catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 11 :: 2006.06.02 — 2006.06.16


Shifting my weight

Have one foot in the church and one outside. And keep your weight on the one outside.

-activist Ched Myers

I’m not much for dualism, which defines a chasm between church and world, sacred and secular, spirit and matter, and values the former over the latter. Still, I’ve recently found Ched Myers’ advice to Geez editor Will Braun instructive as I prepare to start a new chapter in my life. Rather than advocating dualism, I believe that Myers is prescribing a corrective for what happens when we forget Jesus’ command to be in the world.

For the last eight years, I have been deeply enmeshed in the church in general and the evangelical subculture in particular. Looking back, the fact that I’ve located my home and work in this environment seems unlikely. I grew up outside New York City in a Connecticut suburb, where I attended public school and made friends who were mainline Protestant or Jewish or Hindu or agnostic or nothing at all. I didn’t even know any other evangelicals my age until I was halfway through high school. While my family was involved at church, my growing-up years featured few of the usual trappings of the subculture. From an early age, I was encouraged to think broadly and to throw my arms around the world, embracing all of its goodness.

But as a young Christian in one of the nation’s most “secular” cities, I was eager to be around others who believed and worshipped as I did. Although everyone expected me to choose a prestigious East Coast school, I decided to attend a private, conservative college in the Midwest for my undergraduate degree. There, I became ensnared in the subculture, simultaneously repelled and engaged by its tenets and contradictions. There, I solidified my identity as an evangelical while also trying to slough it off—beginning my journey as an evangelical expatriate.

After graduation, I interned with Sojourners magazine in Washington, DC, where I learned to claim and inhabit my status as an American evangelical, reforming what it meant to love Jesus and follow God’s commandments in the new millennium. I gained a deeper understanding of justice and mercy, I learned to love cities again, I learned to love the quirky people who traveled their sidewalks and their subways. I also learned to love one of my fellow interns, who would eventually become my husband. I felt very much in the world but not of it.

Following my time at Sojourners, I took a job with Calvin College. No one was more surprised than I was—I had only been out of school for one year, and although I suspected I would return to Christian higher education eventually, I certainly hadn’t expected it to be so soon. Nevertheless, the position seemed tailor-made for me—interacting with popular culture, helping students evaluate its worth and its shortcomings, publishing regularly on the subject of Christian engagement with music and movies.

Indeed, the last three years have been an embarrassment of riches for someone who loves to explore the spheres in which faith and popular culture intersect. So it is with some hesitation and uncertainty that I announce that, come fall, this column and in fact all of my work may take on a different tenor. In August, my husband and I begin a journey that will draw us back to our roots. We will move back east to Philadelphia, where Nathan will begin graduate school in both Divinity and Social Work, and where I will not be working at a Christian institution for the first time in almost a decade.

This is a calculated decision on my part, though not, I should make clear, one motivated by bitterness or refutation. I have loved my work at Calvin and I have grown immensely in my faith during my three years here. But it is time to shift my weight.

When I came across Myers’ quote, I recognized something in myself that had been previously ineffable. For me, being evangelical is not an option—it’s like being white, or female, or clumsy. I’m not always satisfied with the implications of those characteristics, but I am who I am. I can do no other. Similarly, I nurse an irritating personality quirk that involves being deeply discontent with The Way Things Are, particularly among evangelicals. I have tried to follow Barbara Kingsolver’s sage advice that rather than buying into the "love it or leave it" approach to the groups with which we affiliate, a more honorable slogan is “love it and get it right, love it and never shut up.” I have invested a lot of energy in challenging and frustrating popular but theologically flawed views of American evangelicalism on a variety of subjects, and I don’t think I could shut up about it if I tried.

What I never realized until I read Myers’ quote was that I didn’t have to make my physical camp among “the redeemed” in order to continue speaking with them about these subjects. I have long been conflicted about this aspect of my vocation, because I have become more and more drawn to venues “outside” the church—the prospect of being a public librarian, for instance, struck me like a lightning bolt of revelation when I started shelving books as a volunteer at a local library. But wasn’t I supposed to stay put? Wasn’t I supposed to love it and never shut up?

Myers’ image of keeping one foot in, one foot out, with the weight on the outside foot, gave me permission to release myself from the tyranny of expectations—my own, and others for me. I suddenly saw my own words about being an evangelical expatriate in a different light: “These expats have renounced their citizenship in evangelical subculture, but not their faith. They have ventured out into the wider world, but they remain interested, and often emotionally invested, in their culture of origin.” To “venture out” wouldn’t be abandonment—it would simply be returning to where I’d come from, doing what I’d meant to all along. It would simply be shifting my weight from one foot to the other.

So, come August, that’s what I’ll be doing. And I’ll look forward to seeing you out there in the wider world.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus