Bent

January 24th, 2011

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A quarter of a million people will gather today in Washington DC to voice their opposition to abortion. This is appropriate as dissent is essential to democracy. It is insufficient for changing minds, however. Protest relies on rigorously using rules of logic—rules that are bent in fallen beings. This is why protest rarely bends attitudes. It requires a stronger partner.

We’re approaching 40 years since Roe v. Wade became law. Today, there are on average over a million abortions in the United States annually, meaning 25 percent of all pregnancies in the nation ends in abortion. This rate is relatively unchanged over the last 40 years. Public opinion has also remained relatively stable during this period.1 One reason for the recalcitrance might be the faith community’s penchant for protest to change minds.

“Protest relies on rigorously using rules of logic, analysis, and criticism,” writes William A. Gamson, who has studied how it has proven ineffective in changing public opinion on abortion.2 His findings fit with the conclusions that Herant Katchadourian draws in his book, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience. Katchadourian describes conscience as the God-given capacity for self-awareness. It accomplishes two things. Conscience accuses us when we are wrong and defends us when we are right (Rom.2:15). We are designed to feel bad when we sin and feel good when we shine. This presents a problem, however, as conscience is also a human faculty, writes Katchadourian. “It can err.”3

When sin is not cleared up, conscience becomes bent. Instead of making us feel bad, our feelings become bent. Since we operate primarily by feelings, a crooked conscience impairs the ability to rightly reason. When we do wrong, we incorrectly (and illogically) accuse others and defend ourselves. This is why protest rarely changes someone’s mind.

Gamson says the solution is storytelling since it bypasses the rules of logic. A story that might change minds is C.S. Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet. It begins with a man named Ransom who is abducted by two men and taken to Mars as an offering to, as they believe, powerful beings there. On Mars, Ransom escapes and learns the Old Solar language (he’s a philologist). He meets three species of beings called hnau, who each make a unique contribution to rationality and self-awareness. The sorns—scholars and thinkers of Mars, or Malacandra in Old Solar—are curious to learn what Ransom’s contributions to self-awareness might be. But Ransom is more concerned about the men from his planet, two hnau, who are seeking to murder him. Since Malacandra has never fallen, the sorn are shocked to learn this. “They thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought,” Lewis writes. The sorns pity Ransom: “Your thought must be at the mercy of your blood.”

Ransom eventually finds himself in the presence of the Oyarsa (the Malacandran planetary angel), where he learns the bitter truth: Thulcandra (earth) is the “Silent Planet,” quarantined from the rest of the planets. “It was not always so,” the Oyarsa says. “Once we knew the Oyarsa of your world—he was brighter and greater than I—and then we did not call it Thulcandra. It is the longest of all stories and the bitterest. He became bent. That was before any life came on your world. Those were the Bent Years of which we still speak in the heavens… It was in his mind to spoil other worlds besides his own. There was great war, and we drove him back out of the heavens and bound him in the air of his own world… There doubtless he lies to this hour, and we know no more of that planet: it is silent.” The sorns open Ransom’s eyes to a universal reality: “…a bent hnau can do more evil than a broken one.”

If the soul delights in particular in what it learns indirectly, Lewis’ space trilogy was his way of indirectly setting “before us an image of what reality may well be at some more central region.”4 That central region is self-awareness, or conscience. This is the power of stories. They transport individuals away from the role of analytical listener according to the authors of Crucial Conversations: The Power to Change Anything.5 This dynamic of bypassing logic and analysis works with songs as well.

One of the more insightful songs for today is U2’s “Original of the Species.” There’s a lot of Internet chatter about what the song means—and that may be the point. The title is an obvious allusion to Charles Darwin’s “Origin of the Species,” so you can draw your own conclusions there. U2 guitarist The Edge wrote the lyrics and told Q Magazine the song is about his daughter. In a Rolling Stone interview, Bono said it’s about teenagers who feel insecure about their bodies and sexuality. Watch the video and catch the indirect references to the sanctity of human life. Then watch an old episode of Maude.

In 1972, in an episode of Maude (“Maude’s Dilemma”), the star, a middle aged woman, announced that she was considering an abortion. According to Neilsen, 41 percent of the American viewing public tuned in to watch. According to public opinion surveys, the show significantly shifted public opinion toward a more sympathetic opinion of abortion. One year later, Roe v. Wade became law. There is a causal relationship, and few catch it.

This is why gathering on the Mall to protest matters. But growing storytellers and songwriters in Nashville and Hollywood might matter more over the long haul. There are organizations developing writers, producers, and artists, including Charlie Peacock’s Art House, which is cultivating imagination and creativity for the common good (http://www.arthouseamerica.com) and The Clapham Group (http://claphamgroup.com/). They deserve your support since we are bent beings with unbending attitudes. If this renders our rationality to be somewhat irrational, the wisest way to change opinion is indirectly—through song, story, and art.

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1 Greg M. Shaw, “The Polls-Trends: Abortion,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 2003, 67, 3, fall, 407-429.
2 William A. Gamson, “How Storytelling Can Be Empowering,” Culture in Mind: Toward a Sociology of Culture and Cognition, Karen A. Cerulo, ed. (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp 187-198.
3 Herant Katchadourian, Guilt: The Bite of Conscience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), p. 143
4 C.S. Lewis, “On Stories,” Of Other Worlds, ed. Walter Hooper (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1966), p. 15.
5 Kerry Patterson, Joseph, Grenny, David Maxfield, Ron McMillan, & Al Switzler, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything (New York, NY: MacGraw-Hill, 2008)

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3 Responses to “Bent”

  1. John Seel says:

    Catholic writer Michael Jones has wisely observed along similar lines that “The intellectual life is a function of the moral life of the thinker. In order to apprehend truth, which is the goal of the intellectual life, one must live a moral life. One can produce an intellectual product, but to the extent that one prescinds from living a moral life, that product will be more a function of internal desire — wish fulfillment, if you will — than external reality. This is true of any intellectual field and any deeply held desire. In the intellectual life, one either conforms desire to truth or truth to desire. In the first instance, the importance of biography is negligible, in the second instance, it is all-important.”

  2. Kevin Antlitz says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful blog on how to creatively work towards making a difference in the frustrating issue of abortion. For many reasons, abortion is one of the most troubling issues that I encounter as a Christian, particularly as a Christian who went to a public university.

    I recall my days at the University of Maryland when the radical pro-life groups on campus would place thousands of little pink flags in the soil of the the mall at the center of campus to signify the thousands of babies aborted. I also recall the extremely explicit photographs of dead fetuses and abortions gone wrong and heated arguments between pro-choicers and pro-lifers. From what I observed in the classroom and in conversation, being pro-life was tantamount to supporting the oppression of women and their sovereignty over their own bodies. With that said, I haven’t experienced hostility towards pro-life views only college – I’ve also run into hostility at church, among real Christians (FYI: I live in Boston). In any case, I didn’t see the pro-lifers’ tactics going anywhere (I just saw angry people) and so I mostly just kept silent and my silence has plagued me.

    If I remember correctly, it was Leslie Newbigin who asked whether the Christians of today might be judged for their cultural blindness and complicity with abortion just as the Christians of two and three-hundred years ago are judged for their propagation of legalized slavery. Knowing what we do of WIlberforce and the Clapham Sect’s work to end the slave trade, I really think we Christians could do the same with ending legalized abortion. So I’m hopeful but often feel helpless in how make any headway.

    In addition to Lewis’ “Out of the Silent Plant,” another story that readers might find helpful is a movie called “Bella” released in 2006 and directed by Alejandro Gomez Monteverde. It was a winner at the Toronto International FIlm Festival. It’s a beautiful film that is very much about the sanctity of life and is anti-abortion but, if I remember correctly, never mentions the word ‘abortion’. It deals with the complexity of the abortion issue and endorses the sanctity of life without being overtly negative. It’s a good movie and worth watching.

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Thank you Kevin and John – these are helpful contributions to a terribly complex and terrible situation in our day. Yes, Lesslie Newbigin had much to say about this blight, as did Francis Schaeffer before him. I too recommend “Bella” to our readers.

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