Sunday, August 28, 2011

God's Publicity Team

Sometimes people in evangelical communities start wondering, aren't people peeved by us getting in their faces all the time? Do their looks of awkwardness and slight revulsion actually mean that they really don't like me? What if I'm just bothering everyone, and getting nothing done?

The answer goes something like this.

One day, they will thank you. Right now, they're probably annoyed at you. It's because they don't understand, because the world has twisted their wicked minds. You look like someone who is just mouthing off, like a salesman who is coming up to your door and really just cares about your money. But in ten years, when they're in their darkest hours, they're going to remember Jesus. And they'll remember you. They'll know that this is the way to go, that they have to accept what you told them a long time ago, and they'll thank you. You will have saved their lives, and they'll know that. Had you not come along, they would never have found eternal life.

In reality, what I think happens, is that most people of reasonable wealth and support will in fact go to their usual pillars of strength to deal with things. They will probably find nothing particularly life-changing about the idea of Getting Religion, especially the kind that will knock on their door to tell them about JEEEEE-zus (you know the pronunciation I'm talking about). They will go to their therapists, or their friends, or their family, or whatever. In short, they'll go to something they know will get them results. If you look at lots of conversions, especially in the evangelical arena, you don't get people converting to Christianity based on happy days in church with their believing family. You get people converting out of pure desperation, out of those moments when their parents just died and their house was lit on fire and they got cancer and they DON'T KNOW WHAT TO DO EVERYTHING HAS FAILED ME. When all their standard supports are screwed, then they Get Religion.

Not everyone has these moments. I'm fairly sure most people in America don't have the bottom-dragging moments that are so down low that even their friends and psychiatric hospitalization can't save them, or else it doesn't actually seem like the right option.

In the end, it honestly seems like God needs a different publicity team. No, people are pretty much not going to remember that you were the one knocking on their door with a Bible in your hand, except to say that you interrupted their dinner and that they shut the door on you. People are getting a really bad impression of God's awesomeness, from these people annoying the heck out of them.

Here is something I've realized. God had a really sweet evangelism team going on with the Apostles. Even before that, He has always thrown out a pretty cool set of things to convince people. Let me recount a few of them.

- Pharaoh has God's people all locked up. Moses says, dude, let my people go, slavery sucks. Pharaoh says, Screw you, no. So Moses prays and God says, Here you go, smack your staff into the river, let me turn it to blood so we can freak out the Egyptians and they'll see how much I'm better than their false gods. So Moses does a bunch of things like this, and finally Pharaoh gets pretty darn terrified and lets the Israelites go. (Simplified version, of course.)
- Some priests of I think Baal say, Hey Elijah, our god is better than yours. Elijah says, You're totally wrong. They say, Okay, we'll have a contest, see whose god is better. Elijah puts down an altar, the Baal guys put one down, they both try to call down heaven's fire to consume the sacrifices on the altar. Baal doesn't answer. God swamps the altar with flame, incinerating the rock into slag and vaporizing the sacrifice.
- Blasting forward, we get to Jesus. He spent 3 straight years schlepping around the Middle East, doing all kinds of crazy shenanigans every time someone of interest drew near. A blind guy touches him? Jesus makes some mud, smacks it on his eyes, tells him to go wash off. He does. He can now see. Some guys haul their paralyzed buddy up to a rooftop and lower him down right in front of Jesus. Jesus says sweet, here you go, all your sins are forgiven and by the way, get up and walk. A woman has had bleeding problems for ages. She pokes his cloak hem. She is healed. Some women are wailing about their dead family member Lazarus, a guy Jesus knew. Jesus is pretty sad, and he cries for a while, and then he goes to the tomb and summons Lazarus out of there. Everyone laughs, but Lazarus comes walking out totally okay. Jesus is so radical that people want to kill him, but He is so innocent that no one can find a good reason to do it. It's crazy stuff.
- Thomas has some issues with Jesus rising from the dead? No problem; Jesus shows up and tells Thomas to poke his scars. Here you go Thomas, you don't have to guess anymore. I'm right here. Yep.
- Even farther forward! The Apostles go out and do all kinds of miracles, healing the sick, all that good stuff.

If you ever had any doubts back then, from what I can tell, you tended to fall into a few categories: people who didn't see the miracles and thus didn't have to confront them, people who thought Jesus got his powers from demons, or people who thought he was an illusionist or a sham. But really, physical hard proof formed a pretty serious backbone of Jesus' ministry, and also that of the Apostles. There was a lot of storm-calming, life-saving, sickness-healing, sin-forgiving awesome going on. Say "Jesus is a sham" to those women mourning Lazarus and having seen him off to his tomb blue and pasty and without a pulse and having been wrapped in pounds upon pounds of burial linens and spices. Say "God's not real" to people who have seen Heaven's fire summoned out of the clear blue sky, right in front of their faces, with no technology worth speaking of that can do such a thing.

Nowadays, we don't have that. God's publicity team is limited to people's very personal, unverifiable testimonies. It's nice that your mother's sister's aunt got healed, but we don't know that. Plenty of people have claimed all kinds of divine healing.

It's made even worse by evangelical "healing sermons," where at the end, people are called up to the altar and essentially promised healing through prayer. It inevitably doesn't work for your normal person who is Praying Really Hard. I was about 12 when I took my friend Nicole up to the altar, hoping that the arthritis that screwed up her hands would be healed. I genuinely believed it was going to happen, no really, seriously, and so did she. We both rushed up there and threw ourselves at the stairs to God's altar.

Nothing happened.

This isn't good PR for the heavenly forces. Really, it isn't. If God doesn't answer someone's prayer for a lottery win, okay, that makes some sense. But if someone has cancer, hand-wrecking arthritis, leukemia, epilepsy, a hell of a case of asthma that isn't life-threatening but still sucks...this is the kind of stuff Jesus healed in the past.

So where are God's big PR stunts now? Where are the miracles that convinced everyone to believe, that separated Jesus from the snake oil salesmen who just wanted your money and attention? That's how Jesus got followers before, and if He really wants to convince the entire world, I'm fairly sure that's what it takes to get humanity to care. If lots of people didn't believe when there were miracles, it's going to take -- pun entirely intended -- a miracle to get them to believe now. It's even hard for the believers to keep believing, when sometimes the only real benefit to it is the hope that they'll have it better than they did before. Sometimes they don't. It's a really difficult thing. the end, evangelicals are not really what we need as God's PR team. Works well for the desperate, not so well for those who are on average content with their lives.

Why fix what wasn't broken?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is it like in the movies?

I figured I'm on to something with this 'explain to the real world what Pentecostal churches in the South are like,' so here's your next post on the matter.

I guess the main topic is, what are they like? Are they what you see in the movies, with people whooping and raising their hands and all that? Do they really speak what sounds like gibberish all the time, a la Snow Crash? If so, do they really think it's something significant? Etc.? The answer to all this is, yes. Chances are, just about everything you've heard about Pentecostal churches is true; at least everything I've heard is really close to the truth on a large number of points. Now, some of it sounds utterly ridiculous, but really, it does happen. I'll touch on some of the stereotypes and the reality of them here.

If your opinion involves Jesus Camp (that creepy documentary where, to go a little Godwin, it starts coming eerily close to people raising kids to be Nazis or terrorists or something), then sure, that's so extreme that you really can't count it. But here are things that are very common. You've probably heard of most.

Some people are going to say I'm generalizing here, but I'll counter by saying that I think I have a good handle on the public Pentecostal opinion. Maybe it's anecdata, but I'm not claiming it isn't -- this is just what I saw from my experiences.

1. Homophobia. Yes, they do believe that being gay is evil. Yes, they believe that you only do it because you don't give a crap about changing. Yes, they really would advise you to go to one of those correctional places where they try to make you straight. This is all true. They preach on the virtues of being straight, of how marriage is only between a man and a woman, and of how allowing gays in the military is part of the Downfall of America. You can extrapolate from there, but yes, this is a safe haven for people who are squicked out by gays.

2. Exceedingly energetic preachers. I don't know if it's a requirement or what, but Pentecostal preachers range from the Very Energetic to the "Are you about to explode?" When I was a kid, ours was of the latter category, and his face would turn beet red and he would jump up and down and SHOUT EVERYTHING HE SAID. I swore that I was getting in trouble, because the only time people's faces do that normally, is when they've just come out of a serious workout, or if they're mad.

3. Lots of charisma and mob psychology. Say what you will about them, but Pentecostal preachers are great at getting a crowd to follow them. They know how to whip a group into a frenzy. If you ever need someone to coordinate a riot, you should search out the Pentecostal preacher and put him at the head of the group. Some say this is why televangelists (lots of whom seem to lean Pentecostal) have the results they do on their audience, with people falling over and all that. Psychology can really do crazy stuff to you. They jump; they shout; they get the audience involved and enthusiastic; there is lots of PRAISE JESUS; the preacher encourages the people listening to make sounds and shout agreement and generally sound supportive. As a kid, it's a terrifying environment, because the pressure is so subtle and so strong. You are supposed to do these things, because the people look so darn honest and excited about it. The neighbor next door is over there singing her heart out and jumping around and shouting, why the heck aren't you? And there are lots of supporting come on motions on part of the preacher and lots of calls for audience response and lots of subtle hints that you REALLY SHOULD BE FEELING IT YOU ARE RIGHT?! And then you respond, because otherwise you feel anywhere on the spectrum between "awkward," "abnormal," and "bad Christian." Depends on the place and person.

4. Speaking in tongues. Whatever you think it is, it does happen. Often during the course of a message, someone will break out into frantic gibberish that always sounded to me like they were about to burst into tears. After about a minute of constant speech, the person will fall silent, and someone else in the audience will speak up to interpret what is said. (For the record, I do believe in speaking in tongues. I think it really does happen. I'm just not sure that all instances of it are legit.)

5. People falling over. I don't even know what this is called, after 22 years, but what happens is the preacher goes up to a person and puts his hand on their head and they fall straight back and someone catches them. They lie there for a while before getting up. It's supposed to be a demonstration of God's power, and the idea is that you fall over regardless of whether you want to do or not; it's involuntary, as if some invisible hand took your legs out from under you.

6. "Harry Potter is evil" and other media issues. Yes, there are plenty of people that have a beef with Harry Potter. From what I've gathered, Pentecostals are really sensitive to media hype. They're eager to believe that any book mentioning a witch is going to send kids to hell; they really like to band together and rally against things. They are easily swept away by preachers telling them things like this. See Mob Mentality, and also because they are a culture of trust. You can always trust your fellow Pentecostals. They're not the bad ones. Everyone else is part of the hedonistic evil masses, but the Pentecostals are really the good ones. This leads to a lot of strength and solidarity, but also to a lot of blind trust.

7. A massive tangle with patriotism. Pentecostals have dubbed themselves as America's holy defenders, people who are the soul of what America should be. They like to get really involved in social issues, and they seem to think that they should govern the country because they're the last bastion of morality, and if they finally get power, they can finally fix all these people by legally preventing them from doing evil things.

8. A vast hatred of modern culture. They really do think that lots of actions many people see as progressive (abortion, the advent of birth control, gay marriage, letting people get lots of piercings and dye their hair, etc.) are in fact signs that the apocalypse is coming, that the world is getting more evil, and that anyone who doesn't agree has been suckered in. "Wickeder and wiser" is a phrase that is very common; it means that the world is getting more evil, but it's also getting better at convincing you that it's not evil. So if you're not Super Guarded, you'll become a hedonistic evil person like everyone else, and you won't even know it until you're headed to hell in a handbasket.

9. Hellfire-Damnation preaching. Pentecostals have a strong focus on avoiding punishment rather than just doing good things. You are moral, because otherwise you go to Hell. You do nice things, because otherwise you're screwed. They may not say it straight out all the time, but live with their teaching long enough, and you can tell. And if they're not saying it about you, they're saying it about people you know. Let me tell you, this will screw up a kid. Being raised on "because otherwise you're going to be tortured forever" is a really terrifying thing, and in the end you start thinking about everything in terms of "how am I going to be screwed if I don't do this" or "am I being nice enough?" or other things like that. You really don't want to live like that.

There's more, of course. I'll post on more specific parts in the future.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Crush the -- what?

A long, long time ago (okay, maybe about 8 years ago), I was in an evangelical Christian youth group. Yes, the real whooping, hollering, hand-raising, tongues-speaking, PRAISE JESUS! sort of evangelicals. I'll post a comment later about the nature of evangelical churches and exactly what goes on in a lot of them, and I have things like "televangelism" chalked up on my list of Religious Things to Write About. I guess I'm sort of the ambassador from the Southeast or something, and unlike many who fled the evangelical scene, I didn't punt my religion along with it. Anyway, that's another post. This one is about a specific thing that I am thrilled never became popular.

Odds are probably greater than 95% that you have never heard of Crush the Crush. In fact, the Internet has an impressive lack of record that such a thing even exists. Because it was back before Facebook, Twitter, and all the mainstream social media (despite what you think, not everyone had a Myspace account), not much of it got recorded in the series of tubes. It took me a nontrivial amount of digging before I managed to dredge up a single website, someone's blog, that mentioned it. They make it sound so adorable compared to what it actually is.

Crush the Crush, according to that one website, is a sort of "religious fast," except instead of fasting food, you fast your romantic relationships. It's aimed at tweens and young teens -- people who are just getting into their sexual maturity. For one year, you don't date, flirt, or otherwise engage in romantic behaviors with anyone, ever, at all, and the idea is that you're dedicating that year to spiritual diligence.

That within itself sounds very fluffy and actually kind of admirable. You give up a large chunk of teenage social life for a year, and spend it becoming knowledgeable about your beliefs and your spiritual allegiances. Sweet. Except the way they actually treat it, when it's taught, has a nasty undertone that this cute blog doesn't mention.

I went to a Crush the Crush event. It was part of a greater convention, a big gathering of youth groups in northern Florida. My group attended, camping out the convention center with a bunch of other people. It was an enormous stadium full of middle schoolers, and in the front was a stage where bands would play and speakers would teach. One of the lessons/events we had there, was Crush the Crush. Attendants handed out pieces of paper to everyone, and when I looked down at mine, I saw it was a sort of combination certificate/contract. I was to write down the name of my crush, and it was a promise to not engage in romantic behavior towards them for a year. Given that there are thousands of other kids there, all staring at the same sheet of paper, all ready with pen in hand, the pressure to sign the paper is immense. It's a very well-wrought peer pressure, because you're all there to be spiritual, and the guy in the front is saying this is how you can be spiritual, and all the kids look like they're signing, and...yeah. It's not just a sheet of paper; it's a sign that you do or don't believe in its message.

The speaker started talking about dating relationships, and how they worked. The hallmark of the speech was, in short, how damaging breakups are.

Now, I know some people who have gotten screwed up by breakups. I spent a summer hiding on a couch because of one. It happens. But this speaker was determined to tell us that romantic relationships would be the death of our hearts and minds. Every time you date someone, he said, you bind your heart to them a little. Every time you break up, you rip both hearts away from each other, and a little piece of your heart stays with them. Someday, your heart will be a little destroyed piece of itself, and you will have nothing to give, no way to love, because you're so annihilated by all the breakups. Therefore, kids, don't date people. It's a very tiny step to the pipe dream that everyone will find their soul mate and magically know that the person is meant for them, and the relationship will begin on the grounds that they are just so in love and understand each other so much and whatever have you, that the first person you really date is the person you'll marry and stay with forever.

I really wish it could be that way. I respect that dream a lot. But in the end, 99% of people will not have that ideal state. (Some people really don't think it's even the ideal state at all.)

My guess is that this was meant to prevent premarital sex, because almost all evangelical preaching on young relationships is meant for that. But in the end, it turned into a creepy sort of "dating people will hurt you" and "puppy love is bad" and all kinds of things meant to turn a healthy learning experience about courtship and romance into a hellish nightmare where people are constantly causing each other dire pain that will never heal, eventually ruining their lives forever.

Tell me that isn't creepy. Stay tuned for the occasional new post about the creepiness of extreme evangelical society.

I don't remember if I signed or not, by the way.

Edit: Weird! A new source has shown up -- someone who is selling DVDs for the Crush the Crush cause. I finally found it! Its tagline is as follows...

"Are you tired of moving from crush to crush and one relationship to the next? Are you ready for a more rewarding way to live?
Find out how to CRUSH the CRUSH and live your pre-married years passionately for Jesus. This video features testimonies from young people who have learned from past relationship mistakes and are grateful for a second chance from the Lord. Target audience: teenagers and early twenties."

Look at that tagline. It's basically saying, don't date, because if you do, you're not living for God. Yeah. There's also a YouTube video out there.