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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Programming or Persuasion?

I grew up watching something that worked. Not everyone has that experience.

My father loved my mother and vice versa. They were not perfect — nobody is — but they consistently modeled their Christian faith for their children. As a result, I and my siblings grew up conscious there was at least one worldview out there that produced a positive real-life outcome for those who held it.

Some people think that’s programming.

Where’s Your Black Sheep?

An older, unsaved relative once suggested as much to my brother. Noting that most Christian families have their “black sheep” story, he figured Mom and Dad deserved the Franz Anton Mesmer Award for exceptional zombification skills since all their children continue to pursue Christ as adults. He truly could not imagine any other way such a feat might have been accomplished.

Possibly. But it’s an odd sort of programming that leaves its indoctrinees wandering, observing, reading freely, exposing ourselves to all kinds of points of view and even indulging in some of the less-useful practices prevalent in our society.

I did some traveling, observing and experimenting during my teens and twenties in the hope of finding a worldview and consequent lifestyle that would produce the same sort of desirable experience I grew up with, only without so many dos and don’ts involved. (At that age, how Christians lived was more notable to me than the content of their faith. I didn’t get serious about living for the Lord until I was almost 23.)

Different Experience, Same Outcome

My sister, on the other hand, never struggled visibly with the same sorts of issues. She was a model Christian daughter. Maybe the Mesmer business worked on her.

My brothers became serious about being disciples of the Lord Jesus at different points in their twenties under wildly different circumstances, each with at least as much life experience as I had, though they had completely different issues to work through to get there.

My relative’s programming hypothesis fell down when he came to realize that each of my siblings is able to defend his or her convictions intellectually and experientially, though the cognitive process was different in each case, and our set of experiences were more different still. The arguments we would make for Christianity and for Christ are different again.

What he was observing was not programming but persuasion.

The Demerits of Programming

Now I’m NOT saying there are no examples out there of Christian parents brainwashing their progeny. It definitely happens, and it’s ugly when it does. It’s also largely ineffectual. Kids that are propagandized into their faith rather than arriving at it personally and with full conviction find that it rarely sees them through the first year of university.

At that point, they have a choice: Either re-examine everything they ever thought they knew or throw their faith on the scrap heap. I’ll let you guess which is the easier and more common option.

Likewise, many among the quasi-Christian cults do a great job of programming their acolytes. But get them past their memorized proof texts and it is quickly evident they have little spiritual acuity to bring to any discussion of the Christian faith.

I’m also NOT saying that persuasion is an infallible tool. Some children simply will not be persuaded, even by the best of parents. We’ve all seen examples of that.

Whipping the Masses Into An Unthinking Mob

The Lord himself never treated his audience like a herd of cattle to be driven in one direction or another. He was not interested in displaying his rhetorical prowess by whipping the masses into an unthinking mob, though this was surely the scenario most feared by the Pharisees and other religious leaders. At times he even resisted presenting truth too clearly. The parables were designed to engage the minds and hearts of the faithful while remaining opaque to those by choice had become insensitive.

Likewise, we see him over and over again engaging with individuals and attempting to persuade. Repeatedly he debates with small groups of Pharisees and scribes criticizing or testing him. Then there is the Canaanite woman, the rich young man, the people in Mary and Martha’s homeZacchaeus, Nicodemus and the woman of Samaria. Why bother to answer so many intelligent, individual questions, not to mention meeting so many individual and personal needs, if the agenda was simply to generate unthinking compliance?

Paul and the Mind

Finally, the apostle Paul’s gospel methodology was as deferential to the individual intellect as his Master’s. He used rational, evidentiary arguments to prove the resurrection. Characteristically, he would reason with Jews rather than simply pontificate. He tells the Corinthians:
We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”
There was no Franz Mesmer in Paul’s missionary work. In every way he sought to engage the mind as well as the heart and spirit.

I Have Stored Up Your Word

We teach children to memorize proof texts: John 3:16, Romans 10:9, and so on. All good on one level:
“I have stored up your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.”
But when my father taught us to memorize scripture, it was in blocks, not individual verses. I think he was on to something there. I can still repeat James 1 in its entirety. And I have context in my head for each of those very important verses. If you ask me to exposit that chapter, I can sail right through it because I have become persuaded of its truth rather than programmed to repeat parts of it at the appropriate moment.

If I had to choose, I would rather send to university a Christian teen who can explain salvation in plain English in his own words than one who can rattle off a thousand memorized proof texts.

Persuasion beats programming every time.

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