How One Religion Normalizes Crazy Talk

How One Religion Normalizes Crazy Talk February 15, 2016

ScaliaIt would be difficult to overstate the political impact of the recent passing of Antonin Scalia, who was undoubtedly the most colorful and outspoken conservative justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. The effort to fill the vacancy created by his departure may very well dominate the next year in American politics, a year in which tensions are already at fever pitch because it’s an election year, and a tumultuous one at that.

But I don’t want to talk today about the political ramifications of this unexpected development. There will be plenty of time for that. What I want to talk about today is how moments like this will bring out the crazy talk, and how instead of calling it out for what it is, many will nod their heads in agreement and regurgitate talking points, even if sometimes phrased as questions, which are completely divorced from reality.

I want to talk about how religion can normalize crazy talk.

Now, first I have to clarify that I am NOT saying that religious belief is synonymous with mental illness. I do not agree with those who say that it is. It seems to me that people who indiscriminately lump the two together are only showing how little they know about either subject.  Similarly, I have gone on record correcting people for lumping religious belief together with other kinds of psychological or social dysfunction, like child abuse.

But anybody, healthy or not, can engage in crazy talk. All you have to do is regurgitate a narrative that appeals to you in some way, something which most people should know strains credibility to its utter limits. Everybody does this at some point or another to lighten a mood, but too many people do it without realizing that what they are saying is truly crazy. The kinds of statements I’m talking about aren’t just differing interpretations of complex political realities. I’m talking about a complete break with obvious reality.

That break with reality is becoming mainstream, and I suspect that religion has at least something to do with it.

Which Reality Are You Looking At?

Not too long ago a friend of mine posted a story into social media that I could hardly believe. Did you know there are still people who seriously think President Obama is planning to attempt a third term?

Never mind the constitutional amendment that set term limits for presidents to two, and never mind the fact that the president has never intimated that he intends to seek a third term. It’s a bit late to get that process started now, given that it would require first getting an entirely new amendment approved by two-thirds of either Congress or of the states and then after that getting it ratified by three-fourths of the states. Never mind also that many people who soundly approve of the job he has done as president would still disapprove of such an overreach of executive power. These folks still think this is a thing that could be attempted.

It gets weirder than that, though. I have friends and family members posting on Facebook that they believe Christians will soon be rounded up and put into camps, with preachers being hauled off to jail and people’s right to profess faith in God removed from all public forums. They believe the president wants to tag everyone with microchips so that they can be tracked wherever they go, and soon he will use his influence to try and take over not just this country but all other countries as well.

For any of this to happen, a catastrophically disruptive series of world-altering events would have to take place, presumably within the next few months. An entire nation would have to suddenly decide that the governmental system which has sustained their way of life for the last couple hundred years needs to be fundamentally changed into a completely different kind of government, one which categorically rejects the identity by which an overwhelming majority of Americans self-identify.

With the passing of Justice Scalia just months before the president vacates his office, voices from the fringes have already begun accusing him of somehow orchestrating the death of Scalia for his own political benefit. They have become so accustomed to vilifying the president that they would put nothing past him, no matter how vile or criminal an act. They probably see him as barely human, if not something else entirely.

But who cares what the crazy fringe says, right? I mean, at this point we’d all be disappointed if the Alex Joneses of the world didn’t capitalize on every such event to scream foul play. But it’s not going to stop there. We’ve barely even begun to hear the accusations that will fly, and I suspect that before long they won’t be coming only from schizophrenics and random guys in their parents’ basements. I would bet that in pulpits and Bible studies around the country over the next few weeks, people are going to begin hearing that all of these events are happening in line with biblical prophecy, and that soon “the end times” will be upon us, ushering in the second coming of Jesus.

You will even be able to tell them that the president had a Supreme Court justice murdered just so that he can become King of the World.

That is crazy talk.

And they will accept it with open ears and open arms.

But why?  Why is it so easy to convince people who have graduate degrees, normal jobs, and families that completely unrealistic things are within the realm of imminent possibility?

[Read “Why Do Intelligent, Well-Educated People Still Believe Nonsense?“]

Looking Forward to the End of the World

Christians have long held that Jesus will return one day to fix (or destroy) everything. Some were taught that he’d bring heaven to earth, while others were taught that earth would be completely obliterated so that only a celestial kingdom would remain. Every generation seems to put its own unique spin on these expectations, but most have believed in common that whenever the time for this big change arrives, everything will shut down. The world as we know it will end.

In the early- to mid-1800’s, however, an Anglican minister by the name of John Darby came along with a new twist to the old idea: What if Jesus comes back twice? The first time he could come back to get all the Christians out of the way before he unleashes all manner of havoc on the world—or rather he will allow a sinister bogeyman to do so—and the second time he will come back to destroy the bogeyman himself. Then things will finally start going the way they’re supposed to go. This soon became known as the Dispensational view of history and of end times.

What’s different about this timeline is that after the first cataclysmic thing comes along (the disappearance of all the Christians), the world keeps going on as if nothing has happened.  Well, I suppose not exactly the same. Clearly the world would be freaked out beyond consolation. But I mean world governments would keep running, grocery stores would remain open, and traffic jams would continue happening, even if somewhat thinned out by the disappearance of the one group of people in the world who believed in the right invisible deity. Lucky for them. The ones who remain will be scared out of their minds, predisposing them to follow the leadership of any charismatic leader who comes along with plan to make things right again.

This may sound like an obscure detail of Christian history but I can assure you that it’s not. Darby’s conceptual framework didn’t play well in the U.K., but a few visits to the United States in the years around our own worst national crisis (the Civil War) won him an open hearing from American evangelicals, who lapped up his view of history like they had been waiting for it all their lives. His timing was perfect. A man named C.I. Scofield soon wove Darby’s theology into the notes of his groundbreaking new study Bible (which would soon become the best-selling Bible of all time), and famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody taught Darby’s framework to an entire generation of young preachers who came to his Bible college to get their theological training. Since that time, Darby’s view of history has become the default view of rural and charismatic Christianity, and it lives on today through the Left Behind books and film series.

Embracing Unreality

This way of thinking views all events in human history as a series of sudden lurches, dramatic starts and stops, cataclysmic changes ushered in by the sovereign hand of an almighty deity. The movement from one phase to another doesn’t have to make sense. In fact, the less naturally one phase follows the one before it the better, because that would only highlight the divine nature of the change.

The creation of the world?  Sudden. The formation of human species? Immediate. The laying down of geological strata?  Instantaneous. The creation of the nation of Israel?  Sudden.  The dawning of the apocalypse?  Overnight.

Do you see the pattern here?  This way of looking at the world imagines so much discontinuity from one historical scene to the next that none of it has to make sense. Realism has no place in this framework because God is involved, and he’s doing miraculous things. Miracles and divine intervention are supposed to sound impossible. That’s kind of the point. Add to this a belief that invisible spirits can possess human vessels to do their bidding and now you’ve got a plausible recipe for any storyline you can imagine, no matter how sensational or sinister.

So do you see how this intellectual climate would predispose a group of people to accept that a normal human being like Barack Obama, who is himself a family man who routinely professes faith in the Christian God, could be an evil overlord in disguise?  With apocalyptic expectations like the ones so many Christians have inherited, the line between fiction and non-fiction gets blurred beyond any meaningful distinction.

This is how one particular religion normalizes crazy talk among its members. It is far from the only way people come to embrace it, but given the privileged position which this particular subculture enjoys, it is certainly the most effective way to validate the nonsense. Thanks to the Bible and to John Darby, it won’t just be the basement dwellers and unstable YouTube personalities who believe the conspiracy theories. It’ll be doctors, lawyers, soccer moms, and even senators.

[Image Source: Wikimedia]


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