Friday, January 29, 2010

Salesmen, Gurus, and Predators

On the one hand there’s this:

“But if a town refuses to welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘We wipe even the dust of your town from our feet to show that we have abandoned you to your fate.’” – Jesus, Savior (Luke 10:11)

On the other hand, this:

“Never take no for an answer” – Cletus P. Love, Salesman

Again, on the one hand there’s this:

“Men of Corinth, we have spoken very frankly to you; we have opened our heart wide to you all. On our part there is no constraint; any constraint there may be is in yourselves. In fair exchange then … open wide your hearts to us.” – St. Paul, Apostle (2 Cor. 6:11-13)

And on the other hand, this:

“He had slyly inveigled her up to his flat
To view his collection of stamps
And he said as he hastened to put out the cat
The wine, his cigar and the lamps

Have some Madeira, m'dear
You really have nothing to fear
I'm not trying to tempt you, that wouldn't be right
You shouldn't drink spirits at this time of night
Have some Madeira, m'dear” – Vile Old Man, Seducer (Flanders & Swann)

In both cases, my point in hopping from Bible verse to Vile verse above is to illustrate something we don’t often think of in our approach to religion these days. Religion ain’t sales. Evangelism ain’t seduction. At least it shouldn’t be. Sad to say, it often is.

First, let’s get things clear. There are two elements that make up salvation: God’s Grace, freely given; and our response to that Grace, also freely given. If there’s constraint on either party, it’s not a legitimate exchange. “Exchange” is not the right word, as that implies a contract or an agreement; and while our salvation is much more than that, St. Paul makes use of the metaphor (above) when he points out to the resistant and recalcitrant Corinthians that he has opened his heart to them and the “fair exchange”, or proper response in return, is for them to open their hearts to him.

In other words, the appropriate response to love is love.

This is obvious. And yet, fallen men that we are, how often do we respond with love to love, how often do we respond graciously to Grace? Typically, our self-will exercises its willfulness in Resistance.

The temptation for those in the Church is to respond to that Resistance in nefarious ways. When we come across Resistance to the Gospel message, our instinct is to market it, to package it, to make it palatable, and to sugar coat it; worse than that, our resistance is to break down and seduce. We don’t want to take No for an answer.

I’m not saying there should be no awareness of our audience or no attempt to package God’s message to meet them where they’re at. But we flatter ourselves. We are not as far from the old theocrats as we might think. We really don’t see the Grace of Faith as a freely offered gift from God and our assent to Faith as freely offered in return. We’re just not happy without forcing people to respond to that gift. We are loath to wipe the dust off our feet when they say no.

Let me give you a prime example. A friend of mine is having trouble with a retreat program in his diocese that prepares teens for Confirmation. The bulk of the retreat program focuses on ice breakers, humor, and small ersatz group therapy sessions in which the kids are encouraged to “remove their masks” and “share information confidentially” with one another. Now, apart from this being a bad excuse for an Oprah segment, an approach like this is fraught with dangers.

Having worked with many acting teachers and directors over the years, I can tell you that I know a lot about exercises that focus on “removing masks” and “sharing information confidentially”.

These are cult techniques used by seducers to break resistance.

In acting classes, the excuse is the actors need to find emotional vulnerability and get in touch with their true feelings, and all that nonsense. In cults, the goal is to brainwash and break the will. For sexual predators, any chance of getting your victim to break down in some way and put her vulnerability in your hands is key. A vile old man uses Madeira; Stanford Nutting, ex-seminarian, uses “sharing techniques” and peer pressure.

Let me be clear. In actual psychotherapy such techniques may be valuable. They may even be valuable in acting classes. And the folks who run this Confirmation retreat (and who at least nominally proclaim orthodox teaching) probably think these techniques of breaking down Resistance are essential to “getting through” to the teens. In fact, the head of the retreat said as much to my friend.

But at what price?

These are the techniques of salesmen, gurus and predators. Why must we break the Resistance of 14-year-olds? If they want to respond to the Grace of Confirmation and prepare for it, great. If not, to hell with them. Let ‘em text and pod themselves to oblivion. They will eventually either grow up and seek Jesus or remain Secular Narcissists like Obama and the majority of their peers.
Our job is to shout from the housetops, to offer the waters of life, not to force it down their throats.

We wonder why so many priests mal-formed in seminaries from the 1970’s and 80’s are perverted pedophiles? It’s because somehow these techniques of breaking Reistance, these techniques developed and perfected by salesmen, gurus and predators, used to break the will of adults in cult sessions and children in bedrooms, became all the rage – even within the Church, and even when preparing kids for Confirmation.

There’s a scene in Michael O’Brien’s book Father Elijah in which a priest is sent to a retreat center where the participants are made to wear antlers and dance around a fire naked, to get in touch with the great Earth mother. Funny, but truth is stranger than fiction. Worse things than this go on in such sessions, and the goal, as is obvious to anyone looking at it from the outside, is not really “breaking Resistance for the sake of your conversion” but “breaking Resistance for the sake of your sleeping with me, giving me your money, or worshipping me.”

God save our kids from the abuses of such techniques.


The Unknown Poet said...

This is from Thomas L. McDonald, a friend of mine, who sent it to me on Facebook as a comment to this post. I thought it important to copy it here:


Paul in the GNW said...

I like your post, and I think I agree, but I find myself thinking yes and no.

Yes to presenting the Gospel clearly and not going into a big 'close' to get people to accept baptism. We don't need a bunch of shallow, ill thought out conversions. I'd rather people walk away than practice insincerely.

No to the idea that a little drama, and a good hook to get people in the door is a bad idea. From what I understand Paul preached up a storm and created a fair spectacle. The preaching in tongues on Pentecost also drew a big crowd. We have gobs and gobs of marginally catechized teens, young adults and older people sitting in our pews every Sunday. A little sales pitch to get them to attend a Wednesday night catechism class would be good.

I love learning about the Church, and I find it difficult to sit through many of our educational opportunities. And I would add that in many areas and parishes such opportunities are entirely rare.

So yes, we don't want to wrestle them or strong arm them to make a close. But on the other hand we don't "shake the dust from our feet" until we've tried like heck to give them a chance to hear God's message. Those 72 weren't supposed to just walk into town and visit quietly and politely - although there is a place for that. The 72 were fired up about the Messiah - they probably came into town shouting "from the housetops" and preaching the good news.

Thanks for some great thoughts


Brian Sullivan said...

Our job is to shout from the housetops, to offer the waters of life, not to force it down their throats.

So no waterboarding the Water of Life, eh? Mark Shea would be proud!


Tom Leith said...

> Why must we break the
> Resistance of 14-year-olds?
> If they want to respond to the
> Grace of Confirmation and
> prepare for it, great. If not,
> to hell with them.


"If not, understand where you were at that age (or some other time in your life when you had your own Resistance) and be available to them even in the midst of theirs."