Richard Beck on Tribes

Hove Beach Huts. Photo by Margaret Woods/Moore

In memory of Michael Spencer, who died 8 years ago on April 5, 2010.

A part of the reason post-evangelicals have a hard time emotionally moving on from evangelicalism is that a part of them misses it.

• Richard Beck

What’s hard is losing friends, a community, a sense of belonging, a shared narrative. It’s not so much about friends becoming enemies, but the more subtle disorientation of not really fitting anywhere.

• Peter Enns

…the great source of suffering in our modern world is the loss of tribe, the loss of belonging to a tight knit community that grounds us, supports us, and gives us a sense of home and purpose.

• Sebastian Junger

• • •

What an insightful set of posts I’ve been reading over at Experimental Theology, Richard Beck’s blog!

One thing I love about Beck is that he is self-critical about his life and his beliefs and loyalties. In recent months he has been practicing that critique toward the post-evangelical, progressive Christian movement, of which he considers himself a part. The current series examines the question of why post-evangelicals are having such a hard time disconnecting from the nostalgia of their past and why they continue, in many cases, to find themselves in what we here at IM have long called “the post-evangelical wilderness.”

Beck thinks it has something to do with people leaving a well-defined “tribe” but never finding one to replace it.

Following Jonathan Haidt, whose book on moral reasoning we studied last year, Beck has come to see that “Tribes run deep into the human psyche. Tribes are integral to human flourishing. Tribes help us carry our suffering and pain, and they give us a sense of shared purpose and meaning. Tribes give us a home.”

That’s why it’s not easy to leave a tribe without simultaneously aching for the home we once knew. The mixture of exhilarating freedom from the strictures of the tribe combined with a poignant sense of loss and lostness can be confusing, even paralyzing.

Hey folks, this is Chaplain Mike. I’m still writing about post-evangelicalism and it’s 13 years out now.

To illustrate, in one of his posts Richard Beck talks about how hard it can be for soldiers to reintegrate back into society after having the powerful bonding experiences they’ve known in a “band of brothers” who lay down their lives for each other.

I’ve seen this happen with groups we’ve taken on mission trips. The intense immersive experience of being dropped into a wildly different culture with others, sharing new, exotic, and transformative experiences not only shapes the individuals who participate, but creates bonds that last forever. Coming home can be a serious letdown. We have reunions and tell the stories over and over again.

The evangelical church was long my tribe. I still feel strong bonds with people from all the churches in which I served and the congregations among whom I lived. I’ve always tried to view church in terms of extended family, and that is what these parishes have been for me. Though I have moved away from many of the beliefs we shared, I cannot put aside the organic connections I made with brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m happy to be free from bad theology; I miss the closeness of sharing a common life with people I love.

As Beck describes them, tribes seem to work best with a more conservative ethos. The moral values Jonathan Haidt talks about that conservatives treasure, such as loyalty, sacredness, and respect for authority, are fundamental to building strong tribes.

On the other hand, progressives tend to value inclusiveness, creative innovation, and change. These kinds of emphases tend to “aerosolize” groups — accentuating individuality, freedom, liberality, and diversity. They are liberating values, not “binding,” cohesive ones.

As a result, post-evangelicals who departed from evangelicalism and moved to the left tend to be “lone wolves” looking for a home. And simultaneously not wanting one.

Richard Beck has come to recognize this as a problem for progressives. Believing that “tribes are necessary for human flourishing,” Beck describes many of us as “unmoored, lonely and adrift as isolated, aerosolized individuals living life in late-modern capitalism.”

Nevertheless, we find it hard to get excited about finding a new tribe. Too many bad memories. Too much institutional suspicion. Too much wariness about the potential for toxicity and spiritual abuse.

One of the reasons we abandoned evangelicalism is that we found it to be unself-aware and therefore lacking the ability to be self-critical. Beck’s post on “Tribes and Self-Criticism” encourages us to seek tribes that, on the other hand, have the resources to look in the mirror and reform themselves. In a brilliant take on the Hebrew Bible, he notes that the entire First Testament is actually an exercise in self-criticism, as the exilic community is encouraged to look back on their history and learn its lessons so that they might adapt and have hope going forward.

If we need to be members of tribes, let us at least seek ones that examine themselves and face the truth.

Bottom line: “the counter-cultural way of Jesus requires a community of spiritual formation.” A tribe if you will. A supportive home. A “world,” I sometimes call it (a Seinfeldian reference). If evangelicalism is no longer my “world,” what is?

Richard Beck suggests that progressives need their own versions of Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which is, after all, an encouragement for Christians to build strong tribes in which to raise our young and pass on the teachings and values of Christ. Why? Because, as Beck so rightly says…

Cruciform, self-donating love is way, way more than liberal tolerance. Cruciform, self-donating love is hard, sacrificially hard. Consequently, we need a tribe to form us into the ways of Jesus.

• • •

Richard Beck’s “On Tribes and Community” Posts

69 thoughts on “Richard Beck on Tribes

  1. Tribalism: I am BETTER than others because of my tribe, or members of other tribes are INFERIOR.

    In tribal language after tribal language, the native name for the tribe translates as “The People” and the word for anyone outside the tribe translates as “The Enemy”.


  2. I don’t know how Michael Spencer did it, but he created a ‘space’ where people from different perspectives could come and be ‘with’ each other to discuss what was on their minds. Chaplain Mike has kept up the good work of hosting this great diverse group and it seems to be more inclusive than many blogs because people have suffered from ‘exclusion’ and the kind of thinking that drives ‘exclusion’ and have sought sanctuary here to be able to be themselves (within reason) as long as they show respect for the rights of others to share their thoughts . . . .

    I think the diversity of this site gives it a strength that is not seen on many other Christian blogs. That we can have the RANGE of ‘tribes’ represented here in relative peace is an enormous accomplishment. There is a ‘respect’ here that you don’t see on the sites where you have to ‘conform or else’ to some exclusive ‘test for inclusion’ . . . .

    Here, we can leave our comfortable rooms and enter the Great Hall and be ‘with’ one another for a time and that is something extremely valuable because we can have a CHANCE to learn directly from one another more about their own perspectives and that sharing is invaluable to our own growth personally in the faith. Imonk is a good site for learning about ‘the others’ in a way that doesn’t tear anyone apart or put them down and I find that very refreshing after being on some of the kinds of sites where ‘putting people down’ is regarded as acceptable tacitly even though the ‘rules’ may forbid such personal attacks.


  3. I’m from the evangelical culture, and I can see that for a large number, Christ isn’t/wasn’t their first love. Maybe they thought he was, but their position in their chosen “tribe,” their appearance of piety, and their being chosen while others weren’t were their true first loves.


  4. I have a fear of ‘tribal’ ever since viewing that film ‘The Lord of the Flies’ . . . even in college, I avoided sorority, preferring my ‘family’ at the Newman Center which I realize was a sort of ‘tribe’ but not in the sense of ‘exclusion’ as when we had mass together on Saturdays, our lead guitar player was Jewish. . . . I’ve always sensed a problem with ‘exclusive’ groups because many of them harbor so much ‘ill intent’ towards ‘the others’.

    maybe ‘tribal’ is not the best we can do, since the event of the Incarnation? I reference a much-loved quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, this:
    “““” We now know that we have been taken up and borne in the humanity of Jesus, and therefore that new nature we now enjoy means that we too must bear the sins and sorrows of others. The incarnate lord makes his followers the brothers and sisters of all humanity. The “philanthropy” of God (Titus 3:4) revealed in the Incarnation is the ground of Christian love toward all on earth that bear the name of human. ”
    (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)


  5. “He cried and I cried as we danced and waved to the music.”

    Oh Susan . . . this brings tears to me half a world away

    sending hug


  6. I believe that evangelical people are today threatened by their identity with politics . . . . I see this as something that may overwhelm them in the end and I want to yell and tell them to ‘stop’ idolizing the Trump thing and return to the first love with a renewed commitment that rejects embracing immoral ‘agendas’ that harm the poor and the sick and children and the environment . . . .

    I’m not ‘evangelical’, but many of them are very dear to me and I don’t know how to help them see what I see. . . .
    It’s going to be a train-wreck when all h3ll breaks loose and the witness of the whole Church will be lessened because the evangelical community is a part of the whole Church . . .

    maybe some intervention will awaken them to the danger . . . . I hope for this before it’s too late


  7. This breaks my heart, Susan. I’m so sorry that so few in your tribe showed up to love and support you and your husband. They missed out on a wonderful afternoon of connection and on the blessing of giving. I love that you and John danced to ABBA! Sending you both hugs and an enfolding understanding.


  8. I agree with you, Clay. The New Jerusalem of God depicted in the Book of Revelation is made up of people who’ve come from every nation, but they are living together in one City that shapes their new shared identity in a way more determinative than the separate identities they’ve inherited from their different national origins. The Kingdom is imaged as a City, not a Nation.


  9. Of course the species that became meat for the bonobos and their other-species friends might like a little trans-tribal regard, too, if given its druthers.


  10. The picture I like best of the New Heavens and Earth is the one from Isaiah, where leopard and baby goat lay down together in peace. Yes, we come from separate tribes, that is our origin, but in the eschatological Kingdom we transcend the limitations of our tribes, and move into a new dispensation that transforms our natures, and our tribal limitations; boundaries still exist, but only as interfaces of open and ever-reshaping encounter, and never as defensive bulwarks again.


  11. Susan, Many volumes of history could be written on the subject of the failure of tribes to love their own. I grieve with you and your husband in your loneliness and pain. May God’s grace hold you.


  12. It may not provide as much of a tribal bonding as face-to-face, but it’s better than nothing.

    The danger of Internet tribal bonding is you only know what is online, which may or may not be deceptive and opens you up to manipulation. Like a fan who knows All About his Celebrity, AKA only the public image of that Celebrity and his PR.

    As well as the danger of what Cyberpunk SF called “Whitesiding” — going so far into Cyberspace that you cut yourself off from physical reality (“Meatspace”) in your own Social Media Tribal Echo Chamber. AKA Ready Player One meets Black Mirror.


  13. Back then, Old School D&D was almost literally The Only Game In Town, so Everybody was on the same wavelength

    The oversaturated FRP game market and resulting tribal fragmentation/atomization came about ten years later, and the Magic Card Extinction Event 5-10 after that..


  14. Clay, I agree with the angst you’re expressing. But I’m not sure it’s possible to move beyond tribes in the fundamental sense. Even the Book of Revelation seems to indicate that there will be “nations” in the new heavens and new earth. I do think it is possible to be “ecumenical” which would be the old-fashioned word for “non-tribalistic.” People bond in groups, those groups become “homes,” those homes become “worlds” of experience and formation. The differences can’t simply be erased. But what it really requires is genuine love on all sides — humble, appreciative, generous, self-sacrificing love. I think we can say both “Vive le difference!” and “Let’s walk together.”


  15. And then came…2.0.

    And lo, the 1.0’s became the Pathfinders, and the 2.0s remained strong. Never again shall the two groups meet.

    Then…3.0 happened.


  16. Counter countpoint: They were successful in what they set out to accomplish.

    It’s just it’s bad they were.


  17. Yep. Just ask anyone who couldn’t/wouldn’t quite fit in the tribe’s proscribed rules of behavior/expectations/beliefs.


  18. Indeed, you can’t have tribalism without tribes, but that doesn’t mean you throw the good aspects of human nature just to get rid of the bad.

    And while denominations can certainly drift toward tribalism, i see it more as “I identify and agree with this denomination’s view,” not necessarily that ours is better.


  19. Rick Ro. and Susan D. , I agree Rick, loved ones and caregivers need the visit and support sometimes more than the ill loved one. I know I visited my Mother in law when she had lost her memory but really I did so for my wife. If my Mother in law knew I was there that was great but my wife knew and after a while I felt it important to be there. . Glad I went as she has passed and an end to her suffering.

    Most people think it not important to visit those who may or may not know them but I know my wife appreciated every visitor , prayer and kind word of those who came . it could only have done my Mother in law good and who knows what goes on. Susan, God Bless and thanks for being honest about your emotions and feelings, we are all certainly human


  20. I have to admit that I have encountered a couple of people that I thought were very similar to myself and didn’t care for them much.


  21. Yes, but… 30,000 protestant denominations later and the only thing I can think of to explain it is, “I have a truer (read BETTER) way.” Maybe it’s a phenomenon restricted to my neck of the woods, but it’s far and away the evangelicals that have fractured into churches in every strip mall and school gymnasium across the south.

    Maybe the root cause of tribalism is tribes?


  22. “He who was born in a cage
    Yearns for his cage;
    With horror I understand
    That I Love My Cage.”
    — Yevgevny Yevtushenko, Soviet-era Russian poet


  23. In the final analysis is community more important than good theology?
    Or maybe you can’t have a good community without a good theology? (Good in the sense “not destructive”)

    The problem begins when Theology (or any Ideology) trumps not only Community but Everything Else.

    Theology/Ideology becomes walled off from everything else, becomes abstract (like an abstract intellectual/emotional game in and of itself), pinches itself off from outside reality, and provides a perfect breeding ground for sociopathy.


  24. Observed same thing with pencil/paper/funny dice FRP gaming in the Seventies and Eighties.

    The tribal bonding of my gaming group was a major factor in my leaving the Not-a-Cult Shepherding Group that was putting its harpoons into me. I had another tribe to flee to as a refuge.


  25. Only pop culture memes I’ve heard on Bonobos have to do with their sexual behavior combined with their lack of aggression, usually combined into a “Make Love, Not War” plug.


  26. As Beck describes them, tribes seem to work best with a more conservative ethos. The moral values Jonathan Haidt talks about that conservatives treasure, such as loyalty, sacredness, and respect for authority, are fundamental to building strong tribes.

    On the other hand, progressives tend to value inclusiveness, creative innovation, and change. These kinds of emphases tend to “aerosolize” groups — accentuating individuality, freedom, liberality, and diversity. They are liberating values, not “binding,” cohesive ones.

    And in inter-tribal warfare, the strong unified tribe WIPES OUT all the aerosolized groups.
    And pillages the bodies.

    This also applies to the inter-tribal warfare of Culture War Without End, Amen.
    And adding a Cosmic-level Righteous Cause just ups the ante to Holy War.


  27. A few years ago a psychiatrist blogger who goes by the name Slate Star Codex wrote one of the most widely read posts on the internet, “I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup”. He starts off with a G K Chesteson story, but his larger point is that the people we have a hard time getting along with are in many ways also most like us. Google it – – well worth th read.


  28. “For a tribe to continue to exist, you need a balance between the ‘conservative’ and the ‘progressive'”.

    Moments before reading that, I saw the recent Church Curmudgeon tweet:

    The only thing progressive about me is my lenses, and I’m none too happy with them, either.


  29. Personally I am not a big fan of the description and thoughts that have brought about the common popular use of tribe. It has now mostly used by advertisers to brand a product, event or internet community. I think of the Harley Davidson tribe, if you want to label them that with their common beliefs and branding. All major sport teams especially in the NFL promote being in the tribe. If in modern society we limit and understand that tribal behavior is mostly restricted to commercial and unimportant issues that is ok.
    Would any one here ask a Black Lives Matter rally attendee what tribe that are in? In my younger days working in a deli the Jewish owner referred to his Jewish customers as the tribe but even then I did not think I should use the term.

    There are many words, sect, band, clan, community and descriptions that can better describe groups of people.
    Tribes to me have a history of being before technology and people became tribal for specific reasons. They hunted together , farmed together, needed group protection and found safety in numbers from the other tribes. When people identify with their tribe first and foremost that is not good for the general society. Tribes does not fit into our old melting pot goal in the USA but they do fit into the multi culture climate that is being pushed today where out of many one is somehow shunned.

    Plus all the tribes I want to be in have shunned me but the Tribe of Sam and for 45 dollars am part of the group that may turn into a tribe. We make war on high prices but we are elite, only those who pay can join.


  30. Really coincidental that you should bring up tribes and tribalism today. Just this morning I read an article on a new study that shows that Bonobos, our closest primate cousins, show altruism across group (ie tribal) lines, sharing a precious food commodity, meat, with members of other groups. This is significant, as it shows that while tribalism has evolutionary origin, so has trans-tribalism. And even more so with us, with our significant mental development, where we are able to study and understand the minor differences that separate us.

    Here is a link to the story:


  31. –> “Jesus’ own cruciform relationship to his ecclessial/social tribe, and to the tribe of the human race, was ultimately one of total exile…”

    I finished reading a very good book on “exile” a few months back called “Embracing Exile” by Scott Daniels. Even did a study of it with my Saturday morning men’s group. Fascinating book, more philosophical than theological. Daniels does a great job of highlighting all the exiles in scripture and the blessings that come due to the exiles, Jesus’ exile from the human race being one.


  32. It’s been mentioned here before: tribes are okay; tribalism isn’t.

    Tribes: I am a member of a specific group, be it a fan of a sports team, from a certain city, alumni of this college, like certain cars, play D&D.

    Tribalism: I am BETTER than others because of my tribe, or members of other tribes are INFERIOR.


  33. –> “The question is, can being a part of an internet tribe sufficiently replace face to face interactions?”

    Bonding occurs, yes. There are people here, who if we met and had a beer or coffee, would feel like “comrades-in-arms.”

    I was a member of a “clan” while playing an on-line wargame back in the late 90s. It was the same thing there: very close friendships developed on-line. Several people actually did meet face-to-face now and then, and when I found myself in the same city of several of them we also met.


  34. –> “In the final analysis is community more important than good theology?

    Yes, unequivocally.”

    Slight counterpoint: Jonestown (and other cults)


  35. Susan, I am so sorry. That should never have happened. Thank heavens for the one couple who did show. Hugs for you!


  36. I actually think you are VERY on to something significant in this culture.

    The question is, can being a part of an internet tribe sufficiently replace face to face interactions?


  37. We are many things by nature (see Gal. 5:19-21). The apostle exhorts us to put away those things – one of which is factions. So, while nature may be a reason, it’s not an excuse, is it?


  38. Joel Kotkin, “Tribes”, 1992. That book did a lot for the “modern” use of the word. Kotkin is a **VERY** prolific – and controversial – author.


  39. so my lost haiku is

    the breath on our face
    the winds blow us here and there
    the morning birds sing.


  40. Susan Dumbrell says:
    April 6, 2018 at 6:37 am

    They, John’s extended family promised to turn up and see my husband today, we would have afternoon tea at the Nursing Home together, I hoped for 7 of his family.
    I should have know better. I have had such hopes for family support.
    Only one couple came.

    The family had supposedly come from far afield for this and that also some Dinner in a Park. Sorry, you are also here to see John. He longs for much love and hugs and soothing words, He and I did a quick dance to ABBA he sitting in his chair and crying and mouthing the words in the sunlight. I hoped the rest of the family could have been could have been there.

    He cried and I cried as we danced and waved to the music.

    Where were his visiting family. I do not know. I am feeling bereft at my husband’s loss of family contact. Are they embarrassed to see their senior relative like this in his decline?

    He may only remember them today and they will be but wisps of the wind for him tomorrow
    Feeling a bit disconsolate.


  41. I have been thinking about the word “tribe” lately. Years ago, I never heard that word unless in the context of Native Americans or the Amazon jungle. Now, I see it everywhere, not just in Christian vocabulary but throughout society. We seem to be desperately searching for a vocabulary to meet the desires of our hearts in a modern society.


  42. My comment has all to do with tribes and whether we are accepted by them.
    Not me and my husband today.


  43. Delineation is one way to look at tribes. I am not sure that is the core of the tribe; it may be more of a side-effect
    One amplified by how we do Tribes (absent the pragmatic constraint of proximity). I believe the tribe is more about support and belonging. A dog desires a pack because it knows in its very blood that alone it is a fragile thing. Are humans all that different?


  44. The very nature of a tribe is to delineate, by various means, who’s in and who’s not. Maybe it’s time that we grow beyond the need for tribes. Are we not all members of the same Body?


  45. Agree.

    And his reflections sandwich well onto sociological research concerning American’s struggle with institutions of voluntary association; where participation is hovering near an all time low. Americans have ceased to be “joiners” [likely due to no one reason, but a tremendous confluence of causes]. I suspect it is also hard for Ideological people to be joiners – you always face the Purity Problem [do canvasing about anything in the Midwest, OMG, the Purity Problem is everywhere; the peril of the “Yes, but…” (FYI, “Yes, but…” means “No”)].


  46. It could be smaller than I think.

    I’m pretty sure, Robert, that “fractious people” is not limited to inerrantists.

    It seems to be the “post evangelical wilderness people” are pretty fractious themselves aren’t they?


  47. But that is why it is so small! 🙂 I guesstimate it at ~20% of America, but no 3% recognizes the legitimacy of the other 17%.


  48. I increasing feel as if this place is my tribe. My church is quite conservative in ways I am increasingly uncomfortable with, and I’ve always been on the fringes anyway due to ASD.


  49. Maybe the nostalgia for a lost tribe-world of belonging is illusory. Maybe it never really existed, anymore than Eden/ a time before the Fall existed, however much we have reified it; maybe it is a kind of false memory. I think that’s very likely.


  50. I bet you could divide those 3 percent up into several dozen interpretative tribes, and you wouldn’t fit with most of them. Fractious people, inerrantists, especially among themselves. Your in-group is even smaller than you think.


  51. Yes, certainly, it is through relationship to the tribe that we are formed into the ways of Jesus; but sometimes, and increasingly for moderns, the relationship to the tribe that most forms us in the ways of Jesus is one of exile. Jesus’ own cruciform relationship to his ecclessial/social tribe, and to the tribe of the human race, was ultimately one of total exile; that’s part of what crucifixion was in the ancient world.


  52. I’m a part of the conservative Evangelical tribe. More specifically, I’m part of the “inerrancy tribe” if you will. It’s actually quite small – Biblical inerrantist have been estimated to be about 3 percent of the population. It clearly defines my role in the world. I know where I fit.


  53. > In the final analysis is community more important than good theology?

    Yes, unequivocally.

    > The last quote is on the money: you can’t be unselfish in isolation, you need other people.



  54. This definitely resonates with me. I find myself looking back to my Christian Union (IVF) days of university and simultaneously missing the feeling of closeness and purpose that it gave, and shudder5ing at how tight and controlling it was.


  55. In the final analysis is community more important than good theology?
    Or maybe you can’t have a good community without a good theology? (Good in the sense “not destructive”)

    I remember this shocking me in the biography of Eberhard Arnold: how much *(£& he put up with because of his overriding belief in the value of community.

    For a tribe to continue to exist, you need a balance between the ‘conservative’ and the ‘progressive’: if you have no boundaries or frontiers, you don’t have a community any more. Yet if you are totally closed to what is outside or new, your community will surely die. It’s the eternal question of balance between chaos and order.

    The last quote is on the money: you can’t be unselfish in isolation, you need other people.


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