Like most swimmers, I try to get in some laps almost every day, but there is only one health club with a pool within decent driving distance from where I live. It doesn’t call itself a Christian gym, but it plays primarily Christian music overhead, holds prayer meetings and Bible studies, and incidentally it also leaves most of its hi-def televisions parked on the same 24-hour news network all the time (I’ll save that discussion for another time). Even though I don’t intentionally listen to Christian music, I find it difficult to escape it where I live. My regular readers have already heard me gripe about how it’s not this way only at a local health club but also at local restaurants, skating rinks, doctor’s offices, gas stations, and just about any other place you can go around here. That means I get a decent feel for what messages my Christian friends and family are exposed to on a regular basis. I already knew that fare pretty well, of course, since I was a devoted Christian myself for twenty years. But this way I guess you could say it keeps me current.
And the songs we listen to matter. They help shape the way we think. Andrew Fletcher famously said, “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” I would modify that to say that Sunday morning sermons can go in one ear and out the other, but the songs Christians hear replay over and over again several times a week, impacting them in their daily lives in a way no eloquent speech ever could. Back when I was a leader in my church group, I put a good deal of time into writing songs for our group (we often stole popular tunes and wrote our own lyrics for the group to learn and sing—loads of fun, by the way!) because I understood the weight that songs carry. Teachers and preachers like to think they shape the theology of a congregation but they can’t hold a candle to the music. The most forward-thinking leaders of Evangelicalism have known for years that if you can influence the music in people’s earbuds, you can steer an entire generation in the direction you feel is best. Of course, if you can also commandeer control over the hiring and firing of Christian seminaries and universities, that can powerfully reshape a culture as well. But that’s a topic for another day, perhaps.
So what do I hear when I’m working out at the local health club, or eating at the nearby Subway, or just pumping gas at the local gas station? I hear that I am a weak, wretched person, incapable of really living life well on my own, constantly needing saving from myself. And boy, lemme tell ya, nothing energizes my workout like hearing a scruffy twenty-something whining overhead, “Jesus, I’m weak! Help me, Lord, I can’t go on!”
This does not surprise me of course because I studied theology (at a Calvinistic seminary, no less!) and I know how central the concept of “total depravity” is to evangelical Christian thinking. Taking our cue from the apostle Paul, the circles I used to run in were experts at rehearsing our own weaknesses, frailties, shortcomings, needs, and trials. We learned well the art of self-deprecation, and we learned to revel in our own failures and incapabilities. But a low self-evaluation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It utilizes a powerful confirmation bias which dismisses strengths and successes (being careful to give credit to God alone for any of that) and focuses instead on losses and screw-ups (because, hey, that’s just who we are, right?). In retrospect, this is a sick, twisted approach to life that teaches us to see ourselves as innately unworthy liabilities in constant need of saving. Some well-meaning Christians will protest this, arguing that being created in the image of God means that we are valuable creatures, but this masks the reality that in the evangelical mind, all personal worth is derivative. It says that in your own self you are completely unworthy, but that someone else is worthy, and you can appropriate that worthiness by proxy.
What I didn’t see until after I left the Christian faith is that this low self-evaluation is crucial to the whole evangelical narrative. It’s absolutely indispensable. You must first convince a person that he is fundamentally unworthy and incapable of helping himself before he is willing to forfeit his life over to another person or ideology. For some evangelists, the focus is on Hell and on our own moral shortcomings (real or imaginary). Those tell us we deserve to be tortured for all eternity for the things that we do. Excuse me, but no we don’t. Most people don’t commit vicious enough crimes to deserve even a sudden death, much less eternal torture. In order to sell this concept you have to magnify the flaws of your listeners, causing them to feel so very, very bad about themselves that they’d even be willing to swallow something like an eternal condemnation. That’s why Christian evangelism has always gravitated towards the broken and downtrodden. It sells the best among people who are at their lowest. The Onion quite wittily parodied this very phenomenon a few years ago. It’s a time-tested tactic that works very well.
But not all evangelists use fear of punishment in the hereafter to reel people in. Some more positively promise a better life now—a life empowered by the Holy Spirit. But even those still must first convince you that you are not what you should be (or could be) now. You are incomplete as you are now, and you need something further to make you into what you are supposed to be. Either way, they must begin with taking whatever your current self-evaluation is and lowering it so that you feel your need for something more. Alternatively, they can wait until just enough bad things happen to you that they can swoop in, capitalizing on your lowest moment to share the “good news” with you. Just a few weeks ago I was interviewed at a local church for Interview an Atheist in Church day, and afterwards an older gentleman who knew me from childhood came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. He spoke to me in a grandfatherly tone, saying “I know you probably think you’re doing fine now, but where are you gonna turn when your life falls apart? Where will you get your strength?” I have my own answers to that (because my life already did fall apart, right about the time I started telling people I am an atheist), but do you see how inescapably evangelism relies upon magnifying neediness? It gravitates towards loss and pain like a moth to a flame.
This should send up some major red flags. Anyone who has worked with abused spouses will immediately recognize a striking resemblance between the way an abuse victim talks about his or her situation and the way that evangelical Christians are taught to speak about themselves. “I don’t deserve what I’m getting. I deserve so much worse. I’m just so grateful that he’s keeping me around, because I’m such a screw-up.” Again, if you will take just a few minutes to listen to popular Christian music, you will hear this same theme reverberating in almost every song.* As I pointed out in my last post, the crux of the evangelical message is: “You can’t; but Jesus can.” While some songs shrewdly gloss over the first half of that message, focusing on the more positive second half, other songs virtually wallow in self-loathing and remorse for simply being human. Now, I am NOT saying that anyone is intentionally seeking to be abusive; I am simply pointing out the striking parallels in speech patterns. They’re worth noting.
This pervasive negative self-talk has powerfully negative consequences. It teaches us to have less confidence in our own abilities both as individuals and as a collective group. Individually we undersell ourselves because we’ve learned to expect that we will mess things up if left to our own devices. We also attempt less both individually and collectively because we have such a low evaluation of what we can accomplish. We are taught that when mankind aspires to excessive heights (whatever those are), we will learn as the builders of the Tower of Babel did that God will not allow it to go on. Somehow it is bad to want humanity to overcome some of its problems. We must not be allowed to become too efficient or skilled at dealing with our own problems because then what need will we have for divine assistance?
Another consequence of the negative self-talk is that we are more likely to take whatever people dish out, no matter how badly they mistreat us. I must confess that I still struggle with this myself. After 35 years of growing up with a Christian worldview (twenty of which were driven by evangelical fervor), I still tend to allow myself to be overlooked, criticized, and slighted without complaining because deep down I do not trust my own sense of fairness and justice. I was taught that the human heart is so fallen, so black with self-interest and self-deception, that we can never trust our own evaluation of wrongs done to us. Consequently, I have at times become a doormat for others to walk across. That’s not healthy, and it leads to dysfunctional relationships, inequitable friendships, and even lopsided marriages.
Finally, this low self-evaluation teaches us to accept what we are told because who are we to disagree? It makes us docile followers because we don’t trust our own judgment. That’s a key element in all of this. It’s like a final piece of the puzzle, without which the entire enterprise collapses. Just as an abuse victim remains with her controlling partner because she feels she doesn’t deserve anything better, so do many people accept their indoctrination unquestioningly because from their youngest days they’ve been taught to see themselves as untrustworthy and broken, needing constant assistance from a higher power.
This takes years to overcome. And honestly, as one whose head got as far into this mentality as mine did for as long as it did, I may never totally get rid of this embedded sense of unworthiness. Just as an alcoholic must always call himself an alcoholic even after he quits so that he will always be reminded of his need to abstain, so people like me will likely struggle with these shadows for the rest of our lives. But you can bet that I’m gonna keep at it. It helps no one for me to view myself through such a dark lens. Thinking so lowly of myself actually disadvantages those around me because I don’t approach them as a healthy individual. I approach them as a drain on their resources because I think of myself as needing things that I really can supply myself.
It all starts with the self-talk, I think. It’s not so much what happens to us that makes us who we are, it’s the stories we tell ourselves afterwards that determine how we see ourselves. The narratives we accept and retell ourselves shape how we view ourselves and the events of our lives. Quite a few movies have dealt well with this idea in recent years (pick any movie by Chris Nolan) and it is a valuable lesson. Incidentally, this is also why I find I can’t enjoy the music of Mumford and Sons, as much as I’d like to. Like most creative artists whose work can be classified as “post-Christian,” their lyrics always smack of self-loathing and remorse, as if even though they’re not openly Christian, they’re still very sorry for who they are. But these stories we tell ourselves inform the way we see ourselves and the world around us. So that’s where the battle will always begin. The evangelical Christian narrative begins with “You can’t.” But I don’t buy it anymore. And that makes all the difference.
So how have you dealt with overcoming this problem? Have you struggled with this as well? If you’ve had some success with it, what sorts of things have helped you the most?
* To be fair, I should note that there has been a movement over the last few years in Christian music towards writing more songs which focus on praising the Christian God without direct reference to the unworthiness of the one issuing the praise. Some theologians have encouraged more “theocentrism” in worship music, and it has yielded some more positive, upbeat songs. I find these much easier to endure while benchpressing since they don’t go on and on about our own weakness and inability. Some are even musically superior to the stuff that circulated when I was younger. It’s both ironic and unfortunate that the same resurgence in Calvinistic theology among evangelicals which encouraged this also leads to a great deal of self-loathing and metaphorical self-flagellating the moment the sermon begins.