Antifragile ChristiansPosted: June 14, 2014
Speculative Faith has had a recent series of posts about whether or not safe fiction exists, or that we can accept works as safe if they have a Christian label on them. They’ve belabored the point, and it made me think of several gripes about the way Christians do cultural criticism. The biggest one is that we operate from a position of fragility, and we should seek instead to become antifragile.
Antifragile is the title of a book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb which is about cultivating a certain mindset. I’ll quote from the wiki page on it:
…Taleb describes it as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”
I’m not sure this concept can really exist. Taleb tends to overemphasize things for effect; The Black Swan was similar, but about randomness. But it’s a useful word if only because too many Christians approach culture from a position of fragility:
- Is it safe?
- Will it break us if we consume it?
- Can we bear it?
I wish we could be antifragile instead. That we could operate from a position of strength instead of fragility.
- That we can trust ourselves to not be swayed, broken, or influenced by works.
- That we can trust God to let us know through the Holy Spirit in us if there are bad or unsafe things in a work of art.
- That books aren’t corrupting forces like the Necronomicon; that we are influenced by ideas, not by spiritual presences or by things beyond our rational control
- That it’s all right to enjoy a work and that we can relax around age-appropriate material.
And so on. I don’t really want to blame believers who are fragile, because for many of us we live in an adversarial relationship with the secular world. If you’re a minority and have to keep to your beliefs surrounded by a hostile culture, fragility can happen over time due to stress. A river flowing over time can create a canyon; erosion of belief is a danger at times. I think though that we surrender too much to stressors. The verse is a cliche: “Greater is He that is in you that he that is in the world.” But it’s true; He is greater, and all who are given to Him He won’t lose.
I think we forget that. It’s hard to keep a promise in your mind as a source of strength. But He’s not going to lose us. When we read books and view culture, they can’t take us away from Him. We aren’t fragile like that. When I was growing up, my mother really believed (and still does) that spirits can come in through books. That just having the books or movies inside of the house would give the devil a foothold and influence her and me in negative ways. You think this is outlandish, but a tremendous amount of Pentecostals and fundamentalists feel this way. It’s not a scriptural belief at all, and is sort of a pagan totemistic one. Yet it still persists, in this form and in a softer one that gives ideas a lot more power to warp a believer than they really have.
This is a fragile mindset because it takes power away from both God and you and gives it to Satan and outside forces. This too often is the impetus behind Christian reaction to film, book, and story, and it has devastating consequences to some people. It’s ironic; the same churches that really believe in God’s power to heal or prophesy don’t believe He can keep believers safe if they trust in Him. They view art like some corrupting force similar to the Necronomicon, and the reality isn’t that way.
Yeah, art can make you think. It may make you reevaluate beliefs you held. But you’re not forced to against your will, and sometimes the idea itself is a lot weaker than the presentation of it. You can evaluate an idea and reject it; simply because it exists in a work doesn’t mean you automatically can’t get it out of your skull until it wears you down and turns you into a zombie. That’s a fragile idea. Instead, you have faith in God and yourself to evaluate things rightly. You realize that people try to persuade you, but that you also can reject what they are selling. You also can realize that ideas in fiction gain a lot of power by cherrypicking settings, characters, and events just so they align with the message the author wants to send.
Also, emotional responses aren’t spiritual ones. The author can evoke emotions in you; lust, disgust, futility, and anger. But these are not spiritual states; demons aren’t using the book to influence you. It’s just fiction and emotions, and you can defeat it often by simply putting the book down and taking a fifteen-minute walk. A fragile mindset gives them more power than they have. I don’t say this to discount demonic influence entirely, but like miracles, they are far rarer than you think. If you’re an ex-Pentecostal like me, this is one of the first things you need to wrestle with and make peace with God about.
So, to sum up.
- Christians should be antifragile.
- They should always remember that they operate from a position of strength instead of weakness when dealing with culture.
- They shouldn’t ascribe to spiritual forces things that are naturally evoked in a human being by culture.
The Speculative Faith articles rubbed me the wrong way because of this. Too much focus on safety is a fragile mindset. This doesn’t mean you go out seeking bad things, but there’s a big difference between enjoying Christian fiction because you like to read about Christian things and reading it because it’s safe, and you can’t trust many things to be safe.
It’s like the saying from the movie the Croods. Too many Christians seem to think we should “never not be afraid” when it comes to art. We should be antifragile and resist this, because God is greater and we can approach art from a position of strength.