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Inspired by Casper Ter Kuile’s The Power of Ritual, a friend and I decided to embark on our own sacred reading ritual to start off the new year. We revisited a book that was formative in both our faith journeys and that we had first read together when it was published in 2016: Mike McHargue’s Finding God in the Waves.

When I first read Finding God in the Waves in early 2017, I had only recently left evangelicalism, and I was only a few months into attending the loving and welcoming Episcopal church in my neighborhood that is my church home today. I felt sure I’d made the right decision, though still a little lost and insecure as my beliefs continued to shift, if my notes in the margins of McHargue’s book are any indication. The book follows McHargue’s own journey losing his faith and then rediscovering and rebuilding it in new ways. At the time of writing the book, McHargue was host of The Liturgists podcast and fondly known as Science Mike (he has since parted ways with The Liturgists).

As we began to reread the book, I was first struck by the reception Mike received when he came out as an atheist and by how it was even more painful and poignant for me to read about the way he was treated in this second reading of the book.

My heart broke for Mike as he recounted his experience as an atheist and the way many Christians responded when he first told them — their immediate efforts to convert or proselytize rather than to understand, their certainty that this was just a phase, and their dismissal of his questions and doubts. His family and friends tried to understand but many couldn’t overcome their instinct to immediately attempt to bring Mike back to the faith.

And while it’s moving that Mike then had a mystical experience that allowed him to rebuild a new faith, I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t had that experience and Mike was an atheist for the rest of his life. Would his family and friends have left him now that he didn’t share their faith? Would they have ever stopped trying to convert him?

The whole situation also reminded me of the stigma that many atheists and agnostics have historically faced in the United States and of my own discomfort with many Christian missionary efforts and attempts to convert or proselytize. What Mike needed in that moment was someone to listen and understand, not to immediately try to convert him.

The second shift I noticed in reading the book again is my waning interest in debates about evolution, the Bible, and many of the other contentious theological issues that used to get me riled up. In 2016 and 2017, I had so much emotional investment in these debates, and they all felt high stakes. I needed to debate whether evolution and the Bible could coexist, I needed to have a strong opinion on how we read the Bible, and I needed to know what evangelicals were thinking and saying on these issues with my own rebuttal at the ready. I had to know exactly what I believed, and I cared so deeply that I was able to defend and justify those beliefs against the usual evangelical arguments.

But it is refreshing how much more settled I feel with my own beliefs five years after first reading this book and leaving evangelicalism. I used to be so invested in engaging in and settling debates with evangelicals. But now in almost every chapter we read of McHargue’s book, I comment on how these debates and concepts don’t hold the same weight they used to, or at least don’t feel as high stakes. I am comfortable in that settled place of not knowing for sure and not needing to be right. And I’m not sure I would have had so much clarity on this unless my friend and I had decided to take on this new ritual to start off the new year and revisit Finding God in the Waves.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.

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