Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir
I have read a lot of memoirs, but I have never read a memoir like Evangelical Anxiety.
Memoirs tend to fall into two groups, either the “how I became this fabulous” story of someone famous, or an exodus story of deliverance and perseverance as a mere mortal overcomes difficult obstacles. A recent well-regarded example of the latter is Educated by Tara Westover, her remarkable story of growing up in an ultra-rightwing bizarre family in Idaho. Westover makes it out, but not without being broken literally and figuratively in the process. In some ways, Marsh’s book brought that book to my mind. Instead of showing us a strange alternative America, Marsh is shining a light on a part of the church that nurtured many of us, a part of the church that so many of us now feel has lost its way with its embrace of Trumpism and Christian Nationalism. Yet that’s not really what this book is about.
Charles Marsh is not a particularly well-known public figure. Religion and theology nerds like me know him as the author of Strange Glory, his striking biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and a professor of religion at the University of Virginia.
What is it Marsh has had to overcome? The answer is in the title. As I mentioned, I initially thought the book was going to be an account of his growing beyond his evangelical upbringing. That certainly figures into Marsh’s story. There is much to unpack, not the least of which are the consistent messages of self-loathing, fear, and abasement from trusted evangelical guides like Oswald Chambers. On top of that, Marsh came of age in the deep South during the Civil Rights era. His father was a Baptist minister and in an earlier book Marsh tells the story of his father’s realization that KKK members were not just in his congregation but on the leadership council. All these things are part of the mix, but the real focus of the book is revealed by the word “anxiety.” This is a chronicle of Marsh’s struggles with mental illness. This is not a book about the sort of existential anxiety theologians talk about. This is about pathogenic anxiety.
The church has a desperate need for accounts like this.
With exquisite prose, Marsh takes us into the depths of his illness. Never self-pitying, he describes panic attacks, depression, and a jarring mental breakdown as a student at Harvard Divinity School. Marsh takes honesty and self-revelation to a degree designed to make readers uncomfortable. At least one reviewer lamented his oversharing. I do not agree. How will we ever learn to talk about mental health if we try to silence those willing to tell their stories? I didn’t just see Marsh in these pages. I saw myself.
But let the reader be warned. This is not material found at the Family Central bookstore. As such, I believe Evangelical Anxiety is remarkable and refreshing while being disturbing. This is a book intended to shock your sensibilities. As this happens, discriminating readers should be asking themselves what it is that upsets them. Through his relentless self-inventory, Marsh is inviting us to explore our own hang ups.
As the story progresses, a better life comes not through leaning harder into the Bible’s promises, but through several years of daily Freudian psychoanalysis. Marsh takes us with him to the analyst’s couch as he explores the violence of the church of his youth, masturbation, his feelings about his mother, hell, and much more.
Does analysis make everything better? Of course not. A deep depression follows, treated with psychotropic drugs. This is another mental health reality: for all the good talk therapy can do, brain chemistry remains mysterious and unpredictable. Marsh takes us with him into this reality.
He’s not “all better” at the end of the book. Instead, he laments how his body is breaking down with age. (Who else is willing to reveal their bout with anal papillitis?) But there is an admirable hard won faith that comes through. As Marsh puts it near the end:
“I could so easily make a case for oblivion. This distrust of the body, this distrust now in its seventh decade, I seem to have made my book of days. All that appears to be good in this world wears out in time. Is this a morbid sadness?
And yet, I am a Christian, and no less obliged now in these late days to profess my belief in creation and redemption, in the sustenance of grace, in the goddamn resurrection of the dead.”
Marsh tells his secrets and tells the truth in ways many of us have been told not to. I am grateful we have his voice and this book.