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A theology of relentless darkness is a path without love

Over the last dozen or so years, the list of books by authors who are walking away from evangelical Christianity (that term is loose and without a definitive antecedent) is long. I'll list a few before talking about a new one -- but one that has a distinct difference.

  • The False White GospelRejecting Christian Nationalism, Reclaiming True Faith, and Refounding Democracy, by Jim Wallis
  • The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth and Moral Integrity, edited by Ronald J. Sider.
  • Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith, by Charles Templeton.
  • After Evangelicalism: The Path to a New Christianity, by David Gushee.
  • The Exvangelicals: Loving, Living and Leaving the White Evangelical Church, by Sarah McCammon.

DevoutAnd on and on.

Now let's consider a new book, Devout: A Memoir of Doubt, by Anna Gazmarian. It was published just a few days ago.

One of the things that distinguishes Gazmarian's book is that she writes about the way the churches in which she grew up thought about mental illness -- often as some sort of punishment from God. She has a bipolar diagnosis and has struggled in the various ways that people with that diagnosis struggle. In response, many people in churches and Christian colleges told her just to pray more and have a happier attitude.

"The combination of my on-and-off-again relationship with a psychology major, my mom's health scares and my obsession with maintaining a perfect GPA led to the perfect storm of a mental health crisis," she writes.

Then this: "My religious community believed in spiritual warfare, the idea that demonic and angelic forces were constantly at work in this life. Whenever anyone in my church died by suicide, struggled with addiction or got pregnant before marriage, Satan was responsible."

With that as her theological framework, it's no surprise that she reacted this way: "As I watched my friends continue pursuing careers with perceivable ease, every minute I spent struggling to get out of bed felt like further proof that my diagnosis was divine punishment."

Slowly, Gazmarian began to move away from this kind of no-shades-of-gray theology because "I was angry that the Bible was being used as a weapon designed to minimize my experience. Surely that wasn't what a loving God would do." Indeed, she had become "so wrapped up in my identity as a sinner, unworthy of everything in my life, that I failed to see myself as worthy of love."

Cover-Value of DoubtA college poetry class began to open her mind to a more generative theology as it gave her the freedom "to question, to doubt, to lament." In some ways, I'm sorry that Gazmarian hadn't read my book The Value of Doubt. Maybe she'd have found her way more quickly to a healthier theology.

Any theology that crushes your soul or fails to give you tools to face whatever is trying to keep you in a destructive darkness should be repelled and replaced by an approach that gives light. Her book can help people who need exactly that kind of help to accomplish that.

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Many Mainline Protestant churches are experiencing not just a decline in membership numbers but also financial shortfalls and full-time clergy who often say they are suffering from burnout.

G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a religion reporter, United Church of Christ pastor and church educator, writes in this RNS opinion piece that one good answer to much of that is for congregations to hire part-time, not full-time, pastors.

"Congregations," he writes, "are selling off assets, from endowment stock funds to parsonages and other church properties, to plug their budget gaps and keep paying full-time clergy who’re tired and often seeking a career change. In a survey of 1,700 pastors conducted last fall by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, 53% of clergy had seriously considered leaving ministry at least once since 2020. The solution for many churches has been to switch to part-time clergy, lowering their overhead and allowing them to hold on to their assets."

Part of what will determine whether this is an answer for a majority of churches has to do with the size of the congregation and how much it tries to do beyond worship, of course. But many Mainline churches have 100 or fewer members and/or 100 or fewer people who regularly attend worship services. So each church must make its own decision, but MacDonald's idea of using more part-timers deserves a hearing -- maybe even in your church.


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