Granny and Pop Barger survived the Great Depression. Their basement full of decades-old canning and boxes full of rubber bands attested to the lasting trauma of that time. Still, my great grandparents were hard nosed, independent Americans from a time when we still were agrarians, before the government turned farms into food factories. From the depression to the New Deal, Granny and Pop leaned into the winds of change. When the government offered them a subsidy for their farm, they turned it down. They’d make it on their own, thank you very much, and as a result the government never could tell them what or how much to grow. My memories of them are of Pop smoking his pipe on the porch, telling stories to the nieces and nephews, and of pitting cherries with Granny. I remember the pungent smell of cats and old people in my nostrils, and I can hear the loud tick of the clock in the living room, only occasionally interrupted by some comment about the weather or the rustle of a newspaper, or the click click of Granny’s teeth.
Granny and Pop came from Baptist and Methodist stock. But in the 20s they found their friends in Jackson Square, where they met to read Arthur Pink, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and others, to fall in love with the doctrines of grace, to become Presbyterians, and charter Belmont Presbyterian Church in Roanoke, VA. As the PCUSA drifted into theological liberalism over the following decades, many Presbyterians, including my grandparents, left. Lacking alternatives, my grandparents attended a non-denominational church. But the family always was Presbyterian at heart, and eventually they would find their way back via the RPCES and the PCA.
In a way, Granny and Pop were as much of an influence on my mother as her own parents were. My mother explored their book shelves and imbibed their love of the church. She learned to love learning, and while others in the family were going off to college and grad school, she soaked up as much as she could on her own. She read the books on Pop and Granny’s shelves, and she attended Bible studies and Sunday services with the family. And when my dad, a nominal Methodist who had experimented with Quakerism and didn’t profess Christ asked her out, she agreed to let him bring her to church until he was ready to join. He did join. And my mother married him. After they were married, they joined an RPCES, where my mother sponged up theology through the bible studies and sermons offered there. In 1977 they added me to the family, and in 1983, around the time of the J&R with the PCA, they found themselves in Pittsburgh, where my dad had a new job, looking for a new church.
On a tip from a friend, they thought they’d give a look at a little OPC congregation in Sewickly, PA. Walking up to the church one Sunday morning, the door flew open and a loud, red-faced man bounded out, grasped their hands, and announced, “You’re the people we’ve been praying for!” Charlie Dennison had presided over a congregation in transition. His church had left the mainline Presbyterian denomination to join the OPC. As it turned out, that not everyone in the congregation was ready to relinquish political enfranchisement and cultural relevance, and the numbers at Grace church had dwindled. My parents arrived at just the right time, and my mother found in Charlie a mentor and a close friend who could continue pushing her in the theological directions she’d already set. For the next seven years, my family drove an hour to church and another hour back, for both services. We were strict sabbatarians. We were three-office. Our living room Shelves were full of Van Til, Machen, and Vos, The Westminster Confession of Faith, the OPC Book of Church Order, and the blue Trinity Hymnal. A shelf lifted from Granny and Pop’s own living room.
My mother passed on to me her love of the church and her love of study. Over the years my family would be involved in one labor after another, investing in building the kingdom. When I was little I made sure I was dressed for church on time so we could arrive early enough for me to turn on the lights in the church. I took my first job so that I could have my own money to put in the offering plate. In my mind, my offering was to pay for the flowers that sat on the communion table. I took responsibility for managing my social activities to respect the sabbath. I often found myself defending my scruples against theater and sports schedules. I argued T.U.L.I.P with my friends, and I defended the Puritans in my English class.
I felt intimately connected to a specific strand of Reformed history, culture, and theology. When my grandparents were leaving the PCUSA, Machen was busy founding Westminster Theological Seminary, fighting for a mission that kept Christ and the gospel at its center, and founding the denomination to which I’ve belonged for most of my life. I belonged to a branch of the Reformed faith that organizes itself around the spirituality of the Church, union with Christ, and an acute sense of ourselves as the ‘continuing church.’ Ours is a contrarian spirit that sets itself apart from the world but stays engaged with it. We are, as we say, a ‘pilgrim people’, ‘in the world but not of it,’ ‘strangers in a strange land,’ pitching our tent among the nations, sojourning in the land that God has promised to give us.
When my wife and I joined an OPC mission work in New Orleans, these theological and cultural narratives drove our engagement, both with the church and with the community. We felt connected to the history and the mission of the Church, and so we threw ourselves into every aspect of its life. If the door was open, we were there. We approached every relationship with the energy of the already, fed by the urgency of the not yet. The relationships we established in those days fed us, and even now, plus or minus fifteen years later, some of those people remain precious to us.
As newlyweds we were figuring out who we wanted to be. That meant examining the norms and expectations we’d inherited. When we were first married, I suggested that I take her name, mostly because I thought “Jones” was boring, but also because I thought that would be a fun way to raise eyebrows. She rejected the suggestion because she was looking forward to having just “Jones” to put on her checks, rather than the super lengthy “Di Bernardo”. Also, she wasn’t interested in rabble rousing. Less silly was the conversation we had about how to fit kids into her plan to finish her Masters and start on a Ph.D, and the one wherein we decided that spanking (and punitive discipline in general) wouldn’t be part of our child raising repertoire. We were very aware that these choices ran counter to accepted, theologically baptized expectations. But we felt no tension with scripture; only the cultural expectations that had accreted around it.
The events of the next ten years would continue to challenge us in ever deeper ways. A bout with severe depression led me to declare I was no longer a Christian, at which point I refused to take the supper for a while. The elders noticed, and they talked to me. Our pastor visited once or twice at our request, but mostly we were on our own working through depression so deep that it nearly drove me to suicide and almost destroyed my marriage. Meanwhile, after a difficult hospital experience with our first child, we’d decided our second would be delivered by a midwife. Jeannette approached that pregancy with a new focus on understanding and being more present in her body, a preoccupation that eventually would play into developments in her intellectual and academic life. The next ten years of our spiritual lives and of our life as a couple would be a process of recovery and discovery. We sought strategies and help for becoming more aware of ourselves, and we worked at being better at communicating our needs and wants to one another.
We took little help from the standard narratives. Dying unto self and union with Christ didn’t seem to fit well with “mindful” practices, like meditation, and the language of “self care”. I thought I didn’t need to meditate; I just needed to pray. I didn’t need to pursue self knowledge and emotional health; I just needed to know Christ and be united with him in his suffering and his glorification. All my stories, of my parents, of my grandparents, of my great grandparents, of Machen and the many other heroes of the narratives, spoke of hard truth, of sacrifice, of self denial, and of standing against the world while resting in the otherworldly. We were countercultural, impolitic, austere, and fiercely intellectual, not wishy-washy and anything-goes, like the liberals (political or theological). Mindfulness and self care were for the self-help section at the book store. They were the domain of eastern mysticism, repackaged in secularist wrapping paper, and they had no place in the spiritual practice of a good son or daughter of the Reformation. For me, I said to myself, to live was none of these things, but Christ. To die to self was gain.
Being a good intellectual, I spent most of my energies working with the arguments. Scripture handed me a set of models. It told me how to be a Good Son, a Good Husband, a Good Father, etc. It may not have spelled out those expectations in purely practical terms, the way certain other Christians thought it did. I never struggled with whether or not to drink and smoke, because I believed in Christian liberty. And I never thought I’d ask God for a special revelation when deciding to buy a car or sell a house, because that smelled like mysticism, and besides, I knew that God’s revelation was perspicuous and complete. I believed the honorable, holy life was one submitted to the rule of principle, well grounded in sound exegesis. Whatever the problem, there was a best choice which could be referred by sound argument to the fundamental principles. Mistakes would be forgiven, because grace, and humility demanded that we not be so sure of ourselves as to imagine we had it right all the time. But right there was, and the quest to achieve it was a kind of mental and praxical hygiene approaching Godliness.
But being right didn’t bring me closer to the people I loved, who wanted to love me. The thing about being right is that as your rightness increases, the number of people with whom you can share it decreases. As we increase in confidence in our principles and the soundness of our arguments, we become less interested in cultivating an environment that respects difference. We prioritize conformity to expectations over creativity and openness; we prefer to fit the world into our models rather than simply being in it, with others, both changing it and being changed by it. I learned in my marriage that truly knowing my wife meant that I had to break my dependence on being a certain kind of right. I had to modulate my expectations of her, of our relationship, and of myself. I needed to know her not only as the impersonation of a set of expectations but as a fully embodied, emotional and intellectual being, and I needed to learn new emotional and intellectual languages for reaching into her world to experience it as she did. I had to learn empathy, a way of being right while letting others be differently right. But I couldn’t find that anywhere in my experience of Reformed piety, shaped by the standard narratives. I had to look elsewhere for a catalyst to break down the accretions of cultural expectations, to begin to get to the heart of my faith, to know Christ more authentically, more vibrantly, and more vitally. I had to give up being truly Reformed in order to be Truly Reformed.
I still keep Vos’s “Grace and Glory” close to my nightstand. I cling to the doctrines of grace, and I thrill to the story of God’s redemption of a people to himself. I believe that faith isn’t merely assent to propositions without proof, but that it’s the organ of apprehension of things unseen, and reliance on the promise of things hoped for. I believe that the Bible is God’s inspired and infallible word, and I recite the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer with full and deep conviction that it is true. But I have become suspicious of the narratives we build around these expressions of True faith, and how they’ve worked to limit our possibilities for spiritual flourishing. I have begun to see how Reformed evangelicals have constructed a complex of reactionary, oppositional narratives that elevate the importance of secondary doctrines as fences against the wilderness of heterodoxy, and how doing so they arrest spiritual and intellectual flourishing. I have become sensitive to the currents authoritarianism and patriarchalism that animate the Reformed community, giving shelter to abusers and manipulators, and how those who are invested in maintaining existing power centers deploy a constellation of strategies to sublimate the diverse perspectives and experiences of women, gender, sexual, cultural, and political minorities, the disabled, and the chronically ill. I reject the sort of moralistic piety that understands holiness as movement toward a higher value or transcendence toward God through instrumental calculation, mere obedience to rules, and the impersonation of social expectations, rather than as being-in-the-world, manifesting as care for others.
I suppose we’ve been putting distance between ourselves and the old narratives for a while. In fact, we’ve always been questioning, and people who have known us longer than we’ve known ourselves show no surprise at how we’ve matured. Others, who remain invested in the old narratives and are less interested in knowing us than they are in seeing us impersonate the old expectations are dismayed to see us step away from the church that birthed us. But we think it’s time to make an exit, not from the reservation altogether but just to another, non Presbyterian corner of it. And just so you know we aren’t gone completely, I’d like to keep writing. Specifically, I’d like to say more about some of the issues that I raised in this post, about authoritarianism and patriarchalism, about moralism, and other topics of concern. I hope that these posts provoke thoughtfulness and good conversation amongst my friends. I hope, though the realist in me doesn’t dare to hope, that my writing here might have a positive impact on the church I still love, in spite of how deeply it has hurt me.