Post-Evangelicalism and Phil Mitchell

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I don’t really do New Year’s Resolutions, but one thing I have decided this year is to take up the old invocation to “know thyself.” After Christmas and New Year back in the UK with our family, I started reading Skinner and Cleese’s Families and How To Survive Them. The big idea of that book is similar to the big idea of Simon Walker’s human development books—that we have a “front stage” and a “back stage” for our emotions, and we hide the stuff we can’t cope with backstage, until it all leaks out when we’re angry or stressed. Healthy people can look into their “back stage” and either realise there’s a problem there, or best of all, get those emotions out into the open and learn to deal with them; less healthy people don’t even realise that there are things they can’t cope with. Looking into their “back stage” is impossible, precisely because it’s full of the stuff that they can’t cope with, and so they have essentially taught themselves that it doesn’t exist.

Skinner and Cleese also talk about how we “inherit” bad handling of emotions from our families—if a child’s parents can’t deal with anger constructively, then the child expressing any anger will cause those parents to freak out, and the child soon realises that displaying anger is not a Good Thing, so he tucks it away and never learns to deal with it constructively and so the cycle perpetuates. They also had a great section on how we get our gender roles from society, as society passes on to us a bunch of stereotypes about which emotions are acceptable for, say, men to demonstrate, and which are not acceptable.

For instance. My wife watches Eastenders. So I watch Eastenders. For those not familiar with it, I’ve described Eastenders in the past as a documentary about toxic families. It basically has one plot point—everything that happens, happens because someone says “I’ll sort it out. Just trust me.” or “You don’t need to tell me, I can guess.” or some other refusal to communicate cleanly and openly.

There are basically three types of men in Eastenders. There are the East End strong men—Max, Jack, Derek, Michael, and, supremely, Phil Mitchell. There are those who know they aren’t East End strong men but try to conform to the stereotype and “man up” when the chips are down (and the plot interest is that they fail to achieve that stereotype)—Billy, Alfie, Masood, Fat Boy, Patrick, perhaps even Ian. Then, almost as a foil, there are those who know they don’t fit the strong man stereotype and don’t even try—Sayeed and Christian are gay, Tamwar is a swot, and so on. Interesting, isn’t it?

What does it mean to “be a man” in Eastenders? It means to be strong; to be in control of every situation; to go with your gut instinct; to never say “I don’t know”; and most of all, to be sure of yourself. (Even when demonstrably wrong, which is the other plot point of Eastenders.) Strong men aren’t necessarily given to bouts of introspection, they don’t take advice from others, and they don’t admit weakness.

They don’t doubt.

I’ve chosen Eastenders because it’s a microcosm, but you can see the same types in pretty much every television drama, and after reading Skinner and Cleese’s’ book it hit me: this is pretty much the message our society sends us about what it means to be a man, and the mass media is the way that these messages are communicated. These are the cues that, subconsciously or consciously, inform us about what emotions are acceptable and which are not. And for a man, doubt is not acceptable and should be hidden away.

On a separate note, almost all Evangelical leaders are male.

One of the big points of rupture between Evangelicals and post-Evangelicals (and more generally between moderns and postmoderns) is about the role of doubt. The charge that Evangelicals make about post-Evangelicals is that they’ve almost fetishised doubt and by doing so have denied the centrality of faith; the charge post-Evangelicals make about Evangelicals is that they’re rather more sure of a lot of things than they really ought to be, and their faith is actually in the correctness of their own doctrines rather than in the person of Christ. Now that sounds like it’s a theological dispute, but I’m coming to the conclusion that pretty much all theological disputes are actually sociological disputes in disguise. After all, theology is our religious reaction to sociological circumstances. (The Reformation is my favourite case in point—its theological bases can adequately be explained by the societal change in the acceptance of authority structures as part of the Renaissance. The question of “Why should we listen to the Pope?” was asked a long time before Luther found the answer in the Bible. But that’s not really what I want to talk about here.)

If it turns out that modern men are, in general, uncomfortable with the idea of doubt, don’t know how to handle it, and react badly when others display it, then we can apply Occam’s razor to the theological discussion of it; the sociological reality is sufficient to explain what is going on. So I do not think it is so much that Evangelicalism has bred a disdain of doubt for theological reasons, than the other way around—it makes more sense to look at the church, look at society, realise we’re not as counter-cultural as we might claim to be, and say that a culture that sees doubt as weakness and prizes the strong, decisive male has fed into and moulded Evangelicalism, which in turn got rationalised into theology. And so it is hardly a surprise that Evangelical leaders display as much self-doubt as Phil Mitchell.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to unpick an unwillingness to question, especially if that unwillingness is backed up by a theological opinion, because the first thing you need to do is to get someone to question it, and that’s the very thing they’re not going to do. As Cleese and Skinner point out, when someone really doesn’t want to deal with an emotion, they don’t even realise that they don’t want to deal with it—they can’t look into their own back stage.

And that’s why it’s so important to “know thyself.”