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Faith that expects you to fall

by
10 March 2023

Drawing from survey responses and interviews, Olivia Jackson has created a memoir of faith deconstruction

istock

ANYONE who has spent time in Evangelical circles, perhaps especially as a teen and young adult, knows that the daily requirements of devotion, appearance, and behaviour are ever-present. The resulting sense of inadequacy when you don’t do enough Bible study or prayer undermines the comfort that can be found in these things.

Some do better at this than others. As a rule-keeping introverted teen, I was not bad at it back then. As Anne (USA) says, “It made me a stellar goody-two-shoes Christian as a teenager. The better you are at being a Christian, it doesn’t mean the better you are at being actually Christlike.”

The same cannot be said for Penny (UK): “As an extroverted dyslexic, literally the worst thing you can tell me is to sit quiet, and I’m not a morning person: ‘If you love Jesus, you will sit quietly for 20 minutes on your own reading in the morning.’ No, I won’t. I just can’t do it, and every time I tried and failed, it was just another shaming experience.”

So many of us remember that feeling of shame, of never quite meeting an invisible standard, of making fresh promises and recommitting over and again: “I remember being 14, 15, in small group Bible study and being like, ‘I’m worried about this test’, and they were like, ‘Just give all your cares to the Lord’, and I remember stopping and being like, ‘What does that mean? What is the step-by-step process for giving it up to God?’

“That always pissed me off, this emotional bypassing, because that was the answer to every question or every discomfort or anything that you brought to a group of Christians. . . I’ve done what you say it takes, and I’m not getting the same comfort from giving up my cares to the Lord as you do, so obviously the problem is me.” (Mara, USA).

“My most intense spiritual experiences happened in summer camps like Spring Harvest, New Wine. I would have an emotional experience and vow to really commit and read my Bible every day, pray, be a better Christian. When I was 17, I was like, ‘This is ridiculous. I can’t get converted every year’” (Nina, UK).

A LARGE part of those emotional experiences is the giving of testimonies: 85 per cent of survey respondents had participated in this. Even here, a sense of inadequacy can creep in, if your testimony isn’t dramatic, as mine wasn’t. David B. (UK) saw through it: “At that age in our town there wasn’t a great deal of trouble you could get into, but I think people liked the idea of saying how terrible they’d been and then everyone could clap.”

It can feel like the Church feeds off trauma in the form of these simplistic “sinner saved” stories, without looking too closely at underlying pain or ongoing issues. The dramatic conversion story belies the fact that those who really do come from backgrounds of trauma often have a long road to recovery, and that healing is not a linear journey.

It isn’t helped by attitudes to suffering: we must bear our burdens joyfully; Christians are never anxious, depressed, or bored; and suffering produces holiness; (or my favourite, which I heard numerous times in the youth missions organisation I worked for: if it isn’t on a level with what Jesus endured for your sake, you shouldn’t complain).

You are supposed to have abundant life and freedom in Christ; to be an ambassador for Christ at all times. Modelling all this leaves no real space for messy things such as ongoing grief, trauma, or, perhaps worst of all, anger (particularly from women or people of colour).

In my mid-thirties, I took part in a “healing inner wounds” course. In our small group, I spoke about the impact of losing my father in early childhood. Our leader smiled perkily and told me, ‘Well, he’s with Jesus now; so there’s no need to grieve.’”

Instead, Christians are encouraged to find redemption in pain, and almost glorify suffering. (Although there are often double standards here, depending on whether it is you or me who is angry or suffering. These function a little like irregular verbs: I have righteous anger; you are just bitter. I am being refined by God to become more Christlike; you have sin in your life and are being punished.)

I AM inherently evil and deserve death and hell. Every time I sin, I put another nail through Jesus’s hands. That’s a lot to grow up believing. While the “God loves you just as you are” message is also there, 73 per cent of survey respondents reported that they had seriously worried about their sin, and 72 per cent that they were being disobedient to God, or were outside of God’s will or calling on their life.

There are so many ways to sin; so many ways the devil is just waiting to trip you up. On the other hand, there are the glorious results of doing it right: another face of prosperity gospel.

In a culture where sin is routinely policed, and peer accountability encouraged, it can feel like everyone is in everyone else’s business, and pushback on this is not allowed, because they’re just keeping you accountable.

Confidentiality cannot be taken for granted, and the gossip chain exists in publicly praying about someone in such a way as to make their sins quite clear to others. On several mission training courses I did, we were required to list areas we were “struggling” with on application forms, and to hand in our journals each week to the staff member assigned to us, regardless of our trust in them, which normalised the sharing of our “struggles” with those in authority.

Being told who to trust, based largely on someone’s position (regardless of whether they had earned that trust, or if I felt safe), is something I found really problematic, which meant I was labelled as having “trust issues”. It negates true trust and trustworthiness, and hands our emotional and spiritual safety over to others. Yet the constant sin management and policing and dress codes show a lack of trust in those lower in the hierarchy.

Even if you don’t confess your sins directly, generic repentance is right there in so many worship songs, with the frequent theme of, “I am not worthy, I am nothing compared to you, less of me and more of you.”

When you repeat lines like these over and over for years (and often over and over in the same worship session), they are going to sink in. It is supposed to be “humility”, but instead teaches us we are worthless.

Sophie (UK) found it put pressure on friendships: “You automatically try to box everyone into your understanding of what it means to live a godly lifestyle. I felt limited in how much I could truly accept people, love people, by these boxes of how people should act. Especially when it comes to sexuality or gender, there’s very much boxes of expectations of how people should be. Anything out of that was, ‘The heart’s deceitful. It’s the flesh.’”

It took me a long time to realise that what was classed as “sin” was often trauma-response behaviour, or not wrong at all. Something sinful in one church might be fine in another. “But why is that sin?” was met with either, “Because the Bible says so,” or, if said sin wasn’t mentioned in the Bible, tangled and convoluted explanations involving “not God’s highest”.

I LISTENED to story after story that contained the same broad pattern. It is not simply a few rotten churches, a few “broken” individuals in leadership: it is the system itself. But the system and its leaders can never be criticised; so the complainant is blamed.

People do not deconstruct or leave church lightly: after decades of loyalty and defending church or mission organisations, there is huge sadness and, at times, sheer terror about leaving, even if just to a different church. People told me about diagnosed PTSD and years spent in therapy.

The majority deconstructed church before they started to deconstruct theology, often finding a seamless progression from toxic institutions to toxic theologies. This is circular and self-reinforcing: we become the God we worship, and we fashion God in our own image.

The constant theme that ran through almost every negative experience that people spoke about, including my own, was control and the avoidance of vulnerability: the black and white rules; binary thinking; othering; authoritarian leadership; sin management; paranoid persecution theories; lack of real engagement with complex social issues; violent theology; militaristic language; and the urge to dominate wider culture.

These are not places structured around vulnerability, authenticity, and unconditional love. While there are plenty of loving, compassionate, and self-sacrificial people within churches, the structure and leadership of too many is not ultimately built for this.

This is a pattern, and too many churches and Christian organisations have strong similarities to cults, their methods fitting neatly into Robert J. Lifton’s criteria for thought reform/brainwashing (Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism, 1961). The recruitment, monitoring, and control may start off being driven by a genuine concern for people’s spiritual well-being, of saving people from eternal conscious torment, but it is a concern that puts compliance before autonomy, rules before ethics, and coercion before liberation.

Whether intentionally or not, far too often, leaders maintain power and control through shame and fear: of hell, of being outside the will of God or God’s protection, of losing community, of the outside world.

This may not be overt: all it takes is for previous leavers to be publicly denigrated or pitied and their story told (they rarely get a chance to tell it for themselves) for those still “in” to cleave more tightly. We all have a deep survival need to belong, and when the Evangelical bubble is your entire world, the threat or risk of losing that keeps people compliant and leads them to ignore a great deal of harm, especially when everyone else (apparently) sees no problem.

No one intentionally joins a group like this: initial experiences are of warmth and encouragement, of promises made and sometimes of real change happening. As commitment and loyalty increase, so do demands, and the shift is incremental, insidious: promises of love, purpose, and transformation get twisted into their opposites. If this is the only place that God is really at work, leaving is not an option — more so when you have years or decades of commitment invested already, or if that is your career.

Michael (UK) and I discuss ideas around power and church: “Jesus constantly subverts the idea of human power, from the moment of being born in Bethlehem and not Jerusalem, being raised in Nazareth and not Judaea, being crucified: a method that dishonoured the Jewish man. Then being buried, not in his family tomb, but in the tomb of some stranger. He’s constantly undermining the power structures of our world.

“How is it that so very many churches, denominations, and Christian organisations that claim to follow Jesus have inverted this so completely?”

 

These are edited extracts from (Un)Certain: A collective memoir of deconstructing faith by Olivia Jackson, published by SCM Press on 28 March, at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.99); 978-0-334-06363-6.

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