The Freudom of the Christian

Article by   January 2007

Christians often strike me as the most Freudian of people. Say what you like, I have a sneaking suspicion that Freud, rather than Augustine, Luther, or Calvin, probably offers the best insights into the way that Christians really think and act.


Let me explain with some examples. The other day I was sitting in the office of a colleague, just shooting the breeze, when he pointed to a recent scholarly study of the history of eschatology and asked my opinion. `Well, Mike,' I responded, `it's a great piece of scholarship, and very deeply Freudian.' The two of us looked at each other and then he simply burst out laughing. `It's really all about killing the Oedipal father,' I continued, with mock seriousness, moving seamlessly into `criminal profiler' mode, something I learned while working in the Scholarly Crimes Unit (SCU) at the University of Nottingham (sadly, rumours that I am the inspiration for the character Chad Schwarzkopf in the American series Law and Order: SCU are unfounded). `The chap who wrote that book grew up in a strongly dispensationalist-fundamentalist family; his research is, in part, a way to put all that behind him. As he demonstrates the very shaky historical foundations of dispensationalism, he is able to justify breaking away from the dogmas of his father's faith. The scholar destroys his father's theology. Oedipus kills his father. Freud had it all nailed down, didn't he?' There was a moment of silence, and then we both burst out laughing.


For what it's worth, I don't exempt myself from such psychobabbling analysis. My parents are not professing believers; and, as a result of the rebellion against their authority which my conversion represents, I suspect I have partly spent my life trying to be the kind of Christian my father could respect: an educated Christian, one with initials after his name, a fancy title, a nice office, a twisted sense of humour, a stable and happy family, a steady job etc. etc.


Of course, life is more complicated than the analysis offered in either of the above examples; all actions and agendas are driven by a variety of factors; but I would argue that there is some significant truth in both cases. Human motivation is a profoundly complex thing, and to rule out psychological aspects at the outset seems to be a highly contentious move. Indeed, I would extrapolate and say that some of the least attractive aspects of the modern Reformed world in particular can be fruitfully studied from the perspective of Oedipal rebellion against parents.


Take, for example, the trend in some Reformed quarters to drop the F-word and other obscenities and profanities in casual conversation. Now, I don't use the word; but I should make it clear that I am not talking here about using it in an uncontrolled moment of rage or fear in extreme circumstances; I am talking about using it in the casual way that, say, teenagers stick the word `like' into every sub-clause, or the way others of us might use `umm' or `err.' Some Reformed folk, especially among the younger guys coming up through the ranks, seem to think that the use of such language in conversation is not simply permissible for the Christian but a thing greatly to be desired.


Why? Why is it that language which would offend most of my non-Christian friends, and which they would regard as signs of seriously limited vocabularies and deep childishness, is deemed by some in the Reformed world to be, on the contrary, a sign of urbane sophistication and spiritual maturity? The answer you are likely to receive when you ask is: Christian freedom. As Christians, we are free to use such language, and doing so therefore shows what a good grasp of the gospel we really have.


I disagree. First, it is clear that New Testament teaching opposes obscene talk, so the argument is fallacious at the outset. Thus, if objecting to obscene talk is pietistic legalism, then Paul was a pietistic legalist. But even if we set that aside for the moment, it seems to me that what we are dealing with in this instance is less the matter of Christian freedom and more that of Christian Freudom: an Oedipal rebellion against older religious practices, often, though not always, those of the parents or of early Christian mentors.


As I mentioned above, I do not come from a professing Christian home, blissfully happy, loving and stable though it was. There are certain obvious drawbacks to that; but one definite advantage is that, whatever else has screwed me up, whatever else haunts my nightmares, whatever else I am rebelling against, it is not the Christianity of my parents. Yet so many Christians, particularly in America, seem to be driven by an overwhelming desire to slay the parental religion -- if not the religion of biological parents, then often the dominant religion of previous evangelical generations. Spiritual Oedipus syndrome, aka, Christian Freudom.


D A Carson comments in The Gagging of God that much of the trendy theology which characterized the neo-evangelicalism of the eighties and nineties had more than a whiff of the kind of rebellion exhibited by spoiled children whose immature self-image depends on their vocal repudiation of everything which their parents held dear. What is theologically true of the trendy evangelical left seems to be practically true of the trendy Reformed right. Here, legitimate criticism of a legalistic pietism too frequently degenerates into illegitimate rubbishing of appropriate piety. Thus, the F-bomb and other casual obscenities and profanities have become for some the trendy hallmarks of mature Christianity. Strange to tell, talking like sexually insecure thirteen years olds has become the way we Christians show how grown up we are. We embrace what the older generation rejected in order to show that we have come of age and to show the world that, hey, we're not as weird as we used to be; we can be as rough 'n' tumble, as hip, savvy, cool and gritty as the rest.


Yet there are several problems with this. First, Christianity just isn't cool, savvy or hip. As my sons repeatedly tell me, `Dad, you're a balding middle aged guy; you listen to rock dinosaurs from the land that time forgot; you still call male hairdressers "barbers;" and you're a member of the OPC; you can never, ever be cool; and the more you try to be so, the more embarrassing you become.' And the same applies to evangelical Christianity - evangelicalism just isn't cool or hip or avant-garde, and attempts to make it appear so, whether theologically or culturally, always end up as self-defeating, rather sad and pitiful. It doesn't matter whether you sport a ponytail, spout postmodern gobbledygook, wear a Kurt Cobain teeshirt, or have a strong opinion on which U2 album is the best - if you're an evangelical Christian, there's something ineradicably uncool about you. Anyone out there remember `The Rock Gospel Show' from the mid-eighties? I rest my case.


So is the case with Christian use of foul language: cultural historians know that obscenity is one typical cultural way to offend middle class values; and so in the evangelical world the sight of a bunch of quintessentially comfortable middle class white guys cussing and swearing, trying to prove that they are not, well, quintessentially comfortable middle class white guys, is strangely reminiscent of the tabloid images of those pampered multi-millionaire rap artists who sing obscenities in a pantomimic attempt to appear like cool denizens of the mean streets. If the eighties words `pseud' and `poseur' have gone out of fashion, they should be brought back immediately; they are, after all, perfect ways of describing such wannabe tough guys, whether reforming or rapping. Christian freedom? Hey, no way. Christian Freudom more like.


Yet Christian Freudom does not end with juvenile obscenity. The way that Christian freedom seems to be judged in some Reformed quarters by the ability to consume alcohol and tobacco is quite bizarre. Now, don't misunderstand me here. I enjoy cheap wine, British beer, fine brandy and good Scotch; and I do not even regard smoking as a sin - stupid, yes, sinful, no. But to judge the vitality of one's Christian faith by the consumption of these things is as silly as to judge it by abstention. The trivial taboos of fundamentalism have become the trivial necessities of modern evangelicalism. Again, I love rock music; I love being able to listen to Dylan and Springsteen and Daltrey and Townsend without worrying that the very act of so doing is jeopardizing my soul; yet it is not at all central to my Christian identity. Thus, it is most strange that so many Reformed people see this freedom in trivial matters as that which makes them and their Christianity so superior to that of the fundamentalism of their parents' generation. I even heard of one minister who was proud that his son smoked at fourteen - as if this were some sign of biblical maturity and masculinity. If one really must judge masculinity, I would suggest that something like rock climbing or surfing or marathon running - something which involves discipline, focus, physical prowess and skill, the ability to handle risk and/or pain - might be somewhat more impressive than smoking a cigar. But that's beside the point: to judge Christian maturity in any way by these things is decidedly strange and quite likely to confirm many non-Christians view of religious people as those who are emotionally stunted, immature, and obsessed with trivia.


Of course, Christian freedom is a crucial biblical doctrine, and one of the key issues which divides Protestants from Catholics. Yet to locate its primary essence in smoking a cigar while knocking back a Scotch and poking fun at some fundie bumpkin from Tennessee, or to twist it in a manner that legitimates using language which would make the teenage son of a drunken Glaswegian navvy blush for shame, seems to be a dramatic trivialization of the issue. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the way in which characters like Hugh Hefner and Larry Flynt have become heroes of free speech. While dissidents in the Soviet Union faced years in the gulags for voicing criticism of the regime, Hefner and Flynt made millions out of pornography and yet somehow managed to become seen as martyrs to totalitarian intolerance. OK, freedom of speech is the principle for both Solzhenitsyn and for Hefner; but Hefner is simply the unfortunate collateral price you pay for the greater freedom of being able to express oneself freely on greater issues, as did Solzhenitsyn; and the real heroes of freedom are obvious to all but the most twisted. With this analogy in mind, let's not trivialize the gospel by equating spiritual maturity with silliness and swearing.


In closing, it is perhaps worth mentioning the most famous foul-mouthed Christian beer drinker of them all: Martin Luther. It is a well-known fact that his language was rough and ready, frequently obscene, and that it became more extreme and offensive the longer he lived. Over the years, scholars have wrestled with the reasons for this, from his dysfunctional relationship with his father to his chronic constipation to his desire to present himself as a man of the common people. Certainly, the extremity of his vocabulary raises all manner of interesting psychological questions. But what is interesting is that - to my knowledge - Luther does not make his foul-mouth the test case of Christian freedom and maturity; and beer drinking is only the most trivial instance for him of such liberty. Indeed, Luther actually emphasizes rather different elements in his understanding of Christian freedom.


In his classic text on the doctrine, the 1520 work, The Freedom of the Christian, he focuses his discussion here on Christian freedom as the basis for self-sacrificial service of others. Of course, that kind of freedom is painful. It hurts because it involves esteeming others more highly than one esteems oneself; it hurts because it involves finding freedom precisely in the setting aside of my rights and privileges to allow one to serve others; it hurts because it is analogous to the freedom which Christ himself demonstrated in his own life and death - a death, incidentally, which was profoundly unFreudian, being the result of absolute obedience and submission to his Father and of infinite mutual love between Father and Son.


This is where real Christian freedom lies: in the realization that we can do nothing to effect our own salvation; that Christ has done it all for us; and that we are therefore able to give ourselves freely and unconditionally in sacrificial service of others. The same thing, the life, death and resurrection of Christ, is what makes it possible for me to drink beer and without endangering my soul; but that is a collateral bonus of spiritual freedom and not a significant function of my spiritual maturity. It is also the same thing which motivates me not to make Christianity a laughing stock and an embarrassment through the use of foul language. Real Christian freedom is rather more to do with service of others than self-indulgence in any area of my life. The church needs more Christian freedom and much, much less Christian Freudom.

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