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January 31, 2011

28-1-11 Myth understanding

28-1-11  Myth understanding

Back again at the Myths. Again this is more accurately a Reply than an Answer. Again there’s a peculiar inclusion in the list that begins the Reply.

“Myth # 5 – Christianity is just a crutch for people who can’t cope with life.
Reply: Everyone needs help to get through life. What do you use? Money? alcohol? education? sex? will power? a social scheme? They are all crutches which will sooner or later let us down.  You don’t have to look too far to find someone who ruined their lives because they used these things as a crutch. But Jesus promises us His power which will never let us down. Just because we accept Jesus into our lives many years after we are born does not mean that it isn’t something which is supposed to be a natural part of us. God gives a choice to each individual person, one at a time – to those who want to accept it and to make it part of their lives. He doesn’t force us. It is not just something from the outside which props us up, but a power from within that helps us be who we were created to be. We receive this power by making a conscious decision in our adult life to accept it. This decision finally completes us. People seem to think that if we weren’t born with it, then we don’t need it. God gives us a choice as to whether to take Him into our lives or not. He didn’t create us to be his robots. By the way, over the last 25 years, I have used the so – called “crutch” of Christianity to help people find freedom from all the other crutches in this world. They have been ever so grateful. Maybe you will too someday.”

My name is Graham and I have lifelong education-habit.
Blame my environment. Before I started school I was using books, dabbling with sounding the alphabet, handwriting and reading a few words. To my immature mind, this was just a recreational flirtation with education, on a par with mastering colouring-in. Encyclopoediae were left around casually, within the reach of small children, and I confess I used them pretty indiscriminately.  Children’s Bibles were a familiar feature of the landscape. From an early age I was actively encouraged to use dictionaries and young thrill-seeker that I was I got a significant hit off ingesting new vocabulary (I still believe that the range of your vocabulary represents the pixel-resolution of your thought – see also Orwell’s ‘newspeak’).
In time I might have grown out of this curiosity but at 5 I had no choice but to take controlled doses of education in a Nursery School. Soon I was chanting times-tables and reading Janet And John books. See John read. See Janet run. Run, Janet. See John run too. I got really excited about the substructure of verbs, adjectives, adverbs, varieties of nouns – that language itself was a mesh of metaphor: how to read the map that described the territory.
Teachers encouraged me to derive inordinate satisfaction from learning, forging a Pavlovian response to the reward of 10/10 in classroom tests. I didn’t know they had an agenda – to lead me to Godless scepticism – I just liked that hit of pleasure from a marked paper with a stick-on gold star and a handwritten ‘well done’ or – bliss – ‘Excellent’.
By the time I’d reached the crucial teenage exams, by common and mutual consent I was a poor academic, reading around the set topics and diving into tangents and connections rather than settling to learn the required inventory of tickworthy facts; a hedonistic book-user, so buzzing with ideas that a one-hour exam wasn’t enough time for me to scribble them all down. The intelligent thing would’ve been to buckle down, learn the rules of the game and apply them. Many of my brighter friends had prepared answers to a selection of likely exam questions, played by the rules of the game and produced healthy grades. I was just a little book-junkie, reading Baudelaire and Rilke, e.e.cummings and Don Marquis for fun when I should’ve been mugging up on pantheism in the nature-poetry of Wordsworth; interested in the balance of need and drives in the psychology of the Macbeths rather than memorising lines and building an inventory of significant plot-points with close reference to the set text; addicted to covering acres of sugar-paper with mixes of powder-paint, with special dispensation to hang out in the Art Room at lunchtimes, where incidentally I discovered why Hieronymous Bosch was more ‘authentic’ than the stunning Dali and became beguiled by Odilon Redon’s lithographs, Vermeer’s mysterious lucid interiors and Breughel’s allegories.
Education hasn’t let me down; I guess you could say I let my education down. I dabbled, where others were more hardcore, mainlining erudition, getting into habits of systematic study. I can make lots of inroads into a range of knowledge but talking to specialists I realise that my tracks run along ridges with dizzying abysses of ignorance to either side. There’s always more to learn; the impulse to curiosity hasn’t let me down and it’s not driven by a belief that at some point I’ll know it all. As I’ve mentioned, when I say to my friend the author – or at least the purveyor – of The Myths, that I can’t claim to know the mind of God, that if God is this ‘infinite person’ he refers to, His thought is of a different order to ours, he labels this not due humility but intellectual arrogance.
I’m surprised to find education listed as a ‘crutch’ which will sooner or later let me down. I’m not surprised to find it listed here as anathema to faith. Repeatedly I feel as if this series of arguments is designed to drag me by the ear back to Sunday School and abandon critical faculties which have served me well in spotting and disarming nonsense rhetoric in news reports and other superstition.
I note here that although God doesn’t ‘force’ us to believe,  the penalties for not believing are ‘dire’. The claims made here for His sustaining and transformative powers are echoed by converts to all religions and none.
In everyday conversations with friends and acquaintances troubled by doubts and conflicts in difficult episodes I draw on techniques borrowed from Cognitive Behavioural practice (I have reservations about labelling this ‘therapy’ – CBT) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP -ditto some reservations about the ‘Programming’). I’m encouraged when I hear phrases like ‘I’d never thought about it like that’, meaning that I’ve properly understood and paraphrased the situation, re-framing the possible response to it, taking into account the individual’s experience and core beliefs. Does the fresh angle make sense to them, however obvious the solution may appear to me with the benefit of third-party detachment? I take care not to call this my ‘objective’ viewpoint; my view of the ‘human’ dimension isn’t a clinical analysis but must necessarily be mediated by my own experience.
Very often people feel uneasy because they feel the pressure to put right situations beyond their direct control or to fit roles imposed on them by others. On occasions these can include a sense of their own flawed and ‘sinful’ nature, a consistent failure to behave ‘perfectly’, exactly the unrealistic expectations suggested as appropriate by the ministry outlined in The Myths. Like advertising, the Myths raise anxieties, a sense of unsatisfactoriness, to promote the product as a solution.
I’m reminded of Ambrose Bierce: “Pray, v.: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.” See also: “Faith, n: Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”
I’m also struck by the rhetorical device of refuting arguments that the questioner poses entirely in order to knock them down. Actually I know that many feel better able to face the world with a faith-explanation. If this leads them to aspire to do better and to engage in society with altruism and compassion I’m not overly concerned with the verifiable Truth of the proposition. To paraphrase this Myth, the device can be a ‘belief’ in crystals, dream-catchers, Nature spirits, various interpretations of ‘ancient wisdom’. I’m not personally persuaded though I’m interested to know what’s meant by the common accompanying phrase ‘It works for me’.
On that premise, I note the pejorative phrasing of faith as ‘just (merely) a crutch’. This is a token gesture at playing the dismissive Devil’s Advocate, easy to argue against because it’s so reductive; you don’t have to take a faith-stand to acknowledge that the adoption of a faith is far more complex than that.
Just as you can embed value-judgement in the superficially synonymous choice of dog, hound, mutt, cur, ‘best friend’, canine or specific variety – ‘bulldog’, ‘rotweiller’, poodle’ – to indicate a species, ‘crutch’ implies a heavily-loaded emotional value, a device only for the halt and lame.

Essentially this series of loaded and manipulative pitches requires you to have faith in the author. He will say that he’s merely acting as the earthly voice of God, but in practice it’s the interpreter’s voice you must attend to uncritically. Again, I wonder whether he accepts that the Myths are manipulative, partisan and not entirely honest – sincere, no doubt, but not scrupulous – or whether he doesn’t see why questions about them are appropriate, or doesn’t care. Whatever the case, am I encouraged to believe that he is a reliable interpreter of greater more complex truths?
New readers will have to begin at the beginning of this month’s notes-to-self if I say here that although I’m mulling over queries raised by this suite of ‘myths’, the credibility of the author to speak with any authority other than on his product-knowledge of a particular faith-franchise is staked on his ability to present a persuasive picture of a reality beyond the mundane, rather than to carry off a job of mundane rhetorical persuasion.
As a first-time reader I would assume that these myths were intended to provoke questions and to elicit more comprehensive and comprehensible responses. Experience tells me that in fact the arguments are as take-it-or-leave it as they appear here.

As William Booth encouraged rousing, cheerful music in the Salvation Army  – ‘Why should the Devil have all the best tunes?’ – my impression of Alpha and its adherents, from anecdotal accounts of unpersuaded attendees and from the vids I was encouraged to watch, is that it takes leads from advertising and marketing: why should the Devil have all the best sales-pitches? Hey, if this presentation works for holiday time-share ‘seminars’, why not use the same schtick to sell perpetual leases in the Eternal Sunshine resort?

  1. Firstly, my profound thanks for posting this series, and for sticking it out to the very end. It’s forced me to think through things I’ve left unthunk for many years – I do like having my brain stretched. And beside the mental exercise it’s also been the cue for the occasional mental exorcise, as buried memories of the early seventies surface, to be re-examined away from the stresses of that time.

    Education as a crutch – this seems so totally wrong! What about the guy who went out of his way to get people to stop and think about what they were doing, not just blindly follow rules and tradtitions; tried to get them to put themselves in others’ shoes, to use their imaginations and work out what the right action was? Who so often snapped “You’ve got ears – use them!” when people were being dense and not listening to what he was actually saying rather than listening to their prejudices? And who clearly enjoyed coming up with a clever answer when he had right audience. (“Anyone got a coin? Okay, whose head is on it?…”) I can’t see him asking anyone to leave their intelligence and knowledge at the door if they could do some good with it.

    So that was the sales pitch? It’s so sad, because it doesn’t even try to promote what is truly good about the Christian life without (or even despite) the sucker-trap of get-saved-or-else and the various bigotries that collect around religion.

    We’ve arrived from different directions, but we seem to have ended up at the same place. I always try to be polite to cold-callers, but if they persist with their spiel, I hang up.

    Comment by Sue Jones — January 31, 2011 @ 10:31 pm
  2. Originally I’d initiated the discussion, assuming that my friend would welcome a broader discussion than the Sunday School induction level he seemed to be obliged to do – it was a phrase in an early email: ‘We have to do Alpha’, which I took to mean it was a bit of a contractual chore. I mentioned the non-sense or deliberate diversion tactic of the bad/ mad/ true argument at the time but here it is again. I didn’t even get started on the ‘the world doesn’t make sense without Satan’ section.
    This really has taken up far too much time and feels like an extended scalpel-job on what must perforce be summary-statements in the leaflet. On the other hand, as described, the ministry supplies stock conversation-stoppers so I haven’t really been able to make use of the invitation to ask questions that the leaflet appears to encourage.
    I don’t doubt the sincerity; I applaud the community work he does untiringly; he’s generous with his time and talent. I do now have real difficulty with his belief that now he’s stated his case, I’m the author of my own eternal damnation because it makes so little coherent sense to me and by his rules of discourse, to attempt to develop the ideas is to reject God and invite His infinite offence.
    I’m with you on the Jesus mission being to recreate an idea of God In Us (the title of Anthony Freeman’s case for ‘Christian humanism’) rather than the etiolated version pressed between the pages of The Law and guarded by the Pharisees. I do have very fruitful, thoughtful discussions with Christians and do very often find common ground concealed behind divergent language.
    Enough now. I wanted to think this over and now I want to get back to the usual noodling…

    Comment by admin — February 1, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

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