Selective Exposure, Confirmation Bias, and Information Overload (Part 1)

You would think that we would be able to reason better in the age where we have more sources of information, better tools to evaluate information, and a broader range of available perspectives. But that does not seem to be the case. In fact, It may be the opposite. Foolish thought appears to be a bigger problem than ever.

But if you think about it, this should not be surprising. We live in an age of information overload. Robert Dykstra’s book, “Finding Ourselves Lost: Ministry in the Age of Overwhelm,” notes that we are drowning in information, and this leads to stress. So what do we do when we become overwhelmed in information?

  • We can vascillate back and forth as different information and perspectives are absorbed. That, however, adds to the stress.
  • We can bend to authority. Pre-modern thought tends toward ancient authorities (philosophers, prophets, holy writ, etc.). Modern thought tends toward modern authorities (scientists, engineers, recognized experts, etc.) However, most people who are reading this are probably more post-modern than they think.
  • We can practice selective exposure. This where we intentionally limit the amount of data and the sources of data.

Selective exposure is not in itself bad. We can’t handle all the information that is available. However, it can be a part of an ugly cycle.

  1. John (to name someone at random) comes into a situation with preconceived worldview and beliefs.
  2. John lives in a globalistic, pluralistic, multi-perspectival world with a huge amount of data to process.
  3. John, being human, doesn’t want to add unnecessary stress to his life. Unconsciously, John tends to find data that supports his preconceptions more compelling than data that challenges him to change. This is confirmation bias. Consciously, John tends to seek sources of information that he finds more compelling (ie. supporting his preconceptions) and avoid those sources that he finds less compelling (ie. challenging his preconceptions). This is selective exposure.
  4. John is not only a human, but a social being, and culture-creating being. Living in a multicultural, multi-perspectival, globalistic world, is stress inducing because it challenges one to rethink and change. As such, John is likely to slide into a sub-culture (either physical or virtual) that is consistent with his own beliefs and values. That creates what is colloquially called an echo chamber.
  5. This sub-culture tends to reinforce the beliefs of John, and may even move John to more extreme versions of his own previous beliefs. This feeds back into step 1 and the cycle continues.

There seemed to be a belief that globalism and technology would tear down cultures. Perhaps there is some truth to that… but as monocultures break down physically, they seem to increase in virtual communities.

I consider this to be a problem. It is a problem for society. It is a problem as one who wants to grow and learn as a person rather than simply spin one’s wheels. And as a missionary, I am called upon to be both cross-cultural and culturally sensitive. The cycle described above is damaging for missionaries, and ministries.

I will suggest a way that may reduce the cycle… in Part 2 (when I get around to posting it.).

Good and Bad Reasons for Theological Blogging

I like to blog. I do believe that those of us in ministry are theologians. I think there are great reasons to blog theologically, but perhaps I should also be realistic about it.

At one time weblogs were the hot new thing, but those times are past. Hotter and newer forms of media are here now. If you want to get views, putting cute animal pics on Instagram, and retweeting some trending conspiracy will likely get you bigger results. Blogposts almost never go viral. In over 10 years of blogging, I have only had one post that snuck up on the periphery of “going viral” and it wasn’t even a post that I liked that much. Some people speak of the possibilities of monetization. While this is indeed possible, it is not a likely trajectory for most people writing in theology. I have known a few who have succeeded in doing this, but in those cases, their blog was treated like a business with staff an advertising budget, and merch for sale. Commonly, they accepted (often quite cringy) advertisements to be on their website (“Anyone wish to talk to their own personal angel?”) I also don’t think that blogs are a great evangelism tool. There is no real substitute for real human interaction combined with compassion through action. Your awesome proofs that Jesus is God are unlikely to be read, much less leading to radical conversion. Nothing wrong with trying, but one don’t let your excitement be dashed by reality.

There are reasons, however, that theological blogging can be beneficial.

  1. It is a good place to record and hone your thoughts. As you read and meditate, you have some good thoughts and some… not so good. Both of these are likely to be forgotten, unless you write them down. The process of writing them down helps on its own, but this is enhanced if you write your thoughts down where they can be retrieved. Having them written down in an electronic form with search functions, tagging, and hyperlinks available, may work better than simply writing in notebooks. And writing to a real (potential) audience can force one to write more thoughtfully and coherently.
  2. It can serve as a repository of research and reflections that may be drawn upon for other uses. Such uses include sermons, training seminars, articles, books, videos, and so forth. I have been blogging on my main website for over 10 years. In that time, I have accumulated almost 1,200 posts that would overflow a 2000 page book. Some of the writing I have done I am quite proud of. Others… less so. But by utilizing categories and tags and searches, I can find things I have collected (with references) and thoughts that can speed up producing other material.
  3. It can be used to influence others. I do think one needs to keep things in perspective here. I average around 1000 views per month. It is okay, but hardly impressive numbers. Some do more and some do less, but if you are talking about theology, generally you will not attract big crowds. But that is okay. There are even advantages to this. If you want to blog on your favorite recipe for strawberry turnovers, or the most beautiful waterfalls in the Philippines, you will have a much larger likely audience. On the other hand, you also have much greater competition. You will not be on the first page of Google search… or second page… or third. Also, the likelihood that you will have lasting positive impact with searchers is fairly low. However, if you search on Google for “transcendental contextualization,” a blog I wrote shows up on page 2, and a slideshare I created based on blogposts I had done is on page 1. The same thing occurs if one is looking at interreligious dialogue based on the missiologist Max Warren. Writing on less common topics does have advantages sometimes.
  4. It can break down barriers, and promote communication. Two thirds of my visitors are either from the United States and the Philippines. The other third are from a large variety of nations and territories— 198 so far in 2020. Many of those locations are considered “creative access” regions. And since blogs can be set up to allow forum responses, one can also learn and grow that way. <And of course, if you find your comment feed is sounding like most youtube comment feeds, you can turn off the feature… no worries.>

I said before that I believe that all ministers are theologians. But not all ministers are good theologians. I believe blogging can help one become better. I also think it allows ministers to provide an alternative perspective to the dubious messages that float around from various other sources— both Christian and non-Christian.

Three tests of Quackery: Too Much, Too Well, Too Costly

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either.

Photo by energepic.com on Pexels.com

All three of my children were afflicted with atopic dermatitis. Two of them have got beyond most of the symptoms. One of them still has problems with it. Over the years we got an awful lot of advice on how to treat it. A few were thoroughly unhelpful… but most had at least a bit of truth in it. A lot of these were so called “alternative medicines” or cures. For the most part, it seems they were of limited help (Lagundi leaves, both as a tea and as a bath, appeared to provide limited but real help). To be fair, however, conventional medicine wasn’t very helpful either. about:blankImageUpload an image file, pick one from your media library, or add one with a URL.

This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

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This got me thinking about quality care versus “quackery.” But there is no easy measure to determine what is good and what is not. For example, many of the things that are considered quackery are useful in limited ways. There are relatively few forms of care that have no value in all circumstances. It is perhaps true that iridology or astrology have no value at all— at least if it is true that the underlying premises are false (that the iris of the eye informs about the body’s health, or that the stars and planets guide one’s destiny. Most treatments are good for at least some situations, however. So what might be the characteristics that separate quality and quackery.

  1. Too Much. When a treatment promises to do too much, the assumption is that there is some quackery involved. This is a matter of breadth. One is reminded of the classic joke product “snake oil.” Or perhaps one may have seen the classic movie, “The Inspector General” with the product “Yakov’s Golden Elixir.’ Such products probably had some limited value— even if only as an emetic or laxative. But in both cases, the product was described to cure almost all physical maladies. Many alternative medicines do have value in limited forms of treatments. And that is fine. Unfortunately, some of these are used, at the encouragement of their practioners/marketers, for things that are dubious.
  2. Too well. Sometimes, a treatment is appropriate but is marketed as being far more effective than it really is. This is a matter of depth rather than breadth. Skin problems are classic for this. There are different creams, injections, pills, baths, and more. There are few if any such products that work nearly as well as they are advertised. When much is promised but only a little is given, the question of legitimacy can come up.
  3. Too costly. Even if something is legitimate in care… when it is far too costly, especially when compared to other options, the care must be considered questionable.

Can this apply to Christian ministry? I heard a person online expressing the belief that Pastoral Counseling may be quackery. My first response, since my wife and I run a pastoral counseling center is to gainsay this. However,pastoral care and counseling can easily fall into the trap of quackery. It rarely falls into the category of “too costly” (except perhaps with some ‘retreat’ seminars perhaps) but it can easily fall into the traps of “too much” and “too well.” One should know one’s limits. One should know what one’s own limitedness is. One needs to know the proper depth and breadth of care that one can reasonably provide. I certainly have seen pastoral counselors who act like their little corner of care is all one ever needs.

In pastoral counseling, one must embrace humility, and one’s own limitedness. We don’t know all things, and we certainly don’t have control of all things. When we pretend otherwise, we have fallen into quackery.

The same can be true of other ministries as well. Community development is a good thing, but one’s limitations need to be embraced from the start. It is good to instill one’s vision into the people. But one must be careful not to promise too much. Evangelism is another area. Some evangelists sound like snake oil salesmen— everything, but everything, becomes perfect if one says a few words.

When we overstep the bounds of our limitations… when we act like we can offer perfect solutions in an imperfect world… when we offer too little for too much, we are dishonest, and it is no surprise if we are not believed.

Inconvenience and Negativity

A few weeks ago, I was online with a meeting of team of supporters. Another missionary who we are connected with here in the Philippines was also in the online group. This meeting we were invited to join, but we were not the focus of the meeting. Nevertheless, we were asked to give a quick update of what is going on with our ministries here in the Philippines.

Afterwards, several people said how nice it was for us and the other missionary family to join. One of the comments was “It was so nice that they were so positive and not complaining.” A couple of days ago, I (and a few other missionaries) were asked to give a short video to a church and were asked to share prayer requests while “keeping it positive.”

I found that interesting. Why twice in a few weeks was positivity especially called out.

One possibility is that I (and maybe other missionaries) are so negative normally, or perhaps only contact friends and supporters when something is lacking. I know my wife and I have supported ministers and missionaries who would NEVER contact us unless there was a need they have. I can assure you that after awhile one gradually shifts from feeling like one is a partner, to feeling like one is being used. Still, I don’t know that I am negative all that often. Maybe I am, and maybe other missionaries are as well. But this is only one possibility.

Another possibility, however, is that there is a tendency “back home” toward negativity. I do know that looking at social media from back in the US, there is a lot of negativity. It seems like Evangelical Christianity there has become hypersensitized to… well… pretty much every little annoyance (except, perhaps, things that annoy others outside of themselves).

I remember talking to a pastor in the US some months ago who was so annoyed that church meetings were being limited in his state. He felt that this was a huge encroachment on his freedoms. I tried to reframe it as sacrifice… the church has the opportunity to sacrifice some of its rights TEMPORARILY as a blessing for the community. His response was, “Well, that is a pretty huge sacrifice…”

I thought about that. It really isn’t much of a sacrifice. Quoting one of my favorite Youtubers, Ryan George, it is a sacrifice that is “Super easy— barely an inconvenience.”

It seems like many Christians right now are struggling with a reversal of St. Paul’s testimony— In whatever state we are in, therein to be discontent.

But maybe I am reading into things. Maybe it is about me. Maybe I am too negative in my reports. In the end, I can’t DIRECTLY change other people, I can only change myself. So what should I take from this?

  • I probably should ask for clarification. Guessing doesn’t really help.
  • should find a balance in my newsletters home. I should be more positive, encouraging those who are feeling discouraged. However, I should also not simply send home “happy letters.” I need to tell the full story. With happy letters, I can get fans. But I don’t need fans, I need supporters, prayer warriors, and accountability partners.
  • I should model sacrifice. Sacrifice and inconvenience seem to be a challenge for many (Western Evangelical) Christians today. Telling people that they just need to “suck it up” probably won’t work. But if I make it clear that I can find contentment in all circumstances, and the peace that passes all understanding, perhaps it will rub off.
  • Avoid catastrophizing. Some mission organizations create financial or other disaster scenarios as a way to drive support. But “God is in his Heaven— All’s right with the world.” Having to change plans, adjusting to reality is not a catastrophy.

What About Physical Anthropology?

So I have started teaching Cultural Anthropology again. In my intro to the class, I like to start with Anthropology as a general term to describe “The Study of Man.” And then I like to add my little note that in Old English, “Wer” meant adult male, “Wif” meant adult female and “Man” or “Mann” meant human or homo sapien, so Anthropology is not a sexist term. In fact the Greek term “Anthropos,” although male in ‘gender’ (a linguistic term) can be referring to men, or to women, or to people in general. However, we don’t really speak Old English today, and the feeling today is that Man is a term for adult males… so Anthropology is the study of human beings.

Wow… Did I go off on a tangent or what?

Anthropology is used theologically and scientifically. Theologically, the sub-field of the study of humans within Systematic Theology is called Anthropology. This is a very worthwhile thing for Christians to have studied. A lot of silly things floating around churches today, in part, because of pop theology and pop (sub-) culture influences.

Scientifically, the term “Anthropology” is broadly used. <Being more careful, I just deleted a new tangent where I point out that a lot of what is called “Science” does not actually use the scientific method, but rather a more logico-historical method (which is not that far from Theology, strangely). It doesn’t really matter… or does it?> Classically, Anthropology on the Scientific side of things is broken up into four main sub-fields. They are:

  • Physical Anthropology. The study of the progress or evolution of mankind.
  • Archaeology. The study of ancient mankind, especially through the artifacts left behind.
  • Linguistics. The study of how mankind has, and does, communicate.
  • Cultural Anthropology. The study of living (usually) cultures.

I like to tell my classes that Archaeology is useful for Christian ministers— especially, but not strictly limited to, Biblical Archaeology. I tell my students that Linguistics is valuable for Christian ministers, and especially missionaries, for reasons that I HOPE don’t need to be repeated here. And then Cultural Anthropology is important for all Christian ministers, and I spend the whole semester trying to drive that point home.

However, I commonly note that Physical Anthropology is an area of study that has little bearing on Christian ministers. This is especially true of Evangelical ministers, since I teach at an Evangelical school. Part of this is because Physical Anthropology tends to be structured through the framework of Neo-Darwinism. Most Evangelicals do not believe in Neo-Darwinism, although many may accept a more flexible Intelligent Design understanding such as Theological Evolution.

But I got thinking more about this. I have read a couple of books on popularized physical anthropology (one by Stephen Jay Gould, and another by Jared Diamond) and found them very interesting. Regardless of whether I accept all of their opinions, to say nothing of their underlying framework, I feel that there are some things that that are good for Christians to know.

<Note: If the following stuff makes you think that I have only an undereducated, surface-level knowledge of Physical Anthropology, you are correct. I am noting this more to remind myself that studies outside of one’s area of expertise is important.>

  1. We are made of this world and for this world. We are made of the stuff of this world and fit into the categories that exist for the things in this world. We fit into it genetically and structurally, and fit into the ecological systems of this world. We are not aliens. This world is actually our home. We were created here to be here.
  2. We are like other animals and yet distinct from other animals. Physically, we are animals. We are not only part of this world, but we fit into certain categories of things in this world. We are genetically programmed and reproduce as animals, and made of the same stuff as animals. Some like to point out that we share a high percentange of DNA with chimpanzees (in the high 90s), and yet there are key genetic differences. Those differences are shared by humans at an even higher percent. As humans we share commonality of DNA over 99%. There is no genetic overlap of Gaussian curves— we are physically animals, and yet unique.
  3. We are all one people. There have been theories of pre-Adamic races, or cursed races in Christian circles. There have been attempts at so-called “Race Science.” However, genetic testing, as well as physical comparisons point us toward a common ancestor. Also unlike comparison with other animals, racial or ethnic categories around the world vary only slightly from others around the world. The distribution of traits and alleles most definitely overlap, to the point that it is difficult to be certain of one’s racial or ethnic heritage simply by looking at one’s physical looks or genes. These differences are mostly, quite literally, “skin deep.”
  4. There are no superior or inferior groups. While early on in Physical Anthropology and Race Science, there were attempts to discover what group was the “most evolved.” No shock, the anthropologists came in with a firm bias that their own race was at the top. We seem to be all different, but far more in common than different. Some groups may be ahead technologically (in a specific point of time) but one cannot really line this up clearly with intelligence, moral superiority, or anything else. Stubbornly, we can’t seem to break ourselves away from the fact that we are diverse and yet united. We are equal but different.

I suppose this is enough. One could argue that this doesn’t help since these are pretty consistent with good Theological Anthropology. My answer would be Yes. However, human nature always seems to push us towards creating Us versus Them groupings, and this leads towards deciding that the “We” are superior or more worthy (of something or other) than the “They.” It just seems as if Christians tend pick an choose what the Bible says (often embracing metaphors like “chosen race” or “holy priesthood”) to undermine or common humanity. Others sometimes embrace a semi-Platonic viewpoint that takes humanity out of its place in the physical world, while others relatedly, preach a rather anti-ecological message of “This world is not my home, I’m a just a passin’ through.” There may be ways in which these views have truth, but they don’t express the full Biblical or Theological Truth.

Maybe we need a bit of a reminder from Physical Anthropologists, even if we don’t buy into the total story they may give. We should not stop there. We need to go back to our Theology to understand what it means that we have “Openness to the World,” that we exist in terms of the “Image Dei,” and that we live in tension between our good creation, our state of fallenness, and our potential for restoration.

Potential Authoritarian

As most of you have probably noticed, in the last few years there has been an increase of popularity of demagogues. Demagogues are individuals who tend to “speak the language” of the masses with a level of charisma, and do so expressing themes that often emphasize empowerment and national identity, all the while commonly stoking the fires of ethnic, or religious hate. People who appreciate the message of these demagogues often see them as heroes… creating or restoring greatness to their own in-group. Those that do not respond to this message often see these demagogues as “neo-Fascist.”

Perhaps this uptick in demagoguery is the reason that so many Christians have recently expressed interest in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His stance against the Fascist regime of his country is commonly seen as as inspirational today. Many have, often incorrectly, seen Bonhoeffer as a spiritual father of religio-political groups today.

But more interesting was that the predominant church in his country supported the Fascists, and even the “Confessing Church” of Bonhoeffer was far from a group actively opposing the government. It got me thinking to myself if there are themes in our institutional church that makes Authoritarianism (even if not full-out Fascism) especially appealing.

I am not asking “Are Christians Fascist.” There are a couple of reasons. For one, the term Fascist is way too broad. Umberto Eco, who grew up in Fascist Italy, noted that it is such a broad and varied ideology (or family of ideologies) that it is hard to pin down. Some of the common threads he noted were: Nationalism, Traditionalism (“cult of Tradition”), Life as Permanent Warfare, and Ethnocentrism (racism/bigotry). Theodor Adorno did research decades ago in his book, “The Authoritarian Personality.” His “F-Scale” (F for a tendency to open to be open to authoritarian or fascist thinking) listed a few things, some or which overlapped with Eco.

  • Conventialism/Conformism. Strong tendency to embrace cultural or societal norms.

  • Authoritarian Submission. The importance of submitting to one’s in-group leaders.

  • Authoritarian Aggression. Failure to conform to societal norms or submit to one’s leaders should be dealt with aggressively.

  • Anti-intraception.  Dislike of “wimpy,” feelings-oriented, subjective thinking. Prefer literal black-white thinking.

  • Stereotypy. Applying black and white categories to people. People are defined by their group rather than by their individuality or their humanity.

  • Power and Toughness. Equality in power is pure fiction… Inbalance of power is innate in society, so it is best if WE have the power and THEY do not.

  • Destructiveness and cynicism.  Generalized hostility to and vilification of humanity. Focus on the Fallenness of Man rather than Man created in God’s image.

  • Projectivity.  “The projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.”  Others are narrow-minded racist selfish bastards, so I need to be the same (to protect what is mine and that of our group).

  • Obsession with sex lives of others

Adorno’s work is interesting, but let’s use Eco’s shorter list to ask the question why MIGHT Christians (and perhaps other religious people) be likely to embrace authoritarianism.  I will deal with them in a different order.

  1.  Traditionalism (Cult of Tradition). Christianity often likes to look backwards for answers. Part of this is natural to religious thinking, where there is an understanding that one’s religion expresses a greater truth, a greater reality, that was revealed at some point in the past. Beyond that, so many denominations of Christianity like to make the argument that THEY express the “real” first century church. This makes no sense— we need to embrace our role as the 21st century church, not 1st century. But this is common even among Christian groups that tend to eschew (at least in theory) traditionalism.
  2. Life as Permanent Warfare. The Bible uses a lot of metaphors. One of the classes of metaphors are war-related. There does seem to be a bit of fascination with war metaphors among many Christian groups. Evangelical groups especially like to throw out the war motifs for the Christian experience. As a missionary, I see this even more where “spiritual warfare” is not simply expressed as a metaphor, but is often expressed as the (only) reality of our work— often ignoring many other metaphors of Christian living in the Bible. Stephen Larsen (author of “The Shaman’s Doorway”) has posited that monotheistic religions are more prone to ethical dualism (good versus evil) than polytheistic religions. I suppose that could be true, but I am not sure that leads necessarily to a war picture of life.
  3. Ethnocentrism (racism and bigotry). It seems pretty reasonable to think that Christians would be LESS prone to ethnocentrism than other groups. Genesis 1-3 (and much of the rest of the Bible) puts us all as equal before God. Yet we certainly find many Christians quite prone to the strangest of bigotries. (I still try to rap my head around American Christians who are the children of immigrants who are bigoted against immigrants.) Adorno may have a suggestion in this area. He noted that people who are “conservative” in their beliefs (whether politically, religiously, or ideologically) tended to be, on average more prone to bigotry than those more on the liberal end of the spectrum. HOWEVER, among the more conservative, there was a strong divide between those who “converted” to their conservative views, and those who had their views essentially inherited from their parents. Those who were converts tended to be much less bigoted than those who were brought up culturally in their beliefs. This may suggest that culturally embedded Christianity is more prone to bigotry than found in “young church” settings.
  4. Nationalism. I don’t see nationalism is an inherently Christian problem. It is, however, a problem through out the world of “state religion.” When a religion becomes a pawn of the state, and justifies the activities of the state, the religion tends to lose its prophetic role. Religion becomes the court prophet supporting the state by echoing back the will of the state.

So are Christians more prone to being pro-Authoritarian or “Potential Facist.” Not necessarily. Of course some groups, like the Shepherding Movement, openly promote authoritarian structures, as do many denominations— young and ancient alike. If, however, one looks at Eco’s list, I think Christians are prone to be attracted to Traditionalism and a Warfare view of life. I also think that places where Christianity has become deeply embedded into the culture where it has a lot of civil power and a lot of members who “inherited their faith” there is a higher tendency to nationalism and ethnocentrism. 

We saw those situations in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the early 20th century. It is possible we will see more of this again.

By the way, Tom Nicholas has an interesting little Youtube on “Potential Fascism.” You can watch it, Clicking Here

Counterproposal Regarding Truth

I saw this picture on LinkedIn. I get the logic. I even think one could put together a few Biblical verses to support the saying.

Nevertheless, I think I can come up with a statement that is better.

Truth Sounds Like Hate to Those Who Have Never Heard Truth From One Who Knows How to Express Truth in a Manner That is Both Respectful and Culturally Resonant.

I realize this is not as… Snappy… as the one in the picture, but this version is More True, and that is a good thing.

Speculating on the “Mark of the Beast”

Okay, so when I was young, like in the 1970s and 1980s, I was told in books (Hal Lindsey’s books come to mind, but there were others) and occasionally in some church groups that the “Mark of the Beast” on the forehead and hand (Rev. 13:16-17;

close up photo of hand with tattoo
Photo by Mehndi Training Center on Pexels.com

14:9-10; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4) was some sort of tattoo. I believe that the spin on it was that it would be a bar code. (Today, they might have pushed for more like a QR code.) Such a code would essentially be like government regulated credit card I suppose.

But there were problems. Human nature is likely to balk at having a barcode on one’s forehead, and probably even the hand. It is too reminiscent of slavery. (We will get back to that idea later.) So later, there was a bit of a shift among some Christians to suggest the mark would be an ultraviolet (“black light”) tattoo. These utilize dyes that are nearly invisible when exposed to visible light, but glow quite visibly under UV lighting. They would act like the visible light tattoo as described before but is less likely to be rejected societally due to human vanity. Negatively, we are starting to play more fast and loose with the idea of a mark. Is a mark that is only visible under special lighting still a mark? Maybe, but then, would a tooth filling be described as a mark then since it is visible with an fluoroscope or x-ray photography?

More recently, special new ideas for the mark have been brought up including nano-devices. RFIDs have gained a certain fascination in eschatological circles. However, we are moving still further afield from “the mark,” as well as its placement, since it is quite unlikely to end up on forehead and hand.

These ideas spring from a rather literalist interpretation of Revelation. Yet, these literalists are tending to become less and less literal in the interpretation. I thought, therefore, that I would continue the trend to be less literal.

The Revelation is an apocalyptic work written to the early church. I won’t get into theories of authorship and exact date of writing. I am not competent to evaluate these. However, it is clearly written to several relatively early and highly persecuted churches in present-day Turkey. The work appears to have two main purposes– to give warning to the churches to remain faithful to God, as well as comfort that God is ultimately in control and will prove faithful to His own.

Although some see elements in the work to suggest a late-date writing, one reason to believe that it is fairly early is that the writing uses an awful lot of imagely that would be familiar and comfortable to Jews. This could suggest that the seven churches who were the primary recipients were still predominantly of Jewish background.

When we read Scripture, we need to remember that it was written FOR US, but not, strictly speaking, TO US. John wrote his revelations for our benefit, but to the seven churches in Asia Minor.  Thus, we should be cautious of an interpretation that makes an awful lot of sense now, but would be completely mystifying then. I am not saying it is impossible that John gave a message that only we 2000 years later could understand (I believe in the possibility of predictive revelation) but we should first look elsewhere. If the primary recipients would interpret it as (A) we should first consider (A) before going to (B).

Assuming a largely Jewish or Jewish-influenced primary recipient, I would have to think that the mark on the forehead and hand would make them think of the Shema. This passage of Jewish identity. Speaking of God’s message through Moses to the people of Israel,

“Bind them as a sign on your hand and as a symbol on your forehead.”   -Deut. 6:8

Perhaps even more clearly, the same message is shared again,

“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your hearts.”   -Deut 11:18

Both passages enforce an interpretation that the Word of God is to impact ones thoughts and actions. Therefore one should hear the message of God, meditate on the message of God and act according to the message of God.

These are not the only places where such language is used. The Passover Feast, one of most important religious celebrations in the Jewish calendar was instituted in Exodus 13. In that passage, the importance of the feast is laid out:

Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth.  –Ex. 13:9a

Later in the same chapter a similar wording is again used for keeping of the Passover:

“So let it be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead, for the Lord brought us out of Egypt by the strength of His hand.”  –Ex. 13:16

In these passages, the language of signs or symbols on forehead and had suggest learning, remembering, and obeying.

Another interesting passage is Ezekiel 9:4, in talking about the destruction of Jerusalem, where

“…the Lord said to him, ‘Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”    -Ezek. 9:4b

The suggestion here is that those who are faithful to God will receive a “mark” on their foreheads by God and will be spared in the massacre. John utilizes that same imagery in Revelation 7:3 and 9:4 where the mark is described as a “seal of God” on their foreheads.

Most people I know would not accept the idea that the saved have (or will have) a physical seal placed on their foreheads. I agree and think it is meant to be more… symbolic. The mark suggests an identification for protection. In less comfortable language, it establishes the faithful as the “property of God.”

Bringing these images from Scripture to the “mark of the Beast” it seems likely that the mark is not a physical or visible mark, and the same is true of the mark or seal of God on the faithful.

The mark of the beast would then suggest belief in the message of the beast, and obedience to the beast. It may also suggest enslavement to the beast. Certainly, such marks can be read as branding for the purpose of property, and this is reinforced with the idea that only those with such a mark are able to buy and sell.

But why does this matter? Stuff matters when beliefs turn to action.

Right now we live in a time where people are rejecting vaccinations because they believe they will herald the “new world order” and will be implanted with nano-chips that will mean that they are under the control of the Antichrist. Strangely, this is a highly imaginative and non-literal interpretation from people who are alleged proponents of literal interpretation of prophecy. And, if they are wrong, they are risking the health of themselves, their children, and their neighbors. It seems to me this interpretation is not only HIGHLY dubious, but also highly destructive.

The far more likely interpretation is that one is to trust in God’s word, be faithful to God, and be obedient to God even when we live in a world of power(s) at war with God.

We really need to be cautious of interpretations of Scripture that are based on a shaky foundation. I actually have a very personal reason for this, I have heard so many discussions about what 666 (6 three score and 6) means. Some are so far from good Biblical scholarship that they are nothing more than “sanctified” numerology. That concerns me greatly, in part, because of my name. Count it out if you want. God bless.

ROBERT    HAROLD    MUNSON

PS. I know this is not my typical stuff on missions, but I do like to point out that theology has consequences. Missions has to be grounded in good theology, and is (unsurprisingly) damaged by bad theology.

 

 

 

Caught Being Weak in the Garden

Okay, it happened again. I was reading some commentary on a Biblical passage. This one was from when Jesus said to His disciples in the garden,

“My soul is consumed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with Me.”
Going a little farther, He fell facedown and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me. Yet not as I will, but as You will.”

The commentary argued that Jesus was not under great stress. After all, expressing a wish to have “this cup” removed might suggest that Jesus wasn’t fully committed the Father’s will and plan. The same commentator suggested that when Jesus on the cross expressed “My God, My God. Why hast Thou forsaken Me” He was simply quoting Scripture to (allegedly) fulfill prophecy.

I have a lot of problems with this, and it makes me have a few questions:

  1. Is it possible that Jesus was fully committed to the will of the Father, while still being absolutely horrified at the path ahead? I mean, do we ever commit to something because we know it is right while overcoming the fear and stress associated with the plan?
  2. Did Jesus need the support of friends in a time of psychological and emotional stress? Is asking for help a sign of weakness…. or a sign of strength?
  3. Could it be that Jesus in time of great pain and distress felt a sense of abandonment from the Father… much as many of us can feel abandoned in times of great trials? And if this is so, does admitting this demonstrate a lack of faith, or show emotional honesty?
  4. Is it possible that the story of Jesus in the Garden was placed there to help us understand that the path of God is not easy, but we have the example of one committed to faithfulness no matter the cost? Would the story be more inspirational if Jesus was immune to sorrow, dread, stress, and pain?

I struggle understanding the motivation of undermining the pathos of the Crucifixion story. What is gained (logically, exegetically, narratively) in suggesting that Jesus did not feel the pain He quite understandably would feel, but was instead quoting lines of Scripture that were disconnected with His situation?

Generally, I think it comes from the discomfort many theologians or expositors have with feelings. Feelings are unreliable, untrustworthy. Weakness is to be denied. Many a Christian Theologian appear to prefer a Gnostic Jesus– one who is disconnected from humanity, human emotions, and physical pain.

I am reminded of the quote by B.B. Warfield

Our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Matt. 4:2), thirsted (John 19:20), was weary (John 4:6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul… Not only do we read that he wept (John 11:35) and wailed (Luke 19:41), sighed (Mark 7:34), and groaned (Mark 8:12), but we read also of his angry glare (Mark 3:5), his annoyed speech (Mark 10:14), his chiding words (e.g. Mark 3:12), the outbreaking ebullition of rage (e.g. John 11:33 and 38), of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feelings (John 11:35), the open exaltation of his joy (Luke 10:21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Matt. 27:37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment desolation (Matt. 27:46).”
-BB. Warfield

Paul said in II Corinthians 12 that God allows us to remain weak so that we can experience God’s grace. Strength is found in overcoming the weakness, not denying the weakness.

I have likewise heard similar words on Elijah where a commentator expressed shock that God would call such a “weak” man as Elijah… one who WHEN THREATENED WITH DEATH… runs away. I wonder whether that is the point. God works with lots of weak people. I don’t think God created any strong people, and if He did, I doubt He ever would work with them.

God only works with weak people.

Social Media and Toxic (Non-)Dialogue

A few weeks ago I decided to leave Facebook… mostly. I still have a few activities that require me to pop in there for at least brief moments. However, I am pretty sure that my time there will continue to decline and not return to its past.

It started in a minor way. A friend of mine on FB had shared a rather silly little cut-and-paste that humorously sought a “divorce” of “real” Americans from various people in news and entertainment (mostly) who tended to trigger political conservatives. It was mildly humorous, but overall I found it a bit annoying. I have become increasingly concerned with tribalism in US religion and politics where there is a tendency to demonize people who hold other views rather than see value in diverse perspectives.

I would have let it go but most of the comments were unabashedly positive not merely to the questionable entertainment value of the post, but the actual idea espoused underlying the humor.

There were a few comments that were less positive, and so I decided to respond in a way that was not at all supportive of the post. I stated that I disagreed with pretty much every sentence in the post (probably an exaggeration), and felt that diverse views were a healthy part of society.

One guy (I will call him “Jay”) seemed really bothered by this response and suggested that I should not talk. I gave some vague response to this. I don’t even remember what I wrote now. He responded, that I should keep my opinions to my self, and then instead of addressing it to me, “Bob,” he addressed it to “Philippines.”

Okay, I felt like I got it. Jay felt that because I lived in the Philippines I really should not share my opinions on US politics. Strangely, I actually get that. I have Filipino friends over here that will, occasionally, express opinions about American politics that in my mind are so out of touch with what is actually going on— often reading or hearing the worst of US op-eds. Several times, I had felt tempted to tell my Filipino friends to stay out of what they don’t really understand. Thankfully, I refrained from it because I really do believe that we learn from each other. But I get the temptation to ignore people who don’t have a direct investment in a situation.

I responded to Jay that I am a US citizen and Virginia resident and serve as a missionary in the Philippines. Jay responded something about me being some liberal socialist something or other who would cause “Virginia Regulars to be rolling over in their graves.” Politically, I am rather eclectic (somewhere in the Conservative-Moderate-Libertarian range of things_. I don’t think my views would fit into the liberal or socialist side of things, but it is true that I have never tried to limit my views to any oneside of any political spectrum.

I got especially annoyed about the Virginia Regulars and their cemetery tumblings. Virginia Regulars were Confederate military. I am not an expert on the political beliefs of CSA military, but I generally thought that would be considered a good thing today to hold views that would decidedly out of synch with the Confederacy.

I wrote some smartass response somewhat clarifying my political stance and insulting Jay for jumping to yet another assumption. (It seems to be his thing.) But after about five minutes I went back on and deleted that post.

That is when I figured out a few things. These things I already knew but I got reminded.

  1. It was a bit foolish of me to make a vague sweeping response to the initial post. I was raised in a church that was part of the Fundamentalist and Separatist movements in the US. That church had (and has) many good qualities. Many people get bothered by the term “Fundamentalist” and picture all sorts of horrible things. However, for me, the FAR bigger concern is actually “Separatism.” It is a tribalizing philosophy and squelches dialogue. It is missiologically suspect and Biblically weak. I would even suggest that Separatism as a secular movement within American society is destructive to democracy. However, given a vague blanket statement actually triggers a separatist response. And of course it would. I someone responds to this post with the statement— “I disagree with pretty much every statement in this post” —- I would not take the writer seriously. It doesn’t feed dialogue, it squelches it.
  2. FB doesn’t really support healthy dialogue. It is not much better than Twitter to discuss important issues. Important issues can’t be handled with one or two or three sentences— or with a GIF or a like or a frowny face. It promotes a stereotyping of views. Also, short bursts of text done in the moment often get misunderstood and feelings get hurt and eventually people move into little echo chambers of mutual admiration societies each trying to one-up each other in greater extremes of view and attacks on others who don’t share those views.
  3. It sucks to not be understood. I remember taking our young child to the emergency room because of a bout of asthma. The nurse essentially accuses us of smoking around our child. It got us mad, especially my wife who was a nurse, because we don’t smoke, had not smoked, have no people in our house who smoke, and have never even had visitors come into our home and smoke. It is annoying to have someone come to a conclusion based on very limited information and act like they figured you out. But it is tempting to do that. Consider Jay for a minute. It is quite tempting for me to make guesses about him. He seemed to be annoyed that I was an Asian sharing opinions about America. When he found out that I am actually a (white) US citizen, he suggested that my Confederate ancestors (of whom I have none) would be horrified by my politics. It is pretty easy for me to GUESS that he is a raging racist MAWA (“make America white again”). But that would only be a guess. If I don’t like having Jay guess (extremely poorly) about my views, I should avoid doing that with him and others.

So I have decided to step away from FB. Not merely because of this rather mundane little conversation but because of years of these silly little problems.

But I do have to recognize the irony. I want healthy dialogue between different groups. I think Separatism is flawed. Yet I am separating myself off by stepping away from Facebook. I am still trying to work this out. I do believe that dialogue is valuable, but some formats don’t promote healthy dialogue. I don’t see FB as a place that promotes healthy dialogue… generally at least.

Not all formats support growth through dialogue. I recently read an article in a Jewish publication that questioned having interviews of Anti-Semites published in their Jewish papers. The reason for publishing these was to help Jews understand the perspective of those with very different views. However, I would agree with those who have expressed concern. While dialogue is a good thing, giving a soapbox for Anti-Semitic “hate speech” may not be a very effective way to promote mutual trust and growth.

Still trying to figure this out. Maybe we just have to accept the limitations of social media. In the end, most all of us really want to be understood— understood in our beliefs and values, and understood in our fears and hopes. It may be too much to expect to be understood on an media platform— at least until we learn to TRY to understand others in a similar way. But I think there is hope.

Back in the 1960s, the Evangelicals separated missiologically from the World Council of Churches. Each started meeting as separate entities. Both groups embraced some views that were pretty messed up, in my opinion. The Conciliar missions tended to reject the uniqueness of the message of Christ and moved from a ministry of evangelism to a ministry of presence. The Evangelicals embraced evangelism but did so by rejecting much of Jesus’s social ministry. Both sides were deeply flawed. Thankfully, there were a few (John Stott being perhaps the most well known of these) who maintained involvement and dialogue in both groups. By the 1970s the worst excesses of these groups were eroded. Both groups accepted that evangelism and social ministry are part of Christ’s call to the church. I can’t help but think that those who kept dialogue going had a role in this.

But if FB and Twitter and Reddit and other social media platforms existed back then would dialogue have improved? Not convinced. I am still trying to figure it out.