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The problems at the core of the Southern Baptists' sex abuse scandal

When religious beliefs prevent healing of mental illness

It is, in some ways, an unfair generalization, but some religious traditions, to motivate adherents, use fear and punishment along with the practice of encouraging people to engage in self-criticism while others emphasize love and caring. Almost always there's a mix of both but it's pretty common to find one way or the other being predominant.

Evangelical-anxietyConsider, for instance, this description of the Christianity that author and religious studies professor Charles Marsh learned as a boy in evangelical Christian churches in Alabama and Mississippi, as described in his new book, Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir, which will be published June 14 but can be ordered now.

"What, then, does it mean to be a Christian? It means reckoning daily with your mind's exquisite corruptions, knowing you'll never reach their end. And you won't get any credit from God for honest self-inspection, for even the capacity to say 'I am nothing' suggests a sad withered leaf of agency -- though agency nonetheless, that you dare not claim. Because without God you can't even know that you don't know anything. It means prostrating yourself before God, decreasing to zero, and. . .becoming his 'devoted love slave.' Anxiety, madness, the howling terrors, whatever powers are wrecking your mind -- submit to them all for the sake of his pleasure."

Out of such a bleak view of the faith comes, among other things, a belief that, as Marsh writes, "Christians didn't need secular psychology, because we had been given the Holy Spirit, who was the ultimate Healer."

Do you see where this is going -- and going inevitably?

Marsh himself wound up having mental breakdowns, deep-seated anxieties and, eventually, clinical depression. Part of what took him so long to get professional medical and psychological help was his faith-inspired notion that "secular psychology" wasn't part of God's world, God's plan, God's way. He doesn't say directly -- and I think it would be unfair to say -- that his mental illness was a result of the theology in which he was marinated as a child. Rather, it's fair to say that it took much, much longer for him to get help because he believed that such professional help was an affront to the healing power of God on which he relied.

So this book is a revelatory account of Marsh's journey. What may surprise readers is not just that Marsh, son of a pastor who preached that kind of limiting Christianity, survived but that, in the end, he found a way to retain his Christianity, though it looks different from the faith with which he grew up.

The writing is both beautiful and insightful, if also occasionally baffling. Marsh seems to like to use words that either aren't in a decent dictionary or are simply rarely used or arcane -- mung, bobo, synecdoche, aporia, jarbled, gleet and enceinte among them. I sort of like that challenge as a reader, but others may be put off by the author's refusal to fall for cliches, which at least can be grasped immediately.

The damaging idea that Marsh learned as a boy was that "I must discern my darkness, and therein remember that sin is not only what I did, but who I was: I am the one who breathes corruption." You can find that kind of theology even among some of those who led the Reformation that created, eventually, Mainline Protestant churches. For instance, the early reformer John Calvin summarized his theology in five points, one of which proposed the "total depravity" of humankind. It's actually not quite as dark an idea as the name makes it sound, but it does suggest that the image of God within people has been covered over by sin and there's nothing people can do on their own to rescue themselves from that condition.

When "total depravity" is, in effect, the lesson contained in sermon after sermon, as it was for Marsh, the result can be a damaged human being without agency.

"How dark could it really get, you might wonder," he writes, "in the mind of an evangelical virgin hoping to redeem the secular world? Pretty f. . .ing dark." And he explains that this way: "I'd always assumed you could only find God by sailor-diving into guilt and shame."

So because mental illness doesn't avoid you just because you're one brand of Christian or another, Marsh did what he could to heal himself through prayer and other spiritual disciplines while avoiding psychiatric help and/or psychoanalysis. Until, that is, much later in life. And he paid dearly for that decision.

Part of what Marsh grew up believing was that "Jesus was set to return soon" and that "I believed in my heart of hearts I wouldn't make the cut on judgment day." He writes that the lessons that taught him that are based on "cruel dogmas."

It is, of course, wrong to argue that such theology led Marsh directly and inevitably to a mental breakdown. Lots of American Christians hold such beliefs and don't disintegrate into mental illness. But it's clear that when he did have a mental crisis, what his faith tradition told him about depending for healing solely on God with no help from professionally trained healers prevented him from finding relief in a timely manner.

"Every defense failed," he writes. "My symptoms felt concentrated into permanence. I had lost the capacity for happiness." But as a Southern Baptist he was part of a group of people, 48 percent of whom say "they believe that conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia can be treated with prayer alone."

In contrast to that, he learned that "when the protocols of biblical self-help fall short in the treatment of mental illness, as they inevitably do, anxiety and depression will hunt down vulnerable regions of the psyche like an angry infection attacks nerve and muscle."

The journey Marsh took from this point led him through the lives of such people as German Lutheran martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer (about whom Marsh has written two books). Eventually Marsh found his way to professional help and discovered a way of coping with his anxieties that allowed him to keep the core of his Christian faith. In the end, he makes "a case for the theological integrity of psychoanalysis."

What did Marsh finally receive when he got the treatment he needed? "I received," he writes, "the gift of mortal life: the freedom to be imperfect, to have fears and face them, to accept brokenness, to let go of the will to control all outcomes."

Marsh reveals an extraordinary amount of personal information in this memoir -- the effect of which is to make the story all the more believable. People of any faith struggling with mental illness can find a path toward hope in this book. And that hope may, as it did for Marsh, lead to some level of healing.

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Rabbi James Rudin spent part of his early career in Kansas City and occasionally has returned as a speaker. So lots of Kansas Citians should be interested that Rudin, now 87, has just published a new book about efforts by him and others to promote interreligious dialogue and cooperation. It's called The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes and Presidents. As the RNS story to which I've linked you notes, Rudin spent much of his career at the American Jewish Committee, retiring as its national interreligious affairs director in 2000. I haven't yet read the book but am looking forward to doing so.


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