Social Psychology of Religion Gets Personal
In the initial part of my review of Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community, I noted how Diana Butler Bass tells the story of eight congregations she both attended and studied. She is a historian of religion, particularly American Christianity and its many congregational and denominational expressions.
However, she is more than historian in this narrative-style book.
She’s sharing a good bit of her own faith pilgrimage as well. This is my focus in the concluding part of the review. I much appreciated and enjoyed this aspect of the book. I know many others will relate to her experiences of personal struggles with beliefs, church affiliation, meaningful worship, and closely personal relationships. They are part of the broad issues of spirituality which impact all of us, even when we may be denying or ignoring their relevance to our lives. I also have been self-disclosing, particularly in my ebook, Spiritual Growth: Live the Questions, Love the Journey, about processes similar to Dr. Bass’s which I’ve gone through. In that sense, I may be biased about the value of self-disclosure, including within a book like hers which is heavily historical and oriented to social and institutional matters. I feel her book is an appropriate place to mix the personal and the “academic”, making it more interesting and readable.
For me, there was a special level of interest in her experiences at a small Evangelical liberal arts college in the late 70s to 1981. I had attended a similar college (now university… Biola) starting in 1967 and slightly overlapping her time, when I finished graduate school there. Many things were very similar in the “culture” of both schools, and in our respective experiences. If you’re one of the many who have attended a similar school, as they are scattered all over the country in good numbers, I think you’ll find her recollections and observations interesting, perhaps entertaining (she’s a bit sarcastic at times). It’s possible they will be uncomfortable if you have gone a different direction and perhaps not reconciled with yourself or others over frustrations, or maybe never experienced such frustrations yourself.
If you’ve never been in Evangelical churches much or participated in higher education from within that worldview, both this aspect and her church stories may be fascinating as a peek inside. At the least, they are important educationally. For example, one “corrective” you may encounter if you have always been an outsider to Evangelicalism, is that there is, actually, robust intellectual discussion and research within the broad movement, even if it largely fails to change core aspects of the generally insular movement. In the last few years, “Evangelical” (and the adjective, evangelical) has become a household word, but one which is used loosely, poorly understood, and seldom is it even superficially defined…. Good definition is tricky, at best.
Higher Education in Evangelical and Mainline Circles
So one pertinent note: The nature of her undergrad school, Westmont, and her seminary following, Gordon Conwell (as Biola University and many others), has changed in some significant ways from decades ago. A key case in point is personal conduct codes, as one would expect with the evolution of culture.
The general trajectory of Diana Butler-Bass’s spiritual development and worldview modifications tracks with mine and with probably at least hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Evangelicals and “ex-Evangelicals” (those with similar current views differ on retaining the label or rejecting it). In the first chapter, she shares the powerful and lasting impacts of several childhood years in a Methodist church in Baltimore. In her teens, via “evangelical friends”, she left that church and came under the tutelage of Evangelical theology and a worship style less liturgical, less tied to church traditions. She found excitement and satisfaction there until near the end of her time at Westmont College, when she discovered the first of the several Episcopal churches she writes about. Despite reservations that were mainly about theological liberalism, she “fell in love with the Episcopal Church” (p. 13). She’d come to realize that she felt more at home and more spiritually invigorated by their use of art and liturgy, of beauty and symbolism, and of elements difficult to define but often missing in “non-liturgical” churches.
I especially appreciate one statement near the end of Bass’s overview of her experiences with eight churches over two decades:
“The Episcopal Church often forced me to come to terms with ideas and people I would rather have avoided. But throughout the process, the church was being quietly transformed by the experiences of stayers like myself who demanded different visions and practices of churchgoing than the institution had traditionally offered…” (pp. 18-19).
“Ideas and people I would rather have avoided”!
Is this not all too familiar to most of us in 2020, with polarization in almost every arena, including religion and spirituality, having become even more intense than in earlier years? In the pages of Strength for the Journey you’ll find encouraging details of how Dr. Bass personally worked through tensions, inner and outer. And how that process unfolded, sometimes with pleasant outcomes, sometimes not, in various churches.
Cultural Issues Argued Theologically
There are a number of additional social issues discussed in the book as they appeared in congregational and specifically Episcopal settings, along with her college, seminary and doctoral work settings.
For brevity I’ll focus on just one: women leaders in church.
This is still a lively debate in much of Christianity in America, so her stories are yet timely. Similarly, debates continue around Christian egalitarian marriage and its counterpart, the “complementarian” view of what Christian marriage roles should be. The latter involves wives “complementing” their husbands (and vice-versa), not necessarily “complimenting” them, though that is one implication, since the “male ego” (admittedly often outsize) needs a lot of care in this view. But I digress a bit from what Bass mainly covers on this topic. That’s partly because I was, in the same time period and with my wife, somewhat involved as an Evangelical in a long-disbanded group, the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Also following such seemingly “rogue” Evangelical groups as Evangelicals for Social Action and Sojourners (described by Bass), we were advocating for egalitarian marriage from a personal standpoint. I was additionally from my perspective as a practicing marriage and family counselor in a primarily Christian setting.
Like me, I believe many current and former Evangelicals will relate to Bass’s experiences in her marriage and her educational and church surroundings, on a personal level if not as an academic or highly involved church lay person as she was. Non-Evangelicals, particularly younger ones, should find value in her vignettes into a critical period of this branch of feminist or womanist theology. Her church and academic experiences also involve the relatively early struggles of churches coming to terms (or not) with full acceptance of openly gay members and ordination of gay clergy.
Dr. Bass relates some of the distress emerging from her willingness to change her views when her ultimately more conservative husband was not able or willing to do the same. As a former marriage counselor, I know better than to blame either her or him for the eventual dissolution of the marriage. But in her telling, their differences in this regard played a significant part in their growing further apart. And the near-absolute opposition to divorce she sometimes encountered among Evangelical leaders and friends bore heavily on her in a difficult period.
The author’s discussion of gender roles in the Bible, or of women’s role in early Christianity is not extensive, as it would be outside the scope of the book and only part of a much broader story of Mainline, and particularly Episcopalian dynamics of struggle and change in several localities. However, she shares enough to illustrate well that the forces of culture and tradition bear heavily on interpretations of the Bible. Further, that the Bible tends to be used to support one’s or the community’s “default setting” more than it is used to form a position that may actually be more “biblical”, let alone more suitable to either very early Christian practice or recent ones developed gradually over two millennia.
Have you read this book, or others by Dr. Bass? I’d love to hear your thoughts and comments below, so please share…. Or come back after reading Strength for the Journey and give us your reactions then!