The Evangelical Monomyth

(… or, why bible studies are unfulfilling.)

I sat through a lot of evangelical bible studies, but it is only today I realised why they were so unfulfilling. They are all the same.

Evangelical Christianity has only one story:

  1. People are sinful;
  2. Therefore, life is hard;
  3. But, if you are faithful to God;
  4. Then, God will make things right;
  5. Because, God is great.

To study the bible: read the story, and discuss how it is really an example of this structure.

Depending on the passage, you can vary this in two ways: you can leave some steps out, and step five can move around. But anything beyond these five is either not allowed or not important.

For example, here are the topics that will be discussed for the following stories:


  1. N/A
  2. How awful life was for Ruth and Naomi, some historical factoids about how difficult life was back then, how it is impossible to imagine being in that kind of situation;
  3. How impressive it was that Ruth and Naomi were faithful to God, how inspiring one or both are, how we should emulate them;
  4. How God rewarded their faithfulness by providing for them, how Ruth’s son was the ancestor of Jesus, how their troubles were conquered;
  5. How great God is.

The Tower of Babel

  1. How arrogant and sinful people are, how people always want to be like God, how the builders of the tower were demonstrating their sinfulness;
  2. How God made things more difficult for them by confusing their language;
  3. N/A
  4. N/A
  5. How great God is.

Paul Escapes Damascus

  1. How terrible the Jews were in rejecting the message of Jesus, how people who bring good news will always be plotted against;
  2. N/A
  3. How faithful Paul was despite all his persecutions, how inspiring he was, how we should emulate him;
  4. How God rewarded his faithfulness by providing a way out of the city in a basket;
  5. How great God is.

John 1:1

  1. N/A
  2. N/A
  3. How we should trust in Jesus, because he is God;
  4. How God will reward our faithfulness, because he is powerful;
  5. (But mostly discussing) how great God is.

And so on…

In my experience, evangelical Bible study does not study the bible. It begins with ths story and puppets the bible into retelling it. Week after week, passage after passage.

Until Job tells the same story as Revelation, Esther as Philemon, and Joshua as Luke.


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Things Jesus Never Said

Things Jesus Never Said

Inspired by this comment by sido.


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Christian Video Games

This week I’ve come across two “Christian Video Games” trying to raise funding via Kickstarter.

The first campaign is titled “Judeo-Christian Video Game – Moral & Fun – Call of Abraham.” Which describes itself as:

A spiritually-enriching, action-packed, FUN Judeo-Christian role-playing video game you can be proud to give to your loved ones!

The second is “Grow Your Congregation (Web Based Game),” and its description is:

We would like to see an addictive Faith inspired game that could be compared to or Cookie Clickers.

Neither of these projects is going to reach their funding targets, without a bona fide miracle.

The interesting thing to me, reading these campaigns, is how open and transparent they are about the aspirations of a Christian Video Game developer. A Christian Video Game is made to feed the pride of Christians (i.e. American Evangelicals) in their sub-culture / ghetto.

Call of Abraham states it is a “game you can be proud to give to your loved ones.” Grow Your Congregation says “We have yet to see a faith inspired game that people with faith could be proud to play.”

American evangelical attitudes to video games are roughly where its attitude to popular music was in the 70s. And the subculture had a great money spinning success in its invention of “Contemporary Christian Music”, or CCM (for which I’d very much recommend this synchroblog from last week). CCM didn’t convince many people outside the ghetto, but it allowed Christians to have pride in their music.

I totally get that. When I became a Christian in my teens, I was deeply into CCM. I subscribed to the magazine, went to gigs, bought the records. That CCM was derided outside the ghetto didn’t bother me. The point was that it was just good enough to allow me to have pride in it.

Christian gamers know that Christian Video Games are terrible. There have been many of them, promoted in language just like these Kickstarters. They are mostly a joke even within the subculture. That’s why pride is such a heartfelt need: the promise of a game that won’t be embarrassing to own. Not one that can compete with secular games or bring the Christian message to the wider world (the blurb explicitly says these are for “people with faith”), but one that reaches the lofty bar of not being total crap.

Now is the right time for this in games, I think. The last few years has seen a fundamental shift in the economics of game development. Independent game developers now top the “Game of the Year” lists. For a budget roughly equivalent to recording an album and promoting a new CCM artist, you can bring an Independent Game to market. It wouldn’t surprise me to see someone make this breakthrough, and transform the Christian Video Game from a joke even within its own sub-culture, to something that makes money.

The two Kickstarters above are like case-studies for how to make bad games, however. If, by some miracle, either got funded, there are enough details in the Kickstarter campaigns to know the result will be more embarrassing crap. There’s something fundamentally wrong-headed about how Christian Video Games are conceived. It is as if the CCM pioneers of the 70s couldn’t get past the fact that Christian music had to consist of Hymns played on a Pipe Organ, with a few guitars and drums added for good measure. In the same way Christian Video Games are Sunday School Lessons with added graphics.

But someone will get it eventually. And American Evangelicals will have their dearest wish: pride in the produce of their ghetto.

Anyone want to show me I’m wrong and point me at a Christian Video Game that doesn’t suck?


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The War on Christmas

The War on Christmas isn’t waged with “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”es. It isn’t a battle between the erection of a Nativity, and the bells and wreaths of civic lights.

It is a battle between rampant consumerism on one hand, and family, love and peace on the other.

December is our annual orgy of consumption and capitalism. The time when more people get further into debt, when pressure to buy is at its greatest, and where more families break up.

By any sane measure, Christmas is losing.

And into this ‘War on Christmas’, the American Family Association rolls its artillery. Waging a black propaganda offensive with its own definition of ‘War on Christmas’. According to its ‘Naughty list‘, the true supporters of Christmas are the major retailers that most comprehensively use the festival in their advertising. Stores that encourage people to mark the celebration with purchases, consumption, consumerism and capitalism. Those stores are the true friends of the holiday.

Stores who refuse to take advantage of the religious holiday as a marketing gimmick? They’re naughty. And if they don’t embrace at least some minimal quantity of Christmas-branded marketing, the AFA will even call for a boycott.

So, a big blue thank you to Walmart, for cramming Christmas onto every product and advert it can, for paying its staff so poorly they need a food-drive, and for opening on Thanksgiving. In the world of the conservative Christian capitalist right, Walmart has it right, it gets the highest possible rating.

I have a suggestion. Let’s hold up as exemplary every store that refuses to put Christmas on any advert, any product that isn’t specifically religious, or any in-store signage. Let’s celebrate those stores who commit all year to paying living wages to their employees, sourcing products ethically, and putting customer needs before corporate profits. They are fighting on my side in the War on Christmas.

Let’s make no mistake, the AFA and its cronies worship no deity but Mammon. By studiously calling it ‘Christ’ or ‘God’, they hope to sucker the religious faithful into their idolatry.


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The Poor Sales Technique of Evangelicalism

After a rather acrimonious exchange with an evangelistic commenter, I’m reflecting on the technique they use to spread their views.

I’m not a natural salesman, but I’ve run my own businesses, and so I’ve depended on being able to sell, at least a little. There are a few things I’ve learned, from experience and from reading dozens of books:

1. Listen more than you talk. Assaulting someone with a wave of benefits doesn’t work. Find out where they are and what they need.

2. Ask questions. Even when you’ve finished listening, it is better to ask questions rather than to go into a sales pitch. Questions allow you to understand needs better, and lets the person you’re selling to understand that this is about their decision to buy, not your need to sell.

3. Use the terminology of the buyer. There are lots of jargon terms you use to think about your product. But the sales process isn’t about getting the buyer to speak your language, but being able to speak theirs.

4. Acknowledge the benefits of the alternatives. I often have been selling a service that otherwise the buyer would have to do themselves. So I acknowledge that they are my competition, and don’t diminish their skills. Even with other external competitors I acknowledge the competition and indicate the beneficial difference of what I’m selling.

5. Genuine flattery works. Except when it is obsequious, or obviously faked, when you can come across as two-faced. But honestly pointing out the obvious strengths of the buyer is a good way to build trust. Again, because I tend to be selling a service otherwise done in house, it is important that I make it clear I don’t think I am better than them or their team in a general sense. Just that their obvious expertise lies in one region, and mine in another, and they can get the best of both worlds if we join forces.

So five things that I think help my sales.

Five things I’m musing on, because — in my experience — the way folks are taught to evangelise is often the absolute opposite of these. So there have been several folks who’ve arrived on this blog with evangelistic zeal who:

1. launch into evangelistic spiels, without listening to what is said to them,

2. assume they know everything there is to know without asking any questions about where I am or what I think,

3. fill their comments with theological jargon,

4. deride any reasons I might have for thinking what I think (and as per 2, they have no idea what they might be), and

5. insult me.

Now, other than being quite willing to be as snarky and nasty back, I don’t really mind this. I quite enjoy arguments, and always have. There have been some folks on here who’ve found creative ways to insult me, and that’s always fun.

But what terrible sales technique. Why is it that evangelicalism, a religion based on the whole idea of spreading the faith, is so incompetent when it comes to sales technique?

Perhaps I should be glad. But it does seem odd.

Have you ever had a religious ‘sales’ experience that has done it right?


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Race and the World Chess Champion

We have a new World Chess Champion. Magnus Carlsen, who I’ve mentioned before on the blog, is a young Norwegian grandmaster with a fascinating playing style. He beat the Indian world champion Viswanathan Anand in Chennai this week. I read the following warmup for a game in the series:

Carlsen is white and Anand black, and Carlsen will be looking to turn the white … advantage into a victory.

(I’ve clipped a key word out to make it more relevant to discussing…)


I noticed something else this week. After a computer game review that savaged the game for its racist content, the comments filled with white folks complaining that the game couldn’t be racist, because it a) wasn’t actually hurting anyone, and b) the creators didn’t intend to insult anyone. I wondered why the sudden battle over the definition of the word, why the comments had nothing to say about the actual ‘racism’ and everything about whether it was intentional.

Intent seems to matter mostly to people who benefit from privilege. Because the most important thing to them is to feel like they are not racist. They are reasonable people, who don’t hate anyone, so how can anything they do or say be racist? They want to make absolutely clear that they. are. not. racist.

Whatever racism means, it isn’t them. Whatever problems racism is supposed to indicate, they are are not part of.

So the myth of the white-hooded, cross-burning racist continues. To be racist you have to deny the promotion of the asian employee, out of conscious racial malice. You have to punch the hispanic student, specifically for hatred of that culture. You have to lynch the nigger.

As long as privilege gets to define what is problematic behavior, what deserves to be labelled and challenged, it remains in control. It can reserve its labels for the extremes, and avoid being challenged as it ensures its privilege continues. By and large, white guys write the dictionaries.

The “thing-that-white-folks-are-sure-isn’t-racism” is made of inertia, the toleration of inequity, the excusal of injustice and the perpetuation of privilege. A toxic mess that no individual causes or holds the blame for.

Thinking these things reminded me of that racially-ambiguous quote from the chess world championship. I asked an old school friend, and keen chess player, whether he could quantify the ‘white advantage’. About a fifth of a pawn, was his guess.

I don’t think of myself as racist. Does anyone? I don’t think of myself as part of the problem. But I have to concede I go into every match with, at minimum, a fifth of a pawn advantage. If that’s not racism, then I’m not sure the word is very useful.

How about you? Are you willing to admit you’re racist, and to try to identify how? Or is racism someone else’s problem, as perpetrator or victim?


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Is the Bible Special?

I love the bible, particularly the New Testament. I love it in the way I love my slide-rule: I’ve had it for a long time; I enjoy playing with it; I enjoy knowing stuff about it; I like the connection it gives me to an earlier time; and I like the look of it on my shelf.

I don’t, however, think it is very useful. At least, for any particular problem I can imagine it solving, I can think of many other resources that would be better suited to the task. It is a beloved curiosity.

The bible, I think, is a religious book of its time and context. Just a religious book of its time and context. It is no more special in its time and context than the book of Mormon is in its, or the writings of Baha’u’llah, Gurdjieff, or LRH; the Bagavad Gita, the Analects or the Qur’an.

All of which may be deeply profound to some, but all of which would be utterly pointless reads to the average reader arriving at the text unprimed.

The point is, if you actually read the bible without being primed to think it is holy, True (in some sense), important, or special, the text is simply not very impressive. It is tedious, tribal, occasionally uplifting, ludicrous, far fetched, even more tedious, and alienating.

It takes hard work, perhaps sustained by naive enthusiasm, to get much out of the bible. But the same is true of any work of literature, spiritual or fictional or both. If I went back 30 years now, to talk to my former self about what to spend my life studying, I’d be hard pressed to give good reasons to choose the bible over Shakespeare, say, or Bach, or any other cultural artefact. At least those alternatives are easier to derive pleasure from, on a shallow level. I don’t regret the choice I made, I just don’t think I somehow picked perfectly.

Even most Christians barely, if ever, read it of their own volition. Unless guilted into a daily ‘quiet time’, or in the context of a church bible study (and even then it is usually cut into tiny edifying pieces, provided with ample ‘correct answers’ for why they are to find it profound). Most Christians don’t read it because they don’t enjoy it or get much out of it.

Of course there might be a small proportion of exceptions. But if you’ve spent any time with Shakespeare scholars, or (especially perhaps) fans of Joyce, you’ll see the same passion for the subtleties, the same willingness to be moved by the deeper interpretations.

The average person would simply not make it through the bible, and most of the few who did would be utterly baffled at what the fuss is about.

I think those people who claim the bible is some ultimately wonderful book, chock full of important truth and unique in human history are either deluding themselves, or have never seriously read one of its competitors.


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Google Completion Polling

The united nations entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women (phew), or UN Women, has released an ad campaign showing the search-engine completion results for phrases like “Women shouldn’t” and “Women need to”:

Search engines guess what your search should be, based on previous searches by others, and so they give an insight into what people are searching for.

To check, I did some of the same searches on Google UK, with the same search for men to compare:

Women shouldn’t work Men shouldn’t marry
Women shouldn’t vote Men shouldn’t wear flip flops
Women shouldn’t preach Men shouldn’t wear shorts
Women shouldn’t have equal rights Men shouldn’t cry

which is every bit as outrageous as the ad campaign, and

Women need to be wanted Men need to feel needed
Women need to shut up Men need to ejaculate
Women need to grow up Men need to grow up
Women need to feel safe Men need to cheat

which is a little more mixed.

A similar idea has been applied to religion

Christians have… Mormons have… Atheists have…
lower IQs horns higher IQ
killed more people my child no morals
more abortions multiple wives no songs
no morals a lot of kids faith

Which I’m not sure tells us very much at all.

Using big data from search engines is interesting. I’ve used it before on the New Testament. I’ve used it professionally too, it is a good way to check which of a set of computer generated combinations is more ‘human’. But I wonder whether it quite tells us what we think it is telling us. I have no doubt misogyny is widespread enough to be reflected in search results, but I wonder whether the majority of people who search for ‘Mormons have horns’ are doing so because they are tempted to believe that, or whether they are trying to find out what the source of the ridiculous joke is.

Have a play with categories you think you fall into. E.g. “Nurses should” (be paid more!), or “Engineers are always” (right!), and let me know any particularly interesting results that come up.

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The Republican Party is in Terminal Decline!

It seems that every day, on the sites I read, increasingly bizarre stories are coming to light about Republicans: politicians and voters. I can’t help but conclude that the whole edifice is crumbling and the party is splitting apart at the seams. On the basis of what I’m seeing, I’m pretty sure the Republican party is collapsing, and in five years, it will be a footnote in history. And not before time!

From a blog comment thread:

you conveniently left out the fact that there are now many secular scientist who are saying the same thing concerning the demise of [modern evolutionary science]. I hope this thread stays posted for another 5 years. I know this sounds petty, but I would love to come back 5 years from now and say “I told you so”

Why The Collapse?

Reports of the imminent collapse of our intellectual opponents are everywhere.

I suspect it is a form of confirmation bias. If you spend your time at heavily left-leaning websites, you get a view of Republicanism that panders to your desire to see it defeated. I’m sure you get the same from the other side if you frequent Wingnut sites.

It is very easy to deceive ourself.

The Demise of Scientology

I don’t believe that either the Republican party, or evolutionary biology is in any danger of imminent collapse.

This post was actually motivated by my increasing involvement in the community of people concerned about abuses in the Church of Scientology. For this group (e.g. the folks commenting at Tony Ortega’s Blog and the Ex Scientologist Message Board) Scientology is on the verge of collapse.

I do (tentatively) believe those who say the church is in trouble. I can list a dozen reasons to think the ex-scientology community is right. There are leadership woes, court cases being lost, PR disasters. It feels like the end.

Still, it is very easy to deceive ourself. Perhaps I should be skeptical.

But, in this case, I’m going to choose not to be.


The ex-scientology community is full of people who’ve suffered real harm from the church. If you’ve never gone down the rabbit hole of how Scientology works, I’d encourage you to read Jon Atack’s Piece of Blue Sky. It is worse than you think!

There are good folks I’ve met there, who have lost their children, who’ve lost their houses and income, who’ve lost decades of their life. Folks who’ve been forced to have abortions, divorces, who’ve been prevented from receiving healthcare, folks who’ve spent years in scientology prisons, whose parents signed over their guardianship to the church when they were children, and who were routinely physically abused.

I hope corporate Scientology is collapsing, but whether it is, isn’t the point. Celebrating its defeats gives a lifeline to a mother who hasn’t seen her kids for five years, and empowers someone who’s childhood was an blur of abuse. To them it is important to know that, this too shall pass.

There are times to speak up for critical thinking, and times to shut up and be a social animal.

So perhaps I should allow myself some Schadenfreude at the Republican humiliation in Washington too.


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Arguing Online

Things are quite busy here at the moment, so I’m not posting as often as usual. In lieu of a more substantive post, I thought I’d share a new site and podcast I came across today.

The site is You Are Not So Smart.

The current episode is about arguments, and contains a lot of interesting anecdote and speculation. The preview of the episode on the site links this image from Wikimedia:

It is a diagram of Paul Graham’s hierarchy of online disagreement (I assume the Paul Graham, Silicon Valley luminary, since he is referred to as a programmer). It nicely summarises some of the issues we all face trying to have constructive conversations about religion online. I’ve shared before my frustration at facing conversations that drop down the pyramid, and my frustration at my own tendency to do the same. I think the diagram summarises my experiences pretty well.

If you do listen, let me know what you think.


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