Friday, March 13, 2009

Why It's Hard to Talk to an Evangelical - Part V (and last) - Anti-intellectual Snobbery

When one thinks of snobbery, they visualize the intellectual (or pseudo-intellectual) looking down their noses at the poor, ignorant “little people.” While that is sometimes the case, in Evangelicalism, it seems to be turned on its head.

Mark Noll explains it best in his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. But in summary, Evangelicalism has taken a very deliberate course of opposing intellectual endeavors since the Second Great Awakening. The reason for this follows the influence of Dualism within the Church. When you esteem everything earthly, including books, sciences, arts and even culture itself as inferior or perhaps evil, then you feel obligated to avoid them.

Extreme examples always illustrate points the best. So, in this example I think of Bill. He was the most conservative Evangelical I had ever met. Before moving to our area in Michigan, he had been part of a Christian militia (sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it?) outside Glacier National Park in Montana. The militia was headed by a Baptist minister.

Bill had a long black beard. He forced his wife to wear a head covering. Did I mention that he beat his wife when she disobeyed, such as speaking to other women when he wasn’t there to monitor what she said?

I could never get far in conversations with Bill. I tried to talk to him about the concept of domestic violence and psychological abuse. He was always looking down his nose at me because I read books. He used to say, “Everything I need to know is in God’s word. I don’t read that worldly crap.”

The Bible must not have had good instructions for how to deliver a baby because his poor wife almost died when he tried to deliver their baby himself. According to him, the whole field of OB/Gyn was a Satanic means for sexually exploiting women. He argued with me that there was no such thing as cervical cancer and a Pap smear was nothing short of rape. If a doctor ever performed a pap smear on his wife, he said he would kill him.

Now that I have staked out my point with the extreme, I will move back towards the common. But again, I feel I must clarify things before I am quickly misunderstood.

I’m not being critical towards those who, for one reason or another have a low IQ. I’m not even being critical towards those who, for sociological reasons, never got to finish high school or certainly not college. Neither of my parents could finish high school due to the depression. I know an Evangelical man right now, also named Bill, who never went far in education and doesn’t know a lot about the world. However, this Bill doesn’t look down his nose at me for reading books or sharing information. He seems quite inquisitive. There’re a lot of life experiences (he is in his 70s) that I learn from him. So I’m not talking about IQ or educational level but attitude.

I have no claims of being an intellectual . . . although I wish I were. I mean, when I’m around my Evangelical friends, I have to play dumb. I have to pretend that I don’t know anything about science or history or world events because if I don’t, they will use it against me . . . like I’ve gone over to the “Dark Side.”

But when I’m in a roomful of real intellectuals, I feel quite intimidated. They start quoting Greek poets talking about obscure Mongolian battles and quarks in ways that I can barely understand. Some of these same people, for example when I’m at a L’Abri conference, can also talk about theological concepts at the same level of complexity.

I will close with an example of why this anti-intellectualism snobbery makes it difficult to have a conversation with many Evangelicals. I’ve used real-life stories in past postings, usually with me as the victim. I’m going to give a fictional account (without me as a victim) this time to avoid the appearance that I’m just talking about “how I’ve been wronged.” This isn’t about me.

Setting: George is a thinking Christian. He did go to college and graduate school in the sciences . . . because he loves science. He is having coffee the vestibule of a large Mega-Evangelical church. He approaches Tom, the “Deacon of Men’s Discipleship.” George’s motivation for talking to Tom is simply because he wants to create better relationships with other men.

George: “Hey Tom, how’re you doing?”

Tom: “Not bad. God is really blessing me. What’s God doing in your life?” (George notices Tom’s eyes bouncing around looking behind him and across the room like he is only partially listening to George).

“Uh . . . well I’m in good health . . . I guess that’s good. Uh, so Tom, where do you work?”

“I work for the city parks and rec . . . what about you?” (Tom’s eyes are still looking behind George . . . George turns to see what he is looking at . . .doesn’t see much but the crowd of people talking and drinking coffee)

“I teach earth sciences at the community college.”

Tom: “Really. That must be hard, trying to be witness in such a hostile place.”

(a look of confusion on his face) “Hostile? I haven’t sensed any hostility . . . I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Well, my nephew went to that college and it sounded like all his classes were taught by humanists (Tom has no idea with a humanism really is philosophically but that is a term he heard on Focus on the Family) and evolutionists. He dropped out and is going to trade school. My daughter is going to go to Bible school after college”

George: “Humm . . . Oh, I see what you mean . . . but I haven’t had any problems. The people I work with all seem really nice.”

“Well then apparently you are not living out your faith very visibly because Jesus says the faithful will be persecuted.” (Tom looks across the room again like he is looking for someone. George turns again and looks behind himself to see what has Tom’s interest)

(He is feeling a little hurt by Tom’s statement and wants to change the subject) “Well, maybe I haven’t met any of the hostile people you’re talking about. I teach geology and wildlife management courses.”

Tom: “Are you an evolutionist? I mean, I don’t think the college would allow a Christian to teach there . . . especially if they stood up for their faith. By the way, are you in any of our men’s discipleship groups? If not you really should be. We teach our men out to really live out their faith in their place of business. For example, I was asked by the city to help implement a “save the salmon” campaign. I refused and I almost got fired over it.”

(with a confused look on his face) “Salmon . . . do you have something against salmon?”

Tom: “Of course not. But it’s part of that evolutionist crap . . .save the salmon and abort the humans!.”

“I don’t see the connection. I mean, I’ve seen the studies and the salmon population here in the NW have dropped by an average of 75% over the last 20 years. There is hard evidence that one of the reasons is water run off from agriculture and chemicals, oils solvents etc, in the city. Filters over the drains do make a difference. That’s been a well established fact by many great biologists. So, by controlling over-fishing, run off, migration interference, such as some of the dams, then we could restore the population. It is pretty hard science.”

Tom (with a smirk on his face): “I think I see why no one persecutes you at the college . . . you sound like one of those humanists.”

(Shaking his head and feeling insulted again): “What have I said that gives you that impression?”

“You remind me of my sister’s husband who is always trying to quote me scientific studies. (now smiling big and patting George on the back) The only study I need is God’s word. God said it and I believe it and that’s all I need.”

George: “But what we were talking about had nothing to do with the Bible.”

Tom: “Really? Ha! My friend, everything in my life is anchored in the Bible.”

George: “We were talking about salmon for pete’s stake. What have I said that offended you?”

Tom: “Oh, you haven’t offended me. Nope. You can’t offend ole Tom. No, but I really believe that God is in control. We could have a billion billion salmon spawning this year if God wills it. But those studies are the humanist way of shutting down hard working fishermen like my uncle. It’s the Democrats that want to control every aspect of our lives . . . they’ve never really counted the salmon. I read online about a guy who claims that we have twice as many salmon spawning each year than they did in the 1800s. (looking again behind George and spotting a very pretty church lady) Oh, I’ve got to go talk to someone. Hey if you are every interested in a men’s discipleship group let me know. These guys really love the Lord and I think you could learn a lot from them.”

George walks away feeling distant from Tom with little desire to try and talk to him again. He also feels discouraged because his attempts to create a closer relationship seems to have done the opposite. He also has no desire to join a discipleship group if it will be more of the same . . . or starting with the assumption that he is not a good witness because he believes in the science.


Hope T. said...

This has been a good series. In this post, I think you have hit upon the main difficulty with talking to conservative Christians: the worship of the Bible. I actually think that this phenomenon can be so extreme that some Christians seem to be worshipping the Bible instead of The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible is turned into a handbook or guidebook or manual or how-to book. Since I have noticed this propensity in some Christians, I am just stymied as to how they can turn the Bible, which is a collection of history, stories, proverbs, poems, letters, visions, phophecies, etc. into something akin to an instruction booklet for running and maintaining one's DVD player. Put A into slot B, pull tab C and voila, everything is working handy, dandy.
There is no thought, no struggle, no Life in that attitude. I am thinking of examples but I just can't bear to type them out because it is all so sad. As you have pointed out Christians are great at alientating others so I think there are a lot of really lonely Christians out there.
What I can't figure out is why this happens. I think that you are right when you point to a person's desire to feel better about himself by cutting down others. I also think craig v is right about insecurity leading to just wanting to win an argument or win a point by any means. There seems to be something missing,though, that I can't pinpoint. I mean, why would we do our darndest to alientate others when we are such social creatures at heart?

MJ said...

I totally agree with you. But to even raise the question about the Idol-Bible, get's you caught in the grid of certitude like a mosquito in one of those bug zappers.

To suggest that the Bible is turned into something more than God intended (as you said a repair manual) immediately the "You're saying the Bible is a myth . . . you are a liberal" response.

I mentioned, in an earlier post, that I got a notice from a Christian publisher about an "Biblical expose on global warming." It turns out (as I didn't read the ad closely at first) that it is a DVD-movie not a book. However, the point is still the same. The Bible is silent on many, many topics (and I don't think that is an accident). To imply that the Bible has something to say about global warming is silly at best.

Usually what we Christians do is to develop an opinion (in the same way anyone develops an opinion . . . social pressure, relatives, a book) then they was wrap it in the Bible so they can have the confidence they need to keep their position. As a Navigator staff person we abused the Bible like a horse beat near to death with a whip. We took verses and twisted an wove them into such "Biblical truths" that, looking back, it was insane. Most of these "truths" had very carnal motives. Like forcing scriptures to say that I am your leader therefore you obey me at all cost . . . without questioning.

To your last question, I agree a paradox. We want relationships but we do things to alienate others. I think it does go back to the feeling secure about yourself at all cost (even at the cost of the relationship of others). But indirectly thinking that if I am highly appraised (at least by my self) that i will draw others to me and meet my social needs.

Anonymous said...

I actually think that this phenomenon can be so extreme that some Christians seem to be worshipping the Bible instead of The Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Bible is turned into a handbook or guidebook or manual or how-to book. -- Hope T

Just like the Talibani and Persian Ayatollahs do with the Koran?

Memorize and recite/rewordgitate as duckspeak?

There is no thought, no struggle, no Life in that attitude. I am thinking of examples but I just can't bear to type them out because it is all so sad. -- Hope T

Like (again) Extreme Islam and its Koran?

Like "Ees Party Line, Comrade"?

Like "Praise the LORD!" becoming "Long Live Big Brother!"

"SCRIPTURE (TM)!"/"IT IS WRITTEN (TM)!" as thoughtstopper?

All variations on the same theme:

-- Headless Unicorn Guy

pennyyak said...

As they say, this post is dead, but it is still interesting. I only read a couple of blogs a day, so if I'm going to read yours, I might have to backtrack a bit while you work out the loneliness in men stuff (and sincerely, not that it is not interesting). But I'm a woman, and clueless (at least so far) when it comes to that issue. I await further comment.

But THIS issue. Ah. I have a graduate degree in School Psychology, and practiced for some years. In the first half of my life as an evangelical protestant, man, some things were indeed touchy. Should I believe in evolution? Can you be a Christian and believe in that, or in intelligent design or ... whatever? I was sometimes torn by doubts (not about God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit), but about science and religion, whether every human action was about choice (and therefore clearly sin) or were we just hard-wired in some ways, and bunches of other stuff.

Believe me when I tell you I still haven't figured it all out. But you are so right that there are few people capable of letting you bounce your ideas off of them, and giving some sort of balanced guidance. Knowledge is rampant. Wisdom is in short supply.

Thankfully, most of the many wonderful aspects of my evangelical past have stayed with me, very much enriching my spiritual journey.

(Spiritual Journey - isn't that a catchphrase of New Agers who don't attend church and ...). Sorry, couldn't resist.