Category Archives: Spiritual Abuse

Yo, Texas. I’m headin’ your way this weekend! Let’s meet up, k? Also: QUESO.

Let me begin by saying I’ve never had Queso. I know, I know. WHAT SORT OF DEPRIVED LIFE HAVE I LIVED? One word: fundamentalist childhood. Oh, wait. That’s two words. Point is, from what Texans tell me, I’ve been REALLY missing out. So, I’m gonna remedy that this weekend.

This Sunday, September 14th, I’ll be speaking about my book and life after fundamentalism at Collective Church in Forth Worth, Texas. Afterwards, there will be a Queso Cook-Off. AND I GET TO JUDGE MWAH-HA HA!!

For details and directions CLICK HERE. The event is free and open to all who wish to attend. Let me know if you’re coming because I’d love to meet you, my dear bloggy readers, in person. WARNING: I’m a hugger! :)

Why do Christian news outlets minimize abuse in Christian homeschooling?

Today, WORLD Magazine published an article tentatively exploring the “question” of whether abuse and neglect is a problem inside Christian homeschooling.

Here, let me answer that for you definitivelyYes. Yes, there is a problem. This is not a “question.” This is not a “debate.” Some of us have been talking about it for YEARS.

Look, I’m thankful this issue topic is receiving more exposure among large Christian media outlets, but I’m completely frustrated by the unfair slant of these articles. The sub-title of the WORLD magazine article says it all: “How to keep a few bad apples from spoiling the bushel.”

Right. This little “abuse problem” we Christians have? It’s just a few bad apples. It’s not widespread. Look! We have ninety-and-nine awesome homeschooled sheep! Let’s forget about that one lost sheep, k? She was a bad apple, anyway.

That’s totally how the parable goes, amen?

No, no it’s not. Minimizing abuse is NOT a Christian value and major media outlets should know better. Christians do not abandon the one lost sheep. Christians do not turn a blind eye to the “least of these.”

Sadly, WORLD magazine isn’t the only culprit, here.

Last year, Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service wrote an article dismissing the impact of Mike & Debi Pearl’s To Train up a Child, saying: “while the Pearls may have some amount of influence, it is disproportionate to the amount of space many writers have given them in articles..”

So, once again: abuse within Christian homeschooling isn’t worthy of our attention unless it’s happening on a wide scale. My question is: how many more children must die before we start acknowledging we have a SERIOUS ABUSE PROBLEM within Christianity?

Because even though Merritt went on to agree that the Pearls’ teachings ARE harmful, his general conclusions match Daniel Devine’s dismissive attitude in today’s WORLD article; mainly, yes abuse happens but it’s not a BIG problem. Thank God we’re not like those other bad apple homeschooling parents!

This line of reasoning completely misses the point. By making the focus of their investigation a matter of breadth, the abusive experiences of current and former Christian homeschooled children are erased, minimized and dismissed. This is not OK.

Instead of asking whether abuse in Christian homeschooling is widespread, we should be examining its lifelong impact. 

Instead of asking how MANY are affected, we should be asking HOW DEEPLY.

So, what can we do? Well, for one, we can speak up. If you see or suspect a child is being abused, please don’t look away. Follow your gut instinct and say something! We can also support the good and important work of those trying to make a difference for the future of Christian homeschooling.

I’m so grateful for the hard work of those at Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out and the survey they’ve put together asking adult homeschool alumni to share their experience. If you’re a homeschool alumni aged 18 or older, please go check it out. Your voice is important!

Please also read and share the statement by HARO regarding their response to WORLD Magazine’s “Homeschool Debate” article.


Is @MarsHill church a cult? What IS a cult, anyway???

Unknown-1This past week, a 16-year, devoted member of Mars Hills Church (the group of churches founded by Mark Driscoll) wrote a blog post repenting of his complicity to and participation in spiritual abuse . He writes:

We were grieved by our own sins of complicity to systems and structures we could not in good conscience support anymore. The overall philosophical idea we could not support anymore was an “ends justifies the means” mentality.…I admit I would get passionate about these things thinking it was the Gospel. I then would manipulate more. I was so blind to this form of Spiritual abuse I would even get upset with people who disagreed…Everything became pragmatic tyranny. I truly believed that if this “Gospel” was moving forward I was justified in my actions. (emphasis mine)

I know a little something about cults. I grew up in one. What this former member so bravely exposes are the “systems and structures” that perpetuate spiritual abuse and create cultic groups.

What this former member is telling us is that Mars Hills Church OPERATES in a harmful manner; uses abusive METHODS and justifies it by saying the Gospel is moving forward.

This is terribly wrong and should raise huge red-flags to anyone involved with Mars Hills Churches.

Is Mars Hill Church a cult? Well, let’s talk about that.

In Chapter One of my book, “Girl at The End of the World,” I explain why I call MY childhood church a cult:

…when people ask me why I call The Assembly a cult, I say it’s because we operated like one. Cults aren’t so much about beliefs as they are about methods and behavior. According to cult researchers, it is the emotional seizing of people’s trust, thoughts and choices that identifies a cult. The Assembly wins on all counts. (p.9)

When talking about cults, Christians have often focused on theology. I don’t find this very helpful.

Identifying a cult based on What Beliefs Are Believed is far too subjective a standard of measurement. Beliefs vary widely–even among Christians who hold generally similar beliefs about foundational doctrines like the Bible, the Trinity, the Person of Christ, etc.

What is far more useful and easily identifiable is looking at the WAY a church operates. I mean, any two groups may disagree about whether Jesus IS God but if one group beats its children into submission while the other group doesn’t, I’m gonna say the violent group is a cult–even if its beliefs are considered orthodox.

Now, just a caveat, here: often, harmful beliefs DO lead to cult-like behavior. For example, my childhood church beat children so harshly because it BELIEVED children were inherently wicked sinners who NEEDED to be spanked in order to be saved from Hell. Obviously, I don’t believe that belief anymore. So, yes, sometimes beliefs feed the cultish behavior.

People have told me that I need to “be careful” about labeling churches as cults. I absolutely disagree. If a group ACTS like a cult and OPERATES like a cult and HURTS people like a cult–then let’s call it what is is: a cult.

There’s a huge reason for this: calling a cult a cult is empowering for the victims inside it. Yes, it was initially VERY difficult for me to call my childhood church a cult, if only because the cult was also my family. There was a lot of personal shame involved. But, in the end, I found it absolutely liberating to call my church what it was: a cult.

Naming the cult for what it was helped me UNDERSTAND my experience and place it into context. I was so grateful to know that cults exist outside The Assembly and that my story wasn’t so super-extreme-unique that nobody could understand what had happened to me.

In fact, it wasn’t UNTIL I started calling my childhood church a cult that outsiders understood what I was trying to tell them. When I said: “I grew up in a cult” they were like: “Oh, OK, I get it.” But if I said: “I grew up in a strict church” they were like: “Didn’t we all? Isn’t ‘strict’ the very definition of church?”

Um. Nope. After this happened a bunch of times I knew I needed a better descriptor. Yes, the word “cult” is heavy. But so is spiritual abuse. Maybe it’s time we started taking spiritual abuse seriously.

I understand why fellow Christians might feel confused or reticent about calling Mars Hill Church a cult, or even a “cultic” group. They’ll probably say something like: “But Mark Driscoll loves Jesus and is passionate about making disciples!” All I have to say to that is: the ends don’t justify the means. The noblest and holiest goals NEVER excuse abusive means.

Another excuse we might hear: “I attend a branch of Mars Hill Church and that stuff doesn’t happen here.” Well, if this were the first time we were hearing troubling news out of MHC, then this might be true. But the truth is that the stories have been slowly eking out over several years.

I think it’s time Christians took a serious look at what is happening inside Mars Hill Church; paying special attention to the SYSTEMS and STRUCTURES and METHODS of operation.

At the very least, the Gospel deserves THAT.


A helpful resource for identifying cultic groups and relationships can be found in “Take Back Your Life: recovering from cults and abusive relationships.” In this book, the authors describe the Top 15 Characteristics of Cultic Groups. This list is BY FAR the best compilation of cultic characteristics I’ve ever seen. I’ll mention a few, here, as they pertain to faith-based cults, specifically:

  • The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology and practices as the Truth, as law.
  • Questioning, doubt and dissent are discouraged or even punished.
  • Mind-altering practices such as speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader (s).
  • The leadership dictates–sometimes in great detail–how members should think, act and feel (ie. members must get permission to date, change jobs, or marry…leaders prescribe what to wear, where to live, whether to have children, how to discipline children…)
  • The leader is not accountable to any authorities
  • ..requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group
  • The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.
  • The group is preoccupied with making money.
  • Members are required to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

–from Appendix A, Take Back Your Life, pages 327 & 328

And to read about my real-life experience inside a Christian cult, here’s my book:

The Girl at the End of the World 

“I’m depressed and living hurts too much…”

The following is a “deleted scene” from my book (available March, 2014). It is the story of my two-week stay at a retreat center specializing in emotional healing and codependency issues. I am sharing this story in the hopes that those who have suffered similarly will know they are not alone and those in positions of religious authority will understand the devastating, long-term impact of spiritual abuse. Comments are open. Be kind.



I’ve been out of an abusive church for years but I’m still making the same mistake: I still don’t take care of myself. I keep burning out. I survive on caffeine and adrenaline.

By all measures my life is far better than it used to be. I should feel healed.

But my skin is on fire, elbows and feet flaring with psoriasis scales. I want to unzip my skin and crawl out of it. My hands shake, full of fear and trembling.

I’m going to a two week retreat center because I’m depressed as hell and living hurts too much. There. That’s the honest truth.

I grip my boarding pass tightly, so tightly my knuckles might start sweating blood. I stare at the bar-code as if I can somehow decipher the meaning behind the lines, trace the trajectory that led me here—trembling in an airport, blindsided by one glaring, uncomfortable truth: fundamentalism worked; it successfully broke me.

In the very core of who I am, I still believe I’m not good enough. No matter how successfully we’ve rebuilt our lives, no matter how recovered we look—deep down, I’m still a frightened little girl.

Something is missing.

I get in line to board my flight because I need help, because I am serious about my recovery. I now understand that there is no quick-fix that will permanently cure me. Extricating myself from what I experienced is like sorting the wheat from the chaff—the good is sown in with the bad.

I am going into treatment because I am determined to get better.



“We don’t break our horses, we invite them into a partnership with us,” Alyssa says, her bright eyes sparkling beneath the broad brim of her cowboy hat.

It’s my third day at the retreat center. We’ve been standing on this windswept hill for what seems like an eternity doing nothing but watch horses. Horses standing. Horses grazing. Horses doing absolutely nothing. Alyssa tells us that being still and simply watching horses is an exercise in developing our inner observer.

I don’t know what I’m supposed to be observing, here, other than my raging boredom.

Being still is damn uncomfortable.

“You’re on horse-time now,” Alyssa says. “For those of us accustomed to rushing around, being on horse-time is really difficult. When I first started working with horses I couldn’t sit still for more than five minutes.

I shift my weight from foot to foot, ball my hands into fists and push them into the pockets of my windbreaker. I don’t understand how you’re supposed to control a horse without breaking her and I certainly don’t understand how being on horse-time will improve my relationship with myself and with God.

Still, there is something about Alyssa’s way of being that intrigues me. She is loose and easeful. She walks gently, slowly and intentionally. She talks casually and easily to her horses as if they’re native English speakers. I have no idea how this is working but it’s obvious the horses understand her because they gently respond.

I am utterly baffled. This is a language I don’t understand. I am not accustomed to gentleness, partnership and relationships between equals. I am accustomed to harshness, black-and-white hierarchies and mutually destructive relationships. The language Alyssa shares with her horses is utterly foreign but I can clearly see the results: mutual respect and implicit trust. This is love.

Quite unexpectedly, I see the connection to my own life and it takes my breath away.

I learned to relate to God through punishment.

My first experience of God happened beneath a paddle. I was spanked until my will was broken.

I was spanked until the deepest belief I held was that love is punishment.


In the treatment center, I have homework.

My program director has instructed me to create a timeline of my life, listing all major events and relationships in chronological order. “The point of this exercise,” she tells me, “is to discover your own, unique relational pattern.”

It takes me a several pages to complete the time line. Then, working from a list of signs and characteristics, I color-code each relationship with my most common behaviors.

When I’m done, an obvious pattern has emerged.

It is uncomfortably, devastatingly true: I have unrealistic expectations of others in relationships, I seek to avoid rejection and abandonment at any cost, I mistake intensity for intimacy and most of all, I feel a deep sense of worthlessness and therefore use relationships to relieve emotional pain.

I’ve attached to friendships, correspondences, Facebook “friends,” blogging “friends,” attended conferences in hopes of finding that Perfect Best Friend, bounced around churches hoping to find The Perfect Church, emailed bloggers I adored, texted, weaseled and grasped for relationships to fill, fill, fill—fill what? A bottomless chasm of aching need.

I don’t have a drinking problem. I don’t have a substance abuse problem. I am hooked on relationships.

I stare at my timeline and I see the source of my relational pattern: lack of nurturing and attention while young triggered feelings of shame and inherent worthlessness. If I am ever to fully recover, I will need daily connection with a higher power Who loves me unconditionally. The key to my emotional healing and my spiritual future is letting God love me.

And there it is, the missing piece: I don’t know how to receive God’s love. I don’t know how to receive grace. The core of my spiritual struggle is with self-loathing.



This is what I understand: there will never be one, final cure for my religiously wounded heart. I will always bear the scars. And there will even be times when I feel the pain anew. But each day, I can choose to take care of myself. I can choose to let God love me.

This is what I know: I can’t save the world from fundamentalism, but I can save myself. There are things I cannot change, but I ask God for the courage to help me change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.

This is my story: God has given me a future and a hope.

This is my song: I am not afraid.


Precious and Free

I took the children to a park we haven’t been to in a long time. When they were little, we went almost every day.

The park looks different now: old, weathered, worn-out. Two of the slides had been torn out, the holes boarded up with plywood. There was graffiti on two benches. So many weeds–a missing drinking fountain.

I used to go to that park when I was a lost, floundering young mom desperately trying to rebuild a new life after the cult. I was 25 with 3 kids under 3. I felt so alien in mainstream America. Everyone seemed so normal and I felt like such a freak show. I mean, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be friends with a woman who grew up in a cult.

So, I poured everything into my husband and children. I gave all. I clung to the remaining pieces of my disintegrating faith.

T.S. Eliot once wrote: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

That’s what I was doing. I was shoring up fragments, desperately trying to cobble together a life–a way of being–after everything had been destroyed.

One spring, butterflies came to the park. They fluttered over us, dozens of them in the spring sunshine. There were daisies growing in wild abundance that year. And sometimes, while the children played, I just sat quietly under the trees and listened to the sound of wind in the branches above me.

I was so different then, so blindly optimistic, so sure willpower alone could save us and restore us to sanity. We took family pictures in that park. We picnicked there. I was so certain that if I just kept doing the right things, kept praying, kept reading my Bible, kept trying to build a new, religious scaffolding upon which to hang my worldview–things would get better.

I had such dreams then. Such hopes. I kept my focus on outward things, on doing and working and trying. But sometimes, during those quiet moments under the trees I sensed something was amiss inside me—that the cult wasn’t external. The cult was within. 

But I didn’t let myself go there. I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to live in denial. Just before the twins arrived I was reaching this point where I couldn’t ignore the darkness anymore. I was keenly feeling the loss of myself. I was beginning to think God had abandoned me…but then, twins!

Suddenly, I had new purpose! I was busy again! Nothing mattered but the new babies. Once again I could stop feeling that deep discomfort about the problem within me. Once again, I gave all. I gave every last bit.

But this time, my body couldn’t keep up. I had been placing these kinds of demands on myself since childhood. Cults keep people so busy and frantic that you are living blindly–rushing from one thing to the next without ever slowing down long enough to realize: something is terribly wrong, here. You sense something is wrong but you tell yourself it’s OK because you’re burning out for God.

Without knowing it, I had simply recreated the chaotic, frantically busy environment of my childhood. I was no longer burning out for God, I was burning out for Little League and PTA and enriching activities for my children! I was also recreating toxic relationships. I became enmeshed and entangled in other people’s problems. I tried to fix and solve and rescue people from All the Problems. And then, when they didn’t take my advice I became resentful, angry, obsessive and would lash out.

I filled up my life with more things–good things!–but always more things. I didn’t know that frantic urgency was unhealthy. All the other good Americans seemed to be doing it! No matter how much I did, I never felt good enough.

What I learned the hard way was that either I’d stop the crazy or my body would stop it for me.

Two years after the twins were born, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly sick. I was chronically sleep deprived and so totally exhausted that it took my doctor commanding me to TAKE A REST for me to finally realize that it was possible to die of “natural causes/burnout” by age 32.

Slowly, I began prioritizing taking care of myself.

The answer to my recovery was not a new religious system and it was not going back to the old one, either. The answer to a healthy life and healthy relationships was not in attending church, volunteering in the PTA or doing more for others.

The answer was to start taking care of myself. The answer was to love myself.

I began with a small step: getting enough sleep at night. Then I began exercising. Then I started eating a little healthier each day. I went back to therapy. I began a 12-step recovery program.

I now understand there are no shortcuts to living a healthy life and having healthy, equal-partnered relationships. I am learning to detach with love from people and relationships that are toxic and unhealthy. I am learning to develop relationships slowly, taking as much time as I need to discover whether I like this new person and how to create healthy, appropriate boundaries for them. I am learning that I can’t be everyone’s best friend.

I am learning to feel my uncomfortable feelings, the ones that come from building new, healthy habits and patterns of behavior. Like running, building a healthy life feels painful and uncomfortable at first. But there is a difference between healthy, healing pain and unhealthy, damaging pain. Before I started getting healthy, I tolerated unhealthy discomfort: high-levels of drama, spiritual abuse and becoming ensnared in other people’s problems.

I’m no longer trying to escape my past or run away from it. I’m no longer trying to escape my present moment. I’m learning to recognize the things I can change and the things I cannot change. I am learning to live less frantically.

I now understand that God never abandoned me. I abandoned myself.

I found God again by taking care of myself. I am learning to trust God again because God loves me unconditionally.

I accept that things will never be perfect. There will be weeds, broken playgrounds and missing water fountains.

But there will also be patches of daisies growing in wild, unexpected abundance, precious and free.

Belts and spatulas: a story of spanking, fear, failure and redemption

I had the pleasure of “meeting” Josh Barkey online awhile ago and was struck by his gentle spirit, vulnerable honesty and commitment to art. He has written a book called “Immortality Stories” and I wanted to honor the journey he has traveled. Here is part of Josh’s story. I think it will resonate with many of you. EE.

: :

The worst part was always the waiting.

“Your dad will be home soon,” she’d say, “Go to your room and think about what you’ve done,” and I’d trudge the long hallway to crumple onto my bed, fighting the tears.

I did not, of course, ever actually think about what I’d done. What I thought about was the ball of acid-coated lava rolling around in my gut, sending shooting tendrils of dread out into my extremities. I thought about the belt, or spatula, or whatever happened to be in vogue that week.

I thought about the command to “Lean over the bed;” the sharp, stinging pain; and his unheard after-words as he wrapped me in his arms and explained why it was I’d had to be spanked.

My dad is a gentle man. A kind man. He did not enjoy hitting me.

But he was taught that a father who loves his child hits his child, and he loved me more than his own distaste for violence. He wasn’t about to “spare the rod” and spoil his child, so he acted out a ritual we both hated, and told himself it was the Right Thing to Do.

Sometimes I wonder how, with parents as loving as mine, I ended up being so afraid. Afraid of God. Of myself. Of life.

How did fear worm down into my heart? How did fear of an uncertain future push a recent college graduate into a relationship for which he was not yet ready, taking him to the altar and beyond? How did fear become so entrenched that he was unable to communicate in a way that would make his wife feel fully loved and cherished, saving the marriage so that his own son didn’t have to grow up between two homes… so he didn’t have to try to figure out this spanking stuff on his own?

I don’t know.

Life is too vast and complicated, I think, to ever blame a fear or a failure on just one thing. To say, “This, Josh, is why—despite everyone’s assurances that you were a natural-born writer and painter and odd-angled thinker—you were never able to believe it, take the step, and just Be who you Are.”

But I wonder, in this my thirty-third year, if perhaps those long, fear-filled hallway trudges might have something to do with it.

I wonder if now, having written my way free of enough of my own fear that I could take my son aside and say I was sorry, and never again would he be spanked, I wonder if it might just be safe to acknowledge that it is never a good thing to instill fear in a child.

That making is oh-so-much-harder than breaking, and that freedom to live at peace with yourself, God, and the world is only ever found when all the weapons have been beaten into plowshares. When belts just hold up pants, and spatulas only ever mix up cookie dough, as God intended. 

- – -

Josh Barkey is a writer and all-around artist who lives in an ivy-draped shed in North Carolina, and has found the courage to plunge into life as a full-time Maker. If you’d like to read more and support him in this, you can find the website for his new book at, or visit his blog at

I was spanked as a child and I turned out ok. Didn’t I?

It’s late on a night during Holy Week. I’m alone and I’m trembling because I have seen into my heart of darkness and it’s brought everything back….

I was spanked and spanked and spanked and I turned out OK, didn’t I? Look how successful I am! Look at these works of my hands, taste this fruit and tell me it’s not sweet.

I watched Zero Dark Thirty and I didn’t flinch. Not once. I understand torture, see. I know when it’s necessary and I know how to do it. I sat there and watched it and suddenly, I saw something else: I saw my heart of darkness. I could do that. Oh, God. I could do that.

I know how to flip the switch inside my icy heart and simply turn off the empathy so that their cries don’t touch me. This is how I was trained.

When my firstborn baby was six months old, I started spanking her. I packed a layer of ice around my heart and I went very, very calm. I even smiled. I spanked her calmly and systematically without a hint of anger. I wasn’t out of control. I got results. She was so very, very obedient. A model toddler. I broke her. Just like I’d been broken.

This is my heart of darkness: I know how to break children.

Because I was broken this way.

I was spanked and I turned out OK, didn’t I? I follow God with all my heart and I was raised up in the way I should go and I have not departed from it. Yes, yes. Such good, holy fruit.

But I am broken, see. They broke me with wooden spoons and paddles and kitchen spatulas.

After the church fell apart, I thought surely they’d see the light and apologize for spanking me from infancy. I waited for years. But nothing.

And one day, I finally broke. One day I said goodbye.

When you set out to break a child, other things get broken, too. You don’t get to decide which things get broken. You might spank your child to save their soul from Hell but all the good intentions only pave the way to it.

There came a moment when I stopped spanking my children. This story is in my book. It didn’t stop all at once. But there was A Moment. A moment that changed me, a moment that made me realize I was on the same road paved by good, holy intentions. The same road to breaking a child.

I stopped. I stopped. Dear God, it took far too long but I finally did stop. And my children were spared. Most of them don’t remember a thing.

So, yes. I turned out ok, didn’t I? I still smile and laugh and live responsibly. I am a good citizen! A loving wife! A dutiful mother! You would never know that for years I cut myself. That I still equate pain with love. That I still believe I’m not good enough. I still have nightmares and struggle terribly with anxiety and dark waves of depression.

You would never know that a broken will=broken relationships.

But yes. I was spanked as a child and I turned out OK, didn’t I? DIDN’T I?

No. I turned out “ok” IN SPITE of being spanked.

At least I no longer have a heart of stone. At least now I have a heart of flesh.
And now I weep with those who weep.

Were you spanked as a child? Was your will broken, too? Were you spanked to “save your soul from Hell”?Comments will be moderated to protect safety of shared stories.
This comment box is for sharing, not debating.
Anonymous comments accepted. 

UPDATE, 3/29/13: my most sincere thanks to those of you who have shared your stories with us. Your bravery, vulnerability and honesty inspire me. Due to the busy holiday weekend, I am unable to further moderate comments so I am closing the thread. As always, my email is available if you would like to send a private message. Much love, EE.
Happy Easter.

The price of religious shaming, the redemption of love {review of “The Whale” at South Coast Repertory}

The Whale logo courtesy of South Coast Repertory

I took a break from book writing this week to catch a play at South Coast Repertory. I walked into The Whale knowing nothing about it and walked out feeling completely known. And more than that: unconditionally accepted—simply for being human, for being here, for being me.

I laughed, I wept and I trembled all the way home. I woke up the next morning with scenes still running through my mind and snippets of dialogue still wrenching my heart. I can’t stop thinking about it. I can’t stop talking about it.

The Whale is the story of a morbidly obese man trapped in his apartment and dying of congestive heart failure. It the story of being trapped in one’s body, trapped by shaming religion, trapped by failure, trapped by mistakes and miscommunication, so helplessly trapped that all Charlie can keep repeating is I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

Helen Sadler and Matthew Arkin in South Coast Repertory's production of The Whale by Samuel D. Hunter. Photo by Scott Brinegar/SCR.

On the surface it seems like a depressing story. But like Charlie’s body, outward appearance belies inner beauty. At its heart, The Whale is a story of ridiculous hope and a relentless longing for true connection—a connection that can happen against all odds when we simply allow ourselves to be radically honest and unconditionally accepting.

It is a story that rejects the superficial standards by which our modern society measures honesty, faith, love and success. It is a story that asks us to reach beyond what we see and value the truth within.

Rejected by his hateful, rebellious teenage daughter, blamed by his ex-wife, suffering from the heartbreak of losing his partner and having eaten his way into moribund obesity, Charlie shows us that devastating setbacks are not what define a life.

What matters in life—what truly matters—is being so totally honest with ourselves and with others that we see through to the beauty within each human person and accept them just as they are.

The Whale is graphic and raw and desperately honest. It is at times brutally heartbreaking, also irreverent and unabashedly LOL funny. But as Charlie lurches across the stage toward his daughter, we find ourselves gasping for breath along with him and suddenly we understand: love conquers all.

If you’re local to Southern California, go see “The Whale.” Shows run through March 31.

The day I learned I was a hipster/progressive/”current feminist” advocating ‘commitment-free’ sex for all!

And here I thought I was just Catholic (but if I snap out of my “current” feminism anytime soon, I’ll be sure to let you know). ;-)

In the meantime, allow me to give you a brief summary of the pushback to my virginity posts: 

1. Juicy Ecumenism–a website affiliated with The Institute of Religion and Democracy (The IRD)– –posted a piece mocking post-evangelical bloggers. The official Twitter feed for The IRD mentioned me and so, I figured the mocking post was roasting me.

2. However, the pseudonymous author later left a comment saying he wasn’t writing about me. He was writing about…Ann Voskamp. Which was even more confusing because I’m pretty sure Ann is not post-evangelical. She is evangelical. Also? She doesn’t wear hipster glasses. BUT I DIGRESS.

3. And then, yesterday, The Gospel Coalition critiqued me (and the other brave, Christian women who wrote similar posts) for our flawed ‘underlying complaint.’ According to The Gospel Coalition, our underlying complaint “seems to demand that we accept different decisions without critique or even regret.

So, I have some feelings about all this. (Oops. I said the “f” word. Feeeeeelings. Excuse me for a moment while I lay aside my irrational, lady-emotions and put on my lady-brain. Don’t worry, this change of clothing will be ENTIRELY MODEST, ba ha ha)

Here goes:

  1. Regarding the satirical post mocking post-evangelical bloggers: writing a mocking post under a pseudonym is cowardly. Even though the author later clarified the post wasn’t about me (so why was my name tagged in the tweet?), that didn’t make it OK. Ann Voskamp is a friend of mine. If you’re going to roast real people then have the guts to do it under your real name. 
  2. Regarding The Gospel Coalition: the underlying complaint of my virginity posts was NOT a demand that Christians accept “different decisions without critique or regret.Dear Gospel Coalition, if you’re gonna critique my position, at least be honest about my position (pun! pun!). In fact, NONE of the virginity posts I’ve read in the last week (Preston offers a nice round-up list here) have called for “accepting different decisions w/o critique or regret.” The very title of The Gospel Coalition post is misleading! NONE of us are advocating ‘commitment-free’ sex. Good grief.
  3. What we ARE rejecting is a culture of mass shaming, making a public example of God’s precious children and scaring them with fearful rhetoric. 
  4. What we ARE calling to light are the harmful practices and behaviors of evangelical purity culture. We are doing this by sharing our personal stories about how we’ve been affected by the guilting, shaming and public spectacle-making of purity culture. As we share our stories, we experience freedom. As we share our stories, we release shame. Freedom in Christ IS freedom from shame and THAT was the message of our virginity posts.
  5. Furthermore, the women who began this conversation are all Christian women. I, for one, am a married mother of five. I am a Catholic Christian. I believe All The Things. But somehow I apparently approve of ‘commitment-free’ sex? Um, NO. If my kids tried to use that logic on me I’d be all: go get your little lying butt to Confession right this minute!
  6. What this means is that The Gospel Coalition is intentionally attempting to change the conversation AWAY from harmful methods and practices and is inventing an entirely different conversation. Straw man, anyone? Er, straw-lady?
  7. It is such a bizarre conclusion that I can only wonder at the motivation. Was The Gospel Coalition post really about defending traditional Biblical beliefs or was it about publicly shaming, silencing and dismissing the women who were brave enough to speak up about their abusive, personal experiences? SUMFIN SMELLS ROTTEN IS ALL I’M SAYIN’.
  8. No, seriously:
  9. By accusing us of trying to change traditional Christian beliefs, The Gospel Coalition proves it’s not interested in hearing about harmful behaviors within the Christian community but instead, has invented a conversation of its own wherein they–the Gospel Coalition–bring all the women into line by accusing them of aberrant theology. 
  10. Now, where have I seen such dismissive/silencing tactics before? Hm. Oh my frail little lady-brain must be failing me again. Maybe I should just go home and ask my husband….
  11. Quoth the husband: “Elizabeth, I’m proud of you.”
  12. WHAT UP.
  13. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must needs go put on my Red Rahab lipstick and have lots of
  14. committed
  15. Catholic
  16. sex.
  17. (Hipster glasses not included).
  18. And all the people said……..

Love is a…choice?

A few months after we were married, church leadership “strongly encouraged” us to attend a marriage workshop. Frankly, attendance wasn’t optional. To maintain our good standing in church, we were more or less required to attend these workshops. And participate (which was code for: take lots of notes, be enthusiastic! and never, ever ask a question that challenged the speaker’s ideas).

I hated these workshops. They gave me panic attacks because the message we heard was always the same: Love isn’t a feeling, it’s a choice. Love isn’t about passion or attraction. It’s about sacrifice. Your feelings will lead you astray. Follow God’s will and feelings will follow! Control your feelings. If it feels good, it’s probably sinful! Whatever you do, don’t trust your feelings!

Time and again I’d sit through these lectures while the workshop leader hammered his point into us. Love isn’t a feeling! Love is a choice!

Looking back, I can see how harmful it was to divorce love from feeling. I understand the intention was good–many Christians have felt the need to offer a corrective against a feelings-only approach to love and marriage. But I believe that corrective has gone too far and resulted in unintended, tragic consequences.

The first negative consequence was a breakdown of communication. Since I wasn’t allowed to feel what I felt or even admit that I felt something outside the “Approved Range of Emotions,” I found myself totally silenced. I literally could not even find the words to describe what I was experiencing because I was scared. I knew that if I said I felt confused, worried, fearful or angry (feelings that were DEFINITELY outside the approval zone) it was the same as confessing my lack of self-control/sinful attitude/rebellious spirit. And even if I did work up the courage to express what I was feeling, I was told “you shouldn’t be feeling that way.”

In other words, there was no way to say what I felt–or even feel what I felt–without being punished for it.

The second negative consequence was that I truly began to believe my husband didn’t really love me and/or that I was inherently unlovable. I mean, I knew he loved me. But I didn’t feel it. There was a huge disconnect. As long as love stayed up in an ivory tower making highly-intellectual pronouncements about love being a DECISION of the MIND!, a fulfillment of DUTY! and a KEEPING OF THE VOWS!–I could not connect. I tried. Oh, how I tried. But something was missing.

And in related news, do you have any idea how difficult it is for a woman to achieve orgasm during sex if there is very little emotional connection? I mean, sure. I could achieve orgasm in a manually-operated, strictly-business, DOING MY DUTY kind of way. I could have sex “by the book.” But by squashing my emotions (love isn’t attraction, it’s sacrifice!), sex just seemed like a lot of mechanical work. We started having better, more intimate, emotionally-connected sex once I was all: MATT! I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! I HAVE FEEEEEELINGS FOR YOU! And he was all: I’M ATTRACTED TO YOU! And then we were both like: OH! IT’S OK TO ENJOY THIS!

Even after we left the cult, it took me years of therapy to finally acknowledge the importance of my feelings, especially in the bedroom.

This constant disconnection led to the third and worst consequence of all: I became deeply, horribly depressed. I wanted to die. In fact, dying looked like a blessed relief. Dying meant an end to the constant pain of living without feelings of love. I really thought something was terribly wrong with me–spiritually, morally and physically. I mean, what was so wrong with me that I couldn’t just BELIEVE and make a DECISION OF THE WILL and CHOOSE to love? It seemed to work for everybody else! WHY couldn’t I just get with the program? Was there some sort of unconfessed sin in my life? Had God maybe predestined me for Hell?

It has taken me nearly ten years and countless hours of therapy to undo the damage of ignoring, suppressing, shaming and denying my human emotions. Quite honestly, our marriage was saved because we both started being honest and accepting of our emotions.

What I have learned is that when it comes to love, separating feelings of love from actions of love is a false dichotomy. We are human beings, we are not disembodied spirits. Our feelings and emotions are just as much a part of us as is our mind, will and intellect. And it is dangerous to compartmentalize, separate and shut-down ANY part of our humanness.

I’ve also learned that loving actions don’t just appear out of nowhere. They are sourced from loving feelings. Yes, it’s important to behave lovingly even if we don’t feel loving. However, to say that love isn’t a feeling AT ALL but ONLY an action is to unintentionally degrade the importance of loving feelings. It is the kind of teaching that falsely elevates the importance of the mind over the importance of our God-given human emotions.

Love is feeling AND action.

Love is passion AND sacrifice.

Love is attraction AND commitment.

Love is an adjective AND a verb.

Love is word AND deed.

Love isn’t JUST a choice.
Love is also a feeling.