I’ll admit right now that I haven’t been able to give up my YouTube habit. I’m addicted to podcasts. My favorites include Gospel Simplicity and Pints With Aquinas. The men who run these podcasts, Austin [I don’t know his last name] and Matt Fradd respectively, conduct great interviews. I also appreciate Dr. Taylor Marshall, as he’s a very conservative Catholic and the author of the book I enjoyed reading most last year. There are a number of other Catholic YouTubers I listen to, as well a number of Protestant ones I’ve recently dropped due to their smug anti-Catholicism. I don’t like smugness from any arena, but willfully ignorant smugness re Catholicism gets my ire up.
With these types of podcasts encompassing my YouTube experience, one wonders why I suddenly began seeing recommendations for video stories of people who had walked away from Christianity on my YouTube homepage. I suppose it’s not as nefarious as it seems, but merely YouTube giving me what I want: videos tagged under religion. One, however, caught my eye because I recognized the name, Jen Fishburne, only I couldn’t remember why. While I listened to her story of walking away from Christianity, I remembered why.
Jen Fishburne ran, or still runs, the Jen’s Gems blogspot. I had read this blog with some interest many years ago, when my homeschooling friends were heavily invested in Vision Forum and the “Dougs,” as I liked to call them. Okay, this might take a bit of an explanation. Deep breath.
Although I don’t talk much about my family on the internet, most people know that I spent many years homeschooling my older children, and now that Covid has changed the landscape of schooling, I’m back to homeschooling my younger set once again. This brought me close to the world of hyper-conservative homeschooling. And at one time, Vision Forum and its creator, Doug Phillips, were all the rage in these circles. So was Doug Wilson. When one very ardent mother passed around Doug Wilson’s book, Reforming Marriage, it got passed around and passed around until it finally landed in my house. It had been meant for my husband, but my husband studiously avoids such books and wouldn’t read it. Being the obsessive human I am, I read it because I can’t stop myself from reading books that are sitting around. It’s like a compulsion that I can’t control. I’ve tried, God help me, I have tried, but I will probably read your grocery list on your fridge — if you ever invite me over to your house, and I’ve exhausted your other literature. I’ve even been known to add items to friends’ grocery lists, usually products that the person would never buy, such as a gallon of Jack Daniels and a carton of cigarettes. I’m apparently a pre-internet original troll, along with being a compulsive reader.
Wilson’s book didn’t bother me, per se. It was the culture surrounding the book that bothered me. What should have been considered extrabiblical advice was touted as law and gospel. I’m not exaggerating; when the relationship between a husband and wife is said to resemble the relationship between Christ and church, and thus the gospel, it becomes an integral part of the gospel. And that was what the culture surrounding Wilson’s book was touting. Some called it biblical patriarchy. Some liked to use the fluffier “complementarianism.” Whatever one chose to call it, it created artificial rules on how husbands and wives and their male and female offspring were to behave.
When arbitrary rules are imposed on a subset of a larger culture that doesn’t accept those rules as the norm, it’s difficult to pull off. The biblical patriarchy movement was bound to fail for that reason. Even the Pearls — God love them, another favorite within the conservative homeschooling set — came out against the movement. Consequently, I don’t hear much about the movement now, albeit there were a few scandals that hastened its collapse in my circles: one involving Doug Wilson marrying a pedophile to a woman in his church, and another involving Doug Phillips and an extramarital affair. There were peripheral scandals involving other pastors in the broader movement, such as Mark Driscoll. Honestly, I can’t remember all of them now, and I don’t care to. Some of these stories were and still exist in the realm of internet gossip. For example, do I really know what happened in the Doug Wilson controversy? No, I certainly do not. Propaganda is what it is, even if it backs up one’s personal bias.
Yes, I was personally biased against the movement from the get-go because it was pushed by controlling men and women prone to being hyper-critical and/or perfectionistic. Often, it wasn’t the man at all pushing patriarchy, but his overbearing wife. I tend to “slip, slide, and away” from such types. I’m a slippery eel. No matter how my friends tried to convince me of the rightness of their positions, I chose to stay away from such fringe movements. Fringe movements, not being the core of culture, fall apart and away, leaving broken people behind them.
And so I’ve seen it happen to the conservative patriarchal families, too: Christians marriages ending in divorce, adulterous affairs conducted by hurting people, and worst of all, once strident Christians walking away from Christianity altogether.
When I began to piece it altogether and remember who Jen Fishburne is, I thought, “Oh, great, another one from the movement has left the faith.” Back when she was detailing her awful dealings with Doug Phillips on her blog Jen’s Gems, she was still a believer. Now she’s not. I don’t wish to overanalyze her beliefs now, or insinuate that she’s operating off of misery and brokenness. She might be. Or, conversely, she might be quite happy to no longer be under the stress of Christian fundamentalism. But I view her walking away as an inevitable end to what people in this movement did, and that was to replace a relationship with God with their own intellectualism and perfectionism. According to her walking away video, it was a preterist viewpoint that spelled the demise of Christianity to her, as well as determining through hours and hours of study that the Bible is only for and of the Israelites, and that, while it’s true in many ways for them as a nation, it falls in the realm of historical fiction.
I’ll admit right now that I tend to overintellectualize the world around me. I’m firmly trapped in my head. But I also understood very deeply by the time I was in my twenties that I was deficient as a human because my spiritual and emotional censors didn’t work as they ought to have. Why was I this way? I don’t know; God doesn’t make mistakes, but the world can beat God’s voice out of a human. Hence, I’ve sought to remedy this problem over the years. Man’s wisdom is foolishness to God — that is what the Bible says, and it’s true. When men seek knowledge, when they get trapped in the labyrinth of words on a page, they miss the forest for the trees (a cliché, but useful). And certain types of people try to find God through yet more studying and reading, even though it hasn’t worked for them in the past. It’s a banal pursuit after a while. The only remedy for me was to seek a relationship with God through Jesus.
When you step away from the parsing of words on a page, you begin to see something else: an epic story that’s been played out through history. And you want to be a part of it. This is, by the way, why I eventually turned to Catholicism because their greatest thinkers looked for the grand pattern of history and connected the dots rather than isolating the minutia. They also seemed to recognize that experiencing Jesus, as part of the godhead that bridges the gap between us and our creator, was what really repaired the hearts of men. Not perfectionism. Not intellectualism — the truth was in experiencing Jesus, which was and is the entire point of going to mass.
By the way, that’s why Taylor Marshall’s book (Sword and Serpent) resonated with me so much when I read it. It collects the patterns of history and puts them together in a story, in this case both the legendary story of St. George and the dragon, and the myth of Andromeda chained as a sacrifice to the monster. I believe Jen Fishburne asked the question in her video, “What do we need saving from?” though perhaps it wasn’t couched exactly in those words. This is my answer: from the dragon. The monster. And that story is not unique to one culture; it couldn’t be said to exist as only the history of the Israelite nation. It’s a story that exists throughout time and history. Even antichrist men like Jung recognized it as being a universal archetype.
To be fair to patriarchals, I believe they were and are trying to live out the imagery in the Bible of a man who rescues the enchained woman who is being sacrificed to the dragon. But it’s not the husband’s job to be a savior, and it’s not a wife’s job to be perpetually rescued by him. Trying to intellectualize something that happens in the soul, to codify it into a set of rules, is a recipe for disaster. What happens when these “savior” figures fall, as they will? People who have poured their faith into that system walk away. It’s especially easy for someone prone to study to walk away, as it’s not that hard to read your way into the cell your logical conceits have left you with.