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Spring 2002 · Vol. 31 No. 1 · pp. 62–67 

Response to “A Generation of Ghosts”

James Penner

Thank you, Randy, for speaking out for your generation, specifically for those brought up in the Evangelical church. We appreciate your vulnerability, and your honesty is a great gift to us. Thank you for breaking the silence, as it were, and saying what you have felt and thought and suffered with for so many agonizing years. You are not alone.

Many of your generation (and I believe older generations too) have not had the opportunity to experience the romance and the mystery of the faith. We have been taught to put aside the story and embrace the propositions. We have learned that it is naive to trust the “wooing” of the romance after we become adults, as if somehow we have outgrown it and moved on to more reasonable or “scientific” ways of thinking.

Life lived solely on doctrine and ethics will leave our passion crippled or perverted, and our hearts divorced from our souls.

Contemporary Christianity has often taught us to mistrust it for fear it will lead us into some New Age heresy, unwittingly giving away what most deeply belongs to Christian faith—an irresistible invitation to accept the unconditional love of God. The mystery and transcendence have been squeezed into black and whites, and we have not been allowed to question or wonder (at least not out loud). The world “out {63} there” has been seen as dangerous, and we have indeed been infected with fear.


For certain Mennonite people, this may have begun in the Ukraine villages where our forefathers made a deal with the government that in exchange for peace and cultural freedom they would not share faith with outsiders. I say this with no blame. I was not there, and I do not know the heart or options available to them. We need our historians to shed light on this aspect of our heritage and the resulting consequences. The deal our dear ancestors made perhaps led to separateness and, in time, an unhealthy exclusivity and suspicion of those outside the community. Later, when the horrendous atrocities of the Bolshevik Revolution and, still later, Stalin’s purges hit their villages, our people became fearful, terrified of the outsiders, for they indeed had become the enemy. Such fear has bred a lingering insecurity which has subconsciously been transported to the new world, passed on to succeeding generations, and is now to some degree the subculture’s default mechanism.

Yet, not only Mennonites, but Evangelicals more generally, have had an unhealthy “us” and “them” mentality, not realizing that God is on all of humankind’s side. We have perhaps forgotten that God created this world and loves it. Could it be that God is still out and about, working for restoration?

Could it be, too, that faith in this God is more than a set of doctrines and ethics? More than “what we believe”? I would venture to say that, contrary to appearances, many of the folks at church, as you concur, are not “getting the experience.” Curtis and Eldredge, in The Sacred Romance, describe how life lived solely on doctrine and ethics will leave our passion crippled or perverted, and our hearts divorced from our souls. The life of the heart is lost. Faith begins to feel like a series of problems to be solved. We try to reduce the wildness of life by creating a system, a contract with God.


It really doesn’t matter what the particular group bargain is—doctrinal adherence, moral living, or some sort of spiritual experience—the desire is the same: taming God in order to manage life. Never mind those deep yearnings of the soul; never mind the nagging awareness that God is not cooperating. If the system isn’t working, it’s because we’re not doing it right. Perhaps this is why a wise prominent Evangelical leader recently stated to an academic interfaith group I was with that the {64} churches he serves feel like God is mad at them if they are not having a revival. There is always something to work on, with the promise of abundant life and God’s approval just around the corner. But you are right, Randy: so often it doesn’t seem to come.

Meanwhile the yearning doesn’t go away. G. K. Chesterton said, “Romance is the deepest thing in life, romance is deeper even than reality.” The Romance that we have longed for since childhood continues to call. For we were created out of the laughter, out of the perfect, mysterious, relational love of the Trinity. But we don’t experience the relationship. Much of what happens, as you say, is subtle and unconscious. The Romance (as Curtis and Eldredge call it) is shot with arrows—abandonment, violation, loss—the most defining ones coming at a young age. The arrows strike at the places of our heart that are most important to us, most vital to us. And we respond to the arrows not in a managed rational sort of way, but at a gut level.

Judgment, guilt, and fear then work against our hearts. Mark Harris writes that our relationship with God is as complex and layered and unpredictable as our deepest human relationships, and we bring patterns and expectations from those relationships to our relationship with God. He tells of being very sensitive, perhaps too sensitive, to the fact that his failures often met with disapproval, judgment, and feelings of rejection. As a result he spent years dreading the obligation of daily confession to God. It was too painful. “When I repented,” he says,

I felt no relief. I felt no new freedom. Instead I felt diminished and unaccepted. I felt judgment and recrimination. I was a failure in God’s sight. Theologically, I knew it was not supposed to work that way, but in the end theological correctness was not enough. Pathways of the heart, beaten down by footprints of human relationships, had the final say in shaping the dynamics of my relationship with God.


Harris describes how Julian of Norwich saw confession as reconciliation with our divine Lover, as coming to God in all of our woe as to a welcoming friend, as a glad meeting of persons. He tells how John of Ruysbroeck describes the coming of Christ to us as a wonderful thing, an event that occurs daily, “often and many times, in every loving heart, with new graces and with new gifts, as each is able to receive them.” To instill in children that the final coming of Christ to us brings the great possibility of being “left behind” seems to do more damage than good. {65} I’ve heard too many similar stories of children frightened by perceptions of the rapture, as well as ongoing childhood and adult fear regarding the unpardonable sin.

My wife has a very sensitive spirit. She can only too well relate to your frustration with the sacred being so “exclusionary and limited.” Walking the tightrope of being Christian was for her so painful, so nearly impossible, that her heart (like yours) went, for moments, to the opposite end of the spectrum. That only brought further frustration and fear, and the vicious circle continued.

According to Curtis and Eldridge, we as human beings need a spacious story that is “big enough to live in!” When purity is so relentlessly defined and controlled, we are, clearly, not going to make it. Christianity, though, is not about perfection. It is not, as Philip Yancey says, about creating a scrubbed image of the church. And it is not about appeasing the gods when we fall short. It is about the love and compassion of a gracious God who did for us what we could never do. This is gospel, Good News!

Like you say, often our lives get divided into two parts. The outer part lives in the theater of the “should.” The inner part lives in the theater of needs—in the words of Curtis and Eldredge, “the place where we quench the thirst of our heart with whatever water is available.” People robbed of their hearts, forced to live a double existence, are ghosts, with no place to reside, no place to belong. With agnosticism or resignation they continue to float, silently looking for the intimacy for which they were created but which seems always to elude them.

Our community needs to be big enough for such people. For such people we need to be compassionate, which means “to suffer with.” Instead of instinctively trying to fix, we need to be patiently open to sit with them in the questions, to let them be heard, to be real ourselves, and to remove the boundaries that we have invented. The silence must be broken.


Bernard of Clairvaux, a lover of God from the end of the tenth century, talks about the way we see ourselves. The Evangelical church may do well to hear him. In On Loving God, Bernard says there are four levels of loving God. First is love of self for self’s sake—not narcissism but the impulse all healthy human beings have to look after themselves. Second is love of God for self’s sake. This is honest self-interest calling out to God for personal protection. Third is love of God for God’s sake. This is a sort of letting go of the self and loving God because God is good, regardless of whether I feel this goodness at the moment! {66}

Lastly, Bernard suggests the highest level of loving God is loving self for the sake of God. This level of love, he suggests, is a love of self that is not motivated by self-preservation but is deeply rooted in our relationship with God. It is fueled by the experience of mutual love between God and me, and leads to a personal uncontrollable zeal for God’s glory.

I sense a lot of Evangelical focus in the past has been spent on Love of God Level #3. Remember the song we were taught in Sunday school, “Jesus and others and you—so put yourself last and spell JOY!” This is the surrender talk you heard in church that left you and others feeling so empty. Tragically the church too often opted for social control to get people to level #3. We criticized people at level #1 and #2 without recognizing these levels as natural stages in our experience of God.

Some churches went further. According to Johnson and VanVonderen in their book about spiritual abuse, “through the subtle use of right ‘spiritual’ words, church members [were] manipulated or shamed into certain behaviors or performances that [ensnared them] in legalism, guilt, and begrudging service.” At the same time we tragically lived under a glass ceiling of service for God, and many, not listening to their own heart, felt this was the best that life got. Hence we missed the ecstasy and mystery of experiencing a Bernard of Clairvaux progression in our own love for God. Not good enough!


Perhaps what we need is renovation. Perhaps we need to listen more to the tragic stories among us and slowly learn to not be threatened by their pain. Perhaps we need to more carefully study our own tradition—both its blessed history and its sin history—to see what lessons we can learn about not slipping off the rails when bringing faith to our children.

Perhaps we also need to be more open to what other Christian traditions can teach us, such as Catholic spirituality. Menno Simons brought much good with him from his own medieval church roots, and there is much to be mined from that source.

Lastly, perhaps we need to be real (not perfect) ourselves. Perhaps we too can relate to the drudgery of churchy “should” theology and pressures? Perhaps we too are being wooed by a divine lover who is spacious, full of joy and humor, awe-inspiring, and mysterious?

So thanks again, Randy, for what your honesty has unleashed in our community. Let us watch and wait to see what God will do. As my spiritual director patiently reminds me, “James, God is in your reality—not the dream world you wish existed.” {67}


  • Bernard of Clairvaux (twelfth century). On loving God. Text available at
  • Curtis, Brent, and John Eldredge. 1997. The sacred romance: Drawing closer to the heart of God. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
  • Harris, Mark. 1999. Companions for your spiritual journey: Discovering the disciplines of the saints. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity.
  • Johnson, David, and Jeff Van Vonderen. 1991. The subtle power of spiritual abuse: Recognizing and escaping spiritual manipulation and false authority within the church. Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House.
  • Yancey, Philip. 2001. Soul survivor: How my faith survived the church. New York: Doubleday.

Also recommended:

  • Raub, John Jacob. 1992. Who told you that you were naked? Freedom from judgment, guilt and fear of punishment. New York: Crossroads.
James Penner attended Bethany Bible Institute and obtained a Masters in Sociology from the University of Lethbridge. He studies youth culture, teaches, and gives spiritual direction to college and university students. James attends College Drive Community Church (MB), Lethbridge, Alberta. For inspiration and help, he expresses gratitude to his wife, Claire, who also relates to much of what Randall Schroeder has to share in his article.

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