Friday, 11 September 2015

A Question of Identity

If reading my book or my blog challenges or messes with your self-image and identity a bit, I feel your pain.  Writing it and hearing people's responses do much the same thing to me.

When you speak out like I do about a human system, some people treat you (and speak of and about you) as if you were a victim.  Am I a victim?  A Brethren person born into a Brethren assembly to two Brethren parents, who had the whole Brethren lifestyle (the no TV, no movies, no overnights with worldly people, the no Christmas decorations, Halloween costumes and so on and so on) and then got treated unjustly?  Who was taught rules and shame but experienced very little of love and acceptance, grace, mercy and forgiveness?  Didn't enjoy the youth stuff or fit in?  Got ostracised systematically from youth social stuff and the dating pool, to then be treated coldly, viciously and shabbily in his youth by people who are now well-known to have done that and worse to any number of other people?  Who has never since been able to so much as openly date women from his own culture?
    So now, when I speak out, am I bravely, eloquently and humorously sharing my experience, and getting shut down by nay-sayers and people who need to protect the PR, the image, the self-esteem of what remains of the TW Plymouth Brethren movement worldwide?  Upsetting people who love darkness rather than light because their ecclesiastical dealings are more than a bit dubious?  So, as this "victim" I'm of great help and encouragement to all of the other "victims" who thought they were the only one?  And to those who thought they were one of only a few, when in fact we are legion?  
     Is it an act of love for all of the many, many people struggling through situations similar enough to derive comfort and help from reading about my experience?  Is it an act of loving and serving God, with me outlining what a renewed focus and understanding of love looks like, despite severe detriments to that very thing in my upbringing and current standing with my birth culture?

Or is it the opposite?  Am I the son of a known trouble-maker at Meeting, abrasively, coldly causing trouble just like my abrasive, cold father did?  Someone who never really attended meeting very regularly in his adult life and started right in going to movies and concerts, drinking socially and playing rock and roll music in bars not long after he moved out from his parents'?  
     Someone who can't get along with people and simply thrives on conflict?  Someone who is always obsessively making bitter, spiteful, perverse things with apparently no purpose other than to hurt the people who hurt him?
   Someone who left the Gathered Saints in spirit long before, the excommunication of whom was, at that point, a formality, really.  Someone who did not fit and was generally a fount of negativity, and who continues to be a fount of negativity, which goes a long way toward justifying the wisdom and necessity of his excommunication?  
     Someone who, as an outsider, creeps in stealthily from time to time and spies out and reveals unfortunate Brethren things which really ought to be kept hid, in the name of love and mercy and a Christian spirit?  A traitor and betrayer of his own people, an intruder and wolf among the sheep, who needs to be stopped?

Am I a good person doing a good thing or a bad, dangerous, crazy person doing a bad, dangerous, crazy thing?

Am I both?  Neither?  

I think I'll go with neither.  Because t's much more complicated than that. It almost always is.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Sex is a Tough One

Talking with various Christian women about the Josh Duggar thing and learning more than I wanted to about it from Facebook links and discussion got me thinking.  Sex is its own special level of human.  You can be part of a college society or church culture or movement, and decide ambitiously that what's going on in the world, in terms of sex, has got to change, stop or be revisited. You can do that.  You can make t-shirts and have a slogan, but something soon becomes very clear: sex is a deep, deep part of people's identity.  It's not just beliefs.  It's not just ethics.  It's who people are.

I think if I draw a lesson from the Josh Duggar scandal, it's that whether you're living a pious looking life for God or just wanting to look Christian for other people looking on, and as part of your own self-image, makes all the difference.  And I think you might not know how much of the former is missing, without some very real soul searching.  Do you keep yourself from being messed up inside, or does Christ?  Are we "normal" until we indulge ourselves in secret perversions, or are we born and raised with dark stuff in us that needs to be redeemed by God, quite beyond anything we can do or vow or be?

Does Christianity mainly give you a human system with a whole lot of rules to help you maintain a (false) image of superior purity?  Or do you know Christ and does he know you?  Is it a relationship or a role?  Is it something that grows out of your heart, or is it a shirt you put on each morning, to look decent and successful, and feel good about yourself?

I guess what I tend to do when faced with Fundamentalists Gone Wrong situations like Josh Duggar (and of course not all Fundamentalists go wrong), is I contrast the fundamentalist culture with the one most people grew up in, to see the differences.  (The main difference of course, is in what each one claims.)

Of course some kids raised with no real religion in their lives grow up to become sexually depraved people too, but I think it might be good (though deeply disturbing) to see what kind of a "spin" the fundamentalist upbringing puts on these kinds of human beings, all the while claiming to be producing more spiritual people than the irreligious homes are.  The irreligious homes claim, at best, to be trying to raise kids who are "normal."  The religious homes claim so much more.

I think most would agree that males being powerfully drawn to see and touch female bodies is pretty normal.  Healthy, some would even say.  Less worrying than the alternative.  However, many people would say that someone like Josh Duggar started out pure and innocent, and then got led astray and corrupted by pornography or a twisted attitude about women.  I would disagree and say that like everyone, Josh Duggar started out with less than ideal stuff in the dark recesses of his psyche, right from the beginning, and that to most looking on now, it really doesn't look like Christ was at work in him, fixing all that up.  In over twenty years, anyway, he hasn't stopped hurting people.  And his Christianity seems to have been more of a shield, a fresh coat of gleaming whitewash on a tomb full of rot, than something which healed and helped him.

I was raised a fundamentalist Christian kid, with just as many rules and as much structure, and I didn't end up like Josh Duggar.  This isn't down to me being better at keeping rules, or not being messed up in my teens.  I can see only one answer: I believe that throughout my life, Christ has been at work, tinkering with the dark stuff in my subconscious.  Making it into light.  But hearing about Josh Duggar makes me imagine how his life trajectory differed from mine.  It's a very dark thing to think about.

What I want you to do, if you read this, is look for Christ in all this.  The fundamentalist kid I will envision has his life filled to the very brim with what could only be described as "Christian activity." Evangelical stuff.  But look for Jesus as an active agent in things and you don't see him.  He's more of a mascot.  Look for love and you don't see it.  Not really.  Look for someone "doing all the Christian stuff" and you have no trouble.  But look for fruit of redemption, and you have a different task entirely.  Look for someone keeping an awful lot of rules and you'll see that.  Look for someone who is motivated by love for God and others, and it's quite a different story.

For the purposes of this troubling thought exercise, I'm going to call the top-flight fundamentalist kid "Jorah" and the kid with no particular religious upbringing "Tanner."  We're going to say that Tanner's folks are kind of Baptist, but don't really go to church except (sometimes) on Christmas and Easter.  Tanner is not being raised to be specially Christian.  His family just wants him to grow up to be reasonably healthy and happy.  Normal.  Jorah, by contrast, is being raised to be a kind of Christian far more dedicated even than anyone from their church.  We're going to say that Jorah not only goes to between three and six church-related activities per week, but also hears the bible read (and presented as evidence that his family's lifestyle is the only correct one) after supper every single day.

Jorah is also supposed to read a chapter of the bible every morning, and often he does, interpreting it in the light of what he hears several times weekly from the mouths of older men in his church group.  He prays when he wakes up, before each meal, and before bed.  Mostly he prays that God will help him keep the rules.  He prays that his "daily walk" look Christian enough.  He asks that others might be encouraged to become Christians, by seeing how he lives and how happy he is.

The favourite topics of discussion during church and surrounding it in Jorah's week are how perverted America is getting, with abortions on the rise, same-sex marriage being legalized by the Democrats, and the creeping horrors of pop music, the Internet, movies and videogames, and how this is all a consequence of the scriptural roles for men and women having been abandoned.  Women are trying to be men, they groan, and men are often expected to be subservient to women.  Some men are even turning into women!  The proper role of women is to raise a house full of healthy Christian babies. Sadly, in modern homes, there's nobody home.  Dad's at work and so is Mom.  We're leaving schoolteachers the job of parenting our kids.

Jorah's mom is always at home.  And she parents all of her numerous kids.

Across town, in a somewhat more modest house, and with only the two kids, Tanner's mom has a part-time job. They need the money. Tanner reaches puberty, having always noticed his parents laughing at slightly off-colour jokes on TV, and with the understanding that sex is one of the most pleasurable things human beings do, and the most natural.  Sex is normal, it's just something for adults.  Something private, but for everyone.  He knows that the world has guys and girls in it, and that when he approaches his teenage years, Tanner can expect to find himself feeling very natural and healthy attraction to (most likely) members of the opposite sex.

When Tanner's laundry shows signs of the advent of his puberty, his mother rolls her eyes and says "You're going to be out dating all the girls soon!" and Tanner's dad sits him down and explains that sex and attraction to members of the opposite sex (or maybe even the same sex?) are very normal.  That dating is fun.  That he's a good-looking kid and can get girlfriends, if he learns to be charming and dress well.  Tanner is taught repeatedly that girls can do anything that boys can do, and that society is working very hard to try to ensure that men and women are treated the same.  At school, Tanner is told about contraception and learns far more about male and female human reproductive anatomy than he is really interested to pass tests upon.

At home, Tanner's dad gets teased about having a deep crush on Angelina Jolie, watching even her very worst movies over and over.  If sex scenes come on the TV while Tanner is in the room, things get perhaps a bit awkward and quiet until they pass.  Often Tanner's mom defuses that mood with jokes at Ms. Jolie or whomever's expense.  Tanner is taught to expect that he can look forward, when he is ready, to dancing with young girls his age, and that kissing, dating, fooling around and all of that, are inevitabilities for him.  

Jorah, across town, reaches puberty, having always noticed his parents looking embarrassed or turning off the TV if there are even slightly off-colour jokes or suggestions of sexual activity on it, and with the understanding that sex is one of the deadliest, most inviting traps for Christians, in terms of making bad choices and messing up their lives.  Mostly the family watches Disney movies and Christian DVDs to avoid corrupting content.

The world has guys and girls in it, and Jorah is warned that as he approaches his teenage years, he can expect to find himself feeling frighteningly strong, hard-to-control attraction to (hopefully!) members of the opposite sex.  And he has to fight those urges.  Kill them.  With Christianity.  Because Jorah will not be dating or fooling around with or marrying anyone who doesn't share his beliefs, of course.  And he has to wait for marriage to kiss or fool around or dance with girls.  And the way those girls dress uptown...!  Making guys suffer with their male burdens.

When Jorah's laundry shows signs of the advent of his puberty, his mother talks to him about how girls have so many ways to trick and entice young Christian men, and he has to stay away from those girls and obey God. She explains that men cannot say no to sex like women can, and so the only solution is to never look at anything sexually stimulating, nor be alone with any girls, ever.  Especially dirty girls who are looking to entice him with the loaded weapons of their powerful sexuality.  Tanner's dad sits him down and explains that sex and attraction to members of the opposite sex are the most troubling things Christian men have to face.  He repeats his wife's message about men not being able to say no to sex, and keeps repeating "Men are like animals.  Sex is an animal urge.  We can't control it.  We have to be very careful we're never in a position where we need to say no, because we can't trust our flesh to obey us when we do."

Jorah is taught repeatedly that it is the role of the man to be the head of the home, and that females obey, first fathers and brothers and church men, and then later, their husbands.  (Jorah is home-schooled, and due to the particular parents he has, the above lectures are the extent of his sexual education. He certainly has no suspicion that something called a "clitoris" exists, or that women have orgasms too.  His sisters are taught that husbands demand sex, so if wives want babies, they need to lie there and think of something else until he's done.  Otherwise they won't be able to keep him.)

Jorah's dad hopes no one comments on his watching Angelina Jolie's very worst movies over and over.  If anyone is in the room, he always skips any sex scenes or even ones with kissing, but then when he is alone, he goes back and rewatches those scenes over and over.  Jorah has caught his father doing this.  Jorah knows that he can certainly never dance with young girls his age, and prays earnestly that kissing, dating, fooling around and all of that, are things that, he will manage to steer clear of.  Dating is for lesser people who aren't living to please God.

Jorah has been taught that he has to wait for God to provide him a wife.  And God will. By 25, with any luck. Jorah's a clean-living, bible-reading guy.  So, of course God will.

In Jorah's culture, everyone gets married quite young, it seems.  (Well, everyone worth mentioning. There's no telling with weird people, of course...)  Jorah and his contemporaries are told that this spousal delivery is God honouring their Christian walks.  More cynical folk might claim that, just as Tanner's mom made sure that every single time he put a tooth under his pillow, that it got replaced with money, and every time he left cookies for Santa, they got eaten, that Jorah's culture makes sure that almost no one makes it to twenty-five without a spouse.  There are youth events and teen camps.  There is even a camp for people over 25 who haven't found anyone.  It's an infrastructure created for that purpose.  But when Jorah's culture decides that a young person has likely been not walking a very Christian path, something else happens.  Sometimes Jorah's culture makes absolutely certain that people's kids do not so much as date or ride alone in the car with that offending young person, who is no longer welcome at youth events can just go to a less hard-core church for a spouse.

Across town, eleven year old Tanner is watching a lot of Megan Fox movies, as he has a crush on her.  Then he looks at pictures of naked women on the 'net.  His mother isn't pleased with this, and tells him that real women don't look like the ones in the pictures he's looking at.  But she is careful to say that males being interested in pictures of naked women is certainly understandable.  Tanner dances with girls in gym class at school when they learn square dancing, and at high school dances and parties, Tanner starts dating girls.  Mostly, the girls Tanner dates at first do not want to have sex, and Tanner's first romantic relationship, in grade 9, is pretty chaste.  Tanner gets crushes on various girls in high school, and goes through the usual giving of little compliments and flirting on social media and by grade 11, has fooled around a bit with two girls.  In grade 12, he gets a more serious girlfriend and they start having protected sex.  Their relationship lasts two months.  Tanner is heartbroken when the relationship falls apart, but then graduates high school and goes off the college, where he has a couple of one-night stands before meeting Amanda, the girl he will move in with.

The summer when he is nine, Jorah watches a lot of Megan Fox movies as well. At first.  Then he looks at pictures of naked women on the 'net.  His parents are seldom out of earshot, his younger sister tattles on him, and he is caught.  Jorah's mother cries bitter tears, asks God what she's done wrong as a mother, and tells Jorah that this is a very serious sin that he's fallen into.  Jorah loses Internet access for a month, and then stricter Internet blocking measures are put in place in the home.  Jorah understands that this is necessary because of his new-found, uncontrollable animal urges.  On a deep level, the idea that his urges as so dangerous and strong is a point of pride.  Jorah is told more and more franticly that he needs to take sexual sin more seriously, and that men are animals about sex, and that women who entice men using their sexuality are leading the men straight to hell.

Being homeschooled, On a weekly basis, Jorah sees only his younger sisters, and the few girls his age who attend his church.  Four of the girls at his church go to conventional school and two of the four are his cousins. Abigail, the other home-schooled girl, though 15, seems to have no concept of sexuality being "a thing" at all, and certainly has no interest in boys.  Abigail thinks Jorah is creepy.

Before she was married, Jorah's mother used to enjoy line-dancing, so she teaches Jorah how to line-dance with her in their living room, even signing him up for a few lessons uptown until she sees the girls who are in the class, and hears the lyrics of some of the songs danced to, and pulls Jorah out of the lessons immediately.  Jorah often flatters his mother by telling her she is his "girlfriend."

Since ten years of age, Jorah has been stealing his sisters' and his mother's underthings and hiding them in his sock drawer. When female cousins or friends of his younger sisters visit, Jorah often takes something from their luggage.  It is when he is studying the 10th grade materials from the Abeka curriculum that Jorah first starts touching his youngest sisters when they are sleeping. When they wake up, he threatens them with small threats, to make them be quiet.  He tells them that he is older, and he is a boy, so they will do what he says.  At age 16, Jorah gets a cell phone which he uses to surf the Internet, unsupervised, using wifi he surreptitiously picks up from the neighbour's home, which isn't blocked like the wifi in their own house.  Jorah has never experienced a girl wanting him to take an interest in her body, nor even seen depictions of this, and so in his fantasies and in his Internet browsing, the sexual scenarios he prefers tend to involve him touching and undressing sleeping, drugged or coerced young girls.  

At age 18, Jorah is still living at home.  He has taken several more high school courses than is necessary for graduation, and has started taking a few distance learning courses for college, but has not moved out nor attended a class at college.  He still occasionally touches his youngest sisters during the night, but has never penetrated them, as he is very conscious of preserving his own all-important virginity for marriage.  Jorah feels pangs of guilt over what he's doing with his youngest sisters and confesses what he has done to his father on two occasions.  His father prays with him and tells him God forgives him and not to do it again.  Neither tell Jorah's mother what is going on.  She knows and doesn't mention it, as she is trusting her husband to handle it and being in subjection to him.  Jorah is back doing it again a week later.

Jorah goes to a Christian camp and is introduced to a 16 year old girl named Jael who has been raised just like Jorah has.  She has a brilliant smile and perfect teeth.  Their courtship lasts four months.  One night on the way back from a hymn sing, Jorah pressures Jael to touch his penis on threat of breaking up with her, and being a very meek and mild girl, she eventually does. Jorah tells Jael that she has to marry him now.  That no other guy would want her, now that she's touched another guy's penis (and seemed to almost enjoy it).  Jael has her reservations, but Jorah is certainly a very godly, bible-taught, serious young Christian man.  He doesn't drink alcohol or smoke or swear or laugh at dirty jokes.  He works in his father's Christian book store.  He dresses business casual at all times and doesn't listen to any music but Christian contemporary, classical and opera, which his parents instilled a love for in him from a very young age as infinitely superior to rock and roll and pop and rap.  He always has a nice shirt.  Jael's waist-length hair is always shining and perfect. She always smiles her perfect smile if anyone speaks to her in any way.

So Jorah and Jael are married, Jael wearing her perfect smile and her equally white dress.  Jorah has turned 19 and Jael has turned 17.  At their wedding, much is made of how special and rare it is to see two young people living according to scripture, and remaining virgins until their wedding night.  When the priest says "You may now kiss the bride," everyone knows that this is the first kiss this young couple has enjoyed.  And it is.  Jorah has never kissed a girl before his wedding day nor seen an girl his own age naked in real life.  On their wedding night, Jorah is annoyed if Jael doesn't lie very still and keep quiet.  Jael lies still and thinks about something else, as her mother taught her.  Sure enough, she soon falls pregnant.

Five years later, Jorah and Jael have four children and another is on the way, Jorah is running his father's Christian book store, is assistant youth pastor at his church, and is the subject of a well-known reality television show about How Christians Live.  Tanner isn't very into the show, but his partner Amanda watches it religiously, so he kind of has to.  Jael's smiling face tells everyone that living this way is the key to True Happiness.  At the beginning of each episode, Jorah is filmed saying grace for the all-organic food Jael prepares, asking God to help each and every one of them in their growing family live to please Him.  So much easier, he prays, to simply live more conventional modern lives, like people who don't truly know God.  But they are committed to Him.

The show depicts Jorah reading from the bible each day and praying, and teaching his little girls that God's special plan for girls is to always be obedient to their fathers, brothers and husbands.  Everyone in the family always seems so happy.  Jorah's little girls happily singing Christian songs is a favourite part of the show for many.  It all seems too good to be true.

Twenty-two year old Jael, always pregnant, has never really developed much interest in sex and secretly Jorah has been not only pursuing some very dark avenues of non-consentual and underage-themed pornography online, but has also joined the Ashley Madison adultery-facilitation website.  Jorah has accused Jael of gaining too much weight for him to be attracted to her.  Jael does not mention how much weight Jorah has gained, from second and third helpings of the lavish meals she prepares for the family.

Jorah first has sex with a married Ashley Madison contact eight months into Jael's first pregnancy.  This pattern continues.  Once, Jorah confesses what's going on to his father, and his father prays with him and tells him he is forgiven.  At first Jorah had been trying to simply order Jael to satisfy his needs daily, as the head of the home, and Jael had been crying a lot.  Both feel it is his right, according to scripture, to have his understandable husbandly needs met.  The needs that had always been seen as out of place and dangerous in Jorah's teens are now seen as the ones that come first in the house he works to pay for.

While the cameras are rolling, Jael always has her perfect smile pasted in place, but she looks tired.  On camera, Jorah is fatherly, kind, patient and in control at all times, with his young kids and his wife.  Jael is homeschooling the kids of course, though she has never earned her own high school equivalency, having gotten married at 17.  The folly of post-secondary education for women had always been preached upon very regularly at her church as well as at Jorah's.

And then it's all over the news.  The reality show abruptly goes off the air.  Press conferences are called.  Amanda follows the story of Jorah's tearful confessions, which he is pushed to when his teenage sisters and a teenage cousin come forward.  Amanda tells Tanner she can't believe Jael, filmed sitting on the family couch beside Jorah, hand on his knee, perfect smile in place, saying she forgives and supports Jorah, and that his infidelity is partly her fault, for not being a proper, accommodating, desirable, attentive wife, as laid out in scripture.  

Then when the Ashley Madison database is hacked, and Jorah's name, payment and preferences come to light the next week, Tanner isn't really surprised.  And Amanda starts watching more Cake Boss instead.

Tanner's parents, and Tanner himself, had no loftier goal or claim than that he grow up to be "a normal guy." And Tanner is that.  A normal guy.  Jorah isn't that.  He grew up with parents who were striving for levels of piety that go beyond what is natural.  Supernatural levels of purity and piety.  But God doesn't appear to have stepped up.  Jorah and family have gone out on a limb farther than God would support.  Perhaps it is better to say that, on a heart-level, God was never really included in the life.  That there was something else there that was being trusted in.  Something all too human.  Something we are used to calling Christianity. Rules and vows.  Not laughing at off-colour jokes.  Not watching The Walking Dead.  Not having tattoos or piercings.  A great deal of bible reading and church involvement.  Yet Someone is missing, still.  At the heart of things.  And there is no readily discernible fruit of  salvation.  No redemption work clearly going on inside Jorah, despite the continual on-camera and at-church preaching about it. Love, joy, peace and the rest of them have become things Jared and Jael cannot any longer fake convincingly.

Jorah's father puts him into rehab for Christian sexual addiction.  But Jorah isn't really a Christian sex addict.  He's just an asshole with a lot of money.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

It's Ready! Get Yours Now!

"Just being right about a few things doesn't make you a good person."

Special advance release of I Was A Teenage Pharisee!
Available at:…/pap…/i-was-a-teenage-pharisee/16685086

Harold says "This book is you getting to the bottom of the truth of what God isn't."

And it's not just my story anymore. This book features people from a number of different Brethren (and a few other) backgrounds comparing their upbringings. Gospel Hall Brethren, Needed Truth Brethren, Renton Brethren, Tunbridge Wells Brethren, and even the infamous Taylor-Hales Brethren.  Fond memories.  Funny memories.  Heart-breaking memories.

A Christian upbringing is supposed to be a really wonderful thing.  So what goes wrong?  Children are raised in an environment which tells them weekly that God loves them and Jesus died for them.  Somehow what gets imprinted on their hearts is shame, fear and enslavement to a lifelong burden.  The obligation to satisfy every expectation of church people (living and dead) as to how their lives "look" and what message they send.

Why does a simple message about rejoicing in a loving God seem to require a complicated religious system to convey it?  One which requires people to sacrifice all of the things that would give them the most joy, upon the dark altar of a Shame god who apparently delights in that?  Whose fun is somehow spoiled if we have any at all?  How does "be careful for (about) nothing" turn into "worry all the time, about everything"?

Mainly, this tome is about legalism.  The letter of the law.  What was wrong with the Pharisees.  Needing to "be right" but not being a good person despite all of that focus upon correctness.   Why is legalism so appealing? Why do legalistic people stay, while the more open, loving people leave, whenever Christians throw down?  Why is there such a correlation between people who abuse others (particularly children) and the same people seeking and being given positions of authority?  What is the extent of the damage done by legalism? What fuels it and what beats it?  Why can't people who bear the marks of a legalistic upbringing simply "move past" it and "put it behind them"?

Most importantly, how do you repent of being a teenage Pharisee?  How do you stop the cycle, and become neither the kind of person who used to smack you with the legalism stick when you were younger, nor the predicted reprobate prodigal son they warned you you'd become?  How do you move beyond all that and find God, yourself, and freedom?

It's serious stuff, but also, there's a lot of humour in all this. Because there's got to be, right?