Biff was so proud of himself, but I was so horrified.
It was my junior year or so of college and I was in the library at our university, where I spent the vast majority of my time; one friend’s nickname for me at the time was Our Lady of the Perpetual Term Paper. Biff came up to me chortling and giggling like a mischievous child. He didn’t normally like being in the library at all, but we’d gone there together and he’d vanished for a good long while. I looked up from my computer terminal–I was well known for being good at finding stuff in that massive library system, but half the trick really was knowing the right search term to use (which meant I spent a lot of time at the catalog kiosks).
Already wincing inside at what I was sure going to sound like one of his turn-or-burn episodes of showboating, I asked what had gotten him so excited.
In between giggles he told me he’d gone upstairs to the religion section and hidden all the books about topics he considered antithetical to or overly critical of our particular flavor of Christianity.
Anybody trying to find books about the evolution of the Wiccan neopagan religion would find it almost impossible to find resources about it. Seventh-Day Adventist books? Gone. Books criticizing fundamentalism or trying to claim the Bible wasn’t 100% literally true? Hidden behind stacks of other books.
And now, as he told me what he’d done, his eyes glittered with that strange intensity he only got when he knew he was transgressing civil boundaries.
I got the unsettling feeling that he really wanted me to approve of what he’d done. But I’d grown up in libraries. I volunteered for my local area’s public library in my teens. I fully believed in the power of libraries as a medium for the sharing of information. Remember the librarian speech from The Mummy? That was me, totally.
So, far from stroking Biff’s ego about how he’d restricted people’s free access to information, I was angry and upset about it. Keeping my voice low–we were in a library, after all–I told him to go put the books back. It was not acceptable to ruin some librarians’ day like that when they had to find and fix his vandalism, and that was only the very first of a long list of reasons why I found his prank unacceptable.
We had an argument on the spot about how moral it was to impede people’s access to those books. I got accused of not really wanting people “saved”–with him insisting up and down that what he’d done was for these strangers’ benefit because he was keeping them from seeing information that would keep them from knowing Jesus.
I countered that considering the area–Houston, Texas, for crying out loud–he could not possibly imagine that the majority of the people around us weren’t already Christian. All he was doing was ruining people’s days. And if people like us needed one of those books for a very Christian purpose, then we wouldn’t be able to use them and maybe that’d backfire and cause someone to be lost for lack of research. What he’d done wasn’t any different from writing graffiti on a wall, and it didn’t matter to me why he’d done it or how he rationalized it; he’d just wanted to mess with people, is all. He loved doing what he called “pulling people’s chains.” He liked getting a rise out of people and frequently said or did provocative things just to get a strong reaction. I think it helped him feel in control to prod and provoke people. He always seemed so giddy while he did it. In short, Christianity gave him the perfect excuse to irritate people, and being a bloody hindering nuisance was something he knew irritated people.
Some of my perceptions of Biff’s behavior might have come out in the argument.
Mostly I was just horrified at the level of abusive control-lust and manipulation that was required for Biff to deliberately hide information from people to make his platform seem more reasonable. If our religion was true, then nobody needed to do that to support it. Nothing true required that kind of deception and manipulation to sell itself.
Chastened and annoyed with me, Biff sullenly trudged upstairs, presumably to put the books back.
Later he’d say that he’d mostly put them back–some of them he said even he couldn’t re-find, he’d hidden them so well (coincidentally, those were books criticizing a literal reading of the myths in Genesis; though we’d both been perfectly sane old-Earth Creationists at first, he headed into young-Earth, science-denial territory before too long). But of the ones he’d returned to their rightful places on the shelves, he’d stuck Chick tracts into their pages. He always carried tracts around while we were on the college campus, just in case he found someone interested in his constant witnessing attempts, as well as extra Bibles, church literature, and a host of homemade religious buttons to hand out. And he was thrilled that he’d found such a great way to distribute tracts. He’d been leaving them in bathroom stalls and on lecturers’ podiums in classrooms, but he’d just realized how much better it was to put them in books.
Even then I regarded this act of willfulness on his part as a sort of final gesture of contempt and defiance, sort of like how someone might piss in a rival’s shoes in the locker room, or how one might flip off an enemy seen on a sidewalk before driving or walking away as fast as possible. I didn’t think even for one moment that he’d stuck religious tracts into those books to convert anybody. He was angry that I hadn’t allowed him to annoy people, so he was doing the next best thing to demonstrating his control of the situation and, by extension, the people seeking those books. They could have their dumb books, fine, let them have their stupid books–but they would have to push past his grubby paws to get access to them. They would have to take the tracts out of the books, look at them to see what they were, and find some way to deal with them–either by disposing of them or hopefully reading them, at which point they’d become responsible for knowing the Good News.
A light went on in my husband’s head.
As far as he was concerned, this new tactic was the next best thing to standing in the library vestibule preaching. He began slipping tracts into books all the time after that in libraries and bookstores–as many as he could buy given his limited budget. You hopefully didn’t imagine churches gave those things to members in vast quantities, right? My denomination didn’t at any rate, which speaks volumes about how effective even they thought tracts were as a witnessing strategy.
When I read this Friendly Atheist piece about people finding religious tracts in used books purchased online, I wasn’t surprised at all. This kind of invasive, in-your-face propaganda tactic never really went out of style. It’s ineffective, of course. That goes without saying. Biff was very fond of tracts, but I didn’t know anybody who’d converted as a result of getting one. The only folks who think they’re useful are the publishers of such bits of error-ridden, puerile, simplistic trash, and many Christians themselves. The people who are the targets of such wastebin-fodder certainly wouldn’t characterize them as effective or really anything but hilariously inept. They’re a nuisance and an annoyance, a waste of money entirely unless the Christian using them is trying to be a nuisance or an annoyance.
And over time I began to realize that conversion wasn’t actually really the goal. Biff said it was, as did the other Christians I knew who used tracts in their evangelism. But the tactics are just too disastrously ineffective for that to be the goal. The goal is not evangelism but rather the marking of territory and the showing of dominance.
What I’m saying is that when Christians sneak tracts into the the hands of someone they know wouldn’t welcome it, that is the Christian equivalent of catcalling and harassing women on street corners.
The people who sold the books in the Friendly Atheist’s post knew their customers just wanted to buy a book and be on their way. Given that at least one of the books involved was highly critical of religion (God’s Not Great), they could probably infer that this customer probably was not going welcome a proselytization attempt. But their need to evangelize trumped their customers’ desire to conduct transactions in a professional manner.
Maybe they’re inspired by the occasional stories one hears about someone finding a handwritten secret tucked into a book, like the PostSecret site talks about from time to time. Maybe they think tracts are just like those earnest, heartfelt attempts to reach out to another human being.
But it’s totally different, and we’re not talking about two human beings trying to find an interface, an area of common ground, a struggle to share and show our most secret identity to someone else.
No, the people sneaking tracts into books were just waving their religious ideas like a penis in the faces of people they knew had not asked to see those ideas. They didn’t care if they had the consent of the people they were shoving religion at. To those Christians, the ends justify the means. And I just can’t get on board with that kind of thinking. I can’t now, and I couldn’t when I was Christian. When I see a Christian willing to rationalize away stomping on other people’s consent to proselytize, I wonder what other dishonesty I’m going to see if I keep examining that person’s character. And I’m usually not at all disappointed; that base of infection extends in every other direction and comes out in that person’s behavior in a lot of other ways–which is why I refuse to do business with any company that prominently displays a religious logo on its advertising; even as a Christian I couldn’t help but notice that every time I tried to patronize Christian businesses that did that, I got rooked.
A Disturbing Incident.
The incident at the library with Biff went into my Deal With It Later pile, but it was a hugely disturbing one to me. He was totally okay with pushing himself into other people’s business and interfering with them any way he could. He was totally okay with limiting people’s access to information; if he’d been allowed to dictate what people could and couldn’t read or see, he’d have done so long ago. His religious ideology only felt safe when he could totally control the flow of information about it.
If you’re reading this post and thinking to yourself “Well, he just wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™,” you don’t even know the half of it. I realized even then that he was a piss-poor representative of Christianity. By then, I was well aware that he was both a pathological liar and a controlling, abusive asshole. I didn’t know what narcissism was at the time, but if I had, that would have been the term I’d have used to describe his increasingly-bizarre behavior and thinking. Though I dislike diagnosing people with psychological disorders, it’s hard for me to see lists of qualifiers for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and not notice that Biff fit every single particular. So I don’t think his showboating had any impact my faith in general. But it did bother me a lot to notice the same strains of his behavior in other Christians, who saw nothing at all wrong with limiting young people’s access to information to keep them doctrinally pure or with deceiving them for a good cause.
There’s something seriously wrong with a religious ideology that depends so heavily on overstepping boundaries, deceiving people, and keeping them ignorant. And that was what I was starting to notice, though it made my heart just sink in my chest. Even Biff, with all his bombastic energy and gung-ho extremist zeal, knew deep down that if he had any hope of converting the lost in this world, he had to resort to underhanded, sneaky tactics to do it because the honest, straightforward, lovey-dovey stuff clearly didn’t work at all.
Even worse, our church leaders had done nothing to rein him in. Somehow he’d gotten the idea that the ends–saving souls–justified any means, no matter how awful. And once I saw how pervasive that mindset was in my religion, across denominations, at every level, I had to wonder what kind of a good, loving god would be okay with that kind of behavior.
I wonder how many other Christians, questioning their faith maybe or wondering about it at least, have the same thoughts I did when they encounter sneaky witnessing tactics like that?