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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Christians and Tests

A question on a geology test: "Extra credit: What is the strongest force on earth?" The test taker has written "love" but unfortunately it was marked wrong. Image source.
So Ben Carson told a story about a test which turned out to be, well, a test.
  • Ben gets notice that all the final exams in Perceptions 301 were accidentally lit on fire. He goes in for the retest.
  • The new test is really, really hard. A girl near Ben tells her classmate they should leave. "We can say we didn't read the notice."
  • Everyone starts leaving. Ben is conflicted. "I was tempted to walk out, but I had read the notice, and I couldn't lie and say I hadn't."
  • Eventually Ben is the only one left. The professor comes back in with a Yale Daily News photographer. The whole thing was a hoax, she said. "We wanted to see who was the most honest student in the class. And that's you."
  • Ben concludes the story: "The professor then did something even better. She handed me a ten-dollar bill."
  • End scene.

The article goes on to say this:
And after he finds God, he needs to exaggerate how great everything turned out. This culminates in the absurd story about his psychology class. No one who's not an evangelical Christian would believe it for a second. But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time. They expect testimonies like this, and the more improbable the better. So Carson gives them one. It's clumsy because he's not very good at inventing this kind of thing, but that doesn't matter much.

Yeah. "But evangelicals hear testimonies like this all the time." This type of story is so common in evangelical culture. A story about a "test."

So let's take a look at this genre of "test" stories. I would categorize them into three types:
  1. Tested by God.
  2. Tested by someone else who's obviously evil.
  3. Everyday situation which turns out to be a test.
All right, here we go.

1. Tested by God.

So in this type, God tells you to do something, and then you have to do it. It seems like it's going to be something really tough and painful, but because it's a test, it won't actually turn out to be as tough and painful as you thought- no, instead God will reward you for your willingness to obey.

The best example of this is when Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac. (See Genesis 22.) God commands Abraham to go up on a mountain and kill Isaac, as a "burnt offering." So Abraham obeys. He takes Isaac up the mountain, ties him up, and then just as he's about to kill Isaac with a knife, an angel shows up and tells him to stop. Turns out that God didn't really want him to kill Isaac- just wanted to test if he was willing to do it or not.

Here's an example from my life: So, many years ago, I was dating this guy, and we had an argument and I was really worried he was going to break up with me. So I prayed and prayed and prayed, and worried and worried and worried. And somewhere in there, I had this thought: maybe this is God testing me. Maybe God wants to see if I would be willing to lose my boyfriend. Maybe God is testing if I put God first.

An interesting twist on this idea is to bluff through it. You suspect "maybe this is a test" so you act like you're willing to do it, hoping that someone will stop you just before the point of no return and reward you for passing the test.

Here's another, more heartbreaking example, from a post that Rachel Held Evans wrote about parents with LGBT kids:
We cannot condemn parents for not supporting their LGBT children without first asking them why they feel like they can’t, without first hearing the story of the father who told me, “I felt like Abraham. I believed I was being tested to see if I was willing to sacrifice my son in obedience to God.”
I am not okay with this "isn't it great how someone obeyed God when God told them to do something completely absurd and seemingly evil" crap. For real, if God tells you to kill someone, you find a new God. Period.

Jewish rabbis have had way more time to think about this than Christians have, and some interpret the story to say Abraham failed the test. He should have said no to God.

And I also like the Slacktivist's take on it: "I’ve got it backwards, they say. The story isn’t about Satan pretending to be God. It’s a story about God pretending to be Satan. I don’t think that helps."

2. Tested by someone else who's obviously evil.

The typical example for this type is the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from Daniel 3. The king built a statue and ordered everyone to bow down and worship it, or else they would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Our three heroes refused. They were thrown into the furnace, but God protected them and they didn't die. Hooray.

The "tested by an evil person" subgenre is very strange. An evil person sets the rules of the game, and you are expected to act within the framework of the rules that they set up. And God is very interested in how you play the game that was set up by the evil person. God will judge you by the evil person's rules. So weird.

Let me give you another example, and you'll see what I mean. So, there was a shooting in Oregon this year where some sources were reporting that the shooter was targeting Christians. (Bo Gardiner at The Friendly Atheist blog has done a bunch of research on the victims to disprove this idea.) According to this story, the shooter asked victims about their religion, and then shot them if they said they were Christians.

It seems like that's not really how it happened, but the evangelical Christian world was happy to take that story and run with it. Because, as I said, this type of "test" story is really common, so it sounds very believable in that culture. (And they're also always imagining that American Christians are persecuted, and it fits right in with that too.)

Like I said, this type of story is so bizarre because the evil person sets the rules. King Nebuchadnezzar says bowing down means you're worshiping the statue. Dangerous Shooter Guy says if you're really devoted to God, you'll stand here and answer my questions honestly. But why? Why on earth would you listen to these people? Why would you take them seriously and obey them?

And why would God judge you on whether you did what this violent person defined as honoring God?

Seriously! Let's ask our hypothetical Christian-who-believes-in-this-test-stuff a few questions:

Perfect Number: So, what should you do if somebody starts shooting people?

Hypothetical Christian: Get out of there, try to save others, call the police, maybe even fight with the shooter if you can.

Perfect Number: And then what if, as you are running away, the shooter asks you a question about your religion?

Hypothetical Christian: Oh, well then you have to quit all that "running away and trying to help save people" stuff and go back and submissively give honest answers. You know, stand up for God.

... Yeah.

Here's another example: remember when the devil tempted Jesus in Matthew 4? The devil said "if you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus didn't play by those rules though. He didn't think "oh, I have to tell the stones to become bread, otherwise I'm not standing up for the truth about being the Son of God."

(He seemed to be playing by a different set of rules though- the "you can't say no to something unless you have a bible verse to back you up" rules, which I also have a problem with.)

So, the point is, in this type of story, you pass the test by doing what a clearly violent person defines as devotion to God, even though they will probably kill you for it. It's pretty messed up that Christians take a violent person's definition of devotion to God so seriously. It's pretty messed up that, in these stories, God takes that definition seriously too.

And what if you were there with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, but you didn't play by Nebuchadnezzar's rules? What if you bowed down and said "Nebuchadnezzar counts this as worship to the idol, but he's wrong. I'm bowing down because my life is more valuable than proving a point about how devoted to God I am. And I think God values my life too." And then when God saves those three guys from the furnace, what does that say about how God sees you? God is saying they were right and you were wrong, right? And that's messed up too.

(Or maybe God is saying "oh myself, what have those three gotten themselves into? Don't they know they can just fake it? Geez, I'm gonna have to go save those losers.")

It should be noted that this subgenre is different from the others because in the others, if you pass the test, you are rewarded. But for stories where you're tested by an evil person, passing the test means they will definitely try to hurt or kill you. Maybe God will save you, maybe not.

It is also unique in that the situation presents itself as a test, where the other types do not and only later is it revealed that they were tests.

3. Everyday situation which turns out to be a test.

So in this type, a situation arises where there's an "easy way out" by doing something that's immoral. But later it's revealed that the whole thing was set up by someone to see if you were a moral and honest person or not.

Ben Carson's story about the psychology test is definitely this type. He was (umm, supposedly) in a situation where he had the option of walking out and claiming he didn't know about the exam. The professor wasn't even there- who would know? But lying is wrong, so he didn't do it. Then he finds out the professor staged this whole thing to test if the students were honest or not. Hooray! Ben passes the test.

Here's another example: In the Christian movie "Courageous", there is a scene where a boss tells an employee to enter the wrong number in a file about inventory or something like that. The employee, Javier, spends maybe a couple days conflicted about what to do. If he doesn't do it, he might lose his job! But his family really needs the money! But if he did it, that would be dishonest and wrong! Finally he tells his boss he won't do it. The boss reveals that it was all a test to see if he was honest, and gives him a promotion.

You guys. If I was Javier, I would have asked some more questions. Maybe "put the wrong number here" isn't as unethical as it sounds. Maybe there's some reason for it. Maybe they're using software that was progammed 10 years ago and they need to enter the data in a certain way or else the whole thing crashes, and nobody knows how to fix that bug so they all use this workaround and everyone understands that the number there isn't the actual number.

Like, Javier understands this as "my boss just told me he is a dishonest man" and he acts like that's normal? Is this because Christians think "the world" is so thoroughly sinful? Wouldn't any normal person ask the boss "wait, I don't understand, isn't that dishonest?"

But it's always black and white in these tests. It's always "clearly, if you are obedient to God, you will do this, and if you are not, you will do that." There are no other possibilities. There is no "I bowed down but didn't worship the statue." There is no "let's evaluate the morality of what this supposed God is telling me to do." There is no "maybe I can reason with this person, explain my concerns and try to understand why they want me to do this, and we can reach some sort of agreement."

No nuance. You know from the outset which option is right and which is wrong, and that's it. You either pass or fail.

Yep, Christians love tests.

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