Sometime in the mid-1990s, sickened by what I perceived as the shallowness of evangelical culture in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, I launched into the post-hippie, proto-hipster nightlife of Chicago. I roamed not yet fully gentrified streets with dropouts and homeless people, under the L-tracks and along the wind-battered shores of the third coast. The counter-culture then radiated from Belmont Avenue, which I imagined to be something like what Haight-Ashbury (since colonized by Ben & Jerry’s) must have been in 1969.
Following one such night of seeking suburban Wheaton’s opposite, I experienced a moment of transfixing beauty. I wandered into Lincoln Park Zoo at dawn and had it all to myself—a solitary Adam among the animals. Then, as I watched sea lions frolic in the shallows of their tank I braced myself for a return to Wheaton College where I would reluctantly (and barely) finish my undergraduate degree. In my arrogance, I may have even thought to myself that I was returning to splash in the shallows with evangelicals like the animals before me.
Some twenty years later, now a professor at that same college, I found myself back at the Lincoln Park Zoo with my two-year-old daughter. I took her to marvel at the sea lions again in the same shallow pool. Then I noticed other onlookers filing around the tank itself and into a structure. I followed and noticed that there was an underground chamber connected to the shallow pool. On my early morning visit so long ago this part would have been locked. Inside and down some stairs I discovered a long hallway with a full glass wall revealing the interior of the tank. Those presumably dumb sea lions, tired of the shallows, were somersaulting through the depths for a delighted crowd.
The chronicles of American Christianity are littered with pronouncements of the shallowness of evangelicalism—set-ups for testimonies of leaving the faith entirely, or (far better) departing for greener pastures within Christendom. But the Lincoln Park Zoo best exemplifies my experience. I have, admittedly, supplemented my evangelical diet with a hearty dose of high church Anglicanism. Nevertheless, as I’ve pursued the study of ancient Orthodox and medieval Catholic Christianity, I’ve been consistently surprised to discover the same things I learned as an evangelical convert. Decades ago someone wrote a bestseller entitled “All I really need to Know I learned in Kindergarten” (including, I presume, how to work the anti-intellectual American book market). Nevertheless, I’m tempted to say that all I really need to know about Christian life I learned in the evangelical culture that I so desperately tried to escape.
As a teenage evangelical convert, I remember being moved by a downright maudlin sermon claiming that had I been the only person on earth, Jesus would have died just for me. Over time, such rhetoric lost its attraction—or so I thought. I launched into the study of exotic medieval mysticism for something different, where I encountered this insight from Julian of Norwich: “For I am certain that if there had been no one but I to be saved, God would have done everything which he has done for me.”
Sentimental worship had become intolerable to me. The patterns of secular music have no place in Christian liturgy, I justifiably insisted. To escape such superficiality I read and met famous scholars who plumbed the depths of serious Christian mysticism. Carolyn Walker Bynum, for example, who explains that medieval German nuns like Hadewijch and Mechtild of Magdeburg “found in secular love poetry the vocabulary and the pulsating rhythms to speak of the highest of all loves.” As a youth group convert, I sang Ray Boltz’s unforgivably sentimental song Thank You to my departing Youth Pastor, complete with motions, describing what it will be like to see souls in heaven thanked for their service on earth. Fleeing such frivolity, I turned to the great mystics, and there I encountered Julian of Norwich’s bizzarely Boltzian description of what it will be like to see souls in heaven thanked for their service on earth.
I learned to snicker at the silly Christian T-shirts, worn by my fellow evangelical converts, that related Jesus to a professional wrestler or body builder. They even, I might have said to myself, revealed a sexism at the heart of the evangelical enterprise (a movement condemned, simultaneously, for being too feminine and too masculine). And then, reading On the Incarnation, I saw that Athanasius does the same thing, comparing Christ to “a noble wrestler, great in skill and courage,” one who hams up the athletic contest by allowing the hostile crowd to choose his opponent, lest he should appear fearful. “So he accepted and endured on the cross inflicted by others, especially by enemies [that] the power of death might be completely annihilated.” How that was any different from the Lord’s Gym T-shirt was a question I was unwilling to entertain. I learned to mock the simplicity of WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets, but was not yet willing to see that this was precisely the pattern of Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, Bonaventure’s Life of St. Francis, and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ.
A large part of how I learned the gospel was Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” tract, which is not known for its aesthetic splendor. But one afternoon, while lecturing on the Louvre’s Madonna with Chancellor Rolin, I realized that Jan van Eyck had painted precisely the same Biblical idea. Jesus is building that same bridge to sinful humanity posited by Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ. In another tract that I read as an evangelical, I learned to make my heart Christ’s home. Surely, I later thought, this was the kind of piety I had to leave behind if I was to get serious. How surprising therefore it was to see the exact same idea in Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, or in a Harvard professor Jeffrey Hamburger’s exploration of the visual piety of sixteenth-century German nuns.
As an evangelical convert, the one Christian who mattered to me between the New Testament and now was Martin Luther. Embarrassed by that shortsightedness, I thought I needed to advance beyond the simple message of grace. About as far as I could get from the evangelical orbit was the Mani peninsula in southern Greece where I was researching Byzantine paintings. I sat down to plumb the Philokalia, that treasury of ancient Orthodox wisdom, in a café near the Mediterranean. The subheading of the next chapter was “On Those Who think They are Made Righteous by Works: Two Hundred and Twenty-Six Texts.”
“Why should you get in?” says Satan to souls seeking admittance to heaven. List your own merits, and you fail. Point to Christ’s merits, and you pass. This was the “test” we evangelicals would administer to find out if someone was a genuine Christian, and it all seemed to me, in retrospect, rather reductive. And so, I found myself reading the thick medieval spirituality on offer in the The Golden Legend instead. In it, the devil accuses Bernard of Clairvaux who replies, “I admit I am unworthy, and unable by merits of my own, to gain entrance to the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, my Lord has won the kingdom . . . by the merits of his passion . . . and by that gift I assert my right and shall not be confounded!” Thérèse of Lisieux is no different: “In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works.”
In the heart of Rome I once found myself marveling at the Basilica San Clemente, with its glorious Christ as the tree of life. And yet, on coming back to Wheaton, I learned that in the same Lincoln Park where I wandered twenty years ago, is its near equal, built by a Russian convert to Catholicism in the 1930s: St. Clement’s Catholic church. I walked into it recently and found what I was seeking when I wandered the streets of Chicago so long ago—the convergence of truth and beauty. The experience would be a perfect set up for an essay on my conversion to Catholicism, were it not for my Wheaton colleague, the painter Joel Sheesley, who transformed the white walls of evangelicalism into yet another version of Rome’s Basilica San Clemente in my evangelical Anglican church.
Perhaps such convergences occur only because glimmers of Catholicism and Orthodoxy sometimes accidentally appear in lesser traditions. Or maybe such mergers confirm the insight of Stephen Long: “Our divisions should never be rendered intelligible. They are, and always will be, like evil itself, puzzling, enigmatic, and absurd.” Blessed then are evangelicals who find the depths of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions to be, inexplicably, their own.
Matthew Milliner (@millinerd) is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.
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