Monthly Archives: April 2012

Umbrella of Protection?

At first he merely offered a hand to help us in or out of the van, and laid his other hand on our backs as we entered or exited. Then he would hold open a door and touch each of our backs as we walked through; this seemed fine the first time, but I wasn’t sure why it was necessary to touch both of our backs with full open hand every single time we walked through a door of any kind. If there was bench seating, his thigh was closely pressed against mine or the other girl’s. He would take and hold my or her hand as we walked to and from buildings. Without asking or announcing, he stroked my hair. If he was sitting opposite me in the van I would often look up to find him gazing at me, and then he would nudge my foot with his. I would smile nervously, pull my foot back, and look back down at my papers. If he was seated next to me in the van he would rest his hand on my forearm or reach over to hold my hand. I learned to hold my papers in whichever hand was closest to him.

Is that creepy or what? To explain, I must go back 40 years, to one of the formative experiences of my youth.

In high school, I attended Bill Gothard‘s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts, since renamed the Basic Seminar. You can visit that link to learn the seven main points. Many of them are excellent, but today I want to bark about the second one, which is to get under the “umbrella of protection” that God-given authorities provide:

Under each umbrella of protection, God sets in place the leadership of His choice, just as He placed Moses in leadership under the “umbrella” over Israel. So, under each umbrella of protection, God raises up and establishes the human leadership to represent Him before the people. These leaders become our human umbrellas, accountable to God for the stewardship of their responsibilities.

I was an insecure teenager trying to get his life together, and that message was very appealing. It was hard enough to negotiate the difficult interactions with my peers; I was only too glad to relinquish to God my sometimes-difficult dealings with authority figures. God had appointed them and if I were to follow their lead, he would take care of me.

I should have seen disaster coming right about here:

[God] provided leadership through Moses. When the people murmured again Moses, they were actually murmuring against God.

Once we equate an earthly authority with God, the fallible human starts to realize they he can get away with anything. The Catholic sex-abuse scandal may come to mind, but the Catholic church is not the only authoritarian power-structure that has problems, as we will see.

It’s amazing how we can lose sight of the old truism that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Our hope is not in authority and submission, but in accountability and mutual, earned respect.

That even goes for relationships with parents, teachers, employers and the law. That’s the genius of democracy. In countries where the law is accountable to the people it governs, there is generally lower crime and better governance. Not to mention more happiness.

So what about the sexually harassed 17-year-old girl at the beginning of this post? Her story would break my heart under any circumstance, but as a former Gothard devotee I feel an extra pang as I tell you where her ordeal took place. She was an employee at Bill Gothard’s headquarters and the man to whom she refers was none other than Bill Gothard himself.

Her story is but one among many reported on a Christian Website called RecoveringGrace. Most of the stories are from people who were abused in families that tried to live by Bill Gothard’s authoritarian, patriarchal principles and often under his control. (“Control,” you ask? Gothard has a home-schooling curriculum that comes with many, many strings. For example, the husband in one family we knew was not allowed to wear a beard, as a condition of using Gothard’s curriculum.) Other stories recount inappropriate conduct by Gothard himself. The common theme is that a hierarchical, authority-oriented culture is a breeding ground for abuse.

By the way, I learned about all this when reading a blog post which also reported that the director of another Christian ministry recently committed suicide while being investigated for the sexual abuse of a 10-year-0ld girl. That ministry, Voice of the Martyrs, was important enough to me at one time that I included them in my will.

*Sigh* doesn’t begin to cover it.

Purple Hair

Dog with Purple EarsSo I’m hanging out in a Starbucks in the well-to-do Boston suburb of Brookline, and in walks a dog with one ear dyed purple. That prompts me to ask my readers: When you encounter a person with purple hair, what do you see?

Do you see an in-your-face attempt to shock you by defying convention?

Do you see a manifestation of self-hatred — a woman’s desperate bid to distract you from the body she loathes?

Do you see an advocate for a hippie lifestyle of illicit sex and drugs?

At one time, those might have been my interpretations. Perhaps that’s because if I were to dye my hair purple, there would definitely be strange motives at work. Purple hair is just not how I roll. In the last few years, however, I’ve come to realize that someone else’s motives for doing X are not necessarily the same as mine would be.

I learned this by getting to know a few people who wore pentagrams, yet were not Satanists; or who wore skull earrings, yet did not glorify death. I met a young man who plays drums in a “death metal” band, yet is also thoughtful, intelligent and well-mannered. In fact, I met him at a church.

People are more surprising than we give them credit for. One pentagram-tattoo-sporting person I know does believe in magic, but only casts spells for good. Some kids wear skulls just to fit into the one group that will accept them. The death metal drummer I know finds sophisticated structure in music that most of us don’t understand. And maybe he just loves to bang on his drums.

Which brings me to the most important point for those of us who tend to be a little uptight. Some people wear purple hair just for fun.

Myth, Meth, Math

I recently attended a Meetup where the subject was “Blinded by Science?” Talking with our mouths full of excellent Chinese food, we considered whether denizens of the First World are so in the thrall of science that we are blind to alternatives.

It seems to me that we have three choices to discover the truth of things: myth, meth and math.

Myth

Myth is the old “way of knowing.” Usually, a myth is part of a culture (a meme!). The cohesive and coercive powers of culture can make people believe a myth literally, even when it is utterly fantastic to outsiders.

A myth can incorporate a lot of wisdom as generation after generation hones it. The problem is, we have learned from experience that myths are extremely unreliable sources of literal truth. For example, every culture has its creation myth, and they are all wrong if taken literally. (If you’re a believer in the literal truth of one of these stories, we can agree that all the ones except yours are wrong. That’s still a lot of wrong.)

Meth

Some cultures or sub-cultures turn to mind-altering drugs or numinous experiences in their search for enlightenment. After smoking enough, or fasting enough, enlightenment arrives.

I don’t know about you, but my mind is at its worst when I’m hungry, and what people say while doped up is notoriously nonsensical or funny. (You must follow that second link! Update 4/9: the second link is now to Nina’s funnier video.)

To be fair, I must mention an essay called Mr. X, by no less a personage than Carl Sagan. It turns out that Dr. Sagan was an occasional consumer of cannabis. Mixed with visions of Volkswagens on the ceiling, he did get real insights on a variety of topics while high! However, his high self had to work very hard to convince his down self that the insights were valid.

And that is the real problem for so-called alternative ways of knowing. Spinning insights is easy, but how do you know they’re true?

Math

Humans have wandered the landscape of epistemology for many thousands of years. We have always preferred the comforts of myth, intuition, tradition and religion. When it comes to acquiring or testing knowledge, we are basically lazy. Most of us would rather accept whatever body of received wisdom happens to be part of our culture, than do the hard and dangerous work of testing that wisdom against reality. We prefer “knowing in our heart” to the scientific method.

Yet the success of the few who have been brave enough to subject their hypotheses to scrutiny has been undeniable. In spite of threats of torture in the past and appalling innumeracy in the general population at present, they have made more headway in the last 500 years than all of humanity did in the million years since we first used fire.

It turns out that the universe is structured around neither myth nor meth, but math. It obeys laws that can be expressed in (usually) simple equations whose truth can be tested. Even in soft disciplines like philosophy, the tools of mathematical logic help us cut through the nonsense of superstition and “mystery.” In my series on The Selfish Gene, we saw how the mathematics of game theory neatly explain something as apparently non-mathematical as altruism.

Myth and numinous experiences may have their place, but when it comes to discovering how things really work, or testing whether things are true, nothing has the track record of science and math.

On that, even the most ardent new-ager at the Meetup had to agree. What do you think?