On bad evangelism

In Slacktivist Fred Clark’s regular Left Behind blogging has reached a point in the novels where an Orthodox rabbi has gone on TV to explain that Jesus is the Messiah, and Jews should all be Jews for Jesus. One of the novels’ protagonists (who found Jesus after seeing a billion or so people killed raptured) pumps his fists and cheers.

This reaction, and the rabbi’s broadcast itself, grate on Clark’s ears. Clark is an evangelical Christian, and knows when someone’s Doing It Wrong. This scene, he writes, “illustrates another important point in our lesson on How Not to Do Evangelism. Fist-pumping triumphalism is never a winsome or attractive trait.”

He goes on:

Most preachers and missionaries understand the distinction that political campaigners make when they speak of the difference between “outreach” and “firing up the base.” Effective politicians know that the sorts of things one says to rally the faithful are not the same sorts of things one says to try to persuade the unconvinced. That’s why big political fundraising events tend to be closed to the media — because the message that’s appropriate for that audience might be off-putting or confusing to swing-voters and independents or to others not yet convinced of the in-group’s premises.

Buck [the fistpumper] and Tsion [the rabbi], like LaHaye and Jenkins [the authors], don’t seem to appreciate that distinction. Even worse, the authors don’t seem to appreciate that the analogy I’ve just drawn compares two different things — that missionary outreach is not the same as political campaigning, that it’s not about a battle for power.

Tsion’s whole broadcast has been a kind of extended political attack ad trying to tip the balance in some contest between Christianity and Judaism. He might as well have used unflattering grainy black-and-white footage of Orthodox Jews moving in slow motion while getting the movie-trailer guy to do a menacing, sarcastic voiceover, “Judaism claims to be awaiting the Messiah, but it’s voting record tells a different story. …”

Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins aren’t alone in imagining that negative advertising is the key to effective evangelism. There’s a vast and thriving cottage industry of this sort of thing in the evangelical subculture, one that has existed for decades on the traveling-speaker and seminar circuit and in recent years has proliferated online. Look around and you’ll find scores of purportedly “evangelistic ministries” that spend nearly all of their time on negative campaigning, as though the only way to promote the Christian gospel was to tear down everything else. These “ministries” stake out their little niches based on whatever it is they’re attacking — “secular humanism,” Paganism, Mormonism, Methodism, science or whatever else it is they’ve decided to attack as a “cult.”

Those ministries tend to engage in a great deal of bearing false witness, but even if their attacks were not so thoroughly distorting and dishonest — even if these liars for Jesus weren’t lying — it would be impossible to accept their claims that what they’re doing has anything to do with evangelism. Such negative attack ads may be useful for drawing thick lines between Us and Them. But they have never, ever been of any use for persuading Them to join Us.

Alas and alack that similar ministries have arisen within the atheist movement as well. Like the pseudo-evangelists Clark describes, they see no reason to distinguish rhetoric which fires up the base from rhetoric dedicated to changing minds. And like those who Clark is happy to label “liars for Jesus,” some of those pseudo-evangelists for atheism have a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth.

Of course, negative advertising works. People tell pollsters that they hate attack ads, but political campaigns still use them because they work. So maybe he’s too optimistic, and sometimes it does change minds.

But I think there’s a broader point, one embedded in that last sentence quoted. Does this turn Them into Us, or does it turn Us into Them?

Comments

  1. #1 Pierce R. Butler
    June 22, 2011

    I know of two definitions of “bad evangelism”.

    In the first case, it means evangelizing which fails to fill the pews and collection plates. Judging by the last few decades in the United States, this clearly does not apply to attack evangelism.

    The second case is defined even more simply: evangelism which I personally endure. Make it go away!

  2. #2 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    June 22, 2011

    I’m pretty sure the reason Fred is “happy” to label certain people “liars for Jesus” is that he really believes they are lying, i.e., telling falsehoods on purpose, and is ready to back up the claim with specifics.

    Are you? Or is innuendo all you have?

  3. #3 Ender
    June 23, 2011

    Do you have a specific problem with description Hercules or is innuendo all you have?

    Because specific attacks on individuals was not the point of the post… obviously.

  4. #4 george.w
    June 23, 2011

    And like those who Clark is happy to label “liars for Jesus,” some of those pseudo-evangelists for atheism have a habit of playing fast and loose with the truth.

    Specifics? Even one example? I mean, “Liars For Jesus” examples are super-simple to come by. Even without naming any individuals, you could point to, say, Creationism, or claims that climate science is a socialist plot, or that birth control pills are really abortifacients, or that gays are out to destroy marriage for some reason. It’s so pervasive you could write a book, as former evangelical Frank Schaeffer did.

    Could you give us some common lies told in the service of atheism that we could watch out for? If you want to complain about tone, I’m “happy” to ignore you but talking about lies calls for specifics.

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    June 23, 2011

    george.w., off the top of my head, I can think of one big example of atheists playing fast and loose with the truth in the service of evangelism: Jesus-mythers. In practice, there’s a lot of pseudohistory involved in what they do. Heck, in The God Who Wasn’t There, there was a misquote of Justin Martyr that truncated Martyr’s words without even so much as an elipsis, and there’s even a scrolling list of gods from that “documentary” of gods that supposedly resemble Jesus that comes from the long-discredited Kersey Graves’ The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors.

  6. #6 Laurent Weppe
    June 23, 2011

    @Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    I’m pretty sure the reason Fred is “happy” to label certain people “liars for Jesus” is that he really believes they are lying, i.e., telling falsehoods on purpose, and is ready to back up the claim with specifics.

    Liars for Jesus was a term used first by Chris Rodda to describes David Barton and his ilk. Barton has been caught several times spreading falsehoods on purpose, so the trope namer stands as sufficient evidence on his own.

    @george.w

    Could you give us some common lies told in the service of atheism that we could watch out for?

    Well, you could take Hitchens’ defense of democratic reforms at gunpoint, althought it can be argued that it is more of a bunch of lies told by an atheist than un bunch of lies told for atheism.
    Or you could watch how many self-proclaimed über-atheists now defend claims of cultural determinism, or spread lies about the behavior of religious groups (things like, “Holland has established Sharia courts!”): when it is done by commenters lurking deep in the comment sections of blog, it is meaningless, but when a prominent atheist figure like Harris starts embracing ethnic profiling, or when a self-proclaimed (actually, they are just a front for the far-right, but a lot of people, including prominent journalists, were conned into believing they were sincere and gave them a lot of undue media exposition) atheist association like Riposte Laïque in France pretends that Muslims in Paris are banning ham and alcohol from local stores (utter bullshit, of course, yet some people from “la Province” really believed it), it becomes harder to honestly claim that nothing is wrong within the militant atheists movement.

    @J. J. Ramsey

    off the top of my head, I can think of one big example of atheists playing fast and loose with the truth in the service of evangelism: Jesus-mythers

    An group which is slowly but surely evolving into religion-founders-mythers: Now Muhammad is being proclaimed a myth by some, and I shall not be surprised when someone starts claiming that Maimonides, Luther, Calvin and Joseph Smith are myths as well.

  7. Hell, lying for whatever is common enough, with a few, extreme positions excepted, it doesn’t characterize any position entirely and there is no position that escapes that propensity.

    The earliest part of the Jesus movement, those who had actually known him, considered themselves to be Jews.

    I like what I think is an Australian practice of talking about the Bible as being The First Testament and The Second Testament, giving due respect to the original part of that branch of monotheism.

    Anyone who believes in this rapture stuff is pretty far afield from the earliest Christians, they shouldn’t be allowed to swamp the field and steal the name through modern PR and cinematic methods devised to sell lies and trash.

  8. #8 Laurent Weppe
    June 23, 2011

    @Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    I’m pretty sure the reason Fred is “happy” to label certain people “liars for Jesus” is that he really believes they are lying, i.e., telling falsehoods on purpose, and is ready to back up the claim with specifics.

    Liars for Jesus was a term used first by Chris Rodda to describes David Barton and his ilk. Barton has been caught several times spreading falsehoods on purpose, so the trope namer stands as sufficient evidence on his own.

    @george.w

    Could you give us some common lies told in the service of atheism that we could watch out for?

    Well, you could take Hitchens’ defense of democratic reforms at gunpoint, althought it can be argued that it is more of a bunch of lies told by an atheist than un bunch of lies told for atheism.
    Or you could watch how many self-proclaimed über-atheists now defend claims of cultural determinism, or spread lies about the behavior of religious groups (things like, “Holland has established Sharia courts!”): when it is done by commenters lurking deep in the comment sections of blog, it is meaningless, but when a prominent atheist figure like Harris starts embracing ethnic profiling, or when a self-proclaimed (actually, they are just a front for the far-right, but a lot of people, including prominent journalists, were conned into believing they were sincere and gave them a lot of undue media exposition) atheist association like Riposte Laïque in France pretends that Muslims in Paris are banning ham and alcohol from local stores (utter bullshit, of course, yet some people from “la Province” really believed it), it becomes harder to honestly claim that nothing is wrong within the militant atheists movement.

    @J. J. Ramsey

    off the top of my head, I can think of one big example of atheists playing fast and loose with the truth in the service of evangelism: Jesus-mythers

    An group which is slowly but surely evolving into religion-founders-mythers: Now Muhammad is being proclaimed a myth by some, and I shall not be surprised when someone starts claiming that Maimonides, Luther, Calvin and Joseph Smith are myths as well.

  9. #9 Hercules Grytpype-Thynne
    June 23, 2011

    I thought what I wrote was clear enough, but apparently it wasn’t. I wasn’t challenging Josh to back up Fred’s use of the term “Liars for Jesus”, which (a) is not Josh’s responsibility, and (b) I have no doubt (as I said) Fred is adequately willing and able to back up himself.

    I was challenging Josh to back up his own comparison between such liars and the “pseudo-evangelists for atheism” who he claims “play fast and loose with the truth.”

  10. #10 Laurent Weppe
    June 23, 2011

    I was challenging Josh to back up his own comparison between such liars and the “pseudo-evangelists for atheism” who he claims “play fast and loose with the truth

    Hint: when there are three paragraphs in a comment, don’t stop at the first.

  11. #11 george.w
    June 23, 2011

    Perfect! That’s what I was looking for; some kind of example I could evaluate. Is it something I’ve ever heard of? How pervasive is it? Is it gaining popularity so I need to watch out for it? Just saying “there are liars for atheism” doesn’t help me know what you’re talking about.

    Many of the Lies For Jesus I mentioned are absolutely mainstream, which I define as any lie that confers a numerical advantage on politicians that espouse it. They deserve ridicule and rebuttal.

    I’ve heard of that Jesus myth stuff but don’t have any sense of how pervasive it is. For instance I can’t recall Dawkins or Dennet or Myers spending very many column inches on it. Certainly the legend of Jesus as we have it today is problematic but claiming he never existed at all is a hard sell. I prefer to concentrate on more low-hanging fruit, like the miracle stories or biblical “morality”.

    I disagree with Hitchens on violence but that’s a political disagreement, not evidence of lying. Has Hitchens told verifiable untruths? If so he deserves to be called on it; lies do not help any cause. It is conduct unbecoming a journalist to say the least.

    Some lies are just culturally popular (and not any less wrong for it). The signal for that is if Christians and Atheists both tell the same verifiable lie, like all that “Sharia law” stuff here and in Europe. OMFG Wisconsin has Sharia Law! (Or was it Minnesota)

    Thanks for the examples. My sense of proportion is that lies are much more common on the side that believes in the invisible man in the sky. We certainly shouldn’t tolerate lies on our own side when we find them.

  12. My sense of proportion is that lies are much more common on the side that believes in the invisible man in the sky. george w

    Who believes in an invisible man in the sky?

    Do they mass produce these new atheist cliches in China?

  13. #13 julian
    June 23, 2011

    “Do they mass produce these new atheist cliches in China? ”

    Do you come with an off button?

  14. #14 george.w
    June 23, 2011

    Do they mass produce these new atheist cliches in China?

    Yes. This one was on the clearance table at Wal-Mart. But the damn bubble pack was nearly impossible to open.

    I’m sure your conception of God is much more sophisticated. God is incorporeal, and therefore invisible. He is, at least in the Abrahamic religions, male. And he is omnipresent, no? The sky is part of everywhere.

  15. #15 Ender
    June 24, 2011

    “Perfect! That’s what I was looking for; some kind of example I could evaluate. Is it something I’ve ever heard of? How pervasive is it? Is it gaining popularity so I need to watch out for it?”

    No, very, and yes.

  16. #16 george.w
    June 24, 2011

    Assume you’re talking about the Jesus-is-a-myth stuff. My opinion as a non-historian is that he was probably a real man who became wrapped in myths, rather than a myth altogether. But I read a lot of atheist discussion online and seldom encounter the latter view. And IRL I do not know anybody who argues for it, so the meaning of “pervasive” apparently bears looking into. Have you been pestered by “Mythers”?

  17. #17 Ender
    June 24, 2011

    Actually I just meant lying, I was failing to respond correctly to the context of your comment. In context. No, lightly, mildly.

  18. #18 GregK
    June 27, 2011

    Good point.

    I assume you’ve read The Chronicles of Narnia. Remember how the Duffelpuds reacted to their chief?

    “That’s it, chief.” “You tell ‘em, chief.” “Ain’t nobody can say it like our chief.”

    When a blog’s comments are filled with that sort of thing, you can be pretty sure the blog is of the “fire up the base” sort.

  19. #19 abb3w
    June 30, 2011

    Josh Rosenau: Of course, negative advertising works. People tell pollsters that they hate attack ads, but political campaigns still use them because they work. So maybe he’s too optimistic, and sometimes it does change minds.

    Hm. I wonder if there are personality types that are more/less responsive to negative ads?

    george.w: But I read a lot of atheist discussion online and seldom encounter the latter view. And IRL I do not know anybody who argues for it, so the meaning of “pervasive” apparently bears looking into.

    My impression is that it usually gets presented as a rhetorical tactic; partly to shift the window of discourse, partly to get the believer to try and consider the basis for deeply held convictions, partly just for the amusement of the reactions to asking. There seem to be a few who seem to hold it as an overreaction, though, as a part of deeply rejecting everything from their religious upbringing, or perhaps merely in celebration of the new-found intellectual freedom of being able to ask such questions.

  20. #20 sesli chat
    July 8, 2011

    Survey answered, with the assumption that 1=”does not answer well at all” and 10=”answers very well.”

    You may wish to explain the scale in the survey text.

  21. #21 dul bayan arkadaş
    July 11, 2011

    Actually I just meant lying, I was failing to respond correctly to the context of your comment. In context. No, lightly, mildly.