A Testament of Hope: A Survivor's Guide to Cultural Evangelicalism
Dolby, James R. A Testament of Hope: A Survivor's Guide to Cultural Evangelicalism. Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing. 2001 Paperback, $9.00. 85 pp. ISBN 0-8059-5381-7.
James Dolby, a retired psychologist, has provided his readers with a remarkable account of his journey out of the evangelicalism that at one time was a fixed part of his spiritual and cultural life. "Some make the transition out of evangelicalism with ease," he writes (p. 8), but it has not been an easy exit for Dr. Dolby. This frank and articulate account of his disillusionment with cultural evangelicalism and how he has tried to reconstitute his Christian affirmations into new configurations will be of interest to all those who would like to be informed about both the strengths and weaknesses of the evangelical world.
Dolby's restiveness about his conservative religious heritage revolves around several central components of what he terms cultural evangelicalism. First, the "system" does not promote thinking, doubting, questioning, or disagreement among its adherents. Dolby has been particularly stultified by what has appeared to him as an intellectually rigid subculture that would rather shun and ostracize thinkers than embrace them. Second, the subculture is psychologically unhealthy. "This means it is shame based, fear driven, and forces people to drain much energy in the psychological defense mechanisms of denial, suppression, and cognitive dissonance" (p. 5). Dolby's picture is not a pretty one, and given that Dolby has so strongly felt these convictions, one is not at all surprised that he has left evangelicalism for greener pastures.
How are we to evaluate his claims? If we could determine that Dolby's experience of cultural evangelicalism is similar to the experience of large numbers of other people, we would have good reason to be deeply concerned. We should grieve if our evangelical world has driven away even one disillusioned person; but if the numbers are far greater, our grief should be all the more intense. Dr. Dolby's quest for a religious home large enough for thoughtful reflection is certainly a legitimate yearning. Why is it so difficult for people who think and feel deeply to find places within evangelicalism where they can find safety, comradeship, and affirmation for their struggles? Where are the mentors who can come along fellow strugglers like Dr. Dolby to model how the followers of Christ can think and feel deeply, can affirm the clear and certain, can allow for restraint regarding the less clear and the less certain, and can create a hospitable atmosphere for the questing person?
Regarding Dr. Dolby's assessment of the psychological unhealthiness of our subculture, how are we to evaluate his assessment? We need to do a better job of discriminating between shame and guilt as necessary and healthy components of the human experience and shame and guilt that are erroneously used by leaders for manipulative purposes. Some levels of shame are necessary for successful human living (otherwise we all would shed clothing a la Eden), and the Holy Spirit convicts people of sin, righteousness, and judgment, a process that in part involves guilt. But Dolby is correct when he asserts that our subculture often takes these themes, exaggerates them, and uses them manipulatively in ways that ought to cause shame and prompt guilt on the part of the leaders who do it!
What kind of Christianity is left for Dolby? He rarely can pray with petition, but he joyfully prays with praise (p. 10). He knows and feels God's love and forgiveness; he senses that God wants to be with him (p. 11). He loves Jesus and communes often with him (pp. 66-69). "God is sovereign. He wills what he wills and breaks into history on occasion to bless and redeem us. We have no way of possessing the great events of God, God's intervention in his creation is unfathomable; He wills it, He touches whomever he chooses, and in His time" (p. 16).
Dr. Dolby writes, "I hope my scars from my wounds of youth won't be too visible." (p. 6). The scars are visible, and they give us cause to mourn. But we also can be appreciative of the candor and forthrightness of this remarkable book.