Monthly Archives: December 2013

19 Making sense of Christmas – a reflection

nativity reflectionLike many of my readers I have attended Christmas services and listened once again to the narratives of stables, shepherds and wise men.  Sometimes the preacher will have side-stepped the historical problems of the Christmas stories by focusing on peace in the world or the latest social issue such as the proliferation of food-banks.  Few preachers want to go very deeply into the actual stories that are told to accompany the birth of Jesus.  This blog post is not meant to start a deconstruction of these nativity stories but we may note that few scholars regard them as straight historical records.  Taking the four gospel records together we can see that two of the gospels, John and Mark, have no narratives about the birth while Luke and Matthew have one main story each.   Luke records the shepherds tradition and Matthew introduces the wise men.  At the very least we can say that there was no single early narrative tradition about what happened when Jesus was born.  Even if Luke ‘s account may possibly give us recollections from Jesus’ mother, those particular traditions were not thought important enough to be remembered in  the churches that Mark, Matthew and John represented towards the end of the 1st century.

So what part of the Christmas narrative can we value as capturing what the whole thing is about? For me the Christmas event is summed up in the words ‘the Word became flesh’ in the first chapter of John.   To grasp the significance of these apparently simple words, we have to ponder a moment to see what John means by the Greek word ‘Logos’ which is translated as Word.  This translation is, it has to be said, a very weak rendering of the Greek original.  The English word simply refers to a something written or spoken.  The Greek word and the Hebrew one behind it is a word that can be said to be brimming with energy and content.  Hebrew words seldom have but one meaning and the Hebrew word for ‘word’, Dabar, is no exception.  To begin to understand the English use of ‘word’ and the Hebrew use, we have to think for the moment of the difference between a statement of fact and an oath.  In the first, words are used descriptively and in the second they are used to make a point with force.  An even more powerful use of the power of a word is when it is used in the context of a creative act.  We can give many examples of this in the Old Testament, particularly in the Psalms.   ‘God spake and it was done, he commanded and it was created’.  The quote ‘By the word of the Lord were the heavens made’,  also reflects an understanding of the way the Word of God operates.   A scrutiny of a bible concordance will throw up numerous other examples.

When we return to John’s first chapter and ask ourselves what John might be referring to when talks about the Word becoming flesh, we can begin to see that he is saying something fairly massive in its importance.  The ‘Word’, the creative and effective outpouring of God, the efficient instrument of his purpose and will, has become visible and effective in the world.   In short when God speaks through his Word, he is not just communicating ideas and concepts, he is communicating his very creative power-giving self.   To receive the Word in Jesus is to receive this same outpouring, the very being of God communicated through his self-expressing Word.

A few years I stood up after a Carol Concert to speak a very few words.  I found myself saying that the essence of Christmas is not in the story of shepherds and Wise Men but a grasping of one single truth, God is for us, God is on our side.  Perhaps that is all we need to understand this Christmas time.  Reality in all  its mystery, its incomprehensibility is ultimately friendly and is working for our good. ‘ Do not be afraid’ said the angels, ‘I bring you good news of great joy..’  May this Christmas be a time to capture a little of that joy, the joy of knowing that God is both with us and for us.  If that is true, even in a small way, then we need never again be afraid.

18 God has spoken – the power of the interpreter of God’s word

In a recent conversation with an individual who was telling me that fundamentalism has no real place in the Anglican Church, I wanted to tell him about this statement put out on a web-site by a church a few miles away.  This Church of England parish is or was, till the present Vicar arrived, a middle of the road parish but its atmosphere has changed considerably under the new regime.  I pick up only snippets of information about what goes on, so really all I have to go on is their web-site.  I want to do a critique of this extracted statement because it needs to be answered, not only on behalf of the souls who attend this church but on behalf of all Christian people who have Vicars who believe that they are offering coherent and life saving teaching.  The is the statement about the Bible which appears as part of the section ‘What we believe’..

 The Bible is true

We have a ‘high’ view of the Bible.  Jesus’ scripture was the Old Testament.  For him, whatever scripture says, God says (Mathew 15:4).  He lived under their authority (Matthew 4:4).   So, we believe if we are faithful to Christ, our church must hold a very ‘high’ view of the Bible.  Jesus calls us to believe and obey what it says – even when it is not to our liking.  We can’t pick and choose what we will accept or reject from the Bible – otherwise we place ourselves above God’s word rather than under it.

 The first statement that needs to be queried is the one that says that the Old Testament was Jesus’ Scripture.   Yes, this is a true statement up to a point but it in no way stopped Jesus questioning it and changing the teaching.  The formula that is used by Matthew goes as follows ‘You have heard that it was said by those of ancient times …. but I say to you’.  Even Matthew, the most Jewish of the Gospel writers, accepted that Jesus was like a new Moses giving a new law.  It is no coincidence that he records Jesus going ‘up the mountain’, as Moses had, to deliver his teaching.  The whole tenor of the Sermon on the Mount is that a new revelation, a new teaching is being given comparable to that delivered by Moses.  Christians do not accept the old Law as the word of God without qualification.  I suspect that very few Christians have read, let alone want to follow some of the supposed divine injunctions as set in the first books of the Bible.  We do not regard as binding the commands connected with the uncleanness of women during their menstrual cycle (Leviticus 15.19ff).  This is not because Jesus delivered some new teaching about it, but because we read it as reflecting cultural values from a long dead civilisation which have long since ceased to apply for those who do not live in such a culture.  In the same chapter of Leviticus there are no less than 15 verses instructing the male reader how to deal with nocturnal emissions!  And so we could go on to describe countless other customs in  Jewish culture which touch us hardly at all even if we took the trouble to know about them.

Two things come out of this.  One is that Jesus and the contemporary society in which he lived sat lightly of quite large swathes of Scripture.  The Jubilee idea, when debts were to be forgiven and all slaves released, had long since become only a expression of idealism rather than a course of practical action at the time Jesus appeared on the scene.  Even the strictest practitioners of the law, the Pharisees, avoided selling their daughters into slavery or stoning their blaspheming neighbour!  The parts of the Law that Jesus did discuss, he rarely commended without qualification.  His teaching was new and his ministry, though rooted in the Old Testament was also new.  We call the second Testament ‘New’ and that implies a critique as well as qualification of the Old.

The parish statement that states baldly ‘whatever Scripture says, God says’ is a highly confusing and misleading statement.  If we are to talk about the authority of Scripture we need a far more nuanced approach to our understanding and use of the words and ideas that are set down within the pages of the Bible.

Most people faced by the conundrum of believing divine authorship of a series of texts which reflect the customs (sometimes unsavoury) of a people long ago, will feel utter confusion.  They will look around to find someone who will help reassure of possible answers to this conundrum.  Of course there will always be handy guides to explain it all!  But subtly and imperceptibly the seekers will find themselves beholden, not to the text itself but to these interpreters and guides.  In short the more global the claims for Scriptural ‘truth’, and the consequent increased difficulty for understanding, the more power the leaders of these churches will acquire over those who come to them seeking a way out of this impossible predicament.

What is going on at this village church?  To put it simply, the doctrine of scripture has become a instrument for establishing power over the congregation.  The Vicar, the writer of the statement, has become the sole interpreter of the infallible text of Scripture.  He would claim to be able to provide a way through for those who are utterly confused by these claims for the Bible.  Secondly if there are any who want to remain content to sit on the periphery of this confusing teaching, a second bombshell is brought in.  If you do not accept this interpretation you ‘are placing yourself above God’s law rather than under it’.  The implication is clear.  Unless you accept my teaching and my understanding of scripture, you have no part in this congregation.  Outside the church community you are not part of the elect and so by implication you are beyond God’s salvation.

These words in a village church web-site show me that the worst kinds of fundamentalism are alive and well in the heart of the Anglican church.  The teaching about the Bible has become a weapon with which to threaten and intimidate those who would practise their faith in a different way.  No dialogue is offered or to be expected.

Let us hope that some at least of the church members have not actually read this statement and so for the time being are able to avoid being confronted with this potentially abusive manifesto.  I would like to think that at least some of them are resisting the hidden power manipulation that is going on in these words.

I will update this blog with anything that I hear in the future!

17 Psychology and the American Religious Right

After writing my last blog post, I was reminded of some writing I have recently done which sets out the thinking of an American political commentator called George Lakoff.  The relevance of George Lakoff, and indeed my piece about him, to this blog is that he attempts to account for the  chasm of thinking that exists in the States between the conservative Right and the progressive Left.  At the risk of over-simplifying American politics, we see conservatives largely siding with the Republican party and the progressives voting with the Democrats.  The interest of this divide in American politics for this blog is in that conservative Republicans will attract the vast majority of ‘Bible believing’ Christians.  Thus to understand the political Right is to have some insight into the so-called Religious Right with their concerns for issues of personal morality.  We in Britain have not escaped the influence of American conservative religious thinking in our churches, even if the political landscape in the two countries is quite different.

George Lakoff is an academic with a particular interest in linguistics.  The main concern of the two books that I studied was in the way that political rhetoric or language is used and abused in the course of debate.  Particular words are introduced into a debate between political opponents but it sometimes becomes apparent during the course of the debate that the word has been defined to suit the purposes of the conservative argument.  For example in a discussion about same-sex  relationships, the word ‘marriage’ is brought in.  The progressive wants to use the word to describe a legally recognised relationship between two responsible adult people whether or not of the opposite sex.  The conservative may well argue that the word ‘marriage’ cannot be used for same-sex relationships.  Marriage can apply only to a relationship of people of opposite sex.  There is obviously a debate to be had over the meaning of the word marriage, but it is presented in the argument as a self-evident claim which is beyond contradiction.  It is rather similar to the technique of a conservative Christian to clinch a discussion by bringing forward the argument, ‘the Bible says’.   The person trying to oppose the conservative position then has find a counter argument from Scripture and the discussion descends into an unhelpful exchange of texts.  Those of us who are not conservative Christian do not find this activity of bolstering up arguments from quoting scripture something we are very good at.   It is also hard to see much value in this kind of discussion.  The Bible is not known for a perfectly consistent point of view.

To return to George Lakoff and his writing, we find that he has an intriguing observation to make to help us understand what makes the Republican right voter tick from a psychological point of view.  He hypothesises that the difference between conservative and progressive voter may lie in their experience of family life as they grew up.  His argument is that the conservative voter supporting the Republican party may well have been brought up in a traditional family where the father was firmly in control.  The bringing up of the children was seen to be a matter of maintaining firm paternal discipline with the fear that unless discipline was maintained the children would descend into chaos and be unable to make their way in the world.  Such ideas are reflected in many books on child-rearing favoured by conservative Christians.  They also echo a traditional belief among such Christians that the natural state of existence, particularly for children, is one of dominated by original sin and chaotic living.

The political and social implications of such an experience of the past are extensive.  Conservatives will believe that there will always be an authoritarian solution to the world’s problems, whether discussing personal morality, social issues or the problems of the wider world.  Poverty, for example, will be understood as the result of fecklessness or lack of discipline.  The poor have only themselves to blame, whether you are talking about the ghetto inhabitants of America’s inner cities or the poor in countries overseas.  This attitude might explain the incomprehensible Republican opposition to health care reform.  If you resist the improvements to social care of the poor, you are, so the thinking goes, helping them to find self-improvement through their own unaided effort.

In contrast to this authoritarian experience of family life, the progressive politically minded  Democrat may well have experienced life in a family where cooperation, mutual respect and trust take central stage.  If that is the internalised memory of how things worked in early life, then there will be a profoundly different understanding and expectation of how political ideas are put into practice.  Without spelling it all out, Lakoff locates a liberal hopeful political attitude among those who have had the good fortune to have been brought up in a liberal family.  In summary conservatives and liberals, whether political or religious, have been created, not by ideology or intellect but by the emotional environment of their early family life.

I offer these arguments without much detail as I have had to shorten and simplify quite complex ideas.  The position of Lakoff is presented as quickly as possible because it seems to help us to have some fresh insight into a variety of issues that might otherwise baffle us.  When we try to talk to conservative (fundamentalist) Christians, why do we feel that they cannot and will not shift on any point?  What is it about the conservative Christian that behaves in an irrationally prickly way over issues of sexual morality?  Is the issue of gay sex such a big deal or does it reflect a shame laden experience taught in early life? These and other issues are topical at present in the Anglican Church as conservatives constantly throw into the arena of debate their obsessional fixation on matters of sex.  Most of us on the more liberal wing want to move away from this area of life to pursue wider issues, such as justice or poverty.

What do others think?

16 Fundamentalism – some insights from psychology

To attempt to ‘explain’ fundamentalism in the sense we have defined in the previous post is clearly an impossible task.  Whether one writes a book or pens a 500 word blog post, this is an undertaking that can never be completed.  But I want here to suggest one or two leads that may not have occurred to you the reader and may be useful to your thinking.

In the last post I offered a definition of fundamentalism which pointed to the individual who had convictions which are held in such a way that they are unable ever to be questioned.  This would exist alongside a failure or inability to listen to another point of view.  I thus described the fundamentalist as someone who cannot and will not listen.  Such a definition, in as far as it has value, focuses very much on the individual, their personal thinking and convictions.  If one stays at this level of a person, one would expect a psychological investigation to proceed along the lines of an examination of his or her experiences in early life.  The question might be asked: why has this individual chosen to occupy a place which shuts off openness, dialogue and discovery?  Is there something about this early life that predisposes them to a shut-off non-communicating approach to the world?

The psychological literature does indeed offer clues as to why some individuals appear to prefer a ‘place of safety’ rather than taking the risk of exploring reality and life in an open way.  The same personalities may well seek the security of an authoritarian political party which offers answers to a variety of issues, those that allows them not to have to think out issues for themselves.  We know that certain newspapers are particularly good at telling people what they want to hear and allow them to feel that the ‘party’ line is one they have thought up for themselves.   Psychology will have something to say about this desire for safety and may well offer us some understanding of why people long to be secure.  The insights proffered by the discipline will in all probability focus on the early stages of life in the family of origin and the way that the individual may have failed to negotiate those stages successfully.

The approach that I want to open up in this post is somewhat different.  It looks, not at the individual and his past, but at the groups to which each of us relates to.  Everyone in society is a combination of an individual identity and a group identity.  Some of the time we experience ourselves as an ‘I’ and at other times we become part of a ‘we’ identity.  The way we oscillate between the two is the stuff of a relatively new theory within social psychology called social identity theory.  No one lives entirely outside the group or entirely within a group.  Somehow we try to find a balance between the two.

The book that I read a couple of years ago by by Peter Herriot , Religious Fundamentalism and Social Identity , has an intriguing take on fundamentalism within this way of looking at individuals.  He suggests, to put it at its simplest, that fundamentalists are people who live perhaps excessively at the ‘we’ end of the spectrum.  That observation would apply to certain Muslims, Christians and a whole variety of political and religious groups.  In other words fundamentalists of whatever kind exist almost entirely in and through the groups they are attached to.  Their individuality is thus stymied or repressed.  Outside the group context they have few if any opinions and little in the way of personal identity.  At the opposite end of the spectrum we find people of maverick independence and maybe eccentricity.  From a Christian point of view such people might well be suspect as having heretical or unconventional views.  Clearly the place to be is not at either end of the continuum but somewhere in the middle.  Here there is a balance between our participation in the world of belonging and our self or individual identity.

The reason that individuals opt to remain within groups for their self-definition is an interesting issue to ponder.  Perhaps carving out individuality and our own opinions is too much like hard work for some.  If we really want to look for reasons why people fail to get to this point of avoiding having worked out personal opinions and thoughts, we might find ourselves back in the families of origin, the place which never really allowed the child to grow up and leave behind mother and father.  Clinging to the group, the ‘we’, may simply be a clinging on to old family patterns that should been left behind.


Clearly there is a lot more to be said on this subject of psychology and fundamentalism!

15 The F word – thinking about fundamentalism

When I was writing my study of Christian abuse, Ungodly Fear, I became aware very early on of the dangers of using the word ‘fundamentalism’.  I took two steps to avoid these dangers.  One was only to use the word as an adjective – to describe not an –ism but a tendency for an individual or an institution to think in a particular way.  Secondly I familiarised myself with the up to date literature on the subject, particularly the weighty tome of Harriet Harris, Fundamentalism and Evangelicals.  Her work was extremely careful not to use words loosely  but I followed her in seeing that historically and theologically fundamentalism and evangelicalism were close bedfellows.

In the end my own definition of the word fundamentalism chose not to include any reference to this past (and present) association with evangelicalism.  I had glimpsed that the kind of behaviours that I was glimpsing in people of a fundamentalist disposition were not confined only to evangelicals but to anybody who had a strong system of belief which was militant and even sometimes aggressive towards others not sharing that belief system.  My definition of the F word was that of an individual who holds on to a system of belief that cannot and will not listen to or dialogue with others who do not share in this belief.  Fundamentalists can be political and as far as the church is concerned they can be liberal or traditional but they still sometimes qualify for the F word.

My book and many other studies will normally locate fundamentalist Christians among evangelicals, particularly those in the independent churches.  This is partly because this is the place where the modern phenomenon began in America in the 1920s.  It is also because the temperament associated with fundamentalism ties neatly into the sometime aggressive claims made for the Bible by many conservative Christians.  The Bible is a large complex book and if Christian leaders, particularly those in independent churches, claim to have discovered simple direct answers to life’s problems amid all the complexity, they will always gain a following.  These Christian leaders themselves will not normally have spent very long studying the Bible and the simple answers will have been the ones that they have picked up in their year or two at Bible college.  It might sound elitist to suggest than some understanding of the original languages in which the Bible was written help in the task of deeper understanding.  A little Greek and Hebrew do wonders for stopping any preacher being able to claim that he or she has fully mastered the meaning of a text. As Socrates famously said ‘The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know’.  For myself the task of understanding Scripture is something that has developed over many years and still continues.  For me preaching is about sharing insights from exposing myself to scripture, not delivering a predictable ‘party’ response to a complex moral issue.

One of the things that puzzles me is the way that conservative Christians seem to come up with an identical answer to a problem right across the world.  It is as though someone somewhere has decided on the correct answer and everyone in that network has blindly followed the leader.  It is as though freedom of thought has been surrendered to an invisible belonging to a ‘correct’ position.  Freedom is something that I would always want to fight for.  The freedom to think for myself and continue to explore the mysteries of faith.  In this, the passage from Revelation comes to mind when the risen Christ says ‘Behold I make all things new.’  Is not this newness something we should always be searching for?  We cannot find newness in following a strict predictable party line as practised by fundamentalist Christians.

To follow – The F word, some psychological insights.

14 Vulnerability and the Church

The Church of England along with other churches and caring organisations has policies designed to  protect children and vulnerable adults from potential abusers.  Not being currently employed by the church I am not up to speed about the details of this protection but it does involve levels of scrutiny for all those who have access in the name of the church with these categories of people.  Thus criminal record checks are made of everyone who visit the elderly or have contact with others who are deemed to be vulnerable.

Who are the vulnerable?  Probably my definition of who is vulnerable in the context of church life would include far more people that those envisaged by the compilers of the policies.  But rather than quibbling about definitions, I want to turn the issue upside down and suggest that in many cases the church actually creates vulnerability which did not exist before.

What do I mean by this?  Talking with Chris with his concerns for the many in society who live on the edge, whether in terms of esteem or poverty, my awareness has been opened to the way that many have few resources with which to fight people and situations of power.  If you are poor or have no self-esteem then you occupy a place that is extremely vulnerable.  You are potentially a victim of a rapacious landlord, a loan shark or other people who want to exploit you in various ways.  The advantages of literacy, the confidence to write a coherent letter to authority may be beyond your grasp, so you simply have to ‘grin and bear’ the indignities and humiliations that life throws at you.

A few individuals out of this vast swathe of vulnerable people sometimes find their way into the church.    Many churches are places where a bookish culture is assumed.  Certain levels of knowledge are assumed in order to take part in the services.    The plethora of words used is enough to put off many people who do not live in this literate articulate world.  There are however churches which sit lightly on words and initially at any rate welcome the poor, the less educated and the vulnerable.  Such individuals are going to be attracted to aspects of the church that might be considered fairly marginal to some others.  Music is for some is a way into membership, particularly when the music resonates with what they have already found pleasant and attractive elsewhere.  The church that attracts them also appears to offer them an experience of acceptance, something that either their birth family may not have given them or something that has slipped away through the fickleness of their adult entanglements.  The attraction of the church is for these reasons largely an emotional one.  While there is nothing wrong is being drawn to the church for emotional reasons, an issue arises for the individual when things go wrong.  Chris’ testimony bears vivid witness as to the depth of despair that takes place when the scaffolding of certainty that was on offer when he first joined the church begin to crumble. Having bought into a emotional package of music and acceptance, he then found himself in thrall to what felt like an arbitrary system of control and exploitation.  Like many others Chris found it difficult to answer back to the increasing and arbitrary demands made which he felt to be wrong.  As one woman in my book Ungodly Fear declared after being terrified by the threat of demons in her life, she found it difficult even to protest because she had bought into the idea that the people in charge were so much more knowledgeable than her.

There are many ways to disempower individuals in a congregation.  One is to convince them that their immortal soul depends on obedience to those in authority in the congregation.  Another is to convince them that everything they think has to be vetted in some way by their ‘elders’.  When total control has been established over an individual, other forms of abuse may follow, including financial and sexual misbehaviour.   In short the arbitrary exercise of authority by those in charge has created the possibility that the church is a place where individuals can charge from being independent people to vulnerable adults.  The church becomes then a place for making people vulnerable rather than protecting those already vulnerable.

This claim may be thought of as fairly extreme but it is borne out by the experiences of people that I have met over the years.  Sometimes people are attracted to the church because it provided something in the way of affection that was missing in the rest of their lives.  They become locked into that relationship even though a part of them knows that it is doing them harm.  It is rather like a relationship between a controlling husband and a battered spouse.  The woman in the relationship cannot find a way to leave and this vulnerability is ruthlessly exploited by the husband who has his own emotional needs.  People become enmeshed with the church and they find it impossible to break away for similar reasons.  Meanwhile they have given their assent to a series of doctrines and beliefs that they only a quarter understand but the emotional toll of these beliefs gradually dawns on them over the years.

Abusive beliefs include a teaching about God that are interpreted as saying that he is only interested in saving a few favoured ones.  As I have said in the previous blog post, abusive teaching is found when the people in the congregation are threatened with eternal punishment in Hell.  Other dysfunctional themes are imbibed related to doctrines of the death of Christ.  Some expressions of atonement teaching come very close to saying that God wants to see his Son tortured to death as the only way to assuage his anger against humanity.  Sometimes it is not what the Christian teaching is actually about but it is what is heard in church and feeds negatively the imaginations of the already vulnerable.  I have this very day challenged an individual on a blog discussion who really believed that Jesus never stood up to wrong because he always forgave.  Such sloppy misreading of the Bible is actually harmful because it encourages a passivity in the church which is inappropriate and will tolerate potential abuse.

The Blog post has gone too long but I would be grateful to hear from others examples of the Church creating vulnerability in her members.  I believe that it is a problem and if it is, then surely it qualifies as Spiritual Abuse.


13 Radical thoughts about Fear

There are two texts from Scripture that come immediately to my mind when the word ‘fear’ is mentioned in the context of the Bible.  The first comes from Proverbs (9.10) and states ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’  The second passage is a story told by Luke (5.1-11) where the disciples were in a boat so full of fish that it began to sink.  Jesus says to Peter just before telling him that they were to go on to catch people, ‘do not be afraid’.  We could go on and do a search in a concordance to see that fear and its absence is quite an important theme in both Old and New Testaments.

The two examples that I have given both talk about fear but is quite clear that what is understood by the word in these two passages is very different.  In the Proverbs example, a better translation might be ‘awe’ or respect.  The New Testament example is much closer to our idea of fear, in terms of being terrified that our life is in danger or that something ghastly is perhaps going to happen.

This latter experience of fear is common not only to all humans but also appears to be shared by a large number of animals.  It is what we might refer to as a primal response to a situation of danger.  The human or the animal struggles to do whatever it takes to find a place of safety.  Whenever we experience fear, a large number of our faculties shut down in the effort to concentrate on survival.  When the Bible talks about love casting out fear, it might equally have said that fear casts out love.  Fear also casts out creativity, altruism, intelligent decision making and most of what we would consider normal human flourishing.  In short fear shuts us down beyond a very minimal and primitive functioning.  Remaining in this place for more than a short time will damage us as the body releases stress hormones to enable us to fight or flee.  None of us are designed to live with such stress for long periods of time.

When one human being chooses to put another in a place of fear or stress then they are doing a lot of damage to that individual.  Abuse of any kind, whether physical, emotional or spiritual is putting another in a place of fear and that is a place of cruelty and stress.  When this weapon of fear is exercised over another, the victim effectively shuts down in large areas of his or her life.  They have the lifeblood of proper human functioning drained away from them.  Of particular horror is the abuse of children who have no defence against the abuser.  This is why sexual and emotional abuse of children is considered particularly abhorrent in our society.  But all abuses of power use this damaging potential of making others experience fear.

The whole dynamic of power abuse whether against adults or children takes on a particular twist when it is done by Christian leaders.  A particular strand of teaching from Scripture is taken to be a major part of the ‘good news’ .  Put simply the hearers learn from ‘gospel preaching’ that they have a choice between accepting a message that Jesus ‘died to deliver them from their sins’ which will lead them to a place called heaven after death.  If they reject this teaching or even believe it in a different way, they will end up in a place of eternal torment called ‘hell’.  Traditional Catholic teaching also distinguished between ‘mortal’ sins which must be removed by penitence and absolution and venial sins which were of less significance.  If a Catholic believer died with unconfessed mortal sins attributed to them, then there was no prospect of reaching purgatory or heaven beyond it.  Until fairly recently mortal sins were believed to include masturbation alongside murder so consciences could be very troubled for a lot of the time.

The existence of hell for both Catholics and evangelical Protestants has been a source of deep anxiety and fear for many years.  Alongside the crushing of the human spirit that such fear causes there is also a rampant process of human control and power at work.  Power to crush, humiliate and belittle is being exercised by leaders who have claimed the power to decide who belongs and who does not belong to God’s people.  When such tyranny is being exercised it is hard to see how any human flourishing  is possible either on the part of the abusers or the abused.  In short ‘good news’ has become a means of spiritual murder.

The ‘good news’ of Jesus Christ becomes in the hands of certain preachers a tool of abuse and cruelty.  ‘Conversions’ are achieved through the weapons of spiritual terrorism and fear has become the motivation for discipleship rather freedom or love.  To the reader of this blog post I challenge you to ask in every Christian setting whether you are in the presence of a truth ‘that sets us free’ or a fear that shuts us down in the name of a narrow, bigoted power abusing version of the Christian faith.

12 The Devil and all his works

I have mentioned on one of the blog posts that one of the weapons of Christian abuse is the Bible itself.  Verses which have the effect of putting another person down are quoted to enhance an existing sense of shame or guilt in the victim.  Other verses to emphasise the position of the leader and his (normally a his) authority are trotted out so that the Bible, as I mentioned before, has become used as a powerful bludgeon against which the recipient has little or no defence.

While a discussion of these issues of the Bible as a weapon will come up again, no doubt, there is another weapon used by Christian abusers that I want to discuss.  The weapon is rhetoric that mentions the Devil.  An individual who may disagree with an authority figure in the Church, can easily be accused of being afflicted with the devil.  Anything that challenges the person of power can be interpreted as caused by a devil of deceit or devil of ignorance.  The literature that describes the way that the devil operates conveniently allows a leader or powerful Christian to belittle an opponent by making this accusation.  If you live in a universe where the Devil goes round corrupting anyone who speaks against power and influence in the church, then you will be able to see that such an accusation is a very telling one indeed.  To be accused of such a thing, and to believe it, is to be cast into a very dark place.  It is indeed a kind of blasphemy to suggest that a person with a different perspective on life has in some way been taken over by a devil.  I am not sure whether there is any way that you can humiliate them or beat them down more, especially if they actually accept in any way the truth of this accusation.

The devil’s power in the imagination of Christian evangelicals has waned somewhat over the past fifteen years.  There are in fact some factual historical reasons for this.  The roots of the modern phase of interest in demons, Satan etc among evangelicals finds its origins with the publication of a particular book in 1981, Michelle Remembers.  This book was a lurid account of the recovered memories of a young woman called Michelle who claimed that she had been abused as a child in Satanic ritual.  The book was fairly quickly shown to be a tissue of fantasy and lies but the impact of the book was enormous.  If a story is a good one it will be believed regardless of whether it is true.  Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic started introducing satanic and demonic rhetoric into their preaching and the situation soon got out of hand.  By the early 90s in Britain ‘satanic panic’ had gripped other institutions beyond the church and there were always ‘experts’ who could brought be brought over from the States to teach the signs of the devil’s influence within the domain of social work and education.

The UK government was alarmed and commissioned a study by a retired Professor of Anthropology . Jean La Fontaine.  Her report, appearing in 1995, concluded that there was no evidence for satanic abuse or any other demonic infestation.  The panic subsided very quickly and one could claim that the devil had been found in the paranoia created by the rhetoric and the need for many evangelical preachers to preach against something, using military imagery.   The damage caused by this ‘demonic abuse’ was massive and still today there are people who were genuinely convinced that they had been possessed by demons and then had experienced the abusive practice of exorcism.  The whole process was encouraged by certain Christian centres who ‘taught’ ordinary Christians to be involved in spiritual warfare as it was called.  Every form of distress, especially psychological, was interpreted as an incursion of the devil.  It is hard to see how you can do anything worse than tell a disturbed person that they have a devil inside them.

No doubt I shall return to this theme again in the future as I feel quite deeply on the folly and cruelty of telling a mentally vulnerable person that they are possessed.  It would be interesting to know if anyone who reads this blog has experience of this particular expression of spiritual abuse.