Thursday, December 15, 2011

the "aesthetics of plausibility", spiritual authority, and a narrative in recovered memory

Earlier this year Carl Trueman used a phrase, "the aesthetics of plausibility". He used it to refer to how megachurch pastors of the celebrity variety model themselves after plainspoken comedians just keeping it real. This is aesthetically defining one's persona as authentic and relevant.  Not all cultures expect this from pastors and so a pastor who would go over well in a megachurch American context will not fit in within other cultures.  Cultural relevance is, unsurprisingly, relative, contextual, and all that.  But I'm not interested in digressing into all that as that is the pet obsession of missiologists and pastors and so on.

No, what I want to touch upon with the "aesthetics of plausibility" is how and why the recovered memory fad has ever had or continues to have a lure.  I will overstate things here a bit and say that since in the last twenty years the viability of recovered memory therapy has been almost completely discredited the whole enterprise of a recovered memory can be seen as a form of sympathetic magic.  If you can go back into the past and discover the trauma from the past that you'd suppressed that will liberate you to be truly you or a new you in the present.  I don't say this to cast doubt on those who have actually been abused in childhood, for those who may not be following the nature of my proposal.

What I'm proposing is that at a popular level certain narratives become popular to a degree that even preachers who on the surface appear to denounce pop psychology can embrace pop psychology with gusto.  Driscoll, for instance, has extolled "The Five Love Languages" over the last decade.  In his spiritual warfare presentation he talked about his God-given super-power to "see things".  What did he see?  Molestations in real time.  Adultery, sexual sins generally.  Twenty years ago there was a huge fad of repressed memory of sexual abuse that therapists help people discover.  Discover might have to be in scare quotes.  There is an aesthetic of plausibility to a narrative in which your life today is one of sadness and bondage due to sins committed against you. 

This narrative can be Christianized by linking the experience you had, real or imagined, to the Fall and to the stain of death that entered the world through sin.  The recovered memory can be used then, as a kind of talisman for divine revelation that allows you to break generational curses, cut soul ties, and things like that.  Or in other church settings it can help you discover that this preacher or that "biblical living" pastor/counselor helps you discover lost or ignored events that help to explain why you are where you are today. Thus a marriage on the rocks now would be on the rocks because of an affair a woman had ten years ago.  But that affair would merely be symptomatic of problems that already existed in the relationship, wouldn't it?  Well, no matter, it becomes talismanic to uncover such an event or to propose that such an event existed.

Back in my Pentecostal days it was common enough to have an approach to music where the goal was to emotionally whip kids into a frenzy.  Teenagers, you know.  Well during those impressionable teen years I was swayed by the mood of the moment and had trouble staying still and shook and mumbled.  The preacher said that he appreciated my appreciating the music but that it was time to be cool and stay calm.  Two other people led me outside and started praying over me.  They had come to a very different conclusion than the preacher had!  They were going through every possible spirit to exorcise from me they could think of and some old lady was there doing the same.  I began to rustle a bit to say that I was okay but they kept pressing down to keep me in place.  They were rebuking everything they could think of.  I began to realize that they weren't going to stop restraining me until I agreed that I was possessed of something or other on that list.  They finally got to some new possible source of bondage and I said "How did you know?"  I don't feel particularly good about saying that but that did, at least, get them to stop restraining me from being able to move or get up. 

So, dear reader, I'm afraid that I have some first hand experience with what may be called `the 'aesthetics of plausibility'.  I learned later that the old lady was declaring to other people she'd cast out demons from me.  Great ... not exactly the most wonderful news to be hearing about!  There was a pastor at the church who stepped in on my behalf and asked the old lady to stop spreading that report. 

Why do I mention that?  Heh, I hope by now it's obvious.  A person who is told by a pastor in a counseling session, "This is what I think God is saying is the root cause of the problems" may, entirely without intending to be deceptive, feel obliged to agree just because the social pressure of the moment seems to provide no other option.  The person may not have done anything remotely like whatever that counselor has proposed but the person knows the pastor is going to default to a request to be proven right.  If you say "Nothing like that happened" the question comes back, "Really?  Are you sure?"  In Pentecostal circles and in revivalist camp meetings that could be rephrased as:

Do you know!?

Do you know that you know that you know!?

Yep, I've been to some Pentecostal camp meetings in my life.

Even if you think you know, you'll be asked enough times (rhetorically) that you'll begin to think that maybe you don't know.  Even if you do know it couldn't hurt to walk down the aisle one more time, you know, just to make your calling and election sure.  Barring that there's always walking the aisle to make sure you're not a backslider and that you renew your commitment.  In a similar way, it can be that in a pastoral counseling session a person can become convinced that since it's good to confess and be aware of hidden faults (Ps 19 and Ps 119) maybe it wouldn't hurt to confess sins you're not aware you have committed because you can't recall having ever committed those.  Then again, you might have, so it couldn't hurt to agree just in case. 

Embracing an aesthetic (or a set of rhetorical as well as social gestures) to make one's self or one's story more plausible to a given narrative or appeal can happen as a way to cement certainty in the self or the other, but also as a way to foster doubt in the self ... or in the case of certain pastoral or polemical contexts, the other.  You can lay out a lengthy and contentious set of arguments and assertions defining a particular topic around premise A and if you pull that off then you've practically won.  But if a person can establish that premise A isn't even the only premise relevant to a given subject and that premise B must also be considered the entire argument from premise A has to be revised, at best, or at worst abandoned.  Having literally been on the restraining end of such a set of assumptions I can tell you that proposing premise B is not going to be welcomed.  It's beyond the aesthetics of plausibility.


Jeanette Bartha said...

Enjoyed reading your opinions. I hope your insights into repression and memory are useful to those who believe these contrived occurrences.

You sure dodged a church bullet regarding the prayers. Don't people know about mass hysteria and how crowds feed off each other?

Kudos for your article.
Jeanette Bartha

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Thanks. Jeanette.

I do feel like I dodged some bullets over the years but the Driscoll "I see things" video clip reminds me how prevalent this recovered memory counseling approach still is in some circles.

There's a much longer article on this blog about Driscoll's claim to "see things" and I refer to Loftus for that.

I also dug into some OT scholarship about case law in the Torah and lay out a case that a prophet in an ancient society would not have the role of magical seer most of the time but as more of a military and policy advisor within Israelite judicial settings. The prophet could also play the role of criticizing institutional power in the royal court or the priesthood and address manipulation of laws by lobbyists (Jeremiah 8:8, so to speak).

It's concerned me that in pastoral settings it's too easy for some preachers to equate prophecy with what they happen to do and then jump from that to exerting control. The OT texts indicate that prophets were to be assessed by the people as a whole for their reliability and then ignored if what they said didn't turn out to be true. I'm taking a very prosaic, perhaps even naturalistic application of that prescription in Deuteronomy 16-18, but videos like "I see things" make me think that it may be necessary. I think that if prophets in the OT are seen more as policy wonks concerned to battle political repression of the common people or state corruption that ancient prophets can be seen in a more informed light. Tiresias as critic of Oedipus can be cited as a Hellenistic counterpart to an OT prophet. The job of the prophet wasn't just to entrench political or social power but to advise and also critique it when necessary.
In the case of recovered memories there will probably be a continuing need to demonstrate that it's very literally manipulative bunk.