Yea, though I walk through the uncanny valley…

When I started this blog last summer, I made three promises to myself (and, by extension, my future readers):

#1:  No mention of partisan politics.  I vote a straight party ticket, so I have no credibility in political dialogue, anyway.

#2:  No discussion of professional sports.  In my defense, this was before the word “Tebow” became a verb with strong religious overtones.

#3:  No analysis of televangelists in the interest of refusing to dignify them with a response.

I’m about to blow intention #3 out of the water.  If Pat Robertson’s your main man and you want to continue enjoying this blog, I suggest you wait until the next post.  Also, I’d really like to know what you’re doing reading this blog.

I’m also about to blow #1 out of the water, because today’s observations about Pat Robertson actually took root when I read a recent article in The Atlantic about Mitt Romney.*    

The article actually focuses on Mitt’s uphill battle to win the Republican nomination, an examination which I found tedious and irrelevant just like most everything having to do with election coverage.  But the article also introduces the concept of “the uncanny valley.”  Even though I can’t say it taught me much about Mitt’s problems, “the uncanny valley” has been enormously helpful in explaining my hitherto unfathomable aversion to marionettes, wax museums, and TV preachers.

The uncanny valley is a robotics hypothesis for explaining the revulsion people experience when confronted with human replicas that look and act almost, but not quite, like real humans.  This hypothesis works for computer-generated animation, too, which explains why we all love Wall-E, but Beowulf creeps the crap out of us.  The idea is that the more a replica resembles a human, the more positive and empathetic our responses will be – until the replica crosses a point of no return.  At this point, our response plunges into the uncanny valley which is largely populated by dead people and zombies, the latter of which suffer from being quicker than the dead, but not quite as quick as the quick,** and therein apparently lies the problem.  Here’s a graph to illustrate how this phenomenon works:

There’s evidently a lot of speculation – much of it Freudian – about why this happens.  Seed Magazine just published an interesting article about this very question today, entitled “Into the Uncanny Valley.”  Check it out at

Which brings me to Pat Robertson.

The other day, my husband was flipping channels and landed on The 700 Club just in time for the obligatory come-to-Jesus prayer.  And Pat Robertson was quoting from the playbook that all TV preachers use.  Get on your knees, right there in your living room, and ask Jesus to forgive you.  God loves you and wants to save you by the blood of Jesus Christ.  Jesus died and rose again for you and if you will just ask him into your heart, you will be saved.

Okay.  Say what you will, this is a time-tested approach to preaching the Gospel and even though I abandoned this evangelical tactic a long time ago, you have to admit it does fill a lot of pews.  But then Pat said something that made my flesh crawl, “As soon as you ask Jesus into your heart, as soon as you are saved, all your burdens will be lifted, all your problems will disappear, all your suffering will end immediately.  When you are forgiven, you will be unimaginably happy every day for the rest of your life.”

My friends, this yawning chasm of false advertising and vacuous promise is the uncanny valley of consumer Christianity.  It is to the kingdom of heaven what Disneyland’s New Orleans Square is to New Orleans, Louisiana.  It is to the Gospel what Wii is to bowling.  It is to actual relationship with God what reality TV is to…well, reality. 

It reduces the conversion experience to a sort of cosmic slot machine.  It’s a get-rich-quick scheme that, more often than not, leaves hearts (and sometimes pockets) so empty, many of them will never risk drawing near to God again.  They pull the handle expecting a pain-free jackpot…and God doesn’t deliver. 

Pat Robertson’s uncanny valley is the theological antithesis of the biblical image of another valley – the one that encompasses the shadow of death.  The valley of the shadow of death doesn’t just resemble real life, folks.  It is real life.  It is a place of raw and pulsing life (no zombies here), and surviving it calls for more than the glittering promises of an airbrushed evangelist.

Real salvation is wrestling with God in the middle of the night.  Real salvation is trusting God to keep delivering the manna during the first year, then the second…and the tenth…and the thirty-fifth year lost in the desert.  Real salvation is finding the heart to praise God from the belly of a fish.  Real salvation is the courage to say, “Your will, not mine, be done.”  Real salvation is laying your hands in blessing on a helpless enemy. 

Real salvation is knowing God’s grace even when everything in life points to its absence.  This is what Paul meant when he said, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  (Hebrews 11:1)

The problem with the uncanny valley is that we do see…and there’s nothing there.

* One thing I will say about Mitt – he has very presidential hair.  I haven’t seen hair that presidential since Ronald Reagan.  I mean, think about it.  George W. always looked like he was trying to keep his cowlick tamed with spit and Bill Clinton’s hair looked like a blonde brillo pad.  Obama’s hair is too short to warrant any comment other than his silvering sideburns are looking very distinguished these days.  Did George H.W. even have hair?

** The only thing more difficult than trying to glean some semblance of the Gospel from the lunatic ramblings of Pat Robertson is trying to make sense of a bunch of zombie-philes discussing how to survive the apocalypse (regarding their interest in that subject, they probably have more in common with Pat Robertson than I do) and debating whether “fast” zombies are scarier than “slow” zombies.  Frankly, I really think these people need to drink more.

© Marian the Seminarian, 2012


4 responses to “Yea, though I walk through the uncanny valley…

  • Henry

    OK, Marian, you’ve opened the door to a fundamental question: must we pray that specific prayer with Pat Robertson to be saved? And by extension the following: What happens to the unsaved? Are they separated forever from God? Are they banished to eternal punishment and torment in hell? And finally, what aspect of damnation glorifies a loving God?

    Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2:3-4 that “…God, our Savior, wants ALL men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

    One cannot disagree with Pat Robertson that the truth is God loves us and gave Himself for us, but how does God get what God wants from damnation? How does our Reformed tradition address this apparent gap?

    • Marian

      Henry, I will totally take you up on these questions, but since I can only wing one-liners and have to actually research and reflect upon serious questions of theology, give me a few days and I’ll respond. And then you can tell me if I need to start courting UU or UCC for ordination. ;-P

  • Monica

    This blog post provides me with so many more reasons to love you…as if I needed any more!!!

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