Monday, March 13, 2017


One of the ways a religion survives is by separating itself and costing something to be part of it. The Hebrews did this with dietary laws, for example. It is somewhat paradoxical, but it seems to hold up.  Of course, if people don't like the cost they leave. Whatever rules you set up are going to lose you some people, but in the long run, having a core of people who have paid some cost and continue to pay it is what works.  Religions that don't cost have friends but few adherents.

I suppose this applies for any type of group, not just a religion. Military groups, political groups...

An additional strategy is to make it even more expensive to leave. You are going to hell if you leave. You are dead to us if you marry outside the group. In the case of Islamic apostasy, that can be literally true. Not everyone does this - the Amish don't.  However the separation from the old group is usually quite real.

I think of this in terms of evangelical children of the last generation, the only one I really know about.  Separation was supposed to include certain rock bands that should not be listened to, and popular entertainments in general were highly suspect. It was probably not the best place to make a stand, and the way that it was applied - allowing country music with other bad messages, not listening carefully to what was actually being condemned, focusing on beats and bass guitars and volume - could get ridiculous.  Still, art is a powerful persuader, and recognising that wasn't crazy. It has also turned out to have some truth in it: those who identify the ridiculousness of not being allowed to watch what they want and listen to what they want seem to have been greatly influenced by the values of that art.

Which is cart and which is horse I don't know. Those who left because they didn't like paying that cost might have left whatever cost was being asked.  They just didn't want to stay, laughing at rules against Black Sabbath was a reason that was handy. Parents, teachers, or other kids being jerks are also identified as reasons to leave.  A Christian school had a different winter vacation week one year and offered as its reason "Be ye not conformed to the world." There is usually something to that jerkness accusation - except that it is also true of everybody else. If they want to go, they'll find something.

If we grant that to bring up children in the faith it must cost them something, what is the right thing to select? Whatever we choose, some children will find the cost too high - or too ridiculous - and will leave. We want to set it up that we don't give children unnecessary extra reasons to leave.


Texan99 said...

It seems like reverse idolatry to me. The glue that keeps us together should be God, not a consensus about Black Sabbath. Must we really agree exactly on every single nuance of a moral judgment about what parts of the world, what acts, are so wrong that we must turn our backs on them? Are we truly justified in saying we refuse to associate in any way with someone who disagrees? The farthest I feel comfortable going is to say that, in my own weakness, there are some practices I can't be surrounded by without myself going astray--like a fitfully recovered drunk who can't set foot safely in a bar.

There are no dark alleys Jesus refused to walk down.

I don't mean that I don't believe people are not healthiest and best when they try to find some common ground and establish traditions that keep them in the right place, like Jews "building a fence around the law." I just think that the fence-building impulse is notoriously prone to rigidity and emptiness, and Christ made it crystal clear how sharply he distinguished between upholding every jot and tittle of the Law vs. living a life of ritual and self-congratulatory purity. We should be reminding ourselves that that kind of thing is more of a crutch than a direct path to righteousness. It may be an essential crutch often--there's no excuse for throwing away a crutch if we know we'll immediately fall down without it. But the broken leg is supposed to heal at some point. The crutch is a tool, not the ultimate goal.

Grim said...

I think you raise a good point, AVI, about the sense of paying a price for being a member of a community. It generalizes outside of religion -- the pride that comes from having been a member of an elite unit in the military comes in part from the hardship of joining; the pride in getting into a club that is quite restrictive is the same.

So that seems to be a human need: we might call it the need to experience initiation. And that is coupled with another very human thing, the need to be held to standards on a continuing basis. The sense that you could fall, if you stopped upholding the honor of your group.

These are useful and important qualities for creating and maintaining moral standards. They are both also easily turned to evil purposes.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@T99 - that's sorta where I'm going. As humans, we are going to do this sort of cost-and-initiation anyway, and the NT does not discourage that in principle. Salvation "is free" but we are to "give all." I therefore hope that we could pick a difference that actually matters in faith (or as the Jews did with food, is relatively neutral spiritually but is very daily and intimate).

At a minimum, I'd like to upgrade from what I knew twenty years ago when my children were young.

Texan99 said...

I see good things coming of my humbling myself to adopt a group's norms, trying to understand the good in them and so forth. But I see bad things coming from indulging myself in excommunicating other people in my group who violate the norms. Not that I shouldn't call out evil when I see it practiced, but I'm very uncomfortable with the "voting off the island" thing. There ought to be an AWFULLY good reason for it.

Thomas Doubting said...

First, it seems valuing a community would be necessary. If we don't instill a sense of how valuable it is to belong to a community, I don't think we'll get far in this.

I think that today community means almost nothing to Americans. Every person is an island, carefully defending his or her beeches from encroachment, glorifying isolation as "freedom". Of course the children abandon the community. Our society teaches them to.

If we grant that to bring up children in the faith it must cost them something, what is the right thing to select? Whatever we choose, some children will find the cost too high - or too ridiculous - and will leave. We want to set it up that we don't give children unnecessary extra reasons to leave.

I think Christianity already mandates enough cost; we don't need to add more. The sexual morality alone will set one apart today, and it will certainly cost something in modern America. Then there is taking care of the poor, tithing, sobriety, going to church on Sunday, and hardest of all for an American, submission -- not my will, but Thine. The mandatory things are so hard that whole denominations have tossed some of them aside. We don't need to create extra ones.

Texan99 said...

Do you really think community means nothing to most Americans? Granted our culture lays a strong emphasis on ensuring that communities should be voluntary. Maybe my experience is coloring my judgment of Americans at large, but everywhere I go I see people driven very hard to solve the problem of too little community. We're primates, not cats; we're not meant to be alone. Certainly freedom and community can be in conflict if we don't do it right. The way it's supposed to work is that the individual chooses to belong to the community, to be loyal to it and sacrifice for it while accepting its nourishment. The community is not supposed to be able to glom onto the individual and claim him as its rightful property.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Caring about community is almost universal, but Americans are much less concerned with it. It's part of our misreading of scripture and misunderstanding of other cultures.

Yes, the simple distinctives of the faith create a lot of separation by themselves, if they are observed. Those get strange when we are talking about children, though. They can't care for the poor much except under supervision or in constricted ways. Focus on chastity makes sense by the time they get to highschool and a little before with some, but it's not a distinctive for children. We laugh at Baptists for frowning on dancing, but it absolutely is sexually provocative for a large percentage. Sure was for me. Sure was for some of my dates. Another place where the pinch comes is in town sports, where games might be scheduled for a Sunday morning. There is nothing unholy about playing soccer, but it interferes with the family's commitment to attend worship. Is this a place to draw a line, or does it needlessly push a child away?

As I noted above, even the focus on art and entertainment isn't crazy, even if it is usually ridiculously applied. Art is powerful. That's its purpose.

Thomas Doubting said...

With AVI, I also think its much less important here than in other cultures. I think people here are driven to solve the problem of too little community because it IS a problem here. I didn't see this problem among the Japanese when I lived in Japan.

If we look at what's happened to the family over the last 50 years, that says a lot. It's not uncommon to break up a family for what essentially boils down to lifestyle preferences. That damages children, it damages extended families, and it damages society. It's clear that in our society what individuals want is more important than what communities need.

We as a nation have implemented a welfare system that penalizes single mothers for getting married and maintaining stable households that are better for them, their husbands, and especially their children. This has caused huge problems in poorer communities, and again, it's because we don't care about communities. We only see the individuals -- kind of a "We can't see the community for the individuals" phenomenon.

I agree with Tex that we'd better have very good reasons to vote someone off the island, but I think that responsibility is shared by all involved. Before I take some action that I know violates the community's sense of right, one that I know might get me voted off, I had better have a very good reason. "I don't see what's wrong with this and it's my life" is just selfishness. It's true that I'm free to take that action, but I would be choosing self over community, and I have no right to condemn the community if they do vote me off. I am free to make my decisions, and the community is equally free to make theirs.

Thomas Doubting said...

That's a good point, AVI. Children are different. Your soccer example is a good one.

I'll have to think about that some.

Thomas Doubting said...

I've thought about this for a bit now, but I never had children. I'd really like to hear more about how this affects them and parents, if anyone would like to comment on that.

Donna B. said...

Getting voted off the island... Made me think back to how my mom's family and my dad's family reacted when they divorced after 37 years. One faction of my mom's family voted her off the island. Another of my mom's family voted dad off. My dad's family made it clear that both my mom and my dad's new wife were part of the family. To get voted off by my dad's family, one must actually commit murder or harm a child.. Robbing a bank, beine an addict, or just downright unpleasant won't do it.

As to a church community, the one I was raised in went from being slightly harsh in it's teachings to everything goes, nothing can really be wrong, and kindness is all.

And, Thomas Doubting, you are right about children changing the outlook on everything. That lifestyle channel that used the slogan "A baby changes everything" had it exactly right.

I can't explain it all, but one cultural change that I've experienced is that my sons-in-law seem to have changed when their children were born much more than the generation before them. At least in my experience, they are more involved parents and not 'merely' enforcers and providers. Not that all men were ever just those. However, I didn't have a relationship with my father that wasn't filtered through my mom until I was in my 30s. This is not entirely my mom's fault. It was the 'accepted' way. I'm glad my grandchildren are not restricted this way.

I'm probably very off-topic by now...

stevo said...

I think many evangelical and anabaptist churches make the mistake of teaching kids to renounce the world before they learn to live in it.