God first appeared to me in a photograph. I was six years old. A deacon in my family’s Pentecostal church called me over one morning and pulled out a grainy photo from his suit pocket. It was taken from an airplane window, he said. Out past the wing, suspended in the clouds, was the faint image of a man. “That’s Jesus,” he told me.
At twelve years old I hit what evangelicals call the age of accountability, when I was no longer exempt from the sins of my flesh. If eternity is a sea, that year I was dragged from the safety of the beach and tossed into perilous waters, my little footprints washed away from the sand. Out in these depths, God appeared to me as a wave roaring over my head.
That was the year I also encountered demons. It was a Sunday night at our church on the west side of San Antonio, in 1987, in a building that was once a grocery store. A visiting evangelist had reached the point of the service that I’d come to fear, the hour of spiritual warfare. He told us that a man in the audience suffered from depression and had asked for healing. I knew Bill and his wife from the Bible studies held in our home. He was a math teacher at the high school, kind and rather quiet.
The evangelist backed away from Bill, and then extended his arm. “In the name of Jesus,” he ordered Bill’s demons to “manifest” and flee. The command was like a thunderbolt that dropped Bill to the floor. The preacher then stepped over him like a fighter, shouting into a body that was now occupied and haunted. Bill’s chest heaved and bowed and then, to my horror, out of his mouth came a chorus of anguished voices. My mother quickly turned and pressed her hand over my eyes, saying, “Don’t look, baby,” for the Scriptures tell us how demons go house hunting once evicted, how they left the madman of Gerasenes only to swoop into a herd of pigs, 2,000 in number, who fled into a lake and drowned. “Just close your eyes,” she said. Her hands were trembling.
The church taught us that demons lurked beneath the benign: in Care Bears cartoons, carnivals, and prayer candles sold at the grocery store. We battled the devil of Halloween and secular music and held “rock and roll seminars” where they played “Stairway to Heaven” backward, a demonic Robert Plant singing, “So here’s to my sweet Satan. ... There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer sad Satan.”
Our church readied soldiers for the culture war. We stood on busy streets holding picket signs showing bloody aborted fetuses. We were about Pat Robertson and James Dobson and didn’t bother ourselves with soup kitchens or food pantries. We pushed purity culture and the “Twelve Steps of Dating” as ways to avoid the trap of premarital sex. Once I found a stack of Hustler magazines in the woods and devoured them with a fire of lust and self-loathing. On Sunday the pastor stopped mid-sermon and walked right up to me, “The Spirit is telling me someone here is battling demons of pornography.” I was saved only when someone else raised his hand, but I knew what punishment lay in store.
Sundays at church were no place for the spiritually meek. The pastors preached Kingdom Now sermons about taking dominion over the earth and ceding what was lost in the Garden. One of them was a former hooligan from England, his arms covered in faded ink, the same man who pressured my parents to remove me from karate for fear of “Eastern religions.” He vanquished demons and anointed the sick, leaving people in crooked rows before the carpeted altar, hands raised, eyelids quaking, in a state of spiritual sleep. Once they staggered away, the dancers leapt with their long silk streamers. My father sang with the band.
When I graduated from high school, I joined the over 60 percent of churchgoing people 17 and older, who, according to a recent study, walk permanently out the door. Whenever I found myself missing God, I went looking for Him not in church but in literature, weed, and in the dim lights of last call. In New York City, where I moved, He sang to me in the subways and slept in His own waste, but I didn’t recognize this as Him and walked past.
At 30, I was in central Africa covering a war and desperately needing Him to appear. In the burning villages I looked for Him; in the mass graves I did not see His face. Walking through a displaced camp one cold morning, three women brought me their babies who had died in the night. “It was God’s will,” said one, and I didn’t have the nerve to tell her that God was not there and never had been. Because what kind of God killed children?
This past May, I found myself in the packed auditorium of the First United Methodist church in downtown Austin, listening to Bible stories. The creak of the wooden pews and the smell of hymnals summoned a rush of memory. Yet the hundreds of mostly young, tattooed people surrounding me suggested I’d ventured far from the old religion. The tales about Elijah, Mary, and the Roman centurion that evening were part of a live recording of The Liturgists, one of the country’s most popular podcasts on spirituality, with over four million listeners per month. Its creators, Michael Gungor and Mike McHargue, both based in Los Angeles, are former evangelical Christians who had abandoned their faith only to return via the teachings of mystics, and by embracing science, philosophy, and social justice. While they insist their show isn’t explicitly Christian, McHargue told me, “Helping Christians deal with feelings of marginalization, oppression, and alienation is part of our work.” It explains how I came to find them, and why I still felt itchy in the pew. For me, to sit in a church is to be vulnerable, and no passage of time could stop that.
A couple of years earlier, after a decade of estrangement, I felt a tug to reconnect with organized religion. My two oldest children started having questions. When my daughter asked, “What is God?” we gave the kids a book that said God is everything, which led to my son telling my mother that God was our Honda. So, I started looking for a church. There was no rock band playing slick praise-and-worship music at Trinity Church of Austin, and certainly no speaking in tongues. During services, I saw gay couples and transgender people sitting alongside white-haired Methodist women. The pianist shared that it was the anniversary of his coming to this church, and then explained how his last congregation had ostracized him for being gay. He began to cry as he spoke, and I felt my own tears running down my face.
At Trinity, I realized I could be both liberal and Christian—that the church could be an affirming and reconciling place for gay and transgender people, along with advocating for the poor and oppressed. It was liberating. Mainline Protestant denominations such as the Episcopalians figured this out years ago (if not on an institutional level, certainly in many of their churches), but growing up I was always taught these people were going to hell. Somewhere within me, beneath the scar tissue, was a child who’d once believed that Sunday school lesson of universal love and was waiting for it to be true. He clung to the verse about seeking justice and loving mercy and remembered what Jesus said about “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I followed that child, running.
Despite my newly found church community, claiming faith in the Donald Trump era still amounted to an existential quandary—one the Liturgists have tapped into. They’re part of a wave of liberal Christianity that’s emerged since the 2016 election—an event that saw their audience more than double. It’s a wave that rippled when Trump ascended to the White House, and evangelical Christians, like the ones who’d taught my Sunday school classes and stood at our pulpit, suspended their moral convictions, and followed him like a dime-store messiah. We watched Jerry Falwell Jr. tell Fox News, “I think evangelicals have found their dream president” and Franklin Graham tweet in April, “Progressive is generally just a code word for someone who leans toward socialism, who does not believe in God.” The photos of them jostling to lay their hands on him to pray, calling him a “baby Christian,” and telling us that God had answered their prayers was disingenuous. But what hurt the most is watching our family and fellow church members not just vote for Trump, but continue to support him through his racist, xenophobic rhetoric, his ramped-up policy of separating children along the border, his tax cuts for the wealthy and proposed cuts to Medicaid, and, most recently, his pandering to a Russian regime that jails gay people and actually persecutes Christians.
It’s hard to decide which truth actually stings worse, that white evangelicals sold out Christian values for a couple of seats on the Supreme Court, or the grim prospect that our rigid Christian upbringing, with all its trauma and guilt, was nothing but a lie; it was never about the Good News at all, but white nationalism maintaining power through slavery and Jim Crow and now against a color-shifting, globalized society. (See Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 in defense of family separations.) As the former evangelical and bestselling author Rachel Held Evans told me, “Right now, there’s a need to process the sense of betrayal. We’re in a period of grieving for what was lost.”
This same outrage has brought other leaders to the fore. Most visible are black evangelical clergy like the Reverend William Barber II, who recently resumed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and fights tirelessly against white religious nationalism. In Chicago, the Reverend Otis Moss III has championed environmental causes and defended same-sex marriage when other black clergy deemed it sinful. Among white evangelicals, there’s Jen Hatmaker, the writer, pastor, and TV star who in 2016 torpedoed her Christian career by publicly supporting same-sex marriage. Hate mail and death threats poured in, and the Christian bookstore chain and publisher LifeWay yanked her titles. She’s now an advocate for LGBTQ inclusion and racial equality in the church and speaks widely across the country. Another is Shane Claiborne, a leader of the Red Letter Christian movement, a network of left-wing evangelicals who imagine a Christianity that “looks like Jesus” and try to adhere to his teachings, relying on his direct statements in the New Testament, which are often printed in red ink. Last April, Claiborne and his group held a revival in Lynchburg, Virginia, near the campus of Liberty University, where Falwell Jr. is president, to protest Falwell’s support of Trump. Claiborne asked Falwell if they could pray together. The school responded by threatening to have him jailed if he stepped on campus. Around the same time, the evangelical pastor and veteran activist Jim Wallis joined other prominent clergy in publishing a powerful manifesto called Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis, which said, in part, “We believe that truth is morally central to our personal and public lives. Truth-telling is central to the prophetic biblical tradition. ... Therefore, we reject the practice and pattern of lying that is invading our political and civil life.” The group held a vigil outside the White House and read it aloud, to no avail—the president never acknowledged them. A video of them reading it went viral on social media and still moves me to tears.
My return to faith in this time of crisis was part of a larger “deconstruction,” a term borrowed from Jacques Derrida that’s become popular of late in the Christian community, especially among liberals. When applied to Christianity, it’s—complicated. At its most basic, it’s a natural process of seeing the Bible and its teachings from a fresh perspective as one gets older or switches denominations. Likewise, throughout American history, deconstruction has also occurred as society and organized religion rejected political institutions, such as slavery and segregation, that white leadership had justified using Scripture. In those instances, deconstruction set off a foundational upheaval of belief, a recalibration of faith that I would argue tilts inevitably leftward—which is what’s taking place now among white evangelicals, former and current. And it’s happening around issues like racial and income equality, gay marriage, and immigration. Deconstruction is where the old canards fall away and the heart can be changed, and for many, it’s where God reveals Himself in the very people they were taught to condemn. It’s when Jesus stops looking like an action-figure culture warrior and more like the brown-skinned revolutionary who preached radical love.
“For a lot of people who were raised sorta fundamental, this process is inevitable if you’re moving into a more progressive space,” Hatmaker said recently on the podcast Homebrewed Christianity. “Nobody gets to skip it. ... I think this is just messy; it’s very imperfect. ... When you shift your theology toward the affirmation of the LGBTQ community, it very quickly becomes a very deep justice issue. It’s not just belief. It’s just justice. ... It’s human rights. So what may have begun as a spiritual gut check, it does become advocacy pretty quickly.”
It wasn’t that long ago that both Gungor and McHargue were staunch Republicans whose worldviews aligned with their fellow evangelicals. Gungor is a musician who grew up the son of a charismatic megachurch pastor. Like me, his childhood was a landscape of demons lurking around every bend. And like me, fear drove him to be the best little Christian he could be. In college, he put out a few praise-and-worship albums, and then gained attention in 2005 when his band played the traveling Christian youth rally Acquire the Fire. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan boiled over, he released an album called Battle Cry: Worship from the Frontlines. In 2010 he formed the band Gungor with his wife, Lisa, and began playing the megachurch circuit. Over the years their sound evolved into a quieter mix of folk and experimental, with heavy spiritual and Christian themes.
In 2012, with a coveted Dove Award and a Grammy nomination under his belt, Gungor entered a period of deep deconstruction, growing disillusioned with institutional religion and its inherent hypocrisy, and for a brief period even identifying as an atheist. “I was seeing behind the curtain in these giant megachurches, and it was grim,” he said. “The pastors were not the people their congregations saw on stage.” The closer he started examining his beliefs, the less they held up. Two years later he took heat for publishing a blog post dismissing creationism and mocking the story of Noah’s Ark. (“Do I believe that God literally drowned every living creature 5,000 years ago in a global flood except the ones who were living in a big boat? No, I don’t.”) The fallout from the evangelical community was swift. Gigs were canceled. Christian radio boycotted his music. By then he was already meditating, exploring mysticism, and his political views were evolving. These days he sometimes goes by the name Vishnu Dass, given to him by the spiritual teacher Ram Dass while on a retreat in Hawaii. Gungor’s last album, One Wild Life, featured a song called “Let Bad Religion Die,” in which he sings, “A million lives for Jesus Christ/They spread the word with genocide.”
“I’m in a weird complicated status with Christianity,” he told me.
Gungor met McHargue in 2013. McHargue had grown up in the heavily conservative Southern Baptist church in Tallahassee, Florida, and, like Gungor, was a lifelong Republican. As a kid, he was bullied because of his weight and found refuge in science, computers, and talking to Jesus in the woods. In 2007, he was married with two children and working in advertising when his father announced he was leaving his mother. Their sudden divorce, which went against the family’s evangelical beliefs, shattered him, and for once the Bible offered no real answers. With help from Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan, McHargue watched his belief in God disintegrate. For three years he lived as a closeted atheist, not even telling his wife, all while serving as a deacon in their church. He met Gungor at a party in Denver hosted by the left-wing pastor and writer Rob Bell, who has been condemned by traditional evangelicals for questioning the existence of hell, and other controversial stances. McHargue knew Bell through a mutual friend and had attended one of his conferences in Los Angeles, after which he’d had a mystical experience on the beach. (God had spoken to him, he said.) He was in the process of reassembling his faith, one that leaned more heavily into science, meditation, and social justice. These days, he and his family attend an affirming Methodist congregation in Pasadena.
McHargue’s interest in cosmology, neuroscience, and philosophy has earned him the nickname “Science Mike” on the podcast. It also provides a rare bridge between faith and science that’s become the bedrock of the show’s subject matter, along with social issues such as race and LGBTQ inclusion. In a March 2016 episode called “Black and White: Racism in America,” Science Mike offered such a clear-eyed breakdown of how white fragility and the decline of white prosperity led to Donald Trump that their guest, the hip-hop artist Propaganda, declared him “the most stay-woke white boy I’ve ever met in my life.” The episode on race remains one of their most popular, along with one about using the Enneagram—a model of the human psyche that is popular among many Liturgists fans—as a tool kit for deconstruction.
For me, discovering The Liturgists was like entering spiritual rehab. I felt like I’d found a kindred tribe, or stumbled into a country made up of people who’d all survived plane crashes. Nowhere had I heard an intelligent discussion about speaking in tongues, much less for 80 straight minutes. (“My dad used to put on the timer and we’d all have to pray in tongues for 15 minutes,” Gungor recalled.) A two-part exploration of evangelicalism with Hatmaker and Matthew Vines, an evangelical LGBTQ activist, was deeply moving and convincing. The episode on spiritual trauma, I had to stop halfway through and take a walk. For the first time in 25 years I was venturing into my own banished territory, and once there, I couldn’t turn away. Entire days flew past sitting in my office listening to episode after episode. “There is no media out there that talks to people in a post-Christian framework, and that’s our audience,” Science Mike told me. “And we provide those people a safe place to doubt and question without fear of judgment.”
In that safe space I continued to deconstruct, demythologize, and reassemble. Alongside my stacks of C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, and Marcus J. Borg, I added writers and biblical scholars who offered a modern interpretation of liberal faith. I read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis, which helped me to start seeing the life of Jesus and the Bible in a radical new way. Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness grabbed me by the collar and showed me what racial justice should really look like. I absorbed Rachel Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday, about leaving the evangelical church and the crisis of identity it brought. Richard Rohr describing the embodiment of God at the flash of the Big Bang ripped the lid off my head (“Cosmic Christ” episode, April 2016).
These people helped me speak a new language, and then gave me the tools to tear down the moldy firmament that had long entrapped my beliefs. Things I’d been told never to question—heaven and hell, the bodily resurrection, the rapture and the end of days—were at once removed from their confusing and narrow constraints. And with proper theology and interpretation, those stories took on newer and greater meaning. The kingdom of heaven was finally ripped from its mansions and pearly gates and brought to its proper place, on earth, among the homeless, disabled, and the immigrant seeking asylum, as a profound way of living we can experience now through our actions. This is what deconstruction became for me—taking all the old stories and watching the mythology crumble, and then reexamining them in a way that brought benefit to my life, and for the first time ever, actual hope.
Every few months Gungor and Science Mike host a gathering in a different city and record a live episode. It’s a way for fans to connect over two days of music, discussion, and meditation. They’ve toured as far away as London, and in the States, people fly in from around the world to attend. When I heard they were doing one at First United Methodist in Austin in May, I paid the $89 and signed up.
I’m not sure what I was expecting. Above all I wanted to meet people who had similar experiences, and I quickly found them. At a happy hour gathering before the event, a woman had spilled her entire messed-up Pentecostal childhood to me, and the music leader of a megachurch had confessed to no longer believing in God. Within a minute of finding a seat, the guy next to me slid over and said, “If you don’t mind me asking, what stage of deconstruction are you in?” With this group, there was no such thing as small talk.
Instead, over the next 24 hours I’d hear about people’s drug abuse and suicide attempts and deep poisonous rage toward fathers and pastors and a God they just couldn’t leave, in whose name their lives had been squeezed, interrupted, thrown into confusion. And like me, they’d found some camaraderie and guidance from a couple of guys who ran a podcast from their living rooms. So you can guess there was a wild energy in the church that night, a kind of restlessness you feel from people who are waiting for answers.
When Gungor and Science Mike took the stage, the crowd of several hundred greeted them with raucous applause. Gungor is 37 years old, tall and gangly with olive skin, glasses, and a rocker’s mop of brown curly hair. Science Mike, 40, is stocky with reddish hair and a beard that’s turning gray. He was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt. The pair were joined by their regular cohosts, Hillary McBride and William Matthews, who, respectively, bring a female and a black evangelical perspective to the show. Matthews is a celebrated Christian singer based in Los Angeles, while McBride is a writer and therapist from British Columbia.
Gungor kicked things off with some music, and then McBride led us through an embodiment exercise, something I’d never heard of. I later read on the internet that embodiment is the practice of feeling and being present inside your body, something I’m pretty sure I wasn’t doing. “In white church we don’t move very much,” she said. “This is a chance to reclaim your body and your embodiment, and to experience freedom. It’s you dropping down from your head and letting your body tell a story about this moment.”
We were instructed to do whatever felt natural: lie down, run around in circles, flap our arms in the air. Or we could do nothing at all, but I was game to try. While Gungor played a didgeridoo, I closed my eyes and tried to let my body lead the way. I flapped my arms a bit, and then raised them in the air, palms to the ceiling. Growing up in the charismatic church, I could never bring myself to join the others when they raised their arms in spiritual surrender. It never felt honest, or perhaps I was too afraid of what would happen if I did let myself go. Above all, I was terrified of speaking in tongues. Reclaim the movement, I told myself again and again, like a mantra. I waited for McBride’s voice to soothe and relax me. I wanted to experience freedom, to own my past fear. I wanted glossolalia from on high, but I don’t think that was the point of McBride’s exercise. Embodiment is something therapists like her use to treat clients who’ve experienced trauma. It plunges you back inside your body to do ... I’m not sure what. Before anything could happen, the exercise was over, and all I felt was agitated.
The night’s main event was a live recording of the podcast. The topic, Gungor said, was favorite Bible stories the panel wished to share, and I swore I heard a few groans coming from the back rows. I understood. The Bible is a loaded gun, and its misinterpretation and application has ruined countless lives, gay people in particular, some of whom were probably in that room wondering how they could ever approach it again. For me, one of the most surprising things about returning to faith was that I remembered very little Scripture. As a kid I won contests at church camp for memorizing Bible passages. But at some point, most of it faded away. Part of that was lack of use, but I also believe that around age 13 or 14, I subconsciously started tuning out. My prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that responds to trauma, simply shut down when the church band began to play. It would explain why I have very few memories of Sundays.
But since returning to church, one of the great pleasures has been rediscovering the Bible, to see it again as a living, sacred text, and not just that, but as a blueprint for pursuing justice in a time of oppressive empire. As Rachel Held Evans said, “We don’t cede the Bible to white religious nationalists, but we reclaim it.” And that meant taking back Romans 13 from Jeff Sessions as he jailed the asylum seekers the Scriptures tell us to welcome (Leviticus 19:33-34).
There was no better example of that reclamation than when Science Mike stood up and read from Matthew 8. It was a story we’d all heard growing up—about the Roman centurion who approaches Jesus on the road and asks him to heal his servant. In the story, Jesus offers to go right away, but the soldier replies, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed.” The centurion goes on to say that like Jesus, he has great authority. When he tells servants and soldiers to come, they obey. Jesus is so impressed that he heals the servant, sight unseen. The takeaway, as I’d learned, was the blind faith of the soldier, who was not only a Gentile, but a member of the oppressive Roman regime. But of course, there’s a better way to apply that story to our times.
“For most of my life, as a good, white Christian evangelical, I understood that we this ‘persecuted minority,’ represented a modern-day Israel, direct spiritual descendants from first-century Jews,” Science Mike said, drawing laughs from the audience. “And it was our job to stand up to the liberal secular media of Rome and stand up for truth and for love and for justice, meaning spiritual-warfare justice and not things that inconvenience suburbanites in any possible way. And that’s my spiritual heritage: a Roman who believed in sincerity that he was a Jew.”
The Roman who called Jesus “Lord,” he continued, was part of the same empire that later arrested this dark-skinned Jew for speaking truth to power and hung him on a cross. And as Romans living in our own empire—straight, white, middle-class America—we are born with inherent privilege and influence. As Romans, he implied, we wield incredible power with our wallets, tax dollars, and votes. When we tell corporations what to do, they obey. And when enough of us tell our congressmen to listen, they listen.
“So what does that mean?” Science Mike asked. “What do we do with a religion that’s so tied up with patriarchy, colonialization, heterosexism, sexism, antifeminism, and anti-blackness? How do we redeem that? Matthew 8 holds the key. Centurion: ‘Call the marginalized “Lord’” because they are the descendants of the role of Israel in society. They have the embodied spiritual experience to understand that the Gospel is not a get-out-of-hell-free card and the gospel is not a license to claim the world for yourself. That the Gospel is a demand to lay down what you have for the healing of the world. Anything less is not...good...news.”
It was one of the best sermons I’d ever heard. The audience went nuts. Already William Matthews had whipped everyone up with a story about the prophet Elijah calling God’s fire down on the mountaintop, how he challenged King Ahab and Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. “Do you guys feel like you’re sort of going insane?” he asked. “There’s always lies and deceit. ... They want us to normalize it ... but that only works for the status quo. So what do we do? What do we do, because the dissonance is getting louder and we’re all going a bit crazy? You have to call racism racism. You have to call sin sin. ... We need to keep speaking truth. ... Speak truth to power and to each other and to our family members and to our communities.”
Sitting there among my hip and tattooed brethren, it was hard to believe that 30 percent of the Liturgists’ audience identify as Republican, an estimate I got from Science Mike. And while I didn’t spot any anti-Trump T-shirts or Indivisible voter registration booths (McBride did urge us to call our representatives), what I was experiencing was a liberal call to arms, probably one of thousands taking place at that exact moment in America. And it felt good. It felt good to be angry as a crowd, to let the collective rage course through my blood like an amphetamine. We were taking back territory. We would march forth from this church and defend the immigrant and refugee, and slay the false prophets who peddled their toxic nationalism. And yes, we would defeat Ted Cruz! We would win because the one true God was on our side.
Later that evening, though, when I went home, I felt confused and restless, haunted almost. I was too jittery to sleep, so I ended up walking around the neighborhood until exhaustion and mosquitoes drove me indoors. I managed to return the next morning feeling better. The energy in the room was still palpable, despite many having closed the bars the previous night. Science Mike led us through a series of exercises to demonstrate the vulnerability of the conscious and subconscious mind—to things like religion, advertising, and Facebook. “We’re going to tear our conscious awareness to pieces,” he said, and we all cheered. We listened to a robot say the word bar and half of us heard far. Next, he had volunteers try to guess certain objects held in their peripheral vision. Several got it wildly wrong. “Your brain makes shit up,” he said. “Your senses are big fat liars!”
I was following along but wondered where it was all going. Then Science Mike said it was time to play around with our subconscious. “Our consciousness is a story we tell ourselves,” he explained. “But sometimes, somebody else tells that story.” He was talking about charismatic preachers. He would demonstrate this by conducting a group hypnosis.
Cool, I thought. I’d never been hypnotized.
It started off simple. We clasped our hands together and imagined them covered with super glue, then tried pulling them apart. The room filled with laughter as people found their fingers stuck together, unable to budge—including me. Science Mike then instructed us to watch the overhead screen, where there appeared a giant twisting spiral. “Look at the spiral and listen to the sound of my voice,” he said. “Don’t take your eyes off the center. ... Your eyelids are getting heavier and heavier...” He then snapped his fingers and my eyes closed, and when they did, panic flooded my body.
My pulse quickened, and I started to sweat. I forced my eyes open and saw everyone around me stiffly swaying in a trance. A woman near the front fell to the floor and the crowd closed in around her. I then realized what was happening. I was suddenly 13 again, back in those folding metal chairs at a Sunday night revival. Back to the short breath and clinching anxiety. An old siren wailed from my deepest memory: Surrender yourself, and the devil will slide in. However absurd, my animal brain was on fire. And I wasn’t the only one being triggered. Others were walking out, unable to cope.
Then Gungor got up to sing. All day Science Mike had referred to him as “Vishnu” and I was still struggling with how I felt about that. Dressed in a kimono, he sang songs from his latest album, otherwise beautiful songs, but at that moment they sounded channeled from the track-lit church of my youth. “Holy ... beautiful and holy ... trees clap their hands for you, oceans they dance for you, for you are holy ...” The triggers only kept coming. The woman next to me burst into tears. Everyone around me seemed to be crying. In my strongest lingering memories of church, there was always so much crying.
Science Mike looked into the crowd at all the broken people. “I can’t fix your trauma,” he said. “But we can offer you a place where your hurting is comforted.” He said he liked an institution that was into the death and resurrection business. “Because we all know what it’s like to be dead, and we all know the feeling of the empty tomb.”
He jumped down off the stage, his own voice cracking. “I believe God loves you,” he said. “And if you don’t believe that, believe that I love you. I truly do.”
He then offered hugs to anyone who needed one, and within seconds, a line of people, mostly women, streamed down to the front like an altar call, weeping and looking for solace. What I realized is that when you surround yourself with people with shared negative experience, it isn’t comforting at all, no matter how united you want to feel. Instead it draws on you like an exorcism, until all that pain, all those ghosts of your dead religion, come roaring up from the dark.
The following week I flew to Los Angeles and met with Science Mike and Gungor. At a Starbucks on York Boulevard near Pasadena, we sat at a picnic table and I told them what had happened. I wanted to know why the gathering had made me so uncomfortable, with the charged politics of Friday night followed by the weird triggering. I still felt agitated, I said. They both nodded.
“The gatherings can be messy endeavors,” Gungor said.
“It happens a lot,” said Science Mike. People who’ve grown up in oppressive churches suddenly get exposed to safe spiritual experiences. “And once they trust you, the lid they’ve been holding onto gets loose. At some point in the weekend it just pops off.”
I guess it made sense, but it still felt a bit cruel.
Gungor admitted that Friday night had bothered him, too, and afterward the hosts had gone out for beers and stewed over what had happened.
“I felt how quickly we could get activated,” he said. “I was feeling like I did when I was on the Right, when I’d be at big youth events saying, ‘We’ve got to take back America!’ We didn’t start The Liturgists to be the Left version of Christianity, we started it to not be alone.”
And now that there were so many people, he wondered if it was possible for them to be angry together at the injustice that required their anger, but without simply shouting and pointing fingers like all the rest.
“The election ruined everything,” Science Mike said. He told me how they’d hit their sweet spot back in May 2015. They’d aired an episode entitled “LGBTQ” that they considered their best work yet. At the same time they were discovering their audience resembled something like America: gay people and people of color, along with liberal whites and conservative Republicans, even a lot of atheists. “We’d created this beautiful fragile space that included solidarity and advocacy for marginalized voices,” he said, “but in a way that the people who were unknowing participants in that system didn’t feel attacked, but they felt educated.”
After the episode aired, they received a flood of emails from white evangelicals saying they were rethinking some of their political positions. “We’d framed the show in a way that was unapologetically justice-oriented,” Science Mike said. “But we also acknowledged that people who are non-affirming didn’t choose to be non-affirming but were handed a story. So we gently expanded their perspective, not by arguing, but by putting on queer people to talk about how non-affirming theology had impacted their real life.”
Then Trump got elected. “Trump gets in and says, ‘You know what? You’re either with me or against me.’ And the Left turns around and says you’re with us or against us, and that middle space we were trying to create got much more complex.”
Now people are just confused and quick to anger, Gungor said. “All the amygdalas are on high alert.”
“For a reason,” Science Mike said. “People feel threatened.”
Their work is harder now, they said, but ultimately it’s worth it. Because while Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell Jr. speak for the evangelical hardliners when they kowtow to the Oval Office, they don’t represent everyone. There are many evangelicals who are morally and legitimately conflicted about gay marriage, accepting refugees, and police officers killing black teenagers. Their conscience is telling them what to do, but fear and complacency keeps them silent.
“The reality is there’s just a whole lot of straight white people in this country,” Science Mike said. “And to make progress you’ve got to win a lot of them over. That’s the messy space we find ourselves in.”
Because no matter how angry people like me get at white evangelicals or how many calls to arms we put forth, on its own, it will get us nowhere in the end. To defeat hatred and creeping fascism and begin the healing of this nation, we—all Americans—need a new social gospel, and not just one that makes liberals feel comfortable. It is a gospel forged from the rubble, and it must include everyone. It will be messy and painful, and we must push forward even when our friends ask us, “What’s the point?” When they ask us, “How can you speak to those people?” Our big tent must shine like a light unto the world, and it must be a home to all—Republicans and Democrats, Jews and Romans, even to the demons that fly out from the debris.