A long time ago, I wrote a post called “A Cult of “Before” Stories” in which I described what it was like as a young Christian to realize that my then-husband had constructed a testimony full of lies–and how I realized that pretty much all of the really dramatic testimonies I heard from other Christians were largely untrue as well. On the heels of realizing that these stories were untrue, I also began to perceive the unbelievably rich rewards Christians get for concocting and sharing these dramatic testimonies. I began to see my tribe as one that was simply obsessed with these “before” stories–thus, my name for the mindset.
That happened back in the late-1980s and early-1990s, but nothing’s changed at all since then. Today we’ll be initiating a new member of the Cult, and talking about what he did to end up in such a venerable group.
Let’s start with a little bit of background about testimonies.
A “testimony” is a Christianese word that describes a Christian’s personal conversion story. It’s a narrative about (1) the Christian’s life pre-conversion, (2) the dramatic event that sparked the conversion, and (3) how happy and fulfilled the Christian is now. These anecdotes are crafted to be persuasive to outsiders and to bolster the faith of those already in the pews, and you can well imagine that the sorts of Christians who get hung up on creating a good testimony tend to get really indignant when someone questions or refuses to believe it. A testimony can be very short to book-length.
That said, not all Christian denominations really rely on these stories. I don’t remember ever meeting any Catholics when I was growing up who talked like that, though converts might. The further right one moves through the pool of the religion, the more these stories become important and popular–to the point where ultra-right-wing Christians consider them essential and will start working on theirs right after conversion. Whole websites, seminars, and books exist to help Christians make convincing and attention-getting testimonies. Perfecting them is sometimes a lifelong effort.
I sometimes feel like fundagelical Christians think they’re starring in a movie in their own heads–and their testimonies are a sort of synopsis of that movie, if not an advertisement for it. Certainly these stories follow a predictable path:
1. The horrible, awful, terrible, no-good life before conversion.
There’s a hierarchy of coolness here with pre-conversion life stories. Back when I was Christian, the really cool testimonies involved Wicca, Satanism, or both (usually both actually–Christians at the time thought these two religions were the same thing, so the people fleecing them created testimonies that reflected that folk belief). Nowadays, the really cool testimonies involve a past as a militant atheist or even a gay person, since atheism and LGBTQ rights are the current boogeymen of the religion. Ideally the testimony will involve various Christians trying to “save” the poor doomed sinner, who refuses these efforts with a scowl and a laugh because he or she knows sooooo much better than those silly Christians do about what is best in life.* There has to be that element of wide-eyed “OMG you guys I was sooooo wrong about everything!” running through this part of the story so the Christians listening can relate it to the cases of non-Christians they personally know: You may think you’re happy or that your life has meaning, but you’re not and it doesn’t, and we all know it.
The important part about the pre-conversion story is that it has to make the non-Christian sound really awful–and has to involve a great deal of hidden ennui or sadness. Sinners are supposed to be secretly very unhappy, so converts’ testimonies should stress how they were always racing to fill their sorry little drab, meaningless existences with all kinds of sensory distractions meant to disguise their hopelessness and emptiness. This part of the narrative is meant to impress listeners with how horrible and terrible the Christian was before conversion, and to make life before conversion sound pitiable despite its possible grandeur and excesses. Really lucky Christians might also accidentally cold read a non-believer who actually is unhappy who might start wondering how to get that level of happiness for him- or herself.**
2. The shocking turnaround moment.
In the middle of this sinful life, a wild turnaround appears. That event might be a serious illness or accident that lays bare the supposed inadequacies of non-Christian life or just a cosmic whap-to-the-nose that makes the sinner telling the story realize that Christianity’s claims sound compelling. Sometimes it’s even hearing a perfectly-phrased apologetics talking point that overcomes the person’s objections to this or that Christian doctrine–especially Creationism, whose adherents all seem convinced that if they can persuade people that their pseudoscience is true, then conversions will be so plentiful that churches won’t be able to contain them.
For just one moment, the god of the entire universe focuses his laser-like attention on the Christian telling the story, whose decision suddenly becomes momentous and hugely important. It’s a bit like falling in love, except with oneself rather than another person. There’s an almost insurmountable temptation to exaggerate or lie about this incident to make it sound unmistakably divine; anyone who hears the story must immediately believe that this turnaround was supernatural in nature.
It might sound awfully /thathappened to everyone else, but those who are motivated to believe in these sorts of events will find their biases confirmed very nicely.
3. The joyous new life as a Christian.
The last part of the sales pitch details how happy and joyous the Christian is now that he or she has converted.** That doesn’t mean life is totally rosy, but it does mean that the Christian finds life to be enormously more meaningful, contented, and morally righteous than it was before conversion. Even if troubles are mentioned, they will be recounted in a way that makes the testifying Christian sound happy (sorta like how parents will complain but follow up those complaints with “but it’s so worth it!” — or how some folks will humblebrag). A testimony is meant to sell, not dissuade.
As you can guess, there’s a very serious temptation at this point to exaggerate just how happy post-conversion life is. Not only is there supposed to be some kind of substantive change to the quality of the convert’s life, but that change is always supposed to be ultimately very positive. You won’t find a whole lot of Christians who say that becoming a Christian was a horrible decision for them or brought them loads of grief and hardship, unless they’re looking to score martyr points for their grudging obedience and show how grace-filled and miraculously encouraging their god is. Christians hearing this story should ideally come out of it feel more correct and reassured about being Christian, while outsiders hearing it are meant to ask themselves how to attain that same level of contentment and fulfillment.
At no point does real evidence enter into the equation. Nor does it even need to do so. The focus is on how people feel, not on facts.
Christians get rewarded according to how many people are impressed by their testimonies–not by how truthful or accurate their stories are.
People play to win the rewards they value.
In this case, exaggerated testimonies get shared by people who want their listeners’ time, esteem, money, and attention. The more exaggerated the testimony, the more its creator wants those rewards.
They are not often disappointed.
Sometimes the exaggeration is done out of outright dishonesty, and sometimes it’s done through a powerful amount of confirmation bias or by quirks produced by our all-too-unreliable memories. It hardly matters; the rewards are given regardless. Because this kind of testimony is what gets Christians these particular rewards, even a very honest person must be careful not to exaggerate or distort their story.
Unfortunately, they’re not careful at all. When I was Christian, I heard countless testimonies that sounded implausible–and sometimes you could even see a testimony evolve over time to sound more impressive. The worst part is, that progression is perfectly human and natural. Hell, a member of any community that rewards certain kinds of narratives can face the temptation to create a testimony that gets rewarded even at the expense of honesty.
Meanwhile, the people whose stories don’t fit into those narratives get ignored or passed over by crowds rushing to the people whose testimonies better conform to the ideal story. Nobody wants to hear from someone who grew up Lutheran, never did a single thing that was really out of bounds, had a rush of pleasant emotion at age 22 during a walk in the woods that made her realize she really liked being Christian, and is now 55 and thinks her life went pretty well, any more than they want to hear from someone who weighed 160 pounds, realized she wanted to tone up and lose a little weight, and did so through a bit of caloric restriction and regular exercise. Every community’s got its own ideal testimony, and their preferences say a lot of things about the group’s ideals and worldview–and its fears and hatreds.
The chance of a Christian’s testimony being at the least exaggerated (if not made up out of whole cloth) goes up dramatically with the additional presence of each of the ideal components of a perfect testimony:
* Anger/violence problems
* Drug use, gang membership, petty crimes
* Lots of unapproved sex
* Depression or feelings of meaninglessness
* Occult activity (can be anything from yoga and martial arts to full-blown Wicca)
* Supernatural elements like miracles
And that shock is exactly why a Christian can go for years and become nationally prominent on the basis of a testimony that is almost entirely untruthful.
Leopards don’t change their spots.
The most popular testimonies involve magic cures of serious anger problems, violent tendencies, addictions, or mental illnesses. These unverified and generally totally uncorroborated anecdotes reinforce Christians’ belief in divine healing and are considered conclusive support for their religion’s supernatural claims. They are also seen as decisive signs of the Christian god’s approval of the person receiving the magic cure.
Alas, there is no such thing as a miracle cure. There is no “Jesus” healing anybody of anything. I’ve heard of people who realized the damage their tempers or addictions were doing and decided by themselves to change, but this kind of change is hard-won and requires time and a lot of work to accomplish. Christians cheapen the hard work their fellow humans do when they claim that a god gave them a “Get Out of Hard Work Free” card and magically fixed their problem–while ignoring all the other folks (Christians included!) who needed help even more than they did. It’s morally repulsive to me to consider that a god would ignore all those needs to focus on first-world Christians, or to magically cure them of relatively minor problems while ignoring the greater ones he’s allowed to fester in the world. There simply is no way for me to reconcile a good, benevolent, omnipotent, loving god with this idea.
Luckily, there’s no indication whatsoever that a god is involved here anywhere. The “healings” being done do not seem even one iota supernatural in nature. In all my life I’ve never seen a single claim that looked like anything but a misunderstanding, coincidence, distortion, or the product of hard work on someone’s part, any more than I’ve ever seen a miraculous conversion.
When you hear a Christian say that “Jesus” healed him or her of something, it’s a good idea to mentally translate that to “wishful thinking.” You should also consider a healing-by-wishful-thinking to be just as effective and reliable as one done by “Jesus.”
And Now Let’s Welcome the Newest Member of the Cult of “Before” Stories: Ben Carson.
Ben Carson is, of course, one of the front-running Republicans in their nomination clown car for the 2016 Presidential race. He’s an affable fellow–a brain surgeon no less–and seems so cool and collected in his glasses and self-effacing manner that it’s hard to see him as a raving, science-denying, magical-thinking lunatic.
Like all of the Republicans racing for the nomination (except maybe Donald Trump), he’s one-hundred-and-wow-percent Christian. Openly attributing his campaign’s success to “the power of God,” Dr. Carson must sound like the answer to Republicans’ dreams.
And yes, he’s got the required ultra-dramatic testimony to match his ambitions. After a childhood and youth marked by poverty, violence, anger, and directionless wandering, he had his come-to-Jesus moment and from then on lived a reformed and moral– one might even say “godly” –life as a Seventh-Day Adventist Christian.*** Famously claiming that he’s never slept with any other woman than his wife (while also making oddly cryptic and prophetic-sounding “jokes” about being sued for paternity) and insisting that he spent his youth so angry and violent that he tried to attack his mother with a hammer and committed various acts of aggression against peers, Dr. Carson hits all the high notes in his testimony.
Too bad his testimony isn’t any more honest than any other Christian’s tends to be.
Troubling examples of his dishonesty and self-serving opportunism began surfacing as soon as he rose to prominence in the debates. At this point, news outlets like CNN can’t actually corroborate or verify a single important element of his testimony. He only grudgingly conceded that some elements of it weren’t true–for example, he didn’t actually get a full scholarship to West Point after being accepted there. Not only major elements but even small and minor ones have turned out to be problematic. Gawker’s got a nice list of the most egregious fibs.
But he’s clinging hard to other elements, like how he attempted to stab someone in an account with troubling racist overtones–and he’s drilling down on this story even though nobody outside of his fanbase is taking it seriously. He’s largely ignoring the rest of the accusations of dishonesty and distortion–like the allegations of plagiarism against him.
Those elements he’s defending are what gets him fundagelical rewards. His community doesn’t particularly care about West Point scholarships and few of them care about plagiarism (largely because it’s endemic even at the religion’s highest levels), but they really buy into narratives about violent ne’er-do-wells who are magically cured by Jesus, and and they’re very impressed by the spectacle of stubborn people who stubbornly insist on stubbornly standing up for their values no matter how silly or foolish they look in doing so. They’re even more impressed by magical cures for problems like anger–and they do love hearing that Jesus Power is keeping a husband faithful to his wife. I’m hardly the only person who identifies anger as the primary motivating emotion of fundagelical Christianity and a big problem for fundagelicals–along with sexual impropriety of various kinds–so someone who claims that a god magically helped him get over those issues and temptations is going to be hugely popular with a tribe that struggles mightily with both.
While it’s not very “godly” to shill Christian-themed snake oil pseudoscience, that denouement doesn’t really matter to the tribe either. Fundagelicals often buy into a whole range of science-denying beliefs and have a not-so-secret streak of anti-intellectualism and belligerence running through their veins that allows hucksters to gain their trust by telling them what they want to hear most. I’ve no doubt that when the headlines came out linking Dr. Carson so strongly to this particular scam, many Christians actually appreciated learning about it so they could buy some for themselves.
Pay attention to which of Dr. Carson’s lies he admits aren’t true and which ones he clings to–and you’ll see very clearly where fundagelicals’ values and priorities are. Just as back in my day the trendiest testimonies revealed fundagelicals’ fear of the occult and concerns about the surging popularity of non-Judeo-Christian religions, today’s reveal a wealth of information about just what fundagelicals fear and rage about–and what they secretly think of non-believers. Ben Carson is telling us who he is when he tells us his testimony, but he’s also telling us what his group thinks we are.
So we welcome Dr. Carson to the Cult of “Before” Stories!
He’ll fit right in.
* I can’t say that without thinking of the iconic answer: “Crush your enemies. See them driven before you. Hear the lamentations of their women.”
** Of course, those who complain later that they were not actually made happier by converting will be shamed for expecting spiritual bliss. This exact bliss is used as a selling point in fundagelical testimonies, but a Christian isn’t allowed to demand it or expect it later. Bait and switch much?
*** Seventh-Day Adventists are not normally considered part of the Cool Kids’ Club by fundagelicals–any more than Mormons like Mitt Romney are. In my day, SDAs were considered a cult all their own. But toxic Christians will vote for anybody at this point who hates who they hate and oppresses who they want oppressed.