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Evangelical Anxiety: A Memoir

Charles Marsh
Published by HarperOne in 2022

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. 

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. Click here for his Personal Website


  • Jack Ridl says:

    Thank you.
    Day before yesterday I finished reading one of the most important books I have ever spent time with: Ecumenical Anxiety. Your brave affirmation of Charles Marsh, his memoir, was uplifting, even hopeful and strengthening to those of us who at a formative age were brutally abused by the ignorant side of ecumenicism. After five stays in four psychiatric hospitals, 21 years of therapy, and finally the combination of the proper drugs and EMDR therapy, I can enter a church without collapsing from panic disorder. I would love to have the lost 20 years restored here nearing the end of my stay. Again, thank you so very much.

    • Keith Vander Pol says:

      Thank you for your courage and willingness to share your journey with us. You are far from alone. Stigma still causes many to refrain from telling their similar stories. Glad that you have experienced recovery.

  • Keith Vander Pol says:

    Thank you for calling attention to Charles Marsh’s memoir. I have a copy reserved to read. You are right in saying that “the church has desperate need for accounts like this”. I expect to find it relatable on the basis of your summary.

  • Henk Ottens says:

    Interesting and, for this “evangelie”-adhering old guy, puzzling description: “…goddamn resurrection of the dead,” as Easter once more comes around. Not sure what to make of it, try as I might.

  • Joel Slenk says:

    Last month Phillip Yancy wrote ” A memoir presents life in all its rawness” “Time doesn’t tie everything together, but leaves behind loose ends, irreparable mistakes, unhealed relationships”

    Marsh’s memoir follows this formula.

    It was a bit too raw for me, and as with almost all writing today, too verbose.

    I highly warmed to his descriptions of experiencing worship in the Episcopal church after a lifetime of attending protestant evangelical services with their overemphasis on preaching. Describing Episcopalian faith as “salvation by good taste alone” is a line I look forward interjecting with proper comedic timing.