Anxiety In The Church: Wrecking Newbies With The R Word

It is under the rubric of psychological games played on converts that we meet that appalling word REALLY. In a positive statement, “really” is a reinforcer: “I really like that dress”. In a negative statement, it is a polite softener or a fence-sitter: “I don’t really think it suits you”. But in a question, it turns round and becomes a monster, insisting on the answer No: “Do you really think you can get away with that?” The tone is usually one of incredulity or a stern warning against pretence.

Furthermore, it would appear that our entire culture has long been Platonist, believing that whatever else Reality might be, it cannot possibly be the same as what we see in front of our noses. If, for example, a man behaves decently 90% of the time, and badly the remaining 10%, everyone will say, pointing to a bad action, “Ah, that shows what he is really like”. This move has obvious roots in popular Freudianism, but it is also quite common to hear it the other way round, said of someone who usually – but not quite always – behaves obnoxiously; “You see, he is really all right underneath it all”. The rule is clearly that things are not as they appear and the less frequent the pattern, the more “real” it is. Reality is per definition concealed beneath a “façade” – good reality underneath a bad façade, or for greater fun a bad reality beneath a good façade. When the word “real” is used of someone’s religious status or experiences, it necessarily carries with it all this sceptical baggage – “really” is the Grand Inquisitor.

“Have you given your life to the Lord?” is a simple and innocent question, a request for information. The simple answer is “No”” which requires a conversion pitch, or “Yes”, which is greeted with “Praise be!” or whatever. But note what happens when the R Word is added and emphasised, as it generally is: “Have you really given your life to the Lord?” This turns the request for information into at best a challenge, at worst a verdict of Guilty. This may be seen as one-down or Parent-to-Child language, the Critical Parent at that; or alternatively as a dominance ritual.

It is very difficult for the target of such a challenge as “Have you really given your Life to the Lord?” to keep the reply on the provision-of-factual-information basis (Adult-to-Adult). To say simply “Yes” with no trace of defensiveness, to refrain from self-justification, to say nothing further, including in body language – this requires either great emotional maturity or else “stark insensibility”. Use of the word “really” implies that there is a criterion for a “real” conversion, a criterion that the challenger knows and the convert doesn’t. The fatal temptation is therefore anxiously to enquire what this criterion might be. Such an enquiry need not be explicit – as in “What must I do to be really saved?” – but may be detected in any sign of insecurity. Such insecurity will reinforce and act as assent to the challenger’s premise that there does, in fact, exist such a criterion of really having given one’s life to the Lord; really instead of apparently, or inadequately, or superficially. He has raised the stakes in this game of Church Poker, and the convert is about to fold.

If this temptation to accept the one-down position can be resisted, it will force the questioner either to accept the affirmative answer and go away, or else to show his hand. He will have to say, for example, “I mean, did you give your life to the Lord at such-and-such a church?” or “I mean, were you baptised by full immersion?” Now here we are out of the realm of psychological games and into that of theology, which is much easier. It may be that the new convert can refute that “real” conversion is restricted to some obscure denomination, or that he is an articulate paedobaptist. It may also be that the interlocutor is up to nothing more than propagating a perfectly sincere and uncomplicated belief in adult baptism by immersion, in the hope that the newbie will be sincerely and uncomplicatedly convinced; he will then be baptised by immersion and live happily ever after. The exchange has thus become Adult-Adult again, allowing one or the other party to be honestly convinced by theological argument or honestly to refuse to be convinced.

It is also possible, however, that the challenger has himself no definite idea of what the criterion of “really” having given one’s life to the Lord might be. The object of the exercise might simply be to make himself feel good and make other people feel bad. The Church is not the only place in which this can be done, but it is a very good one. Where else, after all, are the stakes as high? Like “concerned” gossip, the business of putting others at their unease, getting them off balance and anxious, making them feel inferior, is a release for aggression that is easily dressed up as pious concern.

There is also the implication that the challenger has himself leapt this higher hurdle, whatever it might be, of real conversion. Giving others the “really” treatment thus implies one’s own membership of a spiritual elite. This is a tool of advancement, of one-upmanship.

The ruthless “Really” put-down may be further signalled by the emphatic “brother” in a certain tone of voice. Many people dislike being Brothered, thinking it simply a cowardly cover for having forgotten their names or else an expression of oily insincerity. Good reasons, both; their resentment may also be due to unconscious recognition of what another subculture would call “bad vibes”; that is, covert aggression.

Posted on January 5, 2010 at 10:26 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, The Soulbusters

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