An open letter to one of the founders of the Newsboys, George Perdekis who explains at The Friendly Atheist, why he became an atheist, and problems in Christian culture. This is a response discussing problems in evangelical Christianity and atheism.
“The church says the earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow on the moon, and I have more faith in the shadow than the church”
Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521)
“What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down into the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?“
Psalm 30:9 NIV
Last month one of the founding members of the Newsboys, George Perdikis, wrote a guest post, as to why he became an atheist. It was featured on Hement Mehta’s blog The Friendly Atheist. For those of you who don’t know who Hement Mehta is he was a school teacher in the Chicago area who also sold his soul on eBay. He blogs a lot about atheist discrimination, atheist issues and the challenges that atheists face. I read him quite often in my faith crisis. I still pop in and read what is being written from time to time. I want to thank Todd Whilhelm for emailing me about this issue, and if you have not read Todd Whilhelm’s blog I encourage you to check it out. He writes about 9 Marks, Mark Dever, Capitol Hill Baptist and Sovereign Grace.
I read the George’s Perdikis post and it was one of the things that spurred me to write an online journal. I want to address two things in my letter to George. I want to tackle some of his comments about evangelical Christianity and write about problems in evangelical culture. Plus I also want to discuss atheism. I’m familiar with evangelical Christianity and I also explored atheism. So this is what I would say to George Perdikis.
I read your post at The Friendly Atheist and it brought forth a flurry of emotions as I consumed and thought about it. That said, after considering what you wrote can I share with you my experiences with evangelical Christianity and what I learned about atheism in my time of walking through and exploring it. First you can read my story of my faith crisis here. In time I would find out that my story of my faith crisis and some of what I endured would be traded and shared by former members of Mark Drisocll’s Mars Hill Seattle. If the tears I shed in pain from 2008 until 2013 help those in Seattle and beyond I hope something can be redeemed from it.
Your thoughts on evangelicalism hit a nerve and I wanted to discuss it in greater detail. In your post you write, “The Christian music scene is populated by many people who act as though they have a direct hotline to a God who supplies them with the answers to the Universe. There seems to be more ego and narcissism amongst Christian musicians than their secular counterparts.” I would suggest that what you describe goes way beyond the Christian music scene but is epidemic in evangelical Christianity. Many evangelicals act as if God is a done deal, and know everything there is to know about God at their age. After all when you’re 30 and have “perfect doctrine” is there a need to grow further? I honestly wish more Christians would state three simple words and repeat it often in their faith life. Those three words are “I don’t know’. It would be comforting to hear that on a regular basis. The truth is there are no easy answers to the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Pain and Suffering, and so many difficult questions. And I wish more Christians would learn to respond in love and empathy. But your reaction is why I look at John Piper as being the “Reformed Pat Robertson” because he does this very thing that deeply troubles you – he acts like he has a direct hot line to God. When the I-35 bridge collapsed during the height of Minneapolis rush hour there was John speculating and pining on why the bridge collapsed and God’s will in it. I thought to myself the following, “How did you know that God caused the bridge to collapse John? Did you get an email from God? Instant Message? Tweet from God? Text message? Phonecall? How can you say with such certainty why this happened?” So George this is a major problem in evangelical Christianity today. You also referenced the problem of egos and narcissism amongst the Christian music industry. Again I think it goes beyond that and runs rampant in evangelicalism today. I once thought one of the components to being a Pastor is to love and care for the sheep. Today in evangelical Christianity just the opposite is true. Now it’s about fame, power, publishing and growth. Many parts of evangelicalism have lost their moral compass and they go forward thinking and acting like they know what God wants. All the while however, they are ignoring the command by God to love the sheep and look out for them. Today the culture in many parts of evangelicalism leaves many people in bondage and in pain. Here are some examples…you have a celebrity culture that parades people like Rachel Held Evans, Mark Dever, and Mark Driscoll. Watching Rachel Held Evans duplicate the mistakes of Mark Dever and Al Mohler in the pursuit of the Evangelical Industrial Complex is heartbreaking. Just as Sovereign Grace didn’t believe that a sexually abused child counted as one of the “least of these”, Rachel Held Evans by her behavior shows that Julie MacMahon, an ex-wife who was physically abused by Emergent Pastor Tony Jones doesn’t count as one of the “least of these” either. In the end its about ego, and I would suggest that when Rachel Held Evans wrote about the cover up of sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace, she did so she can profit from their pain. I’m sorry Rachel while I disagree with Neo-Calvinism and while its easy to point out their sin; but these lessons apply to you as well. Are you much better when you are making the same mistakes?
Other parts of ego reflect the obsession many churches have with growth George. I saw this play out at a church I was once involved in – Fairfax Community Church (FCC). FCC couldn’t be a good steward of the resources they have now…why the obsession with church growth and planting in Maryland when you can’t take care of what you have now? To the best of my knowledge FCC is not traded on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), nor is it traded on the Chicago Board of Trade, and it’s not rated by Standard and Poor. So why the obsession with growth and planting in Clarksburg, MD when people are falling through the cracks in Fairfax? Growth for the sake of growth is harmful and poorly thought out. This is the problem with mega churches, as the line is blurred and people are trampled and ignored. I would suggest George that many mega churches are not worshiping Jesus but instead the sovereign nature of the American dollar. And what drives this is ego and narcissism.
George you wrote at The Friendly Atheist, the following, “Recently, the Newsboys were featured in the movie God’s Not Dead. The movie demonstrated the pervasive attitude of Christians. They demonized everyone while giving a pass to their own particular brand of Christianity, making themselves look like fluffy white angels with perfect, synchronized lives” George I avoid like cancer many forms of Christian entertainment. Actually I need to confess this…I am still recovering from watching Left Behind in 2000. Many Christians forget that they are sinful and often give sin in their camp a pass. They have refused to believe they have sin as they have redefined sin. For many evangelicals sin involves the other person, never themself. Many evangelicals live within a bubble and seldom get to know, listen or interact with people outside their bubble. Plus many evangelicals do not know the pain and harm they have caused and how they needlessly create enemies. For example when I was an evangelical prior to my faith crisis I thought of things and faith issues in an “us” vs. “them” mindset. If they weren’t part of my immediate circle then I discounted them, and ignored what they had to say. If a person fell away it was because they were not a Christian to begin with. Wow! I had to learn the hard way, and today this causes me great regret. Today post faith crisis I consider myself an evangelical by the skin of my teeth, and I have gotten to know the following. I have an acquaintance who has been a professional US Army Officer. I deeply respect him and find him caring, compassionate, and kind. Our country has deeply benefited from his military service and I am grateful that he served in the rich tradition of the US Army. He came out as gay the day after “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. The hell he went through by Christians especially when he was deployed to Afghanistan deeply troubles me. Plus, I also have my Dad, who is an Irish Catholic who at times has struggled with his view of Baptists and Evangelical Christians. Why? Well my Father was at Duke University when news came in that John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. My Dad was horrified by the news, and to his shock, some of the Baptists he interacted with were pleased that Kennedy was deceased because they didn’t want a Catholic in the White House. To this day almost 50 years later from time to time he still references this. And he still can’t believe that another Christian would be pleased or grateful at the death of someone else. George evangelicals have their own problems, we cherry pick sin, redefine sin, and often don’t care about the pain we cause others. We have problems with divorce, child sex abuse, broken families, and scars from fundamentalism. There are many evangelical Christians who struggle with hate. When I walked away from Christianity for years one of my favorite videos to watch on Youtube is from Richard Dawkins where he reads his hate email from Christians and how some Christians wish him harm. Given much of what I touched on I sometimes wonder…if evangelical’s roots are in fundamentalism will it ever be possible to shake those roots? Can it be done?
Many evangelical Christians live by a facade George and can be more interested in projecting an image instead of being honest. Why can’t Christians admit that they are broken, flawed, and have issues themself? The church should be a hospital for sinners and not a place for Saints. Instead, what happens in its place is a country club for perfect people mostly rooted in the middle class American suburbs. At many evangelical churches if you are 40 and older you don’t belong as the focus is on youth. At other evangelical churches if you are a struggling alcoholic you don’t belong there either as many places have made moralism the Gospel. Evangelicals have a major problem with grace George. Much of evangelicalism is geared toward legalism. Why? Its easier to tell someone “do this, and don’t do that” then it is to live and show grace. Living in grace for many evangelicals means enabling sin. Next, and this comes from a guy who was torn apart by doubt but I would suggest doubting can be healthy, and a good indicator of faith George. Doubt is proof of faith because if a person didn’t doubt they would show that they don’t care. I could go on and on but I want to write you this letter and say that I get what you are saying. I’ve been there, I’ve struggled with it and wrestled with these issues myself. George I am a doubter and I struggle mightily with the church today. I am trying to avoid becoming one of the “nones.” Do you know what the nones are? The nones are the fastest growing segment of the religious scene today. The nones mostly identify with nothing but still believe in God. Here is my dilemma…I don’t want to be in a mega church as I don’t want to be a number in the system. Plus I am not a Pastor’s personal ATM. I am a sheep. I also detest prosperity theology and find that common and easy to find in many seeker sensitive churches. Prosperity theology exacerbates pain and is problematic in its own right. I also disagree with Neo-Calvinism because quite frankly reformed theology makes the Problem of Evil worse, John Piper illustrates this with his theology and teaching. And the Problem of Evil was the biggest driving factor in may faith crisis. Furthermore John Piper is not the 67th book of the Bible despite the beliefs by many Neo-Calvinists that he is. Also I want to avoid Fundamentalism 2.0 and a faith system that is nothing but pure determinism. So where does that leave me? I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t want to become one of the nones. I want to go to church, fellowship with others, and worship the Lord in community. I want to be in a place that will allow this Pilgrim to walk his road.
That said, can I speak with you about atheism George? There is so much to say about this theological system as well. The fact of the matter is atheism is a faith system also. I learned this the hard way in attending the Reason Rally which was held in the spring of 2012 on the National Mall of Washington, D.C. I went there with my brothers and sisters in agnosticism at the time. While there, I learned in a very painful process is that all I had done was trade fundamentalism. I had traded the fundamentalism of John Piper for the fundamentalism of someone like Richard Dawkins. Atheism is a faith system and has its primary issues, its doctrine, its evangelists, its secondary issues and coming soon will be atheist churches. I expect to see those pop up in the DC area in the near future. George I learned in grad school that fascism and communism as totalitarian government systems are closer to each other than either can admit. The same is true for fundamentalism in atheism, and fundamentalism in Christianity. They are much closer in principle, can be driven by a cult of personality, authoritarian in nature, and posses black and white thinking in which they thrive.
There is another thing I have to share with you George, and I learned this in my faith crisis as well. One of the hardest things about atheism is seeing creation and having nothing to thank. Walk outside, go to Pike’s Peak in Colorado, stand on the shore of Lake Michigan, hike in the Belt Mountain Range in Montana, go diving in the Pacific Ocean, or stare at the stars and develop a fascination for astronomy. Creation screams out God and the fact that something had to create it. One of the frustrating things I had about atheism and even doubt (Yes atheists can wrestle with doubt to…) is I had to wonder who created all this? When and how was this created? I’m not talking about a literal 7 day creation either, but one of the frustrating things about atheism is to look around at the majesty of creation and have nothing to thank. I remember reading that in a Philip Yancey book, and I think he was quoting GK Chesterton with that original thought. I had this unease that had unsettled me but when I read that it hit a nerve and was something I struggled with from an atheist perspective.
There is one other act of denial that I think needs to be acknowledged. Its true that many Christians are responsible for horrific crimes or acts in history. You can look at how the Southern Baptist Convention was founded over a split from northern Baptists on the issue of slavery. Prior to the American Civil War and during there were Baptists and other Christians that used the Bible to justify American slavery in the south. You can look at the Crusades and what Pope Urban II used to inspire people to fight against the Muslims in the first Crusade. On November 27, 1095 Pope Urban II made what some consider to be the most influential speech of the Middle Ages ordering the first Crusade under the banner, “God wills it!” There are atrocities and genocide that took place during the Crusades that are unspeakable. You can also look at what some Christian missionaries did in Africa, South America or beyond which are unethical or dishonest evangelism. Its true and I am not denying that fact. However, when I explored atheism I also had to come to terms with the following especially as a student of history. Atheists have committed genocide and horrific acts in history which cannot be ignored. Look at Joseph Stalin, as the leader of the Soviet Union consider all the purges and deaths he is responsible for, consider all the people sent to Gulags by his order. Think of how much of the population of the Soviet Union was exterminated by Stalin’s action alone. Consider Mao of the People’s Republic of China. Mao was a committed atheist and its stated that his policies are responsible for killing 45 million in the Great Leap Forward from 1958 until 1962. So I say this to note that yes, even atheists can be responsible for genocide, crimes against humanity in the same way some Christians have done.
Now just as you can get into trouble with fundamentalists in Christianity, you can also run afoul of fundamentalists in atheism. Atheists can wrestle with doubt since its a faith system, and there can be some atheists who can give you difficulty about having doubt as well. There are atheists who can have cognitive dissonance about the very fact that they are practicing a faith system.
Now in wrapping things up there are some additional things I need to get off my chest.
In regards to what you wrote about cosmology I have to say the following. You can be a Christian and still believe in evolution. I do – it’s healthy, and science in all forms astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc.. can be a healthy extension of your faith. I have no bones to pick with any Young Earthers..if they want to believe that, well that is fine. As long as they don’t ram it down my throat and turn Christianity into an either/or dilemma by saying, “if you are going to be a Christian you must believe in ___________” I would never do that in return. But science can be healthy, and you can have a rich, vibrant faith that is supported by science. Doubt can be healthy, it can help develop your faith and should not be considered an enemy of faith. Doubt is in scripture and so many people doubted. Thomas doubted, John the Baptist doubted, Moses doubted, Noah doubted, and the list goes on…. Doubt is fine and proof of having faith. You can live in the tension amidst things like evolution, the Problem of Evil, etc… I do this and it has helped me in the end.
Finally I would say that in your current position you are much closer to God than when you were a member of the Newsboys. Why do I say that? You’re honest, forthcoming, and transparent. You speak your mind and you are open. You state the problems you have with Christians. That’s all fine! Many people of faith in scripture had problems with their faith. Even Jesus struggled with the Pharisees and made it known of his problems with that camp. In the end who caused Jesus more harm and pain? Who killed him? Was it the Prostitutes and the Samaritans? No…. it wad the Pharisees who killed Jesus. The Pharisees have changed but they still exist. This is why I think you are closer to God as someone who came out as an atheist. This is why I think that a guy who sleeps around is closer to God than many people who attend church. A gay man who attends a gay bar in San Francisco or Washington, D.C. is closer to God then many members of Sovereign Grace Churches. Why? They are open about who they are and the Lord can work best when you are open. Many people in fundagelicalism have this obsession with sanctification and as such in the process they close the door to God. This is a major problem with the Gospel of Moralism today. In your case what sets you apart from Christians George is your search for truth, and being honest in the process. That intellectual truth which comes across in your study of cosmology is why I admire and respect you. You are open to truth and knowledge and the Lord can work best with someone who has an open mind. In my case George I realized my pursuit for truth and search for answers helped me and I realized that in the depth of the Reason Rally that God was still pursuing me, and still working in me. It was hard for me to admit at the time but today I can reflect back and see it. But I want to let you know that I hear you, I understand what you are writing. I’ve been there and done that for years.
Lastly in closing I want to say that for all you have encountered in Christianity in your life let me say that I am deeply sorry. Many people like you so desperately need to receive an apology from the church. Christians have caused a lot of pain, confusion, expectations, and misery among so many people. I often wonder when many Christians care less about the pain they have caused, does that help perpetuate the notion among the world today that Christians are arrogant and self righteous? While I wish you could get an apology from the church will you accept mine instead? I’m sorry for all the bad doctrine you were taught. I’m sorry for all the moralism that was forced upon you. I’m sorry for the way you were expected to live, and the legalism you were thrust into. I’m sorry for the intellectual wanting for more that you had and that you were fed so much fundamentalism that was not true. I’m sorry for the way you feel. You must know this George…Jesus came to heal, restore and set free. And much of what is peddled as Christianity today is not of God. Its from man, and only man knows how to poison, imprison, and mistreat other people. So on behalf of all that let me get down on me knees and apologize for what you encountered. I say this to someone who was burned myself. I say this as someone finding my way forward. I say this with all deep sincerity and love.
(BTW…I dedicate this video to a fellow member of Cru at Marquette (Jen who is today in Arkansas) who can listen to this for hours (literally!) Thanks for your friendship and forgiving me in my faith crisis.)