Friday, April 18, 2014

Good Friday Reflections: Depression and Redemption

Spider-Man 3 is not a very good film, but there's a scene that resonates with me on an almost primal level. Peter Parker is struggling to divest himself of the alien symbiote Venom, which takes the form of a black version of his Spider-Man suit. It wraps itself around him, dark and sticky and inescapable, corrupting him as it leaches him of his conscience. He only gets rid of it with the help of church bells: the toll of music, liturgy, call to worship.

I recognize that thing, I said to myself the first time I saw Venom tightening its grip around Peter even as he fought to be free. It's inside me.

“There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (Mark 7:15)

When I was little, I didn't know depression could happen to me. In my mind, I called it “sticky black sludge”: the inexplicable but overwhelming sense of worthlessness, the despicable inability to do or think or feel anything good. As I grew older, I reconceptualized the sticky black sludge as the sin that dwells within me. Only after a friend suggested that I'd probably been mildly depressed my whole life did it occur to me that there could be another explanation, and maybe I should seek diagnosis.

Sometimes I wonder if depression makes me especially susceptible to a narrative of salvation and redemption. This acute sense of my brokenness, the engulfing and inescapable sin in which I am swallowed, the feeling that I am nothing but ungodly wretchedness – is it, as a powerful strand of Christian thought would have it, a reflection of the objective reality of a fallen world that can only be saved by God's grace? Or is it just the darkness of mental illness, a chemical imbalance in my brain that has to be treated with medications and therapy?

Can it be both?

“Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet.” (Psalm 69:1-2)

The part of prep school Easter services that stays with me is the Good Friday portion. The hymn “O Sacred Head” and the Pergolesi “Stabat Mater” are two pieces that gave me chills and tears even as a theologically unsophisticated child. Something about the death of Jesus, his torture and agony on the cross, always called to me, powerfully and awfully. But can a theology that centers on Christ's death ever be other than morbid, scapegoating, cosmic child abuse?

I'm taking a theology class on new materialism this semester, and some of my classmates have been pretty resistant to theory that moves agency and subjectivity away from the human individual. It makes good sense to me, though. I am so used to feeling powerless, to feeling shaped and buffeted by forces far beyond my control, to a feeling of absolute dependence straight out of Schleiermacher, that I honestly find it a little relieving to surrender some agency. Maybe that makes me pathetic.

“I am a worm and no man … I am poured out like water; all my bones are out of joint; my heart within my breast is melting wax.” (Psalm 22:6, 14)

In my academic work, I do everything right. I deconstruct foundations and resist absolutism. I challenge orthodoxy and interrogate the taken-for-granted. I am well-versed in the theological and ethical problems with satisfaction atonement theory, and I know and espouse the alternatives.

And yet, in my lowest moments, when I am in the grip of agony, crushed and breathless from the total unbearableness of being me – that's when I return to satisfaction atonement. That's when I cling to the blood of Christ. It's all I can do.

I recoil from the death of Jesus. But I need it.


  1. Thanks Max, that definitely resonates with some aspects of my experience of mental ill health. Next time you're in Edinburgh we should definitely meet up for a chat and coffee: I think we could really encourage one another. Keep going, you're great! Emma.

    1. Thanks, Emma! Glad you enjoyed the piece. Hope you're doing okay x

  2. But can a theology that centers on Christ's death ever be other than morbid, scapegoating, cosmic child abuse?

    Yes - there's some good work being done in this area, either exploring new directions for theology or reclaiming (and then developing) understandings of the atonement that were prevalent prior to about a thousand years ago when penal substitution came to dominate in the western church.

    I've written about Girardian or mimetic atonement theory here and include a link to a book that explores a variety of non-violent atonement theories.