Approximate time frames: 2002-2009, also 2015-2016
Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.
Keywords: generalised anxiety disorder, psychology, Pentecostalism, superstition, occult, God, Bible, violence, Black Saturday bushfires, climate change, books, minimalism, decluttering, fiction, Young Earth Creationism.
It’s winter in Melbourne, Australia. The chill air seems to have been swept straight across from the Antarctic plateau. I wiped condensation off the cold windows this morning and had to wring out the towel a few times, it was so damp. As I type, my cold-numb fingers struggle across the keyboard. The air is 10.9°C (51.6°F) but it feels colder than that, damp and heavy.
Something about being indoors for the winter propels me to clean. It’s not really a mystery. In the dark and gloom of winter having the house feel fresh and warm is a wonderful deterrent against the predictable depression that sets in when there is only 9 ½ hours of daylight, a pallid kind of sunshine that barely lifts above the northern horizon.
I know other parts of the world get much less sunshine in their winters, but I am inclined to agree with commentators who note that Australian housing and lifestyle is really poorly designed when it comes to our enormous climatic fluctuations. (References 1, 2.) For those of us in the south, the extremes are pretty hard on the body: Melbourne’s records range from –2.8°C (26.96°F) in July 1869, to 46.4°C (115.52°F) in February 2009. (3) That February 2009 heat wave was a living hell. 374 people died from the four-day heatwave (4); 173 people were killed by the subsequent fires that tore through the highly flammable state forests (Eucalyptus trees burn like crazy) (5). Power outages ensued as everyone in the state tried to keep their air conditioners running. It was terrible and, for me, a powerful illustration of the fact that anthropogenic climate change is not referring to a simplistic notion of ‘global warming,’ but rather an increase in the destructive intensity of weather extremes (6). At the time heavily immersed in a Pentecostal community, there were, of course, the standard climate change-deniers who had to lean on supernatural explanations for the many deaths. Rather than considering the reality that human environmental destruction and pollution contributed to the dramatic and predicted shifts in the health of the climate, they decided it was God’s wrath for abortion (9). Interesting that the fire indiscriminately killed people regardless of their pro-life orientations or otherwise, including some terribly sad stories like one about a pregnant women who died while trying to flee the blaze (11), and that in Australia we’re not exactly the abortion capital of the world. (10) This vengeful, fire-starting, genocidal God isn’t exactly very pro-life, is He?
I digress. Winter cleaning for me means a mass purging of inanimate objects from my house. I have too much stuff. A lot of it is very nice stuff that makes my material existence far more enjoyable than it would be otherwise, but by and large I have swallowed the propaganda of minimalism (7) and decluttering (8).
One of the most profoundly difficult aspects of decluttering for me is books. I can happily shed a few kilograms in DVDs without a blip of emotion; except for, perhaps, frustration that I have so many DVDs for no reason at all (I am not a big television or film watcher), not to mention the bewilderment I have at possessing so many different format copies of Star Wars. I can throw out old clothes, useless utensils and linen without too much fuss. Music is a bit trickier for me but with the advent of legal means of online streaming it’s not as problematic if I throw out a CD or two, knowing that I can easily find that music on Spotify if I get desperate.
But books: therein lies the challenge.
And yet, one thing I’ve noticed since beginning the process of deconversion is that decluttering books about faith, written from a strongly Pentecostal perspective, has actually become a very cathartic part of the process.
Some days it’s triggering, too. It is hard to describe the mix of feelings it creates in me as I sort through books that have languished on my shelf for the last few years.
As I look at the latest wave of books that I will be discarding (some of which are shown here), I found myself becoming increasingly anxious as I sorted through them. These aren’t just nice ideas, a bit of advice to take or leave. For a time, these books represented a kind of Gospel truth to me. To question them would’ve been akin to heresy.
I bought them thinking they would give me the keys to living a life of victorious faith. Instead, the messages they contained, and those of similar books I read, became interwoven with the deepest fears in my life. They fed a kind of paranoia dressed-up in Jesus language.
For outsiders, and even happily balanced Pentecostals without tendencies towards catastrophism, these sorts of books may seem benign. They have someone’s ideas about God, how to live a decent moral life, ideas for keeping prayer interesting.
For someone like me, though, vulnerable to control and manipulation because of my mental illness and largely non-combative personality, these books presented to me an unquestionable authority regarding the very real presence of demons, angels, and Satan himself. It’s like a kind of New Age superstition, where even words took on an occult level of power. What you say affects the very fabric of existence. What you think is what you will receive. There are hints that judgement will involve God playing you a video-like recording of every bad thing you ever thought. Talk about an environment that allows for no hints of negativity! Even when such negativity would be a healthy response to problematic issues and trying circumstances. Prayer is active intercession. It has to be spoken aloud and, in the circles I moved in, it had to be according to the correct ‘formula’ (a bit like spell craft, perhaps). You had to repeatedly link it back to being ‘in Jesus’s name,’ or ‘by the power of the Holy Spirit, in Jesus’s name, to God the Father,’ and if you didn’t link the prayer to that and end it with a resounding ‘Amen,’ God may as well have not heard it. Now I know that a Pentecostal vehemently denies any connection with the occult – I did, too, insisting that speaking Jesus prayers (the Prayer of Jabez was the Pentecostal formula when I joined up, followed shortly thereafter by The Purpose-Driven Life); but when I compare my personal experiences of NeoPaganism and my early years of Pentecostalism, I see a lot of overlap. There are many differences, of course (NeoPagans generally have more of a ‘live and let live’ mentality, where Pentecostals see themselves as warriors holding a light up to a dark world), but in the circles I moved in for a time, glossolalia became like spell craft. Words woven to bind and release. All manner of evils confronted by recitation of powerful words.
Inanimate objects became sources of fear. Heavy prayer was necessary before entering those most darkened hallowed spaces of the satanic: antique stores.
Purchased some old jewellery? Better pray over that lest it carries a curse. Moved into a new house? It will need a Holy Spirit-driven cleansing. I have prayed over my furniture lest a person with evil thoughts contaminated my couch’s fabric. When people then expressed a sense of relaxation when in my home, I took that as proof of the power of my prayers. The spiritual gift of hospitality had somehow settled in the walls of my house (and it had nothing to do with my cleaning the house, letting fresh air in, and The Husband’s wonderful cooking skills).
Now, I do suspect that on some level homes do take on a spiritual ‘vibe’ connected to the types of people that live there. I’m just highlighting that it can be taken to extremes – and in my case, it was taken to paranoid extremes.
Is there a person whose face makes you feel uncomfortable on some intangible and subconscious level? They’re probably a Witch, or worse, a Catholic!
Listening to music that sparks in you any emotion outside of awe towards the Lord? It’s probably got subversive satanic messages and symbolism recorded at subsonic levels. In fact, my husband was raised on that kind of unrelentingly superstitious Pentecostalism where music becomes the devil’s main vehicle of access into the human realm. The Husband was taught to search for hidden satanic messages by playing Led Zeppelin backwards (not even a joke!), and as I used to tell him – “You don’t need to go looking for secret pagan and occult ideas in Led Zeppelin – it’s right there. They didn’t exactly hide it.” [I love Led Zeppelin. This is not a critique of their music.]
Art is unacceptable unless it’s that mainstay of Pentecostal prophetic art I’ve seen over the years: the hand of God reaching down from clouds with doves and sunlight touching a sad person kneeling in brokenness. My own art, which tended towards Gothic themes, was of course just another platform for Satan.
The elaborate systems of categorizing differing levels of demon and spirit were a big part of my own introduction to Biblical Christianity. In retrospect, it seems to me that this notion of ‘Biblical’ Christianity almost seems like a joke. The Bible alludes to all manner of spiritual beings, and uses poetic language to describe historical figures in spiritual terms (the King of Tyre in Ezekiel 28 is taken as an unproblematic description of Satan, for example), but in all my many years of reading the Bible I became less and less convinced that the Scriptures in any way upheld these specific ideas. Notions of intergenerational curses, elaborately detailed hierarchies of demons, let alone the literally accepted stories of Satan’s fall from heaven. All natural disasters were opportunities to highlight the wrath of God. Oh yes, there are bits and pieces in the Bible, but to join them and force them into a kind of singular authoritative narrative seems to me to be a tenuous kind of link. But people like The Husband, he was raised with this as Gospel truth equal to the recorded narratives of the life of Christ. For him to question it was to question every authority figure that had ever beaten compliance into him.
It seemed that every building, plant, animal and person, let alone scented candles, science books, second-hand furniture, souvenir from an overseas holiday, or clothing with a macabre print, was a possible conduit for satanic entrance into one’s life. To allow the devil to get a foothold in one’s life was the beginning of the end.
Saved by grace through faith, indeed. Saved only as long as you pray over your grocery shopping lest Satan rode in on the back of your peanut butter. Saved as long as you pray when walking past that old lady in the purple dress lest she is a servant of Satan out to hex you for being a faithful Christ follower.
Now I look at some of the Christian books I’m throwing in the recycling bin I feel weary. The more benign books will go to the second hand store where people can buy them for cheap, along with all manner of cursed second hand jewellery, cursed shoes, cursed toys and Satanic conspiracies masquerading as cheap vinyl records on the $1 table. Some of these books represent abhorrent life advice that did very real damage to me, my family and my relationships.
They’re toxic, cruel, manipulative and suffocating. And I once ran Bible study groups based on these texts. I’m sure a lot of it felt comforting and useful at the time, as well as offering certainty, but with the power of hindsight I see a lot of the material as psychologically inept, cruel and irresponsible.
Once I ran several Bible studies on The Invisible War. Now as I skim-read it I find that the author’s descriptions of his spiritual warfare are near-identical to the symptoms of psychiatric disorders. Does that mean he’s lying? No – I think whatever he experienced was probably very physiologically real to him. He was interpreting it the best he could, through his own framework of understanding. It’s just that, well, his ‘spiritual attacks’ are suspiciously like the symptoms of anxiety disorder. I definitely understand the temptation to want to just pray it away rather than the process of getting professional help. After all, it’s in the nature of anxiety to be psychologically paralysed and unable to ask for help.
Unfortunately, for me, who has suffered mental illness most of my life, I took books like this to heart, and my health disintegrated as I ignored the physical warning signs and dismissed them as ‘spiritual warfare.’ To then put me in a context where everyone else more-or-less accepts the same ideas, and instead of suggestions of medical help for my debilitating panic attacks they would lay hands on me and pray instead. I was very, very sick, debilitated, and barely functioning for years and I believe a significant part of the delay in my obtaining help was my church community’s terrible lack of comprehension of mental health issues.
Refuting Evolution, again, one of many, many Young Earth Creationist books I used to convince myself of the believability of the Bible. I read and re-read and memorised books like this. I taught them to others. I Bible bashed the living daylights out of ‘lukewarm’ and ‘compromising’ believers who dared to suggest that the Genesis narratives were poetic mythos revealing God as Creator without needing it to be a literal historical record of the origins of life. YEC is not just a set of ideas, it becomes an all-consuming ideology that informs not only one’s scientific biases, but one’s political and sociological perspectives. Science becomes a battlefield of ‘evil’ Atheists versus faithful YEC Christians and ‘bad,’ compromising Old Earth Creationists.
Dr D Martyn Lloyd-Jones, whose books and tapes once filled me with joy and confidence, now leave me feeling like I settled for a strongly literalist, stern, black-and-white kind of faith. He was no doubt a brilliant mind and a brilliant preacher, a medical doctor who applied his scientific mind to the Bible, but now I find the books unsettling. Cold, even harsh.
Frank Peretti – a wonderful novelist, but in the confines of the Christian genre it seems to me his writing is limited to upholding a very specific set of Biblical interpretations. His novels are interesting and entertaining, but they also uphold a view that humanity mostly consists of a bunch of puppets being controlled by Satan. In the novels I read, demons need hardly any leeway to gain control of a human. Meditation and silent prayer, yoga, being a hippy, being a biologist, being a Uniting Church member, all of these gateways for Satan. And it’s taken as so obvious that they don’t even warrant explanation. The scientist in Monster is a madman and Atheist, one who cruelly tampers with the genetic code of primates in an ultimately failed attempt to prove evolution is true. The angels, meanwhile, can only intervene if a human with the correct kind of faith prays. Now I actually really like Peretti’s writing style and imaginative prose and supernatural fiction. I just can’t take the worldview he presents as Truth with a capital T. Yet, The Husband used Frank Peretti books to great effect when he first tried to convert me. And it worked.
Those novels terrified me into compliance.
Dr Ravi Zacharias books – oh my. What a minefield daring to suggest anything less than wholehearted acceptance of his highly intelligent and thoughtful books. My apologetics-loving friends whisper his name with a kind of awed reverence. I attended apologetics training seminars run by his ministry, too. I was an all-out apologetics nerd. I read and discussed my way into Christian faith through reason, philosophy and thoughtfulness. I was a huge Ravi fan. He even spoke a couple of times at my old church and a talk he gave there was one of the last times I was truly moved by anything I heard in that church. So don’t get me wrong. Thoughtful, rational Christians are so necessary and he is a good one. So why are his books leaving my house along with others (his will go to the second hand store where maybe someone else will benefit from them)? It’s the violent anecdotes. Over and over I found his writing distressing and I think what gets me is this use of violent stories to convey Christianity as ‘the Way, the Truth and the Life.’
And that’s another phenomenon to ponder for another time. While agreeing that graphically sexual and pornographic films are problematic, and that for devout Christians they are not really appropriate (while acknowledging that my faith gives me no right to control the actions of other fully consenting adults)- why was it always okay for Christians to watch some of the most abhorrent violence? Why could we be subjected to the most cruel true stories of man against man from the pulpit, but when some Jesus-believing single and celibate gay people started attending church services all hell broke loose? Is that just me, being the hyper-sensitive anxious type whose mental condition literally includes an inability to process violent images without having a panic attack? Or is it reasonable to ask why a God of Love hates films that imply sex but glories in the righteous violence of everything from Gladiator to Left Behind?
Now, I don’t (at this time) reject the notion of the supernatural. I still believe in the possibility of there being a spirit realm that may engage with our physical universe in ways that can only currently be described in the languages of religion, mythos and superstition. I use the teachings of Jesus Christ to shape and inform my understanding of this realm. I participate in Christian fellowship. I still read the Scriptures with other believers. In my spare time I often listen to preaching, audio Bibles, and Christian religious music.
However, the intense and overwhelming kind of Pentecostalism I practiced for a time was no less than all-consuming, fear-driven paranoia. It was not a balanced part of a holistic life.
One wrong move and you’d be lost for all eternity. You’d burn in God’s relentless hellfire. But it’s your fault for rejecting him. It’s basically God as the narcissistic and abusive spouse. If you don’t love Him back by complying with all His demands, He’ll not only hurt you, He’ll kill your loved ones, your soulless and irredeemable pets, and a whole bunch of complete strangers through heatwaves, bushfires, and cold snaps.
Do I still believe in God? Yes, I do. For now. But as I journey on I can’t help but think that the meaning I ascribe to the word ‘God’ is very different to the one I followed in my Pentecostal years. And as I try to shed the psychological trauma of following such a God, decluttering the books I took as Gospel in those days becomes a cathartic act of healing. No more will I stand by and let those ideologies consume my life with fear, paranoia and anxiety.
Published: 6 June 2016
References – all links accessed 6 June, 2016.
(1) http://www.theage.com.au/comment/australian-houses-are-just-glorified-tents-in-winter-20150608-ghj2ox.html – ‘Australian houses are just glorified tents in winter,’ The Age. 11 June 2015. Quote: “According to a new study published in medical journal The Lancet, cold contributed to about 3.9 per cent of deaths in Sweden, but 6.5 per cent in Australia.”
(2) http://architectureau.com/articles/australias-poor-housing-contributing-to-cold-related-deaths/ – ‘Australia’s poor housing contributing to cold-related deaths,’ Architecture AU. 21 July 2015.
(3) http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/averages/tables/cw_086071_All.shtml – ‘Climate statistics for Australian locations.’
(8) Peter Walsh (2007). It’s all too much: an easy plan for living a richer life with less stuff. New York: Free Press.
(9) http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/news/national/abortion-to-blame-for-fires-pastor/2009/02/10/1234028017844.html – ‘Abortion to blame for fires: Pastor.’ Brisbane Times. 10 February 2009.