What happens to our souls when we are forced to conceal our real thoughts and feelings again and again and again?

Why are some people so resistant to healing and freedom?  

Does Jesus want us to believe we need Church leaders?  

These are three questions addressed in an episode of Rob Bell’s excellent podcast series, Jesus H. Christ.*  The episode, which centers on Jesus healing the man possessed of a legion of unclean spirits, has eerily close parallels with what I’ve been seeing lately in the LDS Church and among Church members (even though the episode has nothing to do with the Church). Specifically, some of the developments banging around in my head while I was listening were (1) this excellent blog post analyzing (with data) the increase of mentions of Nelson among Church authorities since his tenure began, (2) this Exponent post thoughtfully reacting to that information and addressing leader-worship and how it (among other things) infantilizes members and stunts their spiritual development, (3) this talk by Elder Corbitt of the General YM Presidency where he instructs us that we should never participate in activism “towards the Church”, (4) a very similar talk by Sherri Dew expressly conflating “following the prophet” with “following Jesus Christ,” and (5) a conversation I had with someone who was absolutely adamant that even simply “hoping” for change in the Church (specifically with respect to gay marriage) was an apostate, deceitful, prophet-bashing thing to do.  In other words, in the last few weeks there was a lot of airtime given to the idea of Follow the Prophet.  Apparently, “Hear Him” (Jesus) has proven too permissive and problematic for the Church.  It’s now Hear him (Nelson).    

I’m not going to do a line-by-line on Corbitt or Dew’s talks; I honestly don’t want to spend that much time reading, thinking, or writing about them.  Plus, there were some great responses in the comments on this post.  Instead, I’m keeping them in mind while discussing Rob Bell’s take on Mark 5.  I encourage you to listen to the episode yourself, but I’m summarizing relevant parts below.  I don’t have a transcript so any quotes are my own transcription and may contain errors or mistranscriptions or modifications to suit them for written transmission, but I did my best.   

  1. The Story

I’ll break this down into components later, but since it’s not too many verses here is the text from Mark (KJV).  

And [Jesus and his disciples] came over unto the other side of the sea, into the country of the Gadarenes.

And when [Jesus] was come out of the ship, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no man could bind him, no, not with chains, because that he had been often bound with fetters and chains, and the chains had been plucked asunder by him, and the fetters broken in pieces: neither could any man tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains, and in the tombs, crying, and cutting himself with stones.

But when he saw Jesus afar off, he ran and worshipped him, and cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.

For [Jesus] said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.  And [Jesus] asked him, What is thy name? And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.  And he besought [Jesus] much that he would not send them away out of the country.

Now there was there nigh unto the mountains a great herd of swine feeding.  And all the devils besought [Jesus], saying, Send us into the swine, that we may enter into them.

And forthwith Jesus gave them leave. And the unclean spirits went out, and entered into the swine: and the herd ran violently down a steep place into the sea, (they were about two thousand;) and were choked in the sea.

And they that fed the swine fled, and told it in the city, and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that was done.  And they come to Jesus, and see him that was possessed with the devil, and had the legion, sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind: and they were afraid.

And they that saw it told them how it befell to him that was possessed with the devil, and also concerning the swine.  And they began to pray [Jesus] to depart out of their coasts.

And when [Jesus] was come into the ship, he that had been possessed with the devil prayed [Jesus] that he might be with him.  Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.

And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.

  1. Repression Fractures the Soul.

The first portion of the story I want to address is the nature of the man’s affliction.  He was clearly suffering greatly – “crying, and cutting himself with stones”.  He was living in a ritually unclean space (tombs, and notably Jesus visited him there).  And when the spirits he was possessed with identified themselves to Jesus, they identified themselves as “legion.”  

What might have caused this?  Bell argues that his state may have been brought about by Roman oppression and shows what happens when you have to choose between resisting and being slaughtered, or staying quiet and going mad.  According to Bell (who relies on the historian Josephus), this area (Gadarenes, or Garasenes or Gerasa), had recently been the site of a rebellion against Roman rule and a bloody crackdown in which a huge percentage of the population was slaughtered.  Notably, the spirits tormenting the man identify themselves as “legion”, which is the term for a Roman military organization.   

Bell describes: 

This man is from a region that’s been traumatized and he’s a living, breathing picture of the larger oppression that the whole area has suffered from.  You either speak up against injustice and risk getting … penalized or sent to jail.  Or you don’t speak out and you repress it and then it festers under the surface.  And it just eats you alive.  

All throughout this region Jesus is interacting with people [whose choice is] either resist and disrupt and … risk the wrath of Rome, [which is] killing men and burning them to the ground.  How do you know that what you’re doing isn’t going to incite the Romans?  Because what Romans do is destroy resistance.  They slaughter and crucify and burn everything to the ground.  You either speak up or you stay quiet, but if you stay quiet that’s its own form of madness.  Keeping it inside may have been even worse.

[This is a] confrontation between Jesus and a system of psychospiritual oppression.  Jesus vs. the Roman occupation … Jesus comes to enact liberation.  Jesus names the thing that everybody is terrified of and then sets you free from it.  

There’s a lot to think about here, and much of the ministry of Jesus and the way the gospels describe him is to pit him against Rome–he is the opposite of Rome.  But what struck me in particular on this listen is the idea of a fractured soul, of what happens to us when we are forced to choose between speaking up / showing up as ourselves and being punished (excommunicated, shamed, called apostate, released from callings, shunned by a community) or staying quiet and closeted at the expense of our integrity (literally, our wholeness).  Corbitt and Dew are telling us to stay quiet.  The Church is telling us to worry about our identities as covenant keepers (a relationship mediated by the Church) more than other parts of our identity. 

Is the institutional Church following Jesus’s lead, or Rome’s?  

  1.  Freedom is Terrifying.   

The next part of the story I want to address is how the community responded to the man’s miraculous healing.  Did they clamor for more miracles from Jesus (as had happened in other places)?  No!  When they saw the man “sitting, and clothed, and in his right mind,” they “were afraid” and “they began to pray [Jesus] to depart out of their coasts.”  They begged Jesus to leave!   

Bell describes this reaction as symptomatic of a fear and despair so great that healing and liberation are terrifying: 

This man was sitting there dressed and in his right mind and they were afraid.  Deep despair.  Malaise.  A despair so great that when healing and liberation come they are terrified.  The shame, humiliation, terror is such that they come to the point where someone being freed is alarming.  It’s like you wake up, you get set free, you’re more alive than ever, you have questions and insights and expanded understandings and possibilities, and you share these–only to receive blank stares.  You know that the despair has set in when somebody gets set free and it scares people.  

Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon possessed man and to the pigs as well then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.  They literally can’t receive and celebrate the good because of their fear.  

Liberation can be incredibly disruptive.  Here’s the thing.  You used to obey.  You used to follow the rules.  You used to stay quiet about the insanity. You used to go along with the conventional wisdom.  You used to live like the other families on your street lived.  You used to not say anything.  You used to do things how your family and tribe taught you how things are to be done.  You used to show up at the appointed times and smile and nod and you used to make sure that you didn’t say anything about the elephant in the room.  You used to play your part.  

But now?  You can’t.  You see and you can’t unsee.  You’ve tasted and you can’t untaste.  And your liberation, your growth, this change, this thing that is happening within you can be incredibly disruptive.  There’s a man who has been harming himself because of his bondage to evil and Jesus comes and sets him free so that he’s dressed and in his right mind and the response of the people is ‘Jesus you have to leave now.’

It is possible to be free and more alive than ever with more joy, more vitality, more generosity, more compassion, and at exactly the moment in which you’re in a better place than you’ve ever been is exactly the moment of confrontation with those who would prefer for things to remain the way they are.

How often have you seen this kind of reaction?  Someone is finally free, and those who are not free feel threatened.  I had a lengthy conversation with someone last week who is very entrenched in following the prophet.  She could not even entertain the notion that it is ok to hope for change someday.  Hoping for change, she said, was apostasy.  There may be a lot of reasons she feels that way, but I couldn’t help but think that a part of it is that she and some of her loved ones have sacrificed a lot on the altar of following the prophet.  For her, the idea that others feel free to follow their own consciences could be terrifying because it means she could also have done so all along.  Realizing that she’s free and always has been could come with a lot of regret.  

I think about someone like Oaks who has made it his personal mission in life to fight against gay marriage.  He’s devoted his considerable intellectual heft, his time and talents and energy, to fighting gay marriage because he thought he was supposed to do that.  Because he thought that we aren’t really free to pursue the kinds of relationships that we want to pursue.  Is it any wonder that he would bristle in the extreme at any notion that he didn’t actually need to do that?  

I wonder, too, what might motivate Dew and Corbitt to speak the way they speak.  What are they afraid of?  Who around them is free in a way that they are not, and are they reacting to that?  

  1. Maybe Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Follow Him (or Anyone Else).

The final section I’ll discuss is the one that inspired Bell’s title for the podcast episode–“Maybe Jesus Doesn’t Want You to Follow Him.”  Provocative, but bear with me.  It’ll make sense.  

The story concludes with Jesus and his disciples getting ready to leave the region, and the man he had healed asked to go with him.  Unlike other followers–whom Jesus had told to leave their nets and follow him–Jesus instructed this man to stay in his home and tell others about his experience:  “Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.  And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis how great things Jesus had done for him: and all men did marvel.”

Bell talks about the trust Jesus shows in this new follower, empowering him to teach before undergoing any kind of particular training.  His experience was all he needed–as Bell describes: 

What about training?  Doesn’t he need an undergrad?  Sharpening up arguments?  … You can’t just send him back to his people – that’s it?  According to Jesus, apparently this is enough.  The man has been set free so just go tell how you’ve been set free to your people.  Go back to your family, brothers and sisters, just go tell the story.

It’s as if the man is saying let me learn with [your other disciples].  Jesus is responding you have everything you need.  It’s as if Jesus has more confidence in the man than the man has in the man.  It’s as if Jesus believes in the man more than the man believes in himself.  

What if the man gets it wrong?  None of these things appear to bother Jesus in any way.  ‘You have everything you need here.’  

Jesus is teaching them to listen to what they know is true.  ‘You don’t need me to follow around.’  

There is this tremendous human need for validation.  Looking for someone to tell you you’re ok.  And then there is this thing that Jesus is doing then with his disciples in which he is teaching them they have everything they need.  

Bell contrasts this with how many organizations behave:  

Think of how many organizations keep reminding you how much you need them.  Think of how many institutions, obviously when you get into religion, how much work is done to keep reminding and keeping in front of you how much you need them.  And obviously we need community and we need each other and we need support and we need a tribe and we need a table to feast at, but the goal here with Jesus is to grow up.  It’s an elevation in what it means to be human.  The Kingdom of God is within you.  In the New Testament, Jesus tells Peter, you have everything you need to live in the flow of the divine.

Hearing this was a striking contrast to what Dew and Corbitt have been teaching.  For example, Dew admonished that  “[w]hatever the cost, do not separate yourself from those who hold all priesthood keys … Let prophets of God be your spiritual anchor.  Listen to them.  Study their words.  Follow their counsel.  It will protect you from deception and keep you from making major mistakes.”  

Likewise, Corbitt “counseled to beware of catchphrases that somehow preserve a sense of religious sincerity to influence others, such as ‘I don’t follow the Brethren, I follow Jesus Christ,’ or ‘I am holding the Brethren accountable to do what’s right.’  ‘These dangerous claims are as counter to Jesus’ own teachings as they are confused,’ Brother Corbitt said. ‘By contrast, discipleship of Jesus Christ builds and expresses confidence, faith and prayer on behalf of Church leaders.’”  

These assertions—which reflect one of the most problematic strains of LDS thinking out there IMO—flatly contradict the confidence Jesus expressed in a brand-new convert:  Don’t follow me. Trust your experience. Share your experience.  Why do organizations do this, and what is the cost to their members?  

  1. Postscript–Yeah, I Could Use You.    

Bell ends the episode with a postscript about this story from Mark 7. In Mark 7, Jesus returns to Decapolis–the Greek city where the man he’d healed from the legion of evil spirits had gone to share his experience (instead of following Jesus back across Galilee).  As you’ll recall, in Mark 5, the people ask Jesus to leave.  But when he comes back, this time there is a “multitude” waiting for him asking for healing:   

And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts of Decapolis. 

And they bring unto him one that was deaf, and had an impediment in his speech; and they beseech him to put his hand upon him. 

And he took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spit, and touched his tongue; and looking up to heaven, he sighed, and saith unto him, Ephphatha, that is, Be opened. 

And straightway his ears were opened, and the string of his tongue was loosed, and he spake plain. 

And he charged them that they should tell no man: but the more he charged them, so much the more a great deal they published it and were beyond measure astonished, saying, He hath done all things well: he maketh both the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.

Bell theorizes about the reason there is a crowd there, in this thoroughly Greek region, expecting Jesus to heal them:

Is there a crowd because this random dude who got set free went and told his story and word spread and by the next time Jesus came through so many people have heard from this one dude that a crowd has gathered?  Goes back to this enduring truth that you see what Jesus.  Tremendous elevation of the human.  He keeps insisting that average ordinary everyday people like you and me, and people who have been liberated by evil spirits, just in witnessing to the mercy and healing of the divine, can essentially activate all sort of goodness in the world.  Heart of the story is insistence that whatever you’ve been though you’re fully capable of doing interesting and compelling things in the world.

I find great hope in this.  I find great comfort in this.  It’s like Jesus keeps saying yeah, I could use you.  Yeah we could use someone like you. I’m interested in you and who you are and what it looks like for you to be fully alive.

Is this the message you get from Dew and Corbitt?  Do you feel like the Church is interested in “you and who you are and what it looks like for you to be fully alive”?    


  • What do you think of Bell’s take on this story?  Does he misinterpret it?  Does he shed light on it?  Do you wish we spent more time doing close readings of scripture stories at Church?  (Some of my favorite talks—woefully rare—are those that do close readings of one or two stories or verses. Other churches do a better job of this than we do because they have trained clergy.)
  • Have you seen instances where repression has led to a fractured soul?  Are there things in Church culture or practice that encourage this?  Are there things in Church culture or practice that help with this?  On a scale from 1 to 10 with 1 being Jesus and 10 being the Romans, how would you rate your ward?  Stake?  Top Church leadership?
  • Have you ever seen someone who was free in a way that you didn’t feel free and resented them for it?  Why or why not?  Have you faced opposition or resentment from others for your own free actions?
  • What do you think of claims that following the prophet = following Jesus?  Is there scriptural support for Corbitt’s assertion that this is the case?  What do you think of the logic (that I hear repeated a lot) that prophets say they speak for Jesus therefore prophets speak for Jesus?  Why are people willing to believe this kind of claim when they may not likely believe it coming from anyone else? 
  • Do you feel like the Church wants you as you are, or only as someone else?  

*Apart from reading Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, this series has been the single most enlightening thing I’ve ever learned about Jesus.  It’s so good.  Listen to it.  Really.  Bell kind of drives me nuts sometimes, I don’t like the parts at the beginning where he’s just rambling about his life and his tours and whatever else, but I promise that once he gets going, it’s mind-boggling good.