We all have times in our lives that are critical to our formation... times that really are foundational to the people that we become, but are not good places to be stuck. Being a teenager is a good thing, but only for 7 years. Beyond that, it becomes problematic. There is an old saying that everyone should live for a time in New York City, but not until they become too hard and everyone should live in Southern California, but not until they become too soft. The implication is that both are good places to be from. You can make your own list of developmental stages or experiences that played an important role in your formation. In my list, I would add that evangelicalism is a good place to be from.
That is the story I was hoping to find in Confessions of a Bible Thumper by Michael Camp. In part it was there as the story is his journey out of the evangelical church but he never really acknowledges any positive results from his time in evangelicalism. He obviously has faith now, a faith that was birthed in an evangelical church. He has a deep respect for the Bible, again birthed in an evangelical tradition even if he does understand the Bible in a very different way now. Clearly, much of his experience with evangelicalism was toxic, but it still was an important place for him to begin.
Camp's book takes place in a brew pub as he and a small group of evangelical friends discuss his fictional manuscript and his journey from evangelicalism. They go through a number of issues which he sees as important to the evangelical community and shows where they got the Bible wrong. The issues include inerrancy of the Bible, freedom, the shape of the church, sexuality, eschatology, sexuality, and creationism vs. evolution. As someone who lives outside of the evangelical community, none of his arguments were new to me (with the exception of his discussion of punctuated equilibrium in the chapter having to do with evolution) and the issues are not ones that particularly catch my imagination. Still I can see that for many in the evangelical community, his arguments would be completely new ideas and may encourage new considerations or defensiveness.
There are three themes which run through the book that I found really disconcerting. Again and again he speaks of the church and includes only the evangelical tradition in that word. He does throw a glance at other protestant traditions as when he answers the question of why he did not attend a more liberal church when he found himself in theological disagreement with the evangelical churches he was attending but a glance is all mainline or liberal protestantism gets. He doesn't even mention Orthodox and Catholic traditions. All the while, he rails against the legalism of the church. He certainly could find the failings of any of those traditions, but they would not be the same as the ones he lived in evangelicalism. By completely dismissing those other traditions, I think he also shuts them off as possible landing places for his future audience.
The second theme is related to the first. He dismisses the institutional church as being a construct of the Roman empire which he says has no basis in scripture. Rather than argue the point, let me just say that I think he neglects
his own commitment to follow the truth wherever it leads and instead
allows his own distaste for the evangelical church as he experienced it
to color his conclusions. He endorses the house church movement as some sort of return to the Biblical model for Christians and ignores the fact that having a house church still requires some sort of structure and so is an institution. Someone has to pick the time for the meetings, get them started, and ride heard over the agenda.
Finally, he rails against spiritual practices such as tithing, praying, attending church as legalistic commands not based in scripture. While that may be true that none of them are commandments which followers of Jesus are obligated to observe, it neglects the truth that spiritual practices are important for formation and ritual helps to shape us in important ways. Those practices may not be helpful in his spiritual life but for others they can be extremely important, not as commandments but as disciplines that give shape to a life of faithfulness. I would guess that he wouldn't disagree with what I said, but his tone seems to reflect an authoritarianism that feels a bit too much like the evangelicalism he is escaping.
All in all, I hope Confessions from a Bible Thumper is just the first volume of Camp's story. I hope to read a bit more generosity to those of us who choose to stay in the institutional church and find there, in the midst of all of its failings, a significant opportunity to be the body of Christ in this time and place. In the meantime, I think this volume could be a good read for folk struggling to find a new way to read the Bible and understand their own faith.