Doing things right

There’s a very rigid, narrow script that you have to follow if you want to “do things right” in white American evangelicalism. It’s a script that covers everything from the utterly mundane to huge, life-altering decisions. Evangelical God, you see, has a lot of very specific and strongly-held opinions about all manner of things.

What you wear. Whether you use makeup. How much makeup you use. What words you can or can’t use. What you read, watch, listen to, and what you shun. You may think God has too much to keep track of to be worried about such pesky details, but evangelicals are here to tell you how very wrong you are.

And of course, God sweats the bigger stuff, too. Who your friends are. Whether you go to college (if you’re a girl, do you really need a college degree, or are you just looking for wordly gain/approval?). What kind of job you get and where. Whom you date and how (courtship is really more godly, you know). Whether your parents approve of them or not. How long you date or court. How long between the engagement and the wedding. Whether or not you have kids. How many kids you have. Homeschool or Christian school. When you buy a house. What church you go to. Just for starters.

Small wonder Evangelical God has such a hard time keeping things running smoothly down here. God must be exhausted from all the effort it takes to micromanage every last detail of evangelicals’ lives. That whole “I’m completely sovereign over every last molecule of space and microsecond of time so no matter how terrible things may seem, I’m in control” business? Clearly all a ruse to keep us all from worrying that God’s bitten off more than God can chew.

And really, that’s a short list of the many things God wants us to do the “right” way. The “biblical” or “godly” way. There “biblical” manhood, womanhood, parenthood, childhood, relationships, marriage, fellowship, hospitality, modesty, careers, politics, even sports (the dear leader of my former church group has a book out called Don’t’ Waste Your Sports – seriously). Between all of those, there’s a lot of ink spilled and breath expended by evangelicals telling each other exactly how to live and what to think at all times.

And again, it’s an incredibly potent method of mind and behavioral control. Every moment of your life is scripted. You become so busy trying to apply a million (and growing!) different rules on how to be “godly” and have a “biblical worldview” that you eventually have no room to think or be, much less question why you’re spending all your energy trying to be more biblical than the next person. You have no time to be reflective about yourself or the world around you, no time to actually invest in people and issues outside your narrow evangelical world, because all your time is taken up with being a “good Christian” – which has little to do with being a good person.

All of this is done in the name and under the authority of “God.” But the terrifying truth is it’s just regular people telling other people what to do. People who are just as fallible as the next person, often quite ignorant, with extremely limited experience of the world and even of themselves. People who don’t even know what they want for themselves – are not allowed to indulge thoughts about what they really want, as they’re clearly selfish and  sinful – telling other people how to live.

This is the open secret no one acknowledges. All these people who parade themselves in front of churches as the experts in godliness, the ones who seem to have the key to a magically contented godly life all figured out? They don’t have any special insight or life wisdom. And who knows whether or not their lives are all so blessed as they claim. It’s not as though there’s any room to be godly and not content with one’s lot in life. It’s a virtue, perhaps the highest of all of them, to put on a happy face no matter what.

Nobody has a damn clue what they’re doing. And nobody is allowed to speak the truth about any pain or imperfection or discontentment in their lives. Of course it goes horribly wrong.

10 Comments

  1. My teenage cousin told me about some of his frustrations with his church last weekend. One is their obsession with shielding kids from, or at least “redeeming,” secular music. My cousin loves country. People in his church told him one song he loved, Justin Moore’s “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” had false views of God and Heaven. It’s a somewhat syrupy song about missing dead loved ones and wanting to see them again, and as my cousin’s father died early this year, he finds it comforting.

    I told a Christian friend about this. He said something so profound: “If you spend all your time looking for Satan in normal, everyday things, you’re not gonna find Jesus anyplace.” My former church leaders found Satan everywhere, and I always wondered why they credited him with so much creativity and claimed that the Creator God was so narrow-minded. But then again, their God was made in their image.

    • That’s so sad that your cousin has to deal with being hounded over something that gives him comfort :( I feel like this culture encourages people to find a way to destroy any joy or beauty in things outside their narrow world. When we got married we had to deal with this around the issue of music at our wedding. Two of the songs we tried to get “approved” for our reception, both about growing old with one’s partner, were nixed because one asked whether the partner would still be there and thus would “negate” our vows and the other mentioned getting drunk.

      What your friend said is really profound, as is your comment about Satan being presented as more creative and open-minded than the God they’ve made in their own image. It’s so true. Nothing they do makes sense until you realize they believe the way to hell is full of more attractive options, more possibilities, more open-mindedness, and more genuine pleasure and happiness.

  2. So true! Part of the reason I have trouble making decisions is that I thought god had a ‘perfect’ plan for everything, including what brand of toothpaste I used, but I couldn’t figure it out because I was too sinful to hear his voice. Then I tried to decide what to study in school by asking our church leaders because god wasn’t giving me any clear answers.

    More liberal christians don’t usually understand this anxiety about deciding what to do, from choosing an icecream flavour to deciding whom to marry. I saw every decision as an opportunity to sin and not be in god’s perfect will.

    • Exactly. I remember agonizing over where to go to college, and buying books on how to discern God’s will. I felt there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t “hear” God telling me clearly which school to go to. And of course after I made a decision basically all by my lonesome – no direction from above – I started looking for signs once I started college to confirm that this was where God “really wanted me.” Sigh. What a waste of energy!

  3. ” You become so busy trying to apply a million (and growing!) different rules on how to be “godly” and have a “biblical worldview” that you eventually have no room to think or be, much less question why you’re spending all your energy trying to be more biblical than the next person.”

    Bingo. People with individuality who can think for themselves are difficult to control. By micromanaging every aspect of believers’ lives and discouraging reflection, churches ensure obedience. Unfortunately, they also diminish the humanity of their followers this way.

    • Exactly. It took me a while to realize that the people I went to church with often didn’t know much about their neighbors, even people they’d lived in the same community with for many years, because *all their time* was spent socializing with church people or serving the church. Not that everyone has to know their neighbors, but…there was an extreme degree of isolation that was disturbing, especially when you factored in that most families homeschooled or sent their kids to a Christian school, or would only enroll their kids in Christian versions of Boy Scouts or sports teams where all the parents had coordinated beforehand to make sure all the members were from the church. Very weird.

  4. Thank you for this!

  5. I meant to leave a comment weeks ago; this is excellent and insightful. Thanks