Before we can really get into the meat of this post, I need to say a few words first about the fundamentalist view of promises, because I don’t think most people outside that mindset will understand fully until this stuff’s on the table.
I’ve talked before about the things that drew me to fundamentalism, namely the illusions it offers of an unchanging doctrine, an unchanging god, and an unchanging set of expectations. And it’s true, and those illusions create a lot of problems when they bang up against the reality of a changing world, changing understandings of religious philosophy, and changing expectations of both people and cultures.
For example, when a kid swears at six years old that he (because this applies much more to boys than girls) will become an evangelist or a pastor, that’s what’s going to happen no matter what; if that child later decides that he isn’t cut out for either and would rather be a fireman or a nurse or a stay-at-home dad, his earlier “contract” is brought up. In the same way, when pre-teens who still think the other gender has cooties swear they won’t have sex till they get married, their promise is waved in their faces by both their families and their culture when they mature a bit more–and lands forbid those kids turn out to be gay, child-free, asexual, or polyamorous.
There’s a good reason why, in the real world, we don’t hold kids to such contracts, obviously; most people would hear stuff like I’ve just described and rightfully consider it child abuse to hold a little kid to a vocational promise he made at the age of six (btw, I wanted to be an astronaut or an astronomer for most of my childhood–remember the Space Princess fantasy life I had?). But in the church world, once someone’s made a promise, there is no way to renege on that promise. Even if the other party to that promise, or the premise upon which that promise was made, turns out to be dead wrong and even abusive, a promise is still a promise, and woe betide the child who goes against a promise later in life.
But things don’t improve for adults, either. The promises we make at any point in our spiritual “walks” are promises that are set in stone no matter what. Especially if we decide that these promises are made in the “spirit,” which is to say that they have the stamp of approval from our god himself. Hardcore Christians don’t even pick a restaurant to eat lunch in without praying first about where they ought to go (which btw is not hyperbole: I used to do that, I’m ashamed to say), so you can imagine how much they pray and seek guidance before big decisions. And amazingly, their god, the author of quarks and quasars and continental drift and nuclear fusion and black holes, has opinions about absolutely every single personal decision a Christian needs to make, and even more amazingly, Christians are generally very sure about just what those opinions are.
It’s awfully hard to walk back a promise you made under the misconception that your god wanted you to do this thing. Obviously, there’s no way whatsoever to tell if anything is really a word from any god at all; the word could be coming from “the flesh,” which is to say just from the Christian him- or herself, or from demons, whose voices are surprisingly hard to tell from that of the Christian god. So if you decide later on that clearly you had misheard that voice, or that the voice in all likelihood didn’t exist at all, you’ve got some problems on a scale that non-fundagelicals can’t really begin to comprehend.
All set? Okay. I’d like you to remember the fundamentalist attitude toward promises as we continue onward.
One of the cruelest illusions modern Christianity offers is the idea of the “soulmate”–this idea that there is one special hand-picked romantic companion out there that the Christian god has pre-selected for each and every one of his “children” from the beginning of time. This person will be absolutely perfect in every single way, and the marriage resulting from meeting this person will be similarly blessed and perfect. Though the idea of soulmates may have come from Plato’s Symposium, the modern conception of the “soulmate” is fairly new–maybe from the 1960s and its Age of Aquarius thinking–as is the idea that married people need to be soulmates.
In ages past, romantic love may have been valued, parents may have hoped desperately that their various children would find romantic love in their various arranged matches, but nobody expected a marital partner to be the end-all, be-all of companions. Romantic love was very nice and definitely a goal, but if it didn’t happen, a couple could at least still treat each other with “love”–meaning respect, courtesy, goodwill, and charitable generosity. And for all that gender roles in ages past were cruel and unfair to women and men alike, at least the roles were expectations that could be objectively measured and lived up to. When a man and woman got married, each knew what their own and their partners’ responsibilities were going to be. Women might chafe against the duties imposed upon them and their restricted rights in society, men might long to be closer to their families and resent their constricted avenues of self-expression, but in the end, at least on paper, people muddled through.
Obviously, I probably don’t even need to say that this never-never land existed almost exclusively for middle- to upper-class white, straight, cis-gendered (the term means “born into the body type that matches one’s gender,” such as a man born in a man’s body, rather than a transgender or hermaphroditic person), able-bodied Christian people, and that frequent flagrant violations of the norms occurred as people’s spirits naturally and rightfully rebelled against these constrictions and repressions. One could easily find as many exceptions to this somewhat gauzy view of marriage as one could find of evidences of it. But generally, that was the plan.
You hear all the time about couples who married each other on the eve of WWII who knew next to nothing about each other–who might have known each other for barely weeks if that–who are celebrating 50 and 60 years together now. There’s a reason for that kind of longevity. Ask these folks their secret, and you won’t hear the word “soulmate” leave their withered lips. The idea is ludicrous to them. They never expected to be each other’s best friends or soulmates. They have friends for that stuff. They join clubs. They play bridge. They golf. They have friends in for tea or coffee.
Meanwhile, people in my age cohort and younger hear stories about people marrying folks who turn out to be axe murderers or counterfeiters or criminals on the lam and we just boggle at those stories. How could someone not know if their one true love was a bank embezzler who stole kabillions of dollars? How could someone possibly not know that the man she married was really an escaped convict? How could you just not know your spouse had a whole other family in the next town over, or a lifelong lover? In our age of over-disclosure of information and sharing of absolutely every bit of minutia about our lives with our loved ones, the idea that a married person wouldn’t know something that important about his/her spouse is so far past unfamiliar that it goes into surreal territory and from there into a land so alien we can’t even guess at what its angles and corners might look like.
But for some reason, I hear about these kinds of surprises all the time in older married couples. Sometimes they die with these secrets in their hearts; sometimes they confess to them on their deathbed, as one murderer in a cold case got caught not long ago. Sometimes the family only finds out when going through their loved one’s things. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a standing agreement with my best friend that when either of us dies, the remaining friend will scoot to the dead woman’s house to burn her diaries. I’m not kidding. Some stuff wasn’t made to see the light of day.
But people change. That’s so obvious to me now, but at the time, I didn’t know this simple truth. People change, and sometimes they change a lot. I met Biff when I was a dreamy-eyed 17-year-old. We got married when I was 20. Already at 20 I wasn’t the same person I was at 17, and in the next few years, I changed even more. I’m certainly not the same person I was at 20. I’ll probably be different in my 50s and 60s too. Change is inevitable. But it’s much faster and more dramatic in younger people as they try on new personalities and new ways of looking at the world and as they explore new avenues of self-expression and philosophies. As they learn critical thinking skills, especially, they may re-examine those old ideas and sometimes find them wanting.
Evangelical Christianity’s answer to the problem of young people changing is to try to forcefully indoctrinate them so thoroughly in one particular religious worldview that hopefully the children won’t ever even question what they were taught. There’s a Bible verse–Proverbs 22:6–that advises parents to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The idea of forceful indoctrination of a vulnerable mind sounds like child abuse to normal folks now, but many Christians take that verse very literally. This verse is also part of why pastors and ministers take the traditional (and increasingly erroneous) view that even though young people might leave the religion for a while, they’ll be back when they have kids of their own–obviously even if the parents don’t take the religion too seriously, they’ll want their kids to be exposed to it at a young age before they get sophisticated enough to recognize malarkey when they hear it.
Likewise, these well-meaning parents’ cruel and abusive answer to young people’s inevitable romantic yearnings is to indoctrinate those same kids with the idea that if they have even one sexual experience–or even just one non-sexual romantic dating relationship, for the growing adherents of the blatantly misogynistic and patriarchal “courtship” idea–with someone who isn’t their god-given “soulmate,” they will forever tarnish themselves. Disgusting stories abound about “abstinence education” courses wherein people spit chewed-up food or partially-swallowed water into glasses to demonstrate what a sexually experienced person looks like to their god and to their future soulmate (I guess rape victims are SOL). One of the more odious of these courses, Choosing the Best SOUL MATE, even comes out and says that course’s goal is to help students stay “pure” until they find and marry this soulmate their god has picked out for them; it goes on to say that men are like “knights” who won’t take kindly to their “princesses” giving them pointers on how to rescue them. One of the bigger Christian dating sites, ChristianMingle, has the tagline Find God’s Match for You–implying that there’s just the one match.
Last in the trifecta of dysfunction comes the concept that married couples should build their relationship around their religious belief. Jesus is supposed to be the linchpin in the relationship, the base upon which the marital house is built. This idea, too, is a cruel and abusive thing to teach young people, and I know that what I just wrote is going to raise the hackles of many Christians reading this, since the idea of basing a marriage on shared faith in Jesus is all but axiomatic at this point. But here is why I think that:
When I was sixteen and a new Southern Baptist in the mid-1980s, I apparently took part in an event my church held called “Love/Life Principles Seminar: A Dating Seminar for Youth.” It’s a course written by someone I’ve never heard of, Barry Wood, whose qualifications for writing this course are never outlined in the information I’m holding here. His autobiography page reveals that he is a pastor somewhere and he’s given a lot of speeches to young people. Those are his qualifications. That’s it. Nothing psychological, nothing evidence-based.
I didn’t even remember this seminar, but you can thank my packrat of a mom for keeping the brown plastic binder they gave the participants as a keepsake. On the inside cover, in my very careful half-print, half-cursive hand, I’ve written the hours it covered–nine to four–and the map they handed out with it is folded neatly inside the cover. This was serious business, is what I’m saying. It’s curious I don’t remember it, but I clearly followed along quite conscientiously; in the workbook’s many pages, I filled in all the blanks provided by the author for all of his leading (and, I might add, completely citation-free) questions.
The binder has several tabs in it. Under the one marked “Dating,” on page 33, the author has this to say (emphases his; the underlined word was filled in by me, but clearly as a result of being told what to write there):
“The main purpose of dating is to unite two people spiritually. Because this is the main purpose of dating – God must be very much involved in your love life. . . Dating should not be used to start friendships but rather is the result of friendship. Only close friends know one another well enough to begin a possible courtship (dating).”
On the next page, the author invites participants to speculate about when a young person is old enough to date. A series of blanks next to ages 13-18 are provided. Under these, one answer is “when parents consent,” and the author makes clear that this is the only age at which a child is considered old enough to date. A few pages later, the author tells young women that their primary concern in picking a dating partner is that he (of course, “he”) cares more about their god than anything else (p. 38). I can’t help but notice that he uses some rather misogynistic language here: “ladies” seek “guys” using purely personality-based traits, but “men” seek “girls” who are “beautiful inside as well as outside” and not “a flirt and immodest” (he thoughtfully informs us that such a “girl” is “a gold ring in a pig’s snout”). Oh, and of course he tells young women that their job is to be such wonderful Christians that their boyfriends/husbands will want to be even better Christians because of them.
In this seminar, the author makes sure to talk about the idea of dating a non-Christian. The illustration on page 41 is of a beautiful bride in a high-necked wedding gown smiling up at her groom, who is an unshaved, long-haired, balding hobo in rags. This is what my church wanted me to think about when I thought about dating a non-believer, folks. And if you don’t think that most churches do this sort of thing, you’re only deluding yourself. The author writes on page 42 (again, emphases are his):
NOTE THIS TRUTH: A believer cannot be yoked together spiritually with a lost person! Therefore, why date a lost person! It defeats our purpose for dating. It is a dead end street. Would you ever love a boyfriend (or girlfriend) more than the Lord?
We may well come back to the Love/Life Seminar one day because it is a veritable cornucopia of mistaken and discredited ideas masquerading as spiritual advice, but trust me, it doesn’t get any better than what I’ve quoted you.
The takeaway here is this: this is what I was taught about how to construct a romantic relationship. This was what I was taught about how to figure out who to date and marry. This is what I was taught to value about a boyfriend and spouse. And this is what young people today are being taught as well about those same topics.
Now. Okay. We’re ready now. Let’s add it all up and look at it together.
A couple is taught balderdash about relationships from the time they’re old enough to absorb the words used. They are taught that promises, especially promises centered around their god, are sacrosanct and cannot ever be broken. They are taught that nothing true or good can ever change. They are taught that their god has picked someone specially just for them and that this person will be their perfect mate. They are given a whole list of things they should be looking for and valuing in a mate. They are taught that the only good marriage is the one centered completely around their shared belief in a particular god (and moreover usually a particular “flavor” of that god’s religion). They are taught that if people change at all, if they are ordained to be together by their god, then they will grow together. They are taught that if they’re convinced they’re doing something that is their god’s will, then naturally, of course, everybody else in the movie’s cast is going to play along and recite the correct lines and hit the correct marks on the stage. They are taught a Mayberry fantasy of married life.
And then one of them deconverts.
I mean this from the bottom of my heart, Christians in the UYC; I mean this next statement with tears in my eyes:
I am sorry.
I am so sorry.
You did not sign up for this.
I know you didn’t.
This is not your fault.
It’s not your spouse’s fault, either.
You both got fed a pack of lies, and they were horrible, toxic, harmful, cruel, pernicious lies at that, lies told by largely unqualified people who, however well-meaning, have no business meddling in other people’s love lives or teaching other folks how to live. The facade–always jostling so uncomfortably with reality–has fallen away. The happy illusion you were taught–that if you did X, you’d get Y–has been destroyed. The certainty you once had, false though it was, based as it was on an imperfect understanding of what relationships are and how people operate, has been torn asunder.
If I had to write a recipe for how to absolutely destroy someone’s life with false teachings, I could not do a better job than modern Christianity has with what it’s done to young Christians’ heads regarding love and marriage. I couldn’t do it, though; I’m just not cruel enough. It’s not worth the one-in-a-hundred couples that the recipe works for, just to see the other 99 couples devastated when some aspect of the recipe goes wrong.
So when I looked across at Biff on that fateful winter night so many years ago, I felt a degree of sympathy for him. I knew this wasn’t what he’d expected. All along, he’d been praying and manipulating me to make me go back to being the wife Jesus had told him I’d be. All along, he’d been holding on in the belief that I’d come to my senses somehow–through prayer, through his action, something. All along, he’d suffered under the pain of realizing that this was not how he’d wanted his married life to look or work.
I’d pulled the rug out from under him. I’d done an unwitting bait-and-switch. He’d married a dedicated Christian woman. We’d made plans around him going into the ministry. We’d operated together, as a team, the best way we could under the antiquated and misogynistic rules of our faith. I’d been the best wife I could be and followed all the rules.
And then I’d ruined everything for him.
Of course, all I’d really done was simply to stop playing along with what had turned out to be purely a fantasy. I’d accepted the changes that had occurred in my outlook. I’d finally convinced him that those changes were not temporary aberrations. I’d stepped outside of the prescribed dance steps on the floor and had finally begun dancing to my own music. In most couples, changes are expected and with communication and a healthy dose of respect and gentleness, the majority of those changes can usually be incorporated into the couple’s shared life together. But in Christianity, with its hatred and terror of change, its deathgrip on the illusion of soulmate perfection, its loathing of compromise, its callous (and erroneous) insistence that a good relationship is impossible between people of differing beliefs, even fairly minor changes can destroy a couple.
My deconversion was the only authentic, honest, and fair response I could make to what I had discovered. It was the right thing to do. Honestly portraying my deconversion was in fact the only thing I could do and still be true to myself. I certainly didn’t do it to hurt anybody. I did it to save my own life and sanity.
But for what it was–and is–worth, I sorrowed for the death of that fantasy life Biff and I had both been promised so many times by our various well-meaning church leaders and mentors. I sorrowed for the pain and fear Biff must have felt. I felt the same pain and fear, though for different reasons, as I contemplated the coming days and wondered how we would deal with what had changed.
We’re going to talk next about coping strategies Biff and I both tried to reconcile our suddenly-very-different worldviews, and about the one strategy that I think would have worked. I hope you’ll join me.