On Belonging: Words, Things and the Church of Christ

by Todd Dean, MD

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Belonging to groups is a complicated business.  The author attempts to illustrate this from his own experience, arguing that belonging is both a challenge and unavoidably necessary.  



…that less apparent syntax which causes words and things… to “hold together.”


            An older man, talking affably to people he has just met, seeming to have all the time in the world, asks eventually, “So what church do you folks belong to?” It is a surprising question – but, in the middle class milieu of suburban Texas in the 60s and 70s, not a rude one – and the man has been so friendly, so open and unassuming. His interlocutors usually give a straightforward answer: Methodist or Baptist or Presbyterian, almost always some mainline Protestant denomination. Without missing a beat, the questioner replies, “I hate to tell you this, friends, but you are going to Hell. The only church that saves is the Church of Christ.”

            I used to hear variations of this story fairly regularly, usually right after I told somebody that my family had belonged to the Church of Christ when I was growing up. We always laughed – how crazy could people be? The Church of Christ was a small group of Christian congregations that grew out of the Second Great Awakening at the end of the 19th century, intending to return Christian faith to its biblical roots by strict observance of the letter of the Bible and ignoring all post-biblical counsels and creeds. In other words, it assumed a reading of scripture by each individual that was unmediated by anything that came between the believer and the Word. The novelty of this is hard to communicate today, at least it is hard for me to communicate it to people who have no idea what I am talking about, who assume I am describing some kind of fundamentalism, and of course everybody knows all about that. But it would not have been acceptable to a true believer to call the Church of Christ “fundamentalist.” That would mean people would have to formally agree on what the fundamentals of Christian faith are. For that to happen, there would have to be some kind of organization that would mediate for the faithful, and that would be unacceptable: a true believer is someone who understands God’s word without having to be instructed. To even have a leadership role in the church was anathema. Each congregation was run autonomously; all shared the belief that it was only through the individual’s direct engagement with the Bible that one could know the truth and be saved. Thus, the church could more accurately be called “literalist” rather than fundamentalist, but I doubt anybody ever said that, because to say a particular reading of the Bible is literalist implies there is another reading of it that is not. Within the Church of Christ, such a reading would be less than useless.

            Thus, we can understand how the affable man’s claim was true, in terms of the teachings of the church. Christ had said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The problem is, there is no way to say “in terms of the teaching of the church:” those teachings were just what IS – there could be no other perspective.  So, it was literally true: you could not get to Heaven except through the Church of Christ. All those other words – Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, etc. – were beside the point, even idolatrous. The fact that you would even pay attention to them is proof that you don’t have sufficient faith in God’s word: go directly to Hell, do not pass Go.

            Such was the stark simplicity of doctrine in the Church of Christ that even Christmas was seen as a secular holiday; nowhere in the Bible does it say Christ was born on December 25th. I remember my grandmother hearing someone sing “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and becoming indignant at the line “Remember Christ our savior was born on Christmas Day.”  Worse for me was the December 25th that fell on a Sunday when we were visiting the other side of the family: I had to sit through an interminable service where the holiday was never even mentioned before going home to open presents. To link Christ to Christmas was idolatrous.

            The same simplicity applied to everything. The leaders of a given congregation were the elders and the preacher; there could be no “pastor,” no shepherd to lead the flock, because the Word did not need a shepherd – it was sufficient unto itself, so long as somebody proclaimed it.  And the preacher did, in hour-long sermons and prayers that were not much shorter. I was happy to learn years later that “preacher” derived from the Latin for “auctioneer” – there is this salacious fragment by Catullus about a “praeco” eyeing up a rent boy1 – because preachers were often as not con men, poachers who would be arrested if they ever showed up in a Tanzanian airport again, or revivalists who left with more than their share of the collection plate. Because there was no larger hierarchy, they always ran free, but this was never discussed among the faithful.

            Moral teaching in the Church of Christ was straightforward. There was no need for any gradations of sin. If you died having committed a sin for which you had not sought God’s forgiveness, you went to Hell. It didn’t matter what the sin was – murder or stealing a cookie – if you died after committing it, you received the same punishment. Also because it was the Church of Christ, there were some fairly special sins. For example, you would go to Hell if you danced, or drank alcohol, or did not go to church every time the doors were opened, or if you married anyone who was not a member of the church.

            It was the last of these moral absolutes that eventually caught my attention. Both my grandmothers, devout members of the church, married men who were not. My grandfathers were Baptists, in fact, a denomination I remember thinking of as almost libertine, because it allowed instrumental music during services. This contradiction was rarely noted, but never addressed within my hearing. I did occasionally hear that some elder’s wife had said one or the other grandmother would go to Hell for marrying a heathen, but nobody in the family, to my knowledge, ever responded to this charge. Still, it was a mystery: if the Church says “don’t,” and my grandmothers always do what the Church says, why did they marry pagans?

            My paternal grandmother, the most pious member of my family, once even told my mother that my grandfather had been quite a catch, riding into town on his beautiful horse. But she also told her daughter-in-law that if she didn’t leave church feeling chastised, she didn’t feel like she’d been to church at all. Long after she died, my parents learned that my paternal grandfather not only was not a member of the Church of Christ, but had been married before – a shock, because my grandmother must have known this, as they both lived in the same small town. It goes without saying: to knowingly marry a divorced Baptist would qualify one for damnation more than almost anything else. You could rape, murder and pillage all you wanted, so long as you repented afterwards, but if you married a divorced, unbelieving man and didn’t leave him, then you carried your sin with you for the rest of your life. At least, the preacher at my grandmother’s funeral was charitable: he allowed that the fact that she had been such a good woman might have saved both her husband and herself from eternal damnation. But the question remained: what does it mean if you both break the rules and expect to feel chastised every Sunday? There could be no explanation.

            I became conscious of the problem of words and things in the teachings of the church – all the mysteries of my family and of those other people who didn’t live by all those straightforward rules – just as my parents were themselves becoming skeptical of those teachings. My father would decide to leave the church when I was still in grade school. I have to assume that my dawning confusion was a reflection of their struggle with this skepticism. Thus, I remember once telling my mother that I had learned in Sunday school that the fact that a member of our congregation had won the 100-yard dash in the district track meet was proof that he was favored by God. I don’t remember what she said, but whatever it was, it left this notion very much in doubt. Another time I told her a classmate at my grade school had announced that only members of the Church of Christ would go to Heaven. She said she thought that was a horrible thing to say. This was interesting, but also confusing: yes, on the one hand, it did seem horrible to condemn all my Baptist and Methodist classmates to eternal damnation in the pit of Hell, but on the other hand, it was entirely consistent with what we heard in church every time we went, which was every time we could. It was also striking that, while my mother was the one who I experienced as most openly critical of church teachings, it was my father who first decided to leave the church; it was some time before she could follow him. These experiences gave me a lot to think about, enigmatic messages that kept me curious all through grade school.

            From where I stand now, though, I am simply grateful my mother said anything. This questioning of what was going on was for me the dawning awareness that what Foucault calls “that less apparent syntax,” the hidden link between words and things, exists. Thus, the persistence of all the questions that comes with Baptist-marrying grandmothers and the rest of it.

            Besides these questions, the unmediated relation between what we were to believe and what the Bible said fell apart without much effort: why, if drinking was a sin, did Christ choose for his first miracle to turn water into wine (John 2:1-11)? If David could dance – drunk, no less – before the Ark of the Covenant (I Chronicles 15:29-16:6), why couldn’t a high school student dance at the prom? The more I paid attention to these discrepancies, call them, between what the Bible said and what the church demanded, the more I became aware that there was a disconnect between what I learned in Sunday school and what I saw in the world. Now I can say that the church created a profound jouissance out of guilt and suffering – this was its real driving force, hidden under a spurious devotion to some half-baked notion of unmediated truth. At the time, I just had the sense that there was something not quite right about how words and things added up.  For years after my family left the church, I expressed nothing but sarcasm about the whole thing.  To be sure, there was a lot to be sarcastic about, but this attitude was more defensive than useful, allowing me to gloss over the enigmas, like transgressing grandmothers and my parents’ real struggles with the church that I had been exposed to for years.

            But it is that tension between the latent and manifest, in the behavior of my grandmothers, for example, and between words and things, in the indoctrination I was exposed to, that has stayed with me, of all the things I heard in those interminable church services and Sunday school classes. This became the model, for me, of what it means to belong. From within the group, there is a clarity that can be seductive. But there is also some way to get perspective, some tension that obscures the clarity of the group’s teaching – thank God. What saved me from that group and gave me some perspective was the talking and questioning of it, what I heard going on in all those conversations with my family and others. 

            For years after the family apostasy, I didn’t give the church much thought, except as something to be ridiculed. But then I was assigned to read Book 11 of St. Augustine’s Confessions in a Medieval Latin class, and came on the following:

            But if [Moses] could speak Latin, I would know what he was saying. Yet even then how could I know that what he was saying was true? If I did know that, it would not be on his word that I relied. Within me, where my thoughts are at home, truth itself would speak, not in Hebrew or Greek or Latin, or any uncouth tongue, it would speak without the body’s organs, without mouth or tongue, without the sounding out of syllables. It would tell me that Moses spoke true, and I would confidently assent to your emissary, admitting that he spoke true. (Wills, p. 260)

            This blew my mind. Just as I remembered from my time in the church, the topic here was the unmediated communication of Biblical truth. What was different about this was that Augustine was actually thinking about that idea – I had never realized thinking about this sort of thing from within its own premises was even possible; it had always been something one either accepted or not. Here Augustine asks what would the conditions have to be for the unmediated communication he assumes. Amazing. In the Church of Christ, to even ask that question would have put one at risk of damnation: God’s word is what it is! Further, Augustine says the body’s organs would not be involved; that is interesting: why not? Whether organs will be used in the unmediated communication of truth or not, Augustine is saying that the body matters in relation to spiritual truth and to speech, even if only in a negative way. It is something to ponder. 

            So I got more out of belonging to the Church of Christ than an obnoxious conscience and a distrust of glib auctioneers. I doubt I would ever have paid attention to Book 11 of the Confessions had it not been for my early religious indoctrination. It was a sensitivity that served me well. Several years further on, I heard a famous “descriptive” psychiatrist indignantly ask, regarding Oedipus, why anybody would think an ancient play would be relevant to mental illness today? His question was meant to be purely rhetorical, but it did, again, raise that old question I learned in Sunday school: what do words have to do with things? In this case, what do Sophocles’s words have to do with mental illness? Of course, it also spoke to a latent ideology, no less than the church’s teachings on guilt and sin: the psyche could be regulated and normalized, fixed, with proper diagnosis and medication.

            So, descriptive psychiatry, like the Church of Christ, was unambiguous in its approach to certain mysteries. It offered a straightforward understanding of how one should act, of what constitutes normality, based on a theory that was touted as atheoretical: the psyche, when it is disturbed, is a site of illness, an illness that can be delineated and categorized through close observation. This is, in fact, the (a)theoretical underpinning of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders since its third edition. But I found in my work as an academic psychiatrist that there seemed to be many exceptions to this rule. Most striking to me was the way some patients held on to their symptoms; it became impossible for me to believe that wishes at some level were not part of the problem I was seeing. 

            In a curious way, I was seeing my patients do something like what my grandmothers did, marrying outside the faith: while they were going to a doctor ostensibly to help them get over an illness, very frequently I observed that they held on to that illness for dear life. My patients could not give up their symptoms the way my grandmothers could not give up their sins. Of note, both sins and symptoms had a lot to do with sex. How does descriptive psychiatry explain that?

            On then to psychoanalysis. Near the end of my formal analytic training, some years after I had left the academy, I found myself getting increasingly anxious at the idea of being done with schooling. “I haven’t learned anything!” is how I finally put this anxiety into words. Immediately after, I remembered a sentence by Adam Phillips I had particularly liked, from before I started my training: “Of course, in psychoanalysis you don’t learn anything.” It was a revelatory moment for me, to catch myself lamenting the very thing I had come here for in the first place, the freedom to not have to know, to not have everything figured out, in order to function. Like my grandmothers, I opposed my own manifest beliefs; like my patients, I was working hard to overcome a symptom I was determined to keep. My institute was just one more in a long line of groups I belonged to that I hoped would tell me what to do – and maybe this time I would not find any reason to leave. But at least this moment stuck with me. In the dream the night before the last session of my training analysis, there were several references to the Dylan song “Nothing Was Delivered” – and at no point did I think of that as a dismissal of the analysis or the analyst; rather, it was the necessary condition for whatever success it could possibly have.   

            Thankfully, getting through analysis in no way cured me of my symptom: I’m still grappling with my groups. I can be rueful about all the groups to which I belong, but without all those others (and Others), where would I be? Without engaging these groups, how do I figure out who I am? I think it is a meaningless question now: there would be no I without them.

            See you Sunday.


[1] “Seeing an auctioneer with some fetching young creature/One can only assume the lad’s desperate to sell – himself.” Catullus 106 (Green, p. 205).


Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of Things. New York: Vintage Books, p. xviii.

Green, P. (2005). The Poems of Catullus. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wills, G. (2006). St. Augustine: Confessions. New York: Penguin.



Address correspondence to:

Todd Dean, MD
7710 Carondelet Ave., Ste. 504
St. Louis, MO63105


Todd Dean, MD, is a psychiatrist and Training and Supervising Analyst at the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute, as well as a member of the Apres-Coup Psychoanalytic Association in New York.


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