29 May 2009

Manipulation: Can Somebody Say ‘Amen?’

by Bob Mendelsohn
National Director, Jews for Jesus Australia

I’d never been to a physical therapist until last year. One Friday afternoon I slipped on some concrete and landed on my elbow. That elbow crashing into the ground forced my shoulder blade out of alignment, and my Supraspinatus tendon was torn from its rightful location. The pain was pretty severe that night and subsided over the next week or so, but it never really has gone completely away.

As a result and with some encouragement from some friends, I went to go see a physio. And the therapist seemed to help me in my visits to her. While I was standing at the reception to pay my first bill I saw the assortment of certificates and licenses that the therapist had achieved and the noble institutions from which she had graduated.

But then I saw her category of graduation and the titles of her degrees. And the one that struck me was her degree in “Manipulative Therapy.” Now I’d never heard of such a thing, and I was fascinated. All my life I’d heard that manipulation was a bad thing. Getting someone to do what they don’t naturally want to do and doing it in a deceptive manner, that seemed to be the definition, or at least the street rendering, of the word manipulation. But here I paid good money to have someone manipulate me. And that got me thinking.

There was always something inside me against television as I grew in my faith and desired to live a godly life. Oh of course there are many blessings in it. There’s no end to the possibilities of communicating the Gospel of Y’shua through the agency of television either on rented shows or hired advertisements and commercials. The beauty of film and television and telling stories is well chronicled. And Christian TV is a great boon to evangelism possibilities in Australia.

Nevertheless there are an abundance of television critics and they are increasing in number. Of note are sociologists like Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn who wrote “A Stranger’s Dream: the Virtual Self and the Socialization Crisis.” Also Sam van Eman who wrote “On Earth as it is in Advertising: Moving from Commercial Hype to Gospel Hope.” Their critique of television and its effects are well worth reading and considering.
I probably had only been a Christian for a year or two and was in an African-American church in Kansas City. Things were moving and shaking. The people were enthused about the Gospel and were clapping and shouting and making a joyful noise. They were doing everything right. However, at that time I had a view of Christianity that did not include that particular kind of expression. Why not? I really don’t remember. Perhaps I felt that the only version of Christianity that was right was the one in which I had come to faith. Perhaps it involved more young people or guitars and not organs. Maybe the style of sermon was more conversational and more of a Bible study than this kind, which was a shouting “amen-corner” experience.

Whatever the case I felt that the sermon was filled with manipulations. The pastor would say “Can I get a witness?” and everybody would shout “Amen!” At times it felt contrived. And I wondered if the people were even listening at all. I was reminded of Bill Cosby who talked about being in church and learning the phrases and responses for which he was responsible so that he could detach himself from participating in the service until those moments came. That whole matter of fitting in and looking good is for another article but for now it’s the Pavlovian requirements that can often be manipulative.

I have a friend named Steve who used to imitate the people in those churches. “Turn to the man next to you (and he would encourage us to turn) and say to them “I’m a child of God (we’d repeat: “I’m a child of God”). You’re a child of God (You’re a child of God). And God loves you and so do I (And God loves you and so do I)…” then Steve would add, “I will not (I will not) be manipulated (be manipulated) to repeat other people’s words (to repeat….).” You get it. Although it was in jest, I always felt that there was something to Steve’s perception about pastoral “guidance.”
What is it about manipulation that we detest? After all, we boast about how intelligent we have become as a human race. We read and watch the Internet; we know more about the inner workings of football clubs and scandal-ridden businesses than ever before. So if anyone is going to fall prey to manipulation, it should not be us, right?

And yet, there is a sucker born every minute, a quote (wrongly) attributed to PT Barnum. Whoever said it (MC McDonald, “Paper Collar” Joe Bessimer or Barnum’s archrival Adam Forepaugh); there is still a thought in there, which rings a bell. We recognize the nature of man to try to dominate and to make a person do what he doesn’t naturally want to do. We’ve known this since we were children and did not want to eat our vegetables contrary to our parents’ insistence. We didn’t want to write that essay or sit that exam. And yet, we did them. Were we manipulated or what?

I suppose we have to look at the differences between education or training and manipulation. We have to see the sociology of group behaviour and understand how people relate in all kinds of situations. And that’s a worthy exercise, unfortunately, not for this article. Maybe a more worthy enterprise just now would be to consider how God oversees us, makes us to do what we ought to do, and what our response has been and should be.

The apostle Paul wrote, “it is God who causes us to will and to do of his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2.13) Does that mean we are puppets? Not at all. The apostle continues with the command “Do all things without grumbling or disputing” and again, “I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.” (v. 14, v. 18)
We have a God who cares enough about us, who wants the best for us, that he gets involved and creates situations and opportunities for us by which our choices fall right in line with his best desires for us. And we have a responsibility and opportunity to respond to his sponsorship in this regard.

So God leads us from the inside, from our deepest spirit, to do what he wanted all along. And that’s a big difference from Old Covenant consideration. In the Torah, we see nothing of the kind.

Back in the Older Testament, Israel was responsible to perform God’s bidding. It’s almost as if we were instructed and then sent out to perform. Israel, you were… now you must be different. What’s missing? The assistance of the Holy Spirit is not there, to be sure. No wonder the prophet Jeremiah makes such a big point of the difference in Old and New Covenants in chapter 31.

Some struggle with the idea of being adjustable.

“Openness is essentially the willingness to grow, a distaste for ruts, eagerly standing on top-toe for a better view of what tomorrow brings. A man once bought a new radio, brought it home, placed it on the refrigerator, plugged it in, turned it to WSM in Nashville (home of the Grand Ole Opry), and then pulled all the knobs off! He had already tuned in all he ever wanted or expected to hear. Some marriages are "rutted" and rather dreary because either or both partners have yielded to the tyranny of the inevitable, "what has been will still be." Stay open to newness. Stay open to change.” (Grady Nutt, in Homemade, July 1990)

Rather than dominating or locking us into something we are not sure about or manipulating us, God leads us. He is the Good Shepherd who calls us to follow Him. He gives us information and guidance and although at times the pressure seems to increase in light of His information, He is ever the Gentlemen, ever the Free Will extender.
Here’s the key-- when God tells us to do something, we have the power to accomplish it, AND we ought to do it. Flee immorality, love the brethren, receive Jesus as Saviour, care for the poor, etc. Those are commands with great consequence for obedience and severe consequences for disobedience. God will allow us to make the choice to obey or to disobey. With each choice comes further choices and with each result comes further personal development and character. We become more callous or softer to His word.

I remember a brother telling me about an issue he had with me some years ago. He asked me if he could tell me something. I said, “Sure.” He said, ‘No wait, if I tell you, then you are responsible to do what God requires. If I don’t tell you, you may not know.” In other words we become responsible for what we hear, and he wanted to give me a choice. Of course, if I chose not to hear, that’s another matter, and would lead to more callousness, but that’s another story.

At the end of this article, can I get an ‘amen’ from you? Are you thinking, or simply knee-jerk reacting to the sounds of the preacher?

You decide. And that will make all the difference in the (your) world.


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Bob Mendelsohn directs the work of Jews for Jesus in Australasia including Singapore, Australia and New Zealand. He was raised an Orthodox Jew in the US, and came to Christ in 1971. He is married and has three children. The family all lives in Sydney.

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