Sunday, October 27, 2013

Filter That Diction

Toward the latter half of my junior year in high school, at home, probably on a Thursday, I remember I was doing homework and procrastinating in between assignments at our PC. My father was watching some special on television, and I wasn’t paying too much attention to it.
I could tell from half listening that it was some kind of documentary, and the part he was watching involved interviews with those who hadn’t been shot. It was about a campus shooting somewhere. It doesn’t matter too much where. It matters more what was said in the aftermath.
I stopped what I was doing to turn and watch for a few minutes. I caught a few phrases beginning with, “I just thank god” among the rest of the ‘deified’ reasons these people were offering as explanations for their survival.
It was ‘god’ this and ‘god’ that. These adults, completely serious, were bringing all the attention to themselves and their ‘god’ who, apparently, cared more about them than the helpless victims who actually died in the shooting.
Perhaps it’s important to note that I was raised in a fairly religious household, put in a private school for nine years and, during the summer, VBS (vacation bible study).  I was tired. I was mentally exhausted with all of it. I thought on the pointlessness of the interviewees comments, and said aloud then, “That’s their fifteen minutes of fame. That’s fucked up.”
In second grade, at Deer Creek Christian School, we had these workbooks. I guess you could call them ‘Bible’ workbooks, but they weren’t really scriptural or full of dogma in any way. They were readings  adapted for our age group, and they varied depending on the topic for the week. All written by people I don’t remember.
There was one about a school shooting. It was a high school shooting, though. The setting was fluffed up a bit to emphasize how studious a girl in the cafeteria was. Some girl reading the Bible. Then there was another paragraph belaboring how righteous this girl was, this girl whose name I don’t know.  Anyway, so the story goes that this girl (of course, a symbol of purity) was at lunch when suddenly, the shooter approached her. The shooter, a male, said, “Do you believe in God?”
The girl was written to have replied, “Yes.” And the shooter was then said to have retorted, “Then go be with Him.” And then he killed her. So it goes.
It sounds very much like a line from an action movie. But it wasn’t, and isn’t. As far as I know.
We had a discussion about it in class. I mean, how could we not talk about it? Here I was, with my peers, not even eight years old yet, and we were talking about a girl getting gunned down for her beliefs.
Guess what I was told?  
I was told that it would be better to die proclaiming the name of ‘Christ’ on my lips than to lie about believing in ‘god’ and live. Their mentality was that if the shooter didn’t really care what answer was given, it would be better to say “Yes” rather than “No” to avoid sinning (in telling a lie) right before judgment. Uh, what?
They were essentially glorifying martyrdom. As a kid, my thought was, “Well, if I were to lie and live, then I could just ask for forgiveness later, couldn’t I?” They were always talking about ‘god’s forgiveness’ back then, so I figured, maybe? Maybe that was a possibility? But what if I don’t believe in god? Would saying “No” then be subsequently the truth? How would that work? No one likes those kinds of questions though. My community certainly didn't.
The connection for me, outside of it being a school shooting in both scenarios, was how beliefs can be used to justify certain behaviors. It almost seems scripted, even acceptable in society to say certain things on television or in certain situations, and to tell children how to act so long as there’s some kind of religious reason for it.
That’s not okay.
As an atheist, I found the testimonies of those in the documentary I overheard to be insulting. In what they were proclaiming, it was implied that ‘god’ had chosen them to go on living, and not the victims. It took the focus away from those who should be remembered and thought of and put it on a few people more concerned with pimping their theology.  As if their ‘god’ really had planned everything out. As if their ‘god’ knew a psychopath with a weapon was coming that day and hummed to itself, “This one dies, this one lives. This one dies, this one lives.”
The victims be damned! It was ‘god’s will.’ The survivors revel in iconicity! They’re the special ones.
It was all about bringing attention to their personal beliefs, their ‘god.’ They could have easily said, "We're so grateful to be alive." And perhaps I'd be less angry if they had.
To clarify: No, not everyone who has faith in a deity acts like that. Yes, many people, regardless of what they believe or don't believe, may be offended by people calling acts of violence 'God's will.' 
However, my feelings about all of this are:
It is not appropriate to assume other people identify with a ‘god’ or ‘gods.’ In the news, in documentaries, in the classrooms, at restaurants, around town, on the money we use, or in the pledge of allegiance. 'God talk' can be damaging in many ways, depending on the circumstances.
It is not always appropriate or politically correct to assume a ‘religious’ audience. And while freedom of speech is a basic American right, it’s still really rude and taboo to praise or thank a higher being, as those in that documentary did, for being ‘saved’ after a tragedy has occurred. It’s insensitive to families and loved ones who suffer in the aftermath of such events.
It is not appropriate to tell children to ‘Die for Christ’ or any other religious figure. Especially when they really have no idea what’s going on, or what they believe or don’t believe when they’re born and raised within a sect. To teach children that kind of extremism is a form of psychological abuse.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Concerning Christians and Their Hell

Pathological empiricism; that's to what I often ascribe my tendency to overly categorize things. A place for everything, and everything in its place. Adages and such. Classification brings order to a chaotic universe, a surreal reality, and a bizarre Christian past...

No one whose testicles are crushed or whose male organ is cut off shall enter the assembly of the Lord.

I was probably ten or so when the odious swine came to town. “Heaven's Gates, Hell's Flames,” the group was called. They traveled the country producing tawdry theater in local churches in order to bring to life the fundamental essence of Christianity: Thou shalt telepathically link with a magical flying space carpenter named Jesus who lived 2000 years ago. Or else be on fire. Forever.

He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.

I took it seriously as a child. Very seriously. Often I experience difficulty communicating with and relating to those who were raised in a secular or nominally religious environment. Usually the conversation goes, “No, seriously dude. We actually believed the nonsensical psychobabble coming out of our mouths was a real space language. Tongues are kind of like magic spells against the powers and principalities of darkness. What are those? Oh, they're sort of these invisible magical fairy beings who have nothing better to do than turn kids into homosexuals and confuse people. Jesus supposedly sent a bunch of them into some pigs once and...yeah? No, seriously, I'm not making this up. ”

Nate was a couple years older than I; his sister and I had been friends since we both wore diapers. I suppose he would have been twelve years old or so at the time. The sanctuary of Trinity Mennonite Church was pitch-black so as to draw attention to Nate and his father seated in adjacent folding chairs under the scrutiny of the spotlight in the balcony's crow's nest above the audience. The premise was that the father was driving his son home from a soccer game. Nate clutched a real soccer ball, while his father gripped an imaginary steering wheel.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

So why don't we go to church with mom?” Nate asked his father. “Well, son, I guess your mother has enough religion for all of us.” his father replied. Uh oh, I thought. Wrong answer. Unless both of them accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior before the skit's end, this was not going to end well. My toes curled painfully inside my little shoes from anxiety; I knew what was about to happen. Like all of the characters in the skits that came before and all those that were to follow, they were about to die.

Anyone whose name was not found written in the Book of Life was thrown into the lake of fire.

The car crash sound effect thundering over the sound system was mercifully brief. Nate and his father screamed in terror as notional inertia propelled them violently from their folding chairs through their notional windshield. The spotlight went out. I sat there waiting out the dramatic pause, gazing into total blackness. Soft white lights faded in illuminating the heavenly realm. Angels garbed in white stood peering down on the bewildered boy and his father picking themselves off the ground. They each looked around at their new environment with trepidation. Center stage: the head angel pantomimed flipping through the pages of the Book of Life, dispassionately searching in vain for the names of the father and his son. They were not to be found.

So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

Please!” exclaimed Nate's father. “It's my fault! I know that! Have mercy on my son,” he begged of the angels. His hands were awkwardly thrust forward to signify his pleading. These were all amateur actors recruited from my church. They were untrained in the art of selling a performance to an audience older than twelve. But I was not yet twelve, so their meager thespian attempts were sufficiently compelling for me, at least. I was petrified.

Silently, the solemn angels shielded their faces with their robes as the lighting in the room shifted to an ominous blood red. With a deep roar emanating from the sound system the flames of Hell burst to life in the corner of the sanctuary, and Satan ran cackling from amongst them. My body shook with terror as the Devil dragged the screaming child into the pit, unmoved by his father's supplications. I wanted to look away, but I couldn't. “Mwahahaha, hey Dad, thanks for the kid!!!” the Devil crowed with joy as he dragged Dad into the pit to join his son. To be on fire. Forever.

Once, a Sunday school teacher told me that if you imagine a globe and cut it into four equal parts, only one of those parts represents the population of Christians. But then I read a tract from the rack in the church foyer which explained that half of those who called themselves Christians were actually Catholics who blasphemed the Holy Ghost by praying to Mary and the saints, and who venerated idols, statues, and relics. They weren't getting into Heaven. So in my mind I cut that quarter of the globe in half.

So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.

But then I heard a sermon explaining that a lot of people who call themselves Christian are wishy-washy types; they're “Christian” because their parents are, or they live in a community of people who all call themselves Christian. They don't truly have a personal, saving relationship with Jesus Christ. So in my mind, I cut the remaining piece in half again.

Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’

But then I read in Matthew 7, that even many of those who do love Jesus, even those who help the sick in his name, even those to whom God has given the power to perform miracles shall receive the divine “go fuck yourself,” much to their bewilderment. So in my mind, I cut the remaining piece in half once again.

Now I know that there are many flavors of Christianity. Until Pope Frank began injecting copious quantities of ambiguity into Catholic doctrine, the Catholics officially professed that salvation was only possible through unity with the One True Church of Rome, so the Protestants are the nominally Christian group going to Hell instead. There are other flavors of Christianity where as long as you possess some vague belief in Jesus' specialness, you're good. And I know many of you reading this will have the urge to window-dress this point by bringing up those gay-marriage affirming, “God loves everybody” preaching, and “we're all going to heaven” asserting churches. I shall address those towards the end.

But one point is inescapable: that no matter how you slice the globe in your mind, whether your slice is a good-sized chunk or paper thin, MOST forms of Christianity, whether they emphasize it or not, for MOST of the past fifteen centuries or more, carry as an unavoidable implication of their doctrine that MOST of the people who were, are, and ever shall be born into this weary world will be on fire. Forever. Forms of Christianity that don't carry this implication in their theology are the tiny exception, not the rule.

So there I was, a Christian, holding this tiny sliver of humanity in my hand, a minuscule remnant who were not destined to be on fire. Forever. And yet, it felt as if I was one of the few who were in abject despair because of this. Why? Surely if my fellow Christians witnessed a child being dowsed with gasoline by a terrorist preparing to set the child ablaze, they would be stirred to action. Surely if my fellow Christians were unable to intervene in such a situation they would be traumatized for life. I wasn't surrounded by unfeeling monsters. And yet, growing up it was my surreal and perplexing reality to be surrounded by people who claimed to believe a doctrine that condemned most of their neighbors to Hell. Why did they not exhibit an emotional state compatible with such a claim?

Why do seemingly happy Christians even exist? Why are there people who profess Christianity, and yet seem relatively sane, who aren't smearing their own poop upon the walls, who aren't trapped in the depths of despair, mourning in anguish for the dire and terrible fate they believe shall beset their fellow man? Why do I see self-identified Christians out at a bar, sipping a glass of wine, listening to music, enjoying the company of their spouse, while all around them are souls on the road to perdition? How can they sit still, placidly ignoring the Great Commission of Jesus Christ: “Go into the world and preach the gospel,” especially when the eternal condition of their fellow mortals is at stake? Shouldn't their beliefs drive them into the streets and compel them to frantically preach repentance? It's this bizarre religious reality I occupy in the Christianity-dominated United States which haunted me as a Christian, and it still weirds me out to this day.

Pathological empiricism. Whenever reality is overwhelming, break it into pieces, simplify, classify, categorize. There are no one-size-fits-all explanations for how Christians deal with the ridiculously horrible world into which Christianity asserts we have been thrust. Remember, I'm not dealing with why Christianity is bullshit here. That's a topic for another day. This is only about how those who identify as Christians psychologically deal with the implications of their identity. So, based on my life experiences both inside and outside the church and the people I have encountered along the way, may I present Matthew's List of Hell Coping Mechanisms for Christians:

Type 1, The Pretender: Surprise! There are those who have already read the Bible, looked at the history of Christianity, thought about it for a spell, and discovered it's cockamamie to the core. But although they have internally extricated themselves from religion, they live in downstate Illinois, or Louisiana, or elsewhere in the Bible Belt. There is often a price to be paid for publicly shedding the shackles of superstitious nonsense. The threat of friends and family disowning them, employers firing them, and vandals or hooligans assaulting them is a very real concern for many. So they fake it.

I've met people on more than one occasion who admit, for example, they don't believe, but they still teach Sunday school with their mother-in-law or lead worship in the church in order to keep the family peace. Our friend, the former minister and Clergy Project graduate Jerry Dewitt is a good example of someone who was a Type 1. After it was discovered he no longer believed, he not only lost his pastoral job, but his secular job and his house as well. For those tempted to pass judgment on Type 1 Christians, the risks posed to one's family by going public creates a real ethical dilemma, as Jerry has learned. Here, Hell is dealt with by realizing that it doesn't exist.

Type 2, The Redefiner: In terms of belief these are essentially Type 1 folk, but in order to mitigate the social consequences of openly not subscribing to the doctrines of Christianity, they redefine Christianity to mean a personal philosophy loosely based around select pleasant aphorisms of Jesus. This allows them to, for example, refer to themselves as “culturally Catholic” as does noted sex columnist Dan Savage, or attend church and appreciate the beauty of Christian ritual as does historian Dr. Robert Price. Yeah, it's kind of a word game, but being an Atheist-Christian can be surprisingly less troubling to some than just being an Atheist or a Humanist. “I don't care if you hate baseball as long as you root for the St. Louis Cardinals.”

Type 3, The Re-interpreter: I genuinely have affection for these folks, although their position is almost entirely based on an argument from incredulity fallacy. These are the well-meaning people who can't possibly bring themselves to believe that, if there is a god, he is the insufferable, petty, vindictive, petulant-six-year-old-with-a-magnifying-glass-over-an-anthill, monumental ass-hat described in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Although they often possess a belief that the Bible is, in some variably ambiguous manner inspired, influenced, or penned by God, they have twisted, warped, and shoe-horned their theology to the point where ideas like the annihilationism of theologian John Stott or even the universal reconciliationism of Bishop Carlton Pearson become plausible. Another person I would place in this category would be Rob Bell. If someone describes themselves as a liberal Christian, they often belong in this category.

Type 4, The Denier: We humans can count living in denial as one of our most cherished and practiced pastimes. From my experience I place most Christians I meet into this category. And who's to blame them? When we hear that someone from our community is killed in a tragic accident, we feel sad. But our brains are physically incapable of scaling up our sadness 230,000 times in order to properly react to the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, for example. Tragedy on that magnitude is incomprehensible to us.

It's no surprise, then, that Hell just simply doesn't register on an emotional level for many Christians I meet. And how could it? Take all the human suffering you have ever witnessed in your life, now imagine it on the scale of billions of individuals for billions of years. Now multiply that by eternity. That's the implication of the Christian reality. Who can blame them for partitioning off this morbid corner of their Weltanschauung, never allowing it to arise to the level of contemplation? When Hell does rear its ugly head in the mind of a Type 4, it can often be dispatched with a quaint Bible quote like, “His ways are higher than our ways,” or “How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his methods.” Everything's fine. God's in control. Shrug shoulders. Drive on.

Type 5, The Believer: Christians are often content to remain in the complacency of Type 4. But sometimes, along comes a spark like I described at the beginning of this article, forcing Christians into the horrible reality of Christ. Jonathan Edwards' sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God,” served this purpose in the 18th century, terrifying American colonists during the Great Awakening, reportedly compelling them to shriek and moan in anguish.

A Type 5 is a truly miserable person. Hell haunts his nightmares. Not only is he preoccupied with discerning how to “now awake and fly from the wrath to come,” his empathy often compels him to try saving his fellow man before it's too late. A few years ago, a childhood friend from my old church came to me with tears in his eyes, quite literally begging and pleading for me to see the error of my ways and “turn back to Jesus.” He would not leave until I promised him that after the imminent rapture of the believers, I would at least become one of the post-tribulation saints. (I won't explain what that means here, as Christian dispensational eschatology is a complicated topic. And since it's all made up bullshit anyway, it's pretty useless knowledge.)

Type 6, The Psychopath: One cannot stay Type 5 forever. Abject despair cannot be maintained in perpetuity. Sometimes a Type 5 will work their way back down the spectrum to a Type 3, for example; often they will manage to escape the trappings of Christianity entirely, as I did. But occasionally, something else happens. A Type 5 can either deal with the cause of their distress, or they can negate the symptoms. This coping mechanism involves emotionally shutting themselves off to the plight of their fellow humans. Some, like the infamous Westboro Baptist Church members, become so callous and sadistic they seem to actually begin to relish the thought of their unsaved neighbors writhing in agony. Not all Type 6 Christians are as universally reviled as Westboro. I would place apologist William Lane Craig in this category due to his habit of justifying the God-ordained mass genocides of children in the Book of Joshua, for example, as being a tragedy only for the Israelite soldiers doing the killing, who are of course the “real” victims. If a chill of disgust and horror runs down your spine when talking to a Christian, they're probably a Type 6.

The real test of any classification system is whether it's useful or not. I would argue that mine is, at least for me (of course). The sort of conversation I end up having with a Type 1 is going to be very different than with a Type 4. Type 5 may be suicidal or maniacal; Type 6 should be kept away from children and weapons and kept out of positions of authority. My list creates a spectrum which I've seen many Christians traverse up and down at different points in their lives. But I would like to hear your thoughts. Do you find this useful? For most of my time as a Christian I vacillated between Type 4 and 5. If you were a Christian, what type(s) were you?