When I was just a wee little Space Princess, I first read Richard Adams’ novel Watership Down. It blew my mind. Between lavish worldbuilding and mythmaking, well-rounded and distinct characters, and an overarching plot that got me rearing to turn the book’s pages, I was hooked. One of its subplots became an existential horror for me, and I see that it became the same for lots of other ex-Christians. When we believed, we pretended to live in perfect safety, like we curled up in the palms of our god’s hands–just like the rabbits of one warren in Watership Down. In reality, however, we lived in the enemy’s warren. And we paid the price of the shining wire.
The Promise of Safety in Christianity.
One of the most potent promises Christian salespeople make involves safety. No matter what happens, they croon, their god will always be aware of it and will always work to his followers’ benefit to ease their burdens. Sure, life won’t be all tuna smoothies. Their imaginary friend sends rain to the just and unjust, amirite? But ultimately, the Christian god cares for his own. They can be sure of that. If nothing else, they’ll receive comfort and strength from their god–enough to endure those rainy days.
Following this god’s rules confers the most safety, of course. Leaders like Bill Gothard (also see Ann’s comment here, 3/7/14) and Rod Dreher promise evangelical parents that if they do what they’re told, then their kids will be safe from all the supposed evils of the secular world. These same hucksters promise women that if they follow their group’s rules, they’ll find safety (as well as lifelong, fulfilling marriages). And these hucksters promise adherents as a whole that their god will give them a leg up on life that non-adherents simply can’t get.
Thus, this god becomes a sort of cosmic safety net. Even if it fails, at least he’ll try to cheer ’em up, right?
It’s a nonexistent safety net, but to most of the people grabbing for Christianity’s straws, it’s more than they had before. The idea of going out into life without a god at their back scares them. They don’t understand how non-believers do it. They’re grateful that they don’t have to find out how we do it.
Most of all, they act frightened that maybe one day they’ll have to find out for themselves.
The Greater Promise in Prosperity Gospel Groups.
In the hands of prosperity gospel hucksters, the Christian god becomes rather more than a safety net. And most evangelical leaders fully buy into the ideas behind prosperity gospel, even if they criticize its more overt elements. They must, because only terror and greed motivate their addled and exhausted flocks by now.
Those undergirding ideas involve their god allowing greater fortune to obedient adherents. That obedience, of course, requires adherents to be very generous with their resources. But that generosity, the hucksters insist, only shows their god that they’re serious. It’s not done for the hucksters’ sole benefit. Oh no, of course not!
If someone disobeys, by the same token, then their god rips away his protection and grace until the adherent falls back into line. Such a person fears “bad luck” after disobeying. And the tribe hammers hard at that fear by predicting misfortunes aplenty and even gloating in advance in anticipation of them, often right in front of the person they deem disobedient! The worst ones actively try to make misfortunes come about, all under the guise of Christian love.
The only way for a straying sheep to find safety again is to apologize profusely and become fully compliant, though the rest of the flock will probably distrust that person for quite a while.
Only compliance saves them from earthly and supernatural retaliation. So Christian extremists go to the wall in enforcing it however they can.
That quality is what reminded me of this story from the 1972 novel Watership Down.
AVAST! HERE THAR BE SPOILERS!
A Plush Warren.
At the beginning of the book, a group of rabbits flee their dying warren. Defying great dangers and trials, they seek another suitable place to live. Along the way, a strange rabbit, Cowslip, encounters them. This big, sleek, “aristocratic” rabbit invites them to join the nearby warren in which he lives.
This kindness confuses the wandering hero-rabbits, particularly their leader Hazel. But they take Cowslip up on the offer. There, they discover a huge, gorgeous, luxurious warren with many
rooms burrows and a rabbit population far smaller than it could hold. The regal rabbits living there have more than enough space and food to share with these bedraggled newcomers. It’s a shocking and welcome turnaround in their fortunes to date.
That said, the new warren operates in confusing and disturbing ways. These rabbits don’t have a Chief Rabbit, nor guards. But they explain that they also don’t have any real enemies around the area, so there’s nothing for a Chief Rabbit or guards to do, really. A human living nearby shoots anything that might harm them and lays excellent food out for them even in cold or inclement weather. They simply must travel a short distance to get it, that’s all, along a well-traveled path from the edge of their forest to his fields. It’s a hassle, but far less of one than finding their own food.
There’s more. These warren rabbits create “Shapes” (mosaics) on their warren walls depicting scenes from the myths of rabbitkind. They sing to their young like birds, pick up the farmer’s food in their mouths to carry it home like dogs, and laugh like humans. Some of it makes even less sense: greeting-dances, the weird stories they tell, and their dislike of much of the rabbits’ mythology.
These differences all but terrify our hero-rabbits.
The Strangest Part.
Most of all, these new rabbits hold to one major rule:
They permit no questions asking where anything or anybody is.
They interrupt any rabbit trying to bring up off-limits topics, sometimes brusquely.
Though baffled, our hero-rabbits learn quickly and try to fit in.
The heroes’ prophet, Fiver, doesn’t like or trust these new rabbits. He refuses to bunk down in their warren, which annoys everyone mightily.
Despite their new home’s jarring elements and Fiver’s hostility, the seduction of easy living and safety lulls the hero-rabbits’ senses. They decide to settle in. One of the warren rabbits, Strawberry, even becomes a good friend to Hazel.
Eventually, Fiver decides to leave. He’d rather strike out on his own, as dangerous as that will surely be, than stay there. Hazel’s right-hand-bunny, Bigwig, loses his top and yells at Fiver for wrecking things for the rest of them, then runs back to the warren in a fury. To get there, he takes the path the rabbits habitually use to fetch the farmer’s gifts.
As he dashes away down that path, Bigwig springs a trap–a snare–recently set along it.
With lightning accuracy and strength, the trap coils a noose around his neck, holding it there by means of a shining wire tied ’round a wooden spike pounded into the ground. The more Bigwig struggles, the tighter the wire’s noose becomes. But Bigwig survives the initial impact and manages to tell the other rabbits to dig out the peg so he can twist free of the shining wire.
Immediately, Hazel sends some of his rabbits, including Fiver, back to the warren to get help from their hosts.
But back at the
ranch warren, their hosts ignore the frantic hero-rabbits, even turning their backs on them.
Eventually, Cowslip attacks Fiver to shut him up and drive him out of their warren.
Does this sound familiar at all?
“A Story for El-Ahrairah to Cry At.”
Once the rabbits dig Bigwig’s peg free and he comes to his senses again, some of the hero-rabbits decide to fight the warren rabbits and seize the warren for themselves.
It is a horrified Fiver who sets them straight by revealing the true enormity of their situation:
Long ago, a local farmer discovered this warren. Rather than destroy it, he decided to farm it. He made sure the rabbits there were safe and well-fed.
And every so often, he’d take one for himself with the shining wire.
He never caught too many at once. The losses were never more than a regular warren would lose anyway to disease or predation or old age. But the rabbits had no defense against this one threat, and no way of knowing when the farmer would set his trap–and when, consequently, a simple food run would end in the death of one of them.
To deal with the horrific grief and trauma of loss, they tacitly created a rule about never asking about anyone who’d gone missing or about their whole situation.
They forgot their natural ways, because none of it benefited them or protected them from the one danger they faced, the shining wire. But they also adopted strange customs, twisting inward in grief and helplessness, and tried to pretend that their situation was actually beautifully dignified rather than a soul-crushing perversion.
Skewing the Odds.
The warren rabbits succumbed to a languor of the spirit, and worse, to a sort of callousness and disregard for those who suffered and died, much like how evangelicals look down on the poor and marginalized today, mistreat them, and even blame them for their own misfortune. I wonder if the author of Watership Down, Richard Adams, would have touched on that contempt and victim-blaming eventually, had the warren subplot lasted longer.
But for all their self-congratulatory blather, the warren rabbits’ home really isn’t safe. It’s got one very significant danger–one that is both unpredictable and, as far as anybody knows, unstoppable. If the warren rabbits acknowledge it, it becomes real–and something that needs addressing. And if they ever leave, they’ll face life out in the big bad world, away from even their current mostly-safety and almost-security. They’ll never be able to keep their losses so low as this, nor their health and comfort as good.
All they must do is put up with the deep-down knowledge that they have achieved this grand living at the expense of their integrity. It is no longer the swiftest or cleverest rabbit who survives to the next day. It is simply the luckiest. Their safety rests in hands they neither understand nor can fully trust.
When the hero-rabbits arrived, the warren rabbits realized that it would only work to their benefit to add them to the group.
They’re not being generous at all in inviting the new rabbits to stay there with them. They’re simply skewing the odds a bit better in their own favor.
The Shining Wire of Christianity.
I have another story for you.
Many centuries ago, some anonymous scribes created a mythology. They added to their mucky stew elements of Judaism, mystery religions, Hellenic-style paganism, and a whole lot of the philosophy being developed right there at home in Jerusalem. They seasoned their story with Jewish rage at the Romans occupying their area and just for good measure threw in some prophecies about how they were totally gonna kick those meanies’ asses–one day anyway.
Maybe they always intended it to be a sparkling riff on the heroic epics popular at the time, or perhaps the undergirdings of some grandly Gnostic faith dealing almost exclusively in metaphors, but then some riffraff came along and began taking it seriously. Who knows? We just know that after a few decades, that’s exactly what happened. And it’s how the religion runs today, for the most part.
But Christian leaders everywhere face a big, big problem. Well, several big problems, actually.
They don’t actually have a real live god caring for their flocks. In fact, they can barely even pretend to behave like they take their own claims seriously. Nor do they have magical powers, as their mythology dictates that they should. As for the miracles they claim all the time, every single time we’ve investigated one we’ve found it to be either a shameless lie or a desperate exaggeration.
The results of all this prevarication and obfuscation: flocks that live under a very tenuous assurance of safety that doesn’t exist, and in hopes of divine comfort that can’t ever happen.
The Sheer Existential Horror of False Safety.
It makes me scream inside to imagine it.
Everything seems on-the-level. Everyone looks happy and they smile super-wide. People sing songs about all the benefits they think come to them as a result of their obedience to their god. Preachers–always men–thunder from pulpits across the whole world about those benefits, and threaten their revocation in case of disobedience.
And then someone gets hit with the shining wire–out of the blue, just going about their business. They did everything right, followed the rules, performed all the necessary devotions–but the snare caught them all the same. This day was no different than all the other days–except that it ended with a snare ’round the throat.
What will the rest of the tribe do when they get wind of this misfortune? If they ever perceive that one of their own, who they saw constantly doing all the right things, got smacked in the face with something that should never happen to the obedient?
And what does it mean for them–for their families–that their obedience and devotion don’t actually protect them? Or that the dangers very often come from within the sheepfold rather than outside it?
Responding to the Shining Wire.
When misfortune and hardship strike, I’ve seen several general responses from Christians all up and down the religion.
Maybe they’ll offer the victim–or the victim’s survivors–some hearty platitudes about it raining on the just and unjust, and tell that poor sap to think very hard at the ceiling for comfort to endure the hardship.
However, these platitudes are just that: words, words, words. They mean nothing. There’s no magical god lobbing magical comfort at anybody in farcical aquatic ceremonies. That’s the whole point, the whole problem that Christians have.
The only comfort sufferers have is what they can work themselves up into through euphoric ecstasy–because no imaginary friends really exist to enfold them in loving arms and cast safety nets at their feet. Maybe they’re lucky enough to have support from their very real community members.
But probably not. People don’t usually join Christianity to serve, but to enjoy being served.
The Myth of Inconstant Comfort.
When anybody in the tribe dares mention that their promised divine comfort is nowhere to be found, the tribe’s response never varies. As one Christian reveals, the tribe can lay hands very easily on a number of ways to blame sufferers who dare mention not feeling comforted at all:
- They didn’t ask to be comforted, so obvs their god won’t give it to them even if they desperately need it.
- Their god didn’t like how distrustfully they acted, so he’s giving them the silent treatment. THEY KNOW WHY.
- A total lack of divine comfort, in Christian-Land, looks identical to divine comfort, but ugh, lesser subhuman Christians don’t realize that.
- These spoiled brats today just don’t appreciate the value of suffering for its own sake. See, sometimes their god lets them suffer without comfort to make a point.
But she cautions her readers against sounding too callous about blaming sufferers for voicing a lack of divine comfort:
Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering. I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.
And her nonexistent god’s nonexistent fields will be very much barren in all cases.
If the sufferer can’t even pretend to have received divine comfort, the tribe proceeds along to the next dance.
They blame the victim of that misfortune for having Jesused all wrong. That’s obvious. If obedience brings benefits, then someone who obviously didn’t get the benefits must not have provided the required obedience. Tit for tat, quid pro quo, res ipsa loquitur, ad infinitum.
If the calamity was serious enough, they ghost the victim and simply never discuss that person or contact them ever again. They don’t need to agree to do this; it’s just part of how churches work. They’ve seen plenty of people vanish without word by now. It must be exhausting for them to seek those people out to ask them for the equivalent of an exit interview. Perhaps that sufferer will tell them things they really don’t want to hear. Better not to ask.
The snare gets re-set to spring another day.
Living With the Threat.
In reality, it’s not the most devoted Christian who escapes harm, nor the most fervent, nor the most knowledgeable. It’s simply the luckiest.
Christians still face all the usual dangers everyone faces–perhaps even more than those outside the sheepfold!–but now they’ve lost the ability to assess and evaluate threats, as well as the ability to proactively defend against those threats. Worse, they lose their ability to respond constructively afterward.
Instead, their toolbox contains only a few self-protection tools.
They can think very hard at the ceiling to a god who doesn’t exist for help as they go through their lives. And then they can ask the ceiling to comfort them when no gods help them go through their lives. Between-times, they’re sitting ducks in the fields. At all times, they must Jesus as hard as they can, because doing anything less means their god won’t help them. Except he won’t anyway, because he isn’t real and can’t help anybody.
And if anybody is boorish enough to bring up any of those facts, any of them at all, the tribe will tear that fool apart and drive them out. They’ll brook no discussion of any of it.
The Only Way to Win.
In Watership Down, Fiver convinces the hero-rabbits that they must leave. Every day they stay is another day that they might be sucked into this strange warren’s dreamy, otherworldly existence, and then die alongside these long-eared lotus-eaters.
As they prepare–and Bigwig rallies his strength for the night’s journey–Strawberry barrels at them. He’s in a state of shock, it seems.
He asks to go with them. At first, they refuse. But then:
Strawberry gave a kind of choking squeal, as though he had been wounded. He looked from Silver to Hazel and then to Fiver. At last, in a pitiful whisper, he said,
That’s when the hero-rabbits realize that this poor wretch is willing to do whatever it takes to reject his programming. He’s just uttered the one phrase that his tribe has always impressed upon him NEVER to say.
So they take him in hand, and leave that whole area.
Friends, that is literally the only way that anybody can “win” against a broken system. Reject its foulness. Leave that ash-choked land to the people pretending it’s a glorious meadow for the grazing. Mourn the false promises, yes, and then prepare to explore a whole new world.
NEXT UP: An up-and-coming apologist aims some truly stunningly bad advice to Christian parents. We’ll explore it next time. See you soon!
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