Life Pushes Through The Desert Sand


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This is the last sample chapter of a book I’m writing, which maps out how white American evangelical Christianity morphed from intellectual sophistication into an arena for bullies, trashing its heritage and time-honored creeds in the process. Yet all is not despair. The book’s final section, “Samples of Hope,” probes three vibrant ministries that signal many others. Here’s the introductory chapter. 

But there’s hope. Really. No fooling. It lingers beyond the growling reek. It even pokes its head on center stage and waves hello.

Discerning genuine hope halts our mutation into one of two closely-related exotic species: the disaffected evangelicals (they still hold to the theology but scold their wayward brothers and sisters in every blog post, tweet, and Facebook status), and the disgruntled former evangelicals, who’ve fled the tribe and yell at it from afar. They wear bitterness like a warm sweater and join trendy movements like the Emerging Church, which was all the rage in the 1990’s and in this century’s early years. Gurus like Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell invoked terms like “generous orthodoxy” and “conversation” and “dialogue” and “postmodernism” and “post-evangelical,” psychoanalyzing their opponents all the way and dismissing legitimate theological concerns.

That sweater soon itches. We scratch so hard that we flare welts and our screams drive people away. Just look at the Emerging Church. The vague movement fizzled amid bickering even as it promoted dialogue – and Bell and McLaren wandered off orthodoxy’s path.[1] Its on-line hub, the Emergent Village, went defunct.

Many now gather in the twitter flocks surrounding John Pavlovitz and Rachel Held Evans. Their tweets often begin with “if only evangelicals would …” and “why do evangelicals think ..?”  They seem unaware of Roger Olson, Scott McNight, Katelyn Beaty, Timothy Keller, Beth Moore, Richard Mouw, Russell Moore (no relation to Beth), the Creation Care Network, and Christians for Biblical Equality, all of whom resist the bully onslaught. They’ve forgotten that traditional evangelicalism spans a theological range from Arminiasm to Pietism to Calvinism to Dispensationalism, and those 81-19 2016 election-year results shed more fog than light: Again, many of those self-identified white evangelicals rarely attend church and disagree with the tradition’s historic beliefs. They’re evangelical in name only.

I knew a few now-popular disaffected-disgruntleds before they wrote books and complained of flight delays between speaking engagements. Common threads weave through their stories: They often grew up in a hermetically sealed neo-fundamentalist subculture, feathered with its shibboleths like so many chicks in a nest. They knew nothing but their fundamentalist and neo-fundamentalist worlds until calamity unveiled the horrible truth: Evangelicals aren’t always nice and, shock of shocks, there’s a vast universe of committed Christians beyond their coalition’s pale. They discover dedicated Catholics and Eastern Orthodox believers who sincerely praise Jesus. They even unearth supposedly evil “secular humanists” who are deeply humanitarian. They sicked-up their grim neo-fundamentalism and now heap poxes on the entire evangelical house, failing to grasp that they lived in one of the movement’s cobwebbed closets, usually painted in strict Calvinist and Dispensationalist hues.

I remember one in seminary before he became well-known. I’ll disguise him as I describe him: He was a die-hard Calvinist, reared in a neo-fundamentalist family, and a darling of the school’s more stringently Reformed faculty. He was no fun. He hinted that people like me, who did not grow up in evangelical families and did not en-scripturate the 17th-century Westminster Confession, teetered over heresy’s cliff.  He got his PHD and joined the faculty of a neo-fundamentalist school, where he challenged some of its most cherished assumptions. Surprise-surprise, he wasn’t granted tenure. He now lobs verbal grenades into the evangelical camp from his supposedly enlightened perch. My own Arminian-Wesleyan theology hasn’t substantially changed since seminary, so I’d still be suspect. I was a potential heretic back then. I’m now a Bible-thumping yokel.

He’s enwrapped himself in bitterness’s sweater and flares those welts. He’s even less fun than before.

I know others. They were scathing neo-fundamentalists back in the day; now, they’re the caustic enlightened ones. They’ve skipped past Calvinism’s more gracious streams (think Keller and Mouw) and didn’t bother with Pietism or Wesleyanism.

And yet, I sympathize. I remember wearing that sweater after my ignominious resignation from a mean-spirited church. One observer described my writings as “rants.” I sought spiritual sustenance beyond my evangelical tradition: I read Catholic and Eastern Orthodox literature and mingled among Protestant modernist-liberals. I still relish those Eastern Orthodox and Catholics, but I simply cannot sign on to some of their doctrines — and, once again, I found no “there” there among the modernists.

I felt homeless.

Then something strange happened: I listened to podcasts from evangelical institutions like Asbury and Fuller theological seminaries; I heard Keller and the debaters in the Veritas Forum; I listened to the preaching at Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Evanston, Illinois, an inter-racial congregation that resettles refugees and implements the so-called charismatic gifts. All reminded me that historical evangelicalism is a broad alliance that’s neither anti-science nor politically partisan. Several of my favorite outlets are Reformed, which forces a smile: God is compelling me to learn from those with whom I disagree.

I rediscovered my home: I am, indeed, an evangelical – as that term has been historically understood. Like Keller, I normally don’t use the “e” word in everyday banter because it’s lost its meaning. I usually call myself a “Classic Christian,” which ties me to creedal Christianity but frees me from long explanations beginning with, “No, I don’t think Mitch McConnell authors holy writ …”

I’m still angry over the hijacking of the evangelical name and I know there’s a place for legitimate, prophetic severity. I’ve exercised it here, remembering how Jesus chased out the Temple’s money-changers — but he didn’t do that every day and he found room for grace.

A welt-riddled life is no fun, so I’m glad I’ve thrown off bitterness’s sweater and see the wisdom in Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagrahi resistance philosophy: “The satyagrahi’s object is to convert, not to coerce the wrongdoer.”

We’ll convert no one if all our words always burn like acid.

Besides, bitterness blinds us to the real hope found in ministries led by Keller, Ed Brown, and Steve and Cindy Nicholson. I devote a chapter to each precisely because they live in the belly of the beast. They’re older white American evangelicals. Few would question their doctrinal credentials – and yet, they’ve yielded to neither partisan bullying nor bitterness. Their winsome, irenic path brings us out of bitterness and into well-tried grace.

They’re not alone, of course, so I’ll drop in some honorable mentions.

First, there are those minority evangelicals, who deserve another book. Or three. Or five. Roughly a third of all back-to-the-Bible Christians are not white, vast majorities of whom are less than thrilled with all the fist-slammers. Don’t be surprised if the morally bedraggled movement resurrects through those communities, perhaps bearing a different name.

Second, there’s Beth Moore. The Houston-based Bible teacher and speaker still talks the evangelical talk, complete with a drawl and invocations of a personal Satan (I find that refreshing and I agree with her). She unveiled her thoughts after the revelation of Trump’s Access Hollywood recording – and she’s kept at it. Read her tweet on November 14, 2017: “It’s been a harrowing trip to Oz for many evangelicals this year, the curtain pulled back on the wizards of cause. We found a Bible all right, seemingly used instead of applied, leveraged instead of obeyed, cut and pasted piecemeal into a pledge of allegiance to serve the served.” And there’s her pinned tweet: “It will become increasingly vital that we learn to distinguish between what is pro-Christian and what is actually Christ-like.” And her anti-tyrant tweet: “There’s a sick line of shared reasoning on perpetual repeat in the minds of racists, bigots, white supremacists, misogynists, & sexists: If we give them an inch, they’ll take a mile. Here’s the shocker: It’s not your inch. Claiming ownership over God’s property is perilous hubris.”

I’m now a Beth Moore groupie.

Third, there’s evangelical academia.  Many never joined the Religious Right and cry out against the bully hijacking. They, along with other faithful leaders, were especially appalled when the President Trump dismissed certain African and Latin American nations as “shithole countries” in January of 2018. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Evangelical Seminary, replied in a tweet:

“As a fellow human being, as a citizen of the United States, as a seminary president, and specially as a disciple of Jesus Christ, I am horrified by and ashamed of Trump’s comments about Haiti and African countries, and their peoples. It is shocking, though not surprising, that Trump holds such views since his track record has been long and clear. Our history and our system has brought us to this horrific point, leaving us stunned and humiliated by the vile statements and actions of our elective leader. May this moment awaken a profound national lament, true repentance of racist hearts, and a fresh commitment to personal and systemic change that honors all human beings as creatures made in the image of God.”

Kent Annan, a senior fellow at Wheaton College’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute, wrote this in Christianity Today: “I’d hope that Americans, including those in power, would recognize the beauty of these countries and the contributions their immigrants make to our country. Our neighbors, who are especially vulnerable right now, deserve our continued welcome without disparagement and without hesitation.”[2] Karen Swollow Prior, an English professor at Liberty University, responded: “I’ve been privileged to travel to Africa four times, and fell in love more each time with the land and the people. I have never been treated more hospitably than when I was in that beautiful continent. What an example you set for America, dear #Africa!” And the presidents of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary signed a joint proclamation, greeting their communities with this statement:

“Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, higher education institutions founded by immigrants, are composed of students, faculty, and staff from more than 60 nations. While 600 of us may claim citizenship in another country, we are all prime citizens of the Kingdom of God and share in a brotherhood and sisterhood that transcends all borders. It is for this reason, this love for our brothers and sisters, that we are deeply troubled and offended by the disparaging comments attributed to the President of the United States in recent days about people who come from Africa, Haiti, and Latin America. These comments sow fear and hatred in our country, and they are wrong.”[3]

Not to mention Russell Moore, who often chides evangelicals from his post as president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

There are, indeed, signs of hope all over the evangelical map.  We can even rephrase a famous line from Bill Clinton’s first inaugural address: “There is nothing wrong with evangelicalism that cannot be cured with what is right with evangelicalism.”


[1] Scott McKnight, “Brian McLaren’s ‘A New Kind of Christianity,’ Brian McLaren’s ‘new’ Christianity is not so much revolutionary as evolutionary,” Christianity Today, 2/26/2010,, accessed 1/25/2018.

[2] Kent Annan, “Why We Need to Talk about Trump’s Haiti Remarks,” Christianity Today, 1/12/2018,, accessed 1/29/2018W

[3] Michael Le Roy; Jul Medenblick, “Joint Statement from Calvin Seminary and College,” January 15, 2018,, retrieved, 5/4/18.



About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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