Friday, April 12, 2019

Too Hot to Handle: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Time has a way of dealing with issues that once seemed irresolvable. In 2018, we passed the 25th anniversary of Gail Riplinger’s New Age Bible Versions, a 1993 offering that rocked the evangelical world by purporting to expose the NASB, NIV and other modern translations of the Bible as literally satanic and their translators as practicing occultists.

Riplinger’s Believe It or Not!

Tom: Riplinger didn’t stop there: she wrote six more books in the same vein, all of which met with varying degrees of success. And yet today, Immanuel Can, though it is still for sale in a fourth edition, Riplinger’s seminal work is considered a joke. The BA, MA and MFA degrees which accredited her turned out to be degrees in Interior Design, not Greek or Hebrew studies. Her arguments are now regarded as bizarre and nonsensical.

IC, how is it that pseudo-scholars like Ms. Riplinger are able to successfully generate so much heat and so little light in the evangelical community? She’s not the first, and she won’t be the last.

Immanuel Can: “Interior design.” Wow. I didn’t know that bit. But I’m amused.

Sizing Up the Market

I think Ms. Riplinger is a good example of someone who sized up the market and saw there was an appetite to be told certain things. She had that right — there were a number of nervous ultra-conservatives around who found KJV-only propaganda reassuring. She hit that target market by telling them things they wanted to believe, and packaging them in an interesting, conspiratorial narrative.

If nothing else, she should get some kind of fiction-writing award. I wouldn’t suggest she gets anything for scholarship, but plenty on knowing how to cater to a potential audience.

Tom: Is it safe to say the KJV-only demographic within evangelicalism has shriveled so completely as to be a non-factor today, or do they still have pockets of influence? I haven’t run into a hardboiled KJV-er in years. I still encounter people who prefer that translation for various reasons, of course, but they’re a long way from making crazy accusations about the character of the scholars behind more modern translations of scripture, or from suggesting that their work product is evidence of some satanic conspiracy.

IC: There’s still a few around … but they’re almost unknown now. And most of those who remain are old.

Know When to Fold ’Em

Tom: It puts me in mind of other great conspiracy theories circulating in the eighties. One was the accusations of Satanism lodged against Procter & Gamble. I recall being handed a typed sheet from someone encouraging Christians to boycott the corporation’s products. The online Atlas Obscura preserves that story, which is pretty much as I remember it: the CEO admits to Phil Donahue that his company supports the Church of Satan. Even in my slightly less cynical teens, I wasn’t buying that one.

Now, I have absolutely no doubt there are seriously evil people working in major corporations, and supporting truly evil causes — Starbucks and its vocal support for groups like Planned Parenthood and the institution of gay marriage come to mind. I don’t bother with their products anymore, but you don’t need to invent a conspiracy theory for that. They are right out there telling the world what they’re up to because they believe in what they’re doing. But to publicly endorse the Church of Satan on a talk show almost forty years ago? You’ve got to be kidding. All the same, many Christians bought in.

That one went away by itself eventually too.

A Beast with Seven Heads

IC: Back in the ’80s there was a real enthusiasm for matching up current events with prophecy, remember? That all seemed to die down in the ’90s; but it did create some enthusiasm for conspiracy theories in Christian circles. Any ideas, Tom, on why that would have been?

Tom: Well, one current event that was thought to be a fulfillment of prophecy in the ’80s was the rise of the European Union. Some writers identified it with the book of Revelation’s “beast with seven heads and ten horns”. That “beast” was frequently referred to as the “revived Roman empire”. This website preserves exactly that sort of teaching, written circa 1984. Now, they may not have been completely out to lunch, but they were certainly way, way off on the timing. Today, there are something like 28 EU countries, 19 of which use the euro as currency, so the “ten heads” symbolism doesn’t work at all. Moreover, Italy, which is supposed to be the center of the “revived Roman empire”, now looks most eager to get out of the EU, and may do so even before the UK gets its act together. Once again, time proved a Christian conspiracy theory to be rather ill-founded.

Kids in Service to Satan

How about those ’80s evangelical jeremiads about the dangers of pop music, IC? Do you remember all the stories about backward masking on Beatles albums, how KISS was actually an acronym for “Kids in Service to Satan”, and how drums were evil?

IC: Oh, man … yes. What a blast from the past.

Tom: The irony is that 35 years later, most evangelical churches have not just drummers but full-blown rock bands onstage. I don’t particularly like it myself, but the moral outrage over popular music has all-but-entirely evaporated. And, to be fair, the drama over much of the “satanic” stuff was always way overblown. The backward masking stuff was a joke. Most of it wasn’t there, and the few instances that were legit were rock musicians having a giggle at the expense of irate members of the Moral Majority. I’m pretty sure Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin really is a sometime disciple of the occultist Aleister Crowley, but 95% of today’s metal bands are just larping. Their “Satanism” is nothing more than tongue in cheek commercialism. It’s a pose. No baby sacrifices are occurring. That doesn’t make it a good thing, but it ought to make us a bit more cautious about hurling around public accusations of devotion to dark spiritual forces that can’t be proven. That’s never a good look for believers.

Reasons to be Fearful

IC: What do you think makes these kinds of things happen, Tom?

Tom: Well, in some quarters there’s the usual fear of change: anything new is therefore suspect. Then there’s the unfortunate fact that a few Christians are addicted to the high they get from sharing a juicy bit of gossip. There’s nothing like drawing attention to a scandal to make an otherwise insignificant person the short-term center of attention. On top of that, doing due diligence on these rumors, stories and reinterpretations of scripture takes a whole lot of time and scholarship that many Christians don’t possess. It feels easier and safer to just repeat a conspiracy theory than to confirm or disprove it.

IC: Sounds like human nature. I notice that secular conspiracy theories, like “the Jews own the world” or “the American government bombed the World Trade Center” are still as common as ever. And, of course, we just had the theory about Trump “being handed the election by the Russians” completely and embarrassingly disproved — it didn’t arrest the rumor mill, though. People just do this stuff. It’s not a “Christian” phenomenon.

Tom: Finally, I think occasionally some Christians are displaying a legitimate, genuine concern that their fellow believers may be defiling themselves with worldly influences that are more hazardous than they appear. So it’s not all one thing.

IC: That’s true too. Some of these rumors are well-intended; it doesn’t make them truthful, though.

The News is Not All Good

Tom: Now, here’s something I was thinking about in connection with the Christian tendency to eventually get past the things which were once hot button issues between us, and which acted as lightning rods for various divisions. It’s not all good news.

The KJV-only hardliners went away in time, not so much because their obduracy on translations became an occasion to work through rationally and biblically whether the new translations were actually good, or whether the arguments raised by the King Jamesers were legitimate, but largely because of attrition. People got increasingly used to the new translations while those who loathed them got older and their opinions less relevant. Same thing with drums, bass and electric guitars in church. What was once scandalous is now commonplace, but I don’t recall any great Christian thinkers working the issue through from scripture and helping us come to a godly conclusion about the incursions of pop culture into our meetings. Rather, we just gradually and quite uncritically changed from one form of music to another — and from participation to performance — in little unquestioning increments as the generations aged, and here we are today. Even the EU interpretation of prophecy and the Procter & Gamble “scandal” were not so much proven or disproven as we all just got bored of the subjects and moved on.

IC: Yes, I think you’re right.

Tom: These are no great intellectual or spiritual triumphs for liberal Christianity. Sure, we can mock these conspiracy notions that were once commonly bandied about. They seem antiquated and silly now. But do we really have any reason to be proud of the way our churches handled these disagreements?

IC: Not really. That’s a very, very good point, and I think it should give us pause. It may be true that one “side” in a conflict like that may be wrong, and another may ultimately be right. (Of course, it’s not unusual for both sides to be a bit wrong.) But even if we’re 100% right, if we’re only ignorantly right, how are we better than those who are just plain wrong? Sure, we came up with the right answer, but it was only accidentally that it happened that way. The next time we’re just as likely to be on the dead-wrong side. And either way, ignorance, not principle, will be driving our decisions.

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