Aimee Byrd

Inside the word. Outside the box.

There’s a rising market of books geared toward the rising audience of ex-vangelicals, those deconstructing their faith, nones, and young adults who are also struggling with doubt in the Christian faith they were raised in. There are multiple reasons for this rising audience. How many were spiritually abused or saw abuse in their own churches or denominations? How many were shamed when they were honest about their doubts? How many saw the disconnect between the truths confessed and lives lived in the church? How many observed the tribalism and anger in debating (and squeezing out) over secondary issues? How many never saw or experienced love in the church and delight in Christ? How many realized their faith was really in an ideology that could not bring them peace? How many were just going through the motions, so when it came time to bear their cross they were seduced by the world?

I’ve been reading some of these books. My favorite so far is Joshua McNall’s latest, Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space Between Doubt and Dogmatism. And I think we all should read it. It’s really written for the church.

One of the things that I love about this book is that it is playing my jam on the importance of the imagination in the Christian life. God created us with something amazing—the ability to discover, envision, and embrace beauty. And he continuously ignites our eschatological imaginations in his word. Here’s McNall’s challenge:

The importance of what I define as “faith seeking imagination” increases in a cultural moment when the church is torn by two unsavory extremes: the force of crippling secular doubt and the zealotry of partisan religious dogmatism. Rekindling a gracious theological imagination—rooted in orthodoxy, Scripture, tradition, community, and great works of art—is essential to confront the “resounding gong[s]” (1 Cor. 13:1) of our day with something better than pervasive skepticism or abrasive certainty. In this blank space between unchecked doubt and dogmatism, Christians must relearn how to say “perhaps.”

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With all the talk about “elite” Christianity and which way evangelicalism will go this week, I was reminded of something I wrote in the beginning of 2017. There are bigger questions to ask here. Why are we looking for a parachurch organization to lead us? And is God going to ask us if we are evangelical as a qualifier for eternal fellowship with him? And yet, we need to examine the dynamics within parachurch organizations, the constructed value systems they uphold, and the voices they promote. Here’s what I wrote then about the importance of the local church, as well as shot glass communities. I even drew a picture about the latter. More can be said now, but interesting to see how relevant this still is:

2016 has revealed a lot of problems with the Christian celebrity culture. There have been big names that have fallen, treasured orthodox doctrines downplayed and distorted, and many people and churches terribly hurt. Those who warn about this culture, about the ignored or overlooked issues, and even the suppression of abuses within it, are often dismissed because of their tone or accused of overreacting. One popular response to the lament of celebrity culture in evangelical and Reformed communities is an acknowledgement of its prevalence, but with a “What can you do?” shrug. We’re always going to have a celebrity culture.

We are.

Others, accepting this reality, say they want to leverage celebrity culture in order to do good. That sounds like a plausible response but can too easily become an excuse for uncritically selling-out to celebrity and it usually ends up making its advocates practically indistinguishable from those who are more obviously in it for the purpose of self-promotion.

People will always be drawn by amplified names, bloated endorsements, and charismatic personalities. Some writers, speakers, and preachers are loaded with talents and gifts that can be used in the kingdom. And then they are put in positions of influence and power that can be intoxicating. It’s difficult to have the self-awareness we are called to when so many yes men surround us. And there is of course a market driving it all.

So what do we do about it? Well, in my writing, I’ve aimed to highlight the emphasis of the local church and confessional covenant communities. This is a must. But there is good that can and will be done in the parachurch. How can we recognize this, work in it, and deal with the celebrity culture?

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“Hope is disruptive.”

Mark Labberton

This is quoted from the Foreword in Makoto Fujimura’s book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life. Man, is that a word! And I would say that Culture Care is a dose of beautiful disruption. The main audience of the book is artists of all kinds. It’s an awakening to how art, and artists or creators, steward and cultivate community.

He begins the book with a story from when he was a teacher’s assistant and struggling artist and his newly wed wife was a graduate student. They were struggling to make ends meet. As he is stressing over an empty fridge and what food they can afford for the month, his wife comes home with a bouquet of flowers.  Upset, he asks her how she could even think of buying flowers if they can’t even eat. And Judy replied, “We need to feed our souls too!” This encounter with generosity was a transformative moment for Fujimura. He saw that he failed to be who he actually was—an artist, someone who should recognize the need for beauty to live. Artists feed souls, in a sense, with beauty. And this is how he proposes that we need to care for the culture we are in (a culture that has even over-commodified art itself)—with “a generative approach to culture that brings bouquets of flowers into a culture bereft of beauty.”

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This is my third post on Dr. Curt Thompson’s book, The Soul of Desire. Today I want to introduce his practice of confessional communities. It is a form of group therapy. In reading about this method of interpersonal neurobiological psychotherapy that Dr. Thompson practices, I thought about how our friendships need to be more like this and our discipleship in church. As Dr. Thompson says, “It is in communities like these that we encounter the possibility of being deeply known and where we ‘practice for heaven.’” These small group meetings of between 6-8 people create a space where people are seen, soothed, safe, and secure while they express their grief, trauma, and desires. It’s facilitated and led by the therapists, but the patients play a collaborative part in creating beauty together out of pain and unrequited desires. Both the being seen in a secure setting and the creative collaboration is healing, as this is what we all long for. In this way, the patients get to tell their story and be a part of one another’s’ healing. Dr. Thompson notes,

We need others to bear witness to our deepest longings, our greatest joys, our most painful shame, and all the rest in order to have any sense at all of ourselves.

When one truly feels known, and secure in that knowing, then they are able to take the risk of imagining and creating beauty again. And that’s what happens in these sessions. Because it isn’t just the being heard that heals, but the ability to help others. We aren’t mere projects to be fixed. Hurting people are still people. In his book, we get to read about what this looks like with examples Dr. Thompson gives from his own practice. This is something one-on-one therapy cannot do. While reading, I was thinking about how inline this is with the key principles of trauma-informed care. They have to be practiced in a group setting, so that not only is there peer support, but a format to equip one another to care for each other—giving back what was taken, which is often voice and agency, and combatting the harmful dynamic of merely forming another hierarchal structure over them. Dr. Thompson discusses the value of the other people in the room helping one another, over the individual psychotherapy:

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Have you ever thought of beauty this way, as coming home? There’s a nostalgia to it, as if it’s something you recognize with all your senses and long to return to. But it’s not a return as much as a coming. Beauty is where we are headed. It’s what we are being formed into. Beauty, when encountered (and if we open our eyes and look its treasures are everywhere), is a breaking in of the future into the present. Beauty beckons us. It was with us in the beginning. It shows us what is so treacherous about sin and teaches us that things are not as they seem. It helps us face our brokenness and gives us an ache to hand it over, our meager raw supplies, as an offering to create with beauty. Because beauty is creative. The best kind of it. The only kind of it, really.

I think this is an area where the church is missing the juice. We can have all of our doctrinal statements in a row, all the boxes checked. We can have our ecclesial liturgies and processes. And we can miss the beauty. It’s like the disciples on the road to Emmaus—they were talking about the word of God and missed the fact that they were talking with the Word embodied. They missed the juice of hermeneutics. And there he was. He was gracious enough to show them. But it wasn’t his words alone that opened their eyes. He became the host at the table, blessing, breaking, and serving the bread. Fellowship, sacrament, symbol—even the breaking itself. Oh, how their hearts burned inside them! They were known, sought after. He came to show them the most beautiful thing that they were incapable of imagining on their own.

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I love this book. The title reeled me in because these are the themes that so intersect with my work in the Song of Songs and how I see fullness of life now. Not only that, the subtitle, Discovering the Neuroscience of Longing, Beauty, and Community is literally MY JAM! Longing, beauty, and community are themes that I have been pursuing, themes I have found not only in the Song, but am seeing it as a microcosm of all of Scripture—the metanarrative. And it is what has been the direction of healing for me from abuse within the church. Not only that, my fascination with learning how our minds work had me even more intrigued with the neuroscience aspect.

I didn’t know what to expect from this author, as I had never heard of him. And there is always that suspicion that there may be too much of a psychologizing of the faith from a psychiatrist, making it more about me than God. But psychology is part of being a human. And if we want to be holistic in our life of faith, it is an important part of being human that the church needs to address. Psychology addresses part of how God made us.

Curt Thompson invites us to pay attention to the world in a different way. He wants us to look at what we stuff down and what impedes a robust, fructifying spiritual life. He wants us to truly see others and connect with them in confessional communities. He wants us to consider our deepest longings, our true place, and find reality in the beauty both God and we create collaboratively. He wants us to enter into the new creations we have become and are becoming. And our triune Creator has made us to be creative. We are “practicing for heaven” even as we are on our way.

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The Bible is a revelation of who God is and what he has done and is doing for his people. And so much more. It is important that we read it well. And so Christians are rightly zealous to systematize its truth claims, have an apologetic for why its authoritative, and teach the dogmas of the church. We can become very cerebral, debating what the Bible says and missing what the word of God does. We can approach the text as something that needs interpreted with a fine-tooth comb rather than something that is meant to be enjoyed.

This is what Matthew Mullins wants to help us with in his book, Enjoying the Bible: Literary Approaches to Loving the Scriptures. As an associate professor of English and history of ideas at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Mullins noticed an incongruency. Most of his students say they love the Bible, and yet they don’t know what to do with poems. This is a real problem, because how can you read Scripture well if you can’t read poetry well? And what Mullins is getting at here is important—it’s about how we even approach the Bible. It is written to be enjoyed. This is the argument of Mullins’ book. “The implication is that if reading the Bible does not enact pleasure in you, then you may not understand what you have read…it was written not only to convey information about [God] but also to provide a way for us to commune with him, to meet him in his word.”

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Mike Bird and I have a new episode of Birds of a Feather, where we discuss The Rise & Fall of Mars Hill Podcast, the OPC GA, and Kevin DeYoung’s review of Beth Allison Barr’s book. I gave it this title because there really is a theme in all of these topics: Where is the critique from within and what happens to those who give it?

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I have learned so much through the last couple years of confronting abuse from officers in my denomination. There are some things that most of us just cannot be aware of or see clearly unless we, or someone we love, find ourselves in a more vulnerable position. Since I’m using the word abuse, I want to define what that is. In consulting with an expert on the topic, I learned that spiritual abuse is anything where you use your power to do/take from another what is not rightfully yours. That was a helpful definition. I began listing the things that were taken from me. Protection was a big category that I needed to break down: protection of my reputation, physical protection as jokes were made about a possible meet up where I was speaking, vocational security as calls were made warning people who booked me to speak and my writing is being misrepresented, protection in my denomination, and protection of my dignity and personhood. Another thing taken from me was agency and power: power to be notified, power to defend myself, power to seek justice, and power for restoration. Wade Mullen gives another helpful definition:

When someone treats you as an object they are willing to harm for their own benefit, abuse has occurred, and that person has become an abuser. Some of the worst forms of abuse are psychological.

Abuse is all about gaining and retaining power at the expense of another. And it’s a pattern. I also resonate with what Mullen says one needs in order to begin to free yourself from the power of abuse over you:

Freedom comes first by understanding, and understanding means having the language to identify and talk about your situation.

And so I have documented the more public steps of trying to address the officers in Genevan Commons and the undershepherds and process of doing this over the last year:

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Before I was targeted by a number of its leaders, I liked my denomination. I like that it is confessional, and I trusted in the presbyterian government. I have a great community in my local church, and I had confidence in the books of church order. I believed they provided exactly that: an ordered process to protect the vulnerable by using due process of its laws. I never expected to be in the category of the vulnerable.

When I first started experiencing the organized reviling and vicious behavior from officers in my denomination, I trusted that other church officers would confront them and call them to repentance. And if it still continued, I trusted that faithful under-shepherds would use due process to stop the abuse and rectify the damage. But I knew, as I’ve said before, that formal charges should be a last resort because we first want to informally address these heart issues, hoping for change. Hoping for repentance. Hoping for reconciliation. That’s what we really want. Firstly, restoration to Christ. Secondly, to his people.

And in a case when spiritual abuse is involved, the repentant person in spiritual authority should see that they need shepherding at this point and not to have this kind of authority over God’s people. They have so violated trust with God’s people that a sincere apology would include action that is sensitive to this. Voluntarily stepping down would be an action that shows the weight of their responsibility to God as an office bearer as well as putting boundaries in place out of respect for the victims of their abuse. Because they are valued.

That is what we would expect in Christ’s church. And what I’ve learned is that those under spiritual abuse are not protected well by the process, as abusers manipulate it to protect their own power. Even when there are faithful under-shepherds working for righteousness.

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