I TOLD ME SO: Self-Deception and the Christian Life
Gregg A. Ten Elshof
I don’t want to deceive you. This may be a short book, but it is not a breeze-through read. It actually has footnotes (gasp) rather than numbered endnotes or those supposedly reader-friendly hide-and-seek references. The author is a philosophy professor who is laying out a structured lesson or course, but he does so in a winsome, pastoral tone that draws the reader in and onward. Just about the time the prose turns heavy --- philosophical, psychological or theological --- he livens it up with an illustration or a personal anecdote that is easy to relate to. I think any reader can see himself or herself in the pages of this book --- as one who is self-deceived. But Gregg A. Ten Elshof’s tone is not accusatory in a diabolical sense (the Bible calls the devil the “accuser of the brethren”). There’s an overarching kindness in Ten Elshof’s style, as he points out the potential abuses of our self-deception and gently leads us to a healthy discipleship.
At first, Ten Elshof sets out his topic with some historical perspective, including a heading that reads “Self-Deception in the Christian Tradition.” He notes that existentialism (“notoriously difficult to define to everyone’s satisfaction”) promoted authenticity as a virtue. This “supreme value of authenticity” prompted self-deception to get “a promotion in the ordering of vices.” Get this: “Recent studies indicate that when asked for the top five qualities needed to be a good leader, those older than fifty place competency at the top of the list, but for college-aged adults, authenticity is chief.” After establishing that self-deception is often an ill-used vice, he asks: “Might it have a legitimate purpose?” The question at the end of chapter one prompts a reader to turn the page.
In several chapters Ten Elshof explains the “how-to” of the forms taken by our self-deceptive psychological strategies. There’s procrastination, rationalization and “perspective switching,” to name a few. (He discusses several more, naming them with words or phrases that might need definitions longer than I have room here to give.) He then turns to positive and negative aspects of group dynamics --- how a community itself can be deceived and how a healthy community can help bring individuals out of destructive self-deception.
Ultimately, the end of this book is easier to read than the beginning. And the last chapters, including one called “Giving Self-Deception a Demotion” (in the rank of vices), are very helpful and insightful. In some instances --- maybe in a cancer patient --- hope might be considered a self-deception and yet that very “deception” is necessary to life. And as for group dynamics, consider these wise words: “The occasion to have a safe and thoughtful discussion with someone who genuinely loves you and disagrees with you passionately is a rare and precious gift. These occasions are among our most effective resources for unearthing our unquestioned assumptions and seeing a bigger picture.” Thank you, professor.
--- Reviewed by Evelyn Bence
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