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.
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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.
Sorry for the blog absence (she said, to her few but loyal readers). I got super busy for a while there, and then I got sick. I’ve also been having some trouble with writing as – if I may indulge in a bit of meta-discussion about blogging for a bit – I recently hit a point where I had so many ideas for blog posts that I wasn’t sure what to write about next. And since I have mostly written relatively long posts so far, they take me some time to write. I’m going to change things up a little and try blogging more frequently, but with shorter posts, and see how that works. A new post should be up later today.
This was originally posted by AWH reader Toranse at her blog, Perspective. I identify with so much of what she writes in this post. Thanks for letting me cross post it here, Toranse! The original post can be found here.
One of the classes I’m taking this semester is Adolescent Literature. I want to be a school librarian at the junior high level (yes, I know “you’re crazy, why would want to deal with teenagers, etc., etc”) and I’m really enjoying the class.
My professor – a quirky, overly dramatic man that makes each class interesting with his reading performances – asked this question on the first day of class. “Does teen literature tell us about teens…or about our perception of who teens are?” And then in class just the other day, he asked this, “Are teens similar to teen literature because it accurately portrays them, or because by telling teens this is who they are, they actually become it?”
That last question I found so interesting, and thought it related to the discussion on a few of the blogs that I read. Is our perception of who men and women are in Christian culture actually who they are – or by pastors, theologians, and Christian writers telling us that’s who we are – is Christian culture creating people into that role?
It makes me both sad and angry that even now, the idea that people can be more than their gender is still so hard to accept. That if you propose the idea that gender is a secondary issue, they actually panic, as though at the same time that they’ll say gender is biological and innate, if you don’t stringently enforce it, your child will grow up irreversibly damaged.
Growing up, I fought so hard against the gender role that I was told was normal. There were two sides to it. “You are a girl, you must act this way” at the same time as it was “Girls acting that way are so stupid and silly lets make fun of them.” I didn’t want to be considered stupid or silly or childlike or innocent, so I had a love/hate relationship with being a girl. I wanted to be a girl, I liked being a girl, I just didn’t want to be a girl if I had to be like that. I’m a woman, I’m a human, and I am deserving of being treated like an individual, and with respect – no matter what my personality is.
Sometimes, in more “liberal” circles, women are allowed to deviate – but the deviations are merely hobbies, activities. I can be a “rebel” woman there if I say I don’t cook – just as long as I’m still sweet, demure, and empathetic, and still have a good chunk of my desires and activities lining up with “womanly” things.
But it’s more than that with me. It’s not that what I do doesn’t fit the gender roles – its who I am that isn’t right. I’m not nurturing. I’m capable of empathy, but have a hard time showing it. I’m a bad listening ear (like I’m supposedly supposed to be); if you tell me your problems, I’ll try to find ways to fix it for you (sound distinctly male, or what?) I’m sarcastic, prone to self-deprecating comments and cynicism, and if you give me the option of fight or flight, I’m going to fight with everything in me.
And I’m told that I am sin. Not that what I do is sin – but that I am sin. And even if I fit the stereotypical role of femininity, I’d still be sin – my body, my gender would be accused of causing men to stumble, that by existing, having a female form, I am something wrong. “God created you – but He created something wrong, bad, evil.” That’s the implication, that’s the message.
How dare Christian culture reduce women to that. Strip us of uniqueness, of our design – by shaming and blaming that design in one form another. By placing us in a box and saying, “Don’t move from there” because the idea that a woman is actually human – capable of being an individual, separate entity from all other women, seems to baffle and terrify them. It is wrong – it is the destruction of a child of God, it is bullying and abuse, to dismiss us, and not acknowledge who we are. We’re not “women” as an all-encompassing umbrella that can be analyzed and scrutinized as a homogeneous entity, we are ourselves – human. Each capable of different things, each with a beautiful and unique personality given to us by the Ultimate Creator. Women are deserving of far more than what Christian culture gives us.
And the reason I won’t accept it – not even in its soft forms – is because it is wrong on all levels. I was told that Captivating by Eldridge was so freeing because it wasn’t about gender roles – you didn’t have to fit the rigidity that say, “Biblical Womanhood” might enforce. But no, it still is gender roles. Any time you judge a person solely on their gender and from that gender tell them the ways in which they must act and behave, or generalize their wants and desires, you are telling them “You are x gender, so you must be this.” You are reducing them to that, and then you are telling them – either implicitly or explicitly – that if you are anything else, God made you wrong. So I won’t accept it, and I won’t stay quiet and let it pass without critique because it has to change. In all forms. How many people have already been limited by this – who have become these automatic and stereotypical roles not because God created them as such, but because, like my professor pointed out, we’ve conflated being this roles with being godly? We’ve put God and people into a box, and the only room they have to move and mature is within these polarized, sharply defined roles?
What kind of things could God do through people, what kind of ways could His love and mercy and goodness shine when we allow everyone – women and men – to be exactly who God created them to be, and that it is beautiful and right to express that uniqueness in any righteous form it takes? B
Anything else is not only to limit the potential of your fellow siblings, not only to squash and cripple their nature, but it is to limit and deny the power and creativity of God.
As a side note, because I’m so passionate about this issue, recent discussions have reminded me of a poem I wrote about it some time last year. So I just posted it to my writing blog, if anyone is interested in reading it. It can be found here: Christian Girls.