A few years back I had the pleasure of thinking-out-loud-together with Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales and voice of Bob the Tomato, and despite the passing of time our conversation has lingered in the back of my mind, simmering and percolating at various moments when I’ve been free to chew on it. A couple of things in particular have stuck with me since then.
What Is Faith?
The first thing was how Phil defined the word faith so differently than Peter Boghossian, who at the time had recently released A Manual for Creating Atheists. Peter approached the definition of faith the way any philosophy professor would: he looked at faith epistemologically. He explored how faith would work as a way of sifting through truth claims, and concluded in the end that it lacks the rigor of critical thinking which any rationalist should demand of his own worldview.
Boghossian likes to say that faith is “pretending to know things you don’t know.” Incidentally, his choice of the word “pretending” gets precisely the response you’d expect it would. I personally believe I can improve on that definition, but I’ll come back to this in a second.
Vischer, on the other hand, approached the subject pastorally, reframing the discussion in terms of his own tradition by explaining how evangelical Christians emulate the Bible’s usage of the term and therefore see it differently. Faith, for them, isn’t primarily a philosophical term denoting an alternative way of evaluating truth claims. It’s an invitation to trust what God has said in the Bible and in their lives, and they see that trust as an act of worship, an offering of adoring dependence on the Person to whom they believe they owe everything.
Of course for atheists this requires leaping over several steps to establish that 1) there is in fact such a Person, 2) he/she/it has communicated things to us in ways we can understand, and 3) the Christian Bible is the most reliable guide for evaluating said communication. So many assumptions, and yet they come in a bundle for evangelicals, whose thought lives are so predicated on them that you won’t really understand where they’re coming from until these theological distinctives are grasped.
Evangelicals value faith over knowledge. If you don’t get that, you don’t get them at all. They desire above all to be biblical—at least the way their tradition defines that—and the very first story in the Bible tells of a garden in which the first humans incorrectly chose knowledge over obedience. According to the Bible everything bad that has ever happened resulted from this misguided decision.
Visit any evangelical Christian home and you’ll likely find a framed Bible verse somewhere, possibly in gold leaf lettering, reminding them that they should “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding.” I doubt you could even quantify just how many evangelicals consider this their “life verse,” but I can assure you it’s among the top two or three passages alongside “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” and “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord…” Needless to say, predictability and conformity don’t carry the negative connotations in this subculture that they do in skeptic circles.
Evangelicals value trust and obedience above knowledge, which means that epistemology will always be little more than background noise to the things that really matter to them. Above all, this subculture celebrates the ability to believe things even in the face of contradictory information.
Imagine for a moment how easily that could be misused by selfish opportunists who are motivated to twist the truth for their own ends. A community that applauds trust above all other traits would be ripe for manipulation by those who don’t really deserve it. Evangelicals are taught to see themselves as sheep whose most important skill is the ability to follow direction. Just imagine how useful that would be in the wrong hands.
Boghossian goes on to describe faith as “believing without evidence.” Once again this frames faith in philosophical terms rather than according to the way that the Bible and its enthusiasts define it. I’d like to put a finer point on it and describe it differently:
For the evangelical, faith is believing before evidence, and they believe the act of believing itself helps to make the things happen that are supposed to happen. That’s when the evidence comes in.
Put differently, they believe in the power of belief. More so than any other subdivision of the Christian faith, evangelicals have faith in faith itself, believing that it holds within it the power to make things real that previously weren’t real at all.
“God…gives life to the dead and calls those things which do not exist as though they did.” (Romans 4:17)
In the Bible, God creates and recreates by speaking things into existence. Likewise, evangelicals believe that belief itself—and verbalizing that belief out loud—has the power to make things true that weren’t true before.
In other words, faith intentionally blurs the lines between unreality and reality, between fact and fiction. They have been taught that they were called to this very thing by divine ordination. They believe the Church is supposed to make things true that weren’t true before, and they believe the mechanism for doing so is faith itself.
“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Darby’s translation teases out the meaning of the word “substance” a bit more by saying that faith is the substantiating of things hoped for, meaning that the act of believing in things somehow contributes to making them real, thus providing the evidence that is needed to establish the thing believed in the first place. And yes, I know that’s circular reasoning, or maybe begging the question, but let’s not get off on that right now.
Related: “How Faith Breaks Your Thinker“
The point is that in the minds of evangelicals truth is malleable. They believe what’s real can be changed by the very act of believing in it.
So do you see why it’s more accurate to say that for them faith is believing before evidence rather than without it? In their view, it’s an affront to their faith to cast aspersions on the kinds of evidence they find compelling. For the skeptic, the evidence must come first. For the evangelical believer, the belief is prior. For them, believing is seeing rather than the other way around.
Outside the church, we have another word for this dynamic. It’s called the placebo effect, and one could argue it’s the most powerful force on the planet. Clinically speaking, placebos are more effective than most of the actual drugs and supplements that have been marketed as treatments for various afflictions. More entrepreneurs than you could number have made their fortunes tapping into the awesome power of belief, and that leads me to one of the key insights into this exploration of the meaning and function of faith…
Ripe for the Picking
Communities of faith esteem most highly those individuals who demonstrate a superior capacity to shape what the community believes. The skill set a preacher possesses, for example, rivals that of pretty much anybody else in their subculture. Preachers can make or break a church, and for good reason: Those gifted in this area know how to persuade, and in a tradition which believes that your beliefs determine your reality, that’s gold.
Of course the same can be said of a salesman. Or a charlatan, for that matter. The skills are the same; only their character is different. Or perhaps it boils down to the quality of the thing they are selling. The best con artists are the ones who can convince even themselves that what they’re peddling is legit when it’s absolutely not. Similarly, those who practice law get paid top dollar to argue things they know for a fact aren’t even true.
Again, consider the vulnerability this creates among communities which live and die by the spoken word.
This dynamic renders evangelical Christendom ripe for harvest by people who know how to “speak of things which are not as if they really were.” I would argue the last 40 years have seen an entire generation of American evangelicals lured into unquestioning obedience to a political party which knows how to talk the talk, but who have never truly personified the ideals Jesus encouraged his followers to emulate.
Related: “GOP: The Anti-Jesus Party“
In particular the presidency of Donald Trump–an unscrupulous, womanizing con artist who treats the truth like Play-doh for his own narcissistic entertainment—solidifies the evangelical Church’s place in history as the most consequential prey for a financial and sexual predator who somehow managed to ride the favoritism of a sophisticated foreign adversary to become the most “usefulidiot” in modern memory.
And make no mistake about it: evangelicals made Trump president, and even now 4 out of 5 of them continue to support him no matter how many scandals break around his sex life, nor however many indictments plague the people with whom he surrounds himself. “The best people” indeed.
It’s fitting that the lawyer most loyal to Trump from the start of his legal troubles is Jay Sekulow, whom evangelicals know from his advocacy for school vouchers allowing private Christian schools to use public school funds to supplement their revenues. The only lawyer still standing by him while all others have bailed, Sekulow just this past Sunday told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that the reason he previously misrepresented how involved Trump was in spinning the purpose of his campaign’s meeting with Russian officials the summer before the election was that he merely had “bad information.” He went on to say that in cases like this, “Over time, facts develop.”
Facts…develop? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. But in retrospect Sekulow perfectly embodies the marriage of evangelicalism and the Republican Party. Both cultures, it turns out, are equally comfortable shaping and reshaping the truth to match their own expectations. Which is incredibly ironic given the fervor with which Christian academics have been warning us that postmodernism would muddy our definition of “truth.” Now they are the ones being cavalier about it. It turns out they were just projecting all those years.
Ultimately this will be the legacy that American evangelical Christianity leaves behind for future generations. Before now, it was their strong opposition to the Abolitionist Movement and the Civil Rights Movement (I explain about that here), or perhaps its anti-science position where human origins are concerned (now with opposition to the scientific consensus around climate change as well). But the Trump presidency tops them all.
With the advent of Trump, the evangelical Church forever loses the moral high ground in America. They elected, and still support, the crudest, most tasteless charlatan ever to occupy the Oval Office. His blatant obstruction of justice makes Richard Nixon, who resigned 44 years ago yesterday for far less, look like a novice.
A Moral Restraint?
One other piece of my conversation with Vischer keeps resurfacing in my memory. At one point he suggested that the Church was a necessary presence within American culture in order to stem the tide of self-absorption, materialism, and greed…all of which naturally attend a society built around capitalism and the American dream of, well, getting more stuff. In short, the Church is a moral restraint preventing the culture from becoming as bad as it would be without it.
At the time he and I first interacted, I couldn’t help noticing this was coming from a man who helped create one of the most lucrative Christian brands in history. But I also know his story well enough to know that his personal priorities prevented VeggieTales from becoming the cash cow that it easily could become (and later did, as far as I can tell, after he left). Vischer’s bottom line wasn’t the actual bottom line, but a conglomeration of values which matter most to him personally, and to his faith.
In my opinion, he deserves credit for being terrible at turning a profit. I actually like him all the more for that.
But does evangelical Christianity truly stem the tide of consumerism and materialism in this country? I can read the words of Jesus for myself and undoubtedly he was an anti-materialist (assuming for the sake of argument that he was a real historical person). The early Church was practically communist. But that theme is lost entirely on modern evangelicals, influenced as they have been by 40 years of opportunistic political pandering at the hands of the Republican Party and by the relentless drift of American culture in general since its founding.
It’s also lost on the millions of evangelicals who flock to hear prosperity preachers feed their materialistic urges, never realizing that like any other multi-level marketing scheme the people at the top park their Bentleys in their mansions while the people at the bottom never really see a return on their investment. The only thing that would make this industry more profitable would be if churches everywhere selectively forgot that the tithe was a part of the old Mosaic code which their theology tells them became obsolete the moment Jesus died, lifting that expectation out of its historical context in order to obligate Christians into regularly giving up a set portion of their income to fund the activities of the the Church. Now that would be something. Just imagine.
Related: “It’s Better to Give Than to Receive“
Today the Church in America bears the responsibility for ushering in one of the most un-Jesus-like administrations ever to command the executive branch of the government, especially with regards to their treatment of refugees from other countries. And what’s worse, to this day they still believe they did the right thing. They actually believe these are wonderful people whose values match their own. Perhaps they do.
This is what you get when a subculture esteems credulity above all other traits. It surrenders all moral authority to whomever they are told they should trust, and their leaders tell them they should trust the Trump administration.
How Belief Shapes Behavior
I’ve noticed Phil doesn’t blog anymore. Maybe he’s got other things going on. But it didn’t escape my notice that the last few things he wrote about before going quiet were about how disappointed he was in the direction evangelicals went during the 2016 election. Since then, things have only gotten worse, with Christians digging their heels further in because of their support for a man who talks as if he knows more about their faith than any two Corinthians put together.
I would argue that the events of the last few months have significantly undermined Vischer’s thesis about the church being a positive influence on American culture. In fact, I would suggest it’s the very same love of power, influence, and wealth which drives the leaders of evangelical Christianity into the arms of a corrupt and very un-Jesus-like administration.
Evidently the gospel has not had the power they were told to expect over those who believe it. Maybe for someone like Vischer, whose personal values prevent him from supporting corrupt industries and institutions, the message of Jesus really does shape the way he thinks and feels about things. But I would argue that it works on him better than it does on others because it tracks with his own personal character.
Back when we first started interacting about all of this, Phil suggested that humanism as a worldview would work best among people who are already naturally empathetic, people whose intrinsic values personify humanistic ideals without much coaxing or cajoling at all. He suggested that on a large scale humanism wouldn’t hold up well because it lacks the capacity to inspire true character. Well, I would argue the same is true for the ideals espoused by Jesus.
Some people just naturally exhibit those traits without much external reinforcement, while others don’t. For those people, no amount of articulate preaching will change them into the kind of followers Jesus seemed to be seeking. Perhaps the same thing can be said for humanism as well—some people just don’t make very good humanists, and no amount of enculturation will persuade them to internalize those values because it’s just not in them.
It seems to me that our beliefs don’t determine our character, they mainly serve to reinforce and energize those parts of ourselves that already naturally resonate with the narratives we champion. Belief empowers behavior, but I’m not sure it shapes it as much we think it does. If anything, I would suggest our behavior predisposes us to seek out those belief structures that fit who we already are. But maybe I’m just thinking out loud on this one.
One thing I can say for sure, however: This business of convincing millions of people that they should unquestioningly trust ANY source of information is detrimental to the progress of humankind. We take steps forward by questioning the things we have been told, not by obediently accepting everything we hear without a fuss. That’s a recipe for disaster.
Credulity is not a virtue. Any subculture which treats it as such will eventually become putty in the hands of the very worst people.
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