The Psychology of Evangelicalism

Philip Greven is a respected historian, and his book Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse addresses the issue of corporal punishment against children in its historical context and what light this can lend to the consequences of hitting, striking, and spanking children today.

In one particularly illuminating passage, he describes the psychological temperament of evangelicals, Calvinists, and fundamentalists, all of whom teach the suppression of self-will and spank their children form an early age as part of their religious framework.

Melancholy and depression have been persistent themes in the family history, religious experience, and emotional lives of Puritans, evangelicals, fundamentalists, and Pentecostals for centuries. Assaults on the self and self-will are the central obsession of vast numbers of men and women from the early seventeenth century to the present. Suicidal impulses frequently appear in these Protestants’ self-portraits as well, although those who write memoirs and autobiographies are usually survivors, not suicides. They may have successfully thwarted their inner impulses toward self-destruction, but the experience of conversion and the new birth rarely relieved them fully of their depressive symptoms. Michael Wigglesworth, whose apocalyptic “Day of Doom” was one of the best-selling publications in early New England, suffered from profound melancholy from his early twenties through at least his early fifties. Punishment was central to both his psyche and his theology. Many evangelicals, generation after generation, voiced their anxiety and depression in their diaries, letters, and autobiographies. In some families, such as the Mathers, melancholy afflicted fathers and sons for at least three successive generations. The persistence and, indeed, the centrality of menacholy and depression for an understanding of religious and secular experience in America, from early-seventeenth-century Puritans to lat-nineteenth-century Victorians, has been explored brilliantly by John Owen King in his illuminating book, The Iron of Melancholy. Some of the most compelling historical evidence we possess concerning the nature and history of depression comes from the religious tradition associated most directly with Calvinism and evangelical Protestantism over the last four centuries.

Closely linked to the recurrent depression evident in so many individuals is the theme of buried and smoldering anger–more often suppressed and denied, disguised and obscured, than openly acknowledged and expressed–visible in many of the most subtle studies of the life histories of Puritan, Calvinist, and evangelical individuals. The depression that manifests itself consistently throughout their lives is nearly always associated with the suppression of anger throughout their adulthood. Cotton Mather, for example, was one of the angriest men living in New England during the colonial period. His words and actions betrayed his inner rage however much he sought to deny it and obscure it from himself and others. Kenneth Silverman has noted that the preacher’s early stuttering was rooted in anger; Silverman observes the continuous impact of the “muffled rage” that Mather simultaneously vented and denied. Throughout his life, this rage underpinned his apocalyptic fantasies of the end of time. Mather “projected personal anger into visions of a world consumed, and hopes for personal vindication into sights of Christ returned to punish the wicked and avenge the virtuous.” The violence suffusing his language and his religious experience, including his intense apocalypticism, is exceptionally clear. (pp. 132-133)


What Justice Means

I am a fan of Walter Bruggemann, and I recently read his little book, Journey to the Common Good. This is an amazing primer on the central themes of the Bible. Along the way in this book, Bruggemann defines what the Hebrew words for “justice” are, and the definition might be the best I’ve ever read.

So here is YHWH’s triad, which we first might state in Hebrew: hesed, mispat, sedeqah.

Steadfast love (hesed) is to stand in solidarity, to honor commitments, to be reliable toward all the partners.

Justice (mispat) in the Old Testament concerns distribution in order to make sure that all members of the community have access to resources and goods for the sake of a viable life of dignity. In covenantal tradition the particular subject of YHWH’s justice is the triad “widow, orphan, immigrant,” those without leverage or muscle to sustain their own legitimate place in society.

Righteousness (sedeqah) concerns active intervention in social affairs, taking an initiative to intervene effectively in order to rehabilitate society, to respond to social grievance, and to correct every humanity-diminishing activity (pp. 62-63).

So the Old Testament’s words for justice mean solidarity, redistribution, and activism.


What Repentance Means

Cynthia Bourgeault’s wonderful book The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind–A New Perspective on Christ and His Message is an absolute delight. She is definitely onto something, even when I find myself disagreeing with her. The book is full of gems, big and little alike.

One that struck me was her understanding of the word “repentance.” She writes,

The Greek that it’s translating is metanoia. And guess what? It doesn’t mean feeling sorry for yourself for doing bad things. It doesn’t even mean to “change the direction in which you’re looking for happiness,” although it is often translated that way. The word literally breaks down into meta and noia, which, depending on how you translate meta (it can be either the preposition “beyond” or the adjective “large”), means “go beyond the mind,” or “go into the larger mind.” The repentance that Jesus really is talking about means to go beyond your little egoic operating system that says, “I think, therefore I am,” and try out the other one–the big one–that says, “I am, therefore I think.” (p. 37).

This is captivating stuff. Growing up, I was taught that repentance meant feeling sorry for sin. When I got older and started reading theology I was told that repentance actually meant to “change direction,” or to “turn around.” But Bourgeault is right, the word actually does not mean either of those things. It means to transcend our selfish, egoist narrative and see the bigger picture. It means “enlightenment,” “epiphany,” in just the mystical sense of transcending the self and seeing a bigger world, the bigger narrative of God.

When I view my actions from my egoist self, I can (and do) justify it all. They deserved it, or I was justified in taking the action or saying the thing that I said, or they had it coming. Our egoist mind conjures up justifications like the federal government prints money. There’s never a shortage. To enter into the larger mind, then, is to see ourselves from outside ourselves, to transcend our own perspective, and to move into a state of consciousness alive to the kenosis of God, the self-giving, non-dualistic means by which we experience God and his presence.

So the next time we read “Repent, and believe,” let’s try to remember that Jesus is actually saying, “Transcend the ego and love.”

Genesis 1-5 as Ancient Memory

I have recently discovered the work of Riane Eisler, and particularly her classic 1988 work The Chalice and the Blade. Eisler is a second-wave feminist who has specialized in cultural history. Her book is an overview of the apparently substantial archaeological evidence that human society during the Neolithic pre-historical period (that period that before written historical records, before the rise of the Egyptian empire) was radically peaceful, cooperative, and egalitarian.

It turns out, there is no evidence that Neolithic communities built fortifications or defenses around their towns, no evidence among what we can find of their metallurgy that they manufactured any weapons, and from what we can tell about their social lives, men and women lived in equalitarian peace, neither patriarchal or matriarchal.

Thus, Eisler distinguishes between two ultimate types of social structures, which she terms the “chalice” and the “blade.” Or, phrased differently, the cooperative and the dominator culture, each organized around the common cup or the power of the sword. It was not until the nomadic herdsmen swept down from the steppes to expand their grazing territories that weapons and defenses begin to be seen, and over a period of centuries the peaceful Neolithic communities were conquered by various nomadic warlords. The Minoan culture on the island of Crete was the last remaining peaceful, egalitarian society, finally conquered by the warring mainland Myceneans (Greeks) in 1420 BCE.

Her research is helpful for us in that it demonstrates that competition, violence, and domination are not inevitable for the human person or the human community.

As a Christian, I found her insights of prehistory and the emergence of patriarchy as a later “de-evolution” from a cooperative, peaceful community very interesting. I was thinking this week about how we might view the earliest portions of Genesis as the collective memory of the Hebrew people, living in and often part of the patriarchal model of human society, of a lost age of peaceful and unoppressive human community.

That is, Genesis was probably written or compiled during the Babylon exile, when Israel was in captivity and under the oppression of the dominator model of human community. While prior to this historical point, Israel had come into Canaan and settled there, eventually displacing the peaceful people that lived there and had desired a king like the dominator model (in 2 Samuel 8), by the time they began to collect the earliest stories of their people and culture, they were slaves and prisoners to this same system. Thus, the idea of a former age of peace and a tragic fall came into their yearning. In other words, because they were enslaved and suffering, they sought the hope that such a plight was not inevitable, but that there had once been an age without such oppression and suffering, and then a fall from such a human community.

To make this clearer, Genesis is a foundational mythic retelling of a cultural memory of a distant past. There are glimmers of a genuine lost historical age found under the mythical trappings of the story, much as there might well have been a real flood that gave rise to the flood account of Noah.

When we turn to Genesis 1-5, then, we see the remnants of their ancient memory of precisely this neolithic past, passed down in stories through the collective memory of the community, of a way of being human in community that had been lost (but might be recovered in some eschatological future). The story of Adam and Eve dwelling in harmony with each other, the creation, and God in the Garden of Eden is the expression of what the Hebrews called “shalom,” or peace, a comprehensive peace and harmony between all creation, where all relationships were properly ordered in equalitarian and healthy, nonviolent terms. (I am here assuming that Phyllis Trible and various eco-theologians are correct in seeing Genesis 1-2 as egalitarian and opposed to androarchy, mankind-rule and people-centrism.)

When the serpent turns up, it inserts disorder and disharmony into all of these relationships, humanity with itself, between the genders, between humanity and the animals and the creation. There is now “enmity” (Gen. 3:15) that interferes with shalom. This could well be, once again, the collective memory of an ancient neolithic past in which communities of shalom and cooperation and harmony were conquered by warlords, which would have plunged people into enmity with one another and with the world. Later, in Genesis 4, this enmity bursts into violent murder between agrarian Cain and herdsman Abel, the precise two kinds of communities that fought with each other in the later neolithic age. Cain, the violent one, then goes on to found the first city (and the implication of it, empire, domination, oppression).

In the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, the word “enmity” in Gen. 3:15 is echthran. This is important for the gospel, as Ephesians 2:14-18 makes clear:

For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.

In this passage, pseudo-Paul mentions “hostility” twice as something that Jesus killed. The Cross, then, was the ultimate act of violence of God’s part–the violence of enemy-love, to suffer rather than retaliate, and in that way execute hatred and violence forever. That word “hostility” is echthra, forging a close connection between the serpent-dominator who gets between healthy, harmonious relationships with its enmity [echthran], and the Christ-liberator, who finally killed enmity [echthra] itself in the human soul and in human community. By killing enmity, Jesus opens up new ways of being human and living together in community, restoring “peace,” shalom, that ancient human community based in cooperation, love, peace, and egalitarian life.

Christian(ities): Progressive vs. Regressive

Eight local churches in Fountain Hills, Arizona have decided to team up to attack the only progressive church in their town with a coordinated sermon series. Recently Scott Fritzsche at Unsettled Christianity asked the 8 pastors a series of questions about their intentions.

Their answers are noteworthy.

For example, notice how they privilege themselves as the gatekeepers of the Nicene Creed: “While it is true that there are doctrinal differences between us, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are shared by all: Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; that He was buried, and then raised on the 3rd day according to the Scriptures.”

Those foolish Progressives apparently deny the Nicene Creed, the ecumenical guide of historic Christianity. But I’m not aware of any Progressive Christian that could not recite the Nicene Creed in good faith – the question is how to understand the Creed, not whether or not to confess it. By reciting this litany of doctrines, what these pastors really mean is to see these as objective, historical descriptions of What Really Happened in the modern, Western sense of neutral historical description. But these pastors express the very problem themselves; these descriptions come to us “according to the Scriptures,” that is through liturgical and religious documents. Historical reconstruction beyond the literary documents of the Scriptures is impossible, and hence does not bother Progressives too much. Coincidentally, as a member of the Episcopal Church I recite this creed every week in worship. How often do these regressive churches confess it?

Progressive Christianity leads to a Christ-less Christianity. If Jesus is simply a good man we are trying to emulate and not the Son of God, then we dead in our sin and are dependent on works righteousness.

It’s all about Jesus.  Progressive theology denies the Deity of Jesus, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus.  Sin is not dealt with, thus salvation is not available

This claim is so absurd it is just sad. The fact of the matter is that regressive Christianity turns Jesus into an irrelevancy to the actual lives of their congregations – necessary, perhaps, to have lived perfectly and gotten himself murdered by his father so we could float off to heaven when we die, but beyond that mostly not. Progressive Christians place Jesus at the very heart. Jesus, we might recall, said “Follow me,” not “Think Things About Me.”

Progressive Christians say Jesus isn’t the Son of God? Where? In fact, where have we said any of these things? The truth is that we simply understand these terms differently than they do – and they must be the only ones who can be right. God forbid there be a diversity of opinion on how to understand the Christian faith. No, regressives must impound everyone who deviates from their party line. How dare we present a gospel that is genuinely good news, a God that is genuinely benevolent to all people, a faith that is about love instead of nit-picking rationalism and the primacy of dogma over people.

Progressive Christianity has made it quite clear that they don’t believe in a theistic God, nor do they believe Jesus is the only way to God. Comparatively, Jesus clearly believed in a theistic God (He called Him Father) and it was Jesus Himself who said He was the only way to the Father.

I suppose it is too much to expect that regressives would be aware that the Scriptures employ metaphor to speak about things that are beyond human language, like the nature and being of God and the Trinity. Now, it is true that panentheism is popular among Progressive Christians, but then it was popular among the Eastern Church in the early parts of church history too, which emphasized panentheism and theosis.

Likewise, we should note that saying “Jesus is the only way” and “Christianity is the only way” are two entirely different statements. After the Ascension, Jesus ceased to be an object within the universe and became “enthroned,” a word we use to describe the expansive union of the person Jesus with the divine Logos that indwelt him in his life. Jesus became, in this sense, the cosmic Christ, the Logos in, through, and by the whole world lives, moves, and has its being. We use the words “Logos” and “Jesus” to speak of this “beyonding” presence; Muslims use the name Allah, Jews use the name Yahweh. Precise theological minutia cannot be demanded for salvation, because precise theological minutia is impossible, since God is essentially beyond human language to describe and comprehend. It is simply hubris and human arrogance to suggest anything else. (Not to mention that understanding proper theological doctrines is, then, itself a “work” that man must do in order to be saved.) On this point, Progressives insist upon theological and interpretive humility in the face of that which defies human description.

Thus, one can be saved outside Christianity, but not outside Christ, the cosmic Logos that is in union with the whole creation, by, through, and in Whom we live, move, and have our being.

Doctrine is at the very center of everything we do, but then that would be true for a Progressive Christian as well. In fact, it is at the center of what every human being does; even the atheist. A person only acts on what they believe. The real question is what do you believe? We believe the Bible is the Word of God, as such, inerrant. We then use the Bible as a guideline for the outworking of our faith in day to day life. Fostering that doctrine is really quite simple: blow the dust off the book and read it!

Here we have what is called the “primacy of the intellect.” Originating in Aristotle and Plato, and then employed by the Capitalist bourgeois to define man as an economic being – inherently individualistic and rationally self-motivated. Doctrine and the thought and mind of man, is the highest good for regressive faith. For Progressives, orthopraxis controls orthodoxy. Right action teaches right theology. The center of humanity, for the Progressive, is love, not doctrine. Jesus came to teach us how to live, as human communities, in a new way. He came to show us the way of love, not the way of thought. That isn’t to say thought isn’t important, but it may not take center stage. Those who appear in the judgment in Matthew 25 are evaluated on the basis of their love, not their ability to define superlapsarianism.

The term Progressive indicates something that evolves (changes from one state to a more improved state) over time. Is Christ progressive? Does Jesus evolve? What improvement would you add to His perfection? More to the point, what can man’s knowledge and learning add to Divine perfection?

Does Jesus evolve? No, but our understanding of Jesus certainly does, as even the Scriptures attest.

I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth; for He will not speak on His own initiative, but whatever He hears, He will speak; and He will disclose to you what is to come,” (John 16:12-13).

Here Jesus attests that the Scriptures themselves are simply not enough. The work of the Spirit in the Church, leading us progressively into all truth, is the means by which Jesus provokes us to re-evaluate our interpretations. The Spirit, dwelling in the community of God, will guide us into understanding which were not available to the disciples and to the Church in the past. The Christian faith is a forward-moving faith, not a static faith imprisoned under the totalitiarianism of the dead. Tradition is right and good, so far as it is helpful. Tradition can be and is often wrong. Slavery, women, and Jews, anyone? Where it is helpful, it is retained. Where it is not helpful, it is not needed.

The idea of absolute inerrancy of Scripture simply isn’t taught in Scripture. In fact, the Scriptures directly contradict this very notion. One of the social consequences of inerrancy is to treat the Scriptures as though eternal life was found in them, rather than in the eternal and cosmic Christ himself. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life,” (John 5:39-40).

Courtship and Those Crazy Patriarchalists

Thomas Umstattd has been making waves in fundamentalist homeschooling hyper-conservative homesteading courtship patriarchalist circles these days. His blog post “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Flawed” is a solid bit of work which I recommend glancing at.

My biggest problem with the piece, if it has a flaw, is that all of the arguments are pragmatic, rather than Scriptural. That is, it opens itself up to the charge that courtship isn’t really the problem, just certain people practicing courtship wrongly. This was, as one might expect, exactly the protest leveled by patriarchalist Doug Wilson in a response titled “Why Courtship is Fundamentally Awed.” In the post, by the way, Wilson describes himself as “someone who helped to put the courtship paradigm on the map,” and this is more or less true in a lot of ways.

But Umstattd never asks the fundamental question: “Why are we even still talking about this?” It is 2014. Fourteen years into the 21st century. And we’re still talking about the boy having to get permission from the father, and the father given extreme veto power in this dynamic? Fuck that noise. There isn’t a shred of evidence this is necessary, required, or even recommended in Scripture. If the father likes the boy that much, he should marry him. There are a lot of states letting you do that these days, apparently.

Courtship is just a small portion of the problematic teaching in these circles, but at their core they all have one thing in common. Dependency. Don’t get me wrong. We’re supposed to help and support each other. But dependency is entirely different. Dependency manufactures immaturity and destroys self-empowerment. In a novel, when a character is free to make their own decisions and behave proactively, they are said to have “agency.” All patriarchalist theology is designed to take away your agency as a person by making you dependent upon the opinions, the decisions, and the commands of others.

This is soul-sucking abuse and it is mentally and emotionally crippling. Be your own person. Love God, love your neighbor and your enemy. Figure out what you like and dislike, and the kind of person you want to have a relationship with. No one can make that kind of decision for you. They aren’t you. They can’t know. Live, love, and know that God loves you for who you are, mistakes, lessons, brokenness, and all.

Justifying Domestic Violence?

It is astonishing to me how many people don’t understand how easily it is to justify violence, especially in the Church. But perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. Most evangelicals are still strict complimentarian-patriarchalists. But even those I thought were more sane in their approach can fall prey to bad assumptions. Here’s a comment from a respected ministry guy who accepts women’s ordination and who has proved to be very wise on a lot of subjects (I won’t name him for his own benefit):

I agree: Men should never hit women. On that I completely, wholeheartedly, and unequivocally agree. Any man who physically, sexually, or verbally abuses a woman is nothing but a coward in my eyes. Man up. Live up to the name “gentlemen.” Treat others as you would like to be treated. That should not be the end of the discussion, though. Yes, let’s talk about the man’s behavior and do so in incredibly critical ways. At the same time (not “But”), let’s also talk about the woman’s behavior. In my opinion, significant societal progress will not be made until we’re able to have a thoughtful public discourse about both sides of the equation. The fact that discussing one-half of the behavior involved seems culturally taboo is a significant problem. Of course, I know why that is. Experience tells me that few people are able to engage in that conversation without immediately inserting foot in mouth, making some profoundly stupid and insensitive and hurtful comments. At their very worst, such comments can victimize the victim all over again. Not good. So it’s easier to simplify it to an absolute rule of “Just say no” without further dialogue. Yet that approach doesn’t work. It never does on a large-scale. As one born in 1985, I can tell you that it didn’t work with D.A.R.E. and it didn’t work with abstinence-only sex education. Likewise, it doesn’t work with domestic violence. There’s a crucial distinction to be made between understanding ad justifying. I’ll say it again. We need to be able to thoughtfully discuss the behavior of all parties involved. To my eyes that is nothing if not reasonable.

The guise by which we can sneak our poor assumptions in is through our appeal to “reasonableness.” Everybody likes a good, balanced discussion. Except that in this case, this is not a balanced discussion. This is the implicit justification of domestic violence. In the abstract it sounds perfectly acceptable to say that we should consider both sides; in philosophy and theology this is indeed a strength. But this does not necessarily apply when dealing with specific real-world situations.

The response with violence is never an acceptable response. It does not matter what the victim was doing, violence is never a proportionate response. So we should have no need to “talk about the woman’s behavior.” (Let’s include abused men here too and say that the victim’s behavior, regardless of gender, is not what is under review in trying to figure out what happened). There is no behavior on display that justifies violence as a response. It doesn’t matter what the victim was doing – the moment a punch was thrown you have crossed into unacceptable behavior. It doesn’t matter if they pissed you off. It doesn’t matter if they were annoying you, or even screaming at you. It doesn’t even matter if you have PTSD or “trigger words.” Violence is always a choice, which means we always have the opportunity to say no.

So how does this kind of superficial “reasonableness” imply victimization? Because it blames the victim for the event, even if handled in the nicest, kindest way. It does not do so directly, so you don’t have to intend to blame the victim or consciously realize this is what you are doing. The point is that implicit in the very assumptions of the statement above is assigning blame, or partial blame, up0n the victim. You cannot say what is said above to the face of an abused woman and not have it come across as blaming them. “You know it takes two to have an argument.” “What were you doing, Mrs. Brown?” Implicit in the claim that we “need to be able to thoughtfully discuss the behavior of all parties involved” is that both parties worked to provoke an act of violence. This also implies that women ought to learn how to walk on eggshells around their husbands so to not contribute to a situation that would result in violence. But this is not their responsibility. Our approach to the situation must not be, “Learn how not to get punched, Mrs. Brown” but “Stop punching your wife, you bastard.”

And what of those women for whom the only trigger in their husbands is alcohol? Or walking in the room at the wrong moment? Or asking how their day was? Or saying that dinner is ready? Anyone who can sit across from a woman with a black eye and bruises all along her body and ask her, “How did you contribute to the situation?” should not hold any counseling or pastoral position anywhere at any time. This is a mark of disqualification from oversight and care. It is no different from asking the rape victim, “What were you wearing?” That is irrelevant to the case of being raped. No outfit (or indeed no outfit at all) is “asking for” being raped.

We must stop victimizing the victims, blaming the victims, and focus on healing and caring for them. They need no more burdens placed upon them. Stop. Please.