Susie and I were the only fifth graders at our little school, and we spent our school days in constant fear.
Most mornings, my stomach felt like it was lined with an electrical wire. We were spanked by teachers with leather belts—pants dropped or skirt lifted, so only underwear would shield us—for the slightest infractions. Susie was once strapped for misplacing a decimal point. For one offense I cannot even recall, I was hit harder than I’ve ever been to this day. At what seemed like 15 minute intervals, I heard others of the 12 students in the school crying out from their spankings. I considered calling the state authorities, at age 10.
The school was operated by an independent church. The members knew their Bibles, and they had a special sense of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. The church was headed by a self-proclaimed prophet. If there is any reason why I feel like my memoir — something I started during grad school — is more than therapy, it’s because so many churches and so many Christians are like that today: they have their knowledge of the Bible and their special senses of the Holy Spirit, combined with a sense of unwarranted confidence in what they do.
I value the Christian faith, so I cannot feel entirely comfortable stating what I believe: the Bible and a special sense of the Holy Spirit’s presence are not adequate deterrents from especially wrong deeds. I’m not referring to that garden-variety legalism that prevents church members from drinking alcohol or seeing R-rated movies, or shunning those who do. I’m not referring to guilt and condemnation from the pulpit. I’m not even referring to pastors who wind up in beds with secretaries. I’m referring to bruises on children in schools and churches that associate themselves with the Bible and the omnipresent Spirit of God.
Is there an axiom to draw from this? The greater the claim of closeness to God—or the greater the claim of special status—the greater the potential for disaster?
If I really believed things were entirely different in American and British Christianity today, I would have very little say. I would only be able to report that some people did bad things, and I survived it, and I’m among millions of other victims of various kinds of institutional abuse. Call Oprah or Larry King, before they retire.
All that, however, is made different by the use of the words “Bible” and “Holy Spirit.” The claim of special knowledge, the claim of special closeness to God, sets the criteria for the leader’s behavior at an impossibly high level. Or, the behavior that flows from special knowledge and special claims suggests various things about God’s character.
In that independent church so many years ago, an intense commitment to the Bible and the Holy Spirit—two things about which I would rather others think in a positive light—was not adequate to prevent an ongoing, terrifying experience.
We had meetings with praise songs—guitars and tambourines—and teachings from the Bible. We met together at least twice a week, and at one point, three families lived together in the same house.
Somehow, the Bible and the Holy Spirit did not give the church’s leadership sanity or the capacity for sound reasoning.
That should be extremely significant, considering that so many evangelicals simply say, “Read your Bible and pray.”
I have to tell the story, yet I wonder what the consequences will be. I hope the latter parts of my book will offer more nuance than merely another round of bad p.r. for Christianity.
Somehow, my reading experiences with G.K. Chesterton, Walker Percy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, C.S. Lewis, and Soren Kierkegaard, while not deep in any academic sense, have been a worlds apart from my upbringing, yet still, somehow, distinctly Christian.
But if an assumption about a practice is false, no matter how well-associated with the language of truth, it needs to be re-examined or discarded. Let’s admit that seemingly innocent gatherings of people around the Bible and prayers might lead down dark paths. This will be obvious to some of my friends, but I’m afraid they won’t see the broader relevance in Christianity these days. Intense devotion to the right words and concepts is no indication of sanity. Something else must arbitrate the relationship between believers and their Bibles and their feelings.