Jason Byassee: Maudlin disbelief

Memo to Reece: Quit reacting to your granddaddy's backwoods Neanderthalism and join us in the task of living in faith for a new day.

You may have heard on NPR recently that Erik Reece is going to give us a Christianity we can live with. Update the faith for a bright and optimistic 21st century. Drag us, despite the din of protest, into the light of a new day. He is equipped to do this by having written a justly celebrated book on mountain-top removal mining (he’s against it) and by having grown up with West Virginian religion (ditto).

Just how does he plan to do this? With the aid of writers like Thomas Jefferson, Walt Whitman, and William James. With the wide-eyed yawp of one who has just discovered forgotten geniuses whose work languished unread in caves for centuries, Reece means to drag us into the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, respectively.

This is the problem with those who become evangelists against traditional Christianity: they take the little patch of the thing in their place of origin and think they have the whole quilt. Christianity as such for Reece is necessarily, always and everywhere, “guilt-inducing,” “heavy” and “sin-obsessed” as the fundamentalists in his grandfather’s church in West Virginia.

Reece speaks as though no one has noticed the problems he sees even in the Appalachian hills. As though his heroes themselves weren’t writing in response to the same caricaturized version of orthodoxy. But faith, not less than every other human enterprise, is always in the midst of reinvention. For Christians this innovation is a matter of reappropriating riches of our heritage for a new day.

In fact, we liberal Protestants have been spackling modernity over traditional sheetrock for centuries. It’s sort of our specialty. And we’re not quiet about it. Reece might have been expected to notice us. Because what a liberal Protestant is, is somebody reacting against the backwoods Neanderthalism of their granddaddy, but trying to hold on to faith. Far from a pioneer, Reece is bringing up the rear. In fact, mainline Protestants have been updating so long that Reece’s own luminaries are heirs to our tradition. They thought the modernly tenable (as opposed to antiquely morosely unbearable) things Reece champions precisely because of Christianity, not in spite of it.

But secular liberals who’ve made their Exodus from the holler to the city and now emote about the burdens of their family’s onerous sectarianism on the way to the bestseller list should save it for the therapist. Or join us in the much more interesting, and difficult, task of living in the thick of faith for a new day, following a savior 2000 years dead and risen, still “going ahead of us” (Mark 16:7).

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.