Modern Evangelicalism: An MAO Inhibitor?


A pharmacological cornucopia!I rarely watch more than two hours of TV a month, so I’m no expert on ads or what’s happening in the TV scene. No matter how little TV you may consume, it’s darned near impossible not to encounter a plethora of Big Pharma ads hawking this prescription drug or that. See enough of those ads and its clear that every single drug on the market comes contraindicated whenever the prospective user’s downing MAO inhibitors, a type of antidepressant that comes with some serious side effects and warnings.

MAO is monoamine oxidase, an enzyme in the body critical for proper neurological functioning, hence the use of MAO inhibiting drugs for treating nervous system diseases. Are you yawning yet? Ready for the tangential slide?

Okay, here it comes…

The Godblogosphere’s been bloated with enough posts on “returning to Rome” to gag the Pope and all his Cardinals. A few noted Evangelical leaders jumped the Reformation Ship and the handwringing, fingerpointing, and accusations flew. In other words, typical Evangelical Sturm und Drang.

Amid the voluminous posting on this leap from Evangelicalism into the Roman Catholic Church (heck, one post I read even had Elisabeth Elliot pining for the papacy), plenty of volcanic theological discourse erupted, but I heard very little about MAO—the other MAO, that is.

The MAO I speak of is Mystery, Awe, and Otherness. You know, the stuff modern Evangelicals jettisoned on their way to a bookshelf full of systematic theologies, dusty pages of do’s and dont’s, and three-points-and-a-conclusion sermons. In their rush to be real and down to earth, Evangelicals found a way to make God dull. In short, modern Evangelicalism has become a theological MAO inhibitor.

I can’t help but think that most of these “un-converts” who fled to Rome did so in part because of the radical vivisection Evangelicalism got away with concerning the Body of Christ. I happen to believe that God placed in each one of us a yearning for mystery, awe, and otherness. That desire drives us to God as the source for all meaning, even if that meaning can never be fully grasped. This isn’t postmodernism’s vacuous “There can be no absolute truth” stupidity, but a genuine recognition that God is wholly other and therefore contains an element of mystery that generates awe in those who encounter Him.

How so? Remember when you basked in the throes of the first ache of passionate love? The object of your affection seemed like some strange creature from another planet that you’d walk across burning coals to know, even if that knowledge was little more than a favorite book he or she loved. Remember that first kiss? The electricity! That mystery, awe, and otherness found in the kiss of your beloved! (Song of Solomon explodes with mystery, awe, and otherness, doesn’t it?)

Now imagine kissing your sister. (Or your brother, as the case may be.) Where’d all that passion go? Now imagine Evangelicalism turning every day supposedly devoted to passion into just another day of kissing your sister. Now who can blame anyone for bolting that dry familiarity for a place that still kindles mystery, awe, and otherness?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m solidly in the Reformation camp. I see the RCC as a dead-end and always have. I feel sorry for anyone so seduced by a need for mystery, awe, and otherness that they’ll abandon truth for it.

Yet I still understand why they do it.

So plenty of Evangelicals go slack-jawed at these bolters who make for the Seven Hills. They’ll go on and on with analyses—psychological, theological, and otherwise—in their attempts to understand why they couldn’t keep ’em down on the Reformation farm. But sadly, they’ll never ask “What did we do wrong?” See, that question begs an answer and the answer gets a bit too close to the heart of the problem. Evangelicals today are loathe to put the words we and wrong in the same sentence, so they affix blame anywhere they can so long as that anywhere doesn’t involve looking in a mirror.

In the end, it does little more than make me tired. The false either/or propositions about what we should do and believe. The tired arguments against emotion. The constant sniping about mystery. If Evangelicals want to drive it all out, then they shouldn’t be surprised that people go elsewhere looking to fill that God-given need for mystery, awe, and otherness. Folks will go to the RCC, to the Orthodox, to whatever source fills that vital need. They’ll look for a way to stop taking the MAO inhibitors the self-appointed “doctors” of the Evangelical Church prescribed.

And someday Evangelicals will scratch their heads and wonder where all their adherents went.

50 thoughts on “Modern Evangelicalism: An MAO Inhibitor?

  1. I left the United Methodist Church years ago. I miss the mystery I felt in the UMC before I became a “serious” Christian in a “Spirit-filled, Bible-believing” church. My Presbyterian church was that, but after time, even as a charismatic who seemed or should have had a direct line to the mysteries of God, it seemed less mysterious and more familiar. I still struggle with that today. When I read the Word of God, more often than not, I feel like I am reading an instruction manual and not the very compendium of all knowledge necessary for salvation and life.

    I have problems with simplistic-sounding explanations of doctrines. I believe in the Trinity, but no matter how many word studies and other deductive sermons are preached about it, the Triune God does not make that much sense to me. Comparing the Trinity to an egg or to water, ice, and vapor will not do it for me. I do not believe such a mysterious aspect of our Lord and Savior can be revealed through expository preaching without the revelation of the Truth of the Trinity into the spirit of a believer by the Holy Spirit Himself. There are some things that, unless God reveals it to me, I simply will not understand and/or accept it. I accept the Trinity, but I do not understand it.

    How does one restore mysteriousness into Evangelicalism, though? By my obversation, most of it outside of truly Spirit-led charismaticism is cyclical in nature. Evangelicals run back to Catholicism. Catholics turn evangelical. Practices are adopted: contemplative prayer, candles, liturgy, contemporary music, traditional music, etc. But mostly this is a historical back-and-forth that does not seem to lift either the Catholic or the Evangelical churches closer to the Lord.

    • Michael,

      How to restore mystery? I’d say just let it stand as mystery and don’t try to explain it. Our obsession with apologetics gets us in trouble. Our Enlightenment attitude, our modernism, forces us to always have an answer—or to make up one when we don’t know. What’s wrong with not knowing, though?

  2. abmo

    I think evangelicals strife to be compotent. They are quick to provide answers, because if they do not know the answers to questions and seem unsure, people might think they are doubting. Then James 1:6-8 comes into play with the horrors of being double-minded and looking like a sea-tossed wave. Thus anwers come cheap and easily.

    Mystery, awe, and otherness scares people who have all the answers. Joh 3:8 (The Spirit breathes where He desires, and you hear His voice, but you do not know from where He comes, and where He goes; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit) will probably scare them the most. Especially the last sentence. To have an unpredictable God, and life, is just to much. They have to make God small enough to fit.

    I have a friend who is very wise. Lots of people come to him for answers. Most of the time his answer is. “I don’t know, but I will walk with you. Your answer lies in your journey with God.” He knows that mystery, wonder, awe and the “otherness” of Jesus will linger in this journey of faith. We might as well get used to it.

    • Abmo,

      Very astute comments. Like I wrote to Michael above, you’re right in saying that we try to explain everything, even when we’re not sure. Or else we think we’re sure, when in reality we’re not even close to the answer. We need to stop that hyper-apologetics we so easily fall into.

  3. We are an impatient bunch…We want answers, when frankly, there sometimes are none. There are just some things we will never, in this life, understand. Part of faith is living life in spite of not having the answer. It isn’t blind, it’s anticipatory. We believe what God has said, we do things God tells us to do, because we know that God desires the best for all of us.

    But we are impatient…So we make things up to fit our view of how we think God wants things. Like putting dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark, or turning over our maid to our husband because we could never have that baby God promised, so obviously this is how God meant it. Or slice the ear off of a servant because we had to do something! We stumble and fall because we want the answers.

    Revel in mystery. Enjoy the paradox. Or as Michael Card wrote: “So surrender the hunger that says you must know, have the courage to say ‘I believe.'”

    • David,

      I think one of the worst things I can say about myself is that I’m always unsatisfied if I don’t have an answer. So I’m no better than the rest. I’m letting God change that in me, but more often than not the first words out of my mouth are still “Why?”

      • Yah, I’m not a big one for ambiguity. It’s a matter of pride for me that I can answer any question put to me. Even if I have to make up the answer. It’s hard to say “I don’t know.” Many physical and spiritual theories have been turned on their heads by my imagination…I have to work on that.

        I’ve been intrigued by the paradox of being childlike in our faith as per Christ, and being adult in our actions as per Paul. There’s this point in a child’s life when the immediate reaction to any statement is “Why?” and I wonder whether that is being “childlike” or being “a child”. As an adult who is stymied in not getting a clear and forthright answer, I would assume it’s the second, but there are so many avenues of growth that are opened by being “as inquisitive as a child.” I don’t think God minds being asked “Why?” And when a child asks “Why?” and gets an answer similar to “Because” they very often aren’t frustrated or angry, they just go on to the next line of questioning. Sooo, I guess a part of our ‘childlike faith’ is not to be upset when the answer to our question is ‘because’, and keep up with the questions. Consider ‘Childlike Wonder’ alongside ‘Childlike Faith.’

  4. iMonk

    Great stuff. I’m going to talk about it on the podcast today. Esp our phony attempts to create MAO.

    BTW, E Elliot is the sister of VERY famous convert Thomas Howard. That explains the situation I’m sure. He’s quite a forceful writer.

    • IMonk,

      Thanks for stopping by. Thanks, too, for showing enough confidence in my little ramble here to comment on it in your podcast.

      Thanks, too, for the clarification about Elliot. I think knew that in the recesses of my dim memories. She wrote me a very nice letter a long time ago and I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for her.

  5. Susy Flory

    We do love mystery … how else to explain the human fascination for rites, rituals, and secret societies? Or our predilection for poetry, music, and romance? … Sometimes in the evangelical world, we give it all away up front. We tell too much. I’m bemused by Jesus’ interactions with people; he sometimes made what must have seemed like some very mysterious statements to his followers. He spoke in parables and riddles and metaphor. He used questions and imagery and scribbles in the dust. He intrigues me. So, I’m wondering … can we in the church follow his lead?

  6. Laughing Boy

    I think in some cases we would be satisfied in ourselves with unanswerable questions about God and Christian doctrines. However those of us who are interested in apologetics can be hyper-sensitive to the fideism that skeptics think is the basis of Christianity. It seems most run-of-the-mill Christians have no idea why they believe what they believe and I don’t want to be counted among them. Can mystery have a place in apologetics?

      • Laughing Boy

        I appreciate the criticism, but I’d also appreciate a more helpful answer to my question of the place mystery has in apologetics.

        • Laughing Boy,

          I don’t believe that “apologetics = an answer for everything.” If someone disagrees with that statement, then he’ll never find a way to include mystery in apologetics.

          How is it that Christ is fully man and yet fully God? That’s a mystery. So is the Trinity. All the apologetics in the world will not explain the depths of the triunity of God. Only God Himself knows those depths.

          How is it that a man might sacrifice his own life to save a friend’s? There’s mystery there and that mystery has its start in God.

          So in a way, your question has no right answer. People don’t always experience the same mysteries the same way to make a uniform apologetic possible. Sometimes the best apologetic may be “It’s a mystery to us, but God knows.”

    • “Come, let us reason…” Says God. Apologetics by nature is a defensive action, seeking to explain by reason and argument an (assumably) equally reasoned attack. I’ve often thought that one can become too intellectual about what is essentially an unreasonable assumption: That the God who created us would sacrifice Himself to save us. If one is a god, it seems much easier to start over! The whole of the book of Job does battle with the concept of human reason vs. God’s Will. There are some things about God that cannot be defended against human reason. It is, in the end, an issue of surrender, not conquer.

      So does mystery have a role in apologetics? Of course it does! But it does so in regards to bare factual statements about our own life and experience with this Christ. Paul made his defence (apologia) before Agrippa by telling of his own experiences regarding Christ, making real the mysteries of salvation. How else could Saul become Paul except by some mysterious internal transformation? Peter tells his brothers in 1 Peter 3 to sanctify God in their hearts to that they can provide an “answer” (apologia) for their faith. This sanctification is revealed not in words of defence but in the way they live their lives before others; the fruit of the Spirit, against which Paul tells the church of Galatia there is no rule of action prescibed by reason (law).

      Reason has no defence before the evidence of the mystery of Christ working in us.

      The true apologist reveals the mystery of God through the way they live their lives, so that others look and wonder how this could be so.

  7. Peter Smythe

    Dan, just a couple of words about apologetics and letting it stand as “a mystery.”

    Paul says in Ephesians 3:4 that I can know the intelligence of the mystery of Christ that was initially revealed to him and it is my aim to get every glimmer of it I can. I’ll defend I’ve got to the end. But that being said, I am content in not having a clue why Jesus decided on Ananias to lay hands on Paul or why He chose William Branham to occupy the office of a modern New Testament prophet. I don’t let those kinds of things distract me from Ephesians 3:4. I don’t serve an instruction manual (like Michael’s experience, many churches preach that I have), but a Lord whose got the most incredible and exquisite personality that I could ever imagine. Maybe it’s because I was raised as a good Catholic boy, but I am just as fascinated with the wonder and mystery of Jesus and His role in redemption today than I ever have been.

  8. Ruben

    Your essay is 100% right in my case, it was a sense of mystery that I craved that made me leave Evangelicalicm for Catholicism. I wanted to know God, not know about Him. I know about the doctrinal errors, yet I think part of living in this fallen world is accepting the fact that nothing is perfect. I happen to think that personal faith and commitment is what matters rather than doctrine, so my personal faith was dying in evangelicalism and I had to leave.

    • Peyton

      Reuben, I escaped from a liberal denomination to a community church, where the desire is also to “know God, not know about Him.” Right now I am reading a book that really fires up my MAO — “Jesus of Nazareth.” It’s written by your new “boss,” and I strongly urge you to get it. The author is Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI! From the flyleaf:

      In this bold, momentous work, the Pope — in his first book written as Benedict XVI — seeks to salvage the person of Jesus from recent “popular” depictions and to restore Jesus’ true identity as discovered in the Gospels. Through his brilliance as a theologian and his personal conviction as a believer, the Pope shares a rich, compelling, flesh-and-blood portrait of Jesus and incites us to encounter, face-to-face, the central figure of the Christian faith.

      Where is the Evangelical who is doing that?

  9. The succession of events surrounding the “I am” statement in John 6:28-69 has always been fascinating to me precisely because of the mystery involved. The reaction to Jesus could be summarized as “huh” a la Tim Allen on Home Improvement. When Jesus put the question to the disciples, their answer was a great embrace of mystery. They had no better idea of what He was talking about than anyone else who heard, yet, not understanding, they still knew who he was. “Where else can we go…” I feel that often, but knowing who Jesus is always trumps my ignorance. Mystery!

  10. oscar

    ” …that they will abandon the trueth for it”. There seems to be a need to believe that there is something other than truth that causes people to become catholic. This must be driven by some deeper fear that ones own theology might not be as full proof as they outwardly proclaim and their insecurity raises its head in the type of statements posted above. But hey, considering the high caliber of these converts how could they do anything else but run for the panic room, hit the safty button that says “it cant be truth”.
    Ironically most of the conversion stories I have read have bin based on a relentless pursuit of truth and pushed on despite how hard and misunderstood (as this blog proves) that pursuit became, at the end of the road they found MAO to their own amazment.
    Does one seriously believe that Newman , Hahn and many others like them set truth aside when they converted? oh please.

    • Oscar,

      Do I believe that folks like Newman, Hahn, and Beckwith set aside truth when they went to Rome? I do.

      I believe the Reformation proved very clearly that the RCC had grown aberrant. For that reason, God raised up something new to allow people the grace to go His way rather than the RCC way. This is not to say that the RCC was always aberrant or that some people in the RCC can’t be Christians. I’m also aware enough to know that the variety within the RCC allows for wide ranges of belief and practice.

      Still, the current endorsed theology and practice of the RCC includes so many troubling aspects that I can’t endorse the RCC at all. In fact, I would encourage people to leave the RCC and bring with them whatever good aspects (like MAO) they encountered there while rejecting the corruption.

      I know this is not a popular opinion and will lose me readers, but I think the RCC has gone off the rails and true Christians should leave it. That’s where I stand.

      • I am very curious about the line in your post about “seeing the RCC as a dead end.” And above — “I believe the Reformation proved very clearly that the RCC had grown aberrant. For that reason, God raised up something new to allow people the grace to go His way rather than the RCC way.”

        This is a pretty broad brush to paint with, so if you’ve gone into more detail about your thoughts and conclusions elsewhere, I’d appreciate a pointer in that direction. Although the Catholic Church was in need of reform at those times, there is a difference between reform from “aberrant” practices (if you’re thinking of areas where sin needed to be repented of, for instance) and the eventual move of much of Protestantism away from liturgical worship, belief in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and so on, which were central characteristics of faith and practice from the church’s earliest days.

        I’m sure you can see my concern that abandoning things that may well have been raised up by the Holy Spirit to feed and foster the church for whose unity Jesus prayed just before he died would be a very serious matter. I appreciate the robustness of your thought, so I’d like to understand what leads to your conclusion that the Reformation was not just an acceptable response to the situation of the times but, in fact, necessary in spite of what was lost in the transition. Thanks.

          • I certainly don’t mean to be dragging up a battle. But for those of us for whom the argument isn’t already made, it would be helpful to understand the key points that are important to you. The issues that were pivotal at the time of the Reformation aren’t those that face us today, generally.

  11. Pingback: Mystery, Awe, and Otherness « Where is the Still Small Voice?
  12. Thanks for this thought provoking post. I’m dropping by from imonk where I also made a comment on this subject. Seems to me that evangelicals have seriously underplayed the necessity of imagination in the faith. Notions of theodrama – symbols, metaphor and the like, may help us move in new directions that will open up, rather that close down possibilites, of living the script in new and refreshing ways.

    Vive l’imagination.

  13. Hi, Dan. I’m really enjoying your posts. This one, in particular, hit me head-on because, even though I’m a new member of a Baptist church (we just had to find somewhere to call home!), I’m finding myself drawn, not so much to Catholicism (still so much there I’m not comfortable with), but to monastic practices and traditions.

    Yes, church today seems to be lacking in wonder and awe, but what’s also missing for me in church is the ability to really savor–to steep in–God. Everything we do in church is “fast food” — and I think “fast food” church does for our spirits what “fast food” food does for our bodies!

    In a Sunday school meeting we’re told: “This is supposed to be a twelve-week study program but we’re doing it in six.” In a seminar on finding your place in ministry we’re told: “This is supposed to be done over the course of eight hours; we’re going to do it in three.” In a ministry meeting, even before we can really discuss anything: “Time’s up!” Even during service the pastor chuckles because he has to “cut short” his sermon–the next hungry group is pressing against the doors waiting to come in.

    And beyond the fast food is the lack of 1:1 (or even 1:many) discipleship — but that is a whole other story 🙂

    • Renae,

      This blog exists to discuss what’s missing in the modern Church in America. My goal to is find ways to bring the vibrancy of the 1st century Church into the 21st century. I fully understand that for many people something is missing in their church lives. That should never be. So I write about that issue to put it out there for people to grasp. I’m still searching for a big shift in the American Church, but I think good things are happening.

      As for your comments on time, I’ve written dozens of posts here discussing how our modern lifestyles work to destroy our spiritual lives, busyness being one of the most insidious aspects. Though a great deal of the posts here are categorized as “Counterculture” or “Work,” you should look them up.


      • Jerald

        I agree with you that, even though “mystery is part and parcel of the reality of the Christian experience, we still try our best to define it as if we would be amiss otherwise.
        Prov. 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
        Then Jesus starts teaching in parables and tells his disciples why he does it that way in Mark 4, particularly 10 †“ 12. Then in the next verse says that if they don’t understand the parable he is beginning to teach, they won’t understand any of the other parables he will use.
        Wow! Is this a mystery or what?
        Jesus says very clearly, “To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God. In other words, as a modern day disciple of Jesus I’ve been given the mystery, even though I may not know what it is or how to define it. Once again, Wow! I guess I’ll just have to dig deeper to find it and I’ll need to experience all the venues out there until I do.
        I guess many are seeking a place that will preach the same things as Jesus told his disciples to preach in Luke 10:9. Could it really be “Christ in you, the hope of glory?
        The real mystery in my opinion is “Christ in you. And I keep trying to make it harder than that because I don’t really understand how it could be possible that the creator of the universe could dwell within me.
        Dan, I really enjoy your posts and your comments. You are truly an anointed man of God.

        • Jerald,


          I guess, in the end, I don’t like to see the Lord boxed. I’m fine with the fact that I can only see through a glass darkly, even though all of my being longs to see clearly. I will one day. For now, my hope is that we Christians will let the Lord be the Lord. Not OUR flavor of him, OUR perceptions, OUR hopes, but who He is in all His glory, majesty, and power. That’s what this blog is about.

  14. great post!
    MAO is exactly where I think the problem lies in many evangelical circles. For many people… to suggest mystery is equated with doubt or uncertainty, but that should not be the case. Peter Rollins’ book does a good job of enforcing the MAO of God.


    • Sacred Vapor,

      I agree. I am very much in the certainty camp, so I see no paradox of being certain yet embracing mystery. The two are not mutually exclusive, though some in the Emerging Church make it so.

  15. bookdragon

    Really great piece. It definitely points out one of the reasons I remain an Episcopalian.

    btw, there is a piece on liturgy, poetry and ambiguity at my one of my favorite Jewish Godblog sites:

    It doesn’t address evangelicalism, but the overall consideration of how liturgy affects a sense of awe of majesty and how over-rational/over-thinking about every detail of theological language gets in the way is very good.

  16. Jennifer Smith


    I enjoyed your creatively expressed “rant” and agree with your perspective. Can I put in a respectful request for you to consider that there is a NEED for you to go into your opposition to RCC theology based on some of the commenters’ remarks? There are non-negotiables in our Christian doctrine that we cannot budge on or we might as well just throw in the towel and pick any man-centered, ego-pleasing philosophy/religion out there. And what better example do we have than Paul and his rebuttal to the Judaizers in Galatians? We do have to protect the essentials if we really love the Lord and His Truth as expressed in Scripture. (Especially when it’s clearly expressed …) I agree that some have gone overboard in their reactions, but when they are motivated by grief that a fellow brother or sister is abandoning clear Scriptural truth for error, I can forgive the heated or dramatic tone.

  17. My sentiments exactly. After years of frustration with every variation of Evangelical-dom we could think of, my wife and I discovered a congregation that addressed all of those things (and more importantly, contained a far greater emphasis on the Bible than we had seen in churches before).

    It was an Orthodox Christian church.

    I’m not in favor of adopting one faction of Christianity over another (and wouldn’t be even if my wife and I became Orthodox), but I am a walking example of the kind of dynamic you’re pointing out here.

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