Sunday, March 19, 2006

I'm not a Christian, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in both the teachings of and the history of Christianity for their influence on history and current events. The various branches of Christianity seek to throw their weight around in American politics, law, and social life. I think every member of a Christian denomination that believes the Bible is the literal word of God should read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.

Ehrman was "born-again" at the age 15 and attended Moody Bible Institute after high school, then learned ancient Greek at Billy Graham's alma mater, Wheaton College. Then he went to Princeton Theological Seminary. No one could say he was not steeped in Christianity as a religion and not just an academic study. However, even though he started out in a faith that believes the Bible is the unerring, exact word of God, his book is about all the changes made by humans in the works that make up the New Testament in the nearly two thousand years since their composition, and the many, many variations that exist in the texts. In the ancient world of hand-copied manuscripts, copying errors abounded, as well as scribes thinking they were correcting errors but not necessarily knowing what the original said, and the manuscripts that still exist of these books disagree in many places. Some of those disagreements make quite a difference to Christian doctrine. Even if you believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were divinely inspired to to write down their biographies of Jesus, the Son of God, their four Gospels don't always agree with each other in what has come to be the accepted version of the Bible, which was put together in the late medieval/early Renaissance period from a limited number of manuscripts available to scholars at the time. Comparing all the conflicting ancient hand-written copies shows that the different verions can't possibly all be divinely inspired. (And that's before you even get into the difficulties of translation out of the original languages!)

The Bible is a human book, with human errors in two millennia of transmission. Every Christian should be aware of this before they base their opinions of modern situation on those words (and frequently on a single sentence!) in an ancient book. I'm not saying that there's nothing good in the Bible, but only that like any ancient story, it is not exactly what was originally written and should not be treated as if it were.

And now for something completely different:

I picked up Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door in the bookstore because I wanted to see if she related people who are conscienceless, sociopathic, to crimes such as child sexual abuse and other things, short of murder, that still evoke the question "How could anyone do that?" when you hear about them.

Instead, in reading the examination of these people who really aren't aware of and don't care about other people's feelings, I started thinking about a co-worker who left my workplace this past week. She had been found, first, to be lying to the boss about when she had college classes so that she could schedule herself three-day weekends, and second, when given the task of removing paper clip art from the master copies of newsletters and calendars that had already been printed, she been stuffing the bits of clip art into her pockets and throwing them away later, because it was too much trouble to put the pictures back on the correct storage boards to be re-used later. I was just flabbergasted when I found out about this -- she was not just slacking off at work, but actively sabotaging the company, which would have to recreate the clip art before the next time it was needed, taking a lot of employee time and effort.

I don't know if one could call my ex-co-worker a sociopath or anything even close, but this sabotaging the job that was paying her is what came to my mind as I read Stout's examples. And then Stout said that sociopaths often do things to get normal people to pity them, because people we pity are often allowed to get away with all sorts of behavior we wouldn't otherwise accept. And this reminded me that my co-worker was allowed by the bosses to give her two weeks' notice and work out those weeks, so she wouldn't be out in the cold with no money to pay her bills (and, I will admit, because the company was approaching its busiest time of the month and we could use her labor). But after giving the two weeks' notice on Monday, the bosses came in to work on Tuesday to find a message that she was just quitting rather than working out her two weeks -- leaving us short-handed during our busiest time. "Did she really hate the job that much?" I asked myself when I first heard. I couldn't think of why else she would have done any of this. But then, I feel guilty about possibly leaving them short-handed when I stay home sick. Have I too much conscience, or my former co-worker not enough?

Stout's delineation between sociopathy and narcissism, which can also be a mental disorder, particularly interested me. She says that narcissists can feel love and passion, but cannot understand how others feel (and thus might seek therapy to understand how they alienate others and end up alone) while sociopaths do not feel love -- if they miss someone who has left them, it is because they no longer have whatever services that person supplied. My own comparison is that for a sociopath, a person leaving them is like a bus route changing and no longer conveniently stopping by their home -- annoying, but not a matter of love and loss. Sociopaths, Stout says, fake feelings others if it will benefit them, but it is always an act. And up to 4% of Americans -- 1 out of every 25 people! -- may be like this! They aren't easily picked out of a crown, but Stout recommends a "rule of threes" to identify one in your life.

"One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you're dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior. Cut your losses and get out as soon as you can."
As a rule of thumb (part of her 13 rules for dealing with sociopaths in everyday life), or just a "who to trust" rule even if you don't want to label all liars sociopaths, this is sound advice. I also particularly applaud another of her 13 rules, "Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character." This is probably because I apply it to my preoccupation, the area of child sexual abuse, where keeping silent merely places others at risk. The same applies to any other people who do things without regard for others and their feelings or welfaire. Stout's book can really help people realize that the liar, the deceiver, the person without conscience, will not generally look like Charles Manson and may be someone they see every day.