Embracing Yankee Candle Christianity

Why I Love Paraphrases, Max Lucado, and Pop-Christianity

This article is written by Joseph Whitenton:

I’m a know-it-all. Truly. I’m a 5w4 on the Enneagram and an INTJ on the Myers Briggs. I became a Christian only after many years of being an “evangelical atheist,” the type of guy who carried around Dawkins and Hitchens like a Study Bible. I eventually came to Christ in a group of intellectually gifted Anglicans who took big questions seriously. It wasn’t a bad thing that I had found this group of highbrow Christians who gave me a place to belong but eventually that initial reassurance evolved into pride. I ended up being equally patronizing to others who weren’t like me but I justified it with more theological fluency and pretension against regular believers who “just didn’t get it.”

All that changed during the pandemic.

Suddenly, my personal devotional routine that more closely resembled studying for an exam just didn’t work anymore. I couldn’t study God. I needed Him to actually show up for me. I had just gotten married and the world was falling apart. My wife was furloughed and my job as a public school teacher just got way more complicated and more difficult. Without consistent access to my geeky friends, I realized that I was still angry. I was still mad at people who had treated me poorly in the name of the Church. I had been captured by Jesus and his wonderful love for us on the Cross but I had not given him my burdens yet. Instead, I nursed them and let them stew into superiority.

It was around this time, I found myself drawn to the sort of Christianity present at your local Christian bookstore. “Basic Becky Christianity,” if you will.

The movement toward bookstore Christianity was gradual. It started off with my prayer life. I had always been an avid user of the Anglican prayer book, but I started doing a more paired-down version of it in order to savor the ritual a little more. This might sound like no big deal, but at the time, it was a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. It felt sort of wrong to not do it “the real way,” but it also felt like relief. Prayer stopped feeling like another to-do list item. I chased the feeling.

How else could I make it better? What if I used an easier translation like the New Living Translation? What about the Good News Translation? What would my friends think if they knew I was reading THE MESSAGE for my daily prayer?

It’s these sort of inner-monologues that we, who think way too highly of ourselves and are far too eager to please others, need to gently lead ourselves through from time to time. Did I really think my smarty-pants Anglican friends who loved me dearly, who baptized me, actually gave a damn about what I do in my prayer closet? Yes, I have a prayer closet. Again, different story, different time. The truth is that I was preoccupied with how my prayer looked to others, something Jesus directly warns against in Matthew 6:5-8. Even though I had shut the physical door behind me, the emotional door was wide-open.

So then, with these small moves into spiritual freedom under my belt, I started seeing just how scandalous I could be. How could I tick off the snob who lived in my head? How basic could I get? So one day after things opened back up, I told my wife, “Get in the car, honey. We are going to Yankee Candle.”

Yankee Candle had always made me roll my eyes every time we walked past it in our local mall. I always viewed it as promoting an image of happy, healthy domestic bliss that just couldn’t be authentically achieved by burning Beach Escape near all your passive-aggressive relatives. One thinks of the dichotomy present in Serenity by Jan …

I knew I needed to let go of those snobby, arrogant voices so I made myself walk into that store and start sniffin’. We ended up really liking this little ritual of going to Yankee Candle every month or so. The best part of going to the candle store is not even the candles you get, it’s the guy who works there. This dude is about 6’1”, built like a bear, and absolutely loves his job. He knows the merchandise, the sales, has opinions about all the scents, and is so eager to help you when you come in. Here I am stressed out of my mind as a public school teacher, but imagine what Mr. Yankee Candle made during the pandemic. At that time in my life, I couldn’t smile while working with sweet, happy Kindergarteners, and this guy couldn’t be happier to be at his hourly job where he’s probably overlooked and ignored by most people who he approaches. We all know what it’s like to ignore the lady at the Gap.

The last place I discovered grace in being a Basic Christian was with Pastor Max Lucado.

Pastor Max will not tell you something that clever. He won’t impress you with his theological insight, though sometimes the opening quotes in his books will surprise you (E. L. Mascall, Emil Bruner, and Pascal, to name a few). In fact, he’s a conservative evangelical with dispensationalist leanings. He’s not my theological tribe. He won’t impress you with mighty exhortations. He’s generally not showy or sensational. His most notable gift is in his ability to reframe Biblical stories into short novelizations or vignettes that are memorable and engaging. Max clearly loves the Bible and joyfully models an optimal heart-posture for reading it. I can’t imagine a better embodiment of the Cranmer’s Collect for The 2nd Sunday of Advent where we are instructed to hear the Scripture and “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life.”

Pastor Max is also infectiously considerate and kind. He is firm on forgiveness and gentle with his direction. He is able to master the craft of pastoring people even through the written word. Like Mr. Rogers or Bob Ross, he is able to break through the awkward medium of the page or digital screen and exude a real sense of joy and calm. It was this especially that brought down my defenses. It felt good to just sit with someone, even across a screen or a book, who had such a big heart. My only explanation of this supernatural gift for communicating God’s love to sinners is that Lucado must have a strong and consistent communion with Jesus. And the more I saw that serenity in Max, the more I wanted it for myself.

I realized then that there’s a reason people like Lucado, Nicky Gumble, Sarah Young, and Rick Warren are so popular. People aren’t stupid. They’re just people. The same could apply to a lot of the ways we criticize “basic” things like sitcoms with laugh-tracks and those God-awful “gather” signs that people hang in their house. People gravitate toward that cliché of a homey paradise in the candle commercial because their heart longs for it. And a short break from our affected brilliance would show us that we long for the same things. Are these teachers perfect? Far from it. Again, I always found theological reasons to disagree with them. But God must use imperfect means to reach people because he uses you and me! After all, it’s not as though academic theology is always properly ordered to the right things.

One thing I hadn’t noticed originally during my time around academic Christianity was that it didn’t always foster belief. Though all the salt-of-the-earth Christians I knew were hearing theologically dubious sermons and singing to overly saccharine worship music, they still had a hearty and full belief in Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Church, and the Sacraments. Most believers didn’t need to know Greek in order to know how to love God. Christianity, it turns out, is not like Scientology. It is not about gaining extra levels of revelation. Our faith communicates the good and beautiful truth about the one true God, the Maker of all things. It is intended for everyone to hear. It is the catholic faith, the faith meant for all people.

I am far from done being a snob these days. But when I go into my prayer closet now, I light my Yankee Candle (Midsummer’s Night for those wondering), and open my Living Bible app on my phone with notes from Pastor Max, and I am in God’s grace. I am at peace with my problems knowing that I am held in God’s love. Most importantly, I am more empathetic to the sinners around me. I can hear Him say to my heart, “You don’t have to impress me with your big brain or your commitment. Just sit with me in my love for a little longer before the day batters you again.”

And it is more than enough.

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9 responses to “Embracing Yankee Candle Christianity”

  1. Brad Clay says:

    Haha, busted. Do we get a pass if we replace the dining room gather sign with a painting of the Nativity during Advent and Christmas? Really enjoyed this, despite a few self-gotchas, haha.

  2. Joseph Whitenton says:

    You don’t permission to enjoy what you like! We snobs are the problem, not the saints who have learned how to enjoy life!

  3. Emily says:

    Well, that was convicting!

  4. Judy says:

    “I had been captured by Jesus and his wonderful love for us on the Cross but I had not given him my burdens yet. Instead, I nursed them and let them stew into superiority.” After all these years what am I nursing? Thank you for your honest words. Much for me to ponder.

  5. Jason says:

    Insightful. Thank you sharing!

  6. K. Gunn says:

    Bro Joe, I loved reading this. I think your old friends would say “thanks be to God” (not that it matters what they think)… or at least I do anyway! Cheers from under my Thomas Kinkade blanket. 😉

  7. George Roberts says:

    Really hearty and thanks for reminding us snobs it’s ok to be down to earth, down to the ground believers, too

  8. Cheryl Cloyd says:

    As a doctoral student in systematic theology this is timely for me. Thank you.

  9. Carol says:

    Though all the salt-of-the-earth Christians I knew were hearing theologically dubious sermons and singing to overly saccharine worship music, they still had a hearty and full belief in Jesus Christ, the Trinity, the Church, and the Sacraments.“ So true! Thank you, beautifully written.

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