Hi and welcome back! For a while now, I’ve watched an interesting trend develop in American culture: Weird Christianity. By this term I don’t mean far-out cults and bizarre sects, though they’re certainly part of it. Nor do I mean something that only evangelicals do, though they certainly do participate in it. I mean more like a rejection of mainstream church rituals and customs — along with attention-seeking behavior far outside the norm for most Christians. But this isn’t a new trend. No, only its exact manifestation changes. For many decades, young adults in particular have explored Weird Christianity. Today, let me show you what that quest looks like — and more importantly, why it appeals to so many Christians.
Whadda You Got?
Mildred: Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?
Johnny: Whadda you got?
— The Wild One (1953)
It is the nature of younger folks to rebel against the norms of older generations. Their own development depends upon navigating the ship of I myself through the sea of everyone else. They need to find their own voices, their own personalities, and their own futures. In a very real way, then, this youthful rebellion functions as a way for young people to define themselves and learn the skills they’ll need to become independent adults.
This rejection of old ways and rules also involves exploring new ones. A child of deeply conservative parents might end up embracing far-left liberalism, and vice versa. Sometimes if the parents were especially extreme in their views or lifestyle, their children seem all but guaranteed to embrace a worldview that runs completely opposite to it.
So it’s not surprising at all to me to see essays here and there about the new configuration of Weird Christianity. Of course. There have always been Weird Christians, ever since I myself was a teen and oh, well before that even.
Rejecting norms in Christianity has always been a popular pastime in that religion — along with creating new ones. And the Christians doing it don’t tend to vary much in why they do it, nor in how they define themselves through their expressions of faith.
Sowing the Seeds of Weird Christianity.
After World War II, evangelicals panicked over a perceived loss of dominance. Their Dear Leaders definitely felt that they were losing power, anyway. So they instituted moral panics like the Red Scare, cozied up to powerful figures in government, and started traditions like the National Day of Prayer.
In trying this hard to regain power, however, evangelicals may simply have doomed themselves to decline. And I don’t mean just because of the backlash of public opinion. Definitely, that’s happening. But in this case, 1950s Christians had two things working against them that I think created 1960s counterculture forms of Christianity.
First of all, a lot of forms of Christianity are boring, dull, and worst of all meaningless. They don’t resonate with a lot of people. The Eastern mysticism that permeated counterculture activities and thinking may have led a lot of younger Christians to want that same kind of resonance and meaningfulness in their own faith.
Second, in the 1950s Christians enjoyed a lot more dominance in their local communities than they do today. Active church membership was all but a requirement for most people. Churches functioned as community hubs in a lot of ways. Rejecting Christianity could become a real problem for people.
So I’m not even half surprised that in the 1960s, younger Americans began to reject the norms of their elders — which included, of course, their elders’ way of expressing Christianity.
The Jesus People: The Original Weirdsters.
In the 1960s, non-Christian religions began springing up around America. Christian ones soon followed.
Known as “Jesus People” or “Jesus Freaks,” these counterculture Christians forged startling new ground. A website devoted to one of these Jesus People, a very popular-at-the-time musician named Keith Green, traces the movement to 1967 in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
Jesus People dressed like hippies, slept rough, and sought to Jesus-ify every single element of their lives. Almost all of them were very young — teens or college-aged, perhaps mid-20s at most. Many had musical inclinations and aspirations, which might explain why the music these folks created tended to be folksy or rock-influenced.
The leaders who emerged from this movement went on to lead Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru), Vineyard, and other huge churches. Remember Bill Hybels of Willow Creek? I’m pretty sure he was involved to at least some extent with this movement.
And you know what? Younger Christians ended up rebelling against these leaders in the modern day, just as the Jesus People had back in the 1960s and 1970s.
The Cloud Has Always Moved.
When I was myself Pentecostal, we referred to our god’s favor with a metaphor about clouds. The cloud of his favor moved from time to time, and you wanted to be sure to be under it to remain as safe as possible. (I wrote a lot more about this metaphor here.) Even if you thought your flavor of Christianity was perfect, you always had half an eye out for potentially superior flavors. New flavors, in particular, attracted a lot of attention for that reason.
Of course, this attitude opened the door wide to hucksters. All they had to do was claim that their new flavor was a new movement of God, and we’d be all wait, explain this to us.
And if we thought we’d latched on to a superior flavor, oh my, that would send us over the moon. Now we owned all the other Christians following substandard flavors! They weren’t as extreme as us, as radical, as sold out, as ON FIRE as we were!
We even took pride in being considered weird and fringe and extreme and extra.
Other Christians just weren’t as hardcore as we were, which made them inferior. However, it also meant they might not be safe from our god’s bloodlust. We worried about their souls and we tried to bring them into our way of Jesus-ing, but we almost never succeeded. It took a special mindset to buy into what we were doing, and most Christians lacked it.
Weird Christianity: More Hardcore Than Thou.
Today’s Christians play the exact same game, but their focus has shifted. Instead of seeking newfangled ways to Jesus, they react to the Jesus People’s influence by returning to extremely archaic modes of worship.
In May, a pair of essays caught my eye.
The first one, “Christianity Gets Weird,” comes from The New York Times Sunday Review. Written by Tara Isabella Burton, it presents a version of Christianity that utterly rejects what white evangelicals have wrought. It also embraces the super-kooky oogly-boogly aspects of Christianity, which Burton describes as “the stranger and more supernatural elements of the faith” like “the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ,” which I hadn’t realized any churches had dismissed. Most of all, Burton’s Weird Christianity (and that is the term she uses for it) rejects ickie capitalism.
Of her flavor of the religion, she writes:
Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and, well, punk: Christianity as transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture. Like punk, Weird Christianity has its own, clearly defined aesthetic.
And of course it does. So did the Jesus People. The Jesus People had beads, frowzy hair, and rock-tinted songs played on guitar. Her peers have rites done in Elizabethan English or Latin, veils, and liturgy liturgy liturgy all the time. They find meaning in exactly the same rituals and rites that the Jesus People fled.
Making Love Out of Nothing At All.
Tara Isabella Burton counts Rod Dreher as a Weird Christian, but strangely her piece doesn’t recount any of the serious criticisms leveled at his ideas. She instead recounts his testimony of aching and longing for meaning in his religion:
“As a teenager in the 1980s, I thought Christianity was either the boring middle class at prayer, or it was Jimmy Swaggart’s hellfire Pentecostalism,” Mr. Dreher told me. “Neither one spoke to me.”
But when he was 17, he told me, he visited Chartres Cathedral while on a group tour of France and he found himself moved by the majesty of the Gothic architecture. “I think this is why a certain kind of person really is drawn to the older, ritualistic, aesthetic forms of Christian worship,” he said. “It speaks to something deep inside us, and, I think, it is a kind of rebellion against the ugliness and barrenness of modernity.”
Swung the exact opposite direction, this testimony could have easily flown far with my Pentecostal crowd. We could all have said exactly the same thing about the flavors we’d rejected in becoming Pentecostal.
I wish I’d realized back then that the problem wasn’t the flavor; it was the underpinnings of the religion itself that made other flavors seem meaningless.
A second essay, this one from Intelligencer, offers a reply to Tara Isabella Burton. Written by Ed Kilgore and titled “The Allure and Danger of Anti-Modern Religion,” it struggles to reconcile faith in something sublime (and imaginary) with the real world and its demands. Kilgore himself, as he tells us, grew up evangelical and later adopted what he calls “militant atheism.” What he became, an Anglo-Catholic Episcopalian, was similar to what Burton now prefers. However, it sounds like he came to temper that adoration in time:
“Traditional” or “old” doesn’t necessarily mean more faithful to the kind of rigorous or meaningful religion “Weird Christians” seek. [. . .]
But like any incarnational religion, Christianity requires a constant tension between transcendence and immanence — the divine and the human, reconciled in Christ. That means living in the real, liberal-capitalist America, which is no more wicked that the medieval principalities with which the premodern church lived intimately and uneasily. [. . .]
In my own boomer evolution, I eventually came to see a religious life based mostly on the beauty of old and essentially unliving liturgical traditions as a sort of idolatry that represented, at best, an escape from the true and sometimes aesthetically unsatisfying demands of being Christian in an imperfect world.
And I really liked what he had to say.
“Smells and Bells.”
Kilgore presents a vision of a pluralistic Christianity — and of a pluralistic America itself — that emphasizes respect for others, functionality in the here-and-now, and a desire to get along rather than dominate. It might, in its way, be the weirdest flavor of Christianity of ’em all, given how much of the religion (both its main sourcebook and its history) focuses on dominance and power. But it lacks dogma and control-grabs as much as what he calls “smells and bells,” so I doubt it’ll come to represent its own Weird Christianity in turn eventually.
These anti-capitalist Weird Christians might not catch the irony they represent — kvetching about capitalism and human rights when those are pretty much the reasons why they’re even allowed to hold different beliefs than the mainstream without fear of retaliation from the government — but it sounds like at least a few survivors of previous Weird Christianity movements at least get it.
For my own part, I find these attempts to outplay the other Christians at this eternal game of More Hardcore Than Thou to be tedious and boring. Considering that all of it’s made up, it seems to me that nobody in the religion really has a high ground regarding exactly how to Jesus the bestest and most correct way.
As long as they don’t try to force me to Jesus along with them or drag me into their kink without my consent, they can do whatever they like.
Not an Improvement At All.
But that’s kinda the problem with these folks. Today’s self-identified Weird Christians don’t just want to Jesus in their own sandboxes. They want to impose their beliefs on others as well, they can be deeply politicized, and often they sound downright toxic — like Rod Dreher. Kilgore offers up the bio of one of them, a name longtime readers might recognize:
Leah Libresco Sargeant, a Catholic convert and writer who describes her views as roughly in line with that of the American Solidarity Party, which combines a focus on economic and social justice with opposition to abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia, rejects capitalist notions of human freedom.
So as much as these Weird Christians of today might crow about having found the super-duper-deepest way to Jesus ever, they still ache for the same control. They just package their toxicity in language more appealing to Millennials who find the Jesus People’s legacy doesn’t rev their Jesus motors — but who still want to order other people around and act as the Designated Adults for the younger generations.
The desire for control, it seems, outlasts all trends in this religion.