"Surviving a Christianity That Looks Nothing Like Christ," the subheading of author Stephen Mattson's first book, The Great Reckoning, encapsulates what it means to many young, white current or former evangelicals to navigate, and in some cases, deconstruct the faith of their upbringing. From the exvangelical community, to #EmptythePews, to a clear break of some from the political allegiances of their parents' generation in a time of Trump, many white evangelicals are entering into this journey for the first time. Mattson, having done the same himself, offers somewhat of a blueprint — a look at some of the hypocricies within white American evangelicalism and a guide to finding important voices outside the dominant culture to help shape what comes next.
"A person can be totally immersed in Christian culture without ever actually discovering Christ," Mattson writes.
In The Great Reckoning, he tells the story of how the person of Jesus Christ turns Christendom on its head.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Sandi Villarreal: Your book offers a great unpacking of a particular type of Christianity, and in it, you deconstruct a lot of what you were told was kind of essential to belief in this certain strain. So who do you expected it to resonate the most with? Who would you say the book is for?
Stephen Mattson: Disgruntled, disillusioned Christians.
I came to this place, and with the people around me, where the reality was that Christianity as a religion and institution and culture wasn't reflecting Christ in a lot of ways. It was keeping me from following Christ. And it was often a problem instead of the solution to a lot of things. And there was a glaring difference between the person and of Jesus that I was reading about in the New Testament, and this culture that was continuously kind of moving away from that.
Villarreal: In the first chapter, you write, "Christendom’s solution for any spiritual struggle is to dive deeper into itself." How do you see that related to what's happening now in our political arena. How do you see that playing out right now given of the close connections between certain strain of evangelicalism and empire, by which I mean the U.S. political system?
Mattson: I feel like there is a big this misinterpretation, especially within white evangelical Christianity, where there's this perception that Christ has been introduced to the world and that the world has rejected Christ. But I feel like the world hasn't been introduced to Christ at all. They've just been introduced to these partisan forms of white conservative Christianity that have been coopted by political agendas that have oppressed people to grab power.
So in many ways a lot of people haven't been introduced to Christ in the first place. They've been introduced to a lot of like anti-Christian things that are introduced under the banner of Christ and God when the reality is nothing like that.
Villarreal: I wonder what is the best way [to come to that realization], if a person doesn't go through a journey of their own? For someone, especially now, who seeks out colleges or other social groups that reinforce their own kind of mentality, I wonder what the appropriate message is — whether it's a gentle message or whether it's confrontation. What’s the best way to approach them?
Mattson: There are a lot of [Christian] books that are, not bad, but they're based on the premise of ‘we all just need to get along.’ That is just reinforcing the status quo of life in this historical time in the United States when there is so much hate and racism being spouted from politicians — that's not the message the white church needs to be putting out right now. And I just feel like in that situation we need to start confrontation, like, ‘hey you need to wake up out of this complacency’ ... I don't think there's a silver bullet strategy, but this has to be done.
Villarreal: Kind of in a similar vein, at the end of your book, you talk about “resisting in love.” I'm curious in this current environment — for those who bear the brunt of oppression because their skin color or gender or sexual orientation and also their allies — what does it look like to resist in love in situations like where people are confronting white nationalists in Charlottesville, etc.?
Mattson: I think there does need to be more confrontational attitude among allies. We really need to, as white evangelical communities … to give up comfort, security, and if that means putting yourself in the line facing white nationalists …
I'm Anabaptist, so violence is always not the answer for me, but I don't think that we should be sending these messages of 'let's just all get along.' We need to call out evil. And I feel like that's where the American Christian church has really failed. … Time and time again, the pattern has always been, ‘oh, let's just go back to the status quo, let's respect your authority, or let's respect the government's because God has sovereignly put them into place.’ And I think we need to call that out in whatever way we can.
Villarreal: You quote Kaitlin Curtice in the book — and she also wrote the foreword — where she talks about being a part of the decolonizing church. I'm curious what it means to you to be part of the decolonizing church and what are the appropriate ways to find partnership and allyship with those who are have been historically oppressed by the church? And how do you partner in that work in a way that doesn't center whiteness?
Mattson: I think the church needs to accept and really realize and be educated on their major part in colonization — and just all of the evil that was committed. And I think that that's a huge gaping hole in American Christianity. You never hear about it in Christian history classes or anything like that. I think there needs to be a real intentionality for listening and valuing authors and speakers like Kaitlin. We don't want people to be unofficial cultural ambassadors who don't want to, but people who are speaking — like I think Kaitlin is the perfect example: She gives us that book list ["25 Books By Indigenous Authors You Should Be Reading"] — and I think we need to embrace that.
Villarreal: So much of the book is geared toward white evangelicals, deconstructing that kind of faith. But in the end you talk about the hope that lies beyond that. And I do think there are a lot of people in process of deconstructing their faith. What would you say then comes after that? Because I think the temptation for many may be to completely disaffiliate — you see the rising numbers. So what would you say is the appropriate next step?
Mattson: In the book I say, it's kind of cliché, but I say just focus on the person of Jesus. One of the big themes I use in the book is that we can really mold and manipulate a religion any way we want, and it's crazy to me how the person is Jesus is kind of taken out of all that. … It’s just such a kind of profound truth, but within the last few years of being reintroduced to the person Jesus: He is a person of color who is living within a Roman Empire that dominated all parts of society. He was unfairly arrested, put on trial, incarcerated, given the death penalty. Like these are all really relevant issues in our society. This is what Jesus like fought against.
… One the point I make in the book is the life of Jesus is there for us to see, and if we really focus on that, I feel like we see the essence of who God is and who God wants us to be as Christ's followers. … I'm hoping people recalibrate their vision of Jesus in a way that opens their eyes to this "new paradigm" that's not new at all but has just been so corrupted.