Chaos Theory: Why The Meaning God Gives Pain Might Do More Harm Than Good

    Yesterday I listened to an episode of the On Being podcast that originally aired last summer featuring professor, researcher, and author Dr. Pauline Boss. It was entitled “The Myth of Closure.”

    Boss is known for developing the theory of “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is loss that has no finality or resolution, one that is not clear-cut. It might look like losing a loved one to dementia--the body is still present but their “self”, as we knew it, is going or gone. Ambiguous loss might also involve a missing person, such as a soldier whose body is never found or was destroyed, or a person who disappears in a natural disaster whose body is never recovered. Because of the “ambiguous” nature of such losses, according to Dr. Boss, the person whose loved one is gone experiences a unique kind of grief, a kind of grief perhaps more difficult to move on from than what one might go through in more definitive circumstances.

    I was intrigued by Dr. Boss’s theory, having not heard it before, but it was something else she said--something somewhat tangential to her main point--that struck me most powerfully and brought me back to the topic of leaving the Christian church. Boss said that people will sometimes get stuck in destructive grieving cycles--say, of perpetual self-blame--when they try too hard to make sense of what is ultimately a senseless event. In other words, according to Dr. Boss, it is perhaps only when a person experiencing loss lets go of the idea that the traumatic event meant something that they are free to move on. Moving on might look like taking charge of the meaning-making (e.g. starting an organization for the parents of missing children if one’s own child was lost and never found) but it cannot be the Sisyphean struggle to suss out any logic in the event itself.

    Here’s where fundamentalist (and even mainstream) Christianity comes in: those of us raised in such a tradition were and are taught that God’s will is in one way or another behind everything that happens in the world--the good and the bad. So, when the bad thing happens, a girl who was raised as I was in an Evangelical environment will search for all the reasons God might have allowed that bad thing to occur. At best this is just silly; I’m pretty sure God doesn’t care that my phone fell in the toilet. At worst--well, we have a version of “love” (assuming one believes that God is all-loving) that involves testing the beloved with terrible trauma and immense pain. On purpose. For some secret reason. 

    This is no good.

    That thought in and of itself--the thought that God was very intentionally allowing me to be hurt even when I’d done nothing wrong--became traumatizing to me as I grew older and more independent and had to start providing myself with the emotional strength needed to make it through the thorny bits of life. It was compounded distress: the loss itself, whatever it happened to be, plus my desperate calculations as to its existential and theological meanings. On the contrary, the relief I found in choosing to detach painful situations from the thought of their supposed ultimate significance was like a valve release. It didn’t mean whatever sucky situation I was in didn’t suck, it just meant the universe had nothing against me and I was free to at least make some good from the unavoidable bad as I saw fit.

    It seems like every day I discover a new way in which my Evangelical upbringing set me up to fail. Certainly it wasn’t all bad--which I’ve pointed out plenty of times before, so I won’t go into detail here--but it still amazes me how many times a week I find myself whispering to no one in particular, “Wait, was that normal?” I don’t know. We don’t know what’s “normal”, what’s healthy, us ex-Evangelical kids. What I do know (now) is that being able to rattle off all the reasons God might be ‘testing’ you with sad circumstances does not in fact make me a helpful person to be around in a time of grief. I don't remember where I learned that lesson, but it wasn't from the church.

    Ultimately, I just wish it could have been more realistic, my social-emotional education. Of course, this is not a wish that can be granted when it comes to Evangelicalism, so in lieu of a magic wand with which to change my past I’ll do what Dr. Boss suggests and let those first couple decades in Jesus Freak land be nothing but coincidental chaos. And I'll ask myself what I can do with the nonsense now. The answer is: exactly this--exposing the secrets, building community, and letting people know that it's never too late to choose a happier and healthier path.

Jesus Was My Boyfriend

    A simple Google search of the words “sexual innuendo Christian worship songs” will get you plenty of articles about how ripe with sensuality the average contemporary church service is. Lyrics such as, “Your fragrance is intoxicating/in our secret place” (from a song by Casting Crowns); “I want to touch you, I want to see your face, I want to know you more” (from famous Australian church Hillsong); or, “hungry I come to you/for I know You satisfy” (also from Hillsong, and also accompanied by the repeated lines “I’m falling on my knees/offering all of me”) are regularly belted by believers. With their hands raised to the sky, they show no signs of embarrassment.

    Even though their interpretations of such words appear as pure as the driven snow, there’s little point in mocking the trend, or making junior high jokes. It’s likely that any devoted church-goer over the age 16 is probably whispering similar jokes to their fellow congregants, even as they continue singing the words and meaning them from the bottom of their hearts. Yes, they get it--assuming they haven’t gone so far as to live on a commune with no access to popular culture--and they brush it off. In my experience, identifying the hilarious double entendre-laden lyrics of modern Christian worship is one thing the church can actually have a sense of humor about.

    Less funny is the way that young Evangelical people who are commanded to be chaste actually do sublimate their sexuality into their feelings about Jesus. The saucy lyrics might elicit a knowing glance and muffled snickers, but those are superficial delights. Underneath the words, behind the music, the hearts of young folks in the throes of worship are bursting with a sublime love for their savior.

    This love, while exciting, is subtly confusing. There’s nothing to compare it to in mundane life. We have platonic love and romantic love, and the latter is, culturally speaking, meant to transcend the former. If this is the case, with what concepts and words do we understand and categorize our feelings for Jesus--a being who was a man but now exists supernaturally, much like a ghost? Not only that, a “man” who loves us, as individuals, unconditionally. Since our society’s heteronormative lexicon does not offer us an analogue for love that is both incredibly intimate and asexual, it seems to me (and felt to me, when I experienced it myself) that Christians--especially young Christians--slip into a somewhat amorous way of speaking and thinking about Jesus. He comes to take on a romantic role, whether or not one realizes it.

    At least two factors make young Evangelicals particularly vulnerable to this “Boyfriend Jesus” syndrome. The first is, of course, the virgin vow. Christians, for the most part--and definitely Evangelical Christians--are instructed not to have sex with someone unless they are married to that someone. Regardless of how silly you lucky lifelong seculars might find such a commandment (and by the way, Christians are still having sex before and outside of marriage; they just pretend they aren’t) the fact is that it moves into the realm of psychologically problematic when you’ve got young folks whose very present, totally normal sex drives are not being dealt with or discussed. Is there an acceptable way to channel those desires, which aren’t going to go away, into something worthy of God?

    As if those natural sexual urges aren’t enough, throw into the mix a popular culture that idolizes not only sex but “romance”. You are nothing if you are not romantically partnered in our society. Everything is less fun--meals, movies, trips, holidays...none of it, we’re told, can truly be enjoyed except in the presence of someone you’re sleeping with. Evangelical Christianity does little to combat this notion. Marriage is idealized, and made even more intriguing by the fact that it magically makes sex okay all of a sudden. The notion that God desires for each person to be coupled is literally preached from pulpits. And this is not even to mention that the idea is simultaneously negatively reinforced by the stark reality that, at a certain point, there is no place or care for you in the community if you do not have a significant other.

    So, you can understand why I wanted it, and wanted it bad: to be in love; to be the object of love; to know the reassurance of a (male) figure by my side, accepting my affection and adoration; to live the fantasy. And the church, it turns out, had just the solution--a gentleman who, we were told, literally existed in order to give his life for us. Whose love was, in a word, perfect. He was the one we were to adore and direct all of our affection toward. His name was Jesus, and he was available to us at any time. It was in this way that I fell in love with a long-dead Middle Eastern Jew. There was even a song to express exactly my sentiment (or to tell me what sentiment to have, depending on how you look at it): “Jesus, I am so in love with you.” I’ve sung it at least a hundred times in my life.

    Here’s the problem, though--I didn’t know what it meant to be “in love” with someone at the time that I started consciously having these feelings for Jesus, which was, big surprise, just after I’d finished puberty. Maybe no one ever knows until they’re in the middle of it, but I had never even had a shot at it with a human male, let alone a supernatural being. As such, I was only guessing that how I felt about Jesus was the same as “being in love”, just like I was only guessing that everything I was believing in and adhering myself to was right. What did I know of the world and its nuances and bounty of information a the time I committed myself to Christ? Very little; yet there I was.

    Even more suspect than my naive claim to be in love with a dude that (a) I had never met, (b) lived two thousand years ago, and (c) existed for eternity as a spirit in heaven was the way I was also, inevitably, constructing my understanding of the experience of partnered love based on what I was “experiencing” in relationship with Jesus. And what was that experience? Well, no two-way communication for one. I could say and feel any which way toward Jesus and not only would he not respond, I could also easily live in the extravagant fantasy that, were he physically present, he’d be totally cool with all of my moods and words. Not very good training for actual human-to-human negotiations, it turns out.

    Not only was Jesus not there to talk to, he wasn’t there to touch. I don’t meant that I wanted to make out with him (though maybe I did and I just didn’t realize what those feelings were at the time)--I mean that there was no satisfying way to make a gesture of affection. The feelings kept building and building and there was never any release (even of the non-sexual kind) which spun me back into the turbulent cycle of the building of those feelings once again. Why was that an unhealthy lesson to learn about love? Well, I never had the experience of wanting to be away from someone’s company, even though I loved them. I never had the experience of the ebb and flow of physical attraction vis a vis the one I was with. In a way, it was ideal. And yet, the person I loved wasn’t actually there, so any way you slice it I was still caught on the reality of my fleshly life.

    Maybe it isn’t that big of a deal that I basically dated Jesus until I was twenty-five years old. Not that I didn’t go out on dates with human gentlemen in that time, but they were few and far between and none of what I felt for them was “love”. Still, isn’t it interesting how an all-encompassing, exclusionary belief system like (Evangelical) Christianity finds ways to slide its tentacles into the throbbing spaces of all your dreams and desires? It asks of you things that are either biologically or culturally unnatural and figures out how to compensate you for your sacrifice in a way that makes sense in that world. Sure, singing weirdly erotic songs to Jesus while in a dark room surrounded by rows and rows of other people might have been a bit healthier than an adolescence spent searching for a hyper-sexualized version of love from a bunch of random guys, but I didn’t learn anything either.

    Growing up takes a lot longer in the church; it’s like dog years versus human years: ten church years of living = three years of real-world living. So if you’re still recovering from your conservative Christian upbringing, it’s okay. We got held back. There’s still time, and the world isn’t actually as mean and judgmental as we were told. We’re just unlearning the rusty old ways we inherited, which is true for everybody regardless of whether they were raised in church or not. Everybody has their own Boyfriend Jesus they have to break up with, and I’m excited for every person who has the courage to make that move.

A Kingdom Divided: Evangelicalism’s Ambivalence Toward Politics

    This might seem like a curious tack to take in an essay--especially with what’s happening in the U.S. these days, and especially from someone who just posted a piece on Medium about how Evangelicals can’t stop messing with the first amendment. But I came across an article a couple of days ago, written by the vaguely Evangelical-identified Christian writer Philip Yancey, that reminded me of how complicated Evangelicalism’s relationship to politics truly is, and I wanted to respond.

    Yancey’s essay, entitled “Election Reflections: Bridging the Gap”, triggers many thoughts and feelings in me. One is that I am deeply troubled by the relatively unworried, unhurried language with which he refers to Donald Trump. It’s not that he doesn’t criticize Trump (he very much does); it’s that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the very practical danger the Orange Man poses as the “winner” of the election. I understand that doing so was not the point of the piece he wrote, but it still feels alarmingly calm. That said, I believe the near-neutrality in the essay is itself a symptom of the ambivalence to which I refer, so I will address it in a roundabout way shortly.

    There’s also the whole “love trumps hate”/’unity will save us’ message seeping out of the essay’s pores. While I don’t disagree with--or at least I want to believe in--the sentiment in its most general sense, I and many others are entirely sick of being told that if we all just chose to understand and bear with each other everything would be okay, especially since it’s almost always those who want greater diversity and stronger social welfare being asked to sympathize with those who don’t. Yes, Yancey is specifically asking Evangelicals to unify, but the message is overused and myopic.

    What I want to focus on here, though, is what Yancey's essay on the whole reminded me of: that Evangelicals in the United States--at least white Evangelicals in the United States--are, despite what you might think, often quite reluctant to get involved with politics. Sure, they’ll do their nominal duty of voting in presidential elections, but to spend time truly engaging and trying to effect change via the government is a problematic proposition for this group. Yancey puts it fairly clearly toward the middle of the piece: “Christians have a divided loyalty, committed to helping our society thrive while giving ultimate loyalty to the kingdom of God.”

    I suspect many of you with no experience inside the walls of Evangelicalism are a bit confused. From what we read in polls and hear about from the news, it seems the Evangelical voice (again, at least the white Evangelical voice) could not be shouting more loudly in the political sphere. Yes, they do have their moments; I’ll get to that in a second. The simultaneous truth, however, is that what’s often taught to congregations is that believers should not concern themselves with ‘the ways of this world’, and that includes politics.

    Based on what I know from my own extensive experience, this politically withdrawn orientation of the Evangelical church is based on a few primary assumptions. The first is that Jesus will be returning to the world to save his people--and condemn unbelievers--so there is little point in trying very hard to make it a better place. (This is also the logic that Christians sometimes use to ignore climate change.) The second assumption has less to do with the timeline of things and more to do with one’s concept of citizenship. Evangelicalism preaches “the kingdom of God.” Generally speaking, this is not a metaphor. I mean, it’s a metaphor in the sense that it describes the intangible spiritual realm in a physical, real-world way that folks can relate to. But the Evangelical’s understanding of her allegiance is not figurative. There are two kingdoms--one just happens to be invisible--and her heavenly citizenship supersedes her earthly, nation-based one. As such, she is not to worry too much, really, about what happens in government. God is in control of it and will make sure His will is done. (God’s omnipotence is the third assumption).

    So, in summary, though it is belied in certain moments there is actually a tradition amongst (white) Evangelicals in the United States of remaining relatively aloof regarding the political sphere. What belies it? Every once in a while there is an issue that Evangelicalism finds so incredibly crucial to the well-being of society that it will proceed to put all of its resources into making sure the chips fall in favor of its own interpretation of Biblical code. Throughout my young life, and to this day, that issue was abortion. (More recently, they’ve piled on fighting against LGBTQ rights, too.) I give credit to Yancey for pointing this out in his article and for questioning abortion’s prominence vis a vis the many other social justice concerns that are, or should be, on the table.

    Taking up this thread for a moment, one might (and should) ask: why the banning of abortion? Why does that thing bug them more than anything else? More than, say, immigration reform or prison reform, both of which deal with populations that God specifically commands his people to take care of in the Bible? In my opinion, it has to do with controlling women’s bodies (which is also related, through misogyny, to the issue of homo/trans/bi-phobia). But that’s a long and complicated discussion in and of itself. It is a reality that demands dissection, and it will have to be saved for another post.

    Returning to the idea of Evangelicalism’s political ambivalence, it must be said that it’s not an entirely ridiculous attitude. We are all ambivalent about politics to some extent--and that’s healthy. The system will always be imperfect, and we should always be using our imaginations to come up with better ways of taking care of each other. The United States, for example, literally grew out of and because of white supremacy. Our government is and has been a tool of violent oppression, and as Audre Lorde said (if you'll allow me to take her words slightly out of context), “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house.” Putting one’s faith in the government to change the things the government has thus far refused to change if the right people are in charge, trusting that with enough good will and reasonable debate systems can rearrange--it is an approach that deserves intense criticism.

    But a secular cynicism regarding the extent to which government can save us or an educated critical consideration of the true limits of the political machine are not the same thing as the attitude with which the politically disengaged Evangelical sets herself apart. Some of us still want to bring about change for our ourselves and our fellow citizens but have found, through exposure to scholars like Lorde, that there might be non-traditional ways of doing it, ways more worthy of our attention than the pre-existing set-up. When I was a full-fledged Evangelical, however, my political disengagement was not due to the fact that I was finding better places for my resources with the same end in mind; it was because I didn’t care. More precisely, I didn’t think I needed to or was even supposed to care.

    The world was ending, essentially, so why bother? Not only that, but what could I do through politics that God couldn’t do on God’s own through a miracle? With this mindset Evangelicalism does, in a way, and quite ironically, give its members an excuse to refrain from taking care of anyone other than themselves and those they can convert. Now I know this is where I’ll receive some pushback, and I’ll hear some “not fairs”. To be clear, I am not saying that individual self-identified Evangelicals don’t care about others, or that they never participate in charitable projects. Quite the opposite is true. But as a group they are not encouraged to see, and are often discouraged from seeing, society as a collection of systems that work to privilege or oppress--systems that we participate in no matter how much soup we serve, houses we build, or clothes we donate, and systems we could perhaps hope to alter or dismantle altogether.

    There is in Evangelicalism--at least as far as I experienced it, in a very white context--a lack of education regarding how to use legislation and other political methods to bring about widely distributed, more sustainable well-being. In fact, even more than an ignorance there is an antipathy, because it means believing the government has power, which feels ‘wrong’ when you’re invested in the idea that no one has power but God. And, to bring us back around to where we started from, if no one has power but God, why worry about Donald Trump? Sure he’s mean and scary and we don’t condone his actions on the interpersonal level because they’re not very nice, but as far as dreading the next four years, there's no need to stress because we have the Lord.

    To be honest, part of me is jealous of the naïveté. I remember when Christianity made it so easy for me to compartmentalize the outside world and all its troubles so I could just worry about myself. I remember not having to care about anyone other than the folks right in front of me (who were largely a part of my own demographic, mind you) because I knew that whatever was directly in front of my eyes was the only thing God wanted me to care about just then. I remember believing that prayer was, quite conveniently, the most powerful and effective thing to be done. And this is not to mention that I also knew the world was so messed up because of people’s unrepentance, and since I was doing the right thing by following Jesus, I was not responsible for any of the bad stuff anyway. Yep, those were the days.

    Now, without a God, it’s difficult to bear the burden of the knowledge of all that needs to be done--and all that can be done--while trying to sustain energy and an atheistic hope. But I wouldn’t trade it. I’m no longer interested in childishly handing over what little power I do have to  a supernatural father figure, who by the way has yet to demonstrate He will or wants to save us. I’m not interested in not knowing how I naturally contribute to systems of oppression on a daily basis no matter how sweetly I smile at the houseless man on the street. Believing that we're all we've got--that it's not sin that hurts us but each other--is scarier, and heavier, but it's worth it.

    Apathy toward government made sense to me inside the chamber of the church, where only certain people following certain rules deserved the privilege we good white Christians automatically had, and where we could wait for a savior we knew was coming soon. I understand why the Evangelical approach to dealing (or not dealing) with government feels good. I only dream that those who say they follow Jesus will stop waiting for the world to end so they can get out of this slovenly place and instead start educating themselves as to how our society is designed to punish innocents and what they can do to change that.