Christians often pull out the stops when they discover that one of us has left the fold. Everything but the kitchen sink gets thrown at us to read, watch, or listen to. We get invited to “casual dinners” that turn into full-blown interventions. We can’t even visit a friend’s house without discovering a church friend there to try once more to “just talk to us” to “make sure we’ve really thought about this decision.”
And then, once we think we’ve weathered all of these demands, along comes just one more Christian into the fray, often totally convinced that “God” told him or her to say some particular thing to us.*
The Myth of the Magic Christian.
Such Christians think of themselves as “Magic Christians” in the same way that movies use stereotyped black people as narrative vehicles to dispense wisdom and epiphanies to white protagonists. I’m hugely uncomfortable with using the outdated racial term for this plot device, but it’s used deliberately to describe how black people often get treated in these movies as props who exist only to dispense folksy wisdom, archaic aphorisms, and nonsensical deepities whenever a white protagonist is having trouble. There’s an exhaustive list of offenders over at TVTropes, and the comedy duo Key & Peele recently beautifully lampooned this offensive racial stereotype.
This trope is offensive because not only does it consider an entire race to be ambulatory vending machines dispensing wisdom while doing menial labor, but it also reduces what are often very complex troubles down to the sorts of sayings you could fit on a cross-stitched throw pillow. Got some catastrophic problem? Along comes a cleaning lady to share something her grandmother once said to her. Experienced a great loss? Along comes a janitor to off-handedly recite a bit of old folk wisdom that will, in thirty seconds flat guaranteed, totally turn everything around.
In the same manner, I seriously think that even though ex-Christians almost always know Christian doctrines backwards and forwards and are well-acquainted with the Bible, often better than Christians themselves are, “Magic Christians” think that there’s this one little detail that we simply didn’t know, this one little spin-doctoring of an atrocious concept that maybe we didn’t think about in the right way. Once we hear the Magic Christian’s patient explanation, the expectation is that we will smack our foreheads, say I never thought of that! and reconvert immediately.
Whether this act is done out of the most sincere heartache and worry or out of a power-tripping desire to display one’s superiority, it’s an ultimately terribly disrespectful display. They know that it’s not welcome, but they justify doing it because they’re totally sure that this time they have the magical way to phrase some standard apologetics bullshit line to us that makes complete sense and fixes whatever shallow silly problem we were having with Christianity. Often they even think “God” told them what to say. Once we’re back in the fold we’ll thank them for their presumption, right? And even if we reject their divine wisdom we’ll totally excuse them because we know they’re acting out of “sincerely held beliefs.” So how could the attempt go wrong?
Lots of ways, as it happens.
Magic Isn’t Real.
First, most Christians really don’t understand why people reject their religion in the first place, so their understanding of our objections is, at best, going to be distorted and flawed.
Every single one of those hand-wringing articles from Christians about why so many people are leaving Christianity lays the blame at a variety of doorsteps–and not one of them is right. They blame parents for not indoctrinating kids hard enough; they blame ex-Christians for not understanding the Bible enough or for “wanting to sin” (which means, of course, to have unapproved S-E-X), or assert that ex-Christians are “mad at God” or miffed about some offense made by a Christian, an accusation that actually came up in the comments on a news story I saw once about just how sharply Christian numbers are falling. Every single reason under the sun comes up except the one that actually sums up most deconversions.**
If Christians don’t understand what the problem is, then their pithy wisdom, exhortations, and advice will seem, well, irrelevant and misguided. They’re offering a solution that is in search of a problem at best, and blatantly trying to cold-read us at worst; a Christian trying this stunt on me a while ago went through like four or five different “reasons” that her “god” was telling her had caused my deconversion, and every single one was laughably inaccurate. I felt like I was sitting across from a psychic palm-reader!
Of course, every time a “Magic Christian”‘s attempt at divine discernment fails so comically, I am reminded anew that Christianity isn’t based on true supernatural claims. I mean, surely a god would actually give a divinely-sent Christian actual relevant things to say to me and would know what I’d consider credible support for Christianity’s many claims. Right?
Second, most Christians don’t understand that a person’s deconversion is a response to a number of concerns, not just a simple yes or no question that can be settled by establishing or debunking one claim.
It’s not just that we discovered that Creationism is bullshit or just that we figured out that the Bible’s assertions about its god are nonsensical when they’re not outright barbaric. Most Christians have a dozen different legs on their belief-tables. Knock one leg out, and given enough time that Christian will either find a way to rationalize it or to work around it and build a new one. It’s only when a lot of those legs get knocked out at once that someone is in a serious pickle, most times. We might be able to point to a “straw” that finally made us realize that the religion wasn’t a good fit for us, but there’s usually a lot more going on than just that straw.
But the Christians who walk up to ex-Christians trying to “fix” us generally only concentrate on one thing they think we disagreed with. They act like all they have to do is find a way to convince us that they’re right about this one thing, and we’ll just fold on all the rest of the other problems we have with Christianity.*** It doesn’t work that way. If it did, we’d likely still be Christians; the religion’s evolved quite a number of quick bumper-sticker-wisdom fixes for the major objections to its claims. That their fixes tend to involve Christian revisionism and pseudoscience also doesn’t help their cause when someone’s aware of the flaws in both. (Fifth-century theologian Augustine of Hippo warned Christians about making a laughingstock of themselves in this manner, but hey, he was Catholic so he doesn’t count.)
Often this misunderstanding of our real reasons for deconversion leads Christians to create straw men to proselytize at, which further undermines their credibility.Third, the power dynamic they’re introducing here is not loving.
Nobody likes being treated like a fixer-upper project, especially by someone we don’t remember having asked to fix us. The unmitigated arrogance involved in charging up to another human being and trying to set them straight about this or that religious point should shame Christians. Doing it to a stranger or someone the Christian only knows from online is even worse. But that isn’t even the big problem here; the Christians doing this are presenting themselves as gurus. They’re the ones fixing us. They’re the Designated Adults, the parents, the oh-so-evolved clever bunnies who are here to set us poor little
children apostates straight again. They’re here at the behest of what they genuinely believe is a god to dispense wisdom that this god personally sent straight to them and tailored especially for us (or so they think!).
When this intrusion happens while the Christian knows for absolute certain that such a conversation (or “non-versation,” as Neil Carter puts it!) isn’t going to be welcome, or worse if the “word from ‘God'” involves a threat of Hell or a strong-arming attempt, then it starts feeling less like love and more like abuse.
Last, these Christians never seem to realize why they’re unwelcome or take rejection well.
It’s sorta like being hit on in public. The first time it happens (provided things don’t turn ugly, of course), it might be a little flattering. But after it happens over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, always along the same lines and bearing the same risk of abuse for our rejection, it gets nerve-wracking and unwelcome. So it’s not surprising at all to notice that the Christians doing this don’t respond well to rejection; we can start feeling like the lady having the panic attack in the movie Airplane! Asking them to back off doesn’t usually work well–and no wonder; Christians who do this are often so busy starring in the movie in their heads about their own lives as TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that when we go off-script and refuse to play along, they react very poorly.
That’s why their response to all of this, just as those of Nice Guys™ are to women’s objections to getting hit on in public, generally fall along the lines of But are you saying we can’t “just be Christian” and express our faith and just have a simple conversation? You’re persecuting me! Religious liberty! Benghazi! Stand there and take your wooing!
And the answer of course is that yes, of course they can “just be Christian,” as long as they respect other people’s boundaries, and if they can’t do that, then hopefully they’ll realize at some point that not only did their attempt to “woo” me fail, but that it backfired in that I got reminded yet again that to them, “just being Christians” can only happen if other people’s boundaries are stomped on repeatedly. (I don’t need to guess what their real-life relationships look like; I was married to someone who acted like that and yes, he was as bad in private as he was around those receiving his “words from the Spirit”.) If we get lucky, as they flounce away, having finally gotten the hint, they’ll limit their retribution to the snide flinging of smiley-laden threats of Hell and Bible verses at us, or post passive-aggressive Vaguebook whines about us.
Hopefully our rejection of a “Magic Christian” won’t lead to harassment, stalking, or the vandalizing of our stuff to demonstrate how true and “loving” Christianity is. And hopefully that rejection won’t make them vindictively drop all their pretenses at being “loving.” Once they realize they’ve been fully rejected, I’ve heard many Christians rationalize becoming outright abusive toward their victims by saying that they know they’re not hurting our salvation at all, since we’re totally “lost,” so they can start treating us the way they really wanted to treat us all along–because all that held them back before our rejection was the hope of selling us their supernatural snake oil.
Magic Christians Are Another Symptom of the Disease.
The Christians who intrude on others with their sage advice don’t usually care that their intrusions aren’t welcome. They privilege their religious desire to proselytize and beat their chests above their victims’ need to feel safe and unmolested. They don’t care that we find what they’re doing to be creepy, unloving, and off-putting. They don’t care that they’re doing a lot of damage both to their religion’s credibility and to their own relationships. Because their culture is so full of these sorts of stories that end with a conversion and a happy ending, they’d rather take the chance that their behavior will be rejected (asking forgiveness rather than permission), and then get miffed or sullen when we don’t play along. If they cared about any of these errors they make, I’d expect an apology and to see a change, but I’ve never even had a Christian apologize for trying to “Magic Christian” me so I wouldn’t know what that looks like. (Your mileage &c.)
We are right to feel annoyed or angry when this happens. We are allowed to preserve our boundaries. We are not obligated to entertain every nut with a story or to listen to stuff that offends or aggravates us. We are not required to humor zealots at our own expense. We’re allowed to bow out of conversations we don’t like. We’re allowed to refuse proselytization attempts and to remove ourselves from situations that aren’t good for us.
We’re not obligated to justify our refusal to anybody, convince anyone that our reasons for deconverting are valid enough, or “earn” our escape from proselytization.
When this act happens to me, I try to remember that the folks doing it often don’t know better. They’re steeped in a church culture and mythology that constantly pushes the urgency of doing exactly what they’re doing, one that falsely inflates the success rate of this tactic. They’re indoctrinated to believe that if they don’t go to every length possible, that they are responsible for the eternal fates of everyone around themselves. They’re trained to think that the end justifies any means. They’re not taught to care about consent and they don’t tend to have the faintest idea what love really looks like. Worst of all, they’re taught that they have to scramble a few eggs to make an omelet, which is a phrase I heard personally while Christian. Could there possibly be a more certain recipe for abuse than this?
When these Magic Christians are people we care about or are related to, brushing them off can be doubly awkward (which is, I’m sure, one major reason they use the tactic in the first place). “Got it,” “Glad you’ve got that off your chest,” “I appreciate your concern,” and “If I have any questions I’ll let you know,” are all polite but unmistakable refusals, and we can repeat them as often as they’re needed.
Sincerity doesn’t excuse overreach; good intentions are not a shield rendering Christians immune from all criticism. But because “Magic Christians” tend to believe both of those things, I don’t think we’ll see an end to this form of overreach anytime soon.
It’s just so weird that a god who is as needy, as powerful, and as meddlesome as fundagelical Christians claim theirs is can’t find some better way of communicating with people. Isn’t it?
* In Christianese, you’ll often hear it phrased like this: “Sister Deanna, God laid a burden on my heart to share this with you today.” Sometimes the Christians doing this will pretend to have nooooooo idea why they were ordered to “share” this particular tidbit, or will even try to distance themselves from the “divine” wisdom being imparted because they know it’s going to sound offensive but they want to say it anyway. It all ends up sounding like cold or hot reading, though.
** The truth claims made by the religion turned out not to be, um, well, true, and we didn’t want to be part of something that bad for us especially if it isn’t true.
*** The funny thing is that there actually is one thing that most of us would actually find compelling, but it’s the one thing that no Christian is able to offer anyone!