Tag Archives: minister

Killing Me Softly With His Sermon

Today, I attended a Methodist church. It’s not a bad place, as churches go. The minister has a knack for funny moments in his sermons, though I hope he manages to find something new to be funny about, beyond his feminist-friendly self-deprecation as a hapless father of four. I’ve only been there a few times, and that’s been the basic story line each time, and I can imagine that at a certain point it might wear thin.

Like today, maybe. Because while he was going on about — actually, I don’t quite remember what the topic of the sermon was; but whatever it was, my mind was drifting, along with my eye. I happened to be seated at the far rear, which is normally a good place from which to make an escape if I just can’t stand it anymore, though today my exit was blocked by the woman to my left, a cute, pudgy, little old thing who kept falling asleep, slumped forward. I still probably could have climbed over the back of the pew — always an option in the rearmost seating tier — but then I’d have gotten a stare, again, from an old guy in a wheelchair, off to my right and slightly behind me, back in the empty space, where I guess wheelchairs belong. He seemed to notice every time I raised my little digital recorder to whisper some additional brilliant observation about the experience of being there. So, what the hell, it was OK: I stayed.

I did have what I considered one especially brilliant insight. When I arrived, a few minutes before the service started, I noticed that people were talking to each other. It’s not a bad thing to do, but in my particular case I didn’t know anybody and wasn’t about to horn in on the discussions of the families and couples seated around me. I’d be happy to do so, but I find that’s not necessarily understood or appreciated. The little old lady to my left could have been a candidate for conversation, but she had already seemed rather oblivious when I first arrived — she didn’t notice me standing at the end of the pew; I had to ask her if I could squeeze by — and I didn’t really want to force myself upon her or disrupt her reverie.

In fact, I think she and I might both have appreciated it if the church had implemented what I recognized, in my brilliant insight, which was this: they should have been playing quiet, contemplative music before the sermon started. I’ve been to some other churches that do that, and I’ve liked it. If I want to shoot the breeze with people who won’t remember my name, I can go to a bar. In church, I prefer to church; and for me, churching includes trying to imbibe whatever traces of spirituality may be floating around on the conditioned air. With the aid of the right music — and maybe the right fragrances, though I know that’s controversial — I’ve found that the ten or fifteen minutes before a church service can actually be the best part of the whole experience. At other churches, I’ve been known to make a point of getting there early, whenever the music starts.

To tell the truth, I also think a meditative period prior to the service would aid my project of meeting a nice woman, somewhere around my own age. It’s not much of a project — I’m not actually doing anything to achieve that — but I’m just saying it wouldn’t hurt if the church gave me an excuse to arrive early, other than some unexplained desire to sit there like a doofus when there’s no music playing and nothing else really going on for a party of one. If I could arrive early enough to give everyone fair warning of my presence, it seems like I might have a chance of being approached for conversation, given my convenient location in the back row, where an individual or her friends could stand somewhere behind me, chatting, hoping to catch my eye. There is, of course, the possibility that nobody in that place would ever do such a thing. I’m just saying it beats the alternative, which is to arrive, church, and leave. There isn’t a space or an excuse to hang around anywhere else before or after. The church does seem to want to promote a sense of community — they have various dinners and brunches and whatnot throughout the week — but for some reason they don’t seem to think their members would be interested in spending any time with each other before or after the church service itself. The minister was talking in his sermon about how they are a family, and I suppose that’s what some families are like.

I was thinking of sending the pastor an email, to suggest this thing about contemplative music. Two fears restrained me. First, if he did take my suggestion, I was afraid the person assigned to provide spiritual tunes would be the guy who plays the organ during the service. This is an organist who loves the power of his instrument. “Contemplative” might not quite describe the experience he would produce. The second fear was that the pastor would respond to this second email conveying a suggestion as he responded to my first — which is to say, he might ignore me.

My previous emailed suggestion was that the minister could slow down a bit. He’s a fast talker, and judging by the heavy representation of retirees in his audience of maybe 300-400 people, I wouldn’t bet they’re all keeping up with him. Here’s how I phrased it, in that previous email to the pastor, a few months ago:

You probably noticed me during the sermon. I was the guy sitting in back. Regarding which, I wanted to offer a suggestion. I heard somewhere that the lead singer for AC/DC, or some metal group, decided to take lessons from an opera teacher, so that he could keep on screaming without damaging his throat. This is not my suggestion to you. It is more like an analogy or metaphor or something. The thing for which it is a metaphor or analogy is that I think you must master the art of overly dicting, or whatever they call it when singers are taught to crisply deliver the starts and/or ends of their words, almost to a fault, almost as if they were attempting to sound like cultured individuals instead of being mere musical wastrels.

What I mean is that, when you get on a roll, the syllables come fast and thick, and I think it must be hilarious for those seated in the front rows. But, alas, my family was never given to the front row at church. This was partly because we lived next to the church, out there in the countryside, and Dad liked to turn on the buzzsaw and roar through a pile of poles to be cut, during Sunday School, invariably dropping heavy pieces on his toes and cursing loudly to make it feel better — and then realizing he had better get into the house and put on a suit and slink into the back pew next to Mom before the sermon was halfway done. So, as I say, no front row for us.

So I, this morning, observing family tradition, was partly defeated by the acoustics. I could see your lips moving; I could hear people laughing; I believed that was my cue to laugh too; and therefore I did, even if those around me did not. For this, we could blame their aged ears; we could blame mine as well. But I really do think it might just be the delivery. An alternate hypothesis would be that it is male hearing — not lack of auditory detection, so much as a craving for a firm grip on each syllable, honed perhaps by millenia of needing to make sure that spearing the man is the proper response to what he just said.

There is, however, a scientific method of testing this, to wit: I suggest sending your adjunct choir members abroad as missionaries, more precisely assigning them singly or in pairs to sit randomly throughout the auditorium, and thus to lend moral support to those would-be hymn singers, such as myself, who are only too happy to warble audibly, given assurance that we are at least in the vicinity of the desired musical note. In other words, if someone near me seems to be singing, I feel encouraged to do likewise. Such was not the case this a.m., and that brings us to the scientific part of the expedition: to gather data. Your proposed missionaries would hypothetically report back from the trenches, sharing valuable intelligence as to what is seen and heard, way back there in the outer darkness — just in case I happen not to be present and am thus unable to serve in that capacity.

Having acquired social skills in New York City during my formative years, when he ignored that first email, dismissing all the effort I had put into it, I sent another, asking why he was ignoring me. That one did get a reply, though a brief and tired one that seemed to wish I would just go away. And that’s understandable. A father of four can tend to only so many things at once. He did thank me for my suggestion. I can’t say that it registered, though; neither I nor the sleeping lady to my left seemed to notice that anything had changed since my last visit. So I am not going to bother him again, except perhaps to send him a link to this post.

In coaxing the minister to make sure his audience can understand what he is saying in his sermons, I could be overlooking a fundamental rule about churching, which is this: nobody cares about the sermons. If they did, they wouldn’t be there, because sermons are generally aimless indulgences of random thoughts that achieve nothing. Admittedly, this is not how ministers see it. As I know from my time among ministerial types, they usually believe the sermon is driving home an important message — about some Bible passage, or consumerism, or how God restores the spice to life. And some of that stuff does sink in sometimes, at least for listeners predisposed to take it seriously. I guess I was moved to offer the suggestion to this guy because, especially in that first visit, I thought he was very good. His sermon actually made me think. Evidently I did absorb some of its essential thoughts, even if some of the fun stuff did blow past me. It even affected my behavior a bit. For a sermon, that was something.

Today, however, as I say, my thoughts and my eye were straying. The key moment was when the minister interrupted his sermon to show a brief video created by the church itself, featuring a black guy in dreadlocks who turned out to be the church’s own director of outreach to college students. The guy was well-spoken, young, and — did I mention? — black. This raised, for me, a question, halting my mind in its travels: was his skin color an important reason for his hiring? For instance, was he making important gains in proselytizing among an enormous population of black students at the nearby university — a population that I had not detected, during my visits there? Or was his video perhaps being played for some other reason, to this audience of hundreds, among whom my roving gaze found no nonwhite people?

I’m not doubting the black guy’s qualifications. He was photogenic. In that brief video, he seemed intelligent. I’d be delighted to learn that he was hired strictly for his abilities, in a color-blind hiring process. That would be different from being hired because the church was determined to hire a nonwhite person even if s/he was less capable. There would be an issue of discrimination, but the question on my mind was whether perhaps the church hired a black guy for purposes of using him to improve its image, to make itself seem more multicultural than it actually was.

Let me put it this way. In this city, non-Hispanic whites account for only 27% of the population. Hispanics account for 63%. In my time of sitting in that pew and watching who walked in and out — and also during my previous attendances — I saw no blacks, indeed only one or two who appeared to be in any sense nonwhite. That’s among an attendance that I would estimate at 300-400 souls, in each service I’ve attended so far.

As a point of comparison, I’ve also attended the Lutheran church down the street a few times. I’d be surprised if Sunday attendance averaged 100. Compared to Methodism, Lutheranism is closer to Catholicism. Maybe that would explain why the Sunday morning congregation at the Lutheran church included a significant percentage of Hispanics. They even had a black woman, who for her own reasons endured or conceivably appreciated the white male minister’s joke at the expense of Muhammad Ali.

A different guess would be that the two churches seemed to have different cultures, and the Lutheran one was more congenial to minorities. I’ve mentioned the soullessness, for me, of the experience of this Methodist church — the experience of walking in, seeing no sign that anybody wanted to talk to me, having noplace to go other than my spot in the back pew, not having spiritual music or fragrances or anything else to justify sitting there alone in that spot, for any longer than absolutely necessary — and then seeing, at the end, that everybody stood up and just walked out to their cars, evidently without any concept that there could be what we in the Jesus movement used to call an afterglow experience. For us, afterglow was where a person would want to sit and marinate, after the church service, alone or with friends, savoring the sense of having encountered the presence of Christ and the love of his children. In other words, we just didn’t want to leave.

I mention those factors because that Lutheran church, more than most others I’ve attended, seemed to be making a diligent effort to populate its little lobby, before and after services, with church members who would barely let a stranger enter without having someone at least say hello to him/her. Beyond that, if you want to really blow someone’s mind, you might tell them that I was sitting alone in the pew before services, at that Lutheran church, minding my own business — listening, yes, to their organist’s contemplative music — when a young, pretty, married woman off to my left actually slid down my way, offered me her hand to shake, and introduced herself. This simply doesn’t happen to old white guys in America, especially not to those who aren’t anyone’s boss or banker. I don’t think she was attracted to me for my money. I think that, at some point, somebody at that church called a come-to-Jesus meeting, as it were, and delivered a choice: either we make a real effort to reach every stranger who comes through our door, or we wither and die, and with us the gospel.

A reader of my other posts may suspect that I would not be entirely averse to the prospect of churches withering and dying. Some of them, anyway. But the focus in this post is on a somewhat different thought, namely, that I’m not too sure the Methodists have a workable game plan. I’ve contrasted the Lutheran and Methodist ministerial style before, but in that previous post I noted especially that the seminary training of Methodists seems to emphasize practical aspects of how to run a church, while the Lutherans are more up inside their heads with theological study of the Bible and its ancient languages. You’d expect that a practical, methodical Methodist minister would be living up to his own concept of building a real worship home — but instead, to me, despite all his theologizing, the Lutheran pastor was doing a much better job of that.

I would say the difference was subtle and yet remarkable: you could miss it, and yet it could really matter. At the end of my first visit to the Lutheran church, I noticed that people were not getting up and walking out. I guess I assumed that’s what they would do; but after I stood up, I saw that a number of them were remaining in their seats. I’m not sure why. I mean, of course some did get up. But as I observed in my next visit, a fair number hung around in their pews for at least five or ten minutes afterwards. I’m not sure how long, actually, because I only went a few times, and after a certain amount of pretending to read and re-read the paper bulletin and inspect my fingernails and listen to the music and so forth, I ran out of excuses to be still sitting there without looking like some kind of lurker, so I had to go — being accosted, again, on my way out, by people who wanted to shake my hand and thank me for visiting.

My guess is that, for all his lack of polish — or perhaps precisely because he wasn’t putting on a slick production — congregants appreciated that the Lutheran minister was sincere. I mean, I even emailed this guy some links to my anti-religious writings, and yet he still wanted to buy me coffee. This was, obviously, a profound contrast against the Methodist’s response. The message from the latter was, hey, I’ve got a thousand members; I don’t need you. He so clearly didn’t need me that he didn’t even bother assigning someone on his ample staff to treat emails from people like me as a sign of potential interest. Outreach to me, making people feel welcomed — it wasn’t happening.

But if I’d been black? That, I think, would have been a very different matter. I think in that case the Methodist minister would have fallen all over himself to welcome me. That would fit with hiring a cool, middle-class black guy to run the ministry to white and Latino university students. It was like the 1970s, when radical Marxist professors at Harvard were declaring their solidarity with the working man, because that was the academically fashionable thing to do, but they still didn’t want the working man as a neighbor.

This city’s demographic makeup was only 7% black, as compared to 13% for the U.S. as a whole and, say, 24% in Boston or 49% in St. Louis. In this neighborhood, it was probably not even 7%. So it was pretty clear that the black guy was not hired for outreach in the black community: wrong part of the city; wrong city altogether. Very few black people were going to visit that Methodist church on Sunday morning, and those who did were very unlikely to say, “Oh, wow, they hired a black guy for their student ministry; I belong here.”

So then why hire the black guy? One possibility was that the church was completely color-blind. They just hired the most capable applicant, regardless of skin color. That is possible. It is not likely. According to Pew Research, the United Methodist Church is 94% white and 1% black. From this, one might estimate that, when the church advertised this position, there would be 94 white Methodist applicants for every one black Methodist applicant — even if we assume, contrary to the data, that blacks and whites obtained college degrees (presumably required for a position involving university outreach) at the same rates.

Well, if a black guy probably couldn’t deliver much increased interest from the nearly nonexistent local black community, how about hiring a Hispanic, in hopes of persuading more Hispanics to join this Methodist church? In a majority-Hispanic city, that would make sense. And that is precisely what did not happen. Indeed, the staff page, with photos, suggests that, among at least a half-dozen primary and auxiliary pastors and other public-facing leaders in this church, this black man is the only member of a racial or ethnic minority. Sure, the Methodist church is only 2% Hispanic nationwide — but to achieve that average, one would expect the Hispanic membership, in cities like this one, to be much higher.

It seems rather obvious that the black guy would be hired only if he was what the white membership wanted. For purposes of persuading college students to attend a church, it is not clear whether a cool black man would be more effective than a cool white woman or Latina. In any case, it did not seem that the church’s white members and leaders were making a serious effort to bring more Hispanics into the picture. It appeared that, if you want to prove that you’re socially aware and diversity-oriented, you can shoot for a 30% Hispanic mix, and risk upsetting the comfortably white composition of your congregation; or you can just hire a young black guy who looks really different from your graying Baby Boomer membership.

So there was a question of tokenism — of the perceived need to hire a relatively flamboyant representative from another race. I guess that was what I was wondering, as I sat there in the pew and watched that black man in that video. I would have preferred to just watch and be impressed, but I’d had so-called “diversity” thinking rammed down my throat for too many years; I had learned that the presence of a black man, where you would not expect to find one, is probably due to the misguided bureaucratism of a white social justice warrior, the type who would consider male and female fraternal twins to be more “diverse” (because their genders differ) than Billy Graham and Adolf Eichmann (because they were both conservative white males). Basically, in that world, if you can check a box on a standard form (female, check; African-American, check), then you’ve got diversity, even if you wind up with a lot of people who look different but think alike. If they could have their own personal Obama on staff, that would pretty much prove, in their minds, that they were morally superior to those of us who just don’t care that much about skin color until someone shoves it in our face.

These were my thoughts and impressions. Obviously, I wasn’t on the church staff. My surmises could have been completely off-target. But that’s sort of like saying that a customer decided not to buy your toaster because she thought it was a Frisbee. The customer would be completely wrong, but misunderstandings are to be expected when you present people with strange appearances. I was looking at a cool black guy in church full of old white people; I had my years of victimization at the hands of privileged whites who congratulated themselves for believing that they gave a damn about blacks like the ones I’d had as roommates 30 years earlier; I was drawing my own conclusions. C’est la vie.

Observe, then, what has happened here. I went to church. There was the dim possibility that I would make friends or meet a woman there, but the primary mission was to church — to have at least a bit of a spiritual experience, possibly from a sermon that would give me something to think about, or perhaps just from being in that place, among those people, hearing that music.

To emphasize, I had nothing against the black guy. I didn’t see that he said or did anything wrong. My reaction had nothing to do with him personally. The point is rather that his appearance was so glaringly incommensurate with that incongruously white assembly that I couldn’t help being distracted by questions and frustrations arising from past attempts to reason with sociopolitical ideologues — among whom, as I suddenly recalled, some had been Methodist. I wondered what the minister and his people were up to, what they would assume about me — what he had in fact assumed from my words and/or surname, resulting in his decision to essentially dismiss my emails.

Evidently I was primed for these reactions. I hadn’t thought so, when I decided to attend church today. But now it seemed my mission had gone completely off the rails. There was a question of whether this church would be, for me, a sanctuary or, rather, an arena. True, I didn’t fit with the true believers in the Lutheran church, where I definitely didn’t share their views of the Bible and such; but at least I was safe there, for the time being. Better than that, actually: the minister remembered me, and went out of his way to talk to me. You might think I would be safer in the big Methodist church, where I could be completely anonymous — and I was, as long as I stayed silent and unknown. But if I ever dared open my mouth, what would they think of my reactions to their black minister? I was certainly welcome to add my name to the attendance roll, my voice to the hymns, and my dollars to the collection plate. But why would I want to?

There is talk, these days, about the contrast in membership trends, between liberal and conservative churches. I don’t know if such trends affect this particular Methodist franchise, within the liberal United Methodist Church. But as I recalled the number of old people in attendance today, I had to chuckle at an observation by a pastor in Minnesota, talking about that state’s churches:

United Methodism in Minnesota since 2000 has lost 35 percent of members …. The Presbyterian Church USA in Minnesota has lost 42 percent …. And the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in Minnesota [i.e., not the more conservative Wisconsin and Missouri synods, to which my neighborhood Lutheran church belongs] has lost 22 percent ….

Answers to some of these mysteries might be found at the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly meeting last month and the Episcopal General Convention meeting this month. At their current rates of decline neither denomination will exist in 20 years. Yet neither convention focused on evangelism or church growth. Episcopalians debated whether to compel a handful of dissenting traditional dioceses to host same sex nuptials. They also discussed editing their liturgies to become more gender neutral. Presbyterians denounced Israel and USA border policies, opposed religious liberty in favor of LGBTQ and abortion rights, and pondered whether to divest from fossil fuels. A senior church official claimed there’s increasing excitement in their denomination over “justice” issues. No doubt. They lost 68,000 members last year.

The conservative churches were losing members too, but not nearly as rapidly. Declines over the past 20 years seemed to be in the neighborhood of five to ten percent.

So the question there is why the liberal churches are in free-fall. I don’t know — do you suppose it could be bad for membership to align oneself politically with progressive non-Christians who voice unremitting disrespect toward white males, when that demographic accounts for at least 40% of your members — more like 60+%, if you include the wives and girlfriends those guys may drag elsewhere?

Politics itself may be a culprit. It seems that a substantial share of the public finds politics stressful and distasteful. Disputes about socioeconomic policy could be just about the last thing most people want to deal with in a church, where the whole idea is to encounter beliefs and ideas that are in some sense constructive, sociable, redemptive, or otherwise supportive of a shared religious experience. Being mad about stuff belongs elsewhere. It appears there’s just not that much of a market for a religious sphere that would seek to repeat what you can already get from a debate with your next-door neighbor.

But there I go again, talking about issues instead of the personal experience of being in the church. And yet, when the personal experience is so empty, one can’t be surprised that other thoughts would fill the vacuum.

Maybe the real conclusion, from all this, would be that the Lutheran church felt safer because damnation was safely postponed. Until I died, those people would probably be praying for me, hoping I would come to accept Jesus as my savior, or some such thing. But in a church with a social justice orientation, questions arising from the discovery of that black minister reminded me that eternal judgment could come almost immediately, as soon as I asked the wrong question. At least the Lutherans would give me time to listen to the music.


Repentance and the Methodist Minister

In prior posts in this blog, I have described the pursuit of truth that shaped my thinking about Christian belief, as well as some of my experiences with the ministerial profession, during my early years as an ardent reader of the Bible and as a pre-ministry student. Given that background, I have criticized instances of falsehood and hypocrisy that I have encountered among conservative Christian ministers and apologists.

In this post, I turn to the phenomenon of hypocrisy among liberal Christian ministers, mostly encountered in my later years, with particular focus on the topic of repentance. As above, this discussion explores a situation arising from my personal experience.

This is a long post. For those short on time, I suggest reading the Introduction and then deciding whether to skip on down a ways.

(Note: if a linked webpage is no longer available, or if its content seems to have changed, the Internet Archive may show what it looked like on some prior date. I also have screenshots for some webpages, and could insert those if necessary.)


Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry
The Meaning of Repentance
Repentance as a Weapon
The Inclination to Repent
The Homeless Center
Repentance Requires Truthfulness
Repentance vs. Hubris
Resisting Repentance
Witnessing Against the Enablers


This post presents a critique of certain acts by a liberal Christian minister, some of which are summarized in the accompanying video. I knew this minister pretty well: her name is Meg, and she is my ex-wife.

I decided to write this critique upon discovering that Meg has been conveying false information about me. That discovery surprised me. We were divorced more than 14 years ago. We didn’t have kids. I haven’t seen or heard from her since. There didn’t seem to be any reason for these false statements. But as I worked through this post, I arrived at a possible explanation of her motives.

Maybe it was just as well that this issue arose. For one thing, this inquiry into Meg’s words and acts helped me to arrive at a better understanding of our divorce. Working through these materials also highlighted the role that repentance can play in healing people’s lives and relationships. And I suspect there will be people who will need or appreciate the information provided here.

Further, as I explored the topic of repentance within the context of our divorce and more recent events, I began to perceive that a failure to take repentance seriously, on the part of a liberal Christian denomination like the United Methodist Church (UMC), might shortchange members and ministers in that denomination. It may also result in harm to innocent and vulnerable people. Hence, this post considers how such a denomination might benefit from an improved understanding of repentance.

Aside from what I learned during our marriage and divorce, the materials cited in this post are mostly those that I have been able to uncover in a moderately diligent online investigation. As far as I can tell, I did arrive at a basic understanding of relevant matters. But I welcome additions, corrections, and clarifications. There are still some things that I was not able to figure out. Readers should feel free to contact me or post comments (anonymously, if desired) at the end of this article.

The next two sections provide the backdrop of ministry and repentance. To me, this material is important. But I realize it won’t appeal to everyone. Those who can’t stay awake through those preliminary sections might want to skim on down to where we start talking about particular events.

Contrasting Concepts of Christian Ministry

Meg had grown up in the UMC. At some point, four or five years after our 2002 divorce, she went back to school, earned a Master’s degree in divinity (M.Div.), and became a UMC minister.

I had a sense of what was involved in becoming a minister. As described in another post, I was baptized in the conservative Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and, after two years of intense religiosity in high school, I enrolled in a pre-ministry program at a Lutheran college.

It appeared, though, that the Lutheran and UMC concepts of ministry differed. For Martin Luther and his followers, the Bible was the starting point of faith. Hence, the Lutheran seminary sought to produce Bible scholars who also knew something about running a church. We started studying ancient Greek in the first semester of our freshman year in that undergraduate pre-ministry program, because the seminary expected us to be able to read the original New Testament texts, in Greek, upon our arrival. That was in the 1970s, but that is apparently expected today as well. I am not sure whether I would also have been expected to read Hebrew. The minister in our church, when I was in high school, was able to read Hebrew, Latin, Greek, and also German, Luther’s native tongue; my first-year studies thus included German. Altogether, an M.Div. from the Lutheran seminary presently requires the equivalent of about 59 semester credits of theological study, where “theology” largely means the study of the Bible’s text and its interpretation, plus a small number of courses in other areas.

I did not see a straightforward statement of courses required for the M.Div., at the websites of either the UMC General Board or the particular seminary Meg attended, but another seminary on the official list did make a course catalog available. In their program, the M.Div. required only 24 semester credits of study covering the Bible, the history of Christianity, and theology. That would be less than half (actually, about 40%) of the Lutheran seminary’s requirement. Everything else seemed to be oriented toward the practice of ministry, with required or elective courses in a variety of areas (e.g., pastoral caregiving, prison ministry).

In a video, I captured an amusing discussion in which Meg and I talked about Bible stories. She had a very limited grasp of what was in the Bible, consistent with her more or less agnostic beliefs. The lack of biblical orientation may have reflected the priorities of the seminary that trained her local minister, at the church she attended in her youth. To that minister, no doubt, the important thing was not to learn the content and meaning of Bible passages, but rather to pursue the practice of faith in contemporary life, with the aid of references to the occasional scripture. The Methodist seminary training may have been more useful for purposes of running an appealing and relevant church. But as I developed this post, I had to wonder whether UMC pastors in training, including Meg, were shortchanged in their understanding of essential Christian doctrines. It will soon become clear why I was particularly interested in what she had learned about the doctrine of repentance.

The Meaning of Repentance

It seems repentance can mean what you want it to mean. In its weakest form, some construe it as no more than an awareness of a tactical error, as in, “I shouldn’t have borrowed the neighbor’s grill without asking. He might call the cops.” From both a religious and psychological perspective, that weak construal leaves out much of what repentance can be.

Repentance is central to the teachings of Jesus. According to the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus began his ministry by calling upon his hearers to repent. Numerous commentators conclude that, in Christian belief, repentance is essential for salvation.

But repentance is not an exclusively Christian concept. In various forms, it appears in other religions and also in secular contexts. For instance, Piquero (2016) finds a positive relationship between repentance and reduced juvenile re-arrests; Baron (2015) argues that repentance was underestimated in the amnesties granted by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa; Bastian et al. (2012, p. 158) cite repentance as a means of regaining one’s moral standing in the community after committing immoral acts; and Bench-Capon (2016, p. 12) suggests incorporation of a repentance element in an artificial intelligence system designed to assess human behavior. Within the sphere of religion, Lerner (2015) considers repentance important in Jewish religious practice; Lee et al. (2016) likewise in Buddhism; and Wikipedia states that tawba (i.e., “retreat” or “return”) is “of immense importance in Islamic tradition.”

Dictionary definitions of repentance tend to emphasize feelings — notably, deep sorrow or regret for a wrongful act. The key ingredient appears to be the conscience, typically understood as an inner sense that encourages a person to choose right rather than wrong action. In psychiatry, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) offers Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) as the most likely diagnosis for a person who seems to lack a conscience — although, according to PsychCentral, ASPD requires at least three of these traits, usually occurring by age 15: feels no guilt or remorse; regularly breaks or flouts the law; constantly lies and deceives others; is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead; is prone to fighting and aggression; has little regard for the safety of others; or is irresponsible or fails to meet financial obligations.

Outside of psychiatry, people often use “psychopath” or “sociopath” to denote ASPD-type attitudes and behaviors. Sources disagree on whether those two terms mean the same thing. Among those who see a difference, the dominant view (from e.g., Psychology Today, Huffington Post, PsychCentral) seems to be that a sociopath has problems with social contacts or society in general (e.g., nervous, easily agitated, prone to emotional outbursts, unable to keep a job or stay in one place, generally viewed as troubled), but may be at least somewhat able to form one-on-one emotional attachments and feel empathy, and may have enough of a conscience to feel bad about what s/he is doing. The psychopath is rather the opposite: calm, charming personality, easy to trust, fits in well (e.g., has a job, may have what seems to be a loving relationship with a partner), and good at faking emotions — but cold inside, with no conscience and no ability to form emotional attachments or feel empathy. As those descriptions imply, the crimes of a sociopath tend to be disorganized and spontaneous, while the psychopath’s are carefully planned. The psychopath’s lack of emotionality is believed to result from brain structure, perhaps genetically determined, while sociopathy is believed to result from childhood trauma and abuse.

These concepts raise the question of whether a person who lacks a conscience, and thus cannot experience deep regret, is capable of repenting. My search led directly to 1 2 3 discussions in which people grappled with this question. Possibly a working response would be that even if someone has never felt horrible about harming some other living creature, s/he could nevertheless achieve what amounts to repentance, by coming to understand that certain acts s/he has committed are morally unacceptable, being convinced that s/he must change, pursuing such change with determination, and achieving a style in which s/he largely succeeds in doing the right thing, even though s/he does not have the guilty feelings that a dictionary definition might require for repentance.

Indeed, for some purposes, that solution might be better than an overly emotion-oriented concept of repentance. The problem with emotions is that they provide flaky guidance. If I define repentance as a predominantly emotional matter, it will be tempting for me to assume that everything is OK as soon as I feel OK. The people I’ve harmed may not agree.

In 1530, Philip Melanchthon wrote, and Luther approved, the Augsburg Confession. Article 12 of the Confession stated that Christian repentance starts with contrition (i.e., “terrors smiting the conscience through the knowledge of sin”) and continues through faith (i.e., the belief that, “for Christ’s sake, sins are forgiven”) to produce good works, which are “the fruits of repentance” and “are bound to follow” (see Moldenhauer, 2016).

Similarly, the UMC states that salvation entails repentance, defined as “turning away from behaviors rooted in sin and toward actions that express God’s love, and another UMC webpage states that “repentance should be accompanied by . . . works of piety and mercy.” The general idea seems similar to the Lutheran view, but the phrasing in those quotes is less strict: “should be accompanied” sounds like a mere suggestion. It is not the same as saying that good works “are bound to follow.”


Thus, in the Lutheran Commentary, Horn (1895, Philemon, p. 229) says, “Christian repentance demands restitution,” defined as repayment to the victim for injury or loss. If you’ve stolen someone’s bicycle, it is not sufficient to pray that God will make that person feel better. You owe them a bike. You need to pay back.

That does seem to have been the 19th-century Methodist concept as well. For instance, Rev. John Prickard preached that “repentance was all that we could require for the offence against God, and restitution was all we could insist on for the offence they had committed against their neighbour” (see Jackson, 1872, p. 187). But you won’t necessarily get that nowadays, in the observation of one Methodist minister (2006):

For Zacchaeus repentance meant something concrete: ‘Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount’ (Luke 19:8). This sounds rather different from the conversion testimonies that we sometimes hear in our churches today. . . . [I]t has been a long time since I heard a testimony like that of Zacchaeus, for whom repentance meant costly restitution for some serious moral failure against others in the past.

Frankly, the same seems true of the 20th-century Lutheranism in which I was raised — in practice, if not in doctrine. There was much talk of forgiveness, but very little mention of restitution — in effect, Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. So I suppose it depends on what you want to believe. If your God is content to let you repent by planting a tree in memory of some guy you killed, then maybe you belong in a heaven with others who feel the same about their sins against you. But if I were that dead man’s child, I think I’d be more impressed if you found a way to replace his paycheck. Onerous, I know, but probably conducive to a reduced murder rate. In the process, you might learn something about love. And you might end up with a religion worth belonging to.

For a boiled-down summary, WikiHow says that Christian repentance includes thinking about what you’ve done and why it was wrong; repenting for the right reasons; getting help; changing your behavior; making right the problems you caused for others; and living a life that pleases God.

Today’s UMC is willing to go partway toward meeting the WikiHow expectations. For example, in a webpage titled “Act of Repentance for Racism,” the UMC acknowledges that it previously engaged in “acts which have perpetuated the sin of racism”; resolves to adopt “a study guide which addresses the church’s role in racism”; and “requests all local congregations in the United States to engage in study sessions” using that guide. It’s a start. But the acts being repented of, involving alienation or segregation of blacks within the UMC, occurred between 1816 and 1939. Pretty safe to repent of them now, right? The relevant parties are all dead. Nobody will be suing you for what you admit. Not that the UMC statement actually admits much: it does not name specific acts of wrongdoing. If you want to know what racist acts the UMC has committed or is now committing, it seems the lawyers are more forthcoming than the church.

So, within Christian practice, we have a lame pseudo-repentance that shields the wrongdoer from real, present-moment responsibility, and then we have a more legalistic concept of repentance calling for a stricter identification of wrongs and remedies. But there may also be a third dimension. Often, where law is involved, social science is or should be involved as well. There are usually reasons — psychological, cultural, historical — for the things people do. Understanding those reasons may help all parties — the wrongdoer, the wronged person, bystanders, and the system — to arrive at superior ways of preventing and responding to undesirable behaviors and events. To a considerable extent, this post is about the difference between the “repentance lite” practiced by today’s UMC and these other — deeper, it seems, and more meaningful — approaches to repentance.

Repentance as a Weapon

Ironically, it was Meg herself who helped me to realize that repentance might now be the key issue between us. When I became aware that she was telling tales, and searched for further information, I came across an article (archive link) that she wrote. That article described her participation in a protest, in October 2014, against police brutality in the predominantly black suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.

In this section, I criticize some aspects of Meg’s participation in that protest. I do sympathize with resistance to police brutality and racism. But Meg’s handling of the situation illustrates that repentance can be misused: one can apply it incorrectly against others, or can fail to apply it properly to oneself.

In that protest, held at the Ferguson police department headquarters, Meg joined several dozen other clergy from around the country in what the Huffington Post described as an effort to persuade police officers “to ‘repent’ for the [fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown] and for other acts of brutality against people of color.” At face value, that did make some sense. If the police were doing wrong, surely they needed to repent.

I wondered about Meg’s own motives for participating, though. In my experience — and now, in the materials that my Google searches have brought to light — she rarely if ever participated in political protests or took an active role in race-related matters. The 45 videos in her Vimeo channel present sermons whose titles refer to veterans, finances, baptism, serving God, and other topics; but I don’t see that she has delivered a sermon on such subjects as police brutality or discrimination. The titles are not very informative, for most of the sermons in her YouTube channel and for many in the Vimeo channel, so I could be missing something. But it doesn’t seem I am missing much. Throughout the materials that I reviewed while preparing this post, it appeared that she made many statements and took many actions related to homelessness, but few related to race.

As Meg used to tell me, and as demonstrated by her videos and by my own video, she loves to be onstage. Going to Ferguson as a member of that group of ministers was much more visible than being a mere anonymous protester. I do think she considered it important at the time. But I also think that it was dramatic and exciting, and that she got her face and name in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch — along with a couple of black women whose names, ironically, weren’t mentioned.


The Huffington Post article quoted a minister who explained that repentance required both an admission of wrongdoing and a commitment to make changes. He said, “[T]here has not even been any admitting of wrongdoing yet by any of the powers that be in Ferguson.” It appeared that the city was not fulfilling its responsibilities to its citizens. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (2015) found pervasive injustices, in Ferguson’s police practices, violating multiple federal laws and constitutional rights. New York Times article conveyed the view that nothing would change, however, unless the Justice Department sued Ferguson and demanded systemic restructuring.

That raises the question of what individual police officers can do. Meg’s article said that, in Ferguson, she confronted two different officers with these words: “You are a part of a system that killed Michael Brown. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.” That may have made good theater, but it seems like questionable religion. For one thing, most Protestants don’t ordinarily do confession, per se. That’s a predominantly Catholic thing — and, even then, you rarely if ever see priests walking up to people on the street and demanding a public confession. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that “secret confession, sacramental in character, has been the practice of the church from the earliest days.” That seems to be the case in the UMC as well: its Book of Discipline ¶ 340.2(a)(5) requires ministers to “maintain all confessions inviolate” except where otherwise required by law. But if I’m wrong about that — if Methodist ministers are in the business of demanding public confessions — why aren’t they (including the Methodist ministers in Ferguson) doing it every day, in the ghettoes of their own home towns? For that matter, why aren’t they publicly shaming the exploitative and abusive members of their own congregations? Isn’t it a little suspicious that this handful of protesting ministers (many from out of state) only now decided to demand confessions, when the world was watching through the cameras in Ferguson? It seems someone might have reminded them that Jesus told his followers not to make a show of their religion in public (Matthew 6:5).

Not to say these ministers were all just glory hounds, but their approach does seem unfair. The Justice Department’s report (p. 12) noted, for example, that some Ferguson officers had tried to do the right thing, but were defeated by the dominant culture within the Police Department. The officers who would be most stricken by conscience might be the best of the lot: they might be most likely to give someone like Meg a public confession — thereby putting themselves at risk of lawsuits, imprisonment, and retribution from fellow officers. A minister whose form of protest leads to punishment of the best officers is not necessarily doing us any favors.

In her article, Meg says that tears came to the eyes of both of the officers she confronted: “We looked into each other’s souls. What I saw was pain.” Or maybe not. Maybe what she saw was frustration at being falsely accused — because, for all we know, the officers selected to handle that protest may have been those who were actually the best at working with members of the community. Or maybe she was seeing tears of grief or fear arising from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — if, for instance, the officer happened to be a veteran, presently experiencing a flashback to his military experience with angry crowds in Iraq. As another possibility, she may have been seeing humiliation, as in the 1970s, when protesting women treated returning Vietnam veterans as baby killers, just as Meg seems to have assumed these officers were racist. In other words, a skilled mental health worker would probably not assume that s/he could know what was going through the mind of a police officer being publicly accused during a political protest — and would surely not be the one making such a potentially unfounded accusation. Automatically labeling someone as racist because he wears a certain uniform is not a Christlike departure from labeling someone as dangerous because of the color of his skin.

In her article, Meg tried to explain why she made the four-hour round-trip drive from Columbia to Ferguson that day:

The congregation I serve is celebrating 100 years in ministry. During those 100 years we have been guilty of sins of racism, sexism, heterosexism and classism. The fact that I have only been a part of this congregation for four and a half years does not negate my responsibility within a sinful institution. . . .

This is the context from which I went to Ferguson on Monday to participate in a clergy protest. I needed to be with other people of faith to name our own sinfulness, our own complacency within sinful systems. I needed to confess, repent and make a commitment to pursuing a new direction.

Those remarks seem confused. Meg can’t repent of sins that were committed by other people, or before she was born. Repentance may include feeling bad, but that doesn’t mean every bad feeling is repentance. She didn’t really repent of “complacency” or make a commitment to a new direction: as noted above, there seem to be no signs that her ministry became reoriented toward issues involving race or police brutality, during the two years that have passed since that Ferguson protest. She didn’t need to make that trip in order “to be with other people of faith”; the people of faith in her congregation were right there in Columbia. She didn’t need to go to Ferguson to confess or repent; Columbia was perfectly adequate for that too.

It is not clear why Meg made those statements. Maybe she feared that people would suspect she was seeking the limelight when, in her mind, she was just trying to do something meaningful. Maybe the Ferguson experience turned out to be upsetting, or not quite what she thought it would be, and she felt obliged to try to resolve a bit of the disorientation that it generated within her. Maybe her training taught her that people are used to fuzzy thinking when they hear seemingly religious words like “repent.”

It does appear, though, that what the UMC taught Meg of repentance, in her childhood and in seminary, involves a double standard. When confronting herself, her article follows the UMC formula (above) of claiming a fake personal responsibility for unspecified acts committed long ago, by people who are probably not even alive anymore. There is no real bite to it, no identification of specific sins, on her part, that might require a potentially costly personal restitution. But that approach was not going to be acceptable for the cops she confronted. For them, the vague words about involvement with a “sinful system” were just the starting point. She expected those officers to confess specific racist acts — acts that, if overheard, could cost them.

If Meg was serious about facing up to her sins, her article needed to say pretty much the opposite of what it said. It would certainly have been refreshing if, for instance, she had told us about being confronted by a cop who said to her, “You are a part of a system of poverty pimps that uses the failings of police officers, and the suffering of black people, for your own self-glorification. I call you to repentance and offer to hear your confession.”

The message that Meg carried to those police officers was a message from a position of privilege. It said, in effect, “We have standards in this country, and if you want to wear that uniform, you need to live up to those standards.” That would not be a bad message, for some purposes. But from a Christian minister, it is off-key. The message of Jesus was, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to notice the beam in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3). He does not seem to have led his disciples on political missions, to insure that Roman guards were complying with Roman regulations. Those disciples were having a hard enough time just understanding and applying his teachings to their own lives.

It is possible to approach such matters differently. Imagine an article on race, written by a different sort of minister. Instead of spending a day making a trip to Ferguson, joining in the protest, and writing about that experience, this minister uses that time to listen to the complaints of the Ferguson protesters, and humbly tries to apply those complaints to herself. Let’s say she’s a UMC minister in Columbia, and is aware that the UMC has been growing whiter, such that it is now 90% white and only 6% black, while the city of Columbia is 79% white and 11% black. Let’s say, moreover, that her particular church is located in a more heavily minority area, and yet her congregation is mostly white. Plainly, if that minister is genuinely concerned about engaging the UMC with black people, such as the ones in her neighborhood, she has some work to do. So perhaps she has noticed the Columbia Missourian article indicating that Columbia’s police department has been devoting a disproportionate amount of attention to black motorists in the predominantly black part of town. Now, instead of picking on the police located at a safe distance, in far-off Ferguson, she can make a more courageous nuisance of herself right there at home, where she might face consequences. In her article, she can name the Columbia officers she spoke with, and can describe what she got from them. She can also describe specific instances when she has caught herself perpetuating covert racism, so as to educate her audience and keep herself honest. Unfortunately, that is not the route Meg chose.

To sum up, repentance is not a weapon. It is not a matter of going out, finding fault with people, and demanding public confessions. Moreover, in Christian teaching, the primary purpose of repentance is personal change leading to salvation, not political change leading to a better society. Even if political change were a suitable preoccupation for a minister who claims to be following in the footsteps of Jesus, it does not appear that Meg, herself, was sincerely committed to the pursuit of political change on the specific topic of racism. But even if she had been, it would still have taken a lot of nerve for her to demand repentance from others — as we are about to see.

The Inclination to Repent

So Meg raised the topic of repentance, and did so in such a way as to call into question her own grasp of, and investment in, that topic. She seemed unfamiliar with the language and behavior of the genuinely repentant person.

I was sensitive to that possibility because, after all, I had spent nine years living with her. The end of those nine years began on a summer day, just a week before the sixth anniversary of our wedding. On that day, I suddenly came to understand that, in being her biggest fan, I had been blind to behaviors that would destroy our marriage.

That day was June 29, 2002. That afternoon, she came home from a business trip, and informed me that she had been carrying on affairs with other men for the past eight of our nine years together.

Now that, you might think, would be a great opportunity for someone to show that they know what repentance is. Not to get ahead of the story, but that was 14 years ago, and I am still waiting for an apology.


So, yes, I do have some basis for paying careful attention to the words Meg uses, when she writes about repentance. For me, this was a brutal experience — and as described below, she has deliberately compounded its brutality.

In case anyone is wondering, it is hard for me, even now, to present these facts. Obviously, I could have told this story at any point in the past 14 years, if I had been inclined to make a public statement against Meg. YouTube tells me that she started posting videos of her sermons five or six years ago. If I had been following her activities, I would have found those videos when she posted them. My critique of just one of her videos, provided below, suggests that I probably could have found quite a bit to criticize in her weekly sermons, if I had wanted to do that. There probably were other relevant videos or webpages too, put online by Meg or others (e.g., newspapers), that have since been taken down. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t following her; I made no public statement on these matters before 2016; and I have not interfered with her ministry or with anything else in her life.

To anticipate one question, after she told me of her affairs, back in June 2002, I don’t think I was ever seriously tempted to call her names and leave, slamming the door on the way out. There seem to have been several factors moderating my reactions, as her story unfolded. For one thing, I was 15 years her elder, and sometimes our relationship felt like that of mentor and protégé. I was often in a position of providing guidance, especially in her career but also, sometimes, in other areas of life.

I was in no rush to terminate our relationship, also, because I wanted to try to understand what was happening. I had been divorced once before. I felt that I could have learned more from that experience. This time, I wanted to proceed more cautiously. So, rather than throw Meg out or leave in a huff after her June 29 confession, I spent the next two weeks continuing to live with her, keeping things on an even keel to the extent possible, and using the time to ask a lot of questions and do a lot of thinking.

My state of semi-detachment, during those weeks, comes through in the accompanying video. As one might expect, I wasn’t always calm. But when I got upset, I usually responded by going out for a walk, to think about what was bothering me. Usually, with Meg, during those two weeks, I was in more of a clinical state of mind. Maybe I was retreating to rationality as a source of structure in a crumbling personal world. Or maybe it was just the nature of the story she was telling me, and other things she was saying along the way. Sometimes it was really over the top. As I began to develop a sense of what Meg had been doing and thinking, the strangeness of her account made it interesting. It almost removed me from the picture. It was like she contained the whole opera within herself, and I was just sitting in the audience, observing as the tale unfolded.

I think it also helped that I was reasonably confident of myself, where women were concerned. My years with Meg had followed other relationships in which I had matured. I felt that I had become a faithful and pleasant boyfriend and husband. Her drama did not erase the evidence that I was able to do my part in making a relationship succeed. So I couldn’t entirely take it personally. This story didn’t seem to be about me, exactly. She didn’t seem to think that I was guilty of any terrible act or personality trait that would drive her to this. For me, it was more like a nightmare, where bizarre things happen and you just have to try to get through it.

With Meg’s permission, I made hours of audio recordings, capturing many of her statements on these matters, during those weeks in July 2002. At present, it seems unnecessary to disclose the contents of those recordings at length. The accompanying video provides a couple of brief excerpts, sufficient to establish that I am telling the truth about the reason for our divorce. Here, I will add a few points to flesh out the contrast I am developing, between the glib salvation of the phony Christian and the real, heartrending sorrow of true repentance.

Meg said that most of her affairs had been with married men. She indicated that some of their marriages had broken up because of those affairs. Yet she insisted she was not responsible for those breakups. Moreover, she said she wanted a divorce so that she could continue with more of the same. At one point, she said that someone had asked her how she had gotten away with so much lying to me for so long. Her reply, expressed with pride: “It just depends on how good a liar you are.”

Those behaviors were consistent with the attitude toward me that emerged during those two weeks of discussion. It suddenly seemed she did not take me too seriously as a lawfully wedded husband who had subordinated his own career and desire for a stable home — spending all those years following her across a half-dozen states where, for the most part, I did not want to live, as we focused on helping her to achieve rapid promotions in the American Red Cross. Instead, it now seemed that, in her mind, I was almost like a parent from whom she was trying to conceal the adventure of a teenage romance.

A jilted spouse, encountering this sort of situation, could be understandably skeptical toward the philosophy of today’s no-fault divorce, in which marriage is an arrangement of convenience, within a toothless legal structure that offers no protections against even gross irresponsibility and exploitation. As I explain in another post, the old-fashioned legal alternative rejected “marriage as contract” in favor of “marriage as status.” It was in the marriage-as-status world that marriage was literally an institution, a sphere protected against third-party interference and made safe for lifelong intimacy and trust. Those who would treat lightly the marriage vows made by themselves, or by some other married person, could be punished by criminal law and/or sued by the offended spouse (for e.g., “alienation of affections”). Of course, traditional marriage-as-status had problems, especially for women whose husbands abused or exploited them. But some may feel that a story like this one favors the protections that the institution gave, or could give, to the trusting spouse. It is not surprising that, as discussed in that other post, the tide in the past several decades has been turning back toward a more traditional and less frivolous attitude toward marriage.

As our discussions continued, in July 2002, another aspect of the situation emerged. To a certain extent, I started to feel sorry for Meg. It seemed that she might be a bit pathetic. I know my partners tend to become more appealing to me as I become more attached to them, over a period of time; but I did honestly think she was an attractive woman. But now it sounded like she overplayed her hand, sometimes failing to seduce married men who declined to pursue the opportunity. I think those hours of conversation brought me to see her, through her own eyes, as a sort of ugly duckling, trying to be pretty and to feel glamorous, and yet rarely managing to be the life of the party. As I say, I did not think she was an ugly duckling; but if that was her self-perception, I could see how that might play a role in some of her behavior.

In her article, Meg said that, when she confronted those two police officers in Ferguson, what she saw in their tearful eyes was “a need to release the doubt and guilt and confusion and fear.” If that is the test of regret leading to repentance, Meg failed. During those two weeks of talk about her extramarital affairs, the only time I saw tears in her eyes was on June 30, the day after she informed me of all those years of cheating. We were in the kitchen. I was asking her questions and she was answering them. At that stage, there was still a great deal of new information. It was a lot to handle. The things she was saying were so personally devastating to me that, at one point, I sagged against the doorway, put my head down, and moaned in grief. It was an almost animal sound, like a wounded cow. I don’t think I had ever done anything like that before. I didn’t mean to; it just came out. I think that scared her; she did shed a few tears at that. But the moment passed. Throughout the following weeks, and in the period of more than 14 years since then, there has been no glimmer of regret on Meg’s part.

As we spoke, during those two weeks, she said she had finally decided to tell me about all this because she felt “hideous” about lying to me. But that turned out not to be the case: eventually I found that some of these “confessions” included brand-new falsehoods. For instance, on a couple of occasions we talked about her affairs during the past twelve months. At one point, she told me that she had not cheated on me in that period of time. She said she had vowed to be faithful during that past year because now, at last, we had a nice home in a town we liked. But then, at another point, she said she was upset because, during that year, she had not been able to keep herself from cheating, and in fact had cheated more frequently than before. Her accounts contradicted each other in other ways as well, and were also inconsistent with other things that I knew then or would eventually figure out. For example, she failed to confess an affair that she had pursued rather flamboyantly in work-related settings. (I think she didn’t tell me about that one for fear that I would figure out who the guy was. It seemed her primary ethical concern, at this point, was to protect the identities of her lovers, to the extent possible.) So I don’t think she really felt hideous about lying to me. I did ask further questions about her alleged remorse — when she first felt it, for instance, and what had triggered it — but she didn’t seem able to provide much detail.

When I heard her confession that she had been cheating on me during the last eight of our nine years together, I finally understood a phone call I had received a year after I met her, back in 1994. We were living together. A young man called and asked for her. When I said she wasn’t home, he started insulting me. I had no idea what was the matter with him. I just hung up on him. I didn’t have his name, so she didn’t have to worry that I would figure out who he was. So now, in 2002, she was willing to confirm that he was the first of her affairs. It seemed that he had insulted me because he had the impression that I was a worthless boyfriend. Apparently this was what she was telling these guys, to justify her cheating.

I also figured out the identity of another one of her lovers, and we talked about him a bit. She described him as mentally unstable. During those two weeks of conversation in July 2002, she suggested that she had “comforted” him by having sex with him. She had apparently forgotten that, a year or two earlier, in previous conversation about her colleagues and her work experiences, she had told me (without mentioning any sexual involvement) that this man was needy, that he had become a pain in the neck, that eventually she had to avoid his attempts to contact her, that he went on to suffer a mental breakdown, and that ultimately he was institutionalized with severe mental illness. I don’t know whether her sexual involvement aggravated his symptoms. But that is one thing they warn against in mental health training, and I hope the same is true in ministerial training. You don’t have sex with clients; you don’t take advantage of people in vulnerable situations. Certainly one would hope that she eventually stopped believing that an affair with a married woman (with its potential for guilt and for ultimately being rejected as she did reject him, among other things) would be an appropriate form of therapy for a mentally disturbed man.

That particular story has ramifications beyond Meg herself. As discussed in more detail below, one might have expected the UMC to pay more attention to what can go wrong when it certifies a minister who considers herself capable of sexual healing — especially when she goes on to choose a form of ministry in which she would have considerable power to provide counseling and other assistance to the homeless population, which includes substantial numbers of needy, vulnerable, discouraged, and mentally ill men.

The Homeless Center

The preceding section supports a belief that it would be risky and inappropriate for the UMC to produce ministers who lack the spiritual foundation and religious commitment necessary for ethical ministerial practice. In Meg’s case, this is not a hypothetical matter. We now have the results of her work at the Wilkes Blvd. United Methodist Church in Columbia, Missouri, over a period of six years. This section discusses outcomes, at that church, that support some of the concerns and conclusions expressed above.

According to an article in the Columbia Missourian, Meg’s first goal as a minister was this: “Don’t be a church with a split personality.” The article did not explain the reasoning behind that goal. A church would ordinarily consist of not one, not two, but a hundred personalities. Presumably she meant a single focus. But there, again, one might ask why. Churches commonly offer members the opportunity to participate in several different kinds of service or fellowship.

Meg told the Missourian that, before she arrived, there was “a great group of people” involved in the addiction recovery groups that met at the church. If her concern had been simply to make sure that her congregation had a single area of focus, it would have made sense to build upon that established addiction recovery mission. She didn’t do that. But neither did she tell the addiction recovery groups to find another place to meet. They apparently continued to meet at her church, throughout her years there. From what I can tell, she didn’t give them much attention, but also didn’t bother them. She was evidently willing to let them do their own thing.

So it does not seem that Meg was really concerned that her congregation might be engaged in more than one pursuit. There does not seem to have been a genuine commitment to a single congregational personality. The bit about a “split personality” bit may have been just an excuse to disregard some traditional ministerial priorities, so as to focus on what she really wanted to do.

What she wanted was clear enough. She told the Missourian that apparently God wanted her to revive her old interest in homelessness, harking back to her undergraduate volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity circa 1992.


To explore that personal area of interest, she used her congregation’s savings to create a day center for homeless people, located on the third floor in the church building. This center, called Turning Point, reportedly brought, to the Sunday morning church services, people who were sometimes not just unwashed, but also intoxicated and/or snoring. Certainly Jesus preached to the lowly, but lowly does not necessarily mean holy; he also advised against casting pearls before swine. There was apparently quite a conflict: the expenses, and the disruption of Sunday services, were extensive and disturbing enough to drive away a majority of church members. According to the Missourian, “All but about 20 parishioners left.” But evidently Meg felt they lacked vision; those who departed were accused of “resistance to change.”

The departure of so many members was apparently quite upsetting for those who remained. The Missourian article quotes Meg as saying, “[W]e had to process through a lot of that grief because folks were losing friends that had been with them and worshipped for a long time.” In other words, she seems to have seen that many of them were actually rather close-knit. Here, again, it does not seem that the congregation had a split personality when she arrived.

In March 2014, the Columbia Daily Tribune reported that Meg started out on the homeless center project as just a temporary “stopgap” fix, until the city could establish a more permanent day center. That was surprising. One might expect that the decision to tear a congregation apart would be made with great reluctance, and only in anticipation of an enduring mission. She told KOMU News that, as long as Turning Point did remain within her church building, they would be “working to raise funds to eventually be able to keep the center open all day and serve more people.” I don’t know whether that was realistic at the time. It did not pan out. Nearly three years later, in November 2016, the Tribune suggested that funding was keeping up with needs, “more or less.” But it also noted that, as had been the case three years earlier, the center was still only staying open from 8 AM to noon, and only on weekdays.

Let us not withhold credit where due. My years of exposure to the social work profession lead me to think that Meg would have made a good social worker. I’m glad the homeless and marginally housed people of Columbia have that day center. They might not have it without her. The materials I reviewed, in the course of preparing this post, have convinced me that she cared, that she and her second husband worked hard, and that they achieved something of value. (It looked like he devoted quite a bit of time and effort to the homeless center, and to other projects in Meg’s church. I did not see that he got much public credit for it, in her articles, interviews, and media photo opportunities.) People began to recognize her as a key person in Columbia’s response to homelessness. On December 15, 2015, the Tribune said, “As the Turning Point continues to grow, the most positive force of all regarding the future is the Rev. Meg Hegemann.” A month later, she and Turning Point were the 2016 winners of the Columbia Values Diversity award.

That was right before she decided to quit and move back to Maine — leaving others to carry the burden of keeping her project alive. She gave her last sermon four months later. In an interview with the local NPR radio station, they said she was merely going “on leave”; she apparently told the Missourian that she was “retiring”; and at present the UMC website says she is on “sabbatical.” But those characterizations appear inaccurate. Her job at the church in Columbia was promptly filled by someone else, and she has taken a position as a minister in her home town in Maine.

Meg admitted that there was initially “some nervousness” when people discovered that she was bailing out. She claimed those worries had vanished by the time of her departure, but that seems unlikely. One can hope that, in 2017, Turning Point will survive a political environment in which the National Council of Nonprofits perceives considerable risk to the financial stability of nonprofit organizations. It appears that nonprofits whose funding is shaky will be at particular risk.

Without Meg (and her husband) to wear two hats, Turning Point had to become a more clearly separate entity. As one would expect, the new minister appears to be focused on Bible study and other traditional religious preoccupations, and less invested in the homeless center. It was evidently necessary to hire a separate director for Turning Point. That new director is not a member of the church staff. This seems to mark the end of Meg’s attempt to straddle the worlds of ministry and social work at Wilkes Blvd UMC. Far from eliminating a split personality within the church building, the available information suggests that she created one.

Why am I giving her a hard time about this? I’m not, really. To save money while attempting to start my life over, after our divorce, I spent a year sleeping in a tent while taking graduate courses in that same city. Having had that experience, I can believe that Columbia would benefit from a center for homeless people.

The problem I perceive in this situation is just that, as in our marriage, there seems to have been a difference between what Meg committed herself to do and what she felt like doing. The world does need homeless centers. It needs many things. But when you take a job as a minister (or, for that matter, when you take wedding vows), you have to understand that people are depending on you to behave in a stable and reliable manner, toward building a future. That is what commitment means. You say goodbye to the endless possibilities that you might have pursued, and you turn your full attention to producing good results in what you have promised to do. If you’re not interested in doing that, you don’t make the commitment. You sure don’t make the promise, and get others to depend on you, when you know that you are going to let them down.

Ministers do have leeway. But there are limits. The UMC’s Book of Discipline ¶ 340 specifies the “Responsibilities and Duties of Elders and Licensed Pastors.” There are a number of such duties, listed in four sections. The first three sections contain the religious component: Word and Ecclesial Acts; Sacrament (especially baptism and communion); and Order (i.e., church administration). Those three religion-oriented sections dominate this list. The fourth section, Service, is brief; moreover, it assumes that the more traditional religious work is already being done. For example, the Service section speaks of “ordering the life of the congregation,” which won’t be feasible if the congregation is on its deathbed.

Needless to say, if you’re a minister, you can participate in a homeless response team. If your congregation is willing, you can let that team use your facility. The Tribune says that a number of others in the community were motivated to get the homeless center running. So yes, by all means, work with those people — but keep your eye on the ball. As a practical matter, you should remember that the underlying religious institution needs to be healthy, if it is to continue to pay your salary and to contribute volunteers to your homeless center. In an era of declining church membership, don’t run roughshod over people, if you want them to show up on Sunday mornings. Don’t take an attitude of “my way or the highway,” as one ex-member of that church described Meg’s style. Don’t taint God’s name with goofy claims that he is the driving force behind your brainchild, when most likely he isn’t.

Why did Meg lose sight of the core mission prescribed by the Book of Discipline? I have a theory. In the election contest between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the fall of 2016, I saw that well-educated, well-meaning liberals are human — that, like their less-educated and conservative brethren, they can become frightfully intolerant and narrowminded, once they have decided they know The Truth. Based on my years with Meg, I suspect she brought herself and her congregation to a crisis point of mass departures, culminating in what she called a “lynch the pastor meeting,” partly because she became too immersed in that liberal echo chamber — because, in effect, she believed she was smarter and more compassionate (toward homelessness, especially) than the people she worked for.

I have wondered whether she needed to believe that — whether becoming a minister gave her a sense of moral purity, a way of writing off her reckless handling of our marriage, without having to do the hard work of repentance. It would be unfortunate if that’s why she went into ministry — if the desire to feel like a good person led her to waste her midlife career change opportunity on a profession that will probably allow only occasional dabbling in the social issues she cares about.

It has certainly been interesting to observe that Meg’s seminary gave her an award for her distinguished service as a minister, praising specifically her work with homeless people. Consistent with that priority, as noted above, her preoccupation with the homeless center is obvious throughout the materials I reviewed while preparing this post, including articles, videos, and local media coverage cited on her version of the church website. She seemed to treat the rest of her ministry as almost an afterthought. Those priorities had severe consequences for that hundred-year-old congregation. The sometimes angry, sometimes heartbreaking departures of so many members probably explain why the previous minister’s five Sunday School classes and iGod youth group vanished on Meg’s watch.

It seems, in other words, that the seminary had its priorities wrong, when it commended Meg’s focus on service. By contrast, the priorities of the associate pastor who replaced her, Brad Bryan, seem to be what the Book of Discipline expects. Since he took over, his entries on the church’s Facebook page have included some references to homelessness, but they have paid much more enthusiastic attention to Bible study, Sunday morning services, and other traditional church priorities. Likewise, Bryan’s redesigned church website indicates that he has started five different small groups — all devoted to scripture, devotion, and other religious topics. At this point, his focus on basic ministry seems to be working. Here is his Facebook entry from November 14, 2016, almost a half-year after Meg’s departure:

78 of us gathered for worship yesterday; AMAZING! Let’s keep it up. Keep telling your story of the impact Wilkes Blvd UMC has in your life and keep inviting!

Granted, 78 people is not a megachurch. But in comparison to the newspaper photo showing very sparse attendance at one of Meg’s last sermons, 78 people seems like real progress. In which case one must observe that the seminary can go ahead and hand out awards but, again, the seminary is not paying the minister’s salary.

I have criticized Meg for putting her congregation through wrenching changes to create the homeless center, only to turn around and abandon it. In fairness, I should acknowledge the possibility that she was asked to leave — that membership had flatlined and the UMC district was tired of covering budget shortfalls at her church. That could explain why, at the time of her departure, the church’s Facebook page did not present the usual congratulatory announcement about her acceptance of an appointment back in Maine. It could also explain why the going-away commemoration of a visible public leader who had been with the congregation for six years seems to have been rather subdued. This would be a regrettable come-down for the rising star that Meg was, at the time of our divorce, in her Red Cross career that we had both worked to develop, during our years together.

I’m sure Bryan, previously serving as associate pastor, was eager to take over. There may have been an informal understanding, between Meg and the pillars of the church, that she could feel free to depart on any schedule that would work for her. Her friends and relatives in her small town back home may have heard, some time ago, that the position in Maine was going to be available within the next six months or so; she may have been waiting for that opportunity to open up. But this orientation toward Maine draws attention back to what the Tribune (above) described as Meg’s plan of providing a mere “stopgap.” As a person very aware of her feeling that Maine was her real home, I have to think that, when she splintered her congregation to create the homeless center, she was probably not committed to stick around and make sure that either the congregation or the shelter would survive in the long term.

Creation of the Turning Point homeless day center does appear to have been a noteworthy achievement. Yet that achievement, and the contrasting decline in the church, seem to suggest that, as in our marriage, Meg’s dedication to a new project might last a year or two. As her former mentor, I found that the challenge was to figure out next steps, in her employment path, that would continue to keep her engaged, and that would also have a logical connection with what she considered important. It took many, many hours to keep up with, and to think about, her feelings and priorities, and to research her possibilities, proofread her résumés and cover letters and other writings, and so forth, over a period of years — but, as I say, those efforts did pay off, in terms of building her Red Cross career.

One way to interpret Meg’s experience with the homeless center is that a talented and energetic person, stuck in the wrong profession, may find a way to achieve remarkable things — but may do so in an eccentric manner that does not necessarily pass customary tests of success in that profession, and may cause unnecessary damage in the process. A lesson emerging from that interpretation might be that a feeling of frustration, with the seeming stupidity or indifference of people unsympathetic to one’s vision, does not always mean that those people are wrong.

It seems, then, that an experience of genuine repentance after cheating on me, back in 2002 — or, perhaps, a careful exploration of the absence of regret — might have yielded (a) personal and professional insights leading Meg to a more suitable choice for her next career and (b) a stronger inclination to work with, rather than against, people who seem to stand in the way of the questionable thing that one suddenly wishes to do.

Repentance Requires Truthfulness

I mentioned, above, that I have been waiting 14 years for an apology from Meg. At some point, of course, I realized that I might never get that apology.

It took me a bit longer to realize that matters might not end there. I have already mentioned that it seemed she was depicting me, to her lovers, as a useless boyfriend and husband. She used the same line on me, when we first met: as noted in another post, she portrayed her previous boyfriend as abusive, when it would eventually develop that he wasn’t.

With that background, let us consider: what is Meg going to tell her second husband about me? What is she going to tell her congregation? I’ll give you a hint: she is not going to stand up in front and admit, to them, that she cheated on me rather wantonly for eight years, repaid my years of prioritizing her needs by dumping me like a piece of garbage, and showed no remorse at any time in the period of nearly a quarter-century between her first fling and the present day.

If she had sincerely repented of that misbehavior, she would have felt the need to be truthful with me, finally, and also with the congregation. That would have been the first step toward redemption — in terms both spiritual and worldly.

Instead, in 2016, I started to become aware of what has actually been going on, in the years since our divorce. The other post discusses a newspaper article in which, according to the reporter, Meg told her congregation of her “personal experience” in the area of violence against women. As that post indicates, I knew Meg’s background up through summer 2002, and I was developing a general idea about it since then — specifically, that she has been with her present husband since the year after our divorce. If she was claiming personal experience in the area of violence against women, it seemed she had to be inventing false stories — and it wasn’t too hard to guess who those stories might be about.

Naturally, I wanted to verify this. But that’s where I started to encounter suspicious behavior from others. First, as the other post describes, Rev. Bryan (i.e., the minister who replaced her) ignored my repeated attempts to contact him. It wasn’t because he was too busy; I was able to verify that his office did respond promptly to others who contacted him by Facebook and email, as I had done. And then I found that the newspaper reporter refused to tell me what sort of “personal experience” Meg had alleged, in her sermon about violence against women. The reporter and I exchanged several emails on the matter. She seemed to be a reasonably friendly and responsive person. There did not seem to be any reason why a reporter would refuse to discuss a sermon that she had mentioned in her own article. The ethics of her profession seemed to call for obtaining and sharing information with the public. The reporter did not offer any explanation for refusing to answer my simple question. It certainly appeared there must be something controversial about the situation: she said that she would need her supervisors’ approval before giving me such information — and her supervisors refused to give that approval.

As often happens, the stonewalling couldn’t hold forever. I did eventually discover that Meg herself had given me, and the world, a brief but enlightening summary of what she has been telling people about me. Here are her own words, published in another article (archive link) that she put online:

Though my first marriage ended, I had family support to float me enough cash to remain housed. My forever marriage is safe, healthy, loving and respectful.

Plainly, those words do not reflect well on me. She seems to be saying that, after her first marriage ended, she did not even have enough money to pay rent. The implication is that I drained her in our divorce. That was not so. In the divorce, Meg and her father decided how our property would be divided, and I accepted what they gave me. Their decisions on property division appeared to be steered by the desire to avoid a legal battle, though I did not threaten one and was not even represented by an attorney. I made one request in our discussions, and her father said no. Her lawyers wrote up the papers, and I signed them. The whole thing was done within a few weeks. Meg walked away with about $20,000 in liquid assets, as well as her pick of our physical possessions. Furthermore, at that time, she was a national-level Red Cross employee. According to her court filing, she had a gross income of $3,874 per month. For a single woman with no dependents, in a small midwestern city with a low cost of living, that was more than sufficient to help her “remain housed.” I mean, I saw the place she moved to: I went over, one time, to drop off a few remaining possessions she had neglected to take. It was nicer than the apartment we had shared. Not to mention that she was looking forward to very bright prospects for salary growth.

Then there’s her other remark — that her “forever marriage” is “safe, healthy, loving, and respectful.” Those words seem to suggest that her first marriage was unsafe, unhealthy, unloving, and/or disrespectful — that, in other words, she was a victim of domestic abuse.

There, again, we could start with a look at the divorce papers. Meg’s divorce petition made no claim of domestic abuse. That was atypical, according to the attorney with whom I had an initial consultation. He told me that the “divorce mill” law firm that Meg hired to represent her would typically insert what he called “a bullshit domestic violence allegation” in order to gain leverage for their female clients during divorce negotiations. It appeared that, at that point, when Meg was still speaking to me, she may have actually made sure that they did not make any such false claim against me.

Someone might ask whether possibly she felt intimidated into remaining silent about actual domestic abuse. That would be unlikely. Here’s how events transpired. After I had interviewed Meg and recorded her statements in July 2002, as mentioned above, she flew back to Maine for a previously scheduled vacation, to visit her parents. That seems to have been a dramatic trip. When I called to make sure she had gotten there OK, she spoke to me in an odd voice, like a rather bratty teenage girl. I do not know what that was all about. Her arrival was apparently very stressful to her mother, to the point of requiring hospitalization. It was heart-related, according to Meg. Meg let me know that her mom was being taken to the regional hospital by ambulance, and that she and her dad were going to follow along a few hours later, after they attended somebody’s birthday party.

At the end of her week in Maine, Meg flew on to meetings in Washington, DC, and then flew back to Missouri. Meanwhile, her dad was so motivated to protect her interests, or to get her divorced, that he drove 1,700 miles, from Maine to Missouri, to accompany her during the weeks of our fast-track divorce. In doing so, he left Meg’s mom behind, apparently alone and in a decidedly sick condition. She sounded very weak when I called to see how she was doing, and to ask if she wanted an update, from my perspective, on what was happening in our divorce situation. Leaving nothing to chance, it appeared that Meg’s dad was even staying in the same motel room with Meg, there in Missouri — or at least he seemed to be present, alongside her, whenever I might call, night or day. So it’s not as though I could have somehow intimidated her without him being aware of it.

Even if Meg’s divorce petition had alleged domestic abuse, she would have had a hard time supporting such a claim. Bear in mind, first, that she was a feminist, a college graduate, and a professional woman, with years of work experience, who had received extensive on-the-job training in subjects such as sexual harassment. Meg knew how to document things. It would be difficult to believe a domestic violence complaint, from a woman like this, when our years together had produced no police reports of domestic violence; no records of relevant physical or emotional harm from doctors’ offices, counselors, or emergency rooms; no visits to women’s shelters; no mentions of domestic violence in other relevant professional correspondence; and no friends or family members claiming knowledge of any domestic abuse.

To the contrary, the people closest to Meg were as confused as I was. Her sister said to me, “We don’t understand what Meg is doing.” Meg refused to tell her mom what was going on — she felt her mom would be judgmental. I was the one who informed her mom of Meg’s confession that she had been cheating on me for all those years. Her mom’s reply surprised me. She said, “Some people have no shame.” Her dad expressed uncertainty as to Meg’s reasoning, when I asked him about some of the confusing things she had said. He said, “Maybe she doesn’t know what the truth is. Maybe she’s making it up.” He didn’t seem to know if she was telling the truth, even to him. I did not know what to make of those reactions, from her own parents. They didn’t seem surprised. One might ask whether they had seen something like this before.

Along with these facts, we have the video presenting Meg’s own statements about her affairs, making clear that infidelity, not domestic abuse, was the issue leading to our divorce. We also have other videos from our marriage, showing how she and I interacted in various settings. In those other videos, Meg seems happy. She doesn’t seem downtrodden or fearful. Indeed, there are hints of verbal and physical assertiveness on her part.

None of this supports her implication that her first marriage was not “safe, healthy, loving and respectful.” She got safety, love, and those other things from me. I was the one who didn’t get them, whose marriage turned out to be unsafe. Obviously, it was emotionally damaging, but there was also a physical dimension. I was healthy, and I was lucky, so I came through OK. But it might have turned out otherwise. There was, for instance, the time when we were sitting on the couch, and I told Meg that I was suddenly feeling an uncomfortable and somewhat alarming pressure in my chest. Did my loving wife run for aspirin, or ask if I wanted her to dial 911? Not exactly. She went into the bathroom and stayed there until the symptoms had passed. Not to mention her report that none of her lovers, during our years together — starting in the mid-1990s, when AIDS was a virtual death sentence — had worn a condom.

Meg’s article, in 2014, may have portrayed me as someone best left behind, but in fact she was still finding me useful. Just as she had apparently told her lovers that I was a lousy husband, she was now bearing false witness on a larger scale, telling her congregation and her online readers that I was abusive to boot. And apparently the story was going over pretty well. The reactions of Rev. Bryan and the reporter — the failure of the reporter, or anyone else, to check that story with me — suggest that the tale of this poor, helpless female was accepted as gospel.

As just shown, Meg’s article contained two brief negative statements about her first marriage. But that may be just the tip of the iceberg. It appears she may have worked up a more elaborate performance, conveying a substantial amount of false information. The reporter’s published article seems to say that Meg’s “personal experience” was the most notable element in her sermon on violence against women, suggesting that she made multiple derogatory remarks about her marriage to me.

I think, now, that Meg may have given me an advance notice that she was going to be developing that performance. As illustrated in the accompanying video, we were still getting along fairly well in July 2002, for the most part, during those two weeks of discussion, before she flew back to Maine. But after she returned, in August 2002, it seemed that things were changing. There were several small episodes in which she seemed to be trying out the role of the abused woman.

Two of those episodes occurred when she and her father drove over from the motel to our apartment, so that she could pick up some of her things. In the process of loading his truck, she said something, I forget what, that gave me the impression that she was concerned for her safety. I asked what that was about. I remember her smiling and saying, “I really am terrified,” as she carried a box outside. It wasn’t a forced or fearful smile, either; just a regular smile, as if she hadn’t yet worked out that part of the routine. And then, when it came time to divide up the things we had stored in the basement, she pretended to be afraid to go down there with me. So her dad and she and I all went down together. But then something came up that I wanted to talk to her about privately. She calmly asked her dad to go outside so we could talk. She wasn’t the least bit fearful. It seemed she had just needed to put on a little show. At the time, it merely seemed odd. But now, as I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the years, she has assembled a regular mini-drama about her supposedly terrible first marriage.

Why would Meg invent a story of domestic abuse? I think there were two factors. First, as noted above, she did have that prior history of falsely accusing a boyfriend. She knew, already, that it was safe to make such accusations — that people would readily assume the woman was the victim and, in fact, would take her to their breast and offer their support. Second, in ordinary life, and certainly as a future minister, Meg would be needing an acceptable explanation for her divorce.

I’m not sure she was clear on that second point in July 2002. When she was letting me record her confessions and other matters, as shown in the accompanying video, she seemed to think the cheating was no big deal. I have struggled to understand that. Somehow, it seemed, she had gotten very much the wrong idea about marriage and infidelity. I thought that perhaps this came from her background. Another post describes how law and culture did become much more supportive of divorce, and of sexual experimentation in marriage, back in the 1970s and 1980s. My guess was that maybe some influential person(s) in rural Maine in the 1980s, when Meg was a teenager, gave her the impression that cheating is a sort of wink-wink thing that all the fun people do. Maybe she had grown up feeling that her mom’s “judgmental” attitude reflected a victim mentality, or was outdated or excessively strict.

If that was the situation, then it seems the United States (and especially central Missouri) circa 2000 may have been too old-fashioned for Meg. As I discuss in the other post, America has indeed developed a hookup culture in recent years, for those who don’t want to tie the knot. But marriage remains a different story: virtually nobody endorses open acceptance of marital infidelity in present-day America. If anything, as mentioned earlier, what we have seen since the 1980s is a resurgence of belief in traditional marriage, backing away from the 1970s climate of somewhat more freewheeling extramarital experimentation.

So it appears that the next step, for Meg, was to get up to speed — to discover, that is, that most people would not think her behavior was really cool. Perhaps she had a wake-up conversation with a person she respected. Maybe something like that happened when she took that trip back to Maine, in July 2002; maybe a discussion up there persuaded her that she would have to start developing that domestic abuse story, as a much more acceptable explanation for why our marriage ended. Her father did tell me, at the end of July, that he had told her it was unacceptable to interfere with other people’s marriages. So maybe he was the person of influence. At the same time, he seemed puzzled as to what I meant, when I asked him, How about me? As far as I could tell, he had not explained to her that it is also unacceptable to cheat on your spouse.

In short, the information available to me, at present, tends to indicate that Meg walled herself off from me, starting in summer 2002, because she was transitioning from being my friendly wife to being a person who would paint me as an abuser. Did Meg’s transition to that viewpoint contribute to the strong antipathy that I received from my feminist professors at the University of Missouri – Columbia in 2004-2005, when I started my social work studies there? I don’t know. They weren’t the kind of people who would be forthcoming about such things. I do know that my male classmates in that largely female program didn’t seem to be getting that sort of treatment. I was the only student, in my year there, whom any professor yelled at, when I was just asking a question. So, yeah, that was strange too, and maybe not a coincidence.

I will never get a full accounting of what Meg has been saying about me since our divorce, nor of whom she may have said it to, in sermons and conversations. I also won’t know what she may have emailed to people, or posted on webpages that didn’t come up in my search, or that have since been changed or taken down. But I do have the fact that she has never apologized or shown signs of remorse; I have the behavior of Rev. Bryan and the newspaper reporter; and I have Meg’s article falsely implying that she left our marriage in poverty, and that I was not a “safe, healthy, loving and respectful” husband.

Perhaps it is clear, now, why I found it remarkable that Meg would drive to Ferguson, to demand repentance from those police officers. In doing so, it appears she was able to capitalize on several popular prejudices: favoring the minister over the sinner; favoring the polite little female over the big, intimidating male; favoring anyone who would confront any Ferguson police officer on race. It got her some publicity and, apparently, a sense of self-righteousness. But it was not appropriate. The problem was not just that, as described above, she abused the concept of repentance, using it as a weapon. The problem discussed in this section is that she hypocritically dared to demand repentance from someone else when she, who abused her marriage and her congregation as few women and few pastors ever do, was not repentant herself. It appears, to the contrary, that she has been deliberately deceiving people in order to avoid admitting her own misdeeds.

Repentance vs. Hubris

Repentance is, by its very nature, a recognition that one has done wrong. A mistake has been made. Repentance entails some humility toward others. This is substantially opposed to arrogance, in which one displays a sense of personal superiority.

There are many ways to be arrogant, and each of them has its own potential for public embarrassment. The more visibly you flaunt your successes and your specialness, the more you invite the sort of come-down that Jesus described (e.g., Luke 6:26). As I have discussed in a separate post, arrogance seems particularly inappropriate for ministers.

As noted above, Meg has posted videos of more than 40 of her sermons on Vimeo, most dating from 2013.

(Update, Feb. 13, 2017: it appears that Meg’s videos remained available for several years, and also remained there for six months following her departure from the Wilkes Blvd church; but now, within the past month or so, all those videos have suddenly been removed. The “Pastor Meg’s Videos” page now says, “Sorry, no videos found.” Presumably Meg would be the only person with access to the contents of her Vimeo channel. Possibly she had some reason for removing those videos, other than the obvious coincidence that it happened shortly after I posted this writeup. But removing 40+ videos, in response to a critique of just one video, would certainly raise a question of what might emerge if I were to view the others. Regardless, the critiqued excerpts from her sex sermon do remain available in my accompanying video. I have decided to retain the following discussion of those 40+ videos, but readers will apparently be unable to view them directly.)

One useful feature of sites like Vimeo is that they count the number of times a video has been viewed. A minister, or a church committee on ministerial excellence, might have found it interesting to review those counts. As of my initial visit to Meg’s Vimeo channel, those counts were as follows:

Viewed 0-5 times: 26 sermons
Viewed 6-15 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 16-30 times: 7 sermons
Viewed 31+ times: 3 sermons

Some of her videos seem to have covered non-sermon events. One not included in this count — the most heavily watched of all — is a 94-second announcement of a fundraiser. It has had 377 views. So it’s not as though people were unaware of her Vimeo channel.

(Note that just opening the Vimeo webpage appears not to increment the count; I think you have to start watching the video to make your view count. By contrast, YouTube appears to increment the count as soon as the page is opened. I probably added at least a half-dozen views to each of Meg’s YouTube video counts, in the process of wrestling with a Firefox browser add-on that was supposed to make each of those videos visible in separate tabs, but instead just managed to keep crashing the browser after the tabs had opened. Before I started tinkering with that, the view counts for the older sermons in her YouTube channel, dating from earlier in her ministry, were probably a little higher than the counts for her newer Vimeo videos.)

There would be no guarantees that online attention would translate into bodies in church on Sunday mornings. But at least the number of times that people viewed a sermon posted on Vimeo might provide useful information on what viewers care about. It is harder to determine that from church attendance. People may not even know the topic of a Sunday sermon in advance. In that case, the topic can’t influence their planning. Other factors (e.g., weather, holidays, friends’ plans) will also influence individual decisions on whether to attend church on a given Sunday.

First, then, let’s dismiss the bulk of Meg’s Vimeo sermons. The view counts seem to say that those sermons were not setting the world on fire. That is consistent with the impression of continued low attendance through the end of her tenure.

Yet there is a bit of a puzzle here. You might expect that a person who loves being onstage would want to be successful up there. She might strive to become a more exciting speaker; she would surely avoid actions that might drive people away. Meg’s actual behaviors seem to indicate that she didn’t prioritize church membership, attendance, or enthusiasm for her sermons. One possibility is that she felt she was saying things that people needed to hear, not necessarily things they would want to hear — that, in other words, those who came to church might tend to be those who actually wanted to hear what she had to say. If that was the situation, it would seem that, in her mind, her sense of mission was more compelling than the visible results. That interpretation seems plausible: she seems likewise to have prioritized her mission to the homeless over her congregational responsibilities.

I have some sympathy with that sense of mission. People like me, who write things, have to be reconciled to the fact that some of our efforts will be useful to many people, and some won’t. Of course, if you’re getting paid for the work, and if you want to keep the job, it may behoove you to take account of what people want from you, as distinct from what you think you should give them. If Meg had hired a career advisor or marketing consultant during those years, that person would presumably have noticed the low numbers of views of her sermons on YouTube and Vimeo, and might have advised doing a bit of experimentation, to see what gets attention.

As it turns out, among the Vimeo videos, we do have an exceptional few that drew relatively large numbers of viewers. At this writing, Meg’s three most frequently viewed Vimeo sermons have been viewed 211, 123, and 66 times, respectively. On closer examination, we see that two of those three came from the same four-week series of sermons, and the topic of that series was sex.

One of those four sermons on sex is not presently available on Vimeo. That seems odd. The missing sermon, if it had been posted, might have turned out to be another of Meg’s most popular online sermons. Based on what I saw in the two sermons that I did view, both from this sex series, I wondered whether she posted that missing sermon, but then decided to remove it — or decided not to post it in the first place — because she (or, perhaps, members of the congregation or other UMC observers) decided that some of its sex-related content might be too controversial.

Another odd thing is that, of the three sermons on sex that are available, one (week 2, “Marriage”) has been viewed only four times. Plainly, we are not dealing with viewers who sat down and watched the entire series of three or four available sermons. For some reason, viewers have homed in specifically on the sermons for weeks 1 and 4 in that four-week series.

To refine the suggestion offered above, the fact that a sermon has drawn numerous viewers does not necessarily mean that the minister should do more sermons like it. When specific sermons are singled out for very atypical attention, and especially when the subject is sex, the view count might not provide an accurate reflection of what present and would-be members of the congregation care about. Instead, it could be that random individuals, completely unrelated to the church, have stumbled across those videos. It would also be possible that the view counts are high because people who are now (or were previously) affiliated with Meg’s church found something especially disturbing in those particular videos, and have been discussing those videos among themselves.

As I say, I, myself, have not even started to watch most of Meg’s sermons. But as an ex-husband whose marriage was destroyed due to her sexual infidelity, I confess that I did take an interest in seeing what she might be telling people about sex. So I watched the first one in the series, and later I watched the second one. In the accompanying video, I limited my critique to brief excerpts from the first one.

My first observation is that, of course, it is common for preachers to stand up and spout off about all sorts of things that they do not necessarily understand very well. Having been a believer who experienced deep and painful discrepancies between what the preachers claimed and the way things actually worked, however, I am not very sympathetic to that particular form of arrogance.

I noticed, in particular, that Meg said, “We can decrease the power that sex and sexuality has over us, by just naming it for what it is.” She did not cite any research supporting this proposition. Again, having been a believer who tried naming things and exercising willpower and implementing other simplistic solutions — and who incurred great frustration and doubts about my spirituality and some self-loathing when I proved unable to achieve the outcomes I had been told to expect — I did feel that the audience should have been spared such speculations.

Wikipedia tells us that human sexuality is a complex subject, with “biological, physical, emotional, social, [and] spiritual aspects.” Attempting to cut through all that, Meg’s sermon offered the opinion that sexual attraction between adult humans “tends to wane after about 12 to 18 months.” She cited one source for this view. I was not able to find that source. As discussed in a separate post, this view does not accurately capture current research. Among other things, research suggests that — for women, especially — sexual satisfaction often increases in long-term relationships.

In another portion of that same sermon, Meg tells us that sex with what she calls “a forbidden partner” is far more stimulating than sex with a permitted partner. Here, again, it appears that she may have been expressing her own personal experience, as distinct from research findings. For instance, a brief search led to Trudel (2002, p. 238), who found that only one-third of survey respondents reported that they had fantasies of a sexual affair with a forbidden partner, and that women were significantly less likely than men to have such a fantasy; and to Bivona (2008, p. i), who found that women who did have erotic rape fantasies had such fantasies only about four times per year, on average, and that nearly half of those women found that such fantasies had undesirable aspects.

(Of course, “forbidden partner” could include not only extramarital affairs, homophilia, and rape, but also incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, zoophilia, and other paraphilias. Meg may have intended merely to evoke a daring or glamorous fantasy fling, but some viewers of her sermon or video could infer that she tacitly condoned sexual preferences ranging from the unorthodox to the criminal. I did wonder whether her ambiguous remarks near the end of the second sex sermon were pointing in that direction as well.)

In my brief research into the question, the best evidence seems to suggest that only a fairly small minority of married women ever cheat on their husbands. That perspective does not come through in the sermons I viewed. In her remarks about forbidden partners, Meg failed to place sex into a larger context of what makes a great relationship. She did not present the perspective of a woman who loves sex with her husband; she did not seem to recognize that people whose relationships survive may not be primarily interested in forbidden sex. Regrettably, it sounded like not much had changed since I had last heard from Meg on the subject of sex. For her, it still seemed to be largely a matter of biological drives; there wasn’t much talk of feelings or attachment; and — in 2002, at least — guilt was a factor only when it spoiled her momentary lover’s enjoyment of the experience.

At some point, it occurred to me that the guy holding the video camera, during Meg’s many videotaped sermons, was probably none other than her husband. He did seem, in any event, to attend services and to be involved in her church. One can imagine him sitting there, filming, while she explains how it is normal for a wife to find marital sex boring. (By the way, she did not undo that impression in the second video in her sex series, on the topic of marriage.)

I mean, I agree: experiences with Meg taught me that it is possible for a wife to refuse to communicate and work with her husband and, through such dysfunctionality, to arrive at a degree of sexual dissatisfaction that she will then fail to mention to him — that, indeed, seems contrary to what he thought he was observing in the marital bedroom. It would be rather perverse to persist in that direction through years of marriage to a highly motivated and communicative partner. Let me emphasize that the things Meg told me in July 2002 did contribute a great deal to my lifetime collection of remarkable experiences.

Some might suppose that, during our nine years together, Meg may have been too young and inexperienced to develop a mature way of working with her partner. That supposition would not fit with Meg’s realities; and in any case, by now, it would wear very thin. She is obviously not afraid of the subject of sex. She had ample time, experience, and education with which to make a wise decision on whether to commence and continue a sexual relationship and a marriage with her second husband. At this point, it was pretty lame to stand up there, posing as a minor authority on sex, and tell her congregation that sexual dissatisfaction in marriage is the ordinary experience after the first 12 to 18 months.

For such reasons, I am not very enthusiastic about Meg’s words, on a church webpage that has since been taken down (archive link). On that page, speaking of her second husband as she once spoke about me, she wrote, “I’ve got an amazingly patient husband who puts up with my stubbornness and mood swings and loves me anyway.” I have to say, I was sorry to find that webpage. I have hoped that he is not in the same situation I was in. Nobody deserves that. I have seen some of their current published photos of the two of them together. I hope that her smile in those photos is genuine — that she is not telling him (or the world) one thing while privately nursing its opposite. Regardless, I think he probably does not deserve her innuendos about sexual dissatisfaction in long-term relationships, and probably does deserve the bulk of the credit for their marital stability.

As for the decision to give that sermon, I don’t know that sex is the best topic to present to an audience of all ages. Even if it were, Meg’s sermons on sex suggest that she may not always have devoted careful thought to the words she would be sharing with the public. The advice is sound: stick with what you know. If you’re not an expert on sex, then common sense and self-restraint would advise against standing up there and pretending otherwise. If you are convinced that your congregation needs your help to learn about sex, it could make sense to invite, as guest speaker, a sex therapist or social scientist who has some experience in making public presentations in his/her specialty, phrasing things appropriately for a church service. Or you could have a Wednesday night study session, or assemble a video in which you interview such a person, perhaps with a blog post featuring answers to questions posed by the audience, and a list of good books and websites on various sex-related topics. But unless you are completely cavalier about the value of research and expertise — unless you’re just seeking the gratification of standing up there and pretending to convey truth and wisdom — you have to realize that sex is an extremely important, delicate, and potentially upsetting topic to many people. On that topic, especially, it is not appropriate to make your captive Sunday morning audience sit there and squirm while you reveal your potentially disturbing personal views.

After that bit about forbidden sex, as shown in the accompanying video, Meg’s sex sermon moves on to her interpretation of the Bible story of Ruth and Boaz. In that story, Naomi tells Ruth to notice where Boaz lies down, and then “go and uncover his feet and lie down” (Ruth 3:4). Doing so would signal submission. But that’s not how Meg prefers to interpret it. Instead, she says, “It wasn’t his feet she was uncovering.” She proceeds to explain that this is a euphemism for having sex. She claims the real meaning “gets lost in translation.”

But that is almost surely false. Of 22 translations offered by Bible Hub, only one, the NET Bible, offers phrasing that varies at all from a literal reference to feet — and even there, the NET Bible’s accompanying notes specifically reject Meg’s interpretation, as do most commentators. There are many reasons why scholars take this passage literally. For one thing, if Ruth and Boaz had sex when she “uncovered his feet” upon arriving, why would Boaz be surprised to see her when he awoke later in the night? (Ruth 3:8). Meg’s interpretation also makes a hash of the text’s repeated indications that Boaz was aware of Ruth’s integrity and was concerned about handling matters appropriately (Ruth 3:11-12). There is no obvious reason why the writer of the book of Ruth would deviate from the inclination against premarital sex found in the law of Israel (e.g., Deuteronomy 22:13-23). Moreover, if “feet” were a euphemism here, why is it not also a euphemism in many other places (e.g., Genesis 18:4)? And why would we need a euphemism for sex in this story, when the Hebrew scriptures speak frankly about other sexual encounters (e.g., 2 Samuel 11:4)?

Meg didn’t provide any textual analysis to explain her unorthodox interpretation of the Ruth story. She just went out of her way to find and share a sexual interpretation not supported by the evidence. Such behavior raises a fair question of whether she approaches ministry as a wounded healer who continues to inflict her own sex-related confusion or corruption on people whom she is supposed to be helping.

My accompanying video adds another clip, this one provided by the church’s Facebook page (May 29, 2016). This clip shows Meg standing in her church and singing a portion of a song. The song is “Something to Talk About.” The lyrics of that song include the following:

I hear them whisper, you won’t believe it
They think we’re lovers kept under cover . . .
Let’s give them something to talk about
A little mystery to figure out

Of all the songs in the world, it is remarkable that Meg would choose to perform this one in a church. The primary problem is not that the song really does not have much to do with faith, and that Meg’s attempt to Christianize it produces a mess (e.g., changing the second line, above, to refer incoherently to “Christians kept under cover”). Nor is the problem that the song is necessarily scandalous: its lyrics do not specify whether the proposed affair would be extramarital. The problem is that the person singing this song is Meg.

Suppose she had preceded that performance with a confession. Suppose she had taken the microphone, looked at the congregation, and said, “I cheated on my husband throughout my first marriage. Also, on Vimeo, a few years back, I posted a sermon explaining that, in my view, forbidden sex is much more appealing than sex with a steady partner, such as my husband.” Then she starts singing these lyrics about giving people something to talk about, as her second husband sits right there in the church. Do you suppose some members of the congregation might have found that scene rather awkward?

Let me put it this way. One time, I had an ex-alcoholic roommate. He feared alcohol. He did not want it anywhere in sight. He knew that, sometimes, the temptation would be too much. So he steered clear of it. And that is simply not what appears in Meg’s sex-related behavior. Her morally unacceptable behavior did, in fact, cause the end of our marriage, with severe and permanent adverse consequences for my career and my life — and, it seems, for her career as well. But, for Meg, it appears that was a price worth paying. She is not coming across as someone whose path to ministry led through a profound personal struggle to overcome the kind of sexual addiction with which her own sermon seems preoccupied. There are no signs that she endured a painful ordeal before she finally got herself sorted out, or that she has an addict’s deep-seated fear of the destructive power of sexual misbehavior. Here, again, there is no sign of repentance.

After making the mistakes Meg has made, wise people learn that fooling around is not something to fool around with. But apparently Meg still doesn’t get that. Someday, if she ever comes to recognize her own arrogance, she may give a truly rousing sermon on repentance. That day has not yet arrived.

Resisting Repentance

Sometimes our society seems to teach us that it is naive if not dangerous to admit our mistakes and try to do better. If you’re a lawyer, for instance, you don’t usually win lawsuits by conceding fault. But it will be a sad day when that mentality becomes ingrained even among ministers who encourage others to confess their sins and repent.

Meg’s story, as presented above, is not the story of someone who consults with people, tries her best to reach solutions that will work for everyone, sincerely regrets her mistakes, and attempts to find a way forward that everyone can live with. In our marriage, and also in her homeless center, Meg’s story is that of a person who decides what she is going to do, and does it. That achieves results, for some purposes. She got her homeless shelter; she got a new husband. But there’s a lot of wreckage in her wake.

Let us be clear. Most of us are able to take a hint. In the situations described above, church people usually understand that you have to be sorry for your sins, and try to do better, if you want to call yourself a Christian; you have to be humble enough to listen to congregants who claim you are straying from your core purpose, if you want to be a successful minister; you have to be honest and faithful where your spouse is concerned, if you want your marriage to work; and you have to realize that, if you can’t or won’t do these things, you will be responsible for the ensuing failure of your Christian faith, your ministry, or your marriage.

In the context of repentance, this raises a question. What should we do, when dealing with someone who just doesn’t get it — someone who ignores the quiet hints, the loud complaints, even the howls of anguish? What kind of person or situation are we dealing with here?

On that, I don’t know if I can offer much insight from the years when I thought we had a generally good relationship and a fairly happy marriage. But I do think the weeks between June 29, 2002 (when Meg told me of her affairs) and early August 2002 (after which we had few interactions) were a time when the blinders were coming off, for me. In this section, I will try to convey, briefly, a sense of what it was like to try to understand and work with someone who appeared resistant to repentance, at a time when repentance seemed so necessary.

I will say, first off, that those were weeks of transformation in our relationship, and not just for the obvious reasons. One of the most striking discoveries, from that period, was that there could be such a swift and severe change in Meg’s attitude. Up until the day of her confession, she had seemed to be happy, to love me, to really enjoy our life together. And now, within a matter of weeks, she decided that she was not my friend, and that she would not be talking to me anymore. At all. Ever. And that is exactly how it has been. In the 14 years since then, I have not heard from her once. I did try making contact a few times, with small gestures of friendship — emailing her a link to an obscure song she had been interested in, for example — but, again, with zero response.

We didn’t have kids, so this was feasible. But it was weird. It wasn’t because we had somehow become enemies during the divorce. We hadn’t. The divorce was a simple paper-processing matter, concluded quickly and on relatively amicable terms, as divorces go. This was simply, somehow, what Meg preferred.

In case you haven’t experienced anything like this, let me assure you: if you have spent nearly a decade structuring your life around someone, if you consider that person your best friend in the world, and if she suddenly stops speaking to you and says you aren’t her friend at all, that can be immensely confusing. Was this some kind of negotiating tactic? Had she gone crazy?

In those two weeks of conversation in July 2002 — our last weeks living together — I began to wonder whether I really knew Meg at all. She said, for example, that I was the only person with whom she had ever looked through photographs of events enjoyed together. How was that possible? She said, moreover, that that sort of activity meant nothing to her. But she had seemed to enjoy it when we were narrating the stories of our trips. She also said it was a waste of time to spend time with friends. Granted, she wasn’t the most gregarious person, but over the years she had initiated visits to see friends and relatives. I didn’t realize she had that kind of flatly dismissive attitude toward people who considered her their friend.

And, you know, maybe she didn’t. Maybe there was a certain element of make-believe. I think, for instance, of an episode, during those two weeks of discussion, when we went for a bike ride, as a break from the hours of talking. At one point, on that ride, I became exasperated with the grumpy attitude she had adopted. I asked her to do me a favor and just treat me as she would treat some random guy whom she was trying to seduce. The change was remarkable. Instantly she was fun, funny, flirtatious, cute.

That was really pretty strange. I didn’t know what to make of it. At the time, I took it at face value. As such, I wasn’t sure whether to be angry with her, for having the ability to be pleasant at will, but not bothering to do that for me, or disappointed in myself for often accepting her unpleasant, moody side — indeed, for making excuses for it. When she seemed unpleasant or depressed, I would think maybe it was because she wasn’t getting enough sleep, or because the weather had been cloudy lately. I noticed that we rarely argued when we were living together normally. If there was to be an argument, it would tend to happen when she came back from a business trip. To me, that suggested that we did better when we had stability and spent more time together. I didn’t imagine that maybe the trip had included a romantic fling, and that it was such a drag, for her, to be back home with me, until a few days had passed and she could transform herself back into my happy, loving wife.

In the process of trying to understand who Meg was and what she was telling me, in July 2002, I called one of her friends. This friend told me that, four years earlier, in 1998, anticipating her own upcoming marriage, she had eagerly asked Meg what marriage was like. Not long before that, we had lived with this friend and her fiancé for maybe six weeks, while transitioning between apartments. She had seen how we got along. She assumed Meg would have nice things to say about marriage. Instead, Meg stunned her by replying — shaking, and in tears — that marriage was horrible and that she wished she had some way out of it. Of course, Meg did have a way out of marriage, any time she chose. But apparently she decided not to pursue that option until I had devoted another four years helping her to find a stable home in a place where she would be willing to remain for a number of years, and to advance to a national-level position in the Red Cross.

Long after our divorce, it would occur to me that Meg’s reaction might have been her way of telling the friend not to marry her handsome, successful fiancé because Meg had slept with him. I don’t know that she actually did; it was just speculation, based on an incident when the four of us were together and he stood up and made a loud, lewd remark and gesture conveying an interest in having sex with Meg, or perhaps indirectly bragging that he had already done so. At the time, I didn’t think of that. It seemed like frat-boy behavior. I just wrote it off to immaturity and poor social skills, and I don’t know — maybe that’s all it was.

After that phone conversation in June 2002, I asked Meg about her friend’s story, about how Meg had cried and said she wished she could get out of marriage. Meg said she didn’t remember it. So, wow, it was starting to feel like I was getting lost in layers of confusion: Meg claimed she had been miserable in our marriage, but didn’t really seem to be; Meg didn’t remember telling her friend that she was miserable, maybe because Meg meant something else at the time; maybe Meg really was miserable, but maybe that had nothing to do with me. I did not know what to make of all this. From my knowledge of the friend, I wouldn’t think she would invent things out of thin air. So maybe Meg did remember it, but didn’t want to say so? Or maybe that conversation was an unpleasant experience that she blocked out? I have no idea.

I mention those episodes because it actually took me quite a few years to understand that maybe Meg was more of an actress than I had realized. For instance, maybe the sudden switch from grumpiness to sunshine during that bike ride was just a put-on. Maybe she was just letting me know that, in her view, I should be grateful that she did sometimes bother to behave pleasantly toward me. Maybe the shaking and crying with her friend was just an act, like those instances when she seemed to be trying out the make-believe role of the abused spouse.

It was possible that she had been simply pretending to love me and to be happy, for all those years. But why would someone do that? During those two weeks of discussion, she repeatedly insisted that my companionship was less meaningful, to her, than that of the men with whom she had had those affairs. In most cases, she barely knew them. So that was weird too. From what she said, even the few affairs that had seemed deep and important at the time had faded out pretty quickly. That simply wasn’t true of our marriage. I remembered, for instance, the day when she cried because she hadn’t had time to get me a birthday present. The crying didn’t seem to be the behavior of someone who didn’t care. So then why would she say, and seem to believe, that she had no feelings toward me? Unless, of course, that crying, too, was an act. But why would someone pretend to be having normal emotions, for years on end? Wouldn’t that seem like a colossal waste of time?

During those two weeks in July 2002, Meg repeatedly said that she wanted me to want a divorce. But why? Maybe she wanted to be able to say that I was the one who decided to end our marriage, though I wouldn’t think she would consider that important enough to invent — and to repeat, on tape — this bizarre story of multiple affairs, and all the other things she said along with it. Or maybe she thought that, if I was disgusted enough, I would hit the road and never look back, thereby sparing her the hassle of having to deal with me anymore. For whatever reason, it did seem that, like a flipped switch, she (or at least a part of her) had suddenly become completely and thoroughly sick of me.

As mentioned earlier, I did figure out that at least some of the things she told me, during those two weeks, were fiction, because the details kept changing, as I thought about what she had told me, and came back with further questions. It occurred to me that maybe she was inventing the whole thing, just to make the story as outrageous as possible, to make me want to leave her. But, as I say, there was clearly some truth mixed in. Information from third parties, and things that I was able to piece together, made pretty clear that some cheating had been taking place. Overall, she did seem to be presenting a lucid account of numerous attempts to seduce men, over a period of years.

I also thought maybe she was trying to convince me that she was crazy. But that seemed unlikely. She wasn’t foaming at the mouth. We were sitting there, or walking on the trail, talking, as we had done many times before. She was behaving more or less rationally. She was responsive to questions. For the most part, I did seem to be getting some of what she was actually thinking and feeling at the time.

In short, Meg’s evident resistance to repentance did not appear stupid or insane. I seemed to be dealing with someone who was attempting to provide information, with the caveat that what was real or true might be subject to revision, according to the needs of the moment. And maybe that was the key. Maybe real repentance would require a person to believe that there was a right way to behave, and that it wouldn’t be acceptable to behave in a very different way later, and to believe that this opposite approach had now become the new right way to behave.

I could imagine someone being subjected to torture, and learning that s/he would have to say and believe whatever someone expected, however false it might seem. On a less extreme level, I have encountered people for whom “truth” seems to be whatever gets them through the moment. I could imagine having to survive childhood with a parent who would play with your mind, approving your words or deeds at one point, and then turning around and punishing you for those same words or deeds later. I could also imagine having one parent punish you for a certain act or attitude while the other would reward it. Such contradictions could drive a child nuts. Or maybe not. Kids are resilient. Maybe they learn to treat this sort of thing as normal. Maybe some children, in such conditions, would conclude that there was no real need to resolve such contradictions. Just go with whatever works for now, even if it makes no sense.

I didn’t know whether any of that would actually apply to Meg. I did see clear differences between her parents, in terms of how they viewed her and how she viewed them, during these weeks. I thought they probably had differing disciplinary styles. I saw that her father could be wishy-washy, saying whatever someone seemed to want to hear at the time, and that wasn’t generally her mother’s style. I had to wonder whether possibly she had learned two very different approaches to marriage during her childhood, and had lived two different perspectives during our marriage.

I would have liked to learn more about what was going on. Doing so would have resolved some extremely painful mysteries for me. But for some reason, when Meg flew to Maine after those two weeks of discussion in July 2002, her dad seemed to decide that she needed to get a divorce immediately. So that was the end of our detailed discussion of what she had been thinking and doing.

When the dust settled, I was left with a very poor understanding of what had happened to me, to my wonderful wife, and to our marriage. I talked to other people about it, in the months and years that followed. People had different theories. One woman said that she, herself, had endured a rocky series of relationships and marriages in adult life because she had been sexually abused as a child. Her theory was that Meg bore the classic signs of such abuse: flirty, little-girl behavior; no kids; promiscuity; an interest in older men. To this woman, Meg was in the grip of multiple personality disorder. And, honestly, I could see how that might explain things. Maybe the personality who lived in Meg’s suitcase, and came alive on the road, had finally gained the upper hand, shoving out the personality that had wanted to build a home with me.

The problem with such theories is that, unless you’re an experienced mental health specialist in the particular disorder, there are often other diagnoses, other theories, that point in very different directions. For example, maybe the split personalities that affected Meg were not internal to herself, but located in her external world, on the organizational level. Now that I was beginning to investigate these things, some people told me that the national Red Cross tolerated a culture of remarkably unfaithful married people. If that was true, maybe Meg was struggling to reconcile (or fit in with) what she perceived as the de rigueur infidelity of life on the road versus the expected fidelity of married life at home.

Or, in a different direction, maybe a split personality in our marriage was tolerable, for her, because she viewed me as the person primarily responsible for that marriage; but maybe she could not tolerate a split personality in her congregation, because in that case it was her baby, and she saw herself as the responsible party. Or maybe, when she referred to a split personality, what she actually feared was an uptight, judgmental element in the congregation (somehow reminiscent of her mother’s concept of religion?), an element that could seem unwelcoming to the less religious, more easygoing, socially helpful types. Maybe — possibly without even being aware of it — she threw herself into building the homeless shelter, and neglected her congregation, precisely because that would drive away the churchy, Bible-oriented individuals who weren’t on board with the service-oriented plan. Maybe, as in her approach to our divorce, driving away inconvenient people was her preferred way to eliminate complicated interpersonal issues.

In the end, I decided that Meg probably didn’t have a split personality. Dissociative identity (i.e., multiple personality) disorder seems to entail “distinct identities” that “recurrently take control of the person’s behavior” and various other extreme phenomena (e.g., may include hallucinations; each personality may have its own distinct history and name; may include self-destructive or aggressive behavior) (Psychology Today, 2014, “Symptoms”). What she was experiencing seemed to be more mixed together into a single life. When she was away, sometimes she would call me and would seem to miss me; and when she was at home, my understanding is that sometimes she would miss some other guy to whom was currently feeling an emotional attachment. As far as I can tell, her lovers and I got some exposure to both the fun, flirty girl persona and also the mature, married, professional woman persona.

Instead of the split personality theory, other people have had an entirely different reaction to the Meg story. One woman with whom I shared the story felt that it was all very cut and dried. In her opinion, Meg wasn’t confused, and wasn’t struggling with alternate personalities; she had a plan, and she knew exactly what she was doing all along. Here, again, I am not a psychiatrist. But I have to doubt that Meg was pursuing a coldly psychopathic, long-term scheme to mislead me as to her real feelings, always pretending to enjoy our life together but never meaning a word of it. This was not your purely calculating social climber, always looking for an angle. There was some of that in Meg, no doubt, but I don’t believe that sort of person would focus her career on helping homeless people — assuming homelessness does, eventually, re-emerge as a focus of her work, and was not merely something she wanted to play with, or an area that would be especially likely to make her look good.

This discussion could continue with other possible theories. For instance, Wikipedia quotes Dike et al. (2005, p. 343) for the view (apparently originating in Healy, 1926, p. 1) that “pathological lying” is lying that may be very complicated, that may unfold over a period of many years, and that is disproportionate to any visible purpose. There also seems to be an element of fantasy, although not beyond the point of believability. Wikipedia suggests that pathological lying may sometimes be an attempt to spice up a life that seems unpleasant or boring. PsychCentral (Hill, 2015) says that pathological lying can occur in conjunction with a variety of other misbehaviors, including selfishness, manipulativeness, social isolation, and low self-esteem. Here, again, we have a theory that seems partly relevant. But that’s no way to do diagnoses. That’s what happens when you first start studying the DSM: you see that you, and everyone around you, has some of the qualities of various forms of mental illness. It’s as if you had an object that’s shiny and cold and red: that could describe a billiard ball, but it could also describe the side of an automobile. Meeting a few random psychiatric criteria doesn’t necessarily tell us much.

So I was left with a lot of unknowns. Unfortunately, the passage of years has not really clarified much. When I looked into these things in 2016, I saw that one of Meg’s articles says she moved a short distance to Fulton, a year after our divorce, to be with the man who would become her second husband. I haven’t explored it in detail, but according to a free search it looks like he was married until after we came to Missouri. So that added some wrinkles. Had they already met at the time of our divorce? Was he one of the affairs she said she’d been having in Missouri? Is that why this seemingly nice woman would never speak to me again — was she afraid that he might come to hear my side of the story? That would explain a lot — but it wouldn’t explain the part where, in July 2002, after telling me her tales of infidelity, she said she was having second thoughts about rushing into a divorce. Another possibility was that maybe she was able to have a stable second marriage because she had finished her exploration of split personalities in marriage, and was now experimenting with split personalities in ministry. Or did she finally come clean with me, not because she felt hideous about lying to me, or about having affairs, but just because she didn’t need me anymore, now that one of those affairs had finally hit pay dirt for her?

I mean “pay dirt” in the sense of finding true love, but I guess I should be asking it in a more literal sense as well: she did tell a newspaper reporter that her house in Columbia was “too big for just me and my husband.” I’m pretty sure she didn’t buy that house on her salary as minister of a small church. (I’m guessing it wasn’t in the predominantly black part of town.) So maybe she saw him as not only a meal ticket, to support her during her years in seminary and in a low-paying ministry job, but also as someone who would be willing to move back to Maine and deal with her family, as she and he have now done.

I didn’t explore the question of how that move might affect his career; I don’t know what sort of work he was doing in Columbia, or what job he might find in Maine. One can only hope, on his behalf, that the move to Maine doesn’t also entail having to deal with the ex-boyfriend whose wife once called me, complaining that he and Meg were still in touch. I would eventually discover that they continued to be in touch, even after we moved to Missouri. So, yes, we can add that to the several instances, during our nine years together, where I would have had reason to be more paranoid, if I hadn’t chosen to be trusting instead.

But now, let us review. This section of this post began with the question of what happens, or what one should do, when dealing with a person who does not “get it” — who may actually favor attitudes or behaviors hostile to repentance. It seems that, if a person disregards or does not see what others consider obvious, it could be because s/he is pursuing an agenda or responding to a threat not visible to others. We have the examples of the psychopath who has a plan; of the person with disordered identity who has lurched into a different persona; and of the pathological liar who is moved to tell stories from his/her fantasy world.

This line of thought suggests that, as one would expect, talk of repentance is premature if the person in question lacks a good awareness of reality. But in Meg’s case, it is not clear that the person does have an obvious problem with reality. This may be someone who is dedicated to being a good liar, for reasons we can only guess at; it may be someone who has spent a lifetime learning how to mask his/her differences from others. Really, it could be anything.

The practical conclusion seems to be that this is all very complicated. We could respond by suggesting that this person needs to spend years in therapy. That may be. But for some purposes, that is passing the buck. When you are a deeply unsettled spouse or a shattered congregation, trying to decide how to deal with someone like this, you may not have the luxury of waiting months or years for Dr. Freud to arrive at a diagnosis and provide a cure. You may need to make the best decisions you can, in a short timeframe, under conditions of great uncertainty. What we have seen here is that those decisions may not be very well informed — not if you have to gather your information and reach your conclusions on the fly, using only the bits of knowledge and insight that you can pull together, by yourself, on short notice.

It appears, in other words, that the task of identifying someone who is not presently capable of repentance, and who would therefore not be appropriate for marriage or for Christian ministry, could require more knowledge than I, or the congregation deciding whether to hire Meg, would be able to assemble by ourselves. The quality of our decisions would be greatly improved if we could gain access to relevant prior learning, as discussed in the next section.

Witnessing Against the Enablers

At the time of our divorce, as noted above, someone asked Meg: How were you able to get away with so many lies for so long? Back then, the question had to do with her years of infidelity. But a person could ask the same question now, in her ministry. She starts with the same premise in both contexts: evidently her tales of a lousy husband served to justify infidelity, when told to her lovers, and also served to justify her divorce, when told to her congregation. And the response, likewise, seems to have been rather predictable in both cases: back then, she enjoyed the gallantry of men who probably liked to hear that they were superior to her husband; and more recently, some members of her congregation may have appreciated the opportunity to present themselves as caring persons who felt sorry that she ever had to experience abuse.

I don’t know whether it would have been possible for Meg’s lovers, back then, to verify whatever stories she may have told them. Probably most of them didn’t really care about it very much, once the moment of gratification had passed. This may be the case, as well, for members of her congregation. It is pleasant to pat oneself on the back for showing kindness to a person who has experienced hardship, and to take that person’s side. Suspicion is often considered undesirable, especially in the company of individuals who are determined to put on a happy face.

There surely were people who could have tried to verify that Meg was what she seemed. We don’t have the details regarding anonymous parishioners, but we do have the unfortunate examples of Rev. Bryan, who did not even bother to return my messages, and of the newspaper reporter from that liberal college town, who was interested only in the side of the story that favored a women’s rights angle. Ironically, both of those individuals claim to be in the business of seeking and reporting truth.

Yet those failures of responsibility came at the tail end of the process. Let’s back up five or ten years, and consider how different the situation would have been, if the seminary or the UMC had played a responsible gatekeeping role before conferring admission, graduation, or ordination. Let’s suppose they have received an application from someone who wants to be admitted into seminary, or who wants to be ordained as a minister. What should they do with it?

Well, the ex-spouse would be a pretty obvious person to contact, if you actually wanted to find out whether the ministerial candidate had any skeletons in her closet, any lurking issues — gambling, drug addiction, mental illness — that could blow up when she gets out into the real world and starts running a congregation. Not everyone will have an ex-spouse. But when the applicant does have prior experiences suggesting major problems with people who knew her well, it is just common sense to pick up the phone and spend a few minutes talking to those people.

You wouldn’t have to believe everything they might say about your candidate. If you came across anything unexpected, you could ask the candidate for a response. If you were getting two very different stories — about, say, the reason for the candidate’s divorce — you could inquire further. The present case suggests that, when the two sides of the story are very different, it may not be too hard to find out where the evidence points. In this case, sixty seconds’ worth of recorded audio would have been enough.

If the inquiry did suggest that the candidate had a bad history, that would not necessarily be the kiss of death. Ministry is a special profession. From Bible times forward, some of the best Christians have been those who found redemption. If you took repentance seriously, you could ask what the candidate has done to demonstrate sincere regret for his/her past misbehavior and a desire to set things right and to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It would be especially appropriate to make such inquiries where there is a history of domestic difficulties: 1 Timothy chapter 3 recommends choosing bishops and deacons “of good behavior” and proven ability to build a family.

The seminary and the UMC had great power to avert a potential tragedy in Meg’s congregation. I would say the same, for me personally, about some members of Meg’s family. I think they had information that would have helped me to avoid the long-term disaster of marrying her. But, like the seminary and the UMC, they shirked any responsibility for notifying me. To the contrary, they were actually offended when I noticed some relevant family issues, and invited them to discuss those issues with me.

It is not clear why the seminary and the UMC would fail to make concerted efforts to choose appropriate candidates. This is not an era when everyone can trust that ministers will be free from sin. To the contrary, we have been living in a time of backlash against clerical misbehavior. While sexual abuse of children has been the dominant theme in recent years, we have also seen many exposés of other forms of ministerial hypocrisy, including extramarital affairs. One would expect that seminaries and denominations, wishing to avoid potential liability and to defend their reputations, would take common-sense steps, documenting reasonably diligent efforts to verify basic moral suitability in the people being admitted into M.Div. programs and ordained as ministers.

Beyond that, it does not take a graduate degree in theology to grasp the essentials of Christian faith. In this case, a simple inquiry, at the time of application to seminary or for ordination, would have raised a serious question of whether the applicant had an appropriate grasp of the repentance necessary for salvation. It would be rather negligent to make a minister out of a person who was apparently not even a Christian, by your own definition of the term. Doing so might say that you have more faith in that applicant’s tuition dollars than in your verbiage about ministry.

This case suggests that the seminary and the UMC did not make reasonable efforts to determine that their future ministers would meet criteria suggested by the Bible and common sense. They appear to have functioned as enablers, in the sense provided by Wikipedia: they followed procedures that perpetuated and perhaps even exacerbated a preexisting problem — procedures “that make accommodations for a person’s harmful conduct.”

As a result, the congregation was harmed, to the extent that the seminary and the UMC did not provide vitally important and easily acquired information on Meg’s suitability as a minister. I was harmed: those institutions gave Meg a status from which she was able to broadcast, and be believed in, her false statements about me. Others affected by her ministry may have been harmed, in ways we will never know. And Meg herself was harmed. If the seminary had discovered her unrepentant attitude toward me circa 2007, she could have been appropriately redirected to a career (in e.g., social work, community organizing, or public administration) consistent with her glaring lack of interest in religious practice and her long-term preoccupation with social issues — where, incidentally, she might have enjoyed a far greater potential financial upside.


In this post, I have examined certain matters related to my divorce in 2002. The focus here is upon the topic of repentance, as it pertains to behavioral patterns that came to light at the time of our divorce and that seem to have recurred in Meg’s ministry in Columbia, MO. This post advances the view that it is advisable to repent of — that is, to take to heart, learn from, and make amends for — the errors leading up to, and the harm resulting from, major personal mistakes.

The foregoing discussion suggests that our divorce provided an important learning opportunity. Among other things, it seems Meg would have delivered a very different sermon on Good Sex, and might even be a better wife in her second marriage, if she had genuinely repented for so grossly abusing her first one. It does appear that she learned very little from that prior experience. It’s not just that we see her, more than a decade later, continuing to believe that a sexual relationship predictably goes downhill after the first year. It’s that maybe there’s something else at work — that perhaps her loss of interest is not sex-specific, but would instead be repeated in the arc of her rising and falling commitment to the homeless center.

Repentance leading to honest dialogue with me, either before or after the divorce, might have been good preparation for ministry. It might have taught Meg something about keeping people informed, and about working with them rather than against them. Despite my own openness and my frequent inquiries as to whether she was happy, and whether there was anything we needed to talk about, she apparently believed that her only option was to keep sweeping things under the rug. That failed catastrophically. I regret that I was not more effective in breaking through her phony “niceness” (see Russell, 1957, p. 148). In the end, this “nice” minister bears false witness against me, just as she blames those who left her church for being “resistant to change.” Somehow, she still does not seem to take to heart the disasters she causes.

Rolling over people like an army tank, and then criticizing them for being in the way, is not the behavior of an individual who has felt shame for her past acts, and who wants to make things right. Refusal to learn from huge errors is not the behavior of a person qualified to lead others in wise living.

The materials in this post suggest that Meg has not yet become acquainted with the experience of real repentance. If that impression is correct, it appears she has not achieved the salvation of which Jesus spoke; and that would entail the conclusion that her ordination is not legitimate. I realize that a liberal church like the UMC is very unlikely to take its own alleged principles so seriously as to reach any such conclusion. But one can hope. Perhaps it will “repent” of this behavior, too — maybe 50 or 100 years from now, with a nice booklet that congregations can use in study sessions.

I would think that perceptions of quality would be important in attracting members, and there are reasons to think that repentance is crucial for quality control in Christian ministry. But until UMC recognizes that it has been negligent in this regard, ministers who need guidance and parameters, as Meg did, will be left to find their own way. In other words, if failure to own up to one’s current mistakes suggests an absence of repentance for the individual, perhaps it suggests the same for the denomination.

* * * * *

Postscript (6/10/2017): when or if I ever receive a reply from Meg or the UMC, I will post an update here. So far, six months later, I have heard nothing in response to any of this.

Taking Ministry Seriously, with Humility

I started first grade in 1961, in a one-room elementary school just down the road from our home in rural Indiana, as the child of a housewife and a railroad worker. The teacher, and the preacher in the Lutheran church supporting that school, were the first professionals whose work became familiar to me. When Mr. Gemmer, the teacher, would ask the two dozen (or so) kids in our eight grades how many of us wanted to become teachers, a majority of hands went up. Mine was among them.

In 1967, the school closed and Mr. Gemmer went away. I finished my primary and secondary education in public schools. In the last two years of high school, I became involved in the Jesus Movement of the early 1970s. During my senior year especially, a group of perhaps 15 students, participating in our school’s prayer group, generated an environment of caring and companionship that I have never forgotten.

At times during my junior and/or senior year in high school, I taught Sunday School in the Lutheran church next door, worked as the president of that church’s youth group, and served as an office assistant to the minister, Rev. Hillmer. In my private religious practice at that time, I was studying the Bible intensively, memorizing substantial pieces of it verbatim, fasting (for one or more days at a stretch), speaking in tongues, praying at length, and wrestling with the real or imagined demons of the pentecostal worldview pervading our portion of the Christian life.

These experiences gave me a foundation of religious conviction as well as some minor exposure to leadership, in those roles as Bible teacher, informal prayer group leader, and elected leader of the youth group at the Lutheran church. Through my encounters with Rev. Hillmer, I began to see that it could make sense to pursue a career in the ministry. That was the basis on which I decided to attend college rather than just study my Bible and await the Second Coming of Christ, which I understood was imminent. In fall 1973, I became a pre-ministry student at Concordia Lutheran Junior College in Ann Arbor, MI.

In their work at that time and in years to come, Rev. Hillmer and Mr. Gemmer embodied the faith of the committed Christian. I did not find, in their Lutheran church, the drama and intensity of our prayer group and of other Christian worship and practice in the Jesus Movement. But there was no question of their sincerity and devotion to the Christian faith.

It appeared that such devotion likewise motivated many of the professors at Concordia. By contrast, my pre-ministerial classmates were more of a mixed bag. Some did go on to become ministers, but others visibly lacked the kind of personal religious commitment that would motivate them to be vigilant against the Devil and to strive to expel sinful thoughts and acts from their lives. Frankly, in some cases I saw no real difference between these would-be future ministers and the completely secular young people I had known in high school. For instance, I wasn’t surprised that a first-year college student would want to have a female student climbing in his window at night; I was just surprised that he would want to be enrolled in a conservative religious college, much less a pre-ministerial program.

My own future as a minister did not pan out, but for a different reason. What waylaid me was not the temptations of the rich life, but rather the intellectual problems of faith. As described in another post, I discovered that things I had been taught and/or had assumed about the Bible and about Truth were not necessarily so. Starting during my year at Concordia, and with increasing intensity over the next two years, I struggled, sometimes rather desperately, to find a way to continue in the faith or, if necessary, to be certain that leaving it was the right thing to do.

I was not always alone during those years, but that was an extraordinarily lonely experience. It seemed like nobody else among my acquaintances wrestled with this sort of thing. It was as if I were somehow required to endure my own version of what Martin Luther had endured more than 450 years earlier, when he rejected the religious orthodoxy of his time with the famous words, “Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me.” Luther’s drama might seem overblown to some; but in fact that moment, as much as any, heralded more than a hundred years of religious war that would rage across Europe.

As such, that moment may have more current relevance than meets the eye. Because — to move quickly through the subsequent years — what happened next in my own life was that I drifted some distance away from conservative Christian practice and belief. I became a philosophy major and then moved to New York City, married a Jewish woman, and became a lawyer. Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, I watched scornfully as Christian conservatives confronted sex scandals in their midst, including adultery by famous ministers (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Jim Bakker) and sexual abuse of minors, as well as fraud within churches. To me, such developments vindicated my hard-won realization that wanting to believe something does not make it so. If it’s not the cold, hard truth, then you have no business dragging God into it. He did not create your problems, and he is not likely to fix them for you.

I say that Martin Luther’s line in the sand has contemporary impact because now, in this U.S. presidential election season of fall 2016, we are seeing a quasi-religious confrontation among true believers reminiscent of Luther’s 16th century.

There was a time, in my years as a lawyer and, later, as a student of social work, when I could join liberal America in smug agreement with St. Paul’s words to the church in Corinth, “Few of you were wise in the world’s eyes . . . when God called you.” In other words, religious rigidity tends not to be very compatible with worldly concepts of intelligence; smart people tend to remain skeptical. My own experience persuaded me that people committed to finding truth will realize that the Bible is not what believers want it to be.

But I failed to take account of what happened next. Luther’s followers became as legalistic and dogmatic in their beliefs as the Catholics ever were — and now, as if to follow their example, liberal America has likewise departed from a commitment to truth, however unpleasant it may sometimes be, and is preferring instead to take a perverse pride in the sometimes destructive poses that it adopts on behalf of its self-appointed crusades. Like the Lutheran armies inflicting death on fellow Christians, supposedly in the name of a God of love, today’s liberal opinionmakers too often use their purportedly truth-oriented occupations — in academia, in journalism, and, yes, in liberal churches — to promote their preferred beliefs, distorting reality to win arguments. Such behavior recalls, all too clearly, the deplorable conservative habit of lying for the Lord.

In this 2016 presidential election season especially, I have been appalled at the supposedly educated liberals who evidently lack the capacity to think critically about their chosen dogma. In conversation after conversation, I have seen the kind of extremely partisan thinking that insists it is right every time, about every issue. That is not the mentality of a thoughtful person. And it comes out in public displays. Consider, for instance, the conflict between the New York Times‘s self-perception as a national “paper of record” and the palpable fact that the Times is grossly partisan, or the contrast between Hillary Clinton’s stated desire to bring Americans together and her claim that “you could put half of [Donald] Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Regardless of my own dislike for Donald Trump, these are not the behaviors of people who care enough about truth to have learned that it quickly departs from those who claim to own it. In the words of The Guardian (Mallaby, 2016), the privileged class “has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings . . . . its arrogance enhanced by the conviction that its privilege reflects brains and accomplishment, not luck and inheritance.”

Unfortunately, I have experienced this deadly liberal arrogance about the truth in my own life and career. In other blog posts, I have described, for instance, the corruption of procedures for fairly resolving grievances in the very heart of the liberal enterprise, in master’s and PhD programs at the universities of Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, and Arkansas. As documented in those linked webpages, the professors and administrators responsible for that corruption tend to prioritize other things over the truthseeking that society has traditionally expected from its intellectuals. Today’s university ambiance favors those who will readily sacrifice principle for self-advancement, so for the most part this corruption has become a de facto element of university ethics. In some cases, truth is disregarded, not only where it is inconvenient, but also where it would interfere with the gratification of power — with, that is, the latitude to abuse those who cannot protect themselves. Such sadism is perhaps most notorious in the university’s treatment of graduate students, but it also emerges in abuse of junior faculty and, in many ways, of the public trust.

To recap, earlier paragraphs in this post explain that I was dismayed to encounter instances of false faith among conservative Christian ministers, and these last several paragraphs explain that I have been, if anything, even more dismayed to see that false faith is rife among the alleged truths with which liberal Christians and nonbelievers confront the conservative believer. Yes, there are many problems with claims based on or implied by the words of the Bible. But, these days, those who claim to prioritize reason over faith are not championing a consistently superior worldview. Yes, to cite one example among many, they do far better with their medical machines than the believers do with prayer. But that is merely an argument that certain matters are best left to science. One can just as easily retort that other matters, including some very important ones (e.g., faithfulness; generosity; the richness of present-moment experience) tend to be better left to a worldview that does not glorify selfish individualism above all else — a worldview, that is, that prioritizes, not the corruptible pursuit of personal advancement, but rather an unselfish commitment to the well-being of one’s community or, possibly, the expectations of one’s God.

It is easy to assume that you know the truth and that others do not. But how can you be so sure? Those who have attempted the philosophical and/or psychological study of what we know, and how we can be sure we know it, are likely to affirm that such questions are vastly more difficult than one might expect. In fact, human beings tend not to have simple and clear knowledge of things. Learning this about oneself is essential, if one is to be well educated.

It is regrettable that colleges and universities are so frequently failing to introduce students to those fundamental insights. Their failure leaves us with the spectacle of this year’s election contest, in which Americans seem more partisan and less truthseeking than ever before — where one can observe, as just discussed, that the supposedly smarter and more reasonable liberals remain unable and/or unwilling to grasp and respond effectively to conservative concerns.

But even if the universities are no longer reliably able to teach students what truth is like, at least the schools of religion should do so. The person who claims to have the answers, thanks to his/her own liberal intellect or conservative interpretation of selected Bible passages — the person who simplemindedly rejects the knowledge, intelligence, experience, and sincerity of those who disagree with him/her — may lack a basic sense of perspective on the breadth and complexity of life. Such a person does not seem a likely candidate for a divine calling.

Lying for the Lord: The Fundamentalist Christian Minister as B.S. Artist


Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion
Focus: Pathological Christian Lying
Case in Point: Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher
The Core Epistemological Issue


Background: Lying For, or In, One’s Religion

In a previous post (How I Came to Be an Ex-Christian), I mentioned a term I had heard from some Mormons: “lying for the Lord.” I had experienced something similar as a fundamentalist Christian. The concept was that we wanted and were expected to present our Christian faith in the most positive light, so as to persuade others to join us and be saved. We would lie about what we were actually experiencing, so as to make our lives and beliefs sound superior and desirable.

As described in another post (Bible Study: John 1:1. The Bible Is Not the Word of God), we were similarly untruthful in our interpretation of scripture: we would ignore what it actually said, time after time; we would invent bizarre readings that would give us some excuse to claim that the Bible was what we wanted it to be. We were not at all honest about the scriptural difficulties arising from our mode of interpretation, choosing instead to force-fit biblical texts to our preconceived notions.

This urge to twist the religion in one’s preferred direction is not limited to fundamentalist Christianity. For example, Loren Franck discusses “Ten Lies I Told as a Mormon Missionary.” Further afield, in a New York Times editorial, Mustafa Akyol states that Islam traditionally considers it blasphemous to mock Mohammed, and treats such blasphemy as a capital crime — and yet such views are not based on the actual words of the Quran (Koran), but were rather invented and added to the Islamic religion by later scholars to serve political purposes. As another example, scholars (e.g., Obekesekere, 2004, pp. 253-254; Seshadri, 1992) have indicated that so-called Hindu fundamentalism is another modern concept invented for political reasons, and is supported by neither the texts nor the traditions of Hinduism.

This post focuses on Christian falsehood simply because that is where I have personal experience. In the posts cited above, I described my own growing awareness that we Christians were lying to ourselves and to others. I was not alone in becoming aware of Christian untruthfulness. For example:

  • Brother Ken at Burning Bush Christian Crusades suggests that professing Christians lie because they have ceased to fear eternal damnation and because they have lost their reverence and respect for God.
  • Jaimee at CloseYourEyesDream.com says that Christians embellish their stories and tell white lies, in mundane day-to-day interactions, for reasons such as immaturity, lack of devotion to God, rebelliousness, and desire to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
  • Peter Davids concludes that Christians lie about sex in order to maintain a hypocritical denial of their own sexuality.
  • Jon Acuff proposes that Chrstians — especially pastors — lie “To hide what they’ve done or hide the fact they’re still not the person they wanted to be by now.”

The problem of lying has been acknowledged by Christian ministers, writers, and scholars. For instance:

  • In an article in Christianity Today, Ed Stetzer wonders, “Why do Christians lie about each other so much?” Stetzer points out that such behavior violates the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness [or “give false testimony”] against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). That particular form of deception is distinct from the more general command of Leviticus 19:11: “Do not lie to one another.” Stetzer says, “We often give one another a pass when someone bears false witness because [we believe] they were being passionate for truth.” Stetzer seems to be correctly recognizing that Christians do not necessarily see God’s truth as forming a cohesive whole: they may decide that God would want them to defend a seemingly big truth by telling a seemingly small lie.
  • On the question of “Why Christians lie,” Jenny Rae Armstrong says, “I’ve had one too many friends leave the church because [their sincere questions were met] with a horrified gasp, followed by impassioned arguments that . . . came across as either ignorant or disingenuous.” Armstrong offers the example of political debate, where “we can get pretty worked up about those issues, defending our side at all costs, even when it compromises our character.” She suggests that such behavior, inconsistent with “the gentle humility with which Christians are supposed to express their faith,” arises partly from fear that the nonbeliever’s question is a good one to which the believer does not have an answer.
  • In an article in Relevant magazine, John Piper reviews a number of Bible passages and concludes that “lying may be acceptable in rare situations” but also that “the Bible never commends lying.” To the contrary, he says, “The mind has to be filled with falsehood-fighting truth”; the believer’s faith can conquer “the deceitful craving for esteem and safety and possessions that causes us to distort the truth.”

Google searches (1 and 2) led me, not only to the foregoing examples, but also to other writers who describe their own problems with and/or reasons for leaving fundamentalist Christianity. For instance, the unnamed author of the Path of the Beagle blog says he had been a creationist for 20 years; but when it came time to decide whether to send his kids to a Christian college, he ran into difficulties. The most upsetting discovery, he reports, was that “the people I had trusted the most — the conservative, Christian leaders at the top of the young-earth creationist movement — had been lying to me.” For him, this creation issue was “a real wake-up call.” Similarly, in an article on ExChristian.net, Michael Runyan reports difficulties with creationism among numerous other problems in Christian belief. On the subject of truth, he observes that Christianity has “overvalued the exercise of faith, or believing in things without supporting evidence” that “allows for unscrupulous people to dupe others into accepting on faith a false promise or assertion.” Such remarks suggest that believers as well as nonbelievers may be best served by a determined orientation toward honest truthseeking.

Focus: Pathological Christian Lying

People are often tempted to lie to protect or to advance themselves. With some frequency, they also encounter opportunities to lie on behalf of friends and family members. In addition, it is quite common to lie, and to be expected to lie, in service of one’s employer, customer, or client. A person who has no employer, no friends, no surviving family members, and few personal interests or ambitions, will tend to have fewer opportunities and motives for lying. Another way to think of it: juggling more balls at once will tend to increase their likelihood of interfering or colliding with one another.

So it seems that, if you consider it highly important not to lie, you would be well advised not to acquire many obligations, connections, and interests. Conversely, as you acquire more obligations, connections, and interests, it seems you may find it helpful, indeed necessary, to lie more frequently, on behalf of yourself and others. Failure to lie on cue — that is, being honest with people — may tend to result in the loss of various acquaintances and opportunities. Despite rare pockets of deep (but not absolutely reliable) integrity, deception (including failure to disclose information that a fully honest person would disclose) tends to pervade interpersonal interactions.

The sources cited above, and my own experience, suggest that Christian faith is an important interest. Adding it to one’s life greatly increases the number of things to lie about. That increase is especially likely if one’s chosen form of Christian faith entails — as fundamentalism does — conflict or incompatibility with a vast number of people, ideas, and experiences arising in daily life. It can feel as if everything, everywhere, is set against the Christian fundamentalist. There is a fundamentalist response — that this conspiracy of nontruth stems from Satan — but such a dramatic explanation is not necessary, nor does it address the command’s expectation: regardless of satanic influence, do not lie. Period.

No doubt the situation becomes less difficult when one does not know, or seriously care, what one’s religious texts or leaders may say. Countless people have attended Sunday morning church services, year after year, with little interest in theology, philosophy, science, or other intellectual areas in which their professed faith raises major issues. That is, even within Christian fundamentalism — even within a specific congregation — people may vary widely in the extent to which they see any need to distort facts or avoid the truth. It is no doubt possible to avoid some lies by avoiding certain kinds of discussion or lines of thought. Not that such evasion would make one more truthful; it may be merely a means of simplification.

There are also, no doubt, many people whose limited mental capacity leaves them unable to engage in deliberate falsehood on matters of religious belief. People can have brain damage; they can be severely short of logical capacity; they may operate under pervasive misconceptions that somehow leave them unable to grasp seemingly elementary conclusions. In the terms used by Jenny Rae Armstrong (above), there may be a distinction between those who are ignorant and those who are disingenuous, although determined ignorance probably amounts to deliberate deception.

Much the same could be said about fear. Fear plays a great role in the deceptions practiced by many Christian believers. People can be so afraid of eternal damnation that they hesitate to question their faith or otherwise step out of line. For social reasons, likewise, people may have simply concluded that a dedicated pursuit of truth often entails serious risks to personal survival in this world.

A concern with pathological lying begins to emerge, then, among certain subsets of Christian fundamentalists. Those subsets may include people who would commit any evil in order to save themselves, and those (e.g., ministers) who have a demonstrated commitment to or investment in the assumed truth of their beliefs. Such people could be honest about difficulties with Christian faith, but choose instead to cross the line, using falsehood and even absurdity to deceive people. When you see such behavior continuing for years on end, you might fairly ask whether this person is thriving in Christian fundamentalism precisely because s/he has no serious problem with the level of falsehood required to persist in that kind of belief.

Sarah Sumner examines such thoughts in a Christianity Today article titled “The Seven Levels of Lying.” Drawing on work by Budziszewski (2011), Sumner suggests that the most objectionable forms of lying are No. 6, “You develop your technique” and No. 7, “You see it as your duty to lie.” Within Sumner’s analysis, even these worst forms of lying are understandable when they seem to be required to survive and thrive within a dysfunctional family or bureaucracy. And that, in the view of many nonbelievers, is precisely the nature of fundamentalist Christianity: a dysfunctional entity compelling and/or encouraging falsehood. Consistent with that view, Dromedary Hump offers these quotes from famous historical Christian leaders:

Often it is necessary to deceive, and to do the greatest benefits by means of this device, whereas he who has gone by a straight course has done great mischief to the person whom he has not deceived. [John Chrysostom]

We should always be disposed to believe that which appears to us to be white is really black, if the hierarchy of the church so decides. [Ignatius Loyola]

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church … a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them. [Martin Luther]

But one need not revert to historical texts for illustrations. A search leads readily to the continuing stream of scandals in which priests, preachers, and evangelists deceive their congregations and the public about assorted financial, sexual, and psychological abuses. It does not appear that people of this nature would be good guides in the matter of how to live one’s life, much less the truth about one’s eternal salvation.

One often hears such people called “pathological liars.” But that does not seem like the right term. In an article in Psychiatric Times, Charles C. Dike (2008) notes that pathological lying (PL) is not a settled psychiatric diagnosis within the psychiatric profession’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). (See also Mark D. Griffiths in Psychology Today, 2013.) Dike suggests there is nonetheless some consensus as to the core elements of PL: “excessive lying, easily verifiable to be untrue, mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way, and even possibly harmful to the liar, yet told repeatedly over time.”

Note, then, that — at least by that sense of the term — a good liar and a pathological liar are two very different things. The person who obtains success, wealth, and/or power by deceiving and manipulating people may have some other kind of mental health issue, but s/he would not be a pathological liar — would not be, that is, telling falsehoods that are “easily verifiably to be untrue” or “mostly unhelpful to the liar in any apparent way.” His/her success comes precisely because s/he is good at misleading people.

Pathological lying (PL) — like psychopath and sociopath — is a popular assessment, used in assorted and sometimes conflicting ways, sometimes based on knowledge and experience but often abused by people with poor training or no training in mental health. A search leads to any number of people who claim expertise on the matter. For example,

  • WikiHow defines a pathological liar as “someone who tells lies habitually, chronically and compulsively. It has simply become a way of life for this person, to make up things for a variety of reasons and eventually, the truth becomes uncomfortable while weaving whoppers feels right to them. This kind of lying tends to develop early on in life, often as a response to difficult home or school situations that seemed to resolve better if the child lied. It’s a bad habit, not a manipulative trait — this is how to differentiate a pathological liar from a sociopath who does seek to manipulate.”
  • LoveToKnow says, “Pathological liars are people who tells lies when there is no clear benefit for them to do so. An individual who is not a pathological liar may lie to avoid punishment or ridicule. He or she may be less-than-truthful to avoid hurting someone else. When the problem of lying is at the point where the person is unable to control it, that person is considered to be a pathological liar. Even though pathological lying isn’t listed in the [DSM], it is considered a disease by some experts.”
  • New Health Guide says, in somewhat similar terms, that “A pathological liar lies compulsively and impulsively, almost without thinking about the consequences of his action. He lies regularly on a spontaneous basis even if he gains no benefit from it, or even if he traps himself into it. A pathological liar cannot control his impulse to lie and it is usually a self-defeating trait.”

Those materials suggest several observations. First, it may be true that — as I was informed by a source that I have cited in another post — the ministry is one of the ten professions most likely to attract psychopaths. Especially when one enters the arena of wildly unrealistic and dishonest claims about Christian faith and practice, It may take a remarkably cold and clever manipulator to keep on preaching, week after week, without any concern for the kinds of problems that I have discussed in the posts cited above. It is certainly interesting to read the suggestion, by Pater Familias, that “many fundamentalist Christians become atheists in college or seminary.”

Of course, not every minister is a televangelist with a congregation of thousands. As I know from observing the work of the Lutheran minister for whom I was an office assistant during high school, many work for a pittance, struggling to keep their congregations going despite congregational politics and negative and sometimes abusive parishioners. Ministers of this ilk — and many of the confused congregants who spend their week ping-ponging among dissonant theories of what God wants and what they have been doing right and wrong — may come closer to the concept of pathological lying. They are not seriously attempting to manipulate anyone, and would rarely be able to do so. They are just trying to string together a chaotic pack of random ideas in a bid to say something that, to them, sounds good at the moment — even if it does strike the casual listener as grotesque self-deception. This behavior often entails great costs, in terms of time and money wasted and opportunities foregone, including other careers that the minister might have pursued, and more truthful (and, probably, more rewarding) ways of pursuing his/her religious calling.

Dike distinguishes pathological lies from other kinds of disorders (e.g., Borderline Personality Disorder) by their “elaborate, fantastic, or complicated nature.” That description does seem applicable to the tangled webs of doctrine, and the incredible supernatural entities and events, with which fundamentalists weave together their ideas about themselves and their world. Dike also distinguishes “the blurring of fact and fiction that occurs in PL” from “the absolute conviction” experienced by delusional persons — which is interesting, in light of the contrast between the extraordinary claims that contemporary Christians make about miracles and other supernatural events, and the limited extent to which they demonstrate real belief in such phenomena.

In several ways, then, it seems that pathological lying may serve as a relatively understandable (albeit informal and sometimes confused) diagnosis of the behavior practiced — indeed, encouraged — in fundamentalist Christianity. That impression would seem to apply especially to ministers and Bible students who waste enormous amounts of time trying to rephrase and repackage their beliefs in superficially credible terms.

This tentative impression should be cushioned, again, with the warnings that pathological lying is not an established psychiatric diagnosis and that, if it is to be used, one might consider it a call for compassion, not a charge of willful manipulation. Without denying the harm done by such beliefs, nor for that matter the positive aspects of religious belief and community, in these specific ways these people are confused and, for the most part, cannot be helped, but are rather left to help themselves, often by growing more relaxed and less serious about the most problematic aspects of their faith.

Case in Point:
Debates with a Fundamentalist Preacher

I had been vaguely curious about lying by Christian preachers ever since hearing about Marjoe Gortner, an evangelist who exposed fraud within the world of fundamentalist ministry, in a production that won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Film. I lost touch with that sort of thing, later in the 1970s, when I rejected fundamentalism as a route to spiritual truth — although I did hear, with the rest of America, about fraudulent and abusive priests and evangelists throughout the years to come.

Despite my rejection of fundamentalism, I remained in loose contact with several fundamentalists, including a few with religious training and/or positions in the ministry. I was moved to write this post after repeated Facebook encounters with one of them. I was not deeply acquainted with that preacher (referred to here as “Jack”) and his wife (“Jill”); but within my face-to-face experience they were generous, nonjudgmental, and basically kind people. As often happens, however, our online interactions tended to highlight differences in our viewpoints. It was harder to think of the person as a whole, and to disregard various absurd or offensive things that s/he might say, when written expression became our primary means of interaction.

I decided to write this post for several reasons. First, as detailed below, I wanted to wrap up that series of Facebook encounters with Jack. Over a period of months, I had concluded that Jack was wasting my time with insincere and sometimes ridiculous remarks. It seemed best to unfriend him, so as to eliminate that source of fruitless distraction, and to direct him to this post if he was interested in an explanation.

Unfriending Jack on Facebook did not necessarily imply ceasing to be friends in fact; that would depend on future developments. Indeed, it seemed that removing Facebook from the equation might actually be beneficial to the friendship. At this point, it could hardly hurt. So it seemed appropriate to compose this explanation, and to leave it to him to see if he could understand and respond appropriately to it.

Second, I decided to write this post because, as in other posts in this blog, I had prior personal experience that I thought might be useful to others. As noted above, I, myself, had been a lying inventor of bogus “explanations” for the problems that arise when one takes a fundamentalist approach to the Bible. In that role, I may well have contributed to the confusion and pain experienced by fellow believers. I certainly was not contributing to any real solutions. As I observed various things that Jack and Jill posted on Facebook, I became concerned at the damage that they, and others like them, might be doing. I had been hearing, for some years, about what might have happened if people had not looked the other way when they found priests and ministers misbehaving. It seemed appropriate, indeed obligatory, to speak up.

So, as I say, I found myself engaged in repeated disagreements with Jack and Jill on Facebook. In the early months, these were limited to the occasional expression of dissent on some random item. Once, for example, Jill posted something like this:


I don’t believe that was the actual item; it is just an illustration of the type of thing she posted. In this case, it was something about vaccines for children. She added a remark; as I recall, it was, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid!”

I was aware that some parents were afraid that vaccines were more dangerous than the diseases they were supposed to prevent. But as far as I knew (and as still appears to be true), adverse reactions were rare and generally less harmful than the diseases in question. Indeed, it appeared that those who refused to vaccinate their children could pose an unreasonable threat to others. So I posted a reply, saying something like, “Polio, measles, tuberculosis — who would want to go back to that?”

There were several similar exchanges. At some point, reviewing my Facebook history, I noticed that Jill seemed to have deleted some of the posts to which I had objected, including the one about vaccines. It occurred to me that perhaps I had sensitized her to the existence of alternate viewpoints of which she had been unaware — that maybe I had helped her to recognize the foolishness of some of the things that others had been telling her. It was gratifying to imagine that I might have introduced some caution into her sharing of potentially harmful advice with members of her congregation.

Meanwhile, it appeared, for a time, that Jack enjoyed online debate. That was not the impression he had given in person. When talking in person, he had sometimes dominated the conversation, going on and on about his beliefs. I understood his viewpoint — as I say, I had been a fundamentalist and a pre-ministry student myself — but he had not seemed reciprocally inclined to understand and explore my views. Since then, online, he had described himself as not being open-minded. At some point I concluded that he was, ultimately, the typical preacher, primarily interested in telling you what to think, and not very interested in learning whether his way might be imperfect or just plain wrong.

So, to continue with the example of vaccines, eventually I did come to realize that Jill had not in fact learned anything from my remarks about vaccines. She was still agreeing with Jack, months later, when he posted this on that subject:

I have been accused of being crazy because I do not use vaccinations for my kids or myself as a general rule. If I suggest other listen to why I feel this way, then words like medieval, barbarian, cave man, etc. are thrown around. The only argument for being totally for vaccination that I have heard is the elimination of polio, or smallpox.

This seems like a pretty good argument, though, right? Let us explore this argument for a minute. The argument, as I understand it, goes like this: If by vaccinations we can eliminate the deadly disease polio, then all vaccines are good and acceptable to be used on every child starting with the day they are born. . . .

Who oversees the production of Vaccines? Government. Did you just shudder? I know I did! . . .

So, really, am I really that crazy? You do what you want. I will not call you crazy, even if I know better. I will walk the path I have chosen, regardless of your choices and demonizing of my choice.

To me, it seemed that anyone who had looked into vaccines at all would know that they were tested individually. There was no simpleminded acceptance of any and all vaccines, across the board, merely because the polio vaccine worked many years ago.

It was also obvious that the government of the U.S. had achieved remarkable successes, in projects that nobody else was inclined to tackle. Examples over the previous two centuries had included the fighting of the Civil and World wars, developing a reliable post office, breaking up monopolies, building an interstate highway system, and landing people on the moon. The presidents pursuing such projects, Democrat and Republican alike, had enjoyed wide public support for such initiatives. Certainly there were major mistakes in those and other projects. But it made no sense to speak as though governmental involvement, in itself, would automatically imply poor quality in a specific vaccination project.

In that area of vaccines, and elsewhere, Jack did not seem motivated to look into the facts of the matter before telling others what to think. Instead, he was content to hold forth with an uninformed opinion, notwithstanding its potential to cause serious harm to less educated or less capable people, including his own children, who might be depending on him or looking to him for guidance. In the case of vaccines, he and Jill persisted in this approach despite his report (above) that numerous others had challenged it. He received those challenges, not as evidence that he might be mistaken, but rather as “demonization,” as though others had behaved inappropriately in pointing out real dangers in his words and acts.

Over the months, Jack challenged a number of items that I had posted on Facebook. He was not the only person to express disagreement with such items. In his case, unfortunately, the challenges did not entail reasonable give and take, where one would strive to understand the opposing viewpoint before trying to rebut it, much less acknowledge credible aspects of that opposing viewpoint. Here, again, Jack admitted that he was not interested in an openminded pursuit of truth. He demonstrated no willingness to seek truths that might be painful or inconsistent with his preferred beliefs. Nor did he demonstrate anything resembling Armstrong’s gentle Christian humility (above). He did not even make a serious attempt at logical argument. The situation seemed to be that he knew himself to be right, on a given issue; he accepted that others were too blind to perceive their wrongness; and he was not very motivated to demonstrate his rightness and their wrongness in much detail. He just contented himself with tossing out a few hints pointing toward his personal wisdom, and leaving others to find their own way toward him and his Truth.

I don’t intend those remarks sarcastically. In all seriousness, that did appear to be how he saw things. Moreover, his propensity to insulate himself from reality was not limited to people like me, or to venues like Facebook. He was also insulating himself from the patent facts of his own scriptures. Jesus was not known for his love of guns and his insistence on a right to carry weapons, to cite another of Jack’s predictable areas of interest. (Jack would go on to start a sporting goods store, so that he could sell guns for the Lord.) Jesus was also not famous for his views for or against particular politicians.

Indeed, a casual reader of the New Testament might conclude that Jesus’s tendencies often ran somewhat opposite to Jack’s. What Jack knew was not really Jesus; it was just the culture into which he, Jack, had been born, and the ways in which that culture had distorted Christ’s life and words for its own purposes. Jack seemed to be the kind of person who, born in Iraq instead of the U.S., would have defended his family’s version of Shiite or Sunni Islam with the same narrowminded indifference to truth, selectively adopting or ignoring facts and arguments as needed to arrive at his preferred conclusions.

A few examples may help to illustrate the situation. Consider Jack’s responses to a cartoon I posted on Facebook:


The cartoon could have said more — about the European wars of religion, for instance, and about the Spanish Inquisition, and about the behavior of conquering Christians in the New World, indeed about the history of Christian slaughter and torture going back to the time of Gregory of Tours, never mind the attitudes of people like Jack toward American behavior in the Islamic world over the past two decades — but the basic point was clear enough. Christianity has been secularized and restricted by relatively unsympathetic governments and societies in the West, and has thus become less of a threat in recent centuries; but its history presents grounds for serious concern that, if such controls were removed, people would once again be committing enormous atrocities in the name of Christ.

Jack did not want those things to be true of his religion. Like most fundamentalists, he was not very interested in the long and horrible record of violence committed by so-called Christians. He preferred to assume, as Christians have doubtless assumed for centuries, that his generation would be different. So in response to that cartoon, Jack posted several long tirades filled with tangential and in some cases nonsensical remarks. Each time, I replied with relatively brief rebuttals. I can illustrate the tenor of those exchanges with this excerpt from one of my rebuttals:

Jack, your remarks seem incoherent. I did clearly distinguish the fundamentalist branch of Christianity. See previous comment. It is self-contradictory to refer to the liberals as a mere “fringe” and then say they are responsible for causing wars: fringes do not have that power. Such a claim is also historically ignorant: there were virtually no Christian liberals at the time of the Crusades and the European wars of religion. Do present-day fundamentalists submit to secular government? Only by force. For decades, they have been seeking to make it less secular and more theocratic: Ten Commandments in public places, for example. Finally, I don’t know whom you’re accusing of defending Radical Islam; that’s certainly not me.

Of course, it would be easier to interpret that excerpt if I were to provide the words, from Jack, to which I was responding. Unfortunately, I can’t. That’s because, after several lengthy discourses, Jack decided to go back and delete all of his comments. I think that may have been the only time, in my several years of using Facebook, when anyone has done that. It seemed odd. Eventually, however, he did offer a bit of an explanation for this behavior, in a concluding post that ran to 419 words (i.e., the equivalent of nearly two double-spaced typed pages). Here is an excerpt:

If you feel I was calling you disingenuous, then that was not my intention. I said it seems disingenuous to hold all of Christianity accountable for the past actions of a few, then excuse a few Islamic groups using the past actions of that same “few” of Christianity. . . . I have not wish to further argue with you on the subject. If I would have wished to continue in the argument then I would have not erased the comments I have made. From any outside observer stumbling across this thread, It will appear you are the king of the hill on your Facebook page. If your goal is to stand uncontested in your opinions, then you have achieved it. You win. If you want to convince me that you have the right-headed thinking, then you will probably never win. I am as set in my ways as, I hope, you are in yours. . . . If you were offended by me calling you disingenuous, then I do sincerely apologize. . . . I am sorry I cannot do more for your complaints than this. God Bless you.

So, to paraphrase, Jack admitted calling me disingenuous, but also said he did not intend to call me disingenuous. What was disingenuous, he said, was to hold all Christians accountable for the past actions of “a few” — where Jack’s concept of a “few” can include a good chunk of the population of Europe. He did not clearly explain why he would remove his comments, but it sounds like he wanted to make it appear that I was arguing with myself. He started the debate, but then characterized my replies as “complaints” with which he was trying to offer assistance.

This did not seem to be the behavior of a sincere debater of belief. Frankly, given his repeated indications that he was set in his ways and intended to remain so, it seemed to be the behavior of a troll — of, that is, someone who had no genuine interest in shared pursuit of the truth of a matter, but who simply liked to provoke disagreements. It appeared that, when someone took the bait, he would treat their response as an invitation to share his own views at length — not for the purpose of genuine engagement or learning, but merely to preach.

That impression probably would have been too hasty, despite the absurdities in Jack’s argument, if we had just gone back and forth once or twice about that cartoon. It seemed less hasty, however, as the matter dragged out over the course of a week, each day bringing a new tirade. Some skepticism toward Jack also seemed appropriate in light of his reactions to a number of my other Facebook posts. Here is an example of a photo, to which Jack responded and I replied as follows:


JACK: Oh no! the poor fish! (as I am filling up on gas that is cheaper than it has been in years)

ME: Unbelievable.

ME: Jack, maybe I’m misunderstanding your comment. It sounds supremely ignorant. Do you not go fishing multiple times per week?

JACK: I do not go fishing several times a week, right now. I have been fishing several times a week, though. What about any of you guys? Do you people like to fish?

Nobody replied to Jack’s question. I admit: as my reply indicates, he was becoming tiresome.

On multiple occasions, as in that example, Jack started by questioning or ridiculing what I had posted — but then, when I challenged his remarks, he would try to change the subject, or would claim that it was all just a matter of opinion or belief, and there was no point debating it. But it was not a matter of belief: it was a matter of real-world actions and their consequences.

Such exchanges seemed to support the widespread perception that Christian fundamentalists use the Bible as an excuse for sociopolitical views that do not always make much sense — and that, if they were in power, they would behave as fools who (in the foregoing examples) would help to see the environment wrecked and the country ravaged by preventable disease. I would like to say that Jack was unusual — that other Christian fundamentalists, in other private and public communications, have displayed far more responsibility and common sense. Unfortunately, too often, that has not been the case.

The Core Epistemological Issue

This post has looked at the topic of pathological lying, and at the problem of lying among Christians; it has looked in more detail at a few exchanges I had with a fundamentalist minister on Facebook. Ideas presented here could, perhaps, be developed into an argument that fundamentalist Christians, or a subset of such Christians, or at least some fundamentalist ministers are pathological liars, or psychopaths, or sociopaths. There might be some truth to such an argument.

That, however, is not the point here. Fundamentalists like Jack do not need to be psychologically screwed up in order to become bullshit artists. As developed more fully in the posts cited at the start of this piece, the real problem is not that a subset of such fundamentalists have mental health issues. It is that fundamentalism, by its very nature, is opposed to the search for truth. To the fundamentalist, truth comes from the scriptures, and from what one’s preacher or other accepted commentator says about the scriptures. The result is a mishmash of views, ranging from the reasonable through the murky to the absurd. People are so determined to have a religion, or to defend the one they were born with, that they will accept an enormous amount of nonsense rather than be honest with themselves, and with others, about the real world and about what their own scriptures actually say.

Epistemology is, in essence, the study of what we can know, and how we can know it. The epistemological question posed by fundamentalist Christianity is whether one can reliably obtain factual knowledge, as distinct from mere opinion, from the Bible, from Bible commentators, and from preachers like Jack. Even if there were no scientists for them to disagree with, it would appear that the answer to that question must be no, else there would not be such a plethora of divergent Christian denominations and cults, each insisting that it alone has arrived at the correct interpretation of scripture.

In that light, the primary issue of pathology arises at the level of the culture, not of the individual. In other words, the real question is not whether there is something wrong with this or that believer; it is whether the culture of Christian fundamentalism is itself sick. Such a question could draw upon the reasoning of Erich Fromm (1955, p. 15). Fromm, reacting to Nazi Germany, pointed out that “the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.”

Needless to say, not everything that Christian fundamentalists do is automatically stupid or evil. Taking a cue from Fromm, one must recognize that even Nazi Germany achieved notable advances — in medical and public health research and practice, for instance (Proctor, 1999). The issue is not one of pure good and evil. It is, rather, that regardless of the outcomes achieved, the means employed are simply not acceptable. The point is not that one should prohibit Naziism, fundamentalist Christianity, or other forms of belief per se. The more appropriate response is surely to demonstrate, and to keep on demonstrating, with rationality and human kindness, that fundamentalists are relying upon a flawed and often destructive worldview, and that there are better ways.

The example of Jack highlights a consequence of fundamentalist Christian epistemology. If you already know what you believe, and if nothing is going to shake you from it, then much of what the world cares about is just a joke. A person like Jack can post silly remarks about fracking and fish because he is more interested in taunting and ridiculing intelligent people than in thinking seriously and speaking responsibly on sociopolitical and economic issues. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t care, about many things in our world, because his religion taught him that all he needs to know and care about is contained within the Bible (with, of course, certain homemade additions about guns and politicians).

Jesus seems neither to have written down his own words, nor to have solicited anyone else to do so. But apparently that is not important to those who claim to be Christlike. In the behavior of the fundamentalist, who wants to support his/her preexisting culture by highlighting preferred Biblical texts and by interpreting those texts in preferred ways, the actual person of the historical Jesus can be surprisingly unimportant — which is just what Kazantzakis indicated, near the end of a film that fundamentalist Christians abhor.

Philosophers and scientists do not appear to be very surprised that Christian fundamentalism, epistemologically and fanatically rooted in an ancient book, has produced substantial amounts of folly and evil. That is because philosophers and scientists spend whole careers struggling to achieve small advances in the very difficult project of figuring out what one can really know, and how one can be sure that one really knows it. People doing that kind of work tend to realize that there are no shortcuts. It takes work. Lacking any commitment to that sort of project, Christian fundamentalists are left to fire cheap shots at things beyond their understanding, and to demand that their schools, their states — if possible, their country and their world — be managed in ways consistent with their ignorance.


This post has observed that Christian fundamentalism has a problem in the area of truthfulness. The post began with a look at individual experiences and concerns having to do with lying. There was a glance at concepts of pathological, psychopathic, or sociopathic falsification. But the primary concern was that the problem of truthfulness is endemic to the faith — that Christian fundamentalism is built upon, and glorifies, the rejection of the human search for truth. The false hope, and claim, is that the Bible (as construed by one’s preferred scholars) gives the believer a pass, an easy out, a way of avoiding epistemological engagement with the things that concern mere mortals. Private and public concerns about honesty, science, life, and other people are all subordinated to the words of the biblical text.

And people live that way, year after year, century after century, proud of their imagined superiority or perhaps fearful for their salvation, but in any event never admitting that they are simply wrong. So I wind up with a clown like Jack, and many Christian believers wind up in private hells of falsehood and confusion, because their culture prohibits open, honest, and humble engagement down here with the rest of us, on the level of reality. The world is cursed with a horde of bullshit artists, some quite solemn and sincere (within the severe limits of what they are willing to contemplate), because that is precisely what their faith respects.

%d bloggers like this: