Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#266- The "Mark" that will always keep us separate from the world

Editor's Comment: Special Guest Author James Wilder has a blog where he writes his thoughts down about Christianity or culture or whatever else is on his mind. He is self-conscious about this. He shouldn't be. Today he wrote a post that really resonated with me about the denomination we grew up. I think you'll enjoy.

The post is copied in full below or can be read over at his blog, here...

A new "reality" show on the TLC network, "Breaking Amish," features five young adults who have left their Amish and Mennonite communities to experience life in the Big Apple, trying to make a decision if they want to permanently leave their communities. There has been a lot of controversy about the show's "authentic" factor (surprise, surprise, a reality show that isn't "real"), but the stories told, and the concepts viewed are all eerily familiar and even accurate.

The show opens each episode with some sort of wisdom quote or proof-text scripture that the episode then shows the young adults living out, and ultimately, "disobeying." From binge drinking, to tattoo parlors, compulsive intimate relationships, learning city fashions, etc -- this is set-up as a show about how former-Amish have "lost their way" in a big City, even a "big world" that is arranged as a metaphor inside New York City.

It got me thinking, seeing many obvious parallels from my growing up as a Oneness Pentecostal. Sure, we didn't forbid all modern conveniences and live in compounds, but we did forbid an awful lot of other things on similar grounds, and even lived in a social/cultural bubble that is sort of like a compound! The sense of ostracization is one that I identified with as well -- albeit, my experience haven't been personally as dramatic as what they are depicting in the show, again the similarities are close enough.

The element that caught my attention the most was the fear the young adults had about "never fitting in." This was warnings they heard growing up, that because they were "children of God," they would never "fit in with the world." And so, it almost seems like this sort of warning is correct as it got played out over the years. I mean, the eccentric and clueless behavior the young Amish often exhibited on the show is evidence enough that these kids will never be "normal" city dwellers. Their experiences have marked them. Marked. That's the word I heard a lot growing up. For us, as Oneness Pentecostals, it was our "encounters with the Spirit" that marked us. We would forever be "horrible sinners," and "never fit in." So I decided to unpack some of the truth and misleading realities behind such observations.

Children that come out of religiously ascetic and strict homes, even communities that hold to ideas of "separation from the world," (interpreted on a more fundamentalist and hyper-literal perspective) struggle to find their way in the world. This is a truth that cannot be underscored. These who leave experience a great loss, likely similar to grieving the loss of an entire family at once! Imagine that! Real, bonafide grief made even worse, since their friends and family are still alive and well. They lose the  community of those they grew up with, the positive affirmation that healthy humans need, a support network, and a lifetime of memories and experiences that others outside these communities hardly will ever understand. More, however, is the engrained belief system that makes up their worldview-- and as much as they are ignored for more shallow reasons ("I want to find my own way in life," etc), it is conditioned to breed constant fear that either makes them an anxious wreck, or an all-or-nothing "sinner," spinning out of control, trying to sample all of life's pleasures in a short period, sort of "making up for lost time." Binging. These are the ugly results. The former is depressed, frightened, confused and insecure -- the latter using deviant choices as a method of "putting their head in the sand," and somehow thinking that this is how the rest of the world actually lives. They believe they are living the life of an outsider, and any unhappiness is projected onto the whole of the fellow "outsiders."

Returning Home
Many of these types find themselves crawling back to their homes and communities. Unresolved tensions of what they believe, the draw of community and support is greater for them. They feel at peace in a system of groupthink (a huge part to maintain community: in Amish communities, even moreso than, say, a Oneness Pentecostal culture, that is usually maintained by a primarily charismatic central figure, and then carried out through the community), and the affirmation received works for them. Some, out of fear, head back. Others, feeling like they experienced the "pleasures of the world," then return to tell their stories to the insiders about how life on the outside is, and how it's "ultimately unfulfilling." They would call these "testimonies," and use them to contain and numb others' itches to leave the community in the same fashion. But the fearful types likely trade fear and anxiety in one sense, back to fear and anxiety in another sense, masked with community and social mores that are more suitable for them. They become lulled back into a deep sleep, away from their critical thinking and existential wondering by the community's rythmn of events, spiritual ritual, etc.

Hanging with other "Backsliders"
In the circles I grew up in, those who "left the Church," were often mocked for always hanging out with others that also left the Church. (This probably mostly happens as a result of a shared background and experience that is uniquely related to.) This helped paint the picture by the community leaders that they were all bitter, and had a hard time coping and living in the real world: "marked by God." Of course the sociological realities of this are largely ignored.

True, they are "marked," but by their experiences, lack of healthy interaction with the world around them, and a huge loss of community. The task of leaving is daunting on multiple and complex layers. Not being able to work through the theological layers, and unequipped to do so, they have an uneasy relationship with God and faith. Then there's the emotional layers,  and even some level of self-reflection... being cast into the world just to "figure it all out," is a complex and dangerous task. Any human in this predicament, not conditioned or even familiar with any of the attitudes of the larger society around them, going through loss of community and affirmation, will have a hard time finding their way. There's no reason to think of this devastating result as anything more uniquely spiritual than that (though to be sure, all of life is spiritual, so this is indeed, spiritual in a non-Platonic sense). The churches I grew up around would point to these people and situations, preaching as examples to others, to somehow make a point and support their claims about how they are "marked by God." The reality is, they are marked by a theological and sociological system. And the only point proven, particularly for these isolationist, fundamentalist types, is how dangerous such a system can be for people, and the reality that many will remain by some sort of subconscious prison, and fail to critically think, fearful of the heavy realities.

Metanarratives and Stories
We all buy into a story that we are part of, and living through. How we view our purpose in life, what we view as the problems in life, what the solutions are and what the ultimate Utopia would look like, varies from belief system to belief system, whether religious or irreligious, philsophical or some other ontalogical form. Many spiritual wanderers will, for one reason or the other, leave these circles while still living in the same narrative/story, which causes a great deal of tension. The world around them pressures them into throwing away their God narrative, and since they only know one God narrative, this brings more confusion. Some dramatically exchange the story they are living for a hedonistic or "carefree" alternative story. Of course, most don't realize they are "story-searching" at all. This isn't exactly a conscientious grocery shopping expedition of worldviews. But this is what is happening, and why the complexity of leaving a social community into a desolate wilderness (or an urbanly dense over-stimulated noise of ideas)-- this is why it's hard, and this is what the preachers aren't saying. Instead, it's overly-spiritualized sermon fodder to "warn others of the ways of the unrighteous."

SIDE NOTE: I embraced a Gospel story-narrative, one that I feel find tension with, but one that I feel almost too good to be true, and one I want to believe... one I really want to believe. One that points the solution/redemption away from me, and to a Perfect Other -- an Other than redeemed me not because of anything I did -- and an Other (Jesus) who paints the picture of redemption in something far more Utopic than any human can imagine. This One makes all things right, brings redemption to all the cosmos, and promises peace and justice.

So watching this new show, despite the production put into it, is like peeking in to a narrative I once knew and identified with,  and relating to the characters that I sometimes chuckle at, yet sadly understand, trying to "find their way in the world."

It's no wonder so many end up feeling abused and faithless, or move so quickly to another dangerous story-line to make their own. They are indeed, marked... marked by religion, broken systems, bearing wounds of rejection and hurt from the many false stories they've bought into. Fortunately, marked people can find healing too.


  1. Wow. Awesome post James. Something about speaking the truth in love comes to mind.

    "Many spiritual wanderers will, for one reason or the other, leave these circles while still living in the same narrative/story, which causes a great deal of tension."

    I hear you. I wanted to high-five you for writing that sentence. There are many wanderers, and I am one, to whom that one narrative, and living in cycles, seems inescapable - and until it is revealed for the same lie you have believed for so long, over and over, and unearthed by the roots, can it be replaced with Truth.

    Realizing that everything you have believed - about God, life, yourself - in obedience, has always been mirrored in your sincerest rebellion... little did we know we didn't even believe the Gospel.

    But that there is one Jesus, we hope to meet, who is Truth and who is love and in whom only is all our faith. And through him, "marked people can find healing too." It's awesome. I appreciate you James!

  2. Im a "backslider" that does not hang out with other "backsliders". I actually hang out with church members way more. Mainly because girls who leave the church get prego. What is with this obsession on having a baby when you leave church? Can anyone relate? maybe it is just my church. But anyway, I think i have adapted nicely in the world, i believe its important to identify yourself as a human, an American, a member of your community, etc. Not just or only this person marked by God. Is it just me or is that title a little intimidating? ...too much pressure, too much required, too much expected of you, must I go on? However I dont like the title of backslider either, it sounds like a menu item.

    1. Hey Suzy - You are a beautiful anomaly. I hope I am too, though my transition has had its share of turbulence. I wasn't making the case for all people everywhere, just a social observation of many that "backslid" (using the insider word, not out of support of such terminology, of course). And yes, the "mark" is heavy and initmidating, which is exactly why I was calling it out, and hopefully putting light on an area that brings great fear to people.

      Thanks for your comments, Suzy.