Audrey Assad is a songwriter with a sober intensity to her stage presence. So writes David Brooks. But what Brooks finds most fascinating is how Assad, raised in a New World faith tradition, is going backward in time toward the Old World. She’s not alone.
David Brooks is the rare columnist who recognizes how media often misrepresents faith. Three weeks ago he wrote about “a yawning gap between the way many believers experience faith and the way that faith is presented to the world.”1 More often than not, media outlets such as The New York Times and The New Yorker picture faith with “a strong vein of hostility against orthodox religious believers.” The most common words include “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” “old-fashioned” and “out of touch.”
Brooks says this ignores “a silent majority who experience a faith that is attractively marked by combinations of fervor and doubt, clarity and confusion, empathy and moral demand.” He cites Audrey Assad, a Catholic songwriter with a crystalline voice and a sober intensity (watch her perform “I Shall Not Want” on YouTube). Assad’s wrenching music helps people who are in crisis. That’s because she went through a crisis herself.
Assad was raised in a Protestant faith tradition prone to black-or-white dichotomies. This led to a gradual erosion of religious certainty in her 20s as life’s tragedies and complexities inevitably mounted. Assad began going backward in time.
The trek began at the local Barnes & Noble. Assad began reading her way through the books on the Great Books shelf. Encountering the likes of George Eliot and Tolstoy, she travelled “from darkness into paradox.” But Assad lost many evangelical friends along the way. Paradox didn’t make sense to them. It does however in the theological works of Augustine and those of the early church fathers. Assad began reading them. “Denominationally, she went backward in time,” writes Brooks. “She became Baptist, then Presbyterian, then Catholic.”
This migration is happening among a growing number of believers, particularly those raised in the evangelical faith. Over a decade ago journalist Colleen Carroll Campbell wrote about the growing number of young believers who are embracing ancient orthodoxy.2 They’re making their way back to Old World faiths, traditions that most evangelicals are unfamiliar with. They include faith traditions founded in Canterbury, Geneva, Rome, and Constantinople. These Old World faiths routinely wrestle with paradoxes, including the tension between private piety, public morality, and civil order.
The Puritans were Old World. They believed the established church helped to establish the good order of society. They went to America to remain English, to renew the Church of England, and to evangelize the Indians. But their time was brief. The Uniformity Act (1662) drove most of the Puritan ministers from the Church of England.
Puritan Reformers would join a loose collection of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, operating as “Dissenters.” But they only comprised a small percentage of the larger migration of Pilgrims. In A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving, Godfrey Hodgson, a British journalist and historian, writes how the Pilgrims shared some of the Reformers’ aims but basically came to America to avoid being bothered by anyone. Over the next century, autonomy and individualism would come to characterize Americans. And it would characterize New World faiths.
The New World was not an easy place to hack out a life. Individual enterprise was prized, so faiths preaching an individualized “practical” gospel resonated. This included Baptist, Methodist, and, eventually, independent churches. But their practicality, while popular, neglected paradoxes such as the tension of piety and public order. Over time, Dissenters, soon called “evangelicals,” focused on saving souls but neglected society. Many in the Old World traditions grew alarmed – not because people were being saved, but because this New World gospel gave little consideration to renewing society.
This is what happened in Patrick Henry’s family. His mother and maternal grandfather, Isaac Winston, became “born again” in the mid 1700s. The rest of the family remained loyal to the Church of England, viewing the evangelical movement’s appeal to an autonomous faith as a threat to the good ordering of society.3 Today, people like Audrey Assad share the same concern. They read how a significant percentage of the American population claims to be “born again.” Then they read the news. They don’t see a significant correlation. They don’t see the good ordering of society. Some leave the faith. The better move is to go backward in time, toward a better faith.
If you’re an evangelical, this trek will likely include a period of uncertainty, or not knowing, what the Greeks called agnosticism. “I still have routine brushes with agnosticism,” Assad says. “I still brush against the feeling that I don’t believe any of this, but the church always brings me back. I don’t think Jesus wants to brush away the paradoxes and mysteries.” He doesn’t. Christ instead wants his church to go forward. If you’re a Christian like Assad, that might require going backward in time.
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1 David Brooks, “Alone, Yet Not Alone,” The New York Times, January 28, 2014, p. A21.
2 Colleen Carroll Campbell, The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2002).
3 Henry Mayer, A Son of Thunder: Patrick Henry and the American Republic (New York: Grove Press, 2001), pp. 34-35.