In a significant percentage of all movies ever made there is an unstated, but definitely understood, compact between filmmaker and viewer. It is that everything will turn out all right in the end. In the Action/Adventure genre, for example, you have the hero(ine) – from James Bond to Indiana Jones – facing wild and dangerous obstacles, which consumes the majority of the running time. Yet they come out unscathed in the end. In RomComs (Romantic Comedies) the eventually-happy couple typically “meet cute,” then have some misunderstandings, conflicts or external circumstances that threaten their relationship. But again, after stumbling through a convoluted and often farcical plot, they finally recognize their love for each other and are reunited at the final, fade-out kiss. Audiences have always expected such resolutions and likely would not lay down whatever admission fee (whether movie ticket price or even time expended) if this tacit contract was violated. Such movies are often called escapist because they can be counted on to provide a happy ending, thus escaping the often distressing problems that real-life brings. It’s the “thrill of the chase, with none of the risk.”
This well-known phrase captures an aspect of human psychology that is not confined to movies. In literature it goes back at least as far as Gothic Novels (wonderfully satirized by Jane Austin in Northanger Abbey). In video games we are the “hero” that is placed in dangerous situations, and we often get “killed” in such games. But it’s not real and we have yet another life. Or, if the game does end, we can start a new one whenever. There still are no real consequences to us.
But this psychological phenomenon also shows up in other, quite surprising places and contexts. Like, for instance, Sabbath School.
The Riskless Narrative
Now, I’m getting to be an old guy, and I’ve attended SDA churches my whole life, including countless Sabbath School classes. And Adventism, in case some readers are unaware, has had a long history of placing eschatology – “last days” events – at the center of our sub-cultural narrative. The primary reference that built the story is Ellen White’s 19th century book The Great Controversy. Additionally woven into that was Uriah Smith’s Daniel and Revelation. The intensity of Adventist focus on what supposedly will take place just prior to Christ’s Second Advent has diminished somewhat during the past 50 years or so, but it is still deeply embedded into the SDA psyche. Thus, when Sabbath School discussions move through material that references this story – whether a direct discussion of prophecy or even some allusion to current events – you might easily hear comments from participants like: “We know that … will happen,” or “We’ve been shown that … will come in the last days.” This alignment and commitment to the Great Controversy narrative is more parallel to the sort of movies I’ve described above than one might think. In both situations the ending is presumably known. There is conflict initially, but also an expectation that it all finally works out great in the end for the “hero.” And in eschatology discussions the hero is, of course, us! Adventism – the Remnant Church. Thus it is satisfying to return again and again, in church discussions, to a reaffirmation of our specialness. We “know” there will be terrible trials for Adventists just before Jesus returns. This period has a name – The Time of Trouble. But we also know, having read the whole “book,” that we triumph in the end (where “triumph” means faithfulness to God). Thus, referencing these upcoming trials, with a known good final-outcome, again constitutes “the thrill of the chase with none of the risk.”
This is comforting, of course, assuming the story is either never seriously questioned or can pass any pushback tests proposed by those not invested in its correctness. But here is where the difficulty lies. A naïve acceptance of any story has the risk that it cannot survive analysis. That may be because the story is false, but also possibly because we have never developed critical thinking skills so, when a seemingly solid counter-argument is presented, we become confused and our former confidence is eroded. And here the risk shifts to what is sometimes called a Slippery Slope. In essence, we might think that if this story is false then what else is false in our belief structure? Perhaps it’s all “cleverly devised fables.” And such an idea – even if fleeting and somewhat subliminal – can really freak people out, as confidence in their Christian narrative is what undergirds hope for future eternal life. Thus fractures in this world-view can be perceived to have devastating consequences. Now, you might think that if such a problem were to appear on a believer’s radar, there would be motivation toward deeper investigation. But far too often the result is to suppress the unsetting information and/or argument, as working problems through involves serious effort, and ambiguity in the interim is upsetting.
The word “inoculation” is defined as: “artificially inducing immunity against various infectious diseases.” But here I wish to consider it analogically. Inoculation in this context consists of providing a limited but effective counter-argument to the disturbance the believer experiences when something causes the certainty of a “happy ending” to be at risk. Consider now two examples of what I consider to be inoculation.
1) Mormon history: Many years ago my wife and I moved to an area of the U.S. where the LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormon”) religion and culture are dominant. Prior to moving I spent considerable time studying the history and doctrines of this faith. After settling in I learned there was a church-run Institute of Religion adjacent to the local university. Its purpose was to provide religious training to the many LDS students at the school. And the classes were both free and open to the community. So I decided to attend, and went through the full 24 credit-hours of instruction, which took (as I recall) two semesters of spare time. One of the most interesting classes I took was on Mormon Church history, taught by a very gifted and revered professor. But one of his main goals in the class – so say I – was to inoculate those students against possible faith-loss if and when they might subsequently encounter some unsavory bit of LDS history. And there are plenty of candidates. So he would explore some topic – like the Mountain Meadows Massacre or the Book of Abraham – and proceed in such a way that it seemed like this event or issue was unsolvable or would have a very bad outcome, and thus the subject would be damaging to the students’ faith. Then he produced a “happy ending” by adding some extra detail or explanation that suddenly made the whole thing seem fine. Thus the students now could feel they had a satisfactory answer should they ever be confronted with the topic by someone unfriendly to the faith. Then, by extension, they might also conclude that other historical problems could be solvable in the same way. So, no need to investigate further. This is inoculation. But there was a problem. The teacher was not telling the whole story. And I knew that because I’d previously immersed myself in LDS history – specifically considering some of these more dicey topics. So he wasn’t “playing with a full deck.” And had this additional information been presented, the solution he provided would have been badly undermined. Now, I was cautious enough (more likely conflict-adverse) that I didn’t bring up these additional details in class. And, even if I’d tried to do so, the teacher had all the credibility and authority. I did, however, once discuss a difficult topic with him one-on-one, in his office. He conceded that the extra info I added to the story was true. But he unsurprisingly would not admit that the additional information undermined his “solution.”
2) Young Earth Creationism (YEC): Many conservative SDA readers will likely dislike this example because they disagree with my view – that YEC is false. Yet, while well beyond the scope of this essay, anyone with an open mind, a reasonably logical thought process, some scientific literacy and a willingness to examine the evidence, can see why virtually all scientists working in the relevant fields reject YEC as pseudo-science. But how can it be used to inoculate? In analogous fashion to the LDS example, above. A Christian, believing the earth was created recently (i.e. 6,000 years ago, per Bishop Ussher), encounters disturbing scientific counter-arguments that seem hard to refute. And the believer lacks the literacy to do so. But they then can turn to YEC websites, where arguments seem to be presented as valid science, and be comforted that there are, indeed, “scientific” answers that allow them to retain their YEC position. And frequently they then see no need to review the unsettling evidence/argument further, or give consideration to any other disturbing information. All because a comforting “expert” has provided a science-sounding rationale for what they want to believe anyway. Inoculation.
My examples use inoculation to prevent a slippery slope. But (in my opinion) in service of error. Now most readers likely hold essential Christianity to be true, whether or not tangential details like the SDA eschatology roadmap, can hold up. So, does inoculation apply in the more foundational context? I’d say – yes and no. All analogies have limitations, and this one certainly does. But, if there were some sort of inoculation mechanism to protect Christian belief from being destroyed I think, ironically, that it would be when believers encounter an unfixable problem in their belief structure. And are forced to modify their understanding. Then they discard the original as unworkable and wrong, replacing it with something that genuinely is better grounded. This can produce and reinforce openness and humility.
But the more foundational problem with Christian belief system failure is when the structure is grounded on narrative and not relationship. What do I mean by this? We like the thrill of a chase without risk because we are comforted in the belief that we know how the story will turn out. And, of course, foundational Christianity does have a story. But if our faith is grounded too much on story and not a God-relationship, then it has fragility if some non-essential detail of the story cannot withstand scrutiny. We wish for certainty, but if we are primarily invested in the certainty of religious detail, we build on a house of cards. Relationship is far less fragile. The strength of Christianity is how the Bible uses the story line of Jesus – as the approachable God – to give us the opportunity for, and reality of, a genuine living bond between ourselves and God. Religion deals with reality, not a plotline that we have to keep intact to avoid a slippery slope. The sooner we move away from grounding religious belief in a “riskless chase” the more shock-proof our Christianity will be.
Rich Hannon, a retired software engineer, is Columns Editor for SpectrumMagazine.org.
Previous Spectrum articles by Rich Hannon can be found at: https://spectrummagazine.org/author/rich-hannon
Image Credit: © 1959 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.
(Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959), directed by Alfred Hitchcock)
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