The Whisper of the Technology Serpent

Hi! I'm back! I've been thinking about what I could write to get the page rolling again. I need to finish up The Priceless Privilege, but dissecting that one takes quite a bit of mental energy, and I wanted something a little more enjoyable to write about.

Imagine my delight when, as I was going through some old papers today, I found a copy of a Christian Example from 2015, with this delightful little story, entitled "God is Not Mocked" in it. This story is one of several that inspired the idea of By Thy Words, for reasons that will become apparent.

As before, I'm going to include most of the text of the story, with green text indicating my inserted commentary. 

I hope you enjoy!

It was a typical Ohio January, and a cold, wet snow fell in the tiny village of Carbon Hill. The acrid bite of coal smoke was in the air and fought bitterly with the soft whiteness that settled heavily on a few conifers around. The handful of cars navigating the brief Main Street flung the heavily cindered snow outward as they passed. It was an afternoon in the mid 1960s and a good one to be indoors.

This story is basically a lavish love letter to Messiah Bible School in Carbon Hill, and the language is flowery to the point of being borderline romantic. The author seems overwhelmed by nostalgia, and I suspect that this is a semi-autobiographical piece.

At the east end of Main Street, Messiah Bible School hunched in the snow. Elmer Hershberger sat in Room 16 beside a window overlooking the brush behind the school, but he did not notice the scene. Brother Eli's practical points on the doctrine of separation riveted the class. So busy were Elmer's thoughts that he was in the hall after the class almost before he was conscious of the class's ending. These were the truths he had come to Bible school for!

So, let me get this straight. The guy teaching the class is so engaging that the student doesn't even realize the class is over. This does not make sense.

Usually, not realizing class is over is a sign that you have tuned out what the speaker is saying. But, nevertheless, I'm curious. Exactly what is Brother Eli saying that has this student so hypnotized? What practical applications is he hearing at Bible school that he wouldn't be able to get at his local Menno church?

(Spoiler alert: He says not to have the radio.) Crazy, right? I'll bet there isn't a single church nationwide that teaches that.

But there's trouble brewing in the picturesque hills of southern Ohio. Elmer is about to be yanked from his awestruck reverie by a messenger from the Dark Lord himself.

It was at this moment that Elmer discovered he was in possession of an ancient, powerful artifact, which gave the person who possessed it immense power. Over the next few years, Elmer would learn to wield this ancient power to crush the forces of evil and establish the reign of righteousness.

(Oops! I just checked my notes, and realized I was getting the plot of this story confused with another well-known story. I accidentally skipped ahead to when Elmer gets ordained as bishop. Sorry about that.)

As I was saying, Elmer gets jerked from his reverie to come face to face with a messenger of Satan himself, cleverly disguised as a fellow classmate.

Only when Mose Kemp spoke to him in the hall did Elmer become fully aware of his surroundings again. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if Elmer's altered state of consciousness wasn't brought about by the dangerous levels of perfume we've been warned about.

"What did you say? he asked Mose.

"What do you think of Separation class?" Mose repeated.

"It's a tremendous blessing. I really appreciate Brother Eli's forthright way of taking us to the Scriptures as he makes his points," Elmer answered.  If this story were a science fiction tale about evil shapeshifting alien space beings that infiltrate a Bible school to secretly feed upon the unsuspecting students, this sentence would be the first clue that Elmer was one of them. Only a shape-shifting alien space being pretending to be a serious Mennonite Bible school student would talk like this.

Also, can we talk for just a second about Brother Eli "taking them to the Scriptures"?

Quoting a Scripture verse after you say something doesn't make the thing Scriptural. I cannot say for certain that Brother Eli is making things up, but the fact that he is able to keep a job teaching Separation Class at Messiah Bible School speaks for itself.

"I can agree with that -- mostly, at least, " Mose said. "But don't you think he was a bit extreme about the radio?" 

"What do you mean?" Elmer asked.

"Well, he didn't have a single good thing to say about it, "Mose replied. "He didn't make any room at all for listening to good stations. At home, we listen to a select few stations that still broadcast sound music (isn't music, by definition, sound?), one that gives the news, and even one that airs sermons by Mennonite preachers. Since it's the 1960s, those Mennonite preachers are obviously from the corrupted conference churches.  They aren't so bad."

Of course, there IS nothing good to say about the radio.
And you will see why in a minute.

"The world's source of entertainment, ... increasing filth available, ... sermons that are liberal at best and heresy at worst, ... "Touch not the unclean thing,...' a favorite verse used by anyone who is opposed to anything "That which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God,..." This verse is so misused. Jesus said this directly in relation to money. So money, which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. I would be glad to deliver you from this abomination, so message this page for a link to send me the money electronically. That will allow me to touch not the unclean thing. "Can a man take fire in his bosom?...' Brother Eli's words in class spun a fast review through Elmer's mind. "But remember the Scriptures Brother Eli shared," Elmer reminded Mose. "I guess I agree with him that it is better to reject the radio than to become subtly accustomed to what is questionable and dangerous.

"But are radios really 'questionable and dangerous'?" Mose challenged. You can tell that this guy isn't gonna buy the party line, and it's going to go badly for him.

"Brother Eli observed that some inventions of man tend to feed the flesh; and if we do not make a clear break with them, they will slowly draw us in and deceive us. I think I see a lot of truth in that observation in regard to the radio," Elmer replied.

Mose looked doubtful. "I'm not sure I'm ready to throw the good out with the bad. Seems like a spiritual person should be able to control what he listens to. This total rejection of the radio seems like an overreaction to me."

'Yea, hath God said?"

If ConMen designed logos

That last sentence makes me teeth-grindingly mad. There are very few things that make me angrier than how these ConMen use that verse.

The verse does NOT mean what people pretend it means. They always like to quote it when someone calls them on their BS.

"I don't think God cares how black your hose are."
"You're listening to the whisper of Satan: Yea, hath God said?"

So, here's the problem with these slick peddlers of man-made legalism.

1) Satan was not suggesting the God had said don't eat the fruit. Read the story. Satan isn't telling Eve,  "Yo! You've been misunderstanding God. He's totally cool with you eating the fruit. Have a snack!"

The serpent knows that God said it and Eve knows that God said it, and the serpent is trying to convince Eve that God doesn't know best.

2) These makers of their own righteousness want to claim God is saying things that God never said, and then make it sound like you're listening to Satan when you disagree with them. Literally every Christian-based cult out there does this kind of thing, and pretends to speak for God.

Jot this down: Anyone who uses that verse to shut you up is a conman trying to deceive you. Period.

Now, if this were a sad story about an innocent young person being led astray, it would go something like this:

Now, Mose was more subtil than all the students which had come to that term of Messiah Bible School. And Mose said unto Elmer, "Yea hath the Separation Class teacher said ye shall not listen to the radio?" And Elmer said unto Mose, We may listen to the sermons that our ministers preach at church, but unto the radio, the Separation class teacher hath said, Ye shall not listen to it, neither shall ye have antennas on your vehicles, lest ye die.

And Mose said unto Elmer, Ye shall not surely die. For the Separation class teacher doth know that in the day ye listen thereto, your ears shall be opened, and ye shall hear good tunes.

And when Elmer saw that the radio was good for tunes, and that it was pleasant to the ears, and its music to be desired to make one groove, he turned the dials thereof, and did listen, and took it to his dorm and they did listen, and grooved mightily.

And they heard the voice of the Dorm Dean walking in the halls in the cool of the day, and they hid the radio and looked nervous. And the Dorm Dean said unto them, Why are thou nervous? Hast thou listened to the tunes, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not listen?

And Elmer said, Mose beguiled me and I did listen.

Therefore the Dorm Dean sent him forth from Messiah Bible School.

Fortunately, that is not the case. Elmer is an obedient little drone who takes the teachings of his teacher seriously, stays AWAY from the evils of the radio.

Now the story skips ahead fifty years, and allows us to see the effect of seemingly small choices. But first, we have to indulge in some self-congratulatory purple prose extolling the wonders of Messiah Bible School.

Fifty years passed, and a flood of vehicles clustered once more around the Bible school on the east end of Main Street. Times had changed, and the few dozen youth had increased to multiple scores that made the building strain at its seams. The nose-twitching bite of coal smoke was gone, replaced years before by the more mellow pungency of an occasional wood fire and the silent flare of nature gas.

The soft, yellow glow of incandescence had given way to the blue-white brilliance of florescent tubes.

But snow was falling on this Lord's Day morning, and the slow sound of cars throwing cindered snow off the road was much like it had been for years. The wonder of song echoing in the old school's corridors rang with the same luster the village had come to appreciate fifty years before. (This sounds likely.)

The cadence of truth still resonated within the assembled youthful hearts two generations later. And Satan still sneaked from heart to heart, seeking to blind souls to the spiritual abundance of the place. Yes. It is actually this self-congratulatory. Some things never change.

The fawning is excruciating. This is blatant propaganda, propping up Messiah Bible School as some bastion of virtue, whereas, if you talk to the right people, you will hear something quite different. Of course, that is just the result of Satan blinding people's eyes to the "spiritual abundance" of the place; a place where things are said like "you shouldn't wear the color yellow, because it's too huggable of a color."

Attending Bible school was new to Jacob Steiner, although the idea was not. He had heard of the place since before he could remember and had listened to his siblings stories of their weeks of study.

This is so laughable. "Stories of their weeks of study." The concentrated effort to depict Messiah Bible School as a bastion of spiritual devotion and fervor is hilarious. Especially when the author says things like this.

What young person tells riveting tales of "weeks of study?" Does that sound like something a child would look forward to from the time he is young?

Older brother: Did I ever tell you about the time at MBS when I spent the whole afternoon reading a book about the doctrines of the Bible? 

Jacob: No! What was it called?

Older brother: Doctrines of the Bible. It's a pretty famous book. And then in the evening, after church I read some more!"

Jacob: What happened then?

Older brother: I went to bed. And I did it all over the next day. For THREE WHOLE weeks?

Jacob: I can't wait to go to Bible school!

This is the kind of conversation that 1) never happens in real life, 2) the author would like to believe actually DOES happen, and 3) the author is trying to convince you happens regularly.

Finally it had been his turn to come. He was seventeen and eager and a touch homesick, but delighted to be among spiritual friends, new and old.

It was revival-meeting weekend, and the morning service was drawing to a close. The final song faded, and the chapel fell silent. Jacob thrilled at the remembrance of truth. I have no idea what that even means. I could write five or six sentences about how weird and pointless the one sentence is, and speculating about exactly what truth Jacob is thrilled in the remembrance of, but I'll just let it hang there, while I thrill at the weirdness of the phrase.

His seat was toward the back of the chapel, and he had observed a number of his peers nodding in agreement with Brother Harold's exhortation. The points at the end of the sermon included a few practical areas that had been under discussion a number of times already during the term. Spoiler alert: They're hammering on the Internet and smartphones, because they know that if they lose control of the flow of information, the jig is up.

Jacob was blessed to know that Brother Harold strongly agreed with Father's views on technology--conservative views that were rapidly becoming Jacob's own.  Wow! What a shocker! The revival speaker at MBS is strongly against technology. To be honest, it would be less shocking for Donald Trump being the keynote speaker at the DNC than it would be for a revival speaker at MBS to be pro-Internet.

It was a rich moment and encouraging.

What kind of drek is this?

Then, after the service, a comment from two rows of seats ahead of his thrust an icicle into his heart. What was Jeron saying?

If this were a movie, this would be a scene where as Jacob is looking across the auditorium and smiling, and you hear the chatter of voices as people visit after the service. Jacob overhears something that catches his attention, and turns and the sound of the chatter dies away and is replaced by a ringing in his ears.

We watch his face change in slow motion from simple joy and satisfaction (as his heart thrills to the remembrance of truth) to shock and horror and pain.

"In spite of what some people seem to think about cell phones and computers and all the wonderful technology of today, I sure am glad for every bit of it that I use."

Jacob couldn't tell at first if the boys Jeron was addressing agreed with him or disagreed. They said nothing as Jeron continued.

OK. This is silly. What Jeron is saying is so mild that the thought it would stab an icicle into Jacob's heart is absurd. Unless you realize a little secret that will help you understand why conservatives are the way they are. The mere fact that someone disagrees with them is threatening.

"The Internet is used quite freely where I work. The boss has filters in place, of course, that are supposed to keep the bad stuff from coming through. How can we be so sure that the Internet is as terrible as some say. It seems fairly harmless to me. Anyhow, if you exercise proper Christian reserve, the Internet is very useful."

A few things to note here. 1) The Internet is every bit as terrible as everyone says. You can find unspeakable wickedness online. If you go looking for it. 2) The Internet is very useful, if you use it that way. 3) Your Internet usage is a pretty good mirror of your heart condition.

Silence. Stunned silence.
Oh. Come. On.
The mere suggestion that the Internet isn't the devil incarnate renders these boys mute? This story is a fantasy about how the author desperately wishes the world would work.

Then Jacob noted a head or two nodding slightly with Jeron. But most of the young men did not know what to say. Surely someone would say something. If Jeron isn't shouted down soon, the whole system will crumble. You can't let people disagree openly with the party line! Chaos would ensue.

But nobody did. This is clearly what Ezekiel had in mind, when he wrote about looking for someone to stand in the gap.

Apparently Jeron saw a few nods too and took the silence of the rest as a challenge, because he went on even more spiritedly, though he dropped his volume noticeably. 

"I get so tired of people who do not own a cell phone telling us all about their supposed dangers, and computer-illiterate people saying the Internet is sinful when they hardly know what they are talking about." I could have said Jeron's words myself. This is why I could never have made it at a place like MBS.

Father's words to Jacob the evening before he left for Bible school flashed before him at that instant. "Every generation will have its issues for a young man to take a stand on, including yours. Be faithful to what you have been taught and appreciate the conservative stand of our church and the Bible school, and you will come out right on issues. Cultivate a special respect for our older brethren. There is wisdom in their years." 

It's a true shame that the radio, and the Internet are the issues that the last several generations have picked to take a stand on, instead of the rampant sexual, spiritual, and emotional abuse that plagues Menno culture. And don't you love how Father is basically saying, "If you agree with me, you will be right." Isn't that handy?

"Is this what Father meant?" Jacob's attention turned back to Jeron. A few heads nodded slightly, but no one said anything. Jeron took a breath and opened his mouth, apparently to say more, but glancing quickly to one side, he closed his mouth again. 

The author is working overtime to paint Jeron in a bad light, and that's important to note. The real issue isn't that Jeron is wrong. The issue is that he dares to openly question the Powers That Be, who have won the Magic Book Lottery and are clothed in immense power and authority. The author could have depicted Jeron as confused and questioning, and given wiser people the opportunity to instruct him and guide him.

But he didn't.

The author chooses to show Jeron as a sneaky, unlikable, mouthy know-it-all, who needs to be silenced. Because the true danger isn't error. It's doubting that the Powers are right.

Jacob followed Jeron's glance and saw someone smiling at them from the aisle. It was elderly Brother Elmer, their Separation class teacher. (It appears that if MBS were Hogwarts, Separation class would be Defense Against the Dark Arts.) He smiled, but not because something was funny or even because he saw something humorous in Jeron's soliloquy.  One reason he smiled so much was that he was in the early stages of dementia, and his mind was beginning to slip, also He smiled because that was his way, and he was appreciated by the young people at Bible school because of the warmth of his interest in each one. 

I'm convinced that the author of this story is Brother Elmer.

"What you just said, Jeron, reminds me of a story -- one that took place many years ago, when I sat where you are sitting in this very Bible school in the early years. It must have been in the mid-1960s sometime."

All eyes were on Brother Elmer.

"Hearken to a tale of the olden days..."

"I was a student that year and remember another young man here who tended to make statements almost exactly parallel to yours," Brother Elmer paused and seemed to look silently, soberly back across the years for a long, long moment.

"What happened?" someone prompted.

Brother Elmer's eyes came back from the distance and resumed their smile. (Remember what I said about his mind slipping?)

He looked at Jeron. "I'll be the first to admit that I have no cell phone, and no knowledge of computers, and I mow my little patch of grass with an old push mower. I can tell you very little about technology intelligently, so perhaps I am the kind of person you were referring to. But I have observed people over the years, and I have studied the Scriptures from my youth. So I really believe this story might be a fitting one."

Jeron squirmed and swallowed, but said nothing.

Brother Elmer went on to tell the story of Mose Kemp and his reaction to Separation class fifty years earlier. The young men drank it in without a sound.

You know how sometimes you have an argument with someone, and then you go home and think about all the things you should have said that would totally have shut the other person down? I am convinced that this story is Brother Elmer's revenge fantasy about shutting down a mouthy little whippersnapper.

"Sometimes I'm not sure, "Brother Elmer said, after he had finished the tale, "whether the radio itself pulled Mose into the depths of sin, or whether it was how far he trusted himself to control his flesh in avoiding the dangers he knew the radio had. That is Mose Kemp's story, and I'll let you boys decide for yourselves how it fits into the conversation." Spoiler: He doesn't actually let them decide for themselves.

"In my years as a teacher here at Bible school, I have told Mose's story different times. Some young men have genuinely understood and believed the story, and they were challenged to draw lines that have strengthened their faith. Others have insisted that spiritual people can control the appetites of the flesh better than Mose apparently did, and they usually relived the sad ending to Mose's story themselves."

Brother Elmer isn't clear as to exactly what Mose is involved in, so we have to use our own imaginations.

This monologue is so shot through with logical fallacies, it would take two thousand words to dissect it all. I'm going to give the Cliff Notes version.

1) Brother Elmer assumes that ALL Mose's choices sprung from one issue: the radio. He assumes that everything the Mose did was done because of his use of the radio. This is obviously a ludicrous oversimplification of the causes.

2) Using the radio and leaving the ConMen are basically synonymous. No one who is not a ConMen can be approved of, so saying the radio makes you go out into deep sin is simply saying that leaving the church makes you go out in deep sin.

3) The real reason Mose, and people like him leave the ConMen is because they are willing to ask questions and push back at crazy ideas, and that isn't tolerated by the Powers That Be. It wasn't the radio that caused Mose to leave. It was his willingness to think for himself.

The sermon we heard this morning sounded Scriptural to me, even if I didn't understand all the applications that were made to the details of technology. Always remember, Satan will never stop saying, "Yea, hath God said?" Brother Elmer smiled at the young men around him.

Once again, the misuse of that verse. You can't maintain the conservative party line without playing word games like this.

Jacob relaxed and smiled too. Father had been right.

Sweet relief! The pesky questioner has been silenced and put to rout. An old guy told a story about someone's bad choices who disagreed with us on a minor point, and that proves that we are right.

The Achilles heel of ConMen is their security. They've had so many promises made to them. If you get rid of the radio, the TV, smartphones, the Internet, the movies, and if you wear the right clothes, and listen to the right music, and if you just submit and do what we say, EVERYTHING WILL TURN OUT ALL RIGHT.

And if you suggest to these people that maybe 1) everything WON'T turn out all right, or 2) maybe doing those things has no bearing on whether they will, they are immediately threatened. Because you have attempted to breach their security.

If their rituals and taboos don't work, they have nothing. And they're terrified.

And that, my friends, is why they shoot the messenger.

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3 thoughts on “The Whisper of the Technology Serpent

  1. Peter Balholm says:

    Because I went to Messiah Bible School (2001), I find this story particularly entertaining. It was a defining experience in my life, marking the start of a peak of zeal, fervency, legalism, and angst. There may have been one or two young men who may have matched me in these areas, but none surpassed me ( “yet as a fool receive me, that I may boast myself a little.” – Paul). I didn’t even going outside for two solid weeks, I was so busy studying and devouring the classes. I only missed chapel once, when I was delirious with fever (probably caused by spending 14 days inside this petri-dish hellhole). So, I’m just saying that I was the real deal, and the kind of person these writers dream of. And EVEN SO, I never talked anything like the people in this story.

  2. Tree says:

    Having survived Catholic fundamentalism, I am amazed at how closely my experiences match your writings. Yikes on bikes. I am the technology loving wastrel, and I have survived lectures/sermons on the evils of tv, rock music, pop, country, Frank Sinatra, movies, tv, vcrs, dvds, internet, computers, video games, cell phones, facebook, snapchat, etc, etc, almost always given by people who saw life in black and white and/or knew almost nothing about the topic.

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