We’re digging in to the second (and in my opinion, the worst) chapter of Francis Chan’s Crazy Love this week!
For anyone just joining us, Crazy Love is a book that calls for American Christians to revitalize their notions of who God is (our breathtakingly powerful Maker) and live a radical, sacrificial, crazy-in-love-for-God life to prove it. Published in 2008, it swept through American Christian communities right onto the New York Times Bestsellers List. I’m taking Crazy Love chapter by chapter to deconstruct the beautiful and the toxic in Chan’s ideas — and see how they echo larger issues with American conservative Christian theology in general.
This week’s theme: traditional American Christianity is a high-demand belief system that takes an emotional and psychological toll on believers.
“You Might Not Finish This Chapter”: Francis Chan Gets Existential
If there’s one thing Francis Chan is good at, it’s accurate chapter titles. Chapter 2 is called “You Might Not Finish This Chapter.” If that sounds weirdly morbid (or… self-defeated?), well, the whole thing is intended to be a giant reminder that you are, ya know, gonna die someday, maybe-even-like-today. But hey, at least he’s not trying to mislead anyone.
If you were hoping for a chill chapter review today, sorry, guys, this isn’t our week. In fact, this is probably the most wackadoodle chapter to unpack. So grab a seat and a snack! We’re delving right into Francis Chan’s, uh… death complex.
Our hero Chan pulls no punches from the start. He’s out here gettin’ all existential and we are coming with: “You could die before you finish reading this chapter. I could die while you’re reading it. Today. At any moment” (39). (Francis Chan: king of casual.)
Okay, yeah, Chan says, you probably just think today is an average day. But did you forget how lucky you are that your kidneys function? Because not everyone’s do.
“What about driving down the road at sixty-five miles per hour, only a few feet away from cars going the opposite direction at the same speed? Someone would only have to jerk his or her arm and you would be dead. I don’t think that’s morbid; I think it’s reality” (40).
Yeah, we know, Francis. We know.
That’s what the first section of the chapter is all about — a nice little primer that, as James 4:13-14 reminds us, “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (40). Cheers!
Chan is just getting started. The next section, in a kind of weird topic switch, reexamines how Christians should approach stress and worry (I wonder if he was feeling either one after what he just wrote.) Chan tells an anecdote about how he developed heart palpitations a few years before writing, reaching a peak around the busy Christmas season:
“But on Christmas Eve the issue intensified so much that I told my wife I would go to the emergency room after the church service. During the service, however, I surrendered all of my worries and stress to God. My symptoms slowly went away, and I never went to the doctor” (41).
If you’ve ever had a Christian relate an experience where they Jesus-ed away their medical and emotional problems and proceeded to tell you to do the same? Roll your eyes with me on the count of three, because that’s exactly what Chan is about to do. He calls up Philippians 4:4:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again. Rejoice!… You’ll notice it doesn’t end with ‘…unless you’re doing something extremely important.’ No, it’s a command for all of us, and it follows with the charge, ‘Do not be anxious about anything'” (41).
Yeah, that’s what I need when I’m stressed out. Someone commanding me to rejoice. Next time I’m anxious someone should just come up to me and command me to just “like, stop, brah!” (They have a surfer boy voice in my head.)
These verses, Chan says, transformed his outlook on worry. And I don’t mean to keep quoting at you guys, but I have to quote this next part because I’m afraid you won’t believe me.
“Worry implies that we don’t quite trust that God is big enough, powerful enough, or loving enough to take care of what’s happening in our lives.
Stress says that the things we are involved in are important enough to merit our impatience, our lack of grace toward others, or our tight grip of control.
Basically, these two behaviors communicate that it’s okay to sin and not trust God because the stuff in my life is somehow exceptional. Both worry and stress reek of arrogance… Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?… I am still dumb enough to forget that life is all about God and not about me at all” (42).
Far be it from me to not take this seriously, but honest question: does Francis Chan know how to… like… chill? His ideas about stress are stressing me out.
But the hands-down WORST part of this chapter comes directly after. In fact, it’s infamous to me. This is an idea that had a tremendous impact on me in high school. And so much of my life is about unlearning everything Chan wrote to follow. He switches gears again, from worry and stress to the idea that your life does not belong to you. This wasn’t a new idea, at all, in my faith. But I had never heard it this way before.
“Suppose you are an extra in an upcoming movie. You will probably scrutinize that one scene where hundreds of people are milling around, just waiting for that two-fifths of a second where you can see the back of your head. Maybe your mom and your closest friend get excited about that two-fifths of a second with you… maybe. But no one else will realize it is you. Even if you tell them, they won’t care.
Let’s take it a step further. What if you rent out the theater on opening night and invite all your friends and family to come see the new movie about you? People will say, ‘You’re an idiot! How could you think this movie is about you?”
Most Christians are even more delusional than the person I’ve been describing. So many of us think and live like the movie of life is all about us… From start to finish, this movie is obviously about God. He is the main character. How is it possible that we live as though it is about us?” (42-43).
To Chan, it was absolutely ludicrous for anyone to think that they were the main character in their own life. Reading this, I thought, I was just another player in his cosmic chess game, one more supporting character in his epic of millennia. This is why stress and worry were so intolerable to him: being stressed about something means it’s a big deal to you, and you are not a big deal, how could you forget it? He put it all together for his final conclusion: that you should use your “puny” human life to serve God for the two-fifths of a second you’re here. No pressure! Be happy!
Francis closes out his points with 1 Corinthians 10:31: “So whether you eat or you drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (44). Because:
“Frankly, you need to get over yourself…
To be brutally honest, it doesn’t really matter what place you find yourself in right now. Your part is to bring Him glory — whether eating a sandwich on a lunch break, drinking coffee at 12:04 a.m. so you can stay awake to study, or watching your four-month-old take a nap.
The point of your life is to point to Him. Whatever you are doing, God wants to be glorified, because this whole thing is His. It is His movie, His world, His gift” (45).
High Demands and their Emotional Toll: Let’s Talk About It
WHEW. Francis Chan is back at it again. This is SO MUCH to unpack.
“You Might Not Finish This Chapter” exemplifies so much of why I believe that Christianity is generally a high-demand ideology. If you’re wondering where “high demand” is coming from, “high demand religious groups” (HDRGs) is another phrase for the much more loaded term “cult.” No, I’m not calling Christianity a cult, but I did find “high demand” to be an awesome description for my problems with and harm from it. Because that’s what it all boiled down to. Demand.
“You Might Not Finish This Chapter” is gob smacking full of demands on believers’ emotions, and guilt, urgency, and insecurity are the muscle behind it.
They sound harsh, maybe even radical, but they are just the natural progressions of ideas that are fundamental or typical to Evangelical Christianity: you are small and your life is fleeting, your life’s purpose is not about you but glorifying God and converting people, and mental illness is your fault.
Demands that you not forget how your life can end at any moment, because “you are a mist.”
Demands that you stop worrying, because it “reek[s] of arrogance.” Because how dare you fear that your responsibilities are bigger than God’s power to see you through them. Because how could you be so “dumb”?
Demands that you realize that your life is just two-fifths of a second of the back of an extra’s head in the movie of life. That you are not the main character in your own life.
Demands that you do absolutely everything, even “eating a sandwich”, to bring glory to God. Because you’re nothing. It’s all about Him.
THAT is what I mean by high-demand. The demand is high because the stakes are. High-demand belief systems and groups rely on black and white thinking to enforce their demands. A faith is high-demand when it says that you are so inherently awful and immoral, from birth, that you deserve to be eternally tortured — unless, of course, you dedicate your life to serving a magnificent God into infinity… and beyond (with the two-fifths of a second you have on Earth!) That is why you should be the joyful slave of God and keep remembering you and your life are puny. The concepts of total depravity, hell, eternity, and being controlled by either sin or God are high-demand. And they are all traditional beliefs of Christianity — even more moderate kinds.
High-demand belief systems and groups are harmful because of the effects their demands have on people. Whether they’re a religious cult, a family, an athletic team, a community under political police, etc., you can see the psychological and even physical damage that demands do to them.
I read this book when I was in high school and loved it so much I still have parts of it memorized. This chapter was my favorite.
So when Francis Chan wrote that we could die at any moment and that should change how we live — to serve God in everything — I tried to do that. Not even 18 yet, I prayed for God to remind me my life was just a mist. I had no idea how to eat a sandwich for the glory of God, but I sure tried! I believed the sole purpose of my life was to lead other people to God, that I was a vessel for God’s desires. I planned on going to a Bible Institute for 2 years and becoming a missionary, not because I wanted to (I actually REALLY didn’t), but because a preacher said that anyone who can be a missionary should, and I knew that I couldn’t run from God; he would just find me, break me, and bring me back to Him, like he did to Jonah. When I left the faith, I struggled for 2 years to see the point in living until I realized you make your own. I couldn’t even walk outside at night because I was afraid God would strike me dead.
When Francis Chan wrote that stress and worry reeked of arrogance, I felt guilty whenever I was anxious because how dare I not trust God enough? When I realized I was struggling with depression, I asked to go to the doctor, who gave me Bible verses on index cards. I wasn’t getting better because I wasn’t reading and praying on them regularly. Obviously. This part of the chapter sounded so suspiciously close to the illness denial and shaming that is so prominent in American Christianity. Another demand: don’t be sick, or you don’t really believe.
How many of you guys out there have been told you’ll be divinely healed if you just Jesus hard enough? That your mental illness is a sin? Your medical illness is a punishment? You have no right to distress? How many other people have lived in guilt and shame for not being able to believe their very human pain and fears away?
But when Francis Chan wrote that I was not the main character in my life, the most damage was done. I didn’t even know it had affected me until years down the line. I was frustrated with why I felt so powerless to change my own life… like I was a Non-Playable Character in the video game of my life… like an extra. And then suddenly, in a rush, I remembered Crazy Love… and it all made sense. I was literally taught that I am an extra in life. Extras have no agency. Their lines and movements are scripted. They are to be glimpsed but not seen, heard but not listened to.
For a long time, I moved through life like I could not change it, like believing that I was important or wanted anywhere was ludicrous and arrogant. I never realized that that was how Chan believed we looked to God. I was not important. In fact, my life was a mist, humans were puny, and my role in life was the equivalent of two-fifths of a second of the back of an extra’s head. This idea filtered out to every area of my life. When things got in my way, I didn’t ask them to move or do it myself. When I got sick, I didn’t take medicine. When I wanted things, I was terrified of admitting it; nothing that I desired mattered. Only God’s did. I had to know my place.
That’s what I mean by high-demand. Demands backed by guilt (“Why are we so quick to forget God? Who do we think we are?” (42)), urgency (“You could be the next person in your family to die. I could be the next person in my church to die. We have to realize it. We have to believe it enough that it changes how we live” (51)), and belittlement (“What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes'” (40), “The point of your life is to point to Him” (44)). Demands that take a toll on us because if we don’t fulfill them, we’re being arrogant and not knowing our place.
Demands that can leave us obsessive, lying awake at night, burned out from the pressure of trying to serve others, look happy, and constantly deny ourselves, silenced with shame and guilt for feeling worry or stress, reduced to minimal self-esteem, or even traumatized. I write a lot about all of this. I believe that a lot of high-demand religious groups and systems, including traditional Protestant Christianity, but also including the LDS, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Pentecostals, Catholics, Ultra-Orthodox Jews, and conservative/fundamentalist Muslims can suffer from very similar things. I’ve heard it from so many other bloggers and young people at this point that I know it’s a phenomenon.***
The unofficial takeaway is that Francis Chan needs. To. CHILL.
But I’m glad he put down his ideas to paper. Because they are a great window into how Christian ideas can put enormous pressure on believers. How high the demands can be. And how they manifest in believers’ lives. But there are so many more than remembering you can die at any moment, being happy all the time and believing your stress away, and understanding you are an extra in your own life who should serve God in every moment (thank you, Francis Chan, for these absolute gifts.)
What demands did your religious beliefs or group put on you?
How did they impact you?
What similarities can we find between us? Can we support one another?
I think we start by talking about it. Giving ourselves permission to name it. And sharing our stories with each other. So that’s what I’m trying to do. Put it out there. In all its long complicated mess. It’s not easy, breaking stuff like this down… but it’s worth it. And I know I’m not the only one. 😉
Chapter 2, check. I’ll see you guys next week!
*** PS: If you’ve never heard of Religious Trauma Syndrome, I really recommend you look it up! Valerie Tarico and Marlene Winell, both experienced professionals who work with people who’ve left high-demand religions, are proponents of investigating the psychological harm that comes from HDRGs and putting Religious Trauma Syndrome in the future DSM. And they explain why fundamentalist Christianity can be so damaging to people so clearly!
And I can’t seem to find out who coined HDRG, but Colleen Russell, LMFT, CGP, is an experienced therapist in the field with an excellent article on HDRG characteristics.