The Internet and the end of the evangelical bubble (again)

The Internet and the end of the evangelical bubble (again) December 13, 2012

First, a creepy bit of personal testimony from Joy Bennett in a post called “Shame Is a Prison, and I’m Breaking Out.” She tells of being summoned with her husband to a meeting in the pastor’s office at her local church:

He opened a manilla file folder and slid out a few sheets of paper. I spotted my name on the folder, Facebook-blue across the top of one page, and my blog header on another. My mind raced as I tried to process. The pastor has a file on me. My gut was right. They don’t like who I am.

… “Someone has brought your blogs and Facebook posts to my attention.” He pointed to the print-out of my Facebook wall and a couple of blog posts, peppered with underlines and notes.

“You shared a post on Facebook that supports egalitarian views of men and women, in direct opposition to our church’s teachings. You know that we believe men are to lead and women are to submit. We are asking you to stop sharing things that disagree with the teachings of our church.”

The whole story is disturbing, and I can’t begin to catalog all the ways in which this skeevy pastor’s behavior here is just wrong.

What I want to highlight is the way this little boy of the cloth holds in his hands the evidence of his undoing, and he doesn’t even seem to realize it.

He’s upset about something on the Internet, so he had the church secretary print it out. The print out was then placed in a file folder, which was carefully labeled and tucked away in the proper drawer.

This is how he handles information, how he keeps control of it. And this has been how he handles people and keeps control of them.

That used to work pretty well for him.

But this little pastor has probably dimly begun to notice that it doesn’t seem to be working quite as well anymore. The information seems to be getting out of his control.

And thus so are the people. They seem to be escaping from his folders.

Rachel Held Evans notes this same story from Joy Bennett as an example of how “the world is hearing the voices of women in a way it hasn’t before”:

Women are able to connect with one another, share their stories, build platforms, and garner followings — with or without the permission of the power structures that would otherwise regulate their voices.  No longer must a woman sit frightened and silent through a sermon that demeans her; now she can connect with women from around the world who understand and who are beginning to speak up.

Dan often encourages me with this reminder: I may be forbidden from speaking at the church down the street because of my gender, but through the blog, I often speak to more people in a day than pass through that church in a year.

The problem with that church down the street is not, as Joy Bennett’s former pastor put it, that there are some people who “disagree with the teachings of our church.” The problem is that such churches have no answer — no convincing argument with which to respond to those disagreements. In the past, controlling information worked so well that these churches have gotten out of the habit of even trying to respond. They were so good at avoiding and suppressing questions that they’ve forgotten how to answer them.

Pastors like that little man with his little folders seem to still think that the Internet is nothing more than a few sheets of paper that can be filed away and controlled. They think drawers can be shut and information can be locked away.

That’s not how the Internet works.

Those churches whose teachings depend on keeping their followers from ever hearing any alternative views — keeping everyone safely inside the evangelical bubble — won’t be able to survive unless they adapt and change. Either their views must change, or they must find a way to defend those views in a world in which alternative perspectives are never more than a click away.

See earlier:


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  • stardreamer42

    Facebook’s approach to online privacy has, shall we say, undergone significant mutation over time.  It used to be that only the people you had designated as “friends” could see anything you had posted, or view any of your personal information. Those days are long gone, as Mark Zuckerman found he could make tons of money by selling that information to anyone who was willing to pay. Now the default is that everything you put on it is public information unless you specifically go in and change the access levels. Three years ago was just about when that change was starting to occur.

    This gives us two possible scenarios: (1) someone on Joy’s friendslist made those printouts and gave them to the pastor; (2) things that Joy thought were not public (and which may not have been when she posted them) had recently become visible to anyone.

    Very few other blogging systems have any way of marking a post as “limited” or “private”. The only two I can think of which do are LiveJournal and DreamWidth. So her Blogger blog would have been publicly visible anyhow.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Twitter can lock all a person’s tweets to that person and the people they permit to see their tweets. But I’m not sure microblogs count as blogs, and it’s not possible to lock some tweets and not others without tweeting them from different accounts.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Because I read that and I read a chauvinistic pissant asking a woman to reach over his desk, grab his collar with one hand, and drive her knuckles into his face with the other.

    Please cut it out.

  • banancat

    If this person said that in good faith, they could use Google, read the comments on older posts, or just lurk awhile. Quite frankly, I have little patience for people who frame their victim blaming as just innocent naivete. If someone is unwilling to even make the effort to learn, I have no reason to think they would genuinely try to understand any explanation I give. You are included in this, as I could very much do without your victim blaming too.

  • LouisDoench

    It is a problematic term because the vast bulk of atheist organizing and activism in the past decade has happened “on the internet”. The internet is where our community primarily resides. Using “Internet Atheist” as a pejorative lumps pretty much the entire modern atheist/secularist/skeptic movement in with assholes like The Amazing Atheist or Justin Vacula. 

    And you cannot avoid the privilege dimension here.  Yes there are some vocal members of the Asshole Atheist community out there.  And we are working very hard to police our own in that respect.  But the majority doesn’t get to define the minority here. If an atheist tells you they don’t like the term,  maybe listen?

  • Mira

    I’m not sure who would run this meeting in my church – the single female head pastor, the female associate pastor who earned her PhD on Christian-Muslim interfaith education last year, or the female youth pastor who won’t perform legal marriages until our state doesn’t discriminate by sex. None of them really seem appropriate figures of patriarchal authority. But I suspect they all have much more important things to do than police the congregation anyway.

    Not saying this to gloat, but to say that being in Joy’s position is unimaginable to me, because having so few choices that a church like that seemed worth joining to me is unimaginable. On the other hand, there seem to be lots of people from evangelical bakgrounds who care about equality, but think joining a mainline church is unimaginable because we aren’t on fire for Jesus enough.

    This cultural divide within Christianity? So bizarre. We literally can’t put ourselves in other people’s positions, and I know almost no one on the “other side” in person. Maybe the “NALTs” should try to influence the fundamentalists from “within”, but if we never step into each other’s churches, it really feels like we’re on the outside.  People like Joy and Fred and Rachel are setting themselves up as translators, basically, which is an important role that we can’t all fill, and without which there can’t be any change, only further division.

  • Mary Kaye

    Suppose that you joined a church and it had some good people and some potentially good programs, but there were problems.  You rolled up your sleeves and worked hard–say, you revived the moribund kids’ program, and got the Friday dinners for the homeless rolling again.   And then the pastor tried to push you out.

    Sure, maybe it would be best to write all this off as sunk costs and leave.  But it’s *hard* and it can feel like letting the assholes win.

    I stayed with a dysfunctional Pagan group for quite a few years for just this reason.  I had put in a lot of work, we had done some really good things, and I didn’t want to let the assholes win.

    Honestly I think I prefer a view that says “*we* are the church, and if the pastor is an asshole we’ll try to get a new pastor” to one that says “the church belongs to the pastor, and if he’s bad we’ll find a new church.”  

  • 1) Both she and her husband had voluntarily agreed to be under the authority of this church, this pastor. Apparently they had been for some time, since the pastor said that they were “influential in the church” — that’s not a newcomer.

    The article explicitly stated they had only been members of the church for a few months. How long you must attend services prior to being a member varies from church to church; I’ve seen as little as one month to as much as six months, but none more than that. 

    When the pastor said they were “influential in the church”, that read to me as more of an attempt at manipulation and guilt than a neutral admission of fact. The entire meeting reeked of deliberate, planned attempts at emotional manipulation and coercion. 

    2) It is not at all certain that her husband did have her back when push came to shove in this confrontation. She says that he sat several feet away from her, too far for physical contact… as though he was symbolically distancing himself from his “troublemaker” wife.

    The article stated this meeting took place in the pastor’s office, which means the physical arrangement of things like chairs would be set by the pastor. Which means it was the pastor who set the two chairs more than three feet apart, the pastor who isolated the husband from his wife. 

    I’m not sure standing up and walking out right then was genuinely an option for either of them at that point.

    I agree, but for different reasons. The entire scene was built around power and authority on one side, isolation and shame on the other. 

    The couple enter the private office of the pastor; his space. It’s filled with trappings of authority: the large desk, the books, the framed diploma/certificate/etc. The couple are directed to sit, in two leather chairs with armrests, placed more than three feet apart from each other. The pastor isn’t talking yet. He takes a sip of water, brings out a labeled folder, and lets the couple get a hint of the contents, but still doesn’t start talking. Instead, he pauses for a brief prayer and takes another sip of water to draw out the silence. Then the pastor of their new church, in his office, wearing the collar, talks first about the church’s views (women should submit to men), talks about how it’s wrong for a woman to question this publicly, and concludes by asking her to submit to his request! If she does anything at all except agree to the pastor’s demand, she is “failing to submit”. 

    It’s pretty straightforward manipulation and intimidation, it’s just disheartening to see it employed by a spiritual leader against members of his congregation.

  • LL

    I should probably point out now that my mother did not grow up in the church she attends now. She started going to it in her 40s, while we were in high school. She wasn’t raised batshit crazy Baptist. Her father was Catholic (though he did later in life start going to … a Methodist church? something like that. He’s been dead for quite awhile now, so I don’t remember), but their family wasn’t super religiously observant. They probably went to church on Sundays, but this was in the 1940s and 1950s. 

    She wasn’t raised to believe most of the dumb shit she claims to believe now. In fact, through most of my childhood, she was decidedly not religious. She regrets that now, while I’m extremely grateful that I managed to get out of the house before she went all Super Funtime Christian. 

    So she doesn’t have the excuse that she was manipulated from childhood. She was a fully functioning, independent adult when she decided to embrace the crazy. She doesn’t see it as crazy, of course. And she’s not quite as bad now as she used to be, or maybe it’s because we’re all adults in our 40s and she knows if she started in with any really hardcore, frequent Jesus freak yapping, none of us would be talking to her nearly as often as we do now. My sister is a grandmother now. She doesn’t put up with any shit from my mother now. 

  • LL

    This. I’ve never even heard of this guy, so he can’t be too influential. 

    The truth is, a lot of atheists are mostly just attention whores. They like taking what they perceive to be the “subversive” viewpoint, but mostly just because they like to argue and feel superior to people. 

    And apparently, there is a giant problem with sexism among atheist males that I wasn’t aware of (because I don’t hang out with other atheists or join any of their organizations; maybe I need to, sounds like they need somebody to tell them to stop being douchebags). It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they really don’t sound any better than the woman-hating religious nutjobs. 

    Sadly, just because a person in enlightened in one aspect of their personality doesn’t mean they will be in anything else. I don’t get it, it doesn’t make any effing sense to be a sexist atheist, really, since atheists supposedly pride themselves on valuing reason and logic, but .. there it is. People are dumb. Atheists, too. 

  • Antigone10

    Define “a lot” if you please.

  • LL

    I assume it’s the same proportion as the number of attention whores in the general population. Feel free to define it yourself if you want. 

    Just working from my own observation, which may be different from yours. That’s why I wrote “a lot” instead of “most” or “all.” It’s just vague enough to not imply that it’s a defining characteristic of atheists, but not uncommon, either. 

    I’m atheist myself (if you have not gleaned that). So it’s not a fundy assessment of the atheist community. 

  • LL

    Man, I used the word “now” a lot. Sorry about that redundancy.

  • How long you must attend services prior to being a member varies from
    church to church; I’ve seen as little as one month to as much as six
    months, but none more than that.

    I went to my church for two years before becoming a member. My boyfriend, who has now been there for over six years, still keeps saying vaguely “Oh yeah… I really should become a member…”

    It’s not always a matter of qualifying; sometimes it’s just about getting around to it.

  •  Me, too. If I’d had a pastor make a demand like that, I think my first reaction would be flabbergasted silence, followed by a suggestion that he stop drinking so much or smoking whatever the hell he was using that gave him the notion he could regulate my opinions and personal life.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I think the drug in question is ‘religion’, honestly, because religious leaders who don’t feel themselves obligated to control their flock’s opinions and personal life seem to be vastly outnumbered by religious leaders who do.

    (I’m sure atheists have authoritarian types too, in fact I’d be astonished if we didn’t, but we don’t have the structure that lets those types take the reins.)

  •  I vaguely recall that my reaction to meeting with one of our pastors in his office with all the books on the shelves was “Cool! Can I borrow your books on Martin Luther? Project Gutenberg doesn’t have all of them.” I walked out of there with a bunch of books, including some additional textbooks from his seminary that he recommended reading for deeper levels of study. (Part of the reason I was meeting with him was that I was finding the standard bible studies too shallow and wanted to dig deeper into background material and theology. I was not aware that my level of inquiry was pretty much seminary-level studies until the pastor started handing me his old textbooks).

    Obviously, I and the pastor weren’t in disagreement at the time. Just commenting that I don’t find a wall of books intimidating–I want to read them.

  •  I suspect rather that we don’t hear about the pastors in religious denominations that quietly go about their business of counseling fellow congregation members and leading services (or hold Mass, if you’re Catholic). It’s the authoritarian jerks that get talked about on the Internet.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Fair point.

  • Hi Ursula, you are right that by staying in this sort of church, I was both victim and perpetrator. It’s a huge regret I have, but I also have to remember where I was personally at the time. I wrote a little about that context here. Basically my point is one that you probably already know – abusive authorities prey on the weak. And at the time, I was weak.