The Best Kept Secret in American Christianity


There are many secrets in American Christianity. Unfortunately, a chunk of them are dirty little secrets that fester for years before eventually breaking open in popular media. The sexual confessions of Josh Duggar from the reality TV show “19 Kids and Counting” is the latest of these. Last year it was the scandal involving church leaders of Sovereign Grace Ministries (SGM) and their alleged cover up of child sexual abuse. In years past, it was Ted Haggard’s confession of drug use and involvement with a male prostitute. And, of course, there is the well-known documented pedophilia of Catholic priests. All these now-exposed scandals and many more examples suggest the best kept secret might have something to do with a link between fundamentalist teaching on sexuality and predatory behavior. As reasonable as I think that notion is, it’s not the secret I am referring to.

Nor am I referring to the major dirty little secret of American conservative Christianity: that most fundamentalist/evangelical churches, with a few exceptions, are cultish and spiritually abusive. The church-authority-abuse scandals of Mars Hill Church, Sovereign Grace Ministries, Calvary Chapel, and many others attest to this. Yes, these are secrets that are worthy of exposure to protect people from the harm of modern conservative religion, but no, they also are not the secret.

The secret I speak of is a “best kept” one so it is a good secret. Well, you might think, maybe the secret is the refreshing juxtaposition to the Religious Right that has reached a pinnacle in recent years with the resurgence of progressive Christian thought in the voices of the late Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Walter Brueggemann, centered on the politics of compassion of the historical Jesus. Or, maybe it is something to do with today’s call to humanize our criminal justice system that has roots from 20 years ago through voices like Sister Helen Prejean’s stand against the death penalty, as depicted in the 1995 movie, Dead Man Walking starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Moreover, one might think of today’s emerging church movement that is slowly leaving evangelicalism behind, made up of reforming activists like Brian McLaren, Rachel Held Evans, and Shane Claiborne. These also include the Sojourners and Wild Goose Festival movements that call for merging social justice, spirituality, and the arts. Or, you might think it’s the host of new progressive and post-evangelical authors that are asking modern Christians to rethink things like the infallibility of the Bible, salvation, atonement, church, homosexuality, judgment, and the doctrine of hell, and have founded reforming organizations like the Christian Universalist Association. No, as worthy as each of these positive trends are, and though each of them contributes to the secret in some way, they are not in and of themselves the secret.

The secret is… wait for it, drum roll please… simply the phenomenon that … finally, after years of being mired in the tradition of either modern fundamentalism or modern liberalism, people are waking up to the fact that understanding the origins and historical evolution of the Path of Jesus is the key to genuine discipleship. For example, it’s not as important to know what Jesus and Paul said, but what they meant. The key to knowing how to use the Bible and other sacred text is to know how Jesus and the earliest followers used it. Modern churches are not modeled after the original Jesus gatherings, so let’s not pretend they are. Historical roots matter. And unfortunately, most of modern Western Christianity has got its history wrong. As a result, it has developed a collection of wild, wacky, and windblown beliefs, on both the right and left.

Beliefs like the conservative’s apocalyptic End Times theology, that expects Jesus to return soon—possibly right after tomorrow’s breakfast—to whisk away true believers and throw the world into seven years of harrowing tribulation; and afterwards send most people to hell (this belief hasn’t gone away as evidenced by last year’s Left Behind movie starring Nicolas Cage). Or, on the left, those who doubt the reality of an historical, non-violent, counter-cultural Jesus, claiming that he either didn’t really exist or was actually a violent zealot (see Reza Aslan’s 2014 book, Zealot). They believe, I guess, that some Jewish men in the first century, perhaps after attending Synagogue one day, decided to make up a new religion and base it on a fictional character or someone who held views the exact opposite of the new faith’s tenets.

So, the best kept secret is that more and more people are teaching the importance of knowing the historical roots of the original Jesus Movement and how it morphed throughout the centuries. And, how refuting our modern theological sacred cows with historical evidence makes an enormous difference when deciding how to follow Jesus, be a spiritual-but-not-religious person, view the Bible, consider other faiths, form community, understand the heart of God, love your gay and straight neighbor, fight to make the world more equitable, and think about the future. The people who are leading this call are theologians and historians like Michael Hardin, Phyllis Tickle, Harvey Cox, Garry Wills, and N.T. Wright. They may not always agree on the details, but they are united in the importance of historical origins.

We need to pay attention to what they have to say because the outcome of this secret is that Christianity is profoundly changing, or as I argue, is slowly being redefined. I will highlight these four voices and others like them in future posts. What questions does this “best kept secret” bring to your mind? How have these authors I cite, or others who write about Christian history, helped you rethink your faith?

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2 thoughts on “The Best Kept Secret in American Christianity

  1. Hello Michael,
    Over these past few years of wresting with, “The Secret”. I have found myself opting for the person Jesus, as the teacher by example. I am not sure how reliable our scribes are in recounting what the witness saw and said, given the fact that one of the most corrupt institutions in the history of the world has been the keeper of the text, and most of the time involved in the translation of the text. That aside, something about what is reported about Jesus of Nazareth, and God, as our Father, holds me fast. Gandhi said something like, I like your Jesus it is his followers that I have a problem with.

    What is truth? I have truth that guides me every moment of every day. I find Him reliable. God created this realm. He saw that is was good, and it is good. I don’t know when and how, and I do not care. Everything I see has Divine Creator written all over it. Jesus is the most compelling figure in the history of the world, by a large margin. I believe He is God in one of God’s forms. There is evil in this world, and it has nothing to do with God, God being a reflection of His good creation. Evil must be resisted. Good must be perused. That is how humanity matures. God cannot be subjected or contained by human institutions; anyone who claims an inside track on the Creator is deceived and by claiming such is lying. Peace with God is the path, I will pursue it the remainder of my natural life.
    Thank you for helping to keep the door to clearer thinking propped open.

  2. Marc, I agree. In my “keeping the door of clearer thinking propped open,” I discovered the best way to see Jesus clearly is through the lens of a good study of history. As you know, studying the history of the church reveals modern institutions are not an original model. Studying the history of how the New Testament was compiled shows us that Jesus may be the Word (the Logos, rationality of God), but the written text is not the “Word.” It inspires but was not infallibly formed or copied or translated. Uncovering the original Greek and historical/cultural ways of thinking at the time the NT was compiled, gives us a clearer picture of what the original text meant and the Way of Jesus. To me, all the things we are learning in our generation about new paradigms for church, the Bible, the atonement, the Path of Christ, etc. is because we are looking beyond our modern traditions, tracing where they came from, and going back to the first few decades and centuries as much as is possible. Not to create a new original model, but to learn how to apply the Path we see back then to the path we are on in the present.

    Gandhi was on to something. M. Scott Peck came to a similar conclusion (Jesus was a spiritual genius, he wrote). Something about Jesus, stripped of the more gross misreadings our modern traditions ascribe to him (teaching hell, forming a religion, founding an institution), draws our hearts upward to light.

    Thanks for dropping in. The door will always be propped open!