Want a new culture war? Remember ‘The Exiled Generations’

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit Magazine

The Exiled Generations on Southern Baptists by Carl Kell

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

This spring, countless congregations across America are choosing up sides over the emerging inclusion of LGBT men and women in public life. (See Third Way Newsletter or Changing Our Mind for more on that.)

As the Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, I have received many questions from church members wondering how to welcome openly gay men and women—in the midst of this turbulent year of cultural, political and legal conflict.

On Sunday (April 11, 2015), The New York Times published a front-page story reporting that the nation’s top law firms are refusing to defend bans on gay marriage. Why? Top lawyers nationwide understand that with the likes of Walmart and the nation’s 100-plus top tech leaders on the side of inclusion—well, we’re reaching a point where there is no other respectable “side” on this issue.

Times reporter Adam Liptak wrote on Sunday: “In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism.”

So, are we actually going to avoid cultural conflict with this major societal change? Hardly!

Do you know who will fight this issue of inclusion tooth and nail? Church people. The conflicts will be most ferocious in the classrooms and hallways and kitchens and social media of churches that are, overall, inclined to be welcoming. That’s because not all members will be welcoming. Some men and women will gird for battle. Casualty reports to come.

WHY SHOULD YOU MEET THESE ‘EXILES’?

This is a good moment to order a copy of the real-life cautionary tale, The Exiled Generations: Legacies of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy Wars. The book is a bit pricey, listed at the moment at $32 from the University of Tennessee Press, but buy a copy and pass it around among friends.

At the heart of this book are 18 real-life stories, written by casualties in the Southern Baptist Convention’s quest for fundamentalist purity. While reading this new book—you’re likely to shed a tear, perhaps shake a fist and, most importantly, you may make a promise never to encourage culture wars in your own community.

That’s the bottom line when you close this book: There’s hope, if we free ourselves from the temptation to engage in this kind of religious conflict.

A leading journalist, Martin Davis, writes the final chapter of the book, telling his own story of exile. Martin has reported on ways to improve congregational communication for us, here at ReadTheSpirit, and at the website for the Day1 radio network.

Like the others in this book, Martin explains how being cast out of such an evangelical church can be a life-shattering trauma. These exiles from Southern Baptist churches once enjoyed life at the core of intensely religious communities where “everyone” seemed to share identical beliefs. When some powerful members rose up and decided to purge the Southern Baptist Convention of those they considered less than correct about Christianity—they drove away countless families. These men, women and young people not only lost their churches, they lost friends and they lost their certainty about life’s purpose.

‘EVERY AGE HAS ITS WANDERERS’

As a journalist who went through this journey, Martin is perhaps better equipped to weather this blast than other men and women. Today, Martin is a senior editor in the division of U.S. News & World Report covering autos. He’s almost beyond the realm of the church’s potential to keep wounding him.

And here is where the final pages of this new book, written by Martin, connect with this week’s cover story we are publishing about the best-selling Christian writer Frederick Buechner and his love for The Wizard of Oz.

Martin calls his chapter “A Wandering Aramean,” referring to the translation of an ancient Hebrew phrase in  Deuteronomy 6:1-11 that appears in Christian Bibles. Most Christians, and Jews as well, would say that the “Aramean” in this famous verse was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam: Abraham.

In the new book, Martin writes that this phrase resonates with him, because …

… every age has known its wanderers. The wanderer is a central figure in many folktales and stories. They are good and evil, righteous and troubled. They are, like all of us, human. They’ve simply been called to a wandering existence.

Our souls are not troubled; they are inquisitive pieces of us locked in the flow of eternity. We have the privilege of falling into the current for a brief time; we explore and gather and learn and share; and like everyone else, we eventually leave.

That is the story that I will share with my children. It is a fortunate trip I have been blessed with. It was born of pain, but then, most things worth discovering are birthed from pain. For years, I disliked the source of my pain; I fought against it, and I allowed it to cloud my view of many great spiritual experiences in this society.

Today, I enjoy the journey. I relish the diversity of religious life, the conversations I have with people across the spectrum of the American landscape as they share their stories with me.

My younger son and I will turn back to this conversation of why we don’t go to church. This time, I will take the high road. Yes, I had some very bad experiences early in my faith walk; yes, I was deeply hurt by people I trusted. But there are few people in this world who have not experienced something like this. It can be your undoing, or it can be your door to a better shelter for you.

In my case, it opened another door—a door that few are privileged to walk through. Why don’t we attend a church? I’ll tell my son that we may answer honestly and with joy: a Wandering Aramean was my father.”

‘WHO IS THE ARAMEAN?’

Haggadah with wandering Aramean

The “wandering Aramean” passage from a Passover Haggadah produced in Germany in the late 15th century by Meir Jaffe ha-sofer, a copyist, illuminator and renowned leather worker. Displayed by the Nahum Goldmann Fellowship Online Alumni Magazine.

Every Passover, which just concluded on Saturday for Jewish families around the world, the passage from Deuteronomy 26 is included in the Haggadah readings over seder meals. Jewish families are encouraged to discuss this passage, in particular. Sometimes, in forming questions for discussion around the seder table, someone may ask:

“Who is the Aramean?” If you’ve never experienced a full-scale seder—believe me, that kind of question can touch off a very spirited discussion.

This spring, take the advice of Martin Davis and this book’s general editor Carl L. Kell and avoid culture wars that are destined to create thousands of new wounded wanderers. That’s one good lesson from their book.

There is another lesson, too, that Martin Davis stresses in his final chapter: Perhaps such wandering is simply unavoidable—perhaps it is the spiritual quest of our age. Millions of Americans, a significant minority of the population, now answer polling questions about their religious affiliation with the option: “None.”

The Nones aren’t anti-religious; most are spiritually wandering. Frederick Buechner says that he loves the Oz stories because they are part of the great American myth that all of us must wander in hope of finding a home.

Who is the Aramean?

Millions of Americans, including Martin Davis, know the answer: We’ve met the Aramean. And, he is—us.

(Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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