Out of every Christian lie, the one about Jesus’ magical transformation ability might be the worst. This lie tells Christians that belief in Jesus—along with adherence to a great many asterisked terms and conditions that only get revealed long after conversion—will transform them into better people. This transformation supposedly allows Christians to shed bad habits, adopt good ones, and live a pious and obedient life before shuffling off this mortal coil.

But there’s no magic involved here at all. There’s no transformation. No gods are standing by to transform their followers. And today, we’ll see how Christians cope with that fact—or rather, how they don’t.

(From introduction: One of the ‘Christian lies’ series; Chick tract with sample transformation; Keith Green song; a plant-based chili recipe that I liked.)

(This post first went live on Patreon on 8/3/2023. Its audio ‘cast lives there too, and should be available now!)

Setting up the lie of Christian transformation

Christians come by this lie honestly, at least. The New Testament talks extensively about Jesus’ powers of transformation:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. [Romans 12:2]

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! [2 Corinthians 5:17]

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. [Galatians 2:20]

Do not lie to one another, since you have taken off the old self with its practices, and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. [Colossians 3:9-10]

Surely you heard of Him and were taught in Him—in keeping with the truth that is in Jesus—to put off your former way of life, your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be renewed in the spirit of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. [Ephesians 4:21-24]

Not only is this transformation complete, but it is also divine in nature. Conversion completes a sort of divine circuit that allows Jesus to work his magic in a believer. It changes everything. Here’s one example from Jack Chick’s tract empire:

Only willfully refusing to keep the circuit connected can stop this transformation process from occurring. Of course, in Christian folklore sometimes even that doesn’t stop Jesus from doing whatever he wants. And sometimes, he wants someone to work hard for a transformation that will never, ever happen.

After all, processes that aren’t actually real can have as many side rules, asterisks, and gotchas as the game’s masters want.

Yes yes, but how does magic transformation happen?

In a recent post at Christianity Today, Russell Moore explores theories of magic Jesus transformation. It seems that a nagging question has begun to eat at his mind:

Whether it means starting out at a new church or Bible study or signing up for a gym membership or yoga class, most people at some point sense a need to change their lives. Most of us in ministry want to see “changed lives” or “transformed” people. The question is, How do people actually change?

It’s a good question, but it’s not one that Christians are set up to answer. They inevitably slam up against a dealbreaking false assumption about the world: That a real live omnimax god inhabits their faith and their minds, a god who can and does affect both this world and people’s lives. If someone’s baseline assumptions about reality aren’t true, then their evaluation of problems won’t be true either, and their suggestions for fixing those problems will fall flat on their faces.

You will not ever hear Christians questioning that assumption about their god. Instead, they do what Russell Moore does: They try to find patterns that explain why the world looks exactly like their assumption isn’t true at all, while maintaining the assumption as true in their minds.

Theories of change explain transformation in all too earthly terms

But okay, fine, let’s explore this idea with Russell Moore. It’s called theories of change, and he credits it to Simeon Zahl, who wrote about it for The Mockingbird magazine. (I think this guy’s Catholic too—Ooh la la! And we’ll be drawing upon both essays today.) Theories of change trace the actual processes of change in people. How does one draw a line from the starting point to the end of transformation? What things must happen and in what order? What can accelerate change—or stymie it—or prevent it entirely?

Most sincere pastors want their flocks to experience divine transformation, as Moore has told us already. So these questions are important to them. The question they face is how to facilitate that process.

Many Christians, particularly evangelicals I’ve noticed, think if they just tell their flocks why they should make a specific change, and point out in the Bible the need for that change, then the flocks will fall into line like sheep. They just needed to know what the Bible had to say about, say, wrath or off-limits sex. Once they know, then they will, of course, do as they’re told.

I’ll give you a minute to get over your laughter. That was a good joke, wasn’t it? By the way, Simeon Zahl calls that approach the “Christian information” theory of change. And he doesn’t think highly of it.

Zahl calls the second theory of change “sacramental participation.” It’s what it says on the tin: Christians achieve divine transformation by participating in Christian rituals like baptism, Communion, church services, and the like. Moore and Zahl both like that one a bit better.

Our third theory isn’t specifically named as such by Zahl, but he does talk about it at length in the post. It involves driving people into cathartic states of euphoria through worship. Both Zahl and Moore seem impressed with this one. This is where we’ll mostly be hanging out.

And now, the transformation of the Augustinian approach

What’s bizarre is that Zahl doesn’t understand how his gloriously perfect theory of change, what he calls the Augustinian approach, looks exactly like that third theory. Here is the brief bit of description we get about the cathartic model:

Another classic example is the Pentecostal and charismatic approach that focuses ministry on stirring the congregation to a kind of emotionally charged personal encounter with God in the form of the altar call.

And here’s a bit of what he says about the Augustinian approach:

The Pelagians, in Augustine’s eyes, had a bad theory of change. [. . .] Their theory of change, then, was to read the Bible and then try very hard to do what it said.

Augustine found this view both naïve and at odds with what Scripture says about human nature. Drawing especially on Paul’s statements about the inability of divine law to produce the righteousness it calls for, as well as the Sermon on the Mount, Augustine argued that the core engine of human nature is not the will but the heart and its desires. And he pointed out that it is extremely hard to change hearts—so hard in fact, that only God can do it, through the Holy Spirit.

Most importantly, Zahl thinks Augustine teaches Christian leaders that “the heart of Christian ministry is the facilitation of an emotional encounter with the God revealed in Jesus.” [Italics in original.] He continues:

If you are not successfully engaging with people’s feelings and desires, with their anxieties, their loves, and their pain, then you are just playing a game with Christian words; you are not doing ministry. The intransigence of the human heart is the fundamental problem of Christian ministry. The Spirit of God traffics in emotion and desire.

As an aside, this is why it is no accident that charismatic and Pentecostal ministries are overwhelmingly the most effective ministries widely at work today.

As such, both Zahl and Moore speak glowingly of music ministers and the deep, searing emotions that even mid-level ones can coax out of congregations. Indeed, music is a powerful tool in manipulating audiences. But there’s nothing divine about that kind of manipulation. Every religion’s leaders seem to draw upon that same powerful tool to evoke emotions in their audiences. We could say the same of Heilung. Every time I listen to their music I get goose bumps!

If you’re asking, as I am, how this Augustinian approach differs from that third theory of cathartic euphoria, you’ll find no answers from either writer.

Oops! Now for the asterisks of transformation

Of course, both Zahl and Moore slip in some asterisks. They must. Without a real live god doing anything for Christians, there must be ways to hand-wave away serious discrepancies between their reality and their beliefs. As Zahl writes:

Yes, habitual prayer, service, contemplation, justice work, and Bible reading can have powerful shaping effects on people, including on their emotional experience. But — and this is an important but — the Augustinian perspective tells us that we can do all this only once our hearts have already changed enough that we desire to engage in the practice. No one will develop a transformative and durable new practice of prayer unless they fundamentally want to and want to enough to carry them through life’s inevitable obstacles.

See? Someone gets a magic Jesus transformation only if their heart really wants it.

Similarly, Moore thinks that Christians can stymie transformation:

Only sometimes do we truly perceive how God is reaching us at that deeper place of the heart. We can’t engineer it or manufacture it. But we also shouldn’t ignore it or squelch it.

Right now, my internal thermometer is ratcheting up as I remember a dear friend in college, Dwayne, who was both very gay and very Southern Baptist. This sweet, blonde, downright-fey young man desperately wanted Jesus to take away his homosexuality. But Jesus kept not taking it away. We prayed together so many times for this change. He even attended our church about once a month seeking healing from it. I guess he didn’t want it enough, by this standard.

Beliefs that aren’t true really show their colors when put up against the real world in situations just like this one. I don’t know if it’d even occur to Zahl to think about the many people who ache and cry out for transformation, only to come away empty-handed. All they get when they dare to mention this failure is another asterisk to check off the list—or blame for doing other asterisks incorrectly.

Sure, Dwayne might have taken a hint in his situation by questioning whether Jesus actually had an issue with homosexuality. That didn’t occur to either one of us. But I’m betting that isn’t where either Zahl or Moore want any of their flocks to roam.

Starting from wrong assumptions: The truth about those rowdy Pentecostals

I also must take exception to Zahl’s and Moore’s admiration of Pentecostal-style worship.

Yes, nobody but nobody gets as delightfully rowdy as Pentecostals. There’s a glorious loss of self in a properly messy altar call. People dance, they sing, they raise their hands, they run around and hop and laugh, they fall down and shake, they hold hands and dance forward and back again in an undulating line of bodies and flowing fabric. When Pentecostals get going, it’s like they all merge into one sensation, one singularity of united purpose and direction.

More than once, friends of mine would joke as we left a good altar call, I think I need a cigarette.

Often, as I sat awaiting the evening service to begin, people would come in, breathe deeply, and say to nobody in particular, I needed this all week. And many felt that way. Sunday evenings were our time to let our hair down, so to speak. Newbie visitors did not often visit then, on purpose. A proper Pentecostal display was a lot to take in on one’s first exposure.

What’s funny is that I didn’t often join in these festivities. I was scared of getting stepped on, naturally more reserved, and I didn’t like everyone watching me to see if I’d finally speak in tongues. But my reticence just means that I got a good look at what was happening.

Yes, these altar calls resulted in extremely euphoric folks. Yes, their experiences were extremely cathartic.

No, these experiences did not lead to greater transformation in the people having them. Pentecostals are just as hypocritical and disobedient as any other evangelicals, and maybe even more so.

Starting from wrong assumptions: The only allowed source of real transformation

If you caught Zahl and Moore insisting that only Jesus could possibly create transformation in human beings, then that was a good catch! It’s as untrue as any other claim Christians make.

In reality, humans tend to avoid making big changes. We don’t like to change. We get a system that we think works adequately, and then we ride that system to the very ground. Even after realizing it isn’t working very well at all, we try to revive it so we can use it again. Maybe we try to tweak it a bit here, or adjust things a bit there, but overall we don’t want to throw out the whole system.

However, we do indeed make big changes sometimes. And we can maintain those changes for life, all without any gods’ help. I’ve successfully kept about 75 pounds off for 20 years by permanently changing how I engage with and use food. I’ve successfully put PTSD and anxiety attacks into remission for even longer by practicing better mental hygiene. Through lots of personal work, I’ve also gotten over being a particularly dramatic and tedious attention-seeking teenager.

Christianity had only exacerbated all of those problems. Devotions and fervor had substituted for the real changes I needed to make in my life to get better. Often, the emotions stirred up in those cathartic experiences only confirmed and validated my maladaptive behaviors and thinking.

False transformation shouldn’t count

If Zahl and Moore think that only Jesus can successfully transform regular people into TRUE CHRISTIANS™ who follow their religion’s rules and make Jesus look good to potential recruits, then well, that’s certainly a slightly different matter.

But considering how incredibly easy it is for anyone to fool Christians into thinking they’re the real deal true blue TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ideal, I’d hope they’d be just a wee bit more careful about assuming that anybody at all experiences transformation in their religion.

All too often, I’d see people claiming that Jesus had healed them of this or that unpleasant facet. Men, in particular, loved to claim that Jesus had taken away their anger problems. Women would claim Jesus had cured their bitterness, which is Christianese for anger that men think has gone on too long or makes them look bad. They’d all thank Jesus for healing their pride or their rebellion or whatever else they thought kept them from the TRUE CHRISTIAN™ ideal.

And then, in a moment of weakness or provocation, they’d find themselves falling into the same exact old habits and responses.

Convincing authoritarians to change

The problem gets considerably worse, of course.

Up till now, we’ve been talking mostly about flaws that any Christian could concede is a problem. Now, let’s talk about convincing Christians to change their entire outlook on Christianity. To change how they engage with human beings in general, how they interact with others, how they see themselves in relation to others.

Let’s talk about convincing a Hell-believer that Hell is about as real as Equestria and Middle-Earth. Or bringing a complementarian to an understanding of the sheer wickedness that this doctrine contains at its core. Or, dare I say, convincing a Calvinist that they worship and praise the most evil god in the entire history of gods.

Suddenly, we are cooking with the opposite of gas. Wet leaves, maybe. Nothing’s cooking on that stove. It doesn’t matter how cathartic or euphoric the worship ministry was that day.

The real transformation needs to start right here, though, in this dismal territory at the base of our beliefs. Most people are happy to let Christians off the hook for their flaws as long as they’re otherwise decent human beings. But we tend to get more tetchy if hypocrites daring to order us around in the name of their god turn out to follow none of their own rules.

But we almost never see any transformations like that.

The New Testament’s big lie, writ large on the world stage

Nor will any Christian leaders ever see any grand waves of such transformations. It’s never happened, not in the religion’s entire history. Christians have always acted just like they do nowadays.

Decent human beings who enter Christianity tend, overwhelmingly, to remain so after conversion. If they deconvert, they’ll still be so. Whatever religions or ideologies they ever embrace, they will be good people. At most, they’ll do terrible things thinking they must. They’ll feel awful about it, and hopefully will refuse to do them ever again.

Horrible people who enter Christianity tend, overwhelmingly, to remain so after conversion. In fact, they tend to get worse because they gravitate to flavors that give them permission to mistreat others. If they deconvert, they’ll still be horrible people.

It is exceedingly hard for people to make changes at a deep level. And that process works for Christians the exact same way that it works for everyone else. That’s why Zahl and Moore and who even knows who else in the Christ-o-sphere has to figure out all these theories and approaches and models and systems, then doggedly figure out which ones work, which ones don’t, and when, and with whom.

All that effort points to one very obvious truth:

Their god is not magically transforming anybody, so if they want to see people transformed within their religion, then they’ve got to do all this work to make it happen. They’re on their own.

I don’t even know if I want to tell them that even then, it won’t do any good because most of their rituals and devotions are just a substitute for all the work needed to bring about real change. These two guys just seem so, so happy with what they’ve figured out about how to totally transform Christians’ lives. It’d be sad to bring them down like that.

Of course, they wouldn’t listen to me, anyway.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.


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