An Invitation to Doubt

The peak of my conservative, evangelical education included several weeks at a Christian apologetics summer camp while in high school and later as a freshman in college. Those weeks included hiking in Colorado, eating my weight in delicious frozen custard, and learning the conservative evangelical script for hot-button political issues. As the years went on and I lived a little more life, I ran into what some call a “crisis of faith” and was forced to again reconsider what I’d been taught, directly and implicitly, not only in summer camp but in Sunday school and my private Christian education thus far. The script wasn’t helping.

Admitting “I don’t know” can put you in hot water, especially in some evangelical circles. Knowing this, I quietly practiced those 3.5 words as I explored the rest of my college experience, got married, and worked a “real” job. Even as I entered my first few seminary classes I was desperate to cling onto some of that script I’d learned. I assumed that to admit uncertainty was to be either uneducated or too progressive, I might as well become an atheist!

“Most of us come to the church by a means the church does not allow.”

Flannery O’Connor

Turns out, I wasn’t alone. I found others who expressed concern or confusion over what was commonly accepted in the church. I was relieved and hopeful, but also sad. A faith crisis (or the act of doubting or deconstructing spiritual beliefs) is not usually linear. My faith has both peacefully and horrifically evolved over my brief lifetime with new questions, different experiences, and new perspectives. It’s been a cycle of death, lament, and new life.

Death and resurrection shape the Christian faith, literally and metaphorically. Doubt is a piece of this cycle. Are we not called to resist the urge to conform, be “transformed by the renewing of our minds,” and die to ourselves? Isn’t doubt necessary for death and transformation to occur? Perhaps like me, you had/have some idols that need to die, that you need to doubt.

Maybe white Jesus isn’t real.

Maybe Christian nationalism isn’t patriotic.

Maybe God isn’t male.

Maybe Christianity isn’t monolithic.

Maybe science and faith can work together.

Maybe the Bible isn’t clear.

I’m learning to hold the answers loosely and ask a few more questions with holy curiosity, as some might call it. “Always write your theology in pencil!” a beloved professor used to say. Even the most elaborate pencil marks can be edited or erased to make room for better theology and better practices. And because of my doubt, and the willingness to erase some “certainties,” my faith continues to grow deeper.

In my experience, faith isn’t certainty and doubt isn’t apostasy. Faith is the risk of finding joy, beauty and contentment while living in the midst of unanswered questions. Faith is vulnerable and messy, colorful and dynamic, not always chiseled in stone or black and white.

“…because sometimes we are closer to the truth in our vulnerability than in our safe certainties.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

A note to the church.

I’ve let go of plenty of unhealthy beliefs (with more to go, I’m sure) and held on to some important ones. Perhaps these things are different than what you’ve held on to. That’s ok. And while I don’t feel like we should romanticize doubt or prolong it unnecessarily, I do think the evangelical church can do better by avoiding the all-or-nothing, black or white, in or out, us and them approach to Christian spirituality.

The church is not for those who are certain or sinless. The church is (or should be) a gathering of sin-sick people, even those with questions and disbelief, searching for wholeness and hope. Is there room in your pews for those experiencing seasons of wilderness? or lament? or silence?

“To a healthy faith doubt is a healthy challenge.”

Os Guinness, In Two Minds

We need to stop being so surprised by doubt. Jesus did not come for those who “have it all together” but instead came to offer healing and rest to those with heavy weights on their hearts, minds, and bodies. If we’re honest, these weights find us again and again in life in different ways. Suffering, pain, doubt, and grief are a reality in this world. Do our congregations, sermons, worship and outreach practices, and theology reflect this?

To those who are unsure.

If you are challenged by what you read in the Bible or what you’ve been taught in your faith community allow me to invite you to ask your hardest questions. You are not alone.

I recognize your church or family may not be a safe place to express your dissatisfaction or pain but please search for supportive spaces that are. (There are many, many online communities!) If we can learn anything from the Psalms, Job, or even Jesus’ disciples in the Bible, God is not afraid of our questions.

Read a bit more:

Impure: The Fairy Tale

A good story isn’t always true.

Often times traditions, social norms, and cultures are taught through stories. These narratives aren’t necessarily real but they communicate a specific message. Some stories are short, others are long. There is one story in particular, a fairy tale in fact, that has had a grasp on the most intimate parts of young minds.

This fairy tale is both vintage and modern: boy meets girl, or rather princess awaits her prince. The princess is told her prince will come and scoop her up from her father’s tall tower, a tower meant to protect her from the gremlins and dangers of the world below. The prince will come, and after he’s scaled the tower, she’ll have her first kiss and the most amazing, mind blowing, married sex she’ll ever have. Because she’s waited for him, their life together will be perfect. Their household, finances, children, spiritual lives will all be in order. All will be right in their world.

Purity culture has captured this story and run with it, adding several myths along the way. Maybe you’ve heard a variation or two of it? I know I have. You’ll find several Christian dating books full of whimsical promises and descriptions of the ideal (and highly romanticized) forms of masculinity and femininity one should look for and strive to uphold.

Promising Purity

Purity balls are a good example of this fairy tale in action. Originally started by the Wilson family in Colorado Springs, Colorado, (which is also home of Focus on the Family,) a purity ball invites fathers to escort their young daughters to a banquet where they each promise to protect/maintain sexual purity until she is married. Fathers are to be their daughter’s “authority and protection” and “high priest,” according to the Wilson’s website. There’s usually a fancy meal and choreographed dance involving a wooden cross. Some fathers present their daughters with purity rings to symbolize their protection of and her commitment to “purity.” It feels a little bit like a wedding. (Maybe too much like a wedding?)

Also in the 1990s the Southern Baptist Convention promoted the campaign, True Love Waits. Youth across the United States and abroad signed their names on small cards pledging to save their sexual debut until (assumed heterosexual) marriage. Often this pledge was accompanied with a silver ring on the left ring finger to symbolize their commitment. Countless ministries and churches caught on and promoted sexual purity in a variety of ways, including marketing great (married) sex to sell abstinence through concerts, retreats, t-shirts, jewelry, books, etc. This message reached more people than we might admit at first. (Even the Jonas Brothers wore purity rings for a hot minute.)

Inspired by True Love Waits, Joshua Harris wrote and sold millions of copies of “I Kissed Dating Goodbye,” a book that offered his perspective on romantic relationships. Rather than dating casually, he encouraged his readers in the practice of courtship, which should be initiated by the interested male speaking to the young woman’s father to gain permission for their eventual marriage. To court instead of date would protect someone from the trouble of multiple heartbreaks, as well as unnecessary sexual baggage in their future marriage.

Purity-DM-028.jpg
A daughter and father duo en route to a purity ball. This photo was captured by David Magnusson. View the rest of this project here.

Does true love really wait?

Thinking of sexual “purity” in terms of this fairy tale narrative is not helpful. It sounds nice and uncomplicated but sadly there are no formulas for a magical marriage, nor is marriage a goal for everyone. The Southern Baptist Convention was recently found to have over 700 silenced or ignored victims of sexual violence in the last 20 years. Harris has discontinued his earliest publications after testimonies revealed the shame, guilt, and relational disasters that happened per his unscriptural advice. The sparkly fairy tale is only a mask on a prosperity gospel message. “Do this and God will give you this.” It doesn’t take long to find out God isn’t a vending machine.

Research is finding that virginity pledges aren’t universally effective. Those who pledged at an early age in a smaller group did significantly delay having sex. Yet, 88% of those who pledge still engage in premarital sex. (95% of people in the US have premarital sex, according to this study.) Pledges might delay one’s sexual debut, but they do not prevent STIs/STDs any better than non-pledgers. Chances are the virginity pledges are taking place in or alongside an abstinence-only “educational” approach, which means many of the 88% may be having sex with little to no information on safe sex practices or what to do when sexual violence occurs. Is misinformed “abstinence” any better than safe sex? It doesn’t appear so.

Pledged and unprepared, the damaging myths of purity culture run much deeper than even the fairy tale story we tell. While I work on that post, catch up on other posts in this series: