Thursday, March 31, 2011

Real Work Conversations: Animal Control

My Boss: "So, I just got this e-mail from wife. You have to see this."

Me: "What?"

Boss: "Apparently she was looking at the list of animals available for adoption at our shelter."

Me: "...And?"

Boss: "Take a look at this entry."

Me: "Cute dog."

Boss: "Read on... Right down here, where it says, 'Why was this animal brought in?'"

Me: {looking at screen} "'Moron.'"

{brief pause}

{mad cackling ensues}

Me: "That's the whole explanation? 'Moron?'" {mad cackling continues}

Boss: "And it's live. On our website. For public viewing."

Me: "That... just..." {starts laughing again}

Boss: "They really should know better."

Tragically, they changed the entry before I got a screen shot.

Making Excuses

I'm a little behind on updating the Blog o' Doom, here. That's partly because I'm still trying to get enough sleep (so staying up late to write ist verboten), partly because I'm now well into the busy season at work (so, not so much Up Shit Creek as Wading Upstream While The, Um, Water Is Rising), and partly because I'm feeling both uninspired and a bit displeased with the quality of my writing.

For the most part, this is temporary. I mean, keeping myself on a regular sleep schedule is something I need to do pretty much all the time, but in itself that actually solves more problems than it creates. The Avalanche Of Work culminates in the Big Local Music Festival near the end of May, so I usually finish recovering around mid-June. Firstborn will be five years old in June, and Secondborn will finish his first year of life in mid-April. (Are we really that close already???) Since having kids is a big (if enjoyable) part of the Things That Have Eaten My Life, having them grow older and more independent carries me ever closer to the point where I will get some time back for myself.

And, to be honest, being disappointed in my own writing is a temporary condition, too. I have several writing projects. I'd like to be working on them. Unfortunately, writing stories is not the sort of thing that I can do well in small increments. And finding longer stretches of time isn't easy. It helps if I'm in the right mood, too (but if I have time, I can put myself in the right mood). So, really... this too shall pass. Sooner or later, time and energy and interest will collide.

First World problems, obviously. But hey, I'm feeling morose and self-indulgent, and since I have it on good authority that misery loves company, I thought I'd share.

I do have a couple of short writings that ought to go up here on the blog. The main one's for tomorrow, but I'm hopeful that the Deranged Cultist will drop by sometime today and let us know how his life as a fugitive is going.

In the meantime, if you're bored, let me send you back to an earlier post. It's one of those writing projects I just mentioned: my movie script.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Discussion: the Basis of Faith

After some consideration, I've concluded that this post doesn't really belong with the Friendly Evangelism stuff (even though it's a direct outgrowth of that discussion). So, I've changed the title and adjusted the tags accordingly. Apologies in advance for any confusion that might cause.

As she suggested/requested in the comments on the last installment of Friendly Evangelism, Grace/Becky has come back to talk about the atonement of Christ and the Doctrine of the Trinity. (If you want more context, her comments are here.)

Let me start by reproducing Grace's comment:
I've tried to find the post where you had mentioned your struggles with the concept of God as trinity, and the atonement of Christ. But, unfortunately I couldn't locate it, sooo, I thought I would leave some brief comments here.

I began to question and struggle with my faith when I was about nine or ten years old. And, for a time as a young person was agnostic.

It seems to me that it is healthier for kids to be reared in church environments where it's ok to do this, and even encouraged, rather than to be made to feel guilty for being naturally inquisitive.

Any faith that emerges in the long run is bound to be more grounded. I think it's when doubts and questions are continually pushed down that the bottom is most likely to drop out spiritually.

I'm thinking that any analogy we try to paint to describe the work of the cross of Christ is bound to fall short of the thing itself.

How can our finite human minds fully comprehend all the precise mechanics of how God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself? Do we even have to know exactly?

What I believe as a Christian is that by the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ we are ultimately put right with God, and with each other.

God loved us so much that He fully entered into human life and suffering so that we could share in His life forever.

I suppose I would be more partial to the Greek Orthodox view of the atonement which is different than the view of Anslem which tends to predominate more in Western theology.

As usual where Grace is concerned, there are parts of this I agree with, parts of this I disagree with, and parts where my perspective is simply different enough to make agreement or disagreement a moot point.

Let's start with a quick link to the background: my take on why I am not a Christian. I'm putting this in for the same of completeness, and for the benefit of anyone who's coming in late to the conversation. Grace's memory of what I said is essentially accurate: I can't see how the idea that Jesus Died For Our Sins could work, and I see that belief as central to Christian faith.[1]

"It seems to me that it is healthier for kids to be reared in church environments where it's ok to do this, and even encouraged, rather than to be made to feel guilty for being naturally inquisitive."

I don't think it's even possible to overstate the degree to which I agree with this.[2]

Having said that, I did come out of an environment where questioning and doubts were encouraged, or at the very least not punished or even considered unusual.[3] And what eventually emerged from my questioning was not a stronger faith, tempered by questioning and comfortable with its inevitable doubts, but a simple disbelief. (So, at least in my case, it isn't a bad religious [or social] environment that drives people out - sometimes looking for answers or improved understanding can do it, too.)

"I'm thinking that any analogy we try to paint to describe the work of the cross of Christ is bound to fall short of the thing itself.

How can our finite human minds fully comprehend all the precise mechanics of how God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself? Do we even have to know exactly?"

Speaking entirely for myself... No, I don't have to know exactly. But I do have to have some reason to believe that that's actually the case, and (preferably) some idea of how it might work, even if it's extremely counter-intuitive at first glance. From the outside, Christianity really doesn't offer much in the way of either.

"What I believe as a Christian is that by the dying and rising again of Jesus Christ we are ultimately put right with God, and with each other."

What exactly do you mean by "dying and rising again of Jesus"? I was baptized as a baby, so if I died - even spiritually - during the experience, I don't remember it at all. I was confirmed at, I don't know, twelve or thirteen, and again I don't remember dying or rising again of Jesus Christ. I've read about some shamanistic practices that feature symbolic deaths and rebirths - sometimes including being buried for a day or so, with an air pipe - but in Christianity the worst that happens is that you spend a few seconds underwater. So how are we dying and rising again? And if we aren't, how does that put us right with God - let alone each other?

And, for that matter, I haven't seen anything to indicate that becoming a Christian and/or renewing your Christian beliefs puts us right with each other. People who are petty, competitive, shallow, vindictive... or whatever... remain very much as they were. People who were open, giving, kind, warm, friendly... or whatever... also remain very much as they were. Sometimes they're inspired to improve - I once picked up a hitchhiker who had, as far as I could see, exchanged his addiction to drugs for an addiction to Jesus, which I'm sure was an improvement - but even then, the extent to which they're transformed is a precise measure of the extent to which they transform themselves.

I say all that without any sort of malice, irritation, or contempt - and I really hope it doesn't come across as condescending. It's just that you say that you believe this happens, and I simply don't see it. And until/unless I do, my general view of Christianity as something that Just Doesn't Work For Me is unlikely to change.

"God loved us so much that He fully entered into human life and suffering so that we could share in His life forever."

I have several issues with this, and I'm not sure where to start. First of all, if Jesus could wither trees with a word and call the dead back to life, I'm not sure he entered fully into human life. If he never sinned - and, as a consequence, never felt regret - I'm not sure he ever entered fully into human life. Since, by most accounts, the punishment for sin is an eternity in Hell, I don't see how three days of suffering is even remotely sufficient to pay for anyone, let alone everyone.

Perhaps more to the point... God (and, as an aspect of God, Jesus) is omnipotent, isn't He? If that's truly the case, why should entering into human life be a prerequisite for reconciling human beings to Him? An all-powerful being could simply will us to be reconciled, and it would be so. Dying on the cross should only be necessary if the deity isn't actually all-powerful (i.e. if He's bound by rules outside Himself), or if the whole thing is basically a show put on for the benefit of humanity. Neither scenario is entirely satisfactory.

"I suppose I would be more partial to the Greek Orthodox view of the atonement which is different than the view of Anslem which tends to predominate more in Western theology."

I don't have an answer for this, because (as I mentioned way back at the beginning of the Friendly Evangelism series) I don't have anything that even resembles a formal background in theology. What I have, mainly, is a minor in Anthropology and a certain familiarity with medieval history: not the same thing. But I suspect that the official stance of the Episcopalian and Anglican denominations is at odds with the Greek Orthodox view of the issue, which begs the question of why I would want to return to the Episcopal church, even if I were inclined to reconsider Christianity at large.

But even that overlooks the more fundamental question: why should I believe any of this at all? I don't say that to be dismissive; it's a serious question. I don't see human imperfection as evidence that we are somehow "separated" from God, in part because I don't see any evidence that there is an alternative, "connected" state of being that is observably different. Without that underlying assumption, the question isn't so much "How might Atonement work?" but rather "Why should I think Atonement happens at all?" or perhaps "What makes you think that people would need Atonement?"

[1] A commenter on the original post just reminded me that, once again, It's More Complicated Than That. To be really precise, I should say that the idea that Christ paid the price for our sins is central to mainstream American Protestant Christianity. It certainly isn't universal.

[2] It's not just doubts and questioning, either; for me, those are only parts of a larger category of related things, what the poet Keats referred to as Negative Capability: "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason." There are, I think, two sides to this. The first is simply being able to accept doubts and ambiguities and the limits of understanding, without being threatened by them. In practice, it oftens means learning to accept "I don't know" as a valid answer. The other side of it is that there are some experiences and understandings that simply are what they are; trying to extend them into a system or apply them beyond their first appearance not only leads you nowhere, it actually destroys whatever initial insight was achieved. That's not to say that you shouldn't look for larger patterns or more general truths, just that trying to push an insight beyond its limits seldom ends well.

[3] I once found a copy of the Bible... sort of... as translated by, I think, National Lampoon. I think I was about twelve. Being a compulsive reader, I flipped it open and started in. The section I read recounted the story of Onan - you remember him, right? His brother died, and so he was required to marry his brother's wife and provide her with children. Except when he lay with her, he spilled his seed on the ground. And then - in this account - later he went into town and a pretty girl walked by, and he spilled his seed on the ground. A while later a moderately attractive donkey passed by, and he spilled his seed on the ground... I'm sure you're wondering: where did I find this? One of the priests had it on his desk.

If anyone can identify this and knows where I might find a copy, I'd be grateful. Again, while I don't look at the world and think, Wow, that's so amazing, there must be a God, I do look at the world and think, Wow, if there is is a God, He certainly has a rich sense of humor.

United Way Chili Cookoff II: Salvation

The time has come again. The invitations have been issued, and the challengers have gathered. Each will have a unique opportunity to demonstrate courage, skill, and endurance in the most grueling type of competition ever devised by man: the Chili Cookoff.

Where I work, this happens once a year. It's part of our annual fundraising for the United Way. For the past couple of years, I've been recruited to be one of the Chili Cooks.

You'd think they'd have learned their lesson by now, but apparently not. My wife, however, has. So, this year, in the interest of saving lives and preserving sanity, she offered (in that particular use of the word "offer" that you most often see in the context of, say, Mob enforcers or tax collectors) to cook the chili for me.

I did not refuse. Mainly because, well, it wasn't that sort of offer.

So this year I will bring a crock pot full of safe, filling, wholesome - but still very garlicky - chili to the cookoff. The victims participants may consider this my wife's apology for the nightmarish catastrophes that I have inflicted on them in previous years.

I still don't hold with using these newfangled "recipes" when you're cooking, though.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reflections on Traveling

Erg. I'm losing track of the days. Not only do we have to move every day and half, but every time we do, we wind up in a different time zone. Claire says she always wanted to see the world, but I'm pretty sure this wasn't exactly what she had in mind. (Though I do have to say that Estonia, while a bit chilly, was lovely.)

I got a reply from Billy - at least, I'm assuming it was Billy, it came in from his e-mail account - a day or two back. It was a fairly oblique message, and mainly seemed to suggest that he'd gotten some version of the story from the Elders... and that the Elders were considering their options. I don't really know what to do with that, and the Whisperers are still tracking us, so I guess we're going to wait until I get better news.

Claire says that her family still doesn't really know what happened. (I cautioned her not to give details, for fear the Whisperers would fall on them, too.) Still, they at least know that she's still alive and not a prisoner of my fellow-worshippers. That's something, anyway.

We've seen them, by the way. Not Claire's family - our fellow worshippers. We ran into a Snake Cultist once, and some of my people twice. The second time with my people, they recognized us - but they didn't speak to us, and they didn't attack. We were due to leave soon anyway, so we went a little early.

This business of being on the run is both weirdly strained and weirdly relaxed. We're in danger - very serious danger - but at least we're not at work. That's going to be a mess, I know. There's no way that either of us will be able to get our jobs back, and after this I may not be able to work in my industry again. Not easily, anyway. To be honest, I'm not sure I'll miss it. It's very strange to think of running for your life as a sort of vacation, but there it is. And besides, strange is a matter of perspective.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to any actual deranged cultists, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Because zombies are overdone...

We all know what the zombie apocalypse might look like. I mean, there are hundreds of movies exploring dozens of possibilities: fast zombies, slow zombies, zombies as an infectious outbreak, zombies where the world has changed and nobody stays dead, stupid zombies, smart zombies... zombies, zombies, zombies.

But there are plenty of other possibilities for a monster apocalypse that I think are... underexplored. Vampire apocalypse, for example. The classic is Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, which spawned at least three movies, including the recent Will Smith version, an older film with the same title, and The Omega Man (featuring Charlton Heston). The treatments differ a little, but the basic dynamics are the same: by night, the vampires hunt humans, and by day the humans hunt vampires.

That's far from the only possibility, though. What if the vampires have taken over because of the hypnotic abilities they're sometimes portrayed as having? What if they can come out in daylight? (In Bram Stoker's book, Dracula could move around just fine in daylight, he just didn't have any powers then and could be killed like a normal man.)

The one I'd really like to see, though, is a werewolf apocalypse. There are tons of possibilities here, and a lot of them depend on the nature of lycanthropy. I can easily picture a scenario, for example, where every full moon there are more of the beasts, and more people dead... but in the days between, you don't know who they are.

What if the infection changes you into a beast permanently? As a human, you'd end up facing off against a world of creatures that were fast, strong, relatively smart, and very hard to kill - oh, and they can follow your scent. Frankly, I'd rather fight vampires.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Sleeping Gas

Whuh... wait, what day is this? Thursday? How did it get to be...


Right, so the sleeping gas works. Passes right through air filters and a standard gas mask, just like it's supposed to.

Apparently I'm going to have to check the seals on the testing room, though.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Promoting Christianity to Unbelievers

"Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary."
~attributed to St. Francis of Assisi

(This post is brought to you by Captain Morgan Tattoo rum, liberally mixed into a cup of nice, hot cinnamon tea; and by the band Covenant, whom I certainly have never met in person.)

Okay, so: you're a Christian, and for some reason you want or need to talk to former believers. Maybe you feel that they're a demographic that commonly gets neglected by evangelists[1], or maybe you're disturbed by their (often extremely poor) opinion of Christianity. Possibly you have a family member that recently deconverted, and you're floundering around trying to figure out what happened and what you can say. Or maybe this is the first time you've run into an atheist, strong agnostic, or ex-Christian, and you're not quite sure how to treat them.

Also, you don't want to leap straight into quoting Bible verses to prove that they're going to Hell if they don't (re-)accept Jesus as their savior. Maybe that's because you're the sort of liberal Christian who's more interested in sharing the Good News of God's Love than the much iffier and more Biblically ambiguous doctrine of Hell. Or maybe you've tried warning former believers about Hell and made no progress whatsoever, so now you're looking for an approach that has some chance of actually working. Or maybe you just figure that if you wouldn't want to be preached at that way, other people probably don't either.

So: How do you evangelize, or even discuss Christianity, without giving offense, starting arguments, or driving people away? I've written a lot more than I originally intended in the way of background material: what I think of Christian evangelism in general, why direct evangelism is wasted on former believers, how believers come to be unbelievers, why unbelievers often talk at length about God and Christianity, and what people mean when they talk about being "good without God". If you haven't read all that, well... on the one hand, I don't really blame you, but on the other hand it's kind of important. Probably the single biggest stumbling block for believers in trying to address unbelievers is that believers very often fail to understand why unbelievers don't believe - in some cases, they can't see how that's even possible.

Direct evangelism is wasted on former believers. The return for your effort is essentially nonexistent. That being the case, how do you go about giving former believers the tools, so that if and when they feel the need to believe again, they know where to start; reminding them of what Christianity at its best really can be; and generally making Christianity look like a halfway sensible lense through which to view humanity and the world?

The quote at the top of this post is not found in St. Francis' writings, nor in any contemporary biography of his life. However, the sentiment is very much in keeping with his beliefs: "In Chapter XVII of his Rule of 1221, Francis told the friars not to preach unless they had received the proper permission to do so. Then he added, 'Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.'" (Source - also, a tip o' the hat to Grace for mentioning the quote)

This is sound advice, but how do you apply that here? I'm not sure I have a really comprehensive answer, but I'll give you the best I can.

Meet unbelievers on their own terms. This is simple respect. What does it mean, in concrete terms? I need some examples... okay: I've already mentioned that most unbelievers see the Bible as part and parcel of Christianity, so unless you're already discussing a particular Bible verse, there's no point in quoting from the Good Book. Do your best not to speak "Christianese", that funny collection of idioms and catch-phrases shared by particular groups of Christians. (There's more than one dialect, just as there's more than one denomination.) For example, former believers are almost certainly going to take issue if you say that we live in a "fallen" world. The phrasing implies things that unbelievers generally don't accept as true, even if they agree that we live in an imperfect world. Don't assume that everyone needs the immanent love of Jesus, even if you believe that's true. The sort of people who become unbelievers don't feel that need, so insisting that it must be there will provoke either anger or amusement - or both. If you don't understand what someone believes, or how they could hold some particular position, ask.

This isn't always easy. It requires listening more than talking. If you're generally used to talking to other Christians, and particularly used to talking about Christianity to other Christians, then it's also going to require cautious, thoughtful consideration of your words and phrases. Doing this means interacting with some views and beliefs that you disagree with, and some that you may find simply inconceivable. A willingness to accept the answers you're given and apologize when it seems appropriate will go a long way to smooth the waters. Insisting that people must turn to Jesus is counterproductive (as is anything that you can formulate as "people must...", really).

Be willing to criticize (some forms of) Christianity and (some) Christian beliefs or behaviors if it seems warranted. To be clear, I am not suggesting that you should say bad things about Christianity just to get in good with the atheists so you can preach to them. Hypocrisy = bad. What I am saying is that where people promote damaging, harmful beliefs in the name (or under the guise) of Christian doctrine, don't be afraid to call them out - or, conversely, don't leap to defend them just because they're Christian.

One of the former priests at my parents' (Episcopal) church was, apparently, a serial embezzler. I was not to surprised to hear this; the man had the soul of a used car salesman (charismatic but sleazy), and I never understood why everyone seemed to trust him. When he was finally caught at it, the diocese told him not to do it again and transferred him to another church down in Houston. Sound familiar? Church hierarchy shielding its members from the consequences of their crimes (or, if you prefer, their sins)? I looked him up a few months ago, and apparently he's Greek Orthodox, now. I can't help wondering what he did that forced him to make that move, and if his new denomination knows about the criminal parts of his past. I can't help wondering how they'd react if I told them - except I can't tell them, because I was long gone by the time this came out, and all my information is third-hand. I'm pretty sure, however, that this is a big part of the reason why my younger brother - who was there at the time - considers himself Christian but unchurched.

But here's the thing: I mentioned the matter to my parents last Sunday, to see what their impressions were. They said that the woman who brought this to the attention of the vestry[2] was an absolutely conscientious person, with no personal stake in the matter. Oh, and by the way, this was the third time she'd found evidence of this sort of thing and brought it to the vestry. I don't care how strong your faith is or how Christian you are, this is bad behavior. The folks who let this happen, who swept it under the rug, were bad Christians and bad Episcopalians. Now, you could argue that the urge to hide his misdeeds was as much a matter of internal Church politics as simple tribal loyalty, and there's some truth to that - but it's the tribal loyalty element that concerns me here.

If you feel that, as a Christian, you can't criticize Christians (or allow others to criticize your fellow Christians), you have a problem. Christians are still human, and some of them are going to act badly. It might happen deliberately, or it might happen accidentally, but it will happen. There's no shame in admitting that. There is shame in trying to hide it.

Remember who we are. Former believers are parents and children, siblings and cousins, friends and family, co-workers and sparring partners... or if you're on the Internet, maybe just strangers with interesting things to say. That was true before they lost their faith, and it's still true. You don't know how to talk to your brother now that he's no longer a Christian? He's still your brother, isn't he? How did you used to talk to him? Was your friend witty, funny, always willing to lend a sympathetic ear, and able to offer helpful but not intrusive advice, before she left the church? She's probably still all that. Deal with former believers as people, not as ex-Christians. And, for your part, approach them as a {friend-relation-parent-casual acquaintance-whatever}, rather than a Christian.

Recognize that leaving Christianity is (or was) not easy for the former believer, either. Deconversion is much more of a process than a choice - but a lot of believers are too busy being shocked, appalled, or overwhelmed to realize that the process was probably even less comfortable for the former believer than hearing the news is for them. As Grace noted in the comments earlier, "What I am feeling is a deep sense of hurt in how deconverts are treated by family, and former friends." D'Ma responded, "I appreciate the empathy displayed in this comment. De-converts are often ostracized and marginalized and it is hurtful."

So, as best you can, treat former believers as if they were still normal people. Grace asked: "What do you think is the best thing Christian believers can do to show caring, and support to people going through this whole process?" Geds responded:
In my experience -- and this will sound harsh, but bear with me so I can explain -- "Christian believers" can do nothing to show caring, especially for those of us who come from evangelism-driven Christian communities. See, we all know the Christianese. We all know that there are going to be people trying to get us back in to the fold. And we all know that someone who shows up and tells us that they want to show us god's love is probably working an angle.

We left that place for a reason.

If you want to show love and care, don't show caring and support as a "Christian believer." Show care as a fellow human being. Show support as a friend, family member, or whatever. There's a difference and it's pretty obvious.

A friend approaching as a friend asks if you want to hang out because, y'know, it's Wednesday and you always hang out on Wednesday, and then talks about the subject if you want to. A "Christian believer" approaching as a "Christian believer" sends an email out of nowhere after not talking to you for six months, spends four paragraphs explaining to you why you left, and then says that they would love to see you again and will totally accept you if you decide to come back to church (absolutely true story. Stories, actually).

There's a difference.
There's probably more to say on the topic - for example, why I read certain authors who are explicitly, directly Christian, but eschew others - but I think I've rattled on long enough. Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who participated in the comments. As you can see, I've made shameless use of your contributions. As always, feel free to contribute anything I've overlooked, or expand on anything that I've neglected.

"You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do." ~Anne Lamott

[1] Actually, the opposite is more likely true. Nothing seems to bring out the urge to evangelize like the realization that you're talking to a nonbeliever or a former believer.

[2] The vestry is basically the council of elders and/or inner circle of any given Episcopal church. The priest may be nominally in charge, but very often the vestry is the real power.

Getting a good night's coma

I took the family out to dinner last night, then went home and put everyone to bed.

Well, sort of.

Firstborn was full of energy, so while he was in his room with the lights off, he wasn't exactly "in bed". At least, not unless there's some alternate use of the phrase that actually indicates "zooming around his room and building monsters with his Trio blocks beside the nightlight".

So, while I was waiting for him to fall asleep, I... well, I passed out on the living room floor. (It's just barely possible that I was a bit more tired than I'd realized.) Anyway, after a bit I dragged myself back to my feet, brushed my teeth, and collapsed on the bed in the back room. (This is nominally "my" bed, but in practice it belongs to the cats.)

And then I overslept.

All told, I think I got a bit over ten hours of sleep. Now I'm feeling both vastly better rested, and at the same time somewhat delicate and clumsy. Also a bit stuffy, but you can blame the cats for that. And, of course, I haven't written anything on the next/last installment of Friendly Evangelism. Depending on how today goes, I'll probably finish that tonight. I don't expect it to be very long, after everything we've discussed already.

So, in the meantime, I have a challenge for the geeks, nerds, and horror fans in the room. Here are pictures of the monsters that Firstborn made with his Trio set. Can you identify them? (These were done entirely on his own, by the way. It was his idea to build them, and he didn't have any help with the design and construction. It is, of course, entirely my fault that he knows about such creatures in the first place, but still... I'm soooo proud of him.)

And, just as a special bonus (so Firstborn doesn't get all the attention), here's a shot of Secondborn amusing himself with a new toy. It's empty, I swear.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Good Without God

So, in keeping with the rough outline (or, well, To Do list) that I put up last week, our next topic is being good without God. This phrase gets used in two very different senses, and we're going to look at both of them. Grace notes:
But, in all honesty, though, on most of the deconversion blogs what I've personally encountered has been more, "Free at last," or "I'm a better person without God." "Life is now good."

Let's talk about these responses.

I can be a good person without God.
In the comments on an earlier post, Grace asked:
When people share that they are now better people, more loving, and less judgmental since they have left the Christian faith, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around this. I think to myself, "Are we actually speaking of the same faith, the same Lord, here?"

How can people know Jesus Christ, and not be increasing in their love for their neighbor, their care for the earth, their desire to promote peace, etc., at the same time? How can they not over time be becoming more open, and less judgmental, when Jesus says "Judge not that you be not judged.." I mean I could go on, and on here.

From where I sit, I think something in their previous belief system had gone seriously spiritually haywire if they now are more accepting and loving after leaving the faith, than before.

This is... well, in a lot of ways, I completely agree with this assessment. Christianity - at least, the Christianity I was raised in - is supposed to bring hope and comfort, not guilt and stress. It does not expect perfection, but rather our best efforts and the faith that God loves us enough to accept us with (or despite) our inevitable flaws. I read (or, more rarely, hear) people talking about their experiences with Christianity as nitpicky, controlling, rules-oriented; and I think: that's not how it's supposed to be.

But, as we've already discussed: by the time someone gets to the point of outright unbelief, it no longer matters whether the Christianity they left was the gentle, mostly-liberal Christianity of my youth, or given over to the worst excesses of patriarchy, repression, and all the legalism the Gospels ascribe to the Pharisees.[1] By this point, even the basics of Christian doctrine no longer seem applicable to the world the unbeliever perceives.

This leaves us staring at a common point of confusion for believers: how can someone be - or even feel that they are - a better person without God in their life? By extension (as Grace asked), how could the fellow-Christians of these unbelievers have been so cruel, thoughtless, hurtful, and unsupportive if they truly knew Jesus Christ?

And now we have reached the point where, I think, Grace's experience is simply different from that of unbelievers. For Grace (and I hope I'm doing her justice with this description), Christianity is not just a matter of participating in the Episcopal Church; it's also a direct, personal sense of connection with Jesus. And in her experience, that connection has made her a better person.[2]

My experience, on the other hand, has been that being a Christian does not, as a rule, make people particularly better - or particularly worse, for that matter. I can't speak to whether having a direct relationship with Jesus makes a difference, because I don't see any way to determine who really has such a relationship. So, and again sticking entirely with my own experience and observation, Christians can be callous, cruel, or just clumsy with their former brethren because, well, they're people. I suppose you could argue that Christians should do better - because, y'know, they're Christians - but, as far as I can tell, that just isn't how it works.

Which leaves us the first point of confusion: how can someone be - or even think they are - a better person without God in their life? From a believer's perspective, I'd suggest that it's essentially a matter of free will: Jesus may call people to be better, but He doesn't make them better.

No, in my experience what makes someone a better person is nothing more or less than this: trying to be a better person. Christianity might provide a model for how to go about it[3], Jesus may offer a model for your life, but success still depends (in this as in anything) on practice and attention. Watching your actions, making an honest assessment of their effects, and adjusting your future actions accordingly; and then practicing until good choices become good habits. This isn't automatic. It requires alertness, rigorous honesty, and a willingness to question your assumptions. It's frequently a matter of trial and error. It takes work.

And, as we've already discussed, if you're coming out of the sort of rules-oriented Christianity that emphasizes getting every little detail of doctrine right (or just doing as God's Chosen Preacher says), even at the expense of more general principles like kindness, charity, mercy, and empathy... well, then yes: it's no wonder that many former believers feel like they're better people without God.

Life can be good without God in it.
This is the other half of what Grace is seeing expressed by former believers: "Life can be good without God. Life is so much better now. Leaving my former faith was such a relief."

This ties directly into our early discussion of the process of deconversion, and the idea that this process is very much like breaking up with someone (often someone that you thought was your One True Love). The earlier stages - grief, anger, regret - tend to be more private (though I'm sure that isn't always the case). By the time former believers start connecting with other former believers, and/or are ready to start writing about their experiences, they're generally starting to put their lives back together. One of the great discoveries in this stage of the process is that while life won't ever be the same, it can still be good - maybe even better than it was. This is... well, for a lot of people, this comes on with the force of revelation.

So that's part of the reason that you hear this sort of thing from unbelievers: on a personal level, it's a very important realization.

Again, bear in mind that a lot of former believers are coming out of very legalistic, controlling - even abusive - forms of Christianity. Getting away from that can be very freeing: it allows you to quit obsessing over petty, nit-picking, unimportant rules and focus on the stuff that matters. You know, loving your neighbor as yourself; figuring out how best to be kind and fair. Or it lets you stop feeling guilty every time you take care of yourself instead of other people. In some cases, it frees the former believer to trust their own assessments of people, situations, and social or political issues.

If the former believer is coming out of a "turn or burn"[4] version of Christianity, they've probably been told that this is Not Possible - everybody knows that atheists are angry and bitter, after all. There's no way that throwing away their beliefs[5] could have made them better people, or even nicer-but-still-immoral people. And, by the way, God is probably going to punish you for turning away from His Word.

So that's the other reason for the emphasis on how good life can be without God: there are a lot of people out there asserting, loudly and insistently, that this Just Can't Be. Former believers have found that that isn't true - or, at the very least, that it needn't be true - so there's a strong tendency to try to correct that misconception.

...Okay, that was a huge wall of text. Sorry. I'm going to take a few deep breaths and get some work done. If there's anything I overlooked (or didn't express well, or that you think I'm wrong about), feel free to mention it in the comments. Next up, I think, is our closing article: how best to interact with unbelievers if you're a Christian.

Next: Promoting Christianity to Unbelievers | Previous: The Process of Deconversion

[1] I'm told that the historical Pharisees are actually the foundation of modern Judaic thought, and that the presentation of them in the New Testament is... extremely one-sided, if not outright inaccurate. I'm not clear enough on the matter to offer details, but apparently there's an argument to be made that the views ascribed to the Pharisees actually belonged to another group, a century earlier, and that the names were simply updated to the group currently in power when the Gospels were written.

[2] I have no idea how many former believers would have made similar claims before their deconversions, and for our purposes here it does not matter. That's such a personal matter that there's no good way to measure or compare it. So, just to be clear: if you have some urge to debunk or confirm Grace's claims in the comments, don't bother. As D'Ma noted, if former believers still felt the love of Jesus, they wouldn't be former believers; and that's really all that needs to be said on the subject.

[3] And, as unbelievers are prone to note, there are other moral systems that can also serve that purpose.

[4] I love that phrase, and I'm totally keeping it for my own use.

[5] For this mindset, it's essentially inconceivable that unbelievers could have lost their faith. It's axiomatic that they have turned their backs on God. This axiom may be explicit, or it may be completely unconscious and unexamined. Either way, it's a huge stumbling block for believers trying to converse respectfully with unbelievers.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Reflections on Disaster

Welcome to the end of the world. Not your world, of course. Your world is probably humming along just fine, full of home and family and people who aren't trying to kill you. It's Sunday, so back in Texas Claire and I would probably be going to church - if our world hadn't ended, first.

How to explain...? All right. Last Tuesday, Claire and I got off work at the same time - except I had a bit of paperwork to finish up, so I left about twenty minutes behind her, and got home about twenty minutes after she did. When I got there, I found Mbata lying dead on the floor, wrapped in the furry, serpentine remains of Hector Who Apparently Wasn't Just A Cat.

I think I just stood and gaped for about a full minute.

Claire came out of the bedroom, and I asked: "What happened?"

"He knocked on the door about two minutes after I got here."

"You let him in?"

"He's your friend." She swallowed, looking at me, but I just shook my head slightly. She went on: "He said it was time for me to meet your Elders - 'our elders' was how he put it. I said I wanted to wait for you, and he said there wasn't time." She hesitated. "I argued, and he grabbed me. He started to gesture, or reach for me, or something with his other hand. And then Hector... did what he was made to do."

I said, "Umph," or something equally expressive, and went to look at Mbata's corpse. I was thinking that this could have been good or bad. The Elders might have wanted to put Claire to the question, but they might also have had something else in mind - there are pledges of loyalty we require of allies who aren't actually part of our number, for example. Now, of course, it was bad... but maybe it could be salvaged.

It's funny. I'd known Mbata for years, even liked him, though I wasn't sure I'd ever really understood him. Ours was a specialized sort of friendship, but it was still a friendship. I should have been grieving for him, but I wasn't. In fact, I was kind of angry with him for putting us all in this position.

I still am, but now I'm sad too.

Anyway... At that point I turned back to Claire. "Okay," I said. "Can you go back to your people? For a day or two, at least? I'll get in touch with the Elders, try to find out what's going on. Maybe we can work something out."

Claire looked dubious. "I killed your friend."

"I know," I said. "They will too, if they don't already. But mistakes happen, even to people like Mbata who are supposed to know what they're doing. So maybe..."

She nodded. "Okay."

And that was when I first heard the whispers, gathering on the other side of the walls. It wasn't an answer from the Elders - I'd spoken too plainly, and now the thrice-cursed Whisperers were reacting automatically. I'd said things I shouldn't to an outsider, and they were coming for us both.

I cursed: a word that would have been more than enough to get their attention, if we hadn't had it already. It blistered the air and shattered one of the pictures on the wall. Claire was looking around; I don't know if she heard the whispers, or just realized that something was wrong, but her eyes were wide. "New plan," I said. "We have to go. Now." I reached for that strange dream-place of drifting mists, found it. "Don't listen to them," I added, and then I took us away.

We've been on the move ever since. It takes the Whisperers about a day and half to find us... or maybe they find us immediately, but it takes a day and a half to reach us. I don't know. We learned that the hard way, so by the time we figured it out we were both tired enough to sleep for about twelve of our available hours.

Each of us had some emergency caches prepared, so we have money and clothes - enough for a while, at least. We have to keep moving, but there's enough time to stop and sleep. So the question really isn't whether we can avoid them, it's how long we can keep this up - and, I suppose, where this is going. I'd like to find a solution that doesn't end with more of us dead, but I don't know if that's possible... and if it is possible, I don't know how to do it. So our main goal at the moment is to get more information.

I don't dare go back to the apartment, but without the VPN on my computer I can't contact the Elders directly - or access the archives to learn more about the Whisperers. I sent Billy a message from Seattle - a very careful message, since I don't want to bring the Whisperers down on him, too. His response, if I interpreted it correctly, basically said that he'd do his best, but if the Elders gave him a direct order, he'd follow it.

So that's where we are, and that's how we got here. I have a few more ideas for things we could try, but I'd better not mention them here. You never know who (or what) might be reading this.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. No otherworldly beings were summoned to Earth and given the form of cats in the course of this writing.

Friday, March 18, 2011

My brain is tapioca

Okay, so we're midway through Friday afternoon and I would like nothing more than a hot bath and a chance to sleep for, say, fourteen or fifteen hours. Fortunately, work is not trying to kill me right now. In fact, if I could prod my brain into working, this would be a brilliant chance to work on the next Friendly Evangelism post.

As it stands, I think that's going to wait until Monday. In the meantime, for those of you looking for a bit of informative reading, let me suggest Schrödinger’s Rapist, which I just encountered via the snopes message boards. (This is particularly recommended for the guys in the audience, though I flatter myself to think that the sorts of folks who hang out here need to see this less than most.)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: The Process of Deconversion

Following up from my last post... in the comments, D'Ma talked about her perceptions of the deconversion process. I'm going to quote her here, because she neatly covers the next point I was going to make: deconversion may begin with some sort of hurt or disillusionment, but that isn't why people ultimately leave Christianity. So:

"It does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church"

That isn't an incorrect assessment. I would agree with Grace wholeheartedly on that. Many people have been hurt, though not all. What is overlooked, in my opinion, is that being hurt is just the start. That may be the catalyst to an individual beginning to question their faith, but it isn't the reason that they likely de-converted. They see that something is wrong with the system they've placed their trust in, and it forms a crack. The daylight starts to shine through and they begin chipping at that crack to get more light to shine through. Typically they are looking for the truth, not a way out. But once they start chipping at the crack it gets bigger and bigger until the whole wall is down.

I'd say that's true with any major life change a person has. They begin to realize something is wrong with the way they've been "doing" their life, so they start to search for the right way. Does that make any sense?
Now, bear in mind that my expertise on deconversion[1] is based on two things: my own experience, and what others have said about their experience. For a sampling of what other people have said, I suggest you consult the blog of the late Dr. Ken Pulliam; the topic came up there several times, and he had enough readership to garner a variety of answers. (I mention this so you won't have to take my word for it. Check the comments in particular.)

I've said already that the process is different for everyone. For some, it begins with a personal or communal slight or betrayal - a sense that their community of faith has failed them in some way. For others, it's a more direct personal crisis - a major disease, an unexpected death, a series of misfortunes. For others it begins with nothing more dramatic than a simple question or two... that don't have easy answers. But, as D'Ma notes, these things aren't the reason people leave Christianity. They're just the catalyst, the spark - or, sometimes, the last straw.

What it almost never starts with - pardon the digression - is the desire to sin freely, without being convicted by the spirit (whatever that means, but I feel safe in translating it loosely as "Atheists don't feel the same sort of guilt that believers do when they sin".) I hear this asserted fairly frequently, but in my experience when Christians really want to sin... well, they don't bother to declare disbelief, first. They just surrender to temptation, and then they either feel guilty and ask for forgiveness, or they drop straight into denial and rationalization to avoid the sense of guilt. They act pretty much like anyone else, in other words. Perhaps more importantly, as a reason not to believe in God, this makes no sense at all - if you know (or believe) that God is omnipotent and omniscient, then why would you think that pretending He doesn't exist would in any way exempt you from his judgement? I'll come back to this later - yes, there's at least one other post before we get to what I think works to make Christianity appealing to former believers - but for now let's get back to our topic.

If you're betrayed by your faith community, but you don't see that as reflecting badly on the Faith, then you simply find another, more compatible, community. You may identify yourself as an ex-Catholic, an ex-Fundamentalist, or even "faithful but not religious" - but you won't consider yourself an ex-Christian. If you go a bit farther, and decide that you believe in God but can't credit Christianity, you maybe become a deist, or maybe a pantheist, or you find some other religion that better suits your social, spiritual, and intellectual needs.

The people who filter down into actual unbelief may have started their questioning because of some particular incident (even if it's just an inability to resolve an apparent inconsistency in their beliefs), but they leave Christianity because it no longer meets their needs - either it can't answer their questions, or the answers point out new, more difficult questions. They - we - end up as unbelievers because none of the other worldviews they encounter seem to offer any better, or more consistent, answers.

It isn't a decision; it's a process... and for the vast majority of people, it's a loss. The most common metaphor I hear, the one people seem to feel is most apt, is the end of a love affair. Did you ever date that One Person? Remember the time when you were sure that it was True Love, that it would last forever because that's what True Love does? And then one day you find yourself alone, and you're wondering what happened - whether something is wrong with you, or something was wrong with them. Or maybe it wasn't true love, but how could that be - you knew, knew that it was, so how could you have been so wrong!? And then you spent all your time brooding over what went wrong, who was at fault, what you could have said to make things come out differently. You talk about it, a lot - and when you aren't moping and depressed, you're angry and bitter: how could they have done this to you?

And eventually your friends get sick of it, and tell you to move on - or maybe you just get tired of listening to yourself whine, of feeling pathetic, of being such a wreck. So you start putting your life back together, a little bit at a time - maybe you find new friends, so you won't have to to be reminded, or maybe your old friends side with your ex and don't want to spend time with you anymore. You reevaluate yourself, your beliefs, your sense of worth; you reassess what you have to offer, and what you want in return.

Almost everyone who's deconverted - at least, everyone I've heard tell about it - has at some point expressed the wish that they could still believe. Often there's some ambivalence. (I wish I was still in love with him. I wish I didn't love him so much.) Anger is almost inevitable: some of it is justified, and some of it is a shield for other emotions, like guilt or grief, that don't seem appropriate anymore.

This is, in no small part, why a lot of unbelievers continue to talk about Christianity - why they continue to define it, refine it, poke at it, see how they feel about it. They're examining the relationship, looking to see where they went wrong, and where their partner failed them, and maybe how much was just basic incompatibility. It's a natural part of the process of grieving. And in time, they move on to other things. Oh, they may come back to it now and then, but the subject just doesn't have that burning urgency anymore.

So, circling back to the original question, I agree that former believers do talk about Christianity fairly frequently, and that this does indicate some concern with the topic - I just haven't seen any evidence that such concern is based in a spiritual need or longing.

Next: Good Without God | Previous: Why Unbelievers Talk About God

[1] "Deconversion" in this context refers to someone who left their religion for no belief in particular. If they became a Wiccan, or a Buddhist, or Jainite, or something like that, I would refer to it as "conversion" instead. There is some interesting work on the psychology of conversion, and the psychology of deconversion seems to me to be the same in some ways and different in others. I suppose I could spend another post or three in comparison and contrast, but that way madness lies.

Friendly Evangelism: Why Unbelievers Talk About God

I know, I know - I said I'd be talking about good ways of presenting Christianity this time. The idea was to close this series of thoughts with that topic - ending on a high note, as it were - and that's still the plan. However, Grace has asked a couple of new-but-related questions which take us into some interesting territory that I'd like to cover first.

...It does feel to me that most people who share on the deconversion blogs have been deeply hurt, and disillusioned by their experience in the church, and they've found this identity and support together in "unbelief." Even if Christianity seemed true to them, they don't really want to be identified with "Christians" or with the church. Life actually seems better to them as unbelievers.

And, yet at the same time, spiritual concerns are very much on their hearts, else they would not bother really discussing these issues in depth at all. In truth, Michael, on Bruce's blog alone, he raises deeper issues for discussion than many people are thinking about God who attend the Episcopal church every Sunday..:)

Do you think I'm right in my sense of this?

There are two related questions here, and I'm going to try to tackle both of them. The first one is, more or less, "Why do unbelievers spend so much time discussing religion?" The second one is, "Why do people deconvert?" or perhaps, "How does deconversion happen?" I'm taking them in this order because I think the second topic is part (but only part) of the answer to the first.

So, why do former believers spend so much time discussing religion? There isn't a really clear-cut answer for this, because everyone has their own reasons. (And, of course, there are plenty of unbelievers who don't spend any significant time discussing religion - but if you run into them, you're unlikely to realize that they're unbelievers.) Having said that, I think most of the answers fall into one of three categories:

1. It's interesting. Let's start by dispensing with a common misconception: the idea that this continued discussion indicates that unbelievers still feel a need for religion, spirituality, or anything of the sort. This is often characterized as unbelievers having a "Jesus-shaped hole" in their hearts (a rather disturbing phrase if your imagination tends to be intensely visual). To be fair, there probably is somebody out there, somewhere, who fits that description... but I've never met them.

The folks who leave Christianity but still feel a need for religious belief do not tend to refer themselves as ex-Christians, former believers, atheists, or the like. Instead they say things like, "I'm spiritual but not religious," or "I love Jesus, but I don't like organized religion." Or, they drift into other denominations, or into other religions entirely.

The thing is, you don't have to believe something actually exists in order to enjoy talking about it. Dungeons and Dragons afficionados have been known to discuss such esoterica as whether a Wild Mage could cast Enlarge on a Bag of Holding, and make it big enough to capture the giant monster known as the Tarrasque. Similarly, there are elaborate and well-reasoned arguments about how the Empire (Star Wars) would fare against the Federation (Star Trek). I'm sure there's some equivalent in Fantasy Football, too. And I suspect, though I have no solid evidence, that the sort of people who enjoy playing with ideas to see where they lead are also the sort of people who tend to wind up all the way outside Christianity when they start questioning their beliefs.

Whether you believe in it or not, Christianity provides a wealth of topics for this sort of intellectual exercise. So one reason why unbelievers continue to discuss religion is the simple enjoyment of exploring an interesting idea. (In this light, you can characterize the Jesuits as the Medieval equivalent of gaming nerds, a comparison which amuses me more than it probably should.)

2. It's training in philosophical self-defense. Christianity is pretty ubiquitous, especially here in the United States, and Christian evangelism ranges from polite inquiry to some behaviors that I'd consider, frankly, bullying. If you're a non-Christian, sooner or later you're going to run into someone who's just sure that they can argue you into belief. That's a lot easier to deal with if you have some idea of what sort of arguments to expect, what the common objections are, and where you stand. "You're never at a loss for words if you know your own mind," to quote Roger Zelazny.

3. It has to do with the process of leaving behind deep-seated belief structures - breaking up is hard to do. This is where we come to our second topic: why do people deconvert, and/or how does it happen? On the one hand, that's a tremendously complicated question, because it's different for everybody. On the other hand, despite the variety of paths that people take through the process (and it is a process), the reason why people leave Christianity can be stated very simply: Christianity quit being a usable worldview for us.

The nature of that process goes a long way towards explaining why so many former Christians continue to discuss Christianity.

...And, wow, I'm going to have to expand on that point in another post. Sorry for the rather discombobulated progress through this topic. Also, I'd like to invite people (once again) to add their own thoughts in the comments; I'm sure there are things that I'm overlooking or neglecting or misstating.

Next: The Process of Deconversion | Previous: Whom Are You Talking To?

Reflections on Flight

Typing this from an Internet cafe in Guatemala. I'm still safe, Claire's still safe, but we don't have long. The whispers have started again. They're not close, yet. But they're coming.

We have to move before they get here. I'm not sure where yet, and I probably shouldn't say anything, even here. There's no telling how much the Elders know or what they think. I'll try to explain more the next time I can get online.

This is harder than I thought it would be.

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. No dark and ominous entities were temporarily eluded in order to write this post.

St Patrick has some explaining to do

A bit of music for your St. Patrick's day listening:

We'll return to our regularly scheduled programming when the producers sober up.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Whom Are You Talking To?

I remember reading that someone - I think it was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - had done some research on what approaches to evangelism actually worked. What they found was that accosting random strangers generated the fewest conversions for the effort. Conversions were most likely when the missionaries sat down with people who had already indicated interest, and who already knew people in the LDS Church.[1]

Understanding your target audience is crucial to any sort of persuasive argument[2]. If they trust you, then you don't bore them with justifications. If they doubt you, then you have to show proofs and reasons. If they don't care, then you'll have to give them some reason to be interested.

This is precisely why I think Grace's question is worth answering. She wants to share the Gospel with unbelievers and former believers. She's encountering resistance when she presents her (Christian) ideas. So she's asking how she could do better with this particular audience.

That being the case, I almost hate to say this... but my first reaction is, Give it up. As a target audience, we're horrible. Seriously, anyone would be better. But, fine, let me explain:

If you find an atheist who simply wasn't raised around Christianity, or an agnostic who's just sort of wishy-washy about the whole thing, or a lapsed {insert denomination here} who prefers to sleep in on Sundays, you've got a pretty decent shot. Share the Good News, or remind them of what they're missing, or just explain how much you love being involved in this organization - and you're off a good start. Don't forget to tell them about the free donuts.

Former believers, on the other hand... we're something else altogether. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: by the time someone starts identifying himself as an ex-Christian, he's past the point where better discernment or a review of the Gospels is going to help. The entire structure of Christianity - its assumptions, its descriptions, its conclusions - no longer make sense to him. So before you start explaining the Christian view of things, keep these two things in mind:
  1. Former believers already know.
  2. Former believers disagree.

Don't believe me? I recently got annoyed enough[3] to actually write out the reasons why I am not a Christian. They're... comprehensive. In order to bring me back into the fold, you would have to find a way to satisfactorily address everything in that post. That would require, among other things, some sort of epiphany - in the original sense of the word, where God reaches down and touches my thoughts - that seems to confirm not only God's existence, but Christianity as the best way of understanding Him. Can you provide all that? Now, every other former believer is going to have their own version of that list. It's not just a matter of offering a ground-up justification for Christian beliefs. You're going to have to start all the way down in the foundation, and work from there.

Does that sound like the sort of job where Sisyphus himself would watch you with a little gleam of schadenfreude in his eyes?

Well, it is.

Like I said, we're a horrible audience to target. Former believers already know, and former believers disagree. Forget either of those things, and you'll put a foot wrong - and someone will call you on it. Because of this, trying to share the Good News directly is a lost cause. So is quoting the Bible.[4]

But let's assume that you're not out to make converts, since that's nearly impossible under the circumstances. Let's assume that, instead, you're just planting seeds: giving former believers the tools, so that if and when they feel the need to believe again, they know where to start; reminding them of what Christianity at its best really can be; making Christianity look like a halfway sensible lense through which to view humanity and the world. How do you go about doing these things?

Yep, you guessed it: That's our next topic.

Next: Why Unbelievers Talk About God | Previous: What is the goal?

[1] No, I don't have a cite for that. I can't even remember where I heard it.

[2] There are certain brands of Christianity - Calvinists in particular - who would argue that sharing the Gospel has nothing whatsoever to do with persuasive speaking. They do it because they are commanded to, but if you happen to convert... well, that has nothing to do with them. It's because God has come into your heart and made you able to understand His word, or some such gobbledygook. This, of course, begs the question of why they even bother, since God is presumably quite capable of speaking for Himself. So, for our purposes here, I'm going to assume that you're trying to evangelize because you think that your efforts can do some sort of good.

[3] By a Christian evangelist/apologist, naturally - irritating not so much for the evangelism, but because his apologetics involved telling me what I really know and really believe. Don't ever do this.

[4] That last line deserves a little more attention, so let me digress for a moment. The Bible does not offer independent support for Christian beliefs. The Bible is Christianity, it's just in a written form. So if you say, for example, "I am a Christian because the Bible says {whatever}," most unbelievers are going to hear "I am a Christian because Christianity tells me I should be."

Not only is this circular and unpersuasive, it also sends us a message: not only do you consider the Bible authoritative, you expect us to see it that way as well. If you're talking to unbelievers and former believers, this represents a spectacular failure to understand your audience.

Notes from the Mad Science Lab: Who needs a barber?

So, I was tinkering with the prototype for a new kind of ray last night, and I forgot to check the calibration on the refraction crystal before I switched it on. Instead of focusing the ray on the target, it gave the whole room a mild dose of necroactive radiation.

So now I'm bald.

Which, you know, I needed a haircut anyway. The problem is that this wasn't just your garden variety death ray. Oh, no. Any fool can build one of those. This was a bit more complicated. This was an undeath ray. It was designed to kill people and bring them back as zombies.

It works, too. How do I know, if I haven't had a successful test yet? Go on, take a guess.

I know because all those little hairs are crawling around on the floor of the lab. Or rather, they were. Most of them are in the incinerator now. Unfortunately, I had to throw the vacuum cleaner in with them - they were starting to break out of it. So there might still be one or two twitching around in the corners. Doesn't matter; a better vaccum will take care of them, and I've been meaning to build one of those since that incident with the radioactive gopher.

I'm just lucky the cat wasn't in there with me.

Friendly Evangelism: What is the goal?

Before you start trying to share the Gospel - with anyone, not just unbelievers or former believers - it is vitally important to have a clear idea of what your goal is. I'm going to explore some possibilities, but there's no way I can cover everything. So (again) if you feel there's something important that I've rejected, ignored, or overlooked, feel free to talk about it in the comments.

If you, as a Christian, can't say what you hope to accomplish by your evangelism in a single sentence, then... well, I'm not a Christian, but I'm still going to suggest that you need to spend more time in discernment. Pray about it; think about it; read about it; talk to others about it; whatever helps you figure things out. If you don't know where you want to go, then it's damned hard to figure out how to get there.

Here are some possibilities:
  1. I want to have more people attending my church. If this is the only goal, it's easy. Of course, this is almost never the only goal. But in this case, add social activities and other opportunities for people to get involved in the church community. The less you worry about whether people understand your particular approach and doctrine, the easier it'll be to get them involved. Oh, and make sure there are donuts. 
  2. I want to convert people to Christianity. This is generally the ultimate goal of any sort of evangelism. I mean, in an ideal world, you'd bring the message of hope and redemption to people who don't have it and desperately need it, and they would repent of their sins and turn to Christ, and the Peace and Wisdom of the Lord would come into their hearts. Right? And honestly, this isn't bad... as a goal. Just keep your expectations realistic. If you aren't going to be satisfied until the person you're talking to has come to Christ, then you've set yourself up for frequent disappointment. And if you let those expectations make you frustrated and pushy, you're far more likely to drive people away... and even if you bring them in, they're going to resent the way you did it. 
  3. I just want to share the Gospel. Depending on precisely what you mean by this, it isn't a bad approach. In my brilliantly misspent youth, I worked on the adolescent boys wing of a drug and alcohol rehab. If I'd been deeply focused on tearing them away from their addictions, I'd have been deeply frustrated - and soon after that, deeply burned out. Most of these kids had no reason to believe anything that adults bothered to say to them. So, rather than trying to actually change them, I focused on showing them the tools so that if (and when) they eventually wanted to make a change, they had some idea of how to do it. Sharing the Gospel is rather like that.

So think about it. What is it that you really hope to get out of your attempts at evangelism?

Next up: choosing your target audience.

Previous: The Christian Imperative | Next: Whom Are You Talking To?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: The Christian Imperative

Christians are commanded to spread the Gospel. I don't have chapter and verse, but D'Ma was kind enough to offer it in the comments: "These commands are found in the gospels, namely Matthew 28:16-20. They are found again in Mark 16:9-20 but appear to be a later interpolation." It's in the New Testament, of course - part of the transition from the God of the Israelites to the God who sent his only son to redeem the whole of the world. And, of course, it plays a prominent part in Christian oral tradition as well: it's the subject of sermons, stories, discussions, and songs.

Christianity has a strong oral tradition, though it varies in content and importance from denomination to denomination, church to church, Christian to Christian. I firmly believe that in some areas and on some issues, the oral tradition actually takes precedence over the written tradition - the written tradition being, of course, the Bible. In this case, however, the written tradition retains its dominance. I think that's mostly due to the letters of the Apostle Paul, but I'm really not sure - it could just be one of those things that's worded so compellingly and unmistakably that the oral tradition has trouble changing it.

This is kind of a problem, because it keeps the Christian approach to evangelism firmly rooted in a situation that has been out of date for sixteen hundred years.

The Christianity of the Apostles was very similar to a doomsday cult: Christians were an extreme minority, and they believed that the Messiah was coming back within their lifetimes to judge the living and the dead. Explaining the Good News was urgent, vital, and utterly necessary. The people that the early Christians were evangelizing had never heard about it before. Perhaps equally important, the Gospel was a deeply subversive story. There's only one God?[1] And His son was born to an unmarried woman, in a feeding trough in a barn, and spent his life as an itinerant preacher and sometime healer? And this holy son's great achievement, his one truly divine accomplishment, was to be tortured and die in a particularly horrible and ignominious fashion?

...It's a wonder that Christianity made it off the ground at all.

But the most successful stories often are subversive at heart, and a millenia and half later I have to explain why those ideas might have been a bit... unusual. Christianity isn't just widespread; in most places, it's the default. In some places, it's part of the definition of "normal" - if you aren't Christian, you're abnormal. Nowadays, the idea that most people in Western nations have never heard of Jesus is, frankly, silly. Christianity is so dominant that here in the 'States, even the adherents of other religions understand its broad outlines. Yet Christianity clings to this view of itself as a minority religion (and frequently persecuted at that), in no small part because the written tradition - the Bible - says that it must be so. In much the same way, Christian doctrine clings to the idea that non-Christians must never have heard the Good News of Jesus, or - failing that - must not have understood it.

The idea that someone could know, and understand, but still disagree escapes far too many people. The fact that these assumptions lead to Christians mainly evangelizing other Christians is actually kind of funny. Keep these thoughts in mind; we'll likely be coming back to them.

This leads me to two initial pieces of advice, if you wish to share the good news without giving offense:
  1. Do us the courtesy of assuming that we're already familiar with the broad outlines of Christianity. Odds are, you aren't the first to share the Good News with us.
  2. When a Christian starts making generalizations about why unbelievers don't believe, cover your ears and walk away. The odds that they have anything useful to say are so close to zero as gives no odds.

Next up: Finding a workable goal.

Previous: Opening Question | Next: What is the goal?

[1] Monotheism in the Roman Empire was... unusual, and it was probably a big part of the reason why early Christians were persecuted. Accidental Historian has some comments about this.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Friendly Evangelism: Opening Question

In the best traditions of Accidental Historian, this post is brought to you by Jameson Irish Whiskey and a Canadian band called Twilight Hotel. (Except that if I were Geds, I'd be drinking some sort of Scotch. Also, I'd know the band personally. But I digress...)

Over on Bruce Gerencser's blog Fallen From Grace, Grace asked an interesting question. Since she asked me directly, and since she seems to asking in good faith, I'm going to make an attempt to answer. Before I get going, let me explain that, to the best of my understanding, Grace is a well-meaning evangelist for the same sort of kind, liberal Christianity that I grew up in. Here is what she said:

It does seem that the folks who are the most vocal about their faith, and out there doing evangelical outreach are the "turn or burn," group, and unfortunately secular people really do have the impression that this represents the view of all the church, the public face of Christianity.

I think people in denominations like TEC are almost afraid to do evangelism for fear of being identified as "one of them." The other concern is not wanting to seem pushy or disrespectful, or not wanting people to feel as if we always have an agenda, as if there are simply like this project, notches on a soul winning belt or something.

Where's the balance in all this? What really are the best ways for Christians to share their faith?

Grace is right, by the way. Most of the folks who actively evangelize (as opposed to evangelizing through service, or by example) belong to the more Fundamentalist / Evangelical denominations. So trying to be an active evangelist for respectful, friendly, liberal Christianity makes her something of a statistical outlier: liberal Christians tend to evangelize closer to home, when they do it at all.

That said: What really are the best ways for Christians to share their faith? This is an excellent question, and to be honest by most measures I feel completely unqualified to answer it. For one thing, I'm not a Christian; I haven't been for over two decades. For another, I have no formal training in theology, exegesis, or apologetics - Christian or otherwise. In fact, my only real qualification is that, in my years as an unbeliever, I've been deeply annoyed by a number of would-be evangelists and apologists.

Despite these experiences - actually, because of them - I wish more Christians would ask this question. In particular, I wish more evangelically-minded Christians would ask this of unbelievers. Because one of the biggest obstacles I see is that most would-be evangelists don't really understand why unbelievers don't believe - or how that's even possible. The best of these come off as sincere but laughably naive; the worst (usually the "turn or burn" crowd) are arrogant in their misplaced certainty, pushy or even bullying in their delivery, and tend to make God look like a colossal asshole. [1]

Obviously, I don't have the time (let alone the expertise) to write an entire book on this topic. So I'm going to limit the scope of this essay these essays rather seriously: this is advice for liberal American Christians who are interested in evangelizing (or even discussing religious matters with) atheists, agnostics, apostates, and other unbelievers - without giving offense, starting arguments, or driving people away. Some of it might be helpful in other circumstances, but if so, that was purely accidental.

So that's the context for this week's set of discussions. Feel free to chime in. If you think I'm being too charitable - and bear in mind, I am not addressing the more absolutist, controlling, destructive forms of Christianity - tell me why. If you think I'm misrepresenting the position of unbelievers, tell me how. If you think I'm misrepresenting Christianity, you're probably off topic - but what the hell, tell me why anyhow.

Next: The Christian Imperative

[1] We could debate the relative merits of these approaches, but that's kind of missing the point.

Friday, March 11, 2011

When Tragedy Strikes Strangers

As far as I can tell, I don't actually know anybody who is currently in Japan - so my first reaction isn't grief. And I can only sort of barely wrap my head around the video footage; I can't really encompass the scale of the disaster - so I can't get to shock, either. Emotionally, I can't feel it as a tragedy.

And yet, I know the tragedy is there. The reports show a large and rising death toll, and no shortage of injuries to accompany those deaths. Property damage is... I don't even know how to express it. I can see the videos, read the reports, try to grasp what happened.

But since it doesn't (for the moment) affect me directly, I can ignore it. I can think, Wow, look at all those cars getting washed around. I wonder what's for lunch? Except I don't. Not because I really feel for what happened, or the people it happened to - I don't seem to be able to do that, at least not yet - but because knowing what it is, I refuse to let it go like that. So I'll be donating to the Red Cross, and I'll be checking to see if I'm eligible to donate blood again any time soon.

Empathy is a habit that should be cultivated, even in places where it doesn't come naturally.

Zombie Music Post

I originally posted this list back in October of 2009. But since I'm doing a zombie theme this week, I thought a collection of songs about zombies would be fun. So, using dark and forbidden rituals, I have resurrected it! Bwahahahahaha! Behold, the zombie post! It lives again!

Zombie Songs:
1. All You Zombies - The Hooters
2. I Could Always Eat Your Brain - Harley Poe and the Dead Vampires
3. Nobody Likes You (When You're Dead) - Zombina & The Skeletones
4. Re: Your Brains - Jonathan Coulton
5. The Zombie Dance - Haloween Kickerz
6. Zombie - Nellie McKay
7. Zombie Blood - Adam Paranoia
8. Zombie Dance - Alice Cooper
9. Zombie Jamboree (Back To Back) - Harry Belafonte
10. Zombie Killer - Leslie Hall
11. Zombie Me - No More Kings
12. Zombie Zoo - Tom Petty
13. Zombies Ate My Brain - Tartouf

And, for my own personal amusement, I'd add:
14. Strangers In The Night - Cake (off the Stubbs the Zombie soundtrack)
15. If I Only Had A Brain - use any version you like; I actually prefer the Mirror Ball Associates for this one, but The Flaming Lips also have cover of this.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Give Me The Brain

In keeping with the zombie theme (established by accident earlier this week), I'd like to recommend a card game: Give Me The Brain. If you're the sort of person who regularly attends a game night, or just spends a lot of time playing games, you've probably run across it already.

As a card game, the goal is simple: the first person to discard all his (or her) cards wins the game. The rules aren't terribly complicated, and you can learn the game in five or ten minutes. It's best played with four to six people... and it's best played if you read the cards out loud as you play.

Why? Because it's the setup that really makes the game. You're a zombie, working in Friedeys - The Fast Food Restaurant Of The Damned. All your co-workers are zombies, too, and you all share one simple goal: to finish up your tasks (represented by the cards in your hand) so you can go home. There's a catch, of course: some of the tasks require a brain... and there's only one brain among the lot of you... and if you use the brain, there's a good chance that you'll drop it immediately afterwards.

Winning requires a mix of luck and strategy, but the game is an awful lot of fun even if you lose. It's silly, it's random, it's hilarious. Pick up a copy at your local gaming store (Comic Book stores often have it, too), or order it from Steve Jackson Games.

"Give me the brain... I forgot what lettuce is!"

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Reflections on Private Lives

So... we've visited with Father Peter, and he seems to be doing okay. We didn't stay long, because he couldn't talk too long without coughing, and with us there he couldn't stop talking.

This was the first time I'd been to his house, and it was as militantly normal as any of our homes. Oh, you could tell he was a priest. There were crosses and devotional pictures here and there on the wall. But there was nothing to indicate any deeper knowledge.

There were also pictures of Father Peter: sometimes alone, but usually with other people. They seemed to span his entire career, from a young man first entering the ministry to a dinner at our church several months ago. Looking at them, it was hard to believe that he had ever been so young. He'd been younger than I am now when he first entered the priesthood.

And he had shelves of books, some devoted to Christianity, some to Catholicism in particular, but many more to other things entirely. He had an entire book case devoted to classic literature, and another to works on biology and astronomy, geology and anthropology. I was surprised, to put it mildly, to see The Demon-Haunted World sitting beside his bed, with a bookmark holding his place about a third of the way in.

We didn't speak of anything important. He asked how we were doing, and we told him that we were well. We asked how he was doing, and he told us that he was feeling fine... though he admitted later that he still tired quickly. We delivered some food, and made sure he didn't need anything else - and then we left again, before his cough got any worse.

Neither of us said much on the way back to our apartment.

Friday night was a much-needed break. We watched RED, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing Bruce Willis and his friends blow things up. We sat and talked, but not about anything important - jokes about old movies, mostly. And by the end of the evening, Claire and I were just... relaxed.

And since I don't have much else to report, and that seems like a really nice place to stop...

Reflections of a Deranged Cultist is a work of fiction. Any resemblance between actual priests and the characters here is entirely coincidental.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Zombie Hunters

Apparently it's Zombie Week here at Mock Ramblings.

My copy of The Zombie Hunters, Book One has come in at last, which means that I now know exactly how I'm spending my evening. If you're not already reading it, The Zombie Hunters is an online comic which takes place after the zombie apocalypse. The survivors live in isolated enclaves called Arcologies, where they try to survive and find some way to turn the tide in a world which has been completely overrun by the living dead. The story follows a small group which makes its living as government-sponsored scavengers. They search for food, drink, and materials in the wastelands outside their arcology - a job which gives them plenty of opportunities to get in trouble. (In fact, I'd broadly categorize them as a group of "heroic troublemakers", which may be why the Arcology prefers to have them spend so much of their time out in the ruins.)

The art is excellent and the story is entertaining, and there's plenty of zombie (and anti-zombie) violence. There's some interesting variety in the zombies, too. As a bonus, the online comic updates very regularly - so you won't sit around wondering when the next page is coming out, or what happened to the author and if they ever plan to continue. And so but anyway, if you're the sort of person who enjoys post-apocalyptic zombie stories, go read it - and if you like it, show 'em some love by buying the book.