Monday, March 19, 2007

Magic Words

There is a site, I think inspired by Richard Dawkins, that encourages people to “blaspheme the Holy Spirit” on film and put it up on YouTube. There is an answering site of (mostly) young Christians encouraging people to put their affirmation of the Holy Spirit on film and put it up on YouTube. It would be a simple matter to search out what these sites are and link to them, but that would suggest a level of interest I don’t have. A young friend of mine has shown me some of both on his computer. I trust they are representative of at least one strain of videos of the two opposite declarations.

What I have seen is earnest and orthodox, but essentially banal and cliched affirmation, countered by immature anger that is not even good blasphemy. These are declarations of blasphemy which would get laughed out of a high-school Dungeons and Dragons campaign.
“Okay, I take his staff and I blaspheme his god. What happens?”
“How exactly are you blaspheming his god?”
“I, uh, say I blaspheme thee. I blaspheme thee. I blaspheme thee.
“Roll d20.”
“Your own deity strips you of two wisdom points. Wanker.”
Without getting into an extended theological discussion, blasphemy is more complicated and time-consuming than that. It involves the whole personality, and includes a renunciation of not just what other people think is good, but of what you yourself know to be good. These people want Blasphemy Lite. Pathetic.

Is it harmless? No, of course it isn’t harmless, you bufflehead. Acts of seeking evil or flouting goodness are never innocent. But saying a few magic words doesn’t put you on any all-star team – neither the Cosmic Deniers nor the Courageous Honesties. Get a life.

In an earlier era, abusers of Christianity created complex rituals and symbols in mockery of the Catholic Mass, putting dung in the censers or hanging crosses upside down. That is still pretty lame stuff – any fifth-grader can produce symbolic negations – but involved some time-commitment and intentionality that brings it closer to real blasphemy. Even then, they attracted a lot of folks who just wanted to show what bad dudes and cultural rebels they were, but not so many people who wanted to engage in much more evil than some promiscuity and wrist-cutting. I take it back – that wasn’t much in the way of blasphemy either.

There is a current strain of Christianity which is a magic-words Gospel, a gross oversimplification of Anabaptist teachings. Just say the magic words, and you’re saved forever. At one level, I like to think that God will take any poor excuse or technicality to bring us Home, but magic words theology flies in the face of some verses of Scripture. People make a declaration and are saved, but the ones we hear about seem to have continued on in action as well. The Prodigal Son actually did come home, after all, rather than being magically transported at his death to his father’s arms.

As the old satanists tried to blaspheme by inverting the Catholic tradition, these kids are trying to blaspheme by inverting the magic-words tradition. It reminds me of nothing so much as childhood arguments with my brother over who had called getting the front seat.


Anonymous said...

When I had my first high school Sunday School class at Bethany Covenant, it was around 1985. Two or three of the students attended Calvary Christian in Derry. One of them used to talk about the theology teacher whose mantra was "Get saved". Coming from a Catholic background, this was foreign to me, but I started to ponder the "magic words" syndrome. It seemed to make no more sense then when the nuns used to say that anyone could baptize a baby in distress so they could go to heaven.

Fast forward to Concord Christian a decade or more later. Tim used to come home and say how Mr. Lester had a successful summer at the Christian Summer Camp he was at. He used to have a specific number of "souls" he had brought to Christ that summer. All I could think was that he was like the old fashioned gun slinger who kept notches in his gun belt to keep track of the number of people he has taken down. I always had this picture of Mr. Lester "praying the prayer" with someone, getting up and going in search of his next project. And when his teaching method with Tim seemed to be to conform Tim to his interpretation of the gospel and not to entertain Tim's thoughts on the subject, I was overwhelmed with his lack of spiritual depth. Thy parrots in the group got the A's and Tim was kept off the honor roll one quarter because he had the temerity to express a contrary opinion. Of course, that was not unlike my memories of the nuns in grammar school. Amazing how things can repeat themselves in vastly different situations.

Anonymous said...

I would tell my Sunday School students (older teenagers) that diving into the mysteries of God and Godliness is like swimming in Lake Tahoe. Most people splash around on the surface, but there are unimaginable depths for those who are willing to search and work at it.

You can't blaspheme what you do not understand--you can only speak from ignorance. It's the same voice of the petulant child in the supermarket screaming for candy and screaching "I HATE YOU!" at the parent for not caving into their selfish desires. God knows and loves us anyway.

Blasphamy does not hurt God. It can only hurt us when we come to understand what we have done. -cp

Jerub-Baal said...

This is all reflective of the poor state of theology, philosophy, logic, and teaching in general in our culture. Everything is shallow, even after years of schooling. I don't know if it has ever been thus. Modern technology may simply make ignorance easier to self-expose, which makes it seem to be more prevalent than in the past.

For one, I don't want to convert my children to Christianity. I want to convert them to think! (I hope that by thinking, that they will choose the Gospel, but it will not really be faith if it's just parroting what Dad says. It needs to be their internal search for truth.)

However, your post was good for deep and needed laugh!
"Your own deity strips you of two wisdom points. Wanker."


Old Sourdough said...

"Blasphamy does not hurt God. It can only hurt us when we come to understand what we have done. -cp"

Exactly. The old "God is not mocked" saying applies here. I would imagine God laughing at our puny attempts to say something to Him He hasn't heard before.

Some people not only have way too much time on their hands, but they think much to highly of their importance. Dawkins apparently was hoping to accomplish something that is useless. Perhaps he hoped to challenge God to a duel...

Ben Wyman said...

I'll never forget sitting in Bible class, watching Mr. Lester and Tim have at it over Biblical interpretations. Tim, who's arguing style was something like that of a bulldog worrying a rat, would pull out verses and logic systems, and generally argue Mr. Lester into a corner, at which point Mr. Lester would just say something like "you're wrong! You're just wrong!" And then Tim's grade would go down again.

I tried my hand at fighting back a few times, but when it became quite apparent that there was no chance of dissuading anyone - or even opening a debate - I mostly sat back quietly and collected it all as stories. They've really come in handy when trying to explain the church to people.

I sat through some amazing ones - when I once suggested that there might be some Catholics in Heaven, it was immediately scoffed "oh, come on Ben, you can't be serious!" Or when we studied a linguistic study on how Henry Kissinger was the Antichrist (mind you, this was in 2001). But the greatest of these was the day our principal came in to explain to us the concept of "Hell Insurance," about how there were some people who had prayed the Sinner's Prayer but had never done anything since. They were going to Heaven, too, but we "were going to better than them there." At the time, I was rather uncertain myself - I think I rather still am - and I asked if maybe it was possible that those people wouldn't be in Heaven, that possibly by leaving the faith, by never really joining it, they might not have actually ever "punched their ticket."

"No, that's not right," my principal snapped back. All the eyes in the room turned to me, literally unbelieving that I'd suggest such a thing. Tim, curse him, had left the school years before, leaving me in the lurch about such things. "Anyone who believes something like that," he continued, "is completely unbiblical." He went on to explain how the Unforgiveable Sin translates to mean "someone who never prays the Sinner's Prayer."

I honestly don't know if I've ever found my theological feet since that day.

Erin said...

I think the only one able to stand up to Mr. Lester's theology was Nate Bell, who could come up with such ridiculous arguments, the opponent was left too confused to come up with a logical counter. Plus, he loved to drive the man crazy and was quite good at it too.

It gives me some satisfaction to be teaching Bible there now and to answer the kids questions not with "silence, you heathen" but to say such novel phrases as, "well, I don't know, let's see what the Bible says about that" or "different churches will hold to different beliefs. Here's what I think based on what the Bible says. Why don't you talk to your parents/youth pastor this weekend and find out what your church believes on the issue?" It's exciting to save another generation from the same fate we faced.

Dubbahdee said...

The comments about CCS are fascinating. I was a member of the church when CCS was launched, and had the opportunity to attend, which I declined. On the other hand, I went on to attend Word of Life Bible Institute. I certainly am not a poster boy for that institution (you can bet no "real" Word of Lifer would be reading this blog), but I took away much of great value from the experience. I totally understand the kind of knee jerk biblical positivism you describe.

Enough musing on the nostalgic past...

More to the point of the post, if it is impossible to for unbelievers to blaspheme, what does that suggest about anyone's ability to PRAISE God? If magic words don't work to blaspheme, what is required in order to edify? If saying, "I blaspheme you, God!" is ridiculous, then is saying "I praise you God!" much better?

I have a good friend who likes to explain the common misconception many people have about God this way. Too many people think that God is the Benevolent Bellboy. Leave him a good tip, and he'll provide you a good service, picking up all your cosmic baggage and carrying it to your mansion in heaven -- and cheerfully too. This movement of so called blasphemers takes this same concept in a different direction, but it grows out of the same misconception. What can you get for the Deity who has everything?

Wanker indeed!

Anonymous said...

I think real blasphemy has to do with the belief in ritual purity. Blasphemy meant soiling something that was ritually pure, or dedicated to God - whether it was an object, a space, or sacred words. AVI is right - it's magical thinking and most Westerners no longer think this way. Vandals may deface a church, but nobody in the congregation really believes that the church is somehow no longer holy enough to worship God in.

The people in question are looking for cheap thrills, trying to prove how clever they are, or trying to piss off devout Christians. Juvenile behavior, but common.

GraniteDad said...

Ben and Erin (and David, Tim, Mike, and Fred by extension): It's interesting, as that seems to be a Mark Lester-specific defect. When I was in Bible class there was a lot I didn't agree with in how we approached certain subjects (salvation and end-times especially), but we always had room to dissent. I think the difference may have been that Mr. Mack let us argue amongst ourselves, rather than taking the fight himself. My guess is that is was a tolerance for subtlety that Mr. Lester couldn't grasp.