Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Artificial Intimidation and Backmasking

I mused Monday on how evangelists often try to conjure up fear, "artificial intimidation", as a way of making their case. That seems to be the modus operandi of most LBT advocates as well. They spin these wild scenarios by blending symbolic and cryptic references in Scripture with geo-politics of our day, making tenuous connections of scary symbols with things they hate, and positive symbols with things they cherish. (You can do this also! Try having a 'doomsday party' with your friends one day and give it a whirl. Start with Dr. Seuss, then move on a Russian novelist or two, then on to the Book of Revelation! It gets easier over time.)

But, is this whole business of imposing some kind of apocalyptic meta-narrative over events of our day even necessary? It reminds me of the musician Larry Norman's reaction to the phenomenon of 'backmasking.' Remember backmasking? People would take a record and spin it backwards to hear strange satanic messages that sounded eerily like a record being played backwards. Larry Norman's response was an incredulous: Do you really have to play some of these albums backwards to find out that they have bad messages?

Likewise, I ask: Do we really have to invoke ancient symbols to convince one another that life is dangerous, that the global economic, military, energy, and social systems which shape our daily lives are only a blip or two away from falling into chaos? Did we really need some photo-shopped picture of a smoke cloud looking kind of like a devil's face to tell us that 9/11 was "evil"? And, in a world where 2/3 of its people are undernourished, where a stadium-full of children die every day of hunger and nutrient-related disease, where the wealthiest 1% have more than the poorest 25%, do we really need to wait until Israel is attacked by Gog (or Magog, or Gog and Magog- I can't keep that family straight!) before we say, "Okay, that's it, now God is starting to get mad!"?

No. We don't have to play records backward to hear bad messages and we don't have to invoke apocalyptic texts to name real and present evils or dangers among us. Life can be treacherous, human communities can be fragile, the world is filled with sin. We don't need to look "at the back of the book" to figure that out. As Reinhold Niebuhr once said, sin is the one empirically verifiable doctrine in Christian theology.

To each and all scenarios, the Scriptures give a consistent witness. And my general rule would be that, when we come across a Scripture that is difficult to understand, we should read it through the lens of the most often-repeated words of Scripture: "God's steadfast love endures forever." I find that I say that a lot, but that's because the Scriptures got me into that wonderful habit.

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