John Cooper of Skillet and Faithful Apostasy

I’ve been thinking all day about that facebook post by John Cooper from the band “Skillet,” and the approving blog post that quoted it, titled “Skillet’s John Cooper on Apostasy Among Young Christian Leaders,” referring to comments by Joshua Harris of I Kissed Dating Goodbye fame, and Hillsong singer Marty Sampson.

My first reaction when reading Cooper’s post was, “He doesn’t get it.”

Either that or something about the weaponization of evangelical language, specifically “apostasy.” I could do some fancy Greek work or google work to tell you that “apostasy” means “falling away” and find all the uses in the Bible, but I’m not at work right now, and that’s not what I want to talk about anyway.

What I want to talk about is this thing where people walk away from a toxic faith (“Hey! Did you hear David Schell said all faith is toxic?!” -No, it’s like toxic masculinity – some pieces associated with it are toxic, some aren’t-)

I want to talk about how people walk away from toxic faith, by which I mean a brand of faith that harms people. I want to talk about how people question their faith, or elements of their faith that many deem “central” even though they aren’t in our oldest creeds, and they’re immediately branded as heretics, or apostates, or Presbyterians, whichever is worse.

People will leverage them as a cautionary tale: “Did you hear about Joshua Harris?” “Did you hear about Marty Sampson?” You best be careful because if you’re not, you’ll end up just like them: bound for eternal damnation.

It reminds me of Rob Bell’s analogy of a wall versus a trampoline in Velvet Elvis. If our faith is static, like a brick wall, it can’t handle being hit hard, but if it’s something you live in, like a trampoline, it can survive what would otherwise be some very hard falls… and bounce you back up toward God.

Or Greg Boyd’s analogy of a house of cards, where if your faith is like a house of cards, if one thing falls, everything else comes crashing down.

There’s no space for deconstruction, for asking real questions and coming up with the wrong answers. Or worse: already knowing the approved answers, and asking the questions anyway. There is only one solution: Agree with me, and do it now.

But that’s not how Christianity works. Sure, maybe some people are satisfied with the Approved Right Answers, but many are not – especially those who take the time to think deeply about the questions.

And there isn’t a path. At least, not one known to standard evangelicalism. Just a trailhead marked, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

But there is a path.

People have just covered it over with bushes. On purpose. But beyond the bushes, the feet of pilgrims throughout the centuries have worn soft a path: pilgrims dissatisfied with the “right answers” who sought truth anew. Markers stand along the way, erected by Martin Luther and John Calvin, by Menno Simons. Where the path leads far away from church, then slowly, finally back in a roundabout way, travelers have set up a pile of rocks in memorial of Rachel Held Evans.

Many say the path marked “bitterness” is paved with poison and leads straight to hell, but if you look beneath the graffiti, the sign says “righteous anger at evil and injustice in the name of God.” (It’s a bit of a mouthful).

Ironically, the path of “count it all joy” ends at a cliff – not for you, but for you to push off those you love when you finally snap.

The woods of doubt and unbelief are dark and terrifying, especially to those who have been warned they are a one-way trip to hell. But like all who walk in forests, those who travel there find that the leaves produce oxygen and it’s easier to breathe there.

The Dark Night of the Soul is a wall-worn Christian path, but evangelicalism has rejected it. Our paths, like our music, must be positive and encouraging.

So when I read that Joshua Harris is not a Christian by any standard he has for saying that, I became immediately hopeful – not least because I don’t trust the standards he’s been given to be good ones.

Doubt is not necessarily the end of a faith journey, nor even is unbelief. Often it is a new beginning. Even when one sheds a faith in one form, one may return and pick it up in another. The old expression, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in” applies here.

Maybe I’m hopeful too because of my grounding in the Reformed tradition – particularly that bit about irresistible grace and perseverance of the saints.

Because I believe in that, I believe things might be bigger than I know, or Joshua Harris or Marty Sampson know, and bigger than John Cooper of Skillet knows.

Apostasy, at least “apostasy” in search of truth, is not necessarily a dead end. When we fall away from grace, we land in grace. I believe that.

So I do not fear the apostasy of Joshua Harris or Marty Sampson. Joshua Harris’ apostasy has, I believe, brought him closer to loving those Jesus loves. Marty Sampson’s apostasy has brought him closer to the truth – and who is Jesus if not the way, the truth, and the life?

Christianity is not the center of God’s universe. Love is. Those who love abide in God, and God in them (one of John’s epistles), whether they can check all the right theological boxes or not, and whether they believe God even exists or not.

No, the apostasy I worry about is the subtle apostasy, the popular apostasy, the apostasy done in the name of Jesus, the hatred wearing a cross necklace, the fish bumper sticker next to a bumper sticker that says “Go back where you came from.” The apostasy of associating yourself with Jesus while despising those he loves and saying their failure to enter legally makes them deserving of having their children ripped from their arms.

Apostasy that robs the poor because he is poor and crushes the afflicted at the gate.

Apostosy that celebrates evil from the helm of a purported “Christian ministry.”

No, John Cooper of Skillet, apostasy that leads to love is not the apostasy you should fear; rather, fear the apostasy disguised as faithfulness, the “hard truths” wrapped in meanness and cruelty.

I wish everyone who claims their unkindness is informed by their faith would “apostatize” in the way Joshua Harris has done.

And maybe, just maybe, they’ll find their way back to institutional faith. After all, as Ivy Baker Priest said, “The world is round and the place which may seem like the end may also be the beginning.”

Or as J.K. Rowling put it in the voice of Luna Lovegood, “…things we lose have a way of coming back to us in the end. If not always in the ways we expect.”

David M Schell About David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.

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