TF: How Not To Do Evangelism

Tribulation Force, pp. 386-396

Reading the Left Behind series has caused me to re-evaluate many of the “Bible prophecy,” End-Times works I encountered before opening these books. The more I read of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, the better that Hal Lindsay and Donald W. Thompson seem.

Thompson was the auteur behind A Thief in the Night and its sequels, the premillennial dispensationalist thrillers that circulated in church basements and coffee houses for years before the age of VHS. Thief was not a good movie. The dialogue was awful and Thompson’s endearingly awkward cast of nonprofessional actors was never able to rise above it. But the guy did have some idea of what to do with a camera and how to make the most of his tiny budget, so he was able to create some memorable images. Thompson conveys the disappearances of the Rapture with a neighbor’s lawnmower, still running but suddenly unattended — a scene that is both simpler and creepier than any of the Rapture scenes in Left Behind.

Thompson’s movies are like a PMD version of Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” — earnest, overwrought and unintentionally campy, but sprinkled throughout with memorably unnerving bits. Those movies were also made with the same intent as Edwards’ archetypal fire-and-brimstone rant — to frighten audiences into repentance so that the unsaved might be spared the horrors portrayed. It’s that intent, that motive of sincere if strangely expressed concern for others, that makes A Thief in the Night and its many imitators vastly preferable to the Left Behind books, in which one finds only very rare expressions of concern for those unsaved others, and in which those few expressions do not seem sincere.

Thompson was part of a wave of 1970s End Times mania and nearly all of the popular “prophecy” books, movies and albums of that time shared this fire-and-brimstone, repent-for-the-end-is-nigh desire to save the unsaved. This was true of Hal Lindsey’s books from that period, and of Larry Norman’s rock and roll records, and of nearly every other PMD ancestor of the Left Behind series. They were all urgently concerned with evangelism — with saving the lost before it’s too late. Their approach to such evangelism may have been horribly askew, but that was their intent.

I expected the Left Behind books to follow that pattern, but one of the many awful surprises they held in store was that they don’t. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins invoke fire and brimstone, but not in the hopes of frightening the unsaved into heaven. Instead they present it as a kind of revenge fantasy — a variation of the “abominable fancy.” Their central message is not, “Repent before it is too late because I do not want you to suffer all these torments I am describing,” but rather, “You’ll see, you’ll suffer all these torments and then you’ll realize too late that we were right.”

Instead of “I Wish We’d All Been Ready,” LaHaye & Jenkins’ message is “We’re ready, you’re not — neener neener neener.”*

This is true in these books even in chapters like this one, presenting Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah’s ostensibly evangelistic message. Ben-Judah’s message turns out not to be an upbeat, Billy Graham-style gospel of hope (“Good news — the Messiah has come and salvation is at hand”). Nor is it even a Jonathan Edwards or Donald W. Thompson-style message urgently pleading with others to escape the coming wrath. Ben-Judah’s message, instead, boils down to a reiteration of the core message of these books: “We’re right. You’re wrong.”

It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how and why the authors came to believe that such a message constitutes evangelism.

It shows, I think, that the authors are unable or unwilling to consider how their message is likely to be perceived by others. That comes in part from an inability or unwillingness to listen to what others have to say. (Why should they listen, when they already know that those others are wrong?) That’s part of a larger lack of concern for or interest in others as actual people — real human beings who bring their own lives, stories, experiences and ideas to the conversation.

This lack of interest in learning about others goes hand in hand with the authors’ seeming lack of interest in learning about themselves, raising a chicken-and-egg question of cause and effect. Is their distorted and unexamined self-concept a result of their distorted and unexamined concept of others? Or vice versa?

For a sense of what I mean by this self-concept, consider that this whole business with Tsion Ben-Judah’s “research” is based on a flattering lie. It’s one thing to tell flattering lies to someone else. It’s worse to tell them to yourself. And it’s worst of all to then believe them.

The authors are pretending that this is why they believe what they believe and how they came to believe it. Ben-Judah’s research project is presented as a depiction of their “personal testimony,” as we evangelicals say — and more generally as the testimony of all real, true Christians. Ben-Judah was simply a disinterested, unbiased, rational scholar drawing disinterested, unbiased, rational conclusions from the study of sacred texts that are obviously and self-evidently authoritative to any such unbiased and rational reader.

This is how LaHaye wants to think of himself. It’s how he wants to portray himself as having come to religion. But that is not how it happened — for him or for anyone else. He was introduced to these sacred texts — these particular texts and not to other ones — and began to read them with a host of preconditioned and predetermined interpretations. His decision to accept those interpretations was shaped by his personal history and experience, by his relationships and encounters with others, and by a host of other variables including — most essentially, we Christians believe — the grace of God. The Ben-Judah scenario denies the existence and importance of all those other factors, presenting the rabbi’s conversion — and by implication, LaHaye’s — as something else, as simply an inevitable and undeniable intellectual conclusion reached from an honest and objective evaluation of data.

This is why — apart from all the howlingly awful errors and misapprehensions we discussed earlier — I cannot believe Ben-Judah’s story. That’s just not how it works. It didn’t work that way for me, or for LaHaye or Jenkins, or for anyone else. That is not my testimony or theirs or anyone else’s and so I cannot believe that it is Ben-Judah’s.

L&J have presented this “conclusions of research” myth not just to flatter their fictional representative (and thereby themselves), but also to accuse the rest of the world. Their false portrayal of how Ben-Judah came to be a real, true Christian also conveys a false portrayal of everyone who isn’t an RTC. They’re not just claiming that this is how Ben-Judah became a believer, but that this is how all nonbelievers became nonbelievers. Ben-Judah, they say, became an RTC from an honest investigation of the undeniable data. Therefore, if you are a Jew — or an atheist, a Catholic, an Episcopalian, Lutheran, Hindu, Mormon, Pagan, etc., etc. — it is because you are dishonest or because you are ignorant of the data or obstinately refusing to accept its self-evident truth.

All of us non-RTCs can thus be lumped into two and only two categories: the malicious and the ignorant.

The former category is necessary to make the plot of the Left Behind series palatable. The horrific suffering these books present for non-RTCs couldn’t be tolerated — much less enjoyed and savored — unless those others were portrayed as fully and consciously deserving such punishments. The damned here are thus portrayed a bit like the damned in a Jack Chick tract — as arrogant and deliberate deniers of what they know to be true. Like Nicolae, they hear Ben-Judah’s enumeration of the clear evidence and perversely choose to reject it.

The latter category, the ignorant, isn’t so much a subset of Them as it is a subset of Us. The merely ignorant are still innocent and thus are portrayed less as non-RTCs than as not-yet-RTCs. Since the malicious are unreachable, this latter category is the only real intended audience for Ben-Judah’s evangelistic message — or for the evangelistic message, such as it is, of the authors. The ignorant have never heard of Jesus, never been told what it is that Christians believe. Once they are told, they will either accept this obvious and compelling truth and convert to become RTCs, or else they will reject it for perverse and evil reasons and become part of the category of the malicious, the cackling, Chickian damned (“Har har!”).

That one might hear Ben-Judah’s message and simply not find it persuasive for any legitimate reason isn’t an option the authors imagine or allow for.

You may have noticed that these two categories of the malicious and the ignorant don’t seem to account for any actual humans you have ever actually met. The authors present them as comprehensive, but experience proves them to be almost nonexistent.

That’s why L&J-style evangelism will always be fruitless. A message intended for a nonexistent audience won’t be heard. And you cannot convince others of anything if you’re already convinced of something about them that just isn’t true.

This doesn’t just mean that the the authors are failing at evangelism themselves. It also means they’re setting up their readers to fail as well. Those readers are being sent forth with the expectation of encountering people who do not actually exist. They are being taught to expect to meet these imaginary innocent ignorant, the RTCs-in-waiting who have never heard of Jesus before and will gratefully ask to hear more — finding the message instantly persuasive and thus eagerly converting.

I don’t think that has ever really happened. Maybe once, but probably never.

And when this doesn’t happen for the would-be-evangelist readers of Left Behind, what have they been taught to conclude about those they actually do encounter? They have been taught that these people must all belong to that other category of the malicious and perverse deniers. So those readers’ hapless attempts at Ben-Judah-style evangelism are not just doomed to fail, they’re also designed to reinforce the Manichaean, Us-vs.-Them worldview that underlies LaHaye’s John Birch Society politics.

How convenient.

I don’t want to leave off here only saying that L&J have provided a manual on How Not To Do Evangelism. They certainly have provided that — offering a template for evangelism that seems designed to inspire ill-feeling on all sides and to be as ineffectual as it is unpleasant. But before we return to our journey through the instructively appalling pages of Tribulation Force, let me suggest a few things I think I’ve learned about a better way to approach this matter of evangelism.

1. Evangelism is hospitality.

Hospitality means opening up your life to share it with others. Sometimes that means sharing your home or your food, but here it means sharing that which is centrally and essentially important to you, the core of your identity and your source of meaning.

That seems kind of overwhelming — a bit more fraught than just inviting someone over for a cup of coffee. But in either case, it bears keeping in mind that this is what you’re doing — extending an invitation. And that this is who you’re dealing with — guests.

Guests are not obliged to swallow everything you’re serving, nor should they be compelled or feel pressured to do so. Your job, as host, is to defer to the preferences of your guests. Guests are not prisoners or detainees. If your attempts at hospitality cause your guests to feel more like prisoners — if you can see in their eyes the look of someone desperate to escape — then you’re doing it wrong. Stop. Step away. Let them go.

When you invite someone over to dinner, they will sometimes bring something with them to share in return — a nice bottle of wine, maybe, or some pie for dessert. If you turn up your nose at this contribution then you’re not being a good host. You’re not the only one sharing here and it would be unfair, not to mention rude, not to appreciate and honor what they’re sharing with you.

When I’m asked if I can recommend a good book on evangelism, I sometimes jokingly suggest Emily Post’s etiquette manual. Except I’m not really joking.

2. Evangelism requires relationship.

Without relationship, it’s not really evangelism, merely sales. Evangelism should never be anything like sales. This is not a transaction, not commerce.

People who are in a relationship with one another talk about those things that they regard as important. Unlike many white guys my age, I am not a member of the Cult of Golf. But since many of my friends are also white guys my age I often wind up talking about golf a lot. Why? Because they are my friends and it’s important to them. That’s how human relationships work.

Evangelism directed toward strangers often seems awkward and weird because it is awkward and weird. Evangelism in the context of relationship, by contrast, is natural and organic. It’s not weird when two friends talk about the things that are important to them. It would be far stranger if they didn’t.

A word of caution: It won’t do to try to start a friendship with someone as a means to evangelizing them. A friendship that exists only as a means to some other ends isn’t really a friendship at all. It’s more like the unctuous faux-friendliness of the salesman. We can all tell the difference between such professional chumminess and the real thing it imitates. Your local car salesman is probably a friendly guy, but he’s not your friend, he’s your salesman.

Life sometimes conspires to create encounters that bring about something like the trust and mutuality of friendship even if they’re not really part of any pre- or post-existing relationship. The train breaks down in the tunnel or the elevator gets stuck between floors and soon you may find yourself having one of those sacred, crossroads-of-life conversations with a complete stranger. You don’t know this person’s full name, you’ve never met before and you’ll likely never meet again, but despite that — or because of it — you find yourselves telling one another things you wouldn’t be able to say to the friends and family you have to live with every day. The old man next to you on the train says he had a child about your age, and because the train has stopped there in the tunnel he tells you something about that child that he’d needed to say for a very long time but had never been able to before. And because he told you that, and because the train is still not moving, you tell him things you also had needed to say — hopes, fears, dreams, confessions — that you had never before been able to articulate aloud.

That happens sometimes, miraculously. I don’t know that such encounters quite count as “relationships,” but they also can be, sometimes, appropriate contexts for what might be called evangelism.

3. Listen.

Like improv, evangelism is usually more about listening than it is about talking.

The Cherokee Baptist theologian Bill Baldridge tells a story about white missionaries who arrived at the Indian settlement. “We are here to tell you the story of our God and of salvation,” they announced.

The elders welcomed them, brought them food, and gathered around to hear this story. The missionaries, pleased by this enthusiastic audience, decided to go with the Long Version. They started at the beginning and over the next several hours they told the whole great Christian saga of creation, fall and redemption.

When at last the missionaries were finished, the elders thanked them. “This is a good story,” the elders said. “Now we would like to share with you our story.”

The missionaries were furious. Hadn’t these people been listening? Didn’t they realize that they had just heard the One True Story and that their old story, whatever it was, no longer mattered?

The missionaries abruptly left, shaking the dust off their shoes and heading out to find some other group more receptive to to their message.

4. Your story is not an argument.

Evangelism is often presented as something that starts with a sales pitch and ends in an argument. That’s wrong from start to finish. At its core, evangelism involves telling your story. That’s not a debate or an argument, it’s a testimony, a narrative (one that hasn’t ended yet).

Arguments about religion can be a lot of fun and they can sometimes even be productive. Their usefulness, though, is almost never a matter of persuasion, but rather of two friendly foes helping one another to clarify their own thoughts.

That’s the healthy version. In the unhealthy version, it’s more about two unfriendly foes using each other to reinforce for themselves what they already believe.

That distinction between healthy and unhealthy arguments has to do with whether those involved in the argument are willing to listen to and to try to understand what the other is saying. If they both are, then the argument may prove enjoyable and useful — and perhaps even marginally persuasive. But if neither one is really listening or really interested in understanding what the other side is saying, then all that’s going on is two people with their fingers stuck in their ears shouting slogans in an effort to drown out the sound of their own doubts.

The Ben-Judah broadcast in Tribulation Force strikes me as the unhealthy kind of religious argument. Nothing in this chapter is really designed to persuade those who disagree with Ben-Judah’s or the authors’ views. It is designed, rather, to reassure those who already believe and to help them buttress their faltering faith.

Those in need of such reassurance would do well to avoid attempts at evangelism. Better that way for all involved.

Anyway, my point here is not to describe how best to argue evangelistically, but rather that evangelism usually ought to avoid argument. Your story is not an argument. Stick with your story.

That story should tell more than just how or why or when you began to be a Christian. That’s how we evangelicals are often taught to present our “personal testimony,” but that’s like telling a story that consists of nothing but “Once upon a time.” Telling your story means telling what it means to you that you are a Christian — why this is the most important thing to you, how it changes and shapes and directs your life, how you wouldn’t be you without the faith, hope and love you have found.

Of course, if you’re telling this story to a friend, to someone who knows you and has known you for some time, then they may already know all of that.

And if you’re trying to tell such a story but you realize that you can’t say how the faith you are trying to share actually does change or shape or direct your life, then you may find that you’re going to need to tell a better story.

And the only way to tell a better story and still have it be your story is to start living a better story.

That’s probably why so many people seem to find it easier to get in arguments than it is to tell their stories.

- – - – - – - – - – - -

* The Left Behind series is thus a reflection of a larger cultural change in American evangelical Christianity. The earlier wave of PMD enthusiasm came at a time when evangelicals’ contact with the larger culture was primarily evangelistic, but by the 1990s when these books were typed, that contact had become primarily political. Where Norman, Thompson and 1970s-era Lindsey were oddball expressions of the hopeful, inclusive faith typified by Billy Graham, the Left Behind books are expressions of the partisan, militant, power-seeking faith of Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and Pat Robertson. They’re not primarily about invitation, but about identity. Not about drawing others to Christ, but about drawing lines between us and them and mobilizing “the base” as a special-interest voting bloc.

But then it’s not quite accurate to say that Left Behind is a reflection of this dismaying cultural shift. It’s more deliberate than that. Tim LaHaye was one of the central figures who worked hard to bring about this change in American evangelicalism. The John Birchification of American evangelical Christianity has always been his life’s work.

  • Flying Squid with Goggles

    This is an absolute gem of a post. Evangelism all too often is not only arguing at an audience who isn’t really there (like some fictitious atheist who believes in the accuracy of the Bible) but also by a speaker who isn’t really there either, an RTC who came to the religion through pure thought rather than any cultural or personal influences. Well said, Fred.

  • Anonymous

    Their central message is not, “Repent before it is too late because I do
    not want you to suffer all these torments I am describing,” but rather,
    “You’ll see, you’ll suffer all these torments and then you’ll realize too late that we were right.”

    Or, to phrase it another way, “I’ll get you my pretty, and your little dog too!”

  • Junojava

    I’m pretty sure Chickian damned go “Haw Haw”, not “Har Har”.

  • Anonymous

    This. I was raised on Chick Tracts, and though I swallowed most of the doctrines without too much question (easy to do when your social world is your immediate family, your pastor’s immediate family, and the missionary’s immediate family), but that always seemed weird. If these people have never heard the Bible before, why do they suddenly believe that everything in it is truth? And couldn’t they be just as easily dissuaded from the faith when someone from another religion came along and claimed their book was truth? And it somehow seemed utterly unlikely that the world was entirely populated with Real True Christians, Evil Catholics/Jehovah’s Witnesses/Muslims/Satanists, and nearly-spineless people constantly shifting from one religion to another as different people came along and went “Hey, this time, this is the real truth!”

  • http://profiles.google.com/anoncollie Anon Collie

    Admittedly, I’ve met too many Catholics who follow the “Neener, neener, neener” route as well. They are so convinced that they have the totality of all Christian theology, and any Catholic who disagrees with the Church on something is part of the “malicious” non-RTCs, while Protestants are perceived at best the “ignorant” crowd and at worst, the malicious ones.

    Recently, I had an e-mail exchange with one over Linked In; this gentlemen was seeking investment funding for a surefire Catholic alternative to the eeevvviillls of Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, etc. in the form of card games. (Unfortunately, not Card Games on Motorcycles)

    I wrote back, telling him that such influences are mostly harmless; kids usually get involved with that stuff because of bullies or ostracized from the popular elements, and when kids are made aware of actual evil elements, they’re smart enough to know the difference, and I would not be investing, especially not with someone who contacted me over the Internet.

    He wrote back and insulted my professional abilites as a teacher, said I was not a Catholic, and even worse? I was a *liberal*. OH NOES.

  • http://scientistcarrie.blogspot.com/ snowmentality

    I guess it’s a question of what your goal is. If it’s “frightening the unsaved into heaven,” then all the politeness in the world isn’t going to make that less obnoxious. At best, it’s condescending to assume that someone who doesn’t share your religion is “lost.” At worst, you’re actively threatening someone with eternal torment and/or worldly unhappiness unless they agree with you, no matter whether that’s phrased as kindly concern.

    I don’t think you can set out to convince someone to convert without setting up an antagonistic, salesman/mark relationship.

    But if your goal is to understand a friend’s beliefs and/or philosophy, and to share your own beliefs with them, and generally learn from each other? Then, cool. (Depending on the people and the relationship, that might happen through friendly debate, or by storytelling, or giving advice to each other, etc.)

    But I don’t know if that’s really something called “evangelism.” I think it’s something called “friendship.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/marchantshapiro Andrew Abrams Marchant-Shapiro

    Seen the same thing in some–well, lots–of my LDS brethren. 

    The thing is, once you convince yourself that you have the One True Faith, then everyone else can be only ignorant or malicious.  There are (it seems to me) no other possibilities.  If I am right, and if my right is the *only* right, then you *must* be wrong, and that can only be through choice or ignorance.  What’s more, if you don’t immediately embrace my gentle explanation of the truth so as to correct your ignorance, you are by definition perverse, and going against the truth out of choice.

    The only way out of this conundrum, it seems to me, is for me to acknowledge that I *may not* have all of the truth (hence the need to actually listen to, as opposed to tolerate, other stories).  Unfortunately, that level of uncertainty is not a comfortable place for most humans.  I am reminded, sadly, of Tevya’s outburst in Fiddler on the Roof:  “There *is* NO OTHER HAND!”

  • Shay Guy

    For a half-second I read the title as “How Not To Do Evangelion.”

  • MaryKaye

    I had a Fundamentalist (his term) internet acquaintance who was a keen D&D player.  He wrote a letter to the 700 Club deploring the incorrect and unhelpful things they had said about the game, and received something like the following in reply:

    Dear Fellow Christian,

    Thank you for joining the millions of Christians who are concerned about D&D.  Won’t you consider making a donation to support our struggle against it?

    (He told me this story several years after it happened, but you could see the electrons blistering on the page….)

    So there are at least three things passing as evangelism.  Efforts to reach another person out of friendship.  Efforts to bolster one’s own faith out of fear.  And efforts to make a quick buck, masquerading as one of the other two.  It seems likely that _Left Behind_ owes something to both motive #2 and motive #3, but the exact proportion is hard to discern.

  • http://www.iki.fi/wwwwolf/ Urpo Lankinen

    They are being taught to expect to meet these imaginary innocent
    ignorant, the RTCs-in-waiting who have never heard of Jesus before and
    will gratefully ask to hear more — finding the message instantly
    persuasive and thus eagerly converting.

    I’ve heard similar ideas before, in this form: “Why are the atheists/non-Christians criticising Christianity? They’re probably completely ignorant anyway. They have probably not even read the Bible.” The implication, of course, being that if they had read the Bible, they’d obviously agree with every word.

    You know what happens next. The said atheist or non-Christian shows up and shows that s/he knows more about the Bible than the person who made this claim. And quips something about actually reading the Bible being one of the biggest causes of atheism.

    Dear RTCs: While I am Wiccan, I’m very much aware of the intricacies of Christian eschatology (in large part thanks to this fascinating article series). The more I read of it, the more convinced I am that no sane person will ever need to know this stuff to live happy and productive lives as members of the society. Keep your acid visions. Thank you.

  • Amaryllis

    Guests are not obliged to swallow everything you’re serving, nor should they be compelled or feel pressured to do so.

    In a recent thread over on the Slacktiverse, somebody– my apologies to whoever-it-was, but I can’t re-read that one again– quoted the aphorism about “evangelism is a hungry person telling another hungry person where to find bread.” And added that the teller, as a matter of common politeness, needs to accept “No thanks, I’m gluten-intolerant,” or “No thanks, I’ve already got food,” or “No thanks, I’m really not hungry” as answers.

    Or to mix analogies, Sam-I-Am is a cute little monster, but really, not everybody likes green eggs and ham.

  • http://kippahandcollar.wordpress.com/ Alana

    Thank you for this. Actually, thank you for everything you write (because I never comment to say that), but especially thank you for this.

  • Jeffrey Kramer

    If these people have never heard the Bible before, why do they suddenly
    believe that everything in it is truth? And couldn’t they be just as
    easily dissuaded from the faith when someone from another religion came
    along and claimed their book was truth?

    But here you’re assuming that they’re thinking of conversion in terms of “persuasion” and “dissuasion,” of decisions which are reached on the basis of “if… then… but… therefore”: i.e., reasoning.  It seems to me that most “evangelicals” reject this assumption, that for them it is purely and simply magic.  The sacred words have the right, good magic, and so they will work on those people who have never heard them before (assuming they are among the saveable), but other faiths’ words don’t have the magic and so have no power.

  • Anonymous

     Maybe I misunderstood you, but did you mean to say that people get involved with D&D, Harry Potter, and WoW because they are socially ostracized?

    There is certainly a group dynamic for D&D and a social aspect to all of these things, but it’s certainly not just something people turn to because no one else will have them.  These are hobbies that people can enjoy just because they are enjoyable and interesting activities.  Also, what evil elements are there in these things?

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    On the other hand it’s perfectly possible to think your religion is 100% right and still respect that other people might not agree with you even once you explain your beliefs, because these things aren’t self-evident, if they were we wouldn’t need faith.

    As to that Catholic guy – speaking as an orthodox Catholic who reads Harry Potter and plays D&D occassionally (though I prefer some other RP settings and systems) his position has nothing to do with Catholicism as I know it.

  • Matri

    Demons. And spell-casting mages and wizards.

    These are the “eeevils” that are focused on. Somehow, kids rolling a dice so their mage on paper can cast a spell to defeat a demon morphs into a satanist who’ll steal your soul to feed to the devil in exchange for unimaginable power… which he’ll use to have college sex. (Okay, I’m just paraphrasing the “college sex” bit).

  • Ked

    It’s been a very long time since Fred coined “RTC”, and it’s become such an important definition/touchstone/element of jargon in the blog and its comments that it would be very nice if he could circle back over exactly what that concept covers.

    I read through the entire LB/Slacktivist backlog a couple of years ago, soon after I found the blog.  (We really need, as a community, to work on archiving those posts in a more readable form – not really fair to force all that work on Fred, but it’s getting harder and harder to find it all.)  The RTC definition gets covered over a few posts about the conversion experiences in LB1, and there’s a bit of really worthwhile nuance there.

  • Tana

    I’ve chosen to not read any LB posts prior to this one because the LB books scared the crap out of me and I still sometimes have trigger responses to anything relating to the End Days or rapture theology and the like. 

    For some reason I read this post and I’m just blown away.  This is such a terrific post.  Thank you for pulling back the curtain to reveal the wizard.

  • TheSquirrel

    Bullies push kids into D&D and Harry Potter? I’m sorry shoot your theory, but I only started reading Harry Potter because my friends were reading it. I play RPGs because I enjoy them. I read fantasy in general, because I like it. Had nothing to do with loneliness or oppression, and I feel just a wee bit insulted when people assume my interests were formed due to some tragic failing.

  • Beachfox

    On a side note, something that came to me… If you were trying to rewrite Left Behind to make a bit more sense, wouldn’t it be better if Jewson McJewitosh’s broadcast was the results of his team’s study into the possible Religious/Spiritual cause of -all of the children vanishing last month-?

    -That- is a broadcast that would grip the world’s attention, and -that- is a broadcast that would end with “The only possible explanation is the RTCs were right and we all need to convert post-haste.”

    Accepting Jesus Christ as the Messiah would follow naturally.

  • Anonymous

    Right.  And I think, in addition to accepting “No thanks” as an answer sometimes the conversation won’t work unless the teller waits for for someone to ask, “Say, I’ve been feeling sort of hungry lately.  What’s your idea on the best place to find bread?”

  • Anonymous

    Right.  And I think, in addition to accepting “No thanks” as an answer sometimes the conversation won’t work unless the teller waits for for someone to ask, “Say, I’ve been feeling sort of hungry lately.  What’s your idea on the best place to find bread?”

  • Anonymous

    Somehow, kids rolling a dice so their mage on paper can cast a spell to
    defeat a demon morphs into a satanist who’ll steal your soul to feed to
    the devil in exchange for unimaginable power… which he’ll use to have
    college sex.

    So that was the trick to having college sex.  If I’d known that at the time, I would have signed right up.  Oh well, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, live and learn.

  • Anonymous

    great explanation Fred.

    keep up the good work

  • Anonymous

    such influences are mostly harmless; kids
    usually get involved with that stuff because of bullies or ostracized
    from the popular elements

    *facepalm*  Really?  It never occured to you that people might simply like D&D, Harry Potter, World of Warcraft, and other fantasy games and stories?  I know of absolutely no one who plays D&D or WoW or read the Harry Potter books who did so because they were an outcast or bullied.  I’ve never met a gamer or fantasy fan, period, who was only one because they were ostracized from whatever the heck the “popular elements” are.  I’ve been a fantasy fan since I read Tolkien at 6 or 7 and a gamer for *does the math* 21 years.  I’ve met plenty of people who share those interests.  Some of us were picked on or bullied in school, yes, but either because of those interests or because they were smart, or different in some way (which would cover the first, actually).

    So, no, you can’t “save” people from the evils of D&D, WoW, and Harry Potter by making sure people aren’t ostracized by the popular kids.

  • Anonymous

    You are a wise man, Fred. A very wise man.

  • Anonymous

    Dear god, and all that time I spent studying was for nothing. Nothing! /cries

  • Enoch Root

    “Is their distorted and unexamined self-concept a result of their distorted and unexamined concept of others? Or vice versa?”

    It’s because they can tell a story and get paid. That’s why. It’s in their self-interest to ignore reality and have ‘faith’ in a narrative. That’s why they’re so smug… They have a formula in their head that goes like this: “If I weren’t telling the truth, people wouldn’t respond. People respond, so it must be the truth. Even if they criticize me, it’s a response, so therefore it must be the truth.” And that’s the rationale that allows them to ignore reality.

  • Enoch Root

    “4. Your story is not an argument.”

    I remember once visiting a friend who was very ‘out’ as an evangelical, and had all evangelical friends. They were having a party and I was invited.

    So I went and said hi, and they welcomed me in, and my friend said, “This is Enoch, our pagan friend.” Har har. Thanks a lot, dude.

    After an initial moment of shock, the evangelicals all began to pair off. They started telling their conversion stories to each other. I exchanged looks with my friend. He was as baffled as I was. We had both figured they’d start hating me, but instead they had started hating themselves, and had to reboot and start from the moment of conversion. Which I guess was marginally better from my perspective, but still…

    So I made a big pentagram on the floor out of hors d’oeuvres and stood inside it all night reading Aleister Crowley. No big. :-)

  • Enoch Root

    “4. Your story is not an argument.”

    I remember once visiting a friend who was very ‘out’ as an evangelical, and had all evangelical friends. They were having a party and I was invited.

    So I went and said hi, and they welcomed me in, and my friend said, “This is Enoch, our pagan friend.” Har har. Thanks a lot, dude.

    After an initial moment of shock, the evangelicals all began to pair off. They started telling their conversion stories to each other. I exchanged looks with my friend. He was as baffled as I was. We had both figured they’d start hating me, but instead they had started hating themselves, and had to reboot and start from the moment of conversion. Which I guess was marginally better from my perspective, but still…

    So I made a big pentagram on the floor out of hors d’oeuvres and stood inside it all night reading Aleister Crowley. No big. :-)

  • Muenchner_Kindl

    First, excellent post as usually, Fred.

    Second, one thing I missed in the list about what evangelism should and should not be – it’s probably implied in the “being polite” part – is that for many people outside the US, faith is a very personal thing, and that the very idea of being badgered at your door or on the train whether you’ve been saved is horrendous. It’s more intimate for many people than asking about your sex life; a bit like asking about your relationship with your spouse.

    So you only talk with very good friends about your faith, and only if the occasion warrants it, and if somebody declines to talk about it because they don’t feel comfortable discussing such personal things, that’s okay.

    Discussing theology is different, because it deals at least partly with facts. But you still need a good friend and not just a casual aquaintance for that.

    And of course the RTCs can’t discuss theology because they don’t know any, they believe what their pastor tells them, who apparently also doesn’t automatically have a theological education.

  • Bificommander

    Would the content of this post have something to do with a certain disliked commenter demanding Fred evangelizes more? Either way, I’d say Monoblade is 0 for 4 on Fred’s points.

    As I think (but not know) that I’m right, I’m not a big fan of evangelizing personally, because I think it is incorrect, but I think Fred outlines some nice points. I wouldn’t mind sitting next to an evangelizer like Fred in a stopped train. I’d like a nice discussion. And hey, maybe I will change my mind.

    But as much as I would like otherwise, I’m not sure it is truely the only, or even most, effective way of evangelizing. The missionaries in Africa weren’t very friendly to my knowledge, but racked up impressive conversion rates, to the point that most internationally organized churches currently have conflicts between the more liberal Europian branches and the conservative African branches (see the angelical church and it’s treatment of women and gays). I wish it didn’t work, but it does apparently.

    And a side note, I think an essential part of good evangelizing should be to, as Fred did, let go of Hell. Aside from any theological arguments, it’s bad to tell someone the good news about the true and righteous God… while simultaneously saying that your potential convertee, as he is now, will be damned to everlasting torment. That is not Good news, and it will strain your credibility and (if it exists) your friendship with your subject, when you essentially tell him that you do consider his eventual damnation for what he is now an act by a good and just God.

  • Donalbain
  • The_L

    The “constant shifters” do exist though, albeit not always in regard to religion. I have a relation, gods bless her, who is remarkably receptive to fad diets, new exercise machines, and pretty much anything said by anyone claiming to be Christian.

    Her Christianity has held firm, but the rest of her identity is an ever-changing morass of “Buy this vitamin!” and “RTC’s should watch this show, not that one!”

  • Tonio

    Their central message is not, “Repent before it is too late because I do
    not want you to suffer all these torments I am describing,” but rather,
    “You’ll see, you’ll suffer all these torments and then you’ll realize too late that we were right.”

    It’s possible that LaHaye and Jenkins may indeed “believe that such a message constitutes evangelism.” But my theory is that they never even intended for these books to evangelize, or that the evangelizing was low on their list of priorities. Instead, I suspect that their only or foremost agenda was pandering to the egos of people like themselves.

  • Anonymous

    As an atheist who is also a former Evangelical minister, all I can say is bless you, Fred. I think if Christians can put compassionate humanity back into play, everyone will be the better for it. I know firsthand how hard so many of these (particularly young) Christians push their Gospel without even understanding it’s very fundamentals. They go onward and upward with “Jesus loves you and died for you so that you might be saved from sin!”. They are equipped with a matchbook theology, and a fortune cookie faith.

    Add to it the haranguing one receives when one doesn’t accept. You don’t know how many times I’ve heard “you don’t understand the Bible!” in response to a polite “No thank you, I was a minister, and I do not consider the Bible to be the one true word of God.” It’s as if your perspective, your experiences, your own knowledge mean nothing, that if only you’d magically see it their way, you’d suddenly understand that you were so very wrong and they were very right.

    I don’t expect that to change, but I do hope more Christians take your advice, and that they really live the imperfect, fallible humanity in Christianity rather than just the rigid God-like perfection that they seem to strive for instead.

  • Tonio

    Excellent. To extend that analogy, perhaps evangelism is not shoving meat in the face of a vegetarian, saying “C’mon, you know you want to try it.” Or taking meat away from a carnivore, saying “It’s for your own good.” I suspect this type of “evangelism” arises from an ego-need to feel like one is saving the world. Reminds me of the opening credits of The Odd Couple show (I’m showing my age here) where Felix tries to help an elderly lady cross the street when she’s already being helped by a Boy Scout.  At best, it may be a misplaced belief that one has the objectively best or healthiest way to live, not recognizing that other religious stances may be just as happy or fulfilling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-McGraw/100001988854074 Patrick McGraw

    Man, I’ve been playing D&D since I was 12, and I never had “college sex.” Worse yet, I STILL can’t even cast Magic Missile!

    The RTCs lied to me!

  • Amaryllis

    Yes, I liked the analogy too. Which is why I’m sorry I can’t give credit to the Slacktivite who deserves it.

  • Tonio

    They are equipped with a matchbook theology, and a fortune cookie faith.

    And from the outside, such evangelists strike me as trying to meet their quota. Like they’re Ricky Roma or, more often, Shelley Levene. (Ugh, that would mean Alec Baldwin’s Blake was Jesus.) Years ago I went with a friend to an Excel Communications seminar for potential sellers, and everything about the presentation screamed “pyramid scheme.” That’s a good term for the type of evangelism that you describe.

  • Bificommander

    Speaking of D&D=evil, Chick tracts, and the constant-shifters posts: On the Chick-site (sounds like a porn-website, doesn’t it?) below the D&D equals satanism cartoon was a link called Straight facts about D&D, which was bearing false witness with the title alone. But it got worse. It was written by someone who claimed to be a former practitioner of black magic. (See, this might be where that constant-shifter idea comes from. The crazier fundies include in their testimonies that they were in witch-covens or whatever before finding Jesus. I never heard anyone who wasn’t a fundie make such claims, which is no doubt evidence that satan has a stranglehold on his followers that only Christ can break, but if you live in such a subculture where this is regularly spoken, you might get the impression that six doomsday cults in your first 20 years is average for not-yet-RTCs)

     His claim was that the makers of D&D visited him to check their spell list, because they wanted to be sure that the spells in the player’s handbook and the way to cast them was all correct. This would be already hilarious if his claim ended with ‘so they are really fascinated with dark magic’, but that wasn’t all. He warned his readers that with the D&D manual in hand you could actually unleash fireballs and demons, that would kill your friends, even if you only meant to cast it in game. Just because you didn’t intent to cast a real spell didn’t matter. The rules were all very strict and clear, and it would be just like pulling the trigger of a gun: Even if you think the gun is fake, a real gun will still shoot, and the spell will still work.

    Yeah, this guy was far out. The best part: The D&D manual can’t contain an accurate description of how to cast a spell, because it doesn’t actually contain any description. It’s limited to saying if it involves saying words and/or moving your hands, but it doesn’t even say what the actual spell your wizard says is. All that’s listed is the spell components. But if intent doesn’t matter, and specific wording or motions can’t matter since they’re not listed, we’re lead to believe that anyone holding a pinch of sulfur while moving his hand  and talking to someone would shoot a fireball.

    This isn’t the kind of lie that you could fool yourself into believing. You might be able to convince yourself that you’re feeling God’s leading as you betitle gays, but you can’t in any way make yourself think that people stopped by your house for magical information that you insist they copied accurately even though they didn’t even write any information. Nor can you miss that there is a strange lack of documented cases of teens shooting lightning bolts, despite your claim they can do this by accident. It’s really, really blatant lying. For God!

  • Bificommander

    That attitude came to an ironic high-point in yet another Chick tract, which featured a reformed criminal who had converted his cellmate and a pair of missionaries that had set up a huge relief center in Africa but didn’t use the aid as a tool for evangelizing, dying in a plane-crash. The missionaries were send to hell by turbo-Jesus, while slamming them with ‘faith, not works’ verses… ignoring that the missionaries did have faith, and they were rejected for not converting people, instead paying attention to making their lives a bit better. In short, they were condemned for not doing the right work, despite having faith.

  • http://profiles.google.com/james.e.hanley James Hanley

    Not too many people try to evangelize to me anymore, but I think the last one who did–a student (and a very bright and nice young man)–fell into this misled world of evangelism.  He was surprised to find I knew all the verses and arguments he had been equipped with (as we actually shared a very similar evangelical upbringing), so he realized I couldn’t be in the ignorant camp.  But from my responses he could tell I also wasn’t in the malicious camp, because I just wasn’t being nasty in any way.  The both funny and sad conclusion was when he asked if I’d mind if he prayed for me and I responded, “Sure–it can’t hurt me; if anything it can only do me good,” and he looked disconcerted by my failure to reject his offer.

  • http://profiles.google.com/james.e.hanley James Hanley

    Tana wrote:

    I still sometimes have trigger responses to anything relating to the End Days or rapture theology and the like

    I totally empathize with that.  That damned Larry Norman song still has the ability to make me feel like a terrified young adolescent.

  • Tonio

    Yes, I referenced the Flight 144 tract in another thread. I’ve been trying to understand the mentality that would treat the idea without a shred of irony, someone who wouldn’t feel like retching at the idea that relieving suffering is a bad thing. One likely answer is that such people are so terrified at divine wrath that they worry that the god will blame them for the disobedience of others.

  • http://mistformsquirrel.deviantart.com/ JJohnson

    Ya know, now that you mention it, the way some people ‘evangelize’ isn’t all that different from this scene from a very bad movie…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3pJEPtxjDmM

    “So anyway, how is your sex life?” Its just as shocking and “What?!” causing, but somehow when the question is about faith rather than sex, it’s ‘okay’.

  • patter

    “by the 1990s when these books were typed”

    Well played, sir.  [Mental image here of Jerry dutifully banging out his 1500 words per day, literature and/or theology be damned.]

  • X

    Tonio: Interesting analogy. Three years ago, a new acquaintance–actually, my new mentor at my new job–started telling me about why he had become a vegetarian. Unprovoked. While we were at a barbecue. And there was a hamburger in my hand.

    I now have a new job.

    Fred: Brilliant post! I want to save it and read it again and again. Oh, hey, I can! Love you, Internets.

  • Anonymous

    Um. I think that’s probably a bad idea, since although this is a community, the blog itself is Fred’s, and therefore archiving it somehow without his permission/consent/aid is a really bad idea. Also, IIRC, he’s got some kind of a contract with Patheos, and his stuff has to be hosted on here for now; archiving it elsewhere may break the rules of that contract.

    On the subject of RTC and so on, though, I don’t think anyone would be against a post on Slacktiverse (TBAT willing!) explaining what Key Words such as RTC, and… uh, the only other one I can think of right now is Nicky Things-Shakira-Doesn’t-Want-You-To-Confuse-Her-Breasts-With, but you get the idea.

  • Rob Brown

    If these people have never heard the Bible before, why do they suddenly
    believe that everything in it is truth? And couldn’t they be just as
    easily dissuaded from the faith when someone from another religion came
    along and claimed their book was truth?

    That reminds me of something I read recently in a dissection of a Chick Tract:

    These people are extremely easily led. All you need is a ridiculous
    premise and someone to verify it, and they’re apparently sold. “Mrs.
    Comfort, is it true that if I don’t smear peanut butter into my hair
    while chewing tree bark, God will never love me?” “Yes, child, it’s
    true.” “Oh, no! I’m in deep trouble!”


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