Can we find a fuller, more generous faith?
Reviews: Testimony, Jon Ward, Brazos Press | Evangelical Anxiety, Charles Marsh, HarperOne | Holy Woman, Louise Omer, Scribe
These three books share a similar theme of escape from a kind of narrow evangelical Christianity. They are a criticism of forms of Christian belief, but with the depth of experience of insiders. Boy, there’s some troubling stuff amongst their stories, but they point to the possibility of a fuller, more generous version of faith.
Jon Ward is a political journalist who grew up in an evangelical, Pentecostal church in the 1980s and 90s. His father was a pastor in the church, later forced out. There might seem a lot in his book about his own church, but he is clearly angry about his and his father’s experiences. A contributor to American magazine Christianity Today was not happy with the book, thinking it self-serving and lacking empathy, but also likely because it asks some hard questions about the kind of churchgoers that read Christianity Today. Besides, as the title suggests, it is Ward’s own story of disillusionment, while staying in the wider church.
But he also writes about the strange position of evangelical American Christians in the nation’s politics. He writes that with the end of the Cold War, some American churches began to look at enemies ‘within’; for Ward’s church, they were abortionists, who they targeted to the point of praying for their deaths.
Mostly, his church saw government as one of the enemies, as do the majority of Trump supporters, but he describes the growing realisation, through his career, that government can be a positive, rather than a worldly authority that the church must necessarily stand against. These arguments boil over in family text messages, some of which we probably don’t need to know about, but Ward seems somewhat raw over all this, surprisingly heart-on-sleeve for a seasoned journalist. But, as they say, it’s personal.
All three of these books are emotionally raw. Charles Marsh is a religious scholar and Bonhoeffer biographer who grew up in the American south, in what we might call an evangelical, fundamentalist household. His father was also a minister, and Marsh describes a ‘siege mentality’ within the church of his childhood: minority groups on one side, government on the other. He worked in John Updike country and borrows something of Updike’s lush style. Also like Updike, he finds in literature and expansive Christianity an antidote to existential angst.
His book is partly about his journey through psychotherapy, which he underwent to tackle debilitating anxiety experienced in childhood and as a young, married academic. This was despite the suspicion of psychology in his brand of Christianity – blame it on Freud’s atheism perhaps, but there is also the idea that mental illness should be dealt with within the church, through prayer and Bible-reading. Marsh notes that, worse, his church saw illness as a blessing in disguise, brokenness a way to turn you to God.
Louise Omer’s parents were not evangelical Christians, but she followed her brother into a Pentecostal church in Adelaide, an affiliate of Hillsong, attracted to its radicalism, muscular spirituality and, frankly, loud music. She married one of the worship band leaders. Socially progressive in some ways, the church also had a subtle patriarchal culture that eventually caused her to leave her husband, in the process cutting off ties with and being cut off by the church. The book is a novelistic, blow-by-blow account of peeling off the layers of self-loathing, as well as a search for a more feminine side of religion.
She talks to feminist Jewish and Muslim women, travels to Mexico to understand veneration of Mary, and to Sweden to think about alternatives to exclusively masculine language about God. In Ireland she sees a little of the abortion debate, in the context of the history of punishment, disproportionately of women, of sexual improprieties. In Morocco, in a new spirit of abandon, she sinks into another abusive relationship.
It might seem there is too much emphasis on sex in these books, but that perhaps reflects the authors’ reactions to an overemphasis in their church circles. Sexuality was ‘doublethink’ in Omer’s church culture, with expectations of purity for women while men struggled with pornography. Ward describes things similarly. Marsh, again like Updike, is almost obsessive. Each author describes cycles of fall and repentance and self-obsession souring into disgust at the body (or in Marsh’s case, almost-funny complete distraction). In each of these church cultures, individual morality sits with an awareness of social issues – abortion, refugees, civil rights. But there is a focus on the individual. Marsh and Ward describe a culture of honesty and accountability, of sharing in men’s groups turning creepily into voyeurism at fellow believers’ faults. Omer and Ward describe a kind of passive-aggressive culture where leaders denounce a lack of humility in other leaders.
There is also a focus on conspicuous emotional expression. Marsh felt he never met the expected level of ‘intensity’. Omer describes the fervour, and she notes that the enthusiasm made teens feel important and able to change the world, but later it sounds like a fever dream. Marsh found that the expectations of religious ecstasy compounded the anxiety, but psychotherapy, oddly, took the focus off himself by showing that anxiety is common, and freed him of the guilt of feeling imperfect. For Omer, feelings of inadequacy were compounded by being a woman. She describes being valued but also being subtly undermined because of her gender, both in the church and in her marriage.
Outside, there is a sense of being at war with the world. Ward describes American evangelical Christianity as having ‘lost its mind’, and this is not just a phrase, but sums up a proud anti-intellectualism within evangelicalism, an emphasis on tribalism over critical thinking, lately manifesting darkly in prejudice, conspiracy theories and Trumpism. In this there is a confusion of the counter-cultural gospel with bad biblical interpretation that promotes a cutting-off from the world, a suspicion of difference and a Gnostic dualism that sees nothing of value in the world.
Ward notes that rather than seeing ourselves as complex individuals, sometimes at war within ourselves, this viewpoint divides the world into ‘us’ (good) and ‘them’ (bad). In many cases, this is exacerbated by the belief that there is an unseen supernatural battle where angels are on ‘our’ side, and demons are on ‘their’ side. A reason for this is fear of the world and the need for certainty, which people often seek in the church. But, Ward reminds us, Jesus doesn’t promise certainty – he only asks his followers to step out in faith with eyes on the welfare of others and not ourselves.
Ward describes faith as wide, not narrow, and finds in rejecting tribalism a faith that is fuller. Marsh’s story is of moving to a more mature faith in which, as he puts it, rather than being thankful for brokenness, he suspects God wishes us to be whole. As well as psychotherapy helping with his anxiety, he found it steered him towards a church that would ‘accompany’ him in his journey rather than enforce ‘affect’. He also writes of wanting to pass on to his children a ‘trust’ in their hearts, minds and bodies (as parts of God’s good creation). Omer, though she ultimately moves beyond the church, but inspired by Jewish female purification rituals, similarly reclaims the body, of herself and of women generally, as something good.