Book List: recovery from religious abuse and fundamentalism


Copy-editing, proofreading, and design updates made July 27, 2014

20 books that can help, following a short introduction:

I hate a Catch-22.

Much of my adult life, I felt like if I really lost my faith, I would lose something precious and meaningful to me.

At the same time, I have been unraveling, dismantling, and extracting the toxicity, misguidance, abuse, simplistic biblical interpretations, and anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalism that marked the first 23 years of my life.

Trying to separate Christian faith from my upbringing has been like trying to separate two pieces of paper after they’ve been glue together.

I’m not the only one, and the problem is frighteningly widespread.

For example, Dr. Harold Bussell, a man with solid evangelical credentials who I mention in the list below, once said, “my wife and I were involved with an Evangelical youth mission based in Switzerland. We were with the group only six weeks, but it was almost seven years before I had overcome the psychological damage caused by their cult-like control and spiritualization.”

With so many appeals to the Bible, the Gospel message, and the Holy Spirit in fundamentalist circles, how can so much go so wrong?

And if a community’s inclination toward the Bible, the Gospel message, and the Holy Spirit doesn’t keep things from going horribly wrong, then how can any of those things be true?

I’m not sure I’ve answered that question. The answer seems like a matter of how individuals and groups understand those things, rather than a problem of those things in and of themselves.

The following books have helped me in my own journey away from various forms of fundamentalism I experienced in churches and grade schools, and in a communal, Bible-based cult.

For the most part, these aren’t theological books, but rather they are targeted at specific intellectual, spiritual, moral, psychological, practical and ethical issues related to religious abuse and fundamentalism. While some of these are academic, most are accessible to any reader. I’ve included links where I could.

Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, PhD — a well-researched, thoroughly presented, and accessible study of the discipleship/shepherding movement and other controlling Bible-based groups, by a Christian sociologist; more people should have read this one

The Search for Significance by Robert McGee — after nearly 20 years in fundamentalist Christianity, I was introduced to basic Pauline and Reformation concepts through this book; those concepts here are applied through the cognitive-behavioral form popularized by Dr. David Burns; started my journey away from fundamentalism

Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse edited by Michael D. Langone, PhD — amazing resource with chapters/articles written from just about every angle, including psychological, ministerial, first-person accounts, etc.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book by Walker Percy — a funny book with a serious task; really a mock self-help book; this guy understood my despair, explained how it was working in my life, disarmed me, gave me some reasons for hope, and encouraged me to search for truth; hit this link and scroll down just a tad to read the intro to this book

Twisted Scriptures: Breaking Free from Churches that Abuse by Mary Chrnalogar — similar to Enroth’s book, this book was a watershed moment in the fight against authoritarianism and unhealthy interpretations of Scripture in American Bible-based groups

Crossing Myself by Greg Garrett — generally, I identified with this guy, who writes about his battle with severe depression and the fallout of a fundamentalist upbringing; after winning a major literary award for a novel, Garrett went to an Episcopal seminary, and maintained an orthodox faith; to my mind, it would have been easier for him to have milked the acclaim of his literary award instead of choosing to serve God

The Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment by Daniel Taylor — the back cover offers a good summation of its content: this book is for those who “resent the smugness of close-minded skepticism on the one hand but feel equally uncomfortable with the smugness of closed-minded Christianity on the other;” from an evangelical English professor who likes to quote Karl Barth, Kierkegaard, and Pascal

If Only I Could Believe by Wim Rietkerk — this is a L’Abri guy in Europe with empathy and pastoral caring for those who have sincere struggles with faith; shows how the Scriptures identify with those who have doubts

Growing Up Fundamentalist: Journeys in Legalism and Grace by Stefan Ulstein — a professional journalist interviews 22 people who grew up in various fundamentalist, legalistic churches; each person has his or her own story of staying in the faith or leaving the faith, and how he or she navigated college and adulthood, plus the questions they have kept and, often, their aversion to certainties and pat answers; in many cases, the interviewees display a remarkable freedom, maturity and understanding as they reflect on their pasts

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl — a Jewish survivor of a Nazi concentration camp shares the mental and emotional understanding that kept him sane and engaged during a horrific time; recommended for times of depression when one cannot hear Gospel language and terms without those words drawing up feelings of guilt, shame, and despair; and yes, even the best terms can have negative connotations due to extended exposure in a wrongheaded social context

I Can’t Hear God Anymore: Life in a Dallas Cult by Wendy Duncan — this incredible woman talks about her journey out of an abusive, self-styled Christian group; she has a masters degree in social work, so she brings an educated perspective to her own experiences; she found help in an Episcopal church in Texas and kept her Christian faith

Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think, and What to Do About It by Os Guinness — written by an evangelical with a PhD in philosophy from Oxford; this guy explains the various categories of the anti-intellectualism in evangelical, fundamentalist, and Reformed churches that leaves many throwing up their hands in exasperation

Philosophers Who Believe edited by Kelly James Clark — one of the books that seemed to keep me a believer; through several personal essays by academic philosophers, this book showed me that my mind could be engaged with my faith, that a mind of faith could be engaged with the world; for me, this began to answer the problem of anti-intellectualism in fundamentalist circles

Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Personalities by Len Oakes, PhD — this was a challenge to me, because while his research and case studies are outstanding, he basically lumps Jesus Christ in with all the odd cult leaders of our era; as hard as that is to swallow, he has made an important contribution to researching the narcissistic and other negative psychologist tendencies of the past century’s cult leaders; Oakes is a cult survivor

By Hook or By Crook: How Cults Lure Christians by Harold Bussell — good things like being Bible-oriented or morally astute can lead people into all kinds of abuse and weirdness; this book is a guide to the abuse and weirdness that also provides sound, biblical remedies; includes a good critique of Derek Prince’s authoritarianism; Bussell has a masters in psychology and a doctorate in divinity; when he wrote the book, he was a dean at Gordon College; this book was earlier released with the title Unholy Devotion: Why Cults Lure Christians

The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World by Miroslav Volf — I’m still reading this one; finally, a Christian theologian who says, in so many words, “You have to digest and process what you went through, and find the meaning in it; there is no erase button.”

The New Religious Humanists: A Reader edited by Gregory Wolfe — the Roman Catholic founder of Image journal and biographer of Malcolm Muggeridge compiles several essays by Jewish and Christian writers in our time who have engaged the intersection of faith and culture, or maybe belief and intellectual pursuits; Robert Coles and evangelical Os Guinness are among the contributors; the word “humanism” is misunderstood in our time, a casualty of the culture war; I found this explanation from Wolfe, made during an interview with Mars Hill Audio, very useful: The Cross gives us a good illustration of religious humanism: while conservatives tend to emphasize the individual’s relationship with God (vertical/personal experience/doctrine), and liberals tend to emphasize the individual’s relationship with others (horizontal/community/social-justice), the religious humanist seeks to emphasize both the vertical and the horizontal, like a cross

C.S. Lewis on Scriptures by Michael J. Christiansen — if you were once fed by reading the Scriptures, and it was a generally positive experience despite your fundamentalism, and you want to return Bible reading in your post-fundamentalist season, yet honest questions and the ghost of literalism make it very difficult to return, this book provides a possible path out of your dilemma

Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton — probably seems like an unlikely choice for this list, but this book can bring real joy and refreshment; hear what Philip Yancy had to say about it: “I was experiencing a time of spiritual dryness when everything seemed stale, warmed over, lifeless. Orthodoxy brought freshness, and, above all, a new spirit of adventure” — amen!

The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich — although I’ve never completed this book, I continue to appreciate Tillich’s distinction between (1) fear and anxiety; and (2) cosmic resignation, or Stoicism, and cosmic salvation, or Christianity. Those have been two helpful distinctions for me, plus his brief historical outlines are good food for the mind. The book’s title itself entices me, because there is a healthy sense of self or self-hood or self-ness that each of us ought to have, however warped by fallen nature. Whereas we might think of an egotistical person as having too much of a sense of self, religious-abuse survivors frequently have too little of a sense of self, and struggle with healthy boundaries and a sense of identity. Theologians can argue about the source of the courage; let’s try to recognize the individual’s reasonable need to be a self.

True, some of the psychological, cultural, and sociological books above are getting a bit dated. Maybe it’s time for some updates.

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