Another Week Ends: Schismogenesis, Megachurch Funerals, Accidental Theology, Smartphone Shrinks, Mean Professors, Nocebos, Zooropa and Elysiumby David Zahl on Apr 12, 2013 • 4:34 pm 2 Comments
1. The NY Times published a wise op-ed from sociologist Tanya Luhrmann this past week on the the subject of “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect”. She begins the column by recounting a disconcerting experience she had promoting her terrific book, When God Talks Back, on a Christian radio station. Luhrmann does not self-identify as a Christian, which the host of the show apparently took as a cue to berate her into converting on air (rather than dig into a book that has quite a bit of sympathetic material to relate). Now, God only knows what exactly the motivation/justification at work was — maybe he was doing what he felt was his duty as a Christian or maybe he was just trying to drive ratings by creating a few sparks — no matter how you slice it, or how generous you want to be (and Luhrmann is more generous than plenty in her position would be) the approach backfired. If her account is to be trusted, both host and interviewee got their backs up and pushed each other further into their respective corners. Dr. Luhrmann uses the episode to illustrate–and even lament–a larger, even-handed point about how believers and non-believers relate to one another. Meaning, she sees this dynamic at work on a macro scale and uses a term to describe it that I had never heard before but will be using as much as I can from here on out, Schismogenesis. And as she rightly notes, the phenomenon applies to a lot more than just Secular/Religious divides (Parent/Child, Spouse/Spouse, etc):
“It was a shock to have my host grill me about the state of my soul. It reminded me that one of the things that makes mutual respect between believers and nonbelievers difficult is that there is a kind of line in the sand, and you’re either on one side of it or on the other. Skeptics do this too, of course. I remember a dinner party where I was explaining my work among evangelicals to a colleague, and her face grew longer and longer until she said, “You talk to them?”
The in-your-face confrontation makes it that much harder to connect. The more my interviewer pressed me, the more my faith — such as it is — grew strained. I had come to live (theologically speaking) in a messy in-between. My interviewer wanted clarity. The more he put me on the spot, the more I wanted to say that I shared nothing with him and that his beliefs were flimsy dreams. And the more I resisted, the more he just got mad. He was determined. I was exhausted.
Anthropologists have a term for this racheting-up of opposition: schismogenesis. Gregory Bateson developed the word to describe mirroring interactions, where every move by each side makes the other respond more negatively, like those horrible arguments with your spouse where everything you say makes the other person dig in their heels more fiercely.
I think that schismogenesis is responsible for the striking increase in the number of people who say that they are not affiliated with any religion. Since the early 1990s that number has more than doubled to 20 percent from less than 10 percent, and is close to a third for people under 30. We know that most of these people still believe in God or a higher power, whatever they mean by that. It’s just that they are no longer willing to describe themselves as associated with a religion. They’ve seen that line in the sand, and they’re not willing to step over it. Yet believers and nonbelievers are not so different from one another, news that is sometimes a surprise to both.
As a negative but undeniably hilarious illustration of how exaggerated conversion testimonies can get–and how patronizing the line-crossing described above can sound to those on the other side–there’s The Onion’s “Future Christian Drinking and Doing Drugs And Thinking It’s One Big Joke”.
2. But as a significantly more positive case in point, read Andrew Sullivan’s touching description of the mega-church funeral of a friend, David Kuo. Sullivan is a Christian, of course, but not of the remotely megachurch variety, so the service found him in what can safely be called foreign territory–culturally and politically, if not theologically. His short piece is an all-too-rare example of, uh, non-schismogenetic writing at its most openhearted and hopeful, a tribute to both men and the faith that they (ultimately!) share:
I have never been to a mega-church service – which is something to be ashamed of, since I have written so often about evangelicalism’s political wing. And it was revealing… This was not, in other words, a Catholic experience. But it was clearly, unambiguously, a Christian one.
What I guess I’m trying to say is that so many of us have come to view evangelical Christianity as threatening, and in its political incarnation, it is at times. But freed from politics, evangelical Christianity has a passion and joy and Scriptural mastery we could all learn from. The pastors were clearly of a higher caliber than most of the priests I have known – in terms of intellect and command. The work they do for the poor, the starving, and the marginalized in their own communities and across the world remains a testimony to the enduring power of Christ’s resurrection. In some way, this was David’s last gift to me. His own unvarnished, embarrassingly frank belief helped me get over my prejudices against evangelicalism as a lived faith… It was not a shock that his last day above the ground opened up more windows and doors in my mind. He doubtless hoped it would.
I feel no grief. I remain, as someone once said, surprised by joy.
3. Speaking of crossing divides, Mbird fave Christian Wiman selected “Five Works of Accidental Theology” for The Wall Street Journal, which may end up doubling as a summer reading list for some of us. Elsewhere, our friend Matthew Sitman posted a terrific review of Wiman’s My Bright Abyss.
Wiman makes the skeptic confront uncomfortable possibilities – he asks the doubter to doubt even his doubt. And he makes the believer realize how much of what passes for faith is idolatrous nonsense, evasions and wishful unthinking. In short, Wiman’s book is the beginning of a conversation we very much need to have, and he clears away so much of the accumulated ridiculousness that has grown-up around discussions of religion in this country… It truly is an essential book for our times.
4. An amusing treatise on the impotence of advice-giving appeared in The NY Times, care of Judith Newman’s article “Appily Ever After? The Smartphone as Shrink”. After trying, and failing, to find consolation through “therapy apps” that purport to help with marital conflict and parenting frustrations, she finally finds one that she likes called Simply Being:
You know why this is relaxing? Because I’m not being asked to do anything. I’m sitting as someone whispers in my ear to sit down and shut up. (You can listen to the voice with music or nature noises in the background, but the recording’s a little dicey, so you find yourself thinking, “What did she say?” as she’s drowned out by a roaring ocean.) Of course, I could never find more than five minutes at a time to do this. I never got around to the 20-minute option. Still, it was five minutes well spent.
5. Speaking of the ups and downs of advice-giving, though, there’s the cathartic law-in-practice primer, “Mean Professor Tells Student to Get S*** Together”, in which a student’s self-justification is absolutely demolished (though one presumes he did not hear it that way), and the timely laugh-or-you’ll-cry “Many Skin Cancer Survivors Ignore Sun Safety Advice.”
6. The New Yorker took a look at The Nocebo Effect–AKA “the placebo effect’s malevolent Mr. Hyde”–and provided us with an uncomfortable amount of proof about the destructive power of expectation and anxiety. Fortunately for us, Dr. Jeckyll has not left the building:
With placebos (“I will please” in Latin), the mere expectation that treatment will help brings a diminution of symptoms, even if the patient is given a sugar pill. With nocebos (“I will harm”), dark expectations breed dark realities. In clinical drug trials, people often report the side effects they were warned about, even if they are taking a placebo. In research on fibromyalgia treatments, eleven per cent of the people taking the equivalent of sugar pills experienced such debilitating side effects that they dropped out.
And just in case you’re in the mood for more disconcerting news about human irrationality, check out the alarming findings of behavioral economist Alessandro Acquisti when it comes to the ridiculously inconsistent ways we self-regulate privacy online. As one of the experts mildly puts it, “We have too much confidence in our ability to make decisions.” Yikes! ht JH.
7. In music, The AV Club did us all a favor with their terrific write-up of U2’s tragically underrated Zooropa. Uncertainty can be a guiding light, indeed! Who knows – maybe the attention will get Island or whomever to re-issue the much-needed remaster on its own instead of as part of the Achtung Baby boxed set. And in the God-Bless-America department, they also highlighted Leonard Nemoy’s riveting “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins”.
8. In television: the premiere of Mad Men, though not without some strong elements, felt mighty padded-out to this viewer. After almost getting lost in the weeds, Justified ended on an extremely strong note (just in time for EKR’s session!). Game of Thrones is off to a solid start, and after watching repeats of Veep‘s phenomenal first season recently my hopes could not be higher for season two, which kicks off this weekend. New Girl and Happy Endings continue to bring the best laughs on network television (which can’t bode well for their futures). And with expectations firmly adjusted, I have to admit those last couple episodes of Community have been really nice surprises. Finally, I fear the extended hiatus has not done Revolution any favors (perhaps because it gave us time to think), but I’m hopeful I’ll be proven wrong. Thankfully for those of us in need of a more weighty post-apocalyptic fix, this looks absolutely awesome:
Finally, as a reminder, pre-registration for our NYC Conference closes at the end of the day this coming Monday, 4/15. While we always welcome last minute walk-ins for the sessions, if you plan to dine with us, please be sure to pre-register beforehand. Oh and needless to say, blogging will be a bit sparse next week.
BONUS TRACK: Another stellar–and more than a little flattering–preview of NYC conference speaker Tullian Tchividjian’s forthcoming book One-Way Love hit the web today, “Confessions of a Performancist”. A must-read for all conference goers!
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