The Real Problem of Proselytizing: Penn Jillette Redux

The Real Problem of Proselytizing: Penn Jillette Redux January 18, 2016
A screencap from Penn’s video

I’ve noticed recently that an old video from consummate magician/entertainer Penn Jillette has resurfaced again, making the social media rounds anew.

In it, Penn talks about a time he was doing a meet-and-greet with fans after a show, when one of them came up and gave him a “Gideon pocket edition New Testament.” Penn starts off saying some complimentary things about the guy and his sincerity and kindness; and then eventually, Penn goes on to say that he doesn’t “respect people who don’t proselytize.”

His ultimate point is that if you thought that someone really was destined for Hell, wouldn’t it be unethical not to try to do something to prevent that?

Some of Penn’s points are well taken; and of course, it was really just some off-the-cuff remarks in a casual video—Penn’s hair is down, for Christ’s sake! In short, it wasn’t Penn’s systematic treatise on religion. But since at least several of my Christian friends seem to have been really impressed or even blown away by what Penn says, I thought it’d be worth looking at the other side of the argument.

First off, I find it hard to avoid the idea that it’s unethical to enthusiastically proselytize about certain positions or values that you can’t be certain, or reasonably certain about; and especially so if you refuse to even consider this as a potential option at all.¹

Of course, I don’t mean that Christian evangelists don’t think that they’re certain about their religion. But I’m saying that the critical facts here suggest that reasonable certainty in this area simply isn’t possible.

In fact, I think that upon even a cursory (truly) critical examination,² not only should we doubt the certainty of this religion’s correctness, but I believe we can be reasonably certain of its incorrectness: that it falls short of being a meaningful, consistent, and fundamentally “true” religious system at all—at least in the way that this is often construed with respect to, say, common ideas about salvation³ (which, again, is usually the main thing motivating this kind of proselytizing in the first place).

But I’m not trying to write a screed against the truth of Christianity itself here, so I’m happy to leave it at “it’s unethical to publicly proclaim radically untested beliefs.” To be sure though, part of the reason I assume this so nonchalantly—about these beliefs really being “untested” here—is based on another assumption, whether warranted or not, that the type of people who engage in pop proselytizing in the first place are precisely the type of people to consciously ignore critical work on Christianity. (And again, I’ve written several different posts on what it really means to “ignore” criticism.)

In any case, moving on…

More importantly—and what really inspired me to write this post—is that the main incident that led Penn to make the video in the first place was a man (presumably from Gideons International) handing out pocket Bibles; and when we think about how this act kind of epitomizes the sort of thing that happens during street evangelism, the absurdity of the whole thing can really come into view. 

Simply handing someone a Bible with no other context—even if it’s just the New Testament—is somewhat like handing someone a copy of the Mahabharata and expecting them to come out a devotee of Indian religion.

There a few different things to say about this; but the first thing that comes to mind for me is actually the “religion” vs. “mythology” divide.

Although there’s a nugget of skeptical wisdom floating around that “myth” is just what we call religion that isn’t practiced anymore, there’s actually a massive distinction between the two: one that in theory could lead you to two different university departments (which in many ways study the same thing, yet from radically different angles).

To oversimplify, “mythology” deals with narratives—actual texts and the characters and gods that populate them, and how these have shifted over time in interpretation and tradition—while “religion” deals with practices: the acts of praying or worshiping gods or visiting holy places, etc. Religion incorporates or builds on “mythology.”⁴

Handing someone a Bible, then, is somewhat like giving them the mythology, without really helping them to translate this into any meaningful or coherent religious practice—to say nothing of shouting out verses from a megaphone, or really any of the sort of typical sermons delivered on the street.

To me, the overarching idea or hope behind the evangelistic impulse here seems to be that the Bible is an object virtually invested with supernatural power of its own; something like a magical amulet that will miraculously cast out all doubt. (Coincidentally enough, the early Christian use of Biblical texts as literal magical amulets has received a lot of academic attention recently.⁵) Further, there may be something particularly arrogant or inconsiderate about thinking that your own personal act of evangelism will be the magic key for the poor lost soul you’ve found—especially considering that many atheists (and others) are already familiar with the Bible.

But for those who aren’t familiar with the Bible: I’d imagine that having someone read it—even just the New Testament—divorced from any larger context could be absolutely puzzling. What would you do with this? 

Depending on where you start or what you focus on—say, the Gospel of Mark—you’d encounter a Jesus for whom the Gospel author sought to demonstrate his power in significant part by portraying him as an exorcist⁶: something pretty easily dismissed as ancient superstition or ignorance. You could find a Jesus who strongly proclaimed that the end of the world was imminent, or even one that suggested that following him can virtually give you “magical” powers.⁷

Further, would you really understand the idea of atonement and the death of Jesus, and how this ties in with ancient ideas about animal and human sacrifice? You might very well also think that the greatest aspect of Jesus’ message was simply that of ethical exhortation, and that any idea of his divinity or the salvation accomplished through him was secondary.⁸

If I can end on a sort of qualifying note here, I’m sure that the better street evangelists out there do have a more substantive interest in the people they encounter, and that they’d consider the Bibles that they hand out to be somewhat of an invitation to a broader practice—and hopefully that they’d want to stay in touch with these people to help them develop this. 

But if, for most people, it’s just the Bible that they’re leaving them with, I can’t help but think that it could do more harm than good.

When I originally commented on a friend’s Facebook post of the Penn video, I mentioned the problem that many street evangelists give out copies of the King James Version. Not only is this one of the more outdated and problematic translations, but more than this, it’s also lacking any explanatory notes. Now, if evangelists gave out copies of the (admittedly pricier) New Oxford Annotated Bible, this would be another thing: something that has one of the premiere English translations of the Bible, along with annotations situating the texts in their historical context, and other kinds of helpful explanatory notes.

Things like the New Oxford Annotated Bible may not be oriented toward transforming its readers into Christians with a developed/orthodox/sophisticated faith; but then maybe the Bible itself isn’t, either.⁹ For many evangelists, that may be part of its beauty—that, say, the gospels give us a more “pure Jesus,” and it’s up to the individual to decide how exactly he or she would like to follow him—but in other senses it can be one of the problems, too: a problem that plagues all Christians of all branches. All too often, even when it comes to the earliest Christianity, it’s anyone’s guess what represents the most historically authentic faith.¹⁰

⁂       ⁂       ⁂


[1] That is, if you refuse to meaningfully seek out substantive criticism of your position, or to ignore criticisms that you’re aware of. Again, I elaborate on this in the following paragraphs.

[2] Even though I mention this elsewhere, just so there’s no ambiguity: I’ve clarified what I mean by “truly critical” in several different posts.

[3] Especially many of the more unsophisticated approaches to salvation—i.e. a sort of instantaneous weepy “accept Jesus into your heart” (once and for always) thing—that often seem to characterize evangelism or its intended/expected result.

[4] Of course this oversimplifies things, because it’s not purely “mythology”—with all the ambiguities of the term—that religions utilize and build on, but also history. I’m simply working the analogy here.

[5] Cf. Sanzo, Scriptural Incipits on Amulets from Late Antique Egypt and Brice Jones’ dissertation “New Testament Texts on Greek Amulets from Late Antiquity,” to be published soon by T&T Clark/Bloomsbury. See also de Bruyn, “Papyri, Parchments,  Ostraca, and Tablets Written with Biblical Texts in Greek and Used as Amulets.”

[6] Adam Winn writes that “one of the most significant ways that Mark portrays Jesus is as an exorcist” (The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel, 111), and C. J. Den Heyer writes that “[f]or Mark, Jesus was, first and foremost, a miracle worker and an exorcist” (“Historical Jesuses,” 1086). See also Twelftree, Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus.

[7] I’ve attempted to delineate the role of magic in the New Testament and early Christianity a bit more here, in the section that begins “Moving on, then, to the magic.”

[8] Which is conceivable if you’re turned off by (or skeptical of) the radically different portrait of Jesus and his teachings presented in the gospel of John, as compared to the synoptic gospels. Now, if you were to get through the Gospels and arrive at Paul, things would be different again—but perhaps just even more confusing.

[9] In fact the NOAB isn’t oriented toward Christians at all. Speaking of the Bible itself, though: although the idea of maturity in faith and proper practice is a popular topic in, say, the epistles, much of these are aimed at a first century audience in very specific situations and contexts. I can’t even imagine what someone otherwise unfamiliar with these things would think when they arrived at, say, “women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the Law also says.”

[10] Evangelists may be convinced that “accepting Jesus into your heart” represents this; but what if this idea would be utterly foreign to the historical Jesus himself? What if Jesus is portrayed as presenting a more or less “works”-based salvation at several points in the Gospels (at least the synoptics)? (Not necessarily works of the Law here, but ethical works nevertheless.)

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