will marriage bring you closer to God, but the sex will be way better than anything you can find on Tinder.) But shame strikes at self-worth, making it impossible to have a fulfilling sexual relationship even within marriage—at least until evangelical commitments are left behind. No doubt some young evangelicals are “wounded” by purity culture in this way, though the tendency of these polemics to issue in the rejection of evangelicalism tout court is suspect. As for me, I took issue not with purity culture’s “shaming” strictures, but with its upbeat messaging. I felt that purity culture hadn’t so much wounded as betrayed me. I had been promised that if I preserved my chastity, God would give me the desires of my heart. But he hadn’t. It wasn’t exactly that the promise was false; I had seen it fulfilled in too many lives to believe that. It was that I had been excluded from it. Through my lonely twenties, I allowed the bitter seed planted in my heart in college to germinate.
My concern for chastity shrank as the bitterness grew. Once one reaches a critical mass of lassitude, an unmapped territory comes into sight. Exploration begins, inevitably, as does a new process: the searing of one’s conscience in proportion to the ground covered. And in our brave new world of rock-bottom expectations, the terrain is frighteningly easy to traverse.
I might have thoroughly cauterized my fear of God were the post-purity countryside not so utterly insipid. There came a moment when I recognized that a script was playing out: the same jokes, the same life anecdotes, the same physical maneuvering to gauge interest, the same mutual feigning of innocence, of surprise, the same inexorable dissolution of novelty, the same inconclusive parting of ways, the same tenuous social-media afterlife of the affair, the same diffusion of a once distinct personality into a digital sea of undifferentiated possibilities. That moment of recognition can last a long time, attenuate into a meta-awareness of one’s own boredom with emotional and spiritual intimacy throttled by premature and incommensurate physical intimacy, before descending into a horror of sameness. Absent the obstacles imposed by moral order, transgression loses its frisson. It’s a territory unworthy of mapping, where true adventure is impossible.
After my brief sojourn there, my heart aches for the gone-away world of structure, of anything that might order my soul.
Although romantic bitterness remains alive in me, Christ, in his mercy, sweetens it. His grace is enough; I have only to make room for it through obedience. It took time and wandering, but I’ve come to recognize that those rules imposed by my college, even the dumb, legalistic ones, were a gift, an operation of God’s grace that makes such soul-expanding obedience possible.
My mother shared with me that after her own wandering in young adulthood she resolved that her return to the church would be based not on fear of hell or earthly punishment, but on a love for Christ and his Body that answered to his love for her. “The love that is perfect casts out fear, because fear carries chastisement, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). Fear of fire is fear not of God, but of his creature. Fundamentalist fear is thus a paltry thing; so too is its love.
But perfect love does not cast out fear of God. Fear of God is categorically distinct from other fears, because its object is the ground of being itself. He who tamed leviathan and covers Sinai in holy darkness, who laid the foundations of the earth and shut up the doors of the sea, whose mind is an abyss of mystery and yet the only thing worth knowing—how can we discover his eye fixed upon us and not tremble?
Fear of God must increase in proportion to our love. No one has truly feared God who has not truly loved. And no one has truly loved who has not submitted to Love’s discipline (“If you love me, keep my commandments” [John 14:15]). Fundamentalism at least recognizes—what evangelicals too often ignore—that Christianity requires holy fear, a fruit of which is rigorous obedience.
Don’t give me moralistic therapeutic Jesus, whose back is bent not from carrying the cross but from accommodating the culture. No. Give me the Christ who gallops on a white horse, his eyes flashing like lightning, his livid mouth bearing a double-edged sword with which to raze the world systems of injustice, whose fierceness in victory is not other than his love. Give me the Christ of High Strangeness, the seven-eyed lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the cosmos, who is the very grammar of existence, the Logos who holds the universe in the palm of his nail-pierced hand. Give me the Christ who demands I pick up my cross and follow.
And give me the church that helps me carry that cross.
Justin Lee teaches undergraduate writing at the University of California, Irvine.