Three Books on Giving Up Church: A Review Essay
by Kendra Weddle Irons
As we drove away from our church one bright, sunny Sunday, my husband turned to me and asked if I had found the worship service boring. “Well, yes” I answered, “but I guess that is pretty normal for me.”
The truth is there are few Sundays when I feel like going and even fewer when I’m glad I went. I’d much rather be doing something else: taking a walk outside if the weather is warm, curling up under a soft blanket reading a good book if it is cold, or enjoying a leisurely brunch.
Since I grew up attending Sunday school and church each week at our small-town United Methodist Church, I carry around a good amount of guilt for feeling this way. In fact, earlier in my teaching career, before I could be so honest about my church ambivalence, I argued that church attendance was important, crucial even, for a Christian serious about following God. Insight and wisdom comes from community; it is the collective body of Christ that keeps us honest about our lives, about our spirituality, about our isolation.
I suppose I still think the role of community is indispensable for us. We see ourselves best when others help us. We know how to live by loving our neighbor and serving our world. Usually we need people to keep us honest about our self-serving natures and our tendency to focus inward rather than outward.
Still, I am no longer convinced by my earlier assessment. Today I am more aware of how little the church actually helps us to embrace the path of Jesus; and I am more hopeful that other groups, often ones decidedly outside the church, are just as useful—and maybe more so—in our spiritual maturity.
I guess you could say I’ve left the church, even if I have yet to make a final break. Apparently I’m not the only one, if you consider three recent books: The Resignation of Eve: What if Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone by Jim Henderson, Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs; and Breaking Up with God: A Love Story by Sarah Sentilles.
While Mark Driscoll and others like him might be wringing their hands about the lack of men in churches, it is my experience (and apparently that of several others) that women are choosing to abandon churches and are no longer willing to be present in places perpetuating sexism or, at the least, patriarchal presentations of Christian faith.
The Resignation of Eve: What If Adam’s Rib Is No Longer Willing to Be the Church’s Backbone?
by Jim Henderson
Tyndale House Publishers, 2012.
Jim Henderson, renowned as a listener to people outside the church and coauthor of The Outsider Interviews and Jim and Casper Go to Church, set out to explore why women in the United States seem to be leaving church, if not physically, then in other ways. He was aware of the paradox that women are often at the forefront of new religious movements, including that of the early Jesus followers, and over time seem to fade out of most, if not all, leadership positions as such movements gain momentum and size.
Now he could see that it was not only a case of women not holding leadership positions but of many women choosing not to be part of a church at all.
He provides important Barna statistics to support his claims. Between 1991 and 2003, the percentage of unchurched women rose from 18 to 30 percent. A recent study reports church attendance rates in general have shifted significantly in the last thirty years, with women more likely than men to reevaluate their options and to change churches, change faith traditions, or embrace new ways of faithful living (p. xix).
Drawing on the lives of women he interviewed all over America, Henderson found three broadly-conceived categories of women who have become disenchanted with churches: those “resigned to,” those “resigned from,” and those whom he calls the “re-signed faithful.” Women who have experienced outright resistance to their leadership efforts but still want to be involved in their churches, Henderson claims, are those who are resigned to, or have “acquiesced to the powers-that-be.” In other words, they have come to terms with the sexism of their communities and decided to stay, even though they become to some degree much less invested in them.
A second group, the resigned from, is composed of those who have decided to leave church, maybe Christianity, and maybe even faith in God. As Henderson tells the stories of these women, they convey their once strong beliefs in God and dedication to church as values they can no longer hold.
In between these two positions are the re-signed faithful. Although they experience disappointment and frustration within their churches and seldom are completely convinced their staying is the right decision, these are people who despite such realities try to stay engaged and connected as a way to change the churches they love and the faith they maintain.
Based upon his interviews with women in all three categories, Henderson suggests there are at least four recurring issues: doctrine around gender roles, disillusionment or discouragement with churches, contradictions between Christianity’s claim of liberation and freedom vs. the experience of exclusion, and finally, being spiritually drained from providing the majority of care and service to others.
Henderson’s study is both personal and forward-thinking. Growing out of his own sense of disillusionment in being part of the church and recognizing how stifling it can be for women, he is obviously sympathetic to the narratives women share. His goal is a worthy one: to get a conversation started, to open the lines of communication and invite women to share openly and honestly. This beginning, Henderson hopes, can lead to a new day where women’s creative talents and insights are used rather than squandered.
A combination of qualitative and quantitative research, Henderson’s analysis of women and their varying stages of leaving church is instructive and could easily be a book used to generate conversations about exclusion in various church-related groups. Too, Henderson’s insight about the continuing problem of sexism expressed in various ways is spot on. For example, he notes that the evangelical fixation on personal sin enables a blind spot to structural views of sin, including the structural sin of sexism. The result, of course, is a failure to change, and subsequently, the ability to maintain a patriarchal vision of Christianity while the culture surrounding the church moves progressively forward (one hopes) to greater equality and justice.
Higher Ground: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost
by Carolyn S. Briggs
Rowman & Littlefield, 2011.
First published as This Dark World in 2002.
Reared in Iowa, Briggs’s memoir begins with the well-rehearsed coming-to-Jesus narrative including the young love who leads one down a path to sin and destruction until, at rock-bottom, the soul is miraculously saved by an all-powerful God who has seen all of the past and who, nevertheless, with the expectant and public confession decides to offer forgiveness and a ready community willing to shape the
newly converted into a more perfect Christian.
So, while in high school, the young Briggs starts dating Eric and soon they begin drinking. Eventually, drinking gives way to sex and eventually Briggs finds out she is pregnant, resulting in the seemingly only acceptable response at that time: a young marriage. Not long after, a conversion experience followed as the two had embarked on a daily reading of Scripture. As they began to share their new life they became enthralled by the idea of the rapture, with Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth especially captivating their imaginations.
They also began a diligent search to find a faith community in which to learn and grow. Having been warned against the dangers of a liberal church, they sought to align themselves with a strict community, one where accountability and authority were prominent and where, of course, the Bible was treated as an encyclopedia containing all of the answers to life’s most complex questions. Their search for a Bible-based church led them to embrace a fundamentalist faith community where church elders exercised considerable power, extending even to decisions around contraception, use of medicines, and clear proclamations about the encroaching presence of secularism, a constant fear.
What followed was a life where Briggs worked to maintain some semblance of happiness even as she realized she was anything but content. Her relationship with Eric, her husband, had been constructed on young love and early sexual experiences, but had failed to create the sustained interest and heat she longed for. In lieu of fulfillment within her marriage, Briggs turned to God and ostensibly her church to fill the longing she felt, but as each year passed, happiness escaped her even as she poured much of her life into her faith and her church.
A family move to Arkansas followed by gaining her college education and enrollment in a graduate program provided the impetus for Briggs to see her life with new clarity and vision. Her decision to follow Jesus into the depths of a fundamentalist faith had not produced the promised new life; it had led instead to a narrow and constricted path—a type of death.
Empowered by her education and vision of what could be, Briggs’ memoir is a poignant narrative punctuated by the destructive nature of fundamentalist faith and the ability of one individual to find her way out.
Breaking Up with God: A Love Story
by Sarah Sentilles
While Briggs offers her experience as a window on the iron-clad grip of fundamentalism, Sarah Sentilles invites her readers on a decidedly more theological journey, one where Sentilles realizes others blamed her for not having the right faith while she knew there was a deeper problem: she doubted “the version of God” she was asked to accept (p.5).
Casting her relationship with God in terms of a breakup, Sentilles constructs a narrative where the raw emotions of parting ways with a partner who had been formative in many aspects of daily experience become palpable. And yet, continuing on in denial no longer holds a healthy alternative even as the subsequent divorce requires a complete reorientation to life.
Sentilles was not simply a casual participant in this relationship with God. She was a youth minister, a doctoral student in theology at Harvard University, and in the ordination process in the Episcopal Church.
Reared in church, Sentilles learned of God as some kind of mixture between a big guy in the sky who demands stuff and in return will love you, and a Santa figure who watches your every move and sometimes will give you what you want, but most of the time, not.
During college, Sentilles’s childhood God began to disappear as her skeptical mind began to contemplate: “Make-believe, I thought. It’s all make-believe. We make, and then we believe” (p.54). And yet, Sentilles continued to cultivate a relationship with God , first through the notion of being God’s presence in the world (she signed up with Teach for America)—and then, jumping in with both feet, she enrolled in divinity school and began the ordination process for priesthood in the Episcopal church.
Despite such diligent effort and casting a wide net to draw on wisdom from some of our greatest theologians: James Cone, Mary Daly, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Alfred North Whitehead, Sallie McFague, among others, the result was not enough.
And yet Sentilles remains very much a seeker. She writes toward the end of her narrative: “This is what I believe in: Mystery. Agency. Creativity. Justice. Accountability. Love. This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us” (p.222).
Her words remind me of Karen Armstrong, the British scholar of religion, who once suggested the path to God is the path of embracing more fully our humanity.
I no longer can tell my students that being part of a church is absolutely critical for one wanting to understand Christianity or to follow Jesus. Instead, I even wonder if the opposite is true: the church itself has become lost to such a degree that people must leave it in order to be found. The experiences provided in all three books suggest this may, in fact, be true.
Kendra Weddle Irons teaches in the religion department at Texas Wesleyan University in Fort Worth, having earlier taught at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. She serves on the EEWC-CFT Council as a representative of the Southwest Region. With Melanie Springer Mock, she co-hosts the blog, Ain’t I a Woman: Deconstructing Christian Images.
She and Melanie, along with Letha Dawson Scanzoni, also write FemFaith for the Christian Feminism Today website.
Copyright 2012 by the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus, Christian Feminism Today, Vol. 36, Nos.1-2, Spring-Summer, 2012.