Thursday, June 18, 2009

"You Suck" Christianity: A Roundabout Primer

I was a good hour from home. I'd missed my turn, gotten myself lost, and was now stuck in a mess of traffic near the tunnel, unable to pull off. I'm mildly claustrophobic, so traffic jams have never been my thing (not that they're anyone's thing, I guess, but I think I get a little more anxious than what's considered normal). Then, in a display of impeccable timing that seems peculiar to grumpy infants, my daughter began screaming from the back seat. I never have handled her crying very well. Other people seem so calm about babies, seem to be able to pick them up and coo sympathetically while they kvetch and howl. Me, not so much. If I can't fix it, I'm clearly doing something wrong, and I get anxious and panicky. She was my baby, though, and I'd become pretty good at fixing my baby. Usually.

But not tonight. Tonight, she was inconsolable and frantic. And so was I.

My first impulse, even in little things like these, had always been to ask God for help. I would breathe deep, focus my thoughts: "Dear God, please help me thr---"

NO, I stopped myself. No. No more, remember? You can do this.

Right. I can do this.

I can do this.

So I stared ahead at the road, forcing myself to ignore a God who I was sure was growing angrier by the moment. Hardening my heart.

And then it began to creep in at the corners of my mind. The fear. The fear they build into you when they teach you about God, the God of the Bible. That unnamed fear, tightening in the back of my throat: the knowledge of how God humbles those who don't acknowledge, at every turn, their abject dependence on him. I knew about Nebuchadnezzar. I knew about Job. I knew the God of the Bible. I knew he demanded to be first in my life. And I was terrified, because I never had been able to give that to him---no matter how I tried, I always knew in the back of my mind that my husband, my family, my friends all meant more to me. My daughter. And who knew what---or who---God would take from me, and when, just to prove that He was in charge? To bring me to the place where I could admit, dependent and chastened, that He was finally my everything?

He's a jealous God, you know? But it's only because he loves you so much. I wouldn't be so jealous if you weren't such a whore.

I wasn't scared of the situation I was in. I wasn't scared of the fact that I was lost, or stuck, or unable to comfort my baby (though these were all, admittedly, frustrating). No. I was scared of what God would do to me if I didn't immediately turn to Him for help. Even in the smallest of day-to-day trials. See, you don't pray to God to keep you safe from the bad things happening around you. I mean, God's in control of all those things anyway, right? No, you pray to God to keep you safe from God. You don't want to stand out as one of those uppity folks who think they can accomplish anything on their own.

This is why you ask things of God: so that you'll know that everything you have, you've had to ask for. So that you know your place.

And this was why it had to stop.

I can do this.

And you know what? I did. It's probably no surprise to any of you, of course, but it kinda was to me. I made it home just fine, with a peaceful, snoring baby in tow. No car accidents, no house fires, no general smitings. And no prayers. No negotiating with terrorists. A small victory, sure, but a victory all the same.

"All I have is what I give myself."

That line came to me in a dream back around September of last year. In a way, that dream saved me, certainly more than Jesus ever did. When I woke that morning, I understood for the first time that until I saw myself as worth something, nothing outside---not even God---could give me that worth. I was responsible for my own happiness; not God, not anyone else. It was, for the first time, power unto myself. But really, the only reason I got that message is because I was ready to hear it. I would have filtered it out before, because a message like that is antithetical to the idea that all fulfillment comes from God. The self is something to be denied, even despised. I must decrease so that Christ may increase. It's "You Suck" Christianity at its core. And while I was still clinging to a tattered belief in God at that time, I'd pretty much stopped treating my dreams as messages from God, and started thinking of them as messages from me. I guess what that translates to, on some level, is that I'd finally decided that I was worth listening to. That I had something worthwhile to say.

And hey, maybe I don't. But it couldn't hurt to give myself a goddamn chance for once, right?

There's a certain variety of Christian who will insist that God makes himself clearly known in the world around us, and so, anyone who chooses not to be a Christian is deliberately rebellious, rejecting the obvious truth of God out of pure spite. I don't know if I ever really bought into that idea fully---I think it always seemed a little sketchy to me---but I can't remember ever calling bullshit on it either. However, I know there are plenty of people who would probably say the same about me now---many of them old friends. And the annoying thing is that, in my case, they'd be right. See, because I'd been programmed so heavily to accept these things as true, they had become obvious to me. They are the default, even still. And in order to set myself free, I have had to actively reject them. And it's not been easy.

I'm not so sure that evangelical apologetics has much to do with winning new converts at all, now that I think of it. I think it has more to do with keeping present believers in line. Try and think for yourself, and you slam up against all these mental barriers you never knew were installed:

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, says the Lord"

"...but we speak God's wisdom...not in words taught by human wisdom..."

"The heart is deceitful above all things..."

"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding."

The bottom line? You're not to be trusted. You are not capable of making good decisions, or even thinking for yourself. You suck. But Jesus loves you anyway, in spite of it all, and if you just submit to him completely*---mind, emotions and will---then it'll all be fine.

Anyone else get a creepy abusive boyfriend vibe off any of this? Just me?

Yeah. That's what I thought.

*By the way, when a person calls you to submit to Jesus, they almost always mean "submit to me and my understanding of scripture". Nobody would ever say it so outright, I think, but examine the attitude for more than a moment, and it's pretty clear.

Oh, wait, here. The esteemed Fred Clark of Slacktivist already tackled it (knew I'd remembered reading that somewhere):
It bears repeating here that Marshall Hall's claim of the pre-eminence of scripture is bogus. He claims, as all Unilateralists do, that he is treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. But this is not what he is really doing. What he is really doing is making his interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what he is ultimately arguing is that he, Marshall Hall, is the final arbiter of all things. His assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that he is.


atimetorend said...

Hi, glad you got something out of my post. I definitely know that crying baby feeling! Though it diminished progressively with subsequent children, I can be pretty callous now. :^)

And in order to set myself free, I have had to actively reject them. And it's not been easy. I'm not so sure that evangelical apologetics has much to do with winning new converts at all, now that I think of it. I think it has more to do with keeping present believers in line."

I think that is just right, it forces you to harden your heart if you are going to leave that doctrine. And, not that it is necessary to find a middle ground when leaving evangelicalism, but it makes it very difficult if one tries.

The Woeful Budgie said...

And, not that it is necessary to find a middle ground when leaving evangelicalism, but it makes it very difficult if one tries.

Oh, definitely. And I spent a very long time trying to find a middle ground. I mean, sure, I was burnt out and disillusioned, but I figured I'd get over it. Leaving Christianity was not something I'd ever even considered as an option. Some days, I'm still a little stunned as to how I got here.

And, really, I did find middle ground. I found lots of it, and I encountered lots of people who stand on it every day---Slacktivist, Real Live Preacher, Madeleine L'Engle, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard---and while they helped and inspired me on one level, I knew that I couldn't keep leaning on someone else's faith.

And after several years of trying, I realized I didn't have the energy or the desire to maintain my own.

Geds said...

So I'm a bit late to the party. Apparently I don't read my own blogroll. And by "apparently," I mean, "I don't read my own blogroll." I tend to miss things...

Anyway, I found this post fascinating. It seems like right now you're about where I was a year to two years ago. I, too, tried taking a middle ground. In the summer of '06 I tried finding more liberal churches and actually rather liked my parents' Presbyterian church (and I really have nothing bad to say about them now).

I eventually realized that I wasn't even really able to buy that much, so I started drifting even farther afield. When I found myself in a basically default agnostic position everything I did was accompanied by little mental warnings that I was "hardening my heart" and "the wisdom of man is foolishness to god," and that sort of thing. There was a point when I even seriously considered going back to church just to get the voices to stop.

But I knew the doubts would just start up again. I knew I couldn't go back so I just had to stand strong. It gets easier. Once you break that mental connection between believing in yourself and your own judgment and god's wrath the subsequent opportunities are easier and easier to handle.

So, y'know, keep on trucking.

I can't tell you how to walk your path, but you might enjoy A.J. Jacobs' The Year of Living Biblically. I'm reading it right now and I find it extremely soothing in a weird way. He's a secular Jew who decided to spend a year living the Bible as literally as possible. Watching someone's attempt to come to terms with the bible from the opposite direction is eye-opening. And my "Sabbath" post was actually directly influenced by Jacobs' book.

Also, I know I've pimped it on my blog before, but I read Craig Ferguson's Between the Bridge and the River when I was much closer to that place of doubt. It, too, was incredibly soothing in completely unexpected ways.

atimetorend said...

Geds, that's awesome about Jacobs' book, I just read it recently too. I think I liked it because he retains his secular perspective, but he honestly did try to give the bible a chance, and especially he did not "throw the baby out with the bathwater," in that he seems to have sincerely tried to take what is good from the bible without needing to swallow it hook, line and sinker.

The Woeful Budgie said...

Hey, welcome. The after-party is where they have all the good booze anyway, right?

There was a point when I even seriously considered going back to church just to get the voices to stop.

Eh. I doubt it would have worked. The voices were always louder and nastier at church (for me, anyway) and I always left feeling much worse. Very depressed and kinda panicky. Of course, I couldn't tell anyone this, because as I'm sure you well know, all it would have meant to them was that I was being convicted by the Holy Spirit. (Or, for the more Pentecostally-inclined, that my demons couldn't stand to be in the presence of God. Either way, it'd have been proof that I needed to repent.)'re probably better off not having bothered. :)

Once you break that mental connection between believing in yourself and your own judgment and god's wrath the subsequent opportunities are easier and easier to handle.

It's true. And it has become easier. (That story was actually from back in January, so some time has elapsed.) Breaking the habits seems to be breaking the spell itself.

And yeah, finding middle ground wasn't difficult. It was living on the middle ground that was tough. It was like grabbing at little roots on a long slide down that slippery slope pastors always talk about when they're warning you against questioning the Bible. I mean, it was nice to find something to hold on to, but it could never support me for long. It would snap off in my hand, and there I was scrabbling down the hill again. There was never any solid place for me to put my feet.

And for a while, I had this misguided idea that if I just read the Bible, I could get to know the real God. But the problem was twofold: first, I couldn't read the Bible without projecting onto it all the nasty Evangelical filters I was trying to escape; and second, the Bible shows God to be pretty fucking awful sometimes. That's why the last time I was at church and my old "accountability partner" came up to me and made the comment, "Well, your problem is that you only know God through your problems with the church, and when you get to know the real God, things will make more sense," I laughed.

The nice thing is, though---and this has been something of a surprise---I've found I don't want God back in my life. It's like dumping an abusive spouse: you're terrified, they've convinced you that you'll never make it without them, you'll be sorry...and somehow, you leave anyway. And you hunker down and go on with your life until a few months later you wake up and realize you're...happy. You're not scared and flinching and walking on eggshells all the time. You breathe easier. You stand taller. And you wouldn't take that bastard back if he begged you.

I'm not always there, mind you, but the times I am make me realize that leaving Christianity was a good decision.

Y'know, I saw Jacobs' book at Borders a few months ago, and flipped through it. It looked interesting. I have, however, read Between The Bridge And The River, and loved it. It was one of those books where I was sad when I'd finished it, just because there were no more pages left to read. But the one that I found hugely soothing was Good Omens. Very funny, very affirming, and hugely quotable. I re-read it again a few weeks ago, just for ducks, and found it just as good the second time around.

Geds said...

Holy crap. I feel like we could write each other's autobiography.

This is why I've long been considering creating some sort of community of former evangelicals. It seems like everyone goes through the same stages and has the same problems and could really use being surrounded by people who say, "It's okay, I've been there, too."

We could start our own un-religion!

atimetorend said...

"This is why I've long been considering creating some sort of community of former evangelicals."

There is something distinctly different about being a former evangelical as opposed to "atheist" or other "ex-theist" or whatever. is the closest thing I've seen to that, lots of thoughtful people there, and a generally more nuanced perspective towards religion than in a lot of other places. I think in general it is just a well educated crowd. They are looking to do something with local connections someday to, there's something in the forum there about that.

The Woeful Budgie said...

We could start our own un-religion!

All right! And we could call it...


...well, we could call it, "I'd like my damn life back, please" because that's the best way I can think to sum it all up. Not very catchy, though.

At any rate, I think the idea of a support community for ex-evangelicals is all kinds of awesome; if you do ever decide to start something up, you can count me in.

Ditto everything you just said about (In fact, I believe I have you to thank for pointing me in that direction. So...thanks!)