When I first clicked the link, I realized that the article is 8 pages long, so I’ve been waiting for a chance to read the whole thing at once, which I did this morning.
The story in a nutshell is that the reporter went ‘undercover’ as a member of a neo-fundamentalist mega-church in Texas. He attended services for several months, and then went on a weekend retreat, which is meat of most of the article.
As you might expect, he completely rips what he believes to be modern christianity to pieces, and his criticism is just. I don’t really disagree with anything he says in the article. The major catch is that the church he chose to scope out is WAY out in left field. He gives a play-by-play of the whole retreat and “Jesus” only comes up one time, when someone is casting the ‘demon of homosexuality’ out of someone. The Gospel doesn’t appear anywhere in the article, and neither does the heart of God. And unfortunately, I think that’s a reflection of the church body that the reporter became a part of.
So, if you are of the same mind as the reporter in this article, please, please know that the people and the teaching described in this article — though an honest reflection of many ‘christian’ churches today — are in no way a reflection of Jesus. I would love to sit down and tell you more about that over coffee.
And if you are a follower of Jesus, I challenge you to read the article. And don’t read it to pick apart all the false assumptions and accusations made by the journalist. Instead, just assume for a moment that he might be giving his honest take on what the church looks like to a skeptic. And then let’s ask ourselves: What would we do differently if we were truly serious about reaching people like this journalist?
Here are several chunks that really stood out to me (watch out for the language):
With the glasses and a slouch I hoped I was at least in the ballpark of what I thought I needed to look like, which was a slow-moving hulk of confused, shipwrecked masculinity, flailing for an Answer.
One of the implicit promises of the church is that following its program will restore to you your vigor, confidence and assertiveness, effecting, among other things, a marked and obvious physical transformation from crippled lost soul to hearty vessel of God. That’s one of the reasons that it’s so important for the pastors to look healthy, lusty and lustrous — they’re appearing as the “after” photo in the ongoing advertisement for the church wellness cure.
Here your church leader is an athlete, a business dynamo, a champion eater with a bull’s belly, outwardly a tireless heterosexual — and if you want to know what a church beginner is supposed to look like, just make it the opposite of that. Show weakness, financial trouble, frustration with the opposite sex, and if you’re overweight, be so unhealthily, and in a way that you’re ashamed of. The fundamentalist formula is much less a journey from folly to wisdom than it is from weakness to strength. They don’t want a near-complete personality that needs fine-tuning — they want a human jellyfish, raw clay they can transform into a vigorous instrument of God.
We were about a third of the way through the process when I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Fortenberry’s blowhard-on-crack-act/wound gobbledygook were all suspiciously secular in tone and approach. I had been hearing whispers throughout the first day or so to the effect that there was some kind of incredible supernatural religious ceremony that was going to take place at the end of the retreat (“Tighten your saddle, he’s fixin’ ta buck” was how “cowboy” Fortenberry put it), when we would experience “Victory and Deliverance.” But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to “find your wounds” (“My husband hid my Saks card!”) at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.
The crowd swallowed that one whole. One thing about this world: Once a preacher says it, it’s true. No one is going to look up anything the preacher says, cross-check his facts, raise an eyebrow at something that might sound a little off. Some weeks later, I would be at a Sunday service in which Pastor John Hagee himself would assert that the Bible predicts that Jesus Christ is going to return to Earth bearing a “rod of iron” to discipline the ACLU. It goes without saying that the ACLU was not mentioned in the passage in Ezekiel he was citing — but the audience ate it up anyway. When they’re away from the cameras, the preachers feel even less obligated to shackle themselves to facts of any kind. That’s because they know that their audience doesn’t give a shit. So long as you’re telling them what they want to hear, there’s no danger; your crowd will angrily dismiss any alternative explanations anyway as demonic subversion.
Here I have a confession to make. It’s not something that’s easy to explain, but here goes. After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship and praise — two days that for me meant an unending regimen of forced and fake responses — a funny thing started to happen to my head. There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief. The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you’re a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene — even if you’re intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry — outwardly you’re swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that “inner you” begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest — in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the “work” of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked. For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your “sinful” self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath. And besides, so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really? It was an incomplete thought, but it was a scary one; it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment. I feared for my normal.
American Christians who speak in tongues basically all try to sound like extras from the underworld set of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. If you want to pull it off and sound like a natural, just imagine you’re holding a rubber replica of Harrison Ford’s heart in your hands: Umm-harakashaka! Loo-pa-wanneee-rakakakasha, Meester Jones!
By the end of that weekend, Phil Fortenberry could have told us that John Kerry was a demon with clawed feet, and not one person would have so much as blinked. Because none of that politics stuff matters anyway, once you’ve gotten this far. All that matters is being full of the Lord and empty of demons. And since everything that is not of God is demonic, asking these people to be objective about anything else is just absurd. There is no “anything else.” All alternative points of view are nonstarters. There is this “our thing,” a sort of Cosa Nostra of the soul, and then there are the fires of Hell. And that’s all.