Back in the good old days, I once watched an episode of Candid Camera in which Alan Funt gathered a bunch of people with a sub-par sense of humor, told them a joke, and then recorded them trying to re-tell the joke to other people. The bit was pretty comical, because the people tended to mangle the punch line so badly that you could tell they never really understood the joke in the first place. And yet they told the joke anyway, and expected people to laugh.
I’ve been reading some accounts recently of unbelievers trying to have a discussion with presuppositionalists (e.g. Russell Glasser and Aron Ra), and something about presuppositionalism reminds me of Candid Camera. It’s almost as though the presuppositionalists are just repeating a story, with no real understanding of how that story is supposed to work, in order to obtain an expected response. And in fact, I think for many believers, that’s exactly what is happening. The Gospel isn’t just a story, it’s a magic story. Maybe there are things about it that you don’t understand. Maybe there are things that don’t make sense. But never mind. Just tell the story, and sooner or later it’s going to produce a magical result, and people will be saved.
I think that’s why people like “Randy” seek out conversations with well-informed and capable unbelievers like Aron Ra. It doesn’t matter that, in purely intellectual terms, you’re going to lose badly. The story itself, despite its visible flaws, supposedly possesses an inner, supernatural virtue that bypasses the mind and works directly on the heart. All you have to do is get the story in front of people, and the Gospel itself will miraculously convert people for you. Randy was hoping, not for an intellectual victory, but for a spiritual one.
And unfortunately, there are a lot of gullible people out there who do indeed respond to the gospel despite the flaws and inconsistencies in the story itself. There are whole businesses out there that market “church growth” consulting services to congregations that want to attract more members, and these consultants will tell you that the real success factor is networking: one person drawing in another on the basis of the personal relationship between them. It’s a purely psychosocial phenomenon, as witnessed by the fact that it works equally well regardless of the religion being promoted. Yet somehow the Magic Story gets all the credit for the result.
Magic Story Syndrome is hard to fight, because it moves the focus of the conflict away from reason and evidence, and into the realm of invisible magic. You can try and show people the flaws in the Gospel, and they’ll assume that you’re sharing your own magic story, and that the details are irrelevant. The fact that they refuse to change their minds means that their magic story has more mojo than yours, and therefore theirs is the right story!
I haven’t got a good answer for this one, but I think it’s perhaps marginally useful to be able to describe what’s going on so we can at least think about it and discuss it.