Co-Addict or Trauma Victim? Secondary abuse of spouses and partners of sex addicts


I wish someone had warned me that both COSA (Co-dependents of Sex Addicts) and S-Anon (a sister organization to Sexaholics Anonymous), the two largest 12-Step programs supporting the partners of sex addicts, subscribe to the notion that we partners are “co-addicts” or “codependents.”  The emphasis of their programs is our “recovery” from co-addiction. If you tell them that you are not a co-addict or codependent you are told that this is a typical response from a co-addict, as we are always in denial to begin with. In other words, we have no insight into our behavior and are blind to our illness.

Living with a Sex Addict

Not all help is helpful. Sometimes the best-intentioned efforts to help one spouse hurt the other. This is especially true for the surreptitious yet destructive phenomenon of victim-blaming.

On 6 August, The Grand Opera House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin aired a documentary entitled The Heart of the Matter about Christians addicted to pornography. Describing it as ‘a film documentary offering a compassionate response to Christians addicted to pornography and sex’, Chelsen Vicari writes,

The issue of pornography and its devastating impacts has certainly gained wider attention in our culture. From the pulpit to the blogosphere, we’re hearing more and more conversations about how porn harms people.

In a similar vein, this past Friday, Christianity Today published a piece singing the praises of ‘Celebrate Recovery,’ a Christian program for addicts developed 25 years ago by John Baker. According to CT, 29,000 churches host CR meetings, and 100,000 pastors have been trained in its 12-step recovery process.

These two recent examples are part of a growing effort to raise awareness about addiction among Christians and to combat the culture of shame that surrounds it. Hundreds of thousands of individuals struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, compulsive sexual behavior, compulsive gambling, and other serious problems, have benefited from Christian support groups, websites, articles, pamphlets, and books offering encouragement, exhortation, and advice. Many of these materials are written by recovering addicts themselves, who talk openly about their process of recovery. However, in many circles, those advocating for addicts are excluding and harming some of addiction’s other victims: the spouses and partners of addicts.

Blaming the Victim

… very often innocent victims are treated as if they were responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. This means that, besides having to deal with the negative consequences arising from the event that victimized them (primary victimization… ), they are victimized once again (secondary victimization… ), which also implies an absence of the social support which research has shown to be so crucial for the victims’ physical and psychological well-being.

Isabel Correia and Jorge Vala

Victim-blaming is both widespread and deeply anti-Christian in its philosophy. The number of studies documenting its nature, causes, and pervasiveness exploded after Melvin Lerner and Carolyn Simmons published their seminal 1966 work, ‘Observer’s Reaction to the “Innocent Victim”: Compassion or Rejection’. In it, Lerner and Simmons provide compelling evidence that we have a propensity to believe in a just world, where the innocent do not suffer unjustly and where the guilty get their due punishment. When faced with injustice, they argue, many of us are tempted to devalue and reject innocent victims to maintain our belief in a just world. This secondary victimization is particularly exacerbated when an innocent victim’s suffering is ongoing, with no end in sight (see here).

Cited by nearly 1,000 studies to date, Lerner’s and Simmons’ findings were more recently re-confirmed and extended by a study by Isabel Correia and Jorge Valaaside entitled ‘When Will a Victim Be Secondarily Victimized? The Effect of Observer’s Belief in a Just World, Victim’s Innocence and Persistence of Suffering’. Correia and Vala examine the relationship of three factors which existing research has demonstrated tend to influence reaction to a victim:

  • the observer’s belief in a just world,
  • the innocence of the victim, and
  • the persistence of the victim’s suffering.

They find that for those who believe in a just world,

the most threatening victim is the innocent victim whose suffering persists.

Victim-blaming persists in a wide variety of contexts, including the Christian church, directed towards, for example, such victims as sexually abused women and children and women battling other forms of domestic violence. For the majority of these women and children, their suffering persists because the violence is still ongoing and/or the physical and psychological aftermath of such violence continues to cause suffering.

Those who have endured victim-blaming often report that such secondary victimization is even worse than the initial abuse itself. Confirming the significance of secondary victimization are studies which have demonstrated that rape survivors who suffer victim-blaming, for example, have much higher levels of PTSD than do those who are not re-victimized in such ways. In short, victim-blaming is itself a form of violence. Though it would require fuller development elsewhere I suggest, too, that it is rooted in a belief about the world that is not found in Scripture, where God, in His great mercy, demonstrates that

He has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor rewarded us according to our iniquities.

Victim-Blaming in Sex Addiction Therapy

While victim-blaming has attracted worthy attention by those examining the forms of abuse mentioned above, comparable research and discussion, among Christians and otherwise, about the primary and secondary victimization (often by therapists) of spouses and partners of sex addicts is noticeably absent.

My interest in the topic of compulsive sexual behavior (often called sex addiction) began a year and a half ago when a friend mentioned to me, off-hand, that I might want to look at the literature on sex addiction therapy. I asked what he meant, and he explained that it had something to do with how such literature talked about women. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he said, but something wasn’t right. At that time, I did a little looking around and read a few articles which piqued my interest. I was busy with other projects, though, and had to put it aside.

But a few months ago, hoping to further my understanding, I read Ashamed No More, by T. C. Ryan. I was surprised by how little Ryan–a Christian, a recovering sex addict, and a leader of a ministry for sex addicts–talks about the spouses and partners of sex addicts. I paid attention to the few instances where Ryan mentions those he hurt with his addiction, noting that his descriptions of such wrongdoing were remarkably vague and brief, particularly in comparison to his lengthy and thorough discussion of himself, his personal history, and his own suffering. I took copious notes on his book and compiled and examined word lists and keyword lists as well as key semantic domains, noting the prominence of, for example, first person pronouns and other inward-focused language (self-destructive, self-loathing, self-worthlessness, etc).

I looked for other books written by Christians against which to compare it, compiled some lists, read a few, and began to notice and understand the pervasiveness and potential destructiveness of the concept of the co-addict and the way this label influences language about spouses/partners of sex addicts. I learned that T. C. Ryan is far from alone in his language about spouses/partners. Celebrate Recovery, for instance, the ministry I mentioned at the start of this post, publishes an informational pamphlet for spouses entitled ‘Co-dependent Women in a Relationship with Sexually Addicted Men’. And lest you think this is aimed at a subset of female spouses, the checklist of ‘symptoms’ contained in the pamphlet specifies that a woman need only have a spouse who exhibits compulsive sexual behavior.

Stephanie Carnes, fellow proponent of the co-addict model and writer of Mending A Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts, explains the concept of co-addict.

A co-sex addict is someone who is married to, or in a significant relationship with a sex addict and demonstrates a common set of behavioral characteristics.  These characteristics include: denial, preoccupation, enabling, rescuing, taking excessive responsibility, emotional turmoil, efforts to control, compromise of self, anger, and sexual issues.

Many have credited Dr. Patrick Carnes (father of Stephanie Carnes) both with the identification of compulsive sexual behavior as an addiction and with the now widespread labeling of partners and spouses of sex addicts as co-addicts. Carnes’ model is based on the 12 steps and 12 traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has itself been criticized by Christians and non-Christians alike. Carnes writes in his 1983 book Out of the Shadows that his 12-step model for sex addiction therapy, now espoused by T. C. Ryan as well as countless others,

can restore the capacity for meaningful relationships by developing in addicts and co-addicts new beliefs to replace dysfunctional or faulty beliefs.

Note the language ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘faulty’. The co-addict model frequently paints the spouse/partner as (often purposely) enmeshed in an abusive relationship, needy, controlling, fearful of being alone. Spouses who protest against such broad-stroke characterizations are simply in denial. Speaking about so-called co-addicts, the International Service Organization of COSA puts it this way,

One of the most difficult aspects of what we call co-sex addiction or sexual codependency, is grasping and facing the truth of our own condition. Another is admitting our powerlessness over the addict. The continual attempt to affect or control the sex addict renders our lives unmanageable.

A growing number of spouses of sex addicts have publicly described the co-addict model and its approaches to therapy as a type of secondary abuse, a re-traumatization of already victimized individuals. Some critics have gone so far as to describe it as patriarchal and narcissistic in scope (remember the inward-focused language I mention above?).

Likewise, a small but increasing number of both Christian and non-Christian psychologists, counselors, and therapists have challenged the prevalent addict/co-addict model. Among these is Omar Minwalla, who argues instead for a model that acknowledges more consistently the trauma that sex addicts have inflicted on their spouses/partners. Minwalla writes,

Sexual acting out disorders are not just sexual behaviors (Minwalla, O., 2012), but are also abusive behaviors, which include deceptive compartmentalized sexual-relational realities and systems of abusive covert management (Jason, S., 2008; Minwalla, O., 2012).  These are patterns of methodical planning over time, careful constructions of manipulation of others, and thought systems well maintained in order to keep a compartmentalized reality protected from discovery (Jason, S., 2008).  Managing a secret sexual life and reality takes profound energy to maintain, requiring pre-meditation and an ongoing commitment and intent to deceive, hide and violate others.

Though Minwalla writes from a non-Christian perspective, his views are echoed by Christian critics of co-addiction as well. Dr. Barbara Steffans, for example, notes the misunderstanding and victim-blaming she has witnessed in the co-addiction model, which she argues disrespects the mental health and experience of the spouse/partner.

Let me be clear. The many Christians among us struggling against sex addiction require our love, our time, and our compassion as fellow sinners in need of Christ’s saving grace. However, in my view, this cannot come at the expense of our acknowledgement

  1. of the traumatic effects of sex addiction on the addict’s partner or spouse and
  2. that one of the prevalent models of sex addiction therapy involves victim-blaming, a form of secondary abuse.

As a linguist, I am of course primarily interested in the ways in which language both reflects and perpetuates various perspectives on the spouses of sex addicts (addict/co-addict model vs. trauma model) and the extent to which such language victim-blames spouses. At the moment, there is evidence that victim-blaming does indeed happen in this context.

However,  I start this new series on language surrounding spouses and partners of sex addicts with some trepidation since I presently have far more questions than answers. All that said, please watch this space. There is a pressing need to examine the literature of the addict/co-addict movement, given both the scope of compulsive sexual behavior and the power that language has in facilitating or preventing the repentance, forgiveness, and healing of all parties involved.


‘What Christian is it that beats his wife?’

domestic-violence-infographic1In the last post in this series, I looked at the ways in which pastors preach about intimate partner violence. The examples I examined were, sadly, typical of the rare instances where pastors directly refer to such violence. In this post, however, I will look briefly at a sermon which defies convention by exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and contesting the blaming and pathologizing of victims. Like the previous post, I will rely on Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s (2007) analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, keeping in mind the additional category of ‘appeal to authority’ I suggested. This is by no means an exhaustive look at this particular sermon. I use this space to point out striking discursive features I’d like to explore in more detail elsewhere, focusing on the places in the sermon where the pastor mentions abuse explicitly.

The broader context of this sermon is worth noting before we dive in. When I read the transcription of this sermon, it was quickly apparent how different it is to the other sermons on divorce in the corpus. While many of the other sermons rely heavily on discursive features such as the language of constraint, on language describing how husbands and wives ought to behave, on women receiving action vs. men taking action, etc., this sermon stands apart discursively. Only recently did I look up the pastor and discover that apart from being Reformed Baptist, he is also British. This raises a question I had hoped would emerge from my pilot corpus: In what ways do cultural background and context influence discourse about divorce? I can hardly generalize from one sermon, but I’m intrigued to see this issue already popping up.

Exposing the abuser and their violence

Excerpt 1:

This would be a case which perhaps you’ve heard of, such situations where a Christian couple get married together, whatever, then the husband turns out to be abusing the wife, violent, uncaring in that way, deserting, leaving her, going off and behaving abominably, not following their vows and commitments.

(‘Divorce – Remarriage’)

A few things to note straightaway from this excerpt are, first, that the abuser is in subject position, his actions and attributes directly connected to him. He is violent, he is uncaring, he is deserting, he is behaving abominably. Next, see that the pastor begins with the action ‘abusing’, which is somewhat vague. But he doesn’t stop there. Rather, he goes on to specify what that abuse looks like, including a range of actions, both physical and non-physical. By providing this wide range of abusive behavior, the pastor is defining clearly for his congregation what abuse might look like and exposing abuse as not simply an act of physical violence. And finally, notice that the pastor presents this case using the historic present, which has the effect of bringing this event into the foreground and perhaps, as some have suggested convincingly, demonstrating its current relevance. While the other pastors in the corpus also used the historic present, in this case the abusive acts are not only present but progressive. They are ongoing, they are right now, they could be happening as we speak.

Particularly interesting is the way this pastor shifts from male to female when talking about an abuser, as in the following passage. For this pastor, abusers can be either sex, whereas in nearly every other sermon, men are the abusers.

Excerpt 2:

If a husband, oh, well, we can see it here, if a wife is behaving in an abusive way like bad violence or somewhere rather behaving in a drunken fashion and destroying the home, threatening the children, violence in that respect…

In this passage, we see again some of the same discursive features (historic present, progressive, active voice, etc.) which expose both the abuser and the violence, though the pastor expands the concept of abuse to include only physical violence. This is another issue worth exploring in detail later, in an expanded corpus. In what ways is abuse gendered? What might this mean?

This pastor further assigns blame to the abuser towards the end of the sermon, where he asks a series of rhetorical questions, identifying the abuser with an unbeliever, someone who is to be treated like a ‘heathen and a tax collector’.

Excerpt 3:

What Christian is it that beats his wife? What Christian is it that deserts his wife, walks out on her? What Christian is it who acts in such immoral ways and is behaving in a way completely contrary to the Word of God? So they placed themselves there effectively as an unbeliever…

The Victim Isn’t to Blame

Some sermon excerpts also have the effect of challenging anyone who might be tempted to blame the victim of abuse. First of all, notice the verb ‘turns out’ in Excerpt 1 (‘the husband turns out to be abusing his wife.’). Consider in what contexts it is most frequently used. The picture here is not of a woman who knowingly married an abusive man and so was somehow partly to blame for her victimization. ‘Turns out’ indicates the unexpected, the unpredictable.

Also telling is this pastor’s version of evaluative ‘oh’ and the way he combines this with an appeal to authority, both of which you may recall from my previous post. Evaluative ‘oh’ was used with some regularity in the corpus to introduce and cast doubt on invented quotes from victims of abuse and those who might support them. See if you can spot the difference in how this pastor makes use of invented reported speech in Excerpt 4.

Excerpt 4:

What happens then? Is the counsel this? Well, sorry, you’re married, you’re a Christian, he is a Christian, she is a Christian… you have to stay together. Well, actually the situation is far more complex than that.

I suggest that the ‘well’ here functions as an evaluative ‘oh’ and indicates negative evaluation of the uncaring adviser, again unlike the other sermons. This interpretation of ‘well’ is confirmed elsewhere in the same sermon, as in the following:

But the Pharisees were not so interested in that. They were rather interested in only certificates that you could sign. Husbands there could say, Well, I detest my wife now, got fed up with her, don’t like her another… And the Lord’s saying, no, not at all.

The implication is that the deserter is the guilty party, and the appeal to authority which follows (‘the Lord’s saying’, a version of ‘Thus saith the Lord’) further condemns him rather than condemning the victim, in contrast with the other sermons.

Still more to say…

This sermon is by no means faultless in its depiction of an abusive marriage and its implications for divorce. Questions remain regarding the aforementioned gendering of violence, and particularly troubling is another point I didn’t explore here: the pastor’s eventual recommendation that the victim use the Matthew 18 principle as a first step to dealing with violence. However, this sermon is one of the only sermons in the corpus in which the pastor explicitly refers to abuse whilst exposing violence, clarifying offenders’ responsibility, and cautioning against victim-blaming. Considering the statistics regarding intimate partner violence, it is highly likely that a victim of violence sat in the pews when each of the sermons we have looked at was originally preached, not to mention the many who have since downloaded one or more from Sermon Audio. As someone committed to the protection of such victims, I know which pew I would prefer to sit in, given the choices so far.

I have only scratched the surface with regard to the discourse of divorce. If you are interested in hearing more, please consider attending the inaugural Lydia Symposium, where I will present my findings in much more detail and where we can discuss these matters in person. And with a glass of wine in hand even!

Image from the Institute of Health

‘Thus saith the Lord’: When pastors talk about intimate partner violence


As noted in a previous installment in this series, research on the discourse of clerical response to intimate partner violence (IPV) has been few and far between. What do members of the clergy say to congregants about this topic? Useful anecdotal evidence abounds, based on clergy’s and victims’ memories, but we can learn a great deal from going directly to the source by means of, for example, sermons.

In this post, I look at examples of pastors talking about IPV, drawing from Linda Coates’ and Allan Wade’s 2007 paper entitled ‘Language and Violence: Analysis of Four Discursive Operators’ in the Journal of Family Violence. They offer a groundbreaking analytic framework, ‘The Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance’, based on their own and others’ research on the nature of violence and resistance and the significance of misrepresentation and partiality in social discourse about IPV. What emerges is a lens through which they examine five accounts of IPV from a perpetrator, a judge, a psychiatrist, a government minister, and a psycho-therapist. Specifically, they look at ways in which:

Language can be used to:
conceal violence,
obscure and mitigate offenders’ responsibility,
conceal victims’ resistance, and
blame and pathologize victims.

Alternatively, language can be used to:
expose violence,
clarify offenders’ responsibility,
elucidate and honor victims’ resistance, and
contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims. (p. 513)

In the sermon excerpts I use, a great deal is happening discursively, all of which I won’t discuss here. The purpose of this work-in-progress post is to highlight a few features I find particularly interesting, focusing on how Coates’ and Wade’s model helps us understand how pastors talk about IPV. I will also suggest how the Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance framework might be modified to suit the religious context. Since physical violence has both physical and psychological effects (and vice versa), I define violence broadly, as encompassing both.

A word about the corpus

The pilot corpus comprises sermons by pastors who are: (Reformed) Baptist (23 sermons), Presbyterian (2), Free Presbyterian/Free Reformed (2), Free Reformed (1), Family Integrated (1), United Reformed (1), and RPNA (1). As I explained in a previous post, these 31 were narrowed down from the 100 most frequently accessed sermons on divorce on SermonAudio. They are the sermons attracting the widest audience. Careful examination of these sermons allows me to begin to form hypotheses about how pastors talk about IPV more widely as well as consider what criteria could be used to expand the corpus.

Only a small minority of the pastors in the corpus mention IPV directly, though some hint at it by describing a spouse as ‘anything but kind’. This is consistent with recent research by LifeWay which found that pastors seldom address domestic violence from the pulpit, despite evidence that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men experience IPV at least once in their lifetime. talktocongregationIn fact, despite ‘violence’ being a significant semantic domain in the corpus as a whole, such language was rarely used to refer to IPV. Rather, the majority of pastors used language like ‘break,’ ‘breakup’, ‘fracture’ and ‘violation’ to refer to divorce itself. In short, the most frequent message was that divorce itself, not IPV, constitutes violence worth mentioning. In later posts, I will look at this and other larger patterns in the corpus. Here, again, the purpose is to examine the usefulness of Coates’ and Wade’s model for helping us understand the rare instances where pastors do directly mention IPV.

All 3 speakers cited in this post are (Reformed) Baptist, and indeed all but 1 of the pastors in the corpus who mentioned IPV directly are Baptist. Though we cannot generalize about denomination from this corpus (nor did I intend to), questions to investigate via a larger corpus include: Are only Baptists talking about IPV?

Evaluative ‘Oh’

Excerpt 1:

Now, listen. We are empathetic people and we should be. And we feel bad when someone has been mistreated and we should. But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. No. No. When we give someone advice, it had better come from the sacred, written Word of God. And so if someone says to you, Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive. They don’t respect me. They don’t love me the way that they should. They are unkind. They stay out at all these hours. They don’t treat me the way I deserve to be treated. They don’t take care of me. They don’t provide me with enough money. They don’t provide me with enough time. They have all the demands for me. They are just unbearable to live with.

When it comes to that scenario we look at the biblical text and there is only one biblical text on this issue, 1 Corinthians chapter seven verses 10 and 11. That is all you have. And because it is all you have, it is the only counsel you can give. Do not cave under the pressure because of your concern and love.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Again, this excerpt has more going on in it than we have space here to discuss. However, notice, for example, that the perpetrator is at times invisible, for instance in the passive ‘has mistreated.’ Further, though the pastor mentions giving ‘someone’ (one victim) advice, he uses the plural ‘they’ for the abusive spouse. We might say this is an instance of ‘single they’, which conceals the offender’s gender (since both men and women can be violent). However, paired with the single victim, it has the effect of distancing the violence from any one perpetrator. It isn’t him; it isn’t her; it’s they. Arguably, the pastor’s language choices disperse and therefore mitigate the responsibility of any one perpetrator. Note also that the pastor mentions ‘emotional abuse’ but uses vague language like ‘mistreated’, ‘unkind’ and ‘unbearable,’ etc., which may or may not include physical violence. The selection of the term ’emotional abuse’ is particularly significant in this context since it is much less likely to attract sympathy than physical violence, a point I will likely return to in another post.

Next, the pastor presents an image of a victim who repeatedly complains (perhaps pathologically) about all her problems. As complaint can be considered a form of resistance, we might see this as the pastor elucidating rather than concealing the victim’s resistance. However, this reading is undermined, first, by the chronic complainer’s long list of problems. Second, a particularly interesting technique is how this pastor blames the victim by introducing his constructed dialogue with a victim with ‘oh’ as in ‘Oh, my spouse, they are emotionally abusive’.

This reading is supported when we examine concordance lines from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English). Examples include the following, where the speakers are marking reported speech, in some cases reinforcing their negative evaluation with further commentary like ‘that wasn’t true’ and ‘that’s completely unfair’:

  1. The nurses were very matter of fact about it, oh she’ll be fine, she’ll be fine and that wasn’t true.
  2. I would have us wear red because they think administrators/school personnel, ’Oh you wear red, you’re automatically a Blood’, when that’s not
  3. But when someone else wears red, they’re like, ’Oh, you can’t do that’ and that’s completely unfair.
  4. A second commented, When you give them more choices, you diffuse the ‘Oh, this is really meaningless to me.’

The second sermon excerpt (below) has victim blaming and pathologizing throughout. Again of interest is the evaluative ‘oh’, where ‘many a girl’ says ‘Oh, I know that he drinks’. The pastor presents a multitude of women, each responsible for her husband’s violence because of her naivete and stupidity in believing that she can change the man she foolishly loves. Although the speaker directly connects the husband with his violence, the command ‘remember’ he directs at the woman, further minimizing the perpetrator’s responsibility and placing it squarely on an individual woman’s shoulders. The pastor neglects to mention any resistance to this violence, though the language of violence is surprisingly explicit and exposing.

Excerpt 2:

The Bible gives only one sin that can break the marriage vow and give ground for divorce, and that sin is fornication. Drunkenness is not a sufficient reason for divorce. A husband may come home at night drunk and beat his wife or waste his money, make his home a hell, but according to God’s Word that’s no ground for divorce. I’ve had many a girl say, Oh I know that he drinks. But I’ll reform him and marry him because I love him. But remember one thing, young woman, when he gets drunk and comes home and beats you up, raises hell and puts [indiscernible] leaves you without food even clothes to wear, you have no ground for divorce. That marriage is still binding.

(‘The Home, the Bible, Divorce’)

An appeal to authority

Though both these excerpts fit nicely into Coates’ and Wades’ model in many respects, their religious context means that language is used to accomplish additional goals. More specifically, these excerpts demonstrate an appeal to authority, that of God’s Word and God Himself.

In the first excerpt, the pastor juxtaposes his portrayal of the congregation’s sympathetic feelings and intuitions with the counsel that God (allegedly) requires when a victim asks for help. Notice the dramatic change in register in ‘Thus saith the Lord’, a reference to a highly frequent appeal to (and indeed indication of their own derived) authority by prophets in the Old Testament. 250px-moses_pleading_with_israel_28crop29 We also see again the evaluative ‘oh,’ used here to introduce and disparage the would-be counselor’s advice. In essence, we might say that the pastor is adopting the voice of a prophet here and encouraging his congregants to do the same when they talk to a victim of violence.

But when we give counsel, we must give Thus saith the Lord, not I feel really bad, oh, you should really, you know, oh, you have a right to, oh, you really could. 

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Both the appeal to the Word of God (and to the pastor himself) as an authority and the switch to a more formal register lend an air of unquestionable finality to the pastor’s eventual pronouncement, shortly after, that

A wife is not to depart from her husband. That is a direct command.

(‘Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage’)

Similarly, in Excerpt 2 the pastor contrasts God’s Word with quite dramatic examples of IPV, demonstrating that even the most devastating acts of violence cannot alter the requirement to obey commands (allegedly) ‘according to God’s Word’. The implication seems to be that God does not consider the suffering of victims of violence to be relevant to His commands. This happens elsewhere in the corpus, such as in the additional excerpt below, where the pastor reminds his congregation that even murder or incest are not grounds for divorce ‘according to Scripture’.

Excerpt 3:

…whether the man commits adultery, the woman commits adultery, whether they kill, murder, maim, commit incest, there is nothing that breaks the marriage bond and there is no way that a man or a woman can remarry, according to Scripture, without being called an adulterer or an adulteress.

(‘Divorce, Re-Marriage, the Bible #2’)

Pitting compassion against God

In closing, it is of course hardly surprising that a pastor would directly appeal to the authority of the Word of God, particularly in a conservative, evangelical context. We Christians consider it a pastor’s calling and duty to direct our attention to God’s Word. However, the question remains: Why this appeal, and why now? These direct appeals to authority suggest, first, the view that any instinct we might have to consider IPV as grounds for divorce runs counter to the Word of God and, second, that congregants therefore require this correction/exhortation*. The use of language to distinguish between our instincts/sympathies and God’s Word seems to be significant in this context and is unaccounted for in Coates’ and Wade’s model.

So far, therefore, the examples I have provided are consistent with Coates’ and Wade’s framework and suggest that it is indeed useful in making sense of how pastors talk about IPV. As a fuller analysis of the pilot corpus will indicate, almost every single one of the direct references to IPV in the corpus minimize perpetrator responsibilityconceal violenceblame victims, and conceal resistance. However, the religious context of the sermons means that the model is likely to require some adaptation, particularly as the corpus expands, and I have suggested the additional use of language to appeal to authority. In the excerpts above, this appeal, at times, overrides any concealing of violence. For these pastors, no matter how terrible the violence, God requires victims of IPV to remain married.

Finally, though nearly all of the direct references to IPV accomplish similar goals, there is one notable and encouraging exception, another Baptist sermon, which I look forward to sharing with you. It deserves its own post.

*It will be interesting to track where else such direct appeals to authority occur. The question is: When do pastors feel confident enough to state that their interpretation of Scripture is ‘from God’s lips to your ears’? A quick look at my reference corpus of over 100 sermons on non-marriage related topics suggests that pastors say ‘Thus saith the Lord’ most frequently when quoting this exact phrase from the Bible in context, suggesting that it doesn’t happen often when offering interpretation. But I will need to look at this more closely as well as other forms appeal to authority takes (‘according to God’s Word,’ etc.).

Marital Captivity: An Update on the Divorce Corpus

1385554520maastrichtuniversityscholarIn November, I will deliver a paper as part of the International MARICAP Conference in the Faculty of Law, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, which is this year titled ‘Marital Captivity: Divorce, Religion and Human Rights’ (see here). This conference will bring together academics and professionals from a range of disciplines including legal anthropology, (international) family law and humans rights law, and of course linguistics. My paper will be part of a multi-disciplinary panel on marital captivity in practice and will focus on a recently built pilot corpus of 30 Christian sermons on divorce, which I am currently poring over. When I am working on a project, I tend to try to deliver multiple versions or even the same version of a paper at several conferences. In this case, I’m presenting an early (read: very rough) version of this paper at the 8th Biennial Inter-Varietal Applied Corpus Studies (IVACS) conference in Bath in June (see here). I will also present a more in-depth version at the Inaugural Lydia Symposium in September (on site at Greystone in Coraopolis, PA USA; details forthcoming).

A brief word about the corpus: In the long-term, I hope to build a large corpus of transcribed sermons on various topics under the umbrella of ‘women and family,’ a venture that will require substantial funding. As a first step, I’ve constructed this pilot corpus focusing on divorce, using funding from a Faculty Small Grant. The size of my corpus was constrained, quite practically, by the amount of money I had for transcription. I decided to focus my attention on the 100 most popular sermons on divorce on SermonAudio and, using various criteria, narrow that list down to 30 (more about factors affecting corpus construction here). Roughly speaking, the first step was to identify the first sermon by each speaker appearing in the top 100 list. If that first sermon was #1 in a 2-part series, both of which appeared in the top 100, I included the whole series. Longer series were not included. I eliminated other sermons because of poor sound quality and/or because of miscategorisation. In all, my aim was to achieve balance and representativeness. I did not listen to any sermon beyond the first few minutes during the selection process, and most of the speakers were unknown to me, which allowed me to select fairly objectively. The resulting corpus of 30 sermons (1,538 minutes) captures, fairly well I think, the most frequently accessed perspectives on divorce by conservative Christians on SermonAudio.

It is early days with this corpus as I only just last week received the final transcriptions, but already there is so much to say. While I am excited about sharing my findings and getting feedback from colleagues at these various venues, this is, in many ways, my favorite stage of a project. Everything is so fresh and new. I’ve already run the corpus through WordSmith Tools and cast my eye over the wordlist. I’ve also created a few concordances using high-ranking words in the wordlist. But since this is a small pilot corpus, I’m also reading through each text carefully to identify features that might not be immediately obvious from quantitative analysis. Using this combination of methods, I’ve already noted the seeming importance of such features as modality, i.e. ‘You cannot divorce your wife for…’, ‘The wife should not divorce her husband for…’, the significance of story,  and the use of exaggeration and repetition, among other features about which I will be blogging, writing, and speaking over the rest of 2016. I note that at least one speaker in the corpus has already made it quite clear that women have no right to write or speak authoritatively about ‘a subject of theological importance and worth any merit’, which suggests there will be plenty to work through here.

Those interested in this topic may want to read more about another conference, entitled ‘Tradition is the New Radical: Remapping Masculinities and Femininities in Theology’, to be held at Lund University from 12-14 Dec 2016 (see here). Abstract deadline is 15 June.


To Be Pompilia: Reading the Abedini Saga Virtuously

PompiliaThe Plight of Pompilia

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, Anthony Esolen’s (characteristically) outstanding book, Ironies of Faith: The Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature (ISI Books, 2007), should rush to the top of your reading list. I often recommend the opening essay, “To Be Pompilia, Not the Fisc: Browning and the Irony of Humility,” to ministerial and theological students. It is a meditation on Robert Browning’s long poem The Ring and the Book, a stunning, unnerving lesson in the ethics of reading — texts, persons, situations, anything. Esolen’s essay on Browning’s poem is on my mind today as I reflect on another recent story about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini. More on that shortly.

As Esolen masterfully explains, Browning’s poem exposes a great and chronic human weakness: our laughably tragic inability to read others accurately. In this strange tale we discover that this inability is seldom due to a lack of sufficient information, as we all would wish, but to something more sinister: pride.

Set in seventeenth-century Italy, the poem weaves together the lives and (mis)fortunes of figures both religious and comical. Pompilia, purchased in secret as a baby by Violente, the childless wife of Pietro, is pushed to marry young and well in order to secure financial stability for the house and prevent discovery of the family secret. Guido–as Esolen says, “no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege”–proves suitable enough in the eyes of Violente and Pietro, despite a wide rage of physical and moral deficiencies. Taking Pompilia as his own, the greedily ambitious Guido thinks he has married up. In fact he has been tricked, Pompilia’s family’s wealth proving far more mirage than reality. The sting of bitter disappointment leads him to torment Violente and Pietro, driving them to Rome, leaving young Pompilia alone to suffer at the hands of the monster, Guido.

In time her parents return, seeking revenge on Guido in the only form available to them: they tell him Pompilia is not in fact their daughter, and therefore he has no claim to her dowry. Furious, Guido falsely accuses Pompilia of being an adulteress, and takes steps to lure her into questionable relations with other men, including a local priest, Giuseppe Caponsacchi. But Caponsacchi, having only seen lovely Pompilia once and from a distance, resists the ploy and Guido is foiled.

What, then, of Pompilia? She pleads for help, first with the governor, then with the archbishop, but to no avail. Finally she turns to her only remaining hope: Caponsacchi, and sees in him, finally, a true man. He rescues her, hiding her away in Rome where he looks after her, but Guido finds them. The coward Guido is met by valiant Caponsacchi, sword in hand, ready to protect Pompilia. But Guido’s men pin down Caponsacchi’s arms, and it is Pompilia who grabs the sword and moves toward Guido. Guido flees from the girl and to the courts, where the verdict is the non-verdict of the stalemate, and justice is delayed.

Guido learns soon after this that Pompilia has borne his child but named him after a recently canonized saint, providing no link to Guido. Insulted and outraged, Guido, ironically assuming the name “Caponsacchi” to gain entry to the family home, murders Pompilia’s parents and injures her with a dozen stabs. Now the real trial in the story takes place, and Browning’s message becomes clear. Esolen writes,

The priest and Guido testify; and Browning provides us with the ‘opinions’ of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls ‘Tertium Quid,’ the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney–worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.

These words recall Esolen’s description of the governor and archbishop, whom Pompilia had earlier entreated without effect: “But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.”

They have no ears to hear. But this is not only true of the characters in the story: it is Browning’s question to the reader. Do you have ears to hear? The story surges forward, stage by stage, through further tragicomical scenes of human beings thinking they know, but not knowing, and showing themselves the fools for it. And with each ov6983306-merconfident read, the tentacles reach, the net spreads, and Pompilia withers.

Browning’s vivid description of the poisonous swirl of “knowing” confidently yet wrongly is compelling for its familiarity. The devolution at the heart of Pompilia’s social relations and the members of her religious community is common to all tormenting dramas like hers. Incriminating appearances are enough for the simple-minded; skewed and incomplete trial arguments satisfy others; “where there is smoke there must be fire” is the ignorant thinking of many; “it takes two to tango” is the assumption of most; and the ultimate legal stalemate satisfies no one. The prosecutor (the eminent Fisc) and the defense attorney are, says Esolen, “worldly men, not exactly bad and not exactly good, full of themselves and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.” They have no ears to hear. Guido is convicted, sentenced to death, and appeals to the pope, Innocent XII. Reflecting at the end of his days upon his many years of ministry, wondering what fruit, if any, will come from his labors, the pope sees through the layers of Guido to the surly, sinister, seditious snake beneath, and sends him to his death.

Only the priest Caponsacchi and the dying Pope emerge as wise from the widespread rubble of slanderous, cancerous, and ultimately murderous folly in the story. They are exposed as wise by their relationship to the purity of simple, suffering, quiet, notoriously scandalous yet innocent Pompilia herself. The end of Pompilia is resurrection, at least in part, in the form of her ironic vindication through the luminous virtue of her lonely yet truly wise supporters. The end of the foolishly confident accusers and the cooly neutral “Tertium Quid” is, for the reader, shame.

Browning’s tale teaches readers, in a most disconcerting way, about the contortions of wicked dishonesty, the mixed-up realities of a seldom black-and-white world, and the difficulties for any one person to read another person rightly.

To pile on, Browning subtly yet irresistibly pushes us to acknowledge the folly of our own all-too-confident judgments, and the moral catastrophe of flawed, hasty conclusions. Yet he will not leave us even there. The poem depends on our appreciation of one great moral lesson above all others: darker than simply “getting it wrong” is moving others to do so as well. The Ring and the Book is more than a warning against impatient folly in judgment. With a series of interlinked baited hooks, the reader is led into complicity. The reader hears often from the ignorant yet confident know-it-alls, and listens in on apparently sensible and pious discourse that imagines every “rational” possibility yet never assumes the place of Pompilia (it is only sensible to think they must both be at fault to some degree, believes the “Tertium Quid”). The poem ruthlessly treats the thinking, interpreting, assuming reader as, for far too long, always potentially and probably complicit in the folly, which is itself a stirring indictment of those who lead the way to folly for others.

To Be Naghmeh, and Not Only Saeed

This brings me back to the Abedini situation, one which troubles many, as it should. The story has been told and retold now, and with evident continuing public interest. Persecuted preacher in an Iranian prison, the prayers of the saints, the release of the martyr, the homecoming, the stunning marital abuse allegations, the moral trickiness of reporting the “rest” of the story. But this only makes it easier to forget, dangerously, that this is not merely a story; for Naghmeh, it is a reality. The asterisk by Saeed Abedini’s name concerns a person, not a minor detail. Exactly what reality is impossible for blog and newspaper readers to know with the kind of certainty easily found among pundits and would-be trial judges. Yet for this very reason, among innumerable others, the storyteller must be wildly conscientious in telling the tale.

The question to ask is simple. Does the storyteller give us ears to hear? Yes, invariably, but to hear whom?

In our last post on this evolving saga, instead of providing a verdict of our own, we deliberately drew attention to the way the story has often been told thus far. This remains our concern. We may put the matter this way. Since the disclosure of the marital abuse allegations, the public identity of Saeed Abedini commended in print and online has persistently been one with a center and a circumference: at the center, the near-martyr and imprisoned, persecuted preacher in a hostile foreign land. At the circumference, the accused and–in at least one legal context, the admitted–wife-abuser whose wife remains afraid of him. This remains the public Saeed Abedini. Center, and circumference.

And the center has held thus far. Perceptive observers of the western evangelical machine are not surprised that the center of the Abedini portrait remains his identity as imprisoned, faithful preacher. The American evangelical soundtrack has long been Bonnie Tyler’s, “I Need A Hero,” after all, and we have found a candidate who fits the profile of what we most admire in a Christian. The public evangelical sense of familiarity with and affection for Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks, at least partly, to the same hero-longing.

But here is the rub for the journalist, the commentator, the writer. A story only works to the extent the reader is successfully invited into a degree of sympathy with one or more characters (or none, as sympathy either with the author or the anonymous observer). Reading the stories that continue to flow regarding the Abedini situation, this is what we discover: In the myriad choices made about names to use, titles to include, headlines adopted to capture attention, details to proportionate, and on and on and on, writers continue to link the reader with Saeed, and not with Naghmeh. Browning’s Pompilia reminds us, though, that these choices have moral status.

In the Abedini case it’s a costly move, prompting hard questions. When it’s a story like this, when the stakes are this high if we get it wrong, what kind of reader should Christian storytellers want to create? One who identifies with Pompilia, or with the Fisc? The Ring and the Book is a clarion call to ask hard questions about our storytelling. Are we certain of the real Saeed Abedini center, and of the circumference? Might it be that the allegations are true, and that what we thought was the circumference proves to be the center? Should we sound like we are justly confident? What is the cost of being wrong, not only for us, but for Naghmeh, who may prove to be a Pompilia in this dark tale?

The Christianity Today Interview

On April 24, Christianity Today published an interview with Saeed. In some ways it escapes the criticisms inherent to the foregoing. In other ways, however, it illustrates our concerns.

Firstly, to the considerable credit of the interviewer, Katelyn Beaty (CT print managing editor), “the topic” is not avoided as it has been in other outlets. Mr. Abedini is asked about the status of his marriage, what he means by “false accusations” in light of his 2007 guilty plea of misdemeanor domestic assault, and if he has anything of which to repent in his marriage.

Secondly, the interview is printed as a series of questions with Mr. Abedini’s apparently unpolished and unedited responses. This encourages readers’ confidence that we have access to his genuine reactions. But out of 18 questions, I see only six that clearly concern the specter of spousal abuse. The six questions are these:

What is the status of your and Naghmeh’s marriage?

You said “false accusations.” Does that mean you are saying that Naghmeh’s accusations are false?

Can you talk about the misdemeanor domestic assault charge in 2007? You pled guilty to that, and that suggests there was at least one instance of marital abuse.

You don’t remember going to court in 2007?

Did you go to jail in 2007?

Is there anything you need to repent of in your marriage?

The opening question of the interview asks Mr. Abedini what life has been like for him since prison. Another question asked in the flow of the six pertaining to the abuse allegations, but not included in them, focuses on whether Mr. Abedini feels more support out of jail than when he was in. These two early questions lead the reader to join with the interviewer on the path of interest in how Mr. Abedini feels.

The question regarding felt support prompts Mr. Abedini to describe the abuse allegations as a matter of great confusion: his longtime praying supporters are now justly confused about the man they’ve been praying for, and the churches around the world who rejoiced at the news of his release are confused as well. Mr. Abedini attributes this confusion completely to Satan’s mission of ending Gospel proclamation and killing Christian joy at Saeed’s release. (As an aside, despite what some have suggested, it does not appear that Mr. Abedini clearly attributed his wife’s allegations themselves to Satan. In the flow of his remarks, connecting Satan to the resulting confusion appears to be more in view.) The remaining interview questions explore Mr. Abedini’s thoughts on the living conditions of his imprisonment, his contacts with family during his imprisonment, his perseverance, the future of Christianity, and revival. The impression left for the reader is that it was no longer possible to ignore the abuse allegations, and so they were fronted in the interview, and yet the important material continues to be the inspiring stories of Christian heroism and hope for evangelical renewal in the world. Center, and circumference.

Thirdly, the interview is mysteriously titled, “The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.” “Answers”? Mr. Abedini does no such thing. “Addresses” may have been slightly more accurate, “denies” much more so; either option certainly would not have suggested a definitive response the way “answers” does. From the printed title, the reader should expect that the article puts all those pesky abuse concerns to rest, when in fact the concerns are given precious little weight. As another blog noted,

What both fascinated and horrified me about the Christianity Today interview is the title, ‘The CT Interview: Saeed Abedini Answers Abuse Allegations.’ Saeed simply denies all allegations, attributes them to Satan… and the interviewer apparently assumes that Abedini is telling the truth. He’s a Christian hero, after all.

Lastly, then, we must ask of Naghmeh in this interview. Literarily and personally, as a character in the real world depicted by this exchange, where is she? She is not in the story’s details so much as in the air, the environment, the world that the interview commends. There is no mention of an attempt to interview Naghmeh, no exploration of what her experience or feelings may be, no interest in what her own hopes for evangelical renewal may entail. (Perhaps, after all, they would include hope for greater church and public support for abused spouses of professing Christians.) When the story is told the way the CT interview tells it, with whom is the reader led to identify? Is the reader expected to “know” that this abuse allegation “stuff” is, yes, out there, but almost certainly not as serious as it’s made out to be?

At least this much seems clear. In accounts like this, we readers are repeatedly invited to an imaginary table where we sit with Saeed but not with Naghmeh. If writers allowed for the possibility that the reality behind the allegations is that serious, thereby at least withholding judgment until more is known, would they tell this story the same way? Would they continue to tell a story of asterisked heroism, or would it become asterisked spousal abuse?

To be sure, there remains a Christian hero in the story being told, and it is not Naghmeh. The intractable, stubborn challenge for the reader, the listener, the observer of these stories is that human pride that pretends, always, to “know” what’s really going on here, and thus in figuring out how to read this ongoing saga, and all others, as Pompilia, not the Fisc.

Corpus Linguistics: I feel, I think, I believe

Last year, I delivered a research seminar on a recent project based on a corpus of philosophy texts. One of the comments was something along the lines of,

Ok, that was more interesting than I thought! When I heard the talk featured corpus linguistics, I was worried it was going to be all numbers, numbers, numbers, and we would all be snoring in our chairs.’

I hear a version of that fairly frequently when I mention corpus linguistics. Even among linguists, there is a common misconception that CL is all about probability scores and ignores the context in which stretches of discourse are situated. It’s all a matter of counting beans, right? Occasionally, other misconceptions make an appearance, such as what Raukko (2003: 165) writes:

The linguist looks at a large and somewhat pre-processed selection of text material and tries to find the relevant instances (instantiations, specimens) of the item that
s/he wants to study.

The idea here is that corpus linguistics involves picking out whatever instances of a stretch of discourse suit a researcher’s pre-determined hypothesis and ignoring the rest. While I won’t go into all the reasons some people are suspicious of CL, you hopefully get the general idea by now, and maybe have some others of your own, which I look forward to hearing.

Since I use CL methodology fairly frequently in my research, I will from time to time debunk myths like those above and explore the value of CL. And so I’ll begin by responding to a recent post by Tim Challies, where he laments what he suspects is a rise in the use of the phrase ‘I feel’ as opposed to ‘I think’ or ‘I believe.’ A friend sent that post to me, and I immediately responded with ‘Corpus linguistics can help answer that!’

That’s part of the awesome beauty of CL. Someone has a question like ‘Aren’t these I feel statements more common than they used to be?’.  And anyone who understands how corpus linguistics works can access one of the many large corpora freely available to the public and start to find out. For example, to answer Challies’ question, I turned to the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), and compared ‘feel’ with both ‘think’ and ‘believe’ over a 25-year period.

Results from COCA: Each number is a ratio (overall) for the two words. For example, for 1990-1994, there are .22 tokens (instances) of feel for every token of think.

As you can see in my findings above, Challies’ intuitions were right, at least to some extent. Gradually, feel is getting an edge on believe, and slowly gaining on think, at least in this corpus, which

contains more than 520 million words of text and is equally divided among spoken, fiction, popular magazines, newspapers, and academic texts. It includes 20 million words each year from 1990-2015 and the corpus is also updated regularly (the most recent texts are from December 2015).
Now, you may wonder at this point, what does this have to do with women and families? And here we return to Challies’ post, where he argues that when it comes to feel, think, and believe,
The terms are hierarchical rather than synonymous and over time we ought to see a progression from feeling to thinking to believing.
This kind of prescription makes me immediately uncomfortable. There is, first of all, some evidence that women use I feel more frequently than men. While in my investigation of COCA I stopped after an initial, probing query, other linguists have looked further at the context surrounding instances of feel in other corpora.  BellésFortuño and Campoy-Cubillo, for example, in their analysis of I feel in the MICASE corpus, found that female academic speakers use this construction more frequently in discourse,
which may be interpreted as a female tendency towards an emotional and attitudinal academic discourse.

Further, they note that the construction I feel was more frequent in highly or mostly interactive speech events, where emphasis was on building rapport.

In light of this, statements like Challies appear to be another in a long line of criticisms of what some evidence indicates are feminine ways of communicating. Challies writes

The things I feel are the things I am unsure of, the things I am encountering and responding to on an impulsive or emotional level.

In fact, scholarship on feel like that of Robert Dixon, suggests that feel is a non-face-threatening way of expressing something one knows intuitively but wishes to present sensitively. Challies’ suggestion, therefore, that we abandon such language for the more forceful (and perhaps more male?) I think and I believe could be seen, therefore, as rooted in a belief that women and our ways of talking are inappropriately emotional and impulsive. Based on corpus-based research I’ve read, I feel like they aren’t.

All that said, I still have questions about points Challies raised, which I can’t answer at this point in time. For example, I didn’t have access to gender data in COCA, so I had to rely on other existing research for information about gendered usage. If I were carrying out a thorough corpus-driven analysis of think, feel, and believe, I would use the corpus statistics as a starting point from which to examine the texts themselves more closely, asking such questions as:

  • In what contexts are feel, think, and believe used?
  • To what extent is their usage gendered? marked by age?
  • Is the increase in use of feel due to greater participation of women in public discourse?
  • If not, how can we explain its increased use?
  • Does feel behave like any other tokens? For example, is there a version of feel used more frequently by men? (as some existing research suggests).

Like all methodologies, CL has its limitations and weaknesses. However, good, responsible corpus linguistics, with the proper tools, allows us to answer questions about how people use language, to what extent they use it and when, and in what contexts. It involves looking at patterns in often large bodies of naturally occurring data, carefully and cautiously selected, and examining language features in context. As I will explore in future posts, CL is often combined with other methodologies, such as discourse analysis, which is a text-analytical tool more familiar to biblical scholars.

For more information about CL, below are some resources I have found helpful:

Corpus Linguistics: Method, Theory and Practice

Theory-driven Corpus Research

Corpus Linguistics: A Practical Introduction


The Heroic Abuser? Christian Media Headlines about Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini

by Valerie Hobbs and Mark A. Garcia

Naghmeh Abedini, wife of Pastor Saeed Abedini, at the prayer vigil in Washington marking the second anniversary of his imprisonment in Iran. Image via The Gospel Herald

The Davidic Challenge in Heroic Storytelling

There is power in presentation. The markedly different ways the narrators in 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles deal with the dark drama of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah provide a famous example of meaning in selectivity. In 2 Samuel 11, David’s rape of Bathsheba, presented carefully as an abuse of royal power rather than a case of infidelity, is depicted in unstinting and undeniably critical terms. In 1 Chronicles, however, while David is at times a clearly flawed figure, the Bathsheba-Uriah story goes unmentioned. The selectivity is deliberate, fitting in each case the overall purpose of the book. In Samuel, the narrator’s purpose is at least in part to illustrate Israel’s degeneration into a disorderly mashal-type (cf. Gen. 3:16) use of power, from husbands and fathers and brothers to tribal leaders and kings. The books of Samuel constitute a negative moral judgment, more particularly a covenantal indictment, even as they also point the way, by negative example, to the form and shape of the only possible Redeemer. In Chronicles, that messianic-royal Redeemer figure is also the theme, yet in positive form: David (and Solomon) is thus idealized as a figure of the future Redeemer and King, with almost only his positive concerns for temple, ark, and clergy put on display. The Chronicler’s David is not sinless but he does not sin greatly. Instead, the best of David’s story is the message: Israel needs a king like that.

Importantly, like the selectivity at work in the Synoptic Gospels (and in fact in all biblical texts), neither 2 Samuel nor 1 Chronicles is true at the expense of the truthfulness of the other; both presentations are true, yet in ways that fit their authors’ homiletical-theological goals. Chronicles especially reads like an extended sermon directing post-exilic Israel’s reading of her story. She is now, to be sure, something like Virgil’s ‘fated wanderer’: she is without temple, land, or tribal boundary markers, anxiously in search of her identity and a ground for her hope. The Chronicler preaches into that crisis, and his message — as with all messages — requires purposeful, crafted selectivity. In their different ways of handling David, both texts illustrate that there is power in presentation.

The David example touches on an existential difficulty, too. Is he praiseworthy or not? The biblical texts invite us regularly to praise his virtues and qualities, yet for that reason the blatant sins, especially the royal rape of Bathsheba, gnaw at us. To be sure, his repentance is a critical part of that story, yet the jagged edges of David’s reported conduct remain unsettling at least. We face similar questions when our own glorified saints fall, or prove to be less than our favorite parts of their reputation. The storyteller has to decide: Is it better for the reader not to know? What does one lose by not knowing? The relationship of Samuel and Chronicles tells us there is meaning in the selectivity at work.

At the Lydia Center, one of our aims is to examine the Christian church’s rhetoric regarding sexuality and gender, marriage, family, and children, including the Church’s speech about and response to intimate partner violence. That rhetoric and response is, in the nature of the case, largely verbal or written, which pulls us regularly into consideration of the power of presentation.

Occasionally, opportunities arise to discuss these matters in the context of widely known families whose stories have been covered by the media. The case of Saeed and Naghmeh Abedini is one such opportunity. Discourse surrounding the Abedinis’ case reveals how we as a community think and talk about spousal abuse, and the fact that Saeed was himself a victim of cruel imprisonment and torture allows us to consider the ethical significance of such discourse. What happens when a persecuted Christian is revealed to be a wife abuser? (N.B. The reader should note that our analysis in what follows reflects the fact that Pastor Abedini pled guilty to a charge of domestic assault, and that he did so before leaving for Iran.)

This is part one in a series examining media headlines about and reader response to Saeed Abedini’s abuse of his wife Naghmeh. In this first part, we focus on the headlines of 15 Christian media outlets, asking such questions as:

  1. What coverage do Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?
  2. What language do Christian media outlets use to identify the abuse?
  3. In what ways is abuse emphasized and/or minimized via discursive strategies?

The Power of Presentation: Telling the Abedini Story

The media are a mighty and recognized influence on minds, actions, and words. Indeed, ‘The entire study of mass communication is based on the premise that the media have significant effects’ (McQuail, 1994: 327). The choices that journalists make when writing headlines reveals their inescapable ideology and prejudice towards an event (see Edelman, 1993). In turn, these choices systematically influence how readers view these events (Price et al., 1995; Scheufele, 1999).

Headlines especially act as snapshots of media bias. MacRitichie and Seedat (2008: 339-34) explain it this way, referencing their study on headlines about traffic accidents:

Headlines are the newspapers’ tools to attract prospective buyers and imprint their individuality on what is otherwise a mass-produced product… Headlines, which provide an indication of how an article may portray an accident, are used to convey the first and sometimes the most significant message to the news reading public…Headlines also draw part of their influence and meaning from what is assumed to be the readers’ shared cultural, political and general knowledge. So, although headlines may sometimes seem deeply ambiguous, the surface differences may be a disguise for articulating deeper meanings and associations.

Of course, media headlines do not occur in a vacuum; media discourse both produces and perpetuates an already-present ideology. Through the production and reproduction of such discourse, communities work together to decide how events should be viewed and how social actors should be regarded. By examining these messages, which often are unconsciously absorbed, Christians can evaluate the extent to which the ideas we encounter are faithful to Christian identity and commitments, and resist the ones which are not.

Our Mode, Methods, and Materials

In order to answer our questions about Christian media headlines, we deploy a variety of tools and materials, including the often illuminating tool of critical discourse analysis (CDA) (see Fairclough, 2012), which is

a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power, abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context (Van Dijk, 2001: 352)

In short, CDA aims to identify ideology in discourse, focusing on how certain social actors are represented, whether they are marginalized, viewed apathetically, or held up as social models. To be sure, CDA is as vulnerable as any other tool to misusing and distorting materials, and conclusions ought ordinarily to be reached with conspicuous modesty. Nevertheless, looking at a text through the lens of CDA effectively sensitizes the reader to the inevitable moral-assessment and evaluative aspects of human speech about anyone and anything. CDA is capable of such usefulness as it involves examination simultaneously at the text level (language forms, cohesion, and text structure and their meaning potential) and at the broader levels of text production and distribution, as well as the social context in which these texts are produced. So when we examine headlines, we consider not only their grammatical-lexical-discursive features but also look for evidence regarding the theology and ideology at work in them. It is, as it were, to ask a version of the great transcendental question: what view of the world and of reality must be seen as true by the author to account for this or that way of speaking? What kind of world does this language presuppose, does it fit? And how does that world match up against the real world disclosed by Scripture and in terms of the Christian confession? How does it square with complex yet real Christian commitments regarding speech?

Using Google SiteSearch, we accessed 129 Christian News Headlines from 15 news outlets between 12 November, 2015 and 2 February, 2016, using the combined search terms ‘wife’ and ‘Saeed Abedini’. After several searches using various related search terms, this combination yielded the most fruit. For comparison, we identified 322 US Newspaper and Wire headlines via the same search phrase, using Nexis, a database of UK and international news sources. In 322 headlines, there were five mentions of the Abedinis’ ‘separation,’ the rest spread fairly evenly between coverage of Saeed’s imprisonment and release and that of the other prisoners.

Christian headlines were grouped into three stages, which arose inductively from the data:

  1.  Abuse goes public:                          12 November – 8 December, 2015
    (after which all outlets ceased referring to the abuse)
  2.  Interim period:                                  9 December, 2015 – 15 January, 2016
    (during which 6 outlets reported on statements Naghmeh Abedini made about the Christian life)
  3.  Saeed is released:                            16 January – present
  4. Abuse back in the spotlight:         18 January – present

Stages 3 and 4 overlapped as various media outlets moved back and forth between reporting on Saeed’s release and the Abedinis’ spousal abuse case. For instance, Charisma News reported on Saeed’s release four times, documented Naghmeh’s hope for ‘a miracle with marriage’, returned to Saeed’s release (two articles), and then published four articles on Naghmeh’s charges and public statements, Franklin Graham’s statement, and Saeed’s response.

Our Findings

1. What kind of coverage do Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?

The table below provides details of the number and timing of articles each outlet devoted to the Abedinis during the period in question. We note that all but four reported on the abuse pre-release, and the abstaining outlets reported only on Saeed’s release and did not make explicit or implicit mention of abuse in their headlines. A total of 51 headlines made some reference to the abuse, compared with 67 which reported on Saeed’s release with no mention of abuse.Lydia Abedini Christian Headlines 1

2. What language do Christian media outlets use to identify the abuse?

Christian journalists used a wide variety of words and phrases to refer to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, from the more direct ‘abuse,’ ‘marital abuse’, and ‘spousal abuse’ to the more ambiguous ‘marital woes’, ‘marriage problems,’ and ‘marital issues’. Breaking Christian News was among those using the softest language, referring only to Naghmeh’s ‘stress’ in pre-release coverage headlines and omitting any direct reference to the abuse post-release, instead making an oblique reference to Naghmeh’s ‘surprise move.’ Charisma News, on the other hand, used ‘abuse’ fairly frequently, though we will explore later how such language was countered with discursive strategies.

bubble pre release abuse
Word Cloud of Language Referring to Saeed’s Abuse of Naghmeh Pre-Release

What we found most surprising was the fact that pre-release, Christian news outlets used more direct language to refer to the abuse, this despite the fact that Saeed was still in prison and might, in our thinking, be endangered by such reports. As seen in the first word cloud here, capturing pre-release references to abuse, the word ‘abuse’ appears prominently. Seven out of eleven outlets used the word ‘abuse’ in their headlines.

bubble post release abuse
Word Cloud of Language Referring to Saeed’s Abuse of Naghmeh Post-Release

However, post-release, many of the outlets changed tactics. Aside from using a much wider range of language to reference the abuse, the most common approach was to omit any explicit reference to the abuse (see second word cloud), as in such headlines as:

We will explore what we believe this may mean later, but it certainly appears that the returning persecuted hero is, at least on the surface, a powerful image in the Christian community, and powerful enough to displace the widely recognized image — for the same individual — of the abusive spouse.

3. In what ways is abuse emphasized and/or minimized via discursive strategies?

We observed in our headlines corpus a wide variety of discursive strategies that Christian media outlets used to minimize Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh and maximize Saeed’s imprisonment, suffering, and denial of the abuse. We will focus on two of the most prominent of these, including the Christian media’s emphasis on Saeed’s victimization and its placement of reference to abuse in an insignificant place in the headline.

a. Who’s the real victim?

The most conspicuous way in which the headlines minimized abuse and emphasized Saeed’s freedom was in the sheer number of headlines (52%) devoted to Saeed’s release from Iran. At first sight, the fact of his release would seem to account for the headlines. However, upon examination, this focus on release alongside a displacement of abuse was accomplished in subtler ways as well. We see this first in the way readers are reminded, even in headlines mentioning ‘abuse’ directly, that Saeed is a victim, persecuted and separated from his family for many years. Consider this headline from Christian Post, wherein Naghmeh’s filing of a ‘domestic relations case’ is set alongside Saeed’s reunion with his children.

Mention of Saeed’s suffering is not always in prominent position, as in one headline from Christianity Today (see table below). However, with few exceptions, the reader is regularly reminded of Saeed’s imprisonment, which acts as a point of comparison when considering his abuse of his wife.

In sum, the image of a persecuted, suffering hero is bolstered by reference to Saeed’s ‘years of demonic abuse’, ‘details of torture’, and ‘human rights abuses,’ language which stands in stark contrast to Naghmeh’s ‘abuse claims’ and ‘accusations’. To be sure, identifying Saeed as ‘imprisoned’ or as ‘prisoner’ may function as little more than an identifying mark, since this his imprisonment is why he is known to the public at all in the first place. Yet the regular pairing of his imprisonment with the abuse element of his story has the effect of qualifying the abuse element from the outset, in some cases even potentially mitigating it. This discourse gives the impression that Saeed is the sole real, or at least most important, victim here. Some examples can be seen below.

Christian Post
Pastor Saeed, Globally-Known Iranian Prisoner, Is Accused of Spousal Abuse — Five Ways We Can RespondChristianity Today
Naghmeh Abedini Claims Abuse, Halts Public Support for Imprisoned Husband Saeed

Christian Headlines
Why Imprisoned Pastor’s Wife Kept Her Marital Abuse a Secret – Until Now
Iranian Pastor’s Wife Files Court Papers against Recently Freed Husband

Black Christian News
Ed Stetzer On How Christians Should Respond to Accusations That Imprisoned Pastor Saeed Abedini Has Abused his Wife

Gospel Herald
Pastor Saeed Abedini’s Wife Naghmeh Advocates for Imprisoned Husband: ‘I Cannot Deny His Love, Passion for Jesus,’ despite Marital Abuse

Religion News Service
Wife of Iran-held pastor hopes to rebuild marriage

Some might argue that this is evenhanded treatment; after all, both Naghmeh and Saeed suffered persecution. Notably, however, though Saeed had pled guilty to abuse before ever leaving for Iran, several outlets headlined Saeed’s persecution and abuse without mentioning Naghmeh at all, as in the following headlines:

The noteworthy feature of these headlines is not simply in their capturing Saeed’s prison torture without mention of his wife. What we ask readers to notice is the relationship these headlines bear to those headlines which mention Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, which are typically ‘combination’ headlines, pairing the abuse element with the tacit reminder of Saeed’s own torture and imprisonment. In other words, mention of Saeed’s abuse can and does stand alone, whereas Naghmeh’s abuse is regularly discussed in combination with Saeed’s imprisonment. Further, in the examples where Nagmeh’s abuse is mentioned but Saeed’s imprisonment is not mentioned, her abuse is still regularly undermined using other discursive strategies, as we shall see.

b. Abuse as an afterthought

In English, the first position in a clause signals the topic of that clause, the theme, that which has informational prominence. The information coming after the first participant, process, or circumstance is the rheme (see Fairclough, 2003). In headlines, the theme is the interpretive lens through which the rheme is intended to be viewed. For example, the headline below from Charisma News leads with ‘persecuted Pastor Saeed Abedini,’ placing his imprisonment in thematic position in the clause, situating Naghmeh’s actions in the more minor position of rheme (end). Beyond identifying Saeed as the one who the public knows as the imprisoned Christian Pastor, this headline also tacitly encourages the reader to think first of Saeed’s persecution, considering Naghmeh’s actions in light of his imprisonment.

This is a pattern that Christian media outlets relied on again and again in our corpus. The table below focuses on examples of headlines which mention ‘abuse’ directly. Note the language that comes before the word ‘abuse’, setting the reader up to frame or theme the abuse in a particular way.

Christian Post
Naghmeh Abedini Halts Public Advocacy, Citing Marital abuse, StressBaptist Press
Abedini praises wife, denies ‘much’ of abuse claim

Christian Headlines
Saeed Abedini Disagrees with Wife’s Allegations of Marital abuse

World Magazine
Naghmeh Abedini regrets emails alleging abuse

Black Christian News
Naghmeh Abedini Regrets Sending Email Accusing Husband Saeed of Spousal abuse

Pastor Abedini Disputes Wife’s Marital Abuse Allegations

Gospel Herald
Pastor Saeed Abedini’s Wife Naghmeh Advocates for Imprisoned Husband: ‘I Cannot Deny His Love, Passion for Jesus,’ despite marital abuse

For example, a headline we saw in various forms was that of Christianity Today (see Christian Post example above as well), where emphasis is placed on Naghmeh’s halting of public advocacy, the abuse mentioned in the less important end position.

Witness Baptist Press’ emphasis on Abedini’s ‘praise’ and denial of the abuse, and Black Christian News’ thematization of Naghmeh’s regret:

Then compare these with the Charisma News headline thematising Saeed’s ‘years of demonic abuse,’ a preferential treatment of Saeed’s suffering — including the ironically loaded vocabulary of ‘abuse’ for that suffering — that Christian media seldom afforded Naghmeh.

In short, even where Christian media chose the stronger term ‘abuse’, Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh was frequently minimized via relegation to secondary position in the headlines.

Two potential exceptions we noted were from Charisma News.

In both, ‘abuse’ appears closer to thematic position, suggesting a bolder approach to coverage by this outlet than by others. However, we encourage readers to consider the extent to which ‘claims’ and ‘despite’ introduce doubt.

Summary of Part One

We have presented evidence that suggests that the Christian media have downplayed Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh in their coverage of the abuse, not only in the terminology they have used to refer to (or ignore) the abuse, and in the constant reminders of Saeed’s imprisonment, but also in the way they relegated Saeed’s abuse of his wife to a less significant place within the headlines. In part two of our study, we will turn our attention to the significance of these examples in the larger context of Christian commitments regarding speech, ethics, and the nature of abuse.

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