By now, if you have any friends that are still evangelical, you have probably noticed many sharing the open letter by John L. Cooper of the Christian band Skillet written to former Christian leaders (like Josh Harris) who have publicly renounced their Christian faith. While there are some good points in the open letter about putting people on pedestals before they are ready, most of the letter falls into the typical Evangelical tropes about how every one else is wrong and certain types of Christians are the only ones that are right about the world around us.
From the beginning, Cooper displays an ahistorical ignorance of the fact that Church leaders have been leaving the Christian faith in significant numbers for as long as Christianity has existed. In the past, these people that changed faith affiliations (or even rejected faith of any kind) typically were shunned or ignored more than they are now, but I’m not seeing any proof there are currently any more than there were 10, 20, 30, etc. years ago. The number of attendees at Churches seems to be dropping due to the Exvangelical and EmptyThePews movements, but leaders are still coming and going just like they always have.
Most of the open letter is filled with Cooper being shocked that people who change their religious beliefs would want to share those changes with others. Of course, I have never heard of evangelicals extending the same idea to recent converts to Christianity – most “New Christian training materials” and “beginner Christianity books” encourage people to go out and share their new faith with others from the start. Why wouldn’t that go both ways? According to Cooper:
“I am stunned that the seemingly most important thing for these leaders who have lost their faith is to make such a bold new stance… I’m perplexed why they aren’t embarrassed? Humbled? Ashamed, fearful, confused?”
I wonder if he ever realized that they are sharing now exactly because they are embarrassed, ashamed, confused, etc. Maybe they feel like they need to undo the damage they have done in the past. Sure, they might be afraid that they are getting it wrong again. But – newsflash – they probably weren’t that sure about their Christian faith when they were believers as well.
You see, this whole “how can they be so quick to share their unbelief” attitude comes from this subtle idea in evangelical circles that everyone really deep down knows that Jesus is God, and those that say they are not following Christ are just lying to themselves and others. Therefore, when someone finally converts to Christianity, this is why they can go out boldly declaring the Good News from the very beginning: they have just acknowledged what they knew deep down all along. However, when someone decides to go back into this supposed self-denial of the reality we all know deep down… they should hold back, not say a word, and be ashamed that they got something wrong once and might get it wrong again. Quite the double standard.
It’s also weird that Cooper’s second point against “being real” is itself being real and very cavalier with the way he treats other people’s differences in beliefs. However, the real kicker is this statement:
“So the influencers become the voice for truth in whatever stage of life and whatever evolution takes place in their thinking.”
Cooper means this as an insult, but it is actually the most true statement in his entire letter. This thought is actually true of all of us no matter what we believe or how long we have believed it. If you are honest with yourself, you realize that your beliefs are always evolving, even if they still fit under the same category for years or decades. You can only be the voice of truth for whatever evolution you have in your life at that time. Whether that is within the same category of religious belief or if it changes from one to another, it is still all you can do: be a voice for your truth where you are at that time.
(Of course, many are in denial about their changing beliefs, or pretending changes are not happening – see Trump supporters and the changes they have made to their faith beliefs while denying they are happening – but that is another issue.)
But let’s say you disagree with the idea that beliefs can evolve. Let’s say you believe you make a big change in some belief system and then stay there for 20+ years. If it is true that this belief will not evolve, then you should be able to speak up about your belief on Day 1 or Year 20 – because it won’t change for a long time. Then, when it does finally change (and therefore you would be getting ready for another long period of little change), why not speak up again then? If our beliefs aren’t constantly changing, evolving, maturing, going to different systems, and so on – then why not speak up from day one of a big change?
Again, it comes back to the fact that no matter what you believe, you can only speak the truth about where you are at that moment of evolution (or non-evolution if you see it that way).
Then Cooper’s third point is the most cavalier one on the list – he completely misunderstands what people mean when they say “no one is talking about the real stuff.” Yes, we all know people have talked about it and written about the “real stuff” for centuries. This statement is usually a rhetorical device that is utilized to refer to how actual contextual/practical discussion of hard issues is often effectively shut down in many churches today. Not just “hard stuff” in general – there is always an acceptable list of “hard stuff” to talk about at every church (although not all of it really falls under the true banner of “hard”). Anything that contradicts main beliefs or tenets of various churches is quickly shut down or forcefully re-routed to pre-determined answers. Yes, people are handing out nice, neat answers in books about the “hard stuff,” but no one is talking about it with individuals in ways that helps them wrestle with and dig through the hardness of those hard things. Big difference.
Next there is the jaw-dropping statement that showcases Cooper completely misunderstanding how the world functions, when he has the audacity to say that Christian beliefs about generosity, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and turning the other cheek are exclusive to Christianity. He is in a band that has toured the word and claims to have many friends of other faiths… but doesn’t understand that these ideals are common to many other belief and non-belief systems?
“And lastly, and most shocking imo, as these influencers disavow their faith, they always end their statements with their “new insight/new truth” that is basically a regurgitation of Jesus’s words?! It’s truly bizarre and ironic. They’ll say “I’m disavowing my faith but remember, love people, be generous, forgive others”. Ummm, why? That is actually not human nature. No child is ever born and says “I just want to love others before loving myself. I want to turn the other cheek. I want to give my money away to others in need”. Those are bible principles taught by a prophet/Priest/king of kings who wants us to live by a higher standard which is not an earthly standard, but rather the ‘Kingdom of God’ standard…. So why then would a disavowed christian leader promote that “generosity is good”? How would you know “what is good” without Jesus’s teachings?”
Every society has its own definitions of what counts as good. And while it is true that there is no proof of a universal morality, many of these systems do match up with Christianity…. often while pre-dating when Jesus walked the Earth. In fact, any student of Old or New testament studies knows that the Bible made explicit references to laws for good and evil that were copied from other – often earlier – religions.
Cooper is just a mouth piece of deeply self-centered form of Christianity (a very real form, even though it is self-centered) that thinks it is the moral epicenter of good in the universe. Cooper might be shocked to find out that many leaders and members that leave the faith end up leading great lives (despite his ascertain to the opposite). Many Christians that stay in the faith end up having their “lives fall apart” while they “sink in the sea.” Really its all over the place: those that leave Christianity and stay are both as likely to have a great life as they are to have it all fall apart.
Assuming that people who leave Christianity have horrible lives and no reason to tell their story is one of many forms of bias and hatred that the church extends to those that leave. Ironically, this hatred only encourages more to leave. I don’t think Cooper even realizes how he probably chased more people out of church than he convinced to stay with his open letter. Many have grown tired of how the church misunderstands its place in a pluralistic society.