Testimonies, in Christianity, are short anecdotes about how Christians came to believe the various claims made by their flavor of the religion. They’ve been on my mind lately because not long ago, a Christian told me that he thought Christian testimonies constituted valid and very real evidence for Christians’ claims. At first, I almost thought he was messing with me. But he was serious! When I pushed back on that notion, he got mad at me and peaced out of the exchange.
I’ve talked before about anecdotes not being evidence. But now, I want to specifically address Christian testimonies and the functions they serve. These anecdotes are simply not trustworthy, and thus they can’t be used as evidence. Today, we’ll look at why they’re not trustworthy–because their flaws, in and of themselves, contradict Christians’ own claims and become part of their collective story in a whole other way.
It is Tuesday, March 22, 2022, and this is Captain Cassidy of Roll to Disbelieve! Welcome to today’s post! Before we begin, let me offer my thanks to my patrons and supporters. Your support is vital to my work, and it is very, very appreciated. If you’re not one of them yet and would like to know about the options, at the end of today’s writeup I’ll provide some links about it. Thanks for whatever you decide to do!
And now, let’s see how testimonies become part of Christians’ story about themselves–even, maybe even especially, when they’re false.
Testimonies in the Cult of Before Stories
In a lot of ways, I consider Christianity a Cult of Before Stories. Christians love making up and listening to stories about how their tribal enemies realized they were right all along–and then joined up to fight against their own former tribes. Nothing thrills them quite like hearing about enemies’ conversions!
So the more wild and lascivious a Christian’s pre-Christian life was and the more miraculous the central conversion moment is, the more audiences enjoy it. Also, the better the story, the more they reward the bearer of it.
Indeed, Christians peddling really good testimonies can expect very good rewards from their audiences. For years, Mike Warnke made excellent money peddling his testimony to churches all over America. Dude became one of the biggest names in evangelicalism for a while there! Nor is he the only one who made bank thanks to a great testimony.
Most testimonies won’t achieve a Mike Warnke level of wealth and popularity for their bearers. However, they will still garner many rewards: money, attention, leadership positions and speaking engagements in their churches, a lofty reputation outside of the church, and more.
Best of all, testimonies are the safest grift in the Christ-o-sphere. Nobody questions these stories, ever. Even if someone does question a testimony, it won’t make any difference. Not even a full and thorough debunking (by Christians!) could persuade Warnke’s fans to abandon him. In fact, liars-for-Jesus can expect the tribe to attack anyone questioning the validity of testimonies.
In that environment, the real surprise is that any testimonies turn out to be real, not that so many turn out to be fake.
How to evaluate testimonies
When we examine testimonies, we consider these factors (at least):
- Who’s telling the story
- Who the audience is
- Why the story is being told (including what its bearer hopes to gain)
- How the audience evaluates the story
- What happens to the storyteller if the story is found to contain untrue or unsupportable elements
At every single point, testimonies flunk hard.
One: Who’s telling and receiving the testimony?
First of all, we examine who our storytellers are.
In Christianity, the people offering testimonies are currently-believing Christians. Generally (but not always), they at least pretend to be very fervent. In a testimony, a Christian inevitably claims to have carefully examined all the relevant evidence for and against Christianity. Then, they landed on belief in this one particular flavor as a rational choice that turned out to be very emotionally satisfying as well. It’s a difficult needle to thread!
So, testimony-bearers present themselves as very rational people who are satisfied with their purchase, and now offer a testimony only as a disinterested third party wishing to help other shoppers.
And second, the audience for testimonies will be one of two people:
- Other current members of the same group of Christians
- Non-members of that group, possibly even non-believers in Christianity
Accordingly, testimonies must be doctored to appeal to one or the other group. The reason for telling a testimony changes with the audience. If being told to other group members, then it doesn’t need as heavy an emphasis on apologetics. And it’ll be far more complimentary to the group members themselves. In this case, testimonies function as retention tools.
On the other hand, if the audience consists of non-members, then the testimony must be a lot heavier on recruiting techniques. Here, it functions more as an initial sales tool.
Why testimonies get told in the first place: in-group…
When testimony-bearers offer testimonies to their own group, it functions as a sort of virtue signal:
Look at me! I’m a good member of our group! I agree with our talking points and ideals! Isn’t our group just great? I’m so glad to be here!
And that’s perfectly okay. I’m not being sarcastic at all. This is not a bad thing to share with one’s group. It can feel incredibly validating to have one’s testimony accepted by the rest of the group, and it can bring joy to those who joined earlier to hear that newcomers like it too.
The only drawback to this is if the person feels they must up-play the positives of belonging and say things they don’t mean to fit in better. Nobody should ever feel obligated to do that. I’ve seen pastors require members to offer testimonies, and this isn’t always a happy time for the members who don’t like speaking in public!
… and out-group
However, testimony-bearers also deploy testimonies to recruit for their group. So when giving testimonies to non-members, the testimony alters slightly. It adopts a lot more sales strategies. And that means giving potential recruits valid reasons for wanting to join up. And to Christians, that means miracles, apologetics talking points, and customer satisfaction.
For example, before conversion, they were sad and empty-feeling (even if they had money and friends and a romantic partner). Then, they discovered this flavor of Christianity. Gosh, so many things convinced them it was the real-deal capital-T Truth. Belief flooded through them as a result. Afterward, they felt joy and certainty, purpose and meaning at last. And so could you, if you also adopt their flavor of Christianity!
Test drive one Visit their church today to see if Our Flavor is right for you!
It is the sales aspect of testimonies that gets the most attention from most skeptics. That makes sense, since it’s where Christians fling all their pseudoscience and alternate facts. However, I don’t think we should discount the in-group testimonies. They’re an important part of the sociology of these groups. This is where they talk about what they want most out of a group.
How audiences evaluate testimonies (matters)
Once the story itself is deployed, the audience–whoever it is–evaluates it.
If the audience is Christian, the story is accepted wholeheartedly. It’s that simple. Christians never imagine anybody would ever lie about something that important. Plus, they believe miracles are real and that their god actually can magically change people’s hearts and habits. A testimony involving these elements can’t be questioned without drawing ire from the tribe.
If the audience is non-Christian, it might draw a noncommittal expression of approval for the testimony-bearer finding something that “works for them.” Or it might draw outright skepticism and questioning. It won’t be accepted completely, most likely, but Christian leaders at all levels coach the flocks constantly about how to interpret this dismal reception.
- Their targets are hard-hearted, that’s all.
- Only Jesus induces belief, and I guess he didn’t want to do that right then.
- Something something rocky soil, something something shake the dust off your feet, something something not having ears to hear.
Very seldom will Christians examine why their testimonies are accepted so completely by their own group, yet rejected almost universally by everyone else.
And this thinking is everywhere
I went looking online for any advice anywhere from Christian leaders about how to critically evaluate testimonies.
As you might guess, I found none. Well, almost none. Last year, a Chinese Christian site complained about falsified testimonies:
There are also believers making up lies in order to improve their status in the church. They would exaggerate their own witness to get the approval of brothers and sisters [. . .]
Many brothers and sisters are full of enthusiasm, but short of rational thinking. When they see a good testimony, they do not try to distinguish the authenticity first, but to cherish it as some real treasure and spread it through the internet everywhere.
Often, I do see advice sites (like this one) telling Christians not to fib or embellish anything in their testimonies. But nothing anywhere tells Christians to think critically about them. There exists no mechanism whatsoever for evaluating testimonies, and certainly no street-legal, allowable way to communicate skepticism in any testimony’s claims.
What happens when a testimony is found to contain untrue or unsupported elements?
At various times, Christians have accidentally stumbled upon some facts that directly contradict a testimony-bearer’s claims.
A few minutes ago, I mentioned Mike Warnke. He blasted onto the Christian speaking scene in the mid-1970s. Thanks to his absolutely explosive testimony, he soon catapulted himself into the big time. His testimony helped kick-start the Satanic Panic. Every evangelical seemed to own at least a couple of his awful comedy albums and books. But doubters had noticed a few things that seemed, well, off. They had no way to communicate their concerns to anyone, however. So they sent them to an evangelical magazine called Cornerstone:
Through the years, Cornerstone has received many calls from people who felt something was not right concerning Mike Warnke.
Eventually, these concerns became a huge expose in 1992 that eviscerated every single element of Mike Warnke’s testimony. Alas, it didn’t have the effect Cornerstone had hoped to get.
What happened next
Most of Cornerstone’s expose has vanished from the web, but here’s a big chunk of it. I’ve seen the whole thing, though, and it was truly impressive. Mike Warnke himself appears to have tried to quash the whole thing. When that failed, he simply ignored it.
And so did most of his fans. Oh, it had some impact. He lost a publishing contract and all. But overall, his fans maintained their loyalty. He still had his weird ministry, still went on speaking tours, and still raked in money. His fans refused to even entertain anything Cornerstone had brought to bear. In their update, the expose writers wrote:
Some Christian publications report taking heat from their readers simply for reporting on the controversy. “We’ve had staff people leave just because we ran the EP news piece on Warnke,” says Greg Wallace of the Indianapolis-based Christian Advocate. “One pastor refused to stock that particular issue of our paper in his church. He said he didn’t want his congregation to have to decide who was telling the truth.”
Much the same thing happened years later to Tony Anthony, who peddled a similarly-fanciful testimony called Taming the Tiger. As with the previous expose, it was Christians who released it. And afterward, Anthony retained way more of his fans than anybody expected. And, let’s not forget, the same thing happened to me when I defied Biff by threatening to reveal the truth about his testimony.
It doesn’t matter how many testimonies turn out to be fabricated and embellished. A non-zero number of fans will still stand by their spinners.
The picture that emerges from these five factors
As we examine these five factors, then, a picture emerges:
A tribe hungry for validation of their beliefs, but lacking any of the real-world facts that could form that validation. Opportunists who sense, in that hunger, opportunities for themselves. All they have to do is lie.
It’s the safest lie they they could ever tell.
The tribe is already geared to accept testimonies as facts. They’re already set up with a framework for accepting them without questions. If a few do have questions, that structure denies them any way to convey them safely. And it also provides the rest of the tribe with approved retaliation measures to punish dissenters for daring to raise any concerns about a testimony that they feel glorifies their god and their tribe–and proves that their beliefs are true, true, true, even truer-than-truth-itself.
See why modern Christianity simply fascinates me? It’s mesmerizing. Just not for the reason Christians want.
But Christians refuse to accept these truths
The idea that Christians fake testimonies is one you’ll almost never hear discussed in the Christ-o-sphere. I don’t think they can handle the idea. Even Christians with a more prosaic view of testimonies can barely engage with this reality. In that Quora thread I shared earlier (relink), a guy claiming to be a pastor and military chaplain writes:
In my career, I’ve read and listened to hundreds of testimonies. Some were for trips, some were for jobs, some were for church positions, some (I am quite sure) were intended to impress girls. [. . .]
[Y]ou’re not going to be able to write a testimony that won’t be immediately detected as bullshit (that, by the way, is the technical term we use).
I seriously doubt our pastor-chaplain acquaintance realizes just how many testimonies contain questionable elements. And has he engaged with the reality of what it means that so many testimonies contain elements that aren’t true? Cuz I doubt it. (Be forewarned if you read the whole thing: his advice contains more than your recommended daily allowance of condescension. And he misdefines atheism, demands the atheist “be open” to future conversion, and issues a vague threat of future difficulties for being an atheist. It’s like Christmas for any atheist’s bingo card.)
But that’s the most I was able to find. One guy claiming he could totally spot fake testimonies a mile away. And I only found one single blog post in which a would-be salesperson described getting pushback from a target. Naturally, she took the entirely wrong lesson from it all: clearly, she needed to become more confrontational and condemning–and hammer harder at apologetics talking points, like using the Bible’s claims to support the Bible’s claims about the Bible.
How fake testimonies become part of the Christian story
As I said, it’s mesmerizing.
Christians may not like this truth very much, but fake testimonies are, simply put, part of their collective story. These testimonies reveal so much about their tribe. Sure, mostly it reveals their worst flaws and most secret shames and dreams. But that, too, is part of any culture’s story. It deserves attention.
The unfortunate part of that story is that otherwise ethical Christians may find themselves feeling pressured to prettify their testimonies so they won’t feel left out–or like they’re short-changing their beloved god and group. And they may well feel that they’re supposed to be getting a lot more out of Christianity than they are, not realizing that almost everyone lies about how they’re doing in it.
No group member should feel like they have to lie to belong, either. And if we find out a salesperson lied about their experience with their product, we’re well within our rights to reject it and them. (I mean, we are anyway. But still. Extra we are in that case.)
And this has been Captain Cassidy of Roll to Disbelieve. Please check out the writeup at the end of today’s post if you’re wondering how to support my work, and thanks again for listening!