The Struggle of American Christianity

A huge religious marketplace has been set up in North America to meet the needs and fantasies of people just like us. There are conferences and gatherings custom-designed to give us what we need. Books and videos and seminars promise to let us in on the Christian “secret” of whatever we feel is lacking in our life: financial security, well-behaved children, weight-loss, exotic sex, travel to holy sites, exciting worship, celebrity teachers. The people who promote these goods and services all smile a lot and are good-looking… We have become consumers of packaged spiritualities. This is idolatry. We never think of using this term for it since everything we are buying or paying for is defined by the adjective “Christian.” But idolatry nevertheless: God packaged as a product; God depersonalized and made available as a technique or program. The Christian market in idols has never been more brisk or lucrative.

-Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places


I recently started reading a book by Brian Zahnd called “Water to Wine.” The book tells of his personal journey from a “watered down” preacher of religious fundamentalism, pop Christianity, right-winged evangelicalism, and program/seminar driven religion which seeks to tell us how to be successful, the best parent, the best leader, the most biblical man or woman, all in the name of Christianity.

As Zahnd highlights, for him this was never a faith that had any depth to it. It was always very much well-intentioned, and he never claims that he had been worshipping a different God. But he makes the analogy of his former faith being water and how he needed a major change in his life to transition that watered down faith into wine. He speaks of his former faith:

In the days of my certitude there was no room for me. I learned how to parrot the party line. To say what was expected. What was expected was a mixture of fundamentalist biblicism, word of faith success, and religious right triumphalism. None of that was me. The real me had always been more complex than that. But in the world of religious certitude there is no room to think, no room for nuance and complexity, no room to nurture the soul of a mystic.

I have been fascinated reading this because it seems eerily similar to my personal experience. I say that as humbly as possible. Brian Zahnd is someone I deeply respect and my faith is so weak in so many ways. But I did experience a transition from when my faith seemed to lack any real substance. And I searched and searched, and doubted and questioned, and believe I have slowly been transitioning out of a watered down faith and into something much more substantive.

Zahnd was the pastor of a church that was named one of the fastest growing churches in America. But when he reached his mid-forties, he felt that his faith lacked substance. So he started on a journey of discovering a more authentic faith. A journey that began with 22 days of pure fasting and prayer and an extended hiking trip in Rocky Mountain National Park. As he made this transition, he speaks of the great struggle that it was. He had many members leave the church, while others approached him in criticism and tried to get him back to the “real Brian.”

What Zahnd realized about his former faith, and the faith that he believes is rampant throughout the United States, is that it so often leads down a path of either ignorance or certitude. As Zahnd says, “Ignorance is bliss, but so is certitude.”

I know that often I fall under the temptation of pretending to know for sure what is “truth” when I’m not really sure. It’s easier to look at the Bible or a difficult question and assume you have a key to the secret knowledge.

Even if we might say doubting our faith can be good, no one likes going through the process. We like certitude. We like people who are going to give us word for word the “truth.” We like a pastor who tells us exactly how to believe and how to live. We like a Bible that does the same. And we follow that blindly. There is no nuance.

I believe this is one of the reasons why biblical fundamentalism has become so prominent in American Christianity. It very blatantly explains the strict rules for understanding the faith.

I also believe this is why conservatism has become so popular among American Christians. It is about right and wrong. It is about law and order. It is about keeping people within certain parameters deemed acceptable based on some “indisputable” knowledge.

I am well aware liberals do the same thing. But we cannot deny that the right is the side of law and order, militarism, protection and security from foreign “enemies,” or aliens. They are very much proud of that. They are the side that says this is how to live and this is how not to live. And Christians make up a very large portion of the right.

As Christians, we need to stop assuming we have the answers. Our faith needs more nuance. It needs more questions, more doubt, and less security. We do after all, worship the man who, in his last moments apparently doubted by saying, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We need more searching and more reliance on God. Following Christ’s doubt he proclaimed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Christ shows us the very essence of faith. Sometimes that involves doubting. But it always ends in giving ourselves up to the Lord.

We must be aware of the temptation in us all to box ourselves up. To make ourselves a part of a side that assumes to have all the answers. Or to make ourselves part of any side at all for that matter.

It’s funny, most people who hear someone questioning conservative religion or conservative politics will immediately label them as “liberal” (as if that is an evil name for someone). But it seems in America we have no other way of understanding the world besides in little boxes.

To say that as Christians we need more nuance, less certitude, more questioning, does not mean that there aren’t any universal truths. It does not mean we can’t believe anything at all. We must! But as broken humans to assume that we ever hold the key to the almighty truth and that that truth can’t be found anywhere but in the Bible is ridiculous.

Truths often come from those we might find little common ground with. Or from places we might least expect. For me, nature often speaks truth. But it isn’t so obvious like the verses we like to pull out from scripture. It is more nuanced than that. It requires a deep searching.

Sometimes it can be found in someone of a different faith. I’ve also been very influenced by the life of Mahatma Gandhi. But he was a Hindu (though he did say he would be a Christian if it weren’t for Christians).

The point is, truth can be found in a lot of places. The Bible… the wilderness… a book… a drug addict… a conservative… a liberal… a Muslim…

We just need to open our faith to complexity.

I will end by sharing a poem that Zahnd wrote.


I was once so sure
So sure of myself
So sure that what I wanted
Was one in the same with what God wanted
How could it be otherwise?
Child of God that I am

I was once so sure
I was taught to assert my will
In the name of the Lord, to be sure
For the name of the Lord is a talisman
To endorse and empower my will to be done
For what else could my god have to do
But to make all my  wishes and dreams come true

I was once so sure
That I knew what was good for me
And what was good for me
Was good things for me
Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me. Me.
Oh, I knew better than to say it just so
I knew how to dress it up in altruistic robes
And how to crown it with chapter and verse
Nothing like a plucked verse to make you so sure
(Yet it and I weren’t all bad, oh no, far from it)

But the point of this confession is
I was once so sure
That I knew good and evil, right and wrong
In me, in thee, in theology, in policy
But there’s a snake that lives in that tree
Is original sin a sin of epistemology?
To be sure
Certitude in doctrine and politics
And just where the dividing line runs
Safe in the certain knowledge
That I’m on the right side
Of the right-and-wrong line
I was once so sure
And it’s fun being so sure
People like it when you’re so sure
(If they share your certainty)
And isn’t that what faith is?
Being so sure?
I’m not so sure
Cock-sure, can’t-miss certainty
Is not the faith that I see
When I look at the patriarchs, prophets, and poets
And Jesus
(“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”)
At the cross faith and hope find their finest hour
But arrogant certitude is proved to be an imposter
(Did I hear the cock crow?)

Instead of brashness and bravado
The poet of hope said
“In quietness and trust”
So now when I’m not so sure
I try to be quiet and trust
Not myself, my mind, my kind
But in the mercy of God
In his severe salvation
A salvation that is sweet as honey
And severe as the cross
Though he slay me
Yet will I trust him
Goodness and Mercy