Last time we met up, I showed you how Christians engage with callings. They imagine that callings are divine work orders from their god, issued to help them fulfill his ineffable plans for Earth and humanity. Unfortunately, the reality of callings looks quite different from the folklore about them. That would make callings difficult enough for Christians, but then they add a fillip to their folklore that makes callings even more impossible to figure out. Christians love callings that represent a complete reversal of expectations. They enjoy stories about unexpected, inverted expectations. However, these stories must end the correct way. Today, I’ll show you why Christian folklore is so full of these sorts of reversals, and then we’ll explore what happens when one doesn’t go according to plan.
Low and High Christianity
When I talk about Low and High Christianity, I’m drawing a distinction between the two major styles of worship in that religion.
Low Christianity members tend to be less educated about the Bible and Christianity’s origins. They tend to believe urban legends and anecdotal claims, as long as they come from fellow tribemates. Their worship tends to be less regimented and structured, but also more emotionally euphoric. Literalists almost always land in Low Christianity, simply because that doctrinal position relies so heavily on pseudoscience, fallacious arguments, anecdata, and personal, subjective feelings.
High Christianity tends to be way loftier. Its members tend to take a more metaphorical view of Christianity. They’re well aware that their sourcebook is lacking in a lot of ways, and that people today have to kinda rig it to fly well in modern days. Often, people in this camp are way better educated. Their worship is ritualistic, liturgical, and intellectually pleasing to members. However, they can behave in staggeringly cruel ways.
Note that authoritarians and toxic Christians can infest either Low or High Christianity. I do not assign a moral value to these terms. I made a diagram a while back about it, placing particular flavors of Christians along axes of control-lust and style of Jesus-ing:
Reversals in Christianity
We find reversals all over the New Testament, but most especially in the Gospels. Christians love to talk up those reversals, as well: reversals of expectations, of fortunes, of treatment by others, even of rewards. Here’s how one church pastor, David Sorn, describes his first reaction to this literary technique:
I can remember countless times going, “HUH? That seems sort of backwards, Jesus.”
It’s like you reversed it or something.
Because there are a few times in the Bible where Jesus seems to completely reverse the way we think things should be.
It’s like he completely flips it around.
Another Christian, Rory Allen Naeve, wrote a whole doctoral thesis about humor in the New Testament. On page 46 of it, he writes that the reversals we see there (especially “and the last will be first, and the frst will be last”) subvert and foil listeners’ expectations. Often, people interpret reversals as absurd, and thus as humorous. As he writes:
The parable intends to reshape the world and so the preacher can use folly to invert perspective. In the world of humor, one is allowed to temporarily violate norms, allowing the hearers to momentarily see if the upside-down world actually makes more sense than the right-side-up one.
I mean, it really doesn’t here. But you do you, dude.
Jesus as a study in reversals
Many Christians themselves–in both High and Low Christianity–think Jesus himself represents a whole bunch of reversals like that.
After all, the king of the world and god of the universe was born to poor parents in a manger far from home. He grew up relatively poor and unknown. When he began his ministry, he got baptized by someone else. Though many considered him “the son of God,” he didn’t really call himself that.
Moreover, he often subverted expectations. Instead of condemning the woman taken in adultery, he drew in the dirt and asked pointed questions about the attackers’ justification for slaying her. He also ate with heathens and “sinners” and other poorly-regarded folks.
The Gospels depict Jesus’ death as a major problem for his followers. They had expected him, even after all his teachings, to overthrow the Romans and set up his daddy’s kingdom on Earth. He did none of that. Instead, he died as a criminal and the Romans destroyed Jerusalem a few decades later.
I certainly do not regard Jesus as a good person. He sounds more like a wild-eyed whackjob, and he lied about stuff like prayer. In addition, there are very good reasons why Jews never accepted him as their Messiah. However, the Gospels’ anonymous writers went out of their way to have the character of Jesus up-end all expectations people might have of someone of his station–to make those subversions look like PROOF YES PROOF that he simply had to be the one they’d waited for.
And even today, Christians still think this.
Reversals in real life and stories
In his thesis, Rory Allen Naeve also mentions reversals in real life: underdogs who win against the odds, unlikely success stories, mean-looking people who turn out to be quite kind. And yes, that does happen surprisingly often. I was just telling Mr. Captain earlier today that most of the bodybuilders I’ve ever known weren’t meatheads at all. Instead, they’ve been almost universally well-read and kind.
In movies and books, as well, we see many such reversals. One of my favorite movies, Saturday the 14th, has quite a few–including exactly who the heroes and villains really are. Even the monsters don’t always behave as we expect, with one turning into quite a good housekeeper. You could easily say that another 80s classic, Trading Places, centers around many reversals of roles and audience expectations. That movie’s signature score even comes from The Marriage of Figaro, a comic opera that, itself, dealt extensively in such reversals.
Many festivals in real life also reverse roles. Britain has a party called a bean-feast. It’s given by employers for employees. At these, someone becomes the bean king by eating whatever piece of the main cake that contains a bean. Then, that person reigns over the party. Like, I suspect, most Americans, I only knew of the term because it appeared in that Willy Wonka movie.
The bean feast, in turn, derives from the medieval celebration called Twelfth Night. There’s a similar custom there around cakes with a special favor baked into them, and whoever gets it becomes the king or queen for the night. In the American Gulf Coast, folks do something similar for Mardi Gras. In Europe and South America, Carnival or Carnivale also bears elements of role reversal–along with reversals of pretty much all social norms.
People do like their reversals.
Reversals in callings and testimonies
A while ago, I began to notice that Christians — particularly evangelicals in Low Christianity — focus on reversals in their testimonies and other anecdotes, especially in recounting their callings. As we discussed last time, they think their god sends them work orders that they must follow. They think these orders will help their god work his will upon the world. Thus, it’s essential that everyone follow their orders.
However, Christians also think that sometimes these callings will make perfect sense, while at other times they’ll seem utterly nonsensical. I remember Mark Driscoll, the authoritarian lizard-king of Mars Hill Church, talking about how unlikely he was as the lead pastor of a huge, sprawling, prosperous megachurch: very little education, a recent convert, and possessed of almost no skill at writing, reading, or even public speaking. And yet, he insisted, Jesus had told him to open a church!
I heard stories like that constantly when I was a Christian. Our god seemed to absolutely delight in handing Christians the weirdest, most incomprehensible orders imaginable. A quiet, meek person might think he had to become a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Or two people with no business being in a relationship might decide Jesus wanted them to get married. Or someone with no business acumen might think they were told to open a business to run for “God’s glory,” as we used to put it.
One of the strangest kinds of reversals involved someone deciding to open a church where there was little to no demand for one. They did it because they thought Jesus was totally gonna send a revival to that area. So, they’d really need a church!
As long as the endeavors involved here succeeded, then everyone loved the reversals. We all thrilled to how powerful our god totally was for making it all work despite all those obstacles. But if the endeavor failed, or worse backfired, then it’s like we all totally forgot about the situations within hours. Our brains papered over them. It was like they’d never happened.
Why we love to see roles and expectations reversed
Besides the sheer absurdity reversals represent, I suspect that reversals in Christianity just get Christians’ attention better than stuff they expect to encounter. I mean, that pastor I quoted earlier had that surprise in his teens, and he still remembers the experience to this very day.
Our brains are incredibly powerful. But part of that power involves automating and outsourcing all kinds of processing tasks. It’s kinda scary to think about all the stuff our brains just ignore and gloss over, all the blanks they just fill in, and all the memories they tweak to turn our experiences into memorable narratives. One 2020 post from Medium even titles itself, “You have no idea how much your brain is ignoring.” And we don’t. We don’t even have to direct this activity. Our brains do it all by themselves, whether we like it or not.
But when we encounter something that is strikingly out of the ordinary, like a complete reversal in an otherwise unremarkable story, that’s something we remember better. It stands out. It’s unexpected. We can’t just ignore it and go about our business.
We also like seeing reversals that feel like justice to us, or that bring success to deserving people. 90s kids might remember The Mighty Ducks. In that movie, young hockey players make good. 80s kids often resonate with The Karate Kid. In that one, a young outcast becomes a champion karate fighter through the sheer power of montages.
Christianity harnessed the power of good storytelling early on. It’s stood them in good stead for many centuries. So, I don’t see that aspect of their religion changing any time soon.
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