The Thrill of the Chase

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.

Inoculation

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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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10956
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Good read to start the New Year of 2021!

Of course the “elephant in the room” is the extra-biblical certitude, never mind the scientific arguments. Both groups, LDS and SDA’s have been “inoculated” through their extensive educational systems way before confronted by science. For SDAs, to even consider the science is to turn their entire religious, cultural, and scientific paradigms upside down. That would be too much trauma.

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Thank you for this. I am in the same boat as you are, and I think the issue is a bit more fundamental, and Adventists are coming late to confront the real nature of this issue.

I went to a fundamentalist U that had a “faith crisis” when it came to one fundamental question:

Can and should we be absolutely certain about our understanding of Christian claims?

That question resulted with purge of Biblical centrists who tried to create viable interface with present day culture and metaphors of the past. And it resulted in shut down of philosophy department, with only few classes in philosophy offered.

The core of fundamentalist problem is two-fold:

  1. It believes in a static nature of language in its adherence to literalism.

  2. It claims absolute certainty, largely via presupposing high-level doctrine and working backwards to validate and support it.

These two issues, which are also integrated into Adventist theology, become the reason for generational animosity, and diminishing functional unity.

In fact, at broader scale, these issues are the very reason why we have several generations of people in American culture growing up with severe “mommy and daddy issues”, and joining the movements that speak that “anti” language that by proxy rejects belief in God all together, or replaces it with something else.

The way I see it, the only viable remedy is:

  1. We must formulate a stronger and more coherent philosophical framework upon which we structure the rest of our claims. It has to be much better than “Bible says that” or “here’s a belief for you to recite”.

  2. With #1 in mind, we need to back to the linguistic basics and and rebuild a coherent framework of Biblical meaning. Words are signifiers of meaning. Meaning shifts with our understanding, even when words may remain the same. Meat used to be “food”, and now it’s specific. “Cool” is now used more to describe something other than temperature. We should stop assuming that people will have the same understanding of words like love, justice, freedom. We should stop pandering to intellectual laziness of vague abstractions that subsequent generations have to both guess and reconcile with present cultural meaning. We should stop using vague placeholders in order to fake our adherence to Biblical literalism.

  3. Lastly, we need to be honest about inherent uncertainty for claims that we are not certain about. Most of the Pastoral and theological certainty is confabulated and projected from a pulpit through repetition and mantra. Hence, when mantra is gone… so goes the certainty. Certainty is knowledge. Belief is inherently uncertain. We don’t know. We believe. We have a promise of certainty. But our quest for certainty is what drives human experience and development. True religion should never rob us of that by pretending to be certain.

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Isn’t this the purpose of religion?
Over time our understanding of God should and will evolve. Not that God changes, but our understanding of Him should. Religion tends toward the stale and stagnant, but our relationship with God and truth should progress with changes in our understanding of all the evidence: science, history, and inspiration. As we develop better tools of understanding we should expect changes in our understanding of God. If our relationship with God is weak, these changes in knowledge of science and history may be unsettling at best. Fear tends to keep people from exploring new truth.
Religion tends toward the static. Relationships do not.

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great thought.
Knowing & Believing in the God of the Bible first and foremost,

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this reductionist oversimplification, with its stereotypical if not ad hominem tinge, is a good illustration of why the discontinuous conversation between creation science and evolutionary science is probably on the verge of an irretrievable ending…in the first place, the assumption that a typical YECer finds evolutionary arguments “disturbing” is probably wishful thinking…but in the second place, turning to YEC websites for articles written by scientists with the same degrees from the same universities as evolutionists is hardly an escapist reflex…many of these articles, even the ones that condense and summarize complex material, require at least some scientific background to fully digest…as for the abstracts frequently listed in bibliographies from and references in these articles, these require even more background…

the reality is that evolution claims to be the arbiter of what origins science must consist of in order to be science, notably an a priori exclusion of divine intervention, along with endless assumptions based on uniformitarianism, none of which can be proven…it then pretends to be objective when its conclusions collide with the concept of divine intervention and earth-altering catastrophism highlighted in inspired texts like the bible…these pretensions mount in the face of demonstrated problems with dating mechanisms, not to mention actual fraud, notably with claims made in various iterations of so-called primitive humans…the escape mechanism is always, and conveniently, that science is evolving, and adjusting to valid evidence…by defining terms of engagement, while rejecting everything outside of those terms, it’s quite quotidian for evolutionary refutations of YEC claims to apply parameters within which these YEC claims were never made…but this little detail is never disclosed (it may not even be comprehended by the evolutionist refuting the YEC claim)…

what evolutionists would do well to consider is that science can exist, and develop, outside the boundaries they have arbitrarily instituted…they would do even better to acknowledge that their theories, which adventist evolutionists tend to view as factual, are logical interpretations of evidence only if their unprovable starting assumptions are accepted…this acknowledgement stands a chance of saving the conversation with YECers, along with other creation scientists…without this acknowledgement, evolutionists are merely traveling in their own slow and predictable orbits, which average YECers understandably feel no compulsion to explore, or take seriously…

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I wholeheartedly agree.
Might I suggest we start with studying more literal translations of the Bible.
Here are a couple of quotes from the introduction to ‘The New Testament’, a translation by David Bentley Hart, an ancient scholar and linguist of some repute:

‘To be honest, I have come to believe that all the standard English translations render a great many of the concepts and presuppositions upon which the books of the New Testament are built largely impenetrable, and that most effectively hide (sometimes forcibly) things of absolutely vital significance for understanding how the texts’ authors thought.’

‘After all, most modern readers are separated from the New Testament not only by the obvious differences in language, culture, and intellectual formation that put them at an immense historical remove from the authors, but also to a considerable degree by the doctrinal expectations that have shaped the decisions of translators for centuries.’

‘…particular translations have had enormous consequences for the development of theology…’

He also writes that many readers will be ‘somewhat taken aback’ by his translation of the original Greek words they are used to reading in English as eternal, forever, redemption, justification, repentance, predestination, world, hell, and so on.

In his postscript, Hart includes a glossary which details his reasoning behind many of the English words he has chosen to translate the Greek words passed down to us from ancient manuscripts. I believe the book is worth acquiring solely for this glossary (incomplete as it is) as it provides one an introductory explanation into how the ancients understood certain key concepts and how unfaithful to the ancient understanding many modern translations are.

To put it in Arkdrey’s words, as I see it, this step of getting back to the ‘linguistic basics’ (of more accurately comprehending the concepts the authors of the Bible were trying to convey to their readers) is the essential first step to building a ‘more coherent philosophical framework’ of Christianity.

Speaking from personal experience, I can say that acquiring such knowledge (one way being through translations such as Hart’s), has been a revelation to me and is a significant reason behind a radical change in my theology.

Hello Jeremy!

One of the best examples I can think of is the T-rex red blood cells and soft tissue which were discovered by Marry Schweitzer (Christian evolutionist) which had this to say:

“It was exactly like looking at a slice of modern bone, but of course I couldn’t believe it. I said to the lab technician, ‘The bones, after all, are 65 million years old. How could blood cells survive that long?’”

On the Website Science we read:

Others [those refusing to believe the evidence] are harsher, and suggest that Schweitzer’s protein pieces come from bacteria or contaminants. “It’s problematic that no other lab has been able to replicate Mary Schweitzer’s work,” says Jakob Vinther, a paleontologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, who’s tried to do so. “The idiom that exceptional claims require exceptional evidence remains,” adds Michael Buckley, a paleontologist at the University of Manchester, also in the United Kingdom.

Schweitzer, who came to the field late, and whose unusual background casts her as an outsider in a field still dominated by men, isn’t cowed. She has spent decades building her case. Now, on her Hell Creek expedition, she hopes to find new, well-preserved fossils that might harbor ancient proteins—and new evidence to convince the doubters. “I don’t care what they say about me,” she says. “I know my work is good.”

The Website Psychology Today has a brilliant article on this, titled “Why People Ignore Facts - When it comes to reasoning, identity trumps truth.”

In one section we read:

A number of studies document the many ways in which our political party distorts our reasoning. One study found that people who had strong math skills were only good at solving a math problem if the solution to the problem conformed to their political beliefs. Liberals were only good at solving a math problem, for instance, if the answer to that problem showed that gun control reduced crime. Conservatives were only good at solving this problem if the solution showed that gun control increased crime. Another study found that the higher an individual’s IQ, the better they are at coming up with reasons to support a position—but only a position that they agree with.

The article uses politics as its example, and I’d argue the evolution-creation debate is no different, and would produce the same results. I quiet like the end of that paragraph where it mentions people with higher IQ’s weren’t better at accepting new truth, especially when it went against their deep held beliefs, but rather, better “at coming up with reasons to support a position—but only a position that they agree with.” lol :+1:

It’s a fools errand to try and scientifically prove how life came about, if, that is, that life came about by Divine order, i.e. a miracle. I look at it like this: If we could, somehow, go back in time, and take a glass of wine that Jesus made at the wedding, 5 minutes after He made it, and then ask scientists to tell us how long ago that wine was made… that, too, would be a fools errand. If they use the current scientific method (no divine foot allowed through the door) then you can bet, the answer will not be the wine was made 5 minutes ago.

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excellent point, and this highlights yet another aspect of the evolution/creation debate…that is, if our understanding of science wipes out the miracle of creation outlined in the bible, what’s to stop our understanding of science from wiping out the recorded miracles of jesus, or in fact his resurrection from the dead…

to say, as this article does, that the answer is to focus on a relationship with god, while simultaneously understanding that we can’t believe even one word his prophets and apostles have written, is untenable, and quite illogical…no wonder jesus used belief in the writings of moses as a prerequisite to belief in him:

“For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me. But if ye believe not his writings, how shall ye believe my words?” Jn 5:46-47.

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