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We’ve been talking lately about system design in Christianity. Today I’ll show you Step 1 of how to get a bad idea enshrined in a system.

We can't see in the dark very well. (Credit: Robert Couse-Baker, CC license.)
We can’t see in the dark very well. (Credit: Robert Couse-Baker, CC license.)

First, though, let’s meet Mary Sue Sparklypoo.

Mary Sue Sparklypoo is a slim-yet-surprisingly-busty teenage girl with eyes that change color from purple to black to pale blue depending on her mood (when they’re red, watch out–that means she’s really angry!) and a burgundy streak in her long, wavy, raven-black hair. Though blessed with a very athletic build, she doesn’t really work out at all. She’s a student at a very prestigious private school, but nobody knows exactly who’s paying for her to be there–or providing her a substantial monthly stipend for her spending money. She was orphaned some years ago, you see. (She doesn’t know exactly how her parents died or who might be responsible.) Despite her circumstances, she tries to be sweet and cheerful to everyone and goes out of her way to be helpful. Several of the boys at the school–the quarterback, the school mechanical genius, and the son of the city’s mayor, himself destined for a bright future–are trying to win her affection, but she hasn’t quite decided on a beau yet.

Lest you think she is way too perfect, though, Mary Sue has flaws. Lots of them! First of all, she is a total nerd for [Popular Young Adult Fiction Series]. And she can be sooooo clumsy and awkward–sometimes she trips over her own two feet. She has a terrible temper and is so shy that she has to be drawn out of her shell if someone wants a conversation with her. Still, there’s no shortage of people who are willing to try.

I’ve just shown you a character trope in fiction and roleplaying called the Mary Sue. (The term can refer to male or female characters, though sometimes you hear “Gary Stu” for men. Here’s the TVTropes writeup.) Mary Sue is a perfect person, and everyone around her knows it and adores her (or at least grudgingly respects her as an adversary). You can find Mary Sues anywhere there are people who think Mary Sues are wonderful, and they even exist in mainstream works (I’m lookin’ at you, Conan the Barbarian and Bella Swan.)

But reading between the lines in the above composite, we also see a character who is sullen, prone to brooding, incapable of holding a conversation, and possessed of a hair-trigger explosive temper. Ever been around someone like that? It’s actually not that great. That’s the real tragedy of the Mary Sue: the creator of the Sue is completely sold on the character’s awesomeness, which means that every character the Sue encounters is sold on it as well–while in reality, a character like this wouldn’t be pleasant at all to be around. The creator cannot portray elements of a character that he or she can’t even see exist, much less see as negative.

One of the reasons that Mary Sues’ creators can’t see why a Mary Sue is so bad (or even see that they’re using one at all–many Sue creators will vociferously defend their characters when challenged) is that the Mary Sue is often a sort of stand-in for their creators themselves, who use these characters to do and say things they themselves want to do and say. Mary Sues are a wish-fulfillment fantasy, echoing and mirroring their controllers’ own worldview and attitudes in their chosen fandom. That’s why even the accusation of Suedom is often seen as a personal attack by their creators.

Mary Sues aren’t going away anytime soon. They exist because there is a vast discrepancy between how their creators see themselves and how other people see them.

That same discrepancy exists in Christendom.

Christians tend to think of themselves in one way, but don’t realize that they are seen in a totally different way by the people around themselves–or, if they do realize it, think that their critics are simply wrong about that opinion. The more extremist the Christian, the more likely their self-image is to be out of sync with how society perceives that person. This isn’t an exclusively Christian problem, obviously; anyone can suffer that disconnect. The people outside the tribe are in a unique position to see how that tribe’s beliefs and practices play out in reality.

Outsiders to any tribe tend to have a much clearer idea of the tribe’s weaknesses and shortcomings than the people in the tribe itself usually do, because the people in the tribe have a vested interest in maintaining their own self-interests and self-perceptions. In Christianity, which is almost entirely focused on downplaying its various failures to present a good facade to the world, the tendency of adherents to not see their own problems becomes even more marked.

I know I certainly had to struggle with this exact same disconnect when I was Christian myself. I thought of myself as a reasonable, loving, kind, and moderate person, but in actuality, I’m sure I was quite an insufferable, willfully ignorant jackass at times. It was only toward the end of my time as a believer that anybody ever offered any criticism to me about how I behaved (a co-worker who called me on my hypocritical bigotry against gay people–in a far gentler manner than I probably deserved), at least that I remembered and noted. And I’m sure I could only have remembered and noted this pushback because I was already smarting about some things I’d noticed about my religion.

For the most part, any pushback folks got in my end of the religious pool was chalked up to “sinners being sinners” — obviously, people who weren’t filled by the Holy Spirit didn’t know anything about what was good or bad, so they really didn’t have any way of accurately evaluating the behavior of someone who was thus filled. What might seem like foolishness to the sinner was wisdom to the sanctified. And if I was operating within what I imagined was my god’s approval, then anything I did, by definition, was good.

I see Christians who clearly got the same teachings everywhere around me today. They treat us like we’re toddlers who don’t understand that people shouldn’t eat candy for dinner, to use one example I have personally heard from numerous Christians. Only Christians’ opinions and perceptions count in any interaction between them and anybody else, because Jesus gave them superior discernment and judgment that they are then required to go use on everybody else to keep them in line like the self-styled Designated Adults they think they are.* Not caring about what we think of this behavior gives them a huge license to do whatever they want and still feel justified in it.

Through a Mirror, Darkly.

A huge part of the problem in Christian system design is that there is no way whatsoever to test its working premises or to evaluate its results. Christians have been so busy negating the opinions and impressions of non-Christians that they have, effectively, blackened their own mirrors so thoroughly that they can’t see their own reflections. But glints of reality are somehow getting through that fogged glass.

Rosa Rubicondior recently wrote a great post about something very similar–that Christians may say and even think that they’re accomplishing something they say they want, but what they’re actually doing is quite different.

Christians have latched onto something they really like doing, and they don’t want to stop doing it even if it doesn’t accomplish a single thing they want to accomplish.

In the study Rosa Rubicondior cites, “Talking Jesus,” its authors decided that in the end, the solution to the total lack of effectiveness of personal evangelism was to do more personal evangelism, because obviously the problem they’re having in recruiting new members is that they’re not doing enough personal evangelism. In other words, the thing they really want to do in the first place–which is in this case imposing on others with or without consent–is the thing they found they needed to do more of.

Did anybody really expect an evangelical Christian group to discover that their favored mode of behavior was not only ineffective but backfiring by driving prospects even further away from conversion than if they’d just left well enough alone?

No, of course not! Just like nobody expected the people sponsoring the study to really dwell upon a rather interesting takeaway they inadvertently discovered: people saw Christians’ efforts at evangelism very differently from how Christians themselves saw those efforts. The Christians who evangelized almost universally saw their efforts rewarded by at least some positive response from their target–if not outright interest in conversion, then at least some kind of agreement on a key point.

But their targets remembered things very differently.

The overwhelming majority of these non-believers didn’t want to have anything to do with the religion after their experience with these self-appointed ambassadors of the Prince of Peace, and most felt pretty awkward discussing religion at all. They tended to be very happy to be reminded anew of why they weren’t Christians, not sad that they weren’t part of the Good News. They certainly weren’t all that interested in converting. About the best thing you could say about these encounters was that only a third of the study’s respondents weren’t made totally uncomfortable by the evangelism. Very few of them came out of the attempt feeling more positive about any aspect of Christianity at all.

Nonetheless, somehow the study’s authors decided that doing more of the stuff that clearly alienated and annoyed non-Christians was the way to recruit more Christians. The perceptions and opinions of the people they said they wanted to persuade didn’t matter to them at all. They spin-doctored the real news here–that 80% of the people they talk to are either indifferent or hostile to their religion as a result of personal evangelism–into telling their audience to be thrilled that 20% of their targets come out of it feeling more kindly toward their religion.

I suppose I ought to be surprised that they even asked non-Christians what they’d thought of being evangelized; most Christians wouldn’t even have gone that far.

If a secular business hired marketers who suggested a similar strategy toward potential customers, suggesting that they do something guaranteed to turn off 80% of their prospects because it’s so awesome that this tactic will maybe score points with 20% of those prospects, that business would be fully justified in firing those marketers. Only in closed systems like Christianity, filled as it is with people who are studiously trying to avoid seeing themselves clearly, can one find such marketers being rewarded for their wisdom and cleverness.

The first step to fixing a problem is recognizing that the problem exists.

By unilaterally declaring that only their perception is the valid perception in an interaction, Christians can strip away any and all objections to their overreach–and can cling to these cherished self-delusions of theirs. That allows them to continue to do the stuff they really want to do. And that narcissism of theirs wouldn’t be as big of a problem as it is for them if they didn’t also desperately want to persuade large numbers of people to join their tribe.

It may seem simply mind-blowing that a religion as focused on recruitment as this one is might care so little for their prospects’ opinions and perceptions, but here we are.

Very, very slowly, though, and largely because they absolutely must, Christians are starting to wonder what non-Christians actually think like and how we perceive Christians’ efforts to evangelize us.

A few years ago, David Kinnaman of the Barna Group (a large evangelical for-profit survey and research group) asked young people what they thought of Christians. The results were simply astonishing–to Christians. To non-Christians, it wasn’t really anything surprising: overwhelmingly, young people see Christians as insensitive, hypocritical anti-gay bigots bent on controlling and dominating everyone and everything around themselves.

Mr. Kinnaman’s research added up to a book called You Lost Me that made a decently-sized splash among Christian evangelicals a couple of years ago. It is the companion to his other book, unChristian, which outlines the many ways that people perceive the hypocrisy of Christians. Again, nothing in his research is going to surprise anybody who regularly tangles with fundagelicals–but it’s noteworthy that he was one of the first evangelicals to really call attention to how his tribe is perceived.

(Outside the tribe, the “unfundamentalist” John Shore very famously asked the same questions around the same time–and got the same results. And you can see in the comments how Christians reacted to the revelation they’d been given of how non-Christians perceived them. Dogpile ahoy!)

However, there’s an important second step here that Christians don’t want to take.

David Kinnaman generously claims that his brethren kinda knew about the criticisms facing their culture but really didn’t care enough about those opinions until they began to realize that this perception wasn’t just shared by non-Christians but by many young Christians themselves, which meant that those opinions were adding up to a huge image problem for a religion increasingly battered by defections and detractors.

Finding out what someone really thinks of a group or person implies a responsibility to act upon what has been learned. It’s not enough to know that people really despise evangelicals for a variety of reasons. Even if Christians didn’t agree with these perceptions, if they really were loving people they’d at least honor those perceptions in some way–maybe by asking how they can come across as less hateful, or how they can be less forceful, hypocritical, and pushy.

I have seen none of that–yet. So far the crisis hasn’t impacted Christian leaders enough to move in that direction; like most entrenched groups with privilege, they don’t tend to change until they absolutely, positively must. And they don’t think they do–yet. Of the reviews I read of David Kinnaman’s work, none of the Christians represented realized that they needed to seriously examine their own understanding of Christianity. Not even one. Not even a little.

When confronted with clear evidence that non-Christians and Christians alike are rejecting in greater and greater numbers their peers’ oppressiveness, overt politicization, various forms of denial, grabbiness, doublespeak, hypocrisy, and hatefulness, every single reviewer I read decided that the solution to their image problem was to drill down on what they mistakenly imagine are “traditional values” and to try extra-dextra-hard to indoctrinate their young people.  They don’t see their problem as an issue with their actual message; they think it’s only a problem with how they communicate that message. Their stated solution to the problem of people seeing them as hateful is to try to force people to use their own twisted version of the word “love” so their behavior stops looking quite so hateful.

Rewording hatefulness and control-lust doesn’t make it less hateful and controlling, but at least they’re starting to become vaguely aware that not only do people have this impression of them that differs dramatically from how they view themselves, but also that they have to do something to address those concerns. They’re still in damage-control mode, though, trying to maintain a grip on the stuff they really love believing and doing while still trying to placate their increasingly-vocal critics–or, failing that, to silence them somehow.

Maybe sometime before their religion becomes completely discredited they’ll get serious about dealing with their own inadequacies. Or they won’t and they will ride the fail-train all the way to total irrelevance, which is also totally okay. It’s up to them. Either way, the rest of us will end up with a better society.

* Obviously, this isn’t the case at all, but it’d really help them out if the rest of us would allow them to treat us that way anyway.

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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,...