Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Liberation Theology

My new company has a weird obsession with pop psychology fads.  We seem to be endlessly taking random tests designed to help us understand our communication styles, our areas of strength, and to help us figure out how to work better together.  I’m not a big fan of the whole thing.  I’m also not really good at disguising my contempt for it, which might bite me in the ass one of these days.

I had to deal with another in the endless rotation of meetings today.*  This one involved the sort of online test that’s familiar to anyone who has ever tried to find out what their dating style is or what type of shoe they’d be while attempting to kill the crushing boredom and mind-numbingly slow passage of time inherent in being at work at 3:30 on a Friday afternoon.   It then broke my weighted answers to non-mutually-exclusive A or B questions down and scientifically determined what my top five strengths are out of thirty-four categories that were all named with made up words.  I was also supposed to read some stuff in a book beforehand, but you can rest assured that I had better things to do with my time.

Now, in general, I prefer to game these tests.  How much I game them largely depends on how bored I am (when the test is, “Which State are You?” you’re damn right I’m going to answer in such a way that I’m able to proudly say, “The internet says I’m Illinois.”), how much effort it will take to game them, and how worried I am that someone will actually see my results and decide to treat me accordingly.  As such, I gamed this test very lightly, mostly erring on the side of saying I prefer history to science fiction when those two things were placed against each other.

Anyway, I learned from my test that I’m an intellectual, strategic thinker who wants to learn as much as possible and understand the context of what I have learned.  Also, I learned that water is wet.  News at 11.

What I also learned is that I’m really, really bad at following the directions when I don’t give a flying crap (or, alternately, when I do give a crap but am not paying attention, like, say, when I’m the last person to show up at Trinity Hall on a Saturday for a shindig that I scheduled.  I was playing Battlestations Pacific, dagnabit.  It’s the Xbox 360’s fault I wasn’t looking at a clock…).  See, I missed the bit where I was supposed to send my results to, um, somebody or other so they could properly prepare the materials and I would be able to hold a card in front of me at the meeting and see that I’m a strategic thinking connection drawer with a ravenous desire to learn.**  Y’know, just in case I forgot.

This actually lead to a really interesting exchange, however.  One of the facilitators asked me if I’d actually taken the test.  I replied in the affirmative.  She said, “Oh, good.  Did anything about it surprise you?”  I simply replied, “No.”  She asked me why.

I matter of factly said, “Because I’ve known what my strengths are for years.”

Now, this might not have been the best thing to say, as my team immediately took it as a form of arrogance.  But, really, I know what my strengths are.  I don’t need some pop psychology bullshit filled with made up words to tell me what they are.  I’ve been playing to my strengths for years and compensating for my weaknesses without really thinking too hard about it.

Let’s put it this way.  I had the ability to find out that Seneca was in town last weekend.  I had the ability to get some people to want to go see them.  I did not have the ability to give a consistent time for this, nor did I have the ability to actually show up at any of the times I said to do it.  Ergo, if you were going to put me in charge of, say, a music venue, you’d probably want me to find out what bands are out there, figure out how to promote events, and find anyone but me to actually schedule the damn gigs.

Or, to put it another way, there’s a reason I’m more likely to get immersed in Medieval II: Total War than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.  I find both enjoyable, but I find COD far, far more frustrating and Medieval II far, far more replayable.

I think that’s why I find these things so annoying.  There’s no inherent self-discovery in them for me.  For me they’re just a game, either to see how much I can get them to tell me what I already know or to see how much I can get them to tell me what I want them to say.

If you ask me who I am I’m most likely to refer to myself as three things: a writer, a historian, and a storyteller.  These three things say everything you need to know about me.  Whenever I take one of those silly assessments and am actually honest with them I can fit everything it says about me under some aspect of those three parts of my personality.  I’ve known I want to be a writer since I was in first grade.  I’ve known I wanted to be a historian since third grade.  The storyteller thing didn’t come in until the last couple years, but it was because I didn’t know what storytelling was, so when I met storytellers it was an, “Aha!” moment, but one where I found there was a new way to do what I was already doing or an outlet to express some part of myself that wasn’t served by the “writer” and “historian” parts, not an, “I never knew I could do this or be interested in it before,” moment.

And, really, if you think about it, the mental leap from “writer, historian, storyteller,” to “strategic thinking, always learning, intellectual drawer of connections” is really just a short hop.

Now, I understand why a large company would find such tests valuable.  I really do.  It helps create a common language, which is always nice for communication across the various lines of experience and background that people bring with them.  It also can help quite a bit in situations where employees are less than gruntled because they’re constantly being given tasks that they’re just not good at or don’t much care for.  In all honestly, I understand the pop psychology bullshit well enough to get that its useful in those contexts.  The fact that I can consistently game those tests is actually a pretty good indication that they are reliable at the pattern recognition they’re designed to facilitate.  My main problem is that they’re often presented in a way that’s, shall we say, evangelical in nature.

I do not enjoy going to work and wondering why I’m sitting in front of a televangelist.  This is, of course, ironic coming from a former InterVarsity Outreach Coordinator.  When it gets right down to it, though, being an Outreach Coordinator meant I was playing to my strengths.  Y’know, except for the bit where I didn’t much like telling people about Jesus.

This is all a really, really long way around to a follow-up to my post about home and how heaven really ain’t it.  There were a couple of responses from jessa which directed me towards some thoughts I didn’t really put in to my original post, mostly because I wasn’t thinking of the issue from this direction.  But I’d like to focus on this thought:

Evangelicals look at some of these people, usually those in poverty, and say, "They have so much faith despite having so little. We have been so blessed, all the more reason for us to have faith." I think it is more that the impoverished have so much faith BECAUSE they have so little: faith is the only thing they have left to rely on for food, water, and shelter, whereas the typical megachurch attender has more resources that they can rely on for their daily needs and wants. Not only do they not have to hope for heaven when they are content on earth, but they don't have to hope for material help from heaven because they are already materially wealthy.

There is a place where Christianity makes quite a bit of sense.  Consider that the beginning of Jesus’s ministry was marked by him walking in to the synagogue and reading Isaiah 61:1, in which the prophet proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor and release of the captives.  This is jubilee, this is manna from heaven.  This is salvation.

For the captives in Babylon the declaration of the Year of Jubilee would have been wonderful.  For the Jews living under the foot of Rome the declaration would have been just as energizing.  The theology of liberation is fantastic for the repressed in all contexts where the temporal authority has everything and the downtrodden nothing.

The problem is, though, that Christianity does not make any sense outside of this context.  It is a completely different religion than the one that supposedly spawned it.  You cannot read the Jewish Bible and get Jesus of Nazareth unless you intentionally do so.  You cannot read the endless commandments from Yahweh to kill all the inhabitants of a certain land or family that displeased him without finding that whole idea of a loving, forgiving and also unchanging god a little hard to swallow.

And for the Romans, well, there’s no way that the message of Jubilee and the release of the captives would win them over.  You don’t get the creditor on your side by promising the forgiveness of debt, after all.

This is why jessa is absolutely right to point out that those who live in poverty have little else but faith and are, therefore, going to probably be more faith filled than the average middle class suburbanite.  It’s also why the very first missionary in Christ’s name managed to switch Christ’s message from one of Jubilee to one of escaping damnation.  Paul, you see, wanted to reach the Romans.  Most of the rest of the Jews just wanted to be rid of them.  That’s what the myriad Messiahs of Jesus’s time were supposed to do, from Judas Maccabeus’s successful casting off of Antiochus Epiphanes IV through the Sicarii, Bar Kochba, Masada, and the destruction of the Temple and subsequent diaspora.

The Messiah was never supposed to be a world redeemer.  He was supposed to be a world remover.

Enter Satan as a Zoroastrian-influenced evil counter to Yahweh.  It’s not a hard leap to make, either.  People were ignorant and superstitious, believed in gods, angels, and demons by default, and had no better explanations for disease, drought, and famine.

Modern Evangelical Christianity has a vested interest in maintaining that ignorance in its followers.  That’s the only way for it to stay in business.

The problem I have with it, though, is that it’s basically impossible to figure out who, if anyone, is at fault any more.  The liars for Jesus have, themselves, been deceived.  At least, the ones on the local church who are the vanguard of evangelism.  The pastors who are in charge are often in that position because someone told them that they’d be good at it and they felt they’d been “called by god.”  There are those who genuinely believe and those who don’t really believe but don’t know what else to do.  There are those who reinforce their faltering faith by trying to make sure no one around them has (or at least expresses) doubt.  And there are those who want out but can’t leave because it means severing ties, losing friends, families, and loved ones.  Then there are those who genuinely believe, simply because they either don’t have the capacity or need to ask the hard questions that lead to doubt.

The reason I was an Outreach Coordinator and planning on going in to ministry was because I wanted to find a way to make use of the things that I knew I was good at within the narrow, limited territory allowed by my Christian walk.  The reason I was a terrible Outreach Coordinator was because I had this bad habit of looking at the non-Christians I knew and realizing that Christianity could do nothing to help them.  In many cases I realized that they were a lot less miserable than I was.  I could not, in good conscience, see someone with a 37” LCD HD TV and tell them that a scratchy 12” black and white set was better.

In that case the only way to make that sale is to say, “So you’ll have this for a while, but in the future you’ll get your own movie theater.  Trust me.  The only catch is that you won’t get the theater until after you die and, no, I don’t have any proof that it even exists.  Oh, and it’ll cost you 10% of your income for the rest of your life.  It’s optional and stuff, but we’re gonna guilt the fuck out of you for it.”

There’s a reason the most popular form of the Gospel in America is the Prosperity Gospel.  Now it’s more like, “You send us a thousand dollars and god will send you a 56” 3D HD TV.  And then you’ll get an even better set up in heaven.  Pinky swear.”

I’m much happier to be a former Outreach Coordinator.  I still find myself having to find some way to make use of my talents in a job that’s something other than my ideal.  But the fact is that I like my job.  And it’s been a far better financial boon than doing that whole ministry thing.  The fact is, too, that no one is forcing me to stay in my job.  No one is telling me that if I quit I’ll hurt other people, I’ll ruin their desire to stay at their jobs.  Stupid meetings and pop psychology employee evaluations still aggravate me to no end, but I’m not going to quit my job over them.  I did once quit my religion due in no small part to them, though.

That should say something.


*Side note: it’s weird, but I hate these meetings on principle.  However, I like my job, really like my team and, in general, enjoy work when I’m, y’know, doing my job.  This actually flies directly in the face of the meeting I had today, since I rarely engage in any of the activities that would be considered “my strengths.”  Whenever the whole career development discussion comes up I attempt to find ways to work the stuff I like doing in to future possibilities.  I’ve been doing that since before I found out what my strengths are, since, y’know, it’s pretty damn obvious to me.

The lesson, as always, is that I’m smarter than pop psychology.  I should probably start offering the Geds Super-Dooper Strengths for Employees Strategification Seminar series.

**In my defense, I also missed the bit in the memo that said I could wear jeans.  And I got the bit where the boss said we could go home as soon as the meeting was over but still managed to stay at the office for another three and a half hours.  Or, y’know, an hour and a half or so after I usually leave work.  That first part there was, I’m assuming, karma.  The second part just adds to my hatred of such meetings.


Michael Mock said...

You know, my career goals boiled down basically three things:
1. I wanted a steady job that I didn't hate...
2. Making enough money that I could eventually retire (*above* the poverty line)...
3. With regular hours so I schedule in the things I *want* to be doing.

I don't know why that seems to be such a heresy among the "What are your career goals?" folks. I don't have to cultivate a deep, strong love for my job; it just needs to meet my basic needs. I can get my Life Satisfaction elsewhere, thank-you-very-much.

Geds said...


And they try to pretend like culture doesn't matter. I mean, if I were doing exactly what I wanted to do for a good amount of money but my boss was a jerk and I couldn't stand being around my co-workers I'd be unhappy. It's not exactly rocket surgery...

jessa said...

Actual psychological testing isn't much more than those pop psychology quizzes. Psychologists have told me not to read up about psychological tests because that will "ruin" their efficacy, supposedly because I will then know what the "tricks" are that they rely on to tell me who I really am. Except if you have a brain, it is pretty easy to notice what you are telling the psychologist about yourself when you, for example, tell him what you see in an inkblot. If you see mice stabbing your brother in every inkblot, that is going to reveal something very different about you than if you see pastoral scenes of unicorns and sheep in every inkblot. Duh.

When I got my results, they were right on about a lot of things--the things that I had specifically told them in the interview. They were close on a lot of things that were terribly obvious. They were flat out wrong about a lot of stuff though, because if you see mice stabbing your brother, while that does reveal something about you, it doesn't reveal something very specific, but they have to write something specific in the report.

A lot of people seem to be surprised by the results of these tests. Perhaps because they don't know themselves very well, unlike you and I. Perhaps because they don't know to throw out parts of the results that obviously aren't true.

Pop psychology angers me.

Michael Mock said...

@ Jessa - exactly. Since they're entirely reliant on the information I give them, I don't see why anyone's surprised that the test says I'm like I said I am.