This’ll be a brief post about assumptions I operated under when I was a Christian. These assumptions were a sort of mental voicemail message that played all the time in my head, in the background, under my radar. They were unquestioned and unexamined–just there. I think a lot of the time, Christians–especially the kind in the various churches that had ensnared me–have these assumptions they just think are totally axiomatic and true, and they don’t really think about them or challenge them.
Remember that Love/Life Seminar I attended at 16? The assumptions it and other Christian sources fed me were these:
* A dating relationship can only happen between two close friends. Really? Why? What about “love at first sight?” Some of my longest-lasting, happiest, and most torrid relationships began with such a grand spark. But there’s no room for spontaneity in the view that only friends can progress to dating and then to marriage. In the Bible, marriages were often arranged between people who didn’t like each other or know each other, much less want to marry each other (think about Jacob working for seven years for Laban to earn his younger daughter Rachel in the book of Genesis chapter 29, only to get the older Leah instead–he was torqued! And so was I to hear about it). The author of this seminar, like most other Christian apologists in the movement who preach this kind of thing, doesn’t offer any evidence for his astonishing claim. Even today, like as in a few days ago, I run across Christians who think this way, so the years haven’t dulled this canard’s edge.
* Dating is purely a prelude for marriage. Really? Why? In the old days, dating didn’t exist at all, really. Women’s purity was to be carefully safeguarded before they were handed over to their new masters. Now, though, we accept that people find dating enjoyable in and of itself even when the dating doesn’t lead to a sexual relationship. In an age when there are more unmarried people than married, and when divorce is rampant in both Christian and non-Christian circles, it seems nonsensical to treat dating as the prologue to a marriage. This kind of thinking makes me think of an Amway salesperson–treating every single person s/he meets as a potential “sale.” What a lot of pressure! There’s no way in this mindset to just enjoy another person’s company or to go out and have fun just to have fun. Nope, it’s got to be put into a context of marriage. The author of this seminar doesn’t offer any kind of evidence for this claim, either, nor does he make any kind of effective case for why Christians should think this way.
* Non-Christians aren’t quite human and not worth loving. The image in the seminar notebook that I told you about the other day–that of the pretty young bride in her burkha-like Victorian gown looking up at her unwashed, balding, rag-dressed hobo groom–and the wording used, that dating non-Christians is a “dead end street,” speaks volumes about how this seminar’s author–and plenty of other Christians–view outsiders. Just think for a second about how brutally cruel this thinking is and how unloving it is toward outsiders. We’re a dead end street. We’re pointless. Think we don’t notice this treatment? Oh, we do. But the problems don’t end with how hateful this attitude is. One of the biggest and most effective stumbling blocks young Christians can encounter is realizing that there are a lot of really great people in the world who aren’t Christian. And many of those are going to be worthy of loving and cherishing for a lifetime. But at the time I was indoctrinated to believe this way about unbelievers, I didn’t even second-guess or critically examine the picture; I didn’t know anybody who wasn’t Christian to some extent or another. How many Christians out there secretly (or overtly) think outsiders are inferior to them just because of their lack of belief?
* Christians are to regard their partners, Christian or not, as evolving DIY projects, fixing them and improving them. This one’s insidious because it pervades the entire Christian mindset. The other day on a blog comment board I ran across a Christian wife who prays unceasingly, to the point of tears, for her husband’s conversion. She conceded that he was a great person already, very moral and an excellent husband, but dangit, he just wasn’t Christian, so she’d chosen to focus on this lack in him and try to amend it. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that treatment; it felt like all my other accomplishments and all my other good qualities weren’t good enough because I didn’t buy into the fantasy anymore. I felt put down and condescended to all the time. I felt hounded and helpless–because the one thing that my husband wanted, my re-conversion, I could not give him, and he didn’t seem to care about much of anything else. In the real world, we’d call this mentality codependence when taken too far (as in, past the spark that I think makes most loving partners want to be as good in actuality as they are in their loved ones’ eyes). But in Christian-land, it’s totally okay to constantly try to fix one’s friends and loved ones. It’s all in love, of course. All in love.
* Anything would be better than an ex-Christian spouse. Anything. The seminar didn’t quite use these words, but this is what churches teach and definitely what Christians absorb. Countless ex-Christian men have told me that their Christian wives have, literally, told them that they wished they were alcoholics or physically abusive or something, as long as they were still Christian. Think about how heartbreaking that must be to hear! Just imagine it! Imagine hearing that your wife would rather you beat her up or abused mind-altering substances than just stopped kowtowing to a being you now regarded as nothing more than an imaginary friend. Nothing else matters about your lives together except this one thing. Any abuse would be all right; any harm done is acceptable. Sin all you want. Just please don’t stop buying into the fantasy. Give her something to work with. I admit, I never really got this from Biff–I suspect that female apostates have a different set of horror stories to tell–but it just fills me with a palpable, screaming horror to think that a woman would rather be physically beaten up and hospitalized by a drunken Christian husband than treated like gold by a clean and sober ex-Christian husband. Talk about a dog that’s been hit too much, huh? Of course, nobody really examines this attitude. They just take it for granted.
* Religion is the most important thing about a relationship, and couples should base their entire lives together around their feelings about their shared religion. This was never questioned. Ever. The idea of a mixed-religion marriage was viewed with not only scorn but horror. I pitied the women I knew whose husbands didn’t attend church. I know Biff was pitied when people realized why I wasn’t coming to church anymore. I know I was pitied for leaving the religion, though I didn’t need or want anybody’s pity. Aww, poor them, their foundation’s broken–but is it? Nobody ever really examined just why religion should be the end-all be-all for a relationship. Why does it have to be? Why can’t a Buddhist and a Catholic be happy together, or for that matter a Christian and an atheist? Religion just isn’t important to everybody the same way, and feelings about anything, be it tattoos or Thai food or religion, will fluctuate and change over time. Basing one’s relationship off of a shared obsession with something isn’t a good idea; we would be shocked to see a couple marrying purely because they both really love Disneyland, but Christians coo over a couple saying their entire foundation is Jesus. When I was a Christian, we didn’t even critically think about this idea. We just accepted it. But later on, I’d discover couples who were of mixed religions who seemed perfectly happy. I’d discover that some of these couples lasted way longer than Biff and I had and had a far less tumultuous and negative relationship than we had had during our stint in the Happy Christian Marriage illusion. The simple truth is that a happy marriage is the result of a lot of ingredients–respect, love, devotion, honesty, courage–but religious belief and practice are only as important as the individuals involved make them. But these other things are purely secondary to belief and practice in the mindset I was taught.
* Every marriage should fit a pattern. I’ve written before about how Christian stay-at-home dads get a lot of flack for not fitting the strong-jawed Christian husband ideal preached by modern megapastors; not only their masculinity but even their devotion to their god is called into question. But it goes a lot further than that. This seminar taught me that “girls” (not “women;” like many Christians, this seminar’s author was terrified of such a strong, overtly sexual word) were supposed to act a certain way and be a certain way, and if we weren’t, why, then, we were just wrong and needed to fix our acts to be acceptable. A couple couldn’t function unless both parties acted and were like so, we were taught, and nobody even wondered why that was or questioned it. Women like me, who were strong-willed, decisive, outspoken, and practical, didn’t fit the mold very well, but you can imagine the outrage when people got wind of the fact that I had no intention of stopping work or having children. I was told all sorts of things–I wasn’t acting “in the spirit.” I was rebellious. I had a Jezebel spirit. I must not love my husband enough. The truth was, I was praying the whole time. I thought I’d gotten a thumbs-up from my god. To me, that was all that mattered. But everybody around me was convinced I was just wrong. Too bad there wasn’t some yardstick I could use to ascertain who was right and who was wrong, huh? Nowadays, I talk about egalitarian marriages based around respect, shared goals, and love, and it’s like I’m describing marriage customs of some weird space-alien race to fundagelicals; they can’t even picture a relationship where someone’s not in charge or holding the trump card for familial decision-making (and by “trump card” I mean “penis,” of course), or one where both parties work to their strengths no matter what those strengths are, or where both parties care enormously about how the other person’s doing, feeling, and progressing in life. The idea of a marriage headed by a strong husband and supported by a docile, submissive wife is so ingrained in many Christians’ minds that they can’t even wonder what other kinds of marriages there are.
* In marriage, spouses should “die to themselves” to let the other person have what he or she wants. This is the fundagelical idea of “compromise” that I was taught: that rather than work out something that both parties want, one person should just suck it and let the other person have what he or she wants. I’ve heard both men and women parrot that tired line. The idea of finding a common ground, of working together to seek a solution that honors both spouses, doesn’t even really come up. Just as the GOP today is demonstrating, that kind of compromise is seen as a dirty word. Instead, their idea of compromise is to run roughshod over the other. And this is the form of “compromise” that I was taught. When one person holds the trump card (the penis), the other can be overridden at any moment. There can’t be a genuine spirit of cooperation there, and indeed, this kind of cooperation is seen as somehow anti-Christian. Of course, there’s only so long the human spirit can exist under such degrading and dehumanizing treatment–eventually an anger management problem will erupt, or the trampled spouse will snap some other way. But this is seen as a sustainable and ideal model for a marriage. I didn’t even wonder about it or question it, even as I was leaving the religion. I had a long way to go before I ever learned about other relationship models or was mature enough to put them into practice. In the same way, it can be hard for ex-Christians to find their voice and assert their own needs. This applies to both men and women, incidentally.
This was what the seminar taught me, and this is what my next church, the Pentecostals, also taught. Never once was I given any real evidence for why they taught such things–though sometimes they had cherry-picked and largely misapplied Bible verses backing up this or that assertion. “But why? How do you know?” is not a question that would have been well-endured, I think, even if I’d had the wherewithal to ask it in the first place.
What I’m saying here, to both Christians and non-Christians in the UYC, is this: be thinking about what assumptions you are operating under, and start questioning them. Chances are things aren’t nearly as cut-and-dried as you thought they were. Chances are that reality doesn’t fit the illusions quite as well as you thought. It didn’t for me, that’s for sure; when my life collided with my illusions and assumptions, those illusions and assumptions began falling apart. I know I write in a sort of mental shorthand sometimes, so I wanted this post out there for when I make a reference to one of these assumptions and call it out.
(Here is my obvious disclaimer that not all Christians believe this way or teach this kind of nonsense. There’s a lot of variation in practice and belief in the religion–yeah, I know, crazy, right?–so it’s really impossible to generalize too far. This post reflects my direct experience and that of people I have encountered personally. Also, the language I used here is heteronormative because heteronormative relationships were all I knew about back then; I don’t know a lot of gay Christian couples, much less mixed-religion gay couples, even now, though I know both exist.)