It’s been about ten years since I went to a Christian bookstore. When I was in highschool I loved the Christian bookstore. I spent hours there (and way too much money). Since I’ve been writing about my evangelical days I decided I would take a trip to my local Christian bookstore. I wanted to see if they had any books on church planting (it’s hard to know if they’ll be useful when you simply look at them online).
So the other day I took the bus out to the suburbs and went to the store. Here is the live tweeting account of both my initial trip alone and a couple of thoughts when I went back with a friend. In those accounts I was pretty heavy on the snarkiness, but in this post I want to draw out some larger conclusions that struck me:
1. Everything is completely earnest. There is no sense of irony in these products. I know because I used to be one of the folks who took all of this super seriously. In the midst of the scripture mints and the fish stickers for the car and the purity rings and Christian tshirts and art, there isn’t a sense of being funny or silly. It’s all taken very seriously. And it’s all meant to be about being seen as a Christian and being able to open up conversations to convert other people.
Someone commented that wearing rainbows can be a bit kitchsy and it certainly can, but the difference is that if I see someone wearing a rainbow ribbon I am pretty sure that person isn’t trying to convert me. They are identifying something important about themselves. I think wearing a simple cross can be the equivalent: One is wearing it to say something about their own faith. However wearing a t-shirt that is emblazoned with a bloody Jesus hanging on a cross is about the person seeing the shirt, not the person wearing it. It’s meant to be confrontational. So are the under eye sports patches that say “Glory to God” or the wallet with the giant cross on it. It’s meant to be a “witness” to the other person.
2. It’s all about “us vs. them”. Americans are the chosen people. Christians are the chosen people. Let’s convert the atheists, and the Jews, and the Catholics, and…and..and… All of this is coupled with a heavy dose of fear. The Muslims are taking over, the liberals are defeating us, we’re under attack. And the only way to be safe is to make our walls higher, be louder, circle the wagons. And we need to demonize everyone that thinks differently than us.
3. It’s designed to keep people afraid. Because when people are afraid they don’t ask questions. One portion of one of the books was all about how converting people to become Christians wasn’t about saving them from Hell, it was about saving them FROM GOD. Because God was vengeful and wrathful and could destroy them. And God wants to destroy anyone who isn’t a Christian. (I’m not even exaggerating.)
I remember well that fear. In fact my entire life was fear. Fear that I wasn’t really saved, that I wasn’t a good enough Christian, fear that God would send me to Hell. That I wasn’t chosen, that God didn’t love me, that my queerness would keep me out of heaven. That I wasn’t doing enough to convert my friends, that if they died their blood would be on my hands, and it went on and on and on. And that fear is powerful. It keeps you from asking questions or stepping out of line. It keeps you dependent on the people who are acting as gatekeepers because if you step out of line those gatekeepers will tell you that you’re not really saved. The thing about fear is that it keeps you obedient, but it doesn’t lead to an abundant life. I wasn’t filled with the spirit, I was filled with fear.
4. The entire store is designed so that you don’t need to think. There is nothing in the store that could potentially challenge your beliefs. Everything has been approved to agree with general fundamentalist evangelical thinking. That’s why Mark Driscoll is okay but Rob Bell is not. That’s why they don’t sell the NRSV Bible. That’s why there is no liberation theology, feminist theology, black theology, queer theology, etc. The idea is that you can pick up anything in that store, take it home, and be affirmed. No need to use your brain at all. All of the thinking has been done for you. There is nothing here to lead you astray.
I remember well this type of thinking. It was pushed in order to “protect” people from harmful influences. You might be “led astray” if you read something that wasn’t approved. But this type of behaviour doesn’t protect people it just makes them easily controlled (see the fear section above). There is an anti-intellectualism in fundamentalist evangelicalism that is potent. And it’s because once you get some education you begin to ask questions. Your mind begins to open and you begin to see that not everything holds together the way you’ve been taught. That there is an entire world of thought and theology outside of your tradition and that much of it makes very good sense.
This last point is the one that most hit home to me because it was the hardest thing to overcome (it went hand in hand with the fear) when I left the Evangelical church. We mustn’t be afraid of knowledge. It is only by being able to think for ourselves that our faith can really grow. If my faith is shallow enough to be shaken by reading the “wrong” book then my faith was probably messed up to begin with.
And as a minister I need to be equipping folks to do their own thinking instead of providing them with answers. We do our faith a disservice by keeping people stupid and by trying to “protect” them.
People don’t need to be protected, they need to be given the tools to think for themselves. Do we trust the Spirit to be able to work in the lives of people? Then we shouldn’t be afraid of knowledge.