Everyone here bites their nails. I first noticed this last Fall and the realization was at once troubling and consoling. Troubling, because this is a child’s bad habit; consoling, because at least I’m not the only one who hasn’t used clippers in years. I imagine the struggles of my fidgety companions to be similar to my own: I am ashamed of this practice and self-conscious about the public places I have chewed my hands; I would like to stop and have tried a few times with only short-term success; I have discovered that my nails grow longest when I am on vacation and away from the worries of my world. What are such worries? Why all this seminary anxiety?
Well, for starters, there’s no alcohol allowed here. Wine might gladden the heart, but it’s a prohibition of being filled with the Spirit, so we have to take our Meiomi elsewhere. There are bigger issues, of course. An MDiv costs us $65,000, and the jobs we might get on the other end don’t offer health insurance. Enrollment is down again, so our professors agonize about contract renewal and the campus boasts years of deferred maintenance. Every pastor we meet asks us if we are sure about this. We’re not, and they’re not either. No one seems very sure about anything anymore.
But these could all be considered surface level woes. Perhaps the worry goes deeper, all the way down to the heart of what we believe. Charles Marsh seems to indicate as much in his staggering memoir, Evangelical Anxiety (HarperOne, 2022). He testifies that “the evangelical self requires its own abasement.” We are anxious because we live with the burden of turning “inner torment into a sacrament.” We have been persuaded of our “bodies disgrace . . . as ground zero in a warfare between holiness, on the one hand, and the world, the flesh, and the devil, on the other.” So long as we hold such beliefs, we are unable to receive “the gift of mortal life: the freedom to be imperfect, to have fears and face them, to accept brokenness, to let go of the will to control all outcomes.” So, in turn, we bite our nails.
You can see why I was eager to read this book. Besides the gripping cover, the title itself calls out to people like me. I am an evangelical Christian. Though, like many, I am ambivalent about the term in its widespread use, I feel compelled to embrace the identification. I belong to a PCA church. I am a graduate of Moody Bible Institute, and a current student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. I have been a part of warehouse-nondenominational-megachurches, youth groups, small groups, Bible studies, mission trips, summer camps, and the rest of it. But beyond this— or perhaps, as Marsh suggests, related to this — I am an anxious person. Again noting my feelings of ambivalence, I must embrace the label. I worried a lot as a child. I was in therapy for a year during my MDiv, and it is likely I will return to it. For the past few years, as I said, I’ve had a bad habit of biting my nails, and when I noticed that I was not the only one on campus whose fingers betray anxiety, I started to wonder what was going on. Why are all the evangelical seminarians so worried?
In his memoir, Marsh tells of the mental breakdown he suffered while studying at Harvard Divinity School and of his subsequent life with an anxiety disorder. Gripped by a paralyzing panic, “the sound of collapse,” his sense of self was shattered thoroughly enough in this event that he could divide his life neatly between what had come before and what followed since. What had come before was a childhood shaped by deep South evangelicalism, in a fundamentalist Southern Baptist church where his father was the preacher. What came after was an attempt to discern this darkness, to find its edges, and its source. Marsh inherited a version of Christianity which emphasized his total corruption — mental, physical, spiritual. When his inner life splintered, he found very little in this tradition that could help his repair.
Marsh found his healing, rather, in the ministry of psychotherapy. First with the help of a psychiatrist in Charlottesville and then through three years of analysis in Baltimore, he slowly came to reconcile the parts of himself that had been splintered, strewn about, and covered in a storm of spiritual shame. This experience of repair was not some miraculous resurrection so much as it was a slow acceptance of brokenness and a release of the overwhelming desire to control. Marsh tells of his own mending with the kind of honesty that only comes from someone whose world has ended and been remade.
This is not Marsh’s first attempt at trying to write a life. His Bonhoeffer biography won a Christianity Today Book Award and his telling of stories of faith and civil rights earned the Grawemeyer Award in Religion. In fact, this is not even Marsh’s first memoir. Nonetheless, Evangelical Anxiety is special to us evangelicals caught up in this age of anxiety because it gives us the chance to consider how our convictions and our culture might be contributing to our restlessness. Phillip Yancey recently wrote a compelling memoir about growing up in a fundamentalist community, and George Scialabba provided another which took mental health as the through line. Marsh’s memoir is kind of like the cocktail you’d get from combining the two — one part religion, one part mental health, strained through introspection and garnished with vulnerability. It’s surprising and courageous, with notes of redemption.
The book mimics the irregular and cyclical healing that comes through therapy. Its style reminds you that there is no linear progress here, no straight path to total victory. One sentence will leave you laughing and the next brings with it all the terrors of your childhood nervousness. A whole range of emotions are held together in this story and presented in all their tangled complexity. Marsh claims that “the biographer feasts upon the singularities of lived experience.” All the more when it comes to memoirs, which contain the intimacies of the author’s own memory. As such, this book reads less like an argument and more like a recounting, a grappling, an attempt to make sense of what was previously incomprehensible.
This kind of writing presents certain challenges to those — like myself — who are evangelical, and who are anxious. James K. A. Smith called the book “at once transgressive and faithful,” and that feeling resonates as you read it. Marsh’s distaste for anything resembling the sexual repression of his childhood leaves him with a provocative candor as he remembers his flight from this so-called purity culture. Because our existence as embodied sexual persons is so foundational to the story he is trying to tell, it’s fitting that he shares some sensuous details along the way. In fact, his willingness to tell of his desires and regrets is commendable.
The sense of transgression, then, might be theological at core. Marsh agrees with Walker Percy in thinking that when it comes to great sins, people nowadays are “hardly up to it.” And he suggests that what we need in order to really know grace is to put ourselves in the place we have always associated with alienation and “there find God.” I’ve learned a lot from recent retrievals of Luther’s doctrine of sin and salvation, especially ones which are attentive to its affective salience, but Marsh’s use of Luther and Bonhoeffer to advocate for this “grace of the strong sin” continues to make me uncomfortable. And this despite Marsh’s insistence that it is not in fact anything to worry about — no hints of antinomianism, just “a stroke of therapeutic genius.” He asks, “how can one know God’s forgiveness if one never ventures to the territory where forgiveness is most desperately needed?” What then are we to say?
Perhaps my fear is similar to one W. H. Auden articulates:
Psychoanalysis, like all pagan scientia, says: “Come, my good man, no wonder you feel guilty. You have a distorting mirror, and that is indeed a very wicked thing to have. But cheer up. For a trifling consideration I shall be delighted to straighten it out for you. There. Look. A perfect Image. The evil of distortion is exorcised. Now you have nothing to repent of any longer. Now you are one of the illumined and elect. That will be ten thousand dollars, please.” And immediately come seven devils, and the last state of that man is worse than the first.
In Marsh’s view, the analyst can’t tell you to “sin, and sin boldly.” That authority is granted only to God, whose grace provides the permission: “I resolve that if the Spirit should ever lead me to the place of the strong sin, I would go the distance and trust that grace would bring me home.” After all, it is when we survive this strong sin — the line we had never ventured to cross, the vice we had not dared to indulge — that we finally know, in our bodies, that “God is real and God is forgiving.” By taking therapy’s logic of freedom and putting it theologically, I worry Marsh mistakes sin for a kind of sacrament.
The irony of my hesitancy on this point is not lost on me. I could just attribute my resistance to my evangelical upbringing as an attempt to leave it behind, of course. I imagine my discomfort would continue to haunt me, however, so for now I will keep sitting with it, listening to Marsh’s testimony of grace, and hoping we all might taste the freedom he bears witness to. And that, as it turns out, is how we should read a book like this. In it, a man feasts on the singularities of his own life, and he offers us a seat at the table. The last thing anyone wants is defensive dinner guests. So yes, it’s likely that our evangelical subculture has started to move beyond the “sin-based explanation of mental illness” it was committed to during Marsh’s childhood. And yes, we probably have made some progress in the past thirty years towards receiving our embodiment as a gift. But the challenge remains for us anxious evangelicals to listen to this story and hold it all together, allowing it to strike us as simultaneously transgressive and faithful.
Let me return to evangelical seminarians and our worries. No one would claim that we are the only ones who are anxious today, yet it seems to me that Marsh’s book is especially poignant for us. We find ourselves inhabiting the widespread anxiety of an unstable evangelicalism. We are inheriting the disintegration, or at least the significant restructuring, of our ecclesial and educational institutions. As some of our cultural excesses are stripped away, we’re being pressed up against the chastened core of our defining beliefs. Marsh’s book offers us the chance to look at these beliefs with the sensitivity of someone whose journey towards freedom has been marked with pain and grace.
Marsh narrates this story beautifully. Throughout the memoir, he writes humbly and gently about the ways his anxiety disorder has been a burden to his family. At one point, speaking of his wife, he notes in passing that “my sufferings made me oblivious to hers.” That, I suppose, is the real worry here. When our inner lives are dominated by our own fears — insecurities about our bodies, or our ministries, or our culture —we lose the capacity to show mercy to others. Our proclamations of God’s radical acceptance in Christ are muzzled mostly by our struggles to believe it for ourselves; our invitations become aggressions because we consider God’s righteousness a threat.
But there remains Good News for us anxious evangelicals. It’s understandable, given the shifting landscapes of our world, that we feel a bit disoriented at times. But the sooner we can come to accept the path given to us, the sooner we can begin the work of repair. This work starts small and slow, with an inward clarity that is not threatened by every uncertainty. It extends in grace to others who are making their way towards spiritual peace. Following Marsh’s trail, this may at times feel like the way of the long defeat, but its end for all of us is friendship with God.
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- For more on this, see Alan Jacobs’s introduction to Auden’s The Age of Anxiety (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), xvii–xx. ↑