Self-discovery Through Deconstruction

I tried to defeat the church in my own mind and see what kind of person was left behind. Allen, Under the Banner of Heaven

*Spoiler Alert* Recently, my husband and I finished watching the Fox series Under the Banner of Heaven. The series is based on actual events around the brutal murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter. Brenda grew up in a loving family with a father who was a Mormon bishop. When she marries Allen, a member of a fundamentalist Mormon family, she believes, despite her father’s concerns, that she is marrying into a well respected and good family. When she sees the abuse and polygamy that is happening within the family, she becomes an advocate for her sister-in-law Dianna and goes to church hierarchy to report her husband’s abuse. After he is excommunicated, Dianna makes the decision to take her children and leave. As a result, Ron, Dianna’s husband, is full of rage against Brenda and conspires with Dan Lafferty, his brother, about how to take revenge. Soon after, claiming they are carrying out the will of God, Ron and Dan break into their brother Allen’s home and brutally murder Brenda and their infant daughter, Erin.

While this story reveals an extreme example of how toxic religion can bring tremendous harm, the television series, written by Dustin Lance Black, who was raised in the Mormon church, also follows the deconstruction journey of a fictional devout Mormon detective, Jeb Pyre. Jeb’s character is an excellent portrayal of the struggle one experiences when they begin to question the toxic elements of their lifelong beliefs about God, church and family. In the one of the final episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven, Detective Pyre has a conversation with Brenda’s husband Allen. Allen is full of remorse for not seeing the danger Brenda was in and protecting her from his brothers. After an in depth study of the Mormon church history, Allen has come to the conclusion that his commitment to his religion has resulted in a loss of connection to himself and his family. It is clear that Detective Pyre, after investigating Brenda’s death, is beginning to question his own belief system. Here is an excerpt from Jeb and Allen’s conversation from episode six of Under the Banner of Heaven.

Jeb: …visions have come knocking, dark visions, and I don’t know…I don’t know who is behind this new voice in my head, but it’s a pretty significant distraction…

Allen: It’s not new and it’s not a distraction either. It’s what happens when you are taught your whole life that you need God to guide you. It’s frightening. Being alone with your own mind.

Jeb: How have you managed this?

Allen: I tried to defeat the church in my own mind and see what kind of person was left behind. I read our history. All of it. All of that personal revelation that seems to me it is just men listening to their own selfish desires and calling it God so they can justify…anything. 

In the final episode, Allen shares with Jeb how after he let go of his toxic faith that he was finally able to hear his own voice and choose his wife and child over religion. He told Jeb, “My family became my faith.”

Even though I was raised in a different belief system as a Christian, I was struck by the similarities of how toxicity manifests itself despite the doctrines being taught. Toxic systems are always about control, and any belief system can be manipulated to accommodate this desire for power over others.

When I read the conversation between Allen and Jeb, I feel a deep sense of sadness. I am reminded of all that I lost when I was a part of a toxic church system. When we are told what to believe and how to apply what we believe about God, we can easily lose ourselves in our efforts to be who others expect us to be. For some of us this is all we have known from childhood into our adult years. While I didn’t grow up in the church, I grew up in a codependent family where I survived by being being the good little girl I was expected to be. Becoming a part of an unhealthy church as an adult felt like home, where I kept secrets for the pastor just as I had kept them for my adopted father. It took being able to see the damage that was being done in this environment for me to start to question if what I really believed was the truth. 

It’s frightening. Being alone with your own mind.

When I started to question these beliefs, the first thing I was bombarded with was confusion and a lot of self-doubt. I wasn’t used to thinking for myself. I was used to being told what I needed to hear to make myself feel better. Then came the disillusionment. I wondered if anything I knew to be true was real. I wondered who to trust, and if I could even trust myself. The one thing that was unavoidable was the pain I felt from these emotions, and it continued to happen until I was able to stop and ask myself what was really hurting me and reach out for help. In my very first conversation with a counselor, light bulbs began to turn on in the darkest parts of my mind. I experienced immediate relief when I realized I was being manipulated and abused by a pastor. While I’m sure there are still people today who will not believe that I was being abused, I have come to accept the reality that some will never understand. The most important thing is that I understand. 

The deconstruction process is getting a lot of negative press in religious circles. Many believe that if we start to question doctrines in the church that we will lose faith and therefore direction in our lives and fall into sin. I can attest that it has been indeed difficult to make decisions about what is best for me when I have relied on others to tell me for so long, but I have also realized it is the only way that I can learn how to hear and honor my own voice. If you are in a deconstruction process like me, a great resource is the book Emotional Agility by Susan David, PhD. This book has been incredibly helpful to me in understanding the role of emotions play in our lives in giving us direction and understanding our personal values. When we have been taught our entire lives what to think, how to feel and what to believe, the first step towards connecting with ourselves is by honoring our emotions. Susan David says thay emotions are sign posts that reveal what we really about. Another great resource is Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown. When we are able to define our many different emotions we are given better clarity about who we are and what we care about. After being in a deconstruction process for almost ten years, I have not lost my faith in God even though I have wondered at times where he is and what he wants me to do. I have, however, learned how to honor what I feel, trust myself more, and have compassion for myself. I love the words of St. Catherine of Genoa’s, an Italian Catholic saint and mystic said, “Our deepest me is God.” I am beginning to understand that when I am able to connect with who I really am, I also able to connect on a much deeper level with my creator and others. Mother Teresa, another well known saint said, “If you want to change the world go home and love your family.” These are profound and beautiful statements that reveal what I believe healthy religion will always manifest in our lives.

If you are in the deconstruction process, I’d love to hear what you have learned about yourself and God in this process. If you have experienced religious trauma or abuse, please know that you are not alone. I have listed several resources here. Feel free to reach out to me @ourunseenhope@gmail.com.

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