Earlier this year, Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine caused a bit of an uproar after he tweeted some questioning things concerning same-sex marriage. Now it appears that Gungor is the latest popular evangelical musician to be caught in the middle of a theological controversy, thanks to some interview comments and his project with The Liturgists, a group that includes people that evangelicals often find controversial (e.g., Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans).
World Magazine sounded the alarm:
The band’s new ideas are more clearly set forth in a blog post titled, “What do we Believe?” Here the author chafes that a close friend no longer considers him a Christian: “Why? Not because my life looks like Jesus or doesn’t look like Jesus. But because of my lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE.” Then he nails down exactly what he doesn’t believe—in Adam and Eve or the Flood. He has “no more ability to believe in these things then I do to believe in Santa Claus.”
This theological ambivalence is on display on Gungor’s latest project—a collection of EPs released under the name The Liturgists. Working with Pastor Rob Bell—author of Love Wins—and various poets, Gungor creates ambient music to accompany spoken word poems on religious themes.
Predictably, the conservative Internet blew up. Tweets were tweeted, tears were shed, and sad/angry farewells were bid. Also, from the other side, mournful recriminations against the narrow-mindedness of the aforementioned were issued as well.
I suppose I should have seen it coming. Gungor’s been buddies with Bell and recommending his books for a while, and when I saw The Liturgists’ God Our Mother EP a while back, I thought “Well, that’s just asking for some sort of reaction.” Still, despite the lack of surprise I’m feeling, it seems appropriate to reflect on some of the institutional and pastoral realities that these incidents reveal.
Worship Leaders and Evangelical Folk Religion
Some might point out that Gungor is just a musician. He’s not a pastor in a church, called to preach, teach, and protect the flock. The man is just like everyone else, a flesh-and-blood guy who thinks, prays, and struggles like the rest of us. So why the blow up?
The strong reaction partly results from the role that evangelical Christians subconsciously know musicians like Gungor play: they are the Church’s de facto theologians. The reality is that Gungor isn’t just a dude in the pews struggling, but rather, he’s a part of the “folk evangelicalism” Alastair Roberts wrote about the other day:
There is a sort of evangelical folk religion, much of which is completely unauthorized by pastors or elders, a folk religion driven by such things as TV preachers, purity movements, uninformed theological speculations in democratic Bible studies, Chick tracts, that teenage kid who led the dorm prayer meeting on summer camp, Christian kitsch, Kirk Cameron movies, Left Behind books, VeggieTales, Focus on the Family literature, blogs, CCM, Answers in Genesis, sappy mass-produced devotional literature, study Bible notes, etc., etc. As people often fail mentally to footnote their beliefs, many attribute the bulk of the weird and wacky things that swam in the rich theological soup of their evangelical upbringing to their church, presuming that it all received the imprimatur of Evangelical Central Headquarters. Parents are probably the persons with the most to answer for here. Most of the pedagogy of young evangelicals is received from sources other than their pastors.
Christian pop music is part of this mix. The songs we listen to, worship with, and meditate on shape and form our theological and spiritual instincts. The name of the Liturgists project acknowledges as much: This is a group intentionally trying to create sacred music for the Church’s instruction and upbuilding. If that’s the case, then you begin to understand why many are treating Gungor’s statements in the way they would if a church officer started talking about “losing his metaphysic” or his “lack of ability to nail down all the words and concepts of what I exactly BELIEVE.” After all, that’s kind of what theologians do, isn’t it?
I’m not sure what the solution is here, but the current model seems in need of some retooling.
Struggle, Reaction, and Radicalization
The flipside is understanding the response of those sympathetic to Gungor. Thinking about the average pew-sitter looking on in the middle of the recriminations, many may be wondering “Do we have room for wrestling in church? Will they do that to me if I talk about my struggles? Can I be honest about my doubts?” Many evangelicals struggle with the tension of hiding their intellectual doubts from their church for fear of being rejected by their community or their pastors. And yet hiding doubts is precisely how they begin to fester and grow to an unmanageable (and damaging) size.
Which brings me to my next point: Pastors need to consider what message their reaction to these sorts of news stories sends.
I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if, at this point, Gungor continued to head down a more liberal trajectory. It’s something I’ve seen before, but it still deserves comment. I’ve often wondered how much the conservative (over)reaction adds to the advanced radicalization of questioners. Opening with “Hey, heretic, you’re the worst” probably isn’t a good way to draw someone back. How much of the theological drift by questioners, notable figures included, is fueled by a sense of rejection from the conservative theological community? “Well, I’m already a ‘heretic’ in their eyes, so why not be bold and keep exploring?” or something on that order. What’s more, creating martyrs of doubt doesn’t seem to do much to shore up the faith of the faltering.
I’m all for guarding the flock, teaching against false doctrine at appropriate moments, and so forth. And yet, evangelical pastors need to work on cultivating safe spaces for their people to ask the real questions they have, precisely so that they might hear good biblical answers and hear questions that allow them to question their own doubts. (Matthew Lee Anderson’s little book The End of Our Exploring (read our review) is an invaluable resource for pastors in this respect.)
Evangelical leaders, especially pastors, need to be wise in their response to reports of doubts and skepticism by public evangelical figures. The Church ought to have a safe space in its pews for those who question, even if we have different standards for those in the pulpit — or those who play the organ.