Prophets, Apostles, and Mental Illness


I have kidded for decades about the fact that in my ministerial years I have met at least 23 of the Two Witnesses. One felt he was both of them, thus the odd number.

I remember going with a minister to a home in Idaho once where the woman heard the voice of God often in her head. She had a young baby so the minister asked me to tend to the baby while he talked to her about her visions and voices. The baby had not had a diaper change in a pretty long time, so I took care of that in the kitchen while the minister tried to help her. Seems she was killing chickens on the farm and trying to resurrect them…without much luck. We never made any connection to the danger and I doubt either of us understood the symptoms of schizophrenia, but I do now. After that, I returned to Ambassador for my last year and was reading the LA Times in the lounge before breakfast. My eye fell on a small article about a woman in a small town in Idaho who was found sitting in her car on a Mountain top waiting for Jesus to return. I knew the name. They found the baby dead on the farm. Or should I say, still dead.

From the Bible we find a man once laid on his right side for 390 straight days and then flipped over for another 40 because the voice in his head told him to. He built little models of Jerusalem in the sand and laid siege to a stone with a pot (Ez. 4). He even cooked his food with human waste (Ez. 4:9) and dug a hole in his own home and squeezed himself through it with his possessions on his back (Ez. 12). His name was Ezekiel. Maybe he was traumatized by the captivity or the destruction of the symbol of all that was holy and stable to him, the temple. He died forever ago and lots of the stuff he said was going to happen never really did far as we can tell. I hear a lot of minister types quoting him 2500 years later as if you can read the newspaper and immediately see what Ezekiel was talking about. I guess if they lay siege to a rock, lay on their sides for a year or more and give up charcoal for human waste at cookouts, …well…ewwww. Time to find another church. I know most will say that God told him to do these things….but think about what you are saying. Would you say that about Andrea Yates who God told to drown her kids or Mijailo Mijailovic who killed the Swedish Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, saying when asked who told him to do it, “I think it was Jesus. That he has chosen me”?

An Old Testament character, Moses, went up into the mountains a few times because the voice in his head that no one else could hear, called him up for a meeting. He said it was God, but when he came back down the mountain carrying , what he said were the rules from the voice in his head, he ordered the murder of 3000 more pretty nice people, men women and children for not patiently waiting for him. And these people had already had a pretty tough time getting out of Egypt doing what the voice in this guys head told him to do. He had friends killing friends and families. Bummer… that was a heck of a lot of drama and walking for nothing. From what I understand, hardly anyone who fled Dodge City, Egypt believing the voices in this man’s head ever made it to the Promise Land. I’m not sure the story really happened, which would be a relief. I just can’t imagine this as a good way to begin their understanding of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” This same fellow, was pretty sure that the voice spoke to him from bushes in the desert too. Not a good sign in the world of mental health types .

Yet again, an Old Testament figure called Abraham, decides to take his only son, up the mountain and kill him as a sacrifice. Perhaps a weird way to say thanks for the son that he could never have before. But I’d think that was going a bit too far. Reminds me of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Anyway, the voice in his head said to and then decided it was only kidding. The child, who probably refused ever again to go on any “just a campout” with dad , was replaced by an animal conveniently stuck in a nearby bush. What’s the chance of that! I can’t imagine Isaac every quite trusted ol’ dad again.

There was a guy who married a prostitute because the voice told him to. We had to drop the standard laws of marriage for this one, but its OK if you are doing it for God. Man was his wife mad about that! The guy even began to think he was a reincarnated form of the guy before him who talked to the bush. Tons of people obeyed this guy for a time, but usually not for very long. Hosea I think.

The more I think about it, the more I have to admit that voices in the heads of people I never met, and no one at that time could hear themselves, have played a really big role in who gets the final say in religion. What if…Nah.

Paul in the New Testament fell off a donkey when he heard a voice in his head about giving Jesus a hard time in his old job. He even saw a flash of light in his head, brighter than the sun and it was already noon when this happened! That’s pretty darn bright! When people in the Bible light up, it’s ALWAYS brighter than the sun. You’d think more people would notice. The others either heard the voice but did not see the light, or saw the light but not the voice, stood up, or all fell down depending on the story your read in the Bible. The voice in Paul’s head told him it was time to change jobs and he’d get his vision back from a guy in town if he did what he was told. Today we might say he had all the symptoms of a sunstroke or maybe even temporal lobe epilepsy where voices and flashes are pretty darn common along with an intense sense of morality that others must get in tune with.

Paul went on to write most of the New Testament and continue to tell people nothing about any real Jesus he had ever met. No stories, no miracles, no teachings, nothing about the 12 guys Jesus had to follow him, and I would expect to have passed the teachings on to others. Maybe even write something about Jesus, after all there were 12 of them! But alas, they didn’t much and we have no clue what happened to that bunch. It’s all hearsay. Some say that they were merely a symbol of the twelve signs of the zodiac surrounding the central sun/son, and not real people, but let’s not go there.

Paul spoke volumes about the one who spoke to him in his head and he saw often in visions. When he gave the instructions for eating the body and blood of Jesus, he said very plainly Jesus himself told him about the details of that. Paul never met the real Jesus so I’m pretty sure he meant in vision. When he said, “have I not seen the Lord?” he didn’t mean in person. He meant in his visions. He even took a trip to the third heaven, but said the stuff he saw was too much to share at this time…Hey!

At any rate, Paul ends up in Rome for some unnamed offense and disappears. Sometimes I think his death or execution must have been an embarrassment to the church as the last we hear of him, he is under house arrest having a pretty good time. I’m sure they knew how it ended for the guy and why, but it might have annoyed the early Christians to know the truth of it all, so they left it out.

I even heard or read in the book of Mark that Jesus mom and brothers came down to Jerusalem to get him because THEY thought he was “mad.” I don’t think they thought he was angry, but rather a bit daft. Jesus kind of blew them off in a way that would have got me slapped by my dad for being so rude to mom. It was like he didn’t know them. Mary had evidently completely forgotten about his wonderful birth story and all those great things she kept and pondered in her heart. Besides he had to do what the voice in his head said. Later, other guys who wrote about Jesus dropped this hot little tale and told a really cute story about how Jesus came to be. God himself had visited her, well no, I guess the Holy Spirit did. You know the third thing in the Trinity and she was pregnant by no less than the Deity. She burst into song about this in Luke and seemed to know that Jesus was literally “fully God and fully man”, whatever that means. I can understand one thing being fully something, but not two things being fully the same thing but different and coequal but not. Oh never mind. Church talk. I guess it’s one of those mysteries we hear about when one story leads to the next and we tie ourselves in a knot, wrapped in a enigma, coated with cheese.

Matthew tells a great story of Jesus birth, different from Luke’s, but at least they cleaned up that embarrassing tale about Jesus being hauled away by his family for being nuts. Mark must have been mistaken according to Matthew and Luke, but Mark was the embarrassing story and came before the cute story, I suspect it had a ring of truth to it, at least as Mary saw it.

Sometimes I wonder if Jesus was so anxiety ridden not to know who his real father was that he took mom literal when she got tired of him asking and said “God is your father.” Who knows?

I always found it interesting that the poor kid in the New Testament who threw himself in both the fire and water often, or maybe just fell in them when this hit him, cried out, foamed at the mouth and then recovered pretty quickly when the demon was put out, had all the symptoms of infantile epilepsy. Every one!

Some say his cursing trees for having no fruit at a time of year when there is not supposed to be fruit, or attacking the legitimate money changers in the temple who really were simply changing pagan money into temple scrip for the purchase of sacrifices, were not good signs of quality mental health. That last act probably got him killed by the Romans, though somehow it ended up being the Jews fault. I guess it was easier and a bit wiser to blame the Jews who could not hurt you, rather than the Romans who could kill you. At any rate, this temper thing is not a good sign of good mental health.

As long as we are on the topic… I always found it interesting that the poor kid in the New Testament who threw himself in both the fire and water often, or maybe just fell in them when this hit him, cried out, foamed at the mouth and then recovered pretty quickly when the demon was put out, had all the symptoms of infantile epilepsy. Every one! I wonder how people back then would treat a kid with epilepsy! It runs its course in about 30 minutes so it would sure appear that the old demon was banished. I also wondered as a kid, what a kid would have to do to get a real demon lurking in his body. Must have been some weak minded kid to let that happen. I remember as a kid hoping no demon would jump on me. I’d vote infantile epilepsy and not blame the folks of 2000 years ago for not knowing the symptoms or how it manifested. Anyway, the demon was put out, but we don’t know if it ever came back.

Jesus had a hard time doing this stuff in his hometown because a prophet has no honor in his own town or with his own family. Well duh! They know you pretty darn well and got so concerned they came down to retrieve you for your own good, if you believe Mark. Of course he blamed the weak faith of the group, but maybe that’s because they all know you so well and aren’t easily convinced. I mean, if Jesus was God, really, really, really GOD, would the force be thwarted just because the neighbors who knew you as a kid had a hard time accepting that? I think not! Since when does being God in the flesh depend on the acceptance of the people who know you best?

I once read a story about Jesus where, as a child he kills another playmate for some offense towards him. Gosh, I hope that didn’t really happen but I can see why it never made the cut. I guess Jesus could have heard about Moses knocking off the Egyptian for picking on a buddy and God said it was OK to express your anger that way if you need to.

Jesus also got rid of a whole legion of demons in a man that lived in a cemetery, naked and was really an angry guy that was so strong he broke the chains they tried to bind him in. I guess that was sorta the lithium of the times…chains. Anyway, aside from this man having every symptom of schizophrenia, all the demons got thrown into a herd of pigs and they ran down into the sea from a town no where near the sea and drown. Kind of a marathon run and by the time they got there, they’d be skinny and pooped out pigs. But this is another story. Boy, I bet that made the farmer mad at Jesus! Of course, this would not be a Jewish farmer so it’s ok. In the OT, if you found some animal that was defective, you couldn’t eat it yourself, but you could sell it to the pagans, so hey, not your problemo.

Anyway….I guess we could really wonder about the book of Revelation… Whoa…that is some good drugs! Whoever wrote that was one angry human being… Death, destruction, fire, plagues, trombones, vials and all sorts of stuff pour out on everyone! This Jesus is not such a nice guy. Sometimes I get to thinking the one in the Gospels can’t possibly be the same one as the guy in Revelation, but that’s what they say. The one in Revelation seems like an end stage schizophrenic gone amuck. I’m not sure I could be comfy in heaven or the kingdom with one who could be so freaking mean to everyone except those special ones. I always felt a few seminars or maybe a refresher type program would send a kinder gentler message, instead of all the butt kicking, death and destruction. Maybe a nice lunch between encouraging sessions and a Luau in the evening where we could all marvel at actually meeting the real God and Jesus. And hey…if the presenter is really God or Jesus come down…I mean really really…I’d listen and be good. But alas, this Jesus in Revelation is a case…maybe literally. It’s just one big vision in someone’s head hearing voices again that others can’t hear and seeing things others don’t see. Makes me nervous. And people today base their entire life perspective on a vindictive vision expressed almost as a “oh yeah, well this is what you get for not believing me.” Nuther symptom. Vengeance.

Someone once asked what’s the difference between a Bible Prophet or Christian fundamentalist and a paranoid schizophrenic? Well, one hears voices in their head, has a heightened moral code, is judgmental yet can be very deceptive and manipulative, has delusions of being on a mission from God, sees things that no one else present sees, hears things that one else hears, sees lights in his head, is the center of the universe and has special knowledge that must be kept secret until the right time an then can only be understood as explained by the one. The other, of course, is a paranoid schizophrenic.

I had a close friend in high school who in college came down with the classic symptoms of schizophrenia. Very intelligent but all of a sudden was overcome with the chemistry of schizophrenia that comes mostly between 18 and 35. He simply could not function in this world. His perceptions and his reality were far different than even he could understand. He died in his chair, alone in a dingy apartment last year. I wish I had gone to see him. Nice kid.

What if most, some or even ONE of the characters of religion, are humans who suffered from certifiable mental illnesses? What if some get followings because they are so darn fascinating and in combo with reading the Bible can seem so right? Perhaps we are dealing with traumatized human beings and their coping mechanisms. Schizophrenic and paraphrenic personalities can be brilliant yet fragile. A narcissist can rise to amazing heights of success and productivity. They can have “beautiful minds” and be very very ill. They make great dictators and Televangelists.

We know more now than we did 3000 years ago. And yet when it comes to the Bible and those who declare themselves the special men of God, we go as blind as Paul claimed to go on the road to Damascus. (Even though Paul himself never says this was the mechanism of his conversion. Perhaps even worse, like Jeremiah and Jesus, he was called before birth in the womb as he notes in Galatians.) Pretty darn special! And yet we can allow that kind of perspective to be religious when today, we would get very uncomfortable with a real person saying that about themselves. What seems OK as long as it is in the distant past becomes freaky if in the present. Many who turned away from Paul or an Ezekiel may have had that gut level discomfort. I doubt anyone today would feel a religious zealot who cooked dinner with his own dung would be anything but twelve short of a dozen.

Why is this an issue? Because a minister, maybe sincere, and maybe simply mentally unstable or delusional can hide in the ministry much better than he can hide at IBM. A minister that is prolific, charismatic while also dictatorial and delusional looks spiritual and obedient. The quirkiness is mistaken for spirituality and obedience to God. They have the ability to be deceivingly compassionate one minute and intensely angry at anything and everyone the next. They don’t like to be contradicted, corrected nor have their mental processes questioned. They NEVER take personality tests! How is it that normal human beings, who have accurate perceptions about the mental instability of some at work, then lose that instinct at church? The quirkiness at work becomes the spiritually desirable trait in church! Go figure!

When Alexander Haig declared himself in charge of the government after the Reagan shooting, he was torn to shreds for his misstep and is still trying to explain it. But when a pastor type declares himself a “Watcher” or an “Apostle” or a Prophet or incredibly more special than the average human, it gets swallowed hook, line and sinker?

What if the behaviors recorded thousands of years ago that has been the basis for so much religious zealotry is simply better understood in the context of mental illness? We always say if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and swims like a duck, there is a good chance we may be dealing with a duck. When it comes to religion however we change our perceptions. If it walks like a narcissist, if it talks like a Para or schizophrenic and if it has all the symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy, it must be a man of God!

What if some of the many heroes of faith, even some of the biggies, were simply mentally ill as we understand it today? Wow…what a thought! Makes you think doesn’t it?

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