Evangelicalism and the Body, pt. 1


I recently finished reading Jamie Lee Finch’s thesis You Are Your Own, all about how fundamentalism, vis a vis Evangelicalism, has created an inherent, as I heard it put one time, “Cartesian divide”: “I think, therefore I am.”

I read the thesis in an afternoon, sitting on the grass at the park. I picked a spot in the shade and spread my hoodie on the grass. I had to take numerous breaks to stand up and stretch, because sitting on uneven ground, curled up in order to stay on the fabric between me and the grass, gets uncomfortable. I’m not sure how I managed to sit for such a long time; my body was aching as I walked home.

One thing I noticed was Jamie’s use of “Evangelicalism” and “fundamentalism”. She defines Evangelicalism as fundamentalism, and uses the terms interchangeably throughout much of her work. People will quibble over definitions of “Evangelical”: some like to establish a difference, for example: fundamentalism came first as a reaction to liberalism, then a more moderate Evangelicalism appeared, a la Billy Graham and Jimmy Carter. But, throughout the 1980s and 90s, fundamentalism became such a part of Evangelicalism that it’s been difficult to make any real distinction. I would argue that mostly everyone who is intimately acquainted with the Evangelical world is also acquainted with some form of fundamentalism.

I myself, while not experiencing the worst of it, am intimately acquainted with fundamentalism. I didn’t know it as such until I could reflect back on my experiences. While I grew up as Evangelical with my family, there were subtle aspects of fundamentalism: the use of fear to instill correct behavior (hell was one such mechanism), black and white thinking (i.e., only those “born again” are true Christians, Marxism is bad, evolution is wrong, etc. etc.), patriarchal doctrine, purity culture that did not differentiate among lust, desire, attraction, and arousal, but only insisted, im- or explicitly, that the body is a force to be tamed. Things only got more pronounced when I transferred to The Master’s College (TMC; now University, although tenuously). I was told I had to have certain attitudes to be acceptable, read certain books, disregard my body’s need to rest in pursuit of holiness, depression and anxiety were ultimately sin issues, and wear certain clothes to wear in order to protect male purity.

I was once full of vigor and energy, ready to take life by the horns. I could take a 90 minute ballet class, then go run 2 miles on the treadmill.

After about year and a half of attending TMC, which also included work-study and side gigs in order to feed myself and put gas in the car, I noticed that I did not wake up feeling refreshed anymore. I didn’t care about much except getting through the day. My body was inflamed (I didn’t know this at the time, I just thought it was exhaustion and the “freshman 15”), my brain was tired. When I told this to a physician during a routine physical, she brushed it off as burn-out and offered me anti-depressants.

In the past, I’ve attributed that to simple physiological causes: adrenal fatigue, stress. But some things I read in You Are Your Own struck me and I have been thinking about it since:

“People who spent their formative and developmental years reacting with fear to the teachings of Evangelicalism were conditioned to dissociate from their bodies in order to become ‘holy.’”

“Certain patterns of thought, or fixation on an imagined reality, can be equally traumatizing if there is no opportunity for release or resolution of safety.”

Recently, I learned that the brain cannot differentiate between stories that I tell myself, or actual lived experiences. I started thinking about when my body started to feel tired. I’ve no doubt that pushing the limits on my physical endurance had an impact. But I now believe that my body was starting to suffer the impact of trauma via fundamentalist teachings that operated on fear. These were stories that were told to me, that I in turn repeated to myself.

When I was a child, I prayed the sinner’s prayer because I did not want to end up in hell. Hell seemed like a scary place. Even after I was baptized, I prayed the prayer repeatedly just to make sure I went to heaven if I died. I would lie awake at night, wondering if my heart was going to stop, and where I would end up if it did.

Listening to Jamie on a podcast one afternoon (I don’t remember which one), I hear her say that a lot of her clients who experienced religious trauma were also struggling with autoimmune conditions. I have at least one AI condition, one that is directly related to stress: Hashimoto’s.

One morning, my second quarter of seminary (taking classes full-time, and working almost full-time), I couldn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t just that I was sleepy and needed to wake up. My body refused to move. I spent the majority of that week sleeping 12-14 hours per night and still feeling tired, having to withdraw from most of my classes, and also being told “You don’t look sick!”. The first doctor I visited, an MD, couldn’t find anything wrong and offered me anti-depressants, which I refused. The second doctor I visited was more helpful: she attributed my fatigue to adrenal fatigue and sub-optimal thyroid hormone levels, but she never tested me for Hashimoto’s. I highly suspect that, if she had, she would have found evidence for it. As it stands, I waited almost 10 years to find out that my thyroid had been trying to tell me something.

Purity culture told me that my body was simply an object. Maybe a nice looking object, but an object nonetheless, and an object I should keep hidden. Many factors contributed to my lack of sex education (I say lack of, because there was quite a bit missing from my one formal lesson: an audiocassette from Preparing for Adolescence), but the messages that sunk in were: sex is bad, until you’re married. Then sex is good. The worst sin you can commit is to have sex before you get married.

The brain does not know the difference between stories I tell myself, and actual experiences.

My body internalized the message that sex is bad, and shameful (no one talked about it except to elucidate on the dangers of violating martial, heterosexual boundaries, so I assumed it was shameful). How do I know this? Even after C and I were married, my body stiffened up and sent pain signals to my brain. I could not enjoy the one sex act that everyone claims is so good, because it was uncomfortable and painful, in more ways than one. I had held onto the idea that sex would suddenly become awesome with marriage vows, magically turned into something to enjoy instead of something to fear, but my body told me something different, and C had to learn to be patient with me in a way he wasn’t conditioned to be, because he had also believed in the magical fairy dust of marriage vows.

“People who spent their formative and developmental years reacting with fear to the teachings of Evangelicalism were conditioned to dissociate from their bodies in order to become ‘holy.’”