Joel Wentz

contending for thoughtful Christianity

Three Confessions from a Tortured Evangelical

I’ve written elsewhere about my soul-struggle with growing up in American Evangelicalism, particularly of the White variety. In light of all this, I was recently asked by someone, “Why do you still identify as ‘evangelical’ at all?”

It’s a good question.

And like most good questions, there is no simple answer. But in our outraged-and-divided cultural moment, I believe honest, humble reflection is needed more than ever. And in my experience, honest confession, rather than indignant finger-pointing, is a great step towards understanding and healing. So while much of my previous writing on this topic has been outward-facing-critique, this post will be inward-facing-admission, honest confessions about my struggle in this season.

Here are a few reasons I consider myself a “tortured evangelical.”


Confession #1: It’s extremely tempting to over-identify with the “political left,” in an effort to set myself apart from our tradition’s recent history.

The Republican-partisan efforts of the “Moral Majority” movement of the 80s and 90s are well-known, and also well-documented is my generation’s (Millenials) disgust/frustration with that particular chapter of our tradition’s history. But because all social engagement in our country is framed in an overly-simplified, binary, “right-left” paradigm, my desire to avoid any association with Republican-entangled-evangelicalism tempts me to throw myself wholesale into the Democratic-Left.

And honestly, in the spirit of open confession, I’m actually more comfortable there.

That comfort is (or should be) troubling, because there are so many morally-problematic issues with the so-called “left” that I am somehow much more willing to swallow, provided doing so will remove any and all identification with the Falwells, Robertsons and apparently 81% of evangelicalism. Ideally, I know, I shouldn’t allow the combination of America’s two-party framework and our deep political anxiety to determine the boundaries of my own identification with other Christians in my country. I would so much rather be identified with a socially-engaged-orthodox Christianity that transcends partisan lines. But that’s really, really hard to do right now.

Hear my confession.

Confession #2: If we can’t start talking about something other than “changing individual hearts,” I seriously might have a stress-induced aneurysm.

Divided By Faith Book.jpg

In their paradigm-shattering, essential work, Divided by Faith, sociologists Emerson and Smith contend persuasively that White Evangelicals in America have a very specific “cultural toolkit” composed of “accountable individualism,” “relationalism” and “anti-structuralism.” That’s a lot of “isms,” but the point is that the way we practice our religion, our faith, radically relies on an individual ethic. According to the framework provided by our American brand of evangelicalism, all problems in the world ultimately boil down to misguided individuals who need Jesus in their hearts. If all individuals simply “got saved,” then their relationships would also be fixed as an outworking of this personal transformation, and all manner of social ills (poverty, racism, greed) would cease. And I’m just not buying it anymore.

This is decidedly NOT to say individualized forgiveness and transformation aren’t important aspects of Christianity. They absolutely are. But imagine a sound board, one you might see at a live concert. This board has the capacity to produce amazing sound, if all of its many channels are in balance. It is my firm conviction that the “individual heart transformation channel” of American evangelical practice has simply been cranked so loud (and maybe other channels have been muted?) so as to produce a distorted, even ugly at times, sound.

So many times, I have attempted to introduce conversations about how systems and structures of the world (dare I say, ‘principalities and powers?’) are, in fact, at work against the Gospel of Jesus, and that these systems are by-definition bigger than individual hearts and therefore can’t be addressed by only speaking to individual hearts, and that it is my deeply-held conviction that the body of Christ needs to stand in active prophetic opposition to those very systems, critiquing them in word, defying them in communal-embodied action.

And so many times, I have been shut down, silenced, or made to feel that my convictions are inappropriate (at best) or crazy and nearly-heretical (at worst).

I get that talking about something bigger than individuals is scary and overwhelming (so is sin and death). I also get that talking about systems and structures isn’t an effective way to elicit individual responses to an individual invitation to accept an individuated savior. So be it.

In the spirit of admission, I have been pushed at times to the brink of despair at the sheer force of resistance to having these discussions within the American evangelical tradition, to adjusting the volume on the proverbial sound board. I have, at times, felt utterly alone and wondered if I could continue in the only religious tradition I have known. I would love nothing more than to be part of a thoughtful evangelical movement that engages in both personal-individual and social-communal transformation, but in honest moments over the last year, I have wondered if such a movement exists. I don't want to give up, but it's never felt so difficult.

Hear my confession.

Confession #3: I genuinely don’t know what to do with the label ‘evangelical’ anymore.

Third and final, with all this in view, I just don’t know what to do about the label ‘evangelical.’ On one hand, it’s a near-empty term for pollsters and pundits to throw around, only applying to extremely shallow, civic-American, conservative-traditional religious identity that may or may not have anything to do with a crucified and risen, 1st-century rabbi.

On the other, it actually stands for a beautiful tradition (formed by the likes of Carl Henry) that grew and formed within the unique freedom accorded to American Christianity: a socially-engaged religious movement that was neither the cloistered fundamentalism of its time nor the politically-active-but-historically-and-doctrinally-detached mainline option. I love that idea. I really, really do.

Is Carl Henry’s hope for a healthy evangelicalism, still under that label, even possible anymore? Has the term been emptied of meaning beyond repair? What does someone like me do to move forward?

My confession: I don’t know.