Unbelievable? explores how two friends with similar upbringings ended up in such different places spiritually
Justin Brierley recently hosted a show with two musicians Michael Gungor and Evan Wickham. This is a transcript of the episode, but you can listen to the programme here.
Michael Gungor is a well known musician and songwriter who, along with his wife Lisa, were pioneers in the Christian music scene. As his theology moved in a more progressive direction, so did his music. For many years, the podcast he co-hosts, the Liturgists, has seen listeners go with him on a journey of questioning and deconstructing the Christianity he started with, into something very different today.
Evan Wickham is a pastor at Park Hill Church in San Diego. He’s a musician and worship leader and has collaborated with Michael in the past. They’ve remained friends, though they haven’t chatted for a little while.
Justin Brierley: Michael, could you give us a brief sketch of how you came to faith? What that looked like, how you fell into Christian music and what those early days in that scene were like?
Michael Gungor: My dad was a pastor. He’s like a bishop now. So, I grew up in church. I grew up learning music in church. And so my spirituality and my music were always tied together. And to just get to the point, I started asking questions, probably in late high school, and that continued sort of secretly. Until I was 30 years old, like I would have occasional, we’d have late night bus conversations on tour, but like, what’s real? What’s true? Is any of this real?
With the safe people, it was scary to have those conversations, before podcasts I would sometimes get on chat rooms or something online. But most of that, when I used to do that, it was more like, I was trying to defend my faith, more than argue from the other side. And some of those conversations ended up, some of the things that we hear in these arguments and debates which I’ve always loved a good, wrestle. Love a good debate.
But some of those things I didn’t know how to answer and things that I would hear in school and papers, I would write trying to defend my creationist perspective, or whatever it was at the time. And over time, it just sort of gradually, the things I was really confident in, I became less and less confident in and it all culminated sort of in well, there’s a couple of big moments 2010, I was almost ready to let it all go. I was just like, not even. And say it was ready, let it go was more like I didn’t know how to hang on anymore. And that was where a lot of our early Gungor music came from, sort of this: I don’t know what’s true anymore. I have all this doubt and I was suffering and miserable. And that’s probably about the time I was hanging out with Evan.
It was shortly at the end of that year that I went to Assisi, Italy. I had this incredible spiritual sort of literal mountaintop experience in Assisi, Italy, on this meditation retreat, where I just felt union with God in a way that was like all my questions just sort of disappeared. And it just kind of felt like God is what is and I don’t have to do anything about it. I don’t have to believe anything about it. It’s just the reality in which I live and move and have my being. And then that was such a beautiful high. I was literally dancing on the mountains of Assisi, like where Francis used to be out there preaching to the squirrels or whatever.
Then I spent the next six years after that sort of like seeking that experience again, because it was so profound. And I was completely at peace for the first time. Kind of ever. And then a lot of seeking, a lot of journeying, studying different religions, practising different aspects.
In 2016, I had another sort of like, spiritual awakening moment. And that one kind of lasted in a different way than the 2010 one did. And so since then, I don’t necessarily identify as any one particular tradition. I’m not trying to make my spirituality, my identity in that way. But I appreciate and love the Christian tradition as well as a lot of other traditions. And so I use spirituality, pseudo spiritual practice at this point, to remain grounded to be in my body, to move into that which I think Jesus was inviting us into the eternal life of the present moment.
Justin Brierley: Evan, tell us a bit about your journey and where you were on the journey when you connected with Michael?
Evan Wickham: Michael, thanks for your story. I have so much resonance and mirroring, almost, of your story. I think we even got married to our wives the same year. And then, you know, megachurch worship leading.
I grew up, I see the way I saw the Bible then as kind of like the beginning and the end of the Bible were like this very specific interpretation that I was handed. Basically, young earth creation, believe it or you’re unfaithful. And then, the end of the Bible, eschatology, believe that we’re white knuckling it till the rapture, this whole thing ends one way with the world blowing up by God’s like finger on the button. Those are both very hyperbolic, but the point is, I was handed this book-ended Bible and it made me wonder in my 20s, like, is the middle then, even true?
Michael, I resonate with that wanting to kind of process and have a safe place to ask the questions that are most meaningful to you. And you did it secretly. Mine was like half secret and very much public as well. I remember, you know, taking it to evangelical Facebook - a very friendly place usually. And kicking up some dust as I’m kind of just unpacking the beautiful thing that is orthodoxy. The beautiful thing that is the historic Church responding to God’s revelation in Christ, and like the very core of what that is. I’m like, I want to get to that because if it’s there, I want it. If it’s not, I don’t want any of it. And kind of peeling back the layers.
Every Christian is handed a version of Christianity. And so getting past the secondary issues to the primary was kind of the task of my 20s. And where it seems like maybe Michael, you had a secretive relationship with that process, I had a very public one. And yeah, it created kind of a community within the Church around me like questioning.
My wife and I felt a call to the Church, to plant a church to lead a community within the church, while we’re leading worship and things, but I knew at that time I couldn’t. I couldn’t lead a church in reaction to the bad stuff, and the hurt and the bad teaching I had encountered, I had to lead a church in response to the goodness of God, and the core of the gospel that has united the Church across continents and millennia. And so part of that involved physically moving out of Southern California and moving to Portland, Oregon, to submit to a community - and I use that word submit very intentionally because I think it takes a community to deconstruct well, because I think you can give into the impulse to deconstruct poorly, and it takes a community to do that well.
Mine became kind of friends from California, but also geographically rooting in Portland, and seeing the vibrant, healthy churches up there that are being compressed by secularism. And that like the vitality that’s created in that secular space, the vitality and passion for the healing presence of God. John Mark Comer has been a dear friend of mine for almost two decades. And God used him in my life profoundly to to just walk with and then he invited us in as part of the worship community there and planted us as a community, but like we want you to like heal here and process here and and we’ll send you, we see beauty and God’s hand on your life.
Responding, rather I’ll use the word reacting, reacting to human failure to create something can be beautiful, but often is laced with more like self sabotaging systems. So, I wanted to get to the point where I can react to human failure to create something more, but also respond to God’s goodness at the forefront, to create something that is true. And so, that’s kind of why we landed back in San Diego. My wife is really leading the charge. She’s like the primary church planter of this thing.
Now, five years in San Diego, we’ve had this really beautiful community of largely young, largely single, but also older, married folks. Just pursuing the presence of God in their lives in a historic sense, tied to Orthodoxy, but unafraid to answer questions. Every new member’s class we have is like, I always front it with no question off limits, honest, welcome. And bring it and they can post their questions anonymously onto the screen, if it’s a tender question, but so so that’s kind of the community we set out to create.
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JB: Michael, you’ve obviously been involved in the Christian music worship scene at various points. Was there anything about that industry that kind of put you off the Christian thing, the Christian subculture, was there any of that going on in the background as well as these theological questions that were coming up for you?
MG: Sure, there were moments especially, you know, here and there where I think anybody probably in any industry finds human, you know, human imperfections and sometimes when when things are associated with spirituality, or we tie it to God or Christ or something like that, it we want it to be perfect. We want it to be holy. And then we find out it’s humaneness. So, there were certainly moments that I experienced pain and shame and hurt through some of that.
I think there’s a perception that I run into sometimes, what I’m perceiving as people’s assumptions about my journey, is that I’m sort of acting out of some sort of hurt, or that I’m running from something. And it’s simply not the case. In my perspective and my experience, I am sort of living in the fulfilment of my faith, not running of it. And of course, that happens only moment to moment. It’s not like I’ve arrived. And now I just coast.
I love hearing about how you’ve created a community that allows space for people to ask questions, allows space for people to be who they are, and bring their truth to the, to a community because that feels like that’s unfortunately rare. I felt that was rare in my life. And I made some very concerted efforts to try to make those communities myself. Lisa and I started a church in Denver, under those sorts of values as well, this was back in 2008. We were there for several years, and then starting the Liturgists podcast was all kind of part of this.
I love what Evan said about deconstructing well with other people, it’s important being held by community. So, at this point, like I, my spirituality, is not divorced from or in spite of my Christian upbringing, I do feel like those what I learned in church, the practices of surrender the practices of worship, the practices of service, even just simply like learning how to be quiet, sometimes, like my dad was great at like, we’d come up to him and be like “we’re bored”. Like, good. That was great. He was like, go pray in tongues, or whatever He tells us to do. Those practices of just like learning how to be.
EW: I miss boredom. Like how long since you’ve been bored?
MG: I haven’t been bored since I was a child. I miss it. Yeah, but yeah, so it’s not those where I’m at now is not a running from pain. That’s actually kind of the opposite. I feel like I actually embraced fully, the experiences and its teachings of Christ. In my perspective.
JB: I’ve had this in conversations with other people who talked about the fact that because you are representing or you’ve come from an evangelical Christian music scene, but you’re going on a journey, that maybe not in the same places where your fans are, or where the kind of crowd is that you’ve kind of taken with you, it can produce a kind of a difficult kind of disconnect with and it’s hard to sometimes I think, maybe to work through that when you are a kind of public persona, if you’re a church leader, or worship musician or something like that. Did you feel that? And I guess, to what extent, you know, have any of those fans from the early years kind of stayed with you as you’ve gone through that, that, you know, quite radical progression in your own faith?
MG: Yeah, there’s thankfully still some around that have either actually gone on long journeys and are somehow, there’s been some people that we meet and kind of been lockstep the whole time, which is kind of cool when those people, but of course, there are people who have dropped off, there have been people who just came recently to the party, and like, Oh, this is kind of where I’m at. I didn’t start where you started, but I’m gonna where you’re at now. And so yeah, I’m grateful for whoever happens to be here on the journey now and, but I also have empathy for people who have made different decisions and who look at where I’m at, as a threat or as way out there, whatever.
I would have been horrified at who I am now. You know, 20 years ago to some I don’t know. I become a heathen bound for hell. If you think of yourself 10, 15 years ago, and some of the things that you see the world like now, hopefully, there would have been part of you that would be afraid of that, if you’ve grown, right? So I see it and I know from someone else’s perspective, they’re, of course gonna see it differently. But I think we tend to look forward at growth with fear. And we look backwards with disdain, where we came from, that’s kind of like the natural tendency. And I did that for a long time. And I don’t do it anymore. I actually really value where I came from.
There’s labels that are thrown around on the internet, like ex-vangelical, and stuff like that. I don’t, I don’t define myself like that. I am not defining myself in opposition to something or like, I failed. I tried something and it didn’t work. And now I’m something like that. We don’t do that with school. We’re not like I was an ex first grader or an ex high school student. It’s like, what do you mean, you went through it? You learned what you needed to learn? You keep going, you keep learning, you keep Yeah. You experience what you experience. And it’s part of your journey. And so I’m grateful for where I came from.
JB: Evan, do you want to comment? Either on your journey or Michael’s?.
EW: Yeah, no, I just have the same value for growth. I remember. I know, I think it was Jordan Peterson. I don’t listen to him that often. But when I do, I kept some things. He says you’ve had him on the podcast. And he said, you know, you’ve grown up when you realise your dad was wrong about stuff. You know, and I think that’s just growing up. That’s just growth. I think that’s a beautiful thing that Jesus invites everyone who follows him to do.
The thing about, I guess, Jesus is that he has all these beautiful metaphors for the kingdom, the tearing of wineskins, a seed falling into the ground and dying, all of these things that are ending to begin something. And so Jesus has no, he’s not growth averse. And he invites people toward him. Like it’s all an invitation to find fulfilment in a person, in him as opposed to other persons.
So, I just find that to me, in reference to my own journey, that has been compelling, what is it about Jesus that sets him apart from the other major religious spokespersons where they, the non Christian major religions, they’re in large part saying: “Don’t look at me, don’t come to me, don’t find your fulfilment me, look to God or look within, or look to the universe or something.” Where Jesus values all of those things, he values the universe and talks about the inextricably interwoven relationships between humanity and creation, plants and animals and the immense value of of Earth, which wasn’t a value in a lot of church circles, Michael and I grew up in the value of Earth, but Jesus upheld the value of Earth. And yet, he brought it all under his authority, like he saw himself as the most important person and said: “Everyone come to me and find healing and fulfilment in me.” And grow and realise your dad was wrong.
I guess if there’s one thing that I would maybe foresee in a conversation like this with me and Michael, it’d be, I wonder, based on what I’ve heard you say and right, Michael, I wonder if like, there’s like several too many either or’s for me in in some of the framing of Christianity, where for me, it’s both and like, Yes, God is mystery. God is indescribable with language. And we have 2,000 years of creedal language, you know, yes, Jesus is completely conscious of others and conscious of God. And Jesus is totally loving. And Jesus commanded us to love one another. And he believed his Father and the Spirit and himself were persons meant to be in relationship with humanity, all humanity. He wants everyone. And so to me, it’s like, at least in the last 10 years and the conversation in which Michael has been a very profoundly significant voice, I just wonder if sometimes if the like the depiction of God that a lot of the popular deconstruction voices are are speaking of, I wonder if it’s the same God me as an Orthodox Christian rejects, you know. So I just think there’s a binary there that shouldn’t be. Yes, God is not what we thought. And he’s more than we think. And Jesus was right. And the church was right and all of that.
JB: I get the sense that a lot of the the audience for the Liturgists have sort of been on the journey for the kind of the questions and questioning a lot of the kind of evangelical subculture, the sort of stuff that maybe has been added on to historic Christianity and people are asking questions about it. And that there’s the deconstruction aspect of that. But then, I also wonder whether how many people have kind of followed you into the way you’ve reconstructed or whether that’s kind of Michael’s kind of way of of seeing this because there’s obviously a lot of language that sounds, you know, I think it’s gone in quite an Eastern kind of Buddhist sort of consciousness kind of direction, where you no longer make a distinction between ourselves and God, I think there’s a sense in which a lot of what I hear from you on some of your podcasts and writing is, you know, there was that viral tweet that attracted a lot of attention back in 2021, Jesus was Christ. Buddha was Christ, Muhammad was Christ. Christ is a word for the universe seeing itself. You are Christ, we are the body of Christ. I guess it’s that kind of that kind of direction that you’ve gone in? Where it’s left, even, I guess, people who kind of aren’t you have questions about the kind of evangelical subculture and so on, but they say, I’m not sure I’m up for Michael’s kind of the direction he’s gone with seeing it in this framing in this new way. So, what do you do with that? Where, you know, is it? Are you kind of encouraging people to come over here? Or, I don’t know, where? Where do you see yourself in that, Michael?
MG: Now strangely, I actually see myself, my role, as encouraging people to embrace their own journey. And to actually try to enjoy the process if you can, like, what’s the language that you use and the hard part about using language from my vantage point where I’m using words, like tools, like, full stop, they’re tools to communicate something of my experience to someone else. And so, I enjoy the game of deconstruction, kind of throughout my life, I find a lot of pleasure in it. And I can deconstruct anything I’ve said, and be like, I’ll tell you why that’s not true. I can tell you why that Tweet is incredibly problematic. And how it’s untrue, I can tell you that and I, I’m convicted that that’s the case. And I can tell you a way that that Tweet is absolutely true. In my experience and beautiful and inspiring.
It’s almost like the nature of language, I used to believe that language was sort of equivalent to the truth that I was pointing at it was almost like I lost the distinction between the finger pointing at the moon and the moon itself. And to me language is at best the finger pointing to the moon. So when we start confusing language with truth - and to me that’s a key distinction - like, the truth of the matter is unspeakable, it’s this moment and its fullness. And so to try to put that in a word is to constrict it into the mind and then to try to communicate something with some sounds. And so I kind of maybe in that way, I kind of have a low view of language. But on the other side, I also recognise it as part of this moment, so I still also strangely valued that really highly. But yeah, I guess my advice for anybody following me is like, don’t I don’t believe what I’m saying. You shouldn’t either
EW: Well, there you go. That’s the end. We’re done!
MG: I’m using words like i’m using music to invite you into an experience, since I feel like I’m doing on some level the same thing I’ve always done as a worship leader inviting people to surrender, inviting people to, we have this, this open hand thing that can happen, or this closed fist thing that can happen in life. And I think it’s moment to moment. And it’s an energy thing. There’s the Yes, and there’s the No. And I think you feel these ebbs and flows in your life. And I like finding a way to invite people into Yes, yes, of their lives, yes, of their journeys. To me, that’s the same thing that Christ was teaching. And while I do find distinctions helpful, and like you had mentioned, I don’t find any distinction between us and God, I wouldn’t agree with that. Or nor that I don’t find any distinctions between the teachings of Jesus or Buddha or Krishna. I find distinctions, but I also find sort of an esoteric, unspeakable core to all of reality that I would call spirit, if I’m talking in this language right now.
JB: The whole deconstruction thing, I feel, has become a generational thing. It is millennials who have kind of been the ones who have borne the brunt of this deconstruction thing. And Gen Z, I suppose to some extent. There’s a sense in which you guys have kind of gone on the whole journey and ended up in these different places. Evan, what do you say to Michael’s? You know, where he’s gone?
EW: I’m curious. I just want to hear him talk and be like: “Well, what do you mean by…”
I am not a, you know, postmodernist linguist guy, but I do think it’s interesting what Michael was saying about language being both useful and useless. Or however you framed it, but I know from kind of following a little bit of like, the Liturgist journey, especially the most recent season, just kind of tuning in for the last year or so you’ve gone specifically for like dialogues around like, historically, Christian words. And words like salvation and God and Trinity like these things that mean things to people.
Words have meanings, but more importantly, like meanings have words and so for 1,000s of years, like the global Christian Church has shared language for like these essential terms, like God, you know, for 1,800 years, you’d say God and everyone within the Christian world would mean one thing. And then those who were not Christians would know Oh, I don’t mean what Christians mean, you know what I mean? So, however, like this recent change is taking place in the West, the historically agreed upon Christian essentials, they’re not the same for people anymore. You know, I think that’s kind of what you’re driving at, Michael. And so like, I just kind of want to maybe just ask you what you think of what I’m saying, and you know, listen to you unpack salvation or God?
MG: Thank you for sharing it. I’m hearing a respect and an honour for the tradition that you are part of, and the words that are an important part of your life and spirituality and community. And I actually, like, appreciate that, and honour, your sort of reverence for that. And because I do know that words are the second half of what I was saying before, I may have said it quickly, but they are powerful, and like the words that we use to create worlds and do really influence our experience of reality. So language is important.
I do actually sincerely believe that the words that are used by Orthodox, mainstream Christianity have drastically been reimagined from what I think Jesus would have meant. And speaking about those topics like, that is sincere, I don’t think, I don’t see Christ’s use of words like God or Heaven, or the kingdom of God, all those words, I think would mean drastically different things to him, than would mean to your average Christian.
I also think Christians today especially and I also don’t necessarily agree with you that a word like God would mean the same thing to all Christians. I don’t even think you’d have a hard time finding a couple of people who if you actually press them on what is God? Yeah. You know, I’m actually recording a podcast right now where I’m talking about that Augustine quote, What do I love when I love my God? And what is it? What are we actually talking about? When we’re talking about God? And I think that, you know, the image of one person from one moment to the next is probably not even the same thing. One moment somebody might be talking about, literally, like a cartoon character in their head, that’s like a guy in the clouds, but then maybe they feel a little bit more, they really think about it for a second. Like, that’s not actually what I mean, by God. I mean, sort of the love that’s creating the universe or, you know, like so I don’t want to dismiss the importance of language, but I also don’t think it’s as clean as we would like to make it. sometimes.
EW: That’s very good. This gets back to what I was saying earlier. With either or versus both and like, like to me, it’s, it’s both. Yes, God is indescribable and we all have our own brains. And our brains make a bunch of ninja moves every day, to show us what God is like, based on our personal experience. And we have 1,800 years of shared language in confessional Christianity across every major denomination. 2.5 billion Christians have said these words called the creeds. So like, both of those are true.
Yes, I have like an anime God in my head. That’s based on hurts and great experiences and painful moments with abusive leaders and beautiful moments with a community that actually values my questions. That forms like my personal brain, but like Christianity has always been a we thing until very, very recently. It’s like an I individual thing. 1,800 years of doctrine just kind of got interrupted by this thing called theological liberalism where this guy named Schleiermacher, finally smuggled into a pulpit in Germany that Jesus doesn’t mean the words that we think he means that’s like, like a 200 year old thing.
For many reasons, but I guess what I’m pointing at is what the whole Church across all of time has had at the core. And it’s, it’s these things called Confessions. And so I would ask Michael, like when you say, when Jesus says God, or kingdom, or saved? And you say those 1,800 years of global confessions based on like, a family tradition? They all got it wrong. Like, what are you? I guess, what’s your grounding for that? Like genuine curiosity?
MG: The grounding is honestly experience. I used to hear Jesus’s words, and I read a lot of Bible, I did a lot of Jesus word memorising and reading and studying for a lot of my life. And there was always sort of this kind of mysterious or lofty, or like, what is exactly? It all sounded kind of out there. And I was like, I think I get it, what is this? And there was a switch in 2016. Where it was, it was almost like, you know, if, before you ever were on a zoom call, or something like this, somebody was like describing. So it’s like, a flat surface upon which squares align with our faces, and there are metres going, that was volume. And if you’ve never seen or experienced anything like that, it’s like, Whoa, those are some wild metaphors. And then you actually see the computer and you’re like, Oh, this is what he was talking about. Just clear is that, like, I, I hear you now I got it.
I have the experience of the kingdom of heaven that he was talking about, directly and have it. And so I hear his words. And it’s just very obvious, from my perspective, what he’s describing, and it’s not at all what I used to think it was. And it’s almost humorous, because he was constantly saying things like, you don’t hear what you think you understand what I’m saying, and you don’t. And I used to be the one who was like, yeah, they don’t understand what you’re saying. And so I feel the experience, and I, of course, I could be wrong, maybe I’m just projecting my experience onto his words, and totally missed the mark of what he was saying. That’s completely possible. But it just seems very obvious to me. Because I know his words pretty well. And I’m like oh. I’m in the room that he was describing.
JB: It’s helpful to sort of say that, and to some extent, obviously, this 2016 experience was was very foundational, it was an epiphany, where a lot of things obviously fell into place for you, Michael, and you feel that you’ve kind of got a more holistic rounded sense of what God is and how you fit in and so on. To some extent, you know, would you say that has led you to suddenly there’s more of a kind of universalistic kind of approach to religion, there were a pluralistic sense of, they’re all pointing in that direction, because obviously, wherever it’s coming from, I would assume without wanting to put words in your mouth, Evan, is that while there is value in many religious traditions, it’s ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ that you find God fully expressed, and that is the historic, you know, Christian understanding. Whereas it sounds like Michael, you’ve seen in Jesus, in this kind of flip that happened, a kind of universalizing kind of thing going on where where now, it all fits into a schema that kind of transcends Christianity or Jesus alone. In that sense. Jesus is one more way in which you access that sort of divine source and so on?
MG: That wouldn’t be quite accurate actually. It’s more like a shift. What happened was, it was almost like, you know, if you’re ever reading a novel or something, and you have this chapter’s from the perspective of one character, this is from the perspective of the mum. And then the next one is from the dad. And then the next one’s like, this is just some, like kind of all knowing narrator that’s doing this one. It was a character, it was a lens shift, fundamentally. So I used to view religion as something that Michael was trying to understand that I was trying to get the truth. And that I if I did the right things, if I believed the right things, if I surrendered enough of my heart, then I would sort of like ascend to this place where I could get the “well done good and faithful servant”, I would get to heaven, I would get my rewards.
Eventually, that theology change, and when Christ reestablishes his kingdom on the earth, and that would be part of that, like, that’s shifted, over and over and over in different theological shades. But what happened, and where I’m at now, it’s like, the protagonist changed. I thought Michael was the protagonist of this story. And what I saw in 2016, wasn’t really anything to do with God, as much as it was to do with Michael, it was actually seeing what I thought of as Michael as being the ego constriction, and fear based, approval seeking dad be proud of me, friends think I’m cool, please, somebody loved me thing that it is, and all my seeking, all my like, I’m going to understand God, I saw how that was related to all that, it wasn’t, it wasn’t a clean objective seeking of truth. And what I saw was that what I think of as me, is a i construct. I saw it directly, I could see the edges of the construct. And so then when I see that it’s an it’s not a bad thing. constructs aren’t bad as I love my ego, I think it’s a beautiful little guy.
But what I saw, is that what I am, Michael, is rooted and grounded in and being created by what is God, God or spirit that it’s actively being breathed. I used to think of myself as being some sort of like island that could be disconnected from God, even if I didn’t say that it felt like that. And now that doesn’t exist. For me that belief doesn’t exist for me anymore. I think that it’s all just being breathed by God, if you will. So hearing Christ say “I am the Way the Truth and life”, “I am the bread”, or come listen to like all the when I heard you, Evan, saying that he thought he was the most important person on earth. I don’t hear him speaking from the lens of an individual guy. I think in those moments, what I’m hearing is Spirit that has fully recognised itself. And a human being is the father speaking through the son, it’s the unity there. And what I hear Jesus doing is inviting us all into that union. May they be one, as you and I are one.
EW: If I could I have two responses? One of them’s a question. But the first one is, Michael, you and I, like have so much in common, it’s kind of a little bit scary. So even down to like worship leading in mega churches and evangelical American charismatic Bible churches. So when you say back to what you said, you’ve read a lot of Bible and read a lot of the words. So did I and I was taught that that’s how Christianity is done. Like, if you can get a lot of Bible words in your head and pray every day, you’ll be fine. And that’s just very new.
It seems that the construct of Christianity you’re critiquing is the same one I am. And it’s this, like me and my Bible with all the words and a bearded white male in the sky, who wants people to burn like that’s so new and so initially American and not remotely like the 1,800 years of confessional Christianity, like I’m with you, you know. Like we’ve deconstructed the same God, I just think we’ve reconstructed very differently. I think it’s fair to say that’s so I say that to say we, someone can read the Bible on their own, and not know what the church has been saying about those words. And that is unfortunate. I’ve just found so much beauty and like the family, this family that has been so diverse and began as Middle Eastern quickly was first African, with Augustine and like the African roots of Christianity are profound with Augustine. And this.
The second thing I want to ask was a question if I may. I read your book, so I think I know the answer. But I feel like it’s begging this question for the listeners. It’s like, what were the circumstances of this 2016 waking up thing? Like you keep referring to it as this moment of grounding? What were those circumstances?
MG: Yeah, well, I want to also be clear, I’ll tell you the circumstances, but this will immediately make a lot of people go oh, come on. But I want to be clear that when I’m talking about 2016, I’m not like remembering a thing that I’m like I get because psilocybin mushrooms were involved in a shamanic ceremony. When people hear that, it’s easy to be like, Oh, you saw something while you were high on drugs. And you think that was true? And that’s not actually the case. It’s not like I saw some. Like, I heard something I’m just holding on to that belief. It was like it was the first time not the first time it was kind of the second time, but it was more sustained.
The first time was in Assisi. But even before that, actually, I would have moments as a kid, or like in worship sometimes or like I would I remember asking myself the question occasionally as a kid, what is and I would try to get to the third word I was I was trying to get like, we talked about God and what it like, what is sort of like, what is the substance of God? What is God? What is reality? I would try to find a word for what I was curious about. And my brain would kind of like glitch out. And I was like, I would kind of disappear. Like my whole self again, like, it was like, almost like I got, like, hit on this electric fence or something. And I was like, what? And I will try to describe that to people. I’m like, could you ever, like ask yourself what is and then you kind of like, end up in the void or like something? And you’re like, I don’t know what you’re talking about. So I would have moments where like, what I thought I was, wasn’t clear for a moment. And what happened in the trip was, it was just, it was a really clear, perspective change.
Sometimes you just like, see, from a perspective, that’s different, you just noticed that you had been seeing from a different perspective, I hadn’t even noticed that I was seeing from a perspective, in a way. So it wasn’t that I’m like, I took the magic mushroom perspective. And like, that’s the true one. It just I had shifted, in a moment of having altered, I was at an altered state of consciousness. But the fact that I saw it from a different vantage point allowed me to see almost like step aside and look at the oh, I’ve been looking from there. And that hasn’t gone away. I can’t unsee that I’m seeing from somewhere that, like I had believed my subjectivity. So objectively, I hadn’t, I hadn’t noticed that it was coming from somewhere that it was looking from a place that included ego and desire, and fear and all that stuff. So I can’t that’s what I couldn’t unsee, not that I couldn’t see the new vantage point. I saw that immediately when I got sober. It wasn’t I’m not seeing from the exact same vantage point, but I can’t unsee that I’m seeing from a vantage point. And that was sort of the invitation that I don’t get lost anymore. In some of those same traps of feeling like I’m objectively seeking the truth.
EW: Thanks for sharing that. Yeah, I mean, I’m not bringing that up. Even though I know that part of your story. I’m not bringing it up to like, discount your perspective. Because I know Justin, you’ve had other folks who took magic mushrooms, and it brought them to Christ.
JB: Yeah, some very interesting journeys out there of people who have come in all kinds of different routes. Evan, I suppose, hearing Michael’s journey, and Michael’s story is unique, you know that doesn’t necessarily represent the direction that everyone’s going in necessarily. But when you are working alongside and pastoring people who maybe are having similar kinds of journeys, where they’re questioning the old kind of ways in which they were told to understand God and the Bible and so on. And we do see this apparent sort of trend for deconstruction, ex-evangelicals, whatever label you want to put on it, do you see things kind of going in the direction that Michael is describing? I don’t know that this spirituality that is obviously redefining to some extent, you know, the Orthodox Christian sort of traditions that have been associated with God and Jesus and the kingdom of God and so on? Or, or do you think the energy is in the direction that you’ve been pushing, which is to certainly ask those questions, but maybe, try and come back to something that is more like a historical thing
EW: That’s something I talk about a lot with people. You know, I’m part of a leadership kind of collective. And we meet with pastors all over the Western world, really, largely from secular cities. And we’re just asking the question, like, what does it look like to lead people? Well, in the way of Jesus, the historic with Jesus, I would even say, in an age in the West, specifically, where the numbers are currently declining. Absolutely. Like, when you look at the number of folks that are pastors right now, after 2020 2021, something like 1,700 pastors a month are just quitting, you know, they’re done. And that’s not to say anything of church members. So yeah, there’s this ebbing happening in the West.
I love Rebecca McLaughlin, Timothy Tennant. These are folks that that do like the firsthand sociology work. They work with the sources like what’s happening globally. I’ll just put it this way for everyone Western, elite, educated, largely millennial person that is leaving the Church in the West. There’s like five, brown, female, non English speaking, never read your blog, probably will never listen to Unbelievable? but are passionate about the way of Jesus flooding to Jesus today like coming to Jesus today. It’s exploding all over the majority world, the way of Jesus, and largely a conservative one that holds to like orthodoxy and orthopraxy. The doctrine and ethics of Christianity and it’s thrilling to be, you know, to know that as a white male, straight pastor in the West, I am this shrinking minority and Jesus is thriving and the Church is thriving with Christ all over the world. It’s a beautiful thing.
So all that to say, I think when we focus on kind of our Western bubble, we can miss the big picture of what God is up to. And I highly recommend Timothy Tenets ‘Theology in the Context of World Christianity’. He does all the work there. Granted, it’s a bit older, Rebecca McLaughlin does some of the newer work, just the Church is on the move, Jesus was right, like I know Michael’ss quoting Jesus, I love what Jesus has to say about his assembly, the word churches, assembly, and Jesus said the church is built on this confession that Christ is Jesus is the Messiah, he’s the king, he has authority over our bodies, and over our families. And he is the Son of the living God, you have both practice and doctrine there, Jesus doesn’t separate them. And then he says, on this rock, Peter, you just made that confession on this rock, I will build my church, and not even the gates of hell stand against it. So like, if Jesus has anything to say about it, there’s nothing stopping the Church, is actually invincible and like the most humble, beautiful weak, over the strong kind of way. Even if it means me as a privileged white male diminishing in the grander context of what God is doing. So be it like, I’m thrilled.
JB: My question to you, Michael, is a similar one to Evan, whereas he sees the US instantiation of the churches may be something that does have to change and adapt, nonetheless, God’s purposes will happen in the global sense. But do you think that actually, in the West, people are going to be going more in your direction, the way that you’ve now thought, again, about God and the Church that that actually, that’s the direction of travel of people of your generation?
MG: I think, first of all, I don’t really have an opinion about what people should be believing, what words are going to be useful for them, what technologies, I think, if I have any issue with the global Church, as Evan is sort of framing it. The colonialism, that tends to happen, that’s happened through a lot of the history of the Church, especially when it got sort of in bed with Empire. And the political ideologies of Rome, kind of got in or wound with Christianity. That violence that happens from the Crusades, to slave trades, to Holy Wars, to just straight up just shaming people who are different. I think it’s possible to love Christ, and to not do that part.
So, if there’s anything that I hope to see more of in Christendom, let me just put it in Christian terms, I hope that Christianity can begin to trust that God is the author of salvation, and not them. That God is the one the author and the finisher of faith. And because I know from my own journey, there were times and people would disagree from the outside with this, but I know there were times that I, the story I tell at the beginning of the book, Evan, about me being in the spa and like letting go of my beliefs of God. There was something in the inner experience of that that was so holy, so it was, in a way, the most faithful thing that I had ever done to, for God, to God in God was letting go of my mind’s grasp of God. And that’s hard to explain to somebody else and from somebody else coming from a different place, that wouldn’t be the case. But I think we’re so fast to judge each other on what God wants for this person, what salvation looks like for that person, even including if I could be I don’t hear that I’m not hurt by even the question of hurt coming up in this conversation.
I heard that there was a couple that I was talking to recently and she had been hurt by, he had been really giving his attention to some other people. And she was hurt by that. But she was kind of framing it as he’s so codependent that he can’t say no to them. So he’s got all this hurt and all this stuff going on with them and and he wants to be with me, it was this kind of feeling like he doesn’t want to be off spending his energy there. But the truth was, I asked him I was like, Is that the truth? Or do you want to be doing those things? And he’s like, I do want to be doing them so but there was like this kind of protection that she got by saying, by just believing that he was sort of a victim of some hurt, some codependence that he had his hands tied, he would rather be with her. But the codependence right?
So there can be that feeling of like someone who has arrived in a different place, or even arrived just in a different place than you to try to blame it on something. Oh, he must be hurt, there must be some sort of pain that he’s running from. Maybe he’s just come to different conclusions than you. Maybe he’s found something more beautiful than the thing he sees you offering, you know that having a little humility, as strong as an institution as an individual. And I’m not saying you don’t have humility, I mean, I’m sure then I’ve loved talking to you and feeling again, like that good faith, you actually are willing to have a real conversation which takes humility.
I guess my hope and invitation to not just Christians, but anybody is can we learn to really value what we value, learn to, you don’t have to just become laissez faire, about like, I don’t care what this what any words mean, I don’t care. Throw out all the creeds I’m not saying to do that. But can we have enough humility to know that I’m seeing from a place I’m experiencing from a place and maybe salvation, for that person doesn’t look exactly the same as it looks for me right now. And sort of having that human to human humility, I think if we learned to value that more, I do think people’s deconstruction could be gentler.
For a lot of I think, there would be less shame, less violence that happens between people that disagree, and then we can honour like I can truly honour how you see the Bible Evan and how you see Christianity and the words that I defined differently. And see, like, wow, if this is working for you, if this is making, if this is bringing you into love, peace, joy, the fruits of the Spirit, kindness, goodness, beautiful, great, I’m so happy that that’s helping you.
I’ve also learned that one person’s medicine is another person’s poison. And somebody with the same exhibit, some of those creeds, while helpful for one person are absolutely soul destroying for another. So just having kind of the humility with each other, and this is for myself and everyone as well. But in that to answer the back half of your question, Justin, I don’t see my view point is like a trend or something that I’m even trying to get people to see things like I am necessarily but I do hope that we can be a little bit more gracious with each other and whatever the journeys look like, anc honour that salvation is the Lord’s and not mine.
JB: Any final thoughts from you, Evan, as we close out what has been a very gracious conversation.
EW: Thank you, Michael, for just your honour and kindness. You know that this is the first face to face, albeit digital, that we’ve had in 10 years. It’s a good one, and I hope to have many more. Like, I was driving through LA recently and like, texted you, I’m like, Hey, let’s let’s meet. I didn’t even know we were gonna do this a month later, but we didn’t get to meet then.
Wendell Berry’s line comes to mind, the way to prevent disagreement from becoming destructive is to seek clarity rather than victory. You know, clarity is what we owe and honesty and goodwill to one another. And victory can only divide us again into a party of winners and a party of losers preparing us for further confrontation. And I think that was my goal. And it sounds like it was Michael’s like clear clarity.
The line famous Rene Brown, clear is kind, unclear is unkind. Which is why I asked about the words you use Michael, because without definitions, words are very unclear. And I know you know that. And Christian doctrinal words without shared definitions become anybody’s ballgame, which is why I brought it up.
The only other thing I would say, like, yes and amen. Like, may Christian go anti-colonial, you know, may Christian, repent, and even seek like a harmony. I think of America and the history of racism here. May the Church learn, specifically the white church learn how to raise the conversation of reparations, so that the black communities in our churches and the black Church doesn’t have to keep raising it, you know what I mean? And may forgiveness also happen, like what is reparations and Christ shaped forgiveness 70 times seven look like? I don’t even know what that looks like. I think of the picture at the end of the Bible where the lamb is in the middle of the universe. And John is crying because he’s like, who is worthy to open the scroll? Nobody can fix the problem. So if the Universe, like I’m right there with you, 100%. Michael, like may the lamb, the slaughtered lamb, begin to actually be the healing presence of Jesus everywhere and that requires the Church to be postured to die, like, not to dominate but to die. So I’m like, 100% there. And you know what you said at the end about humility. That was why I brought up clarity. I just feel like this was clarifying, and I’m grateful for it.
This transcript was taken from Unbelievable? Michael Gungor & Evan Wickham: Millennials, music and mystical deconstruction