Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story

Ted Grimsrud—January 2, 2019

I, for one, am intrigued with the stories of those who have turned away from an evangelical Christian past and yet remained active followers of Jesus. I like to compare notes, and I find these accounts helpful as I continue to try to make sense of this strand of religiosity that continues to have a great impact on American society.

A recent book, Chris Kratzer’s provocatively titled Leatherbound Terrorism: Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected by Jesus (Grace Publishing, 2018), has the virtue of some brutal honesty, sharp criticism, and (most importantly) the articulation of a counter vision for how to understand and practice Christian faith. I will be able offer only a qualified endorsement of the book, for reasons I will explain, but I welcome this volume to the growing library of works that present alternatives to what has become a devastating embodiment of Christianity in the United States on the part of the Religious Right.

An insider’s perspective

Kratzer’s account is searingly personal. He writes of a traumatic childhood in an abusive family that segued into an ambivalent religiosity where he sought to deepen his sense of God’s acceptance of him. Amidst his childhood trauma he encountered Jesus in a personal way as a healing power—but then struggled to sustain a connection with that power. Interestingly, after college Kratzer attended a Lutheran seminary and began his career as a Lutheran minister. Fairly quickly, though, he changed directions and entered the ministry in an evangelical setting. He vowed to be a success, and followed a template of high-powered megachurch religiosity.

Kratzer does not give us many details about the specific version of evangelicalism that he embraced, but he does clearly detail how it shaped his psyche. He portrays himself as a man of strong convictions who understood his calling as one of top-down leadership and controlling power. It’s not clear from his account how outwardly successful his ministry actually was. We aren’t told how far he advanced in the magachurch constellation. What is clear is that he never felt successful.

The heart of the evangelicalism that Kratzer practiced was a quest for certainty, a quest for the satisfaction of being worthy of salvation, a quest for a sense of superiority in relation to those who don’t measure up—that is, a quest for the quieting of a life-long anxiety about failure and unworthiness.

This religious environment turned out to be a tragic case of the “cure” only exacerbating the disease. Kratzer never found the peace of mind and spirit that he sought. As he worked and worked at being a successful pastor, his anxiety and sense of worthlessness only increased. Finally, in the midst of a period of particularly deep darkness, he found a glimmer of light. He started to realize that God’s disposition toward him was one of mercy and acceptance, not a never-ceasing dynamic of demanding ever more achievement. He writes that it took some time, but from that moment of near despair to the present he has continued to embrace the message of God as a gracious God—and found it to be extraordinarily lifegiving.

It is interesting that Kratzer makes an only brief allusion to his own connection with Lutheranism. We aren’t told whether this was his childhood tradition, only that he went to a Lutheran seminary and soon left Lutheranism to pursue his evangelical ministry. But his story bears a strong resemblance to that of Martin Luther’s—the quest for salvation through religiosity culminating in a despair that cracks things open in a way that leads to a vision of God’s grace.

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Most of Leatherbound Terrorism focuses on the implications of this gospel of Grace. We learn little of the context for Kratzer’s on-going ministry beyond his extensive social media presence. But we learn a lot about his sense of the brokenness of the evangelical community he had been part of—especially the ways that that community’s efforts to practice the truth in fact lead to oppression, distortion of the Bible, and a hurtful rather than liberating religiosity.

Some questions

I largely agree with Kratzer’s perspective on Christian faith and with his critique of evangelicalism. Yet I am not sure how strongly I want to recommend this book. Certainly, for someone who has walked a fair way along a similar path as Kratzer’s and turned from one’s formerly evangelical convictions toward a more progressive Christianity, this is an encouraging story. I found myself often nodding in recognition—sometimes grimacing at a painful memory and sometimes smiling at a reminder of the beauty of the message of Jesus and his love. I also felt I gained insight into evangelicals’ intense quest for religious success that only masks and exacerbates fearfulness and self-hatred. Awareness of this quest helps explain a great deal about the life-denying dynamics of this style of Christianity.

At the same time, I am disappointed that Kratzer did not offer more theological analyses. What are the ideas that buttress and sustain those religious communities? In my experience, evangelical theology is crucial in providing for an airtight system that protects these believers from the ways that their system actually does not correspond to reality or offer much healing to our world’s brokenness.

The evangelical “house of authority” with its inerrant Bible and powerful church hierarchy must be understood and critiqued to get at the underlying terrorism. Kratzer certainly gives us a feel for the dynamics of hierarchy (and the pathologies of belief in an abusive God at the top), but he does not link that with the broader themes of biblical authority and absolute (and enforceable) doctrines. He offers allusions to the notion of an autonomous and retributive God that shapes life in evangelicalism, but I would have like some more concrete reflections—say, in relation to atonement theology.

There is something about the tone of this book that troubles me, too. I don’t think this is a book that would have that much potential to offer encouragement for an evangelical Christian to make a move out of that environment. I don’t question the content of Kratzer’s critique so much as the rhetoric. Even the title and subtitle of the book with terms such as “terrorism” and “crucified” will surely be received as personal attacks by many evangelicals who might notice the book.

Throughout, Krazter overindulges in the use of the word “you” with its finger-pointing sensibility. Since he presents the book as a personal narrative, he would have been better served to focus more on “I” language. He could have communicated his critique in a more winsome way if he had given more concrete (and self-reflective) examples, showing the problems through his own experiences more than telling with too many broad generalizations.

The book ends up feeling a lot like a kind of preachy sermon when it could have had more of a flavor of a self-reflective account of one person’s troubled and yet healing personal journey. It is interesting to me that I finished the book not really having that clear of a sense of Kratzer as a person. Some more concrete anecdotal analyses of his own experiences would have strengthened his presentation, I believe.

In the end, I’m left wondering how much Kratzer’s story is actually shaped by evangelical Christianity and how much it is shaped by his own family. In the early pages, he tells us just enough about his horrific experiences as a child to give a sense that he was set up for the pathologies of evangelicalism by a lot of abuse and trauma. Would he have had a similar process in his life of anxiety, fearfulness, seeking power and control, et al, no matter if he joined the evangelical world or not?

He definitely helps us see how the combination of the emotional vulnerabilities of a young adult traumatized by a dysfunctional family with the dynamics of a dysfunctional embodied theology lead to brokenness. However, we also need to learn from the stories of former evangelicals who had healthier family lives. Such comparative analyses likely are necessary for us to take the full measure of the deeper problems with evangelicalism.

Ideas for a theological memoir

I appreciate Kratzer’s effort and hope that his book reaches readers who will find encouragement in his story and exhortations. Reading it has made me think about the relationship between personal faith stories and theological reflection. Leatherbound Terrorism might most accurately be placed in a slightly different genre—maybe a “spiritual exhortation.” But there surely might also be value in an account that is a bit less directive.

I don’t think of my own story as being particularly dramatic. I had the opposite of an abusive, traumatic childhood. My religious processes have mainly been driven by positive experiences and new insights, not so much by a Martin Luther-like quest for a gracious God in face of existential spiritual and emotional crises. At the same time, as my theological convictions have crystallized and evolved, my experiences in life have certainly played a major role. So a kind of theological memoir might be a helpful exercise (at least in the sense of helping me better to come to terms with the working out of my convictions).

Like Chris Kratzer, I also had a sojourn among the evangelicals. Mine was much shorter-lived and less traumatic. In an important sense, it was driven more by intellectual motivations than emotional needs. My exit was not reactive versus toxic religiosity but a more comfortable move to join a community where I felt more theological affinity. It was only some years later that I realized I would no longer identify myself as an evangelical. However, from this more dispassionate perch, I share much of Kratzer’s distress at how evangelicalism has impacted people within it and the broader society.

So, my theological memoir would require a significant chapter on my evangelical experience. I would like to reflect more carefully than I have up to now on what attracted me to that approach to faith and why I moved away from it. So, perhaps one of my New Year’s resolutions for 2019 should be to do some work on this….

 

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3 thoughts on “Turning against evangelicalism: A pastor’s story

  1. Ted, the relationship between psychological injuries and theological evolution (and devolution) is as fascinating as it is complicated. I have sometimes wondered if your relatively healthy family life has made it possible for you to be kind to, and not reactive against, Evangelicals. I’m looking forward to reading your theological memoir. Keep that 2019 resolution!

  2. I appreciated your analysis here, both the positive and the negative. I had the same thought as you, that he may have had some of the same problems no matter what system and worldview he espoused. It would be interesting to know if exiting evangelicalism has led to healing, and where he has ended up.

    I am Australian, and here evangelicalism isn’t as toxic as in the US – it isn’t so patriotic (though perhaps becoming a little more so), it is less strident about inerrancy, and not necessarily creationist. But it still tends to be prescriptive rather than freeing, controlling and fearful.

    I feel concerned that evangelicals don’t actually know the Jesus of history because they don’t read historians much, and so the Jesus they believe in is largely self-made. And I fear some progressives haven’t progressed as much away from that. The Jesus of the gospels is far more complex than the salvation figure of the evangelicals, and they seem to know nothing of the kingdom of God. Meanwhile the progressives seem to ignore some of the hard sayings of Jesus about judgment and his upending of the world order and just focus on love.

    Like you, I think it is helpful to read about the journey people make out of evangelicalism and to try to understand better what God is doing. Thanks for this account.

  3. Your reflections are always helpful Ted, your tone is indeed as David said always kind when you disagree, your writings are keeping my faith, weak as it is, alive, thank you

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