A few months ago I read this
As it happens, it's about Facebook and is a bit of an eye-opener in its own right. But what mainly struck me was the list, three quarters of the way down, of techniques used for brainwashing. The article then added "I’m not ready to call Facebook a totalitarian thought reform organization. I am
startled to find more alignment between Facebook’s behavior and these markers than I thought I would."
For me, the same sentiment applies to relatively mainstream religion.
Relatedly, I recall Neil Kinnock discussing that
Labour Party rally in Sheffield in 1992
. There was much to criticise about it, but one point he raised as having made him especially uncomfortable at the time was the motif of Kinnock and the shadow cabinet parading to the stage from the back of the venue, passing through an increasingly enthusiastic audience — he said it reminded him too closely of the Nuremberg Rallies.
And I am also reminded of Salvador Dalí saying "The sole difference between myself and a madman is the fact that I am not mad!"
Evangelical Christian churches use — in milder form — a great many of those techniques for brainwashing. For many, the church becomes the centre of their social life, and this has actually been advocated to me by a minister. There is a tendency to try to convince or reinforce via presentation as well as substance. There is the othering of people who don't conform. There is the somewhat selective awareness of science. The soundbites. The — as that list puts it so neatly — primacy of doctrine over person.
I realise there is great variability even within Evangelical churches. And any of the churches I've encountered only tend to be especially prominent in a handful of those ways. But I've seen enough of them in enough places to give pause for thought.
There is an argument that if one knows not just a
truth, but the truth of truths, the Good News that, if accepted, means the difference between eternal life and eternal damnation, the imperative to evangelise about that truth is so great that the end justifies any means.
This feels dangerous to me, both doctrinally and pragmatically. Would it really be OK for a Church to take a leaf out of Hitler's book in terms of presentation? Is it a problem if the only difference between a Church and a cult is that they're not a cult?
In doctrinal terms, I am reminded of a sermon that I heard Rowan Williams give: God is ineffable. The temptation in envisaging a god of infinite might and lordship, Christ Pantocrator
is in thinking of worldly power and imagining God as having that kind of power, only to an ifinite extent. Rowan Williams presented a compelling argument (more compelling than I'll be able to repeat here) for a perception of God coming in at right angles to our more usual ways of thinking about power and authority. It's not quite what we think it is; words can't quite describe it; we should be wary and tread carefully.
(The next hymn was "Crown Him With Many Crowns". I wanted to ask him afterwards what he thought of what seemed to me a deep irony, but grabbing a moment with a former Archbishop of Canterbury is harder than it looks.)
Also, Christ acknowledges that not everyone will listen. He tells his disciples, if ignored, to shake the dust from their feet
and move on. What to make of that? On the one hand, it was a gesture laded with considerable significance in Jewish practice, so might be viewed as a low-tech first-century equivalent to proclaiming the gospel with a rock band and powerpoint slides. On the other, there's a definite message to step away and let matters take their course.
At a pragmatic level, I worry about the practical effects of even slight tendencies towards the by-any-means-necessary approach.
We live in a cynical age. There is a battle afoot between people clamouring for our attention, our hearts, our minds and above all our money; and people who, in self-defence, are alert to and suspicious of such techniques.
Non-Christians (hereinafter, in a good-natured post-ironic way, referred to as "heathens"), especially well-informed, skeptical heathens of a scientific mindset, are alert to being manipulated into thinking something rather than convinced of it substantively. A lot of what the average Church does to reach out to heathens will look like advertising to them. That's because it is
advertising. Why would a rational person, seeing a board outside a Church saying "I am the way and the truth and the life." pay it any more attention than "Every Generation Refreshes the World" or "Just Do It"?
Conversely, what is the fate of someone who is
convinced by "headology" rather than substance? Are they not now more susceptible to similar approaches from other organisations and people? One could take the approach that this doesn't matter provided they're Saved, but that assumes both that they're genuinely Saved and going to remain so (ooh — can of worms, there!) and that there's no better way for them to be Saved.
More subtly, I feel that many churches lose sight of what they're actually doing. Obviously, Churches should do many things, but if they take the attitude that evangelism is an extreme end that justifies extreme means, I feel they should be very careful to make sure both that they do apply those means to evangelism and that they refrain from applying them more broadly.
It seems to me that few of the messages Churches emblazon on placards and projector screens and song lyrics actually relate to salvation, redemption or Christ's distinctive moral message. As an agnostic, I have heard sermons I could agree with almost entirely. I have sat in a home group at which people were asked "if someone saw you reading a Bible in an airport departures lounge and asked what it meant to be a Christian, what would you say?" and heard answers that a Muslim could have given. Important though those messages may be, they are not at the core.
Similarly, I have seen the evangelical arsenal of techniques applied to topics far more specific
than the core message. The moment one is Othering another denomination, seeking to drive a wedge between different groups of Christians on some doctrinal issue, perhaps even claiming those others aren't real
Christians, it seems important to think even more carefully about whether the means are being used responsibly. At the pragmatic level, there is a risk that people who disagree about that peripheral issue will fall away from faith or, by seeing it portrayed as integral, never find faith in the first place.
It is often observed that the burden on those who lead a Church is a heavy one, in terms of their good character and in terms of what they teach. The burden might be even heavier than that — I'm not sure how they teach doesn't matter just as much as what they teach.