In 2006, when I was in my middle-20s, I wrote a short article for RELEVANT magazine titled “Why I am not an Emergent Christian.” In retrospect, I don’t think I understood much about the Emergent Church movement that was rushing through my Evangelical communities. What I did know was that most of my friends in the Seattle area were abandoning their smaller local churches in favor of the cooler, edgier, and supposedly “more authentic” Mars Hill church, pastored by Mark Driscoll. I felt the allure of Mars Hill, too, but I was also keenly aware of the way that my multigenerational, family church was being hollowed out as most of my peers left.
In the article, I made the case for seeing the church as a dysfunctional family (my analogy was the family from Wes Anderson’s film The Royal Tenenbaums). Even though we had problems, I argued, people should remain committed to small, local, multigenerational churches instead of moving to more attractive, trendier churches. I suggested that a church family, like a biological family, was never meant to be “perfect,” but that it was held together by the willingness of imperfect people to remain together, through good and bad. I’m still glad that I never went to Mars Hill—now more than ever—but my thoughts on church, family, and community have become much more complicated.
My homespun apologetics for sticking with a church no matter what were just one small part of my larger embrace of Christian apologetics. As a lifelong pastor’s kid and missionary kid, I was prepared from an early age to know the Bible inside and out, to understand not just key themes of the Christian narrative but niche trivia (e.g., “Who is the left-handed judge in Judges 3? Ehud, of course!”) and the intricacies of a distinctively dispensational theology. Sure, I had questions or doubts; and whenever I did, I just studied more and more in order to shore up a rational defense of what I had been taught and what I believed.
As I moved through university and then through graduate school, in pursuit of a PhD in early-nineteenth century English literature, I embraced philosophy, history, and poststructural linguistics. At the same time, I remained committed to my small local church, teaching Sunday school classes on the literary elements of the Bible, regularly helping lead in music ministry, and serving for six years as an elder. During this time, my commitment to intellectual rigor in my academic work made it increasingly difficult for me to ignore the fissures that were opening up in my belief structures, and this sense of cognitive dissonance made me feel like I was living two lives at once. One felt intellectually honest, while the other was driven by “faith” and “trust” and cautioned me against “leaning on my own understanding.”
The first real crack opened up shortly after I finished my doctorate when, all of a sudden, I could no longer read the first three chapters of Genesis. I could not maintain the cognitive dissonance any longer. The framework I had been given told me that if I couldn’t read Genesis literally, then the whole Bible was drawn into question. If I dismissed the “first Adam,” then I might as well dismiss Jesus as the “new Adam,” and so on. I have heard others describe similar efforts to grapple with Genesis specifically, and the Bible more broadly, as extremely lonely. I felt that loneliness, too. Suddenly, the church that had felt like a family to me felt like a place of isolation, like I was carrying a secret that I couldn’t talk to anyone about. I imagined that letting people know about the conflict churning inside of me would (at best) raise eyebrows or (at worst) ostracize me as someone who had capitulated to “the secular culture.”
The story feels so familiar, especially in deconstructive circles, that it almost sounds cliché when I look back over it. What I do not hear people talk about as much is the deep feeling of shame that came along with this process. The part of myself that valued intellectual honesty criticized the part of me that was trying to hold on to a rigid belief structure grounded in certainty. The part of myself that valued belief and a deep commitment to my faith community criticized the part of me that would dare question those beliefs and jeopardize my place in that community. In light of my earlier apologetic efforts, I felt like a hypocrite and a failure. Both sides of myself would tell the other side that it was worthless, the source of my own problems. A lot of the time, I just wished that I could disappear—from my church, from my friends, and from myself. At the same time, I longed to be seen, to feel like I wasn’t alone, but I just didn’t know how or where to find that anymore.
It would be misleading to say that those feelings have gone away. Sometimes they are with me more strongly than others. The isolation of lockdowns mixed with the apocalyptic nature of American politics over the past five-plus years has been as disorienting as it has been reorienting. It has not been easy reconciling the divisions within me, and I have a hard time knowing how to trust myself anymore. Those who know me see me as a thoughtful and engaging conversationalist on all kinds of subjects. My students see me as a caring, enthusiastic, and energetic professor who can make early-nineteenth-century poetry come alive (no easy task). But it is difficult for me to see myself as any of those things, to trust myself to be myself.
So, while I used to put my effort into defending systems and tracing grand narratives, I’ve learned to find hope in places that don’t fit into the boxes that I’ve built and that have been built for me—places that I feel allow me to exist as I am. For the past year, the practice of centering prayer has given me permission to sit in mindful silence without worrying about having the right language for prayer or intellectualizing my way through things. The concept of David Benjamin Blower’s “nah-box” has given me permission to hold on to beliefs that bring life while freely discarding ideas that don’t work any longer. Therapy has been hard but helpful for unravelling those narratives that have told me that I am worthless unless I do or believe x, y, or z properly. Perhaps most surprisingly, I’ve found an odd sense of community teaching at an ecumenical Christian university that has given me an academic home while allowing me to move between many different streams of Christianity. I have found refreshment through engaging with diverse theologies that decenter me and my own need to provide answers.
Self-acceptance has always been difficult for me. I used to think the best solution was to find better answers so I could be sure that I was doing things the “right” way. Now I’m practicing being more generous, towards others and towards myself, as I learn to not know.
– Traynor Hansen