Friday, January 9, 2009

W@H: Appendix A

Allow myself to quote…myself…
It's still not something I talk about so much as I talk around: I spent about six months teetering on the verge of insanity because I knew one thing to be true but believed that god had told me another thing was true. I don't blame this on religion or myself, particularly. I honestly believe that if I had grown up as, say, a liberal Presbyterian I would still be religious. The Christian environment in which I found myself, however, was toxic and filled with ideas about human nature, inter-human interaction and, frankly, god itsownself, that are insane and illogical. The thing is, it's like a disease that directly attacks the immune system. Once you're exposed to it you're permanently weakened to its influence.
I feel like I just threw this out in my last post and didn’t bother to adequately explain it. In order to understand this and, really, certain parts of Wild at Heart and this bizarre little subset of Christianity as a whole, the idea of god speaking needs to be explained. On the far extreme end you have the charismatics. They’re a fairly rowdy bunch who believe in speaking in tongues and prophecy and slayings in the spirit and any number of wacky things. As with everything, there’s a spectrum. The Assemblies of God are the main charismatic denomination and they have rules and regulations in place that are somewhat helpful in eliminating the excesses of an entire congregation made up of people that could, at any moment, up and start giving a prophecy that’s “straight from god” and, therefore, way more important than whatever anyone else is doing. Then there’s the Vineyard churches, which are pretty much unregulated and, from what I can understand, tend more towards an anything goes style. Beyond that you’ve got your snake handlers and other such bizarre religious oddities. Much hay was made during the last election about Sarah Palin and her assertion that she didn’t blink when offered the Veep post. People continually expressed surprise that someone would not stop to think, “Gee, is this something I can or should do?” It never once surprised me, since Palin was a charismatic and a true believer. Charismatics, as a whole, are not prone to a great deal of self-reflection, especially if the “will of god” imposes itself on their life. The people I know who are prone to self-reflection and tried being charismatic didn’t last long. (Also, please, don’t get me started on Roland Burris’s assertion that god told Blagojevich what to do. I have no language.) There is a lot of bleed through from the charismatics to the more mainstream fundamentalist/evangelical strains of Christianity, even if the latter doesn’t want to admit it. The speaking in tongues/prophecy/snake handling parts may not be present, but the idea that god is able and willing to speak to each and every believer personally most definitely is. There’s your basic signs and portents from god idea. This is simple human cognition and pattern recognition wherein we’re thinking about Subject A and Thing B shows up randomly. Thing B has something in common with Subject A, so we think, “Hey, that’s a sign that I should take Action C in response to Subject A.” It’s a basic human conceit and not that big of a deal. However, if you start taking those random occurrences as deliberate, patterned messages from god, sent specifically to give you insight in to the deeper mysteries of life, bad things will happen. It’s also the sort of thing that creates a deeply self-centered attitude about the universe. Say you walk outside and see a delivery truck completely destroy a Honda Civic that just ran a red light. Chances are somebody got seriously hurt or even killed. Now, as a simple human response you might decide to be more careful when approaching intersections for a while. However, say that you’ve just been contemplating purchasing a new car and you couldn’t decide between a Honda Civic and a Chevy Cobalt. You see the accident and your response is, “Thank you, god. I’m not going to buy the Civic.” Now, this is a deliberately exaggerated example, but the truth is that I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I heard someone decide that something absolutely horrible was a personal message from god. I’ve made a lot of references to the selfishness of the variety of Christianity I came from in the past. Everything boils down to a simple fact: belief that there is a personal relationship between the individual and god and that god is creating certain aspects of the world for that individual’s own good devalues every other human being. I’ve already explored how the man/god dichotomy devalues the woman, but it goes much beyond that. The signs and portents, though, are only the second best way for “god” to speak. I couldn’t begin to tell you when I first ran across this. I’m guessing junior high. I only have my own experience to speak from, but I’ve run in to people from many places who believe in it. Jim Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, has written several books about the amazing things that happen as a result. It also comes up at several points during Wild at Heart, so it’s best to get this out of the way now. I am talking about god speaking. For those who don’t know, god will speak to people who know how to properly get the old bugger to do it. In my own personal experience it starts at a retreat or worship service of some sort. After you’ve gotten in some singing and some preaching and some praying and everyone has been bathed in the spirit, the pastor or worship leader or guest speaker or someone has everyone pray. Over the course of the prayer the leader instructs everyone to ask god to speak to them, then be very quiet. When god speaks it’s a little voice in the back of the head (total side note: I’m writing this on Microsoft Word. When I use the grammatically correct “it’s” in this sentence it gives me the little green squiggly and tells me to change to “its,” even though I’m not sure what’s being possessed in that case. As soon as I do, though, it puts the little green squiggle under the whole sentence and calls it a fragment, since removing the apostrophe takes away the “is” and there is no verb. This is why it’s not a good idea to trust Microsoft’s auto correct function too much). If I had to localize it, I’d put it right where the spine and the brain join up. If you’ve done it right, and get real quiet and spirity, that voice will show up and tell you stuff. It’s usually some innocuous message of love or acceptance. Sometimes it’s the name of a person you’re supposed to evangelize. In more extreme cases it might be something about what college to go to, or an admonition to stop some sin or another or a message about a career path. I would assume it even can go so far as to tell you to lead the French against an encroaching British army. If you think this sounds insane, um, it is. However, it seems perfectly normal in context and when you’re high on the god juice and being lead through it by someone you respect and trust as a higher authority on such things, it’s an amazing experience. Afterwards, too, people will generally get together and share the message they received from god and have a good cry or a good pray together and mutually reinforce their faith in this form of spellcasting. If you’ve done it enough and are a good enough Christian (for whatever value of good Christian you’re going for. It usually means you’re doing devotions and not having sex with someone you aren’t married to and feel really, really bad whenever you cuss or beat off and promise to never do it again. No, really. Evangelical Christianity is stupid), you can play the home edition of the god speaking game. This is where I got myself in trouble. A lot of trouble, really. Not to go in to any more detail than is absolutely necessary, I hit a point where the idea of god speaking to me was fairly normal. I’m amazed that it happened on some level, since a lot of this rests on a lack of understanding about human cognitive function and language centers. I’ve taken enough psychology over the years and had enough common sense to understand that your brain generates random crap all the time. I’ve got an ongoing thing with one of my friends where we’ll text each other our completely random questions of the day. Like, the last one he sent me was, “Why is it that your old man is your father, but your old lady is your wife?” Dumb, pointless, and hilarious. Now, then, imagine that you’ve got yourself worked in to some religious fervor. You then quiet your mind, pray and ask god to speak to you. Lo and behold, god speaks. Chances are it will start out with something to the effect of, “I love you,” then move on to instructions and helpful advice. If you do this for, say, ten years, you’ll eventually get to the point where this, combined with a priori belief and the human tendency towards pattern creation, leads to wackier and wackier messages from god. And this is an accepted thing. One of the quotes I used to run across fairly often went, “Why is it that when you talk to god its called prayer, but when god talks to you it’s called insanity?” The short answer: because it is. But that question is a neat little way to reject the Occam’s Razor approach to this bizarre idea. Anyway, I was long since comfortable with being spoken to by god. One day god told me something. It was the sort of thing that I wanted to be true, but wasn’t. This, for a normal human being in a normal state of affairs, is the place where logic kicks in. For the person under the influence of Evangelical Christian spellcasting, it’s a sign that you’re about to go do something incredibly stupid and probably end up in a nut house. This is where the sorts of people who aren’t particularly self-reflective end up looking totally crazy and the sorts of people who are end up driving themselves nuts. I’m in the latter category. For the next several months I knew something was not true, but kept being told by god that it was. This creates the next big problem, because I’m now supposed to have the faith to say, “I don’t see it, but I trust you, god.” So the fact that it wasn’t happening was, basically, my own damn fault because I wasn’t willing to go to the necessary lengths to carry out my faith. As I recall, that’s basically the premise behind Catch-22. If you’re crazy enough to notice it, you’re not crazy. My faith and my psyche basically went to war with each other. I eventually hit the point where I knew either my brain or my faith would be shattered by the experience. Eventually the problem went away and I began trying to figure out what god could have actually been trying to teach me by that experience (no, seriously) and re-building my faith. Or, at least, spackling over the holes and putting on a fresh coat of paint. Nine months later the same damn thing happened. I had started working with my church’s junior high youth group and was helping lead a retreat. God spoke and said something I knew not to be true. Later on the guest speaker lead the group on exactly the sort of worship service culminating on a god speaking event and god told me the same thing. I was devastated. I spoke to the pastor, who I’d only recently met but was a good guy, and told him as much as I dared about my previous experience and basically begged him to tell me that the thing I’d just experienced wasn’t true. He didn’t. He couldn’t. I don’t hold it against him, since he didn’t understand and I wasn’t able or willing to give him the full story. I like to imagine that if the me who’s writing this was in that room that night I would have stood up and said, “No. You can’t do this. Do you have any idea the potential damage you’re doing with this load of horse shit?” Since I walked away from religion I’ve been asked how I feel about the knowledge that I’m possibly damaging the faith of the junior highers once worked with. I never give the honest answer. I feel far, far worse about the possibility that I helped the kids I worked with choose a path that leads to limitation and possible insanity. I feel far worse about the fact that I didn’t have the strength of character to stand up that night and say, “Stop this.” I tell myself that it doesn’t matter, that it wouldn’t have changed anything. But even the knowledge that I’m probably right doesn’t absolve me of my sins. I stuck around until the end of the school year but basically went through the motions. I don’t remember when I stopped going to my old church, but I do know that I held on to that longer than I should have because what happened that night I re-dipped my toe in to the well of insanity was that I told myself what I wanted to hear, but put it in god’s voice. The truth is, just as we don’t need the Devil to tell us to do evil, we don’t need god to tell us the future. We call it prophecy, but what it really is in the end is wishful thinking. When it comes true it’s simply because we have the force of will to carry on and the luck to get it right. Still, to this day I cannot pray. It’s not because I don’t believe, not because I left religion behind, not because I no longer trust god. I hear that siren’s call. It a tiny, quiet voice in the back of my head. It’s the movement of goose bumps up and down my spine that I was taught to understand was the presence of the spirit. Even though I haven’t been to one of those god speaking services in two years, even though it’s been a year and a half since I quit that church in body and longer since I quit in spirit, even though the only church I’ve done since then involved occasional visits to a nice, liberal Presbyterian church that doesn’t cotton to that kind of crap at all, I can’t pray without hearing the voice. The Christianity I knew was an immune-deficiency virus of the mind. And that, in the end, is the answer to all those questions of how otherwise intelligent people can believe such things. It’s actually much, much harder to stop. You arrive when you’re weak or when you’re young and don’t know any better. Then they promise you the cosmos and encourage faith over logic. The thing is, though, I can’t blame anybody for what happened to me. We were all equally victimized by an inhumane system. And I carry with me the burden of knowing that I spent four and a half years helping do to junior highers what was done to me. The fact that I didn’t know any better and thought I was doing the right thing is cold comfort. I take it as a good sign, though, that I’m no longer angry at the religion I once knew and try my best to offer charity. In doing so I am learning to forgive myself for what I did. This, too, is why I try in my own small way to create a dialogue. Forgive them, they know not what they do. Forgive me, I knew not what I did.


the woeful budgie said...

The people I know who are prone to self-reflection and tried being charismatic didn’t last long.


A leader at a conference I attended once mentioned that he didn't bother with self-reflection, because it was a waste of time and effort. If there was anything inside him that needed attention, he reasoned, God would bring it to mind. (I'm almost certain he quoted that "search my heart, O God" psalm to back it up.)

I’ve taken enough psychology over the years and had enough common sense to understand that your brain generates random crap all the time.

Annnnnd there it is. A shining example of why education is seen as a threat to faith. Because---at least for certain values of faith---it is. It's also the reason why I'm going back to school.

Anonymous said...

Upon entering a tranquil, meditative state, you hear a voice in the back of your head. This is normal.

Then someone tells you it isn't your brain doing it. God put those words there. So God lives in your brain and occupies the part of it that should contain your conscience... which you don't need because God lives in your brain. OK, awesome.

Seems to me it promotes self-worship and the absence of a conscience. Those are both right up Jesus's alley, as I recall.

Fiat Lex said...

This is another one of those posts where you put your finger on the crux of an issue, and I become envious I didn't think of it first!
Awesome work, and another classic example of a way American Christianity sucks. Teaching people that everyone can get a running commentary from God in the back of their minds is, besides being a recipe for crazy, extremely disrespectful to God.

Guin said...

Just found your blog and found it interesting. I was struck by this:

There is a lot of bleed through from the charismatics to the more mainstream fundamentalist/evangelical strains of Christianity, even if the latter doesn’t want to admit it. The speaking in tongues/prophecy/snake handling parts may not be present, but the idea that god is able and willing to speak to each and every believer personally most definitely is."

It really made me stop and think about what I believe myself. I consider myself a sort of deist - basically, I believe that God does not intervene directly in our lives, but that prayer allows God to help us center ourselves and better solve our own problems (that sounded way more New Age-y than I meant, but whatever).

I thought your post was interesting, too, because while I've changed much from the more Fundamentalist, Evangelical Christian background I grew up with, I don't hate it. I didn't see a lot of the negative stuff you describe. For instance, I was a boy-crazy and sex-obsessed little thing from the age of 13 onwards, and while I was told to wait for marriage, I was also told my desires were normal and healthy (even by my pastor). The Christian teen magazine I read said masturbation was healthy as long as it didn't become obsessive and supplant God in your thoughts.

There were a lot of things about the type of Christianity I grew up with that I may have ultimately rejected, but I didn't think it as a negative or destructive force in my life at all. I grew up in a tight-knit community where people helped each other and helped the poor... even if they did believe some crazy things, I think I was pretty lucky to have that!

jessa said...

"You arrive when you’re weak or when you’re young and don’t know any better. Then they promise you the cosmos and encourage faith over logic."

And that is precisely how I arrived. Sixteen years old and desperate for a cure for my depression.

They promised me that if I had faith that I would go to Heaven and everything would be better one day. The hope of waiting until I died was better than anything I had.

They told me that I had to acknowledge the full depths of my sin and, boy, did I ever. At 14 I had decided to believe that I was a terrible person, on purpose, so that I could feel like I deserved depression as a sort of punishment for being so terrible. I was so desperate that convincing myself of this actually helped a tiny bit. Evangelical Christianity threw a few more logs on that fire. Any sane person who knew me as well as those high school leaders did would have noticed that emphasis on sin was not what I needed.

Full of desperation and grasping at straws, I sang those worship songs and I meant and felt them, in a way I later found no one else ever actually did, or it seemed, ever really meant to. They say, "we are acknowledging the fact of our desperation before God, even if we do not feel it." Or sometimes, "of course we believe it" (but are clearly in denial, drowning in it). And when I express how much I really do feel those songs, that desperation, they turn on me. They tell me that alone, in the dark at night, they feel it too, that they are only putting on a brave face. Broken as I am, I believe them, and begin to think that WBC is inexplicably full of depressives. But now I know better. I scared them. They thought I had more faith because I really felt the desperation. They had to save face, but in Evangelical circles that doesn't mean looking like a functioning human being, it means being a sissy for God. Even when they sent me gifts when I was in the psych ward, they still didn't get it (I believe, Geds, that you and I were still in a Bible study together at that time). They still thought what I called depression was some sort of perverted gift from God, some extra measure of faith. I was feeling all the feelings they claimed to feel and were taught they should feel and that they believed they should feel but only pretended to feel because they didn't feel. I guess that scared them, made them jealous. For such well-meaning people, they were absurdly insensitive, trying to compete on feelings with a depressed, self-injuring, anorexic girl. I can only assume they were blind to that.

I feel in some ways as though I joined a cult. They preyed on my vulnerabilities to an extent that would rival any cult.

Geds said...


I, uh, I think you got lucky. See, I was always taught that, yes, it's natural to want things like sex. But the natural is deeply, deeply evil unless it's done in this one way that's pleasing to god. I don't have any statistics to back this up, but in my experience with fundamentalists, I think that I probably had the majority experience.

But, hey, more power to the people who taught you for not giving up humanity in exchange for Christianity...



This is one of those things where I'm pretty sure that anything I say is inadequate to the task and could end up being insulting.

Speaking for myself, I was blind to it. At eighteen, nineteen, twenty, whatever, sheltered from the world and trying desperately to fit in I think we all were. There's something about that malevolent strain of Christianity that's deeply selfish, too, and it's something I keep trying to tease out, trying to understand.

And I can see those names, those faces, those people I loved who I called my friends but who I never seemed to hang out with outside of official events and who haven't bothered to keep track of me since they or I left. On some level I'm pissed at them because it feels like that friendship was all a big lie. But I can't blame them, either. Because, really, what did we know? I know I was just trying to hold on most of the time.

It's why I've used up so many electrons talking about both god and one particular girl. When she was around even though I knew it wasn't working I wanted to believe it was because I finally had "proof" that someone loved me. When god "spoke" to me, even though I knew it wasn't true, I wanted to believe it because I finally "knew" that god actually did care.

So I don't really know or understand what you've been through and I think it would be insulting to say otherwise. But I do understand holding on to something that's not real out of desperation. I guess what I'm trying to do now is figure out if that's a feature or a glitch.

Nenya said...

Wow, this brings back memories. The group I was in probably would have considered yours, Geds, to be "too worldly", but oh yes, we had the same stuff going on. Part of what was hard for me was that I never felt like I knew what people meant when they said "God spoke" to them, so I felt like a bad person/bad Christian. The closest I came to it in my teen years was one of the darkest times in my life, where I pushed and pushed *so hard* to "hear God" that I made myself physically unhealthy. It has been a good ten or twelve years since then and I am much, much happier, but I still don't understand what people mean when they say God talks to them. The ones that don't seem to be crazy, I mean. Because there are people I know and love for whom it seems to be an easy thing, and a helpful thing. But it never worked for me, and by now I am okay with that--if God wants to talk to me, I think he's going to do it the way he always has for me, i.e. by arranging it so I read a book or speak to a friend at the moment that I need it. But listening for voices in my head--no, that just makes me neurotic. Sometimes, though, I still listen for it. It's a hard habit to break!