Monday, October 10, 2011

Book Review (with Rant): In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart

A Book You Can Buy From Me

Book Title: In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart

Author: Ruth Graham

Date: 2004

Publisher: Zondervan

ISBN: 0-310-24339-4

Length: 215 pages

Quote: "You may be sitting unaware in church week after week with suffering people, even as friends and acquaintances sat beside me while I smiled and behaved as though I didn't have a care in the world."

Billy Graham's wife, Ruth Bell Graham, wrote about the rewards of living according to the teachings of Christianity. Their daughter, Ruth Graham, has written about the misery of being a Christian who fails to live according to those teachings. In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart is neither a fire-and-brimstone sermon nor a cheering success story; it reads like a daytime TV talk show.

Given that this is a book about some of the worst mistakes Christians make, I'd be more sympathetic if the book didn't tend to overgeneralize a few specific, though common, mistakes. It may not seem altogether fair to Graham for me to go off on this rant on this page, since so many other Christians overgeneralize in the same way...but this is my blog and this is the first book that's prompted this rant. I will say, though, that Ruth Graham is neither the first Christian who's annoyed me in this way nor the one who annoys me most.

Yes, it's true that all Christians who have lived as long as Ruth Graham have probably felt brokenhearted at some time or other...but it's not true that if people at church "just open up and share," like participants in a therapy group, they'll go home feeling that they "shared" the same experiences. When we "take off the masks" of respect for one another's privacy, we do not unveil the same "wounds." In churches that have tried this, what many of us learned was how different our heartaches are.

When people live in integrity with their beliefs, they suffer from illness, injury, bereavement, natural disasters, even forced evacuation from countries where their religion or nationality has become unpopular. Their anguish may be intense, but it is not greatly aggravated by guilt, shame, or remorse.

When people have violated their beliefs, they suffer from divorce, drug addictions, single parenthood, domestic violence, and sexually transmitted diseases. Their grief is mixed with guilt.

While people fail to perceive some things because of neurological differences, I suspect that people deliberately refuse to perceive a difference between grief and guilt. The desire to lump them together as "hurting" comes from envy, which leads to hostility. My feeling is that when sinners come to churches, or fellowship groups, or therapy groups, blathering about how "we all have sinned, we all have broken hearts," it's time to bar the doors. People who are feeling guilt mixed with grief are not really likely to sympathize with people who are feeling grief alone. Envy can make them openly cruel, and even when it doesn't its effects are likely to be destructive to all concerned.

Rationalizing that "all husbands cheat, all children rebel, all employees steal," and so on, these people find themselves--perhaps unconsciously--working to make these beliefs true. They become obsessed with maintaining a feeling that "I'm okay, you're okay, the new wife for whom you left your original wife raising little boys alone is okay, your drug dealer is okay..." When they infest a church, churchgoers aren't even able to read the Bible or use favorite traditional hymns and prayers, because historic Christianity is really quite "negative" about behaviors known as "sin" that lead to unnecessary misery in this life and the next. Any social group that tries to be warm'n'fuzzy enough for those who aren't willing to deal with guilt soon finds itself purging its ranks of anyone who becomes "different" by not being a divorcee, alcoholic, addict, welfare cheat, or whatever. Shortly after empathy for sinners crosses the line into "acceptance" of sins, people who've never cheated on their mates or embezzled from their employers find themselves mumbling, "Yeah, I've done that too," if they don't want peer pressure to push them out of the group.

Divorce is one situation where the "hurting" are almost always guilty...not necessarily of abuse or adultery, but of failing to love and cherish their mates.

A doctor talked to the current wife and the ex-wife of one patient. The ex had divorced a silent and/or verbally abusive, withdrawn, uptight, tense, hostile man who usually drank himself to sleep in front of the TV after work at a bank, took every opportunity to work late or travel overseas, sent his son to the best schools but seldom spent time with him, seldom ate a meal at home, and never showed affection. The current wife described several years of close partnership with a very attentive, comfortable, affectionate, compassionate, public-spirited man who woke her with a kiss every morning, walked a mile with her before breakfast, always planned and shared their job concerns during breakfast and dinner at home, traded back rubs for an hour before bed, and might take a glass of wine at a party but never more than that.

Yes, they were talking about the same man, doing different jobs with different motivation. The miserable banker really would have been happier as a teacher, when the ex told him that people should be able to "choose happiness anywhere" and urged him to take the more lucrative job at the bank. The ex-wife may have believed at the time that she wasn't choosing a bigger budget over a solid marriage, but she was.

On the surface of In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart, Ruth Graham presents herself as someone primarily "hurting," "more sinned against than sinning." Her first husband cheated. Her second husband became abusive. Her children chose three of the most stupid and stereotypical ways teenagers mess up their lives and break their parents' hearts. And there she stood, just trying to pick up the pieces.

Then we come to pages 171 through 195, and we find ourselves picturing the kind of woman whose dealings with a pregnant teenager sound like this:

"If I tried to take the sting out of [her] experience...would I now rob [her] of the...chance to know God?"

"One meeting...with...some church leaders...I was hoping...would underscore for [her] the concepts of repentance and spiritual accountability. But...she was not emotionally prepared to handle confrontation."

"I made the kids a big roast beef dinner, which [she] promptly threw up. 'What a waste of money!' I teased."

"I took the share with these friends the details of [her] situation and the anguish I was feeling."

Now we begin to imagine what prompted this woman's husbands and children to treat her so badly. And while we don't want to deny such a person's "hurting" and treat her like an outcast, the ideal outcome for her "hurting" experience would be for her to get some counselling, locate her blind spots, and learn to make herself less likely to become the target of further "hurting."

Many books advise people that once divorce has even been considered, the marriage is hopeless. Reality is not so absolute.

Some marriages do end--and should. Some marriages really do "unequally yoke" human beings with monsters. Some divorcees' situations wouldn't even have been covered by Moses' teachings about divorce, because in ancient Israel they would have been covered by Moses' teachings about capital punishment.

But what I've observed, in real life, is that men have come to me wailing about their "hopeless" marriages, and I've listened and then said their wives didn't sound hopeless to me, and they've been reconciled and lived reasonably happily ever after. If I married one divorcee, I sent five back to their wives, and even the one who had remarried and been divorced again has been reconciled to his first wife. Sometimes, after a few years of feeling like broken halves of a whole, divorced people find that reconciliation is possible after all.

Something about the first few chapters of In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart encouraged me to expect that it was going to be the reconciliation story I've been waiting to read. I don't know that it could or should have been a reconciliation story; I'm disappointed that it's just another sad divorce story that ends with a divorcee trying to pump up her (or his) self-esteem by pretending that divorcees share the same kind of "hurting" that widows feel.

About the self-esteem fad I'd like to see Christians firm up a bit. People who are not experiencing themselves as guilty or inadequate feel that trying to peer into a mirror and catch a glimpse of their self-esteem is silly. When we're emotionally honest, we say, "I like myself too much; I'm selfish." "God is helping me rebuild my self-esteem" may be a useful early stage in a personal growth process, especially when the actual process is too painful to discuss in detail, but it's a very unhappy ending to anyone's true story.

What can we say to people who don't want the inevitable "hurting" in their lives to include guilt? There's a reliable way not to feel the agony of guilt, but it's not easy. It consists of ignoring the feelings, and acting on our beliefs, whenever feelings tempt us to violate beliefs. This still does not mean that we don't make mistakes, feel regret, apologize, and make amends, because there are still plenty of times when if we'd known or thought about this we wouldn't have done that. It merely means that we're not tortured by guilt. We may feel like the most miserable, unlucky, lonely, stressed-out, cheated and mistreated person on Earth, but we don't experience ourselves as bad, unworthy people who fail to practice their beliefs.

And I only wish I knew how to draw the line between feeling compassion for those whose grief is aggravated by guilt, and letting the mentality of uncontrolled emotions take over entire churches. Because In Every Pew Sits a Broken Heart ends where it does, it fails to teach me anything I could use.

Who does need this book? Is anybody out there still tempted to hiss and whisper as a divorced person passes by? Does anybody out there still assume that all single or divorced adults are desperate and degenerate and should never be invited to any social event? Yes, but do those people know how to read?

What about fans of Billy Graham who want to collect all the books he and his family have written? Yes, there are plenty of them out there. If you are interested in the Graham family and their teamwork in evangelical ministry, this book is for you.