Roman as F*ck
Trigger warnings: spiritual abuse
It comes nearly every night, advancing like low-flung fog as blood runs cold: an amorphous, shadowy figure, approaching from the depths of my pillow, growing and growing until I wake, sweating through my pillow and clutching fistfuls of bedsheet.
"How are you?"
I felt the usual frustration at the question, paralyzed at the prospect of trying to distill the dread, stubborn hope, and devastating ambivalence I felt into words. "The same," I shrugged. "I feel... the same."
My therapist crossed her legs and tapped her lips with her index and forefinger. During our conversations, she often seemed to be fighting off a smile, not always successfully.
"What?" I asked, popping the lid of my travel mug open, and then closed again.
"It's just interesting." She cocked her head and examined me. "Your emails were really... playful. Light. But in person, you have almost no affect. You're completely flat."
"You're flat!" I choked, and stomped out of her office to my car, where I ate a whole thing of sour patch kids.
She was right, of course. I had long ago noticed this "flatness," and it extended perhaps further than my therapist realized. It was not just a disconnect between internal feeling and external expression, but a muting of the emotions themselves. I didn't just look flat, I felt it.
I felt it during chapel, when my peers, with raised hands and a holy glaze in their eyes, sang worship songs; in social situations, amidst the loud, confident jokes, spontaneous laughter and easy flirting; at karaoke bars, watching people shamelessly butcher their favorite songs. I felt it, especially, when people danced; watching a friend of mine in a crowd, with hooded eyes and animal hips, her arms twin serpents teasing the air. That we were the same species seemed an absurdity. The ease with which she inhabited her body and the heedless, instinctual way she carved out space were completely alien to me. I loved her for it and hated myself for having no access to it. It seemed like everyone around me was responding to life, welcoming it uncritically, while I held up a hand and narrowed my eyes, demanding ID and at least three character references.
There are moments when another human being speaks a truth that unlocks something inside you. It can be an almost ecstatic experience, when that dim awareness in your gut blinks awake, shocked to hear its name on the lips of a stranger.
For me it was a college Shakespeare class. I had a terrific professor, and his lectures on Antony and Cleopatra, in particular, gave me words for something I had always felt inside myself but had never articulated. The central theme of the play, according to him, was the tension between Rome and Egypt. Rome represented duty, self-control, reason, and order. Egypt was passion, spontaneity, pleasure and chaos. Masculine vs feminine. West vs East. Mind vs body. The Roman bias at my private, Christian college was pronounced, and my professor knew this. He smiled and gently suggested that Egypt, too, had something to offer: "A world without boundaries and self-control may be unhealthy and dissipating, but a world without joy, physicality, and pleasure is hollow and bankrupt." The resistance in the room was palpable, but I was rapt.
"Shit," I realized with sudden clarity. "I'm Roman as fuck."
The first time I got drunk was the summer after my sophomore year. It was Mike's Hard Lemonade or some such garbage, and I slapped my knee repeatedly and laughed at my sensory impairment. "It's like I'm skipping frames," I said, slapping and slapping, until I threw up ramen noodles under a tree.
It was my first summer away from home, and my friends and I filled it with Blockbuster rentals, premium malt beverages, and clove cigarettes. We piled into my buddy's Aerostar minivan and drove to an empty subdivision. He popped the back open, cued My Morning Jacket, Drive-By Truckers, or John Prine, and we drank and smoked and wondered what Salinger was up to, out in his cabin.
I found I enjoyed getting drunk, that alcohol was a sort of cheat code. It allowed me to loosen my grip, to live life for a moment instead of relentlessly analyzing it. My jaw unclenched, my shoulders slackened, I felt more confident and at ease with my limbs. Quicker to laugh, more open to the buzz and thrum of desire. I was, improbably, fun.
I met a girl a named Carrie. She had good taste in music and books, a dimpled chin, and a habit of rolling her eyes; at me, especially. We sat next to each other on a couch in a room full of people and I had never been so conscious of another body. She ballooned out of all proportion in my periphery. She was giant, mysterious, containing worlds of possibility. I was a lousy flirt, but somehow we ended up on the soccer field with a blanket and a six-pack of High Life. She was the first girl I ever kissed.
But I could never escape Rome for long. After that night, I was racked with self-loathing and shame. I didn't know if I wanted to date Carrie, let alone marry her! Therefore, our rendezvous was all hunger and need; physical, selfish, base. It was classic Roman hubris: centering my honor and intention, oblivious to her autonomy, disdainful of the physical and emotional need that both of us felt. But I didn't know that then. I squared my shoulders and spoke my Roman vows anew. I promised myself I would never go back.
It's no way to live, split in two like that. Every time I allowed myself to feel and experience, Rome would yank the leash. I found, in adulthood, that the mold had set. Fear, anxiety, and self-recrimination had become second nature. Joy and excitement were in short supply.
How did I come to be this way?
Connecting dots backwards through time is always a tricky proposition. When we search for explanatory clues in our past, we risk making too much order, picking the wrong scapegoats. I'm aware of this dynamic, and I want to be fair. Nevertheless, I'm tired of second-guessing my intuition, of silencing myself so as not to offend; I'm tired of not naming the obvious culprit.
So let me do that now:
Fundamentalism. The evangelical subculture. Culture war Christianity. Whatever label you prefer or find most precise, I have come to believe that this cultural system is inherently abusive and psychically damaging. Built on fear and disgust, suspicious of pleasure and delight. All superego and white knuckles. All power and no mercy. All Rome and no Egypt.
I try to run, but my limbs buckle and splay. I open my mouth to scream, but manage only a noiseless wheeze. My neck corkscrews, my eyes roll and flare, and I see it behind me: giant, fractal, a vibrating cloud of dark intent. I am trapped in its spotlight gaze, knee-deep in the concrete sidewalk, thrashing and clawing, getting nowhere.
The evangelical subculture in the 90s shipped with a lot of baggage. The culture war was in full swing, bisecting our world into "us"s and "them"s, mapping onto reality the topography of a battlefield. On one side: Evangelicals, homeschoolers, people who looked and thought like us; on the other: people of other faiths, secular-humanists, the whole of academia, liberals, scientists, feminists, gays, even progressive Christians. Cloistered in our evangelical bubble, we projected the terror within us onto the world outside: encroaching moral relativism, sexual hedonism, and a biased media all threatening to destroy us, to turn our order into chaos.
The stakes were absurdly high. Everything was fraught. Even if you were walking in the light, one foot put wrong could land you in darkness.
Masters of the Universe was not just some dumb TV show, but a conduit for dark, satanic energy that could enter your body and take you over (because Skeletor, I guess?). The devil was always lurking. I made funny faces on a Chicago Bulls poster with sticky-tac, and my father, grim-faced, asked if I was dabbling in the occult. I read Frank Peretti's "The Oath," in which a person's sin manifested physically as a fetid, black wound, oozing puss.
Rock music could cause brain damage, my homeschool "science" textbook warned, and the "history" books were worse. Evolution is atheistic propaganda. Liberalism is moral decay. The government wants to take away your freedom. Secular people were portrayed simultaneously as: hedonistic animals enslaved by their fleshly desires, drowning in twisted sexuality and discarded needles; but also gimlet-eyed combatants, singularly and ruthlessly focused on crushing the faithful.
The entire worldview was a defensive crouch, a radical over-estimation of legitimate threats. We might as well have been back on the savannah, scanning the horizon for strange shapes and shadows that didn't fall quite right.
My first foray into the "secular" world was a job slinging chalupas and chili cheese burritos at Taco Bell, and I clocked in every day with antennae primed for attack. I interpreted the good-natured ribbing from my co-workers as malicious broadsides. Mild cum-ons and flirtations from girls left me in emotional disarray. "Fuck"s and "shit"s shook me. I huddled over the sink, washing dishes and humming a Jars of Clay song under my breath, just trying to survive.
I stand in a vast, empty space. Completely sterile, just matte white as far as you can see. A choir of guttural voices, snarling and insistent, mutter unintelligible demands while cubes fall from the sky like demon tetris blocks. I know I must catch every single one and set it gently to the ground, or... what? Something unspeakable will happen. I weep and plead with the frantic, hissing mob. Don't they see there are too many? I stumble across infinite distance, reel madly from shadow to lengthening shadow, always only just outrunning the end of the world.
If you are in a war, then you need soldiers, and so you birth and raise them. With the stakes that high, it's no wonder evangelical parents skew authoritarian. The parenting literature from the period is clear: make the child pliable, at the end of a belt, if necessary. The goal of "Biblical" parenting is to snuff out "rebellion," to "break the child's will." Even here, the dominant metaphor is war.
Use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final.
~Michael and Debi Pearl, To Train Up A Child
To those who would dismiss the Pearls as fringe figures, mainstream voices like James Dobson were not much better. He famously recounted a violent showdown with the family dog when the little beast wouldn't go to its crate on command. "The only way to make Siggie obey is to threaten him with destruction." He then goes on to say: "Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, so will a little child - only more so."
That's right: James Dobson, the kindly, old patriarch of evangelicals everywhere, teed up a parenting book with an anecdote about beating the shit out of a 12-pound dachshund. The child is a "tyrant," says Dobson, the parent-child relationship is a power struggle, and the prize is dominance. Unquestioning obedience is what you're after. Because why raise a three-dimensional person when you can rubber-stamp a culture war automaton?
This is how a subculture that fetishizes individuality ends up completely ignoring the unique creatures in front of them.
Imagine a gardener planting a packet of mystery seeds. Examining the fragile, green sprouts, she sees that she has peonies, tulips, carnations, even a rare Rothschild's orchid. Any gardener worth her salt will do her homework, figure out what each flower needs, and do her best to create the conditions for every last one of them to thrive. The authoritarian gardener, by contrast, demands that all flowers be tulips. If he finds himself with an orchid, he will deny and deflect, and stubbornly treat it as if it were a tulip. He will over or under-water, place it in full sun when it needs partial shade, and then feign shock when he realizes that instead of raising a tulip, he has killed an orchid.
And the evangelical approach to parenting has not evolved in response to the latest insights of child psychologists. Just last year, John Piper, another evangelical leading light, instructed dads to "be the kind of father your children delight to fear."
"That's why little babies have fat bottoms," he continues. "You are god to them until they know better."
Be careful what you wish for, buddy.
By his own admission, my dad spanked me so often when I was a toddler that my grandfather became alarmed. This patriarch from another era, who had grown up with "spare the rod and spoil the child," who had attended a Bible school that forbade men from talking to women except in designated spaces, thought my dad's punitive instinct was a little... much.
Let's imagine this from the kid's perspective. Some neurons fire in a primitive, 2-year-old brain. A shiny object, maybe. It is a wondrous, improbable thing, and the child wants to touch it, to explore this new territory with hungry fingers. "Don't touch!" comes the parent's thundering voice. The child does, and promptly gets whipped. What has he learned? He acted on a felt desire, and the consequence was violence enacted on his body by the only indispensable human being in his world. Advocates of the punitive approach would say the child has learned that his will must sometimes be checked by healthy limits, that desire does not equal infinite license, that he is not a god. Critics would describe a much darker lesson: that acting on his desire costs him the love of his parent; that this love, in fact, is conditional, predicated not on his inherent worth, but on his ability to follow orders. His autonomy, feelings and intuitive needs do not matter. Best to stuff them and put on a brave face. Best to fall in line.
It has started to invade my waking hours. I am walking to work the first time I feel it: at first just an anxious buzz, but quickly swelling to an hysterical, manic roar inside my body, like a thousand fingers grasping. It is the voices from my adolescent dream, I realize, but instead of hearing them, I feel them. It seems a real possibility they will win, drag me under with their dark logic, take me over. My roommate thinks I am possessed. I wonder if I am going mad. Semantics.
And then there was purity culture. In 2018, critiquing True Love Waits and Joshua Harris feels like flogging the proverbial dead horse, but here's the thing: it was that horse that did it.
Any discussion of purity culture must acknowledge how this system reinforces patriarchal norms to devastating effect: commodifying female bodies, denying personal agency, blaming the victim, creating the exact conditions which give rise to abuse. To bastardize a Christopher Stroop phrase: if you've never been compared to a chewed-up piece of gum or a half-eaten candy bar, well then #youdontknowpurityculture. You're also probably not a girl. Others have written eloquently about the devastating toll purity culture exacted on girls, women, and members of the LGBTQ community. Their voices are critical, their stories courageous and heartbreaking. I hope you will hear them. My focus here, however, is necessarily based on my particular experience navigating purity culture as a heterosexual male.
It was about much more than waiting until marriage. Intercourse was the ultimate taboo, but Harris and myriad others went further and criminalized desire. It was not just the act; thinking about the act was just as bad. Having a lustful thought for more than six seconds was the same thing as doing the deed, they told us. Harris, with really remarkable confidence for a 21-year-old, introduced us to the concept of "bouncing." If, on some fine, summer day, you find yourself distracted by the articulated clavicles of a girl in a sundress, bounce your eyes to a neutral object. A shop window, provided there are no lady mannequins. A fire hydrant, perhaps. Too phallic? Just keep bouncing. The asphalt seems safe. A stop sign, if you're feeling cute.
And so, once again, we set out to do battle.
We set out to squash our libidos by dint of pure will. We failed, and we hated ourselves. We formed accountability groups, where we earnestly confessed that we sometimes thought about boobs. We encouraged each other to stop thinking about boobs. When we hung out with girls, we always "left room for the holy spirit." We swore off dancing. We hugged from the side, so as to avoid aligned pelvises. We tried to stop masturbating. We memorized that one DC Talk rap. We became schizophrenic.
Ellie was the first girl I ever dated: a sweet Carolina belle with shoulder-length brown hair and a delightful accent. I was incredibly attracted to her, and it was thrilling and it was wretched. I resolved early on that we would do this right. We wouldn't sully our "spiritual" connection with anything as base as physical affection. No sir. We would honor God. We would not touch each other. After a month or so of hanging out in the same general vicinity, her friends staged an intervention. "Can't you just hold her hand?" they pleaded. "You're hurting her feelings." My Roman brain scorned her "weakness," but my body was desperate for human contact, and so I relented. As if I was doing her a favor.
But those twined fingers proved to be one of the slippery slopes that evangelicals are so fond of invoking. One night, in a dimly-lit corner of the student lounge, I succumbed to the temptation of the flesh, and put my hand on her bare knee. It's absurd how intoxicating it was. I wish I could tell you that my fingers crept up her thigh, that we shared a kiss there in the dark, but that's not what happened. We just sat there, until I finally withdrew my hand. Later that night I called her, rotten with guilt, not just about what I had done, but about what I had wanted to do. "We got a little physical tonight," I said grimly. "I think we should establish some explicit boundaries." I want to stress that she had not expressed any discomfort. It had very little to do with her, in fact. It was not about mutuality, communication, or consent. It was about me.
"No up the shirt stuff, I guess!" she replied gamely.
She broke up with me after three months. We never kissed.
That story may sound cute, but the consequences of having been raised on this ideology are anything but benign. As an adult navigating my sexuality, I felt profoundly broken. Taught in a thousand explicit and subtle ways that my body was filthy and disgusting, I became immune to its beauty and wisdom. Raised on white-knuckle control, I found myself unable to unclench. I had always been told that it was sinful to "want," and so eventually I forgot how. I was an impossible creature, capable of arousal, but allergic to desire. My partners needed hunger, heat, and a little Egyptian chaos, and I presented them with a bald, Roman brain.
The legacy of purity culture is an entire generation of men and women needlessly freighted with shame: divorced from our own bodies, completely incapable of presence, and technically stunted to boot: equally inept with bra clasps and zippers as with intimacy and vulnerability.
"You have a dark, warped sexuality," a male mentor once told me, after I had confessed to looking at pornography. It turns out he was right, but not in the way that he meant.
It is a sunny California day. I throw my laptop into my backpack and bike down Washington Avenue to my favorite coffee shop, steps from the sand. My body responds to the physical activity, endorphins flood my bloodstream. I breathe the crisp, salty beach air and feel the sun warm on my skin. An old man walks by with a parakeet on his shoulder. This is Venice, after all.
I'm not working today. A freelancer in between gigs, with money in the savings account and few responsibilities, I should feel alright. But as I sit down at a table and thumb open my laptop, I feel the familiar, nameless dread. It travels through my body with dark efficiency, puts me on like a glove and squeezes. My spine tightens and blades, my breath shortens, my veins harden into glass, and just as brittle. I see my jaw in X-ray, skeletal teeth clamped tight, shaving enamel. I am a coiled spring, a shrieking tuning fork, and I am about to explode, or dissolve, depending.
I am not speaking about a couple of bad dreams. The experiences in italics were not one-offs. They were near daily occurrences, spanning anywhere from several months to a year. When the nightmares were especially acute, I postponed bedtime as long as I could, desperate to avoid the inevitable terror that came with sleep. I once called in sick to work because of a crippling panic attack. I sat on the floor and gripped my knees. "Nothing's wrong," I breathed to myself. "Everything's fine. Nothing's wrong."
I am struck, always, by the lousy math. The staccato click of high heels on pavement, a distant car alarm, the airbrushed grin of a realtor on a bench ad, a man with a technicolor parakeet; no matter the inputs, my nervous system bristles and screams. Regardless of context, my brain performs the same grim computation, forever arrives at the old conclusion: something bad is about to happen. It's all going to fall apart. You are finished. Something bad. Something bad. Something bad.
Where others see opportunity, I see possible destruction. Where others grow and expand, I shrink and cringe. I am forever bracing for impact. The thief of joy, it turns out, is not comparison, but fear.
"Are you excited?" asks everyone in my life, at some point.
Are you excited about your date? Are you excited about your new job? Are you excited about your trip to Thailand? I have a stock answer that I usually mumble apologetically, something about how the reality of the thing never really hits me until the last minute. This is not exactly true, but the honest answer is a little heavy for your average social encounter:
Q: "Are you excited about X?"
A: "Oh, I've never been excited. Only anxious. Croissant?"
Sometime before sunrise I awoke, seized by a mental pandemonium, a sudden capacity to hear all things in their deepest repercussions. Is this what it feels like to be omniscient? I remember wondering. I could hear my heart and its soft aortic murmur, my breath’s every exhalation and inhalation, the downward silences, the sudden laborious intake—would this be the last?—each its own reckoning, each all-consuming. How much noise the body makes when amped on fear I had never realized. I could hear the hiss of colliding molecules—and beyond the room, the compressors’ roar atop the nearby physics building, the sound of car engines and closing doors. All these things I heard as my own creation.
I wrapped my arms around my chest. Something truly terrible was happening, for no one is omniscient but God. My tongue coiled in my mouth like a serpent. A glint of steel speckled my vision. A hack intellect skulked in the spleen. I could not breathe. I arose to a gray dawn metaling against the modular window and no relief.
Sound familiar? That's Charles Marsh, from his excellent essay Evangelical Anxiety, recounting his first attack. It would not be his last. Like me, he knew next to nothing about psychology or mental health. Like me, he tried to navigate the ever-present terror of his new reality using the tools available within the evangelical subculture. He read his Bible, prayed constantly, confessed his myriad sins. His parents gifted him a copy of Oswald Chambers' touchstone devotional My Utmost For His Highest, and he mined its pages, looking for relief.
The more I read Utmost under the constraints of the attack, the worse I felt—about my relationship with God, my body, my spirit; about life and how to live it... All the petty rebellions that God hated, and all the desires you thought were God-given, Chambers repudiated in painstaking detail in the 365 entries of his devotional. Every day was a life-or-death struggle for holiness, your own private Last Crusade; a full-on battering of your wretched self.
“If ever we are going to be made into wine,” Chambers said, “we will have to be crushed.” “Be careful”, “be more careful”, “be careful to see”, “be careful to remember”, “be careful about the treasure”, “be careful to remain strenuous”, “be careful to keep the body undefiled”, “be careful to keep pace with God”, and on and on and on.
Reading his account, I was struck by the appropriateness of the word "battering." That is how it felt: the constant tyranny of "should," the relentless self-policing, the endless cycle of shame and repentance. The dominant language of Christian edification would not seem out of place in the mouths of my own screaming demons:
Your heart is deceitful.
Put to death all that is within you.
Die to yourself.
You are nothing.
Perhaps you think I'm being melodramatic. It's your prerogative, of course, to dismiss my account as the ramblings of an overly-sensitive malcontent. I don't begrudge you this critique, because I've asked myself a version of this same question. In case it isn't blindingly obvious by this point, I am not, by default, a confident person. I have no swagger. I vacillate. Sometimes, for a brief moment, my desk feels like it's several feet off the ground. My eyes flash, each keystroke is a concussion of truth, wrecking small minds and rendering my ideological opponents shaken and contrite. The next minute I’ll crash to the ground, fill with bile and hurl epithets: you’re full of it, buddy. Is there anything more pathetic than blaming a belief system for your own bad habits and listless living? Your premise is flawed, your grievances are laughable, and your prose is overwrought. Most importantly: nobody gives two shits about your stupid, little story or your dumb, self-fascinated, surpassingly insignificant blog.
I’ll let you guess which of these narratives has more persistence and power.
Such is the conundrum of the evangelical psyche: when the worldview you were raised on relentlessly assaults your autonomy and insists that your intuition cannot be trusted, it becomes very difficult to tell the valid self-criticisms from the bogus ones.
Short story short: I am not the type of person to fire off an essay condemning an entire ideology on a whim. I would not be writing this thing if I hadn't done my research, if I hadn't found corroborating evidence. I'm certainly not trying to imply that my experience is universal, that everyone who grew up in this subculture ends up on the therapist’s couch, battling panic attacks and depression. I know plenty of evangelicals who seem to like themselves just fine, who don't flinch in response to every stimuli. But what I have discovered is that, while my story may not be the rule, neither is it the exception.
Just ask Christopher, who as a child lied awake every night, terrified that he might not go to heaven, desperately reciting the sinner's prayer. Who had a near panic attack trying to discern which pair of socks God would want him to wear.
Consider Clay, who congratulated himself for good behavior because he had gone a record three days without getting spanked. As an adult, he found himself unable to make decisions for himself, completely incapable of locating any internal compass or expressing preference. When he finally started making his own choices, in defiance of his parents' wishes, he presented with symptoms of PTSD: violent shaking, throat closed up, vomiting.
And then there's Libby Anne, who was unable to have sex with her Christian husband because she had so internalized the idea that physical pleasure was filthy and base. The only way she could bear it was by removing herself from the act as a willing agent: they had to fantasize a rape scenario.
You may think I am cherry-picking, but these stories are thoroughly mundane.
The real tragedy of purity culture, authoritarian parenting and the culture war ethos is not that we failed, but that we succeeded. This unholy Roman trinity may not have produced culture warriors or even prevented us from losing our faith, but it nevertheless worked as designed. Raised on war, we came to see all the world as a threat. Our birthright was not holiness, but hyper-vigilance and crippling anxiety. Schooled in the logic of authoritarianism, we learned the dark lesson of self-abnegation. Desperate to be "vessels," we emptied ourselves so thoroughly that we had nothing left. Force-fed the dangerous dualism of purity culture, we came to see our very bodies as the enemy. After years of disassociation and disgust, we discovered that we couldn't put ourselves back together.
"So let me get this straight," I said, choking back laughter and hanging over the edge of my dorm room bunk bed. "You're telling me that Adam and Eve walked with God..."
My best friend Alex nodded from his perch on the old, ratty couch we had bought for $50 at the local goodwill. "Just kicking it with the creator of the universe, no big deal." He shook the hair from his eyes and grinned in anticipation. We had been working up to this moment for a while now.
"Right. The most powerful being there is. All-knowing, all-powerful, Alpha and Omega, etc, etc..." I paused, trying to find language that would do justice to the scene we were describing. "Like, they talked with God! The guy who created them and all of reality out of nothing."
"You'd think he would've made quite the impression." The corners of Alex's mouth twitched. "And he only had one, tiny request."
"Don't... eat... the... fucking... apple!" I shouted, pounding the mattress for emphasis. "You'd think God would have been pretty convincing, that if anyone could have communicated the stakes here, it was him! The whole world is yours, life is fucking great, we're naming animals and shit..."
"And then along comes a talking snake," Alex snorted. "Naw, it's totally cool! Apples are rad, they make you hella smart!"
"A fucking talking snake!" I am shaking with laughter, clutching my ribs. "Never mind the super awesome creator of everything over there. I'm a snake and I can talk!"
We are howling, practically hyperventilating. "Oh well, we're screwed for all of time now," Alex gasped between spasms. "But, I mean, the talking snake said it was cool!"
It is one of my fondest college memories, and not just because of the late night camaraderie and blasphemous mirth. It was a moment when the familiar became strange, when the bright red lines that had been drawn around our reality seemed penetrable. But you do not unmake an entire world in an evening. Not long after, Alex would attempt to take his own life. It’s tough to be gay in a subculture that mostly refuses to acknowledge your existence, let alone affirm it. It turns out that if you tell someone, however obliquely, that they are broken, twisted, and unworthy of love, they may finally come to believe it. I was encouraged by several male mentors to avoid him.
Later, his therapist would ask him: "When did you stop wanting to self-harm? When did the depression go away?"
Alex answered, in his understated way: "I guess it was when I realized God didn't hate me, because he wasn't real."
And his therapist responded: "I can't tell you how many times I've heard a client say that."
Like it or not, God has, for many, become emblematic not of love or grace, but of hatred and self-loathing. Weaponized against difference, avatar for our small fears and petty prejudices, a transparent outsourcing of our need to be right.
And it starts in Eden.
We laughed at the absurdity of the story of "the fall" that day in the dorm, but the old myth reverberates still today, and its implications are deadly serious. Adam and Eve see the apple (a wondrous, alien thing) and want to explore it with hungry fingers. "Don't touch!" comes the thundering voice of the father, confusing their curiosity for insolence. They do, and the consequence is violence enacted on their bodies by the only indispensable being in their world: expulsion from paradise, pain in childbirth, an eternity of manual labor. This is the deity that many of us raised in fundamentalism were introduced to, that was modeled for us by our own fathers and mothers: God as authoritarian parent, chafed over the agency of his creation, meting out incredible punishment in response to his children simply acting on their desire.
It is telling that Augustine, the OG advocate for purity culture and Christian dualism, also put desire in the crosshairs. Others have emphasized Augustine’s complicity in popularizing the doctrine of original sin. These critics correctly identify the practice of teaching impressionable children that they are born broken, stained by sin, and deserving of eternal torture as psychological abuse. But they rarely interrogate what might have motivated Augustine to conceive of the concept in the first place. It is instructive that Augustine believed humanity's original sin was not sex, or even disobedience, really, but the desire that led to these acts. It makes sense, if you think about it. I can even empathize with this Roman man. I recognize his furrowed brow and white knuckles. Our bodies have their own mongrel wisdom, chaotic and inscrutable. Desire is frightening not because it points us towards pleasure, but because we seem to have so little say in the matter:
"Behold the 'vital fire,' which does not obey the soul's decision, but, for the most part, rises up against the soul's desire in disordered and ugly movement."
"Who can control this appetite when it is aroused? No one!"
"What honest celibate would chooses that it ever be aroused? Yet what he wishes, he cannot accomplish."
"In the very movement of the appetite, it has no mode corresponding to the mode of the will."
I honestly don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Augustine is talking about his dick, of course, but to lob a penis joke at prudish ancients from the comfort of the 21st century is to miss the point. These tortured grafs are not really about piety or puritanism. They have little to do with God. No, they are the anguished, petulant cries of a man who cannot stomach the fact that he is not in control.
This is why I held my breath that day in Shakespeare class. It was as if I had been gifted, at long last, the key that unlocked the map. It would be some years before I saw how perfectly the pieces fit, but I could feel the truth of the thing in my bones.
Evangelical Christianity is Shakespeare's Rome: it must, always and forever, be in control.
This may seem an odd charge to level at the "let go and let God" crowd, but I think it has incredible explanatory power. It makes elegant sense of the terror embedded in the culture war, authoritarian parenting, and the emphasis on purity. Whereas Egypt is fungible and porous, Rome is all boundaries, solid structure, and hard lines. Egypt draws its identity from the earth, from the ever-changing and fluid nature of reality. Rome, by contrast, derives its essential identity from the mind, from abstract categorization and intellectual binaries. If Rome's borders are breached, if it cannot be "not Egypt," it becomes nothing at all.
Similarly, evangelicals have anchored themselves so firmly to dogma that evolving on any particular issue threatens their entire identity. Their "worldview" is no longer a framework that helps them understand reality. It has replaced reality. This is why the fundamentalist is so terrified, and must always recoil from difference and change. To accept evolution or affirm gay marriage is to risk pulling the jenga block that brings the whole structure crashing down. Being wrong is akin to death. It is to cease to exist.
"It's understandable that your relationship with Alex has made you more compassionate towards gay people. But don't let your emotion and empathy blind you to the truth."
Those who grew up in evangelical Christianity will be familiar with this type of counsel. One might even be tempted to see it as relatively innocuous alongside the gaudier examples of religious bigotry; but it is precisely its utter banality that makes it so damning. It may not be as flashy as the performative hatred of a Westboro Baptist Church rally, but its stylistic tact does not make it any less substantively destructive. Embedded in this advice is purity culture’s dualism and denigration of the body, the authoritarian parent’s denial of individual autonomy, and the culture war’s demonization of the “other.”
“You cannot trust your instincts. Your lived experience must be subordinated to our authority.” And, crucially: “You can learn nothing from your friend.” Apparently, the “still, small voice” should be ignored, unless it first clears its message with the self-appointed arbiters of “Biblical truth.”
If you start from the premise of control, it becomes clear why the fundamentalist must always turn the lens from living, breathing human beings onto bloodless, abstract theology. Whether it be my friend Alex, their own children, or their physical selves, evangelicals steadfastly refuse to pay diligent, loving attention to the subject. Empathy is dangerous in the same way dancing is, because it has the power to move you, to open you up and teach you something new. The evangelical Christian cannot afford to take that risk, lest he find that God, or reality, refuses to conform to his particular hermeneutic. He is like the stubborn Luddite who refuses to update his operating system for fear that his favorite apps will stop working. In this way, fundamentalists have made a god of security. They are, at their core, desperate to be finished, to take the living word and kill it dead.
I believe this is why so many of us are leaving the evangelical church. Culture war Christianity, like Rome, undermines your worth while overestimating your importance. It is the worst of all possible psychic worlds. You are nothing, and yet everything somehow depends on you: the purity of your mind, the salvation of your neighbor, the sanctification of your culture, the righteousness of your orthodoxy; ultimately: reality and truth itself. We have spent our lives trying to hold the entire world together with our jaws, and we are tired.
We are tired of approaching our brothers and sisters only in terms of conquest or avoidance. Of insisting that we rub off on them, but never the other way around. Of always talking, and never listening. We are tired of fending off and rebutting every human insight and discovery of the last several centuries. Of mounting increasingly desperate and bankrupt arguments against the way the world actually is.
Finally, we are tired of the toll this need for control has taken on our bodies and minds. Of all the nightmares and anxiety attacks that manifest with the logic of a Roman fist: relentless, grasping, always demanding more than we have to give.
When the inner censor grows too strong, prohibits too much, the result is listlessness, depression, despondency. In extreme cases we reach acedia, the hatred of life that takes one to suicide. The death of desire is the death of the individual.
If salvation is a free gift from a loving God, then fundamentalism is the hand that wraps greedy fingers around it and squeezes until all the joy, delight and wonder drain out. Certainty undoubtedly provides some short-term, intellectual comfort, but the cost of strangling curiosity and desire will eventually come due. You may realize, in the end, that your feeling of “righteousness” is a poor substitute for wholeness and connection. That you have mastered an abstract world, but lost your beating heart. That you have gained control, but forfeited a life.
You may end up feeling pretty, well... flat.
I stared at the blank wall, brush poised over paint can, dripping electric blue. It was a moment of post-college sincerity, yes, but also an act of desperation. Distressed by the chasm between diagnosis and prescription, I felt I had to make my abstract epiphany external in some way, to pin it to something tangible. I was still timid enough to think that splashing paint on a bedroom wall was taboo, that I first needed permission from some authority figure, somewhere. But I swallowed that Roman resistance, raised my blue brush, and put the phrase I had been feeling inside myself, like a prayer, onto the drywall above my mattress:
"It's a ride, not a fight."
"Huh," said my roommate when he saw the horror movie brush strokes, dripping lurid lines down the wall.
"Yeah..." I squinted. "I didn't mean for it to look so sinister."
That was a decade ago, but even then I was reaching for a paradigm that didn't require me to put reality on lock-down. I was sick of waking up with curled fingers and gritted teeth. I wanted to be open and light, to -as Annie Dillard says- "learn, or remember, how to live."
What we all need, but especially the fundamentalist, is a healthy dose of Egypt. Please don't misunderstand. I'm not speaking of simple hedonism or bald sexuality. I'm talking about the eroticism of Audre Lorde and the mysticism of Rumi. It is the mysterious and animal part within each of us. It resists categorization. It is our life force, unquantifiable, particular, irreducible to an algorithm. It is what separates us from the machines: skin on skin, rhythm and melody, poetry, desire, and the wide eyes of a child.
It dawned on me that the snarky wit of a teenager and the holy curiosity of a toddler isn’t a means to an end. Imaginative living isn’t training so that we can fit into the world’s systems with a slight edge. It is, in of itself, a disruption of the status quo. The children are already practicing the vibrant life of resurrection resistance. Perhaps this is why fundamentalism is so harsh on disciplining (controlling) children, they fear acts of imagination.
I think whimsy needs to be a fruit of the Spirit–right up there with love, joy, and peace, because whimsy brings delight. It brings surprising joy and unexpected hope. It challenges social norms and defies traditions. It jolts us out of our static existence, busts into a room full of people weighed down by the heaviness of life, and says, “hey guys, look at me, I’ve got questions.”
She's right. Fundamentalists have misinterpreted the phrase "faith like a child." They have equated it with submission, as if Jesus admired little children for their willingness to unquestioningly download religious and conservative propaganda. Verily I say unto thee: poor people are lazy, gay marriage is bad, and it's very important that we elect conservative judges to the Supreme Court. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after the elimination of the capital gains tax. Now go and think no more!
This is not just laughable. It is heresy. Self-control and respect for authority are learned behaviors. They are emblematic of adults, not children. "Faith like a child" is not an endorsement of rigid hierarchy and authoritarianism, but an invitation to wonder. Wonder is the antidote to our clenched jaws and frayed nerves. It is the opposite of dogma: an oppenness to mystery, the willingness to explore and delight in reality instead of wrestling it to the ground. The alternative to the Roman fist is an open palm.
We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would "lief" or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go.
That's Alan Watts, and though I first read those words years ago, I feel their urgency now more than ever. I have spent my whole life clinging to the edge of this or that cliff, terrified of the darkness and uncertainty below. But at what cost? Grasping at life is a poor substitute for living it. Have you ever seen a fundamentalist try to dance? Trick question. You can’t dance when you're busy tiptoeing through all the land mines.
Let us be done with fear and control. Let's pry loose those fingers, exhale, allow the narrative to get away from us. Let’s be endlessly careful with each other but a little reckless with everything else. Let’s listen to music, follow a hunch, spend time in the woods. Lets meditate. Make some thoroughly predictable mistakes. Let's look another creature in the eyes and slowly unravel. Let's greet the chaos with a lusty, affirmative shout.
Finally, let's try, as best we can, to ask our “what ifs” not with fear and trembling, but with generous, playful curiosity.
What if we are lovable because of who we are, and not in spite of it? What if our bodies are not filthy but miraculous and wise? What if the shadow behind us is not our enemy, but just something we don't yet understand? What if this world is not an obstacle that we must overcome or an arena bristling with threat? What if it’s simply our home? What if we don't have to catch all the boxes and set them to the ground? What if nothing happens when they finally touch down? We do not disintegrate. The earth keeps spinning. We may even find out that, from time to time, the very thing we’ve been dreading turns out to be something good.
Something good. Something good.
“You've got to jump off cliffs all the time and build your wings on the way down”
“Sometimes I doubt and sometimes I believe. And I like not making myself believe when I am doubting, and not making myself doubt when I am believing. Surely neither God nor Accident need my consistency.”
”‘Tis paltry to be Caesar.”
*Some names and incidental, physical details have been changed, to protect the innocent