Review: Redeeming Power

Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, Diane Langberg. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2020.

Summary: A psychologist looks at the dynamics of power behind various forms of abuse and trauma in which church figures are either perpetrators or complicit.

Diane Langberg is a career psychologist and Christian who has studied physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and trauma around the world. Much of what she has seen involves the church, whether sanctuaries filled with bodies in Rwanda, killed by other Christians of a different tribe or churches who have suppressed the truth, protecting power rather than victims, when a woman or child has been abused.

The topic is urgent when reports come weekly of such incidents. But what has Langberg’s attention is power and its abuse, and the reflex to protect power rather than victims or the potentially vulnerable. It is not enough to set up systems of accountability for the protection of potential victims if the issue of power is not addressed. What is distinctive about Langberg’s approach is its theological character, that begins with conceiving power as given by God for good. Power is derived from and sourced in God, which for Langberg is what makes its misuse so offensive:

“Any time we use power to damage or use a person in a way that dishonors God, we fail in our handling of the gift he has given. Any time we use power to feed or elevate ourselves, we fail in our care of the gift. Our power is to be governed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. Any use that is not subject to the Word of God is a wrong use. Any use of power that is based on self-deception, when we have told ourselves that what God calls evil is instead good, is a wrong use….The exercise of the power of position to drive ministry workers into the ground ‘for the sake of the gospel is also a wrong use of power. Using emotional or verbal power to achieve our own glory when God says he will share his glory with no one is a wrong use of power” (p. 12).

She goes on to name the abuses of success, finances, theological knowledge and exploiting position or reputation to get one’s way as wrong uses of power. It is a sweeping indictment.

She begins her work with a study of the source of power, as already noted, in its derivation from God. She also explores its nature in a fallen world and the paradoxical tie between power and vulnerability, both how we use power against the vulnerable, but also how we use power to protect our own sense of vulnerability, as a cover for our own woundedness. She invites us to consider how Jesus became vulnerable for us.

Her two chapters on the use of deception and the use of words in power are striking and worth long reflection in our post-truth culture. Not only has this been a feature of abusive and totalitarian political leadership, but it strikes close to home in the church where words are used to cover rather than to heal in ministries where speaking truth is crucial. Of course, the ultimate result of deception is self-deception, where the lies we spin ultimately inure us to the truth we so desperately need.

The second part of the book dives deeper into the abuse of power. It looks at the combination of physical, verbal, and emotional power used to manipulate and “groom” victims. Langberg also considers the use of systemic power in complicity with abuse, considering the case of the Boy Scouts where abuses were covered by leaders for decades. She speaks about power between men and women and how often church teaching and counsel has implicitly supported domestic violence, where women and children are not believed when trying to report abuse, and teaching dehumanizes and subjugates women. She contrasts this with the Lord’s treatment of women, who asked for water from a Samaritan and revealed his identity to her and who showed compassion on Mary Magdalene, one of the women who was the first to see and testify to the risen Lord.

In this section she also discusses the abuses of power around race and speaks of the generational trauma of those and their descendants, who have become the objects of vicious racism. She explores the dynamics of abuse across cultures. Finally, she touches on how we have exchanged Christ for various Christendom projects, exchanging the way of the servant for attaining cultural power over others.

The final part of the book returns to its title and the redemption of power. She believes this can only be grounded in Christ, his person and work. Only relentless dependence upon and pursuit of Christ will redeem the abuses of power. She writes:

“We who are Christ followers are to follow hard after love. We humans are easily deceived. We originally ran after fruit that looked good! Now we run toward the fruit of numbers, money, expansion, ovation, and status. Our original purpose was likeness to God. Our purpose today is the same: to be Christlike. Our purpose is not church growth. When growth–or anything else is our aim, we will bow to whatever we must do to acquire that goal. God in Christ is our goal. And our God tells us he is love” (p. 180).

Langberg surprised me in this book. Instead of offering an expose’ of abuse, she gives us a theological study of power, used either to abuse or to promote the flourishing of humans and the healing of nations. It offers the hope of those in places of power following “hard after love” and hard after Christ. Indeed, she pinpoints the tragedy both within U.S churches and our wider engagement with the culture. Why have we exchanged the majesty of the risen Christ who loves us for piddling exercises of power in tiny church fiefdoms or the illusion of influence in paltry politics? Has Christ become so little to us? When out of our woundedness we inflict wounds on the other, do we no longer recognized the Wounded Healer who would make us whole?

This is an important work for church leaders or any Christian in ministry leadership. It is a searching book, that makes us take a look at how we use power, how we teach, the reasons we exploit, and the ways we use words to deceive and manipulate. It also holds out the One who both meets us in our vulnerability and calls us into the loving use of power for the common good.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: When Narcissism Comes to Church

when narcissism

When Narcissism Comes to ChurchChuck DeGroat. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Explores the expressions narcissism can take in the church, the damage it may do, and healing both for the abused and the narcissists who abuse them.

Chuck DeGroat makes this observation early in this book: “A colleague of mine says that ministry is a magnet for a narcissistic personality–who else would want to speak on behalf of God every week?” As a counselor, Chuck DeGroat has seen both narcissists and the people they leave in their wake. Many of them are in the church–church leaders, pastors, or even the quiet but “indispensable” administrator, who is controlling and has everyone around him or her walking on eggshells.

DeGroat helps us to recognize the narcissist in our church and what attracts them. Particularly, he notes how many of the screening inventories for church planters actually select for narcissists. Using the Enneagram, he shows nine different ways narcissists manifest according to each of the types. He then identifies ten characteristics of the narcissistic pastor including: all decision-making centers on them, impatience, feelings of entitlement, and inconsistency and impulsiveness.. Inwardly, the narcissist struggles with shame and rage.

The insidious aspect of this is that narcissism can infect they entire system of a church. A narcissistic leader. It results in a church unable to be honest. DeGroat describes different times of dysfunctional system and what health looks like. He exposes the gaslighting techniques of the narcissist that make others feel “crazy, uncertain, confused, insecure, and bewildered.” This is what life around a narcissist is like and DeGroat helps us see what it is like to be married to one, and why so many such marriages end in divorce.

DeGroat’s final chapters chart the process of healing both for individuals and churches who have been abused by narcissist in the church, and the narcissist.  Both take time, pealing back the layers of defense. Especially with the narcissist, the challenge is coming to believe that the real person underneath the glittering image of the narcissist is actually far more beautiful.

This is an important book, especially for any of those involved in calling and placing church’s leaders. Pastoral search communities need to read this book before embarking on their work. Most of all, those in a situation where the charismatic leader who fills the pews or is indispensable is driving everyone crazy, you might want to read this book to understand what may be going on.  Sadly, we often are drawn too much to the glittering images and do not consider what lies beneath. DeGroat relates numerous examples but also offers hope that healing can take place, if people are willing to face the truth.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Educated

Educated

Educated, Tara Westover. New York: Random House, 2018.

Summary: A memoir a young women raised by survivalists in rural Idaho, physically abused by an older brother, self-taught until entering Brigham Young, beginning a journey taking her to Cambridge, Harvard, ultimately at the cost of severing family ties.

She holds a Ph.D from Cambridge, has studied at Harvard, as well as receiving her B.A. from Brigham Young. And before her first classes at Brigham Young she had never set foot in a school classroom. She is Tara Westover. She was one of seven children of Mormon survivalists living in a beautiful mountain setting in rural Idaho. Tara did not have a birth certificate. Her father embraces theories of the Illuminati who had pervaded the Church and all government institutions.  He rejected all traditional medicine other than his wife’s herbal potions, which Tara helped mix as a child. Food, gasoline, and guns were stockpiled and Tara slept with a “head for the hills” bag in anticipation of the End Times. An older brother, “Shawn” (a pseudonym), having suffered multiple head injuries, violently and sadistically abused her, stuffing her face in a toilet, calling her “whore,” and breaking bones. No one intervened.

Westover’s memoir has been on a number of “best book” lists and has been a recommended read by the likes of Barack Obama and Bill Gates. For all that, this is a painful book to read, yet inspiring at the same time. Tara’s exposure to unsafe working conditions in her father’s scrapyard and construction projects, the verbal abuse and emotional manipulation she experiences from her father and the physical violence of her brother are horrendous.

Yet her journey, from performing in local plays, to getting jobs not dependent on her father, to the effort to teach herself enough to pass college entrance exams, and her near-miraculous admission to BYU and subsequent scholarships hint at a voice, an agency within, a sense of self not controlled by her highly controlling family.

She quickly discovers the holes in her efforts at self-education and what little schooling she received from her parents. In one of her first classes she reveals her ignorance of the Holocaust. Yet those gaps become the impetus for curiosity, and not only educational discovery but self-discovery. She discovers symptoms that match her father suggestive that he suffered some form of bi-polar illness.

Another form of inspiration comes in the form of mentors who recognize the intelligence hidden in this uneducated girl–a bishop in her church who provides financial assistance and lets her talk, a professor who encourages her by taking her on a summer at Cambridge, a Cambridge academic who affirms the quality of her scholarship, a counselor who helps her put her life back together when the tension between what her family and upbringing say she ought to be, and what her own inner voice aspires to become so great she experiences a breakdown.

Reading the book helped me understand how abuse victims who have experienced horrid abuse can blame themselves rather than their abusers. Tara internalizes their view of her and the world (including her brother’s epithet of “whore”). It shows us how even deeply dysfunctional families can still have deep bonds to and upon each other. The memoir helps us experience with Tara her struggle to come to terms with the reality that she was not the problem, and with that awakening the necessity to refuse her father’s “blessing,” which signified maintaining a relationship with her parents, indeed her identity, on their terms. It meant severing ties with her parents and some of her siblings in order to affirm her own voice, her own life.

Much like J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy (review), both extended family and educational mentors play an important role in Tara’s life, providing a safe space for her developing sense of self. We also see the power of education at its best as her academic work helps her understand her own experience. Some will respond critically that her education resulted in both estrangement from family and walking away from her faith. It seems to me that both family and faith as she experienced these were toxic (she is clear to distinguish this from Mormonism in an author’s note). It is also the case that there may be future chapters of this story to be written. If this book is any indication, Westover’s account will be one of strikingly compelling prose.