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Why Trading Bible Study Time For Good Therapy Might Be A Good Idea

Tell me about that moment of existential dread, Charlie Brown….

Tell me about that moment of existential dread, Charlie Brown….

I love smart-assed graffiti.

Years ago I saw a funny phrase spray painted on a pillar of a freeway overpass, but I didn’t think it was so funny at the time. I thought it was irreverent.

The phrase said, “Jesus is the answer.”  Well, I suppose if someone’s going to deface public property, that’s about as appropriate as you can get. You know, winning souls and all.

But underneath the graffiti proselytization, someone had scrawled in Sharpie pen, “...but what’s the question?” in retort. Well, that’s rude, I thought.

The thing is, I kinda side with the smart-assed Sharpie comment now and I think I’m better off for it.

A couple years ago, I finished writing my book, but I’ve struggled to continue writing in that vein. On one hand, I feel allergic to self-promotion. On the other hand, as I was finishing the manuscript, I realized I was working within an ideological framework I’m sort of suspicious of now.   

For the record, I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth, and Jesus loves me, this I know, etc. This post isn’t about losing faith, I think maybe it’s about the process of grieving the loss of a shallow faith that over promised. I would have figured that’d be something to feel good about, but…you know. Grief.

So amidst this grief, what is it I’m so suspicious of? Fundamentalist thinking. The kind out there, but mostly in here. I’ve found that fundamentalism over promises and under delivers. And when you try and cram round peg beliefs into life’s square holes, well, it becomes an  exercise in futility.

I suppose Christian fundamentalism could be strictly defined in a King-James-Bible-only, the-earth-was-created-in-six-literal-days, rock-and-roll-is-of-the-devil, and women-can’t-be-pastors sense, but that’s not quite what I’m getting at. I spent a decade and a half in a community that touted beer drinking and cigar smoking as spiritual virtues, and being in a rock band earned you a badge for  being “missional”.

No, what I think I mean by fundamentalism is black and white, in-or-out thinking. Maybe the language I’m grasping for is “cult-ish”. I dunno. If any of this is clicking for you, you probably have your own descriptive word or definition that works.

This general shift of what fundamentalism is, and what it does to people began to take shape a few years ago after a couple’s counseling session. We were talking about the corrosive effects of our time at Mars Hill Church (yes, THAT Mars Hill), and our counselor said something like, “well, fundamentalist, black-and-white thinking is childish-ness.” It was a simple, almost throw-away comment. But something in me started to get knocked loose. It turns out a lot more stuff needed to get knocked loose in my own individual therapy, too.  

OK. So Fundamentalist thinking is black-and-white thinking. And black-and-white thinking is childish. Our church had been filled with grown-ass adults acting childishly (myself included, I’m sure). Huh.

Well, you know that saying about When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways? Well, as it turns out, grown-ass adulting requires giving up childish ways. But when we insist on childish ways of being in the world when we’re facing grown-up problems, it’s inevitable that somebody’s going to get hurt.

The other day I was walking past my bookshelf. I love being surrounded by lots of  books, but lately I’ve been thinking I ought to do some housecleaning and free up some space. There are a good many theology / spiritual living type titles on my shelf I’ll never reread, and several that are at the very least unhelpful.  I cracked one such book and the first line I read was, “…now, how should we look at this issue biblically?” I looked up, blinked at the wall, and snapped the book shut.

This is what fundamentalism does. It makes claims that somehow the Bible is the “owner’s manual for life” and then poses silly questions like, how one ought to approach subjects like parenting, budget balancing, marriage negotiating, or mental health in a “biblical” way. Is it just me, or is this kind of…I dunno, childish?

See, the grownup challenges I face these days require me to step into life and be present in ways that a theologically fundamentalist system can't account for. That doesn’t mean that theological systems are wrong, or don’t have answers to lots of issues that call for rigorous, thoughtful consideration. But they don’t have all the answers either. Affirming theological truths is good and necessary. But when you try to shoehorn theological frameworks into areas of life that other disciplines are better suited to address, you’re going to create more problems or unintended consequences like additional stress and anxiety. You know, cramming square pegs into round holes and all that.

One of the tools in my dusty old theological toolbox used to be of the Reformed brand that aides in sniffing out where all the “idols” in one’s life might be hiding. Where the false worship monster might be rearing its head. Well, navel gazing and over-thinking takes a shit-ton of energy that I’m not really interested in expending right now. So I’d rather focus my energies elsewhere. So I try to study less, exercise more, and show up to my regular counseling sessions.  

Don’t get me wrong, I believe there’s such a thing as “true” truth. George Washington was the first American President, Whatchamacallit is the best candy bar ever invented, and bears run in the woods. But I’m also not going to go looking for love poetry in a phone book. There I said it. Sometimes the Bible doesn’t have all the answers to our life problems, and maybe it’s irresponsible to use up an inordinate amount of time hoping God will fix something, when we’re called to take responsibility for our lives. Sometimes instead of praying about a situation to get better or hoping your question will get picked for the ask Pastor John Piper show, it might be best to go get the help of a professional who knows what the hell they’re talking about. Sometimes getting the help of a trained, licensed counselor is the right first step. (Ahem, that’d be me.)

When I wrote my book, my family and I had just come out of the toxicity of Mars Hill. We were feeling shell shocked and sort of spiritually....I dunno...nauseated. A couple years prior to our leaving (or being pushed out depending on how you look at it), with the help of some good friends, I started studying scripture and theology with a different hermeneutical lens, and began feeling like maybe I could breathe again. That maybe the core message of the Bible is God’s one way love instead of a bait and switch. But I also had a manuscript deadline, dammit. And I had to write that sucker with the only toolbox I had at the time which included the idol hunting tools that really only served to keep me in a rut with my internal wheels spinning in the mud. Fast forward a few years, and I don’t have anything to detract from what I’ve written, but I’m not as confident in my toolbox anymore, either. (Don’t get bent out of shape bro, all your dead white theologians are still geniuses.)

As I reflect back on that time and my own internal tendencies to theologize, I realize that maybe my shift in theological conviction is just trading one way of thinking for another. One tool for another tool. Do I have an internal need to be on the “right” team and demonize others on the “wrong” team? If so, I’m smack dab in the middle of that black and white thinking thingy again, and nobody needs that.

Then I step back and look at the faith communities with those awesome hermeneutical lenses that deliver the goods of God’s one-way love, and I see a similar pattern. Grown-ass adults acting childishly. Cultishly. Black and white-ish-ly. Whatever you want to call it. And I wonder to myself, dude, where my people at? But then, maybe my need to belong to a tribe is more evidence that I have more growing up to do myself.

My core theological beliefs have remained the same, I just don't believe like I used to that "correct" theology will make your life any better. This is where fundamentalism over promises. It says your life will be better when you get all the categories straight in your head.

These days, when I engage with others who share similar theological convictions, I sometimes sense in them a need for head-knowledge mastery too—a mastery that is falsely believed to have All The Answers—and that way of approaching life is appealing to me less and less.

I want to be clear that I’m aiming to pinpoint problems I see in here, rather than all the bad people out there. And at the risk of going back on what I just said, I think it’s worth mentioning I observe my tendencies in others, too. At its worst, turbo-Christian impulses can be a cover up for things some folks perhaps haven’t tended to themselves. A case in point: I can think of at least a couple pastors right now who have addictive pasts.

Jesus may be a safer addiction than drugs, and I’m glad they’re not in jail or living on the street. I also don’t dispute the healing and transformation they have experienced. But the internal mechanics of addiction remain, they just traded a bad habit in for another form of intensity and obsession. Only this time they’re playing traffic cop on theological correctness and taking responsibility for the lives of their congregations in really unhealthy ways. That’s dangerous territory ripe for spiritual abuse, and I hope nobody gets hurt. In a similar vein, one Reformed Theological Seminary student wrote insightfully about how Reformed Evangelicalism may be a hideout for the traumatized. It’s worth serious consideration.

But I’m not immune, either.  On my worst days, the need for theological mastery hurts me and others because it takes me from real flesh and blood relationship, keeps me stuck in my head, and that too can be an exercise in childish thinking.

For many (like me), more theology is not what’s needed for overall better health. It turns out, more time studying theology might exacerbate my depression and anxiety because it keeps me in a cycle that my brain and body don’t need right now. Instead, I think I’m probably better off trading rigorous theologizing and Bible study time with good therapy, more leafy greens, deeper breathing, time with friends and some exercise. And I’ve got a few people in my life and many acquaintances that could probably benefit from the same. You probably do too. There are only so many hours in a week, after all.

So, Jesus is the answer. Please, and thank you. Yes, and amen. Jesus is the answer, but, you know, what’s the question?