Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Dominionist Christians in their context, for better or worse

Christian dominionists like to control their own marketing. And despite supposedly being bold in their witness for Jesus, they don't want to let their little lights shine before the unbelievers (Democrats, non-Christians, Catholics, most Protestants). It's not exactly timidity. They know that can't justify their positions in terms that most Americans and most Christians in the US or anywhere would support. So they mealy-mouth a lot.

Al Bundy - Christian dominionist theologian?
Our stumbling press is willing to facilitate the mealy-mouthing, since that's largely what our star pundits generally do anyway. So there's a discussions going on now in places that actually deal realistically with the Christian Right, like Talk to Action and Religion Dispatches, as to what the correct way to talk about the dominionists is. I understand why serious journalists and scholars like to be careful about their terminology. For scholars in particular, their work involves making careful distinctions.

This piece from Religion Dispatches is an especially good one on the topic, Beyond Alarmism and Denial in the Dominionism Debate by Sarah Posner and Anthea Butler 08/29/2011. They make an essential point in reference to the Christian Right in general and the Pentecostal New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), a group that suddenly came to new (and to them unwelcome) public attention with Rick Perry's big prayer rally:

... theological disagreements among these folks are largely inconsequential from a broad political perspective; the overarching Christian nation ideology, along with opposition to secularism, LGBT rights and abortion rights, and favoring public prayer and Ten Commandments and so forth are unifying.

But the idea that the NAR in particular — as opposed to the broader apparatus and movement the religious right has built over four decades — is somehow, in a vacuum, more powerful, or more authoritarian, or more threatening to democracy is a view that is far too narrow, ahistorical, and uninformed. [my emphasis]

What makes Posner's and Butler's piece especially good is the way they describe the networks of relationships that participants in neo-Pentecostal groups experience and how the influence of the leadership enters into that experience. As Posner puts it, this is a "crucial point here that I think is frequently overlooked by some people who focus too hard on the NAR rhetoric without contextualizing it: how people actually live and experience these movements." Their description doesn't minimize the ugly side of the neo-Pentecostal experience. It puts it in its actual context as lived by its believers.

Butler slips in a kind of disclaimer that I've seen several times lately in similar articles by people who actually know the Christian Right. She says the lack of decent research by mainstream reporters "has also led to a whole cottage industry of those who write about dominionism, the NAR, and other theocratic movements from the opposite perspective: It’s taking over everything." Now, I'm willing to believe there are people exaggerating one aspect or another of this phenomenon. But who is she talking about? I've seen this kind of comment several times lately without those guilty ones supposedly doing this being referenced, linked or specified. Without knowing who they are talking about, this kind of comment isn't helpful. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like knee-jerk rhetoric to reassure the un-assurable that the speaker/writer isn't one of those stereotypical libruls who supposedly hates "people of faith" and their faiths, too.

But, as I said, Butler's and Posner's description of the neo-Pentecostal lived experience is an exceptionally good summary. Butler:

... there are streams of people crossing each other, and what is happening can have a multiplicity of meanings. That is how to think about the NAR, dominionism, all of these movements that people are involved in. In evangelical and Pentecostal churches, most people have a home church they identify with, but you have a favorite pastor or evangelist that you listen to occasionally. Studying scripture means you don't just read the Bible, you read devotional books, and books designed to help your spiritual walk or the church broadly construed. That is the problem with focusing in only on NAR and dominionism. If you don't know the everyday context of how people, churches, and organizations deal with these broad-based movements, it can sound like a vast conspiracy theory.

People who are in that web don't often recognize differences, or they don’t care about them. They care about their spiritual lives, and that's what keeps these movements going. They can go from one meeting to the next if they have the funds to do so, and the highs are good. Who doesn’t want to go to a meeting that feeds your soul where you meet like-minded people?

All of the groups are enmeshed in a symbiotic web. These evangelists', apostles’, and leaders’ messages are the commodity, and you have to buy the books, conferences, and other materials in order to get the blessings. I know that will seem distasteful and a caricature to some, but these events are well-attended, and at a hundred bucks a person, revenues from book and DVD sales. Conferences and meetings like Lou Engles’ The Call are not just prayer meetings, they are Christian marketplaces, with all sorts of spiritual wares being sold. [my emphasis]
Posner amplifies that description:

... if you’ve ever been to a neo-Pentecostal conference or revival you’ve seen this sort of thing. And as [Carlton] Pearson's biography clearly demonstrates, if you give up that central idea that there is a hell (and hence a Satan), you'll be banished from not only friendships, but the lucrative ministries that Pearson himself helped to create.

All that said, there are different ways that people experience this, or faith healings, or other performances you find in these environments. Not everyone is in lockstep, when you sit down and talk with them. I remember vividly the 2007 event at Gimenez's church in Virginia Beach—this was before John Gimenez passed away—and there was quite a lineup of different preachers (I mean entrepreneurs)! I remember Lou Engle was on what I might, looking back, call a prophecy bender: rocking, as he does, and really doing an extended sequence on some dream he had about Jerusalem. People were wandering out of the sanctuary, as I did, and I was chatting with a woman in the hall. She commented about she hadn't seen him preach in a while. And she seemed pretty unimpressed with this one.

I point this out only to emphasize how these individual players do not necessarily always enrapture the audience; I've seen this at various events. On the other hand, I've seen others, like Rod Parsley and Kenneth Copeland, have the audience eating out of their hands (and also putting money in their hands).

These events are, like I said, performances that are carefully staged and mapped out; there may be a series of speakers who seem like they are reacting spontaneously to what's happening, moved by the holy spirit. But it's carefully orchestrated, along with mesmerizing music, for maximum impact. It's big business.
However, I suspect this ability to understand and empathize with rank-and-file participants may also contribute to the temptation to downplay that nuttiness and cultish aspects of these movements. Posner, for instance, expresses misgivings that some (unnamed) "people have been distracted by focusing too much on bizarre statements Perry’s prayer friends made (the Statue of Liberty is a demonic idol, Oprah is the harlot of Babylon, and so forth)."

But this stuff is also standard fare in the neo-Pentecostal subculture. I just clicked on the website of Charisma, a leading Pentecostal magazine, and found this article on the front page: J. Lee Grady, Unraveling the Power of Witchcraft—One Warlock at a Time 09/07/2011. Ole Jaylee apparently believes literally in the ability of witches and warlocks to magically affect people:

Just a year ago, Victor Hugo Perez Vargas was a leader in Peru’s vast but secretive occult movement. His strange ability to curse people and cause accidents seemed to be increasing. He was being mentored by a well-known satanist master and he attended witchcraft conferences. ...

Victor, who is 36, was drawn into this occultism as a teenager in the city of Moyobamba, where friends convinced him to have sex with dogs in order to receive supernatural power. Witches told him to do this so he could hear better and see in the spiritual realm. After the perverse initiation rites, he began to hear voices—and he discovered his ability to kill people with his words.
I'm sorry. People who can swallow tales about warlocks causing accidents by cursing and initiation rites involving dog-fucking are just superstitious and gullible. If it hurts their feelings to see or read someone saying that, then they just need to grow up. Ole Jaylee has his head stuck in the 19th century:

Victor’s transformation showed me how the Holy Spirit is working in Peru, where occultism has been a tradition ever since ancient Incas sacrificed children on altars to their sun god. Today, occultists from Africa, Europe and the United States attend witchcraft gatherings in Peru because they consider the country a central power center for New Age energy.
He goes on to describe an exorcism allegedly performed on the warlock's girlfriend, a description evidencing less critical thinking ability than the average illiterate backwoods hick can muster.

He goes on to describe his conversion to a brand of Christianity evidently as superstitious as the most dim-witted occultist. "I had a vision of the feet of Jesus," the redeemed and exorcised former warlock says. It reminds me of an episode of the old TV series Married...With Children in which Al Bundy has a vision of God's shoes and starts to manufacture and market them, only to later to discover they were the shoes a deceased fellow shoe salesman had invented and had never been able to sell, either.

And Pentecostalists like Jaylee often track in National Inquirer fantasies like this:

Observers say witchcraft is growing in Peru today, and human sacrifice still occurs—although it is rarely reported. (Several weeks ago, a girl’s dismembered body was found in Mayobamba.) Teresa Gomez believes this is all a last-ditch effort by satanic forces.

"These satanists want to take over the nation of Peru," she says. "Witches come here because there was so much blood sacrifice during the Inca times." She also noted that poor families, especially in jungle areas, have been known to sell their children to be sacrificed in occult rituals.
Substitute "Jews" for "poor families" and you've got the bad old medieval (and later) "blood libel" about Jews sacrificing Christian babies. This is a mean, superstitious, and militant ignorant brand of Christianity. I don't see any good reason for other Christians, journalists, scholars, Democratic politicians or anyone else who's not crouching in a corner trembling in fear of flying demons and witches' curses to treat this kind of nonsense as anything other than a sad, degenerate brand of religion that will certainly do most participants more harm than good.

Ole Jaylee is at least not so mired in the 16th century he doesn't have a Twitter account, where you can read confessions like this: "I hope this doesn't disappoint anyone...but I like Easy Listening music. It calms me." I don't know, Jaylee, sounds like you've got one of them thar Guy Lombardo demons or something. You'd better lock yourself in a room and listen to Christian contemporary for 24 hours straight. It may not git rid of yore Easy Listenin' demon, but it will strip you brain badly enough that you're unlikely to be able to hurt anybody. Also not be able to write your silly column.

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