christian crack

This was going to be a Tuesdays. but it's 1am Sunday morning and I feel like posting up now. Yeah, baby. Freestyling it.

Anyone who's spent time around Christian symbol sets knows the motif of a person at the end of their rope attending a revival meeting, hearing the story of Christ from a new angle or for the first time, having a transcendent experience of god's love and forgiveness, and walking away a new person, confident and full of hope.

I once had a friend describe to me what it's like to smoke crack. He grabbed a napkin and drew a little line that went sharply up, then gradually down. "The first time you smoke it, it's like the most incredible feeling in the world, right?" Then he drew another line. It went up almost as sharply, but not quite as far, dropped down a little faster and ended up at a lower point. "But the next time, it's not quite as good. Almost, but..." and he shrugged, drawing a few more lines in the same pattern. "It never gets as good as that first time, again."
(I'd like to mention, in credit to my friend, that this person stopped doing crack, has not done it for many years, and offered this description in the midst of advising all present against ever giving it a try.)

My own history with spirit-filled activities dates back to a Bible camp I attended at the age of nine. Back then, prophecy and speaking in tongues were in vogue, while deliverance from demons was the new, untested thing that hadn't caught on for big groups yet. I had my first ever "mountaintop experience", and to my utter jubilation was able to pray using random syllables that rattled out effortlessly. I had done it! I'd become filled with the holy spirit, Jesus was my best friend and I knew for certain I really, truly, wasn't going to hell. The only thing that dented my jubilant relief was another little girl, kneeling next to me up by the edge of the stage. She looked over with a scowl and said, "Quit fakin' tongues." At the time I was so high on Jesus that I shrugged it off. She's just jealous, I thought to myself.

Times like this--what the Pentecostals call mountaintop experiences--I've come to think of as being a little like crack. Gives you a high nothing in the world can top, fades long before you're ready for it to go, leaves you desperate for more no matter what it costs you. You find you can't live without your fix. But it's a fix of reassurance and validation. You need proof that god still thinks you're pretty or manly and Jesus is still your buddy. You're one of the good people that gets to go to heaven, while everybody else growls jealous insults at you from the darkness outside. It is a life-consuming addiction.

Since the subject's been on my mind lately, a recent post over at Against Biblical Counseling got me to thinking. John brought up how exorcism is portrayed in television and film. The sexual power dynamics, he notes, are usually dysfunctional and tend to involve a possessed female being successfully cleansed of evil by a sympathetic, dominant male. My attempt at a comment ran long; sexual power roles and exorcism are two things I've thought a lot about but rarely put next to each other.

I'd say the film industry is far from the worst offender here. Exorcisms in movies tend to draw their images from other movies about exorcism, other images of it from popular media. Which are a far cry from the way exorcisms and "power encounters" are more often practiced today. Movies, far as I'm concerned, only do a disservice in that they reinforce dramatic and scary ideas people already have about what it means to be demon possessed.

Geds just linked to a great Rolling Stone article where the journalist went undercover to a power encounter-type retreat. The event follows the classic spiritual retreat paradigm. That is, it slides gradually from entertainment and self-help slogans into brainwashing and mass hysteria.

Exorcism as a means of expression for repressed sexual desires is absolutely overt in the type of event this article describes. But in movies and television, it's either cartoonishly overdone (with a sexy Satanic priestess maybe?) or handled with so much symbolic gobbeldygook that you have to analyze it a bit before the power dynamics pop out. It's kind of ironic, because most people I know who are into real-life "deliverance" would never watch those movies or shows.

I would tend to argue that the kind of dominance deliverance ministers exercise over their flocks strongly resembles sexual domination. Whether they're consciously aware of it or not. I spent a lot of time being embarrassed about the shame I felt during intense "spirit filled" events. It most closely resembled sexual shame, the shame of a kid who's had something yucky done to them but isn't entirely clear on why it happened or what it meant. But because the coercion was all mental and emotional, it seemed wrong or presumptuous to feel violated.

That shame, though, is one of the strongest ties binding the uncertain to the charismatic movement.

Exorcism is entertainment, yes. Popular depictions of exorcism, however, are a far cry from the thing called exorcism that is actually practiced in the Christianity I knew. As far apart as Playboy photo shoots and actual sex. And the entertainment value is, in a twisted sort of way, for the participants themselves.

Everybody turns off their intellect, subsumed in emotional sermons and songs with simple tunes and repetitive lyrics. Everybody knows, expects, believes, that intense physical reactions to the spiritual warfare going on inside are the hallmark of those who have truly opened themselves to God and participated in something supernatural. Everyone who does this enters into a wordless pact: "What we are doing is not crazy, is not ridiculous, is not to be doubted or mocked, because we do it together." To doubt the authenticity of one's experiences is to doubt the experiences of the group. To admit--even just to think it aloud!--that one's own experiences were self-willed, hysterical, fake, is to have betrayed the group's trust and spit in the face of God. That is the essence of the pact. "Either you are with us, and believe as we believe--or you are against us, and believe we're a bunch of stupid crazy idiots whose deepest emotions are worthless."

In my exploration of the topic, I've come to believe that one's sense of personal identity is formed by perceiving and reacting to one's identity in the mind of the people one trusts. The mountaintop experience, the power encounter, these are the kind of intense, emotional interactions through which people can form some of their most powerful bonds. When one's bonds with a trusted person or group are broken, the aspects of one's identity which were formed through those bonds can be totally destroyed.

There's a joke Demetri Martin tells, about going clothes shopping. The checkout girl shows him to the dressing rooms and says, "If you need anything, I'm Jill." And Demetri replies, "Wow! I've never met anyone before with a conditional identity. If I don't need anything, who are you?"
Lots of truth in that joke. Our identites are, like all of the beliefs we carry, a set of linked value judgments, forged in the crucible of our experiences. And like any value judgments, those which form the sense of identity are, to an extent, conditional. "Who am I?" is a much less urgent question, in real life, than "Who am I to you?"

Sexual abuse and sexual coercion are evil. I doubt I'm going to get an argument on that. But what is it about them, I rhetorically ponder, that makes them evil? Perhaps it is because they take something that should be a source of wonder and joy, should be a way that people can learn to love and trust each other, and turn it into an instrument of destruction and subjugation. Take something that is potentially an avenue of love, in the case of sex literally a source of life, and make it a source of shame and fear. The power sought by the abuser or attacker is to make the victim's choice for them, to say, I get to decide what happens to you, you can't have this part of yourself except to give me what I want.

The emotional coercion that happens in spiritual power encounters tampers with people's identities, with their ability to form emotional bonds with other people, in just this way. It is usually a coercion imposed indirectly through a group, rather than individually. Those who are in it for the power get a more diffuse boost, but can convince themselves quite easily that there is no coercion involved. The enforcement of their will is done collectively by their followers, for the most part, and furthermore is done in the name of Jesus. And, I mean, really. A person in spiritual authority stealing emotional energy and trust and reverence intended for god? That's not a crime, like sexually abusing minors while one is supposedly instructing them in faith. Or embezzling money from the church coffers. The only thing getting hurt is feelings! That's not illegal.

Just evil.

Today I still think of that day when I was nine as the day when I first got in touch with something holy. But I think the words of the girl next to me, rather than the nonsense I was spewing, carried the message I received that day. What I was being taught was fake, and I was making myself into a fake because of it.

At every event like this, there is an attempt to evoke a spirit of camaraderie and goodwill. To get everyone thinking, "we're heroes, warriors for good, it's us against the world, we belong together, we belong to Jesus, and together we can storm the gates of hell." That's where most of the high comes from, the best and noblest part, that gives your shiny little good-kid identity a place to call home. When I decided to deconvert, I started out thinking that I was giving up that feeling forever. If it came from God, you see, and He only gave it to His servants, then as one of the heathen I was accepting separation from the fellowship of saints.

And yet, when I was at a naughty, makes-baby-Jesus-cry rock concert, and lost my footing in a mosh pit, there were a dozen hands helping me to my feet and half-a-dozen voices asking if I was okay. There were people who didn't know each other all screaming out the same words, jumping up and down in unison. People voluntarily turning off their intellects, letting their emotions run wild, being vulnerable to one another. There was fellowship--but without speeches, without promises, without threats, without scrutiny. Without shame. Part of the thing I thought I'd lost, stripped of the thing I'd been willing to abandon it to escape.

There's more parts of it I still haven't found. I'm not part of a community, in the sense that a church is a community, anymore. Most of the problem there is in me, a problem of fear and trust. I find myself asking, "Is this group of people really the one I want giving me an identity?" Whenever a friendship gets too close to that line where friends of friends start to intermingle and the boundaries of social groups start to realign, I get scared. I pull back. My conscious intent is overridden by my abiding fear. I start doing stupid things like not calling people back, getting lost on the way to a much-anticipated rendezvous. Breaking off contact. Is it stupid? Hell yes! Is it rational? Hell no! But it is a reflex based on a part of my identity, a part of my identity I won't be able to change until I can do again the thing that still scares the bejesus out of me:



John Weaver said...

Wow. Thanks for taking my comments so seriously. I think, basically, I just get really scared of the whole Hollywood\Pentecostal\Catholic glorification of exorcism and how mainstreamed it is right now. Particularly last night, when i saw Sean Hannity plugging it and then Joel Olsteen plugging Mercy on Larry King. I think there is a certain unhealthy sexual fixation in deliverance ministers, though obviously I think most deliverance ministers do not consciously realize this

Fiat Lex said...

:D Thanks for stopping by, John.
Yeah, I think it's an outlet for repressed sexual energy for many people. Though I think the sexual expression part is actually more often for the participants. I think for the ministers it's more about power and control, feeling like a big, important person who's got god's special mandate to tinker around with people's souls. May be sexual in a symbolic way, but exorcism's such a powerful ritual that it hardly needs to be.

Isn't Hannity one of those people with a news show on Fox that like, thinks liberals are letting Mexican vampires across the border to sell uranium to unwed teenage mothers?

And Joel Osteen, now that I've looked him up, seems like a poster child for modern Christianity in all its shallow infamy. Who was it that said "The greatest enemy of Christianity is not heresy, it is shallowness"? Think I read something like it in CS Lewis.

Amber E said...

I've been thinking about religion a good deal lately. It's funny that I've been thinking about converting to Catholicism for the past couple years and I've just read several novels Jamie lent me from Moody's publishing house (Moody is somewhat Calvinist, I looked it up). Anyway the whole exorcism thing passed me by. I've never really run into it. I've been more worried about doctrine. I really want to belong to a community but want to get on board with something I honestly believe, no fakiness. I like many things about Calvinism my struggle is with the whole predestination/elect business. Just can't buy it, to me when it says that Jesus came to save all men I think the Bible means all, not all Christians who were predestined to be saved. I really do love the Catholic Church. My only worry is that with all the beautiful history and rituals the joy of salvation and the reality of it may sometimes get buried under the sheer volume of Catholic information.

One thing I do know is that joy should increase and not actually parallel crack usage. Recently I read Hinds Feed on High Places and it was a lovely metaphor for the growing in maturity, faith and joy as a Christian, something real not an just an emotional experience. I believe religious experiences can be ecstatic experience but that is not all of one's faith walk. It's just icing. You have study and act your faith for it to be non-fake. It is much easier to fake speaking in tongues than it is to fake feeding the hungry, visiting the sick etc. That doesn't mean that people can't really speak in tongues or really do other things like give water to the thirsty, food to the hungry etc. That's one thing I love about World Vision - you really can send money towards a well, clothes, seeds and animals for food, anyway that is a tangent.

I personally find Joel Osteen to be distasteful, it may be rude of me since I've never met the man but when watching one of his sermons on TV it sounded to me more like a motivational/self-help lecture than a sermon. Nothing about salvation or redemption just Jesus makes your life better. The Gospels and the early Christian Martyrs seemed to me more about living Christian principles than expecting God to give you shiny toys. I was very disturbed by the large globe behind him because it seemed to me to symbolize the world. While I'm used to the Cross having no symbol would have been more appropriate than the one he did have. Personally I don't consider him to be a Christian minister even though he, his church and others would disagree. However now that I'm typing this I remember that Bible story about the mote in my neighbor's eye verses the beam in my eye.

Maybe I should go feed homeless people find a naked person to clothe and visit a prison. Those seemed to me to be the things Jesus kept telling people to do. Okay, I should go sleep now.

Fiat Lex said...

Thank so much for sharing your thoughts on this! I really value your perspective, and not just 'cause we're related. You have a very sharp mind and also a different viewpoint than me, so you bring up things I wouldn't have thought about.

Ya, Mom really didn't get into the idea of exorcism until you'd moved out. Frankly I imagine she'd've been afraid to try it on you. (Too much independent thought!) Even so, my experiences seem really tame compared with other people's that I've read about. But I'm getting off-topic here.

I agree, there's a lot to recommend Calvinism but predestination just ain't Biblical. Even if one believes that God, in his omniscience, knows what we are going to do, doesn't mean all our actions are the results of his will. That to me is one of the points of the Eden story: the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil is the power to choose between good and evil for oneself. If people don't have that power, then much of religion becomes meaningless.

You make an interesting point about Catholicism as well. From what I've absorbed through cultural channels I get the feeling a lot of Catholics avoid churchgoing because there is so much structure. It's a tough balance for a group to hold. Too little structure, and you leave room for dangerous heretics to make their own little fiefdoms. Too much, and you do indeed rob congregants of the joy that ought to come from a shared faith.

Reminds me of one of Dad's pet peeves with the Mass, actually. The older version of the ceremony had the priest do it with his back to the congregation, facing the cross. That blocking says, "I the priest am a sinner like you; let us together thank God for his mercy." But a few hundred years ago they changed it, so the priest has his back to the cross and is facing the people. That says, "I the priest represent God; you have to go through me if you want to get closer to him." Subtle, but dangerous. That's the risk a church takes with having too many traditions. One little piece out of place, and spiritual dysfunction can creep into the structure which was built in an attempt to resist it.

Yeah, the Christian crack thing was really the main impetus behind my deconversion. I'd come to realize that I'd always felt a little trapped in Christianity. That when I tried to witness I'd feel dirty and ashamed, as if I had to say, "well, here's this thing that makes me miserable and frightened all the time, have some! then you can be miserable and frightened too!"

So I'm really, really glad that you are approaching this deliberately and with careful thought. I hope when you do find a denomination, it will be one that matches up with your beliefs and is something you can be proud of!

Right on about Osteen. You hit the nail on the head with that image, too. Take away the cross, replace it with the world. And use the world's solutions to your problems instead of the Bible. A self-help guru who uses Christian words but doesn't talk about sin and salvation through Christ, doesn't talk about dying to the old self and becoming a new creation, is betraying the religion he professes.

Maybe I find it easier to criticize, as a non-Christian, because I don't feel the need to give him any more benefit of the doubt than I would anyone else.

I'm not saying I hate all televangelists or anything. Just that it's really offensive even to me when people make the "tele" a much higher priority than the "vangelism". Jack van Impe, for example, I can respect, even though I disagree with most of his views. Everything on the show presents a doctrinally consistent view, and besides, his mental Bible verse cross-referencing is truly impressive. He took the trouble to actually learn what he is teaching, and seems to really believe and be joyful in it.