Christian Charlatans.

Christian Charlatans. July 15, 2014

The other day I discovered that one of this site’s favorite charlatans and bullshit artists, Joyce Meyer, has a book out about how to break bad habits, and it tied in with some stuff I’ve been thinking about lately about charlatanism in Christianity. I wanted to talk about my own experiences with that topic.

When I deconverted and it became clear that our marriage heading was for a breakup, one of the things Biff asked me to do was to go to a “Christian counselor” on the military base where he served. I don’t remember him asking to go together as a couple; he might have asked for that, but he definitely at least wanted me to go by myself to “get help” (Biff-speak for “get strong-armed into changing back to how you were before”) for all these weird and confusing notions I’d developed. This counselor was one of his buddies in the chaplain program, itself rightly notorious lately for its overreach, which you can find documented frequently at the Military Atheists website, and if you think things are bad now or just recently got that way, well, I’ve got a few stories from my time as a military wife that might raise the hackles of even the most gung-ho Christian.

In response to Biff’s request, I did something my then-husband clearly had not expected: I asked what this chaplain’s credentials were to counsel non-Christian noncombatants about marital discord or anything else.

By Biff’s blank stare of a response, I knew he had no idea what this person’s counseling credentials were. He’d suggested the fellow, it seems, purely because he was a chaplain. But our problem was not spiritual, and I don’t regard the ability to provide soldiers with spiritual guidance as an indicator of someone’s ability to provide general therapy. Nor did I regard myself as broken or in need of any psychological help. Biff was basing his recommendation on the simple fact that I now disagreed with him vehemently on a variety of matters, some religious but many not, which to him meant I was clearly sailing in choppy waters and in need of a course correction. He saw getting me reconverted as the goal, and I knew it (and he knew I knew it; as Prince Geoffrey says in The Lion in Winter, we were a very knowledgeable family)*. He was quite convinced that if he could get me back to Jesus, then all these other conflicts we were having would just fall into line, which in retrospect was laughably simplistic and naive as well as completely wrong; had I reconverted, it would not have been back to patriarchal Christianity nor to the rampant misogyny that had characterized our marriage up until my deconversion.

There was another very good reason for my resistance to the idea of visiting the chaplain he recommended. I knew that chaplains aren’t under the same rules about objectivity and non-disclosure that real therapists are, and I was quite nervous that this person might tell Biff privileged patient information or screw me up somehow with incompetence.

“Aw, he couldn’t tell me a thing,” Biff said. “You could totally sue him for a bunch of money if he did.” (Isn’t it telling that this was his glib, stated response to my concern about privacy?)

The point is, I don’t remember him ever coming up with any evidence for believing that this chaplain was in any way qualified to provide me guidance of any kind beyond the fact that he was in a position of Christian leadership. And in the 25 years or so since we had that conversation, absolutely nothing has changed in modern fundagelical Christianity.

I hear from a lot of ex-Christians whose spouses want to go to Christian counselors for one reason or another, and it’s beyond sad to me that Christians can’t understand why we don’t want to do that. I’m still exploring my own feelings on the subject, but I’m coming to some real understanding of why I don’t take Christian counselors seriously and why I think they’re generally harmful to the people who foolishly trust them.

Considering their hatred for postmodernism, or at least what they think that term means, Christians have a real tendency to shrink away from real experts in order to construct their own truths in a way that certainly looks a lot like postmodernism to me. They can call those constructed truths “timeless” and “objective” all they wish if it makes ’em feel better, but the real truth is that most of what Christians imagine about their religion and holy book are very new conceits for the most part, ones that would be wholly foreign and unimaginable to Christians of the first century–or even to Christians of the Enlightenment or Great Awakening. They’re not interested in anything that science or rational inquiry could add to the “truths” they’ve constructed for themselves; real experts would very quickly destroy and dismantle most of these ideas they’ve gotten. So in response, they have developed their own cadre of faux-experts to reinforce these ideas.

Postmodernism is demonized by just about every single modern fundagelical there is, but for proof that they’re busy engaging in it themselves, we need look no further than this “teach the controversy” nonsense that Creationists are pushing now. I heard an interview with Duane Gish, one of the “Intelligent Design” leaders, advising that what he wanted was for children in taxpayer-funded public schools to learn “both sides” (as if Creationism is a serious “side” here–isn’t that hilare?) and then decide for themselves what they would believe about how we got so many different kinds of animals in this world.

Decide for themselves? Aren’t these the same wingnuts who freaked out over exercises in the 70s where schoolkids would debate mathematics answers among themselves in little committees to decide for themselves what “2+2” was, and who even now lose their shit over children deciding for themselves whether or not to follow Christianity? How is it not postmodern to let children decide simple, basic scientific facts for themselves after hearing a plethora of information from some imaginary side Mr. Gish mistakenly believes contradicts the fact of evolution but it is postmodern to let kids decide about math problems and religion once they’ve heard every side?

This weird idea that objective truth can be constructed finds its nadir in “Christian” psychology.

I’ve written in the past about fundagelical distrust of education and real experts, but nowhere do we see this distrust so starkly displayed as we do with regard to the field of psychology and self-help, and nowhere do faux-experts seem to proliferate so much as they do within the mental health field.

Psychology as a field began to evolve after World War II. Freud’s weird ideas had of course been circulating around, but most people didn’t go to counselors or really even know much about what counseling was. By the 1970s, that had changed. Self-help as a book field had been taking off, and therapy was getting seen as a powerful tool for people to begin solving their problems and improving themselves.

The immediate problem with therapy, of course, is that it is secular in nature. Relying upon research or at least well-educated guesses, therapy didn’t normally draw upon religious ideas at all. It was seen immediately as unfriendly to doctrines like Original Sin and innate brokenness. Research had shown many times that Jesus either couldn’t or didn’t want to fix anybody emotionally and that calling upon him had no positive effect at all, so therapists didn’t tend to do it with patients and clients. What on earth would happen if people got told they were able to fix themselves or that they didn’t need religion to be whole? Why, the sky would fall!

Another huge problem with therapy–and, really, the field of psychology itself–was that it was client-centered. This focus was seen as removing the focus from Jesus, which of course was unacceptable even when the topic at hand was emotional distress or mental illness. While Christians might remove the focus from Jesus to get a root canal done, psychology was seen as much more suspicious; demons were known to creep into people who were distressed or ill and take control of them without their even noticing it. Psychology needed restraints and leashes that other healthcare fields simply did not.

These two problems conflicted with a growing feeling among evangelicals that the Bible really should be anything anybody should ever need to live a complete, healthy, happy life. Evangelicals were convinced that their god performed miracles and intervened directly in his followers’ lives on a constant, tangible basis, so would provide anything Christians needed–including emotional health–if they only asked sincerely enough via prayer.

The Religious Right was just getting rolling at this point, and the reverberations of their takeover of the conversation Christianity was having with America would be felt for many years to come. Their attitudes were a shift from what they saw at the time as a formulaic, uninspired, rote performance of religious devotion; they wanted to be “on fire” and wholly committed with no compromises. That meant incorporating Jesus into absolutely every aspect of one’s life, not just attending church on Sunday and then living like a secular person all week long. Fundamentalism had been a problem in Christianity for many years, but now, with the threat of secularism looming on the horizon, Christian leaders drilled down as hard as they could on dogma.

And their people listened.

*****

Christian Counseling exploded onto the scene in the 1970s. It was the perfect time for it. People were converting into the fervent, energetic, “no compromises” Jesus Movement churches and faiths, and they brought with them their respect for psychology, self-help, and therapy. But they wanted those things to have a Jesus flavor and be Biblical, or at least be in tune with what they (usually mistakenly) imagined were Biblical teachings and precepts.

In the ensuing chaos, very quickly a two-lane highway emerged with regard to mental health in most states. There was one lane where fully-credentialed, reputably-educated, board-certified, and licensed practitioners hung their shingles, and the other where almost anybody could get a license to practice general therapy or “life coaching” after a quick, easy little course in various topics the state tacked onto the license. I remember discovering in one state I lived in that it was harder to become an interior decorator (to muck up people’s homes) than it was to become a counselor (to muck up people’s heads).

Unfortunately, most people didn’t–and indeed still don’t–understand that there are huge differences between terms like “psychiatrist” and “psychologist,” much less “therapist” and “counselor” or “life coach.” And they very mistakenly believe a few things about mental health vis-a-vis Christianity that simply aren’t true.

First, they believe that Jesus is healing anybody. Sorry, but that just isn’t the case. I knew plenty of folks (like me) who prayed every single day for deliverance and healing from depression and all sorts of mental illnesses and maladies, and they’d sometimes get a “breakthrough” (that’s Christianese for serious catharsis during prayer; the rush of emotions is thought to be caused by a god reaching down and touching the person/people praying) and think they were finally healed, only to be back on their knees praying for deliverance a few days later after the euphoria passed. When the person praying is seeking physical healing, that’s bad enough. In the case of mental illness, though, this kind of delay or refusal to seek real care can have tragic repercussions.

Second, they believe that their pastors and ministers are qualified to treat serious problems. I don’t deny that some ministers are really good at loosing a little perspective on minor things, just like anybody would be who works with people for a living, but for serious things, people need to quit asking their ministers to substitute for a professional’s care. They wouldn’t ask a preacher to have a go at their wisdom teeth with a power drill, but think nothing of asking that same person to get them over chronic depression or hallucination-level PTSD. Even when the minister is totally goodhearted and tries his or her best to help, that’s asking a lot of what amounts to an amateur (some seminary programs may include a little course or semester about counseling, but that’s not going to be anywhere near as much as they’d need for serious problems). It’s not fair to dump a crisis on the shoulders of someone who isn’t fully equipped to deal with it, and the results are going to be predictably dicey.

Third, if someone who isn’t maybe totally goodhearted gets ahold of their private business like that, the results can be catastrophic. There’s no consent involved in the relationship between a minister and a parishioner. If the parishioner doesn’t take the minister’s advice, or declines to continue sessions, that minister has the power to really make that person’s life unbearable. I can’t even remember how many stories I’ve heard about ministers putting parishioners under “church discipline” for doing something like that, or gossiped about their business to outsiders. That’s why it’s super-important for someone in need to make sure to consult experts who are licensed and credentialed, experts who that person can stop seeing at any time or disagree with or ask for a further referral to someone else if it just doesn’t work out.

So with that said, let’s look at this stupid book by Joyce Meyer.

She is not licensed or credentialed as a real psychiatrist. She has no qualifications for writing this book at all. None. She just knows how to talk to Christian women. She knows how to push their buttons.

Joyce Meyer’s audience thinks that Jesus heals people. They think that all they have to do is ask their Daddy Jesus for something and he will give it to them. They think that they’re getting real, solid information about how to eliminate bad habits from their lives and build new ones. They think that building new habits is all about willpower (or won’t-power, as I had a friend say once!). They think that all it takes is a few quick, easy things to remember and those new habits will be there quick as you like. They think of Jesus as the Easy Button and the Bible as a big ole ATM that will give them an easy–or at least easier–time than is had by those who lack belief in those things’ efficacy. They think that one-liner bumper-sticker theology and slogans and catchphrases can substitute for the hard work of self-examination and character-building.

The women who flock to Joyce Meyer’s various seminars and read all her books think that prayer does something solid and tangible in the world. They think that if a minister says it, it must be true. They think that Christians would never lie to them or deceive them. They think that the Holy Spirit is giving people like Joyce Meyer special insights and discernment that can help them, in turn, live better lives.

They are wrong about all of these things.

Joyce Meyer might or might not know what the truth really is–she may or may not even believe the shit she says. I’ll give her sincerity a pass here. But I do know that she definitely at least knows how to talk to people who hold these beliefs, and she knows how to make a buck off people who don’t realize that she’s not qualified to help them.

Actual licensed, credentialed psychologists have written books about habit-building and how to break ourselves of bad habits and maintain and develop new ones. But these licensed, credentialed people do not mention Jesus every third word or spout nonsensical chirpy Christian catchphrases or advise prayer as a real solution, so Joyce Meyer’s audience will distrust these sources and seek her out instead. They won’t realize that she’s about as qualified to help them do this character work as their yard guy is, and maybe even less so because let’s face it, yard guys usually have some pretty cool insights based on living in the real world whereas I’m not sure this lady’s even seen the real world since about 1965. Her writing always has this flippy-dippy quality to it that I realize now is there because she really hasn’t got the faintest idea what reality looks like. She may well believe wholeheartedly that prayer works to build habits because maybe that’s what works for her. But the things she’s pushing her audience to do don’t look even remotely like what we know, based on decades of research, habit-building looks like for most people.

These women will read this book and be assured that they worship a wonder-working god who will answer their prayers, eventually at least. When they try to put her principles into action–which itself will be a task because I didn’t notice her giving a lot of concrete examples beyond “pray a lot” and “trust Jesus”–they will fail. And when (not if) they fail, they will blame themselves for the failure and think they are terrible people with very weak wills, or else that maybe this just means they don’t have enough faith in Jesus, when the real truth is that they chose a life coach with shitty life-coaching skills who has no real idea how to build new habits or break old ones.

The real tragedy here is that it’s very likely that none of her big fans who try this book’s ideas and fail will connect their failure to Joyce Meyer herself.

It seems downright silly to outsiders that Christians would need so desperately to Jesus-fy everything in their lives, but that’s how it is for zealots. Anything that isn’t totally tied in to Christianity and harnessed in service to what adherents believe are Christian ideas is suspicious; demons could enter into a person in such a situation, or the person might start thinking that he or she is self-reliant and doesn’t need Jesus. It’s like watching someone break his or her own knee because that person thinks walking without crutches is dangerous. Any activity that doesn’t begin and end with Jesus is hugely problematic; secularism is such a demonized and maligned concept at this point that any hint of secularism (defined as “something that doesn’t begin and end with Jesus”) gets you a reaction like you suggested making boiled babies’ toes for dinner.

Since most of our lives (even those of Christians) are generally not tinged with religion all over the place, that leaves an absolutely huge range of activities that Christian charlatans can rush into to Jesus-fy. I’m sure most of us can think of many of them, but let me just say I was surprised to discover that weight loss counseling got invaded quite some time ago. And so, apparently, has the field of habit formation.

It’s just astonishing to me, but it shouldn’t be. Even in my days as a fundamentalist, the trends were there to see.

*****

Postscript.

Right before fleeing Biff, I did go see the chaplain he’d recommended just to see what it was about. The chaplain was helping in a daycare that morning, but he had asked me to come by there for some reason.

We sat down in a small office and chatted. He considered himself a minister and pastor and took his “burden” very seriously, I could tell by how he acted and talked. I ensured before we talked that he would not be disclosing my information to anybody. That done, I made clear I was leaving under threat of physical violence, fleeing while Biff was away for a few days on lockup for thus threatening me. The chaplain tried to persuade me to stay because Biff wanted to “try again” and had persuaded this chaplain that he “really loved” me. I was just horrified–aghast even–that he’d even suggest such an obviously terrible idea. This was my first brush with Christianists who don’t take domestic violence seriously and who side with abusers over victims of domestic violence, but not my last.

I disagreed with his suggestion that I put myself in potential mortal danger to save a marriage that was in my opinion completely destroyed, and left. But before I did so, I let slip a few details that weren’t true. I knew that if he and Biff were in cahoots, that this would decidedly be stuff he’d want to tell my then-husband.

A real therapist would not be able to disclose those things. But a chaplain, contrary to Biff’s insistence, was under no such restriction. I knew that.

And later on, during his stalking of me, Biff revealed that why yes, this chaplain had told him everything we’d talked about, even the untrue things. Either he or Biff had even embellished those details to sound even more shocking.

No mention was made of lawsuits–even from a man who was always happy to contemplate legal action if it’d make him some cash.

I felt violated beyond all comparison by this disclosure. That chaplain had told the monster who was stalking me, a monster who he knew had physically threatened to harm me, intimate details of my life that I had told him in privacy. The only plus side to this violation was that most of the damning stuff Biff was accusing me of wasn’t actually true, which you must admit in retrospect is kind of funny. But there are many other people who entrust their lives to chaplains and ministers and then discover their personal business plastered all over the church grapevine–and they don’t have even that comfort to fall back upon. If you think I’m the only person whose privacy was invaded in this way by a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, by a GODLY CHRISTIAN MAN™, by a holy and anointed minister of the Lawd, think again.

Even ministers who really mean well can find themselves in over their heads with counseling tasks; many seminaries now have courses in the matter, but you and I both know that it won’t be the equal of a full credentialed degree in counseling. And damage can easily be done by well-meaning people if they are surrounded by gossips or don’t know how to secure their computers or notes, or even if they just don’t know how to counsel people who are in serious crisis.

So I hope y’all will pardon me if I absolutely flat refuse to trust any of my personal information or entrust my psyche to people who aren’t qualified to handle either. And I wish more Christians would seriously think about their reliance on amateurs and charlatans to help them in times of emotional need.

Nobody needs another quack like Joyce Meyer warbling and chirping her favorite Jesus jukes. She knows less about teaching people how to develop good habits than Mayor Rob Ford does. Her books are worse than pop-psychology; they could do some lasting harm if people think they’re seriously all you need to build good habits. At least pop-psych books are usually written by people with some kind of credentialing; all she has is some unspecified degree from some totally lackluster Bible college somewhere (and though it’s hard to find out just what subject this degree involves, if you hunt around you’ll find that it’s in theology–which I guess makes her extra-dextra more qualified to counsel anybody, at least in her head). Hers are just wishful thinking draped in Jesus.

What she provides people–especially women–is warm fuzzies. And she’s very good at it. She provides this gauzy, hazy vision of sufficiency in Jesus, this idea that if you just want something very much and read the Bible and pray a lot, you’ll totally get it because Daddy Jesus wuvs you.

People who genuinely need to learn to build good habits would be very well served by seeking out teachers who actually have qualifications to teach this difficult idea, and maybe not Jesus-fying everything they do just because it feels more Christian-y to do so.

We’re going to talk about spiritual warfare next, since I got rolling on the topic of demons and have some things to talk about there. Here’s an angel to keep you tided over:

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(* Edit: Whoops, Prince Geoffrey said that to Eleanor, who was played by Katherine Hepburn. I knew who I meant at least.)

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