Monday, September 14, 2015

The Archie Bunker Effect; or, The Main Mistake Christians Make when Engaging with the World

I grew up watching All in the Family. (Yes, I'm that old.)

All in the Family was an American sitcom that aired in the 1970s. It revolved around the Bunker family: Archie, the loudmouthed, bigoted father; Edith, his dimwitted but goodhearted wife; Gloria, his married daughter; and Michael, Gloria's opinionated, liberal husband. Michael and Gloria lived with Archie and Edith because Michael was in college and unemployed. In the close quarters, Archie and Michael frequently squared off regarding controversial political and social topics.

That was the point of the show. All in the Family was the liberal Norman Lear's vehicle for propagating his views. While Michael was mocked as "Meathead" by Archie, he was actually the mouthpiece for Lear's progressive social and political views. The staging and the dialogue were brilliant. Archie would usually "win" his arguments, but only because he was so stubborn that he would come up with ridiculous rationalizations that no one but he could possibly find convincing. Michael would give up in frustration over Archie's obtuseness, only to fight again another day.

Michael was also an agnostic. Functionally, he was an atheist, but he didn't make the mistake of actually trying to prove the non-existence of God. Instead, he simply doubted the validity of any sort of evidence for a supreme being and refused to allow the relevance of God to any discussion. By contrast, Archie represented popular religiosity. Not a churchgoer himself, he nonetheless claimed a belief in God when it served his purposes. His wife Edith was much more of an actual Christian, but was almost as unintelligent as Archie accused her of being. She was usually an apologist for him as well, although her unaffected truthfulness often resulted in unintentional zingers against Archie's positions.

So here in a popular television show we had a social caricature being played out: the advocate for God, in power but older and on his way out, spewing bigoted, incoherent, ridiculous tirades, pitted against the youthful agnostic, still dependent but in the ascendency, articulating seemingly reasoned positions that were never heeded. The Christian is the old-fashioned racist, the agnostic is the vibrant rational thinker.

I got the message. I grew up never wanting to be Archie Bunker.

I never lost my faith, but I didn't want to say much about it either. The problem was that Michael always seemed to have it all figured out. I always thought that anyone who disagreed with me would have all the answers, and I would be reduced to blathering incoherence.

(Incidentally, the whole issue was inverted in the 80s sitcom Family Ties. There, however, in the battle between the young conservative and his erstwhile-hippy parents, the issue of God was neatly laid aside. This may help to explain the development of conservatism in the last few decades.)

I think I felt this way until an honors English seminar in college. The professor entitled the seminar, "What can one hope for," and we read everything from Ezekiel and Revelation to Dostoevsky, Camus, and Kafka. It was fascinating.

Since it was a discussion class, it ended up getting polarized between two older guys, articulating an athiestic viewpoint and quoting Nietzsche all the time, and me, the reluctant representative of a Christian viewpoint.

I felt that they were mopping the floor with me. They had read more than I had, and they had answers to everything I brought up. I felt foolish and inadequate. And at one point, I decided I had to read some Nietzsche for myself. I had to figure out whether I believed what I believed because that's what Mommy and Daddy had told me, or whether I believed that it was really true.

I think I was trembling as I went through the stacks at my university library. I didn't know if this was the step that was going to destroy my faith. But if my faith couldn't stand up to questions, then it wasn't much of a faith, was it? So I opened the books and began to read.

And there was nothing there. I had expected serious intellectual arguments with overwhelming logic. Instead, there was nothing but mockery. It all amounted to, See, terrible things happen. Where's your God NOW??? HA HA HA HA HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!! I came out of the experience with my faith strengthened, not broken.

Later on, I had an internship with another student in that class, a woman named Grace, and we developed a friendship. At one point, I told her how inadequate I felt in the class. She was astonished. "We never felt that way," she said, speaking of herself and a few others she knew in the class. "We always thought he came off arrogant and rude, and we thought you had some pretty interesting things to say." She told me that she knew that my main opponent (whose name I have long since forgotten) spent his evenings crying into his beer at a local bar. She told me that, although she hadn't become a Christian based on the experience, she had a much more positive view of Christianity than she had had previously.

A light breeze would have knocked me over.

That experience taught me a lot, and it has stayed with me for many years. Christian, the people who disagree with you don't have it all together. They don't know everything. It doesn't matter how polished or relentlessly logical or superior they seem: in the end, they're just people. And you don't have to win an argument to persuade people; most of the time, you don't even have to argue. You may not persuade the person who is confronting you (although it's possible that something you say will stick and have an effect at some point in the future). Your demeanor will have an effect on those who see you, far more than whatever points you think you are making or not making.

Don't succumb to the Archie Bunker effect. You're not him. Your faith is not foolish. Your critics don't have all the answers. And God will still touch people through you.

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