Hold on to the good

Hold on to the good October 15, 2010

This post is addressed to one person in particular and I'm afraid I don't know his name.

Your name.

Your aunt, unfortunately, didn't mention either your name or hers when she drunk-dialed me Thursday to let me know I was at the top of the list of Bad People she's praying against due to my supposedly contributing to your doubts about the inerrancy and infallibility of the footnotes in the Scofield Reference Bible.

Your aunt was too intoxicated — three sheets to the wind on self-righteous indignation — for me to make a great deal of sense of your situation or hers. She is, I think, your father's sister, and she used to live in California, but now has an area code that Google tells me is in the really lovely part of Washington State. She seems to really enjoy telling people that if they believe in evolution then they don't believe in the Bible. And by "the Bible" she's apparently referring to some set of scriptures that includes the Complete Works of Hal Lindsey.

She's kind of a piece of work, your aunt. Has this unfortunate habit of asking questions that turn out not to be questions, because when you start to answer them she cuts you off and answers them for you in the way she imagines you were going to, whether or not it's anything like what you would ever have said. And then she criticizes you for giving such ghastly answers.

I discovered that I can be wonderfully patient with this kind of hectoring monologue for about 17 minutes and only moderately impatient for the next 10 minutes or so. After that, however, I discovered I really can't tolerate that sort of thing at all.

And I'm afraid your aunt had me on the phone much longer than 27 minutes. So that last little bit didn't go very well.

Is this ringing any bells? Because even though I can't offer a very clear description of your aunt, I think you're more likely to recognize her from my description than you would be to recognize yourself from her description of you.

What she told me about you was that you had rejected Jesus Christ. (She was quite emphatic about that word "rejected" — used it over and over.) She also said that you have come to believe that you don't need to love your neighbor or to care about anybody other than yourself. Your decision to renounce Jesus and to become a nihilistic narcissist, according to your aunt, was largely due to the pernicious influence of this blog which, she told me, you've been reading for eight years now.

Let me pause a moment to say thank you for that.

Eight years is about as long as I've been doing this, and I thank you for sticking with me all this time, even when I seem to be repeating myself or when I veer off into long tangents in which I forget that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for Reinhold Niebuhr or subsidiarity or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, again, thank you.

But I don't trust your aunt when she tells me that you've become a self-centered antichrist. That redundant term is my paraphrase. Your aunt wouldn't use the word "antichrist" in the biblical sense. What she said was that you didn't care for anybody but you.

I don't believe her. If you really believed that, if you were convinced that you don't need to love your neighbor and that you don't need to care about others then I can't imagine why you'd want to keep reading a blog that says otherwise. Plus I would really, really hope that this blog did not play a role in convincing anyone not to love their neighbor, since "love your neighbor" is supposed to be kind of a central theme here (even in the bits on Niebuhr, subsidiarity or Buffy — especially in those bits, actually).

Seriously, though, don't get this wrong. "Love your neighbor" is the one thing you can't afford to get wrong. Get everything else right but that wrong and you're still nothing and nowhere and no one. Get that right and you can get everything else wrong and still be OK.

And but so anyway, I don't know your name, but I'm hoping all of that will help you to recognize that it's you I'm talking to here, in particular. Because I very much want to tell you this one thing:

Test everything. Hold on to the good.

That's from the Apostle Paul, actually. It's a bona fide biblical commandment. Both parts of it. Test everything. Hold on to the good.

Note the difference between the first part and the second. "Test everything" is unconditional. What should we test? Everything. But the second part is conditional. We're not told to hold on to everything — only to "the good," only to that which withstands testing. Test everything and drop whatever can't pass the test. Let it go and don't look back.

But hold on to the good.

From the sound of what your aunt described, that's going to be the really tricky part for you, because she says you were always taught that everything must be accepted unconditionally — that it mustn't be tested and that it all, every bit of it, must be held on to forever. All of it or none of it.

I think you were probably taught some good things, but they seem to have been mixed in with a grab-dag of dubious claims and outright hokum. You learned about Jesus' boundless sacrificial love, but that came to you as part of a package deal tied up with 19th-century End-Times "prophecy" fever dreams and early-20th century young-earth creationism.

And, based on what I heard from your aunt, you were always told that the whole concoction was inseparable — an all-or-nothing, take-it-or-leave-it deal. Instead of being encouraged, or commanded, to test everything and hold on to the good, you were told that you must either hold on to everything or abandon it all. And you were told that these were your only possible choices.

I'm sorry you were taught that. It's wrong. It's factually wrong, biblically wrong and logically wrong. And teaching such a thing to a younger person is morally wrong. It's evil.

I'm afraid I may have used that word "evil" when speaking to your aunt, some time a bit after the 27-minute mark of her soliloquy. That was a bit harsher than I was trying to be, but it wasn't inaccurate. Or unearned. The all-or-nothing bill of goods she sold you when you were younger really is evil. It invites a crisis of its own making. It batters a child with a series of cruel non-sequiturs: If the earth is more than 6,000 years old, it says, then Jesus doesn't love you. If there weren't dinosaurs in Noah's flood, it says, then life is meaningless. If Isaiah was anything other than a carnival fortune-teller, whispering secrets to be decoded millennia later by the magic formula, then all hope is illusion.

This all-or-nothing mixture of sense and nonsense is a house built on sand. Eventually, it will be tested and it will fail the test. And it will fall with a great crash.

And that, your aunt says, is just what happened to the all-or-nothing house she helped to build for you. It fell with a great crash and she found that crash very upsetting. She had put a lot of work into that house, picking out just the right squishy spot on the sandbar, and now she's upset with you for letting it collapse and even more upset with me for cheering when it fell.

She doesn't yet realize what I think you've come to realize — that you couldn't live there. That rickety all-or-nothing edifice with its sandy foundation of fantastic heresies wasn't fit for human habitation. It couldn't withstand high tide, let alone hurricane season. It wasn't true. It wasn't good. It wasn't worth holding on to.

But the worst thing about that house wasn't just the obviously shoddy bits — the Lindseyian stubble or the young-earth creationist papier mache. The worst thing about that house was the all-or-nothing blueprint, the way the whole thing was built so that the sense would inevitably be dragged down with the nonsense, the truth dragged down with the lies, the beautiful with the ugly, the good with the bad.

The house is gone now. You don't need to stick with that all-or-nothing blueprint anymore. Pick through the rubble a bit and you'll find it's not all rubble. Some of it may be quite sturdy and useful. Some of it may be beautiful or valuable or necessary.

Sort through it all. Test everything. Hold on to the good.


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  • I might go back and imagine myself as captain kirk later, in the shower or something, but not usually , and never *during*.
    Because clearly I haven’t said enough on the subject, I agree with Ross on this. In fact, without going into detail, I would point out that:
    1. I often watch porn that features scenarios I would have zero interest in being involved with.
    2. I often watch porn that features scenarios that it would be physically impossible for me to be involved with.
    Porn-watching, for me, is primarily about visual stimulation, period.

  • Lonespark

    unleashing her wraith</i
    What an awesome skill!

  • Lonespark


  • MercuryBlue

    What fun would porn be if our porn consumption was restricted to that which we can imagine ourselves part of?

  • unleashing her wraith
    What an awesome skill!

    You wouldn’t believe what wraith leashes are going for these days. It’s the moonlight bounced off arctic ice that’s so expensive, what with the ice cap shrinking.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Slack, the subject of this drunk/crank call, the all-or-nothing Christian package of Evangelicals, is something that has been dissected and railed against over at Internet Monk for as long as you’ve been blogging. It was one of IMonk’s reasons and rants about “The Coming Evangelical Collapse”, a major contributor to the low retention rate among Evangelical Christian youth, one of the most common topics on that blog.
    Internet Monk, Christian Monist, everybody except the Evangelical pastors and preachers and deacons and teachers themselves has pointed this out.

  • storiteller

    I’m not good with pointy, pokey pain, so getting a tattoo would never be an option for me. Besides, I’d want it up my spine, which would be incredibly painful. But in terms of thoughtful tattoo inkings, one of my other favorite bloggers has a very thoughtful discussion of why she got each of the tattoos she did: http://www.alreadypretty.com/2009/10/reader-request-my-ink.html. I think if the only tattoos you’ve seen are a result of youthful indiscretion, reading about someone who has put great thought into it (as obviously many commenters here have) can be really eye-opening.

  • I’m not good with pointy, pokey pain, so getting a tattoo would never be an option for me.
    The sensation isn’t pokey and pointy, just for the record. More itchy and burny.

  • Bryan Feir

    I should never try catching up on this place four days later.
    Anyhow, bits and pieces:
    I found Slacktivist from, of all places, Bruce Schneier’s ‘On Security’ blog, where somebody had once jokingly posted a link here to the Left Behind takedowns. (In particular, Bruce was doing one of his usual comments about how the only real improvement in airplane security came from locking the cockpit doors, and everything else was just window dressing or actually making it worse; and somebody posted a comment about the ‘risk of your pilot being raptured mid-flight’ with a link to the LB posts here.)
    Me, I was raised with an Anglican church… two of my great-grandparents were ministers (one Anglican, one Presbyterian/United). I’ve never been a particularly religious person, but I was never given the sort of ‘you must believe it all or it’s all for nothing’ idiocy that prompted this post. Which is why I never had the sort of massive break from religion that some people did.
    Of course, most of my immediate family is fairly laid back, and tends to treat church more as ‘community/social centre’ than ‘religious dogma’. Heck, I even got my mother the church secretary playing Credo, once. (Then again, as Church secretary, she’d already seen far too much of the actual politics going on.)

    … paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 13:
    “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal …

    Oh man, I used to be in the Saanich District Youth Choir, and we once did a song based on that particular verse. I’ve got bits of the music going through my head now, with the line about ‘without charity’ being the closing one. Drat, I can’t remember much more than a few scraps now; I don’t suppose I might be lucky enough that anybody else might know the music?
    Tattoos in general:
    I know some people with them, including my sister; I find a properly done one can be quite attractive. (A friend of mine has a musical staff wrapped around her upper arm that is quite well-done.) I’d still never get one myself, but that’s just me.

    … Kelly Osbourne … She says that she got them for less than smart reasons (to rebel and get attention from her parents mostly)…

    I hope it’s not just me, but did anybody else get the immediate idea that for someone like Kelly Osbourne, finding a way to rebel against her parents must have been incredibly difficult? I’m well aware of the fact that her father’s stage act is mostly an act, but still, he’s got to be high up in the ‘seen everything already’ listings…

    I got my ears pierced many presidents ago and the holes still regularly get infections if I dare to actually put in rings in them.

    My mother has that sort of issue sometimes: she has to use pretty much pure gold studs, 14K gold causes a reaction.

  • did anybody else get the immediate idea that for someone like Kelly Osbourne, finding a way to rebel against her parents must have been incredibly difficult?

    Not really – she could have declared her personal hero to be Mary Whitehouse or Margaret Thatcher. Her rebellion could have easily been of the Family Ties variety where the liberal parents have conservative children. Or it could have been a musical rebellion, where she decorates her room with Mantovani posters.

  • @Bryan Feir: Leave this place for even a few hours and it can be impossible to stay on top of. :O

  • Regarding the distinction between moral and ritual law that some Christians make there’s actually some minimal Biblical basis for this. Some sections of the Bible use the word “mishpat” to describe some rules and the word “chok” to describe others. It seems from context and classical Jewish commentaries that a mishpat is a law that humans can see a rational basis for (i.e. don’t steal) whereas a chok is a law that humans cannot see the rational basis for (e.g. the laws of the red heifer). This isn’t precisely the distinction they want but it does make that theological claim a bit more plausible.
    Curiously, none of the people who make the claim seem to be aware of this tidbit…

  • Oh man, I used to be in the Saanich District Youth Choir, and we once did a song based on that particular verse. I’ve got bits of the music going through my head now, with the line about ‘without charity’ being the closing one. Drat, I can’t remember much more than a few scraps now; I don’t suppose I might be lucky enough that anybody else might know the music?

    One of the most significant brazilian rock bands has such a song, and it’s stuck in my head too. And I really don’t like the band. It’s not that they’re bad, they’re not, it’s just personal baggage about music from that period. It’s this one. But they mix biblical verses, and poetry from Luís de Camões (Portuguese poet from the 1500 century).

  • I notice Lee hasn’t made another appearance. Anyone want to bet whether or not he’s run away again?
    It is so frustrating to me. He’s smart, and knowledgable about some interesting things, but he remains determinedly ignorant about how to communicate with people around here. Gah.

  • She says that she got them for less than smart reasons (to rebel and get attention from her parents mostly)
    I just want to say that rebelling against your parents in your teens can be smart. It’s a time when the boundaries need to get redrawn if the relationship is going to stay healthy, and rebellion is part of that. Long-term, it can be good for all of you.
    Not a reason to get a tattoo specifically, but I think teen rebellion deserves some respect. Just because it’s age-typical doesn’t mean it’s not also appropriate to circumstances.

  • I agree with Kit that rebellion is healthy for teens.
    I had it easy – I got my ears pierced and declared I didn’t like opera (which isn’t actually true and wasn’t as much of a stand as I thought, but never mind).
    I am reminded of the line from AbFab: in response to Edina’s frustrated “why won’t you REBEL?” Saffy gives a little smirk and says “oh, I thought I was.”

  • It is so frustrating to me. He’s smart, and knowledgable about some interesting things, but he remains determinedly ignorant about how to communicate with people around here. Gah.
    It continually frustrates me how many people in the world are like that. You know they’d have interesting things to say if only they’d actually listen first once in a while. You can’t have a decent conversation with someone holding their fingers in their ears saying “La la la, I’m not listening” (or the metaphorical equivalent).

  • Catching up on this thread after being sick all weekend (breathless and gasping for air):
    @Kit: Good thoughts coming your way. It’s odd, because my parents were visiting a couple of weeks ago, and we had lunch with an old friend of theirs who is a psychologist, and she mentioned EMDR. And then my dad emailed me this article:
    Tattoos: I’m thinking about getting one just above my ankle that says “Dona Nobis Pacem”–Grant Us Peace. I’ve been thinking about it for a while. A friend of mine wants one that says “Practice Resurrection,” from a Wendell Berry poem. A classmate of mine in grad school had “theory” tattooed on one wrist and “praxis” on the other, and another friend of mine has “Yes” tattooed on hers (as in, “yes I said yes I will Yes”). We’re such nerds, all of us.

  • renniejoy

    sarah and Kit – hugs and feel better wishes.

  • Moriah

    Wasn’t me, but man, the concoction that poor sap apparently imbibed does sound AWFULLY familiar … *gagging noises*
    What most people don’t know is that being programmed NOT to test all things, by being programmed into thinking that imbibing that whole package deal hook line and sinker constitutes having all things tested and proven already, is more than just a recipe for misery. It’s a recipe for demonic possession. Or madness. Or both.