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THAT'S A GREAT QUESTION
What To Say When Your Faith Is Challenged
By GLENN PEARSON
David C. CookCopyright © 2007 Glenn Pearson
All rights reserved.
Don't you love those group exercises that conference speakers use as illustrations? You know what I mean. You're at a seminar, counting the lightbulbs in the chandelier, and the presenter interrupts your daydreaming with a group assignment. This is not a bad tactic because it draws you in and keeps your attention. It also provides a memorable object lesson and drives home the speaker's point, so it sticks with you longer than her brilliantly crafted four-point outline ever could.
These group exercises often contain a hook or some kind of twist to trick you. Being the smart aleck I am, I always try to anticipate where the speaker is going. Let me give you an example.
I was recently in a session on interpersonal communications. It addressed why physicians and hospital administrative staff sometimes approach issues from opposite perspectives. About fifteen minutes into the session, the speaker told us he would display a list of ten words on the overhead. We would have forty-five seconds to memorize the entire list. Then, he would come back to test us on how many words we could recall. His list included slumber, snore, pillow, nap, and pajamas, all of which made me want to reach for the NoDoz. Actually, they brought out the competitive student in me. I was going memorize that list perfectly!
Forty-five seconds later, the instructor turned the projector off and asked us to raise our hands if we recalled seeing each of the words he would mention. The first was "pajamas," to which about 95 percent of the hands went up. Next came "slumber." Again nearly everyone raised their hands. He got a similar response to the word "sleep." The only problem was that sleep did not appear on his overhead. He proved it by flipping on the projector again, revealing the "sleep-less" list. The point of the illustration was that, given a list of ten words, all of which relate in one way or another to the concept of sleeping, if we're not careful, we'll begin to see things that aren't there—like the word sleep.
Toward the end of the session, our presenter gave us the chance to redeem ourselves. He announced that he wanted us to take the next sixty seconds to observe every item in the conference room that was red. He had gotten me with the first example, so I was not about to be "had" again. I sat there trying simultaneously to observe every red object in the room and to figure out what the trick would be with this example. While noting the obvious items, I wondered if the trick had to do with the definition of red. Would he consider the mauvish, purplish color in the carpet red? What about the pink cover sheet of the handouts?
At the end of the minute, he asked that all eyes be fixated on his nose. "Now," he announced, "I want you to list for me every green object in this room." Of course, the only green items we could come up with were the ones that happened to be directly behind his head. We were so obsessed with looking for red that we had completely filtered out the green.
The obvious purpose of both speaker tricks was to demonstrate that we can reach erroneous or incomplete conclusions if we allow filters to limit our perceptions.
Ode to Filters
Presuppositions. Prejudices. Preconceived ideas. Assumptions. Opinions. Filters. It is impossible to go through life without developing views that help us navigate life. Some of the terms seem negative, and they can be. But in a real sense, our filters make it possible for us to survive in an environment that barrages us with millions of impressions each day. We need a quick way to eliminate obvious trash and free up the random-access memory in our brains to spend time dealing with the relevant stuff.
As part of my English major in college, I had to take a creative writing class. Now let me tell you, to see a thoroughly left-brained guy take creative writing was amusing at best and pathetic at worst. We used a typical early 1970s textbook that reflected the prevailing cultural mood of the day. It included psychedelic graphics, text printed upside down or in relief, random thoughts splattered throughout, and other trappings of that groovy era. One day we spent a full ten minutes in class discussing the last time we felt a doorknob. I mean really felt a doorknob! I felt chided because I hadn't fondled a doorknob in the last week. The goal was to help us see that, with the countless stimuli we face each day, we often overlook things that are potentially significant. We were encouraged to open ourselves up—through heightened sensitivities—to some of the messages we might be missing.
Even TV news is in the bombardment business. We used to turn on the news and watch visual images of the story while the announcer did a voice-over describing the particular scene. Every few seconds, there might be a change of visual shot, sometimes returning to the in-studio announcer or sometimes going to some kind of graphic. A few years ago, though, one of the cable stations hit the twenty-first-century communications mother lode. They began to crawl messages across the bottom of the screen—messages that conveyed information about items totally unrelated to the featured story. Now when I watch the local morning news, I can either watch the featured story, check last night's baseball scores, view the current temperature and forecast, or synchronize my watch with an atomic clock. I can even try to do all of them simultaneously, which is, of course, impossible!
The point is, we can't possibly deal with every stimulus that comes our way. We have to be selective. It is impossible to process every single physical sensation, every visual cue, and every advertising message that assaults us. We develop filters to help us concentrate on what we perceive to be important at the moment.
A Good Thing
Chris Argyris noted the positive role of filters and presuppositions in an article in Harvard Business Review:
It is impossible to reason anew in every situation. If we had to think through all the possible responses every time someone asked, "How are you?" the world would pass us by. Therefore, everyone develops a theory of action—a set of rules that individuals use to design and implement their own behavior as well as to understand the behavior of others. Usually, these theories of actions become so taken for granted that people don't even recognize they are using them.
We learn early in life to focus on what we think is important to the task at hand, so filters can be a good thing. Over time, we learn some of the harder truths of life:
Being on the "up" side of the seesaw and having the person on the "down" side suddenly bail out is not fun (although being the "bailer" on the down side can be).
Not every doggy you meet is friendly.
Not every teacher you have in school is necessarily going to appreciate your sense of humor.
Not every girl you are attracted to will feel the same way about you.
These life events lead us to develop thought and behavioral patterns consistent with our experiences and may influence our future attitudes and actions:
If I am dumped from the top of the seesaw enough times, I may learn to laugh it off. Perhaps I will become timid and avoid seesaws. Or I might become hostile and aggressive toward playmates and become the "dumper" before I become the "dumpee."
If I repeatedly experience another type of dumping, specifically by every girl I date, I can either erroneously conclude that all women hate men or decide that I'm a social dud and give up entirely.
If I have been badly bitten by a dog, I may develop a prejudice against dogs and instead become a cat person.
Beyond such practical navigational skills, we also develop a philosophy of living that shapes our worldview. Some worldviews are deeply religious, and others are decidedly not. As long as they conform to standard norms of courtesy and legality, society permits us to pursue our lives as we see fit. And since we live in a country that values free speech, we often engage in healthy debates with others who don't share our views.
Filters turn negative, though, when we inappropriately screen out valid information. As Chris Argyris noted, our theories can become so well ingrained that we no longer recognize them as presuppositions and just assume that they (and we) are automatically right. When we review the opinions of others without an awareness of the filters they have in place, we may erroneously conclude that they are objective in their conclusions.
What Is This Section About?
Part 1 of this book will investigate the issue of filters: how they develop; how they shape our current attitudes; and, more specifically, how they can interfere with our reading of the Bible and our view of Jesus. We will examine two types of filters employed by people outside the historic Christian faith:
1. Filters that add to the basis of authority, where information beyond the biblical texts takes on more weight than the texts themselves. There are two filters in this category:
The Filter of New Revelation reinterprets the Bible and Jesus in light of what some claim to be new information from God.
The Filter of Outlandish Speculation gives credence to all kinds of wild theories about Jesus.
2. Filters that subtract from or reduce the authority of the Bible. There are three filters in this category:
The Filter of Atheism views belief in God as a reflection of an unmet psychological need.
The Filter of Antisupernaturalism assumes that all events in life are explainable through science and reasoning and treats God (if he exists at all) as essentially irrelevant.
The Filter of Selective Christian Theology rigidly defines what God is like and how he must act, to the point that Scripture no longer means what it clearly says.
The main point is this: Each of us operates with presuppositions that affect our conclusions about the Bible, God, and Jesus. In fact, I would assert the following: The conclusions that some people reach may be more a reflection of their presuppositions than of the evidence they consider.
This is a variation of the old saw "Don't confuse me with the facts; I've already made up my mind."
Skeptics also bring presuppositions to their reading of the Bible, and although some are willing to admit their prejudices, many are not. They may hide behind the cloak of academic objectivity. Throughout this book, I refer to those who view the Bible as inspired, inerrant, infallible, and historically reliable as "Bible advocates" and those who don't as "skeptics."
It is also important to recognize that there are not just two stances on biblical authority and reliability. There are all sorts of intermediate positions and shades of views. Some believe that every word in the Bible is accurate. Some believe that the Bible is reliable in all matters except when it deals with scientific topics. Although I would consider both positions to reflect a relatively high view of the Bible, I will not attempt to define where a high view stops and a skeptical view begins.
Which Came First: The Presupposition or the Research?
Every book about Jesus or the Christian faith was written by someone with opinions about who Jesus was. By the time an author sits down to write a book about Jesus, he has come to hold some pretty well-defined opinions about who he was: a revolutionary, a peacemaker, a philosopher, the Son of God, or something else. He examines and evaluates every bit of information through the filters he has developed over his lifetime. That is true of anyone who writes about the Bible, including me. This is a fact the reader must consider as he casually picks up a book about Jesus to read while he sips a tall café mocha at his favorite bookstore.
This phenomenon works both ways. Since I have a high view of the Bible, I assume the stories it relates are historically reliable, and I interpret them through the Filter of Faith. Others assume the stories are unreliable and develop explanations consistent with that assumption. The preconceptions of each writer influence the conclusions each of them will reach.
Let's say I meet with my good friend Phil once a month for lunch at La Parilla Mexican restaurant. I have learned that Phil is reliable; he has never missed an appointment. One day, however, he doesn't show up at the normal time. I'm firmly planted in our regular booth and am already working on the second basket of chips. But where is Phil? He's twenty minutes late.
What do you think I conclude? Something has happened: There was a problem at work; he had an accident; he got sick; there was a family emergency. I give Phil, based on my past experiences with him, the benefit of the doubt. There must be a legitimate reason why he didn't come.
Consider another scenario. My coworker Ralph and I have a strained relationship. We have a history of conflict. Since I consider him disloyal and unreliable, I don't trust him.
Ralph and I are to meet for lunch to discuss a job-related joint project. We decide to meet at La Parilla, the place Phil and I always eat. Guess what? Ralph doesn't show up. What am I likely to conclude? He's showing a lack of respect for my time; he's trying to insult me; he's playing some type of power game. "That's just like Ralph," I sputter.
So I have two lunch appointments at the same place and two no-shows. But I have two opposite reactions. In the first case, I am very forgiving of Phil and even worried about his well-being. In the second, I feel anger and resentment toward Ralph. Why the difference? I have filtered the available information through my presuppositions and my previous experiences with my lunch partners. And, of course, my conclusions may be wrong. Perhaps it was Phil who was forgetful this one time and Ralph who had the legitimate excuse.
There is a specialty area within the discipline of business management called "organizational behavior," which, in its simplest form, is the study of how people act within the context of an organization. A basic theory of organizational behavior is the "self-fulfilling prophecy." In a famous research project conducted in 1968 by psychologists Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobsen, elementary school teachers in a lower-class neighborhood were asked to administer a nonverbal intelligence test to identify students who they expected to exhibit a sudden surge in intelligence. The researchers then identified the 20 percent of the students who would be future intellectual late bloomers.
The problem with the experiment was that the list of likely late bloomers was randomly generated and had absolutely nothing to do with the intelligence test or any other characteristics of the children. The real purpose of the research was to study the impact of teachers' expectations on pupils' performance.
Eight months later, when the researchers readministered the intelligence test, they discovered that the 20 percent in the late-bloomer group showed an overall average gain in IQ of four points, while the children in the control group showed no change. The conclusion: The teachers' expectations about their students somehow worked themselves out in the lives of the students. That's the self-fulfilling prophecy.
The discipline of organizational behavior also describes a sister phenomenon called the "Pygmalion effect," named after George Bernard Shaw's play titled Pygmalion. It spins the tale of a Professor Henry Higgins, whose efforts transform the lowly street dweller Eliza Doolittle into a sophisticated society lady. The premise of the play is that the way one person treats another has a transforming impact on that person.
J. Sterling Livingston describes how this principle operates in the work setting in "Pygmalion in Management," published in Harvard Business Review. He states,
The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers'expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor. It is as though there was a law that caused subordinates' performance to rise or fall to meet managers'expectations.
Stated in other terms, you get what you expect. If you expect good performance, you tend to get it, and vice versa.
This phenomenon carries over to the way we see the Bible. If your history and experience with the Bible have been positive, when you encounter difficult passages, you are more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt. Similarly, if you are predisposed to skepticism, you will probably view it through critical eyes.
The Long and Winding Conspiracy Theory
Anybody born during or before the Leave It to Beaver era and who was into rock music in the late 1960s undoubtedly remembers the stunning rumor that swept the music scene in late 1969. The rumor was that one of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, had been killed in a car accident on November 9, 1966, and was replaced by a look-alike. College students across the country scrutinized the artwork, graphics, lyrics, and music on all the Beatles albums produced since 1966. They found amazing clues everywhere.
Excerpted from THAT'S A GREAT QUESTION by GLENN PEARSON. Copyright © 2007 Glenn Pearson. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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