Replacing Tractor-beam faith with a mere Christianity
After the Jesus Movement, younger generations are looking to older sources of wisdom that produce a more stable and reliable faith
I have an essay below. But first, a preview of something to come in the next week or so.
In our kitchen family calendar for the month of May we have this quote:
“The good man is the builder, if he build what is good.
I will show you the things that are now being done,
And some of the things that were long ago done,
That you may take heart. Make perfect your will.
Let me show you the work of the humble. Listen."
T.S. Eliot, "The Rock"
In this vein I plan to begin sending a new monthly installment of this newsletter that highlights people who are building, rather than just lamenting.
This idea was inspired by my friends Joy and Tyler Moore. We met in DC over 15 years ago, through Grace DC church, and have kept in touch over the years. Recently, after I wrote about “throwaway culture,” I asked readers to send me notes on “ways they are moving out into their communities, or ways in which they’ve been doing that work for a long time and need help.”
And so Joy e-mailed me with some of her thoughts on how many people in “the Vast Middle” of the country get up each day and contribute to their local community in unique and particular ways.
What I found moving about Joy’s note was how she simply just took stock of the many ways that she and Tyler’s lives were actively making things better, and to a few other folks in their community who have done that and continue to.
So I have a few folks in mind to write about in the coming weeks and months. I’d love to make this a weekly feature, but don’t want to overpromise and under-deliver. Better to do the opposite. Basically, I want this to be a moment of inspiration in your week that our lives are not data points, we do have agency, and it often starts quite close to our front door.
If you have thoughts on who I should feature in this Builders series, or want to contribute, please write me through my website here.
Audio book version of Testimony is out
I read the audio version myself, and have heard some nice feedback from those who have listened to it already. It was released this past Tuesday. I know how annoying it is when you don’t like the way someone reads a book. I’m feeling good that my reading of the text is not going to annoy you!
Over at Scot McKnight’s Substack, the New Testament scholar and historian — who has a new book out on the book of Revelation — wrote a positive review of Testimony.
“He tells his story so well I couldn’t put it down,” McKnight wrote.
Those of you who have read my Revelation for the Rest of Us, or have heard one of my podcasts about it, know that I believe Revelation is uber-relevant today both to expose the political chicanery of so many evangelicals and to guide them into becoming – another Ward category – discerners of the times instead of political partisans. Dissidents, if you will, of Babylon.
Ward’s book should be read by a wide audience because it tells the story of one man coming to terms with the Christian faith in a way that gave him the capacity to be a double dissident: he is a dissident about church corruption and a dissident about political nonsense. His exposure of Trump’s incapacity to tell the truth is worth the price of the book. Deceit, you may know from Revelation, is the way of the Dragon’s beasts.
Ok, here is an essay I wrote some time ago about rediscovering the sort of faith that the Jesus Movement left behind.
The Tractor Beam
I was 21 or so when a Christian celebrity took a group of my friends and I to Baltimore's Inner Harbor to do a video shoot for a project he was working on, a promo for one of his books. We talked about how the book had helped us, feeling very sincere and not at all manipulated because the celebrity was successful and important and powerful and we were excited to even be included in whatever this was.
The moment I remember most, however, was off camera. I was walking with one of the members of the video crew and a few others across the harbor, and he turned to me and said, 'Dude, you ask a lot of questions.'
I was embarrassed. I had been peppering him with queries about any number of things. I retreated into silence at his rebuke.
My questions were part of my personality. But they were intensified by something else: an existential angst, which came – in part I think – from being raised in a religious environment in which there was no history, no tradition, no rhythm, no roots.
I wanted my life to count. Pretty normal. What was not normal was that this was accompanied by an always present anxiety, bordering on mild terror at times, that I was not making enough of each moment at hand. Every conversation was shadowed by the sense that what we were talking about should matter. Like, it should really, really matter. Every moment should make a difference, be deeply meaningful.
This burden birthed an unnatural, unhealthy intensity in me, the kind you notice in someone whose eyes are just a little too bulging and wide, so that you begin to back away slowly.
I think all this — the weight, the anxiety, the intensity — came (again, in part at least) from the radical disconnection with history and tradition that characterized my upbringing. During the 1970’s and 1980’s, when my parents generation were swept up in the Jesus Movement revival and then formed their churches, "the word 'tradition' was thought to be a death knell to true faith, to the immediate experience of being born again," Diana Butler Bass wrote in "Freeing Jesus."
I remember one phrase that people at my childhood church said all the time: "Constant change is here to stay." They said it proudly. It came from the top, from the pastors. It was memorialized in skits and in comedy routines performed at cringy dinners. It represented a value: we would always be shifting to respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit, seeking that fresh outpouring, resisting the tendency to become old wineskins, as Jesus' parable says, always changing, always malleable.
Stability? Sustainability? Not so much.
New wineskins were what we were after. Old wineskins were a metaphor for the shriveled up old-time religion of the Catholic Church and the mainline denominations.
As it turned out, these new-wineskin Christians I grew up around have had quite a political resurgence the last few years. They ended up becoming the vanguard of Christian Trumpism and surrounded Donald Trump, physically, to lay hands on him, pray over him and even anoint him with oil as he destroyed his rivals and the Republican party in 2016.
I wrote multiple articles about evangelical support for Donald Trump during this time, in my capacity as chief national correspondent for Yahoo News. In one, I spoke to author and seminarian Michael Horton about the practice of evangelical Trump-supporting pastors laying hands on him in much publicized events in the Oval Office. Horton explained that this practice was “biblical” in the sense that Jesus and the apostles sometimes did it to others.
But, Horton cautioned, “what people are doing with it today is closer to magic, it seems to me.”
When I spoke to Harry Jackson, a leading pro-Trump evangelical minister who I’d known for years, he explained how he thought of this laying on of hands.
"We believe there is a transfer — a potential transfer — of spiritual power and the Holy Spirit’s influence to a willing and believing recipient,” Jackson told me. “The recipient has got to be in a place where his faith and his character can allow God to impart grace to him. … If there was true humility on the part of the president, God can give him these bursts and downloads of wisdom.”
But, Jackson said, “if you don’t stay in that humble place, you can have bursts of wisdom but not wisdom in another moment.”
Humility is good, for sure. But Jackson’s description put me back in my 21-year old body, pestering that camera crew guy in Baltimore. You are forever on the cosmic hamster wheel. You can do nothing unless God is empowering you at that very moment, and that power is only for those who have faith and character and humility. There is a heavenly tractor beam that moves around and it’s your job to keep looking up to see where it is, and to chase it wherever it may lead.
There was no connection to the power of habits, to the ways that God can work through the natural rhythms of life. This magical tractor beam faith did not answer the questions that mattered most to me as I deliberated how to best live out my faith. How is character formed? How is meaning made? How is humility cultivated? How do we live lives that matter? And how do we pass on or convey what is most important to those we love: our children, our spouse, our siblings, our friends, our neighbors?
There was never much attention to powerful role of habits in my church life, other than the fact that we were all expected to read the Bible and pray every day, and go to church any time there was a meeting. But at those meetings the subject was usually how to have a deeper personal relationship with God. We were atomized individuals, floating in space toward our eventual reunion with God after we died, and until then — well — it wasn't quite clear what we were supposed to be doing, other than not doing a lot of things.
In the place of faith-driven liturgies, much of conservative religious culture seems to have been shaped by Republican politics, with a cross slapped on top.
"Too often, we look for the Spirit in the extraordinary when God has promised to be present in the ordinary," James K.A. Smith wrote in You Are What You Love. "We look for God in the fresh and novel, as if his grace were always an 'event.’”
“We keep looking for God in the new, as if grace were always bound up with 'the next best thing,' but Jesus encouraged us to look for God in a simple, regular meal,” Smith wrote.
I read Smith's book in the spring of 2017. I read the book in a day or two, tearing through it and underlining madly. I read the book again in 2021, and was stunned at how deeply it had impacted me and shaped my thinking over the previous few years.
That book was part of a process in which I gained confidence that habits, rhythms and liturgies can create a logic to life that carries you through the ups and downs and zigs and zags of life. You can teach your kids what's important through the patterns and traditions you establish in your family, like a regular family meal, like singing folk songs or farm songs — or any songs really, together.
Smith's key insight is that we are not defined by what we know. We are defined by what we desire. "To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something ... on the move, pursuing something, after something," he wrote.
Well, in church, we were not really for anything as much as we were taught to be against things. We were away from things, but rarely toward anything. We didn't chase. We were chased: by our sins, by the demonic forces, and we ran to Christ to get away from it all.
An angel's advocate might say we were for God and for his glory. But how? In what way? How was that expressed in real life? It has to extend into the real world, where people eat and breathe and shit and fight and love and suffer. We were not in that world. We were against it, in fact, sequestering ourselves off in a hermetically sealed, vacuum-packed sin-proof set of rooms.
We were never taught how to practice, in this real world, "formative, love-shaping rituals," as Smith put it. I did not know that Christians have been doing so for thousands of years. We could not imagine that humans of all faiths have been doing variations of this since the beginning of time, rituals situated in the rhythms of nature, of the seasons, of the soil.
I’m slowly building the rhythms of my life and family. I’m investing more time and energy into the day in, day out business of making our household run. That means more meal-planning, so that we can eat together as a family as much as possible. I have come to love working in the garden, feeling the soil in my fingers and spending time with my wife.
Each winter for the last few years, we have gathered on Sunday evenings to light candles and celebrate Advent. Each year, the liturgy I work on becomes more cohesive and coherent. And, I’m happy to say, the kids like it.
The church calendar in general has taken on much greater significance in my life. Each day is part of a larger story that repeats each year, grounded in the history of the faith.
I am only beginning to find peace and take refuge in the confidence that I do not have to do it all right now. There is a way, an ancient way of wisdom. It is a shame that so many have discarded it. But it’s encouraging that I’m not alone in seeing these lost sources of wisdom and spiritual strength. The number of books on liturgy, the power of habits and rhythms, and rediscovering the resources of historic Christianity grows each year: Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary, Justin Whitmel Earley’s two books on habits and Doug McKelvey’s two volumes of prayers (soon to be a third) in Every Moment Holy come to mind as prime examples.
There is a modesty to it all as well. “It comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance,” wrote journalist Oliver Burkeman. “This realization isn’t merely calming, but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a life well spent, you’re free to consider the possibility that many more things than you’d previously imagined might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time.”
Actually, only a watch and a listen this week
PBS’ Tom Casciato did a wonderful 6-minute piece on singer Aoife O’Donovan, and focused on her recent live performances of Springsteen’s Nebraska album. The PBS link is here and Aoife also posted the segment on her Instagram.
The “Know Your Enemy” podcast did a great segment on Bob Dylan’s latest book. These guys love Dylan and their enthusiasm produces a lot of fun and interesting insights.
Have a great weekend!
Border-Stalkers is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Thanks for sharing your essay. Love your writing.