Brandan Robertson's Nomad, newly released in the UK and Ireland, is a hope-filled, refreshing autobiography that invites any spiritually open, thinking person to take a deeper, honest look at her or his own spiritual journey. This includes evangelicals, the expression of Christianity with which Brandan identifies.
Contrary to some who have questioned their faith and eventually parked in a place of cynicism, Nomad is the story of an honest and wide-eyed spiritual journey that has not left the author angry or resentful. Brandan cannot be smugly written off by religious conservatives with the usual labels. There is no hint of academic elitism in his writing. He has not "forsaken the Bible" or become "just another one of those liberals." Instead, It's clear from reading Nomad that Brandan loves God and the Scriptures and that he is simply brave enough to say (or write) what many evangelicals are too afraid to admit... they have questions.
I first heard Brandan's story when he shared it on a Sunday morning with the congregation I founded, One Church in Chandler, Arizona. I can personally attest to his humble spirit and to his commitment to grace that he describes so beautifully in chapter 13. He is a loving, open-minded young man who is an inspiration to anyone who wants to work out her or his salvation "with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).
In the early chapters, Brandan tells his story of coming to faith in Christ in a high-octane fundamentalist KJV-only church in his early teens. He was so hungry to grow in his newfound faith that he watched Charles Stanley sermons on TV before going to school in the morning (kids these days). His church community became a surrogate family for him that, despite their doctrinal rigor, modeled some level of love and healing, in contrast to his dysfunctional biological family.
Searching for belonging, Brandan took on the same Bible-thumping ethos as his newly adopted church family. He became a teen evangelist, winning souls for Jesus at school and preaching against the Religious Right's common enemies of abortion and homosexuality.
Chapter 6 is the turning point of Nomad and of Brandan's spiritual journey, indeed his life. I chuckled at Brandan's description of his first encounter with doubt while watching a History Channel Easter special at 13 years old (58). He was terrified that Jesus may not have been bodily raised from the dead but sobbed with relief after a frantic search for chapter and verse confirmed that the Gospel of Matthew reported otherwise. Still in early teens, Brandan absorbed his church's commitment to biblical inerrancy, but the doctrine would not go unquestioned forever.
As he began entertaining the questions a bit longer, Brandan tells of his encounters with the common conservative evangelical conundrums of biblical "contradictions," awkward Bible class questions, and the favorite buzz phrase of evangelical apologists, "absolute truth." As I read, I was reminded of how tortured I felt as an evangelical teenager trying to massage the Bible into a cohesive document, like a logically airtight, divine term paper dropped out of heaven.
As they read, serious-minded, young evangelicals will be able to identify with the pressure to become intellectual acrobats as they try to harmonize Bible verses that clearly present the divergent viewpoints of their authors. In fact, the term "contradiction" carries negative connotations, while Brandan observes:
"... when I began to reexamine the Bible with open eyes, I began to see that everything wasn't as clear as it seemed. There was nuance and colour, tension and even paradox" (64).
Later in his teens, Brandan began to bravely acknowledge his questions and pursue answers with intellectual honesty. His experience embodies that of so many young people raised in fundamentalism who could no longer keep the questions at bay:
"The beliefs that we once held to be absolute and certain suddenly become subjective and unclear. The answers that we once held to so tightly dissolve and new, terrifying questions emerge" (56-57).
Robertson irenically leads the reader down his road of discovery at a comfortable pace, as he became acquainted with church history and monastic spirituality, with its rhythms of a spiritual life that were ignored in his conservative evangelical church. As he studied Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism, he became aware of a new world of Christian history, belief, and practice.
He points out what many evangelicals are becoming aware of, that Christianity is much larger than one particular Baptist-y megachurch, and in fact, those Baptist-y evangelical megachurches are still a self-quarantined minority in global Christianity:
"In the churches I grew up in, there was absolutely no sense of tradition or a broader narrative we participated in. Instead, we focused on our communities' autonomy and God's unique work in our midst. We were rarely connected to other churches in the area because all of us were focused on creating our own unique style and brand of Christianity" (83).
Chapter 11 is the second major movement of Nomad, as Brandan discovers his fluid sexuality in his late teens. Of course, this is the current hot button issue in the U.S., and within American Christianity, one's acceptance or non-acceptance of LGBTQ persons is the litmus test of one's evangelical orthodoxy.
Sadly, there will be evangelicals who write off Brandan's spiritual journey due to a snap judgment of his sexuality. This is tragic, and one that will ultimately count as their loss. Both as an author and speaker Brandon is a sweet-spirited, grace-filled evangelist who one could imagine leading a (progressive) evangelical megachurch in the future. His humble and loving presence will win over many detractors, but unfortunately, some will not even give Robertson or Nomad the chance.
Those who do will discover an inspiring communicator who, for example, presents a beautiful understanding of the Eucharist in chapter 12:
"The first was that at the Table of the Lord where the Eucharist was served, all people are equal... For one moment of time, all of us stood on level ground. All our prejudices and biases were forced to fade into the background. We came together as one broken but connected body in need of grace" (113).
The remaining chapters of Nomad, "Grace," "Journey," and "Wonder" present scenes from Brandan's life as he attempts to follow this Eucharistic rule of life. For example, he tells a heart-stirring story of reconciliation, as he forgives and embraces his abusive father after his father's arrest and release. Nomad concludes with an invitation to journey through the questions, citing that the narrative arc of Scripture is one of a journey, and recommending that the only way to travel is with an attitude of wonder.
At its heart, Nomad is Brandan Robertson laying his soul bare and honestly sharing his journey as an invitation to all readers, especially those raised in a conservative evangelical environment. It is not really a call to begin a new spiritual journey, nor is it an attempt to provoke the reader with theological controversies. Instead Nomad serves as a gentle invitation to be honest about the spiritual journey we are already on.