In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.
In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.
There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.
No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.
Gavin’s been having a rough time lately. I think he’s teething all this incisors and molars at once. He’s crabby. He wakes up at 5:00 am every morning. He whines a LOT. His nose runs. He’s kinda klutzy. He eats two breakfasts every morning.
And well, he reminds me of me. This is a hard time for him. He feels lousy and he’s learning and growing so much. It’s exhausting. And sometimes Daddy has to just take over (because he’s stronger) and hold him tight and say, “Gavin. Stop. Rest.”
God did that with us over the last year. He held us through our developmental disequilibrium. We might have bellowed, “NO!!!” but He just picked us up and firmly carried us through. No power of hell, no scheme of man — not even my own short-sightedness, foolishness, and total inability — can ever pluck me from His hand.
And now that it’s all over, we can assure you that there is life after fundamentalism. That sphere of influence is really very, very small, and we continue to chuckle that Christ is way bigger than a single city block!
At each step, God was there. Each monument reminds me that “the Lord has helped us thus far.” Our daughter’s death stripped away cultural clichés and showed me my Christian colleagues at their very best and God at His most loving. Praying for my oldest proved that God listens and answers prayer. His birth and babymoon taught me how much God loves me. Finding our parenting “sea legs” (despite what I had foolishly concluded as a grad student) further reminded me to listen close to the Holy Spirit and to see through my sons my own total inability and dependence on Christ. Our reading showed us a more robust and more biblical Christianity than we knew in our microculture. Publishing my dissertation was also a thrilling and unexpected (though scary) answer to prayer. Gavin’s birth reminded us that God is faithful so that we can be happy and bold in His love as we approach His throne saying “Abba Father!”
Then there are the monuments built with sharp, heavy stones. The outings, little and big. The meetings. The chapter. The document. The ultimatum. And the resignation. Each incident revealed brokenness of corporate policy, an occluded climate of communication, and a culture steeped in graceless punishment that seems as likely to continue as it ever has. As frightening as these boulder-like Ebenezers were, each was a firm hug that pulled us closer to God and pushed us further along in His plan.
But it’s not really about Grant and me or even a small segment of fundamentalism. It’s about the Church at large and a brewing Awakening, I believe. I’ve heard from so many fellow alumni and friends whom God has gently but dramatically led out of the movement. Jerry Bridges‘ recent theological transformation mirrors ours. And Michael Horton, too, urges a move from the Christless religion of distracting rules to a Christ-centered discipleship that lives out the Gospel. It’s happening.
Writing these Ebenezers have been a therapeutic Lenten exercise for me. I feel unburdened and relieved. The message that has been stuck in my gullet for years is out. It’s done. No need to save it to a CD-ROM either. 😉 I’m not moving it.
If I were to describe this argument within the theory I built in my book — the notion of a romantic separatist rhetoric — I’d probably say that I was the friend that dared to talk about the debutante’s beauty treatments. The henna rinses, the tummy tucks, the tattooed eyeliner — things that were not natural but were desperate attempts to prop up a fading beauty.
Take the cover art, for instance. It’s Edwin Long‘s Vashti. I know that after Campaign 2000, Bob Jones University felt very much like Vashti did when the King wanted her to traipse before his drunken guests. While her ladies-in-waiting are pleading with her to just buck up and go out there and do her duty, she pulls her shawl tight to her chest and trembles. But she won’t budge.
Vashti was stuck. It was either strip or hide, she thought, and she chose hide. We know that neither was the best option. The best option came from a plucky but God-fearing gate guard and his cousin, an unlikely Jewess princess who saw God in every interaction. With boldness, Esther defied convention and propriety and spoke plainly. She stood up to injustice. When the courtly customs threatened her life if she didn’t hush, she dared to speak.
Although I was stopped at every turn, what I wanted to say to fundamentalists in my book is that their beauty isn’t in them at all or in their products or productions. Their spiritual success isn’t stuck between their own purity and the world’s debauchery. As believers, our beauty is wholly in Christ. And that’s not just a cliché; I’m trying to describe it in the most unclichéd way I know how. It seems to me that everything the Lord has brought my family through — from our time at Indiana University to the birth of our children to our forced resignations from Bob Jones University — has pushed us to saying that very thing. Our whole story proves that God (not us!) can take the ugliest and saddest things and make them beautiful and joyful.
You talk to anyone who has left fundamentalism — and many of you have written me and called me to share your similar experiences — and the transition is very much the same. It’s tough. You lose most of your friends from your previous life. You know that people are concluding the worst about you (and a few are brazen enough to tell you how thoroughly terrible you are). People pass unproven supposition around as fact. You hear about how everything you touched is treated like evidence in a “crime scene.” You get paranoid. You get official letters describing the ongoing punishment that your once-friends are now documenting in their files. And your precious family gets the brunt of the stress those letters cause. You feel the icy chill from those you used to laugh with and cry with and pray with.
And then, after all that, you’re told to keep your mouth shut about it. If you do talk, all sorts of spiritual calamity will fall upon you, they say. You can only bring problems up privately, you’re told, even though you did — to no effect. No examples exist in Scripture of speaking out against injustice, you’re told. . . . what Bible are they reading?
I realize now that those demands for us to “shut up!” are really no different than those who say “Aren’t you over that by now?” to moms of babies in Heaven. There’s a fear of big, sad feelings. There’s a fatigue in hearing the same old thing. And there’s the dread of being jinxed if you hear it too much. But those of us in the middle of hardship need to work through these big feelings. It’s a mourning process, and shutting up guarantees you’d get stuck in crippling denial or embittering anger. No, I needed this expression of sadness to move me to the Acceptance stage.
And I believe the Body needs it too. These sort of injustices hurt the Body of Christ both extrinsically and intrinsically. We enable the abusers by refusing to name their sin for what it is. And refusing to plainly unmask our pain before the Body, we victimize those around us who are hurting too. Is the problem that we shouldn’t talk about it or that we don’t know how?
I’ve since learned that the sort of ultimatum we were given is par for the course at BJU. A seminary faculty member received a similar ultimatum just before ours for speaking positively about the English Standard Version in class. I sat near some other former colleagues in church and remembered that in recent years they, too, had been told to shut up or get out. I wanted to cry. That’s a horrible way to run any business, especially with Christian brothers and sisters. And it’s pure tragedy — desperate attempts to purge unruly elements and reach perfection.
I think about my friends who did these tragic things to me personally, and I must repeat to myself that they are stuck like I was and sometimes still am. They don’t know anything but tragedy, and even their reading of Scripture reifies that Gospel-less view. The reason they insisted I hush is because, whether consciously or not, they believe their veneer is a righteousness that must be preserved at all cost. I know that no matter how they much they insist, strive, lash out, primp, clam up, white-wash, and tantrum, that’s not where their Hope lies. I know who they are because I know Whose they are. The system is bad, but in Christ God’s people are good. I tried in this telling to peel off that veneer in a way that still leaves them and me safe and together in Christ alone.
Although it may look very different than it does in tragedy, comedy still allows for critique. Grant always stops me here and says, “Speak that plain.” In tragedy, we kill off our evil enemies or ourselves in order to purge our own sins and reach an ordered perfection. We silence, punish, expunge — all variations on “killing” — so that we can feel secure in our propped-up purity. Of course that fails (both Kenneth Burke and Romans tell us it will!), and we start it all over again. Comedy is different. It’s not a postmodern, warm-and-fuzzy, “can’t-we-all-just-get-along,” mindless tolerance. Neither is it a “smile-at-all-costs” feigned ignorance. No, in comedy, our enemies are not evil, but mistaken. They need to be taught rather than punished. Their faults reveal our own shortcomings.
I wrote that book trying to expand and document Kenneth Burke’s notion of comedy. I always sensed that only Christ could bring a lost and dying world to a comic mindset, but I didn’t know how to say it all. That’s the chief argument in the unpublished chapter. Every one of these Ebenezers accentuated that point. Every one has tested, expanded, and nuanced that expression of comedy. When Elise died, I heard other parents of stillborns talk about how their children were “too good for this world, so God took them.” And I knew that was wrong. That was Burkean tragedy. Unwittingly, of course, those parents were describing their children’s deaths as a vicarious and purgative sacrifice for our messed-up selves and our miserable world. I kept wrestling in prayer: “God, how do I make this into a comedy. . . . giving birth to a child I’ll never see smile in this lifetime?”
When we studied how to parent our sons, I was struck again with how many of these conservative Evangelical gurus were actually arguing that spanking purges sin from our children! Pearl says it, Ezzo says it, and even Tedd Tripp (who really should know better) says it. I knew that couldn’t be. That was enacting tragedy in the home. That was a Gospel-less, works-based, man-centered focus. Christ was the ultimate sacrifice and the end of sacrifices. Christ is the Hero, the Ultimate Comedian! And while Burke imagines the shadows of the idea, his agnosticism prevents him from really running with it.
And you’ve seen many blog posts about that very thing. My daughter didn’t die to cleanse me of my guilt. Christ’s grace transforms tragedy into victory. Just like God took dirt and made it a living soul. . . . just like He takes a sinner dead in trespasses and sins and makes her a joint-heir with Christ. . . . just like Christ conquered death and sin in the resurrection, God took Elise’s death and transformed it into something beautiful. That’s what I prayed for way back when. That’s what this whole story is — the beautiful thing that God made in the midst of some very difficult times.
Throughout this last year, however, I would actually laugh out loud at these Ebenezers and pray, “Okay, God. You’re really making me run with this, aren’t you? Okay. . . . how do you act like a comedian when you’re the counter-agent (a.k.a. scapegoat or villain) in someone else’s tragedy?” In other words, when you’re being abused, where’s the Gospel then? It’s most certainly not in rolling over and sacrificing yourself because that’s another kind of tragedy! I’ve talked about it a little bit, and there’ll be more to come. More that couldn’t have been said without saying all this first.
That is why I had to say it all. Because I know that the living out the Gospel changes every interaction — even when someone is scapegoating you.
These posts are not passive or cynical. I’m working very hard to be a comic critic in these Ebenezers. I’ve discussed only those interactions that reveal official policy and formal organizational communication. The interpersonal, private stuff is not here. I’ve tried to be true to the Holy Spirit, to myself, and to those fellow Christians who, even though they hurt me, are deeply wounded too. They don’t see it. I didn’t either when I was where they are. And I know what the reaction will be from those in my previous life. I’ve already been called “petty,” “silly,” and clearly “unsaved.” Interestingly enough, the comments to my “The Ezz and I” post reflect the response on a small scale: misreading the texts involved, misunderstanding my point, denial, blaming, and top-down put-downs. Neither group can see themselves as separate from the system, and that’s tragic.
These posts, too, should put to rest those accusations that we didn’t go to the people involved. We did. At every turn. Often. And it didn’t change a thing. The message from the system was still the same — “Shut up!” Where do you go to confront a bad system? So many people are hurt and even driven from God by the abuse that passes for spirituality. And those who stay are driven to silence. No more. It’s not that we should stop talking about the problem; it’s that we should talk in order to stop the problem. And we must talk in a way that foregrounds the Gospel — in truth, in love, and with a clear understanding that we are dependent on Christ’s completed redemptive work.
I’m still wrestling with how to describe the Gospel as Comedy within a rhetorical idiom. I’m not saying that I always did it right, and I am sorry for the tragedy I participated in. I was wrong . . . often. But by telling this story completely and publicly, by reflecting the feelings that tragedy induces, by remembering that even the agent of tragedy is himself mired and mistaken, by seeing myself in other’s tragic actions, by critiquing with hope for change, I believe that imagining a rhetorical theory of the Gospel is possible.
So Purim — that celebration that remembers God’s working through Esther to save her people caught in a corrupt, abusive system — has just begun here on March 20, 2008 at 7:41 pm. Esther is a favorite among rhetoricians (believing and otherwise), and our best reminder that God acts in often unobtrusive ways — but He does always act! We’ll be making Hamantaschen to celebrate today and maybe you’ll join us. And while we’re folding those pastries to look like Haman’s hat, I’ll be telling my sons (and myself) about Esther’s brave and outspoken confidence in God. What would happen if we all acted like Esther — resisting tragedy and living out the Gospel? How would God use our words that were true, full-of-grace, bold, and comic? I’m eager to see how God can transform our aching, forced, stuck, trembling, Spirit-ignoring silences into something that robustly and truthfully praises Him. Stay tuned. . . .
Glory to God, whose sovereign grace
Hath animated senseless stones;
Called us to stand before His face,
And raised us into Abraham’s sons!
The people that in darkness lay,
In sin and error’s deadly shade,
Have seen a glorious gospel day,
In Jesus’ lovely face displayed.
Thou only, Lord, the work hast done,
And bared Thine arm in all our sight;
Hast made the reprobates Thine own,
And claimed the outcasts as Thy right.
Thy single arm, almighty Lord,
To us the great salvation brought,
Thy Word, Thy all-creating Word,
That spake at first the world from naught.
For this the saints lift up their voice,
And ceaseless praise to Thee is giv’n;
For this the hosts above rejoice,
We raise the happiness of Heav’n.
For this, no longer sons of night,
To Thee our thankful hearts we give;
To Thee, who called us into light,
To Thee we die, to Thee we live.
Suffice that for the season past
Hell’s horrid language filled our tongues,
We all Thy words behind us cast,
And lewdly sang the drunkard’s songs.
But, O the power of grace divine!
In hymns we now our voices raise,
Loudly in strange hosannas join,
And blasphemies are turned to praise!