Also of interest on this topic: “Does the Story Matter?” (From December of 04)
“My father sexually abused me.”
“Both of my parents are in prison on drug charges.”
“My dad had another wife and kids in another town, and we just found out last year.”
“My mom slept with different men every night. I’m realizing she probably did it for money.”
“Our family almost starved because of my mother’s drug problems. The state finally took us away from her.”
“Two of my foster families had boys in them who sexually abused me.”
“My dad raises pot and makes meth. It’s just a way of life where we live.”
“My brothers sexually abused me for three years.”
“My brother is a sex offender who’s been in and out of prison.”
“My dad shot my mother, then shot himself. My brother and I were at school or we would be dead.”
“We moved every month. Mom just couldn’t keep a job because she couldn’t stay sober.”
“Mom is simply too unstable a person for me to live with. My grandparents had to raise me.”
“I was with my dad when he committed suicide.”
“Our pastor physically abused his children. I saw it many times.”
“One of my school teachers tried to seduce me into a homosexual relationship. I’m sure I’m not the only one.”
“My own porn addiction started with my dad’s addiction. It was everywhere in our home and still is.”
“I’ve never seen my dad sober on a weekend. Never.”
“Having a mother with severe mental illness is hard. I had to be the adult in our family most of the time.”
These are some of the stories I’ve heard in counseling over the years. All true, and many of them in multiple editions. Because of the particular population I minister to, these kinds of life-stories are common. They are the wall-paper of the rooms I inhabit. There is not a moment of the day I’m not surrounded by these stories and the people they belong to.
I’m a great believer in the intersection of story and life. I don’t know all that much about psychology or therapy, but I know a few things about story, characters, plot, conflict, development, complication, metaphor, symbolism, resolution, climax and the elements of a story. The Gospel is God’s story. The Biblical story is God’s story. The invitation of God is to join our stories with his, and to come to terms with the elements of our own stories in the context of the story that reveals a new world and new people in the image of Jesus Christ.
I encourage those I minister to to see their lives as a story, and the statements above present some of the elements which they must come to terms with in making their own stories meaningful and coherent. It is often these painful elements of their personal narratives that hold significant keys to other parts of their life stories.
In coming to terms with our own sin, we must come to terms with the sins of others and with the sinfulness of the human race. This is fundamental. There is no other context for the human story. We have sinned. We have been surrounded by sinners. We have been brought up, raised and taught by sinners. Those who love us most are also sinners, and some of them have done terrible things that have affected us.
Recent discussions involving my responses to Frank Schaeffer’s autobiography Crazy For God have brought these issues to the forefront of my mind. Is Schaeffer breaking the fourth commandment? Is he sinning against his parents? Should he be condemned for the pain he is causing to others by telling some of his own story? Does love and humility demand that Schaefer tell his own story without telling of the failings of his parents? These are important questions for those of us who believe in the power of a life story accounted and recorded.
Is it humiliating to parents and family to tell the story of a sinful family? Is the entire idea of telling an authentic story of our lives actual a kind of fetish, nurtured and fed by the publishing industry, media and the internet? Is personal authenticity and truthfulness a mask for cruelty, selfishness and phony self-justification?
All of these questions have been raised in the context of discussing Schaeffer’s book. My own writing on the web has been characterized as a kind of voyeuristic “expos(ing) your whole life to the internet” in search of some “hit” of authenticity. Such criticisms have long been raised against what I do here. (Interestingly, this is one of the topics I’ll be speaking about at Cornerstone ’08.)
These are substantial criticisms, and I agree with many of them. When I teach the Ten Commandments to students, these issues come up around two commandments: How can you honor your parents if they have not behaved honorably? How can you obey the command to tell the truth without being sinfully cruel? (“Mrs. Harper, your baby is rather ugly.”)
I’ve answered these questions in detail for years, and I am well aware that they contain many subtleties. In particular, the students whose stories are summarized above deserve an answer in how to come to terms with their own stories and still honor their parents.
There are several points I make in that regard. The Bible is brutally honest about the sins of its major characters, and this is because the truth about human sinfulness is a major theme of God’s story as he tells it. God is not sinning by telling the stories of sinful creatures. He is being truthful, honorable, merciful and loving. Adam, Cain, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Samson and Peter are our fathers, too.
God’s truthful telling of the human story is not accusatory, but factual. It is not self-justifying, but necessary for proper diagnosis. It is not humiliating to God or to human beings to speak truthfully about sin.
The idea that it is humiliating to talk about the sinfulness of our families is, in terms of the Biblical story, bizarre. This is who we are. The agenda to mask our sinfulness is a deadly spiritual poison. The strength of the Biblical worldview lies exactly here. If a person finds it humiliating that Frank tells of a marriage between sinners or that his father was depressed or his mother excessively zealous, they have abandoned the Biblical view of human sinfulness and substituted a false piety.
The story of the cursing of Ham is not telling us that it is always wrong to speak of the sinfulness of parents. It is telling us that we can selfishly grandstand our parents sins for derision and that is wrong. But to say the only choices are silence and sinful derision is simplistic.
If we want to honor our parents, we will be truthful about them, applying all the categories of the Biblical story to them: honor, love, mercy and sinfulness. It is in the context of telling us of his own repentance from sins against his parents that Schaefer tells of his parent’s sinful humanity. Those who find this “humiliating” have decided that the Bible’s view of human beings is, when we tell it, humiliating. Schaeffer does not “drag his parents through the mud” for resentment’s sake. Anyone who says so hasn’t read the book. Schaefer’s affection for his parents is deep and moving. His regret for his sins against them is genuine. But his commitment to not let the Schaeffer family be “icons” is also real, and while many in evangelicalism find this painful, I applaud it. We’ve had enough of the Ted Haggard version of evangelicalism. I’ll take a human Luther- flaws, failures, violence, racism and all- over the icons of contemporary reformed and evangelical celebrity worship. (I suggest any reader curious about Frank Schaeffer find his Book-TV lecture and note his attitude toward those whom HE ALLOWED AND ENCOURAGED to make his dad into a cult figure. Frank holds HIMSELF responsible for the distortion of his dad from a very tolerant man into a culture warrior.)
The second commandment we often discuss is the command of truthfulness. This commandment does not remove other commandments. Truthfulness is not an excuse for cruelty, self-justification, manipulation, whining or being hurtful to others. When I have been accused of advocating “authenticity” that excuses the worst kinds of hurtful, immature and selfish behavior, I want to respond that far from it, I feel all the weight of the command to love one another, etc. even as I encourage my students to tell the truth of their own stories.
Clearly, some Christians would prefer where the specifics of family or community sinfulness were not told in any published form. I understand the prudence of telling a story “behind closed doors.” I’ve never asked a student to come to our chapel and tell 500 other people that their father was a meth dealer. But some may choose to do so in the telling of their own story. I cannot take away that right. I can impress upon such persons that they must be loving, honorable, forgiving, merciful and respectful. I can warn them of the danger of voyeurism. But I cannot tell someone that their telling of how the Gospel story became their own story cannot include the truth about the matrix of human influences, actions and examples that made them the person they are.
There is no commendation or extra points for being “authentic” to the point of hurtfulness, cruelty and grandstanding. At the same time, there are no extra humility points either. Solomon did not recount his father’s adultery, but God did. Those who have a sinful or evil influence in their lives have to decide, in their own callings and living, what is the proper place to tell- or not tell- those portions of their stories that include the sins of others.
I can best apply this to my own life. When I speak of my father’s struggle with mental illness, I tell many things he did that are not flattering. For example, my father was so ruled by fear that he refused to allow me to participate in simple things like Little League and school trips. I have spoken about the racist atmosphere in my home when I’ve talked of my own journey to accepting others. I am not humiliating my father in these stories. I tell them while loving, honoring and applying the Gospel to him and to all who hear me.
The effects of my own telling of portions of my life story is always overwhelming. Thousands of people have written me in response to confessional essays on this web site to say that my writing has opened the door for them to accept the truth of their own lives, to not feel alone and to remake their own stories with the reconciling good news of the Gospel at a deeper level.
I understand some would not choose to do this. What I ask is that those who have, like Frank Schaefer, chosen to put their own story of guilt, grace and Gospel in context not be attacked as humiliators or promoters of cruel selfishness.
I long for a church that is as truthful as an AA meeting. At such a meeting I only have to say I am an alcoholic. But I may CHOOSE to tell my story in detail, parent’s sins included.
It’s a choice, and those who have done so have helped millions with the common grace of God. They have retold their life stories with sobriety and serenity at the center. They have described the story of human sinfulness with some detail added, but without cruelty or disrespect.
We are a long way from these kinds of churches, and many who read this would avoid such a church altogether. So be it. I can’t determine what is right in every case. I can only say that in my ministry, telling our stories truthfully builds a community of love and hope today where all are welcome to tell their stories- including the forgiveness and grief over ghosts of the past- because of the one who reconciles and forgives us all.
Jesus is not humiliated by the human story or by your version of it. He has a way of owning stories and making them another way of telling his own.