Losing My Faith in Progressive Christianity: The Fleeting Fulfillment of a Feelings-Based Faith (Part 6)
This is Part 6 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 4 and Part 5.
Something changed in me the day my first child was born back in 2016. In a lot of ways, being a dad for the first time brought on a lot of pressure. But there was a different form of pressure that fell off of me when I first laid eyes on him: I felt like I finally understood grace and saw how big it was.
I looked at this helpless little person in my hands and was compelled to love that baby boy with all that I am no matter what. If he grows up to hate me, I will still love him. If he grows up to be an atheist, I will still love him. If he grows up to be a womanizer or a drug user or a porn addict, I will still love him. That is exactly the way God feels about you and about me. The father of the prodigal son never stopped loving his son. Can I say that again so that it sinks in? God made you and he delights in you. Believe that. Live free in that truth.
So, what do I teach my kid?
As time moved on and my boy, Bear, got older, I began to really enjoy teaching him new things as all dads do. One day, as I was holding him in his room rocking him to sleep, I wondered what I would teach him about God. This was when I was still a progressive, so I knew I didn’t want to teach him the tradition of Christianity that I grew up with. But would I show him the fuzzy freedom and grace-with-no-strings-attached that I had found in progressivism? How do you even teach that?
In progressivism, there were too many unanswered riddles for a child to understand—too much gray area. I’m told children need black or white. My wife and I found this out the hard way by allowing him to say the word “fart” only inside our home when he was around 3 years old. It went something like this, “Bear, can you hand me your cup?” “Well, farty fartskins, I sure farty can, ya fart!”
Gray area just doesn’t compute in their tiny developing minds, and in my experience progressive Christianity is all about the gray. All it would take to watch progressive theology fall apart in the mind of a child would be for my son to ask, “Why did Jesus have to die?” The only answer progressive Christianity gave me was, “We’re not really sure…”
“The only answer progressive Christianity gave me was, ‘We’re not really sure…'”
The Bible teaches (as does Jesus himself) that the reason he came to this world was to die, be lifted up, defeat Satan, and draw every man, woman, and child to himself (John 12:31–32). Then this theme is fleshed out even more through the apostle Paul’s writings to the Romans that “we are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ” (Rom. 3:22a NLT).
It’s a message simple enough for even a child to understand, but progressive Christianity had me second-guessing the purpose of Jesus’ death by getting me to doubt the authority of Paul. When I accepted that he was not a real apostle because he wasn’t with Jesus before he died, Paul became just another learner like myself, and his writings didn’t really hold the same weight that Jesus’ words did anymore. This is what it looks like to be a “Red letter Christian,” who ends up saying things like, “I’m good with Jesus but not much else.”
My Problem with Paul
The first time I heard Paul’s authority questioned like that was pretty earth shattering. “Wow. So much of his writing makes sense now that I know he was just trying to figure it out like I am.” I went from literally believing everything in the Bible to questioning about half of the New Testament. I would read passages like 1 Corinthians 14:34 (“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says”), and I would take it out, examine it, and decide if it made sense with the world around me. If it didn’t, I would tuck it right back where I found it, never to give it a second thought.
Distrusting Paul was the beginning of my distrust of the Bible as God’s infallible Word as a whole. It can seem like a subtle shift to start thinking that Paul’s words shouldn’t carry as much weight as Jesus’ or Peter’s, but that shift took me all the way to where I was writing off huge chunks of the Old Testament as well.
“That shift took me all the way to where I was writing off huge chunks of the Old Testament as well.”
Take Jonah for example. That book has the weirdest ending in the whole Bible. A plant instantly grew out of the ground to give Jonah shade, but then, when Jonah got happy about it, God caused it to die just as quickly as it had grown and then Jonah got ticked! On the surface, it sounded to me like a comical ending to a fictional story with a moral. Since that’s what it sounded like to me, I believed it had to be fiction and then moved on. It was as simple as that. I didn’t realize until later that I was arrogantly canceling a lot of rich stories rooted in the long history of a very real nation of Israel.
It was almost like I had traded the lens which I looked through to read Scripture. I had switched from the everything-is-literal lens to the polar opposite toss-it-if-it-doesn’t-make-sense lens. I was making fun of the Christians that cherry-picked verses to support their ideologies even though I was doing the same thing but on different cherry trees. Even though the Bible is a collection of Ancient Near Eastern books, anything that didn’t exactly line up with my 21st century Western Christian mind basically got ignored.
“Anything that didn’t exactly line up with my 21st century Western Christian mind basically got ignored.”
It’s amazing that here in this beautiful country we have all sorts of free time to sit around and ponder things like theology. And right there is where we find a pretty scary part of the history of progressivism that still gives me the creeps to this day. As I was on my way back to historic Christianity, I read a book by David Young called A Grand Illusion, and in that book David points out the Western, elite and overall almost exclusively white beginnings of progressivism. He talked about how only the wealthy have the time to sit around and twist their thoughts about what’s true and untrue about the Bible. Contrast that with people in third world countries (or even in high poverty cities here in the States) who are hanging on for dear life to every word of the Gospel as the way, the truth and the life.
If you’re a progressive, I hope that makes you stop and think. Do yourself a favor and read A Grand Illusion. When I was a progressive, I was proud of the fact that I had an open mind. I challenge you to let yourself be open-minded to the truths you find in that book about what you believe and let it freak you out a little bit. Give your new theology the same line of scrutiny you once gave the Bible when you were deconstructing.
“Give your new theology the same line of scrutiny you once gave the Bible when you were deconstructing.”
I hope these articles can be a way for me to tell you more than just my story of leaving progressivism. I’d like for them also to be a way for me to help historic Christians understand the way progressives think (how they got there, the kind of beliefs their hermeneutics lead to). And also, I hope they can help the progressive by illuminating some of the emptiness of progressive Christianity.
I don’t want to start a war; I seek to build a bridge. While they see us fighting and tearing each other apart, the unbelieving world will have yet another reason not to give the hope of Jesus another hearing. I want to find a way to wrestle with our very real questions in a gracious way and in a way that satisfies our rational minds all the while sticking with what’s solid. I’m convinced that historic Christianity is this solid core. It’s the real deal.
“People don’t stick with historic Christianity simply because they want to and it feels good.”
People don’t stick with historic Christianity simply because they want to and it feels good. Rather, we have been convinced of the truth like Jesus’ disciples were. We find ourselves satisfied with no other way than to lay down our lives at the feet of Jesus and ask, “What shall we do to inherit eternal life?” We are convinced that Jesus is worthy and are committed to trying our hardest to live out his commands in the world around us come what may.
I pray that all of us who claim the name of Christ over ourselves will daily surrender to Jesus through following the teachings he left us in his Word. I know that there are legitimate questions about where we got the Bible. You should ask those questions. A friend of mine once rolled his eyes when I was questioning the origins of the Bible, to which I responded, “Don’t you wanna know that these texts you’re basing your life decisions on were really written down by whom they claim to be written down by??”
To me, that’s a very important question. If you’re going to forego worldly pleasures in order to follow commands that mostly don’t sit well with human nature, shouldn’t you want to make sure they’re legit? It made sense to me.
“If you’re going to forego worldly pleasures in order to follow commands that mostly don’t sit well with human nature, shouldn’t you want to make sure they’re legit?”
But if we’re just going with what we feel, we’ll end up as Ephesians 4:14 describes: “tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching…influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth.” Now, I can look back at where I went wrong with Paul and where I ended up as a result. I hope to save some of you from making the same mistake. It’s all connected that way. Once you deconstruct one pillar of truth it becomes easier and easier to take the whole structure down.
My Need to Control
I mentioned earlier that Rob Bell in his book Velvet Elvis encouraged everyone to have a trampoline faith versus a brick-wall faith. My question for someone who has deconstructed would be this: If your trampoline has only two springs left on it on opposite sides and you can’t really jump on it anymore, but you can still lay on it—is that really still considered a trampoline? Look at the things you believe. If you no longer believe Jesus literally rose from the dead, and you no longer trust or follow the majority of the Bible, and the way you live/act/breathe in the world looks nothing like what the life of Jesus or his disciples actually looked like—are you really still within bounds to call yourself a Christian (a “little Christ”)?
You may wonder why I’m sounding so judgmental right now, and that’s fair. But I am not pointing fingers at anyone and saying to trust me because I naturally know the right path to travel. In fact, none of this stuff on my way back from progressivism “felt” right. It all felt backwards from what I thought was the right way. But I gave God and his Word the benefit of the doubt again, and I believe that’s the kind of obedience that God longs for from his children. Not ignorantly following, but mostly-informed, fully-trusting kind of following.
“Not ignorantly following, but mostly-informed, fully-trusting kind of following.”
That kind of “next right thing” language is actually from somewhere other than Frozen 2 (but, thank you for the lovely song, Princess Anna). It comes from recovery programs. I revealed to you earlier that I am, in fact, a sinner and I have struggled with an addiction to pornography. What I haven’t revealed to you yet is that my wife of 13 years, Summer, used to struggle with an addiction to alcohol (yeah, we were a real duo before we both got sober).
She is currently 8 years sober, and I am so proud of the woman she has become by following and obeying the Lord’s direction in her own life. God has completely restored our marriage in a miraculous way, and we often talk about and thank God for intervening in our story the way he did and for using us as an example of hope for others.
“We often talk about and thank God for intervening in our story the way he did and for using us as an example of hope for others.”
It’s funny how God does that. It was around 2014 when my wife was in the process of getting sober and I was in the blissful state of denying I had a porn problem. I visited her one day in rehab for a family day. The teacher had a specific exercise for them to do, and she invited each patient to write on the whiteboard the top 5 things they were worried would make them relapse once they were out of rehab. My wife, bless her soul, very boldly wrote “My husband” on the top of her list.
When I saw that, my blood began to boil. I had been miserable living with the unpredictability of an alcoholic (all the while ignoring my own sin), yet I stuck around because deep down I loved her and knew it was the right thing to do. How could I be reason #1? Wasn’t I the reason she was getting sober?? Yet I hid my feelings from her while she explained—and I’m so glad I did. She explained to me that I had always tried to control her every move and never let her just be herself, and that was a big reason she kept drinking.
So, spoiler alert: Bruce Willis is dead the whole time. If you haven’t seen the ending of Sixth Sense, please don’t read that previous sentence….You know the part where he’s realizing he’s dead and the scene just keeps bending out of shape? Yeah… that moment where my wife revealed to me that I was controlling? That was my sixth sense moment. My lifelong issues with control flashed before my eyes and the rehab room began to feel like the inside of a lava lamp.
“That was my sixth sense moment.”
I thought of the first band I was in with my brother and our friend. They both quit at the same time because this little runt (hi, I’m talking about me here) kept trying to tell them how to play their instruments better. I thought of previous girlfriends sitting in the front seat of my car receiving looks of disdain from me being disappointed that they had hung out with their friends instead of me. I thought of my poor wife longing to have a small part of life out from under my shadow and me making her feel horrible for it. I thought of the fact that, since I had discovered porn at the age of 12, I had never gone very long without looking at it and yet telling the Lord I would “never do it again.”
Most people go into recovery for the surface problem, the addiction, and then find out that they were just using their addiction to cover up some character defect deep down, hidden from themselves. I came to recovery the exact opposite way—by learning about my character defect from the mouth of my sweet recovering alcoholic wife and then realizing why I had never been able to stop looking at porn: control.
I looked up porn addiction recovery groups online and found a thing called Sexaholics Anonymous. There was a meeting a few blocks from my apartment, so I went. I was shaking when I got out of my car and walked downstairs to the meeting. With a label like “sexaholic,” I was expecting to find a bunch of sick freaks down in the basement (dungeon) of that church. But what I found instead was a room full of mirrors.
“What I found instead was a room full of mirrors.”
One person was a reflection of where I’d be if I didn’t get sober in 10 years, another person was a glimpse of myself in 20, and so on. These people had lost it all: marriages, respect from their children, freedom, jobs, etc. It literally scared me so much that I have never been the same since. I’m telling you this for many reasons but one in particular: Anonymous groups were the place where I learned a new name for God: Higher Power.
Betrayed by My Feelings
At first, the higher power thing worked for me. I had some church baggage (see my previous articles), and the process helped me to disassociate with some of the unhelpful “Christianese.” I also did something I heard about that might help me unplug: I stopped reading my Bible and/or things about the Bible for 6 months. I replaced Bible reading time with prayer time. At the time, I could not read the Bible or understand its teachings without seeing everything through the lens I had been given by my fundamentalist upbringing. The hellfire-and-brimstone lens. The shame-on-you lens. The God-probably-hates-you-in-real-life lens. I needed to take a break, so I did. Right or wrong, at least I was being honest with God and myself about where I was on the journey.
I always tell people to bring their doubts and questions before God and wrestle with them in his presence; he can absolutely handle it. It’s ourselves we should worry about. We may walk away limping. My church’s lead pastor says, “If you ever have to choose between the truth or Jesus…choose the truth because it will always lead you back to Jesus.” Charles Williams (an old friend of C.S. Lewis) used to say something like, “If there was a question so hard that it could cause Christianity to crumble then it wasn’t the truth after all.” And so I brought my real self, warts and all, as they say, before the Lord. You can’t start at any other place than where you are.
“You can’t start at any other place than where you are.”
This time with the Lord was sweet. For the first time, I felt like my Father in heaven wasn’t disappointed in me. In fact, what I felt from him was delight. The Lord of heaven was looking at me and…smiling (the same way he looks with pleasure on all his creation). I was introduced to meditation coupled with prayer as a way to fight anxiety (a practice I still do to this day).
The problem is that, over the time of being disconnected from his Word, I began to have thoughts and feelings about God’s character that, looking back now, were contradictory to what he says about himself in his Word. I started believing that God looked past my sin because he wanted me to be more focused on loving people. So, I figured, it didn’t really matter if I sinned as long as my heart was in the right place…whatever that means!
“So, I figured, it didn’t really matter if I sinned as long as my heart was in the right place…whatever that means!”
I eventually did come back to the Bible, but by that time I had decided that it was much healthier for me to hold everything I thought I knew about God a little looser than before. Besides, thinking I had it all figured out made me feel judgmental and hypocritical—so that can’t be good, right? I had also come to believe that the Bible was written by humans (which it is) and that it was first and foremost a collection of books about man’s thoughts about God (which it is not).
It’s easy to explain violence in the Old Testament with that hermeneutic, by the way. That way of thinking is also dangerous in explaining away the divine purpose for why Jesus died and what he accomplished on our behalf when he came back from the dead. That hermeneutic makes the Bible a book that can be seen as helpful but not always true or applicable in today’s age. I think that hermeneutical shift is actually a sneaky trick of the devil. Taking tips from the Screwtape Letters: demons are much more effective at diverting Christians not by jumping out of the shadows and revealing the spiritual realm, but by subtly planting a tiny seed of doubt deep in our consciousness that grows into seeing the Bible as ridiculous.
“The scary fact of the matter is that I was happy when I was not reading my Bible.”
The scary fact of the matter is that I was happy when I was not reading my Bible. I felt closer to the Lord than ever before and there was way less pressure to do any of the religious stuff I felt guilty for not doing when I was younger. I just wanted to simply be. And then when I read the Bible again, the God I thought I knew didn’t really look anything like the God of the Bible.
And that is actually my point for this particular article. We all have thoughts and feelings. We have them about anything and everything. They’re not inherently good or bad; they’re just thoughts and they’re just feelings. But when we take those emotions and put them in the driver’s seat, we will end up windblown to far and distant lands with little to no substance to root us in truth.
“We will end up windblown to far and distant lands with little to no substance to root us in truth.”
I had a choice to make: I could either follow my own thoughts and feelings about God or I could take a book that claims to be from God and listen to what God says about himself. And that’s the fork in the road for every single human being in history. Who is king in your life? Is it your kids? Is it your dream? Is it your secret sin? Is it your thoughts and feelings? Is it you? Or is it the Jesus we find in this ancient book handed down from generation to generation claiming to be the truth with a track record of turning lives around and bringing heaven down to earth one human at a time? That’s my choice and that’s yours.
So there I was in our baby room holding my first child, wrestling with his future and mine. I wasn’t sure what I was going to teach him about God. At the time, I resolved that I could just let my son figure it out. God was big enough to help him. But something dawned in my heart that night that would eventually change my direction and the direction of my family completely: I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the fact that after years of reading progressive books, blogs, listening to podcasts, and late night convos, I had nothing concrete. There was nothing real to hold on to.
“There was nothing real to hold on to.”
Progressive Christianity seemed to be whatever you shaped it to be, and that looked different for each person. It seemed to be a way of poking, prodding, and tearing down rather than of healing and building up. It was a winding detour that led back to the fork in the road I was heading toward in the beginning: to stay within Christianity or leave.
A few weeks went by, as I continued to roll this thought around in my head. Eventually I ended up on my back porch on a sunny spring day. My eyes were closed, and a small stream of smoke was trailing up from the pipe in my hand. I was done being okay with not having any answers. I desperately wanted to know the truth for myself and also for my son and future kids.
“I prayed a prayer that I honestly believe changed everything.”
I prayed a prayer that I honestly believe changed everything. I asked God to show me the truth. I told him I didn’t care where I ended up: Buddhist, Muslim, Mystic. Keeping appearances didn’t matter anymore; I just had to know. And after all the searching, after all the thinking, talking, listening, after the changing in my thoughts and feelings, after all the shifting of my childhood hermeneutics—I was completely shocked and pleasantly surprised when, through the course of a couple years, God gently took me by the hand and led me straight back to the historical Jesus.