I grew up in a shame-and-blame religion.
The so-called Good News, as taught to me, is that we humans are fundamentally evil, unholy, sinners, distant from God. And so to save us, God needed to execute the perfect blood sacrifice. And there was only one person perfect enough to serve as that sacrifice, God himself. So he came to Earth in the form of a man who was without sin, and allowed himself to be executed, the perfect scapegoat, in order to take upon himself the sins of us all. As a result, we can blame him for all the shame we feel about who we are.
When I’ve told this story, I have gotten shocked looks of disbelief. “That’s not what Christianity is about, is it? I thought it was a religion of love and peace and helping people.”
But I grew up in fundamentalist Christianity. I grew up an Evangelical. I grew up on Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson and patriarchy and homophobia and the Holy Spirit über alles. And I grew up singing classic Evangelical hymns and praise & worship songs.
You may have heard the song Amazing Grace:
Amazing grace how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.
Examine those lyrics. This is not just an expression of grief, a cry for help. This is not even a poetic boast that my life has improved. Rather, this is the first-person equivalent of “When did you stop beating your wife?”
This meme appears sometimes hidden in the most insidious of places, in what was one of my favorite modern praise and worship tunes, Cannons, by Phil Wickham (emphasis added):
You are holy, great and mighty,
The moon and the stars declare who You are.
I’m so unworthy, but still You love me.
Forever my heart will sing of how great You are.
Herein is an idea that seems to confound people who have never been caught in the Evangelical web. This worldview can say, “Hate the sin, and love the sinner,” because its definition of love includes being told that you are broken and worthless. But it’s okay, it reassures you, because its god magically changes who you are to conform to the dogma, as in a verse from Mighty to Save by Reuben Morgan:
So take me as you find me,
All my fears and failures.
Fill my life again.
I give my life to follow;
Everything I believe in
Now I surrender.
This is a common meme in fundamentalist Christianity. It wasn’t just that I was feeling shitty and looking for emotional support. Rather, the theology itself taught me that I was worthless. And once I accepted that premise, I could dump that inner shame on Jesus, along with everything I think and everything I am, all my worthless shit. (No owning your own shit here.) In return, I receive a deeper theological conviction, deeper answers, a deeper connection to my god, including to the idea that I’m worthless.
I had no intrinsic value as a human being. My only value was whatever that amazing grace bestowed on me, and that came from outside of me, completely undeserved. I was responsible for my god’s loathing of me, and I was only rescued because he controlled my life.
Can you say, “healthy boundaries”? I couldn’t. (But that’s a different story.)
Jimmy Swaggart was big when I was a teenager. He was responsible for a lot of the fear and shame I developed in connection with sex. This was just before he was caught with a prostitute in 1988, resulting in him losing his Assemblies of God credentials.
Not too long ago, I was wondering what he was up to, and thanks to YouTube, I found a 10-minute video of him and his worship team performing Andraé Crouch’s “I Don’t Know Why” and “Through It All.” Listening to these classic lyrics feels almost comical. And also horribly tragic.
I don’t know why Jesus loved me.
I don’t know why He cared.
I don’t know why He sacrificed His life.
Oh, but I’m glad, so glad He did.
I’ve had many tears and sorrows.
I’ve had questions for tomorrow.
There’s been times I didn’t know right from wrong.
But in every situation,
God gave me blessed consolation
That my trials come to only make me strong.
Then Swaggart went into a speech about how Jesus is with you even in the worst of times.
And all I could think of was, he didn’t actually do anything all that bad. So he hired a prostitute to pose for some naked pictures, or whatever it was. The worst part was that Frances presumably didn’t know about what was going on. But she’s still with him. Was she coerced to stay in an abusive relationship? (In fundamentalist Christianity, that’s a real possibility.)
Instead of escaping the oppression of his dogma, he doubled down on it. He had to. He had no real choice. Whether or not Frances was coerced by the theology into staying in a relationship that didn’t benefit her, I’m pretty sure he is being coerced into a divine relationship that doesn’t benefit him. And he has turned around—like Josh Duggar—and coerced others into the same relationship. For fun and profit.
And then I ran across a video of Swaggart’s song, “Wasted Years”:
Wasted years, wasted years, oh how foolish,
As you walk on in darkness and fear.
“Turn around, turn around,” God is calling.
He’s calling you from a life of wasted years.
As you wandered along on life’s pathway,
Have you lived without love, a life of fear?
Have you searched for life’s hidden meaning?
Or is your life filled with long wasted years?
Search for wisdom, and seek understanding.
There is someone who knows and always hears.
Give it up! Give it up! The load you’re bearing!
You can’t go on in a life of wasted years.
This is exactly how I feel, having wasted most of my life trapped in Swaggart’s own brand of divine repression. I was born into the Pentecostal mindset. And I walked in the darkness and fear of this mindset, the fundie bubble, “protected” from the real world by dozens of emotional defense mechanisms, carefully cultivated in me from the time I was a young boy.
So I listen to Jimmy Swaggart sing this song, and I hear him talking about a god that has called me out of Evangelicalism into a place where I can truly be wholehearted (to steal Brené Brown’s word).
Many of my fellow atheists like to mock the Evangelical narrative. They say it makes no logical sense, for a god to kill himself as punishment he himself metes out for a sin he designed into us. But when told from a metaphorical perspective, from a psychological perspective, it makes all the sense in the world. It’s a story about defending against feelings of shame by projecting them into someone else.
That we would actually tell this story as a healthy model on which to build our lives is so incredibly dysfunctional, I can’t begin to describe it. I’m reeling from the fact that I not only believed this narrative but let it control my life for so many years. And now I think I’m dealing with the realization that I’m way more screwed up than I thought I was.
The religion itself created those feelings of shame. And it gave a way out which did not actually help me process the feelings, but only to project them into an outside scapegoat. I never learned to own my own identity, because my identity was located in my god. And I was addicted, in a way, to this pattern of shame, trapped in a system which had made me very unhappy and in which I ultimately did not even believe.
To this day, I continue to wrestle with the fallout from living in this world. The dogma runs deep.
For the moment, I’m still an angry atheist. When I lash out, I’m lashing out at the person I used to be, at the stories I tell myself about me and who I am. I hate those stories. My life improves every time I leave another behind.