As a teenager I occasionally put in time at summer camps because that’s what you do when your only goal in life is to socialize.
One particular night a severe storm invaded with wind bending tree branches and rain saturating everything that couldn’t hide. Some time in the night a sudden explosion of thunder roared through the camp – so loud that it woke me and sat me strait up in bed. It was followed immediately by consecutive flashes of lighting that flooded the outdoors in white light.
As I sat there, staring outside in wide-eyed horror, my first response was fear because surely the cataclysmic sights and sounds meant Jesus was in the process of returning! Fear, because I wasn’t ready!
Of course Jesus wasn’t returning and, after a few seconds of gloomy panic I carried on with my previous activity of deep, teenage sleep that lasted until well after the sun was up.
But isn’t it interesting that I defaulted to baseless fear? Learned fear.
A few years later I visited another church camp for the first time and I settled in for another sermon by the appointed pastor of the morning. But this particular Sunday would be different as the person quietly grabbed my interest and walked me through a series of provocative ideas while I listened intently: absorbed, mesmerized.
The speaker was thoughtful and the sermon felt more like conversation than preaching. It was structured with new notions, sewn together with word pictures, then meticulously assembled into a work of religious art. Time stood still and I was surprised how disappointed I was when the proceedings drew to a thoughtful close.
There was no hint of guilt or fear from the dais that day. Instead I was handed generous grace, intriguing possibilities, and a firm place for my spiritual hunger.
Two similar places; two very different influences.
fear is unnatural, naturally
In the first book of the Bible we meet Adam and Eve, the much maligned first couple who disobeyed God and ushered sin into the world (christians have been blaming them ever since). Their first ‘post-sin’ response is to become aware of their nakedness, a layer of guilt God never intended for them, but they are actually driven by a larger, underlying emotion.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit from the trees in the garden. But about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, God said, ‘You must not eat it or touch it, or you will die.’”
“No! You will certainly not die,” the serpent said to the woman. “In fact, God knows that when you eat it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and delightful to look at, and that it was desirable for obtaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”
And he said, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.”
Then he asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man replied, “The woman you gave to be with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”
– from Genesis 3:7-12, CSB (emphasis mine)
Notice Eve and Adam’s progression: they enjoy the atmosphere of the garden; they choose to be like God; they are tormented by fear; they blame someone else.
evangelicals are human too
I grew up in church. Almost literally.
Using simple math (the only kind I do) I figure I attended more than 170 church services a year from the time I was 8 until I was married at age 20. As an adult I attended church only marginally less.
Needless to say I gathered a lot of information through osmosis during those years: Bible, music, doctrine, people. I learned to love scripture, I learned that there was a wealth of wisdom in my faith, I learned that God was loving and good. So to be clear, I am thankful I was raised in a faith that blessed and equipped me.
But by its nature, religion can also be short on positives and long on negatives. We are taught that we’re inherently sinful, the world is irreconcilably soiled, on a path to destruction. Satan and his demons are prowling, in search of souls to lure into hell. Do this or you won’t live. We’re pressed toward a God whose default position is to judge and punish; whose solution to death is to sacrifice his own child.
So what do they do with this fear? Well, God never intended it for us and it’s not the gospel, so he invites us to acknowledge the lies, let go of them, and return to freedom.
But unfortunately some choose to hold on, remain in their fear, and point out the differences, inadequacies, judgements, punishments of others.
It’s the Adam and Eve pathway; look at the progression:
enjoying freedom for a season,
then looking to bend God’s ways toward ourelves.
This inevitably results in short-coming/failure,
we experience self-inflicted fear of consequences and loss of control.
We manage the fear by placing blame on others.
For evangelicals this fear has two responses: some try to pull the world back to a previous time that they believe was better; others try to accelerate the world to a future time when the world will be punished. Both viewpoints respond with preaching, power, politics, and more fear. In each case there is an elevated personal righteousness and a distaste for the unrighteousness of others.
A common evangelical fear is that our faith is under siege by secular culture and we are losing all we hold dear. For example, the ‘breakdown’ of the family, the ‘New Age movement’, homosexuality, science, ecumenism, immigration, environmentalism, other religions, other believers, etc. have all been branded as enemies in one way or another.
brain craters of fear
Conspiracy theories fit in naturally with the negative, fearful outlook that some evangelicals carry with them. The world is stealing Christmas. Coronavirus is a hoax. Democrats are child molesters. There is a secret cabal trying to control us with implants. Facebook won’t let you post (bible verse, picture of cross, Lord’s Prayer, etc).
Brian Friedberg has been researching conspiracy theories in detail for some time. This is his thought about the biggest conspiracy generator, QAnon. “QAnon community construction, from the start, has emphasized a traditionalist American morality that is closely aligned with popular Christianity … Q himself posts in a style that both invokes evangelical talking points and encourages deep scriptural research.” (Abby Ohlheiser, MIT Technology Review)
In other words, conspiracy theories are specifically designed to prey on the fears of evangelical christians.
I recently saw a link on Twitter from a man who was lamenting the time he had spent early in his life researching evil, false teachings and the like. As I recall, he basically said, “I ended up with a deep understanding of who Satan is but no idea who Jesus is”.
Sadly, the attention evangelicals give to conspiracies damages the truth about the real dangers, real needs, real martyrs that are out there.*
Ironically, conspiracy theory christians are more obsessed with things Jesus didn’t talk about than things he did talk about…
Just today someone posted a picture of Joe Biden hugging and kissing one of his sons. The accompanying caustic comment was, “Does this look like an appropriate father/son interaction to you?”
My answer is, Yes, yes it does. It’s a picture of a man embracing his living son after having already lost two other sons. And that’s not a political opinion, it’s a human one.
But what kind of person insults a picture like that? What kind of person makes such a dark (incestuous) assumption when they see a father loving his son?
Someone who has learned to be negative, that’s who. Someone who is fearful. Someone who is a controlling, finger pointing, conspiracy theorist.
spice for detrital soup
We are nearing the end of the Detrital Soup series about why evangelicals are especially drawn to conspiracy theories (previous posts: identifying the hunger, and confirmation bias then bible manipulation and poor discipleship). In this post I am adding some spicy fear to our detrital conspiracy soup. Without fear, conspiracy theories are just information – boring and bland.
Naturally people of faith struggle with fear … we are human. But we have a choice: allow our fear to disparage our view of the world, or give our fear to the One who calms fears and lightens burdens.
Scripture actually talks a lot about fear and its effects. For example, Isaiah speaks to his people’s obsession with human problems and human solutions.
The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said,
“Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do,
and don’t live in dread of what frightens them.
Make the Lord of Heaven’s Armies holy in your life.
He is the one you should fear.
He is the one who should make you tremble. – from Isaiah 8, NLT
And don’t forget that fear didn’t have a part in Jesus’ teaching and its presence was always the result of people’s disobedience and self-reliance. Clearly fear and love are experiences that are mutually exclusive – they cannot exist together.
“… love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love.” – from 1 John 4, NLT)
Fortunately we have an example in Jesus, who absorbed fear (and conspiracies) and replaced them with love and hope. That’s how we protect the innocent, that’s how we change the world. Not by fearing but by loving.
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* (We recently learned that the worthwhile organization Save the Children has had its #savethechildren stolen and used to promote QAnon conspiracies.)