Witnessing tools and resentment

In a post last week — “You might be an evangelical …” — I touched on some of the esoterica of the evangelical subculture. Much of that post was inside-baseball, jargon and references some readers (maybe the luckier ones) found a bit bewildering. Such as this, for example:

If you think the phrase “a witnessing tool” refers to something that’s good to have rather than someone it’s bad to be, then you might be an evangelical.

“What is a ‘witnessing tool’?” I am asked.

Well, it’s a tool for witnessing. OK, see, we evangelicals learn from a very young age that we have a duty to evangelize — to share the gospel of salvation with everyone we know and everyone we meet. Everyone. All the time. “Be a missionary ev’ry day,” we sang in Sunday school. “Tell the world that Jesus is the way …” This is what we call “witnessing.”

Maybe you’ve witnessed witnessing from the other side, when some acquaintance or stranger, friend or relative has asked you what would happen if you were to walk outside this very day and get hit by the Hypothetical Bus. Would you go to Heaven or would you go to Hell?

The Hypothetical Bus features prominently not just in witnessing, but in sermons reinforcing the solemn duty to witness to everyone we meet. What if that stranger next to you in line at the supermarket walks out to her car and is killed by the Hypothetical Bus right there in the parking lot? (The driver of the HB is a reckless menace who should have lost his license years ago.) You could have told her about Jesus, but now it’s too late and she’s suffering in Hell for eternity and it’s your fault.

That duty can be a heavy burden hard to bear. If you hear that sermon week after week for years, you’ll feel the weight of that urgent and never-ending responsibility to try to rescue these strangers, co-workers, friends, relatives, etc.

But that urgency doesn’t make the task itself any easier. Witnessing, as we’re taught and urged to do it seems awkward and unnatural and never seems to go as planned. For all of the emphasis on the constant duty to witness, most evangelicals remain ill-prepared to do it. They don’t know how to start such a conversation or to steer a conversation in that direction. They’ve got a vague outline of a formula or script for how this is supposed to work, but every time they try to follow it, the person they’re talking to takes some turn that the script didn’t anticipate and they find themselves lost and unable to improv the scene from there.

And so, out of desperation, they may turn to “witnessing tools” for help. A witnessing tool is any gimmick, usually something visual, that might help to start a conversation with strangers or to steer others into talking about Jesus.

It could be something like the buttons and billboards of the “I Found It” campaign, a massive effort organized by Campus Crusade — or “Cru,” as it’s now called — in the 1970s. But usually it’s less formal — a T-shirt with some famous corporate logo reworked into a logo for Jesus, or an eye-catching piece of sectarian jewelry, or a tattoo — anything that might conceivably spur a conversation that might provide the chance to rescue some poor soul from God. I mean, that is, to rescue them from God’s wrath and punishment in Hell (which is somehow different, I’m told).

The largest witnessing tool I ever saw was a 9-foot-tall wooden cross being carried by a guy on the shoulder of the highway. This was what he did. It was, apparently, all he did — wandering the highways of America as a mendicant evangelist.

I had lunch with the guy at a truck stop and came away both impressed by his quixotic devotion and worried about him, out there on his own without a faithful Sancho Panza to protect him. He was earnest and guileless — a holy fool, and to this day I’m not sure which of those words deserves the greater emphasis.

But what ever else was true of him, he had found a witnessing tool that worked. When you met that guy, even for five minutes, you couldn’t not talk about his giant cross. Everyone knew where that conversation was bound to go, but even those who would’ve preferred not to find themselves being witnessed to/at couldn’t help it. Even though you already know what his answer will be, when you meet a guy carrying a heavy, 9-foot-tall wooden cross, “What’s with the giant cross?” becomes an inescapable, irresistible question.

Please don’t take this as my advising you to take to the highways with a giant wooden cross. I think that gimmicky witnessing tools are a bad idea. I believe Christians are called to be witnesses and to bear witness, rather than doing the kind of witness-ing we’re often taught. But for those who are intent on employing a witnessing tool, then I recommend a giant wooden cross. As gimmicks go, that’s a much more effective conversation-starter than a “Jesus Christ: He’s the Real Thing” T-shirt.

But even those awful T-shirts are more plausible as witnessing tools than the ever-popular car fish. The ichthys, or “Christian fish,” has long been a Christian symbol — although it originally may have been a fertility symbol, set vertically (with the resemblance to a fish being an ancient dirty joke). Today it can be found on the cars of millions of Christians as a way of telling the traffic behind them that the driver of the car they’re following is a Christian. (Or, as Stephen Colbert joked, “I like Jesus, but can’t spell.”)

Many of the people affixing Jesus-fish to their cars tell themselves that this, too, is a witnessing tool. I don’t understand how that’s supposed to work. I can’t imagine any likely scenario in which a car-fish could function as a witnessing tool. A fish or an evangelistic bumper sticker can’t serve as a conversation-starter with the driver of the car behind you because neither of you is really in a position to chat. You can communicate only via the crude semaphore of the highway — the horn, the high-beams, the wave, the hand, the finger — and that lacks an adequate vocabulary for communicating the gospel.

I’m opposed to car-fish and Christian bumper stickers in principle. As a general rule, any one of us is more likely to create a negative impression than a positive one for the driver behind us. The light turns yellow and we have to decide, very quickly, whether to accelerate or brake. Either way, we risk annoying the person behind us. Race through the intersection with a Jesus-fish on your car and the driver behind you might think, “Oh, look, the Christian runs red lights.” Come to a stop and they might think, “Oh, great, I could’ve got through the light if I weren’t stuck behind this slowpoke Christian.” We’re all subject to moments of inattention behind the wheel and it seems wrong for Jesus to have the share the blame for our driving.

Mainly, though, car-fish aren’t really intended for witnessing. They’re not witnessing tools, they are tribal symbols. The Jesus-fish on a car is not an invitation, but a declaration of tribal allegiance. It’s a signal that the driver of this car is an “Us” rather than a “Them.” And that Us-Them symbolism has far more to do with conflict than with any attempt at conversion.

This is true as well of many of the other things we tell ourselves are “witnessing tools.” One one level, they may be intended as conversation-starters, but on another level they’re also intended as conversation-stoppers — as attempts to win some implied argument. They’re not really designed for evangelism. They’re just the graffiti and propaganda of the culture wars.

That plays into the political battles of those culture wars and the whole take-back-America-for-Jesus notion of Christian hegemony that has Michelle Bachmann and Rick Perry fighting over the evangelical voting bloc. But at its root, I think it’s a response to the pervasive and inescapable guilt from all those years of sermons about the necessity to constantly be “witnessing.”

All those people are going to Hell and it’s your fault because you’re not witnessing enough. You can never witness enough. You can never escape this relentless obligation and thus you can never escape this ever-present guilt.

Such insatiable guilt is bound to fester into resentment. One expression of that resentment is our culture-war politics. Another is the popularity of books like the Left Behind series, with its gleeful delight in the abominable fancy and its celebration of the destruction of the “unsaved.”

The T-shirt designs above are taken from this site and this one. Look through their online catalogues and you’ll find many that are — however tasteless, awkward or counter-productive — innocently intended to serve as “witnessing tools.” But you’ll also find some that only make sense as tribal symbols. And you’ll find many more that can’t in any way be explained by a desire to reach the unreached or to save the unsaved — T-shirts expressing a triumphalist mockery that can only be described as attacks on those unsaved and unreached reprobates, as volleys fired in the war of Us vs. Them.

The witnessing tool T-shirts were intended as an expression of concern for the unsaved. The tribal and culture-war T-shirts are an expression of resentful contempt for them.

That resentment and contempt, I think, is in part a curdled form of what initially began as a kind of love. Love led to guilt and guilt led to resentment and resentment flowered into vicious contempt.

I think that downward cycle, which feeds on itself, becoming stronger over time, can help us to understand a great deal about the nasty tone of what many American evangelicals still strangely regard as “witnessing.” And I think it can also explain a great deal about our current politics and our increasingly stratified economy.

  • Anonymous

    oh god, eel. I miss it too. If I could find just one place that used tamari instead of soy sauce… Gluten-intolerance sucks sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    oh god, eel. I miss it too. If I could find just one place that used tamari instead of soy sauce… Gluten-intolerance sucks sometimes.

  • Anonymous

    I usually flat out disappear when my depressive anxiety flares up like that. I admire your courage to keep posting.

  • Anonymous

    A few years ago, flush with annual bonus and tax refund money, I picked up a Cintiq.  Greatest.  Thing.  Ever.

    I’m kind of considering upgrading to the larger one. I’ve had the small one for a few years, but after working with a large one at a full-time position, it’s hard to go back to the 12 while freelancing. I’m dubious if I can afford it; I just got my payout for being laid off (genuine thanks for my union here) and if I can find a buyer for my 12 inch, it will almost be a wash money wise. But still, that’s rent+food for a month.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NYIMSCWWLA5XTAYXL3FXNCJZ7I Kiba

    That’s the one. Are they real priests? If so, the Vatican approved it? Yowser.

    I don’t know if it’s Vatican approved or not (Google isn’t giving me much information), but according to the guy that puts out the calendar all the priests are legit. All I can say is I wish my parish priest (when I was still Catholic) looked half as good as Mr. March. http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v618/ithilion/March.gif
    I probably would have stayed awake more in mass….

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    In regards to your post specifically directed at me… I dunno, maybe. I know I have a few areas in my life where I have illogical, unnecessary shame (my polyamory, my penchant for nudity), but I never thought I had it about religion.

    If you will allow me to quote author-avatar character Jubal Harshaw from Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land:

    Ben, the ethics of sex is a thorny problem. Each of us is forced to grope for a solution he can live with — in the face of a preposterous, unworkable, and evil code of so-called “morals.” Most of us know the code is wrong; almost everybody breaks it. But we pay Danegeld by feeling guilty and giving lip service. Willy-nilly, the code rides us, dead and stinking, an albatross around the neck.
    You, too, Ben. You fancy yourself a free soul — and break that evil code. But faced with a problem in sexual ethics new to you, you tested it against that same Judeo-Christian code … so automatically your stomach did flip-flops … and you think that proves you’re right and they’re wrong. Faugh! I’d as lief use trial by ordeal.

  • Tonio

    I don’t think there’s any great logic to truck nuts other than they’re partly a phallic substitute and partly a tribalist symbol. Our culture seems to define maleness as anything that isn’t female. Almost like men are afraid that femaleness is the default state, that if they don’t practice hypermasculine behavior then they’ll grow breasts or something. I used to hear male rock fans joke that hearing a-Ha’s “Take On Me” or Dan Fogelberg’s “Longer” would cause testicles to shrivel up.

    By contrast, the women who put giant eyelashes on their cars’ headlights seem to be doing it as a joke, although I have no proof of this.

  • Tonio

    When I read Stranger in a Strange Land, I wondered if Heinlein aspired to be a philosophical version of Hugh Hefner. In many of his books, his avatars’ musings on free love almost sound like subterfuges aimed at seducing women.

    It’s been some years since I read this particular novel, so I don’t remember why Harshaw felt that Judeo-Christian sexual morality is not just preposterous and unworkable but also evil. Or why sexual ethics should be a thorny problem. That might make sense if one lived a world where dozens or hundreds of willing sex partners were readily available. Which, uh, pretty much describes most of Heinlein’s later novels.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    It’s been some years since I read this particular novel, so I don’t remember why Harshaw felt that Judeo-Christian sexual morality is not just preposterous and unworkable but also evil. Or why sexual ethics should be a thorny problem. That might make sense if one lived a world where dozens or hundreds of willing sex partners were readily available. Which, uh, pretty much describes most of Heinlein’s later novels.

    It could also have been a holdover from an earlier edit.  Heinlein actually wrote Stranger in a Strange many, many years before it was published (or at least had the idea for the work for a long time before he ever seriously considered it publishable.)  When he originally conceived the story, he felt that society was not ready to be receptive to it.  Given the cultural mores of the time, that is unsurprising.  

    I get the impression that Harshaw was something of a counter-culturalist in his time, preferring to retreat to his estate and get away from the rest of the world.  He rejection of traditions of sexual morality might have been part of that.  Which I suppose is appropriate, considering how much of an influence Stranger in a Strange Land had on the counter-cultural movement of the sixties in real life.  

    Then again, despite his views on sexual morality, Harshaw himself was not a particularly sexual character.  Actually, the only sexual encounter he has in the book is one he is not looking for, one in fact politely declines, then has anyway when the woman who approached him cries and guilts him into it.  

    Somehow, I do not feel that is particularly moral of her.

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    It’s been some years since I read this particular novel, so I don’t remember why Harshaw felt that Judeo-Christian sexual morality is not just preposterous and unworkable but also evil. Or why sexual ethics should be a thorny problem. That might make sense if one lived a world where dozens or hundreds of willing sex partners were readily available. Which, uh, pretty much describes most of Heinlein’s later novels.

    It could also have been a holdover from an earlier edit.  Heinlein actually wrote Stranger in a Strange many, many years before it was published (or at least had the idea for the work for a long time before he ever seriously considered it publishable.)  When he originally conceived the story, he felt that society was not ready to be receptive to it.  Given the cultural mores of the time, that is unsurprising.  

    I get the impression that Harshaw was something of a counter-culturalist in his time, preferring to retreat to his estate and get away from the rest of the world.  He rejection of traditions of sexual morality might have been part of that.  Which I suppose is appropriate, considering how much of an influence Stranger in a Strange Land had on the counter-cultural movement of the sixties in real life.  

    Then again, despite his views on sexual morality, Harshaw himself was not a particularly sexual character.  Actually, the only sexual encounter he has in the book is one he is not looking for, one in fact politely declines, then has anyway when the woman who approached him cries and guilts him into it.  

    Somehow, I do not feel that is particularly moral of her.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     and his idea of contraception is abstinence or Natural Family Planning. (Know what they call people who rely on those?)

    “Parents”?

     but the other thing he said this morning was “find an argument that doesn’t involve pretending people are insulting you when they’re not, and then we’ll talk.”

    “WHARRGARBL.  Don’t tell ME what I’m insulted by, jerk!”

    (Gah, Conservapedia flashbacks, with Maximum Leader Andy asserting ex cathedra that Liberals only PRETEND to be insulted or offended by things.  Left unsaid was that this is because Liberals are actually emotionless killer robots built by Satan.)

  • Anonymous

    Maximum Leader Andy asserting ex cathedra that Liberals only
    PRETEND to be insulted or offended by things.  Left unsaid was that this
    is because Liberals are actually emotionless killer robots built by
    Satan.

    I’d like to be a killer robot. It’d go against all my ethical principles, but it’d be cool.

  • ako

    Then again, despite his views on sexual morality, Harshaw himself
    was not a particularly sexual character.  Actually, the only sexual
    encounter he has in the book is one he is not looking for, one in fact
    politely declines, then has anyway when the woman who approached him
    cries and guilts him into it.  

    Somehow, I do not feel that is particularly moral of her.

    It’s one of the odd things in a lot of old books how often a woman’s bad behavior is trivialized because at the time, women weren’t taken seriously enough to be capable of that kind of harm.  I was reading a not-particularly-serious novel from the eighties, and a woman is shown to be behaving in ways that are undeniably abusive and it’s passed over really lightly as a relatively minor marital problem.  It’s one of the forms of sexism that always sticks out for me as particularly weird.

    (I don’t think guilting someone into sex they don’t want is on the same level as domestic violence, just that they’re both immoral behavior that has historically been taken less seriously when done to men by women.)

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’d like to be a killer robot. It’d go against all my ethical principles, but it’d be cool.

    Likewise.  I mean, when one finds oneself identifying more with The Terminator than one’s fellow humans, one begins to wonder if that is not already the case… 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I’d like to be a killer robot. It’d go against all my ethical principles, but it’d be cool.

    Likewise.  I mean, when one finds oneself identifying more with The Terminator than one’s fellow humans, one begins to wonder if that is not already the case… 

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    (I don’t think guilting someone into sex they don’t want is on the same level as domestic violence, just that they’re both immoral behavior that has historically been taken less seriously when done to men by women.)

    Agreed.  It is not rape, but it does strike me as emotional manipulation.  Her feelings seem sincere though, motivated less to get him in bed and more that she is sad he does not believe that she could be genuinely attracted to him (he first refuses on the basis that if she came to his bed it would be out of pity for an old man who has not had a sex life in years) but that is still manipulation, as he already made clear that he was uncomfortable with the situation.  

    I suspect if she just asked to snuggle with him (for that night at least,) he would have been more receptive to the idea.  

  • http://twitter.com/FearlessSon FearlessSon

    I don’t think there’s any great logic to truck nuts other than they’re partly a phallic substitute and partly a tribalist symbol. Our culture seems to define maleness as anything that isn’t female. Almost like men are afraid that femaleness is the default state, that if they don’t practice hypermasculine behavior then they’ll grow breasts or something.

    You know, one of the things that always confused me about truck nuts is, why is it illegal for me to exercise my second amendment rights to fill a guy’s truck nuts full of buckshot? 

    One does not place a chip on one’s crotch unless one wants others to come and kick it off. 

  • Rikalous

    You know, one of the things that always confused me about truck nuts is,
    why is it illegal for me to exercise my second amendment rights to fill
    a guy’s truck nuts full of buckshot?

    The same reason you’re not allowed to shoot any other examples of other people’s property.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_GVT7C7S6IP2OC44PFUZGAJ4OBM JohnK

    Right-o. Second Amendment says that you can have guns; it doesn’t say anything about being allowed to use them wherever, whenever, or however you want.

    (BTW I think FearlessSon was kidding).

  • Marshbabe

    I’m a non-believer. Just thought I should get that out of the way first. I have, in the past, taken great offence to people accosting me to discuss my religious beliefs – I was raised in a culture that taught me it was unforgivably rude to discuss religion with a stranger or to walk away from someone who was talking to you (you can see how this would cause problems when faced with ‘have you been saved?’). That said, your article gave me a new perspective on the evangelical mindset, and I am richer for that knowledge.

    Thank you.

  • Anonymous

    I have an FSM on my car, because my brother-in-law borrowed it for a year, and put both the FSM and the coexist sticker on it, with permission.

    I keep it on as a specifically anti-Creationist thing.

  • Anonymous

    I live in a state where 90% of the cars have a fish and most have Jesus stickers, crosses and the name of their church on their bumper. I don’t often feel this jealous.

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

    ‘llo all >.< I am finally back.  Thank you all for being so supportive b was a very big help in an unpleasant time.  (Well and then I had a couple days of extreme business after my B-day.

    @hapax:disqus I hadn’t really thought about that honestly.  Not sure why, it just hadn’t occurred.  I kind of hope it’s unrelated though… I like so many foods and I’d hate to find out there’s one that brings these episodes on.  Still that may very well be worth my checking in to I suppose giving up tacos would be preferable to week-long “OH GODS I HATE ME” episodes >.<b (Please don't be tacos…)

    @facebook-1408065622:disqus  It’s an Intuos4 Medium.  It’s been really, really nice, albeit I’ve found the normal drawing tip… less than optimal on the pen.  I’ve been using the eraser side instead, which has worked a lot better. It’s really taken the frustration out of drawing for me in large part – with the exception of my mediocre abilities; but that’s why I practice to begin with.

    I also ended up giving that “John Calvin pees on Free Will” sticker thing a try… I’m not happy how it came out sadly.  I like Calvin’s face OK, but the rest just doesn’t mesh and after I thought about it I realized if I put it online and someone took offense, I’d never hear the end of it.  But yes, I did actually make the sticker lol, just in case anyone wondered if anything came of that.

    —-

    Anyway, once again thank you all for the support.  It’s been a real help.  I’ll probably be a little light on posting for a little bit yet, but mostly that’s because I’m pressed for time at the moment. (Cat just got back from being spayed >< poor thing is not happy at all.  Also have a mountain of dishes and laundry to attend. )

  • Anonymous

    I like your Grandfather’s way of thinking :)

  • P J Evans

     Consider covering their truck’s differential with astroturf or some other kind of carpeting.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I used to not know what that fish thing was until someone explained that it was a Jesus fish, and connected it to the “fishing for men” story in the Bible. Then I was like “Oh!”

    … and promptly wanted a Darwin fish. ;)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    I think it works better when businesses sport rainbow stickers to show support for QUILTBAG people. Unfortunately as I found out it didn’t stop an auto garage from trying to overcharge me for work done.

  • Anonymous

    And it’s available up to 5X – so feel free to eat all the deep-fried butter you can

  • Lulee

    It’s not awkward.  It’s just that most people don’t really care whether a driver is Christian or not.

  • Kris

    My what wonderful Christian charity and kindness. I’m sure their Christ would be so proud

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    The thing I hate most about the stickers is that it’s not really
    Calvin. It;’s close enough that everyone knows that it’s Calvin, but it
    must be different enough to keep the company from getting sued out of
    existence.

    Bill Watterson has refused to license any Calvin & Hobbes merchandise. That means that the “Calvin pissing” stickers are not competing with legitimate C&H merchandise, because there isn’t any. That means he’s not losing money because of them. And that means he’d have difficulty finding grounds to sue.

    Yes, being strongly anti-merchandising just means that the merchandise that does exist is outside your control and blatantly offensive. It is that screwed up.

    Source: One of the special annotated editions of C&H my brother-in-law has.

    TRiG.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    The thing I hate most about the stickers is that it’s not really
    Calvin. It;’s close enough that everyone knows that it’s Calvin, but it
    must be different enough to keep the company from getting sued out of
    existence.

    Bill Watterson has refused to license any Calvin & Hobbes merchandise. That means that the “Calvin pissing” stickers are not competing with legitimate C&H merchandise, because there isn’t any. That means he’s not losing money because of them. And that means he’d have difficulty finding grounds to sue.

    Yes, being strongly anti-merchandising just means that the merchandise that does exist is outside your control and blatantly offensive. It is that screwed up.

    Source: One of the special annotated editions of C&H my brother-in-law has.

    TRiG.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    That take on the “Intel Inside” badge: I have one of those. It says “Anthill Inside”, and has a small “Hex” in the corner. I don’t think I need to explain that to this crowd.

    TRiG.

  • http://timothy.green.name/ Timothy (TRiG)

    That take on the “Intel Inside” badge: I have one of those. It says “Anthill Inside”, and has a small “Hex” in the corner. I don’t think I need to explain that to this crowd.

    TRiG.


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