This past Sunday at church, my daughters heard a sermon (they still attend with their mother) by Owen Strachan, a visiting preacher who until recently headed up the Biblical Council on Manhood and Womanhood, a conservative evangelical think tank created to preserve and defend the traditional American family structure.
The CBMW would argue their rigid family model is pulled straight from the Bible itself and not from American culture. But I have yet to see them touting anything like the household structures of ancient Levantine cultures, with the wealthier heads of households sometimes purchasing multiple wives (did you know that’s how they did it?) to help them maintain large extended families along with a cadre of slaves living and working on the family property for the financial benefit of the man in charge. I could spend way too much of my day deconstructing what “biblical manhood and womanhood” means to fundamentalists, and where it comes from, but I have something else to discuss today.
Toward the end of Strachan’s sermon, he told of a USA Today article reporting that universities are experiencing record numbers of students seeking counseling for various reasons. I looked up several articles on the subject from the same media outlet and I couldn’t find where any of them zeroed in on the specific cause he wanted to talk about, but I’ve come to expect as much from ministers. Selection bias kind of comes with the profession.
Shame On You
Strachan primarily blamed the rising incidence of mental illness on the popularization of sexual liberation narratives, leaving young people without a biblical script telling them who or what they are:
Supposedly, friends, we are in the age of sex positivity, of sexual liberation. Supposedly this is the age that is better for women than the blueprint the Bible gives…so today they can cast off the biblical vision. This is especially appealing to young people because we have a wildness in our blood, because of the fall of Genesis Three…
I probably should pause here to note that Strachan is a Baptist and a Creationist, meaning he rejects the notion that humans evolved from other primates over millions of years of natural selection, believing instead that the entire human race can be traced back to a single historical couple, Adam and Eve. From there he argues that gender differences (among humans at least) were designed by God to be fixed and prescripted, with the man in charge and the woman by his side as his helper. You know the spiel.
After singling out one specific issue among dozens presented to therapists around the country, Strachan then closes in on his point:
And so we’re told that we’re the bad guys, and the culture is the good guys. Why, if that is the case, friends, are there so many students who are liberated, and yet are in chains, who are in bondage, who are by their own admission…struggling? They have no hope. They wanna kill themselves!
Okay, pause again. A lot of things are happening, here. First we have the sorting of everyone into two groups, an “us” and a “them” (because students at Christian universities must not deal with depression*). In one corner you’ve got conservative evangelicals protecting and defending the only right way to think about marriage, sexuality, gender, etc. In the other corner you’ve got the rest of the world lumped into a single group, and they are the ones pushing a narrative of sexual liberation.
But The World’s approach isn’t working. These poor young people are entering college devastated, disoriented, and depressed. Many of them soon start having suicidal thoughts. But why? Strachan knows why:
One factor, one reason, is shame…guilt…wrong. We know by the moral law written on our hearts, Romans 1 and 2, that if we sin against God, we are not in a good place. And many men and women around us know this…..of the young kind especially…
Here is where things get super slippery. See, whenever a preacher starts authoritatively telling you what’s going on inside your own heart, it becomes impossible to disagree because, come on, how can people even argue about stuff like this? It’s exceedingly subjective, and just as quickly as one person can assert one unfalsifiable claim, another can come along and make an opposite one. Strachan feels supremely confident he has made the right diagnosis because he has a Bible verse.
But wait a minute. I know a little something about shame (which Strachan conflates with guilt) and I can tell you that shame comes from people around you telling you that you’re doing it wrong, that you are bad, and that you should feel bad. Shame is an internalization of an externally-sourced script about you, punishing you for failing to live up to somebody’s expectations. But whose expectations?
Friends…reject shame and guilt that the culture wants to heap on you and embrace a beautiful vision, embrace something better, embrace the biblical picture of sex. It’s beautiful. It’s good. It’s good FOR us.
Okay stop right there. Did anyone else notice what just happened? Strachan here concurs that the shame students are feeling comes from somewhere outside of themselves, but in a kind of verbal sleight of hand, he then shifted the blame onto the surrounding culture, making it sound like it’s the rest of the world and not the church that’s making you feel bad for your sexual desires and your identity.
So which is it? Earlier he presented the secular world as the source of this newer script telling people they must sort out for themselves who they are and whom they love. It’s their fault, Strachan argues, that young people bought into this notion that you can “cast off the biblical vision” for sex, marriage, and for your general identity. But then somehow he feels he can credit the same surrounding culture for shaming young people for doing exactly what it was encouraging them to do? I’m calling B.S. on this maneuver.
It’s like the pot calling the silverware black.
These young people set off to college to live away from the support of their families for the first time in their lives but still struggle with living up to the scripts they were given from birth by their home communities. Thanks to the aggressive evangelism efforts of large churches on or near so many colleges and universities, the chances are good that they’re still hearing the same expectations reiterated by ministers like Strachan who feel authorized by God to tell people exactly how to feel about themselves and about their own sexuality.
It’s a pretty low blow, frankly, to guilt young people for being different only to turn around and blame the rest of the world for making them feel so bad, presenting your own perspective as the way out of the guilt and shame that you just put onto them for being different. Thats’s kind of like an orthopedic surgeon breaking your arm and then handing you his card, offering to help.
Where did Strachan learn to master this level of blameshifting? Do they teach that at seminary? Or do you have to attend special workshops?
The truth is, I know good and well where he learned to do that. The Bible teaches the art of blameshifting from the very first story it tells, all the way through to its dramatic conclusion.
Learning the Art of Blameshifting
In the first story the Bible tells, God places Adam (soon to be joined by Eve) in the Garden of Eden alongside two trees, each one ostensibly offering things it would be perfectly natural for them to desire: life and knowledge. For some reason, it’s okay for them to eat the first, but not okay for them to eat the second. But here’s where things get weird…The second tree seems designed to bestow moral awareness on humankind, but evidently they’re not supposed to want that. They’re supposed to deny themselves that, choosing instead to obey God’s command not to eat of it (fundamentalists like Strachan give really slippery answers when you ask them if these are literal fruits you eat with your mouth). But how are they supposed to know that disobedience is bad if they haven’t yet been given the ability to grasp what “bad” means?
It makes little sense to hold Adam and Eve morally responsible for knowing what morality is while forbidding them to do the thing that would enable them to obtain a moral awareness in the first place.
But watch what happens after God confronts the man for eating of the forbidden tree: He blames the woman.
“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
That’s interesting, because the same story tells us that Adam was right there alongside her when the serpent was talking to her, and he ate from the tree, just like she did. But instead of taking responsibility for his own actions, he deflected to the woman, blaming her for what he did.
Ask any woman if this behavior isn’t typical of most men, especially those prone to exploit women for their own benefit. It’s always the woman’s fault, according to them. If you haven’t noticed this, you must not be looking very hard.
But surely the brilliant revelatory light of the Holy Spirit gave the New Testament church a clearer view of what Adam did, right? I mean shouldn’t we expect leaders of the church to grasp how insidious this deflection tactic really was? Let’s see what the Apostle Paul says about it:
I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. [emphasis mine]
Wow. I mean, just, wow.
I really think everyone needs to take a minute to appreciate the gravity of what Paul (or whoever wrote the pastoral epistles) just did. It also shouldn’t be lost on us how central this reasoning factors into the author’s argument for why women should shut up and let the menfolk lead. It’s central to the entire complementarian movement, if you think about it.
Maybe this is why Strachan cannot see anything at all wrong with blaming LGBT youth for choosing their sexual orientation (did Strachan choose his?) and then somehow blaming the rest of the world rather than the church for piling shame on these kids for being the way they are. It’s like he cannot even see what he is doing. But after reading texts like these, can you blame him?
Ultimately it’s not just women who suffer from the Bible’s tendency to validate this kind of “punching down.” All of humanity faces condemnation for something for which the Bible ultimately credits God himself. In Romans 9, the apostle Paul (this time we’re pretty sure it’s him) reminds his readers that the Hebrew scriptures tell us God hardened Pharaoh’s heart in order to have someone to destroy. He can do this, Paul tells us, because he is God and you’re not, so shut up.
One of you will say to me: “Then why does God still blame us? For who is able to resist his will?” But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?
So much for consent. When it comes to the matter of guilt and blame, human volition doesn’t even factor into the equation for Paul because God can do whatever he wants. You might as well be an inanimate lump of clay. If God wants to create people whose sole purpose is to give him someone on whom to pour his wrath, he can do that without even incurring the blame for what he himself is doing. That’s a pretty sweet deal.
According to Paul, God can make you rebel against him and then turn around and hold you solely responsible for doing so. Is it any wonder that people who read this book cannot see what they’re doing when they shift the blame onto others for what they themselves are doing?
Praying the Gay Away?
Before I set this sermon aside (you can listen to it here if you like, and read the other part of my response here), I have to note one more thing Strachan did toward the end. He essentially told my daughters, along with everyone else listening, that you can cure gayness. Mental healthcare professionals call this conversion therapy (or reparative therapy), and it has been discredited by every major organization and association in the country.
This matters a great deal to me since, statistically speaking, a father of four can expect at least one of his children to express curiosity around his or her sexuality at some point. And I know Strachan has already moderated multiple debates on this subject—he has been exposed to the research—so I find it particularly irresponsible of him to insinuate that a person can overcome their natural wiring, which it seems to me he is saying:
Wherever you are this morning, whatever patterns you may be in, you can be made new. Whatever lusts you battle, heterosexual, homosexual, you can be made new. It is not that you will see sin magically leave you if you turn to Jesus Christ. It is that you will have the very power of the Holy Spirit who makes us more than conquerers, Romans 8, in you, and that is what we need. And friends, there is no greater transformation than that conversion.
You cannot pray away the gay, Owen. And if that’s not what you are saying—if you’re saying something extremely close to that but want your listeners to hear you saying something more nuanced than that—then perhaps you could make your future pronouncements a bit more clear on this matter.
But more importantly, your words will only continue to hurt people who are living under an enormous pile of shame put on them by people like you who are certain they are speaking for God. You believe you are faithfully discharging your duty. But your God is too small.
You need to show a little bit of that humility which you keep saying befits a man of God, who doesn’t have it all figured out. You should consider that your brothers and sisters in Christ who don’t see these issues the same way Southern Baptists do have a point. If nothing else, please learn to recognize how your words fuel the fires of self-loathing and self-harm among people who are being told the way they are is wrong.
I realize you sincerely believe that. But how about you show some trust in the Spirit of Truth who you believe was given to the church to help think through these things? Can you not consider the possibility that other segments of the Christian faith grasp something you don’t? Or do you believe you have it all figured out?
If you cannot learn anything new, you’re on your way to becoming obsolete, a curious footnote in the history books of tomorrow.
[Image Source: Adobe Stock]
* I would include a link to studies on the incidence of depression and mental illness among students at Christian universities except evidently they do not respond to requests for that information, so no figures are available.