There’s a church near Worcester that I end up driving by frequently on the way to lunch. On the lawn outside sits a prominent sign in modern blues and greens: “Life Source.” The logo consists of a Latin cross, coupled with a symbol indicating three bars of Wifi available. Across the bottom is the church’s domain name, LifeSourceChurchOnline.com.
Many people I’ve met who didn’t grow up in Christian fundamentalism are genuinely shocked at the level of religious abuse that is endemic to these communities. Yet, it’s often on display for the world to see. And you can see it clearly, once you’re aware of it.
From the outside, nothing about this church comes across as Baptist. Not even the website says it’s Baptist. I don’t even know that’s it’s Baptist. It comes across as your typical independent, non-denominational church, “formerly Temple Baptist Church” (from their Facebook “about” page). But delve a little deeper into the theology, and it becomes immediately obvious that it doesn’t matter how they identify themselves.
The church’s website doesn’t have an “about us” page or a “what we believe” page. They simply say they are “a church committed to providing you an opportunity to know Jesus Christ. We envision every person in the greater Worcester area having a genuine opportunity to experience a personal, growing, and overflowing relationship with Jesus Christ. Click here to learn how to start a personal relationship with Jesus.”
And there’s no link on which to click. Somehow, that’s an apt metaphor for what they’re offering, not just in the sense that there is no actual Jesus with whom to form a personal relationship, but also in the sense that they have nothing to offer anyone who actually has their shit together.
So I find and click on the “Know Christ?” link on the site’s menu bar, and what greets me?
When you have nothing of value to offer, make threats.
The first thing I see is one of the first things you expect to see from a malignant narcissist, a threat.
“How to Begin a Personal Relationship with Christ and Be Sure You’re on Your Way to Heaven.” (Emphasis in original.)
The text immediately under that banner reinforces the threat of eternal suffering: “How to Be Sure You’re on Your Way to Heaven by Receiving Christ as Savior: Nothing is more important in life than being prepared for what happens after this life. Jesus was very clear about this when He said, ‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?’ (Mark 8:36)… The only other option is truly unthinkable: an eternity of condemnation apart from any hope of forgiveness.”
Notice that they never actually use the word hell. That’s something else you expect to see from a malignant narcissist and from manipulative groups. They tend not to be honest with you about what they’re actually selling. They hint and imply, and they expect you to read their mind. You’re not actually facing hellfire; you’re facing “an eternity of condemnation apart from any hope of forgiveness.”
Just take a moment to let that phrase sink in. How fucked up is that?
And yet, what shocks those who didn’t grow up in this world, this level of fucked up is completely normal within Christian fundamentalism. When you’re in the middle of an abusive relationship, it becomes your normal. When you’re the abuse victim, all the healthy relationships all around you seem not-normal and scary, and your abuser takes every opportunity to drive that point in deeper.
Step 1: Negging and Gaslighting
“Negging is an act of emotional manipulation whereby a person makes a deliberate backhanded compliment or otherwise flirtatious remark to another person to undermine their confidence and increase their need of the manipulator’s approval.”
Evangelical theology starts with negging.
“Your Current Spiritual Condition: The Bible is very clear about this issue. Every human being that’s ever been born (except for Jesus Christ) has been born with a spiritual problem: SIN.” (Emphasis in original.)
Cue the theme to Psycho.
This is a well-honed narrative, passed down through generations of spiritual abuse, evolved to hook into your worst fears about yourself, focus on them, and blow them so out of proportion that you’ll (hopefully) be willing to give up your life for the religion.
Gaslighting is a related concept, which often involves negging but progresses to full-blown emotional abuse. Ross Rosenberg defines gaslighting this way:
Gaslighting is a highly manipulative covert interactional strategy that enables a person to gain power and control over another person by systematically and methodically brainwashing them into believing that they are personally, psychologically, physically and socially incompetent and undesirable. It begins with the implantation of a problem, weakness and/or mental health concern that either never existed or was only a moderate or benign problem.
By an array of manipulative strategies, the psychologically savvy gaslighter lures his unsuspecting victim into experiencing the symptoms of a problem(s) or condition he insists his partner has, of which the gaslit person was not previously aware. Through a systematic manipulation of the victim’s external environment and mental health, the implanted gaslit condition begins to take root and eventually manifests. When displaying the gaslit condition, the gaslighter over-emphasizes its negative impact on him, the victim, and people with whom the gaslit individual might come in contact.
Over time, the victim identifies with the problem and feels powerless to control it. The resulting feelings of powerlessness, which are often combined with fear, anxiety and paranoia, render the gaslit victim powerless over the implanted problem. Feeling powerless, the gaslit victim becomes susceptible to the gaslighter’s plan to isolate them from others, who could possibly expose the gaslighter’s nefarious plans.
He was not talking about religion. He was not talking about a person’s relationship with their god. He was talking about abusive human-human relationships. But this is the exact pattern we see in Evangelicalism and other forms of Christian fundamentalism. The Evangelical narrative is spiritual gaslighting, and we should always call it out as such.
“This means that every person in the world has failed to measure up to God’s standard of perfection. The Bible calls each specific failure sin. Sin is anything in our lives that is contrary to the perfect character of God – and that includes our attitudes as well as our actions.”
Let me set the record straight: You were not born in sin. You do not have to measure up to perfection. And making mistakes does not mean that you’re broken. Rather, it means that you’re normal and healthy, because good people make mistakes, and it’s all good.
Also note how the gaslighter is elevated to perfection. He can do nothing wrong, and you have to live up to His standard of perfection, whereas we are never allowed to turn the spotlight back on Him and call Him to account for the genocide, abuse, and other sins that He has committed. Our sins are when we are a bit snippy with our loved ones. His include drowning all humanity in a worldwide flood. Can we get a bit of perspective here? Who is qualified to judge whom?
But this is all part of the strategy of abuse. If we are permitted to hold God to the same standard He holds us, we’ll realize that he’s nothing. God is the universe’s biggest narcissist. Human narcissists need to push other people down in order to feel better about themselves, but God needs to make you feel utterly worthless just to exist.
I know what love is, and that ain’t it.
The term gaslighting comes from the play Gaslight (and its movie adaptations).
The play’s title alludes to how the abusive husband slowly dims the gas lights in their home, while pretending nothing has changed, in an effort to make his wife doubt her own perceptions. He also uses the lights in the sealed-off attic to secretly search for jewels belonging to a woman whom he has murdered. He makes loud noises as he searches, including talking to himself. The wife repeatedly asks her husband to confirm her perceptions about the dimming lights, noises and voices, but in defiance of reality, he keeps insisting that the lights are the same and instead it is she who is going insane. He intends on having her assessed and committed to a mental institution, after which he will be able to gain power of attorney over her and search more effectively.Wikipedia
Gaslighting involves rewriting the victim’s perceptions so that they won’t know reality when they see it.
The next section of the website page lays out “God’s Solution to the Problem.” And the answer is God’s degrading love:
“God Himself decided to become a man, a perfect and sinless man, and pay the penalty for mankind’s sins. Then He freely offered this payment to all who would accept it.”
As TheraminTrees points out in one of his videos, if this divine blood magic were somehow necessary, God could have performed the sacrifice privately, without fanfare. The way He chose to do it, however, reeks of manipulation. It’s a narrative designed to evoke feelings of guilt and shame and to make us feel like we owe God for this supposed free gift.
“You receive God’s gift of eternal life, then, by accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior. This is God’s solution to your spiritual problem.”
You do not have a spiritual problem, except the problem created by God Himself. Your flaws are minor compared to His.
You do not owe God anything. You do not owe Him your service or devotion. If He wanted to offer you a free gift, He ought to have done so anonymously.
You do not need Him as your Lord. You do not need Him to save you from anything. You are okay as you are, neither perfect nor depraved. He is focusing on every little flaw, trying to make you feel like shit, so that he can rush in and sell you a fraudulent salvation.
And I believe that people should get to choose their own pronouns, which is why I consistently capitalize He and Him when they refer to God. But really…
What kind of a narcissist needs to capitalize His own pronouns? Sheesh.