Suspension of Disbelief (Religion)

Aaand, we’re back. A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post on suspension of disbelief that turned out to only be part one and only focused on secular fiction. I said I’d talk about it in terms of religion “next time.” If you haven’t already figured it out from my previous posts, “next time” for me often means not my next post, but the next time I get around to that particular topic. Sometimes it takes months. This time, only two weeks! Not bad.

Actually, now that I look at it what I said was that I’d talk about suspension of disbelief in “the real world” next time. We’ll get there. Or, that’s sort of an awkward way to say it and we were already talking about that because how you absorb fiction is part of the real world? Whatever. The plan for this time is to start with myths, which utilize suspension of disbelief in a similar way to how secular fiction does. From there I’ll talk about how we know when to turn off that suspension and think critically about what we choose to believe…as well as the difference between believing something literally and believing in something you know is not meant to be taken literally.

It’s not usually a surprise to people that myths typically involve fantastic elements that are not meant to be taken literally. I think those elements are there so that readers/listeners will shift their perspective and be willing to focus on meaning rather than the literal events. When we’re looking at real, historical events, there often isn’t any meaning to be found. Tragedies happen, and attempts to justify them or find some purpose in them aren’t usually successful and can often be harmful. (Pastoral Care 101: Don’t tell someone whose child just died that it’s because God wanted another angel. Really, just don’t.)

Though we do sometimes fit historical events to a narrative (at the very least, the idea that the right side won a war), I haven’t yet come across an instance of this that doesn’t rely on some amount of fictionalizing. We paint over parts that don’t fit the narrative and repeat parts that sound good, even if they’re most likely inventions added later. We want to make meaning, but in the real world we’re constantly faced with the uncomfortable realization that much of what we experience seems random and unfair. So what do we do with this need for meaning?

Obviously, we’re going to seek it out in a simpler, more easily controlled world. A world we instantly recognize as different from our own, where the normal rules don’t apply and anything can happen and it really is possible that good always wins and people can always make the right choices. When we enter into a world like this, we know to turn off our suspension of disbelief, leave the skepticism at the door, and find the message in the narrative.

I think most of us are already familiar with these cues if we think about it. To list a few examples – talking animals, deities interacting with mortals in a concrete and observable way, objects of power, fairy godmother/magical teacher, protagonists that seem utterly incapable of any wrongdoing, undefeated and impossibly strong warriors. When we see these things in a story, when we see anything that in the real world would at least make us stop and think “huh, that’s weird” but within the story draws no such reaction, we know the rules we accept in our everyday lives have been suspended and anything can happen here. From there, we stop trying to understand what literally happened and focus instead on what it all means.

I can think of two such stories from my Christian upbringing – the serpent in Eden, and Balaam’s donkey. When I re-read these stories now, it’s obvious that they aren’t literal. It’s possible Balaam’s story is based on a real person or at least a real event, I haven’t done the research to find that out and don’t plan to because it isn’t the point. But if it is based on a real event, it’s clearly one that has been changed into a mythical narrative, with these obvious fantasy cues thrown in. These things tell the reader: “It’s a story, not a biography! Pay attention to the patterns!”

Unfortunately, in our modern era where there’s this line drawn between true-and-therefore-valuable and superstitious-nonsense, a lot of the value in myth has been lost. When I was taught these stories in Sunday school class, way too much emphasis was placed on how these animals could talk. “Well, obviously we know snakes don’t talk, so it must be Satan talking through the snake.” Okay yeah, but I think some other-worldly being talking through an animal would still elicit some kind of reaction other than calmly reasoning with it. And again with the donkey “well, we know in our world today animals don’t talk, but God made it talk in this one instance to get Balaam’s attention.” But it doesn’t get his attention! He answers its questions like this is a normal every day occurrence. Besides, if that was the point, couldn’t God just write a message in the air or something? Or just stop him from going?

By working so hard to explain these fantastical events rather than accepting them as part of a mythical narrative, we lose the focus on what we’re actually meant to understand. Balaam’s whole story is a bit weird, really. God (Whose God, btw? Balaam is not an Israelite and there’s no reason he should be praying or listening to their God. The fact that he does and that God actually talks to him should be another cue that this is a story about the God of Israel rather than a history.) tells him not to go with Balak (a king who wants him to curse the Israelites), so he says no…then Balak sends more impressive messengers and Balaam’s like “Please?” and God’s like “okay, fine.” So Balaam leaves and then God decides he doesn’t like that anymore and sends an angel only the donkey can see, makes the donkey talk when Balaam doesn’t take the donkey’s refusal to go further as an answer, and finally reveals the angel to Balaam. (Seriously, wouldn’t it be simpler to skip right to that last step from the beginning?) And then he tells Balaam “never mind, go with them anyway but only say what I tell you.” So Balaam goes but winds up blessing Israel when he opens his mouth to curse them. God’s such a joker.

None of this matches up with either our expectations of reality or what is typically taught about God. Obviously views on God have changed over time and I’m not against the idea that people of this time might have envisioned God changing his mind and acting in more petty human ways. But I also think it might be written this way purposely so that it will make us wonder why God might do this and what it might mean. Over and over Balaam is given signs that God doesn’t like what he’s doing. But he obviously wants to do it, so God allows it. Despite meeting resistance at every step that should make him re-think the wisdom of his actions, he continues. And so at every step the reader sees that he can do nothing against God’s will.

I’m sure I’ve been taught before that Balaam was being arrogant and trying to fight God and couldn’t. But all I remember is the teacher actually devoting a large chunk of class time to trying to explain that it really is possible that there was a talking donkey and we really can believe this is literal so we don’t have to stop believing. This attempted destruction of mythic thinking makes me sad. And I think it winds up destroying the faiths they’re trying so desperately to save in the long run. When you’re forced to choose between accepting the mythic as literal or abandoning it all, at some point growing up means a lot of us just can’t reconcile the obviously magical elements with the physical world we know and the rules that govern it. And for those that do manage to keep believing all they’re taught is literally true, it seems to me it would become difficult to discern when not to believe, when to question a teacher rather than accepting whatever they say. I know for awhile I got bogged down in trying to find out which religion was literally objectively true and it took me a long time to see them all as processes aimed at finding what matters. I’m much more interested now in what matters.

So how do we make those distinctions? If it doesn’t matter whether or not a story is literally true, how do we determine which stories have merit and how do we apply them? What does an idea like God even mean in this context? Just another metaphor, or are the metaphors describing something real? How do we know the difference? I’m not sure I have answers to all of these (if any!), but I look forward to at least talking about them and sharing my thought process next time. Maybe we’ll have some discussion and find answers together!

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