Why I wrote Evangelical Anxiety, June 17, 2022

The book recounts my lifelong struggles with anxiety to explore both how evangelicalism and the fortress-like mentality of Mississippi in the last days of Jim Crow formed the peculiar arc of my symptoms.

For years I tried to align my mental illness with the Christian mandate. I prayed for the grace to persevere, to love the torment, for the martyr’s patience. But every time I leaned in to suffering, my soul—or whatever you wish to call the irrepressible, resilient somebodyness that marks our uniqueness as individual persons—cried out for wholeness. Reciting scripture to fend off madness had become an empty incantation. Taking responsibility for my mental illness and learning to live with more realistic expectations and hopes, enabled a steadier hold on the roller-coaster ride of parenting and the contentment to live into the quotidian mysteries. 

Evangelical Anxiety is, in its way, a memoir of spiritual progress: the search of an anxious pilgrim aided by psychoanalysis and the doctrine of grace, and represents, I hope, something new in the literature of mental illness. I’ve written the book in part to liberate other Christians from what Ann Ulanov has so trenchantly termed the “Christian fear of the psyche.” And I’ve written the book to suggest how a faith chastened of its messianic aspirations, relieved of its terrors and tyrannies, may once again speak with a truthfulness that is appropriate to our human finitude and enables compassion, empathy and moral vision. 

The book, too, is the story of a father. The symptoms that had first hit hard in my early 20’s surged with renewed force in my first years of parenthood. Crazy in love with my children, the sadness of breaking down as a father was a thought too heavy to bear. I felt something close to desperate to raise children who know that they are loved, by him and by God, and to know that they are free and delightful and lovely. It was that desire more than any other that led me to analysis — the desire to raise children who felt more secure, and less haunted, than I. And Evangelical Anxiety is a husband’s story — the story of a boy raised with oppressive scripts about sex who became a husband who lusted after women other than his wife, and then found that the unlikely combination of Freud and Bonhoeffer was able to usher him into playful, desirous, sometimes ecstatic marital sexuality. 

Ultimately, the sojourns in the landscape of memory that shape Evangelical Anxiety reveal more than the circumstances of an anxious riddle of a man coming of age beneath the constraints of evangelical faith, sexual repression and cataclysmic social change. They survey the ruins of a religious and historical tradition and illuminate a way forward in a worldly and capacious faith.