Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Scott's advice regarding potential psychos

Scott writes in part:

Hi Kevin,

Re: "my little exclusivist", here are my 2 cents so far. [...] I would be interested in real religious dialog (and have before). But I think you have a (potentially) serious problem on your hands. A situation I have seen blow up in the face of some folks I liked - and it wasn't nice.

I've dealt with a lot of folks like this (religious or not). I also dated a woman who sounds a lot like your student. From your short description, I can tell your student is a member of at least one of these types:

1) Wants to convert them all, consequences be damned (no real motivation, she just wants to get people to do things)
2) She REALLY loves Jesus, and is on a crusade to save you
3) She is a member of a cult (read, motivated for no spiritual reason) and wants to convert yet another heathen

The question for you shouldn't be, "Do I talk to her about religion?" It should be, "How much do we talk about religion at 'school'/'the office'? The correct answer is, as little as possible.

She has requested you - which likely means she wants to work on converting you. And this is trouble. With a captial 'T' ("and that rhymes with "P", and that stands for "Pool"").

Your focus before her return should be on an escape plan if/when the discussion gets to be too much. If your boss is cool, let him/her in on the situation. And prep the other teachers, in case they need to take over her lessons.

Folks interested in real discussion don't start off calling you a heathen. Be prepared for a less-than-pleasant side of her personality to appear during a discussion. I hope things go well, but so far it doesn't seem hopeful for a useful dialog to occur.

Watch yer six,

Good caution. However, it's not as though I haven't talked to frothing, born-again Korean Christians before. A lot is in the approach, especially when in the Korean mode of conversation. Initial agreement followed by subsequent (polite or impolite) disagreement is almost de rigueur in such exchanges. Verbal judo is a necessary skill, as is the ability to lean forward and browbeat on occasion-- something I, as a man, can do more effectively in this society than in American society.*

Religion isn't a topic we touch on in every class; it's come up only a couple of times over the past month. I doubt Miss Exclusivist is going to try to "convert" me or "bring me back into the fold": she's ended her conversations (after noting that I wasn't about to back down, either) by saying, "Well, we should pray for them [i.e., non-Christians]," which is positively conciliatory. Even if she does try to turn me to the dark side, she's not going to get anywhere.

It's true, however, that almost all these gung-ho Christians are concerned for your immortal soul. But most of them haven't been trained to think. This puts them at a disadvantage if they ever decide to whip out scripture, because unlike people who've actually taken hermeneutics courses, these folks aren't ready to dig into the realities that lie behind the texts they cherish. They're all set to quote what Jesus said and did, but very few make an effort at deeply understanding why Jesus might have said and done those things-- nor are they prepared to frame the issue as, "Why might the gospel writers have depicted events this way?" These Christian soldiers have been fed pat answers to potentially nettlesome questions and assume, almost catechistically, that those answers will suffice in any situation.

What keeps me hopeful, however, is that it's possible to find reasonable people, even in this demographic. Sometimes the reasonableness has to be coaxed out. My own conversion from Christian fundamentalism (including a strong, Bible-based creationism) to a liberal/moderate religious stance took time (not to mention a few philosophy of religion courses like The Problem of God, a required course at Georgetown). Part of the problem, though, is that reasonableness is, more often than not, a function of temperament. This is discouraging when you look at the global picture: if temperament, and not reason, plays such a huge role in people's religious alignments, just how far can dialogue (or any reason-based endeavor) take humanity as a whole? Yet I remain hopeful. We're not slaves to our passions, unless we choose to be. Most of us are lazy, however, which is why interreligious dialogue is doomed to be a neverending project. As a race, we can't reach perfection, but perfection can be posited as a plausible moral asymptote.

Scott's right: English class isn't the best place to have religious debates. I'm going to keep Scott's caution in mind because: (1) at the end of the day, if this lady wants a debate with me, she's going to lose it badly, and (2) after she loses, she's going to take her business with her to a different hagwon. Not that I'd mind, but right now, things are still on friendly terms and I'd like to keep them that way. Scott's advice makes sense as a way to avoid losing business for my employer, which in turn keeps my ass on the payroll.

Regarding the larger picture, Scott says that "folks interested in real discussion don't start off calling you a heathen." Yes, I agree that this lady's taken the wrong approach. But if dialogue is to be more than an incestuous congress of religious liberals who are already in agreement with each other (i.e., why bother dialoguing?), then we have to be ready to deal with people whose religious alignments are radically different from our own. (I say this in response to the general question of whom we should dialogue with, not in response to the specific question of Miss Exclusivist and the personal challenge she represents.) As you, Dear Reader, might have gathered, I already had an answer to the question I asked yesterday.

[*Before you ladies get the wrong idea, let me clarify: I'm not talking about standing up and bellowing, nor am I talking about being arrogant for arrogance's sake. When I say "browbeat," I'm referring to what is, for lack of a better term, a nonverbal debating technique that's fully expected in Korean-- and especially male-female-- repartee. Women here still expect men to act like men (despite the current pussification campaign in the Korean media); I bluster, they back off, and it's all part of a larger game. Not to worry, ladies: Korean women are steely and will almost always figure a way around or through any male bluster.]


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