The Adventures of Thom Rainer and the Strawman.

The Adventures of Thom Rainer and the Strawman. July 22, 2016

Normally you’d think that inaccuracies in Christians’ perception of others is just their problem. But their cultural flaws have a tendency of creating headaches for other people, too, not just for themselves. While they’re making strawmen about non-Christians and wrestling with their fictional creations, they’re getting an entirely wrong idea of what we’re really like and why we reject their claims and sales attempts.

Today I want to talk about why Christians misrepresent us so often.

(Credit: , CC-SA license.)
(Credit: Funk Dooby, CC-SA license.)

Seven Common Pipe Dreams.

Recently we talked about a blog post by Thom Rainer–well, two posts, I suppose, since he posted it back in 2012 and then was apparently so impressed with his own brilliance and insight that he recently reposted it again on another Christian site, from whence it got picked up by The Friendly Atheist. It was called “Seven Common Comments Non-Christians Make About Christians,” though more properly it should have been called “Seven Comments That Thom Rainer Desperately Wishes Non-Christians Would Make About Christians” because nothing on his “common” list bore any relation whatsoever to anything any non-Christians had ever really said to or about Christians.

If you read the comments from non-Christians on any of the links I gave you just now, you’ll notice very quickly that many of us wrote replies that were bristling with anger and annoyance at being misrepresented.

But Thom Rainer wasn’t particularly seeking to communicate with any of us. We weren’t his target audience. He didn’t especially care about what we had to say. That’s why he didn’t hear a single one of us over the years that we tried to make him aware of how badly he’d missed the mark.

He wasn’t talking to us. He was talking to rank-and-file Christians. And they certainly heard him loud and clear!

He didn’t write those posts to facilitate better communication between two groups that seem more and more dissimilar by the day. No, he wrote these “common comments” to encourage his target audience of right-wing Christians to get their asses out there and sell, sell, sell.

His tribe, the Southern Baptist Convention, has finally realized that they’re having a serious problem attracting new members and retaining existing ones. They think that more frequent (and more fervent) proselytization will fix both of these problems, but they know that most evangelicals have a tough time actually getting out there and doing that because (as this sweetheart of a Christian notes) they know perfectly well that evangelism isn’t well-received by most non-Christians.

Thom Rainer’s puff piece was supposed to be a hot beef injection of courage. He created a picture of non-believers that looked a lot better than reality to encourage Christians to proselytize more often.

And then he shook that moneymaker till it dropped from exhaustion.

Talking Past Each Other.

When someone misrepresents a position in order to better combat it, that’s called making a strawman.

This strawman is much easier to defeat than the opponent’s real opinion or position. Typically the strawman is a position that is over-simplified or exaggerated into utter absurdity, or else a misrepresentation of what the other side thinks or feels. The strawman might also take the form of mockery that might not be technically untrue but causes such an uproar that the actual point of the argument is lost as the opponents squabble over the mocking terminology itself.

Someone who makes a strawman often, but not always, cares a lot more about achieving some personal victory than about achieving real communication. Occasionally this mischaracterization erupts out of innocent ignorance, too, because unfortunately, such arguments are painfully easy to create even by people who genuinely want to communicate.

You can bet your bippie that both Christians and non-Christians complain about their various positions getting made into strawmen by their opponents. Sometimes these accusations are based in reality; sometimes they’re not. I see false accusations of strawmanning more commonly from Christians than from non-Christians; non-believers seem to have a much firmer and more accurate picture of Christianity than Christians have of non-belief, particularly since many of us actually used to be Christians (while Christians who claim to have totally once been atheists tend not to even use the same definition of “atheist” that atheists themselves use).

But sometimes we strawman too, so it’s important to make sure that what we’re arguing against really is the opinion our conversation partners actually hold. If we want to really communicate, we’ve got to move past that mental masturbation. And if we want to persuade, we’re going to have a tough time doing that if the other person feels they are being totally misrepresented.

(It’s really hard to fix a problem if you don’t even know what it is.)

Ulterior Motives.

The strawman Thom Rainer is building of non-believers allows him to encourage his flocks to proselytize. Real non-Christians aren’t actually very interested in entertaining Christian salespeople, which we know because precious few non-Christians are converting into the religion; most conversions are happening laterally across Christian groups, not coming in from outside the sheepfold. By contrast, Mr. Rainer’s version of non-believers are downright mystified by TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and so mesmerized by Christians’ Jesus-auras that they welcome proselytization attempts.

The strawman is meant to make Christians feel more confident about proselytizing. When Thom Rainer was interviewing all those non-Christians, he wasn’t just hanging out with them. His post wasn’t about being friends with non-Christians, or becoming more compassionate toward us, or even about understanding our concerns better. It was about evangelizing us. He drives that point home by writing at the very beginning of his post (emphasis mine), “my joy comes from listening to those who don’t believe as I do, so I might be better equipped to witness to them.”

A Coffee Date with People to Be "Loved."
A Coffee Date with People to Be “Loved.”

Just as Preston Sprinkle is with his deceptive coffee dates, Thom Rainer’s in it for an ulterior motive.

I’m not all that surprised to learn of his ulterior motive; he is, after all, one of the leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)–and the President of LifeWay Christian Resources, which is the publishing and media arm of the SBC and the operator of a huge chain of Christian bookstores. Obviously he’s focused on evangelism. But it’s weird that he’d flat-out admit that what really makes him happy about interacting with non-believers is figuring out how to sell better to us.

If Thom Rainer invites you to coffee and you aren’t a fundagelical, you might want to make sure you have your own transportation there if you accept the offer, is my advice!

What he wrote isn’t much different from a person who says “I like to take people out to expensive restaurants so I have a better chance of signing them up for the multi-level marketing (MLM) scam I’m involved in.”

The good news is, fewer and fewer fundagelicals seem to be getting encouraged by these exhortations. This constant drumbeat of “SELL SELL SELL” has been hammered at them for years, but somehow we’re still surrounded by Christians who are painfully shy about sharing their “good news.” (Not that I’m complaining!) I hear a lot of rumblings from the trenches about how the instructions they’re getting aren’t very helpful. The few people who try to put these exhortations into action discover very quickly that they don’t have much luck selling this supposedly-wonderful, supposedly-in-demand product!

The Message is Not Perfect (in a Broken System).
The Message is Not Perfect (in a Broken System).

But Thom Rainer himself pushes his denomination’s party line about non-believers as hard as he can–and his target audience certainly thinks he’s giving them accurate information about us despite their own lack of personal success selling their product to us. When those true-blue believers fail utterly to convert tons of people based on the techniques they’ve learned from their teachers and pastors, they can be counted upon to blame themselves rather than the ineffective sales techniques and inaccurate market information they’ve learned. The comment by “lifetimechurchperson” in the above link is a perfect example of that self-blame; he’s been in the religion for decades, hasn’t made a single sale, and is totally convinced that it’s all his own fault:

. . .no one told me to expect the kind of rejection and opposition I experienced – from being verbally abused and threatened by the parent of one of my friends to constantly being asked to “prove it” by other unbelievers in my peer group. I’ve kept trying, but I cannot think of one person I have “led to the Lord” through my witnessing efforts over the years. I am ashamed. I’ve tried my best, but I have nothing to show for all my efforts in “personal evangelism”. I try to comfort myself by saying it’s not me they are rejecting but Jesus, but the truth is that after they reject Jesus by rejecting my testimony about Him, rejecting me quickly comes behind.

He seems like a decent enough sort, and it must weigh upon him very badly that he hasn’t made any sales–especially when he appears to be doing everything exactly the way he’s been taught. I was similarly saddened and frustrated by my own lack of success when I was Christian. Now I know a little more about why and how I failed, and that it wasn’t actually entirely my fault. In great part my failure, that of “lifetimechurchperson,” and those of countless other Christians are the fault of a broken system.

Stated vs. Real Goals.

Ultimately, fundagelical Christians are salespeople. Officially, they want to sell their product–Christianity–to non-believers. Officially, their goal is to persuade those non-believers to purchase their product by converting to Christianity, living by its rules, and becoming active and obedient members of the correct group(s).

But the way that vast majority of Christians go about this sales effort seems so lackluster, so barbaric, so failed, so doomed, so counter-productive, so seldom successful, and so disastrously backfiring that I have begun to strongly suspect that something else is happening. If they really wanted to reach their goal, they certainly could have achieved it long before now, with the sheer numbers they have. For all their hand-wringing as a group, Christians aren’t getting good advice about how to sell their religion, and as Thom Rainer himself has inadvertently demonstrated, this problem has been ongoing for years. Worse, the obstacles Christians describe today as holding them back from selling their religion are ones that my old church peers and I would have found completely familiar.

I’m forced to conclude that there’s another salesmanship goal going on here.

And the only other one I can see is the one being made by Christian leaders to their own followers.

Unofficially, these leaders seem to want most of all to sell their sales techniques to their followers in the exact same way that an MLM upline wants to sell motivational tapes to their downline.

Thom Rainer creates this fairy-tale version of non-believers to sell his narrative of evangelism being totally easy and welcome. The flocks buy it, because this strawman image fits into their cultural myth about the “good news” being compelling, fascinating, and persuasive to everyone.

Of his audience, some are Christians so brash and outgoing that they were already screaming evangelism from the rooftops. When these “turn or burn/fly or fry” types see Thom Rainer’s strawman about non-believers being friendly and welcoming to Christianity’s sales pitch, they will feel smugly confident that they are on the right path. They already see only what they want to see.

Other Christians were always too shy and reticent to evangelize, and they will remain so despite this strawman’s encouraging gestures. But now they’ll feel extra guilty and ashamed for not doing what their religion says they should be doing. They’ve just gotten confirmation that “the harvest is waiting,” to use Mr. Rainer’s creeptastic phrase, and they will agonize over being unable to rescue their loved ones and friends from the oncoming bus their mythology says is barreling down on everyone. Their guilt and fear will keep them in the pews long after their disbelief flickers to life and finds its fuel.

But a middle ground of believers will tentatively try to put these ideas into motion by evangelizing. These middle-ground Christians are the ones Thom Rainer seems to want to reach; they weren’t evangelizing before hearing the exhortation because they didn’t think it’d do any good, but with his rallying cry perhaps they’ll feel so guilty that they’ll at least try to make some sales.

Oh, sure, the chances are good that almost all of them will fail. Again, most of the converts coming into churches are coming in from other churches or from a lapsed-Christian background. But maybe a few of them will actually succeed in converting someone. And with some 90-100 million Americans being evangelical, as Wheaton College estimates (Gallup thinks it’s half of that, and I suspect it’s fewer still, but that’s still a lot of evangelicals), even a minuscule success rate would go a long way toward reversing the decline of the SBC.

I see ample evidence of SBC leaders admonishing pastors and laypeople alike to do their best to convert just one person each every year. And they’ve been talking that way for years! They may fret about the sincerity of those that are converted and worry about “cultural Christians,” but the emphasis is on getting Christians to SELL, SELL, SELL. And that emphasis is sold on the back of a message about a world that is downright eager to buy Christians’ product.

But if that message is false–if Christians have an impression of non-Christians that simply isn’t true–that leaves them high and dry.

All’s Not Actually Fair in Love and Sales.

Like many non-believers do nowadays, I notice and appreciate it when Christian friends don’t treat people like targets or sales marks. A lot of Christians know that if we want to know something about their religion, we’ll ask. Otherwise, they’ll just love us where we stand–just like any other real friend would. Indeed, that exact scenario has happened on this very blog many times.

It’s downright refreshing when Christians actually listen to us when we share our lives and thoughts with them. It’s not like we’re hard to figure out when someone has ears to hear. Most people want to know and be known to the people we care about. But it’s weird how the reality of non-belief doesn’t even remotely look how Thom Rainer thinks it looks, and it’s weird how many Christians seem to buy into that false picture despite how easy it’d be to learn the truth.

This is one strawman that hurts everyone–except the people creating and then marketing that strawman to Christian salespeople! It staggers me to imagine all the soured relationships and emotional distancing created by this one misrepresentation alone. The only parties to come out of this disastrous marketing campaign are the people at the top–as usual.

Coming up next week, we’ve got Preston Sprinkle’s innovative ideas about marriage, what real listening looks like, and an explanation for interested Christians about why so many non-Christians don’t see the Great Command as being compatible in the least with the Great Commission. Whew! Talk about ambitious!

We’ll see you next time!

(Credit: MCAD Library, CC license.)
(Credit: MCAD Library, CC license.) Caption game! “You may think Jesus loves you, Miss Swanson, but so does Apollo–and he’s a hottie.”
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