Saturday, 14 January 2012

The Christian Bubble

Over the past few months, I've been listening a little to Christian author & teacher Joyce Meyer (don't ask, it's a long story).  If, per chance, you don't know who she is I should mention, before I go much further, that Meyer is one of the most popular evangelical leaders alive today.  Time Magazine once named her one of the "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America".  I knew who she was, while I was a Christian, but (ironically) I have become much more familiar with her work just recently.

The other day I heard Meyer say something that really caught my attention (although probably not for the reasons she had in mind).  Here are her exact words...

"Well, you know, the longer we complain about our problems the longer we're going to keep those problems.  The Israelites came out of Egypt, they had prayed for God to deliver them.  He sent them a deliverer, in Moses, he led them out of Egypt and they headed toward the promised land. The Bible says that they spent 40 years trying to make what was an 11 day journey.  I don't think I'll ever stop being amazed about that.  We can read about their story, and be amazed, and say well how dumb they were but I wonder how many of us do the same things.  We go around and around the same mountains, we keep dealing with the same problems, and why?  Is it just the devil, is it just our enemies?  Actually, if you study the Israelites journey it was their attitude that kept them in the wilderness.  They complained, and murmured, and grumbled, and found fault, with every little inconvenience.  And I believe with all of my heart, that if we complain, we remain, but if we praise God will deliver us."  (bolding mine)

There are several things that strike me about the above paragraph.  The first is more of a general observation about Meyer; namely that she is basically just a glorified motivational speaker (and a good one at that).  Nearly all of her talks are very similar, in tone, to the snippet that I've just shared with you.  Step 1, highlight a problem that we all struggle with from time to time (some of her favorite themes are controlling the tongue, and having a good attitude), step 2, tie it in with a Bible verse and/or Bible story, step 3, draw out a life principle that is designed to motivate better behavior in the recipient (sometimes step 1 and step 2 are reversed).

Presto.

And, during each talk, she checks in periodically to be sure the audience is still engaged emotionally with what she's trying to get across; something like, "come on now, I'm preaching good tonight!" (I'm paraphrasing this part, but you get the idea.)

Another thing that really jumps out at me, from Meyer's comments above, is how "amazed" she was that the Israelites took 40 years to make (what should have been) an 11 day journey.  Really Joyce?  Does that sound credible to you??  She then goes on to strongly imply that she has "studied" the matter.  Again...really??

If Joyce Meyer had "studied" the Exodus story, than she would be fully aware of the fact that most scholars believe it didn't happen as described in the Bible.  Actually, a simple check on Wikipedia would suffice to establish this point...

"The archaeological evidence of the largely indigenous origins of Israel is 'overwhelming' and leaves no room for an Exodus from Egypt or a 40-year pilgrimage through the Sinai wilderness.'  For this reason, most archaeologists have abandoned the archaeological investigation of Moses and Exodus as a 'fruitless pursuit'."  (bolding mine)

I'm not trying to pick on Joyce Meyer here.  She seems like a nice person and, in so far as I can tell, extremely sincere in her efforts to help people.  I only bring this up because, in my opinion, it's indicative of a much deeper problem that completely pervades evangelical Christian culture. The problem I speak of is twofold; a) confirmation bias, combined with generous doses of, b) credulity.  Each of these is problematic, in its own right, but together the two are nothing short of a potent mix.

I've written a little about confirmation bias already, in discussing my father, but lately I've begun to see that it's an even bigger issue than I had previously realized or acknowledged.  When Joyce says that she "studied", for example, what precisely does she mean by that?  Well, of course, we can't be certain (because she didn't tell us).  At the risk of being presumptive though, I suspect that Meyer simply means that she has read some Christian books & commentaries on the Exodus story.  To be clear, there's nothing wrong with that.  But, has she also read literally anything that examines the story from a non-evangelical Christian perspective (ie. best selling book "The Bible Unearthed")?  Probably not.  And, if she has, than one could reasonably expect her to have at least a few qualms about the legitimacy of the story as told in the Bible (which she clearly doesn't).  That is, unless she would just reject the possibility of Biblical error out of hand anyway, in spite of the evidence (which, I'll admit, is also a distinct possibility).

As I see it, a second prong of this same problem is credulity.  Look again at her words, "the Bible says they spent 40 years trying to make what was an 11 day journey".  Wow, it really takes some serious moxie to believe that as pure fact...much less to preach it as such in front of packed stadiums (and with such confidence)!  And all of this without the tiniest shred of archaeological evidence to back up the claim.  Oh, wait, I forgot...it has to be true because it's in the Bible, and the Bible is "God's perfect word".

Did I mention she had "studied" the matter?

Remember, Meyer is a wildly popular speaker.  So, if even she fails to examine her beliefs critically, how can we expect her followers to do the same??  (After all, they don't need to, because she has "studied" it on their behalf!)

The final thing that bothers me, about Meyer's brief statement above, stems from the very last line, "and I believe with all of my heart, that if we complain, we remain, but if we praise God will deliver us".  This ties in with my whole point about credulity.  Let's really think about that statement for a moment.  Is Meyer saying that people who suffer only need to praise, and their suffering will end?  How about the starving children in Africa?  Do they "remain" because they "complain"?  Where is the proof of this contention?  I'm sure it's a comment that appropriately challenges her audience, and hey I'm all in favor of helping people improve their attitude...but I'm noticing, more and more these days, that Christians make some pretty wild statements without simultaneously feeling the need to provide even the slightest hint of evidence to back them up (and they do it with alarming regularity).  It's not Christians who have changed; it's me.  Funny how I just never picked up on such statements while I was still a Christian myself.

And notice that Meyer also says she believes it with all of her heart.  O.k., sure, but does that make the claim any more or less true?  Too often Christians confuse the feeling of certainty with actual proof that would count in favor of whatever it is they're so certain about.  Modern science clearly demonstrates otherwise.

Now, liberal Christians will want to protest, at this point, perhaps claiming that the Exodus story is some sort of metaphor.  After all, surely modern day people can still learn a thing or two about grumbling from it.  This is true enough, in so far as it goes, but keep in mind that Meyer and her ilk believe every word of the story to be literally true.  They believe the same about Adam & Eve, the Flood, and any other number of wild tales that have all been soundly debunked.

The truth is, we could use pretty much any book in essentially the same way that Meyer is using the Bible here.  She might as well be up there extracting bits of wisdom from works of Shakespeare or "Pilgrim's Progress" from week to week.

The Bible is either "God's word" or it isn't.  My contention is that an objective look at the evidence points strongly to the latter conclusion.

The only catch is you have to actually step outside of the Christian bubble to see it for what it is.

17 comments:

  1. Funny how nobody says it's a metaphor until after science proves it to be fiction.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Respectful Atheist. If you're interesting in a maximalist defense of Israel in Sinai, the book to read would be James Hoffmeier's Ancient Israel in Sinai. I blogged through it, but I'll link you to the post about Hoffmeier's attempts to respond to Finkelstein and Silberman:

    http://jamesbradfordpate.blogspot.com/2011/01/archaeologically-invisible.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks James. I checked out the link. I also read a number of the reviews for Hoffmeier's book, on Amazon, and this reader comment (assuming it's accurate) really jumped out at me...

      "the author acknowledges repeatedly, is that there is NO evidence confirming ANY part of the Exodus story. None. Not a shred. Lacking such evidence, the author sets out to show that the stories are at least plausible."

      This sure doesn't sound like much of a refutation of Finkelstein & Silberman to me :).

      Delete
    2. I think it's a decent response, though. Finkelstein and Silberman say that there is no archaeological evidence that a large number of people occupied Kadesh-Barnea and Sinai in the time after the Exodus; Hoffmeier explains how that does not disprove the Exodus. Is that positive proof for the Exodus? No. There really is nothing like a rock saying "Moses was here." But it's a good response to Finkelstein and Silberman's argument. Similarly, against their argument (and the argument of others) that the Exodus story reflects the first millennium B.C.E., Hoffmeier presents reasons that it reflects the second millennium B.C.E., which is when the Exodus allegedly occurred. So it's not absolute, unambiguous proof for the Exodus. But it's a legitimate response to minimalist arguments that the Exodus could not have happened.

      Delete
    3. Sure, well, not having read the book, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt in that respect.

      Really my main point, with this post, was simply that the evangelical culture lives in a bit of a "bubble"...so it's not that people like Joyce Meyers have done their research and come to a different conclusion (which I would be fine with)...I suspect that she hasn't researched it at all. She simply takes what the Bible says, at face value (like I used to do), and leaves it at that (because the Bible is the "word of God"). This is the sort of reasoning (or lack thereof) that I was trying to argue against here. (I could have picked pretty much any debated issue, as an example, and the gist would have been exactly the same.)

      Delete
    4. Yeah, I agree with your main point.

      Delete
    5. An interesting topic and something to think about for sure. However I feel that most Christians who speak in front of groups have had instances where scripture was brought into question after they have spoken. And in response gone and done some research about the topic in question and found both sides of the argument presented equally well, take the above example for instance which Finkelstein and Silberman present against scripture and Hoffmeier argues its plausibility. Both cases are well presented and its left up to the reader to choose whether or not they still believe in God or they don't. Some would even say that's probably how God wants it to be. I don't fault Meyer for her "lack of study" since I'm sure she has done extra-Christian studies before to test the validity of "God's Word" and found satisfactory evidence supporting the Bible and if you do that enough you don't feel the need to do it on every single issue or topic. An oversimplified yet still relevant example would be that you don't test every chair for sturdiness before you sit in it you just plop down because you've investigated other chairs before and this one doesn't appear any different.

      On a separate note I, like you, completely disagree with Joyce's main point here that praising leads to escaping a horrible situation. That's not how God works and that isn't even scriptural. In fact scripture says pretty much the opposite. Christ tells his followers that "you will suffer as I have suffered." God doesn't usually (I'll allow that sometimes he does divinely/supernaturally interact) take away our challenging circumstances but our faith in Him and never-ceasing praise of Him gives us a way to process our circumstances and still have peace and joy. To non-Christians this often seems like delusion and can appear fake but personally, and I think other Christians would agree, that experiencing an extra measure of God's love and faithfulness in hard times really does change the way I look at my situation and I can honestly praise Him with a joyful heart in all circumstances. Joyce may be wrong in her presentation of God, but He's still worth it... if you can believe in Him.

      Delete
    6. Thanks for your comments. All I can say is that, in my own experience, this has not been the case at all. I was a Christian for more than 25 years, my Dad is a preacher, and I have run in Christian circles all of my life...yet I am not aware of even one single instance where "scripture was brought into question" after a public presentation re: a Biblical text (ether with my father, myself, or literally any other Christian that I have personally known). I'm not saying it doesn't happen, I just don't think it's nearly as common as you seem to think it is.

      Obviously I have no way of knowing whether or not Meyer has looked into the validity of the Bible (from a non circular perspective). My hunch is that she hasn't looked too deeply, in the sense of exposing herself to much skeptical material, or at least I see no evidence that she has in literally anything that she says (and I actually listen to her quite often). What is this "satisfactory evidence supporting the Bible" that you speak of? I'd love to hear more about that.

      Remember as well that Hoffmeier is in the distinct minority on this issue. It is generally now accepted that the Exodus did not happen, as described in the Bible (even wikipedia acknowledges this). This is not a fringe view, promulgated by Finkelstein and Silberman, it is the majority view by a fair margin. I am merely being charitable in giving Hoffmeier the benefit of the doubt, since I have not read his material specifically, but remember the burden of proof rests squarely on his shoulders here.

      No, I don't think your comments re: praising God, during the tough times, are fake at all. I used to feel precisely as you do now, when I was a Christian, so I understand completely where you are coming from on that issue.

      Delete
    7. Respectful? Atheist? You are not an atheist. You are a liar and a rebel, like the rest of the fallen human race. You are the one in a bubble of your own stupidity. Read the whole bible or shut your pie hole. Did I say that respectfully?

      Delete
  3. A lot of good points made here. It does seem dangerous that so many Christians take the bible literally, and interpret things said by evangelists like Joyce Meyer literally. And the only proof or validation they require of any of their beliefs or bible teachings is merely that it "feels" right. The worst part about this is that Christian thought has a big effect on our societal norms, and what the values of the general public are. So people everywhere, some Christian and some not, end up feeling like, for example, being gay is unnatural and wrong. Or a non-Christian might just feel very uncomfortable around gay people, but they don't even know why. It just "feels" wrong, because Christian's negative views of homosexuality has had such a huge effect on what is seen as acceptable in our society. Obviously there are many other examples of this that affect many areas of our lives.

    However, I'm not convinced that viewing Christians as an enemy, and being so resentful and hateful towards them is merited, or even helpful. The more you condemn someone's beliefs, the more likely they are to defend them and condemn whatever it is that you think is correct. Basically, I think a lot of atheists need to tone down their hatred. It's not helping anything.

    The thing that interests me most about this article is your confirmation of something that I've been thinking for a while, but that I couldn't get other atheists to agree with me on, which is that Joyce Meyer is essentially a motivational speaker that throws the word "God" in every now and then to make things Christian-y. If you pretended that the bible stories were just fables used as teaching tools, and ignored her little "checking in" phrases, you could really find yourself to be a more positive-thinking, motivated atheist! I used to often find myself transfixed by her sermons, early in the morning when there was nothing else on TV, and I've never EVER been a Christian. I was not raised to be a Christian and have almost always been an atheist. But she's so goddamn positive and sincere sounding. Somehow she doesn't seem like she's full of shit or that she's trying to shove Christianity down your throat. I'd say she often goes for 10 minutes at a time just talking about how you can be a better person without mentioning Jesus or God at all. And she's so personable and likable because she doesn't condemn. Instead she has humility and usually refers to things she's done in her own life to serve as an example of mistakes that people make.

    Anyway, I have felt like Joyce Meyer was my guilty pleasure for a long time. I have often wondered if, as an atheist, was it wrong for me to actually...LIKE her? I don't think so. She could easily be a great, atheist public speaker who realized a long time ago that she could cash in on her talent best by applying her talent to televangelism. Okay, maybe not easily, but I can see it being conceivably POSSIBLE that she's an atheist.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Interesting points Kelly. I agree with you that many atheists need to dial it down a notch. This is one of the reasons I decided to call myself "respectful atheist". My own view is that it's entirely possible to criticize someone's beliefs, without being "hateful" in any way, shape or form. I always endeavor to treat people with respect, even when stating clearly why I disagree with their views. Unfortunately, some Christians will take any and all critique in a very "personal" way (and play the "I'm offended!" card) in a misguided effort to shut down the conversation before it even gets off the ground. This, too, is an unhelpful (and immature) approach. I think we all need to be able to dialogue about our differences, even forcefully, without getting overly emotional.

      You're right...Joyce Meyer is, in one sense, just a motivational speaker who throws in Bible verses and stories to illustrate her points (this is, in part, what I was trying to say in the post above). In many ways Joel Osteen is the same. This is why so many non-Christians still enjoy them. There are some good life principles, contained in what they say, that really have nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not the Bible is true. You need not feel guilty about getting something out of what she says! (She's funny too. :))

      I can see what you're saying, about her conceivably being a non-believer, but I get the sense that she really believes everything she says (I would hate to think that she was just "faking" it, and I doubt very much that she is). I hear what you're saying...it is "possible", but not at all probable.

      Delete
  4. I stumbled onto your blog by googling what Joyce Myers thoughts on athiest were. After having read what you had to say, I had an overwhelming urge to tell you how I came to KNOW that GOD does indeed exist. I was brought up in the church of Christ, yea I know. When I do go to church, which is rarely, I do not go to the church of Christ. I have my own thoughts and questions on the bible that I won't get into simply because I would like to keep this as short as I can, just wanted you to know that I have studied the word. Now to my story.......when my middle daughter was 4 years old (in 1982), after having many urinary tract infections, my husband and I were told she would have to have reconstructive surgery on her kidneys. At this time, this was a big surgery and I was scared to death! We made all the necessary arrangements and off to the hospital we went. I have to tell you here that at this time I had been going through some very serious issues in my life, that because of length I won't discuss, but with all the issues, I truly did not think I could deal with my baby having this surgery. The night before surgery, I set in the window of her hospital room and cried and prayed for hours, I had never been in such emotional pain. I kept telling God that I just didn't think I could do this, and I begged over and over again for him to give me the strength that I needed. In the wee hours of the morning as I was still crying and begging, an unbelivable feeling of peace came over my body, and no I didn't hear any voices.........no one "spoke" to me.........but I KNEW that she was not going to have to have surgery at this time. When my husband, mother and mother in law came in that morning, I told them what happened, of coarse they thought I had gone over the deep end. I told them that kristy was not going to have surgery yet, because I could not handle it, and yes they thought I was crazy. The nurses came and prepped my daughter for surgery and then the doctor came in and told us that he was going to run the test on kristy one more time just to make sure that everything still looked good for surgery. They took her down, did the test and brought her back. A few minutes later the dr called our room and said he would be up shortly to talk to us. The dr came in our room, set in a chair and proceeded to tell us that the test showed absolutely no sign of the kidney, bladder reflux, and that in all his years of practice he had never seen anything like this and that he had ran the test three times and by law he could not go through with the surgery and to bring her back to see him in six months. When he left my family could only stare at me. I told them that kristy still had this problem and would have to have the surgery but that God knew that at this time I was not emotionally stable enough to handle it. We went back in six months and sure enough she still had it. It had not gotten any worse and this time the surgery went according to plans. I've never experienced anything like this again, but I would like to tell you what I FEEL. God is not in any particular church or building...........he is in US. Everyone of us. I feel him every single day, and my heart breaks for you that you don't. Feel free to respond or not (anyone) my email address is thard31456@yahoo.com.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anonymous,

      Part 1...

      Wow, well thank you for being so open, especially in regards to the highly personal nature of your story. I appreciate it. Seriously, thank you.

      Emotionally charged experiences, such as the one that you have described for me, can be incredibly powerful (even life changing). Please know that I get that. I want to be really careful, in responding, to not say anything that would come off as my disrespecting your story. It's deeply personal and, as such, I mean to approach it with great care and respect. (So if I in any way fail, in that effort, please forgive me.)

      Having said that, it seems you genuinely want to know why I am not convinced there is a God (even after hearing such stories). Is this basically what you're asking?

      I guess the main reason would be that anecdotes are, by their very nature, highly personal and imprecise. I had similar experiences, as a Christian (that I was absolutely convinced, at the time, were God). Looking back, I now think that they weren't God after all. How is this possible? I know it sounds weird, but it's true. I came to believe, over a long stretch of time (and after doing tons and tons of reading and thinking) that it was all in my head. I never had a "relationship" with Jesus, even to begin with, but I sure thought I did (and for 25 years!).

      Let's assume, for the moment, that God really did speak to you that day in the hospital. Even if that were the case, it raises a thousand other questions. For example, why would God simply delay your daughter's surgery because of your feelings? What about the feelings of those parents whose children die in horrible car accidents? Does God not care about them as much as he cares about you? (I'm confident you would reject this explanation!) Or how about the feelings of those parents whose children die of starvation? I know these sound like extreme examples, but they are also legitimate questions. And if you simply punt to the "God is mysterious" card we're right back to where we started (and no further ahead).

      Delete
    2. Part 2...

      So I guess this would be the super short explanation for why I very much want to respect your story, on the one hand, but remain unconvinced, on the other. The human brain is highly prone to mistakes, such as these, so it would in my view be downright irresponsible of God to use feelings as his way of convincing people of his existence anyway. If he truly desires that all would be saved, he needs to do a lot better than feelings. Remember too that that there are a lot of people who seek after God, but do not find him (I wrote more about this in my post called "Unanswered Prayers", http://respectfulatheist.blogspot.ca/2011/09/unanswered-prayers.html). How can that be explained? And what about those who encounter God, much like you did, but then come to contradictory conclusions about him afterward? According to the Christian worldview, some such people would wind up in eternal torment after death (because they did not follow the right God, or perhaps hold to the right beliefs about the right god). How would you explain this, especially if their experience of god was also legitimate (as you are claiming yours was)?

      When you say that you "feel (god) every single day" I guess my question to you would be, how do you know for sure it's god? And you can't simply say that you "just know", because there are millions of other people who "just know" that their beliefs about god are correct as well. (Including the ones who disagree completely with you, and believe that you are going to burn in hell.) Such is the nature of "knowing" based on feelings.

      I'll leave it there for now. If you'd like to chat more, I'd encourage you to keep following my blog. If you are a true seeker, as I am, than I am confident that we can have some great conversations moving forward. Thank you, again, for being so vulnerable and honest with me. I have attempted to return the favor.

      There's no need to have a broken heart over my unbelief. I'm happier now than I was as a Christian, and I was pretty happy then too :)(http://respectfulatheist.blogspot.ca/2011/12/what-it-feels-like.html)

      Cheers for now.

      Delete
    3. You are not happy. You are suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. That is the bubble you are in.

      Delete