Wandering the Spiritual Desert

This page is a work in progress. New articles and writings will be added as time and creative energy permits.

20160530sassetta

‘St Anthony the Abbott in the Wilderness,’ Sassetta, circa 1435. [Image Source, References]

This painting is one that I first saw as a high school visual arts student, in the late 1990s. I could study it for hours, and made many attempts to copy its style. I don’t have the language to adequately describe it, nor how or why it grabbed my attention: oppressive, barren, apocalyptic, hopeful. The lone travelling saint in the vast wilderness. In Christian mysticism, notions of ‘wilderness,’ ‘wasteland,’ and ‘desert’ are used as metaphors for a spiritual life that seems dead, or empty. There are many Biblical metaphors for how one might find streams of ‘living water’ in such a desert.

Over the years I have drawn heavily on this streams and desolations concept (oh look, that’s literally what I called my blog!) and as I wrote in October 2014:

Streams speak to me of Living Water, of a place of life and growth.

Desolations speak to me of the Dark Night of the Soul, of the spiritual wilderness that is both difficult and necessary, of learning to have faith in God even when it seems He cannot be found.

As I write this now (May 2016), I no longer know how to define my faith. Sometimes “Christian” seems adequate… At least, it used to be adequate. However, more and more I find that simple labels defy the complexities and nuances of a deeply personal reflexive journey, the years of shed tears and anguished prayers and struggle, the groping for God in the dark night of the soul, the years of seeking and searching through different types of faith and, significantly, the almost-fourteen years I spent as an active member of a nondenominational Pentecostal megachurch community. I had eighteen years more-or-less happily Catholic (the struggles I faced were not church-related); a few years exploring Atheism and NeoPaganism, only to convert in my early-20s to my husband’s lifelong Pentecostal faith.

As I come out the other side of Pentecostalism, spiritually battered, and psychologically damaged, feeling as though the experience sucked the very life out of existence, I find myself trying to put into words what I went through.

In my own experiences, Catholicism and Paganism were predominantly positive belief systems with a strong sense of personal autonomy in spiritual decision making, safe space for creativity and freedom of thought, an acceptance of science, a healthy skepticism towards conspiracy theories, and (usually) supportive communities that prioritised people over dogma. However, my interactions with Pentecostalism were often so dysfunctional that I wonder how I survived as long as I did in that environment.

If and when I feel capable of sharing a little of my journey, I will compile it here. I will not write it chronologically, though I will attempt to arrange the contents here in roughly chronological order.

This page may be deleted at any time without notice by the author. I am still uncertain as to whether or not to share these anecdotes.


I don’t want to have to write a disclaimer at the start of every single post. This disclaimer will apply to all of my posts on this site, and should also be taken for granted as a starting point for any comments I make in comment threads on any website, whatsoever, where relevant. These might change over time as I learn more and refine my views.

  • Names, identifying details and specifics are omitted. People who have shared this journey with me may recognize some of the anecdotes from past conversations; but I am not naming names. Nor am I trying to suggest that any of the persons involved acted illegally.
  • It is enough to say that I attended a non-denominational Pentecostal megachurch in Victoria, Australia. Despite some major similarities, it is not a part of the Assemblies of God in Australia (Australian Christian Churches), which I mention because people often seem to assume it was AOG/ACC in discussion threads about Australian churches outside of the mainline traditions.
  • I believe that individuals ought to be free to explore their own spiritual decision making (though within psychologically and sociologically healthy parameters). This means that I fully support my friends who, having reflected upon it carefully, feel that Christianity and Pentecostalism is a good religion for them. However, in balance, I believe that it is also important to highlight, critique and (best case scenario) change unhealthy social dynamics in religious systems. Conversely, in the face of unchanging dogmatic systems that will not budge, people need to be able to receive appropriate support in the extremely challenging process of leaving a toxic religious environment. For many of us, this support came from stumbling across the websites and blogs and books of those who had gone before us and demonstrated that there is life after toxic faith. While I cannot provide practical support, advice or decision making for others, perhaps in hearing my story it will help them to express their own story.
  • I am not trying to convert other people to my own belief system. I wouldn’t even know what I’m trying to convert people to, if I were. Today it might be evangelical universalism, tomorrow it could be Catholicism, next week it could be Celtic Christianity with Jesus as the Druid-Shaman symbol of death and resurrection. I won’t assert a view until I’ve had more time to thoroughly read and ponder it. I’m still working it out for myself. My adolescent-level dualistic certainty about religion has given way to a more mystic approach that sees Christianity as far broader than the narrow little space it was for me for far too many years. My beliefs are ever-shifting and malleable, with a willingness on my behalf to carefully examine them. This is not, I must stress, a kind of moral relativism. I am a critical realist: I believe that there are core truths that exist, I’m just conscious that my own limited perspective and the limitations of  language mean that to dogmatically assert my self-referential truths as universal is just begging to be contradicted. I’d much rather humbly suggest that here is what I currently believe, here is why I believe it, without assuming that somehow I have a complete grip on all of Reality. I still adhere to the normal faith tenets of Trinitarian Christianity, love, hope and peace, and am greatly influenced by the writings of the early Christian church and Christian mystics. I also do not self-define as a ‘progressive Christian.’ Of course, if other people are progressive Christians again, I have no desire to convert them away from this, and we do have much in common, but having read widely on the topic I can say that I am not a part of that movement.
  • When I critique religion, I am usually talking about the dysfunctional, socially unhealthy, patriarchal, manipulative, financially exploitative, cultish, hyper-emotional &/or emotion-denying systems that uncritically uphold Biblical literalism, or “Bibliolatry”, and who often couple this with conspiracy theories about so-called “agendas” of an imagined anti-Christian collective that allegedly seek to operate in conjunction with a literal Satan to shut down all forms of Christian worship.
  • I also understand that for a lot of us, when we are in the midst of toxic religion, it is hard to imagine that our own church is the unhealthy one. That’s something that happens to other churches, not ours. In fact, that was a running joke in my old church: the pastors would make a criticism of a negative Christian stereotype, say, being rude to wait staff in a restaurant, or being an impatient and dangerous driver, then say, “But of course that’s no one in this church.” And everyone would laugh and smile and bask in the glow of knowing we weren’t like all those second-rate all-talk-no-walk Christians. Then we’d head out to the chaos of the church car park, where it’s no exaggeration to suggest it was probably miraculous that no one got run over by a car, and then go out for dinner only to make life difficult for restaurant staff by asking them to make extra table space for twenty rude Christians who just left church only for these Christians to wait until the tables were moved and then decide to eat somewhere else and have a laugh about it (I am thinking of specific occasions on which this occurred and how embarrassing the post-church crowd was when they descended on the local restaurants, and how I hated those moments I found myself profusely apologising to restaurant staff for the churlish actions of my brothers-and-sisters-in-Christ). But of course, we weren’t the bad Christians. That was always the church down the road, right?!
  • What I write will likely not be suitable for people who are happy within their belief system – particularly Pentecostals. That is, if you’re a committed Pente who is happily involved in your church; it gives you a sense of hope; you feel connected to your congregation; if you are able to make your financial ends meet after tithing; if the pastors treat you with kindness and understand that there is more to your life than volunteering in ministry and that your family and career and rest times are important; if your spiritual needs are met; and you are also exhorted to care for those who need Jesus-centred light and hope; and your faith is helping you break down racial and socioeconomic barriers and encouraging you to think on the higher things of life; then that’s great. Seriously. I have no desire to take positive religion away from people. However, the thing is, what I write will possibly be incomprehensible to happy Pentecostals. It’ll fall on dead ears. I was like that, once, before the cracks in my worldview started to appear. I wasn’t able to begin to critique the system that bound me until after the damage became externally visible to my own eyes, in the metaphorical sense. Prior to that, criticisms from ex-Pentecostals and outsiders felt like verbal assault, not helpful feedback. As a Pente I was trained to interpret all criticism, no matter how reasonable, as satanic attack. I would even pray over my university text books that the sociology studies wouldn’t lead me away from Christ, I was just so scared of hearing bad feedback. I understand how tricky it is trying to hear reasonable advice from people you’ve been trained to think of as “unsaved.”
  • Many of my friends are still happily heavily involved in Pentecostalism and in no way do I want to attack that. This is me recounting my journey. My negative experiences do not invalidate other people’s positive experiences. And vice versa. For those friends and family who know that I have left the church, and who I will tell in no uncertain terms why I left if they ask (though surprisingly few have bothered to ask), I hope they understand that I do not desire to attack their own narrative and experiences of the church. I also understand that their perspective and interpretation of events may differ markedly from mine. In the end, I can only be true to my own experiences and narrative.
  • I don’t think it is helpful to engage in the typically fundamentalist way of re-defining and altering the normal expected meanings of words. I know that for a fundie trying to win an argument, “Church” means very specifically the entire body of all saved believers in Christ regardless of socio-historical context, and that true Church members live in a Christ-like fashion, and somehow that excuses all the evil done in the name of Christianity… but in general I will write with the plain English meaning of such terms (“church” as a collective of Christian people who worship together, and the building in which such activities take place), and will try to define more specific terms where necessary. Similarly, I use “religion” as short hand to refer to any system for approaching God and interacting with fellow believers, not “religion” as a critical term in the Pentecostal sense, which often uses “religion” to mean “a self-deluding and overly-ritualistic lack of saving relationship with God.”
  • In sharing my perspective, I am not proposing a universal truth. I am not trying to make a blanket statement or rule. I am not saying, “ALL Pentecostals are…” This human impulse towards dichotomous extremes is probably my biggest pet peeve when it comes to interacting online. At its best, the Internet is a beautiful unifying tool that transcends cultural barriers and enables people to subvert the controlling narratives of powerful social structures by reaching out to our supposed enemies and in so doing discover our shared humanity. I think of Humans of New York as a fine example of the power of the Internet as a tool for peacemaking in a social climate that encourages scapegoating and hate towards “others”. But the internet, especially on religion forums, too easily descends into a space of false dualism: us vs them. My story vs your story. My religion vs your religion. Where is the space for silence, subtlety and compassion in that? I do not pit myself against Pentecostalism, but rather seek to share my own experiences of the dysfunctional aspects of some subsets of Pentecostalism.
  • My own experiences of Pentecostalism were complicated by a variety of factors:
    • my own then-undiagnosed mental illness, which left me vulnerable to indoctrination and manipulation, coupled with that church’s active mistrust of proper psychiatric and psychological treatment;
    • the church’s reliance on ‘Christian counselling,’ prayer and deliverance ministry as preferable methods of managing mental illness symptoms;
    • my being introduced to the church by people I now observe possess the hallmark behavioural traits of narcissistic personality disorder, and the actions that followed as they used my interest in their religion to begin the process of narcissist scapegoating and control, including their actively isolating me from my non-Pentecostal family and friends, and their eventual micromanaging of nearly every aspect of my life;
    • the fact that it was my husband’s home church and as a newlywed wife eager to support him I wanted to learn more about his beliefs, as he was so rigidly committed to them;
    • I should add that The Husband’s own journey led him out of Pentecostalism at around the same time as me, though his experiences were different, from his perspective as a survivor of ACE schooling, with a lifetime of strict indoctrination, as well as (I believe) his filling the role of scapegoat in a context of religious clinical narcissists, religious child maltreatment (religiously-motivated child abuse), and the subsequent journey he’s faced trying to accept that his upbringing was really not normal as far as Australian children born in the 1980s would have typically experienced (for most of us corporal punishment was a relic of a bygone era, unthinkable to our schools, whereas for my husband it was a regular reality for him in a school that emphasised self-directed learning in silence with no space for normal high-energy children), as well as his admirable successes in spite of these hardships, and the dogged intensity of his INTJ personality type that was so starved in an environment that feared autonomous thinking, so that while I may refer negatively to some of his religious influence on me, in the end I see him as an unwitting pawn in someone else’s spiritual games, and he is now my key ally in our shared journey out of toxic religion;
    • the struggles I face in my own life that, for a time, seemed easier to bear with the support of an ostensibly helpful church;
    • my positive experiences of Catholicism which led me to wrongly assume that all Christianity would more-or-less be similarly positive, and this included my sending my children to the church-run Christian school on the incorrect assumption that they would have a happy and positive and good quality education like I did in Catholic school – I could not have imagined that our involvement with that over-priced school over the course of the next six years would be such a spectacularly horrendous experience;
    • the fact that I met many wonderful, kind, intelligent and educated people in the church, which gave me the sense it was not a fringe religion, because such smart and thoughtful people surely wouldn’t be converted to an unhealthy religion;
    • my need for stability and certitude in the light of my difficult life, which I now realise is a normal adolescent and young adult developmental phase, but which can be exploited and rendered permanent by the strictures of fundamentalist religion;
    • the way the church fed on our fears to keep us compliant, discouraged reasonable questioning through cries for unity, and how the church tore to shreds any media coverage so that when on rare occasions they were named in the media, they would assume it was an attack;
    • and the fact that no one, that I can recall, of my friends or family, spoke out when they saw the strange shifts in my personality that occurred after joining the church. While dealing with cult adherents is hard, it is also hard to realise in hindsight that a number of my extended family of origin spoke about me in concerned tones behind my back, and some even thought I’d joined a cult, but not one of them asked me if I was really the one making crazy and unprecedented life decisions, or if someone else was making those decisions for me – things like quitting university, throwing out most of my book and music collection, changing my outward appearance, no longer wearing make up nor paying attention to my hair (some churches teach that personal grooming is a hallmark of shallow faith, though later on I realised that the church I joined had myriad views on the topic of women’s physical appearances and it was the religious narcissists most concerned with me toning down my ‘slutty’ appearance), moving to a completely different part of the state to be close to church even though I had no means of transport and no close family connections, the very out-of-character act of enrolling my children in a school that practiced corporal punishment up until the moment it was made illegal in the state, my suddenly spouting anti-science conspiracies from age 21 and through my 20s despite my once being a keen science geek… the list goes on. I will try to touch on these in future writings.

In the end, I am writing these stories not to lay blame, nor to demand justice, but to engage in some much-needed catharsis as I try to process what I went through.

I will update this page with links to my writings as necessary. I am keeping it off the main blog because I want to keep this blog’s focus on my creative writing and art.

Comments are closed because of a number of reasons I’ve already listed elsewhere on this site. I make no apologies for not having the time, patience nor interest in trying to appease every single reader ever. I don’t think anyone can ever reasonably be expected to write something that pleases everyone.

Any posts I write on leaving Pentecostalism are targeted at these two audiences:

  1. People who are sympathetically interested in autobiographical anecdotes about how people get involved with and /or leave religion. If you are reading just to be angry, skeptical or feel betrayed and offended, to phrase it concisely, go read something else. Even better, write your own blog about how perfect your church is and how no one ever dissents and no one questions the pastors and how there’s endless blessings and perfect healings and accurate prophecies and how it’s so beautifully joyful that everyone is embraced with the love of Christ. There is a huge audience out there for blogs like that; but mine is not one of those sorts of blogs.
  2. People who are currently in Christian churches and starting to ask questions, and acknowledge their own cognitive dissonance surrounding dysfunctional behaviours in church. I don’t talk about other types of religions (except for touching on NeoPaganism in an observational but non-antagonistic way) as I do not know enough about other belief systems to have an informed opinion.

None of what I share is to be taken as advice. I am no expert, just a fellow traveller on this journey of life. My training is in sociology, but that in no way qualifies me to define and manage any one else’s reality or actions for them. If you suspect you are experiencing mental illness symptoms, please see an appropriately qualified and accredited mental health doctor, psychologist or psychiatrist for assistance on managing your condition. If you feel that it might be something about your church community that is causing mental health symptoms for you, again while I am not offering advice, you may want to consider not seeing your church’s counselors or pastors for therapeutic assistance – especially if they are not accredited mental health experts.

In sharing the fact that my own experiences haven’t always been great, and highlighting for the umpteenth time that I’m not trying to demonise other people, this Anne Lamott quote seems apt:

 


BOOKS AND ARTICLES THAT I HAVE FOUND HELPFUL

BLOG POSTS ON STREAMS & DESOLATIONS RELATING TO THIS TOPIC

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL VIGNETTES ON MY JOURNEY INTO AND OUT OF PENTECOSTALISM


Page created: Monday,  30 May 2016

Last updated: 30 May 2016

One comment

Comments are closed.