a death star carved watermelon
Reading Time: 9 minutes Imagine what a good labor union would have done for the Death Star. (Silverisdead.)
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been talking about a podcast called Gospelbound. It’s a product of The Gospel Coalition (TGC), a hard-right Calvinist evangelical site. One of their episodes dealt with evangelical churn — the ongoing falls in membership in evangelicalism. It promised to teach evangelicals about a so-called ‘third way’ that would give them ‘resilient faith.’ But in actuality, it was 35 minutes of two Calvinists discussing ways to force their dwindling number of recruits to follow their strict behavioral rules. Yesterday, we covered the first prong of Gospelbound’s revitalization strategy: forcing compliance through church discipline. Today, we’ll cover the other: super-long, strict periods of indoctrination.

a death star carved watermelon
One of the few Death Stars welcome at parties. (Silverisdead.)

(Previous posts about this podcast thing: Gospelbound Talks Ineptly About Deconversion; Evaluating an Episode of Gospelbound; Why Jesus Aura Evangelism Still FailsMore Control = Less Churn. “Churn” is a business term. It means existing customers leaving a business. Obviously, businesses want their churn rate to be as low as possible. For a quick rundown of what Calvinism is, check out this post. And to see a big-name evangelical admit that he knows very well that his claims aren’t true, check out this one.)

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria Evangelical Churn?

The Gospelbound episode in question is from March 31, 2020. TGC titled it “Follow this ‘Third Way’ for Resilient Faith.”

During this podcast episode, host Collin Hansen and his guest, Gerald Sittser, talk about how they plan to rescue Christianity from its ongoing decline.

See, they think that if TRUE CHRISTIANS™ start following the tribe’s rules, then everyone will notice and marvel at how amazing and unique they are. You know, it’ll be just like their totally real earliest history when everyone was totally impressed by those Christians’ kindness and charity efforts. (Ignore the religion’s earliest critics, who claimed that those early Christians were already well-known as hypocrites. These two are only looking at their religious ancestors’ own propaganda and considering it real trufax history here.)

But these guys know that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are stone-cold hypocrites. Most of them never follow their tribe’s rules. And the tribe’s credibility is in the gutter these days, thanks to their overt politicization and culture-warring. Hm.

So how how how can they persuade their followers and new recruits to follow their rules?

Well, obviously, they can force obedience through what they call “church discipline.” And that’s great. But it’s not enough. Christians laboring under that heavy yoke still break rules.

More is needed here, obviously. Yes. More. But what?

Bonding With Catholics — Over Indoctrination, Of All Things.

Obviously, the second prong to the approach needs to be super-duper-mega-extra-long indoctrination of new recruits! You know, just like Catholics used to do (and still practice, to a great extent)! In the podcast, Gerald Sittser talks about the topic of long indoctrinations in his recent book, which he calls Resilient Faith:

I was fascinated at this training program that the early Christian period seemed to use universally, at least around the Mediterranean world, that moved people from their traditional Roman background into the Christian fold. And considering the enormity of that task, it took them quite a while to do that. They didn’t have lapsed Catholics or Methodists or Presbyterians back then. They had people who knew nothing. [. . .]

So the last chapter [of his book] became a chapter devoted to the catechumenate. I called it “crossing to safety” after the famous novel, but before that it’s about authority and it’s about community and it’s about the early Christian theological map and so on. All focusing really on the identity of Jesus Christ.

My mind still just boggles at the idea of hardline evangelicals admiring anything about Catholicism. Back in my day, the two groups hated each other and tried to be as different as possible from each other.

(Also and hilariously, he misused enormity, but whatevs.)

Ah, but now, Sittser speaks glowingly of that long indoctrination process and actively promotes it as the way to save his flavor of Christianity from decline.

How This Indoctrination Would Work.

What does “catechumenate” mean to Gerald Sittser? I’ll let him explain it:

Here’s this, I mean shocking as this sounds, three year training program to prepare people for the rites of initiation. [. . .] What it is about is our commitment to move people to a place of genuine, what I call functional Christianity or functional discipleship.

Oh, okay. So it’s meant to produce Christians who practice functional Christianity/functional discipleship. And what is that? We already know that anything involving the word disciple means rules and contracts promising brutal punishment for any infractions (in behavior or thoughts). Sittser explains further:

To put it this way, put a detective on the tail of a Christian for a week. They would be recognizably Christian all the time, not just when they’re at church or attending a Bible study, but when they’re at work, when they’re in their neighborhood, when they’re at the club, when they’re walking down the street, whatever they’re doing, they are recognizably Christian all the time and I think for the most part we’ve done a pretty poor job at doing that and that’s why this catechumenate is such a curiosity to me.

So a functional Christian is a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ who follows all the tribe’s behavioral rules. Functional Christians do so to such an extent that anybody seeing them would instantly peg them for a TRUE CHRISTIANS™ and not, say, vegetarians.

And gosh darn it, Sittser’s tribe hasn’t produced nearly enough functional Christians. Their punishments and contracts haven’t been enough.

Easing Into Hardcore Indoctrination.

Of course, one doesn’t just go full throttle indoctrination into abusive overreach. One must ease into it or the recruits flee. And that’s what Gerald Sittser is doing at his workplace, Whitworth University. He says:

In fact, we at Whitworth are actually developing a two-year new catechumenate for churches to use. Two years, not eight weeks, not a weekend retreat to prepare people for church membership. I don’t think we can assume much anymore. People that are saturated by the biblical story and other things like that. I think we have to kind of start over again.

So two years, not three, and he assumes nothing about the knowledge base of the few people his tribemates can recruit these days. (That’s a bold assumption.)

Collin Hansen approves completely of this plan. Apparently, he’s also been working on a “catechesis” program with megapastor Tim Keller. So Hansen nods along with the concept of long-term indoctrinations. He says in turn:

It’s not an option about whether we’re going to catechize, just a matter of whether you want to do it or you just want to let the world do it for you.

They’ve gotta get everything burned into their recruits’ minds before they go gettin’ weird ideas from elsewhere! Like online! Can’t have that! They might figure out that Christians’ own self-made propaganda isn’t actually true history or something.

And these two think this very long-term indoctrination will not only firmly plant new Christians into their respective new churches, but also keep them obedient Christians for life. Not only that, they think this indoctrination will ensure that their recruits become and remain functional Christians forever.

No Need for Testing Any Claims Here.

Notice that neither podcast speaker actually knows that an extensive indoctrination actually works to produce lifelong, committed Christians who follow their own rules. They never mention testing it in any way. The notion of reviving the catechumenate is “such a curiosity to” Sittser himself that he wants to try it. But it’s not enough of one that he’d actually test it for effectiveness first.

(He’s forgetting that when the Catholic church got that program rolling, they probably had already acquired a great deal of coercive power over their recruits. Today’s evangelicals almost entirely lack this kind of power.)

These two are just scared to death of the idea of their recruits not being fully indoctrinated. Whether long-term, exhaustive indoctrination works or not, they’re doing it.

They think — without confirming this claim at all — that long indoctrination results in Christians who follow their tribe’s rules and aren’t hypocrites. They also think — equally without any confirmation at all — that long indoctrinations result in lifelong Christians who believe all the right things about their culture wars. In fact, Collin Hansen explains that second idea in more detail:

And in that process [of long-term indoctrination] they begin to change their mind on a number of issues. But I can guarantee you I’m not usually having an argument with them about doctrinal precision or about gay marriage. They get assimilated into the church culture through that desire. [???] And then eventually I can trust through regular teaching and through ongoing community that they will be discipled in those things. They will change their theology. They will change their views on these different issues.

Maybe, but as Aron Ra says, if they can’t show it, then they don’t know it. They’re going to all this effort without having the faintest idea if long indoctrinations have the results they want.

And they’re certain it’ll work because they speak the language of power. Anything that represents greater power for them, they will prefer over any other approach.

The Truth About Truth.

It amazes me that iron-fisted control is the go-to solution of so many Christians when it comes to their increasing irrelevance in American culture. But it shouldn’t. They’re authoritarians. When their control over members begins to fray, they immediately go to their first and greatest and only solution: more power for their leaders to use against wandering sheep. It doesn’t even occur to them to persuade those sheep to obey. Nor do they rely on Jesus Power to do it, since they know their prayers do nothing in reality.

Compare and contrast this level of ultimate control with an MIT student’s daily schedule. When he was an IT graduate student, Dave Holtz describes his out-of-class hours. He talks about doing class readings and also reading non-assigned papers that he still thought were important for his research. He worked on assignments and caught up on emails and “other necessities of life.”

Of course, I also spend some amount of time procrastinating in the typical ways.

Outside of school, most graduate students make friends with other people in their department (or people they take classes with). These are the people I’m eating dinner with, and hanging out on the weekends (getting drinks, exploring Boston, going on runs, etc.)

This student was not insulating himself away from the whole world so he only learned one Information Technology theory. Instead, he was interfacing with all sorts of other people, spending time in his environment, playing in various ways, and engaging online as he could.

When something’s real, when something’s true, it doesn’t require the believer to dive headlong into single-minded study of that thing. Nor does truth require someone to shut themselves away from any potential criticisms of its ideas. It’s still true all the same. It can handle anything reality throws at it — because it is part of reality itself.

All reality can do to real truth is bring additional confirmations of the ideas contained within it. The truth has nothing to fear from a believer’s forays into reality.

TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ Means Being Scared to Death of the Truth.

By contrast, Christianity’s ideas explode on the lightest impact with reality. The more literal Christians take those ideas, the bigger the explosions and the less contact is required to touch ’em off.

That is why many ex-Christians talk about following the truth right out of Christianity. That’s because that’s exactly what we did — and where it led us.

Most of us ex-Christians can also likely remember a time when, as believers, we didn’t fear any atheist books or arguments or whatever. We thought our beliefs could easily withstand any amount of poking and questioning.

I know I was like that. In fact, it’s still kinda funny for me to remember how quickly that house of cards collapsed in my own deconversion! One by one, every faucet providing every stream of water flowing into my faith pool closed off as I discovered what reality had to say about each one.

So it feels a lot like these two Christians are just hoping to poison the well with their few recruits by feeding them hand-waving in advance. That way, when they encounter inevitable contradictions to their beliefs in the real world, they’ll already be pre-loaded with the right apologetics soft-shoe routine — and bound tightly by contracts with their pastors.

I don’t think tighter control is the way to fly here. Did these two miss everything Grand Moff Tarkin had to teach authoritarians?

Tim made this, I think. We miss you, Tim!

Apparently they did, indeed.

NEXT UP: It’s just so funny to see Christians destroying their own religious claims without even realizing they’re doing it. That’s what Gospelbound did in this podcast. We’ll dwell on that a bit tomorrow. See you then!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...