Group Hallucinations

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A while back I got on a Bert Ehrman kick for some reason. I ended up listening to five or six debates that he did with a number of conservative evangelical scholars. The debates usually address the historical reliability of the Gospels. Ehrman–not surprisingly, if you’re familiar with his work–argued that from a scientific/historical perspective, the gospels aren’t historically accurate or reliable in the modern sense of the word. The academic historical process attempts to uncover what the most probable rendering of events was. Because miracles are by definition the least probable possibility, the Gospels aren’t reliable. So says Ehrman, at least.

One of the topics that received decent play in several of the debates was the possibility of group hallucinations. Group hallucinations were one of the possible explanation for some of the miracles recorded in the Gospel accounts. Ehrman and whoever he is debating go back and forth over whether divine intervention or a group hallucination is the more probable explanation. Accounts of group hallucination are rare and poorly documented in the academic practice of psychology. Even NT Wright (an individual whose academic reputation far outshines those with whom Ehrman is debating) in his and Marcus Borg’s book The Meaning of Jesus, argues that it is unlikely that the idea of Jesus could have transformed from the Historical Jesus to Jesus Christ (God incarnate) in such a short period of time in the minds of the Believers in Jesus.

I’m no psychologist, nor have I researched group hallucinations. However, I do believe that there is compelling evidence that coercive forces of group dynamics make a compelling explanation. Take the following video as evidence. It’s another example of the work of shaman/pastor Rob de Luca. Whether or not this qualifies as group hallucination, I’m not qualified to say. However, I think it demonstrates how compelling the pressure to fit in can be. I mean, from all indications these people actually believe that de Luca is tossing glory bombs. They actually feel themselves getting hit by something. Also, take note how quickly the newcomer conforms to group norms.

A spontaneous group hallucination is highly improbable. I, for one, would be skeptical of such an occurrence. However, if sufficient pressure to conform to a group exists, I believe it’s entirely possible for a group of people to legitimately believe the are experiencing a non-real experience. The brain’s ability to override perception combined with sufficient social pressure may lead to something not too unlike a group hallucination. I would suspect that the participants in this video would be able to provide a fairly cohesive, unified explanation of their experiences. Save for the ridiculousness of the actual circumstances, their accounts–even from the newcomer–would probably be similar enough to be credible. It doesn’t quite amount to group hallucination, but I think this video provides strong evidence that social pressure can create a similar environment.

Where the Spirit Leads (Theodicy Follows)

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This video was posted over at Scotteriology. Aside from being one of the most absurd, incredible, ridiculous things I’ve seen in a long time (and if you want more, check out this video where the pastor is throwing “Spirit bombs” from a “Spirit pool”), what this man is doing makes me irate. His Way Church is headed by Rob de Luca who “operates in a strong apostolic anointing with supernatural signs and wonders.” While his signs and wonders fall far short of Barnum & Bailey’s, the power of group dynamics is a spectacle that is both sickening and fascinating.

Here is a clear, concise example of a church which has completely lost touch with the spirit of Jesus’ message (not to mention reality). Yes, Jesus’ message and the entire Bible are chocked full of radical teachings about poverty and excessive wealth. Economic justice is one of the major prophetic threads that weaves throughout the stories in the Bible. However, let’s reexamine the context in which this pastor is operating. Young, white people seem to make up the largest demographic in the church. Everyone on the video–regardless or age or race–is dressed in somewhat trendy clothing. My superficial evaluation is few of the church members are struggling under the intense economic injustice that I see on a regular basis in my neighborhood. Yet his ignorance is forgivable to me. The apparent hypocrisy is a little harder for me to stomach. I would estimate that there is easily $25-30,ooo worth of equipment for music, sound and lighting behind him. The church doesn’t–thank God–appear to have a massive congregation either, certainly not enough that such an expensive sound-light-music rig could be easily purchased. If you’re going to preach a radical message of economic justice, don’t do it through a sound system that’s worth more than the annual salary of someone living at the poverty line.

However, I want to move beyond mere appearances and the hypocrisy of the church and examine the sewage of theology that’s being spewed here. Gesturing forcefully towards the sheeple of his congregation the pastor chants, “Prosper! Prosper! Become a millionaire! Prosper!” He claims to be casting out demons of poverty.

Even if the Demon of Poverty is exorcised, it will undoubtedly return soon, as the demon who sent it–Greed–is still abundantly present in our society. The real problem I have with this theology is that it absolves any who subscribe to it from any and all responsibility in seeking economic justice. “There is no need for me to change how I live. Their poverty is caused by a demon.” Jesus brought a radical message that got him killed by the political and economic juggernauts of the day. The drivel offered by this power is not only complicit with the regime of empire, it actually furthers their cause.

Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”

Bell’s Hell

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Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church, has never shied away from asking hard questions. He recently release the following video to promote his upcoming book, Love Wins. The following quote from the video illustrates his propensity to question what many consider to be foundational beliefs.

Millions and millions of people were taught that primary message, center of the Gospel of Jesus is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. But what kind of God is that, that we would need to be rescued from this God? How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how can that ever be ‘good news’?

His words have created quite a stir and led some to prominent evangelicals to denounce Bell as a heretic. In response to Bell’s video, pastor Kevin DeYoung created a list of eight reasons that Christians need to believe in a wrathful God. Another blogger at C. Orthodoxy provided a succinct, effective rebuttal of DeYoung’s reasons that illustrate how most of his points aren’t grounded in history or logic. Furthermore, DeYoung paints himself as the archetype of those Christians whom Bell raises such strong questions against. This isn’t a problem per se, except that DeYoung does such a poor job at answering the questions that Bell raises.

For me the most perplexing thing is that people feel the need to defend a wrathful God. What about a wrathful God is worth following? If humanity’s finite mind is able to conceive of a being greater than its creator God, what does that say about the nature of that God? Furthermore, what does it say about humanity? What is it about such a God that is so appealing that millions around the world give their unquestioning devotion to such a God?

I know many Christians who subscribe to the view that hell is a state of eternal, conscious torment. Despite the fact the Bible’s descriptions of hell only fits such an interpretation if one accepts the views of non-canonical texts while selectively ignoring the historical context of most of the canonical texts that address the subject, many, like DeYoung, defend this view of hell as a necessity. DeYoung said, “We need the doctrine of eternal punishment.” Do we really? Is such a view really a necessity, and if so why did Jesus never mention it? Sure, Jesus talked about Gehenna (translated “Hell” in most English Bibles), which was a valley outside Jerusalem where trash was dumped and burned. Perhaps Jesus just forgot to mention the eternal, conscious torment bit.

What frightens me most is that people defend the necessity of believing in the eternal, conscious punishment for all but a small percentage of the 105 billion people who have lived and died on this planet. Just as with the genocidal God, I see no reason to defend such a God. Perhaps the most baffling thing to me is that people will argue that God is both loving and a genocidal, mass murderer who condemns billions to eternal, conscious punishment. I just don’t understand how that makes sense.

Unapologetically Christ-centered?

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About three months ago my alma mater released series of recently produced commercials on YouTube. This one, “AU: Unapologetically Christ-Centered,” was the topic of significant debate and discussion among a number of alumni.

The hang up for many of us was the phrase, “unapologetically Christ-centered.” We reached a general consensus that we all grew and developed in our understandings of faith and Christianity while at Anderson University. This growth was an integral part of our experience, and as such one could say that our experiences at AU were “Christ-centered.” The problem was the word, “unapologetically.” The term was troublesome to many of us because of the connotations and cultural/historical baggage it carries with it. It is often associated with right-wing, religious fundamentalism (three of the top ten results on Google for “unapologetically” fall into this category). However, when one compares AU to other small, Christian, liberal arts universities, the environment at AU is not one of religious, right-wing fundamentalism–or at least it wasn’t when I attended. Many of us felt the commercial misrepresented our experience.

(I’m not sure why this topic–which was put to rest 3 months ago–was running laps in my head 6 minutes after I woke up this morning. I was barely conscious enough to remember that you shave with a razor, not a toothbrush. Maybe I just watched Inception too recently. Anyways.)

I want to take issue once again with the phrase “unapologetically Christ-centered.” The phrase seems to imply that people out there are apologizing for being Christian. Otherwise, there would be no reason to distinguish oneself as unapologetic. Now, I can understand apologizing for Christianity. A quick review of history demonstrates that Christians have committed plenty of horrible deeds. However, that’s not the issue at hand. It doesn’t say “unapologetic, Christ-centered.”

My question is this: Who are all these people who are going around apologizing for being Christian?

I mean, imagine if someone walked into Starbucks and said, “Yeah, I’d like a venti caramel macchiato. Can you put my caramel in the shape of a cross? You know, like God. Sorry, I know it’s an inconvenience, but I’m a Christian.” (Unfortunately, the only part of this story that is fictional is that the person apologized for being a Christian). Nobody does that! I mean, I’ve known a lot of people over the course of my life. Furthermore, I’ve known a disproportionately high number of Christians over the course of my life. I can’t recall a single instance where someone apologized for being a Christian. If enough people are going around apologizing for being Christians that a school needs to differentiate itself as unapologetic, you’d think I would’ve witnessed that apology at least once.

Furthermore, if anyone is apologizing for being Christian, that to me indicates that they have a low self-image. People who are secure in their identity don’t to apologize for who they are. If that’s the case, I don’t think you’ll boost their confidence much by bragging about how unapologetic your are. Way to stomp the little guy while he’s down.

I’m being satirical and ridiculous about this subject, which is not my typical modus operandi. However, I am sincerely trying to imagine someone being apologetically Christ-centered. Somehow every believable scenario comes out ridiculous.

So, why identify oneself as unapologetically Christ-centered, if no one else is apologizing for it?

As an afterthought, does anyone else think the proximity of “unapologetically” and “Christ” is a little ironic? I mean, isn’t seeking forgiveness and reconciliation sort of the central teaching of Jesus Christ? Or is that just me? Yeah? The Bible doesn’t talk about that anywhere? Huh. Coulda sworn it was in there somewhere.

Redefining Orthodoxy: The Trinity, expanded

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A while back I read Has God Only One Blessing? by Mary C Boys. A professor at Union Theological Seminary, Boys explores the person of Jesus and movement he started and attempts to place both in their Jewish contexts. At one point she examines the historical context which lead to the development of trinitarian theology. This theology arose out of attempts to explain the person of Jesus in relation to God in the context of monotheistic Judaism. The formalized theology of the trinity explained in the Nicaean Creed was the work of several centuries of a minority group (believers-in-Jesus) wrestling with questions as it sought to define itself in relation to (and more often than not, against) others Judaisms. A result years of philosophical debates, the creed was a theological statement that firmed up theological boundaries between believers-in-Jesus and (other) Jews and “heretics.” In this way it also unified a majority of perspectives held by believers-in-Jesus, offering a strengthened identity in a fractured movement.

Yet for the earliest believers-in-Jesus, this formal theological statement didn’t exist. It wasn’t fleshed out in specific philosophical terms. Early believers-in-Jesus hadn’t yet developed the theological language to express ideas about the trinity. As such, understanding of the trinity necessarily derived from spiritual experience. As language developed to define the Triune God (as though God could be defined), the necessity of the spiritual experience was supplanted by philosophical understanding.

This loss has had profound implications for how Christians relate to one another and to the earth. We have not understood the triune God as a symbol of mutuality, of radical equality, and of community in diversity. Rather we have imaged God as a divine monarch whose sovereign rule certain people on earth emulate through structures of domination, whether of the one group of people over another or humans over the planet The nontrinitarian God, moreover, tends to take on the characteristics of the “quintessential macho man, unmoved and unfeeling in the face of human suffering.” Having lost sight of the Trinity–a communion of persons–as the model par excellence, the church has instead structured hierarchies that privilege one class of persons over another.

This doctrine of the Trinity resonates with me: the Triune God is the perfect model of mutuality, equality and community in diversity. These should be the ideals that we pursue as seek holiness. For the earliest believers-in-Jesus who were without formal trinitarian doctrine, these ideals flowed from personal spiritual life-experiences rather than a hereditary intellectual dogma. As such–as a personal, spiritual experience, the Trinity is radical, not because it exceedingly logical (for indeed it is not) nor because it is original or unique to Christianity (for even this is dubious), but because its ideals are a powerful formula for challenging the status-quo of our culture.

Divorcing the Trinity from personal experience, as Boys points out, is not only antithetical to the Christian movement, it’s potentially harmful. Creating power structures of domination over others diminishes our connection with them and makes it more difficult to experience the image of God in them. We lose our ability to empathize with others. We lose site of the very things that make us beautiful.

The Trinity, therefore, is a powerful theological concept only when it is embodied in personal experience. Divorced from personal experience, the Trinity becomes a meaningless dogma. Coupled with personal experience, the Trinity has the potential to be a powerful, revolutionary force.