Hobbits, Action Movies, And The Trouble With Suspending Disbelief
by Jason Wisdom
“…for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
The concept of “suspending disbelief” is most commonly associated with the observation of artistic works of fiction. Consider the following illustrations. John excitedly loans a copy of his favorite book, “The Hobbit”, to his friend Ben. After merely reading the jacket cover description, Ben tells John that he is not interested in reading the book. Ben explains, “I don’t believe that things like hobbits, dragons, wizards and magic exist and I can’t enjoy reading about something I know could never happen.” Flabbergasted by the naivety of his friend, John responds, “No one is asking you to actually believe those things are real. You just have to suspend disbelief.” In a similar scenario, Larry and Bill have just finished watching a new action movie. Larry did not enjoy the movie because, in his words, “in real life, no one could ever kill one thousand of the world’s top assassins while navigating down a mountain on only one ski, in the dark, and manage to avoid getting hit by even a single bullet.” Bill laughs and says, “it’s just a movie.” The concept remains the same; Bill was able to enjoy the movie because he exercised suspension of disbelief while his friend Larry wished that he had not wasted twelve dollars.
It seems to me that Christian evangelism has largely settled on the “suspending disbelief” model over the past 200 years and especially over the last 50-60 years. It is not uncommon to hear preachers use phrases like, “Is there any reason that you couldn’t give your life to Jesus right now?” and “Just give Jesus a try.” While I am not questioning the genuine motivation behind these phrases, they may be more dangerous than they seem on the surface. Anyone familiar with doing surveys or polls will tell you that carefully worded questions tend to generate predictable answers. That is to say that you can ask the same question several different ways and get a different set of answers each time.
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Atheists accuse religious people of being weak willed, ignorant, uneducated and easily lead. If we are speaking of religious people in the broadest sense, they are probably more correct than we would like to admit. People that exhibit the aforementioned characteristics are much more likely to suspend disbelief in God, miracles, Heaven, Hell, and other spiritual idea. When coupled with traumatic circumstances such as illness, family tragedy, impending death and the like, people of this sort become willing to suspend disbelief in practically anything.*
You will notice that I have intentionally used the phrase “suspend disbelief” instead of “believe”. I think that the distinction between the two is of utmost importance. Remember when John explained to Ben that he did not actually need to believe that hobbits and dragons were real, but only to suspend his disbelief in them? John was not asking Ben to believe in these things; rather he was merely asking him to pretend as if they were real for the purposes of experiencing the novel. This demonstrates that, contrary to what one might assume, that the opposite of suspending disbelief is not “suspending belief.” I would like to suggest that suspending disbelief necessarily presupposes that the person does not believe in the concept to which he is suspending disbelief. If Ben already believed in magic, then he would not have to suspend his disbelief of it in order to enjoy the book. Therefore, suspension of disbelief and suspension of belief (or simply: unbelief) are synonymous rather than opposites. So, the real opposite of suspending disbelief is real belief.
The problem is that many Christians have become content to ignore the difference between suspending disbelief and belief. Thousands of people will warm the pews of their local churches without ever moving from the place where mere suspension of disbelief for the sake of convenience, social acceptance, and emotional security, becomes actual, meaningful, concrete and unswerving belief. We must be willing to examine ourselves and honestly deal with the question “Is what I really believe true?” That question may be intimidating, but it could not be more important…