March 23, 2011 / Praxis
John Piper didn’t waste any time. Six days after the devastating earthquake in Japan, he …
Doug Frank spent his career helping young men and women explore the emotional landscape of growing up as American evangelicals. Teaching at a remote college program far out of the Christian mainstream, he met students confused by the shame, dread, or indifference that they felt toward a God-figure they were trying to love. With a tangle of ragged white hair and a quick, sun-creased smile, he gave hundreds of students, including me, permission to approach spiritual questions with curiosity instead of fear. He describes this work in tender detail in his book A Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus. For this interview, we met on a sunny ridgetop of scrub pine and buckbrush overlooking the Oregon Extension, the program he cofounded in 1975 in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon. In the interview, he describes his childhood as the son of a fundamentalist preacher, the spiritual turmoil he experienced, and the gentler faith he has come to embrace.
The Other Journal (TOJ): Let’s start at the beginning. What was it like growing up as the oldest son of a fundamentalist minister in Philadelphia?
Doug Frank (DF): I didn’t know I was a fundamentalist. I just knew I was a preacher’s kid, and I had to be good. And I had to love Jesus with all my heart. My childhood memories have an impersonal feel to them. God’s business was paramount, and my concerns weren’t very important. I can’t remember anyone in my family or my church looking at me with genuine curiosity, as if I deserved their attention. My parents’ brand of fundamentalism was interested in control: control of beliefs, thoughts, feelings, behaviors.
My dad was rarely at home—he lived at the church. He was a minister in the Mennonite Brethren in Christ Church, and very dedicated to the work of God as he understood it. He spent a lot of time on sermon preparation and home visitation. He cared deeply for people and paid close attention to their souls. His parishioners loved him. Yet in my childhood memories, he’s mostly absent. I know he loved us, but I think he probably loved God a little more.
Our church was a modest cement-block building on a side street just off Philadelphia’s busiest thoroughfare. On the front wall was a picture of Jesus descending from the skies through wispy clouds to gather the faithful and take them home to heaven. The church held maybe two hundred people in long wooden pews. I still remember the faintly sweet odor of the pews. Usually my father did the preaching, but special evangelists came for regular “revival” services. During revivals, we’d go to church every night of the week, and I’d sit in the front row with my mother and brothers.
The bulk of each sermon was meant to convince you that you were a terrible sinner in need of God’s salvation. Your heart was truly wicked. You were full of pride. You had no idea how offensive you were to God. That’s an easy sell for a seven-year-old kid. Even good kids disobey their parents, or at least they think about it. They grab toys from their brothers and forget to make their beds. It’s not hard to make little kids feel guilty.
The climax of the sermon was always about the threat of hell. Because you were bad, you deserved to go to hell. Preachers could be very creative in describing the tortures of hell. You’re immersed in a lake of fire that burns forever. “Think about the time it would take to walk from New York to California. That’s just a speck compared to the vast stretches of time during which you’ll suffer unimaginable pain in hell.” That’s a real example.
They justified this punishment by telling you about God’s holiness. A holy God can’t look on sin without disgust. It’s just not possible. Yelling at your little brother is sinful, so God is disgusted. Since God is just, he has no choice but to condemn you to hell forever. “God will spew you out of his mouth,” they would shout. “God vomits at the thought of you!”
Then they’d tell you not to worry, because God isn’t only holy and just—he also loves you. (They always used masculine pronouns for God.) And he made a way for you to go to heaven despite your filthiness. Jesus died for your sins “in your place,” so your penalty has been paid. All you have to do is acknowledge his substitution for you, and then you can go to heaven. You’ve got to say, “I accept that God rightfully killed Jesus because of my sins.” Then revival hymns would begin—pleading, heart-rending hymns—and the preacher would ask us sinners to stand up or come and kneel at the railing up front.
TOJ: What did that feel like as a seven-year-old in the front row? Why do you think these teachings left such a mark on you?
DF: It was horrifying. As a little kid, you’re absolutely vulnerable to what these powerful preachers and other adults are telling you. They control your life, and as far as you know, the world. You don’t understand that it’s a little group of mostly uneducated people huddling in a little church that people on the outside ignore. To you, it’s the whole world. This mortal threat is coming from your dad, or a visiting minister who’s a friend of your dad and who comes to your house for dinner. It gets reinforced at home, in prayers at every meal, in Bible readings after every evening meal, in prayers before bedtime. So these sermons scare the shit out of you. Then you see adults coming forward, kneeling right in front of you, weeping for their sins. The pressure builds up inside you—I can still remember the heavy dread in my chest. As a little kid who was especially shy, my fear of going to hell would battle with my terror of exposing myself by standing up in front of the church.
I think this theology is abusive. Not intentionally so—these are sincere, well-meaning people. But its effect is sadistic. It’s totally out of touch with the tender inner workings of a child’s spirit. It takes someone who is not very tuned in to the inner life of children to tell them that unless they respond in the right way, God is going to send them to hell, to unspeakable torment that lasts forever. And to dramatize it in lurid images from the pulpit. I believe this teaching plants in the unconscious heart of the vulnerable child an understanding that the God of the universe is a demanding, controlling bully who says he loves you but really doesn’t. His love is always trumped by his justice and his holiness, which make him want to punish you.
But that doesn’t sound much like the God Jesus was talking about. At least, not the way I read the Jesus stories. And the practical problem for evangelicals is that you’re supposed to feel affection for this God. You’re supposed to feel close to this God, trust him deeply, feel his guidance in your life, hear him telling you what to do in hard situations. But it’s not easy, listening to sermons like these, to genuinely feel that. It wasn’t easy for me, at least. And it bothered me that I didn’t feel a constant intense love for God. I knew I was supposed to.
TOJ: What happens to the kids in the pews, to the kids trying to reconcile this accuser God with the commandment to feel affection for him?
DF: For me, and for a lot of the Christian college students I’ve gotten to know over the years, the constant pressure to love God and to be a certain way for God leads you to judge yourself a spiritual failure. It’s never God’s fault that you don’t feel close. Preachers will say “God is always reaching out to you. If God seems distant, it’s you, not God, who moved away.” You feel like it’s your fault.
This is emotionally exhausting. And it fuels a self-critical voice inside that you sometimes think of as your own voice, and other times you think of as God’s voice. I think this kind of enmity with yourself is at the very heart of conventional evangelicalism; it’s buried within those sermons about a God who sees everything we do, think, feel, and expects something close to perfection. To my mind, if the gospel— meaning good news—has any truth, it ought to relieve us of shame, not make it worse. I like a quote often attributed to Saint Isaac of Syria in the seventh century: “Make peace with yourself and heaven and earth will make peace with you.”1
Yet the burden of this self-judgment often leads evangelical young people to throw up their hands and just ditch God, the Bible, and church. You simply can’t stand another sermon that makes you feel guilty or threatens you with hell, even implicitly. It doesn’t have to be fire and brimstone—it could just be seeing a preacher on TV or hearing the word God in a certain tone of voice. It triggers all that guilt and hurt.
TOJ: So leaving religion might be a sensible act of self-defense?
DF: Yes, it can be a very sensible move. When I talked with students who were trying to get as far as they could from their childhood religion, they often confessed to feeling guilty or ashamed about their rebellion. I would say thank God—thank some better God—for your rebelliousness. It’s a cry of truth from inside you. It’s a kind of protection against the damage being done to your soul by a false God.
TOJ: Your journey ultimately led you to help create the Oregon Extension, a strange little college program in the Cascade-Siskiyou Mountains. By the time I came in 2002, the fall had a rhythm of reading books together, then doing independent study projects with a professor. We chopped and hauled firewood on Fridays, went into town on weekends, and went backpacking or camping after finishing big papers. There was such a great pace to that life. How did that come to be?
DF: We wanted to create a space where students had enough time and enough silence to think. Even when we started forty years ago, campus life was just too busy. When I visit college campuses these days, it’s a little like going to an all-inclusive resort in Cancun: there’s always something fun to do besides studying. I don’t know how conscious of it we were at the time, but I think we were emulating the simplicity and silence of a monkish contemplative life.
We also had long conversations at the beginning about what we had learned as teachers. We knew lecturing didn’t work very well. We wanted to give students a lot of time to talk in small groups. We also wanted to give them a chance to dive into a topic that really grabbed them, spend time with it, live with it for a while, let it work its way down into their bones. We were sure that the normal way of operating—taking four or five courses, jumping from one to the next every day or every hour—didn’t allow students to get traction, focus their energies, allow a question or idea to really grab hold.
It took us two summers of driving through Canada and much of the Pacific Northwest for us to find a spot for the Trinity College extension program. We had researched forty or fifty properties, but when we drove into Ashland, Oregon, it had a different feel than all the dusty cow towns we had seen. It had a sense of vibrancy, of life, a strong hippie feel to it, a university, a prominent Shakespeare festival.
Then we drove twenty miles up this windy, precipitous mountain road to a little settlement nestled in the Cascade Mountains. We couldn’t believe what we found. A whole town for sale—or what had served as a company town for a logging enterprise since the 1920s. There was a cluster of cabins amid giant trees, five cedar-sided homes just about right for our faculty families, a bunkhouse with a dozen wood-paneled rooms, a cookhouse with a giant wood stove, a commissary that would eventually become our library, a ruined lumber mill next to a three-acre millpond, and nearby a huge misshapen rusted cone called a bark burner where mill scraps had been burned.
By the time we moved in and kicked off the first semester, in 1975, there was a lot of excitement about it on the Trinity College campus back in Illinois. You can imagine the appeal: the adventure of going from the Midwest to the West Coast to live in a community, chop a little firewood, study what excited you, get to know your professors, and take hiking breaks in the mountains.
TOJ: There are so many books that have been significant to the Oregon Extension, but the one you taught nearly every year was The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Why?
DF: Our students fell in love with certain characters. It’s easy to find a character who reminds you of yourself. Students would identify with a character and talk about what it felt to be inside him or her, and of course, Dostoevsky is a master at using dialogue to show what’s inside his characters. That book also asks some of the biggest questions: What makes us human? What is justice? Is there a God? It allows the atheist to have as much plausibility as the person of faith. It doesn’t trivialize the atheist’s arguments.
One of the questions the book asks is, “How does God encounter people, if he does at all?” Very often God seems to come in moments of failure or shame. For example, Father Zossima tells how in his youth, for no good reason, he savagely beat his orderly. The next morning he sees with utter clarity that he has beaten a helpless, innocent man. He’s overwhelmed with sorrow and shame, and he begs forgiveness—from the orderly and from the birds.
When I say God comes to Dostoyevsky’s characters, it’s not how evangelicals describe it. It’s more a dawning of a certain truth about themselves, who they are in their brokenness, along with a sense of acceptance and an ability to have compassion on themselves. To grieve what they have done as well as to accept who they are. There’s a way in which the gospel in its purity comes through in The Brothers Karamazov: that the divine is unconditionally loving, even to the worst of people. You can feel it in Dostoevsky too, that he loves his characters, including the worst of them. Fyodor Karamazov, the father, is described in lurid ways as a despicable character, and Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son, has become sinister and malicious, in part under the blows of Fyodor, but you can feel Dostoyevsky caring for them both. He seems able to accept everybody, no matter how despicable. That’s the genuine message of Jesus, as far as I can see it.
TOJ: In your book A Gentler God, you speak with such tenderness of the students in the back row of the campus chapels where you would speak. They are required to be there, but they want to be as far away from the center as they can. Where does your affection for them come from?
DF: It’s about giving them what I never got. These kids are torn between a part of them that never wants to hear the word God again, and another part that berates them for feeling that way. I tried to help them relax, tried to say, “Look, whatever you’re doing to distance yourself from conformist religion is healthy. It’s a sign you’re alive. Something in you is saying, ‘I will have no more bullshit. I will not have a tyrannical God threatening me. I will not have people controlling my mind and my heart. I’ve been hurt, and I know it.’” I wanted to help soften the guilty, self-judgmental part so they could really listen to what the rebellious voice was saying, take it seriously as a cry from their own hearts.
There’s so much pressure to be good and holy that we get scared of all the parts of us that aren’t. I want these kids to know they can listen respectfully to everything inside themselves. They don’t have to be scared of the voice that’s angry at God or tired of pious talk. They don’t have to act that stuff out either. What they can do is examine it gently and compassionately, hear what it has to tell them about the source of their pain, the truth of their experience. That’s freeing.
TOJ: I can’t help wondering how all of this sounds to people who know Christians mainly as people who stand against things—against gay rights, against birth control, against immigration, against other races and cultures and religions. How did so many Christians become so militant about opposing all these things?
DF: Evangelicals have always been militant about something. In the nineteenth century, they led crusades against intemperance and slavery and the oppression of women and children. Their causes are more cranky and defensive today. I think that has something to do with the social upheaval of the 1960s. Evangelicals got scared by changing sexual mores, by feminism and abortion and gay rights and black liberation. Respectable white middle-class people seemed to be losing their hold on the levers of social and cultural power. Today’s Christian Right has nothing to do with Jesus, to my mind, and everything to do with white evangelicals regaining social and cultural power.
TOJ: In A Gentler God, you describe a period in your twenties when you tried to escape this problem by deciding that your personal feelings toward God were irrelevant and faith is really about acting with compassion. That impulse isn’t bad—Christians who are more focused on social justice could do a lot of good in the world. But reducing faith to a social justice ethic ultimately proved unsatisfying to you. Why?
DF: If you’ve got a rage for the good, as I did, then shifting your focus from personal morality to social morality doesn’t make you any less of a narrow-minded legalist. Instead of trying to be good enough by not dancing, drinking, lying, or cheating, you’re trying to be good enough according to the standards of social progressivism. It’s still a very tiring treadmill.
I’m not saying progressive values are wrong—I’m deeply committed to them—but if you’re doing such things to please a judgmental God and not out of a heart of compassion, you’ll have impossible expectations for yourself, which means you’ll constantly have a guilty conscience. The world is packed with suffering people; you can’t possibly help them all. You can do lots of good things. You can work for affordable housing or demonstrate for civil rights or oppose war. But if you’re still under the spell of an accuser God, you’ll never feel any compassion toward yourself, which means your compassion for others will soon wear thin. You’ll burn out.
I think the opposite of the rage for the good is the freedom to be real, which is why I love that shabby figure on the cross. The dying Jesus makes no pretense to power or respectability. He’s the real thing, a human being bearing the vulnerability of human flesh. Nothing godlike about him. When I hear evangelicals talk about sovereignty—a favorite word of theirs to describe God—I wonder where they see it in this guy on the cross. They talk about God’s glory and majesty. Some glory. As I see it, the cross is an image of the vulnerable, compassionate spirit that holds all things together.
But I see myself on the cross too. Beneath all of my posturing and image-tending, I’m a body, finite and frail, suffering life’s wounds and indignities. How many times in a single day do I feel abandoned, insufficient, or ridiculous in the eyes of others? This is a condition the spirit of God shares. Once you have eyes for it, you can see that the cross is where God and humans come together. It’s the truest picture of who God is. It’s also the truest picture of who we are.
TOJ: That seems to be a key paradox. You’re talking about a radical self-acceptance that at the same time allows real compassion toward others. In his life, Jesus was drawn to the mentally ill, to tax collectors, to prostitutes and widows and those on the margins of society. It’s a movement inward and outward at the same time.
DF: I think Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes because he knew he had that kind of person inside himself. I think the prostitutes knew it too; they could sense that this was somebody who didn’t separate himself from them by morals or behavior or reputation. He knew that inside he was a prostitute and a tax collector and even a self-righteous Pharisee. Once you go down this track, you can’t look at anybody without seeing a part of them inside yourself and a part of you inside of them.
TOJ: Your critique hasn’t exactly caught fire in the world of evangelicalism. Why is it tough for evangelicals to hear?
DF: Hasn’t it? [Laughs.] No, it hasn’t made a dent in the evangelical monolith, although there are a few scattered souls out there who seem to hear something in it. One possibility is that I may not be saying it very well. At times I’ve harbored fantasies of radically altering the ways evangelicals think about God. I can see now that this was out of touch. Grandiose.
Look, there’s a whole institutional structure out there—churches, nonprofits, colleges, seminaries, publishing companies, media outlets—dedicated to reinforcing the status quo because they benefit from the status quo. Their power and their money come from enforcing the rules of Almighty God. There’s an entire evangelical counseling network encouraging folks not to take their feelings seriously if those feelings would be disapproved by God. Many of the loudest preachers in evangelicalism are full of enthusiasm for a big, powerful, majestic God, not the gentle, weak, and suffering God we see in Jesus. In so many ways, a big, bloated self-important deity is good for business.
TOJ: A lot of people who have been burned by religion have a much easier time than you of giving it up. You’ve spent some fifty years reading, writing, and teaching about these things—why is that?
DF: I still feel the aloneness of the little kid who was subjected to a dangerous religious ritual, to hearing my father preach about a God who would send someone like me to hell. That kid feels most alone in church, because he believes God has no loyalty to him and he senses that his parents really can’t afford to have any either. Even though they’re wonderful people and very loving, they’re imprisoned in a toxic ideology. Perhaps I’m still that little boy, standing up for myself, arguing with my father about who God is and who I am.
It’s also that I think I’ve encountered Jesus. It’s not the conventional evangelical Jesus but a gentler, human Jesus. And that feels sacred to me. I feel sometimes like a little boy standing up in church and shouting, “Hey! Here’s Jesus! He’s not the guy you’re talking about. He’s not about being good. He’s about being real! Being free! Remember when he said he came to bring more life? He meant it! He’s about becoming more and more yourself. He’s about healing the warring parts of you. He’s about total acceptance of who you are. No trace of abandonment. He likes you!”
TOJ: I had never heard it put that way before I came to the Oregon Extension. Likes is a more welcoming word than loves, oddly enough.
DF: I think it’s much more powerful. Think about all the ways people use the word love, or how easy it is to wonder whether someone really loves you. But you know if someone likes you. It’s transformative to be liked. With love, there’s always a possible but—“I love you, but get your act together.”
TOJ: Amid all this good news, you still describe an understanding of hell in your book. What is hell, if not a literal place of fire?
DF: To me, hell is the experience of feeling totally alone in your suffering. Every human being tastes that. Everyone is salted with hell’s fire, to use one of Jesus’s sayings (see Mark 9:49). But I think there is the possibility that God is there with us in that hell, whether we know it or not.
Another book that was an all-time favorite among our students is An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum. It’s the diary of a Dutch Jewish teenage girl during the Holocaust. She lives in hell—a transit camp where Jews get loaded onto trains headed to the killing fields at Auschwitz. In some very moving way, Etty embraces the suffering of hell, tries to represent love within the walls of hell. She willingly places herself at this terrible place of suffering and tries to minister love to people. She says she’s trying to be “the thinking heart of the barracks.” She prays to God, “I know you can’t help us here, so I must find ways to help you.”
I know people like that, who have had a new birth, or new eyes, as Jesus talks about it, and they go to hell willingly. They join themselves to suffering people. So for Jesus, hell is a common human experience. Jesus went through hell on the cross, a situation of abject suffering and a sense of abandonment, of being without God’s presence. When I say God is there in hell, I mean God suffers along with us, and we can discover God beside us in that situation. But initially it feels like we’re totally alone. I think that’s the experience of hell: feeling totally alone in one’s suffering.
TOJ: That reminds me of a Francis Spufford line: “We don’t say that God is in His heaven and all’s well with the world; not deep down. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us.”
DF: I think that’s the gospel. When we see the figure hanging on the cross—bleeding, jeered at, tortured, helpless, dying, his hands and feet bound—I think we’re seeing God. We’re seeing the deepest truest picture we can have of the spirit that hovers over, and infuses, the universe.
That spirit isn’t all-powerful. It can only have an effect in the world by whispering love into the hearts of humans, and humans often don’t want to hear. But that spirit’s response to our not hearing isn’t sadistic or punitive. The divine spirit isn’t a bully. It can’t possibly be the architect of a place of eternal torture for lost souls. It knows what it feels like to be a lost soul. That spirit is all love and only love.
Doug Frank is a cofounder of the Oregon Extension and the author of A Gentler God (2010) and Less Than Conquerors (1986). He holds a PhD in intellectual history from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and he lives in Ashland, Oregon.
Jonathan Hiskes is a writer and communications director at the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Mother Jones, River Teeth, the Sun, Image, Books and Culture, and elsewhere. Read more of his writing at Jonathanhiskes.com.