The tale is prefaced by briefly recounting a misspent youth of a somewhat debauched nature (or enough so that our stalwart preacher was wallowing, if not participating), with his then atheist comrade. Being a good Christian, his duty to convert his chum was ever present, but was relatively unsuccessful, and flash forward some years. The atheist friend is at a similar point in his life, but something is missing: family, friends, gainful employment and material security are not enough. No, there is a hole in this mans being, and our Preacher knows that it is Christ shaped. Everything is primed for the conversion, to score that big W for Jesus.
Next come the feeble, halfhearted attempts to explain away why this atheist friend dislikes Christianity: Christians are legalistic moralizers. Bang "Grace theology" slays that one. Next, Christians are naive and can't really hold up to intellectual scrutiny (just what sort of atheist is this guy, anyway?). Poof, drop some books which repeat the ontological argument. Finally, the man is ready to relent; the I need something deeper atheist has relented and he's coming down, ready to make Jesus his personal lord and savior. Suddenly and without warning, he is confronted with the grim reality of death. Not death, in and of itself, but loss, grief; our Preacher's sister had died unexpectedly. The tragedy reverberated through the family, touching everyone in the way that only grief can. The liminal Christian is now overcome with doubt with fear; for if the Christian god could take away the sister of such a devout family, what hope was there for his own children? The preacher then goes on to talk of three "typical" Christian responses, but himself makes the case that "His will be done" and you hope for the best. You become a Christian because it is true, not because you get stuff (like divine protection, prosperity or security). Which is a refreshing answer, if rehashed and simply fallen from favour. We never do find out if the liminal Christian took the plunge, though I would suspect he did.
So why do I care?
I care because, despite the message of "I don't know what [the Christian] god's will is", at the end of the day the take away message from this whole piece is still "don't doubt, trust Jesus". Despite the admission of not having all the answers, "Jesus is still THE answer". I accept that this story, and the figures in it are real enough, but they could just as easily sprung from the pen or keystrokes of a preacher. The necessary tropes, the framework for conversion narrative is all here, you can almost feel the thin, neon pink paper of the tract between your fingers. Let's do a quick run through of the conversion narrative flags our "atheist" has activated:
1. Previous life of (youthful) debauchery. Check
2. Seemingly happy life beset by absence. Check
3. Current worldview no longer enough. Check
4. Life altering event (like having children). Check
5. Faithful friend who is among the faithful. Check
6. Religion [our convert it converting too] so much more than he thought it was. Check
7. Conversion. Check
The most significant difference from your typical conversion narrative is that it is not the conversion, in and of itself, which changed the man's life. No, his life from appearance seemed to be pretty good. He was happily married, with children, stable employment and martial security; true our "atheist" is presented as having had a youth of excess, but that seems to be just that, in his past. His life is not in danger and he is not suffering through any sort of physical or financial crisis. No his crisis is existential, one of seeking for some way out of his ennui; seeking the profound with no idea where to begin on his own, but he has this one Christian friend who is also a preacher...
Proselytization, the promotion of ones religion with the goal of winning converts, is and remains an act of disrespect, hostility and depredation. Even a cursory examination of conversion narratives, like the one I outline above, would support this assertion. It is an act of well intentioned arrogance which seeks to find and exploit weakness. Whether it is a weakness of physicality (i.e. substance abuse or addiction), a weakness of character (i.e. criminality) and even a weakness of mind (i.e. existential questioning), it does not change the fact that it is exploitative and opportunistic. As the Preacher stated in his blog:
"He’s thinking about bigger, more profound things. I’m teaching about bigger, more profound things."Which is not to say that seeking out meaning, asking those questions of profundity, are necessarily bad or necessarily make you vulnerable to people hocking (easy) answers; only that they can leave you vulnerable. If something is missing and you have been culturally conditioned to recognize the spiritual or philosophical authority of a given group of people, and they are also "friends" with you, and they have been making subtle suggestions about what questions to ask, and where to find answers, well if you happen to find yourself being swayed by such arguments, it isn't exactly shocking. Coupled with that the fear, the gnawing fear about the future and what may be, and then won't somebody please think of the children!
Truly, parenthood has produced far more cowards than war ever could.I do not wish to speak down to, nor minimize the very real anxiety that parents necessarily feel about their children. I hope to be a parent myself one of these days, and expect much fear and anxiety to come. Except that I hope, I believe, that my courage will be sufficient to allay my fears. That my sincerity in my ethics will outweigh my hypocrisy, that I will not abandon everything I believe in because they will be "MY KIDS!!!".
I do wish, however, to bring this discussion full circle and at long last bring in the title of this post. We can observe that the "atheist" (an this seems as good a time as any, but I sincerely doubt just how much of an atheist this fellow could have been, if his mind was so easily swayed by reading a couple of apologetic monographs coupled with gentle pastoral cajoling) appears to have a nice enough life, all things considered. Yet, it is always worth the time to remind ourselves that enjoyment of life is not the same thing as "the good life", because clearly this man believed his life, his worldview was insufficient. There was something missing, and in this case it was profundity and meaning; a spiritual and philosophical void that needed to be filled, and how lucky to have a "friend" who could help him with that.
I propose then, that in the case of missionizing and proselytizing, the single best defense is to already have a good life. Yeah, you will say, and the best defense against poverty is to already be wealthy, and against sickness to be healthy. Thank you Capt. Obvious! You would be right to point out such obvious truisms, but hear me out. What I mean in this idea, is that proselytizers prey upon the perception of weakness, of deficiency. Seeking out any and all means of penetrating their target's defenses and attacking their self. They need to find that hole in your "being", and then they need to convince you to fill it with Jesus.
Proselytizing is the only real tool that such folks have at their disposal in this day and age to gain converts, and they have a formula and the means to carry out their missionizing efforts. The keystone to the whole scheme, however, is that there needs to be a "chink in the armour" which they can exploit. Without it, well they have nothing. How are you going to sell someone on the necessity of Christ who already has a fully developed worldview that does not involve him? How can a weakness be exploited if there isn't one? Enter fear, malaise and doubt.
I've linked above to a much older post of mine where I examine some examples of "Ex-Pagan" conversion narratives and the one thread which links them all together is that in the mind of the converted, their current worldview was lacking in some respect. It failed to deliver, was revealed to be empty or could not offer what the ex-member expected it to. The fault was not in the ex-member, of course, but in the religion (gods, ritual, lack of community, etc.). It could not fill the Jesus shaped hole because... well because what they were trying to fill it with was not Jesus shaped. This is where the juggernaut of cultural force comes into play, and here in North America, Christianity remains the default setting for "religion". Most of the folks who are "ex-Pagans" had previously been Christians or had some manner of Christian up bringing, and so their expectation of how other religions, other gods ought to work, was skewed from the beginning.If the filters and biases of the previous worldview are not replaced by something else, by an internal adoption of the new world view, then the malaise and creeping pessimism will fester until they crawl, walk or run back into the arms of where they used to be.
Superficiality, it turns out, is what the key exploit is in cases of "ex-Pagan" conversion narratives. Even among those who have been immersed in, promoted by, and made a name for themselves as "BNP's", none of this will produce immunity from something which, by its very nature, is insidious. If you have a Jesus shaped hole in your being, ain't nothing other than Jesus gonna fill it. No matter how sure you are in your outward convictions, no matter how often you lie to yourself and state otherwise, if you fail to internalize a non-Christian world view, you will fail at being a non-Christian. I'm not saying that it is an easy thing to do, only that it is necessary.
It is necessary because for those who have no part of the Christian perspective on divinity, afterlife and ethics, no matter how compelling the argument for, there is nothing a proselytizer can offer (except, perhaps, a personal relationship with Jesus). What I am getting at is that if there is no weakness in your worldview to exploit, the arguments and tactics will fail because they are not enough on their own; the proselytizer needs that "in". If you have a meaningful relationship with the gods, if you live a life of honour and morality, if you are aware of your faults and have a means to address and improve upon them, then what could the proselytizer "sell" you that you do not already have? You will be offered theological arguments that are designed to appeal to the default setting, but so what? You reject the most basic of assumptions that will be offered (monotheism, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, ethics, etc), so there is no intellectual, spiritual or emotional argument to compel you when your perspective is held to be sufficient.
Which is not to say, then, that polytheists are necessarily without flaws or weaknesses. The gods know I have many, and I am certain that you all may as well. This isn't about some self aggrandized, self perfection that only we special snowflakes can obtain. This is about having an intrinsic perspective which informs our thoughts and beliefs, and allows us to understand why we believe what we do, and further, how this can then relate to other peoples perspectives. It may be easier for me than it has (or will be) for others because I've never had that Jesus shaped hole. I was never a Christian, nor were my parents, or immediate family (until well after I had begun forming my own opinions about things), and so those creeping doubts and longings never occurred, and in this respect I am lucky.
What we need then is to instill in ourselves, in our communities, a sense that our worldview is worthy of existing, of being maintained and then passed onto our descendents. But saying it, shouting it at the top of our lungs will amount to nothing, if we do not believe it and if we do not act upon it. We need to instill that our gods have a place in our lives, that our ancestors are worthy of reverence and our interactions with the spirits of place are necessary. That such views inform and instruct our actions, that our lives are lived and lived well. For when it comes to standing firm against proselytizers, those who would knowingly exploit the vulnerable, a good life is the best defense.