Suspension of Disbelief

You can read in the Bible where it says ‘The fool says in his heart there is no God.’ There is another kind of fool that says, ‘There is a God, and it’s the one I worship.’

~Joseph Campbell, Lecture Series I.5.4 – History of the Gods


We practice something when we watch a movie called suspension of disbelief. We accept the storyteller’s concocted premise–mutants, superheroes, aliens–and sit back to enjoy the ride. Rules of logic and physics, generally speaking, need not apply. I contend in many respects that is what faith is–suspension of disbelief. For, while in practice one doesn’t, generally speaking, believe in talking animals or a staff turning into a snake, throw a talking ass or such into an ancient tome and then it becomes quite real. Where one would be inclined to scoff and doubt, and often use their reasoning capacity to demolish other faiths and miracles outside their preferred book, when it comes to their own it’s the exception. A miracle. A more creative person might claim some of that other stuff happened, but it was of the devil or evil spirits, not a  holy godly miracle. Each person has their personal line of incredulity.

Of course believers would never blindly accept their faith. They may not have *proof* in a scientific sense, but they do often have intricately woven theses to support their belief, and there’s just no way their book, the universe, and all just came together in this perfect way without their belief being true. Where once the movie is over, and perhaps we’ve taken away a poignant point or understanding if it was particularly moving, we return to our reality, faith keeps going. The church isn’t content to teach a metaphorical lesson. No, it grabs you from cradle to grave, its own nanny state (and please pay your 10%–or more if the spirit moves you). It is dogma. Thus Christians have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to harmonize the four irreconcilable gospels accounts, Mormons get a pre-Jesus “lost” tribe of Israel over to the Americas (where also lies the Garden of Eden, in my home state of MO as a matter of fact. I never knew I was so close to paradise), Muslims insist the Quaran predicts and “verifies” modern science, and Jehovah’s Witnesses just have to keep on explaining why the world didn’t end with their previous predictions.
Life wasn’t always this hard for these institutions. Before this age of information explosion, before the printing press, the supplicant was left at the mercy of the priest/shaman/witch doctor. It was a hell of a lot easier on the spiritual leaders to keep people in accordance when most everybody couldn’t read and they were the only ones with insight into the mystery. Ah, yes, the good ‘ol days.
No, a simple “because I said so” just doesn’t go as far in the metaphysical as it did back when. Religious leaders must be more circumspect than ever. But religion has never been a purely logical thing, and church services intuitively know this. Logic has little to do with one’s initial acceptance of the divine. They’ll serve a pitch framed within a reasonable sounding hypothesis, but there is always, always, an emotional reach around. They are going to tap into something, be it guilt, hate, regret–something. Else why follow? I’ve seen this change culturally from my youth, as many Christian services have grown from relatively simplistic affairs to full blown productions and “mega” churches.
One of the last church services I attended was Andy Stanley’s North Point Church in Alpharetta, GA. It’s aimed at a younger, thirty-something crowd in general terms, because marketing to the elder generation isn’t what keeps churches alive. This church beams its service into downtown Atlanta’s affluent Buckhead area by satellite, and those attending who were unfamiliar with the production sometimes wouldn’t even realize Andy wasn’t in the building. Its warm-up service is a praise and worship band worthy of recording (and was). They use video from modern movies on huge screens and other thematic elements to try and connect a 2000 year old book with today’s audience. Andy dressed casually in jeans and shirt. Energy is high. And while the speaker was not always Andy, they all shared this in common: they were excellent at delivering their lines. It is a production. It’s about hitting your marks to make an impact, just like an actor in a movie. (At a John Maxwell conference once, I heard some of his staff talk during one of John’s speeches about “and hear comes the tears.”) It is entertaining. Hell, I’d go back. I don’t see any religious epiphany coming my way, but I love it when my theology is entertaining, too. And after you’ve been made to feel good, or feel whatever it is you may need, it’s a lot easier to suspend that disbelief. I’m not saying that all of these people like Andy are insincere, but I am saying it is contrived. It’s designed and rehearsed. They’re going to tug at the heart strings, and failing that, some may resort to fear (once upon a time fear was the go to tactic, but less so in this modern era). Because church isn’t about logic and reason, it’s about feelings.
That’s a high dollar, slick production North Point has going. Or had. It’s been years since I was there, but I assume it proceeds apace. But the basic principles don’t change at your smaller churches. It was no different for me as a child in my small town Southern Baptist church. Most every service ends with a call to come forward and give yourself to Jesus and I guarantee the music they play during this final come-to-god moment is not anything upbeat. As I recall a church favorite in my church was “Just As I Am.” You know, one of those songs that makes you feel sad, pathetic and embattled with the world as you listen but hey, god still loves you. Without this emotional musical lift, most people would just stand there and not move. Music is a powerful, wonderful tool. What you listen to changes the way you think. It can throw you into another state. The point being that logic and reason has less to do with it than this emotional grab. The trick is maintaining that grab. That’s hard and getting harder. And while I speak about Christianity, because those are my roots and familiarity, the tool works across the board. We’re all people, after all. The emotional grab may not always use music. I imagine in some cultures what they utilize is quite angry and brutal. The believer is then faced with the continual struggle of maintaining that emotional commitment, and the arduous road of rationalizing and keeping the loose strings tied together in the face of self doubt and criticism. That’s when reason steps in attempt to justify belief. It’s a solid axiom and true: belief precedes reason.
The explosion of information and education has resulted in another phenomenon–lots of individual ‘experts.’ What the church at large once feared became even more of a reality. Any twit can take an idea or concept from the Bible and have a heyday with it. Somebody is bound to fall in line with you if you’re charismatic enough. People look for answers, and belief is how many reconcile their existence with the universe. We are pattern seeking, looking for that something that will fit with us and make sense of the chaos. Generally speaking, that’s going to be the religion of the culture in which you were raised. For instance, not too many Buddhists or Islamists came out of my small, rural MO home town. Belief, getting to the heart of it, the absolute core, is not, can not, be based on anything substantial or real. It’s based on what feels good/right to the person, what’s pressed upon them from family and friends to conform, with circumstantial evidence at best used to weave a background no more real than the backgrounds that get inserted onto a blue screen for your kid’s school pic. It’s suspension of disbelief in favor of something perceived to be better, to give meaning and purpose. There’s nothing mysterious at all about it. But because it feels “true in the heart” doesn’t mean it’s true outside the heart. Happiness and feelings aren’t truth meters. It’s just what people often respond to the most.


One thought on “Suspension of Disbelief

  1. It is difficult when the masses start reading and thinking for themselves. It certainly makes my job more difficult!

    All kidding aside, you raise some excellent points. The inexcusable blame and punishment religious ideologies push on the innocent. Sometimes even, the TRULY innocent in the case of Original Sin.

    I think a dose of healthy skepticism is exactly what the religious community needs. Keep doing what you do!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s