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My Experience with Religious Fundamentalism and Bipolar Disorder

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Guest post by Steve

For 18 years, I considered myself a Christian. My family raised me in the Disciples of Christ denomination, generally known as a progressive and inclusive branch of Christianity. Love, service, and respect for others were baked into the framework of my parents’ religious philosophy. So too were dysfunctional aspects of Christianity, such as taboos around sex, drugs, other religious frameworks, et cetera. For sixteen years I lived relatively peacefully under such a framework and the moderately strict rules it imposed.

That would all change shortly after my sixteenth birthday. For some reason, I felt the urge to dive deeper into the tenets of my faith. Enter the Internet, which, as of 2009, was a long way from the juggernaut it is today. Feeling as though my parents’ and grandparents’ explanations of biblical concepts were lacking, I turned to Internet websites and forums, as well as a teen study bible my grandparents had found on their doorstep one day and given to me as a gift.

That would turn out to be one of the most painful and consequential mistakes I would ever make. After reading through the study bible and its perverted explanations of biblical phenomena and excuses for genocide and murder committed in God’s name — which I didn’t notice at the time but can see oh, so clearly, now — I went down rabbit holes on the Internet, looking up the answers to important questions such as, “Is it a sin to listen to secular music?” among others.

My readings left me isolated from my family, feeling as though I had discovered the truth and could not admit it to them. This caused a great deal of tension in my relationship with them, as I began to believe that if I wanted to be a true Christian, I should cut myself off from my family and their liberal interpretation of the Bible and seek the companionship of others who believed as I did.

However, my beliefs did not usually translate to actions. There was a powerful dissonance between the person I was up until I stumbled upon all of this poisonous fundamentalist posturing and the person I was afterward. I did not think to question my beliefs, thinking that doing so would be a blasphemy towards God. Instead, I lingered in them and the conflict between my two selves — one a burgeoning fundamentalist and one a rational secularist — came to a head. It was truly as if the devil and god were raging inside me, and their warfare tore me apart.

I can vividly remember the crushing pressure in my chest from those early battles, a pain so fierce and unrelenting that I would fall asleep in the middle of class as my body started shutting down to escape it. I was stuck in a limbo, but I could feel the flames of hell eating away at my soul. I vividly believed that if I did not give up everything I once loved, the secular pursuits that did not glorify God, I was hell-bound.

My rational side fought like hell to keep my rising fundamentalist zeal at bay. For the most part, I excelled in school, bringing home As and Bs with every report card. Yet I felt isolated from my peers. I attempted to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but I am so grateful to say that they did not manage to get their claws into me and I bowed out after several meetings.

I cannot pinpoint when exactly my mood started to shift, but after several long and arduous months, I began to feel good again. I started to put myself out there and make friends. By doing my best to intentionally avoid the bible and all forms of fundamentalist rhetoric, I began to feel somewhat normal and happy. However, maladaptations would present themselves. I would become obsessed with certain girls as a coping mechanism, a way to cling onto the unstable safety of my current state. The flames of hell were further below, but I could still feel their heat. Magma still churned in my chest.

I had to cling to something for dear life, and as a male adolescent with a decent sex drive, I chose women. Now mind you, I was 270 pounds at the time, so I didn’t have a good shot at all at getting most of them. My social skills were also substandard. I was definitely what you would call a nerd, maybe a geek, and it showed. Still, for a few months, I felt good enough to resume a normal pattern of activity and engage in the secular pursuits I once felt so guilty about.

In the same vein, I cannot pinpoint exactly what pulled me down again. While this depressive episode was shorter and somewhat milder than the last, I desperately wanted to escape. That escape would come in the form of a forum one of my classmates showed me in the library one day where an “alien” delivered sacred knowledge to the world. After reading this, my mind latched onto it and used it as a weapon to beat back the flames that were once again searing my soul.

This time the depression may have been milder, but the high was even higher. I excelled in my last semester of high school. I visited seven colleges and got accepted to the college I wanted the most. I got all 5s on the three AP exams I took that year. My mind was as sharp as a tack, as clear as a bell. Everything clicked. Things just came to me. I was at my peak level of performance. It was an absolutely thrilling time to be alive and active in the world. I was filled with a spirit of hope and love. I graduated ready to take the world by storm, even if I had no clue exactly what it was I was going to do with my life.

Sadly, this wouldn’t last either. One Bible verse about not cursing later (I don’t remember which one it was and I don’t care to relive that again), I crashed hard. Instead of entering college feeling healthy and alive, I entered college a husk of the self I was just a few short months before, drained and lifeless and struggling to keep up with the myriad tasks and activities that come with the first few weeks of freshman year. I felt so alone and isolated, though I did try to reach out.

Several times, I was awfully close to embracing fundamentalism again, as the college I went to was in a fairly religious city in the southern United States and it was easy to find people who believed passionately in Christianity and to talk with them. I felt I would need to make a decision about what I was going to do soon, and I was leaning heavily towards embracing fundamentalism.

My lowest point in college came when I dropped a class without notifying my professor I was going to do so. I almost lost both my scholarships and had to pay back some $350 dollars to one of them. Thankfully, I was able to keep both of my scholarships all the way through college from that point on.

The end to all of this madness would come swiftly and miraculously. One day, after a three-hour class in which we had been watching a documentary, I decided to browse online to see what other documentaries were out there. That decision would change the course of the rest of my life. I was out of the house. I had my own laptop. I didn’t have parental figures hovering over my shoulder. I was angry as hell about being so depressed again, and felt I had nothing to lose. So I decided to watch the Youtube docuseries by a man named Evid3nc3, Why I became an Atheist.

Video Link

Approximately three hours later, my mind was shattered. Everything I had ever known was wrong. There were good, rational, justified reasons for not believing in God. There were good, kind people who did not believe. Hell, there were thousands of preachers who no longer believed! With this knowledge in mind, the knowledge that I did not need a god to be good or to live a good life, I gave Christianity and the toxicity of fundamentalism and evangelicalism the boot and I have never had good cause to look back since.

I am done with religion, even though religion’s effect on my psyche will always remain to some extent. I am free of the chains of dogma and ideology. I am free of the flames of hellfire, the judgement of a wrathful god, and the intercession of His son, who suffered a needless and preventable death on the cross for something nobody asked him to die for in the first place. Good fucking riddance.

The next time I was home from college, I came out as an atheist to my parents and destroyed the study bible that had sent me down this road to madness. Nobody will ever be infected with its poisonous interpretations again.

But my story is not done. For you see, nearly a decade later I have a new chunk of knowledge, a new insight that has rocked my world just as much as when I found out Christianity was not true.

A few days ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This is a mental illness in which your mood swings between a manic state (a euphoric, happy, joyful, blissful time) and a depressed state. I believe that my bipolar disorder was the cause of so much dysfunction in my life during my late high school and early college years. Looking back, my mood swings make so much sense when viewed through that context as I altered between hypomania (milder than manic) and depression.

One facet of bipolar disorder is that those who have this mental illness often suffer from delusions, which can come in both manic and depressed states. While I have never suffered from delusions in my manic states, I have in my depressive states.

And that has led me to ask myself: would I have been able to catch this disease earlier if not for the Christian framework that I believed for those last couple years of high school? I firmly believed I was in danger of going to Hell. I felt it so vividly. There was no way you could convince me that that belief was not a delusion. It was supported by the Christian cultural framework my life was based around at the time.

Did my Christian worldview mask my delusional depressive symptoms? That is definitely a question that deserves a lot more thought. Who else with undiagnosed mental illness is laboring under a Christian framework that amplifies and exacerbates it? Is it the preacher at the pulpit? The choir director? The youth pastor? The worship leader?

How many religious folks are undiagnosed simply because their worldview masks and adapts to their symptoms, leading them to believe that they aren’t ill in the first place while still struggling mightily through life and sometimes hurting those closest to them with their often inexplicable and unjustifiable actions? What if the true burden of mental illness is not fully known because of how well religion can adapt to it? These are all questions I hope to answer one day, or at least make progress towards answering.

Life after Christianity has not been easy. I’ve been to the psych ward, twice. I missed my college graduation after a major depressive episode that led to multiple suicide attempts before my roommate finally called the police and EMTs. I had a second stay in the ward this past September, due to another suicide attempt. No, life is not a cakewalk.

But that doesn’t mean I need to lean on God or religion to help me cope. I have friends. I have family. I have my own kind of faith in the world. I have myself and all the beauty and confidence I possess. And now I have closure about why I am the way I am and why I’ve gone through what I’ve gone through. I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t need fundamentalism, evangelicalism, or any of the baggage they bring, any less than I do now. All I need is to love — to love myself and to love others zealously. The rest will take care of itself.

If you think you may have a mental illness, I encourage you to seek out a mental health professional and discuss your symptoms as soon as you possibly can. Living with mental illness, especially one as severe as bipolar disorder, is no joke and we must take the needs of those suffering from any mental health condition seriously. For so long, I didn’t know what was wrong with me, and now I do. You don’t have to suffer in silence. It may be a long road to finally get the treatment you need to live a relatively normal life again, but there is hope. And my hope for you is that you keep fighting and realize that you only have one life, one you and you alone can choose how to live.

Life in a Homeschool — Part Two

ace

Guest post by Ian

Part One

It‘s been several years since I wrote my original Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series. I had wanted to finish out my experience memoirs, but the homeschooling portion of my ACE experience still hit a lot of nerves in my life. There were a lot of flux and upheaval going on throughout my homeschool years. Dad started believing in Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace), we changed churches, we were put out of a church, my parents split up for a while and other generally disrupting things happened in my life.

Some of these things are still raw, even 30 years later. I have thought about writing this off and on for a while, but could never do it. Then Bruce had a post where someone looked at, but didn’t read, my ACE experiences. (Please see Fundamentalist Man Strains at the Gnats and Swallows a Camel.) I re-read what I had written and decided I needed to finish the story.

As you read this, remember that it is my story and my experience. People may have had similar experiences, but no two people process things the same.

This is the last installment in my ACE schooling series. The first four installments were about being in actual schools that used ACE curriculum, the last two are about my homeschooling experiences along with the use of ACE. 

In tenth grade, my parents decided to homeschool my brother and me. This was due to two issues: separation from the world (and worldliness of the churches we had attended) and my brother’s dyslexia. The one-on-one instruction helped my brother; the separation issue was another matter. 

Eleventh grade started out more relaxed than tenth grade. Although we were being held to school standards, we didn’t have to wear ties or recite the pledges of allegiance to the USA and Christian flags and the Bible. Morning devotions went by the wayside, too. A lot of learning how to operate in a homeschool environment had been done, so things were just much more relaxed.

That year, we did have a major change in the school schedule. The church school we were affiliated with and my parents both decided to use a trimester school year. This consisted of the school year being in three major sections, rather than two; each trimester was 12 weeks long, with one week off in between. The pastor and my dad used the argument that long summers off were only needed for people working on farms, due to tending cattle, weeding, etc. All I knew is that this was just one more thing that made me and my brother “unique.” No TV, no Christmas, no movies, no secular music, being homeschooled, trimester school year, yep, we were unique. But we were told that we were a peculiar people, called to show God’s light. I just wanted to be normal. 

Trying to explain all of these things to neighborhood kids was like trying to explain why you had 3 legs. They knew me when I went to the Christian school. That was no big deal, there were a lot of private schools in town. Homeschooling was weird for them, but they got used to us always being home. The trimester thing was almost too much for them, though. Our breaks didn’t coincide with their breaks, so I didn’t get out with them much. 

Schooling, itself, was better. I had a better attitude, which meant that I wasn’t in as much trouble. Math was easier, since I was taking a business math course. Social Studies was still a chore, though. The rote memorization was horrible. Speeches, quotes from documents, dates, wars, peace treaties, it seemed that there was no end to what I had to memorize. I spent many hours learning these things, only to promptly forget them, once they were no longer needed. 

English was something that I enjoyed. The literature portion used the books Adventures in Appreciation and Adventures in English literature. These books were a great relief for me. The stories weren’t all religion-based, and, because the books were ACE approved, I was able to read all of the stories in them, with no parental interference. I also became good at diagramming sentences and putting words together. Those skills have helped me greatly in my various jobs — report writing has been easy for me. I attribute this to all of the practice I had in chopping up sentences and then putting them back together. 

It was during this school year that our family was put out of our church. My dad’s constant need for separation and closely following the scriptures were causing issues. That is a whole different story, but things finally came to a head that year. The fact of our being put out of the church was literally just ahead of my dad saying we were leaving. Kind of like the boss firing you before you could quit. 

We finished the year out with no other great issues. Just a couple of kids on with a weird school year who suddenly weren’t going to church anymore. Yep, the neighbor kids noticed that, too. 

Twelfth grade brought some big changes. I was no longer required to wear dress clothes to school and scripture memorization was a thing of the past. We went back to a semester school year, too. My step-mom got a job that year, so my brother and I were left to do schooling by ourselves. Now the conflicts came from me trying to make him do his work. I was responsible for making sure things got done, and I took it seriously. Probably a bit too seriously, but that is what older siblings are for. 

During the school year, I started working for my grandparents after school, as well as working part-time at the construction/environmental company my dad worked at. I would rush to get my school work done and head off to work. Fortunately, my senior year was a pretty easy year. I was able to get things done quickly, usually before lunch. My poor brother would be stuck doing his stuff, though. He had a hard time that year. I helped when I could, but I was doing my own stuff. 

In the middle of that year, my dad and step-mom split up. The weeks leading up to this caused a lot of friction at home. My brother and I stayed with Dad, while Mom moved out. It was about this time that Dad’s work started taking him out of town on a regular basis. So, my brother and I spent a lot of time staying with other people while Dad was out of town. 

By the spring of my senior year, I was working every day, part-time. School in the morning, work in the afternoon. Brother left behind. Not good. Looking back, I am amazed at how well he did on his own. I’d come home from work and help him with whatever he needed. We got him through the year, but he did a lot of it himself. 

On my final day of school, I took my last test, scored it, put it up for my dad to review, and headed out to work. I remember that I stopped by a hardware store on my way to work and bought a carbide scribe pen for a project I was doing. I’ve still got that scribe, and use it quite often. My graduation was just another day in my life. 

A week later, some friends had us over for dinner and a graduation cake. The wife gave me a couple of pencils with my name on them and a scripture-based graduation card. 

This finishes my personal experience with ACE, through regular and home school. I’ve tried to show the good, the bad, and the ugly. I learned a lot using ACE, but I also know that I missed out on so much. Literally 2 years ago, I was in a museum looking at Chinese exhibits. The dates given coincided with the time of the Exodus. It hit me, like a ton of bricks, that I had never given any thought to what else was happening in the world while reading my Bible stories. All I knew was what I had been taught by a narrow, prejudiced system. 

Math and English were okay for me, but that system won’t work for everyone. 

Spelling was easy for me. 

Social Studies was a joke. I learned so many things that were either twisted to fit a narrative or outright lies. Very little that I learned has been applicable in any way. It was only after studying history for myself that I began to have an understanding of how and why things are the way they are. 

Science made no sense because it didn’t have a grounding in real world application, for me, anyway. It wasn’t until I started working in a job that required using chemicals that I really began to understand those principles. 

The scripture-based studies, Old and New Testament Survey, Life of Christ, etc., are pretty much useless in the real world unless you are going to have a job at a church or Bible college. 

Those of you who have gone through ACE will be able to relate to my experiences. Those of you who haven’t will just shake your heads. Thank you for following along, though. 

Thank you, Bruce, for allowing me to share. 

Liberty University Ignores Counseling Intern Sarah Leitner’s Abuse Claims, Expels Her Instead

sarah leitner

Sarah Leitner is a regular commenter on this blog. What follows is her story about being abused while a counseling intern and how Liberty University ignored her personal and legal appeals for help. You can read more about Sarah’s story at the Thou Art the Man blog.

From Fall 2015 to February 2016, as a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision student [at Liberty University], I was a counseling intern at a Navy brig. Due to my site supervisor’s actions, I feared for my life on two occasions, leading to PTSD. Many other occasions were filled with lower levels of abuse. Simultaneously, my daughter’s mental crises worsened leaving me with constant crises at an abusive internship site and constant crises at home.

Dr. [Melvin] Pride, the Clinical Supervisor at Liberty University and part of the leadership of the Counselor Education and Supervision program, refused to assist, even as I described the unsafe situation in multiple emails, including an email in mid-February 2016 where I explicitly stated I was not safe. Often it seemed as if Dr. Pride did not read my emails as he responded late or not at all. Sometimes he would respond to crises with irrelevant statements, such as how busy he was, instead of responding and/or removing me from the internship site. When I resigned from the site in February 2016, Liberty University continued to deny the abuse had occurred. I wondered how a professor who was supposed to have at least some experience with counseling trauma could miss the traumatic experiences I was undergoing, experiences that made me feel as if I was an indentured servant at the internship site.

In Fall 2016, after asking for an investigation from the department, Title IX, and multiple other departments of the University, I reluctantly went to a second internship site. Simultaneously, in Fall 2016 I filed a complaint with the Inspector General for the Bureau of Personnel (IG BUPERS) and again attempted to file Title IX within Liberty University. The Interim Dean of the School of Behavioral Sciences, Dr. [Steve] Warren, agreed, in writing, to postpone the final grade appeal until the IG Report was complete.

However, Dean [Lisa] Sosin, part of the Ph.D. program’s leadership, falsely told the IG that I had not reported abuse until I left the internship site. Based on this as well as statements from the offenders, the IG closed the complaint in late December 2016.

Simultaneous to the IG investigation, in November 2016, I attempted to withdraw from the internship course, now taught by Dr. [Mary] Deacon, due to the PTSD and my daughter’s quickly deteriorating mental health. The request was quickly denied. I was forced to continue the internship. I would find out later that Dr. Sosin had told the Investigator that I had not said I had been abused at the site while I was at the internship, despite the many emails I had sent to her and the department.

Around December 5, 2016, days after I found out my child was not safe at school and had been assaulted daily at camp in Summer 2015, Dr. Sosin and the leadership of the Ph.D. program – likely Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride – sent me a letter of concern with many inaccurate statements. The letter also stated that all of my grade appeals were over even though one was remaining. When I emailed Dr. Sosin, I was not allowed to dispute the inaccuracies. I abandoned the last, final appeal with Dean Warren because I believed I would be expelled if I continued that appeal.

From late November 2016 to January 2017, I was an intern for Win4Life, working at Shield Ministries. This was arranged because most Shield Ministry clients lacked transportation to come to Win4Life. Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride were notified of this in December 2016 and did not reply. In December 2016, my supervisor at Win4Life and I met with Shield Ministries discuss how Win4Life could work with Shield Ministries in the future beyond my internship. At that point, my supervisor at Win4Life, myself, and Liberty University did not know that David Truluck was a sex offender as he was not forthcoming with this information. In late January, David Truluck of Shield Ministries texted me, telling me that he had to get board approval for me to be an intern there.

February 2017: My licensure supervisor and I notified Dr. Deacon that the Win4Life partnership with Shield Ministries would be dissolved due to the actions of an erratic individual (David Truluck). Even though Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride had previously been appraised of the situation in two emails, and had responded to one of the emails, in February 2017 Dr. Deacon and Dr. Pride chose to expel me from the Ph.D. program when David Truluck at Shield Ministries denied a contract with Win4Life existed. Liberty University decided that Shield Ministries had been an “unauthorized” internship site, even though at that time Liberty University gave no guidelines or examples in the course manual that would give me, Win4Life, or any other individual any reason to believe I was at an unauthorized internship site. Although my supervisor at Win4Life and my licensure supervisor both spoke to Liberty University on my behalf, Liberty University refused to change its decision.

In Fall 2017, the official grade appeal process was completed. I attempted to file with Title IX on at least two more occasions. In early Spring 2019, due to a FERPA request, I received additional documentation from Liberty. The documentation I received from Liberty University due to my FERPA request was extensive, repetitive, often incorrect, and missing key details. Thus I do not believe this documentation was in compliance with federal law. I also found out, much to my surprise, that Liberty University had decided I had been “unethical” because I didn’t have a license as a counselor – when I did have one!

As my attempts to seek justice and to ensure the safety of future Liberty University students, I emailed Jerry Falwell on October 21, 2018, notifying him that I had been “ordered to return to an internship site where I was not safe,” and “was not allowed to withdraw from the internship course when I found out my child was not safe at school and had been sexually assaulted every day at camp 15 months earlier.” Furthermore, I asked Jerry Falwell, “How is it okay that mentioning a safety issue means I went round and round with the university and no department at the University has authority to do anything?”

Jerry Falwell responded on October 25, 2018, stating: “I have looked into this situation and understand that there are several trustworthy people at the University that have already been diligent in working with you. …” — which left me wondering who these people were.

On October 26, 2018, David Corry, general counsel for Liberty University, responded to me via email, stating: “…I am also aware of your allegations regarding our faculty interactions with the Inspector General… We are satisfied that at this time all your concerns have been handled and addressed appropriately…. Under the circumstances, any future communications you send may not be responded to by the University. We wish you well.”

Sarah is taking legal action against Liberty University. You can read Dr. Charlotte Murrow Taylor’s report about Sarah’s claims here.

The Blood is on Their Hands

bloody hands

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Three weeks ago, my cousin passed away.

I learned of his death in a text from his sister. Seeming to anticipate my question, she said it had nothing to do with COVID-19. Rather, he had fallen asleep for the last time.

By today’s standards, he was young to have died that way. Still, it somehow wasn’t a surprise: Given his condition, it’s almost surprising that he made it into his mid-50s. He never learned how to speak or feed himself; he never acquired the basic day-to-day skills most of us have — whether through instruction or osmosis — by the time we’re about three or four years old. Lacking in motor control, he could not walk without supervision, and even with help, those walks were brief. Other kinds of exercise were out of the question, so he — who was naturally big — became obese, which may have led to other conditions he developed.

For most of his life, he was institutionalized. In fact, he was a patient at one of the most notorious mental hospitals — Willowbrook State School, in Staten Island, New York — when a local Eyewitness News reporter exposed conditions that would have made Hard Times seem like Pollyanna. (I once told someone, only half-jokingly, that my cousin helped to make Geraldo Rivera famous.) At the time of his death, my cousin — whom I’ll call Randall — had been living in a group home for more than half of his life.

Although he didn’t succumb to COVID-19, his demise seems — at least to me — connected to a colleague, a student and a friendly acquaintance of mine who died that way. And their deaths all made me angry for the same reason.

My aunt was a devout Roman Catholic who later became an Evangelical Christian. When Randall was a toddler and his sister — whom I’ll name Lorinda — was entering school, they had serious problems. Randall, as I mentioned, wasn’t developing in normal ways. Lorinda, on the other hand, was very intelligent and articulate, but had difficulties that, as it turned out, were related to her vision. Then, as now, my aunt believed that faith and prayer could heal. That also meant that her children’s maladies were a signal from God that she had been, in some way, sinful. In the milieu in which I grew up — pre-Vatican II Catholic in a post-Vatican II world — such beliefs were still common.

Lorinda nearly went blind. Only intervention from a social worker got her the treatment she needed. That same social worker helped to secure a place for Randall at Willowbrook, apparently unaware of its dire conditions. To be fair, at that time, half a century ago, there was little, if any, effective treatment available anywhere in the US for profoundly retarded people.

My anger over what Lorinda and Randall endured at such a tender age re-surfaced with the deaths of my colleague, student and friend because, at bottom, one cause of their deaths was misguided and manipulated religious faith. One reason why leaders at every level of government in the United States have responded to the threat of COVID-19 in ways that were ineffectual, duplicitous, or simply callous is pressure from fundamentalist religious organizations, whether Evangelical Christian in “red” states or Ultra-Orthodox Jews (whose political and social stances are all but identical to those of Evangelical Christians) in large “blue” cities. Some of those leaders are fundamentalists; others, like the President, have allied themselves with the Christian equivalents of Wahhabis because they know their election (or re-election) prospects depend on doing so. That is why mayors, governors, and the President have been willing to throw science to the wind and allow religious gatherings — as if such congregations are any less likely to spread the virus than, say, a concert, art opening, or sporting event.

I am angry today because cynical, rapacious political and religious leaders are still playing on people’s insecurities, and stoking their fears, to inculcate them with disproved notions about who or what is causing illness and pandemics—and how to deal with those things. The blood of my cousin, colleague, student and friend is on their hands.

COVID-19 Is God’s Love. Deal With It

god loves you

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Yesterday morning, Brian Lehrer did a segment on how people are celebrating their holy days during the COVID-19 epidemic. One of his guests was Jacqueline Lewis, the pastor of a “social justice” church in New York City. Lehrer asked her how she squares her faith with the terrible inequalities and injustices the pandemic has exposed. She said, in essence, that “God has a plan” and that “while we may not understand it, we have to trust it” because he is a “God of love.”

She is far from the only clergy member, or believer, to express such sentiments. I don’t doubt the pastor’s commitment to serve the underserved or question the sincerity of her belief that her faith is central to her work. However, she did not — could not? — explain how a “God of love” allows people of color, immigrants and the poor to be over-represented among the victims and casualties of the coronavirus. 

Because we’ve all heard variations of what she said, I wasn’t disappointed. I was, however, angry. Later, I realized why: in her own way, she wasn’t so different from pastors like Rick Wiles or the fundamentalists of other religions who warn us that the epidemic is “God’s punishment” for whatever you care to name. While she doesn’t preach hate, she says that God’s “justice” can, in times like these, burden those least able to bear it. Rev. Wiles wouldn’t disagree. Nor would Pat Roberts, who said the devastating earthquake in Haiti was payback for their “pact with the devil” that allowed them to defeat their French colonizers two centuries earlier. (That “pact,” he said, is the reason why the island’s people have endured so much misfortune.) Nor, for that matter, would other preachers who claimed that any number of natural disasters were “divine retribution” for “sins” (like legalizing same-sex marriage) committed by people thousands of miles away.

In other words, they are all saying that God unleashes his wrath and sometimes innocent people are collateral damage. The only difference between Lewis and the others is that she says that we can’t understand, but we should trust, God’s will, while Robertson, Wiles and the others are basically telling us that God is like the parent who punishes his kids because he had a bad day at work and that we should just get used to it. 

Oh, and they tell us that we should continue to pray to God. Maybe, just maybe, he will listen to our pleas for mercy and justice. 

Or will he?

God is deaf nowadays and will not hear us

And for our guilt he grinds good men to dust.

It’s easy to imagine those lines coming from someone questioning his or her faith in the face of the current pandemic. Or the Holocaust. Or World War I. Or almost any other tragedy you care to name. As a matter of fact, they are part of a response to another collective trauma that bears at least a few parallels to our situation: the Black Death of Medieval Europe.

Those lines come from Piers Plowman, an epic poem that is an allegory of the narrator’s quest for a “true” Christian life in a world of medieval Catholicism. It is commonly attributed to William Langland, about whom little is known besides the fact that he witnessed the Black Death during his youth. Although the poem seems to be intended as a tale of the triumph of Christian virtue and charity, it often lapses — intentionally or not — into social satire. (Perhaps, not surprisingly, it also contains the first known literary reference to the Robin Hood tales.) Langland, or whoever wrote Piers, undoubtedly saw how some within the Church used the Black Death to exploit fears and prejudices about Jews, gypsies and “others.”

Those hatreds are not new. Nor, apparently, is the notion that God is an abusive parent who will tear the house apart and his innocent children might get hit with the flying objects — and that we simply have to understand that it’s “his way” and live with it. In Langland’s time, there wasn’t anyplace else to go if you left the church — that is, if you lived to tell about it. Likewise, they internalized the blame and shame and believed that their parents — and God — knew what was best for them.

Today we don’t have to accept the guilt of someone else being punished for sins or mere misdeeds we may or may not realize we’ve committed. In short, we don’t have to lie to ourselves about love or justice or mercy —whether God’s or a parent’s. And we don’t have to believe they’re listening when they’re not. All we can do is to listen to those who are crying and do what we can to ease their pain, and ours.

(By the way, here is the original of the Piers Plowman verse:

For God is deaf nowadays and deigneth not us to hear

That girls (children) for their guilts (sins) he forgrint (destroys) them all.)

Life in a Homeschool — Part One

ace

Guest post by Ian

It‘s been several years since I wrote my original Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series. I had wanted to finish out my experience memoirs, but the homeschooling portion of my ACE experience still hit a lot of nerves in my life. There were a lot of flux and upheaval going on throughout my homeschool years. Dad started believing in Calvinism (or Sovereign Grace), we changed churches, we were put out of a church, my parents split up for a while and other generally disrupting things happened in my life.

Some of these things are still raw, even 30 years later. I have thought about writing this off and on for a while, but could never do it. Then Bruce had a post where someone looked at, but didn‘t read, my ACE experiences. Please see Fundamentalist Man Strains at the Gnats and Swallows a Camel.) I re-read what I had written and decided I needed to finish the story.

As you read this, remember that it is my story and my experience. People may have had similar experiences, but no two people process things the same.

It may be helpful to go back and read about my ACE school experiences before starting into this. I‘ll break this up into two parts, to make it easier to read. I want to say thanks to everyone who has read my story, and to Bruce for making this platform available.

In my 10th grade year, 1987-88, Mom and Dad began to homeschool my brother and me. My brother has severe dyslexia and my parents felt that homeschooling, using ACE, would be best for him. Also, my dad had started becoming more and more separated from the world and he didn‘t want the worldly influences in the Christian schools affecting us.

Between my 9th and 10th grade years, we began attending a different church. Due to Dad‘s belief in separation, there were a lot of tensions in the church we had been attending. We visited an IFB/Missionary Baptist church, and found a new church home. This church had a school, so
my parents ordered our school supplies through them and began schooling us at home.

The first year, my parents tried to make it like a traditional school. We had to get up, dress in ACE uniforms, say the Pledges of Allegiance, do devotions, say prayers, we used flags to ask for help, and referred to our mom as Mrs. XXXXX. If we didn‘t finish our work in time, we had homework slips. We got demerits and detentions. It was truly like school, except for we were there 24/7. We lived in a small apartment, so there was no escape from school.

That first year was tough. I hated it. | resented it. Already, my whole life was different. My dad was to the right of anyone we knew. Everything was wicked and evil. Now, we were homeschooling, which was something even more unusual. I got into a lot of trouble that first year. Scoring violations were my biggest issue. I just didn‘t care, I hated being home with my
parents all day long, I was upset that we had to act like this was a real school, and l was always in trouble because of my attitude.

Even simple things were an issue. I took a typing course. I wanted to do it on a computer since that was the wave of the future. No way. I had to use an old portable typewriter that weighed a ton and was a pain in the ass to use. l was taking typing and, by God, l was going to learn on a typewriter. I learned how to type, but hated every minute of it.

Because we did devotions every morning, l was constantly getting dumped on. My dad would go through a book of the Bible in devotions and pick out things that my brother and I had done wrong. Calvinism is nothing if not oppressive. We would read a Bible story, and it seemed like it always translated into how I could do things better. We were constantly being told that we weren‘t good enough and that we needed to live up to the Christian ideals. We should be proud to be peculiar. We should be happy to suffer for being different.

Here‘s one example of what was going on at the time. I had a decent GI Joe collection. Something happened, and my mom told me that I should get rid of them, in order to further my Christian growth. In one of the few times I talked back to her, told her that the GI Joes were all I had, meaning something for fun. She countered with something to the effect of, “All you have? Well, Jesus gave up all he had to save you. You can‘t give up some toys for him?” I can still feel the raw emotion of that all of these years later.

What does that have to do with homeschool, you ask? It is to show you how homeschool, church, and life were wrapped tightly together. Homeschool was a nightmare.

We were made to memorize huge portions of the Bible. Dad had my brother and me stand up in front of the church and recite the entirety of John 14, 15 and 16. l was expected to do this perfectly. It made my dad proud, but did nothing for me. I can still quote Romans13:1-7, but haven‘t looked at it for years.

I‘m dyslexic, but nothing like my brother. I never even knew it until probably 10 years ago. The math lessons I had to do were greatly hindered by my dyslexia. Anyone who has done high school math using ACE will know what a nightmare it is. l was doing Algebra but had no clue of what I was doing. My mom didn‘t know it either. So, she would argue with me about how problems should be solved. We would look at the score keys and try to figure it out from there. This was 1988, so there was no Google. Interspersed with the Algebra were pages of long division and multiplication, to hone our basic skills. I struggled through 11 Algebra PACEs, only to be given a huge, horrible surprise. The last PACE was a review of everything I had done. I didn‘t remember more than half. I was yelled at because I should have remembered everything; Mom didn‘t remember any of it, though; funny. I had nights where I wanted to cry.

Added to the horrible math was learning “Christianized” history. Very small subjects were covered. We were required to memorize speeches and writings. We were given no context as to why the Magna Carta was important, except for some Christian rubbish. The French Revolution
was basically just rebellious people who didn‘t realize that God put rulers in place for a reason.

Non-Christian explorers were minimized, but we knew all about the godly interests of Christopher Columbus and the fact that he wanted to bring Christianity to the heathens.

Science was no better. No context for anything. This made learning a miserable experience.

My brother and l were sometimes able to tag along with the church‘s school on field trips. Not too often, though — wouldn‘t want to catch any worldliness.

Mom did help out in the church school for a couple of weeks and it was a great break from the horrible routine. It was nice to get up and actually go to school. We had fun at break times. It was like a vacation. But that came to an end and we had to go back to reality.

That first year of ACE homeschool was brutal. Homeschool can be a good thing, but it has to be done properly. By trying too hard to make a schooling environment, my parents just created a negative learning environment.

My parents and l have talked about this, and have made peace with everything. I didn‘t want to leave the impression that I‘m carrying around anger and hatred towards them.

My brother did well, though. The extra attention he was given helped him in reading and comprehension, and he finally started reading at his grade level.

I‘ll stop here for now. That year stands on its own. My last two years were better.

The Doctor We Need

C Everett Koop

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

I am an atheist and a Democrat. Even so, the public official I have most respected, for most of my adult life, was a conservative Christian — and a rock-ribbed Republican.

If you are around my age, you have an image of him with a bushy, mustacheless beard. You remember him wearing what looked like a Naval Admiral’s uniform, or a suit with a brightly-colored bow tie that served as a diacritical mark highlighting his facial hair.

Most important, though, you remember the way he acted while he was on the national (and, for a time, worldwide) stage. That behavior was completely consistent with his professional ethos as well as his personal values.

His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981. Charles Everett Koo His name was Charles Everett Koop. Ronald Reagan, during his first year as President of the United States, nominated Dr. Koop as Surgeon General. Despite objections from feminists, LGBT people, and secularists, the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed his confirmation late in 1981.

He would soon put their fears to rest. Although he personally opposed abortion because of his religious beliefs, he would not succumb to pressure from the Reagan administration to prepare a report stating that abortion is psychologically damaging to women. Ever the doctor (pediatric surgeon) and scientist, he said there simply wasn’t evidence to corroborate what the President wanted him to say. 

His stance seems even more consistent with his credo when you realize how active he was in championing the rights of the newborn. Although he was not personally involved with the case, he was motivated by the death of a six-day-old boy who was born with Down Syndrome and denied surgical treatment to correct his esophageal atresia and tracheoesophageal fistula. Before he became Surgeon General, he was, for more than three decades, the surgeon-in-chief at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, during which he saw increasing survival rates for babies with congenital maladies. During his last eight years, he never lost a full-term baby on whom he operated to correct esophageal atresia.

He would also call attention to the AIDS epidemic when the President would not utter the word “AIDS” in public. Liberal and LGBT groups criticized him for highlighting the dangers of sexual intercourse in general, and gay sex in particular, for spreading the disease. But he was also excoriated by religious conservatives and others for recommending mandatory sex education, beginning in the third grade.

Finally, he put his scientific knowledge ahead of the wishes of his boss when he called for stronger warnings against tobacco use. He infuriated some of the largest donors to the Republican Party—namely, cigarette makers—by issuing a report saying that nicotine has addictive qualities similar to those of heroin and cocaine, and should be treated as such.

After he left public life, he started a website that published articles that turned out to be little more than advertisements. Still, he deserves credit for his fealty to empirical evidence over the agenda of an administration, or even his own religious beliefs.

It seems that a Dr. Koop for this generation, if you will, has emerged. Like Koop, he is a physician and scientist. He, too, became a national public official during the Reagan Administration. He is also is resisting, quite publicly, a President and administration who deny science at every turn. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci became the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1984. He has remained in that position under six Presidents, turning down several offers to lead the NIAID’s parent organization, the National Institutes of Health. During his tenure, Fauci has been at the forefront of efforts to deal with HIV, SARS, Ebola and other contagious diseases. In 2003, the Institute for Scientific Information stated that during the previous two decades, Fauci was “the 13th-most cited scientists among the 2.5 to 3 million authors in all disciplines throughout the world who published articles in scientific journals.”

His current boss denied the threat of the coronavirus until a couple of days ago. Even after Donald Trump finally acknowledged the severity of the pandemic and the need to take unprecedented actions against it (and the economic disruptions it’s causing), he continued to blame the Chinese for it. And members of his administration insist that, while public gatherings and physical contact of other kinds have been banned in various cities and countries, church-goers won’t get sick by attending worship services, and that communion wafers and shared wine cups won’t transmit the virus.

Dr. Fauci, in another parallel with Dr. Koop, refutes those, and other, follies—and articulates his dire but accurate warnings—in clear, unambiguous language. The main difference, I believe, between the two men’s situations is that while most of the pressure on Koop came from “behind the scenes,” Fauci must make himself heard when his boss is an overbearing bully who is always trying to talk over him. Fortunately for us, Dr. Fauci, it seems, has been heard, loud and clear. 

So here is another case of history repeating itself: Drs. Koop and Fauci had to fight against religious superstition and plain-and-simple bigotry in the hope that empirical evidence would guide public policy. Unfortunately, if history teaches us anything, it’s that every public health crisis will need a Dr. Koop or a Dr. Fauci, whatever his or her ecumenical or political affiliations, to prevail against religious bigotry and political partisanship. People who were caught in earlier epidemics like the Black Death, unfortunately, did not have anyone like either of them.

The Real Bankruptcy

scouting for boys

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

The Boy Scouts of America recently declared bankruptcy. Not coincidentally, a number of Roman Catholic dioceses have declared bankruptcy during the past decade.

Today I live as a woman and an atheist. But I grew up as a Boy Scout in the Catholic Church. From my current perspective, decades after my involvement with the Church and the Scouts, I can see some parallels between the organizations—and how they are failing for essentially the same reasons.

According to a Pew survey, as of 2015, 32 percent of Americans were raised as Catholics, but only 21 percent remained in the Church. Moreover, while the number of Protestants who reported attending a church service during the previous seven days has held steady in the 40 to 45 percent range since the 1950s, during that same period, it fell by nearly half—from 75 to 39 percent—for Catholics. The fall-off is even steeper among young people: While Catholics of all ages attended mass at nearly the same rate in 1955, by 2017, only 25 percent of 21-to-29-year-olds (compared to 49 percent of Catholics 60 and over) went to church.

The Boy Scouts of America is hemorrhaging membership even more quickly than the Church. At its peak in 1972—when I was earning my Star Scout badge—6.5 million boys were in its ranks. By 2016, that number had fallen by nearly two-thirds, to 2.3 million. Two years later, in response to the BSA’s decisions to allow gays, transgenders and girls—and to change its name to “Scouts BSA” — the Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) cut its ties with the organization. About 425,000 Scouts are also members of the Mormon Church, so the national organization faced losing 18 percent of its membership in one fell swoop.

The Mormons aren’t the only ones blaming gays and girls for the demise of Scouting, at least as their elders knew it. All manner of reactionaries in the mainstream as well as the fringe media are also laying the Scouts’ troubles at the feet of those who want to foist “political correctness” (i.e., an acceptance of reality) on the rest of the world. They hear raised glasses clinking in gay bars and in The New York Times and The Washington Post newsrooms when the Scouts’ troubles are reported.

Those same pundits, whoever appointed them as such, view the decline of the Catholic Church in America and Europe in much the same way. They hold to the discredited notion that “loosening moral standards”—by which they mean societal acceptance of homosexuality and gender non-conformity—are responsible for the epidemic of sexual abuse by priests and church officials. To bolster their claim, they’ll say that the incidence of such abuse peaked during the 1960s and 1970s. To be fair, perhaps they are making an honest mistake in not realizing that those numbers are of reported incidents. One reason those numbers are high is because of people like me (baby boomers) who came of age when sexual abuse by any adult, let alone priests, was not openly discussed and it was more likely that the child—if he or she had the vocabulary, let alone awareness, to talk about it—was likely to be shamed or punished for “lying” about a priest who held an esteemed status in the family and community. Many of us did not report our sexual abuse until decades later, while those who suffered before had died.

What conservative and reactionary commentators fail to realize is that both the Church and the Scouts in America are sinking, not only under the weight of lawsuits brought by those who were abused in their confines, but also through their own irrelevance—which, itself, is one of the reasons why those abuses happen.

In brief, both the Church and the Scouts were founded upon mythologies that were outdated and even demonstrably false the moment they were adopted. The Catholic Church, like other Christian Churches, is based on a belief in stories like the death and resurrection of Christ and other miracles that fly in the face of empirical reality. Those stories were told and re-told, written and re-written, in ways that appeal to the hope (or simply the wish) that one’s lot in life can improve. Yes, there is redemption and resurrection—as long as you align yourself with power (God), even if it is often cruel and capricious and destroys innocent lives that happen to be in its path.

How is this different from the goals and means of a paramilitary youth organization? (Not for nothing are Scouting units called “Troops” and the sub-units “Patrols”.) Lord Baden-Powell said, in essence, that his purposes in starting the Scouts were to inculcate boys with “good moral character.” (Is that a code phrase, or what?) The Scout Law says a Scout is “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.” (I didn’t have to Google that: I still know it, by heart, all of these decades later!) They all sound like fine characteristics, and they are. But he did not mean that those values are intrinsically worthy. You see, he was not only a military man, but a full-on imperialist who saved the garrison in Mafeking by commandeering all of the food for the white population, leaving Africans with the choice of starvation in the town or dispersal in the veldt—where, of course, many more died of hunger and disease. He ordered the flogging and shooting of Africans who tried to “steal” food while caviar was being served in the Mafeking hotel.

His book Scouting For Boys (1908) is full of naked appeals to “national unity” and defenses of the British Empire—and what a duty and privilege it is for a young man to be one of its bulwarks. (Every page practically screams Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.) While perhaps more subtle, similar calls to duty and patriotism permeated my Boy Scout Handbook published more than six decades after Baden-Powell’s piece of propaganda. Notions of God and the King (or Queen) meshed with a frontier myth that appropriated Native American traditions for the purpose of asserting an American version of Victorian-style Muscular Christianity. Boys with whom I grew up were as ready to defend their country’s interests—whatever their leaders said those interests were—as young British men were to help Britannia rule.

Indoctrinating young and powerless people with myths and propaganda not only gives them a false sense of their own power and their right to exercise it, but also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation by those on whom power is bestowed in such a structure. That sense that the weak can be powerful, that those who lose the zip code lottery can find themselves living in Hammock Oaks if they align themselves with the values of the powerful—which is to say, to believe the myths they promulgate—make them prime targets for exploitation. So is it a surprise, then, that sex abuse has been so rampant in both the Boy Scouts/Scouts BSA and the Catholic Church?

I think not. To me, the only surprise is that even more people haven’t come forward because such abuse did not, as the conservative pundits assert, arise in the 1960s or 70s. It has become part of the DNA of both organizations because of their inherently imbalanced power structures, and the way those structures can be, and have been, used to exploit the vulnerable. If anything, I’d reckon that such abuses were even more rampant in the early history of the church and scouting, when fewer people questioned the authority of those who led and represented them.

Blaming the decline of the church or scouting on girls or gays, then, makes about as much sense as blaming bipolar disorder on demons. Both institutions are dying, at least in some parts of the world, because people—especially the young—are seeing them as irrelevant and corrupt as they are, and have been. No “return to traditional values,” whatever that means, can change that.

(In case you were wondering: In some of my previous articles, I talked about the sexual abuse I experienced from a priest in the late 1960s. I did not experience anything of the sort in the Scout troops to which I belonged. But long before the recent revelations hit the media, I heard stories from others who were Scouts.)

Other Posts by MJ Lisbeth

Witnesses To Abuse

A Cross He Could, and Would, Not Bear

D-Day in New York – It’s About Time

The God Pushers Are Having Their Day in The Developing World — For Now

Teach Them to Read and They Won’t Have Kids — Or Go to Church

Bitcoin For The Church: The Young Won’t Be Fooled

I Could Have Been One Of Them — In Alabama

The Irish — And The World’s — Reveille

The Real “Crisis” And “Scandal” In the Church

Burning In The Cathedral And Benedict’s Imagination

Why I Didn’t Help Him

The News Makes Me Think About Him

A Longer Statute Of Limitations for Reporting Sexual Abuse: Why It’s Necessary — And Not Enough

 

 

J. Lo, Shakira, and the Evangelical Purity Culture

j lo and shakira super bowl

Guest Post by ObstacleChick

In the United States, Super Bowl Sunday is a big deal. People who rarely watch American football during the regular season will gather together to watch the Super Bowl Championship game. Companies pay millions of dollars to buy advertisement time during the broadcast, and many of the ads are quite clever, funny, or touching. The halftime show typically features A-list performers with advanced choreography, lighting, and showmanship.

This year, the performers were Latina entertainers Jennifer Lopez and Shakira. Both are women over 40 who are superstars in their respective genres. In addition to her career as a singer-dancer-entertainer, J. Lo is also an actress and a judge on the show “World of Dance”. Shakira is known for her dual Lebanese and Colombian heritage, incorporating belly dancing into her performances, and she was a voice character in the animated movie “Zootopia”. Both performers have won multiple awards during their careers.

It did not take long for the Evangelical Christian world to lose their minds over the halftime show. J. Lo and Shakira, along with their backup dancers, put on a dance-heavy performance in which many appeared to be scantily clad, though in photos it’s obvious that J. Lo’s base layer was a long flesh-colored bodysuit, and Shakira’s costumes were no more scanty than the outfits of the cheerleaders on the field. However, Evangelical Christian sensibilities were ruffled by the fact that these two women, both over the age of 40, were dancing and wearing costumes that showed some of their skin or what appeared to be skin.

Common in Evangelical Christianity is the concept of purity culture. Purity culture revolves around the way that Evangelical Christians believe their deity designed men and women. They teach that men were designed to be predatory, dominant, aggressive, and aroused by visual stimuli. Women, conversely, are designed to be passive, nurturing, submissive, and aroused by tactile stimuli, and are therefore the designated gatekeepers of all sexual activity. The belief is that if a man sees something that arouses him, he will be unable to control his urge to dominate and possess what he sees. As women supposedly are not aroused until they are touched, they have the ability to thwart sexual activity by not drawing attention to themselves and by saying no. The idea is that if a woman draws attention to herself by wearing clothing that shows her physique, by any motions that draw attention to her physique (such as dancing or swaying of her hips), even by making direct eye contact with a male or “flirting,” that means she is signaling that she welcomes sexual activity. She is therefore at least partially culpable in any sexual activity. In Evangelical Christian purity culture, I learned that it was important to be as silent and as invisible as possible in order to prevent sexual advances from men.

When J. Lo and Shakira sang and danced on stage, purity culture adherents viewed their activity as openly welcoming sexual activity. The performers were tempting upstanding Christian men and boys to desire sexual activity with them. Additionally, J. Lo and Shakira were demonstrating to girls and women how to draw the attention of men. The performers repudiated purity culture’s directive to be as silent and as invisible as possible. These two mature, successful, talented performers dominated the stage and made their voices heard. (I won’t even address the references they made to children singing in cages, the nods to Shakira’s Middle Eastern heritage, J. Lo’s use of the Puerto Rican and US flags or her daughter’s singing of “Born in the USA”, but those were all important elements in the show as well.)

I grew up in the 1980s with purity culture, but fortunately I was too old for the more slickly marketed purity culture that exploded during the 1990s and 2000s. It affected me as well to the point that I hated and was ashamed of my body and wore oversized clothing for several years. In the Fundamentalist Christian school I attended, we had a strict dress code that included rules about skirt length, sleeve length, and cleavage-covering. Prior to our senior trip, girls had to model their swimsuits in front of three female faculty members for approval. The message was that we were to be “feminine” but also well-covered so as not to draw too much attention from our male classmates and teachers. My mom did not know the extent of purity culture that I was taught at church and school, and she did not understand the source of my body hatred. When I was in my early 20s, my mom bought me a two-piece bathing suit and a suede miniskirt and told me that I should wear these types of clothes while I still “could” before the inevitable obesity that plagues females in our family set in. Eventually, I became accustomed to wearing age-appropriate and body-appropriate clothing, but the body image issues have never completely gone away.

I no longer see my body as a temptation to men, something to be covered and hidden. Life experiences taught me that people are responsible for their own actions, and I am not responsible for someone violating my consent. As I have grown older, I am a lot more vocal about what I will and will not tolerate from other people. As someone who has become an athlete later in life, I have learned a lot about what my body can and cannot do and about the signals it gives me when it is hungry, tired, or in need of care. I can still find plenty of things “wrong” with how my body looks, but I will no longer cover up just because of someone else’s rules about “modesty,” nor will I cover up because of my own insecurities, which are probably mostly in my head anyway. I wish I had known at age 18 what I now know at age 50, but I believe I have been successful in passing along to my own daughter that she should use her voice, own her space, and demand that others respect consent.

I will no longer be as silent and as invisible as possible in order to ward off actions that are the responsibility of someone else. Purity culture and all it entails can go to hell.

Witnesses To Abuse

witness

Guest post by MJ Lisbeth

Thirty-five years ago this month, Paramount Pictures released Witness.

It was tailor-made for the Reagan administration, and for the religious right, in that it depicts the hardworking, pious Amish as virtuous and anyone associated with The City (in this case, Philadelphia) as depraved and corrupt. That said, I will admit that I saw the movie twice and enjoyed it, mainly for some of the acting performances (which were charming or engaging, if not incisive) as well as individual scenes.

One scene that sticks out, in my mind, takes place in the 30th Street station, where Samuel Lapp, an 8-year-old Amish boy and Rachel Lapp, his recently-widowed mother, are transferring from one train to another. Moments before he witnesses a brutal murder, he sees an elderly man wearing a black coat and hat. The boy believes, for a moment, that he’s met a member of his own community; the man’s face quickly turns into a frown of rejection, which the boy mirrors. That man, it turned out, was a Chasidic Jew.

The scene was inserted mainly as a visual comic relief. Were the writing and direction of Witness more sensitive, or simply more conscious, that scene could have highlighted the “so close and yet so far” relationship between the two religious communities and cultures: While the Amish are farmers and most Chasidic Jews live in or near large cities, both reject modern secular society in nearly all of its manifestations, right down to the way people dress.

Oh, and there’s another similarity between them. It came to light only recently, but I’d had an inkling of it for some time.

During my childhood, my family visited an Amish family every summer. Although I enjoyed seeing the countryside and animals, and learning about a different way of life, I was always glad to return home, even with the emotionally unsupportive family I had: I am a city girl at heart. (All right, I was living as a boy in those days.) But I don’t think that I would have liked spending any more time than I did in that bucolic setting for another reason: Even though the people were friendly and generous, something I couldn’t articulate troubled me.

Ironically, it became a bit clearer to me when I was teaching at an Orthodox yeshiva many years later. Of course, my relationship with the pupils was very different from my experience with the Amish children I met. My family’s visits to the Amish farm were “fun” for the kids—and us—in the same way as time spent with cousins or other peers whose company you have, and enjoy, only on holidays and other occasions. While I had to be the literal and proverbial “adult in the room” for Jewish boys I taught, we didn’t have to live with each other: Their expressions of vulnerability were momentary, and we went back to our lives afterward. Still, it was hard not to see that both the Jewish and Amish boys were more vulnerable and felt more like they were failing, in one way or another, than their parents and other adults in their lives might have realized.

I also couldn’t help but notice that in both communities, the women and girls didn’t seem happy. Rather, they seemed dutifully resigned to their fate. Perhaps some even found a way to “make peace” with it, or to find some sort of fulfillment in conforming to the roles their cultures and religions prescribed for them. Even the boys—who, like their counterparts almost everywhere else, enjoyed more freedom than their sisters, mothers, aunts or grandmothers—seemed to be living in a fear that ran deeper than that of simply displeasing, and incurring scorn from, their elders.

A year ago, I wrote about a yeshiva student of mine who was sexually exploited by a rabbi at his synagogue. Around that time, the media were reporting sexual abuse of children in ultra-Orthodox communities. Those revelations came not long after a wave of stories about clergy members and others in positions of authority who took advantage of altar boys and other children in various churches, including the Roman Catholic and Mormon, as well as evangelical sects. Around the same time, the “Me-Too” movement was spreading.

None of those developments surprised me, as I had just recently “come out,” if you will, about my own experiences of sexual abuse by a priest. It was the first time I’d talked about them with anyone besides a therapist or a former partner of mine. Some might say I am “projecting,” but any subsequent revelation of sexual abuse in a religious organization or community has not caught me by surprise. I include one of the most recent, namely, the horrors of sexual abuse recounted by people who grew up in Amish communities.

Although there is much I respect about the Amish way of life, in particular, their rejection of war, it is as rigidly hierarchical — specifically, patriarchal — as just about any other highly-organized orthodox religion. The perceived proximity of the elders, priests, rabbis, ministers — or, in some cases, even the family patriarchs — to God gives them power and authority that is rarely questioned. Challenging the position of such a leader can lead to the loss of a person’s entire way of life, not to mention his or her family and friends. That, along with the suppression of knowledge about sexuality and people’s (especially women’s and girls’) bodies and the insularity of such communities, all but ensures not only that the vulnerable will be victimized, but also that victims will not have the language to express their experiences or the means to escape from the aftermath of their trauma.

So, perhaps, the Amish and ultra-Orthodox communities have even more in common than Witness suggested, though it might not have been what the movie’s makers had in mind.

A Cross He Could, and Would, Not Bear

thelma and louise

Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth

When Thelma & Louise came out, it seemed that people reacted in one of two ways. Some viewers were unhappy that the two title characters fled after Thelma shot and killed the man who tried to rape her. Others — including nearly all of the women I knew — elevated those characters into heroes. One even said she felt a “catharsis” when Harlan is struck by the bullet from Thelma’s gun.

I could have said the same: When Thelma fired that gun, I vicariously struck back — at what? She did to her aggressor what I wish I’d done — to whom?

At the time I saw the film, I had not yet come to terms with the childhood sexual abuse I suffered from a priest. Those experiences were submerged within me, occasionally bubbling up through nightmares and unconscious behavior. Also, I was many years away from starting my gender-affirmation process. I was living as a man, with a deep hatred of the male species (that’s how I thought of them) and resentment of my membership in it.

I saw Thelma and Louise with the woman I was dating. She knew of my attitudes about men and referred to me, only half-jokingly, as a “male lesbian.” To her, my response to Thelma’s action was just an expression of how I felt about men generally. I accepted that explanation simply because, at that time, I couldn’t come up with a better one.

There was another part of my response to the film which I understood full well, but discussed with no one—not even my woman friend. I completely sympathized with Thelma and Louise running from the law. Actually, Thelma wanted to call the police, but Louise understood that no one would believe her claim of attempted rape, especially since Thelma had been drinking and dancing with Harlan before he tried to attack her. Now, I wasn’t drinking or dancing with the priest before he took advantage of me sexually, but I knew that even if I’d had the language to describe, and make sense of, what happened to me, no one (at least, no one I knew then) would have believed me. I grew up in a conservative community where nearly everyone attended the same church I did, and many kids were my classmates in my Catholic school. In such a milieu, nobody — especially a child — has more credibility than a priest.

A recent news story brought to mind my reaction to Thelma and Louise — and to earlier experiences. I first heard the story from a friend of mine in France, and it made its way into English-language media during the past few days.

A 19-year-old boy confronted the priest who, earlier, abused him. That, of course, is something I wish I could have done to my abuser, who died three decades before I spoke of his actions with anyone. Then the young Frenchman did a Thelma, if you will: He killed that priest.

I will admit that in hearing the story, I vicariously struck back at my abuser. Perhaps that reveals some baseness in my character. If it doesn’t, then perhaps this does: I also felt a vicarious thrill in picturing the young man vanquishing his abuser.

All right, I’ll admit: It was the way he tore the life out of that man of the cloth that so excited me. In fact, I’ll confess something perhaps even cruder: I found myself wishing I’d come up with the way he ended a decades-long string of abuses.

According to reports, the young man, identified only as “Alexandre V.” suffocated the priest by ramming a cross down his throat.

Yes, you read that right.

Now, I know that killing should never be condoned: I have opposed capital punishment from the moment I learned about it. Still, I have to concede that if I were on a jury at his trial, I would have a difficult time voting to convict him. I would hope that other jurors, and a judge, would consider not only Alexandre’s suffering, but also the way the priest “shattered a whole family,” in the young man’s words.

He was not being at all hyperbolic. Perhaps not surprisingly (at least, I’m not surprised to learn) the prelate, Father Roger Matassoli, is also alleged to have abused Alexandre’s father as well as other boys during the time he served in the northern French diocese of Saint-Andre-Farivilliers.

Alexandre probably knew about other boys Father Matassoli is said to have abused. What he and his father—as well as their fellow parishioners — probably didn’t know, until the allegations of abuse came to light, was the circumstances by which Father Matassoli arrived at their Oise parish. They probably knew only that he was transferred to their diocese from the diocese of Clermont in 1967 because of — you guessed it — allegations of sexual abuse which, of course, the church hushed up.

How many lives and families did Father Matassoli “shatter” there? We may never know, but at least that cycle has been broken.

Now I can only hope that young Alexandre gets the help he’ll need — and Thelma never got. I know how much they both need it: It took me nearly half a century to get help.

And help is all he can hope for. Although it’s tempting to see a young man ramming a cross down the throat of a priest who abused him as a kind of “poetic justice,” the truth is that there is no justice in situations like ours. I just hope that the French authorities understand as much. At least he is in a country where such help is not contingent on his (or his family’s) ability to pay for it, and where the church is losing its power to silence victims young and old.

Who Is Billy Graham, and Why Should I Visit His Library?

billy graham 1951
Billy Graham, 1951, when he was still associated with the Sword of the Lord

Guest post by ObstacleChick

Recently, my New Jersey-based family took a trip to North Carolina for a long weekend to celebrate my birthday. We flew into Charlotte, rented a car, and traveled about an hour and a half west to our destination. My son, having visited Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina several months prior while visiting colleges, wanted to play our favorite highway game in the South – “count the Jesus signs.”  The rules are simple: merely spot an overtly Christian billboard or other sign not part of a church campus.

It didn’t take long for us to see a sign featuring a picture of a Bible and the message “Who is Jesus? Read Matthew’s Gospel 855-FOR-TRUTH.” This is a professional billboard that you can find on Gospel Billboards offered by Christian Aid Ministries. According to its website, CAM is a religious charity organization for Amish, Mennonite, and Anabaptist groups and people to provide physical aid and to spread their version of the gospel to different sites around the world. As I researched CAM, I came across this article regarding an investigation of a CAM aid worker who was indicted for 7 felony charges of gross sexual imposition and seven misdemeanor charges of sexual imposition. There is an investigation regarding whether 2 CAM managers knew of the sexual abuses for several years yet allowed this individual to continue to “minister” to those in need. (Please see Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Accused of Sex Crimes and Black Collar Crime: Mennonite Aid Worker Jeriah Mast Pleads Guilty to Sexually Abusing Minors)

We saw several more signs our first evening of driving, including a series of white wooden crosses with a different message on either side and elaborately floodlit so that they were visible at night. Apparently, these crosses are the work of Henry “Hank” Vegter, a Saluda, NC based Baptist pastor.

Here are some of the messages:

  • Jesus Paid It All
  • Blood Secured Redemption
  • Jesus Saves From Sin
  • Jesus Died For Sinners
  • Jesus’ Incorruptible Blood

My family thought it was funny when I told them that “Jesus Paid It All” is a common hymn, and I sang it for them. As my husband and kids have rarely ever attended an evangelical church service, they are always amazed at my wealth of knowledge regarding hymns, evangelical Christian messages and doctrines, and those doctrines’ implications for current politics.

My son was excited to spot the small yellow “Thank You Jesus” sign in a yard, as he recalled seeing dozens of them in North Carolina several months ago. One morning, we counted a dozen of these signs within a 30-minute time period. These signs were the brainchild of a North Carolina teen who wanted to spread the gospel. (Please see Thank You Jesus Signs.) These signs may be purchased to fund the 503(c)3 organization whose mission is to spread the gospel. In addition to the signs, one may purchase magnets, bracelets, and garden flags.

At the end of our trip, on our drive back to the airport in Charlotte, we saw more Christian signs. One from Gospel Billboards spurred a discussion. “The Bible: Wisdom, Correction, Truth” was the message, and I pointed out that the creators of the billboard probably wanted to say “Discipline” instead of “Correction” but most likely realized that “Discipline” might be off-putting to potential converts. I asked my husband and completely nonreligious kids what they thought when they saw that sign, and their reactions included ambivalence and rejection. We saw two billboards listing John 3:16 in full, but because the verse is so long and the font was difficult to read, my son had trouble catching the whole message, thus negating the purpose of the advertisement. Fortunately for all involved, my years of early childhood indoctrination ensured that I was able to recite the verse in its entirety.

At the Charlotte Douglas International Airport, we saw several signs that encouraged people to visit the Billy Graham Library. My daughter asked, “Who is Billy Graham, and why should I visit his library?” I explained that Billy Graham was a Christian evangelist who spent decades touring the world spreading the message of Christianity. My husband mentioned that Billy Graham was fairly free from scandal, unlike Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart and a host of other evangelists who quite publicly used their ministries for personal gain. My kids were fairly unimpressed.

If my mother or grandparents were still alive, they would be horrified that my kids know very little of Evangelical Christianity or its vaunted icon Billy Graham. My mom was “saved” at a Billy Graham crusade in Nashville in the mid-1950s. My grandmother rarely watched television, but she ALWAYS watched the televised Billy Graham crusades. I have a very vague recollection of attending a Billy Graham Crusade in Nashville in the 1970s, as a group from our church rode our church bus to the downtown Municipal Auditorium for the grand event. I wasn’t “saved” there as I resisted “going down front” for altar calls as long as I was able to avoid doing so.

Whenever I visit the South, I am reminded of the familiarity of Evangelical culture but am very much put off by it. My kids find the culture curious, and we are all bothered by the “Blue Laws” that affect us as malls and stores aren’t open until after church hours. And that was another question from my kids – how long does church last on Sunday? My response was that it depends. The truly devout attend hour-long Sunday School, followed by a worship service, and some churches have a coffee hour or some other “fellowship” after the service. They were both glad that they were not required to attend church services, and instead able to enjoy other activities.

Do you live in an area where there are a lot of religious road-side signs? Do you live in an area with blue laws? Are you nonreligious or casually religious but living in a religiously saturated area?