Being high up tends me to make me feel nervous. Flying, tall buildings, that sort of thing. It’s not a proper phobia, just a niggling and persistent discomfort. I’ve got a standard line when I explain this to people: I’m not scared of heights; I’m scared of falling.
Somehow that seems like an appropriate caption for my life right now. Or rather, for the parts of myself that I’m trying to keep from running my life.
You see, I’m extremely risk averse. I’m reluctant to commit to tasks that I’m afraid I won’t be able to live up to. And just to make things interesting, there’s a pretty loud and insistent part of me that’s convinced that there are few tasks, if any, that I can really live up to. And since I’m just going to fail anyway, maybe it would be better not to try in the first place.
There are a lot of reasons why I struggle with thinking like this. Some of it, I think, is a natural tendency towards perfectionism. I know some of it is because of personal relationships where I was told that nothing I did was ever good enough often enough that I eventually started to believe it about myself, so often that eventually I didn’t even need to be told.
And some of it is because of the messages I grew up hearing in church – about how horribly depraved I was, about how even the best and most noble thing I could ever do would be nothing but filthy rags before God. And about how God was perfectly righteous and expected the utmost holiness, even though by nature no human being could ever live up to such a high standard. About how you had to try to be as good and do everything as completely right as possible, even though you could never be good enough for God.
What a lot of people, Christians and otherwise, don’t get is how this stuff sinks into your bones. It becomes part of you, not just how you think about your spiritual life, but how you think about everything. That shouldn’t be surprising, since we were taught that what we believed about God should affect every last aspect of our lives. Well, it does, but not in the way I was told it would.
You become obsessed with doing things right, and your entire sense of self-worth is bound up in that. But you also become convinced you can never get things right. That nothing you do is right enough. You can always be more right. So you begin to equate yourself with failure.
And no one tells you that sometimes failure is the best teacher. That sometimes it can be a good thing. That sometimes people look and do and feel better for having tried to do something and “failed,” than if they always took the safest path. Or that playing it safe is actually following someone else’s script, and no way to build confidence in yourself and your ability to get things done.
And of course you get no warning that the path every one tells you is safest may not be so safe after all. No, all you’re told is that this path is safe; if you take the others you’ll fall. And falling is so terrifying a prospect that all of one’s life must be devoted to avoiding it at all costs.
So you avoid heights. You stay safe and low to the ground and avoid even the slightest deviation from the path. But again, you can never follow it closely enough, so your entire life becomes defined by never being able to quite do things right.
My fear of falling looks like this:
– I feel like I’m going to fail before I’ve ever even tried.
– I feel like all the bad or incomplete things I’ve done outweigh any good.
– I feel like I’ve never done anything really good or worthwhile.
– I feel judged long before anyone ever judges me.
Someone said to me today that if someone else said all these things to me, rather than my telling it to myself, it would be emotionally abusive. And she’s absolutely right. It is abusive.
It’s pretty straightforward, really. I heard day after day and year after year that I was a worthless, abject, utterly wretched sinner and that God loved me despite myself. And I believed it. Part of me still does.
There’s a very rigid, narrow script that you have to follow if you want to “do things right” in white American evangelicalism. It’s a script that covers everything from the utterly mundane to huge, life-altering decisions. Evangelical God, you see, has a lot of very specific and strongly-held opinions about all manner of things.
What you wear. Whether you use makeup. How much makeup you use. What words you can or can’t use. What you read, watch, listen to, and what you shun. You may think God has too much to keep track of to be worried about such pesky details, but evangelicals are here to tell you how very wrong you are.
And of course, God sweats the bigger stuff, too. Who your friends are. Whether you go to college (if you’re a girl, do you really need a college degree, or are you just looking for wordly gain/approval?). What kind of job you get and where. Whom you date and how (courtship is really more godly, you know). Whether your parents approve of them or not. How long you date or court. How long between the engagement and the wedding. Whether or not you have kids. How many kids you have. Homeschool or Christian school. When you buy a house. What church you go to. Just for starters.
Small wonder Evangelical God has such a hard time keeping things running smoothly down here. God must be exhausted from all the effort it takes to micromanage every last detail of evangelicals’ lives. That whole “I’m completely sovereign over every last molecule of space and microsecond of time so no matter how terrible things may seem, I’m in control” business? Clearly all a ruse to keep us all from worrying that God’s bitten off more than God can chew.
And really, that’s a short list of the many things God wants us to do the “right” way. The “biblical” or “godly” way. There “biblical” manhood, womanhood, parenthood, childhood, relationships, marriage, fellowship, hospitality, modesty, careers, politics, even sports (the dear leader of my former church group has a book out called Don’t’ Waste Your Sports – seriously). Between all of those, there’s a lot of ink spilled and breath expended by evangelicals telling each other exactly how to live and what to think at all times.
And again, it’s an incredibly potent method of mind and behavioral control. Every moment of your life is scripted. You become so busy trying to apply a million (and growing!) different rules on how to be “godly” and have a “biblical worldview” that you eventually have no room to think or be, much less question why you’re spending all your energy trying to be more biblical than the next person. You have no time to be reflective about yourself or the world around you, no time to actually invest in people and issues outside your narrow evangelical world, because all your time is taken up with being a “good Christian” – which has little to do with being a good person.
All of this is done in the name and under the authority of “God.” But the terrifying truth is it’s just regular people telling other people what to do. People who are just as fallible as the next person, often quite ignorant, with extremely limited experience of the world and even of themselves. People who don’t even know what they want for themselves – are not allowed to indulge thoughts about what they really want, as they’re clearly selfish and sinful – telling other people how to live.
This is the open secret no one acknowledges. All these people who parade themselves in front of churches as the experts in godliness, the ones who seem to have the key to a magically contented godly life all figured out? They don’t have any special insight or life wisdom. And who knows whether or not their lives are all so blessed as they claim. It’s not as though there’s any room to be godly and not content with one’s lot in life. It’s a virtue, perhaps the highest of all of them, to put on a happy face no matter what.
Nobody has a damn clue what they’re doing. And nobody is allowed to speak the truth about any pain or imperfection or discontentment in their lives. Of course it goes horribly wrong.
Only day 4 of NaBloPoMo (or NaBloWriMo if you prefer), and I’m already having to write my first post that isn’t pre-scheduled or closely edited. Well, the idea was to get me to write more spontaneously and get my thoughts out quickly, so I guess it’s working! Anyone else doing Nano/nablowrimo or some other variant of it?
One of the things that does huge damage to individuals, families, and communities in evangelicalism is the idea that the most important thing is being completely “right” in what you believe and how you go about making decisions. Everything else is secondary to that, and follows from that. People and families who don’t do things the right way are all secretly falling apart and miserable and have “something missing from their lives,” no matter how much they might feel otherwise. People who live “biblically” always have “God-honoring” marriages and families and lives that are complete and blessed, no matter what kind of horror show plays out when there’s no one to perform holiness for. People who follow the rules have blessed lives.
It’s one of the things I’ve really struggled with in my adult life, as someone who mostly tried to follow the script for what I was supposed to do, and how. I didn’t follow it absolutely perfectly. And believe me, I felt plenty of guilt over the various ways I deviated from the rules. Constant guilt.
Which in retrospect seems like another unhealthy and oppressive aspect of this obsession with doing things right – the focus is always on what you’ve done wrong, what you could do better, no matter how much you might have done right the rest of the time. There’s no satisfaction in doing things well, in doing things the right way, because that’s what you were supposed to do in the first pace. You don’t get credit for good things. Only blame for the bad.
Funny enough, it turns out that being able to give oneself credit for the things one has accomplished is actually a sort of important part of maintaining emotional and mental health. Turns out that after a while of focusing on only the bad things about yourself, after years of being trained to talk and write and sing and think about how sinful you are and how even the worst things that happen to you are still better than you deserve…
It becomes really easy to only ever see the “bad” things about yourself (or to realize that the people you trust have a kind of warped sense of what’s “bad” and what’s “good”). And eventually it becomes easy to see yourself as bad. As evil. Not just someone who does bad things, but inherently and solely bad.
I think that keeping people in such a state of constant psychological self-flagellation – and in a state of constantly pointing out the faults of others in the name of “accountability – is a really powerful method of controlling people. When you get people to fundamentally distrust themselves, you make them vulnerable and pliable. Never sure of whether what they see, think, or feel is reflective in any way of reality, and as a result, reliant on others to tell them what they should see, think and feel.
This is what life was like growing up evangelical. It was made explicit that I could never trust myself or my perception of the world, not even my own feelings. Especiallynot my own feelings, actually, because feelings were fickle and rooted in the flesh, not in the spirit. Because, as we were frequently reminded, “the heart is deceitfully wicked above all things, and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” [Jeremiah 17:9]
This didn’t give me a complex about myself, or anything.
I mean, it’s true, feelings are subjective and they can be fickle. On their own they’re not the most reliable indicator of what the world is really like or how we should behave. Sometimes our feelings lead us the wrong way. But what I was taught went in the opposite direction – the pastors and care group leaders and my parents not only taught me to ignore and suppress my feelings, but often implied if not outright advised that doing the exact opposite of what my feelings told me was the “godly” thing to do.
Turns out running away from one’s feelings isn’t the best way of dealing with them. Turns out growing up to be an adult whose reflex is to constantly question and distrust her feelings and instincts in every situation kind of sucks.
I was getting my customary bagel and juice this morning when I noticed a conversation going on between a guy I assume was a pastor and someone looking to join his church. It was…interesting. I happened to be : with the husband at the time, and, well, you can read the conversation between that ensued between us below.
Me: some very evangelical looking white dude is reading [a Bible] to a skeptical looking guy about lust being adultery in the heart
Mr. G: ………..huh?
Me: In dunkins
Me: Apparently they have questions about this guy joining the church because they’re not convinced he really believes their statement of faith
Mr. G: Troll them
TROLL THEM [eta: I feel the need to add the disclaimer for people who might not see the levity here that there’s no way I would have actually intruded on their conversation just to troll :p]
Mr. G: I DON’T KNOW YOU ARE CLEVER, JUST DO SOMETHING
Me: Lol! Not that clever. I want to talk to the other guy after the pastor or whoever he is leaves
Mr. G: I think the spirit just gave you a word for them
Mr. G: you had a really strong impression when you woke up this morning that you had to give someone a message [see above disclaimer]
Me: This guy is actually doing a pretty epic job of trolling the pastor himself
Mr. G: Oh good
Me: Pastor dude is such an SGM style douche
[a few minutes later] THIS GUY WON’T LEAVE
Mr. G: How is the guy trolling him?
Me: Well right now he’s accusing the pastor of infantilizing church members and women
before he was asking if cannibalism is always wrong
Me: and before that insisting that something done accidentally or without intent can’t be a sin. And arguing with the dude about what certain texts mean
Me: he might be a little weird, actually
now he’s talking about the boys and girls club being a government conspiracy and that he went down there to talk to them
Me: and then the pastor got all freaked out and asked if he [the other guy] said he was representing the church [to the boys and girls club]
this is fucking hilarious
Me: Pastor left. I’m not talking to other guy.
Me: Oh god now he’s running after the pastor. I feel a little sorry for him.
Mr. G: For which one? <.<
Me: The pastor LOL
Mr. G: …………why? <.<
Me: He so obviously was out of his depth
Mr. G: *tiny violin*
Mr. G: Well I mean, if you set yourself up as the voice of God and are screening how other people live their lives and all, it should take a lot more than that guy to get you “out of your depth” :-P
Me: No disagreement there. Still a tiny bit sorry for him
Mr. G: It’s cool; the spirit was just using that guy to confront him about his pride.
Mr. G: The spirit could have used an assist from someone else, too, but they were not receptive to His voice. I hope you feel adequately guilty.
Me: Uh huh.
It was a real life example of how these churches are set up to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into a narrow definition of normal
I’m so posting this on the blog :-P
Mr. G: I will be famous!
Me: You are ridiculous
Mr. G: ridiculously famous
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Sorry for the long and unexplained absence from the blog! I had a number of obligations and was also on the road a bit; I thought I’d still be able to get some writing done despite all that, but clearly that wasn’t the case.
To be honest, another part of the delay in writing has also been a bit of burnout over the SGM situation, or perhaps more over the way I’d been writing about it. Put simply, I’m a bit tired of writing about privileged white men all the time. That’s not what, or who, this blog is about. There’s no shortage of writing that centers privileged white dudes, way more than there ought to be, and not nearly enough that deals with the concerns of people who are not privileged white men (which is most people, after all). I’m not sure that the way I’ve been writing about the current drama in SGM does much to balance the disproportionate focus on people with privilege and power.
On the one hand, there’s no way to write about the issues I care about without spending a significant amount of time writing about privilege and power. The abuses that this blog focuses on are a direct product of inequitable distribution of power in the church, and abuse of religious authority and influence to promote teachings that oppress and harm people. So I need to talk about power, and powerful people – and when it comes to talking about Christianity in the U.S. or American society in general, that means spending a good amount of time talking about privileged white men.
Still, spending an extended period of time writing only or primarily about powerful white dudes in the church doesn’t jibe with my vision for this blog, and what I hope it will grow into in the future. If I believe that the extremely narrow range of voices and experiences represented in most church leadership is a direct contributor to oppression in the church, then part of fighting that oppression has to be devoting more time, attention, and space to neglected voices, and pointing to alternative models of church leadership and community. It has to include making visible the diversity of people and perspectives that the evangelical church in particularly so often marginalizes and renders invisible. In general I haven’t done as much of that kind of writing on this blog as I would like, but that’s especially been the case since all the drama between SGM’s leadership become public. My blogging became all about SGM pastors.
First and foremost I want this to be a space that centers the voices and experiences of people who are survivors of abusive church cultures. Part of that will definitely be continuing to call out men who foster toxic church environments. There’s a lot of therapeutic value in talking about these men and their warped and cramped worldview. When you grow up in this kind of system, you’re taught to self-censor any kind of dissenting speech, or even thought. You’re taught to ignore any doubts or feelings that things aren’t quite right. That any feeling that something is wrong is just you – being judgmental, being angry, being unforgiving, rebelling against God. The church and the pastors can never be wrong.
So when you finally find someone who is willing to name the system for what it is – abusive, oppressive, perverse – it’s a tremendous relief. I remember when I found the SGM Survivors blog for the first time. I wept. A lot. I didn’t even know I had that kind of emotion bottled up inside of me until I found people who were at last confirming what I’d thought for so long, that there was something deeply, horribly wrong in SGM. I didn’t realize until that moment that I thought I was all alone in feeling that way. And in one unexpected moment, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew it wasn’t just me being paranoid or oversensitive. What I saw and felt were real.
I don’t agree with much of what the folks who run SGM Survivors and Refuge believe, but I’ll always be thankful that they made it possible for me to see that I wasn’t alone. I want my blog to do the same, but to be more inclusive and welcoming of people of color, queer people, trans people, people who are no longer Christian or no longer religious, and anyone who has been harmed or marginalized by authoritarian church leadership. And I want to make more space to talk about religious and secular communities that are working towards being more inclusive and less hierarchical. I don’t want to unthinkingly accept the disparities that exist in the church and the culture at large by spending all my time talking about demographics that are already overrepresented in public discourse.
So what does that mean, in a concrete sense? There’ll still be posts about Mark Driscoll’s toxic notions of masculinity, but I’ll also write more about alternatives to patriarchal masculinity. I’ll still pay attention to the current crisis among SGM leaders, but I’ll be spending more time talking about various experiences of marginalization in the church – e.g., what it’s like growing up as a girl/woman of color in a predominantly white, patriarchal church culture, about the racist and classist assumptions that underlie white evangelical definitions of “biblical” masculinity and femininity, about abuse and recovery in Christian families and communities, about queer sexuality and non-conforming gender, etc. I’ll still write about so-called traditional Christianity, but I’ll be spending more time talking about churches committed to practical theologies of social justice and equality, about deconversion and processing one’s own beliefs and spirituality after leaving an authoritarian religious group, about negotiating relationships with loved ones who believe differently, and other issues.
This blog isn’t ultimately about C.J. Mahaney or Mark Driscoll or any other blowhard complementarian. It’s about those of us who have been and are still being affected by their teachings, and I need to re-center my writing to reflect that better. I’d love hear any ideas or thoughts you all might have about how I can do that, or suggestions about topics that would be good to discuss.
Notice how only the husbands are interviewed about the retreat, while the wives say not a word? And that none of the women even have microphones on, kind of like it never even occurred to the powers that be that wives might have opinions on a marriage retreat, and/or that they might be interesting or relevant? And that every single married woman just stands by as smiling support? It’s a little creepy.
Of course, we can’t know what these couples’ marriages are like just from a few seconds of video. But I think this clip – with the each husband speaking exclusively for each couple, each wife standing in silent agreement with and adoration of her husband – illustrates attitudes and expectations about gender roles in marriage that I’ve seen so often in evangelical complementarian marriages.
When Mr. G and I were engaged, we had premarital counseling with a couple from my family’s SGM church. And by “counseling with a couple,” I mean counseling with a guy whose wife would say nothing until the very end of our meetings, when the husband would turn to her and ask if she had anything to add. She never did. Her husband had said it all, apparently. At our first meeting, she deliberately avoided shaking Mr. G’s hand until he had shaken her husband’s hand first.
At the time I was totally oblivious to what was going on – her husband was closest to me, so I naturally I shook his hand first, unaware of the maneuverings going on behind me. This was one of her ways, I guess, of respecting her husband’s authority over her; the chain of command had to be upheld by having our male leaders acknowledge each other first, before the ladies could be involved or acknowledged. I realized later that she probably considered me to be wildly insubordinate, or some such nonsense, because I had the audacity to shake her husband’s hand without waiting for my fiancé’s go-ahead, without acknowledging him as my “head” and above me.
And then there’s the fact that I’m much more talkative than my husband in unfamiliar company, which meant that I did the vast majority of the talking during our counseling meetings. We both noticed that counselor dude was irritated and offended by the fact that Mr. G wasn’t more forthcoming. I eventually pieced together that our counselor’s problem wasn’t simply that Mr. G didn’t say very much, it was also that I said so much more than he did. I wasn’t being properly submissive and letting my future husband take the lead that was rightfully his.
It perhaps doesn’t need to be said that our counseling meetings weren’t terribly useful or pleasant for anyone involved.
Bizarre as her behavior was, our counselor’s wife was just trying to show respect to her husband (whose behavior, it must be added, was no less strange – a story for another day). And of course, respect between partners is a vital part of a healthy relationship. But in complementarianism, respect is understood as being primarily the wife’s responsibility. This is based on gender essentialist assumptions that men need respect while women need love, and that women find it easy to love but difficult to show respect, especially to men, while men have an easy time treating people with respect but a hard time showing love, especially in the way women need (this is code for “men should treat women as delicate, hyper-emotional creatures incapable of logic and reason”). The complementarian notion of respect is perverted at its root by an insistence that only one gender needs respect in a relationship.
What respect is supposed to look like for a married woman is also quite strange. As our counselor told us, being a respectful, properly submissive wife means “affirming” the husband’s leadership in every. single. aspect. of the marriage. Naturally that includes conversations in public. For a lot of married women I knew at church, that meant they were expected to never contradict their husbands in public, much less argue with them; to never interrupt; to let them “take the lead” in mixed conversation, which meant speaking a good deal less than their husbands, often not until their husbands spoke to them first.
It also meant that women were expected to never complain about their husbands – and more than that, to constantly talk up their husbands as the best and most considerate spouses ever, no matter what. I can begin to count how many times I’ve heard women from church effusively praising their husbands for doing things that should have just been routine. For “releasing” them to go on a trip with friends. For maybe making one measly meal every few months, when their wives are expected to have homemade food on the table for their husbands and many children every night. For “letting” them sleep in or giving them the “morning off” from domestic and childcare duties (even when the reason for this is that the wife is laid up with an illness, or dealing with pregnancy nausea, or has a small infant).
I’ve seen women berate themselves for being justifiably angry with their husbands – for example, for putting their family in danger by repeatedly delaying getting a failing car checked out – because well, nothing serious happened and a wife should focus on their husbands’ strengths and her own sin, not his failings. And if there are few or no good things they can think of, it’s because they, the wives, have a sinful attitude, never because the husband might have any real failings. They are the ones who need adjustment; it could never be that a husband is neglecting or mistreating his wife so much that little positive can be said about his behavior or attributes.
Watching the clip above gave me same tight, sinking feeling I always get when I think about the girls I grew up with in church who are now married. It’s so emblematic of how so many complementarian women experience marriage: as cheerleaders expected to hang on their husband’s arms and words, silencing themselves and suppressing all authentic expression of emotions. When I think of people I used to be friends with living a life like that, so completely muzzled, I feel sick with worry and despair for them.
I read a wonderful post this week by Jay Bakker – the son of Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Messner – on how going to a drag show helped him recognize you can find faith anywhere, and that there are no boundaries on grace or on God’s love. Some excerpts:
During a trip to California a few years back, my then-wife Amanda and I were invited out to a drag show by RuPaul, the famous drag queen (recording artist, supermodel, VH1 talk-show host, etc.) who did the voice-over for the 2000 documentary about my mom, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
…Frankly, I was really nervous about how the Christian magazines and festival organizers and even some of my Christian friends would react if they knew I’d been to a drag show…In the end, I decided to overcome my fears and go. (When the queen of drag queens invites you to a drag show, you really don’t have a choice.) Thank God I did….
During intermission, I stepped outside to have a cigarette. While I was standing there, one of the drag queens — a seven-foot tall black man in heels who was wearing a massive replica of the Eiffel Tower on his head — approached to say that he was a preacher’s kid too and that he had grown up in the church. He went on to explain how much he loved my mom and how worried he was about her cancer.
“Please tell your mom that I’m praying for her and that I love her,” he said, Eiffel Tower bobbing as he spoke….
Near the end of the show, a drag queen got up onstage and began spotlighting the famous people in the crowd: “Dita Von Teese is here!” (cheers). “And RuPaul is here!” (cheers). And all of a sudden he said, “Did anyone here ever watch the Praise the Lord ministry?”…And suddenly, this huge spotlight hit me.
As I blinked into the blinding light, the emcee asked teasingly, “Are you straight?”
“Yeah,” I said, blushing and pointing a thumb at my wife, Amanda.
“Lucky girl,” the emcee said.
And then the emcee got real serious. Standing there in high heels and a sparkly dress, he said: “You know, this is where Jesus would be if He were alive today. Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and the prostitutes and the sinners … ” He then launched into a three-minute speech about how Jesus loved everybody without judgment.
Then he looked back up at me and asked, “Jay, are you still doing your church?”
“Yeah,” I answered.
“Oh, that’s so wonderful. Best of luck to you on that.” And everybody clapped.
So there I was, stunned, not knowing what to make of this. One minute a drag queen was making cracks about whether I’m gay, and the next minute he was saying these really amazing things about Jesus and grace.
More after the jump… Read the rest of this entry »