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(Before we get started, a bit of housekeeping–one of those Breatharians I mentioned a few posts ago decided to stop trying to photosynthesize and go back to semi-normal food. I’m sure we’re all shocked, given that her decision to starve herself to try to force her body to live on light amounts to her jumping off a cliff hoping she’ll force her body to grow wings before she hits bottom. I truly hope she finds whatever it is she’s seeking that brought her to such a strange and dangerous path. Thank you for letting me get that out of my system. Carry on.)

We’re going to talk about testimonies today.

A “testimony,” in Christianese, is that Christian’s personal account of why he or she is a Christian. It is the most powerful story at a Christian’s disposal, especially since usually it’s the experience that led that person to converting to the religion in the first place. If you don’t believe me when I say these stories are super-important, check this link out that says so. Instructions for how to construct a really persuasive testimony abound online. Christians use their testimonies to witness to the lost, so it’s important that it be well-written in this day of the blogosphere. Losing one’s testimony, which means to lose conviction in that story’s truth, is the worst thing that could happen. Really a testimony is just an anecdote, but it’s a really important one. (You see this concept get a lot of play in Mormonism, but really, most evangelical churches talk about it to some extent.)

Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marbl...
Early Christian ichthys sign carved into marble in the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a Biblical thread running through the talk of testimonies; 2 Timothy 1:8 tells Christians not to be ashamed of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and in 2 Tim 2:12 we’re told that if Christians deny Jesus in their testimonies, he’ll deny them later on. Other verses like those in Revelations 1:2, 1 Corinthians 1:6-7, and 2 Corinthians 1:12 talk about testimonies and give them quite a pumping-up, but the real kick comes in Revelation 12:11, when testimonies are accounted as great weapons against Satan and all his demons. But I’d say that the fascination with personal testimonies goes a lot deeper into the “low Christianity” I’ve mentioned before than with the “high Christianity” of the Bible itself.

A thousand years ago, anecdotes were how Christianity got spread to primitive societies. Anecdotes about healings and miraculous wins in battle told by missionaries sold the religion to millions of people. Entire countries converted when these guys came to town. In an age when most people weren’t even literate, stories were how they learned about their religion and how to handle situations in ways that Jesus would approve. Church officials discussed how to best package and sell stories to non-believers to convert them. In fits and starts, through testimonies and stories, Christianity and its well-honed tales took all of Europe.

Things are a bit different now. Christians still think these stories are powerful, and I think they are in a “preaching to the choir” way, but non-Christians are increasingly becoming less than overwhelmed by them.

Anecdotes are very powerful little short stories–short accounts of something that happened. Christians use them to “prove” their god’s reality and their religion’s validity to others. Usually they’re about healings, since even in the modern day we don’t know everything about how the human body works; even today, sickness and disease are misunderstood by many of us. Or they’ll discuss addictions to various things like alcohol or sex, since addiction’s so hard to beat.

These anecdotes are flourished like swords–“I’ve seen too much to go back!” cried one Christian I ran into just a few days ago. He went on to give his testimony, saying (I’m paraphrasing here) at the end of it, “I’ve experienced all these amazing, miraculous things! Look at all this stuff God’s done for me!” Implicit in the testimony’s words is this: “If you convert, God just might do all these things for you, too!”

When listening to these wide-eyed but somehow so very tedious accounts, I think, as a friend of mine said at the time: Yes, yes, that’s very nice. Instead of marveling that your god’s done all this for you, why don’t we examine what he hasn’t done for everybody else? Why are you so super-special? What did you do differently from all the other Christians with far greater needs whom your god isn’t helping? Speaking of which, have you actually checked this account for truthfulness? And what alternate explanations could we find for this event besides a miraculous lift from the divine?

These little stories hold a lot of sway over the individuals who experienced them and the people who are already inclined to believe the same way, but they’re not very persuasive to other people. A given Christian’s inability to figure out why the event happened (and the audience’s for that matter as well) does not make the incident evidence of the wonder-working power of the Christian god. Ignorance does not constitute a miracle–except to evangelical Christians.

Nor does experiencing these events bullet-proof a Christian against leaving. I’ve got anecdotes too, of my time in the religion. Plenty of them. Probably every ex-Christian out there has some stories they could tell of stuff that happened while they were churched. Some of them I still can’t explain. But eventually, the various strikes against the religion built up so much that they outweighed all the anecdotes I’d heard and experienced.

And why might testimonies fail against reality? Because a testimony is honed so sweetly and sharply, it’s just untrustworthy. My preacher ex-husband, Biff, had an amazing testimony (which you might remember I knew for 100% sure was 90% made up, but forget it, he’s rollin’). The more dramatic the story, the less likely it is to have happened that way. The more shocking the end, the less likely it is to be true. There are some good reasons why this might be so.

First, Christianity rewards a good story. Someone with a shocking or dramatic testimony gets a lot of attention and acclaim. That person might be invited to share the story with the church–invited right up on the pulpit during a revival meeting to tell it (I should also probably mention here that revival meetings are like Fashion Week, Shark Week, and playoffs weekend all combined for fundagelical churches). And any time you reward someone based on a metric, a certain type of person is going to play to that metric. I saw it in gaming–if a game includes numbers of any kind (like how strong a character is on a scale of 1 to 100), players will figure out how to pump those numbers. I saw it at call centers, too–if a center rewards people based on how many subscriptions they sell to a certain cable channel, people are going to do whatever they can to sell that channel. To beat that metric, they’ll even stoop to unsavory practices like lying and cheating (or in the case of games, min-maxing or exploiting bugs in computer code). Some people like rewards and will go to extraordinary lengths to get them, that’s all. I have no reason to suspect that Christians’ desire for attention and acclaim would lead them to do anything different with regard to their personal anecdotes about the religion.

Second, the testimony’s validity depends on the person telling it to be unbiased and objective. But it by its nature, a person giving a testimony is neither. The testimony is a witnessing tool, so it is inherently subjective and biased. We know already that way too many Christians will “lie for Jesus” at the drop of a hat. Because a Christian’s story is designed specifically to sound impressive to others, it is simply not trustworthy–any more than the Gospels are and for the exact same reason.

Third, the testimony’s validity depends upon it being an accurate accounting of events. But our memories are about the least trustworthy thing about ourselves. A number of cognitive biases operate against our memories, causing us to remember stuff that never happened, put undue weight on events that did to make them all seem correlated or part of a pattern, and forget things that don’t fit in with the narrative we’ve constructed. Making memories where none exist is about the easiest thing in the world–one researcher at least, Elizabeth Loftus, has made a living doing exactly this to show overly-suggestible sorts why their memories of events can be so tricky and untrustworthy. Even one minute after an event, people’s memories are already putting things awry; a year later, our memories of that event may have almost nothing to do with what happened (which is why I don’t trust the Gospels, which were written decades after Jesus’ supposed death). I have no reason to believe that Christians’ memories of events are any more trustworthy than anybody else’s might be.

Fourth, nobody fact-checks these testimonies. Ever. They’re just accepted at face value. And that is their greatest weakness. If it bleeds, it leads–and nobody cares if anybody really bled if the story gets the lost converted and the already-saved rejuvenated. And this failure can happen to anybody, even me. The other day I was telling someone about something really amazing that happened to me that I’d attributed to the supernatural when I realized I didn’t actually know for sure if the event I was describing happened exactly when I thought it had. I went looking, and discovered that no, actually, that storm had actually occurred a bit later than I’d remembered. The story itself didn’t change overmuch, but it did make the event a bit different than I’d remembered all these years. And this was not a Christian testimony I was retelling, and I certainly had not intended to be anything less than fully truthful. (Nor did the story have a goal of conversion; I don’t actually care if I convert or deconvert anybody to my way of thinking, and find evangelism to be deeply disrespectful to others.) But a bit of fact-checking made me realize that a story I’d cherished for many years hadn’t happened exactly like I’d recalled. What else would I find if I went digging into the stories I had of odd events over the years? What I’m saying is that even someone like me who tries extra-hard to be honest, telling a story that didn’t have a conversion goal in mind, to someone who already believed like I did in a fairly objective setting, could suffer a false memory. I have no reason to think Christians have it any different, because I was a Christian. I knew I didn’t specifically set out to lie and as a result my rather mundane testimony got overlooked in favor of the more bombastic ones like Biff’s. I don’t think most Christians deliberately lie, either. But I knew also even back then that people often overstate their cases or “arrange things more sensibly,” to paraphrase two of my favorite authors, Peter S. Beagle and David Eddings. And as unreliable as memory is, doing so becomes extremely easy even when someone is basically honest. That’s why fact-checking becomes so important.

That lack of fact-checking leads Christians into dangerous waters. We often hear about amazing Christian stories that turn out to be untrue; urban legends get told and retold in rapid succession by gullible Christians who think these stories are true simply because they read them in a Christian apologist’s book or heard them from a pastor on the pulpit in church or got them from Facebook friends or via email. Did you hear? A woman walking to her car didn’t get raped because the would-be rapist saw the two huge angels walking with her! (I heard this one in the 1980s as a Pentecostal, but the story’s mutated considerably over the years.) Or the one about the Christian who escaped a rape because her car started when the battery’d been removed? (Removed-battery stories are also common.) Or, as a Christian tried to tell me on a blog recently, did you know about how the writer of “Amazing Grace” had been saved from a life of horrible sin and turned his life around? Have you had enough? Because I’ve got all day here with my gaming rig not doing right. If it should be true, then that’s just as good as if it is true, to way too many Christians. When someone corrects the story, the person doing the correcting gets attacked rather than the story getting amended or withdrawn. Truth takes a back seat to effectiveness. If I had a dollar for every single time I’d heard an untrue claim from a Christian while I was a fundamentalist alone, you sure wouldn’t be seeing my pale rear end around the internet–I’d be off on my own private island somewhere learning to make the perfect mojito. I have further reason to distrust Christians’ testimonies because I’m well aware that Christians are fine with playing fast and loose with the truth.

If Christians, as a culture, were more diligent about stamping out urban legends and obvious falsehoods in their ranks, if their pastors actually fact-checked legends before spouting them (this is one urban legend that a ex-Christian friend of mine online told me his pastor had given as fact during a sermon), I might give their truthfulness a bit more credit. But as it is, knowing what I know about how much they love a good glurge, I just can’t. I fact-check everything Christians tell me. I wish they’d do me the courtesy of the same. We all get carried away, but it is shameful and disgusting to me that someone would retell a false story without even bothering to see if it’s true when something as important as eternity is on the line. A heathen like me should not be taking truthfulness more seriously than they do.

When someone points out that an element to a testimony couldn’t possibly have happened or isn’t otherwise consistent somehow with established facts like dates or with previous tellings of the story, the person telling the story gets really offended, have you noticed? The story is a personal badge to the teller–and when the story gets poked and prodded, the teller takes it personally. And they should, considering that their testimony is considered their packaged appeal to the unwashed. But does it have to be that way? And should it? Or is this just another manufactured need Christianity’s convinced Christians they must have?

I can see why Christians get so offended, in that case. A testimony typically centers around the event that persuaded someone to convert to Christianity. By rejecting it, I’m in essence telling the Christian “Well, this might have convinced you, but I’m too smart to fall for that nonsense.” As Daniel Dennett wrote, “There is no polite way to suggest to someone that they have devoted their life to a folly.” But I see no way around this potential friction. If a Christian’s going to insist on telling such a story when I didn’t ask for it, I don’t see why I’m not allowed to mention concerns with its content and conclusions. And this leads us to my last concern with the concept of testimonies as witnessing tools.

I’m not afraid to say “oh man, I was wrong about this” and issue retractions and apologies as necessary. I’m not scared of being wrong. I’ll amend an attitude or position if I see the necessity of doing so. I’m not afraid to listen to people who don’t believe like I do to see if there’s some glaring problem with my rationale, and I’ve changed my thinking on a few topics thanks to kind-hearted and gracious people willing to sit and talk to me. But Christians seem unable to tell the truth or at least fess up to dishonesty when caught–Ray Comfort is famous for backtracking and drilling down on stupidity and mistruths after being corrected but he’s hardly the only one famous for this behavior. Had enough linkage about fibbing Christians yet? Remember, I’ve got all day while I futz with my blasted gaming rig, and this is just page one of a Google search for “christian got caught lying.” For a group completely convinced that their god hates liars and will judge them after their death, evangelicals really don’t act like it.

So pardon me if I don’t think a Christian’s testimony is really that powerful of a witnessing tool. Excuse me if I don’t think it’s trustworthy or compelling. It’s more like a dating profile–designed to sell something to someone, and not especially related to reality. What’s revealed by that testimony, as with dating profiles, isn’t nearly as important as what’s not revealed. What lurks beneath the surface matters more than the polished words themselves.

What matters a lot more to me is not a story that a given Christian thinks is significant, but how that Christian lives and treats others. When dissenters bluster and rail against Christianity in that Christian’s earshot, how does he or she respond to them? How careful is a Christian about checking his or her facts? When someone brings up a point the Christian didn’t know that puts paid to his or her position on something, how does the Christian react? When a story is shown to be untrue, how does the Christian proceed? Before a Christian clicks the “like” or “share” buttons on Facebook, does that person actually check the story or examine it critically before blithely passing it on? Does a story’s potential to convert people matter more than its truthfulness? Are lies ever okay?

No, in the grand scheme of things, an anecdote is irrelevant except in how it reveals that person’s relation to truthfulness and reality, and how it connects that person to others. I would rather have a humble biography that is as close to the truth as I can make it than one that is attention-getting but dishonest.

Realizing that most testimonies are not nearly as dramatic as painted is one thing. Realizing that Jesus is the ultimate wish-fulfillment action hero is another. We’re going to be talking next time about Jesus’ many personalities in modern Christianity. I hope you’ll join me.

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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,...