Lamentation and the New Religious Frontier

On September 28, 2018 at 12:30 in the afternoon, Mike McHargue, a.k.a. “Science Mike,” an evangelical author, podcaster, and member of The Liturgists, tweeted the following:

I want you to know that I am a survivor of sexual assault. Not because I need sympathy or attention—quite the contrary. I want you to know because most of us have internalized wrong and harmful ideas about victims.

This was the first of what would be a thread where McHargue curated his small corner of a public conversation about the subject of sexual assault that became a media obsession during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Two days previous to the tweet, McHargue had released a podcast about the same subject. According to his website, his podcast reaches “hundreds of thousands” of individuals. That is not the extent of the evangelical celebrity’s reach, either. The Liturgists, of whom he is a founding member, also produce a podcast. They receive a million downloads a month. Their podcasts cover such subjects as sex, Biblical inerrancy, and money as well as art and music, and simply what it means to be Christian in our present time.

The “new frontier” of American Christianity is conversation, public, political, spiritual, uncomfortable, and often heated conversation.

Thanks to such individuals as Mike McHargue, when I am asked what the cutting edge of Christian religious expression is in our time, I no longer answer with descriptions of worship practices or examples of unusual communities living together in the spirit of Benedictine monasticism. Instead, I simply say that the “new” thing that is guiding all this change and will define those who thrive and those who whither on the vine and die is conversation. The “new frontier” of American Christianity is conversation, public, political, spiritual, uncomfortable, and often heated conversation.

Before we get too far down this road, let us interrogate the term “frontier.” I am a liturgical scholar and my subject of interest is Evangelical Christianity, especially American Evangelicals. What follows is not an attempt to defame that religious tradition in the United States. Far from it. Whatever the American Evangelical movement is guilty of, we can be certain that virtually every other Christian tradition in the United States is guilty of the same. My beloved Episcopal Church, for example, a rather progressive tradition, wrestles with its own legacy of slavery and empire building. None of us escape. This is an American legacy.

The very word “frontier“ is loaded with deeply troubling implications from our nation’s colonialist roots and expansionist development. For much of United States history, to push the boundary at the frontier was also to eradicate something or somebody else. Yet, as a liturgical scholar, I am beholden to deploy this troubling term. Why? Well, because of James White’s “frontier worship,” a term he coined to describe any and all forms of liturgy that emerged in the United States as the European and other immigrant groups settled lands left nominally vacant after the United States government either killed or displaced indigenous peoples. As the nations official borders expanded and changed, so too did it’s religious expression.

As a liturgical historian, White attributes this impulse to Charles Finney, the famed revivalist. Finney’s liturgical sensibilities, White argues, heavily influenced much of what would later be known as American evangelical worship.

A more recent scholar, Melanie C. Ross, in Evangelical Versus Liturgical?, goes a little further back in time to George Whitefield of the First Great Awakening. Whitefield preached up and down the western border of the British colonies as an evangelist as well as an enthusiastic proponent of the British empire, westward expansion, and even slavery. Ross avoids Whitefield’s supremacist ideology and focuses solely on his liturgical theological importance. A consummate orator, Whitefield may have preached to 10 million people during his various visits to the American colonies.

In his recent book, George Whitefield: Evangelist for God and Empire, Peter Y. Choi holds up the preacher’s disturbing past as part and parcel of the roots of American evangelicalism. According to many evangelical scholars, Whitefield may be the best example of the beginning of the tradition in the United States. As such, hagiographic biographies abound. Choi agrees that understanding Whitefield is essential, suggesting that Whitefield does indeed embody the essential qualities of American Evangelicalism.

According to the National Association of Evangelicals website, historian David Bebbington provided a reasonable summary of four identifying characteristics. Choi refers to these as well. They are:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a lifelong process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

Choi adds one other characteristic to these four: chauvinism. By this he means any number of supremacist ideologies consistent with a culture defined by empire building, including that of proponing chattel slavery, the supremacy of the white male, and English culture over and above and the indigenous cultures. This is as essential to understanding the fundamental nature of American Evangelicalism as the other four characteristics are.

Thus, returning to White’s liturgical nomenclature “frontier worship” with this historical reality in mind, we see not only a development of liturgical forms and practices but also the continued reification of an ideology deeply invested in the continuation of empire through religious expression itself.

We have to lament the truth. We have to start talking about painful subjects. We have to name and own our legacies, even their darkest shadows. This is our new, dare we say it, frontier.

This may well beg us to ask how we might rid ourselves of such a painful legacy. Simply put, we cannot. Rather, we have to lament the truth. We have to start talking about painful subjects. We have to name and own our legacies, even their darkest shadows. This is our new, dare we say it, frontier.

To that end, let’s call what we’re witnessing online and in other public venues the “new frontier” so that we do not forget that this difficult legacy is precisely what we are discussing.

On October 22, Mike McHargue began a Facebook post and a corresponding Twitter thread with the following words:

This is a message for straight, white, and non-disabled men who follow my work in some way. Others are welcome to listen along, but I want to start out by being clear who I am trying to have a conversation with.

A conversation. The entire post is far too long to include here, but within it he addresses various issues around white male privilege and masculine fragility. He offers an understanding ear to those who want to say, “but I’m not racist,” etc. He is trying to build bridges between various sides of a broad conversation. At the end of the post he writes:

The psychological mechanisms that create defensive reflexes are well understood. I’m going to work harder to avoid triggering your feelings in justice conversations. In return, I ask for you to turn your gaze outward, to think less of how you feel judged or misunderstood by others, and instead build a daily discipline of active listening to people of color, women of color, women, disabled folks, and LGBTQ folks in your life and who do advocacy and education work in media.

For those of us in more traditional Christian communities rather than online networks, have your leaders attempted to facilitate such a conversation? If so, bravo. If not, this may be something worth considering as you endeavor to reinvent yourselves so that your community is more relevant to today’s world. The conversation that his happening among Christians and non-Christians alike is enormous. McHargue is by no means the only person curating that conversation. And, by no means is it a conversation defined by men.

UCC pastor and social justice activist Rev. Traci Blackmon (@pastortraci, who has 14,700 followers on Twitter) has a rich online presence. Her “Letters from A Woman Who Preaches” are confessional and challenging. She served a church in Ferguson, MO and was an outspoken Black Lives Matter activist before accepting a position at the national level in her denomination. Likewise, womanist scholar and Episcopal priest, The Rev. Wil Gafney (@WilGafney, with 17,000 followers on Twitter) is incredibly influential. Her no-holds-barred approach to online discourse is an incredible example of the righteous fearlessness needed in today’s society. Kaitlin Curtice (@KaitlinCurtice, with 13,000 Twitter followers) is a younger author, an evangelical Christian, as well as a citizen of the Patowanami Nation who maintains a rich online presence keeping the subject of the ongoing erasure of indigenous people in the forefront of her conversations. The Rev. Broderick Greer (@BroderickGreer, with 45,700 Twitter followers) and Matthew David Morris (@MattMorris, 34,000 Twitter followers), a postulant for the Episcopal priesthood, are incredibly active and were both invited to speak at the progressive evangelical Greenbelt Festival in the United Kingdom this past summer.

The new frontier of American Christianity is perhaps the most familiar practice of all that we have as people of faith. Perhaps this is why it is so easily missed.

All of the aforementioned publish widely. All of the aforementioned are involved in their local worshiping communities in some way. All of the aforementioned are on the cutting edge of American Christianity and represent a variety of forms of liturgical worship as well as institutional structures. From the parish to the Episcopal Cathedral, to campus ministry, to the local congregationalist church, they are each involved in the difficult public conversations of our age.

These people drive and participate in conversations about difficult topics. They do so explicitly as religious leaders. Due to my own personal interests, this list mostly represents progressive evangelical and Episcopal Christians. Certainly other individuals like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell, Jr. come to mind. They too are driving a conversation. Their influence cannot be lightly dismissed. If you doubt, look again at the electoral demographics of our last presidential election. The chauvinist frontier ideology of George Whitefield is alive and well.

The new frontier of American Christianity is perhaps the most familiar practice of all that we have as people of faith. Perhaps this is why it is so easily missed. Like Jesus himself, the cutting edge or “new frontier” of religious expression is the willingness to have difficult conversations publicly, to choose sides by the most graceful means available to you, to lament what is true and painful, and to do so publicly.

Brett Kavanaugh, Broderick Greer, Charles Finney, David Bettington, George Whitefield, Greenbelt Festival, James White, Kaitlin Curtice, Matthew David Morris, Melanie C. Ross, Mike McHargue, National Association of Evangelicals, Peter Y. Choi, The Liturgist, Traci Blackmon, Wil Gafney

Tripp Hudgins

Privileged white guy, Tripp Hudgins, is a doctoral candidate at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA. He tweets at @tripphudgins.

Cover Image: Pascal Debrunner, “Sunset Church,” (Aug. 6, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

1st Body Image: Anisur Rahman, “Scenic Dirt Road in Spring,” (Nov. 17, 2014). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

2nd Body Image: Simon Migaj, “From the Dark Forest He Emerges,” (Dec. 25, 2017). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.