One of the great joys of living in the Bible Belt is that you can hear Christian music played overhead almost anywhere you go. Just last weekend I had to make stops at a coffee shop, a gym, a fried chicken place, a doughnut place (I know, the irony), a clinic office, and a pharmacy, and every single one of those places was playing Christian music. There are banks in my area with marquees that scroll Bible verses in between mortgage rates, and there is even a Christian skating rink where you can skate your heart out to the latest Christian ripoffs of popular tunes (plus the occasional Chicken Dance and the Hokey Pokey).
The one that bothers me the most is the gym. I cannot fathom why the management at my gym thinks it’s a good idea to max out your bench press to the whiny sounds of a worship leader in skinny jeans going on about how weak and deplorable he is, and how he just can’t go on without someone else’s help. I can’t imagine this puts people in the mood to workout. I’ve griped about this here before, and yes I’ve already had plenty of people suggest I just go to another gym, but each time I’ve had to explain that swimming is an essential part of my routine, and this is the only gym near my house with a pool. Also it’s dismissive of my point.
There is a song they’ve been playing a lot lately that used to be on my running music playlist back in my Christian days. I used to love this song, and even ten years later the upbeat tempo feels like the right kinda jam for a morning jog. It topped the charts when it came out, and it remains among the favorites for Christian radio stations everywhere. It’s called “So Long, Self” and it’s sung by Mercy Me, the same group that brought us the perennial funeral standby, “I Can Only Imagine.” Here is a sample of the lyrics of the song:
Stop right there because I know what you’re thinking, but no we can’t be friends
And even though I know your heart is breaking, this has to end
And come to think of it the blame for all of this simply falls on me
For wanting something more in life than all of this, can’t you see?
So long, self! Well, it’s been fun, but I have found somebody else
So long, self! There’s just no room for two, so you are gonna have to move
So long, self! Don’t take this wrong but you are wrong for me, farewell
Oh well, goodbye, don’t cryyyy…woahoah so long, self!
Don’t feel so bad (don’t feel so bad)
There’ll be better days (there’ll be better days)
Don’t go away mad (but by all means)
Just go away, go away
If you haven’t inhabited evangelical Christian culture, this language may strike you as odd, but I can assure that it perfectly captures the evangelical view of the self. “Don’t go away mad, but by all means, just go away.” Lolwut?
Does this strike you as a tradition that teaches people a healthy view of themselves? Me neither. And lest you think I’m making much ado about nothing, I maintain that you can learn a lot by listening to the songs people sing, especially when those songs were specifically written to reinforce centrally important theological ideas the way songs do on Christian radio stations. This was the context behind my contention that:
If you want to know what people believe, don’t look at their debates. Listen to their songs.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) February 19, 2016
Of course, replete as my friends list is with smartasses, this set off a series of quips and musings like the one Matthew Lance offered:
“That’s how you know that men who like big butts are honest, that Shakira’s hips don’t lie, and a milk shake has the same effect for men that Axe Body Spray has for women.”
Nice. Not exactly where I was going with that, but points for wittiness.
A Flaw Basic in the Christian Faith
I’m bringing this up for at least a couple of reasons. First, I see this as a fundamental flaw within the Christian worldview. I mean besides the more obvious stuff, like believing in invisible beings that don’t exist. I’m talking about more practical stuff—stuff which we can actually parse out in conversation without necessarily getting bogged down in metaphysical arguments and such.
I’ve been poking and prodding and stretching and compressing the definition of “Christian” for several years now, trying to nail down what is The Christian View™ on anything at all, and let me tell that is no easy task. As I’ve often said, religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise, and that means that you will scarcely be able to distill the diverse family of religions we call Christianity into a single, universal definition without alienating at least three or four subgroups. Put differently, there is not one single, monolithic Christianity. There are many christianities, and each one is pretty sure theirs is The Right One and all the others have it wrong.
But there are at least a handful of essentials which seem to undergird everything that can reasonably called “Christianity,” and this appears to be one of them: In order to need a savior, you have to feel there is something you need saving from, and that means you have to believe that somehow you are in really, really bad shape. You have to feel that you need saving in the first place. And that means taking whatever your current view of yourself happens to be—no matter how low it already is—and lowering it even further.
At a bare minimum, you have to believe that your flaws, taken together with the flaws of the rest of humanity, are so egregious and offensive to God that someone had to be tortured and killed in your place. The most widely accepted versions additionally maintain that an eternal conscious torment remains for anyone who doesn’t properly come to terms with whatever it was they did that provoked God to do what he did to Jesus on your behalf. You must really be one messed up character.
This isn’t just the fundies, either. Not everyone does the Hell thing, but even the more “progressive” Christians I’ve spoken with have expressed an inability to get around this notion of fundamental brokenness. I’ve tried getting them to restate the fundamentals of their faith without this element, and they just can’t do it—or won’t, at least. I finally addressed that problem in an article entitled “We Are Not Broken.”
Not too long after my deconversion, I subjected myself to a year of weekly therapy sessions with a Christian counselor in an attempt to save my marriage (it didn’t work). I recall this particular issue coming up in our sessions from time to time. I suggested that the faith in which we were raised taught us to think very poorly of ourselves, but he shot back with: “No! Absolutely not! There is no better view of the self than the one we get from the gospel!” I’ll spare you his tortured rationalization for that statement, because it ignored the fact that according to his perspective all human worth is derivative—it comes from what someone else has done for us rather than anything inherent in ourselves.
I didn’t push back much at all during those weekly sessions, and I regret that now. If I had that time period to do over again, I would have spoken my mind a lot more openly. At the time I was trying to be as cooperative as possible, because I really wanted to make this work. But even in the midst of my own personally enforced gag order, I still had to point out to him at least once that it is highly hypocritical to say that your worldview gives people a positive self-image if it also tells them they deserve to be tortured forever. Those two ideas just really don’t sit well together.
If you teach that people deserve never-ending punishment, you don’t get to say your view promotes good self-esteem.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) September 1, 2013
Just this past week someone very close to me appeared in a pre-recorded video segment during the worship service at a very large church in town. I happen to know from experience that she is one of the most hard working, conscientious, principled, and self-sacrificing people you will ever meet. You will scarcely find another person more committed to “doing what’s right” on the planet. But when it came time to frame her testimony, introducing herself and her own character to the listening audience, she could not resist maligning her own personal character. The very first words of her testimony began:
Left to my own devices, on my best day,
I am hopelessly selfish and cannot make a good decision.
I can’t tell you how much of a punch in the gut that was for me. She could have chosen any way she wanted to introduce herself to the thousands of people who were watching her presentation that day, and she started with abject self-deprecation. This woman, who is one of the most selfless and resolute people I know, just denigrated herself in front of everyone by calling herself selfish and unable to make good decisions. That’s a lie, and she should know better…except she doesn’t, because that’s what she was taught to believe about herself.
Positive self-image my ass.
I know good and well why people say things like this. It’s a part of the gospel formula: You have something to offer people but they have to feel a need for it before you can offer it to them. It’s the same thing with any other sales situation. First you highlight the need for whatever it is you are selling, even if it means having to greatly exaggerate how badly anyone really needs what you have. Then you explain to them how easy it is to get what you have, and once you see they want it, you go in for the sale. Evangelism works exactly the same way. It’s a sales transaction, and it follows all the same rules.
But after the deal has been closed, people are still stuck with a skewed view of themselves which gets reinforced in church Sunday after Sunday (plus Wednesdays and some weekdays as well). And now through the wonders of technology, especially if you live in a place like I do, you can be surrounded by this message everywhere you go, all the time. I can’t even walk into a doughnut shop or a coffee shop in my area without hearing a message overhead declaring that humans are weak, selfish, hopeless, morally unfit creatures who need saving from themselves.
It is very much like living in an abusive relationship. You are taught to see yourself as hopelessly worthless outside of what your captor can accomplish on your behalf. Left to your own devices, you are weak and helpless. Yessss, just keep repeating that to yourself over and over again. That’s gooooood…You are doing sooo well…
This is not good news. This is psychological abuse, sugar coated as it is with the vocabulary of love, and it’s made all the more sinister by its pretty packaging and by its inevitable marketing toward children before they are even old enough to say, “Wait a second, these are awful things to say to a person!”
I see at least four things that result from this persistent and pervasive message of self-loathing.
The Damage That Self-Loathing Creates
1) It makes people easier to control. Now, I’m not under the impression that the people who cooked up this message intentionally engineered their religion in order to rule over others. But that is in fact one of the off-label benefits of this message, and as a result those traditions which hit this message the hardest retain their members the longest.
Go check the stats. Those traditions which push a positive self-image among their members tend to have a higher attrition rate—they lose their members in time because plenty of other traditions offer the same self-affirming message. Not so with the churches that make you feel like a maggot. Those churches are going strong, and will continue in their strength because they have convinced their people that apart from the grace of God (mediated through their denomination alone) people will only collapse under the weight of their own depravity.
Even their ability to question and critique this anti-humanistic dogma gets checked before it can even begin because, hey, who are you to question God’s Word, you reprobate?
2) It teaches people unhealthy self-talk, which is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It robs them of the joys of accomplishment because they begin each endeavor rehearsing a script which declares them unfit for whatever is the task at hand, and even if they accomplish what they attempt, they will credit someone else for their success instead of themselves.
This is not a healthy way to live. It’s self-hatred (which I would argue is thoroughly biblical), and it’s holding us back as a species.
3) It gives you an overly negative view of the rest of humanity. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched the good deeds of other people get shot down by cynical Christians who believe that “good” is the enemy of God. For evangelicals in particular, the human pursuit of goodness and progress is a dangerous thing which must be opposed. Just like Yahweh in the Old Testament objected to the building of a tower that was “too high” (just wait till we invent space travel), so evangelicals object to any major advance in science or technology which instills us with “too much confidence” in what humanity will be able to accomplish.
On a personal note, I must also point out that their view of non-believers is even worse. They denigrate themselves bad enough as it is. But people who don’t even buy their stories are infinitely worse. I have watched person after person after person in my own life interpret every move I make in the least charitable light possible. They assume everything I do is motivated by self-interest, greed, lust, you name it. Pick a character flaw. Some of them even imagine I am being controlled by evil spirits.
How do you even address a belief like that? It is futile. If I could dismiss these people, I would. But they are my own neighbors, family, and co-workers. It’s not always as simple as “Well, just pack up your things and move somewhere else! Simple!”
4) Finally, it damages your ability to have healthy relationships because it teaches you to invalidate your own personal needs. Some people didn’t learn this message as well as I did, but this one really did a number on me. There’s an evangelistic PR movement called “I Am Second” that’s been circulating on YouTube for a number of years, and it teaches people to testify that Jesus is more important than they are. My upbringing went one further. As an evangelical Christian, I was taught to see myself as third (Jesus first, others second, myself third). Semantics aside, it’s the same message:
Your needs, your aspirations, and your accomplishments are not as important as the needs of others.
Give someone a steady diet of that ^^ message for 30+ years and you’ve got yourself a formula for self-neglect and dysfunctional relationships. Looking back over relationships that have gone badly over the course of my life, I see that one thread running through each one of them is this tendency to push aside—to suppress—any awareness of my own needs in order to take care of everyone else.
That sounds noble at first glance, I’m sure. But it lacks balance. Healthy relationships are based on a mutual give-and-take. It’s not always giving, giving, giving. They tell you it will work out swimmingly because when both people in the relationship are focusing on the other, everyone is taken care of. But that’s not how real life works. One person will always be better at giving, and the other will end up taking advantage of the arrangement.
In real life, you have to balance the needs of self with the needs of others. That’s the only sustainable kind of relationship you can have that’s healthy. It’s not always about “dying to self” and ignoring your own needs in order to take care of the needs of others. That may be the most “Christian” way to love, but it is a recipe for neglect, dysfunction, and even potentially abuse.
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