Beth Moore's unravelling laid bare

Warning: this article refers to traumatic events, including sexual abuse.

Beth Moore, the hugely successful American author and Bible teacher, and formerly a key figure of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written a thoughtful, funny and desperately vulnerable account of her life in her memoir, All My Knotted-Up Life.

For decades one of the most prominent voices in American evangelicalism, Beth waited until her parents had died before tying the pieces of her life together in print and untying other knots, as she says in her authorial note.

“I lament that telling my story might imply more about the experiences of my family members than either they or I would wish,” she reveals.

“I wince, knowing that a story, once told, cannot be untold.”

It’s a courageous, enlightening and deeply moving read. It becomes clear from the first chapter that the woman who established Living Proof Ministries grew up in a dysfunctional household with her siblings, Wayne, Gay, Sandra and Tony, in a small town in Arkansas. She has previously revealed that she was sexually abused as a child, but in her memoir, she makes it explicit that the abuser was her father.

“No kind of good dad does what my dad did to me.” – Beth Moore

She describes what happened when her father took her to her orthodontist appointment to tighten her braces. On the way home, he switched off the radio and went quiet.

“‘Come over here and sit next to me,’ he said, patting the seat, the corner of his mouth twitching up and down unnaturally – grin to frown, grin to frown … I didn’t want to scoot over … [but] he pulled me by my bare arm, tugged at my collar …

“Maybe a dad can do a lot of things and a child can think he’s still okay in other ways, but not the kind of things my dad did to me. No kind of good dad does what my dad did to me.”

Soon after this traumatic event, Beth’s mother became mentally ill and did “baffling, bone-rattling things like writing a name across a wall or marking a face out of a picture or leaving a nonsensical note or laughing with an unsettling cackle.”

“It was the six of us – Dad, Mom, Nanny, Gay, Tony and me – under a roof that was blowing off in sheets of shingles … Mom went to bed and left the three of us wide awake and, with a rabid ferocity, a house ajar became a house unhinged,” writes Beth.

The “black cloud that held Mom hostage” lasted for four years.

“Dad told us Mom was crazy … He claimed she’d lost her mind and was making things up, like how he was up to no good with another woman.”

“I was a good girl doing bad things. I was a bad girl doing good things.”

Beth and her sister Gay later stumbled on proof that their father was indeed having an affair and their mother was not crazy but caught in a cell that had become unbearable. On one desperate occasion, she walked out of the house without her shoes or cigarettes and was missing for hours before being found by the river. “Sometimes there aren’t enough cigarettes,” Beth wryly comments.

In her vividly descriptive way, Beth describes how she tried to “drop off the most obvious pieces of my brokenness” as she transitioned from junior high school to early high during this protracted season of instability. But as her grades spiralled down and she started wearing make-up and too-short skirts, “I was going places I had no business going with a sister three years older. She reasoned – and she was right – that my going with her was safer than my staying at home without her. I was a good girl doing bad things. I was a bad girl doing good things. I was spiralling in our spinning house, there in the air where witches fly.”

In a bid to leave bad memories behind them and make a new start, the family moved to Houston, Texas. Knowing that her husband was the one who had been lying, Beth’s mother no longer felt like dying.

“She sentenced him instead to infernally long bouts of solitary confinement under the same roof with her,” Beth writes.

In Arkadelphia, Arkansas, they had attended the Baptist church three times a week. With the anonymity of a big city, Beth’s parents dropped out of church. So Beth decided to go to church by herself, got involved in its youth group and choir, going to camp and on mission trips.

“I would decide over those three years who I wanted to be. Mind you, I would not become that person for years, if ever at all. There would be no arriving, just pursuing,” she comments.

“Somehow in the mess of it, Jesus stayed. He kept his commitment to me when I was at a loss to consistently keep what seemed a single commitment to him.”

“Whatever happened that early morning has never let me go.”

A life-altering moment occurred during Beth’s college years when she led a Girls’ Auxiliary summer camp, and she first felt the call of God on her life.

“Come the fourth day of camp, I got up before dawn to jump into the shower before anyone else stirred. I was standing at the sink about to brush my teeth when it happened. Nothing was the least remarkable about the surroundings. They were, in fact, camp-level crude …

“It was right there at the sink I sensed the Lord’s presence. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. No thunder, no heat, no light, no still, small voice. No finger writing in the steam of the mirror facing me. My toothbrush didn’t levitate. The hair on my head didn’t stand on end. I did not see a vision. I didn’t manifest a sudden spiritual gifting or, as I recall, say a word.

“So bereft was the moment of any tangible sign, I’ve wished over and over to go back to it and experience it again so I could relive it as a grown-up and put it under a theological microscope. All I have to go on is the conviction of an 18-year-old to whom the sense of God’s presence was intense enough to make her grip both sides of the sink until the moment passed.

“On a lifetime rollercoaster of failures and successes, losses and gains, revivals, restructures and reversals, whatever happened that early morning has never let me go. Or, in the same way, ever been repeated.”

“Amanda and Melissa could have had, deserved to have, far better parents.”

Beth is just as raw and open about the difficulties she faced in her marriage to Keith Moore. While she bore the scars of the childhood sexual abuse by her father, Keith’s brokenness was even deeper, having survived a childhood fire that killed his brother. Keith would ultimately be diagnosed not only with severe PTSD but also with bipolar disorder.

“We’ve had a hard go, my guy and I. Life can be mean. Mental illness is mean. It can be heartless to the ones it needles and harasses and hateful to the ones nearby,” Beth writes.

“Our lives together have never been, for ten minutes, drama-free. [Daughters] Amanda and Melissa could have had, deserved to have, far better parents. They deserved stability. We didn’t have it to give, but we gave them what we had. When we had more, we did not withhold it. When we had less, they were not unscathed. You can’t have a father and mother with the kinds of issues Keith and I had and not ride a relentless roller coaster. When we had on seat belts, it was good. It was fun. When we didn’t, it was scary. It was sad.”

“I can only love a woman who takes herself seriously reading from a Bible while wearing a sweatband. Give me this.”

One of the most endearing comments in Beth’s bare-all memoir is an observation she makes on doing a breakout session on aerobics at First Baptist’s annual women’s retreat when she was still in her early 20s.

“I entitled the 50-minute message, ‘Making Fitness Count for Christ.’ I spoke for the first 30, then slapped a cassette tape in my boom box, and got them on their feet the last 20 … I’d like to interject at this moment that writing this memoir has been, at certain points, like being skinned alive by vile demons with a potato peeler. I’ve endured for moments like this one. The gift our young selves give to our old selves, if we’re lucky, is pure absurdity. I’ve hated the young woman I used to be many times for many reasons, but I can only love a woman who takes herself seriously reading from a Bible while wearing a sweatband. Give me this.”

“I’d never met anyone who seemed to study the Bible for the sheer delight of it.”

After finding her first experience of teaching Sunday school to adults as painful as a tooth extraction, Beth fell in love with the Scriptures during a class on Bible doctrine taught by former football player Buddy Walters. This was the second key shaping moment of her spiritual journey.

“All I remember is sitting mesmerised. I’d never seen a person like Buddy. I’d never met anyone who seemed to study the Bible for the sheer delight of it, and not simply the discipline. I appreciated the Bible. Respected it. Embraced a way of living and talking that developed from it.  But I didn’t love it. Not like that guy loved it.

“The second he closed in prayer, I stood up from my chair, grabbed my purse, and walked straight out the door without a word … I ran to my car, threw my purse in the passenger seat, got in, shut the door and burst into tears. ‘I don’t know what that was,’ I cried to God, leaning forward towards the windshield in case he couldn’t see me through the roof, ‘but I want it.’

“There are not many parts of my life story that make me cry nearly every time I tell them, but this one does … That night, in the car, I suppose before I even turned the ignition, God, in effect, struck a match against a stone, and lit a torch in my heart for the Scriptures that has never been quenched.”

“God … lit a torch in my heart for the Scriptures that has never been quenched.”

The teaching ministry for which Beth Moore is known took off after a difficult season in her 30s, during which time she was also raising her three children. She gained more opportunities to speak at events outside her denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Although she accepted her church climate regarding men’s and women’s roles, she was never blind to the sexism in it. She played by the rules, but that didn’t stop pushback from her ministry starting to escalate.

“I thought about how maddeningly difficult it is to get people who haven’t been victimised to care.”

The notorious crunch that led Beth to leave the SBC came on 8 October 2016, when she found herself unable to stay silent after reading the full transcript of Donald Trump’s comments on the Access Hollywood tape where he boasted about the liberties his celebrity allowed him to take with women.

“I thought back over all the years of dealing with the grabbing. I thought about my story and hundreds of others I’d heard, some as recently as the previous three days. I thought about how maddeningly difficult it is to get people who haven’t been victimised to care. To comprehend the reverberating repercussions of the actions of those who think they have the right to force themselves on another. The audacity it takes to joke about it like it’s nothing. Like we’re nothing … The next morning, I awakened dead calm, had prayer time, opened up Twitter and posted a series of tweets.”

“The punishment was swift and severe,” Beth comments. “What happened immediately following those tweets was the psychological equivalent of standing in front of a firing squad, bereft of the benefit of dying. The trolling on social media was scathing and unrelenting …  It brought a firestorm unlike anything we’d ever experienced …

“All this time, I’d accepted the rampant sexism because I thought it was about Scripture. What I was watching in the wake of the Access Hollywood report, however, did not appear to be a wit about Scripture, nor did it evidence fruit of the Holy Spirit, as far as I could discern.  In my estimation, this thing playing out in front of the world was about power. Full stop. This was about control. This was about the boys’ club.”

“This was about control. This was about the boys’ club.”

In March 2021, after Beth’s husband Keith finally recovered from a horrendous illness that lasted four years, they left the SBC and joined an Anglican Church in Houston, where she found a warm welcome.

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All My Knotted-Up Life

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