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The blurred line between devotion and insanity


I’m waiting for a martini at an outdoor bar. Beautiful people lounge on wicker sofas, chatting. Young professionals in stylish suits — could they be lawyers? — toast with champagne under a gargantuan umbrella.

A woman approaches on the sidewalk on the other side of the hedge that separates the bar from street. She has dirty blonde hair and wears a blue jacket that’s too heavy for this sunny afternoon. An air of homelessness hangs on her. She carries a raggedy backpack, and has a needy look in her eyes. I brace myself for the awkwardness that always follows a hungry person begging outside a swanky café.

But she doesn’t ask for money. Instead, she says: “Jesus Christ.”

At first I think she’s cursing. But she goes on, as if addressing a crowd: “Jesus Christ is our savior. That’s the truth.”


The sounds in the bar continue, uninterrupted. The patrons keep talking. Sipping cocktails. Tossing wasabi peas into their mouths. A clean shaven Indian man in a blinding white suit laughs at a joke I cannot hear. The smell of truffle fries wafts past on the breeze.

I am the only one who turns to look at her. She’s swaying. Her eyes are shut tight. I get the eerie feeling that she is talking to me.

“I don’t expect you to suddenly come to faith, but you have a choice,” she says. “To pursue God. Or to completely ignore him.”

Was she mentally ill? Should somebody take her to the hospital? Or was she simply evangelizing?

It’s often hard to see the line between religious fanaticism and mental illness. Talking to God is considered a sign of religious devotion, but when God talks back, it’s a symptom of schizophrenia. The most revered prophets in the Bible engaged in behavior that we would consider insane if it happened in front of us. Moses communicated with a burning bush. John the Baptist lived in the wilderness and warned of the end of the world. Jesus Christ said things to the ruling authorities that made his family worry he was a danger to himself.


Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University and author of the upcoming book “A Sense of the Heart: Christian Religious Experience in the United States,’’ tells me: “There is actually a particular passage in the Bible in which Jesus’s own mother and brothers attempt to do what we would call an intervention . . . The Hebrew prophets often did culturally outlandish things — going naked, talking directly to the king about his sin, denouncing idolatries of the time.”

Psychiatrists have long pondered the connection between extreme forms of religious devotion and madness. Sigmund Freud believed that religion itself is a willful delusion, while others suspected that powerful religious experiences could unhinge the mind.

In the 1860s, “religious excitement” was listed as the root cause of mental illness for about 8 percent of patients living in asylums. In 1880, the New England Journal of Medicine published case studies of people who cited religious beliefs as the reason they committed unspeakable crimes, including a man known as “Patient F,” who killed his child because he believed he was being tested like Abraham. In the late 1990s, a self-described ascetic monk called “Brother David” requested his own castration to rid himself of sexual impulses that interfered with his spirituality. “If your right hand offends you, cut it off,” he told his shrink, according to an article in the journal of the American Psychiatric Association.


Compared to those people, this patio bar preacher hardly seems insane at all. My martini comes. I take a sip.

“Maybe one day you will say, ‘That crazy woman, she wasn’t speaking lies,’ ” the woman says. Her voice trails off: “Why do you ignore God? You don’t even try. Why?”

Bill Leonard says that street preaching was a requirement at the Baptist seminary he attended in Texas. In pockets of America where people take the Bible literally, this woman’s behavior would not be considered strange. Yet, it’s still possible that she’s mentally unstable.

“One of the most difficult things for religious people is to decide who is a prophet and who is not,” Leonard says. “When we decide to follow a prophet, we gamble that the person is more right than not. Sometimes the prophet is Jesus. Sometimes it is Jim Jones. ”

I decide to get a better look at the patio bar preacher. But as soon as I turn around, she’s gone.

Farah Stockman can be reached at fstockman Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.