Thursday, March 25, 2021

The Prism is a Prison - Part II of Tim Keller

Our congregation was urged last year to read a book by a pastor in our denomination. I was suspicious. His entire Introduction is online, so I started there. 

My initial response was very negative.  It is still mostly negative, though I have modified it somewhat. Taking things apart, in order, he starts with a story about himself, and implicit bias. That's two problems already in one story. First, implicit bias turns out to not affect anything.  It is true that people have an instantaneous reaction to black faces that is more negative than their reaction to white faces. Even black people seem to have the idea that white faces are preferred. Trouble is, this doesn't correlate with any known racist behavior. One would think it would, as it makes intuitive sense. You can read all sorts of articles asserting that it does, yet if you look closely, you will see they are leaping across great chasms, logically. That black boys are disciplined at school more often might be a result of actual behavior in the classroom, for example.  Just a thought. At minimum, it remains unevidenced that it is a result of implicit bias or of any bias at all.  That's what has to be proved, not assumed. Even Scientific American, a publication that now has a significant liberal bias, acknowledges that Implicit Bias Training has no measurable effect

Second, there is a persuasive technique - it is almost a trick - that many people use, more especially Christians, and most especially preachers: confessing a small version of a sin to establish that one is not being a hypocrite, that one understands the temptation and sin and is not throwing stones from within a glass house. Thus my liberal uncle used to say that he understood why conservatives are afraid of change, because there were changes in the world he has a hard time adjusting to as well - and then would list unimportant things. Yes, I understand about global conflict and nations going to war, because I remember how furious I would get with my sister when she was first married and I just wanted to slap her silly.  "Thou shalt not steal?" Yes, I remember shoplifting a deck of cards from a department store as a boy. It used to be traditional at Christmas, almost as common as singing "Silent Night," for the pastor to describe some small materialistic anecdote from one of his own Christmases, to show he understood the temptation and is not above the rest off us, before condemning society in general and the Christian Church in particular for their deep attachment to materialistic Christmas.  It is somewhat disarming to an audience if played correctly, because it is an imitation of real humility.  Yet it is a Screwtape-level self deception to rely on.

And this is where the author begins his argument.  It's the first thing out of the gate, and to my mind he is both scientifically and spiritually deep in a hole.  He has scored all sorts of social points within his circle, however, and set up nicely to condemn many others for their racism. But wait, there's more.

His second example is a woman of Native American heritage who is uncomfortable with references in the Bible to Jesus as King, because it reminds her of colonialism. The pastor thinks we should be sensitive to this, that not everyone sees the Bible the way we do and there are hidden problems of racist history that wound. That seems a distant, even forced connection to me. I don't think anyone gets there on their own, you have to have someone suggest to you that this is colonialist, or you have to have been trained to look for it everywhere. I don't think the association shows up in the entire history of native and European contact until quite recently. Where does it end? So I look at the sky and I remember how important the sky is to my people, and I look at the earth and think how big a part of Native understanding that has always been.  I look at highways and I think of our land being taken and I hear your music and know that it is not native music. This is not entirely crazy. If you are looking at things through the prism of what happened to people long ago, most of whom you aren't related to and would not recognise you as being one of them in any way, the evidence of things taken, and even oppression is everywhere.  To argue that it pervades American society now can be true from that viewpoint.  Things that happened in 1620, 1720, and 1820 have spreading effects, eventually touching everything in a society. So looking backward, you can trace from anything to anything.  Certainly, some things are more closely tied than others, and those deserve larger consideration.

Yet the woman might also look at the fact that she can read, drive a car, have great medical care, or look at everything she wears or is in her house. She also might like having any rights at all as a woman, because that was rare in Native cultures, unless you were a chief's daughter.  If she is Christian, she might wonder how that was going to happen some other way, however badly the accompanying cultural baggage undermined it.  She could. Well, how do you know she isn't also grateful for those things? Why do you assume she is only critical?  Isn't it your problem that you can't take criticism? I know it because of the example she chose, of some ridiculously distant connection to kings - quite notably rejected in American history - reminding her of colonialism writ large, which reminds her of...prejudice against the category of Native Americans.  I'm not knocking them, by the way.  I don't know the general level of blame and gratitude among the various tribes. I'm singling her out as having a mostly invalid claim because he singled her out as having an entirely valid one. For all I know, her own family may not agree with her. 

I would also point out because it is deeply pertinent that 90% or even 95% of the native Americans who died in what was likely the greatest long-running tragedy in human history died from Eurasian diseases, in much the same way that 50...60...70...maybe even 80% of Europeans died from the plagues out of China in the 14th-17th Centuries.  I'm sorry.  did I say that out loud?

An analogy that I think apt, because it combines the idea that there is some justification, while also noting its basic ridiculousness. My wife's freshman dorm had skits, and first week did one rehashing all the sexual warnings the nuns had (supposedly) given to high school girls. Don't wear patent leather shoes - they reflect your underwear.  Don't wear a white blouse - it reminds boys of bedsheets. There were more, and the effect was predictably uproarious, I am told. It was in one sense not completely insane. Virtually anything can trigger ideas of sex in teenage boys, true. However, it was funny for a reason. It rapidly becomes apparent that there might be something problematic about anything a girl might wear, say, or do, and eventually she has to leave her house, appear in public, and interact with other human beings.  So too with things that remind someone of colonialism. It's true.  Everything you encounter in America can be connected to colonialism. What other alt-history turned out better for you in 2021? South America?  The New World not being discovered? I suggest both of those would have been worse for you, my dear. Much, much, worse.

We're still in the introduction, remember.  We are still taxiing down the runway and have not taken off yet with this dude's book about how we are going to get discipled into not being racist..

There is the lastly the incident with the friend* who was nervous about coming to his neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago at night. He paints it humorously, wryly, but he is making a serious accusation of racial bigotry here. About his friend. Well, the South Side of Chicago is known as a dangerous area for the good reason that it is a dangerous area. Not all areas are the same, however, and the pastor's point seems to be that his friend shouldn't be worried about his section of the South Side - I think he is aware that there are other places on the South Side that his white friend my be cautious about at night unless the Lord had called him to specific ministry there - just because it has some black people. Well, it's not just because it has some black people.  He is deceiving either himself or us if he thinks that is his friend's reasoning.  His friend might not be fully aware that Bronzeville has been gentrifying - it was not mentioned - nor that it isn't the worst neighborhood. It's not that bad, and his friend is quietly a bigot, is his point. It's where Obama (!!!) comes from.  

And oh, Bronzeville has had a 30% increase in homicide and violent crime in the last year, but how was he supposed to know that?  How could he have possibly guessed such a thing?

The pastor who wrote the book has adopted two black children.  That would intensify his viewing the world through the prism of race, yes.  That's not crazy.  But it is still a prism.  I have two children who were born behind the Iron Curtain and lived in horrifying conditions; one married a Filipina.  That's two prisms.  They're not invalid. I also worked with the mentally ill for forty years, who are subject to much more prejudice, worse living conditions, and more oppression than any racial, ethnic, or religious group in the country.  That is another prism of mine.  That's not invalid either. All are fairly dramatic, actually. 

If you look at the world with dark glasses, the world looks dark, yes. That's not unreality, but it is a modified reality. Sometimes dark glasses are helpful, and sometimes they are absolutely essential.

Sometimes not.

*Remind me not to be this guy's friend.  He's willing to throw them under the bus in his books in order to virtue signal. Nice guy.  I hope his friends are nicer and more forgiving (or are as desperate to virtue signal as he is, anyway) than I am.


Grim said...

“His second example is a woman of Native American heritage who is uncomfortable with references in the Bible to Jesus as King, because it reminds her of colonialism.”

A very serious problem— for her, if prophecy proves true.

Korora said...

"What other alt-history turned out better for you in 2021?"
There are people who THINK they know, but are mistaking the treatment for the disease. *cough* the amateur philosopher blogged about here *cough*

james said...

"My point isn’t to beat up on white Christianity." Then he missed his point.

When I was a sophomore I remember reading a news/commentary story in which it was claimed that black students generally had a white acquaintance, and this was a great sign of racial harmony. I pointed out the stupidity of that claim to several people, who by and large missed the point as badly as the reporter did. People need to learn some statistics....

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ Korora - Good pickup. But I couldn't help but notice that we were the only commenters on that one. Let me note I still think your ideas hold up.

But you knew that, I expect.

The Mad Soprano said...

The woman who talked about kings having a connection to colonialism clearly didn't read about the Aztecs or any other Indigenous tribe that had kings.

Texan99 said...

You were just talking about the common error of viewing Christianity primarily for its usefulness in promoting whatever social scheme we are genuinely interested in, or, as CSL put it, "Christianity and Spelling Reform." This is "Christianity and Grievance Mongering." No matter what the subject, some facet of it can be made to remind the speaker of whatever the bug is that she has up her wazoo. Eek, I don't want to watch anyone take communion because it reminds me of my uncle getting drunk and abusing me. The archbishop's robes remind me of rich people who were rude to me on the street or wouldn't give me a job. The silver chalice reminds me that capitalism is destroying the lives of workers.

We're not entitled to a world in which nothing could have any conceivable bad associations.

As for confessing our own struggles with racism, anyone who's honest with himself knows that genuine charity and patience often are easier with someone who is from a familiar culture--though it's also easy to fake a superficial charity and patience with someone from an alien culture, as long as it's at a convenient distance, so there are no actual conflicts to resolve in our own daily lives. All I demand from most people, most of the time (or from myself), is to keep my eyes and ears open to the reality of an individual, rather than leap to conclusions based on group stereotypes. If someone actually embodies an unpleasant group stereotype, well, tough. There are besetting sins of cultures just as there are of individuals. The best I can do then is try to consider honestly whether I object to the quality because it's really a bad quality, or because it's not what I'm used to (and I expect the same courtesy in return). In addition, I suppose, I can try to be extra careful about whether I'm detecting a problem in someone because it's actually there, or because I've taught myself to expect it from his "group."

The rest of this garbage about trying to be "less white" or accepting personal guilt for what strangers did in other times and places I simply reject root and branch--not just because I don't feel like sacrificing the rest of my life to some nonsensical guilt trip, but because it's a profoundly sick way to live and think. Imagine forcing yourself to say someone should be "less black." It's appalling that this is in fashion. Thank goodness I have no children in school, and that I don't work for a sick institution with social training classes.

RichardJohnson said...

The woman who talked about kings having a connection to colonialism clearly didn't read about the Aztecs or any other Indigenous tribe that had kings.

But the Aztec and Inca rulers were emperors, not kings. (sarc, but true)