Sunday, July 10, 2016

Christian Book Review, Rant, and Note of Relief: Breaking Free

A Fair Trade Book


Title: Breaking Free

Author: Beth Moore

Author's web site: http://www.lproof.org/

Date: 2000

Publisher: B&H

ISBN: 978-0-8054-4552-7

Length: 289 pages

Quote: “LESSON 1: The people of God can be oppressed by the enemy…You may be like I once was. I thought, If I just ignore Satan and desire to walk with God, I’m going to be fine. We find out that doesn’t work for very long, especially if you’re beginning to be a threat to Satan’s dark kingdom.”

If you want to observe racism, sexism, and most of all elitism at work, go to a Christian church. Why aren’t Christians more conscious of these sinful social behavior patterns?

The obvious answer, “Those twentieth century words aren’t found in the Bible,” tells us nothing useful. The Bible writers used other words for bigotry. “Respect unto persons” appears several times in the King James Version. “Oppress a stranger” is another ancient phrase, as is “persecute the poor.” 

People in the ancient Middle East seem not to have been racists, per se. They were of course tribal, xenophobic rather than cosmopolitan. Moses did not have to explain the concept of all foreigners being so “unclean” that things they had touched were “unclean until the evening.” It was found in Egypt and other contemporary societies, too. Still, the phrase “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?” has the sound of a saying that was familiar to all audiences. 

They were sexists, but that worked both ways. Alongside the legal provision that fathers could nullify their daughters’ contracts, including religious vows, must be set the provision that, in times of war, all the enemy males had to be killed. 

But were they ever elitists. Even those who had literally walked with Jesus struggled with elitist bigotry. St. James, believed to have been a stepbrother or half brother to Jesus, drew a vivid word picture of the early church where people were eager to give “the best place” to someone they believed to be rich, conceal someone they saw as poor from view, and tell anyone who admitted to real financial need to “Depart in peace, may you be warmed and fed” (meaning “anywhere else, just go away from here”).

Exactly what “oppression” meant in Bible days is another interesting study. James needed to describe the exact look and sound of “social oppression” within the church because his audience did not recognize “social oppression” as the same sort of thing they understood “oppression” to mean. We know that ancient Israelites did not consider slavery, in and of itself, to be oppression. They did recognize that wives, children, aged parents, other dependent relatives, and hired servants had rights not to be tortured or starved by the pater familias, which was a step closer to our way of thinking than many other ancient societies came, but of course the “head of the household” was supposed to dictate where and how these people lived, whom they married, whether legal contracts or even religious vows they made were binding, and so on. So we know that the words for “oppression” and “persecution” normally meant worse things than that. Apparently their meanings included things like preventing people from earning their livings, refusing to hear their claims in court, or banishing them altogether.

Some modern Christians speak of “satanic oppression” in a purely spiritual sense, referring to feelings of doubt or anxiety. There is disagreement about where a line between “spiritual oppression” and mood swings or mood disorders might be drawn. No clarification can be found in the Bible; Bible writers describe a type of severe mental illness, whose primary symptoms appear to have been seizures and fainting, as “demon possession” but do not recognize milder kinds of mental or emotional “oppression.”

When Moore begins by referring to “the bondage of mediocre discipleship,” readers may reasonably wonder whether words like “oppression” refer to what she’s talking about at all. “Mediocre discipleship” is a unique complaint Christians have, a sense that their religious experience somehow should be better than it is. (The experience is common to all religious people but "discipleship" is a Christian word.) This perception is not addressed at much length in the Bible. Moore has studied the Bible at great length in order to enlarge on St. Paul’s teaching that, if a person does this and that religious thing “and have not love,” the person is not having a real religious experience.

Possibly people have to have meditated on 1 Corinthians 13 before they can recognize that elitism in the church, then and now, is the “spiritual oppression” of Christians who have less than their fellow believers. 

Christian love is not, of course, individual affection. Neither is it that restless “outgoing” impulse to control others by chattering at them that extroverts seem to feel—although, in my churchgoing days, I met many Christians who seemed to believe that Christian love had something to do with “outgoing” manners. (Actually, if the person you love is less severely extroverted than you are, Christian love requires you to suppress those “outgoing” manners.) Christian love is not the pathology known as altruism, nor the hypocrisy that often calls itself altruism-as-a-virtue, and it most definitely is not the kind of “charity” that denies the humanity of people who might prefer poverty, with freedom, to handouts from a Nanny State. 

Christian love is a spiritual gift; it consists of a humble willingness to let others show us or tell us how they want to be loved by us, to approach those who want to be approached and respect those who want to be left alone. It is, however, unlikely that anybody will ever manage to feel any good will toward alleged fellow believers who are so uncomfortable with our having less than they have that all they want us to do is go away. Most people who have been discouraged from participating in churches or social groups do not become serial murderers. We deserve your abject gratitude just for that.

It would have been very refreshing if Moore had really been willing to talk about the ways all Christians, both bigots and the victims of their prejudices, are oppressed by the cosmic spiritual enemy today. Unfortunately, like too many of the women who feel called to Christian ministry these days, she’s stuck in the Nice Girl role of warbling on about things a small select circle of Nice Girls want to hear. Breaking Free is full of generalities.

“Pride, idolatry, unbelief, legalism: these will prove obstacles we too must confront,” Moore says on page 17. Any Christian will agree that this is true. The trouble is that twentieth century pastors have discussed these obstacles to the spiritual life in such abstract, general ways that the people who are spiritually “bound” by them can assume that the pastors are talking about someone else, and they will. If you want to practice any spiritual discipline that involves service to other people, obviously you need to break the bondage of bigotry…but as long as Christian writers, preachers, and teachers limit themselves to vague abstractions about pride being an obstacle, the “you” who most need to hear about exactly how you express bigotry, and what you need to do differently to break your bondage, will not be receiving the message of how you can break free from bigotry.

Someone whose religious life is impeded by elitist bigotry might, for example, think “I may not be comfortable socializing with people who are demographically similar to me except for having less money, and I may have no vocation to work in a poverty-stricken country or even in a local urban mission, but I vote for more federal ‘benefits’ for poor people don’t I? If there are penniless widows in my neighborhood, why don’t they just sign up for all those benefits?” Until the preachers and teachers and writers explain it to them, they may never understand that (a) handout programs that immobilize and infantilize able-bodied adults are anything but a benefit to them, and (b) countries that go socialist do go bankrupt and the U.S. is closer to that position than people like to know.

To correct one of the major deficiencies of Breaking Free, therefore, let me share a bit of nitty-gritty truth with you here. Welfare workers, scrambling frantically to justify their positions, will tell you that it’s all right for an able-bodied adult to take a handout from them because, see, the program encourages—even requires—beneficiaries to get jobs. Of course, that would be “jobs” as defined by a corporation, since apparently I alone in all of these United States am brave enough, or oldfashioned enough, or crazy enough to try to start a business without having a huge bank account and adding a huge debt to it. 

These handout programs never “demean” people by handing them some merchandise and telling them to go out and sell it for a profit, the way those infamous Creative Tightwads, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, used to do. Instead they tell people to fill out forms and pray to be hired by corporations. When the corporations delegate hiring decisions to people who memorized the rule, “Hire someone between the ages of 25 and 35 who did exactly the same job for another corporation last year,” believe it or not…when I was in college it was mostly English, art, and history majors who were denying that they had advanced degrees in order to get food service jobs; now I see people with degrees in psychology, law, even engineering, competing for those food service jobs, and the art majors who got the jobs aren’t about to retire. At the end of a day selling pencils your typical forty-year-old single mother, as it might be the one who owns a share of my home but can’t come under my roof as long as she’s a welfare cheat, might have earned the cost of dinner or even a rent payment on a slum apartment. At the end of a day filling out forms, all she’s earned is a bummed-out mood, more obviously depressed and more depressing than the postnatal mood she was in when her husband walked out. In the sick, twisted little mind of a social worker, this is Progress. Well, we’re talking about my sister here, and me the literally starving writer, and I’m saying, if you want to help either one of us, get that social worker out of our way and buy some pencils already.

End of rant. Despite its major deficiencies, Breaking Free is a worthwhile book for people who consider themselves whole-Bible Christians but who have not read the whole Bible with much understanding. In this extended commentary on one chapter in the book of Isaiah, Moore ranges through the whole Bible to provide additional texts, plus historical information and studies of some of the original Hebrew and Greek words. She’s studied quite a few foreign words that have not been discussed in many other commentaries. That alone would make Breaking Free worth reading. You could learn those words from a systematic study of the Bible, a good concordance, and books of Greek and Hebrew grammar, but let’s admit that most people who aren’t training for a career as preachers or scholars aren’t going to study the material that systematically; Moore explains the key words in a painless way that makes them easier for the average reader to learn.

For spiritual purposes…obviously, any book, even the Bible, is only really helpful for spiritual purposes if a person earnestly desires spiritual growth. Not everyone does. Moore explains “pride, idolatry, unbelief, legalism” using the kings of ancient Israel as examples. If your problem with spiritual pride, arrogance, conceitedness or whatever else you might call it, is a matter of acting on assumptions about other people in our own world (“Even if the office clerks do better work when their desks face out toward office ‘traffic,’ so they’re less distracted by noise behind them, they haven’t earned the status symbol of desks that don’t face the wall”; “S/He is too old/young to understand”; “We don’t need people from that neighborhood moving into our neighborhood”), how much understanding do you gain from the example of an ancient king who usurped the priest’s position in an ancient religious ritual?

Respectable yuppie types shared with Moore their feelings of being in bondage to social and sexual traumas from their past, habits of lying and stealing, pathological fears, and so on. Are these even “spiritual” problems? Do people living with anxiety need Bible study or even prayer so much as they need to avoid watching television? Well, they need something healthier to do with their time instead of watching television, which systematically feeds anxiety, so perhaps, if you live with anxiety, Bible studies can help you.

Moore offers a good deal of sound general advice. “Avoiding prayer is a sure prescription for anxiety, a certain way to avoid peace…Often we do everything but pray…Even…receiving counsel seems more tangible than prayer.”

“[T]he Scripture has a prescription for breaking one of the strongest formsof family bondage. That prescription is called forgiveness.”

“I don’t think confessing sin is primarily about fault. It’s about freedom!”

“Satan desires to have women in a  stronghold of exploitation, sexploitation, distortion and desolation. He knows how effective and influential women can be, so he works through society to convince us we are so much less than we are.”

“Oh, what a disservice we do when we try to humanize God…!”

“Virtually anything that cheats you of what God has for you could be considered sin…Satan has taken advantage of normal, healthy emotions.”

Now a note about Moore’s use of “Satan.” It seems carefully planned to address people who understand that concept in any number of different ways.  

In many churches that fit into what some call the “Low” category, the Bible is read very literally and “Satan” is heard as the name of a person—the imaginary person some find it helpful to blame for their mood swings, struggles with addiction, even their physical injuries. More sophisticated “High” church types may smirk condescendingly at this naïve reading (in the Bible ha Satan, which translates as “the Adversary” or “the Accuser,” is a job description not a given name; passages that present Satan as an individual may be symbolic). 

Is the psychological crutch of blaming things on Satan really helpful? As I typed the question, the Bible verse that leaped to mind was “Let him who thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.” Or, let people not mistake more fortunate situations for personal merits. Mood swings usually are symptoms of one or more of dozens, if not hundreds, of different medical conditions that respond to different treatments. Perhaps any mood swings you have are fully curable, or close to it. I hope so. Mine are; when I do feel a bad mood coming on I’ve learned to ask myself whether I’ve eaten the wrong food or been exposed to certain types of virus, and since one or the other of those things is almost always the case, it’s become hard for me to take an unpleasant mood seriously. Someone else’s mood swings may not be fully corrected by any treatment currently known, and may even be aggravated by the wrong treatment. That being the case, it seems safer for that person to rely on prayers and blame Satan rather than to rely on some medical treatment that might do more harm than good.

Serious talk about “Satan” and “demons” does tend to remind me of a clueless churchman I knew who tried to “exorcise the demon headaches” from a motor accident survivor who suffered from post-traumatic seizures. Even at age twenty I felt very little respect for the churchman, and intense empathy for the poor old patient whom the churchman emotionally abused by trying to apply Christian teachings about Satan to a physical condition that would be physically cured only by time. 

I mention that kind of thing in order to say that I don’t find it in Breaking Free. If you, the reader, perceive your spiritual life as a war against sadistic individual “demons,” what Moore has to say may help you in that war. If you read “Satan” and “demons” as metaphors that are more traditional and, in some ways, more useful than the trendy twentieth century metaphor of “negativity,” what Moore has to say won’t insult your level of sophistication, either.  

This is a Fair Trade Book, and warmly recommended to all serious Bible students. To buy it here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address at the very bottom of the screen (down below the blog feed widget), and I'll send $1 per copy to Beth Moore or a charity of her choice.