Will People Worship Anything Entertaining?

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Dan V writes:  

 . . . I am confused as to why most evangelicals avoid reading biblical sholarship regarding the Bible. True, the works of scholars like John Boswell and Morton Smith take a fair amount of concentration, but Bart Erhman and Karen Armstrong are not difficult at all. Is it because to read them is to question the Bible’s inerrancy?  

Also: I have a crude theory about today’s mega churches (keep in mind that the entire gay community is still laughing about Ted Haggard): many of the pastors have become latter-day Elmer Gantrys while their congregations have become, well, Elmer —Fudds. Has the gullibility (Fudd) factor become so high that these people will worship in anything that is entertaining? I realize that in the last 40 years, just about anyone who is featured on TV, says "God, God, God, Bible, Bible, Bible – send money" will get money (or as Woody Allen’s God says to Abraham: "You guys will believe anything if it’s told to you in a low, well-modulated voice."). Although I was raised as a staunch Catholic with all the reverance, pomp and ritual anyone could ever believe, I was still taught that clerics were human. How much do these people condone hypocrisy?  

Some time I would like to glean your thoughts on Christianity and its lack of contributions to the poor, but that, I promise will be another time. 

Hi Dan – 

You ask some tough questions, and others may have better answers yourself than I can offer.  But here are some fragments of thought. 

Why do people avoid reading biblical scholarship?   

Here’s my list: 

1.  Most people don’t read much of anything.  I heard somewhere recently that the average American consumes less than one book/year.  (Can this be possible??? – – ok, not quite:) Their answers show that just over half — 56.6 percent — read a book of any kind in the previous year, down from 60.9 percent a decade earlier.  We have to remember that this 56.6 percent includes the people who read a Tom Clancy novel or a Harlequin Romance, which is a far cry from even Bart Ehrman or Karen Armstrong.  Ever seen either one of them in an airport bookstore? 

2.  We all have a strong confirmatory bias.  That is, we selectively are attracted to, believe, and retain information that confirms what we already believe.  Anything else feels discomfiting or even threatening.  The whole power of the scientific method is that it opposes this tendency.  It forces us to as the questions that could show us wrong.  This single characteristic of scientific inquiry is what makes the difference between the 15th Century and the 21st Century.  Faith, on the other hand, eschews doubt and actually advocates confirmatory thinking.  Believers, like the rest of us, are emotionally attracted to information that fits their world view, and the church encourages this tendency. Consequently those believers who read substantially tend to selectively read from within their own theological tradition. 

3.  Evangelical communities, both naturally and deliberately develop closed information economies.  People tend to get their information from people who think like them.  New technologies have allowed more and more isolation of this type.  And Evangelical teachings do not encourage exploring a variety of perspectives.  Quite the opposite.  Fundamentalist ministers and seminary administrators vigilantly safeguard against other points of view, especially scholarship by modernist Christians and secular religion scholars. Consequently, most Evangelicals are exposed almost exclusively to information that has made it through the community filter.   

Are Evangelicals willing to believe anything that’s good entertainment?   

Well, only within certain bounds.  Americans, for the most part, are looking for passive entertainment.  It’s what we’re raised on and habituated to.  And the megachurches offer some mega sound and light shows with brilliant, charismatic entertainers in the pulpit.  However, once people are drawn into a doctrinal structure (or, to use a different jargon, once they have had their information processing reconfigured by a specific meme complex) they are less available to be seduced by another story line, no matter how good the entertainment.  The confirmatory bias takes precedence.  

How much do they condone hypocrisy?  

Evangelicals don’t particularly condone hypocrisy. In fact, they preach against it.  But they are particularly vulnerable to it, for several reasons.  

Evangelicals defend a set of doctrines that were institutionalized by the Catholic hierarchy in the 4th Century.  This includes believing in literal perfection of those scriptures that were declared canonical at the Council of Hippo Regis (with one set of exceptions).  There are a lot of things that made sense in the 4th century – the idea of seizures being caused by demons, the idea that the sun could stand still, the idea that God made the first humans 6000 years ago, etc. – that are simply silly in light of what we now know about the natural world.  Consequently, in order to maintain their beliefs today’s literalists have to engage in a lot more mental slight of hand than did the people who originally made the judgment calls about orthodox doctrines and the composition of the Bible. This makes Evangelical apologists prone to sophistry.  (See Lee Strobel, for example.) 

Secondly, Evangelical holiness codes ignore much of what we know about human development and human psychology.  Masturbation isn’t going to go away just because a church teaches that it should.  Neither will homosexuality, or depression, or schizophrenia, or premarital sex, or plain old selfishness.  But evangelicals aren’t allowed to talk about the very normal drives that we all experience or, when they do, they talk about resisting them rather than understanding them.  Guilt and social disapproval are major motivators for deceiving ourselves and those around us.    

Why don’t Christians do more for the poor? 

In part, because one of the books that they don’t read is the Bible.  The oldest Christian denominations – Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicans, etc. tend to have a structured liturgy of readings to ensure that members are exposed broadly to Biblical passages.  Members of these denominations often are quite devoted to alleviating poverty.  Evangelicals and other fundamentalists hear, read, and study those portions that most interest their pastors and the writers of Bible study guides.  These tend to omit, for example, the passages condoning sexual slavery and prescribing capital punishment for rape victims and defiant children.  But they also disproportionately emphasize the issues du jour. 

According to Jim Wallis, who is, incidentally, an Evangelical who has devoted his life to the poor, the Bible mentions poverty over 2000 times.  It mentions homosexuality (maybe) 5-10 times and  the ensoulment status of blastocytes not at all.  If Bible studies reflected the content of the Bible, more Evangelicals would be concerned about tending the vulnerable members of society.  In fact, if they read the comments of Jesus about hell, they might believe that attention to "the least of these" was how to avoid going there.  But Christian priorities, like all human priorities are shaped by culture and history.  What better place than the U.S. to develop a Christianity-variant, "Prosperity Gospel" that says material wealth is a sign of God’s favor? 

But a second factor is the all-encompassing focus of Evangelicals on, well, Evangelism.  The core of their faith is right belief, salvation by blood sacrifice, which we humans can obtain by believing this is so.  Once this premise is accepted, it guides the good works of even well-intentioned believers.  Poverty is temporary, after all.  Heaven and hell are forever. Evangelicals do do quite a bit of poverty alleviation work as a means to winning converts.  Food aid is a great way to attract a loyal following in India.  But for most Evangelicals, the Sojourners crowd possibly excepted, poverty alleviation isn’t the point.  Salvation is.  And you can win souls much easier by putting on hip rock concerts, establishing campus and prison ministries, and building Hell Houses, than working to alleviate poverty.  

Another factor here is that Evangelicalism, as an American phenomenon, is one of the more individualistic variants of the Christian faith.  It emphasizes individual salvation over collective redemption.  As a corollary, it emphasizes individual responsibility and individual holiness over co-creating God’s kingdom here on earth, which has been the focus of some other kinds of Christian communities.  This mindset fits comfortably with a perception of the poor as individually responsible for their own poverty.  Combine this with prosperity gospel, and you have a sense that people get what they deserve, and God finds this fitting.  As a psychologist, of course I see the classic human tendency toward blaming victims for their own misfortune, something we all are prone to if we’re not careful.  Evangelical teachings don’t create this tendency.  They simply sanctify it.  

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
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