Book Review: Jesus and John Wayne

“Hey, guess what,” DJ said to me last week. “Jesus and John Wayne came in!”

What he meant to say was this: “Remember you asked me to look for the book Jesus and John Wayne for you? The library called to say it came in today.” But my first mental image was of Jesus and John Wayne popping in to DJ’s office, as if they were in the area and decided to come by and say hello.

But I was glad to hear it, even if the reality turned out to be less exciting. I was looking forward to reading it, in my ongoing to attempt to understand exactly how the white evangelical church got to where it is now.

Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez wasn’t really a revelatory book for me. I grew up Southern Baptist and spent my teenage years in Bill Gothard’s ATI program. Our house was full of material from Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Rush Limbaugh, and Eagle Forum. During my introduction to HSLDA in the late nineties, I brushed shoulders with pre-Vision Forum Doug Phillips. I wasn’t just familiar with the white evangelicalism that this book talks about, I was one of those white evangelicals.

What this book does, however, is lay out my own religious history in a way that I never understood before. It showed me patterns of ideas and behaviors that still hold true today. And it also showed me just how far I drifted from my roots in the early 2000s, which was why I was shattered by the white evangelical church’s overwhelming support of Donald Trump, instead of expecting it as an inevitable outcome.

In fact, if I’d read this book before the January 6 breach of the Capitol, I wouldn’t have found that event nearly as shocking.

The book isn’t a dense read, especially for someone already familiar with most of the major players. Yet every time I try to discuss it, I get tangled up in so many thoughts that it’s hard to have a conversation. So what I’ll do here is highlight the patterns that struck me as significant.

Pattern #1: Evangelicals have always courted political power. I was taught that a real Christian doesn’t “put confidence in princes,” that we trust that God will work His own will no matter what. In practice, however, the leaders in my life were all about currying favor at the White House. It’s why Ronald Reagan is practically a saint in evangelical circles — he was very cozy with the powerhouse of influence, James Dobson, and other church luminaries. Billy Graham was instrumental in getting Richard Nixon elected. Both Bushes knew to appeal to the evangelical vote. Had I known all this, I’d have known that when Dobson, Franklin Graham, and other leaders fell over themselves to line up at Trump’s feet, they weren’t selling out principle for power. Their principle is power.

Pattern #2: Evangelicals create and then believe myths. From the first, John Wayne has been an evangelical icon of “real manhood.” The strong, rugged cowboy lives by his own code of honor, is indomitable in battle, doesn’t take guff from wimpy men or any woman, and earns the respect of everyone he encounters. He’s a real man. Of course, it’s a completely fictional construct. Wayne himself wasn’t a cowboy, never served in the military… heck, even the name “John Wayne” was fiction, replacing the much less craggy “Marion Morrison.” Yet the fact that the ideal has no roots in reality does nothing to diminish it. This myth is so strong that the evangelical concept of Jesus himself has been shaped to fit into this mold.

Similarly, ideal womanhood is built on the same myth-making process. The two examples of great evangelical women in my younger years were Phyllis Schafley and Elisabeth Elliot. Both were outspoken women, household names, and inspiring to young evangelical women. Both pushed hard the idea that a woman’s highest calling is as a mother, wife, and homemaker. Yet neither of these women lived up to that ideal at all. Schafley poured her energies into politics, not “staying home and baking cookies,” as Hillary Clinton was famously reviled for saying. After her missionary husband was killed, Elliot spent her life writing books, hosting a radio show, and traveling around the country to speaking engagements. She married twice more, but never took those men’s names for her professional life. In both cases, these women were able to fulfill their obvious gifts for leadership by reinforcing the idea that they supported “traditional” women’s roles. And just like in the case of John Wayne, evangelicals agreed to believe the myth instead of the reality.

Although it’s still astonishing how quickly the John Wayne myth sprang up around Trump, now I can see why so many evangelicals eagerly believed and invested themselves in it. It’s part of a long pattern.

Pattern #3: Evangelicals feed on fear. There’s always got to be a bad guy for these John Waynes to fight. In fact, I remember the moment when I was 18 and listening to David Barton (a problematic “historian”) at a Bill Gothard conference in Knoxville. We’d spent all week being reminded that America was on a path toward destruction because we, the small remnant of faithful, couldn’t keep her true to her Christian roots. Barton was telling how the Library of Congress was transitioning to digital files, and “destroying hundreds of books.” He implied that it was an Orwellian book-burning designed to erase the Christian foundation of the US, allowing evil people to snatch the country away from us. And all of a sudden my exhausted mind shut down and I thought, “I am so tired of being scared all the time.”

But like any subculture, evangelical leaders need something to keep their followers focused. For many years, the Communist threat was enough to keep the troops galvanized. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left the army at a loss. So evangelical leaders focused on domestic threats, such as feminism, homosexuality, and religious liberty. Not saying that there are no reasons to be concerned on any of these issues (have you read 1960s feminism? It has venom-dipped fangs), but evangelicals aren’t famous for their nuanced take on issues they oppose.

Then came the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Evangelicals quickly coalesced around this new external enemy. Anti-Islamic panic was high. Reading this section of the book, I realized that these were the years when I was drifting away from my roots. I was vaguely aware of what was being said and passed around as facts about Muslim beliefs and behavior (much of which was highly exaggerated or sensationalized), but I rejected it as unChristian prejudice and racism. I suppose I assumed that most other people did the same. I was wrong, which I found out painfully enough about fifteen years later.

Du Mez keeps a narrow focus in this book. In describing the evangelical response to various events, she doesn’t give much room to presenting a well-rounded view. For instance, she discusses the evangelical distaste for Hillary Clinton, both as a First Lady and as a presidential candidate. Briefly she touches on concerns about Clinton’s policies and possibly corruption — which are valid, non-sexist, non-partisan considerations for any candidate — but she mostly focuses on the overblown rhetoric and rumors that evangelicals passed around among themselves. If you want more than just the evangelical reaction to any given person or incident, you’ll have to go back and fill in the gaps yourself.

I found this a helpful book on a very personal level. Intellectually, I left evangelicalism years ago. I gave up on political activism because I don’t like rallies and canvassing for votes and writing emails to Congress. DJ and I revamped our entire understanding of the “essential” doctrine of creationism. Once we saw the damage that “traditional” gender roles (man = leads, woman = submits) inflicted on our marriage, we cultivated a relationship based on mutual submission. Early in our marriage, we considered joining the Catholic church, but ran into too many theological roadblocks; instead we made our way into the Anglican church, with its focus on liturgy and social awareness. I’ve become sharply aware of the national sin of racism, and the need to for the white church especially to repent. I haven’t voted Republican in a national election since I opted out of the 2008 election (and now I wish I’d participated in the historic event of electing a black president). I’ve revisited and refined many opinions which, in my evangelical days, came pre-packaged with inflexible answers.

Yet I still love the people I came from, and I didn’t realize how far away I’d traveled until the rift became impossible to ignore. That’s why I have so many knots and tangles when it comes to discussing my thoughts on this book.

Your experience reading this will vary. The book might enlightening, uncomfortable, or disturbing depending on your relationship with white evangelicalism. I think it’s valuable regardless. If you’re at all interested in understanding the white Christian Republican devotion to Trump, then you should read Jesus and John Wayne.

Just be aware that you have to say the title very carefully. Not only does this dynamic duo make the rounds at DJ’s office, but I found myself asking, “Did anybody see Jesus and John Wayne in the living room?”

You Cannot Serve Both

Debt is a sin.

It’s not just a bad financial decision. It is a manifestation of greed and wastefulness, and crushing debt is God’s way of punishing you.

This is the kind of financial advice handed out by Bill Gothard’s organization since the 70s (my own personal “Fellowship”), but it wasn’t unique to him. [Of course it wasn’t. I’m not sure he taught anything actually unique; he just scavenged ideas from other people and repackaged it to look like his own. But I digress.]

This emphasis on debt-is-sin makes sense if you equate “wealth” with “God’s blessing.” If you’re really living up to God’s standards, he’ll make sure you have an abundance of money and you won’t ever have to go into debt for anything.

We heard stories of people who had unexpected windfalls that let them replace their vehicles in cash. About people who refused to go into debt for necessities, and God provided the funds. Even people who saved up enough money to pay for a house without taking out a mortgage. At the same time, we learned that to go into debt meant we put ourselves into slavery, that we weren’t living in enough faith, or that we were simply too greedy and too impatient to wait for God to provide for us.

These teachings have long-reaching consequences. I had a friend whose husband, through the fault of his genetics, piled up a massive medical debt. An already stressful situation was compounded with interest (heh heh) because they both felt that they were being punished since they didn’t have the means to pay off these debts immediately. Never mind that they showed incredible resilience, faith, and loyalty to one another and to God underneath so much pressure. They felt only the judgement of that debt.

And even in my own life, years and years away from this kind of thinking, I realized it still crops up. Recently, DJ and I got a nice chunk of money that we didn’t actually need. His job during the pandemic is relatively secure, and we’re accustomed to living on one income. We agreed that we’d use some of it to pay for termite treatment around the house, but the rest we’d give back to the community.

It was surprisingly hard to write that check. Aside from the pull of greed, I felt wasteful, as if I were “a bad steward” of what God had given us. What if an appliance broke, or even worse, one of our old vehicles died? We’d have to buy a new appliance or pay for the repairs on a credit card. Maybe God let us receive that money in anticipation for this need! But we gave it all away, opening ourselves to the danger of debt.

At this point in my life, I could dismiss this reasoning with a little thought. I mean, these days we carry a good amount of debt as a matter of course. But it was jarring to realize it was there. This kind of thinking turns us into fearful misers who can’t afford to be generous. Instead of fulfilling Jesus’ command to love and help the poor, we find ourselves bound in service to the god of money.

And all those stories I heard as a teenager, of people who lived debt-free? They usually left out some details. It’s easier to live debt-free if you’ve got followers who send you money. Or if, while saving up for years to pay for a house with cash, you and your family lived in near-poverty conditions.

And then there’s the fact that some people just flat-out lied about their circumstances. They didn’t live debt-free, but saying they did sold more books and videos.

American Christianity is fixated on wealth and power, to the point that we assume that someone in dire financial straits must be under God’s judgement. And since we don’t want to be in that situation, we have to hoard our money. We ignore others’ real, present needs in order to guard against our hypothetical future needs.

Debt is a sin is a philosophy that kills the soul for the sake of money. It seems as if Jesus would have warned against this kind of thing.

P.S. Gothard’s organization sold tens of thousands of dollars of curriculum, books, videos, and seminars… and accepted credit cards to pay for them.

Blogging on Patheos Today

I was invited to contribute to a “public square” discussion on Patheos. The question is, “Why do you homeschool?” It’s a really good question for any of us who came through Bill Gothard’s spiritually poisonous system.

Here’s my answer. It’s For the Children

I’m impressed at the lineup of authors that the editors editors pulled in for this topic. It gives a wide variety of homeschool viewpoints. Check it out!

Phantom Enemies

ghost-1-1312149-1280x960One day on the battlefield, I looked up and realized I was fighting phantoms.

Before I go any further, I’m going to say this:

  1. I’m not going to apologize for being cautious around a person or situation that feels not-normal. I’m a woman and a mother, and God didn’t give me deeply-imbedded survival instincts just for kicks. I’m also a rational human being, so I can evaluate whether those instincts ring true or not; but meanwhile, if I feel uneasy, I will take precautions to keep myself and my children safe.
  2. Predators and terrorists are real dangers. That’s why they’re so frightening. The possibility of a zombie attack at the grocery store doesn’t make your throat close up with fear.

That said…

Two remarks recently revealed how hard I was fighting illusions.

The first was while I was having coffee with some other women. We were talking about what our kids enjoyed doing, and I lamented that I couldn’t let my children walk anywhere. “We live right off a highway and people drive fast. It’s just not safe.”

The others nodded, and one added, “And you never know what the Muslims will do.”

We were in a hipster coffee shop in a predominately white Christian town. In my middle-class suburban bubble, I hadn’t seen a non-white person all morning.

The second remark was in some discussion about transgender bathroom policies. Someone declared, “I work hard enough to keep my kids safe as it is, without this added risk!”

I’ve probably used a public bathroom with a transgendered person without knowing it. Still, I do think that we’d do well to acknowledge the risks of allowing predatory men easier access to women’s bathrooms. But I heard that comment and thought, “How many times have you had to defend your children against attackers this week?”

She would say, “Every minute of my day!” What she means is, “I’m on alert every minute of my day.” But as for actual attacks? In a typical week in my circle of friends, that would be zero.

What these two comments clarified for me was that I spend a lot of energy defending myself and my family against enemies who might be, but aren’t actually, attacking me. When I took a step back to see who my actual attackers are, I was stunned.

I’ve had a very good life, but not a perfect one. Throughout the years, people have hurt me. And that group of people—the one that I by all rights should be wary of now—has been

White

Middle-class

Heterosexual

American

Christians

It makes sense. That’s who I am, and that’s who I associate with. If I were to guard against the actual “enemies” who have hurt me, I’d be cautious around smiling men in dark suits who teach toxic theology. I’d protect my children from manipulative women who just “want the best” for my family. Stories of terrorists and predators would concern me, but an ordinary guy who assumes I’m not as good as he is because I don’t think like he does—that should terrify me.

They don’t, though, because they’re known enemies. It’s the unknown that scares me.

It’s good to be aware of trends, movements, and dangers. As I said to begin with, I don’t apologize for being careful in situations that make me uneasy. But the thing about phantom enemies is that you never, ever beat them. They always come back. So I end up enslaved to fear, which makes me want to follow anyone who promises safety… which is often someone who preys on fear for his or her own selfish ends. And in my life, that’s almost invariably been a white middle-class heterosexual American Christianish kind of person.

Phantom enemies deliver us into the hands of real ones. And that’s really what should scare us most.

Bleeding Praise

They opened a Bible and
Drew out a gleaming
Metal sheath, polished silver
Studded with rubies.
They said it was good.

They said the beautiful sheath
Enclosed treasure to
Carry deep inside my heart –
God’s gift for God’s child.
I stretched out my hand.

They unclasped a silver lock.
The sheath broke apart
Revealing a slender smooth
Steel blade, thin and sharp.
I accepted it.

I took the chilled metal blade
Which did not warm to
My touch, and they showed me just
How I must hold it.
Poised over my heart.

Together, we drove it in.
Easily, it pierced
My chest. The handle snapped off,
The blade disappeared
Deep within my heart.

They looked at the bright red blood
Welling from my heart,
Smearing and staining my skin.
Blood is life, they said—
God’s abundant life.

They reproached me for my tears,
Said I must be strong,
Said my heart was rebellious
Said it was Your gift.
I must love the pain.

I loved the pain, rejoicing
In abundant life.
My bleeding and wounded heart
Sang praises to You
In grief and despair.

I cherished the deep-set blade
Having forgotten
That it was not part of me.
Not remembering
That they put it there.

You came near to me and saw
That I was dying,
Slowly, while gasping praises
As each new heartbeat
Tore wider the wound.

You whispered in my anguish,
Said the sharp steel blade
Was not a treasure of Yours.
Pain stopped up my ears
I couldn’t hear You.

You slid Your fingers into
My agonized heart.
Then I knew You were with me.
Fear and pain burned me.
I begged You to leave.

Peace, be still, is all You said.
You drew out the blade.
It was pitted, slimy, dark.
My torn heart closed up.
I cried soft, warm tears.

Quietly You embraced me,
Stanched the bright red blood
With Your own bloodstained fingers
Said You don’t love pain.
But You love to heal.

You washed my skin and my clothes
And bound up my heart.
You shattered the ugly blade,
Asked for no praises.
Told me to just breathe.

Abigail, A Dangerous Woman

The Bible doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to exposing dangerous women. The first one who comes to your mind, just like mine, is Abigail.

Lest you think we’re talking about two different Old Testament characters, I’ll give a rundown of her story. It’s found in 1 Samuel 25.

In the years before David became king of Israel, he was on the run from Saul–the current king–and building up his own following. They happened upon the fields of Nabal during shearing time. David sent ten men to Nabal saying, “Hey, we didn’t mess with your shepherds or steal any of your sheep or goats. So could you give me food for my men?”

It was a big request. But Nabal was a rich man. More to the point, he was still rich thanks to David’s honorable treatment of his property. Also, David’s men had weapons. Like any reasonable man, Nabal saw that it was to his advantage to pay up his part of the bargain.

Oh, wait. Nabal’s name means “fool.” He did not pay up. He insulted David and told him to get lost.

David got mad and began mobilizing his men for wholesale slaughter of every male in Nabal’s household.

(See, class? We sure do need for men to be in charge all the time because it always goes so much better that way.)

Abigail was Nabal’s wife. When a servant came to her in a panic, telling her what was going on, she swung into action. She gathered up food, freshened up, saddled a donkey, and went out to meet David herself. She apologized for her husband’s foolishness and begged him to spare the household.

David, hotheaded though he was, was actually a reasonable man, especially by ancient warlord standards. He agreed to call off the attack. In fact, he was relieved that Abigail had kept him from unnecessary bloodshed.

Abigail went back and told Nabal what she’d done. Nabal was furious. So absolutely, intensely furious that he had a stroke and then died.

So the household was saved, Nabal disposed of, and David took Abigail to be his wife. Which really was the best a woman could hope for in that time.

Okay, so I admit that at first glance, it actually looks like Abigail is the hero of this story. But one of the tricks of a patriarchal worldview is that it can use one or two details to twist the whole perspective into the proper shape.

To start with, you’ve got to keep the most important principle in mind at all time. That principle is: Authority. Every situation, even a story told for centuries around campfires, must be filtered through the grid of Authority.

Who was in authority in this story? Well, David, because he’d been anointed the next king of Israel. Who else had authority here? Nabal, the husband and owner of the property.

Who did not have the authority to make any decisions or take any action? Abigail. Because she was married, she was bound to obey her husband no matter what.

There are two telling details in the passage of Scripture. One, the servant came to Abigail behind Nabal’s back, and even said he was wicked and foolish. Abigail did not rebuke the servant for speaking against their authority. Two, Abigail made her plans and headed out to see David, but as the story notes, She did not tell her husband.

But… but… she spared every  male in the household! Including Nabal’s worthless hindquarters!

Yet you see what her rebellion–yes, she was rebellious–led to. Her husband died. David might feel like God had vindicated him, but Abigail had to live with the knowledge that her actions killed her own husband.

But… but… Abigail became David’s wife…

Pfft. She became one of his wives. Who wants that? (What woman had a choice back then? Hush, you’re cluttering up the narrative.) And she did have at least one son who should have become king after David, but we never hear anything about him. That’s the third devastating detail in this story: God punished Abigail by not letting her son become the next king.

I’m not exaggerating this interpretation. This is what I was taught as a student of Bill Gothard. He embroidered a lot of the details*, but there’s a long tradition among hardcore patriarchalists to demonize Abigail. She usurped her husband’s place and was the cause of his death.

Girls, do not grow up to be like Abigail!

You should instead hope to be like… well… how about you just don’t read ahead in your Bibles until we have time to explain how Ruth, Esther, Deborah, Jael, etc. are also cautionary tales. Here, instead we’ve rewritten history and also these stories with passive obedient heroines. We’ll get back to God’s Word when you’re ready to understand the truths hidden within it.

Good thing you’ve got men to illuminate it for you.

*Gothard claimed that if Abigail hadn’t intervened, then David would have had the guilt of unnecessary bloodshed on his conscience; years later, when he got Bathsheba pregnant, he wouldn’t have sent Uriah into battle to be killed because he’d already know how wrong that was. I didn’t make that up.

** I hope it’s clear that I’m not claiming all Christian men believe this way. But there’s a slice of Christianity that does. If you’ve never encountered teachings like this, you might not realize the enormous effort it takes to re-read the Bible in its own words, not the twisted interpretation we were given.

Orderly Umbrellas

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“So pastors are under God’s authority,” Bekah explained. “Families are under the pastors.” She held her hand in the air and moved it down levels as she spoke. “Husbands are in authority over wives. Wives are in authority over children.”

When Ty didn’t respond, Bekah added, “It’s all very orderly, anyway.” But of course Ty didn’t give “orderly” as much weight as she did. In the Fellowship, orderliness was nearly one of the Ten Commandments.

The FellowshipChapter 5.

The “umbrella of authority” is a concept that’s been around for many years. I was taught this very “order” as a teenager, although the charts I saw weren’t illustrated with patio umbrellas. It gives it kind of  an easy-living vibe.

It’s a clean, logical graphic that makes its point with a single glance: The Umbrella of Authority concept effectively protects Jesus from getting cooties from women!

Haha, not really. We all know that in Christ, men and women can approach God as equals. So this chart isn’t saying that a woman can’t get to Jesus except through her husband.

Of course, if you look at the husband’s share of life responsibilities, you’ll see that he’s supposed to be the spiritual leader. And underneath the woman’s cute little umbrella, you see “Submit to husband’s authority.” So a woman could approach God on her own, but to be honest, that really does mess up the Natural Order of the Family, doesn’t it? And God is a God of order, so he actually prefers you to go through the proper channels.

So… just go through your husband, okay?

There’s certainly nothing here that a man could object to. Shouldn’t a man lead his family spiritually? Shouldn’t he provide for his family? Shouldn’t he love his wife?  Well, then, what’s the problem?

What do you mean, these responsibilities don’t have to be limited only to husbands?

Oh. Hold on. We need to get something clear here.

You can’t shift these categories around. The umbrellas are impermeable when it comes to proper roles and responsibilities. You let a woman provide for the family or exert spiritual leadership, and the next thing you know, the husband will submit to her authority on some issues, and that’s it. The umbrellas disintegrate in a fiery, bloody, toxic meltdown.

This catastrophe completely incapacitates men. They won’t read their Bibles, won’t hold a job, won’t take out the garbage, nothing.* But they probably will look at porn and run away with another woman (probably some woman who usurped her husband’s authority, destroyed her home, and is now going to destroy yours). Why would you even want to mess with that?

No, this is the Natural Order of the Family. It looks great and worked really well in Victorian times, assuming you happened to be white and middle- to upper-class.

Just go with it.

Just hush.

Just obey.

It’s the Natural Order of the Family.

*Very recently, I read an admonition written by a man to younger women, advising them on how to find good answers to their questions. He explained that they were, first of all, to read their Bibles. Then they were to ask their husbands any questions they had. Don’t worry if you, the wife, knew more about the Bible than your husband did; your questions would motivate him to study! But the flipside is that he won’t read his Bible at all if you bypass his authority and seek out answers on your own.

I heard this same idea very often growing up. Men in patriarchal circles are badly prone to wind down to complete nothingness if their wives aren’t there to motivate, bolster, and reassure them that they are big strong leaders.

**By the way, why doesn’t Jesus have to do anything in this umbrella system?

***Seriously, it’s like its all dependent on our own works or something.

 

Speaking of College

Allison from Presentmindedly just read The Fellowship and commented with the perspective of an “outsider.” I asked if I could turn her comment into a post.

For a little background, Allison and I grew up in the same hometown–attended the same church, in fact–but our paths didn’t cross too much. Public schooled while I was homeschooled, she was a few years ahead of me: always determined, ambitious, and very kind to the younger girls. Recently I was thrilled when she said she was reading the novel, and as usual I find her perspective very valuable.

Her words are in bold, and I’ve added my own observations in plain text. I’m not commenting to disagree, but to discuss two sides of the question. It’s a sort of call-and-response post, I guess.

Allison:
I understand how young people told that they can’t attend college and having that option for their future totally removed from them would want to explore the option of going to college, and how women might see a need for college so that they have a way to support their families should their husbands pass away (or leave).

Sara:
In the Fellowship, Bekah knows that college is not an option if she wants to remain in good standing with the church. This aspect of the Fellowship reflects my own experience with IBLP, which discouraged both young women and young men from seeking higher education. (But it was especially forbidden for women.) A lot of heavily-controlled religious systems push the line of thought that college introduces young people to worldly ideas, which shipwrecks their faith. When it comes to questions about their future, these groups insist that God will provide whatever training is necessary to make a living as an adult.

Most of us spend our 30s scrambling to catch up, or living with the insecurity that one twist of fate could leave us unable to support ourselves and our families (again, especially women).

And we think, if only we’d been allowed to go to college…

Allison:
In my experience and observation, though, college is not necessarily an avenue for job training or even job preparation. I write this as a summa cum laude graduate of the Honors College at University of Southern Mississippi, with a degree in Environmental Biology and a minor in Chemistry.

All those A’s, all that studying, all those classes and labs, and all it really prepared me for was–wait for it–more school. I had no desire to go to grad school and wanted to be a missionary at that point, anyway. At Awards Day at the end of my senior year, my father asked (with slight disappointment), “You’ve never wanted to go to med school, have you?” Nope, never had. Got accepted to grad school but declined it because I went to Romania to serve for a year.

Many people I know graduated with degrees that, while perhaps fulfilling on personal levels, didn’t necessarily prepare them for a job. I had a delightful professor who once quoted somebody else (no idea who now) in one of our classes… “College is the babysitter for tomorrow’s workforce.” I took offense at the time, but I kind of get it now.

Sara:
Although it doesn’t come through strongly in my novel, I’m very disenchanted with the college system. I love the idea of alternative training and seeking knowledge outside the approved channels of learning. But that’s a harder road to walk, and most of us weren’t actually given the choice. We were forced to walk it… often by men who were actually interested in keeping their empires going.

It’s also easier to have the degree and say, “I didn’t need it,” than feel trapped by a life where you can’t seem move ahead without that degree.

Allison:
College did give me opportunities to grow personally and spiritually and to grow up. To discover more about myself, to learn more about how to think critically and to engage in the world. But it wasn’t particularly fun, and although I met great people, I don’t have lifelong close friends from college (and I had counted on that). It was honestly often lonely and lots of hard, hard work. So it provided opportunities for personal challenge and development.

Sara:
This right here is part of what many of us feel we missed out on–some much more extremely than I did.

My parents didn’t forbid college; we sure didn’t have a lot of extra money and I wasn’t gung-ho to go. They believed that the program we were in was a viable alternative (It looked very good on paper, as the saying goes.) So we all bought into the idea that traditional college wasn’t worth considering.

So all that growing, figuring out who we are, what we believe, thinking critically, and engaging in the world — that’s part of the “college experience” that we feel we were denied.

The truth is, of course, that you don’t need college for any of that. But in our subculture, the reason that college was discouraged or even denied to us was to keep us from developing, exploring, and engaging. So that’s how we think of it: if I had been allowed to choose higher education, I might have been allowed to grow.

Allison:
But what college did not give me was what I expected going in–-training, credentials, and an open door to a career of helping protect God’s green earth in some way. God used college in my life, certainly; but I don’t think of my degree as something to fall back on. And I’m not alone in that.

I suppose I’m just bringing this up because I sensed several times that there was a thought in the story [of The Fellowship] of college giving women (and men, too) abilities to provide for and support their families that they couldn’t get without a degree.

Sara:
This was my personal insecurity shining through. I’m entirely dependent on my husband’s ability to bring in income. I consider myself very well-educated; but I don’t have the degree and work experience for a decent job. We do have life insurance (again, possible because of DJ’s money, not mine); but still, if something happened to DJ, I’d be trying to find a minimum-wage job to support myself and my four children.

My dad died when I was three, and my stepdad died when I was twenty. I have no illusions that God keeps men alive just to support their families. For those who have read the novel, this situation is spelled out pretty clearly in the story.

Allison:
Certainly some degrees are necessary for certain jobs–social work, teaching school, physical therapy. But most degrees don’t carry with them an accompanying certification.

Because I’ve been to college, I think “It’s not all it’s cracked up to be.” But if I hadn’t been to college, I’d probably think, “I wonder what I missed.”

Sara:
I didn’t have enough room in the novel to explore college vs. alternative education. My point wasn’t that Everyone Should Go To College, but that the Fellowship limited and controlled the lives of its people by refusing to let them make their own way in life.

I posted Allison’s comment here as encouragement to those of us who have come out of a controlling system. College wouldn’t have eliminated our struggles, just given us a different set of problems. It’s tough living with the consequences of a choice we didn’t really get to make. But once we’re free from whatever “Fellowship” once controlled us, we really do have the freedom to make our own choices, learn from our own mistakes, and build our own lives.

Drifting by Faith

zentangle
Artwork by the Scattered Fashionista

“What takes more faith?” my counselor asked me. “Swimming or drifting?”

It was part of our ongoing conversation to unravel why I couldn’t sit through a church service without panicking. I explained that my “faith” felt like constant effort to stay afloat and try to get to God, who stood on the shore.

I was exhausted from swimming. But there was pressure from every side to keep going, keep moving, keep trying. If I stopped, I might drown.

“What if you just drifted?” she suggested.

“That’s just as bad.” If I stopped going to church, stopped having ‘daily devotionals,’ stopped reading my Bible — I’d eventually drift away from God.

“But you aren’t just stopping. You’re resting. You’re healing. Maybe you can stop swimming and just float for a while.”

It sounded wonderful. Stop worrying about doing stuff for God. Not keeping my wounded faith propped up by my own painful efforts.

“But I can’t do that, can I? Won’t I drift away?”

And she asked — which really takes more faith? Endless effort, or rest?

In the end, I really had no choice. I had to relax and drift. I stopped going to church and took joy in peaceful Sundays. I didn’t worry about Reading My Bible Every Day (TM). My prayers are undefined and inarticulate most of the time.

When the water covers my ears and gets in my eyes, and I get panicky — I remind myself that one day I’ll reach the shore again. I’ll go back to church. I’ll read my Bible again, and I’ll find words for my prayers.

I draw heavily from DJ’s steadfast faith. I depend a lot on my family and friends who are strong enough to give me a hand.

The fact is, it takes a great deal of faith to drift, and most of it’s not my own. But I’m less anxious about it now, ever since I realized that God isn’t standing on the shore anyway.

He’s right there with me in the water.

Breaking Fences, Take 2

“The more commitments you make, the more mature you will be.”

After reading my last post (click here) a friend sent me actual photographic evidence that people really do think that “building fences” will protect you from sinning.

This page is from a “counseling” conference for students (about age 16 to young 20s) held in 2000. The bullet point listed here is just one of probably six or seven; these conferences deluged the attendees with information. It was hard to take it all in, much less judge each point’s validity — even if you had some frame of reference that let you see the problems in the first place.

This was written by the same teacher who wrote this helpful self-motivation checklist right here.*

Counseling1

Let’s take a look at this bit by bit, how about?

CounselingPt1

Oddly, when I went to my (highly effective) counseling sessions, what I most appreciated was how my counselor listened to me. She occasionally asked questions or suggested a different way to understand God or my past. No explaining or urging took place.

Counseling sessions are very individualized, so I imagine that sometimes a counselor might take a different tack that would look more like explaining and urging. But this teaching seems to assume that if people have problems, those people need to be “fixed.” They need to keep behind the fences and follow the rules. That way God will bless them again.

CounselingPt2

Two Bible verses! The first one is pretty solid. The second one is from a Psalm, which is poetry, not exactly cause-and-effect promises. And then, in a giant leap for logickind, he explains and urges that in order to get God’s blessings, you have to make commitments to do good things.

Just in case we might think he made up this theology, he gives us proof: an unverifiable story about anonymous people.

(If you’re thinking, “How could people believe this?”, then you don’t understand the force of a leader’s personality, the high-pressure atmosphere, and the reinforcement from the group where everyone else seems to agree without reservation. You should read my novel, The Fellowship.)

CounselingPt2

I don’t even have to point out what’s wrong with this “example.” But I will anyway.

The story assumes that if the young woman had committed to telling young men to approach her father first, she would be spared Bad Things. We also “know” that she’d be more mature if she made this commitment.

This is one point where he and I agree: this woman was not mature enough to handle a relationship. But turning it over to her dad wouldn’t have helped her in the long run.

After all, she thinks that since she accepted a date in surprise, it’s a binding promise. No, honey. If you’re uncertain about it, email him to say that the day you agreed on wouldn’t work out after all, and you’d really like to think about his offer a little longer. Then, after you’ve thought about it, call him and explain that you have a conflict of faith and you really don’t think it’s a good idea. It will be awkward and he might end up feeling hurt. That’s grown-up life.

But, no, since Daddy isn’t there to rescue her, she goes out with the guy after all and… violates her moral purity? There’s no knowing what that really means in this context. This phrase could refer sex — and if she had sex on the first date despite her conscience, she’s got really serious issues. It could also mean they kissed. Or maybe she wore a low-cut blouse and he complimented her figure. No telling which fence got breached, since breaking any of them counts as sin.

(It’s even possible that it means he forced sexual contact without her consent; since she dated a guy who didn’t have her father’s approval, she’s partly guilty for whatever he did to her. I don’t have the evidence of this logic right here, but it’s definitely part of the thinking.)

The story serves only one purpose: to create fear among his followers so they’ll accept his word as their means of security.

CounselingPt3

Well, yes, Daniel did. But that showed his strength of character. He knew his own mind. He didn’t need to prop up his sagging judgment with “commitments.”

This whole bullet point (and the rest of the material) is flavored with the pungent stench of Bible verses ripped out of context. Teachers like this demonstrate over and over that their concern isn’t what the Bible says or what God is really like. It’s to reinforce their own authority as teachers of truth, as they trap their followers behind miles of fences that God never created.

Amid all that talk of God and Biblical principles and Bible verses, though, this teacher — like most teachers like him — forgot to add a key verse. I’ll do it for him.

“Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” Nehemiah 6:8

*The teacher is Bill Gothard of the Institute in Basic Life Principles/Advanced Training Institute. I have no qualms about calling him out by name. But although his material is what I use for my examples, I don’t want to focus solely on him and his teachings. He’s just one of many teachers who peddle legalism, and they all use the same methods.