Lillian Daniel is making my job harder, and I wish she would stop.

I’m sure it will not be a stretch for you to believe me when I tell you that I was picked on a lot as a kid.

I grew up in a small town in Kansas and was a theatre geek. I wasn’t athletic. I was smart. I was musical. I loved Jesus. I wore ties to school. I was gawky and sensitive; overly prone to tears (that hasn’t gone away). I yearned to fit in and have friends, so I took a lot of risks to get people to like me. As such, I was very defensive when anyone would criticize my earnest attempts to figure out who I was.

In short: I was an easy target. It was easy for kids to make fun of me, and, for a while, it became a thing. Want to score points with your friends? Make fun of Landon. Need a bit of an ego boost? Make fun of Landon. Do you need to prove yourself as one of the cool kids? Make fun of Landon. I was the whipping boy, and I carried a lot of people to popularity on my back. Really, I should receive a medal.

I’m not trying to ask for your sympathy, but to offer my own experience as a way of saying: I’ve been the brunt of the public ridicule, and it’s awful. I never want to experience it again.

Which is why I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that pastor and author Lillian Daniel seems to have made a decision to base her current writing and speaking career denigrating those who are variously called the “Spiritual but Not Religious” or the “Nones.”

Her most recent book, When “Spiritual but Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, has an appropriately engaging and descriptive title. But in all the press I see leading up to its publication, Rev. Daniel appears to have taken a page from the playbook of my hometown antagonists.

She tells the SBNRs to “Please stop boring me” and says that “any idiot can find God in a sunset.

I take her point, and I actually agree with her understanding of the Church, but a) she’s basically wrong about who these folks are, and b) well, she’s just being mean.

I believe Rev. Daniel makes some insightful and incisive points about the nature of being religious. She is an educated person who has contributed, in the course of her ministry, what many consider something of great value to our common life. She is accomplished, and well-respected, as far as I can tell. So why would she do this?

Does she truly believe that an SBNR/None is going to read her book? I would be surprised if she did. I doubt that those who are (in her words) “shunning faith” are going to be bothered to obtain a copy. And even if the marketing machine gets the book some press in the media, what does she expect the net result to be? That they will see the error of their ways and come running home to Mother Church? I think not.

I contend that she wrote this book for Church Folk. And, in so doing, she is giving a wink and a nod to those who Tripp Hudgins eloquently calls “religionists.” While ostensibly calling the bluff of the SBNRs/Nones, she is actually shaming the very people she is purporting to want to help.

And this is where my beef with Rev. Daniel truly lies: She is shaming the very people that would benefit from what the Church has to offer. It is one thing to preach this to your own people, whom you know and trust and who know and trust you. It is entirely another thing to go on a media spree of mean.

I admit that I am Religious but would really rather be Spiritual. And behavior such as what I am witnessing from Lillian Daniel is why. I have given my life to the Church, but understand why there are those who have not. How, now, am I supposed to reach them?

She says that she is sick of the New Atheists treating the craziest pieces of religion as if it were the whole. They should know better, she says. Can she not see that the same logic should apply to her? Can she not see that she is broad brushing the intentions and hopes of the SBNRs/Nones, and in a very poor “straw man-esque” manner?

I don’t know what her goal is with this book and speaking. I don’t know what she understands her job to be, in this regard. But I do. I know who it is I’m supposed to reach, and my job just got a lot harder because of this book.

Lillian Daniel is making my job harder, and I wish she would stop.

47 thoughts on “Lillian Daniel is making my job harder, and I wish she would stop.”

  1. Interesting take on this. I will have to read her book to comment further. I’ve read her article on the topic. The article she wrote does seem a bit mean spirited. I believe though that people who say they are spiritual but not religious are often just not awake to anything spiritual or faith related at all. The statement has become shorthand for “Yeah I’ve been shit on by the church too and abandoned ‘them’. I have some vague sense that there is a God but I don’t have to do anything or live in any particular way as a result. I’m my own church.” This seems to me almost like willful ignorance and that equates to prejudice and bigotry in this case against Christians.

    I also feel frustration and anger at folks who lump all Christians together without knowing the depth or breadth of the theological spectrum.

    To me it feels like if we do not speak to this ignorance about our faith tradition aggressively and perhaps even offensively the message will not be heard. I guess what you are saying is that she is speaking the truth but not in love?

    Using your example of your own personal experience I believe that the Christian tradition is the whipping boy of current day culture. Certainly our track record for
    violence and abuse of people in the name of Christianity is rightly criticized. However it does not condemn every facet of Christianity any more than we can be expected to stand up for people like Fred Phelps or Pat Robertson whose voices are among the loudest negative witnesses of our faith.

    Therefore I believe her argument equates to standing up to those who would make Christianity out to be limited to ignorant, racist, sexist, uneducated buffoons. Folks continue to degrade what they perceive to be Christianity without knowing the fullness of the faith. Whether folks actively engage in insulting Christianity or folks just neglect to see Christianity as a relevant possibility, I believe our silence or even our quiet gentle discipleship does little or nothing to counter the ever-growing dismissal of what we truly stand for in Jesus Christ.

    I’m open to further discussion on this and don’t imagine I have it all right, I will keep thinking about your take and as I said read her book rather than continue to debate from my own place of ignorance.

    Thanks for making me think Landon.

    1. “Truth but not in love” That’s as close to right as anything I can think of, yes.

      A couple quick thoughts before morning coffee:

      – Click on the link in the post where I said she was wrong about these folks. The foundation of my discomfort with Rev. Daniel is that she’s has a misinformed understanding of SBNRs/Nones

      – I would want to have a further conversation about Christianity being the whipping boy. Given the dominance our faith holds in the culture, I’m not convinced we can claim that. At most, we’re the parent’s of a disgruntled teenager who is resisting us when we try to micromanage her life. (I don’t know – just trying to run with an image…)

      I appreciate you taking time to read and comment.

      1. I’d love to talk further with you about it. I like the way you write.

        I think my context is different too and I know that influences my stance. In the world of stand-up comics have at the very least a disdain for religion, and Christianity it particular.

        Many comics with whom I’ve spoken have stories of pain related to experiences in church and often with pastors specifically. Whenever comics mention Christianity it is nearly universal that it is poking fun at it as though it were belief in unicorns and leprechauns.

        I’ve encountered a handful of atheists and several anti-theists as well.

        I see my presence as a positive (not always though) witness that there is more to Christianity than what so many in the comedy circles have experienced. So when I have someone perhaps shooting volleys from my home camp it feels comforting rather than offensive. Perhaps my own weariness at hearing Christianity beaten like a drum from stage after stage week after week makes me come to the defense of Dr. Daniel. I’m sure it does.

        I also believe that I have to maintain perspective on what is mean because I know I have become desensitized to a degree in that regard.

        That would be maybe the most difficult part of walking the line between stand-up and preaching, defining cruelty and meanness as what it is, and not giving it the label of humor.

        So yeah my perspective on this is skewed to be sure, but I believe there is some truth to the assault on the Christian faith. The role that it holds in our culture to me is becoming more of a caricature and a side show because the loudest voices are those of fanatics with really bad theology.

        Anyway-I can email you personally about this rather than hashing it out here. I also don’t want to come across as angry at your perspective. I’m enjoying the exchange. Again thanks for making me think critically about it.

        I’ll go to the link and look at how she may be incorrectly defining the spiritual but not religious/nones.


  2. Yes, thanks for writing this. I felt so uncomfortable after she told them to stop boring her that I now avoid her. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found her writing unhelpful as of late.

  3. I concur with Adam. Tone is vital, and maintaining a posture of gracious and open welcome is key, particularly when dealing with those who’ve experienced church as an inadequate expression of their encounter with God.

    I don’t know, yet, what her book contains. If it’s just more “you’re a SBNR dumb dumb stupidhead,” then I’m probably not going to bother with it. Perhaps it will be. Lord knows that quote about folks being “boring” is the only reason I even know Lillian Daniel’s name, even if it does make me think first of cheesy catalogues filled with absurd products. Provocation sells.

    But maybe it won’t be, and rehashing that controversy is just a way of stirring the publishing pot. One can always hope.

  4. But isn’t she also stating her belief that even “spiritual but not religious” shouldn’t be done alone? And if you’re just in it (the spiritual part) to stand outside the hard stuff of community gathered, wrestling, learning, growing together, then you’re losing out on the beefy stuff of faith – spiritual, religious, etc. You were the brunt of a lot of negative stuff as she has also been, I would expect. From her Huff Post article, “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.”

    “Being privately spiritual but not religious just doesn’t interest me. There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff, or heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig deeply into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

    The kids that jumped on your back to boost themselves up were part of a pack mentality community that told each other that this sort of treatment was OK, and we all know it was not. But, if someone isn’t willing to enter into conversation, then how can one offer a new hope, a new idea, a new way? Her disappointment, frustration, etc., with those who won’t come to the table is as palpable as your disdain for those who turn to bullying tactics.

    I don’t see Lillian as a bully – but rather a frustrated pastor who wants things to change and wishes things would change. Also from her Huff Post article:

    “Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and … did I mention the beach at sunset yet? Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! Like we are these monastic little hermits who never leave the church building. How lucky we are to have these geniuses inform us that God is in nature. As if we don’t hear that in the psalms, the creation stories and throughout our deep tradition.”

    Reminds me of the Transfiguration when Peter said to Jesus, “Let’s build three tents and stay up here so that we don’t have to deal with all the problems that wait for us back down the mountain…” It’s easy to say we see God in a sunset. But there are many out there who say it’s much harder to see God in church. But it’s our job to be welcoming so that this can happen.

    We are all searching. Some are searching for God, some for community. Some for their own understanding. I know I’ve been as frustrated as Daniel with folks who won’t even grace the doors of a church because they hide behind the “spiritual but not religious” mask, and with others who won’t because of the presupposed stuffiness, dress, etc., but with so many alternative communities (church at a bar, for example), such a time to explore as this has never existed in such diverse ways ever before in the history of the wider church. And for that, her thoughts resonate with me – as do your words. How interesting it would be to combine the two, because I think both of you want to share the church to those who fear it.

    1. As I tried to communicate, I think Lillian and I would agree on the basic points of theology and church life. I’m making a comment on her tactics here.

      I, too, get frustrated when our faith doesn’t get an honest listen, and I can sympathize with the frustration. But, as I said, mocking people we would want to serve is just not helpful. In fact, I believe it to be hurtful.

    2. Unfortunately, the modern church was highly influenced by 18th-19th century European theologians who insisted that God’s Word was historical rather than natural (who apparently didn’t read Genesis or Psalms, or even Calvin!), and whose position was propagated even further by otherwise well-respected neoorthodox theologians like Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance. The church has much to answer for in driving away those who find God in the sunset–to read too many Christian theologians, God isn’t found there anyway! Daniels is right that God DOES speak in the sunsets–and she has rightly observed that the average lay Christian in the pews has also figured that out. But the Church which the SBNR/Nones have left by the droves doesn’t teach that in the dogmatics, or at least hasn’t in recent centuries!

      This is a theological problem that goes far deeper than Daniels presents it, although I applaud her for taking a stab at it. Landon, while I do understand that it makes your job harder (and it does!), I also believe that the answer to that (and to Daniels) is to go back and capture the true essence of a God who DID and DOES speak through the sunsets, as well as through history. Remember that we have a Savior who told the officials (when He was told to tell His followers to shut up and quit making so much noise on the entrance into Jerusalem) that if they were to cease their shouting, “even the stones” would announce who He is. Daniels needs to go back and re-examine this false division that has spawned an unhealthy image of the Church in modernity…and Landon, I suspect that a part of your job and mine is to go back and reclaim the sunsets, so that we can spread the message of a relational God who not only speaks through sunsets but who also loves us enough to want to bind us into a fellowship of faith.

  5. Thanks for your take on this–I remember that “don’t bore me” piece and got an interesting response when I shared it on my Facebook page. Us minister-types (I am a full time pastor) really DO like to feel self-righteous sometimes (which is perhaps a relief from feeling irrelevant most of the time?). But there was some definite anger from teens–even those who are “churched”. They felt it was condescending. Maybe it was.

    I confess my own frustration at the church being judged and insulted by people who don’t have a clue about its history, tradition, or community. It’s like insulting a country they’ve never visited or a food they’ve never tasted: how would they know?

    Still, I enjoyed Lillian’s book (This odd and wondrous calling) and when I had a chance to hear and speak with her myself, I found her to be genuine and kind. And I think that counts for something, too.

    1. I can look past an occasional blog post. A lot of folks write them, and there’s some grace that goes along with the medium. But I am frustrated at the sustained effort it takes for one to write a book on the topic.

      I have also known folks who highly respect her and admire her, and they share the same experience of interacting with her that you have. I guess I just wish that THAT Lillian Daniel was the one who was doing all the press.

  6. She dares to defend the institutional church. And, she pointed out that 1., she has been called snarky; and, 2., if she were a man, no one would call her snarky.

  7. This is a good dialogue. Lilian is one of the rare moderate voices that is getting any attention. We only seem to hear from the far right and far left. Coming from the middle myself, I find that conversatives complain I am too liberal and liberals complain I am too conservative. Moderate voices take heat from both sides. Where Lilian is right is that living in a community of faith connected to tradition has great value. Where she misteps is that her tone belies a defensiveness that shuts off dialogue across the aisle. In my experience with real live agnostics and atheists I have found that defensiveness is a dead end. Better to listen and question rather than defend and assert. Give people space to find their way. Meet people where they are and if they find something divine through the sacrament of a sunset then you may have a common point.

    1. Good observations, Paul–both about the moderate voices that don’t get any press and about the efficacy of listening and questioning as opposed to asserting. On one hand, I am likewise frustrated by both the liberal and the conservative extremes that seem to miss the wonderful “sweet spot” in the middle. On the other hand, I, too, can sometimes get on a soapbox as Lilian has done, and run the risk of further alienating those who were not inclined to listen in the first place. The flip side to that is that even though one may run into resistance and rejection, at least there is a “voice in the wilderness” articulating a middle ground that may be re-examined by critics who don’t hear it now. We never know who will harvest the seeds we may happen to plant–the greater omission would be not to plant them.

  8. I’ve said plenty of things through the years that were critical or ill-tempered. I’ve accidentally (and intentionally) given offense to lots of people. So I’ve nothing against her being snarky, per se. I just think she has the wrong target. How can you NOT want to make fun of the church with the state it is in? How can you NOT agree with the SBNR’s or Nones about the futility and flat wrong-headedness of most of what passes for Christianity? To me it’s bizarre that she’s trying to mock the irreligious as if we were still in the flower of Christendom and there were a great crowd of pharisees around to laugh at her jokes.

    On a separate note, Landon, I too was bullied & mocked pretty fiercely as a kid (I write about it some in Never Pray Again), and don’t appreciate bullies. I feel for some that have been injured by the church that could hear Daniel’s words and be injured again, but for most of the None’s I imagine her words ring pretty hollow.

  9. Lillian D is hosting a Google hangout tonight to talk about her book, but danged if I know how to access a Google hangout.

    Then there’s this. And I confess that while I have not read her book, I’ve read enough of her other writings on the subject, and her other devotionals, to say that I see her point and pretty much stand with her:

    “…Daniel’s book might strike a chord with young Christian adults in need of a guide or role model who’s not stuffy, not holier-than-thou and speaks their language…it marks a creative step to bridge cultural divides and share the riches of Christianity with a rising, spiritually curious generation.” -The Christian Science Monitor

    1. Thanks for the head’s up, but I don’t really feel the need to try and convince her of anything. I, too, am a writer and when I’ve put enough of myself into a book, I’m not likely to change it because some blogger thinks I’m wrong.

      I believe I understand enough of what she’s doing to know that I believe it to be harmful. I am one of the people that you mention in your other comment that you want to “herd back,” and I can tell you that it’s off-putting and not a positive strategy. I will take you at your word that you care about people like me, but I would hope you would reconsider your tactics.

      1. I sure hope it isn’t a matter of “herding back”–but rather a matter of moving to a higher understanding. The Christendom church (particularly some of its specific periods, not the least of which being the “Enlightenment” period in which we got all gee-gaw on measurability and reason, and lost track of mystery) has a lot to answer for. While I think there are valuable lessons to be learned from “back there” and especially if we go back to the Apostolic Church, the Church should always be moving forward, and not trying to live in the rear-view mirror!

  10. And for what it’s worth: I like her and what she’s saying, myself. Sometimes it takes some snark to get people’s attention to something that needs thought and talked about. And, different people have different callings. The way I understand mine, which may be hers partly, is to try to herd back the church people who have drifted to the sunset not because the sunset is so great but because they’ve lost their commitment to the church out of selfishness and the same rampant individualism that is ruining the rest of the country. I am all for God in the sunset; but I am with her in asserting that as cool as it is, it is not the church (I do consider that “the” church, in all its balkanized condition, does exist). Let the discussion flourish!

  11. Well, my Okiefied way of expressing myself has bit me. Re, “herding.” Shepherds herd. I know that in some quarters there is dislike of the whole shepherd thing we inherited from the Good Shepherd Hisself, but I meant no more or less than that: “Guide.” “Lead.” “Attract.” “Cajole.” All those things. None of which is coercion. More to my experience, though are cattle herds. Cattle come for feed, which I think Lillian D. offers, but they sometimes respond to whistling, yelling and truck-mounted sirens. Anyway, I see how the way she says what she says is grating.

    1. There’s herding and there’s herding. The Good Shepherd provided a good example of a more intuitive sort of herding…setting the scene so the sheep would go where they are supposed to go because He made it seem like the logical way to go. There is also the sort of herding that is represented by lots of sweating, swearing, and hot-shots…

      As one who often has to herd horses, one definitely gets the best results by convincing a good and trustworthy old brood matron that you are going in the right direction, and then leading her, so the others in turn will follow an example they trust. Simply chasing them around and hollering just gets them all riled up, makes the herder angry and tired, and almost never ends up getting the desired results…

      1. Some folks don’t respond well to being equated with sheep. Let’s dump that leadership technique, thanks anyway.

      2. Actually, the most effective techniques I’ve learned for leading people have all come from herding livestock…far more effective that what has come out of seminary leadership training classes. 😉

  12. I truly don’t mean this to be an impertinent question, but simply a point of clarification: have you read the book? I understand that you are focusing on the title essay and some of the marketing campaign, but I’m curious how you factor the rest of the book into your assessment.

    1. I have not read it. I would hope that the tone of the book would be more measured, but I must confess that I am hesitant to spend money on it based on the press surrounding its release.

      1. It is definitely worth reading. In all honesty, my one significant criticism of it is that it isn’t titled properly; the essays definitely do not all fit under the umbrella of the SBNR issue. It is a broad celebration of life in the church that is more akin to This Odd and Wondrous Calling than the few pieces that have generated controversy. Those pieces are there, obviously, and that may be enough for you to pass on the book, but it’s really quite good.

      2. Invited to trash a book? Well, that’s no fun. Thanks for ruining what could have been a very exciting day…🙂

      3. Landon – thank you for being a sparker of important conversations! We enjoyed hosting you in Milwaukee last year and I continue to appreciate the gift of “open source” thinking. Lillian was our speaker this year at Discovery Day and she was warm, genuine, and thought-provoking. If you’ve not yet picked it up, I heartily commend her new book to you. It is as engaging as she is. Great job on the Next Church panel today – regret I didn’t have a chance to say hello in person.

  13. “Please stop boring me” describes why I gave up on attending Sunday worship services. They bore me! Some people want and expect the routine rituals found in a typical church service, but not all of us do.

    My spouse is an active member of Pastor Daniel’s church, the First Congregation of Glen Ellyn. Until recently I would describe myself as SBNR, but not anymore; I now self-label myself as an agnostic. I voluntarily give of my time and money to FCCGE because I support much of the good works it performs in my community. However, I am turned off by Lillian’s book title and some of her recent writings and comments. But knowing her as well as I do, I do not take any of it personally as she is merely trying to be provocative. I will still remain an active volunteer and donor. On the other hand, none of this is convincing me I should trade my sleeping in and coffee and paper time for attending worship services.

  14. “She says that she is sick of the New Atheists treating the craziest pieces of religion as if it were the whole. They should know better, she says. Can she not see that the same logic should apply to her? Can she not see that she is broad brushing the intentions and hopes of the SBNRs/Nones, and in a very poor “straw man-esque” manner?”


    Thanks for wrapping words around this.

  15. Good post, good traffic….we pastors (many of us, anyway) grouse from time to time about a lot of things, but lately I have been cringing when they are aired in print. Regardless of the merits of the concerns/complaints, it begins to smack of wounded pride and bruised egos when the tone becomes “snarky”…and then the underlying message seems to be less about God and more about the gathering (or lack of gathering) of folks into the institutions and behaviors that I think are best…”I” being cleverly blended with the tradition and its teachings. That subtle message is no attractant these days–either for SBNR’s or the faithful in the pews.

  16. Besides Bob (above) has anyone heard some SBNR or non-church attending folks reactions? I know that my friends- and granted, that isn’t a significant mass…- that are not formally religious are more turned off by the SBNR movement than they are with church-goers like me.

    1. No, I have not seen any writing where anyone is reacting to the work, and I doubt that there will be any significant response to it from that cohort. This is why I contend it was a church book written for church folk. I don’t think SBNR/Nones were ever intended to be the audience.

  17. From 1983 to 1998, I was an SBNR/ none. I called religion “the politics of spiritually.”

    On the first day at the churchI visited a church in 1998, I met a clergy person who met me where I was, as I was, and didn’t shame me.

    I am now in my last semester at seminary, pursuing a call to meet others where they are, as they are, without shaming them. If that bores _anyone_, there are plenty of other people to talk with.

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