The Unequally Yoked Club: The Difference Engine

The Unequally Yoked Club: The Difference Engine December 31, 2013

Long ago, Charles Babbage came up with designs for a machine that could accurately create tables of calculated numbers. He called this machine the difference engine. By turning a handle on the machine, gears and cranks would turn and it would calculate rows and columns of numbers in tables–the sort that scientists, economists, even ship-captains need. These tables were expensive to create and hard to make error-free, so the idea of a machine that could do it much more quickly than–even in the place of–error-prone humans was quite enticing to all sorts of people.

English: A photo of the Difference Engine cons...
English: A photo of the Difference Engine constructed by the Science Museum based on the plans for Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mr. Babbage never made one of these machines during his lifetime, but the ones we’ve built from his specifications actually do work. The golden gears stand in proud defiance of ignorance and make us wonder about the age that produced the design, about the tiny baby steps that have led us to the technology that just about every single one of us takes for granted today. Without folks like Charles Babbage, would I have this Mac on my desk? Would the internet exist? Without the simple need to do these equations, these simple mathematical equations, would we have advanced to all the things we have today?

I am a member of the first generation to really experience personal computing. I was about ten years old when I got my hands on my first computer–a TRS-80 in my classroom. We did BASIC coding on it–GOTO like a mad fiend, yo! I even had that one Superman comic book where the two kids use one to save the world while Supes stands on in total befuddlement at his sudden and complete obsolescence in the face of the raw power of a TRS-80. Now, of course, the phone on which I play “Hello Kitty Kawaii Town” (no way, we are not ashamed/of the Kitty or her name/coveralls and red bow ties/whiskers under beady eyes) is ten times more powerful. Hell, for that matter, this phone’s more powerful than the laptop that went up with the first Space Shuttle. But I can remember a time when numbers and calculations were hard-won and gotten with paper, pencil, maybe a big expensive calculator, and understanding of equations and formulas. We forget that the very first function of computing machines was to make these big lists of numbers spat out according to this or that formula, this or that equation.

If only resolving difference could be that easy in a mixed-religion marriage. It isn’t as simple as pulling a lever or turning a crank to get one’s partner to spit out the right results. But it certainly seems like plenty of folks think that relationships are just like that–that if they do action A combined with expression B and statement C, that their target will give result X. And when you combine this mechanistic attitude with a purely narcissistic and thoughtless attitude toward a spouse, you’re going to get the bad advice we’ll be talking about today: 10 Ways to Live in an Unequally Yoked Marriage.

Joleen Engle is a Christian blogger who has written a blog entry about how to survive with a spouse who is “hostile towards the Gospel.” First, though, let’s talk about what she means by that phrase:

Some unbelieving husbands condemn wives for going to church. Some forbid them to listen to any “Jesus/church” music in the house or car. And some husbands won’t even allow their wives to spend time with their Christian friends and family. In fact, some would like to move their wives out of state!

I’d like to know what deconverted husbands she’s talking about. I’ve never heard of an ex-Christian man who “condemns” his wife for going to church or who seriously wanted to move out of state in response to a wife who simply believes and wants to hang out at a church. At the most, when pressed, such a husband may state out loud that he hates going to church and despises what goes on there. He might even say that he believes that church or those friends are downright harmful to his wife’s sanity and emotional health–but to condemn one’s spouse? I’ve never even heard of an ex-Christian husband who did that. How exactly are we using this word “condemn”? Does she imagine this ex-Christian spouse is insulting his wife for going to church or denigrating her? (Incidentally, I’m using the pronouns I am here because that’s what the original blogger used, but please understand that this stuff applies to everybody regardless of gender identity. That’s also why I’m not addressing the heteronormative nature of the post or the 1950s Mayberry gender roles she discusses–women bake cookies, men work; women serve frozen dinners to their men before rushing off to volunteer at church, but the men in question are man-children who can’t cook for themselves sometimes. I’m guessing she doesn’t realize that most women–especially women of color and poors–work outside the home and that most men are at least nominally familiar with this crazy weird thing we call “the kitchen.”)

If a spouse is trying to keep someone from spending time with family and friends or “condemning” a spouse for what she does in her private time, there are bigger issues going on than someone deconverting. If a spouse is belittling someone for believing–especially a spouse who is an ex-Christian and is well aware of how complex belief can be and how hard it is to shake a delusion–then we’re actually talking about abusive behaviors, and someone in that situation needs to seek outside credentialed help, not read a blog entry. But I seriously haven’t ever heard of that happening in a loving marriage. Certainly I have never heard of an ex-Christian spouse who charged up to his Christian wife and began giving her hell for being Christian just out of the clear blue sky.

No, usually the arguments come from some overreach or thoughtless show of disrespect done by the Christian, to be honest with y’all. The Christian wants to blast shitty CCM during a shared car ride, and that’s just rude to do to anybody. The Christian is pouting because the deconverted spouse doesn’t want to go to church anymore, or is upset that the ex-Christian spouse isn’t happy about the kids being fed atrocity apologetics to rationalize the drowning of an entire planet’s full of sentient beings and animals. The Christian is panicked that the ex-Christian doesn’t want to tithe anymore, which will obviously bring meteor showers down on the house and kill them all. The Christian feels threatened by knowing that the ex-Christian spouse no longer trusts the fake “experts” who “prove” the religion’s objective truth claims with junk science and pseudo-archaeology. The Christian feels stung by what the people at church will think when the Shiny Happy Christian Marriage illusion breaks down. The Christian is trying to force the ex-Christian to read yet another book, watch yet another video, visit with yet another clergyperson, or go to yet another church service. The Christian is ostentatiously praying around the ex-Christian or being a zealot in some other intrusive way. The Christian feels hurt that this isn’t what s/he signed up for. There’s a lot of entitlement and a lot of illusions being put paid here, and it can be very tricky indeed to navigate those waters through a sea of shitty advice and false assumptions.

If you can avoid those pitfalls, the marriage doesn’t have to run aground after a deconversion. A non-Christian and Christian can get along just fine as long as they don’t bring drama upon themselves. I’ll be totally up-front here: ex-Christians who deconvert during a marriage are usually trying their level best to avoid friction and live as peacefully as possible. They’re usually quite concerned about being gentle to their spouses and being as little of a disruption as they can manage to be. They’re not the ones usually bringing it. There is absolutely no good reason why there has to be drama, and we know that.

But Ms. Engle’s advice is engineered to cause drama. She starts by assuming that non-Christians are some weird alien race whose motives are no longer human or guessable. You see, “The unbeliever is not governed by the same Authority that you are. They don’t have the power of the Holy Spirit who can intercede on their behalf. And they don’t have the fruits of the Spirit: His love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc. like you do.” She also has this to say: “[The ex-Christian spouse] doesn’t have the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in him, therefore, he’s not going to exercise self-control like a Believer would. So keep that perspective.” Yep, you heard her. The second someone deconverts, he loses all those qualities because JESUS is the only reason anybody would ever have those qualities. Non-Christians all over the world will be shocked to hear that they can’t possibly exhibit the qualities of love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc., the way that a Christian can. They’ll be stunned to discover that they have no idea how to exercise self-control the way a Christian does. These bits of self-serving, ass-patting narcissism and arrogance are the underlying assumptions for the whole entry. I can’t even imagine being that disrespectful to someone as to remove their essential humanity that way, but apparently this is her advice: be super-condescending to your spouse, because bless his cotton socks, he just ain’t as gosh-darned awesome as you are. It makes her call to “show humility” seem especially fake and insincere, to be honest. To paraphrase, “Be humble, because even though you are totally ten times better at everything than your ickie heathen spouse is, you’ll always be messing up, so act humble!”

In reality-land, we know that actually yes, non-believers can exhibit every one of those qualities, and often exhibit more of them and in greater quantity than believers do. So just from the get-go, Ms. Engle’s advice is going to be flawed. She’s relying on premises that aren’t true, so her conclusions don’t have much of a chance of being sound.

Most of the advice here isn’t really that bad, all that aside. She advises spouses to pray for their mates, and if done in private as the Bible commands, I don’t see the harm in that; if it worked, she wouldn’t have to tell Christians to do it, but hey, there’s really no harm in talking to imaginary friends. I don’t see why anybody’d care what a Christian does on her own time. She advises Christians to make sure to make their mates feel appreciated, and that’s not bad advice; all romantic partners should be doing that. She suggests taking up hobbies together, and that’s not a bad idea for any couple. This all sounds like “don’t put beans up your nose” level advice until she begins denigrating men and using sex as a weapon.

Oh, did I surprise you? From #1:

Ask him if he feels it would be appropriate if the two of you had sex? Again, he might be listening to you now!

Because, you know, men are all sex beasts with uncontrollable penises of wrath*, and the second you ask a man about sex, just the very idea of it will grab him by the testicles and make him pay attention to you, because he’d never pay attention to you otherwise. The whole #1 piece is all about that favorite Christian tactic of apologetics: the TV-Lawyer in Court Asking Leading Questions, in which the Christian tries to walk a non-believer through a series of fairly innocuous questions toward what the Christian thinks is some totally zinger last statement. To me it sounds suspicious and hugely disrespectful. This is not how a respectful mate behaves. This is how a parent behaves toward a recalcitrant child–which she confirms by calling the non-Christian spouse’s behavior “outrageous and sometimes completely ridiculous rantings and outbursts,” like he’s some kind of toddler throwing a wobbler of a tantrum in a department store. Oh bless his cotton penis, he’s just a MAY-YUN, and a heathen to boot, so of course he’s going to rant and be ridiculous and make these silly childish outbursts. Cuz Christians never do that, amirite?

Look, Christians: Step #1 should be “Take your mate’s anger seriously instead of totally dismissing it and making him sound like a little child.” People get angry for a reason. If someone’s angry, it’s going to be a reaction to fear, frustration, or pain. By calling that anger “rantings” and “outbursts,” Ms. Engle betrays her very real disrespect for non-Christians. If you’re trying to fix a problem, that’s about the worst way possible to address a conflict.

Actually, I’m wrong. That’s not the worst way possible to address a conflict. This is:

Being that you’re married to your guy, here’s something else you can try to soften his heart. Start taking your clothes off in the midst of the argument. Yep, you read that right. I said, “Get naked.” I’m sure he wouldn’t know what hit him.

I’m sure he wouldn’t, but I’m also sure he’d know it was hugely disrespectful and dismissive. I was aghast to see this shitty advice paraded out like it’s the most amazing insight. Not even her commenters seem to realize just how bad an idea this is. Again, this advice treats men like monsters who are easily distracted by shiny sexy things. We’re not addressing the actual root cause of the conflict. We’re not fixing whatever brought on the argument. We’re just distracting him and we’re doing it in the basest possible way. Doesn’t sound especially Christian to me to treat someone in such an asinine fashion, but hey, what do I know, I’m not a Christian anymore, obviously I don’t have the ability to love or be longsuffering anymore. (Nor does this advice really cover a marriage with a wife who is the apostate, as in my own ex-marriage; women are leaving Christianity in droves, but somehow I don’t think stripping in mid-argument would have a positive effect on women any more than it would on men.)

Now, is it okay to say “Honey, you deserve a civil discussion about this matter and I’m clearly not in a place to give you the respect you deserve. Can we drop this until tomorrow night when I’ve had some time to cool off and think about things?” Or even “I feel like we’re both getting really heated and resolving this matter is important to me, so can we agree to drop it until X time and talk about it then, when we’ve both had some time to think and cool off?” Yes, of course. Set a deadline, be seriously thinking about it, and be ready to talk in a cool, calm, and collected way. But is it okay to ignore your mate’s distress and anger to blip off and bake cookies (as she suggests first) or to tear your clothes off? No, it is not okay to do that. It’s the opposite of helpful. Context is everything. Do that stuff when you’re not screaming at each other. Do that stuff not to distract, but to grow together and show love to each other. You distract an angry cat or a tantrum-throwing toddler. You don’t do that to an adult you ostensibly love and respect.

I guess it’s the sheer disrespect going on here that bothers me. Maybe this blogger talks about addressing the root causes of conflicts elsewhere, but if she’s repeatedly calling these arguments his “antics,” she’s not really behaving very lovingly or respectfully or addressing the reason these conflicts crop up in a mixed-religion marriage. I find her behavior to be dismissive. And considering the Christian probably sparked whatever that conflict is to begin with, it’s downright cruel to treat the ex-Christian that way.

These sorts of numbered lists are fun if you’re talking about theme parks or rating Christmas specials, but they’re not very helpful for dealing with actual people. It’s not as easy as “follow these numbered lists of things and you will get the desired result.” The commenters to that piece make plain that they think this is fine and wonderful advice, which tells me they may at some point make the poor choice to try to put it into play in their own marriages. All I can do is imagine what I’d have done if Biff had tried that. And I can actually remember a couple of painful instances where he tried, like during one knock-down drag-out argument where he grabbed my wrists and tried to tie me down to have sex with me because he thought it’d be a fun distraction, and all it did was confuse and terrify me (BTW, I got away, but the threat of being tied up and raped was not exactly a productive element to the argument). Had I seen a column like that after my deconversion, I’d have come away with a new disdain for and distrust of Christians, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine someone in the Unequally Yoked Club being treated this way and it working out well.

It’s just amazing to me that so many Christians seem to be writing these sorts of blogs and books geared toward surviving in the Unequally Yoked Club, but nobody seems to be asking the ex-Christians what they think of this stuff. And I can’t imagine why that would be, considering how many ex-Christians there are in this world. It’s like these Christians are space aliens who are observing human behavior and have written this stuff that they think humans would write, but it bears no resemblance whatsoever to reality. The reality is a lot scarier, but if a marriage is to survive, the Shiny Happy Christian Marriage Illusion must be challenged. And Ms. Engle can’t do that. So of course her advice will be less than useful in real situations.

Like most bubble-wrapped Christians, she and her target audience won’t even know why this stuff isn’t working. I feel a certain sadness in seeing blogs like hers and knowing that nothing she’s writing is really that helpful or useful–in fact that it’s the opposite of either–and that her audience won’t even understand why. They’re going to try their bestest to put this stuff into action, they’re going to bash their brains out trying to do what she’s recommended, and they’re not going to understand that they’re not the problem here, but rather that it’s the advice itself and the assumptions that advice is based off of that are the problems.

Christians, if I could tell you anything, I’d tell you this: please, please, please do not listen to advice like what is found in that link. Reality is a lot different and a lot more nuanced than you think. Keep your goddamned clothes on and act like an adult.

Next up, we will be talking about the difference between reasonable demands and unreasonable ones. Pull the lever, turn the crank, and fire up the engine, because we’ll be moving fast toward the “advice I think actually works” post that is shaping up in my head. See you soon.

* Forget it. I’m already making a band with that name. You can’t have it. You saw it here first. It’ll be a string quartet, of course.


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