Last week on ABC Radio National’s “Late Night Live” there was an interview about a new book “My Lie: A True Story of False Memory” . The author, Meredith Maran, was a journalist and researcher in the 1980’s who was doing a lot of stories about people recovering memories of child sex abuse. She started to believe that she herself had been abused by her father and confronted her father and family with this accusation. Many years later she began to question those memories and accusations and now believes they were false.
I am not so much concerned with the issue of child-sex abuse (which obviously does occur and is a big problem), nor with the problem of false-memory (which is also well documented). What was fascinating about the interview was the way that cultural forces can influence the beliefs of quite rational and intelligent people – even to the point that they will sincerely believe things that are baseless and absurd.
During the 80’s and early 90’s an awareness of Satanic forces was increasing, not only in the Christian world. This became a full-blown moral panic about Satanic ritual abuse in some sections of the community and spread throughout America and the english-speaking world. Parallel to this was also an emerging awareness of the prevelence of child-abuse in society and repressed memories.
Some of this came through to the Christian world in speakers like Mike Warnke – supposedly a former high-priest of Satan who had led and paticipated in unspeakable Satanic rituals. He became a star of the evangelical movement and scared countless impressionable young people into giving their life and money to Jesus. By the time I saw him in the early-90’s his act was largely stand-up comedy but he was still popular with the youth ministries until largely discredited in 1992.
The twin forces of moral panic in Satanic ritual abuse and child abuse converged in the McMartin trial , where the owners of a family-run child-care centre were accused of the most horrible sexual abuse and ritualised abuse of the children in thier care. The allegations became more and more bizarre including that some of the staff could fly, and that there were a series of underground tunnels under the pre-school in which children were abused. Much investigation went into trying to find the tunnels, but no evidence was found. The owner. Virginia McMartin was an elderly lady who was subjected to six years of these allegations in the longest running criminal trial in US history.
Throughout this process public sympathy was largely on the side of the accusers. Much of the media was uncritical of the accusers side of the story and it was mostly believed.
I think this shows that many educated and intelligent people could get swept up by a pervasive belief in the culture – journalists, researchers, lawyers, therapists. All people who are supposed to think critically and objectively about claims and to try to get at the truth. In the face of a cultural movement that was like a river many of these people got swept along. And there is no guarantee that there wont be another one – and that we ourselves will not be swept up in a similar manner.
Meredith Maran spoke (on Radio National) of being in one world during the working week (Planet Earth) and another on weekends (Planet Incest). She became involved in a sub-culture where everyone was speaking about the issue and where it became their central purpose and the currency of the sub-culture. In order to be a part of this sub-culture one had to speak about one’s own experience.
It made me think that many of the church problems we have been discussing on this blog are the result of a sub-culture that has developed within certain Christian movements. Your average church-goer moves between the wider culture (Planet Earth) during the week to the church culture (Planet Christian) on weekends, but is constantly told that Planet Christian is the real world and not to trust Planet Earth. The Pastor lives almost entirely on Planet Christian and is in a sub-culture where ideas like tithing, vision etc are constantly reinforced and are the markers of whether you are “in” or “out” of the planet.
The Pastor may be quite a rational person, have the best intentions and have studied the Bible for years. But due to the culture he or she exists within this Pastor may have sincerely-held beliefs that are not supportable and even harmful.