I was thinking today about the various ways in which Christians keep trying to do stuff they think Jesus did in the Bible–and failing miserably. I really wish they’d stop, because it is simply cringe-inducing to behold. Today I’m going to talk about some of the ways they try to do it, and why it happens.
Ya know, I can’t even blame them. I know exactly why they do it–and why I did it myself. The highest compliment a Christian can get is to be called “Christlike.” A number of Bible verses seem to seem to support the idea of imitating him. Christians are meant to be baptized just as Jesus was, to try to live as free of sin as he did, to answer devious questioners as skillfully as he did, to suffer persecution as he did, to treat others as he did (minus, I’m sure, calling people by racist slurs or repeatedly disrespecting and disavowing his own mother, of course, or stealing other people’s livestock or lying), even to go to their deaths as gracefully as he did.
They are told, as well, that they will do even greater miracles than he did. I’ve never seen any miracle at all, much less a miracle greater than those attributed to Jesus, but I do know that many of the Christians I knew–including myself, alas–thought they had the same gift for talking to people that he did in myths like those of the woman at the well. Entire websites and pages exist to help Christians develop ministries like his and hone their “gifts of healing” to be more like him, offering stern admonitions like “Spiritual maturity is necessary for imitating Christ.”
But which Christ should they imitate?
It’s not like there’s really much information to go on. Most of the Gospels just copy (and blatantly embellish) each others’ stories, and none really offer a lot of information about what Jesus was actually like. In the absence of anything really definitive, Christians can feel free to make up a Jesus who is the kind of Messiah they, themselves would like to worship.
And the sky’s the limit when these Christians build themselves a Jesus. Mark Driscoll’s Jesus looked more like a fratchoad than anything else. I’ve known quite a few women whose Jesus looked like a simpering, dangerously-overprotective, overly-sensitive boyfriend. Some people’s Jesus looks more like a calm and studied theologian; others more like the perfect father figure; others like a wild-eyed, lunatic revolutionary. Quite a few toxic Christians worship a Jesus who packs guns and hates immigrants; others see him as a man of total peace, nonviolence, and serenity. The total lack of coherence and unity regarding the character of Jesus is a serious problem for people who actually know what the hell they’re talking about.
All this fuss to be just like a character they can’t define at all reminds me of this clip from the movie Men in Black:
Second Lieutenant Jake Jenson: “We’re here because you are looking for the best of the best of the best, sir!”
Zed: “What’s so funny, Edwards?”
James Edwards: “Boy, Captain America over here! “Best of the best of the best, sir!” “With honors!” Yeah, he’s just really excited and he has no clue why we’re here.”
In the same exact way, all these Christians are scampering around trying to be exactly like Jesus, “with honors,” and they are just really excited about being as Christlike as they can, and they have no real clue at all how to do that. But oh, wow, do they sure have a lot of enthusiasm for the task. I had a temp job like that once in college but it’s not something I’d recommend anybody try to maintain for a whole lifetime.
But the problem is that if Jesus existed at all, the myths about what he said are very likely exaggerated and burnished to a polished, mirror shine. We certainly haven’t ever verified via external, contemporaneous, non-Biblical sources anything the Bible claims he ever said or did. All we have are those Bible stories, and as much as ancient cultures relied on oral folklore to transmit stories, I have a tough time believing that the Gospels are in any way even halfway reliable as definitive, accurate sources of anything going on at the time.
So Christians are trying their level best to imitate an idealized character in their heads, like they’re roleplaying someone who might not ever even have existed (and who, if he did, is almost certainly embellished and fictionalized quite a lot in the little material about him that exists). I know many Christians count on divine aid for the task in the form of “infillings” or some other form of guidance; others count on this nebulous concept of “spiritual maturity” (and no, before you ask, no source I consulted on this topic gave any clue whatsoever about how someone might cultivate this quality; all relied on vague exhortations like “think like mature people” and “focus on the heavenly rather than the earthly”).
And it’s getting a little tiresome.
Here are just some of the ways my ex-Christian friends and I have noticed that Christians try to be Christlike and fail.
* No, Christians aren’t actually good at making metaphors, parables, allegories, or analogies.
It’s so damned painful and excruciating to watch Christians construct these little stories and recount them with the earnestness of what they imagine is the Master Shepherd himself, all intense-eyed and paternalistic.
For some reason Christians have such a major hard-on for these sorts of stories. I know they do it because Jesus is supposed to have done it in numerous stories in the Gospels, but they don’t really understand that Jesus was ghost-written by a heap of super-educated men who, while anonymous, were clearly masters of the craft. These stories were, in addition, edited and honed over many years to get them in their current form.
Some random Christian–especially the sort to make a pest of him- or herself around non-Christians–is not going to be able to summon that kind of learning, no matter how impressive he or she thinks the results sound. I’ve heard so many inept tries at parables by now that I start cringing before the Christian even gets to the end. I know it’s going to make a lot of unfounded assertions, totally unverifiable claims, beyond-ridiculous comparisons, and end by inadvertently saying something hugely bad about Christianity that the storyteller is completely oblivious to it saying.
Even if a Christian were actually competent at building one of these stories, they don’t seem to realize that Jesus used these stories not to illustrate ideas, but rather to make those ideas harder to understand so only the right folks would make it to his Heaven.
* No, Christians are not actually cold reading people nearly as well as they think they are.
The character of Jesus was psychic and had divine foreknowledge of people’s lives and fates. Christians certainly don’t have those attributes.
Cold reading is a charlatan’s trick whereby someone makes very educated guesses about a target based on subtle cues and observable mannerisms. It’s an essential skill for palm or tarot card readers, evangelists, and psychics and mediums of all kinds. The charlatan in question may well believe that this information is coming in via genuinely supernatural means. Just about anybody can pick up the skill and practice it convincingly with very little effort. Though the woman at the well in that Bible story might have been amazed at this man she met “who told her everything she ever did,” a good cold reader could convince most audiences of the same exact thing in short order.
The problem is, cold reading involves a lot of observed cues. For it to be its most convincing, the charlatan needs a target who is at least a little cooperative; when the target is either hostile or actively working to prevent the leakage of prompts and cues, the charlatan has a lot of trouble creating a convincing act.
And Christians, when they try to cold read, are generally working with just such an uncooperative audience–or one that cannot be observed at all, such as when they try to cold read people online, like on message boards and comment threads, or by the examination of social-media or blog posts. If they try it in real life, they are often working from their mistaken impressions of their targets–or operating with a great deal of wishful thinking and straw-man creation. A good cold reader accurately perceives cues and can brush aside missed guesses, leading to what seems to the target like astonishing accuracy. Even a bad cold reader can at least create a “reading” that is vague enough that the target will still, thanks to the Forer Effect, think is spot-on. People who voluntarily talk to cold readers generally want to believe that the skill is genuinely supernatural.
Ah, but a Christian cold reader makes up his or her own cues to translate and tries too hard to slant the reading in very unflattering and bizarre directions to an audience that is completely disinterested in hearing this nonsense, which can only lead to a hilariously inept reading. Not a week goes by that I don’t run into a Christian making such a guess about me, my life, my past, my attitudes, my aspirations, or my problems, and I imagine non-believers with more fervent families and communities face these attempts even more frequently than I do.
Very, very seldom do such Christian charlatans actually make a convincing cold reading. Not to be deterred by a simple logistical problem like “constant and hilarious failure,” they keep trying it. Their cultural mythology is replete with stories of similar cold readings that went swimmingly well and resulted in a conversion (or even a mass conversion!).
And, well, Jesus did it all the time.
According to Christians, then, divination is an abomination, unless it’s a Christian doing it.
Maybe the big problem with witchcraft, in this god’s eyes, is that it’s competition.
(If you’re wondering, “hot reading” is far more dishonest, involving the illicit gathering of solid information about that target that the target doesn’t realize the charlatan has seen–which is what Christian evangelist and faith healer Peter Popoff got exposed doing some years ago, but very few Christians go to those lengths to look legitimate.)
* No, Christians actually don’t get to judge people or tell them what to do just because Jesus did it to people.
Somewhere along the way, Christians got the idea that the phrase attributed to Jesus, “go and sin no more,” means that modern Christians can–and indeed should–judge others and tell them how to live their lives. “He said to go and sin no more! So I get to say it to other people and make them behave,” goes the logic. But that isn’t true. The Bible says more firmly that Christians are supposed to refrain from judging others, and the Love Chapter certainly implies that controlling other people’s lives isn’t very loving. And, too, the Bible makes clear that Christians who are really hyper about judging others are largely ignoring their own failings to do it.
The moment someone brings up those Bible verses, though, or mentions that control doesn’t feel loving, Christians leap on it with both feet in their rush to explain why it’s actually totally, amazingly, awesomely Biblical to try to control other people and that really it’s all very loving to remove people’s self-ownership, freedom, liberty, and consent against their wills.
They’re just wrong, is all–about this as well as a lot of other claims they make.
It’s not bad to judge others privately. We all do it. We all have our little lists of things we think are wrong to do. When we see others doing those things, we feel deep disapproval. But most of our lists are things that are actively and obviously wrong and that affect us in our everyday lives, either by putting us at risk personally or requiring the law for intervention: drinking and driving. Texting and driving. Refusing to vaccinate one’s kids due to misunderstandings of the science and risks involved. Hitting or abusing animals or other people. Stealing. Discriminating against groups of people.
By contrast, Christians are doing it to people who simply live differently than they do or who make different choices than they would. They’re judging people about things that really aren’t any of their goddamned business, that don’t affect them in any way whatsoever, and that aren’t actually up for their adjudication or review, like with their infamous (and hugely fervent, and hugely ineffective, and hugely hateful and bigoted) campaign against same-sex marriage rights.
I don’t honestly know what Christians would do if they suddenly all realized, all at once, that judging people does not make non-Christians convert or help any of their causes in any material way, and that moreover that exact eagerness to judge is why many of their ranks–especially young people–are pulling away if not deconverting altogether. Judging people is probably one of the single worst things they can do.
But giving up their love of judging other people’s lives would also mean giving up their perceived right to control those people’s lives. That is the next step, after all. Pouting and petulantly whining and waving their little fists in the air about other people doing things that Christians don’t approve of doesn’t do a lot of good if those Christians can’t then try to criminalize or restrict those things too, for those sinners’ own good of course. There’s a lot of arrogance and narcissism bound up in the Christian desire to judge others, and the Bible correctly perceived that this desire leads to a lot of trouble.
Don’t expect Christians to realize that what was okay for a demigod is not necessarily always okay for mere mortals. I’m not sure exactly when people decided that the CEO of a business and a janitor at that business have to follow the exact same rules and be held to the exact same expectations, but somewhere along the line, that’s what happened in Christianity.
* No, Christians aren’t actually smarter or more rational than educated scientists and theologians, and certainly can’t out-argue either group.
It’s astonishing to see Christians convinced that they can totally blow fatal holes in the Theory of Evolution or the science behind geologic dating or whatnot, and funny to see them try to get into big arguments with trained, credentialed scientists. It has got to feel like, to these educated people, a small child trying to argue with them that the moon is too made of green cheese.
I fell into this mindset when I was a Christian–well, all of these mindsets I’m talking about today, really, but this one was especially dear to me because I thought of myself as a very intelligent and spiritually discerning young Christian. When I went up against my college’s dean during a lecture about the Book of Job, I fully expected the Holy Spirit to help me win–and I expected it because my entire religion’s cultural mythology and my understanding of the Bible had both led me to believe that the foolish could bring down the wise. Indeed, being wise was not always a great thing.
Even when Jesus was a child, the story goes, he was confounding even the most learned rabbis in his area with his incredible understanding and wisdom. And he was just a kid! Other stories abounded in my church that now I know were just urban legends of the “… and that professor/student was ALBERT EINSTEIN” variety, stories about manual laborers astounding businesspeople with their spirituality and insight, about uneducated people winning debates against the most hardened and knowledgeable atheists, about feminists brought low by simple housewives. I heard these stories myself; they were part of the fabric of my church culture. Just as Isaiah had had his tongue touched with a burning coal held by an angel so he could be purified enough to preach, just as “God” gave a fumbling Moses the words to speak, we would get the right words to say to these people.
Again, the sheer arrogance involved here is staggering for me to consider now that I’m away from the religion. But at the time, it was a big comfort to me that I could be the equal of anybody educated if I just prayed a lot and trusted “God” to speak through me.
Considering how often Christians fail at their attempts to speak over and try to confound the wise, one would think they’d regroup, but that’d require a major rethinking of their entire approach to education. And yes, sometimes that is exactly what happens–one of the main darlings of the homeschooling movement, 40-year-old Josh Harris (author of the reprehensible and irresponsible book I Kissed Dating Goodbye, which legitimized the “courtship” movement of the late-90s and beyond, and which he has since at least partially disavowed), is now heading to seminary to pick up the education he missed out on as a young adult.
That doesn’t happen often. Most Christians who fall into this mindset are stuck on it. It’s a lot easier to act knowledgeable than to become so, and even easier to read some ear-tickling webpages than to actually learn anything real that might challenge any preconceptions that are held. And Jesus certainly didn’t have any webpages to read when he confounded those rabbis and confused the crowd trying to stone that adulterous woman to death. As long as Christians believe that if Jesus did it, then they should as well, they have no reason whatsoever to actually learn the stuff they’re trying to denounce and refute.
To sum everything up, I wish Christians gave a little more thought to just what they are trying to emulate, and why, and what affects they are really having.
Cosplaying Jesus might seem like an awful lot of fun, but it’s not converting anybody except people who like to borrow authority and feel superior to others. Are those people really who Christians want as bedmates?
Call me old-fashioned, but if Christians as a group really were Christlike–that is, if they were charitable, loving, subservient, humble, patient, kind, trusting, hopeful, accepting, and empathetic–then most people wouldn’t have any trouble with them. Moreover, fewer of their fellow pew-warmers would be jolted out of complacency by this parade of constant, rampant hypocrisy, leading them to start wondering why this religion that constantly stresses those qualities in its followers doesn’t seem to produce more people like that. Instead, we’ve got Christians who are vain, self-seeking, dishonest, uncharitable, angry, judgmental, terrified, rigid, authoritarian, ignorant, deluded, discriminatory, punitive, mean-spirited, and hateful–but who are absolutely convinced that these qualities are what is Christlike.
And they will ride their Jesus-cosplay train all the way to irrelevance, because if they started making any major changes to the failings I’ve outlined here, it would destroy their entire culture–because it is based on the idea that being “Christlike” means hurting, controlling, and abusing people in the name of a perceived “greater good.”
Speaking of which, we’re going to talk next time about some recent news about Catholicism, and why I am not a Francis fangirl. See you Saturday!