Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It

This is Part 3 of the series. Other parts (will be updated as I post them):


Converts or Disciples Part 1: A Musical Analogy

Converts or Disciples Part 2: The Problem With the Missionary Project

Converts or Disciples Part 4: The Theological Story is Shit

Converts or Disciples Part 5: The Fruit is Shit





Converts or Disciples Part 3: Selling It


 Joe Izuzu was actually funny, though, unlike real car salespeople.


We all know the sorts. Those neatly dressed families that descend on your neighborhood, cold calling to proselytize. Yep, those Jehovah’s Witnesses who disturb your weekend, and are often difficult to get rid of. 


Or perhaps it is that person you thought was a friend, but just wanted to recruit you for Amway or whatever the latest Multi-Level-Marketing scam is making the rounds. They are usually selling overpriced, inferior products: the key feature of the business is the upper levels preying on the lower levels - the marks (or, if you prefer, converts.) 


Or how about the last time you bought a car? “What will it take to get you into a car today?” Doesn’t that feel an awful lot like “If you were to die today, do you know for sure you would go to heaven?” It’s an opening gambit in a game….one the customer is intended to lose. 


Recently, a group of Fundie donors put together a thoroughly tone-deaf advertisement at the cost of $20 MILLION to try to do image rehabilitation for American Christianity, which is, to put it mildly, having a serious problem with its reputation at the moment. Just a FEW of the responses from outside the bubble to this bit of offensive marketing: Deadspin, Huffpost, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez - who, like me, is a Christian. 


And hey, how many “evangelism crusades” (unfortunate choice of words there….) have we seen in the history of the United States? (They are a primarily American phenomenon, if you think about it.) 


I think it is high time we admit what these all are:




Selling it.


This too is a modern capitalist-consumerist approach that we experience in literally every facet of our lives. You can’t go anywhere or do anything without being constantly bombarded with advertising. It is on every billboard, every video online, every article you read, standing on every street corner. 


More than 90 percent of the phone calls that come into my home and cell phones are advertising. (And mostly outright scams.) Even at the office, every day brings sales calls. A high percentage of these are outright scams too. 


Or all the people whose “suggested friends” show up on your social media feed…and it turns out they are professional influencers. 


For me personally, I absolutely loathe all the selling that pervades our lives. Everyone has a hustle, it seems. Everyone wants to sell you something. Make the money, close the deal. 


The fact that religion in our consumerist society is all about selling a product should surprise nobody. But that doesn’t mean it is right. 


This is at the heart of why I find pretty much all “witnessing” or “sharing Jesus” to be offensive - and actually counterproductive. Whether it is door-to-door sales or giant advertising campaigns, it is just commerce. Advertising. Selling it. 


It feels just as gross as the JW who won’t leave you alone, or the MLM “friend” who doesn’t want to be an actual friend because the relationship is all about commerce, or the ostentatious waste of money during the Super Bowl. 


Speaking of which, have you noticed that you cannot have an actual friendship with either an MLM true believer or an “evangelism” true believer? True friendship requires equality, mutuality, exchange of ideas, respect, common interests, and so on. Marketing is poison to friendship. When one person sees the others as a potential customer, it isn’t friendship, regardless of what is being sold. Selling religion is no different from any other product - if you see someone, not as an equal - a full person - but as a potential convert, then you aren’t being a friend. You are selling it. 


At least with the car salesman, you know what you are getting into, and can choose when it happens. 


I should also point out that by definition, the Evangelical form of “witnessing” lacks the fundamental mutuality of actually listening to the other person. Listening, of course, is a threat, because true listening means understanding that other people’s experiences are as valid as your own. And also understanding that you (or your particular sect) does not have a monopoly on truth or goodness. Not to mention, of course, the risk that it might be your mind that is changed. 


I for one am so fucking tired of people trying to sell me stuff. I no longer engage with door-to-door people. I tell them “not interested” and close the door. In their face if necessary. And this goes double for religious marketers. I hang up on telemarketers, I skip ads online whenever I can. I refuse to buy stuff that needs a ton of advertising to sell - that is an automatic tell that it is overpriced crap. I know I am not the only one who feels this way. 


Here’s the thing about the personal sales jobs: it is an egregious violation of boundaries. 


I mentioned this in a prior installment, and I think we introverts particularly understand why this is a violation - in much the same way a sexual assault or a spit in the face is, if not quite at the same level. To steal someone’s time, to insert your product into their very personal space, to treat them like a customer when they don’t want to buy - that’s just really offensive. 


I knew when I saw that video pushing “evangelism” (see previous posts) that it was wrong, that it was a violation. My conscience felt sick. And I know I am not the only one. THIS is why most of us sincere, devout Christians do not go around “sharing the gospel.” It’s not because we don’t take our faith seriously. It is because we take “love your neighbor” seriously - and violating their boundaries is not love. 


Pretending to be someone’s friend when all you really want is to convert them or sell them something is lying. It is fraud. And people know it. If you want to be a friend, be a friend. If you want to sell your religion, at least be honest about what you are doing, and don’t pretend to care about others beyond the sale. 


“Evangelism” sorts tend to talk about how to take advantage of people trapped next to you in airplanes or buses. I think this is teaching people how to be abusive. I do not want to talk about your religion. I do not want to hear how your particular theology is “different.” Just like I do not want to talk about how your particular MLM is “different” and not at all an MLM. In both cases, that is bullshit. 99% of the time, your religion is just the same old Cultural Fundamentalism - authoritarianism, hierarchies, and white christian nationalism - that I already know by heart. And your MLM is just the same as every other one - the people at the top make the money, everyone else gets screwed. 


If I want to know about your religion, I will ask you. 


If you have something I actually want to buy - like, for example, Pampered Chef stuff - just post something when you have an order going in. 


Heck, in both cases, if you just let people know what you have to offer in a quiet, non-pushy way, those interested will find you. 


Realistically, I probably already know all I need or wish to know about your religion - your fruit speaks for itself (more on that in the next installment) - and so does nearly everyone else you think you can convert. Christianity - particularly in its fundamentalist/culture war form - is pretty well known. My atheist friends know Christ’s teachings as well or better than most of my Evangelical friends, for example, and recognize that Evangelical practice has literally nothing to do with the teachings of Christ. Ironically, I have had some of the deepest conversations about religion with atheist friends - they generally have thought beyond the approved talking points and are unafraid to look at the hard questions. They don’t have to protect their fragile beliefs with layers of defense mechanisms.


Which is why I believe that “evangelism” isn’t actually about making converts. If it were, the utter lack of success would lead to a different approach. Rather, it is about Tribalism - reinforcing the “us versus them” boundaries that are so vital to Culture War politics. It also serves as a way to reassure yourself that you are right at those times of doubt and uncertainty. 


By making interactions with “non-believers” always as unpleasant as a sales pitch from an MLM salesman, it reinforces the idea that those outside the tribe are evil and should be treated accordingly; and that the only place for safe and meaningful connection is within the tribe. And THAT is the goal for the Cultural Warriors, of course. 


One more thing on this subject: if you would find something offensive if a JW or an MLM marketer were to do it to you, for God’s sake, don’t do it to other people. Just don’t. That’s literally the Golden Rule. Which somebody famous once said, if I recall. 


Decent people already know this, by the way, which is why very few christians spend time “witnessing.” We know it is a violation of others, that it is fraudulent behavior, and that it just alienates other people. This is why it bothers me when true believers in “evangelism” try to guilt the rest of us into “witnessing” - as if cold-call sales were somehow a core Christian practice. 


In the next part, I want to take a look at the product that Evangelicals are selling. After all, a good product sells itself. But nobody wants to buy poisonous shit. 




High Pressure, Manipulative, and Misleading:


I was going to respond to a commenter on a friend’s post, but now that I have the time, I can’t find it. So, here is my response to the question of what I mean by “high pressure, manipulative, and misleading tactics.” 


This should be universally known, but perhaps I need to mention that salespersons aren’t just making things up as they go. They are trained in psychological techniques to “get to yes.” That is, to make the sale, close the deal. That opening gambit of “what will it take to get you into a new car today” and its various equivalents are all part of that technique of psychological manipulation to push a person toward a particular decision. At every turn, where the customer might back away, there is a counter-move to push them back to the path toward the sale. This is no secret - there is a whole library’s worth of books written about this. 


Or, more germane to my own profession, there is a technique for cross-examination. I am not a particularly great litigator - I have other strengths - but there are times when you know an opposing party is lying, and you need to make that clear to the judge or jury. And so, we learn techniques - commonly called “leading the witness” to box them into a space where their lies become apparent. These techniques are also used to destroy witness credibility where they might not be lying - one of the reasons lawyers get a bad reputation. But they are indeed necessary when dealing with a lying witness. So we lead them down the path to self-incrimination. 


That is what I mean by high pressure and manipulative. It is using psychological techniques to move a person to the desired result. 


Now, in the case of the law, not only is this expected, but it is often necessary for justice. 


In the case of that car dealership, it is at least expected that there will be a sales job put on you. (This is, of course, why people mostly hate car shopping, and have a poor opinion of car salespersons.) 


Notice also that there is a power differential going on here. I am a trained lawyer. I do this all the time. A car salesperson does their job day in and day out. My witness may be on the stand for the first time in their life - it is their first divorce, for example. I might buy a car once every five years at most. Which side in these transactions has the advantage? 


Now let’s look at this in the context of religion. Evangelism Explosion and its imitators admit straight out that they borrow sales psychology from marketing. It’s literally there in the materials. They specifically train their “evangelists” in these techniques. The Roman Road is nothing more than a plan for getting the customer to “yes.” And so are all the other series of “leading questions” that you get trained in. It is the same stuff a salesperson gets, just with a religious veneer. 


So yes, when the goal of an interaction is to “get to yes,” that is inherently manipulative and high pressure. 


Now, the misleading part comes later. Just like when you buy a used car, and it turns out to have serious defects that are not covered under warranty. And then also you find out that the monthly payment is twice the amount you were promised. 


I’ll talk about it more in the next installment, but Evangelicalism promises a lot of love and grace and community, but once you join up, you find out that there are an incredible amount of spoken and unspoken cultural rules, you will only truly belong if you support Republican politics in every respect, and you will be required to hate and attempt to persecute those outside the tribe. If you are not down with that, you will find yourself forced out, just like I did. 




My hunger for genuine - non-conditional - friendship:


One of the consequences of leaving a faith tradition, as I did when I left our church and Evangelicalism more broadly, six years ago, is that you find out really quickly which people in your life were actual friends, and which ones were not. 


I am happy that I have retained some friends from our former church, but I also know that I lost a number. Likewise, I have lost a lot of friends and acquaintances after leaving the Republican Party a decade ago - and even more so when I started speaking out against Trump and the current fascist rhetoric and policies being implemented by the GOP. Not every friendship failed, but many did. 


What is the difference? 


A true friend isn’t a friend because you agree with their politics or religion. And, on the flip side, when you tell someone that their religion or politics (or both) are hurting you and those you love, a true friend is willing to reconsider their beliefs and actions. 


And I will go one further here: when it became apparent that I would no longer validate and affirm my parents’ political and religious ideologies, but would push back on the ways those ideologies were hurting me and others, they threw me and my family away damn fast. The relationship turned out to be conditioned on my agreeing with them and validating their toxic beliefs.


So this is really a hunger I have: friendship that isn’t conditioned on a common ideology. A friendship that has no element of selling me something. A friendship where it is more important to listen than to preach. A friendship where “your ideology is hurting me and mine” is sufficient reason to reconsider the ideology. 


And, might I say it, a friendship where my particular religious beliefs are not the center of the relationship - where I am free to follow my mind and conscience where they lead, even if that ends up being a departure from the faith. Is that really too much to ask? 


Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Poems, Third Series, by Emily Dickinson

Source of book: I own this     


I have previously written about Emily Dickinson, one of my very first poetic loves, and about this collection of her poetry - the first new book I ever purchased with my own money. You can read those posts here:


Poems, First Series

Poems, Second Series

This time around, I read the poems in the “third series.” These three, plus The Single Hound, and her essays are in my edition. I have noted before that I am not certain if all of her poems are in this book - there may be some which were not published by her family and came to light later. Also, it is a shame that this book has the “corrected” punctuation rather than the original dashes. But other than that, it is a rather lovely edition, and I have never regretted buying it. 


Like the other series, this one is divided into topical sections of Life, Love, Nature, and Time and Eternity. These are rather arbitrary - so many poems could legitimately fit into more than one - or even all - of the categories. But whatever. There are better things to do than worry about the choices Dickinson’s family made - at least they preserved and published her wonderful poems. 


As always, choosing which poems to feature in a post is an impossible task. So many are really great, and a lot spoke to me this time through. (Whenever I re-read poetry, I find that different poems stand out. It all depends on where my life journey has taken me recently.) 


Dickinson’s poems are not named, although they are numbered in the collections. I will present them as they were originally written - no names, no numbers, and, if I can find them, with the appropriate dashes. 


This one is used as the prelude to the book, published in 1896. 


It's all I have to bring today—
This, and my heart beside—
This, and my heart, and all the fields—
And all the meadows wide—
Be sure you count—should I forget
Some one the sum could tell—
This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.


The quintessential Dickinson poem on nature and love. 


Forbidden Fruit a flavor has

That lawful Orchards mocks—

How luscious lies within the Pod

The Pea that Duty locks—


That is a twist you don’t see too often. I think one of Dickinson’s superpowers is the unexpected metaphor, the way of seeing nature as a microcosm for life in a way that no one else could have thought of. 


Even the poems that are not in the “Time and Eternity” section often seem haunted by death. The reason is no mystery. Dickinson wrote the bulk of her poems during the Civil War, a period in which more Americans were killed (proportional to population) than in all our other wars combined. This one is truly haunting:


My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.


Dickinson was fairly agnostic about the afterlife, hoping for it to exist, but unsure that it did. In any event, she clearly did not envision hellfire as real, presumably for the same reasons that most truly ethical people find it morally indefensible. Those last two lines, though. Man. 


This next one most of us first read in grade school. That doesn’t lessen its power, particularly for those of us who love reading. 


There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry –

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll –

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears the Human Soul –


This next one makes me think of our own time, when, as in the days of the Civil War, people are willing to kill or even die for the right to oppress and brutalize others. Then, as now, theology was wielded as a weapon to destroy human empathy, to justify the unjustifiable as somehow the will of God. 


A face devoid of love or grace,

A hateful, hard, successful face,

A face with which a stone

Would feel as thoroughly at ease

As were they old acquaintances --

First time together thrown.                                                                


Think of this when you see yet another response to murdered children along the lines of “well, we just homeschool our kid.” That face devoid of love or grace. Hateful and hard. And, of course, successful. “I got mine, sucks to be you.” A pathological lack of empathy. 


The opposite of this is another poem, which showcases Dickinson’s own deep soul, and her fathomless empathy. 


I measure every Grief I meet

With narrow, probing, eyes – 

I wonder if It weighs like Mine – 

Or has an Easier size.


I wonder if They bore it long – 

Or did it just begin – 

I could not tell the Date of Mine – 

It feels so old a pain – 


I wonder if it hurts to live – 

And if They have to try – 

And whether – could They choose between – 

It would not be – to die – 


I note that Some – gone patient long – 

At length, renew their smile –  

An imitation of a Light

That has so little Oil – 


I wonder if when Years have piled –  

Some Thousands – on the Harm –  

That hurt them early – such a lapse

Could give them any Balm –  


Or would they go on aching still

Through Centuries of Nerve – 

Enlightened to a larger Pain –  

In Contrast with the Love –  


The Grieved – are many – I am told –  

There is the various Cause –  

Death – is but one – and comes but once –  

And only nails the eyes –  


There's Grief of Want – and grief of Cold –  

A sort they call "Despair" –  

There's Banishment from native Eyes – 

In sight of Native Air –  


And though I may not guess the kind –  

Correctly – yet to me

A piercing Comfort it affords

In passing Calvary –  


To note the fashions – of the Cross –  

And how they're mostly worn –  

Still fascinated to presume

That Some – are like my own – 


Compare what Dickinson says of the Cross, compared to the sociopathic view of God that Penal Substitutionary Atonement requires. Suffering with humanity, not consumed with insatiable hatred that can only be quenched by human sacrifice. 


I love this one too:


I worked for chaff, and earning wheat
Was haughty and betrayed.
What right had fields to arbitrate
In matters ratified?

I tasted wheat, — and hated chaff,

And thanked the ample friend;

Wisdom is more becoming viewed

At distance than at hand.


Again with the twist, with the unexpected point of view. As she herself put it, telling the truth but telling it slant. The next one is plenty haunting, a punch in a velvet glove.


We outgrow love like other things

  And put it in the drawer,

Till it an antique fashion shows

  Like costumes grandsires wore.


We are almost done with March this year, and April is on its way. It has been, at least here in California, one of the wildest Marches in my lifetime, with an incredible amount of rain, wind, and snow. Anyway, this poem seemed fitting for the turn of the month. I just love it. 


Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—

Dear March, how are you, and the Rest—
Did you leave Nature well—
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me—
I have so much to tell—


I got your Letter, and the Birds—
The Maples never knew

That you were coming—I declare –

How Red their Faces grew—
But March, forgive me—
And all those Hills

You left for me to Hue—
There was no Purple suitable—
You took it all with you—


Who knocks? That April—
Lock the Door—
I will not be pursued—
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied—
But trifles look so trivial
 As soon as you have come

That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame—


I have always been the sort that liked creepy-crawly things, including spiders. Dickinson too liked the less beloved parts of nature - the weeds, the insects, the snakes, and the like. This poem is one of many that expresses that love. 


The Spider as an Artist

Has never been employed—

Though his surpassing Merit

Is freely certified


By every Broom and Bridget

Throughout a Christian Land—

Neglected Son of Genius

I take thee by the Hand—


This next poem is special to me because it was one of the first Dickinson poems I discovered as a child. As I have grown to middle age, I have come to appreciate even more how finely crafted it is. A mere six lines that contain a world. Not primarily the prairie at its micro level, but the world of the mind. 


To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.


Since I started chasing birds with my camera, one of my favorite sorts to photograph has been the woodpecker. Or rather, the dozen species I have (so far) managed to photograph. They are better at posing than some birds, but still very active, leading to more blurred photos than good ones. But they are also quite beautiful, and an essential part of the forest ecosystem. Dickinson apparently liked them too.


His Bill an Auger is,

His Head, a Cap and Frill.

He laboreth at every Tree

A Worm, His utmost Goal.


Here is another one, one of my all time favorites. We do not get lightning nearly as often where I live as I would like, so it is fun when we do. But, like most of Dickinson’s nature poems, this one also has a deeper psychological level. Enjoy. 


It struck me—every Day—

The Lightning was as new

As if the Cloud that instant slit

And let the Fire through—


It burned Me—in the Night—

It Blistered to My Dream—

It sickened fresh upon my sight—

With every Morn that came—


I thought that Storm—was brief—

The Maddest—quickest by—

But Nature lost the Date of This—

And left it in the Sky—


This next one is the introvert’s theme song. Particularly the introvert who loves to explore. I have felt this way often. 


Could I but ride indefinite

As doth the Meadow Bee

And visit only where I liked

And No man visit me


And flirt all Day with Buttercups

And marry whom I may

And dwell a little everywhere

Or better, run away


With no Police to follow

Or chase me if I do

Till I should jump Peninsulas

To get away from you—


I said "But just to be a Bee"

Upon a Raft of Air

And row in Nowhere all Day long

And anchor "off the Bar"

What Liberty! So Captives deem

Who tight in Dungeons are.


There are a lot of poems about death, but I think this one is the most unexpected take on the subject. 


I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air -

Between the Heaves of Storm -


The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -

And Breaths were gathering firm

For that last Onset - when the King

Be witnessed - in the Room -


I willed my Keepsakes - Signed away

What portion of me be

Assignable - and then it was

There interposed a Fly -


With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -

Between the light - and me -

And then the Windows failed - and then

I could not see to see -


Seriously, could anyone but Emily Dickinson have written that? Or thought of that? 


The last one is one of those poems that takes your breath away. It is thoroughly devastating, yet so profoundly true. Dickinson wrote about grief and trauma as well as any poet in history, in my opinion. Housed in her simple lines lies a depth of meaning and truth that never fails to astonish me. 


They say that 'time assuages,'--

Time never did assuage;

An actual suffering strengthens,

As sinews do, with age.


Time is a test of trouble,

But not a remedy.

If such it prove, it prove too

There was no malady. 


There are so many poets I love - and others I haven’t discovered but will love when I do - but I think there was something in my childhood self that knew, even if he couldn’t explain why, that Emily Dickinson was something special, and someone who would always speak to my soul.