My fiance had a few things she wanted to discuss about Evangelical culture, so I will be offering her space on this blog to add her thoughts and experiences as well. The following post is about the common mythologies of prayer.
I have a problem with prayer: it is selfish.
Prayer is by nature self-centered. I am not saying that that’s a bad thing, per se, but it is only useful when used for the self. It has power to help you find peace, or to center yourself, or to try to figure things out. It can bestow perspective and clarify the mind and relieve stress. Interestingly, brain scans have shown that prayer and Buddhist meditation work in very similar ways, and help the brain to maintain itself and connect with the world.
I am of the general opinion that we may connect with a higher power when practicing these things. I will not completely discount those who say God has spoken to them during these times. I do think that there should be a healthy dose of skepticism when dealing with any such experience or retelling of an experience, however, as thinking or claiming to hear from God is dangerous. More often than not, I have found a peculiar correlation between what someone wants to hear from God and what they claim to hear from God.
There are some limitations I believe prayer has, that many people don’t seem to realize, along with a few things it can do:
- It cannot change the world. People changing the world can change the world.
- It can’t solve world hunger. Donating food and money to food banks, or legislating that the government takes care of the people can. (Not getting into politics here, just stating that that would indeed feed hungry people.)
- It cannot change weather to bring rain or make it leave, etc. The physical laws of this world can. Even as a Christian I believed that God had put in place the physical world and mostly left it alone, because he had created an intricate machine that would work on its own.
- It cannot change a person’s mind. Only they can. You cannot pray for a politician to change his mind or for someone you know to be ‘brought to Christ,’ and expect it to actually happen. That would be a violation of free-will, which is the foundation of Christianity. We were given free-will so that we might know what it is to sin and what it is to be redeemed. Therefore, God cannot or will not change anyone’s mind. It follows that you cannot change someone’s mind by praying for them. You cannot make them choose what you want or leave the ‘lifestyle’ they’re in. If you could do so by prayer, then you would be manipulating them into your will. If you pray for God to ‘show them the way’ then do not be surprised when the prayed-for person does not ‘find the way.’ Think instead that either God won’t manipulate people like that, or he does not agree that your way is the correct one.
- It cannot save a life. Doctors and rescue workers can. Prayer can help the pray-er by calming and de-stressing them, but there has never been any evidence that a prayed-for person recovers any faster from ailment than one who is not prayed for. See the natural laws thing with the praying to change the weather paragraph. Medical science has advanced a long way, and sometimes can work ‘miracles,’ but it is the resilience of the human body and mind and the skilled people and medicines and machines that save lives.
- Prayer can also make a person complacent. “Why donate money or time when I can pray for the person? God can help them better than I can.” This I liken to the facebook ‘slacktivism’ that has people change their profile picture or repost a sentence to supposedly end violence or child abuse or whatever it is. It is so, so much easier to send up a nice thought than it is to do something, or to sacrifice something.
- It can allow you to start believing God spoke to you. That only you know what is true. It’s easy to feel feedback from ‘God’ while praying. The funny thing is that it’s very often either what your conscience is saying, or simply something you want to be right, anyway. While it could be God, it is far, far more likely that it is your brain practicing its powerful sway over you. It is also entirely possible to have multiple people, all saying God spoke to them, and all saying different things. This is impossible if there is one true God: either some are lying, or they all truly believe that they heard God’s will. Related to that is that prayer leads to a lot of confirmation bias. You want something, you pray for it, it happens, your prayer must have worked. You tend to forget all the times that it didn’t work, or explain them away by God saying no. You tend to recieve the answers you want, or expect, when you ask for guidance.
So prayer has a lot of limitations and downfalls. There is another part of it that is problematic: the saying “I’m praying for you.” By itself, there is nothing wrong with this phrase. I had a Bible study teacher once say “we may not know if prayer works, but praying is how we know we care.” That is true. While I don’t believe it actually does anything supernatural to help someone else, praying about something is a way to show you care. Saying that you’re praying is a nice sentiment and expresses sympathy, if it’s done in a caring manner at the right time and with the right tone.
It is often joked about in the south, how you can say anything bad about a person, and if you follow it with “bless his heart,” it makes it okay. Suddenly you weren’t mean or hurtful. In southern culture, you are not allowed to be angry or impolite, or to express dislike in any way besides passive-aggressive measures. Similarly, anger and related emotions are practically taboo in Christianity. They have to be tamped down and only released with the select passive-aggressive words.
Telling someone “I’m praying for you,” becomes annoying or downright hurtful when they know that it really means “I don’t like what you did. Only God can save you now,” or “I’m praying for God to make you straight so we can love you again.” “This person did these awful things, but see how I am better than him? I can pray for him!”
I like how Jesus says we should pray in closets, in secret, so that no one knows. I heard in Sunday school how in those times the Pharisees would go around praying loudly so that everyone could know how holy they are. These days, I often see posts on facebook asking for prayers, with twenty people replying saying “praying for you!” Or posts saying “Praying for so-n-so.” “Praying for America.”
I have heard that some believe in power in the number of prayers, which is their explanation for why they post that they are praying for someone. This either gets into a weird ‘spiritual warfare’ area (which has its own problems, to be discussed elsewhere), or makes God one of those attention-whore parents who posts pictures of their kids holding a ‘If we get two-thousand likes Mom says we will go to Disneyland!’
The only other reason for trumpeting your prayer life to the public is because you want the attention, the kudos, the feeling of being superior. Christianity is like all other cultures, and in each culture there are status symbols. Unfortunately, actually following Jesus and helping the needy and praying privately are difficult to turn into status symbols, so then it becomes who prays the most/loudest, or who has a fish on their car, or how many ‘souls you saved.’
Now, onto the spiritual warfare. When I was younger, I read a book by Frank E. Peretti. I don’t remember which one, but that doesn’t matter, because after reading the summary of another book by him, I realized they were all the same:
Bad things start happening in town. Bad things are due to demons. Angels come to fight demons, can’t until local Christian population starts praying hard enough and with enough people that they are given power-ups and can drive out the demons.
This is what I believe people mean when they talk about spiritual warfare: there is always a fight going on over souls between heaven and hell, and prayer helps the good guys win.
I concede that if you believe in God and heaven and angels, it follows that there is a hell with demons and Satan. An interesting side-note is that Satan wasn’t always the super-bad-guy he’s portrayed as now, but seemed to have more of the role of a being who tests the faithfulness of God’s people. He only appears in a few texts, and not usually is directly named. The idea of spiritual warfare is problematic: it is not biblically-founded, besides the mentions of casting out demons. Prayer never was a big role in it, that I can recall. In any case, much of what is now used as a biblical basis for it was more metaphor than instruction, like Paul’s ‘armor of God’, or the entirety of the book of Revelation.
I can give that we don’t know what else may be out there, in another dimension or what have you. Perhaps there are angels and demons battling. The problem comes when a person claims that someone else is experiencing ‘spiritual warfare,’ or demons, or what have you, and then uses that to completely invalidate that person’s own viewpoint and memories. Telling someone that their experiences are invalid because they were besot by demons is demeaning and almost laughable if it wasn’t so infuriating. Believing that if only you had prayed harder and the demons would have left must be a horrible burden, but it also must be nice to have an easy excuse for any bad in the world: demons did it.
If God expected people to pray in order to bolster his forces, he probably should have said so. Otherwise we are just writing our own fanfiction of the Bible to make ourselves feel more important than we likely are. Yes, it is written that we casted out demons and did miracles. Never does it say that was done with prayer alone. Not even in the story of Peter being freed from prison is it clear that prayer was the cause of the angel’s arrival. Even if we do implicate prayer in that miracle, that is the only instance (that I am aware of), and it is not theologically sound to base an entire doctrine off of anything that is only mentioned once in the Bible.
Prayer is a healthy activity, a useful tool, and a calming exercise for the brain. It is also an easy route to feel better about yourself for not doing anything, a tool for abuse, and a badge of honor. It can harm as much as it heals, and it is promised to do much more than it does. As with much Christianity, if what you prayed for didn’t happen, you weren’t praying hard enough or your faith wasn’t strong.
Links to the brain scan research:
Here’s my next post on I Love You But You’re Going To Hell! This time I discuss the manipulative arguments that are made to ensure Creationists stay Creationists.
Why is Creationism so appealing?
Last installment, I spent some time discussing my Creationist curriculum. Through five years, I learned science alongside Young Earth Creation apologetics. No small amount of time was spent on discussing the evidence for young earth, explaining the Grand Canyon as a result of a global flood, reinterpreting the geological record, and more. Over and over, it was repeated and reassured that Creationism was a viable theory based on the evidence alone. Yes, the Bible made assertions regarding the origin of the world, but all of the text books and apologists emphasized that the theory could stand on its own merits and that even atheists should be able to see the evidence and agree to it.
And yet, when it came down to it, the evidence was truly secondary. On some level, I think that the most devoted creation “experts” still realize that Young Earth might not stand up to honest scrutiny. This is why almost the entire YEC battle is fought for children. Creationists have already lost in the arena of mainstream science. They can’t influence people there. But children are easy to influence. Children are much more trusting. And if they start kids with these theories early, perhaps they can build walls around them that will keep them there.
Read the rest here.
I feel like something needs to be said about hate-speech. I don’t mean Westboro Baptist Church picket signs or the crazed ramblings of TV show hosts trying to blame natural disasters on a small minority of the U.S. population. I’m talking about the polite words, the “loving” phrases that may Christians use that they may not realize are extremely hurtful and cruel to the recipients. I want to talk about all the ugly messages and meanings that are often conveyed through this speech that many probably aren’t even aware of.
Let me be clear that the purpose of writing this is not that I can’t handle hearing anything negative or that I’m trying to avoid getting my feelings hurt. Although I think those are valid reasons to avoid offensive language, this isn’t just about me. I can handle a little rudeness. My real interest is being able to clear the way for a more open dialogue between Christians and members of the LGBT community. This dialogue will not be possible until people on both sides learn how their language is impacting their fellow human beings. I want a conversation that inspires understanding, good-will and trust. Instead, so many conversations breed defensiveness, hurt, and anger. If you are a Christian and you are really interested in being welcoming and accessible to your gay, bi, or trans peers, please listen. This is for you.
Note: in this installment I am focusing on the LGB of LGBT . There will likely be other articles in which I will spend more time addressing more trans-specific issues.
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This phrase has long since worn out its welcome in the LGB community, but it is still commonly used by Christians hoping to voice their objections to homosexuality in a loving, non-threatening way. It seems the most popular go-to phrase for religious people to make their convictions known without lumping themselves into the group of hate-mongers. “I cannot betray what I believe, but that does not mean I am unloving about it.” But to someone like me, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is the opposite of loving. If good will and dialogue is to open between LGB folks and Christians, and especially for those that straddle both groups, this phrase needs to be permanently retired. Here’s why.
1) However kindly and respectfully you treat us, I promise you, there is someone else who has used that exact phrasing as a shield behind which to bludgeon us. It is more common than you might think. As a result, it’s hardly surprising that many of us have a reflexive recoil reaction to those words. However, if the sentiment itself were a good one, then a few extremists misusing it shouldn’t be reason enough to abandon it. Unfortunately the sentiment is not good. It is toxic.
2) The word “hate” is loaded with negative meaning. LGB folks are at high risk of hate-crimes, hate-speech, and hate-group fueled harassment. We are told that “God hates fags” and were possible treated with hatred by our families, friends, or communities. And you want to introduce the word “hate” into a conversation about us that is supposed to be loving? It doesn’t matter that your hate is directed at our “sin”. We can all agree to hate evil acts, but remember, many of us may not believe that our orientation is evil. You are targeting an important and meaningful part of our identities and telling us that you hate it. Imagine being told by a supposed friend or colleague “I hate Christianity.” Does it make you feel startled, uncomfortable, defensive, and uneasy? Yeah, we feel the same way when you do that to us. Hate never feels loving.
3) Why don’t you start hating your own sins instead of mine? I know, I know. Every time I bring this up, most Christians will insist that they do hate their own sins and will hurry to assure me that they are an imperfect sinner too, and they have sins that they struggle with. But that’s generally where the conversation ends. They may pay lip-service to the idea of treating all faults equally, but in honestly, they generally have no desire to talk in depth about these alleged sins. Indeed, I generally don’t want to hear about your pet sins because I recognize that it is personal and it is not my place to force you to face whatever private demons you have in your life. I would appreciate the same respect in return. Saying “I’m a sinner too” does not give you free pass to be everyone else’s personal sin police. Instead of focusing on homosexuality as the #1 sin that needs to be hated vocally, why don’t you spend that time hating your own sins in private? Start with the sins of judging and pride (and if those accusations make you feel defensive because you don’t feel you are guilty of them, now you know how it feels when Christians accuse me of sins that I do not believe are wrong.)
4) These words make a major assumption that the LGB person you are talking to is actually engaging in homoerotic activities. This is not necessarily true, and it is insulting and degrading to reduce a person soley to a stereotype of their assumed sexual habits. I had people telling me how they loved me but hated my sin long before I ever engaged in some form of homosexual activity. So that begs the question: is it just being attracted to someone of the same sex that is the sin? Is it loving them? Kissing? Just existing as a gay person? Or do you honestly assume that when I say “I’m gay” I am having sex every night? Regardless, inferring and judging my actions based on my orientation is pretty much as insulting and ignorant as meeting a Hispanic person and asking them which part of Mexico they’re from.
5) We really don’t need to know whether or not you approve of our identity or relationships. It baffles me why people feel the need to comment on some personal part of my life uninvited, even in a “loving” manner. Trust me, I am aware that there are plenty of people who believe that homosexual acts are a sin. I’ve heard it before. Not a single gay person can really get away from it in this country. So why do you feel the need to tell me “I love you, but I really don’t agree with what you are/do?” I do not immediately feel the need to de-convert Christians when I find out they are religious. I don’t make disparaging comments to my friends about their husbands or wives simply because I do not approve. I would never tell someone “well, I think blacks are inferior, but I still like you.” So why has it become socially acceptable for Christians to single us out for disapproval? It is disrespectful and uncalled for. We don’t need your opinions on our lives, we just want your respect. And respect, by the way, is worth a hell of a lot more than passive-aggressive “loving”.
I know that Christians have a need to be a little defensive around the topic of homosexuality since there are many loud voices in the religious community that have sullied Christian beliefs with hate. Many Christians just want a way to state their beliefs while simultaneously distancing themselves from these extremists. But if there is to be healing and unity, LGB people need Christians to back away from the dogma a bit. How about you set the doctrine aside and just focus on love and respect? I promise, it will be a lot more fruitful than “loving the sinner and hating the sin.” And didn’t Jesus say that you will know what is good by their fruits?
I have been asked to write a series of guest posts on the blog “I love you but you’re going to hell”. I have been following this blog almost since I first started on WordPress. I love the balanced viewpoints that Adam Laats expresses, so I am thrilled that he has asked me to write a series on my journey from science-denying to scientist! Go check it out and check out the rest of his blog as well!
In this installment, I am discussing my Creationist curriculum. Here’s a short excerpt.
I am a conservative, anti-government-educator’s dream. Because I was homeschooled, my family had the unique opportunity to control every aspect of my education completely. Part of this included being taught with a Christian science curriculum that supported Biblical 6-day creation, denied Evolution, described scientific evidence for a global flood, and opposed modern environmental policies. When I tell my secular peers this, the reactions of shock, horror, and amazement are often rather comical. Very often, I am told that I must be remarkably resilient or intelligent to be able to make a successful science career for myself after being handicapped by my early education. As much as I’d love to accept the accolades, I simply don’t see it that way. My seemingly-bizarre education did not hamper me much at all, and in some ways, I must credit it for inspiring me to become a scientist in the first place. Although I cannot defend the inaccuracies in the curriculum, I still have fond memories of it, and I can highlight both the shortcomings and successes of the book series.
TW: Mild self-harm
I was spanked as a child. I was a well-behaved youngster who needed little discipline and was generally obedient and respectful to the best of my ability. I can probably count the number of times I was spanked on my fingers. I was not scarred for life by this ordeal, I am well-adjusted, and I have never reacted by being violent to others. To all appearances, I am a testament to the value of the practice of spanking.
And yet, I oppose it. Vehemently.
This was not always so. For most of my life, I assumed that spanking was a generally useful practice that taught kids to expect consequences to their actions. It promoted personal responsibility, I was told, and enforced respect. I fully expected that I would spank my own children (hopefully not often). I further expected that children who were not spanked would likely be unruly, disrespectful, and lack a sense of responsibility and self-control.
However, as I began to reassess the value of the authoritarian parenting style that I was raised with (which did NOT leave me well-adjusted) I began to confront my perceptions of spanking as well. What lessons had I really learned from these punishments? Were the changes it wrought in my behavior actually positive? Or can I contribute my good behavior primarily to other parenting methods instead?
I clearly recall how the punishment was carried out. I was informed of my error and I would generally apologize. My mother would accept my apology, but if the error was severe enough, she would indicate that I was to be spanked as a punishment. I would be told to fetch the big wooden spoon from the kitchen and I would go into her bedroom. She would close the door and tell me that she loved me, but she needed to do this anyway. I would be told to bend over and she would strike my backside with the spoon. Generally, I would feel humiliated enough that I would not want to cry in front of her, so I would hold my tears in as long as possible. However, before long, I would always give in and cry out, and my mother would hit me only one more time before setting the spoon aside and then holding me. She would tell me again and again that she loved me and calm my tears until I had stopped crying. The punishment was now over.
By the standards of most spanking advocates, my mother did everything right. She never left marks or bruising that I was aware of. I was no longer sore within 5 minutes of the spanking or so. The punishments were always coupled with loving words and assurances that I still had her affections. And yet, they did me absolutely no good. Indeed, they taught me several lessons that were quite counterproductive to my moral and ethical development.
Spanking did not teach me to accept consequences; it taught me to avoid them.
Spanking causes pain and humiliation, but more than anything, it causes a fear and dread. Most children will avoid that fear at any cost. Sometimes this meant behaving well to avoid punishments. But at other times, when I had either misbehaved or simply made a mistake, I learned to try to silence my conscience and hide my misdeed rather than owning up to it. As a clear testament to this, I recall an incident when I was probably only 4 or 5 years old. I had just been playing around in the bathroom and somehow ended up getting toilet paper strewn around the floor. I left the mess behind when I got distracted by something (I was a very absent-minded child) and it was discovered later by my mother. She called the whole family into the bathroom and asked who had made the mess. I distinctly recall a pang of fear as I considered the possibility that an admission of guilt could result in a spanking. I wanted to tell my mother that it was me and to apologize for it, but the fear was too great. Instead, thinking myself very clever, I asked “what will happen to the person who says they did it?”
“Nothing except they will have to clean it up,” she responded.
“Oh, well in that case, I did it.”
And there lies the first problem with spanking. I was fully willing to take responsibility for my mistake and even make it right by cleaning up the mess I had left. But while the threat of physical pain and humiliation was held over my head, I shut my conscience off and was ready to lie. And lie I did, about the glass bowl that I broke years later. I was never found out.
This is not a productive result of a training method that is intended to INCREASE personal responsibility. Reasonable consequences that allow the child to make up for the mistake that they made are much more likely to be effective. That leads me to my second lesson.
You can’t make up for your mistakes; you can only suffer for them.
Now, I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of mistakes in real life that cannot be fixed. Sometimes you just have to deal with the consequences. But even so, approaching every mistake with this defeatist mindset is a sure way to destroy your life. A healthy person approaches every mistake with an openness to correcting it, or at least making the best of it. Anytime we fail at something or harm someone, our response should be to say “I am so sorry… how can I make it better?”
But spanking was a discouragement of this kind of thought, for me. I was not spanked often, but when I was, it was always a sign that my crime must have been too grievous to make right. Apologies, offers to fix things, attempts to ease the damage that I had done were useless. All that was left for me was physical punishment. Pain would atone for me. I could not atone for myself.
The last spanking that I can remember occurred when I was probably 9 or 10. I had gotten distracted while doing my morning chores before school and started goofing off. Again, absent-mindedness and distraction were common themes in my childhood… and adulthood for that matter. My mother always required that we start homeschool at precisely 8:00am. When my goofing off led me to miss that deadline, I was due for punishment. My mother came upstairs and saw me laughing with my sister while I fidgeted around with the bed I was supposed to be making. She scolded me angrily and told me that I was already late for school and my bed wasn’t even made yet. Startled, I apologized, told her I had lost track of the time, apologized some more, and then offered to make my bed faster. She did tell me to finish making my bed. And when I was finished, she said, I should come downstairs for a spanking.
That was always a heart-wrenching feeling. It didn’t matter if I was sorry, or if I promised to do better, or if I made my bed on time for the rest of the week, or if I even offered to make hers for her to make up for it. I had sinned, and the only proper punishment was physical pain. Indeed, forgiveness could not be obtained from my mother until she hit me and made me cry. It seemed unjust to me, but more than anything, it was heartbreaking for a young child. I truly wanted to make my mother happy and to do right by her. But, when spankings became involved, there was no way to make it right anymore. It was only my fate to accept the pain in order to be forgiven and returned to my valued place in the family. That is a horrible lesson to teach a child. It is also a dangerous lesson, because…
Spanking teaches children that violence and humiliation can be deserved.
I have never been physically abused by anyone. I suspect I am quite lucky in this regard. However, I have physically abused myself. And when I did, I thought of it as a method of atonement. Can I trace this mindset reliably back to my parents spanking me? Perhaps not. I suspect that many other factors played a greater role in my self-destructive habits, including sheltering and authoritarian principles. However, I think it is likely that the mindset instilled in my by using spanking as a punishment was a contributing factor.
When I was 23 years old, I came out to my family. I was already in graduate school on the other side of the Atlantic from my parents. We spent many hours discussing the topic of homosexuality on the phone, arguing over scriptures and opinions, and often crying over harsh words and cruel remarks. Despite all of this, I felt compelled to come home for a Summer to try to talk to my parents face-to-face, help them come to terms with my sexual identity, and heal the family wounds.
Instead of offers of peace, however, I was met with militant efforts to fix me. My access to the internet and phone were restricted, I was shamed into being silent about what was happening, I was harangued and bullied daily by my parents, and I was blamed for “destroying the family”. I honestly believed every accusation they threw at me, and I began to feel I had made myself too worthless to be redeemed. I couldn’t make things right. So, I decided I deserved to be hurt.
I restrained myself from causing too much damage, largely because I didn’t want my family to be able to recognize the marks. I would kick my shins against the end-table in the living room to raise welts and bruises. I would scratch at the skin on my stomach, upper thighs, and arms to make myself bleed. I felt like I deserved to hurt; I deserved violence. I deserved their humiliation. I deserved their emotional abuse. All of it, I deserved.
And why shouldn’t I? My family had always taught me never to let anyone hurt me, always to respect myself, and always to stand up for myself. But yet, they crossed those boundaries repeatedly when I was a child. I was taught that there WERE situations where violence, humiliation, and a lack of self-respect were deserved. Those were the situations when I had been bad. I was a bad child. I deserved pain. Is it so hard to imagine that these toxic thoughts could have carried over into my adulthood? Is it possible that I was horrifically susceptible to abuse by my parents because of some of the lessons that corporeal punishment taught me? I think it is likely.
Let me offer some fundamental pieces of advice. You should always be honest enough to own up to your mistakes. You should always try to make those mistakes right. And you NEVER deserve violence or humiliation… not from anyone else, and not from yourself. I think most people would agree with the statements above. But then, if I truly believe these things, why would I advocate for a form of punishment that taught me the opposite?
I do not believe my parents abused me as a child. They were loving. They were faithful. They were gentle. They were wonderful parents, in many ways. But their choice to spank me was unwise. It didn’t ruin me. It didn’t cause me to become violent or socially repressed or less intelligent. But it was not healthy. We need not talk in extremes in order to still condemn a practice that is teaching children unhealthy lessons. I can do better than the last generation. I will not spank my children.
The non-religious have long been discussing the toxic environment that evangelizing and proselytizing can create. Common complaints are attitudes of hostility, harassment, implicit threats of eternal torture, and a refusal to desist when asked. All of these are important problems, but I want to draw attention to the less-examined side of the issue: the culture of proselytizing hurts its own members.
Surprisingly, it only recently dawned on me how unhealthy the mindset of evangelizing culture is. Growing up, it was impressed on me that the world was lost and dying; each person was wallowing in a temporary hell, just waiting until the afterlife to suffer eternally again in a permanent hell. The picture painted was pretty dire, and it broke this child’s heart. I wanted so badly for these poor, suffering people to be happy and avoid this dark fate.
But the true danger comes from the expectations that the church places on its congregation. We were given the “great commission” to witness to all nations and people of the good news of Christ. If this had been taken more in the spirit of John 13:35 (“By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” NKJV) it would not be much of a problem. Christians could be a shining example of love and kindness, joy and a devotion to justice and the defense of the underprivileged. Witnessing could be accomplished by our attitudes and actions towards our fellow man, without a word being said about hellfire or demands being made for them to follow your particular creed.
But that wasn’t how it was billed to me. Witnessing was the act of pressuring a person to convert to your religion. “I’m a Christian” was supposed to always be on my lips. I wasn’t supposed to stand out from the crowd just by my kindness and selflessness, but also by pushing my faith onto others at all times, regardless of whether my advances were welcome or not. After all, in the evangelical culture, I was personally responsible for the lives of all of the lost people I encountered. If I failed to “share the gospel” with atheists, sinners, or liberal “Christians” then their blood was on my hands.
This is a horrifying amount of pressure to put on any man, woman or child. Needless to say, it can have a lot of dangerous results. Some of my peers responded by becoming militant proselytizers. I still see them crowing on Facebook about each person that they harangued with the “good news” of hellfire and damnation. Every time they bring up religion in a conversation they become offensive and disrespectful. They seem incapable of self-reflection, and truly believe that they are presenting a godly image to the world, even as people flee from them and curse the judgmental asshole of a god that they purport to serve.
Then, there was me. I quickly recognized, once I entered the real world, that any attempt at conversions would not be well-received by my non-Christian friends. In fact, most of them were fully aware of the Christian doctrine and had simply made the conscious choice to reject it. I felt like it would be disrespectful and hurtful for me to argue this decision without even being invited or asked for an opinion. But this flew in the face of everything I had been taught. I wallowed in guilt as I imagined all of the friends that I was failing by “hiding my light under a basket.” I knew that, if I became the virulent evangelist that I had been taught to be, I would likely have no secular friends (and, by extension, have less opportunity to witness to them.) But I was still taught that refraining from actively converting my friends was being selfish: trading their immortal souls for my momentary comfort. I would have moments of shaky, sweaty panic as I would tell myself over and over again to just force the issue on them before it was too late! But my voice wouldn’t come and I would beat myself up in my head for weeks after, lamenting the blood that was slowly soaking my hands, clothes, and entire body. I was responsible for so many souls and I was failing them all. It was nightmarish to imagine.
It still makes me a little sick just remembering the amount of cognitive dissonance I felt. I had been set up with an impossible choice, and neither option seemed to be serving the Kingdom of God. On one hand, I could congratulate myself on my aggressive proselytizing, even if it left me isolated and utterly ineffective at being a good witness. On the other hand, I could maintain relationships and shine as a good friend, but be guilty of the souls of my friends that I wasn’t actively recruiting to my religion.
Eventually, the Guilt became such a constant companion that I grew numb to it. I went through a period of years where I no longer evaluated the moral rightness or wrongness of anything, because I was too spiritually exhausted to try. I will write more on that in another post. After those years, however, it finally occurred to me that my entire view of “witnessing” was disturbingly flawed. I was not responsible for anyone’s soul. We were all our own people, with our own decisions and our own experiences, and it is not my job to force others into heaven. I do not need to hide my decisions and beliefs, but I also don’t need to feel guilty for respecting other peoples’ decisions and beliefs. Indeed, I think that is something to be proud of. After all, who is a better witness of rightness: one who offends or one who heals?
Being raised Pentacostal meant adhering to the strictest possible modesty standards. Long before I had any idea of what sex was, I knew that it was a sin for women to wear pants, jewelry, modern clothes, cut their hair, or do anything else that might distinguish them from the illustrations in the “Little House on the Prairie” books I read. The reason given was “modesty” which I understood in the vaguest sense to be a way for women to not exalt themselves or draw attention to themselves. A loud woman was an immodest woman, by my reckoning. I’m sure the church would not have disagreed with me there.
At an older age, however, I was introduced to Josh Harris’ “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” series, and all of the toxic purity drivel that came with it. Suddenly I had a new idea of modesty. It wasn’t about the woman at all… it was about the man. It was explained to me that men would be caused to sin if they were attracted to me. To think, that a passing glance at an attractive person could condemn an otherwise good man’s soul to hell! It was terrifying to contemplate. Suddenly, women who dressed in modern clothes weren’t just prideful people… they were actively dragging men to their deaths. I admit, I felt hatred towards women who would risk peoples’ lives for the mere sake of looking appealing or feeling good about their bodies.
Now, let me take a break to point out how ludicrous this notion is. Positive body image was being presented to me as something harmful to others. Needless to say, I did not have a positive opinion of my body. In fact, I did not really have much of an awareness of my body at all. I was oblivious of the changes my body was going through and avoided looking at myself in the mirror. The female body was just not something that I felt comfortable looking at… not even my own.
But my skewed vision of my body is a story for another day. In addition to causing me to disdain women who dressed in clothes that showed their form, purity teachings caused me to deeply distrust men. It was very alienating to me to realize that the other sex was constantly on the verge of horrendous sin. It seemed that they were creatures without self-control, who were just waiting to violate me spiritually at any second. After all, there was no distinguishing between attraction and lust in these teachings. Finding someone sexually attractive was, in itself, a sin equivalent with committing adultery. It was little wonder, then, that men suddenly seemed strange, foreign, and dangerous to me. It didn’t help that I had long identified myself more as a man than a woman and enjoyed feeling like “one of the guys”. This divide opening between the two sexes was confusing and dismaying to me, since I no longer felt I could keep one foot in each.
Unintentionally, these beliefs set up men as the enemy. While I was in highschool, a friend of my mother’s thanked my family for making my sister and I dress in baggy, “modest” clothing. “It is so hard for my teenaged boys not to lust after women, and it is a big help that your daughters aren’t tempting them,” she said. Even at the time, I was upset by her words. I felt violated by these disgusting male sinners that might be trying to commit adultery with me in their hearts. “Why can’t they just not lust after me on their own?” I wondered. “Why is it my job to make them not look at me?” Clearly, their mother didn’t understand the difference between attraction and lust either. I feel sorry for these boys, in retrospect, for being taught that their human instincts were basically visual rape of a woman. How guilty they must have been every time they felt any desire.
Being unable to distinguish between attraction and lust also led to a dreadfully warped idea of sexuality. I felt that a relationship could only be fulfilling if the partners were not attracted to each other. After all, any sexual interest would be sin, which would mean the relationship was out of favor with God. Surprise, surprise! I was not attracted to my ex-boyfriend at all, but assumed that this was a sign of a healthy relationship. I stayed in the relationship for over two years, trying to fight away his sexual advances and feeling revulsion anytime that I caved to them. I truly believe that having a healthier view of sexuality could have saved me a lot of unwanted physical contact, because I would at least have been able to recognize my own sexual desires or lack thereof. Instead, I was wrapped up in the moronic idea that my boyfriend pressuring me for sex and me being repulsed by the idea was the way things ought to be. After all, I was a woman and he was a man. Men lust and women do not.
This misunderstanding also tainted my view of homosexuality. I was taught that practicing homosexuals were mentally ill or purposely rebelling against God, but I also assumed that the attraction itself was a sin, not just the sex acts. I honestly suspect that this is the reason that many Christians still condemn homosexuals, without regard to whether or not they are actually having sex. Saying “I am gay” is already akin to committing the act of sodomy in the minds of certain religious people.
I have since come to a much healthier understanding of sexual desire (corresponding in part with coming out as a lesbian). I am not afraid of my attractions, and I am not threatened by the attractions of others. I recognize that a person’s thoughts are not harmful to anyone, so long as their behaviors stay within the appropriate bounds of consent and respect. Attraction is not sexual obsession. Attraction is not mental adultery. Attraction is a healthy, normal part of being human. Claiming otherwise is imposing moral oppression on a child, damaging the way men and women relate to each other, and setting up future relationships to fail or be strained by unrealistic ideas.
Let me tell you a little bit about my history with the word “fuck.” Belated warning for language.
When I was young, foul language was understandably taboo. I would never have dreamed of saying a nasty word, and the consequences for it would likely have involved a wooden spoon and my backside. However, I thought that words like “stupid” and “butt” were bad words. I was sheltered from adult language very thoroughly and, to a point, that was reasonable.
The sheltering never stopped, however, Well into my teens, I was still largely clueless about what a bad word actually WAS. I had come far enough to realize that stupid and butt no longer held the same weight that I thought they did when I was a kid. But then how was I to know which words were okay and which ones were bad? My family had a TV filter on that automatically muted foul language, so even movies were no help for me. Even my older sister was tasked with protecting my virgin ears and would stand by the boom-box and turn down the volume of the Evita soundtrack when the army singers shouted “bitch!” in the refrain of “Dangerous Jade.” I knew there was such a thing as an “F-word” and this was the worst of all words. But what it was and what it meant was a mystery.
My first experience with this mythical word came when I was reading a book about dog-sledding. As a young teen, I checked out many books from the adult section of the library in order to challenge myself in reading. It was common for me to skip over unknown words and glean their meaning by context, since I was reading above my grade level. Little did I know, I was apparently skipping f-bombs by the dozens. When my parents decided to look through some of my literature they were outraged. “That book is full of f-words,” they chastised me. “We are very disappointed in your choices of what to read. We thought we could trust you.” I was shaken and terrified because I didn’t realize that I had been reading foul language and now felt horribly guilty. I had sinned against God! And I still didn’t even know what the F-word was! Oh, the temptation was great to sneak a peek in the book again, just to satisfy my curiosity about the dangerous word, but I was a good girl. I resisted.
What that experience taught me, along with all of the sheltering, muting of TV’s, and outrage from my parents, was that this word was so horrible that even HEARING it was a sin. Speaking it would be worse, I presumed, but hearing it was bad enough. It was lumped, in my mind, into the category of “virginity”. Thinking impure thoughts was a sin. Seeing a man naked was a sin. Hearing the F-word was a sin. It was a loss of my purity to be exposed to this evil and, thus, a degrading of my very being. I actually spent time worrying that I had heard bad words and absorbed their evil without realizing it.
To be embarrassingly honest, I didn’t know for sure what the word was until I was in college. When my more enlightened friends tossed around “fuck this” and “fuck that” I felt myself clench up inside. My virginity was being damaged by evil words. I wanted to close my ears off, but had no mechanism to do so. I wondered if I shouldn’t be spending so much time around these worldly people. Perhaps I was endangering myself with their perversions of words?
To think that the word “fuck” nearly drove me away from some of my most fulfilling friendships is kind of laughable now. But at the time, it was a very real fear. My purity was EVERYTHING. Without it, I could never be godly, live a fulfilling life, find a husband, and… well… fuck! The amount of fear built around simple words was absurd. Now, I’ve learned from the old phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Yes, language can be hurtful, but the way it is used rather than the letters therein are where the poison lies. I still don’t swear a lot, but when I do, I am guilt free. I don’t even give a flying fuck.
Signs that you are a Sheltered Evangelical: the List
I hope to eventually tackle each of the subjects listed here. You can think of this as a sort of table of contents, or a preview of what this blog hopes to cover. The order of topics is not relevant and I will probably eventually add more. Without further ado… here are 20 ways you might know you are a Sheltered Evangelical!
1) You think sexual attraction is a sin.
2) Atheists are scary.
3) You are a homophobe because you really ARE scared of the gays.
4) You cry after you masturbate.
5) You feel like a failure if you DON’T shove your religion down peoples’ throats.
6) You are always guilty.
7) You are taught to ask questions to secular people, but shot down if you ask questions about religion.
8) You think that cleavage-displaying women on youtube is porn.
9) You are told that sex is wonderful but have no idea how it works.
10) You think a lack of sexual attraction in a relationship is a GOOD thing.
11) Your evolutionist friends turn out to be more tolerant of your ideas than you are of theirs.
12) Your “normal” peers can’t understand how a seemingly-smart person could have been taken in by so much bullshit indoctrination.
13) You think that your first-ever relationship MUST end in marriage or you will no longer be a suitible partner.
14) You still think you are required to obey your parents even after you are an adult.
15) You believe having a dissenting opinion is sinful.
16) In college, you aren’t sure which words are swears and which ones are safe to repeat.
17) You didn’t know that women could orgasm.
18) You were always taught to “just say no” but were also drilled in absolute obedience.
19) Rape fantasies are the only way you can “get off” because consent to sex feels sinful.
20) You think men can’t control their lust and your body is the problem.