Airbrushed Theology

Posted on September 25, 2012


Francis Flaherty writes a chapter in his wonderful book on writing titled “Razzing from the Rafters.” It is about giving proper due to the opposing view. I was so struck by the opening and closing of the section that I’ll quote it here (what I’ve left out are Flaherty’s examples)

You are flipping through a glossy magazine, and she appears. She is a model in a makeup ad and she is gorgeous, stunning. But…unreal. She is just too perfect.

Like the designers of such advertisements, some writers “air brush” too much, erasing everything that wars with their major message. The results are just as unconvincing…

…Why should the writer give these dissenters a soapbox? First of all, honesty demands it; a writer, even in an essay of opinion, is not a lawyer parading only the evidence helpful to his side.

Moreover, the writer may be wrong. Including opponents’ viewpoints prevents misleading the readers, allows them to judge for themselves, and may stave off later embarrassment for the writer.

Finally, like the model in the cosmetics ad, one-sided stories are just plain hard to believe. If you really want readers to draw the same conclusion you do, don’t censor the other side.

I found this section so compelling not only because it is good writing advice, but because it is good thinking advice. We want to see the world as a stable, consistent place. To maintain this view we must believe that what we believe is right and rational. People who stick to their beliefs even when they are shown evidence to the contrary are childish. Most adults, when they learn something that informs their understanding, will make the necessary adjustment to their thinking…and then again believe that what they believe is right and rational.

Since it is impossible to believe that what you believe is wrong, it is as if we move from self-delusion to self-delusion like a frog jumping across lily-pads.

Since this process is inescapable it is also acceptable. We are creatures of finite knowledge and experience. It takes us time to integrate new information into our schema. When this new information touches on some core belief, that integration can be traumatic and take some time. But sometimes we push the new information away through denial, humor, argument, defensiveness, or plain pig-headed stubbornness. We do this exactly because we are creatures of finite knowledge and experience. Sometimes our knowledge and experience limit our ability to swallow information that pushes us to a place of emotional or psychological uncertainty. Everyone moves at their own pace and everyone has there own set of gifts and abilities.

The problem, as I see it, is when people stop moving altogether.

Airbrushed Theology: The desire for, or belief in, a perfect system which answers every question and suffers no critique. It requires a belief in a reality that doesn’t exist in order to maintain the tenants of the system.

Airbrushed theology manifests itself in many ways.

-When conservative Christians groups like the AFA organize boycotts of Home Depot because they employee homosexual people what they deny is that there are homosexual Christians.

-As an aging generation decries the drop in church attendance, Bible reading, and catechism classes (and any other generational standard of faith) the deny the possibility that faith manifests itself differently in different times and cultures.

-Whenever someone plays the trump-card of, “The Bible says so.” They forget that Jesus was fully human, the Bible was written by fully human humans, and is read by fully human humans. When I hear “its in the Bible” I will probably think about the cover of Cosmopolitan Magazine. The woman in the magazine doesn’t exist anywhere in reality and certain theologies don’t find resonance in the real world.

Former President Bill Clinton was on The Daily Show a couple of days after giving his speech at the DNC. There was something he said along the lines of “Ideology doesn’t work, because ideology starts with the answer and then tries to make the facts fit the answer they’ve already decided on.”

It isn’t easy to consider all sides of an issue, whether it is an issue of politics, ethics, or faith. But as Flaherty’s writes, “one-sided stories are just plain hard to believe.”

Photo: Freddycat1

Posted in: Theology