This is Part 4 in a series on leaving progressive Christianity by Dave Stovall, worship leader and former lead singer of Wavorly and band member of Audio Adrenaline. He describes how his journey into progressive Christianity left him dissatisfied and how he found the road to a more sustainable, faithful faith. Here’s Part 1 and Part 2 and Part 3 and Part 5 and Part 6.
Now, I absolutely hated reading throughout high school and college. It wasn’t until The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe movie came out that I decided to stop being a regular movie enjoyer and start being one of those people that reads the book and then complains about how bad the movie is. Yeah…one of those people. At any given point in time nowadays, I’m usually reading 1-3 different books, both fiction and non-fiction.
As a kid who came to Christ early and had heard the story of Jesus since birth, it was hard to pinpoint how my heart felt when believing the gospel for the very first time. So when I was reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, Aslan’s death came out of nowhere and completely shocked me. Like a major life event, I can still remember where I was when Aslan died. And I’ll also never forget the feeling I had all over my body when a few pages later he came back to life. I had tears in my eyes, and I was looking around the public library wondering if anyone else knew about this story or knew about Jesus. I was having an experience, and to the outsider looking in I probably looked like a complete weirdo. I’m fine with that.
That moment in Narnia was kind of like hearing the gospel again for the first time for me. For that experience, I’m forever grateful for Lewis’s allegorical story. And to the Columbus Public Library: I’m sorry for being the weird young man crying upstairs reading children’s books.
After Narnia I picked up Mere Christianity, where I learned about how my innermost moral code was proof outside the Bible for the existence of God. I discovered that if time was a line on a page, then, far from being on the line, God would be the page itself (insert your favorite mind blown gif here). Then I raced through The Great Divorce, where I learned that our eternal destinies are the result of the little decisions we make everyday. When we arrive in eternity, it’ll feel like we’d always been there because we had been choosing and inviting either heaven or hell into our world little by little every single day.
Those books changed the way I thought about God and sparked a desire to know more about him through literature.
It wasn’t too long after my journey through Lewis’s material that I watched my first NOOMA video during a church small group meeting. These were 10-minute devotional videos featuring mini-sermons from the one and only Rob Bell.
Disclaimer: I probably know what you’re thinking: I knew it! That darned, west-coast Rob Bell guy is at it again! He’s the reason that Stovall boy lost his faith! I knew that Bell was trouble! I want to say this before continuing: I never wanted to be a Bell hater and I still don’t. I was hesitant to mention his name because I don’t think it’s fair to blame him for my progressivism, although he certainly has been a well-known progressive for a number of years now. His writings did have an effect on me for sure, but some of his thoughts were genuinely helpful. I still respect him as an innovator and communicator. (By the way, Rob, if you’re reading this, hit me up and I’ll take you to Mojos Tacos, my treat.) 🙂
So, when I became familiar with Bell’s NOOMA devotional videos, I could not get enough of them. They were revolutionary for me on many levels; the things Bell was saying sort of took me to a new place spiritually. It helped me see the beauty of the storytelling in the library that is the Bible. It made me think of my own mortality and whether I was using my life for anything good or just for myself. It raised the bar for me when it comes to what you could do with art and literature to tell people a story about God.
I picked up his book Velvet Elvis. So many people told me not to read Bell’s books because they were “heretical.” Yet these same people had never actually read any of his books, only the reviews, so somehow their warnings actually drove me toward this stuff.
It’s like I was thinking, Well, they don’t like these books and I’m not like them anymore, so these books must be awesome. There must be truths here that are frightening to people who never want to be challenged or pushed.
Right off the bat with Velvet Elvis, Bell describes having a “trampoline faith” (meaning, if you remove one metaphorical spring of theology from the trampoline, it doesn’t collapse and you can keep jumping) versus having a “brick wall faith” (where if one low brick is removed, the whole wall comes tumbling down). That idea was revolutionary for me at that time. I had already been sensing that the theology of my upbringing wasn’t proving to be as solid as I had been told, and I was starting to wonder if the whole thing would eventually just crumble for me. Learning that I could carry some of the harder-to-digest Bible stuff in an open hand while moving forward gave me some hope.
Using one of Bell’s examples of “trampoline theology,” let’s say that we find out one day that Jesus had a real dad named Larry. Let’s say that the virgin birth of Mary was really just a little mythology sprinkled in by the New Testament writers to appeal to followers of a certain religious cult during that time period that ascribed their gods to virgin births. Bell went further to speculate, What if we found out that the word virgin in the original Greek could also mean “the first sexual encounter with the husband.”
“Could also mean…”
Those three words along with the what ifs in that scenario ended up creating a deeper sense of doubt in the whole thing for me. Before that moment, I had not questioned who had written the Bible. If you had asked me who wrote it, I would’ve answered, “God, of course,” which had worked in Sunday School. In the real world, that answer wasn’t working anymore. In fact, those three words (“could also mean”) became the theological theme I was most interested in knowing about.
I learned that Paul could have meant pedophilic relationships when he talked about men exchanging natural for unnatural sexual relations in his letter to the church in Rome. It also became possible that the culture back then had a problem with homosexuality only because they had seen abusive homosexual relationships and had never seen a loving relationship between same sexes. In other words, those sections of the Bible got it wrong because their culture wasn’t as enlightened as ours is now.
I learned from progressive thinkers that things like the creation story don’t have to be literally true for there to be truth in them. For example, they explained that it didn’t matter if Genesis literally happened because we reenact the story of the Fall every day when we sin; therefore the Fall is true at a level deeper than literal. Of course, that’s a subtle shifting of what truth means. I also learned that Paul was the only apostle who had never seen the physical Jesus and I began to wonder if the letters he wrote should have real authority like the writings by other (real) apostles…
Ironically, I sort of felt like Rob had poked out a bottom brick in my own faith brick wall . The whole thing didn’t come down immediately, but it for sure became shaky. However, at this point, this shakiness actually felt like a welcome relief. I could finally stop trying to explain how God was somehow love yet didn’t have enough of it to go around for gay people.
For just a second, I’m going to skip ahead in my story to right after my first reconstruction (when my faith was officially reconstructed into the mold of progressivism).
Since this article is about books and podcasts (and podcasts weren’t really a thing when I was deconstructing), I want to mention one podcast that was literally saying the words that had been floating around my head during my deconstruction, but they were saying it in extremely entertaining ways. (This podcast was created by Christian artists, by the way, and I’ll explain the attraction I’ve often seen between Christian artists and progressivism in my next article.) Somewhere along my journey of deconstructing, I started listening to The Liturgists. First off, The Liturgists podcast is extremely well done. I mean, the music alone is incredible (thanks to the brilliant, artistic mind of Michael Gungor), and their stories and content completely pull you in. The fact is, it’s done so well that you may not even realize that they are discussing unorthodox theologies because they are talked about in ways familiar enough to your brain to make you think they’re right and true.
One of the first episodes of The Liturgists was about Science Mike’s deconversion story. It is a very captivating story. Mike went through a deconversion in his mind before telling anyone. After a season of going through the motions of being a body in a church he no longer agreed with, he finally told his wife that he was an atheist. She was devastated. Sometime later he went on a trip and had an incredible mystical experience with God on a beach. This supernatural experience (which I think really happened) jolted him awake spiritually. Yet, as a person who relies more on their own intellect than the authoritative word of God, he made a crucial mistake in my opinion. It was a mistake that I would go on to make myself.
Mike rationalized this newfound belief in the supernatural God by breaking down Christianity to its basic beliefs and then deciding which of those beliefs he could accept moving forward.
He called them “axioms.” As someone who was walking away from a faith they grew up in, I found this compromise approach to be music to my ears. I told you early on that I never desired to walk away from my faith. I wanted to stay, but I needed it to satisfy my intellect a little more than it was doing. I was afraid that there wouldn’t be a way to grow in intelligence without becoming agnostic or an atheist. So, to hear that there was a way forward, a new way that included both faith in God and rational thought, was a huge relief to me.
But now, in retrospect, I realize what Science Mike did, what I did, and what most progressives do in order to stay in the faith of their childhood — we reduced it down to the more tolerable teachings of the Bible and just went with those. We sort of skipped over the rest of the Bible without actually calling it ignoring. Rather, we would describe those parts as “written for that time period/culture and not ours” or as a metaphorical teaching rather than literal. And I, along with other progressives, really believed that was the case. I want to be clear that I do believe there are parts of the Bible that actually were written for the author’s culture and time period, and that there are parts of it that are not to be taken literally but metaphorically or typologically. Yet as a progressive I was doing that with much of the Bible—much of the meat of the Bible.
To say it plainly, it was a switching of roles: Even if it didn’t feel like it at the time, this cherry-picking was switching the authority of God’s word for the authority of my own intellect.
I am amazed now that I placed my own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs over the Bible—when literally all throughout history there have been Christians who have done the opposite and sacrificed as a result. People have died because they followed God’s word as the truth. If there had been an option to stay a Christian without following all the teachings of Jesus and his words through the apostles (yes, including the apostle Paul), don’t you think they would’ve opted for that over persecution and death?
What happens today is truth is made relative and everyone ends up happy with their own customized version of an ancient faith that looks very little like the original. There I was, a 21st century westerner reading the Bible through the lens of my own feelings to decipher what was true and what was “for that time period.” How was my faith going to match “the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people” (Jude 1:3)?
For instance, I had always known and believed homosexuality was a sin, but then I befriended gay people and heard their heartbreaking stories of being abandoned by family and being bullied and I began to feel like there was no way a loving God would reject them too. I had always thought drinking was a sin, but then I hung around some genuine believers who drank and got tipsy, and I felt like Jesus wouldn’t make them stop living that way because they had good hearts. I had always believed that Old Testament stories like Jonah getting swallowed by a big fish happened literally, but when I read those stories through my scientific-American lens, they felt more like fairy tales with a moral to me. What I felt determined what I believed. The truth of the Bible just wasn’t lining up with the truth of my culture anymore, or the truth of my gut.
I want to throw out a big nerdy word for you: hermeneutic.
I had always sort of laughed at people that used that word, but here I go. I’m about to be one of those nerds. “Hermeneutics” is the study of interpretation (e.g., how to interpret the Bible). A person’s “hermeneutic” basically means that person’s theological framework for reading the Bible. Every human being that picks up the Bible to read it has a framework in their mind. It is a set of rules within our minds that we bring with us to Scripture to find out what it means. It’s usually shaped by experiences and thoughts that we’ve picked up along the way. Since having a hermeneutic is inescapable, it may sound relatively insignificant, but knowing the hermeneutic you are using is extremely important. Your hermeneutic can determine how you read the Bible and what you do with it.
Here are a couple examples: Some people read the Bible with a hermeneutic that says, “If the New Testament doesn’t explicitly permit it, then we can’t do it.” Therefore, they might read the New Testament and come away demanding that their church not use musical instruments since musical instruments aren’t commanded for worship in the New Testament. Instead, they’ll use only their voices in worship. Others might come to the Bible with a hermeneutic that says, “If the New Testament doesn’t explicitly prohibit it, then it’s up to our preferences .” Therefore, they might end up saying there’s grey area when it comes to using instruments in church, so let’s use the creativity and resources the Lord has given us and include beautiful musical instruments in our church. Does that make sense how a person’s hermeneutic determines how they read the text?
Some of my hermeneutic had always subconsciously gone something like this:
1. God wrote the Bible, so
2. The Bible should be taken literally, and
3. It can never be wrong.
That framework led me to adopt a premillennial dispensationalist view. It also led me to believe in a literal 6-day creation. In fact, if I’m being honest, it led me to an unwillingness to even look at or wrestle with scientific facts that seemed to contradict the Bible. When I read these progressive books during the 2000s, it subtly shifted my hermeneutic away from my more literalistic way of reading the Bible. It was a subconscious shift. At the time, it felt like an uneasy wrestling in my mind over each issue, and I definitely felt like I was becoming more enlightened by this material. What was really happening was a fundamental shift in my hermeneutic which actually made the outcome of my reading of the Bible predictable. I traded a hermeneutic built on an easy literalism for a hermeneutic built on self-inspired theology. If you really want to know what the Bible says and means, it takes work and humility, but there are plenty of tools to help.
The subtleness of this shift is why we say at Renew.org that everyone is being discipled by something whether they realize it or not. As I was reading progressive authors, affirming thoughts were constantly popping up in my mind, such as, I’ve never thought of it like that before. I’ve never heard anyone saying it like this before. This makes more sense this way. I know now, after reconverting to historic Christianity, that those statements are actually red flags.
The Christian faith is 2,000 years old. Sure, there are going to be new discoveries when it comes to historical background, the Greek language, etc. as we move forward. But if we’re coming to the text with a predetermined agenda and obsessing over sub-meanings of Greek words that could mean something different than what the intended original audience thought, then we should pause and think about the weight of what we’re doing and the hidden purposes we may have in our own hearts. Yes, God knows our hearts (Ps. 44:21) and guess what the Creator of human hearts says about them? They’re evil (Jer. 17:9).
Today, I still love to listen to podcasts, but I’m selective of what goes into my brain.
As I have moved back to historic Christianity, someone at my church asked me if I felt I had been brainwashed into coming back. I paused and thought about it before answering. While I had been listening to and reading progressive Christian material, I wouldn’t have told you I was looking for another way to do Christianity, but in reality that’s what I was doing. I had felt stuck and needed to find a new way forward. The things I was hearing through these various voices sounded right and true and good to me. It felt good to lose the extra baggage which my Bible Belt upbringing had placed on me. In other words, I secretly wanted a change and therefore sought out content that supported this new longing and belief within myself.
So, I answered my friend, “Here’s the thing. Before, I subconsciously brainwashed myself into walking away from orthodoxy. Now, I have seen the truth again but with new eyes : I am convinced again of the truth of the gospel and of all 66 books in the Holy Bible. So, yes, I am currently saturating myself in the truth so that nothing else contrary to that works itself into my mind again.” I want a fortress around my thoughts, a “helmet of salvation,” if you will. I know the truth and I also know how easy it is to be persuaded away from it by my own feelings. So I am doing what God tells me to do by taking every thought captive and making it obedient to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
Is making every thought obedient to Christ something I ultimately want for myself? Absolutely.
Does it feel good and right every time there is a new instance where the commands of the Bible don’t line up with what I want or what my culture tells me is right? Absolutely not. But I have learned that the only way forward through doubts and question is obedient trust. I lean into what God tells me in his word even though it can sound upside down. And every single time, it turns out to be the best thing for me and also for those around me. You can only experience that if you lean into the Bible’s truthfulness and therefore walk in its light. It’s not easy, but, man, it is good and worth it.
My encouragement to you is this: Don’t let yourself be someone who is unknowingly being discipled by the world by letting it shape your thoughts and feelings so that they determine what you can and can’t seem to believe in. Please read that last sentence again because it’s my most important one in this article.
Also, please don’t misunderstand the progressive Christian as someone who is only trying their hardest to fit in with the culture as if it were a popularity contest.
I would say that at least some of them are genuinely trying to find the truth and believe they have found it in a new way of thinking and interpreting the Bible. Some are quite humble about their position. If you are someone who wants to reach a progressive Christian and bring them back to submitting to the lordship of the Jesus we find in all of Scripture, the place to start is not by criticizing their tactics for justifying what they want to do by twisting Scripture. That stuff is usually happening under the surface, and they may not even be aware of it. We need to love progressives enough to go into the hard conversations with them. Let’s be curious about how they think. Let’s be innocent as doves as well as shrewd as snakes (Matt. 10:16).
I for one study the truth in Scripture and memorize facts about the Bible, but I also keep an ear to the ground for what’s going on in progressive Christianity. I don’t want to be clueless as to what’s happening because my goal is to lovingly lead people back. In my experience, in the Christian music industry, there were loads of people being pulled in this direction. In fact, I might even say the lifestyle you have to live in order to work that career sort of lends itself to making artists into walking dichotomies. You have your real inner-self with the questions and the outward brand version of you that everyone expects and buys. It can split you in two and leave you a jaded person toward the faith.
I was one of those broken people. And you know who has a big heart for broken people? Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I want to have his heart and I want to be his hands to lift those brothers and sisters back up and bring them home. I hope as you continue to read my articles that you will be that person too. With the way our culture is currently going, we’re going to need all the help we can get.
Don’t let yourself be unknowingly discipled by the world by letting it shape your thoughts and feelings so that they determine what you can and can’t seem to believe in.