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speaking in soundbites 1

They were shrill and prudish, they loved bad music and guns and NASCAR, told corny jokes and spoke in soundbites, were unshakably loyal to exposed liars, and their children were going to bully our children into prayer — Gina Welch, In the Land of Believers

This is the quote that hooked me into Welch’s Thomas Road Baptist Church travelogue. It’s her description of her preconception of evangelical Christians generally, circa 2004. And she manages to find some of these folks during her three or four years at TRBC, particularly folks who carry guns where they don’t need them and folks who tell corny jokes. To be fair she admits to being moved by some of the music (and she even takes in a performance of the Living Christmas Tree), and by the time she leaves TRBC the Ergun Caner situation is still three years away, so I have to imagine that the exposed liar she’s referring to is former President George W. Bush. She doesn’t say.

What really hooked me in this quote is the part I’ve bolded above, because I think it explained so much about how I grew up understanding the world from a fundamentalist/evangelical perspective. We tended to view the world as being explainable in terms of phrases lifted from the King James Version of the Bible, typically short ones lifted out of their original textual context, not to mention their cultural context.

We tended to see complex problems through the lens of simple un-nuanced references, as if the Bible had all the answers, the answers were unambiguous, and we were not engaging in any kind of interpretation but just reporting objective facts. I think we did this because

  • We saw the Bible as a collection of independent segments of text, almost as if the verses had been compiled into the whole, rather than the whole being broken artificially into chapters and verses
  • Our pastors tended to “camp out” on a single phrase or a single verse for an entire sermon, reinforcing a meaning that might or might not be implicit in the text and that might or might not fit into a coherent understanding of Scripture as a whole
  • We tended to read the Bible over and over and memorize it a verse at a time, rehearsing the received meaning as we did, rather than attempting to discover any meaning in the text ourselves or attempting to match up what we read with any other view other than what we received from our preacher at our church.

We also tended to ignore the fact that the Bible, while it was written more or less by book (ignoring some of the books that have been broken into pieces and some of the composite authorship theories of higher criticism), the chapters and verses we use to index the Bible were not part of the original text, do not reflect authorial intent, etc.

Our sermons tended to be primarily topical and persuasive, rather than expository and exploratory. We weren’t looking for open-ended meanings.

We brought with us the expectations of poor people who, while not illiterate, had expectations of books generally that were more appropriate for a time when they were expensive and authoritative, rather than abundant and (for lack of a better word) helpful. Because the King James English was strange, we tended not to understand what it said, so we got in the habit of having what we heard from the pulpit be at odds with what we might understand from a plain reading of the text.

So I guess I would have to plead guilty to thinking and speaking in soundbites; it was (and to a degree still is) a part of the culture, and doing otherwise would have been almost unthinkable.

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