We’ve been talking lately about the roots of fundagelical dysfunction, using a seminar I attended in my teens as a launching-off spot. Last time we covered what the seminar’s creators thought were the five levels of friendship and the fundagelical fixation on fixing their friends. I mentioned before that the reality of fixing people didn’t look much like the rosy picture painted in that seminar. Today I want to expand on that idea. I’ll show you more about that rosy picture–and what the reality is behind that veneer.
When the Ignorant Teach the Ignorant.
We’re losing control
Will you turn me away or touch me deep inside
And before this gets old, will it still feel the same
There’s no way this will die
But if we get much closer, I could lose control
And if your heart surrenders, you’ll need me to hold
Pat Benatar, “Love is a Battlefield“
I’ve said before that I really had no idea what love was till I left Christianity. I’ve heard a lot of other folks say the same thing, so I know I wasn’t some aberration.
What I mean by that statement is that I learned a lot of really bad instructions about how to conduct myself in relationships and about what I could reasonably expect out of a friend or mate. Those instructions sabotaged every one of my relationships till I began un-learning that bad information and set myself to learning better information.
Some of those bad instructions came from the model I had before me in my parents’ marriage. They argued like a pair of cats in a sack–constantly, loudly, and often in ways that scared the hell out of my little sister and me. More than once I saw suitcases getting grimly dragged out of closets and unzipped with that certain kind of angry finality that marks the end of a relationship–only to eventually be put away, our familial DEFCON level reset a little higher for a little longer. My parents argued about money, priorities, unfair expectations, substance abuse, suspicions of infidelity, and other such things. In the way we talk about households being food-insecure, I grew up feeling distinctly security-insecure.
Some of those faulty instructions came from popular culture: movies, television, music, even commercials on TV. I expected to fight with the people I loved. I expected arguments. I expected conflict. I expected to feel hurt and to be taken advantage of by men who saw nothing wrong with shunting their share of emotional and household work onto the women they claimed to love more than their own lives. I was well aware of the terrible bargain that women had to make with their future husbands: that agreement they made to keep the peace at the cost of their spirits and dignity.
Nothing I saw in popular culture talked about rejecting that bargain–if anything, I only saw constant reinforcement of that idea. Remember in that video about how, in Fifty Shades of Grey, the heroine is often seen crying in her bed or devastated and confused about what she should be feeling (or confused about what she should be doing)? That was me all through my teens until my early 30s. My private life was a duplication of scenes I saw all through movies, TV, music videos, and all that other stuff.
Little wonder I got sucked into a religion that was very firmly structured and promised huge returns in exchange for following a number of set-in-stone rules about personal conduct and relationships! I don’t see any other way for it to have gone for me. I knew I didn’t want a marriage like my parents’: a calculated gamble made entirely on what I saw as unfair terms to begin with. I wanted a relationship where I felt respected as a human being, where I was appreciated for the many qualities and skills I brought to the marital table, where I felt I had dignity as a person.
Christianity, especially the far-right flavor of it that I’d bought into, promised me all of that and more. It promised happiness, fairness, security, contentment, peace, and that kind of deep spiritual-feeling connection that many people ache to have in their relationships. Also, often recited with a leer, my tribemates were promised sexual dynamite in the bedroom–a further promise for those few who’d managed to stay celibate till their wedding day.
The furthest I got in terms of introspection about my own role in my dysfunctional relationships was don’t pick a guy like that last one, and I never really examined how so many of my boyfriends were, at their deepest levels, very similar to each other despite their more superficial differences. The drama they brought to me was a familiar kind of battlefield; that drama didn’t challenge my preconceptions about relationships but rather reinforced that thinking and allowed me to use the weapons I was long-accustomed to wielding.
These relationships brought me pain, but it was familiar pain. It was pain I understood and which provoked reactions that were, themselves familiar and understandable to me. My entire culture was set up to absorb that pain and to make sense of it within our paradigm.
Creating Problems Their Hucksters Can Fix.
I didn’t even realize that Christianity, while promising so much better than what the world (Christianese for everything outside the religious group and anything not directly related to Christianity; see also worldly) had to offer, only likewise reinforced and fed into how popular culture conceptualized relationships. I didn’t even stop to think that most of the people in the world were, in fact, already Christian and thus receiving much the same indoctrination that I was getting about relationships. Later, it took years for me to wonder why it took people so long to crawl out from under their indoctrination about relationships (and a variety of other topics)–years longer than it took for them to reject the supernatural woo claims of their former religious groups.
I didn’t realize that people who knew even less about relationships than I did were trying to teach me how to have happy, long-lasting relationships and respectful, mutually-fulfilling friendships. They were pushing at me rules that created the kind of drama and pain they understood and found familiar–all to keep me away from the forming of relationships that they’d been taught to view as suspicious and unfulfilling.
All of it was done not because it was in my best interests to learn these things, but to keep me from forming relationships that would threaten my indoctrination.
The One Pillar.
An angel’s smile is what you sell
You promise me heaven then put me through hell
Chains of love, got a hold on me
When passion’s a prison you can’t break free
Bon Jovi, “You Give Love a Bad Name“
A long time ago I wrote about how Christians often call Jesus the central pillar in their marriages, but in reality that notion looked like the couple simply basing their relationship around this shared hobby they both have. They shared devotions to Christianity and based their lives together around those devotions, and considered their marriage based on Jesus, so to speak.
Nobody really wondered why the leaders of the religion, who stood to gain so incredibly much from people buying into their rules, might be pushing rules that so immensely and directly benefited themselves.
That’s what this seminar was aiming to create in its many thousands of victim-attendees: millions of little fundagelicals who’d rush out to create both friendships and romantic partnerships that were based around those shared devotions and–more importantly–who’d totally avoid any attachments to people who wouldn’t indulge them in their hobby. Indeed, that idea was the very central one in the seminar: Christians shouldn’t ever create any kind of emotional bond with anybody else who wasn’t at least as fervent about Christianity as they themselves were.
It’s very difficult to find someone on the exact same level of fervor about anything. Even if someone could find such a partner, it’s all but impossible for both partners to remain that fervent forever. In most couples, the reality is that both partners have varying levels of dedication to the religion–just as we see in people devoted to any other hobby. Since there’s no Jesus fueling their fervor, Christians follow perfectly natural and understandable arcs in their devotion.
As long as both partners are on board with the general idea of basing the relationship on shared devotions, chances are that at least a minimal level of fervor will be reached for both people. Further, they’ll both be willing to overlook what would be dealbreaking flaws or missing skills or traits because they’ll both expect to fix each other all the way to their deathbeds. They’ll both be working, in the end, with the same set of flawed instructions and rules. When the relationship topples to the ground and takes them both with it, they’ll only blame themselves for not following the rules well enough; they’ll never stop to wonder if the rules were worth following in the first place.
And there’s no way for me to think that at some level, fundagelical leaders don’t know this.
Fixing Up One’s Friends, Fundagelical Version.
Love hurts, love scars
Love wounds and marks
Any heart not tough or strong enough
To take a lot of pain, take a lot of pain
Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain
Love hurts, love hurts
Nazareth, “Love Hurts“
Normally when we use the phrase fixing up a friend we mean finding dates for them. But in Fundagelical-Land, the phrase might have a different and far more literal meaning. There, we find millions of people who think it’s perfectly normal for people to spend a great deal of time fixing the flaws of their friends and loved ones.
Everyone, theoretically, expects to be thus fixed up by their peers and leaders alike. In theory, everybody is flawed and thus in need of correction. And who better to do it than people who are infused and inhabited by the loving, gracious spirit of a real live god, people who are under command of eternal physical torture if they fail to abide by that god’s demand that people treat each other well?
In the rosy picture fundagelicals paint, everyone corrects everyone else–in effect offering a hand to those struggling in their imperfections. Christians are accountable to each other, as the Bible makes crystal-clear. As Proverbs 27:17 says, people are supposed to “sharpen” each other as “iron sharpens iron.” So when you think about a Christian congregation, ideally you’re thinking of a group of people all trying to climb the same mountain, all of them reaching down to help others over rough spots, all of them reaching up for help when they hit rough spots.
We didn’t even wonder why we had to have a mountain full of rough spots in the first place.
We could live for a thousand years
But if I hurt you, I’d make wine from your tears
INXS, “Never Tear Us Apart“
Here’s what the reality of fixing people looks like in Christianity. It isn’t pretty, but then, not much in the religion is pretty once we get past the veneer they present to fool sales prospects.
Fundagelicalism in particular is about hierarchy. More than that even, it’s about power: who has it, who wants it, who’s grabbing for it, who’s laying claim to it, and who’s scrabbling to regain it once it’s lost. It’s about climbing “up up up the ziggurat, lickety-split,” without regard for who might get stepped on along the way.
The fact that officially men and women are sharply divided in terms of how they are allowed to exercise power, they might have separate hierarchies for some of their journey–but that doesn’t change much in terms of how much they want power and what they do it with it once they’ve got it.
This simple fact–this all-consuming quest for personal power–lays at the heart of so many things fundagelicals do that confuses and alienates people. When we hear about Christians’ generally bad reputation for not tipping waitstaff in restaurants, we are witnessing their refusal to let go of abusing one of the few remaining groups that still remains in their power. When we hear all those horror stories of petty, abusive Christians snarling at visitors to get out of “their” pews, that’s what we’re seeing too. It’s vanishingly rare to find a church that isn’t riddled with internal power grabs and abusive people ascending the ziggurat of power lickety-split. They do exist, but they don’t tend to go in for the uneven power structures and senses of easily-ruffled entitlement that go hand-in-hand with fundagelical groups.
Christians are well aware that their behavior demolishes their credibility, too. One popular Baptist sermon making the rounds a few years ago was “Snakes in the Pew,” though it’s hard to find now (here’s a sermon loosely based on it–comments disabled, of course, and I’ll warn you in advance that this guy is not a good public speaker). It’s about how often Christians themselves are “snakes” to others, but they’re not allowed to get bummed-out about the religion. Over at Church Marketing Sucks, Kevin Hendricks spent a little time talking about the original sermon before sighing mournfully about how often Christians engage in backbiting and abusive behavior–oblivious to the fact that officially, their religion’s very own supernatural claims should make that behavior so aberrant and bizarrely out-of-place that it’d barely merit a mention anywhere, much less need a description on a newfangled church marketing website whose mission is to help churches drive off fewer people through exactly this kind of behavior.
Knowing as they do that it is impossible to really stamp out this behavior because of the way their broken system has been engineered, Christian salespeople are left trying to convince people that they are not allowed to remove themselves entirely from the grasp of groups so full of dysfunctional and abusive people.
Once people get absorbed into these petty, power-hungry Christian groups, they discover very rapidly that there are plenty of situations in which they are not allowed to “sharpen” their neighbors.
The Order of Precedence.
You say you feel so empty, that our house just ain’t our home
I’m always somewhere else, and you’re always there alone. . .
Beth, I know you’re lonely, and I hope you’ll be alright
‘Cause me and the boys will be playing all night
Men “sharpen” women; women do not “sharpen” men. That’s an obvious one, especially considering the sexism-as-the-bonus-plan complementarianism that fundagelicals go in for. There’s a Bible verse about how Paul doesn’t allow women to “teach” men at his churches or “assume authority” over men, and often fundagelical men will take that to mean that women shouldn’t criticize men at all.
Older people “sharpen” younger ones; young people do not “sharpen” their elders. In fundagelicalism, age represents the assumption of power heretofore denied, and those elder Christians do not take kindly to being ordered around or told they’re doing Christianity wrong.
Parents “sharpen” children; children do not “sharpen” parents. It doesn’t matter how old the child is. My about-to-hit-retirement-age second pastor did not feel he could tell his mother that she was a vicious racist. When he dared remonstrate with her once in my presence for saying something super-racist at a restaurant full of black families, she got mad at him for telling her what to do.
Pastors “sharpen” congregants; congregants do not “sharpen” their pastors. Usually.
Church members of greater seniority in their group “sharpen” newer members. Wealthier members “sharpen” less wealthy members. Members who are part of important families–through blood or marriage–may “sharpen” people of lesser-status families. In multi-church groups, members from bigger or more prosperous churches “sharpen” those from smaller or struggling churches.
As you can see, there’s a very complicated hierarchy of precedence in any Christian’s mind, one that they navigate every day without even thinking about it–as people in countries that still have noble titles do. When a pastor who is younger than his congregant needs to criticize a flaw, you can bet he steps very carefully–especially if that congregant is from a wealthy family as well. Similarly, anyone who bucks that hierarchy can expect to be snubbed and sniped at by their outraged church-mates.
People who sacrifice so much to gain personal power in broken systems do not easily let go of any of it, not even when their exercise of it threatens the group’s retention rate and sales success.
Why I Stayed.
This condition I got is crucial, crucial baby
You could say that I’m a terminal case
You could burn up my clothes
Smash up my ride, well maybe not the ride
But I got to have your face all up in the place
I soon learned these unwritten laws of fundagelicalism and saw for myself how poorly the religion had served its adherents. I saw how the rules for relationships had resulted in countless unhappy, unfulfilling relationships at all levels from friendship to marriage. And yet I stayed.
I’m not amazed at all to see so many other Christians staying, either. The indoctrination around this topic is as constantly-drilled-down on as the Sinner’s Prayer.
I believed that attending a church was a requirement of my religion. I believed the pastors and peers alike who parroted in unison that every Christian had to be part of a group or they were Christianing wrong. I believed that this life was very finite compared to the eternity I faced, so it was okay to endure abuse in this life in order to gain Heaven in the next. “Life is short,” I remember telling myself on more than one occasion, “and Heaven is forever.” I could see how dysfunctional and one-sided relationships were in my church, and yes, it bothered me a lot. But I thought that a god had commanded me to be where I was and to endure these injustices. They might not be Christianing right, but that didn’t mean I was off the hook; I still had to follow the rules even if nobody else seemed to be doing so. They’d be punished eventually for their transgression of the rules–and so would I.
It didn’t occur to me that the people who were pushing this indoctrination the hardest were the people who stood to gain the most if I stayed despite the abuse I experienced and who also stood to lose the most if I walked away.
I was, in effect, allowing Christianity’s salespeople to tell me whether or not I’d be allowed to reject their product.
The Masters of the Broken System need underlings, you see. They need people they can exercise their power at. If all the underlings walk away, then there’s nobody left to order around–and nobody left willing to carry out their desires, since such work is beneath the system’s masters. They are left howling and bellowing in the remains of their decrepit old mansions while tattered old lace curtains flutter in rickety breezes wafting through broken grimy windows. Instead of fixing the damage done to their earthly mansions through neglect, they’d rather snivel about how awful it is that the servants left them all alone.
And those servants are expected to feel very, very sorry about neglecting their onetime masters, let me inform you now. The most abusive of those masters, my then-husband, actually whined at me shortly after I’d fled from him that he was now resorting to masturbation to get his jollies (instead of using his Jesus-approved penis home). I was supposed to be overwhelmed by his plaintive cry about breaking one of the biggest rules there were in fundagelicalism. Even though he was extremely well-aware that I was no longer Christian at all and that I’d fled in terror of my life, he still completely expected me to feel sorry for him–as he clearly thought a wayward, errant servant should. I don’t think he liked that I laughed at his sanctimonious display, and I don’t think that Christian salespeople today are adjusting any better than he did to the big changes going on in society.
We’re going to talk next about the rights of consumers and the new normals in the religious marketplace (and how Christians could engage profitably and productively with that new reality, if they only so chose, and what they’re doing instead). We might detour into a book about post-Christian America that I’m finishing reading soon. I hope you’ll join us!
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(Cas tidied up this post a little bit on February 14, 2019.)