Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Way of the Master

Back at my Christian high school, we would occasionally watch videos on evangelism from The Way of the Master in computer class (don't ask me what it had to do with computers). The videos featured Ray Comfort and former Growing Pains actor Kirk Cameron trying to convert people to Christianity. Even as a Christian I found them boring and repetitive. Thinking back on them now, they just seem ridiculous. I'll use the video below as an example.

We're treated to a variation on the faulty watchmaker analogy at the 2:25 mark, and the evangelism routine begins at 3:05. The first step Comfort takes is to ask, "Do you consider yourself a good person?" Naturally, almost everyone does. He then asks a series of questions designed to cast doubt on this assumption.
  • "Have you ever told a lie?" Yes. "What does that make you?" A liar.
  • "Ever stolen anything?" Yes. "What does that make you?" A thief.
  • "Ever taken God's name in vain?" Yes. "The Bible says that's blasphemy."
  • "Ever looked at someone lustfully?" Yes. "Then Jesus said you've committed adultery in your heart."
Comfort ends this part of the routine (4:05) by saying, "By your own admission you're a lying, thieving, blasphemous adulterer at heart, and you'll have to face God on Judgment Day." Now, first notice that they didn't admit to blasphemy or adultery at all. He simply told them that's what they were guilty of. Second, Comfort is manipulating words here to score cheap emotional points. Having told a lie doesn't make you a liar; any reasonable person would say that a liar is someone who lies often enough for it to become a prominent character trait. If we defined "liar" to include everyone who has ever lied, it would lose all meaning.

Next he asks whether they'd go to heaven or hell based on the Ten Commandments. Notice that all this has happened without the subjects ever agreeing that the Bible is authoritative or accurate. Comfort dodges this by saying (4:50): "If I didn't believe in the law of gravity, would it change reality?" It's not hard to see where the metaphor is flawed: the evidence for gravity is obvious, but Comfort has provided no evidence for the truth of the Bible. The rest of the video is the standard gospel message. The end (6:50) cuts off the subjects' final response – a sure sign that it didn't end well, since if it had, they would have shown it.

I've mentioned before that evangelism is about appeal to emotion, but The Way of the Master's routine demonstrates that it's more specifically about building up guilt and then injecting a quick dose of fear. I don't think Comfort is being intentionally crafty; he's just found through trial and error that this is what works. It doesn't work every time – and it doesn't have to. But occasionally someone will picture themselves standing before a large, throned, bearded man and get a pang of terror in their gut, without first considering whether there's any evidence that it will happen. And that mental slip-up is all someone like Comfort needs to get a foot in the door.

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