Monday, August 25, 2014

Old Newspapers and Spiritual Abuse

On Sunday, Aug. 10, I was out working in my shop when I decided to take a short break from my project and the heat. I sat down next to an old cedar chest that needs some repair; that's the next project!

The chest used to belong to an aunt who passed away decades ago. My wife and I unloaded it earlier this summer and noticed that some old newspapers were lining the bottom of the chest so during my break I decided to gently pull the papers out and read them. To my surprise, they were on that Sunday exactly 80 years old. The yellowed pages were part of the Aug. 10, 1934, edition of the Oregon Daily Journal newspaper (Portland).
As a retired journalist I found many of the stories interesting but two in particular caught my attention. I'm going to try to reproduce scans of these articles here because readers should find them intriguing as well.

The first story was a short bit on page 1 about Catholic bishops in Belgium decrying the rampant promiscuity on European beaches. The swim suits of 1934 apparently were more than the pure bishops could cope with so they issued an order that none of the priests under their care should be exposed to them. All priests were to stay far away from the public beaches so as to remain undefiled. One wonders, however, how the good bishops learned about the licentious swimwear perhaps some of them had been frolicking at the beach? The article did not answer this question.
Now, as the accompanying photo plainly shows, female swimming attire of the 1930s was far from revealing, especially by today's standards. Sex has always been a slippery issue for the church and historically leaders in many religions have used restrictive rules governing sexual behavior as a control mechanism. This 1934 news article, though humorous now, is a good illustration of how religious leaders have tried to control their flocks by controlling their behavior.  This issue is explored in depth by German Catholic theologian Uta Ranke-Heinemann in her epic study, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality and the Catholic Church (1988, English translation 1990). The church, according to Ranke-Heinemann, has constantly insisted that sex was only for procreation; sex for enjoyment, even within marriage, has always been suspect. The result over the ages has been a general negativity toward sexuality which religious leaders have often taken advantage of. Don't think that this is a problem only for Roman Catholics; it is a culture-wide issue in the Western world.

The second article catching my eye in the old newspaper concerned a minister in a fundamentalist Christian snake handling church being bitten during a religious service. Most of us have never been to a snake handling church; the few congregations that still follow this bizarre practice are mainly in the back country of Southern states (USA). Followers in these churches take to heart the verse in Mark 16 that says believers will not be harmed by poisonous snakes when they are picked up. In order to demonstrate the so-called "truth" of the Bible these believers incorporate snake handling in their worship. Ironically, the verse they revere has been shown not to exist in the earliest manuscripts; it was added much later, probably by some over-zealous copyist.
Read the story in the scan and you'll see a picture of a poor misguided person who, first, foolishly tests his God by doing something ridiculous and then, second, refuses medical help because to do so would cause him to lose face.

Snake handling still goes on in some Southern churches.
I'd like to postulate that this is an extreme example of something a lot of folks do all the time they hold onto an unfounded belief then refuse to abandon or modify it when confronted with valid evidence that they are wrong. This is certainly a description of naysayers who refuse to examine evidence for the paranormal and for life after so-called death. I see such folks figuratively sitting in the same pews as the snake handlers; their minds are made up so you can almost hear them saying, "don't confuse me with the facts." But the "facts" are here and eventually everyone is going to have to respond to them.
Believe it or not, there is a theological point where these snake handlers and the Catholic bishops in the articles see eye to eye. They all share the belief in a literal lake of fire and brimstone (aka sulphur) where unbelievers and sinners are tortured ("punished") by God for ever and ever in the life hereafter. Never mind the after-death communication evidence that has been around for 160 years saying that this lake of fire is a very cruel myth fabricated by church leaders in order to hold power over parishioners the Bible allegedly says there is such a place so it must be!

But does the Bible actually teach eternal torture inflicted by a loving, just God? Absolutely not. Verses used by eternal punishment preachers are to be interpreted metaphorically according to a fascinating and insightful book I finished reading this past weekend and in some cases, its author contends, our English versions are horribly mistranslated.
The book is Spiritual Terrorism: Spiritual Abuse From Womb to Tomb by Boyd C. Purcell, Ph.D. Dr. Purcell is uniquely qualified to discuss this topic because for 20 years he was pastor in an evangelical church, he has a bachelor of divinity degree, is proficient in New Testament Greek, has his doctorate in counseling, teaches counseling classes at the graduate level, served for many years as a hospice chaplain and much more.

Purcell's book is more than 500 interesting pages long! On those pages he thoroughly examines the lake of fire teachings, discounts them as metaphorical statements and proves this by examining the verses in Greek and various English translations, then he goes on to catalog the tragic psychological results of such doctrines in the lives of believers. His account is peppered with personal stories of patients he encountered in the hospice setting who were in anguish as they faced their dying experience because of the false hell teachings. These folks, Purcell contends, had all been subjected to spiritual abuse and terrorism at the hands of misinformed clergy who teach hellfire in order to coerce conversions.
Dr. Boyd C. Purcell
Dr. Purcell's biographical comments throughout the book reveal a sensitive man who grappled personally with his evangelical upbringing. That intellectual and spiritual struggle led him to the well-founded conviction that Christianity originally taught Universalism the doctrine that everyone will eventually be "saved." This teaching, of course, is central to spiritualism and after death communications have always revealed that humankind is on an eternal evolutionary journey toward perfection. Some of us are farther behind than others but eventually all will "arrive."

I gather that Dr. Purcell is still committed to a drastically reformed version of evangelical teaching but, nonetheless, he has contributed greatly to my understanding of the traditional Christian punishment doctrine while he offers a rational way out of the torturous lifestyle it has created for believers. Hearing a Christian pastor call a core (albeit false) Christian doctrine "abusive" and "torturous" is liberating in itself and seeing how that viewpoint led to a conviction of universal "salvation" is beautiful! We truly are living in a transforming age.
After reading this book it occurred to me that some people who have left traditional Christianity because of exposure to spiritualism may still be harboring effects of the abuse they suffered during their time within the church. I know that my youthful exposure to evangelical Christianity left many imprints on my mind which still pop up 50 years later. I frankly doubt that I was much of a believer in hellfire when I attended my mother's Baptist church but I did at least pay lip service to the doctrine. One had to in that environment or else you weren't considered a true Christian!

This last observation is something Dr. Purcell had to contend with in his own life. He had been a preacher in an evangelical denomination for 20 years when his study convinced him that hellfire was not literal and that a God of love was not going to torture his own children eternally. When his denomination found out that Purcell's understanding of this doctrine had changed, he was summarily discharged. Independent thinking certainly comes with a high price for the clergy. Fortunately, Purcell made the most of the difficult situation and got into counseling. He still preaches at various churches who welcome his message and he is on the board of trustees of the Christian Universalist Association.
All I can say is that it's too bad we don't have more Boyd Purcells in the world, people who will not be afraid to poke deep into their beliefs, weigh evidence, and change their minds if that is warranted. Unfortunately, we still have too many snake handlers, priests and other religious people who refuse to even consider they might be on the wrong path. Fortunately, spiritual truth is readily available in today's world; it is well documented and waiting to be examined. Thanks to the internet and a steady stream of new books many people are being drawn to the light. And exposure to the light tends to erase scars of spiritual abuse as individuals discover who they really are spirits manifested within a world of matter in order to spiritually grow and flourish.