What follows is an excerpt from a recent post Dr. Bart Ehrman wrote about a 2008 interview on the subject of the Bible, God, and suffering. This interview occurred around the time Ehrman released God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. Ehrman wrote:
For most of my life I was a devout Christian, believing in God, trusting in Christ for salvation, knowing that God was actively involved in this world. During my young adulthood, I was an evangelical, with a firm belief in the Bible as the inspired and inerrant word of God. During those years I had fairly simple but commonly held views about how there can be so much pain and misery in the world. God had given us free will (we weren’t programmed like robots), but since we were free to do good we were also free to do evil—hence the Holocaust, the genocide in Cambodia, and so on. To be sure, this view did not explain all evil in the world, but a good deal of suffering was a mystery and in the end, God would make right all that was wrong.
In my mid 20s, I left the evangelical fold, but I remained a Christian for some twenty years—a God-believing, sin-confessing, church-going Christian, who no longer held to the inerrancy of Scripture but who did believe that the Bible contained God’s word, trustworthy as the source for theological reflection. And the more I studied the Christian tradition, first as a graduate student in seminary and then as a young scholar teaching biblical studies at universities, the more sophisticated I became in my theological views and in my understanding of the world and our place in it.
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world?
About nine or ten years ago I came to realize that I simply no longer believed the Christian message. A large part of my movement away from the faith was driven by my concern for suffering. I simply no longer could hold to the view—which I took to be essential to Christian faith—that God was active in the world, that he answered prayer, that he intervened on behalf of his faithful, that he brought salvation in the past and that in the future, eventually in the coming eschaton, he would set to rights all that was wrong, that he would vindicate his name and his people and bring in a good kingdom (either at our deaths or here on earth in a future utopian existence).
We live in a world in which a child dies every five seconds of starvation. Every five seconds. Every minute there are twenty-five people who die because they do not have clean water to drink. Every hour 700 people die of malaria. Where is God in all this? We live in a world in which earthquakes in the Himalayas kill 50,000 people and leave 3 million without shelter in the face of oncoming winter. We live in a world where a hurricane destroys New Orleans. Where a tsunami kills 300,000 people in one fell swoop. Where millions of children are born with horrible birth defects. And where is God? To say that he eventually will make right all that is wrong seems to me, now, to be pure wishful thinking.
As it turns out, my various wrestlings with the problem have led me, even as an agnostic, back to the Bible, to see how different biblical authors wrestle with this, the greatest of all human questions. The result is my recent book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer. My contention is that many of the authors of the Bible are wrestling with just this question: why do people (especially the people of God) suffer? The biblical answers are striking at times for their simplicity and power (suffering comes as a punishment from God for sin; suffering is a test of faith; suffering is created by cosmic powers aligned against God and his people; suffering is a huge mystery and we have no right to question why it happens; suffering is redemptive and is the means by which God brings salvation; and so on). Some of these answers are at odds with one another (is it God or his cosmic enemies who are creating havoc on earth?), yet many of them continue to inform religious thinkers today….
Here is a one hour video of the interview. If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Ehrman, I encourage you to watch the video.
I heartily recommend Ehrman’s book, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question — Why We Suffer. You can purchase it here.
Other books written by Ehrman can be purchased here. Ehrman’s latest book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, is scheduled to be released on March 6, 2016. You can pre-order the book here.
If I were to ask Christian readers to define alien baptism, I suspect very few could do so. Alien baptism? Baptizing creatures from other planets? Baptizing people who are not legal residents of the United States? Nope. In the ersatz world inhabited by Independent Baptists, alien baptism is the re-baptism of people who were saved and baptized in churches other than Independent Baptist churches. If Methodist Joe Smith and his family move to Purity, Kentucky and want to join the local alien-baptizing Baptist church, they would be required to be re-baptized before being permitted to join the church and take communion. Now if an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) family moves to Purity, they would not need to be re-baptized. Well, most of the time anyway. The new church pastor, before accepting them as members, would make sure that their previous church was a like-minded Baptist church. If their old church was an IFB church but had different doctrine, the new church might require them to be re-baptized. Got all that?
Then there are churches that are commonly called Landmark (Baptist Brider) Baptist churches. These churches typically treat all other churches as alien, thus requiring new members coming from another church to be re-baptized. Landmark Baptists also practice close or closed communion. Churches that practice close communion will allow people who are visiting from a like-minded church to take communion. Most Landmark Baptist churches take communion (Lord’s Supper) every Sunday. Some Landmark Baptist churches practice closed communion. No one outside of the local church membership is permitted to take communion. Years ago, I preached for Jose Maldonado and the Hillburn Drive Grace Baptist Church in San Antonio, Texas. When it came time for the church to take communion, Joe whispered to me, we practice closed communion, brother. In other words, I could preach at the church, but not take communion with them. Welcome to the wonderful, wacky world of the Landmark Baptists.
These type of churches, similarly to the Roman Catholic Church, believe in Baptist successionism (Baptist perpetuity). Wikipedia defines Baptist successionism this way:
Baptist successionism (also known as “Baptist perpetuity”) is one of several theories on the origin and continuation of Baptist churches. The tenet of the theory is that there has been an unbroken chain of churches since the days of John the Baptist, who baptized Christ, which have held similar beliefs (though not always the name) of current Baptists. Ancient anti-paedobaptist groups, such as the Montanists, Paulicians, Cathari, Waldenses, Albigenses, and Anabaptists, have been among those viewed by Baptist successionists as the predecessors of modern-day Baptists.
To simplify things for readers: John the Baptist baptized Jesus, so that made Jesus a Baptist. Jesus baptized the disciples, so that made them Baptists too. This means that first Christian church was Baptist (First Baptist Church of Jerusalem). So there ya have it, the Baptist church is the one, true, historic church.
The Campbellite movement (Restoration movement) of the 19th century which birthed the Churches of Christ and Disciples of Christ, found its roots in the Baptist church. Thomas and Alexander Campbell, in an attempt to restore the Baptist church to its apostolic roots, contended that baptism was required for salvation. The Baptists believed that baptism was an outward sign that one has been saved, whereas the Campbells believed baptism was salvific, that sins were washed away in the waters of baptism. Today, Churches of Christ and Baptist churches bitterly fight over which church is practicing New Testament baptism. Most of the debate centers on the word FOR (Greek word eis) in Acts 2:38:
Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ FOR the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The Baptists believe the word for means because your sins have been remitted. Churches of Christ believe the word for means in order to have your sins remitted. Back in the days when I pastored churches in SE Ohio, I would preach sermons against the Churches of Christ. I would then take tapes of the sermons and mail them to local Church of Christ preachers. And they would do the same, refuting my Baptist ecclesiology and soteriology.
But Bruce, doesn’t the Bible says, ONE Lord, ONE Faith, and ONE Baptism? Doesn’t this mean that all Christian baptism is legitimate in the eyes of God? Silly you, to think such things. ONE baptism? Why that is Baptist baptism. All other baptisms are — drum roll please — alien baptisms.
My good friend, former Evangelical pastor Jim Schoch, sent me a link today to an article about atheism in Arizona. According to azfamily.com:
It’s a long-honored tradition at the Arizona state Capitol. Lawmakers pray every day at the start of the session.
“The country was founded on certain Christian beliefs,” Sen. Steve Smith said.” We have people give Jewish prayers, Mormon prayers, Christian prayers, Catholic prayers, all kinds of prayers.”
But if you don’t identify with a particular religion, you can no longer be a part of that opening prayer.
“I find myself not being able to give a prayer,” Rep. Juan Mendez, a self-proclaimed atheist, said.
In 2013, all lawmakers took turns giving the prayer. When it was Mendez’ turn, he didn’t want to do it.
“I actually tried to not do the prayer. I avoided it,” he recalled. “They essentially made me give a prayer. So, I scrambled to even understand what it would mean for me, and it took me awhile.”
Mendez gave the invocation again in 2014, and he wanted to get on the calendar this year, the same day the Secular Coalition for Arizona would be at the Capitol.
Mendez was denied this time around because he “doesn’t invoke a higher power,” part of the new rules just put into place by House Majority Leader Steve Montenegro.
“It’s frankly disgusting,” Arizona State University Professor Lawrence Krauss, a well-known atheist, said. “How can something that is respectful be insulting?
“We are allowed to treat someone with total disrespect because they lack faith, that we would never do to someone who claimed to be religious,” he continued.
According to Krauss, a world-renowned theoretical physicist and best-selling author, some people equate no beliefs with no values.
“[Some have] the idea that somehow if you question the existence of God, you’re a bad person, that the only way to be moral is to believe in God,” Krauss said.
Krauss says atheists are seen as “more negative than no experience, financial impropriety, adultery or in this case, even being a Muslim. Somehow, atheism is associated with evil.
He says people are afraid of anything that threatens their faith and that asking questions will confront it.
“It’s kind of amazing, religion has captured the market on morality,” he said.
Krauss has a theory.
“Obviously, if you look at the First World, I think it’s education,” he explained. “As the populace becomes more educated, their willingness to believe myths decreases, and their willingness to openly ask questions increases.”
Numbers show nonbelievers account for about 23 percent of Americans, yet Mendez is the only admitted atheist in the Arizona Legislature.
“You can be good without necessarily having a god,” Mendez said. “I’m here to do positive, good work.”
Mendez said his constituents don’t have a problem with his lack of faith. His only challenges seem to come from his colleagues at the Capitol.
He points out that more often than not, the prayer is usually the same call to action referencing the same couple of names from the same religion.
“To where it really normalizes it and makes it sound like we all have one religion down here,” Mendez said.
“We haven’t been able to find a proper and nondiscriminatory way to have people participate in the prayer, and now it’s going to be something that much more divides us,” he said.
NONES by State. 2014 Pew Research Landscape Study
I am of the opinion that the advent of the internet is hastening America’s march towards secularism and unbelief. Prior to Al Gore inventing the internet, knowledge was controlled by academic institutions, libraries, churches, and mainstream media outlets. Today, Americans are exposed to dizzying amount of data. Thanks to Google, known as GOD at our house, the answers to every question are but a search away.
Before the internet, Evangelicals relied on their pastors and Sunday school teachers to tell them the “truth” about God, Jesus, church history, and the Bible. Questions and doubts were taken to pastors for resolution. These men of God were expected to speak authoritatively and put church members’ doubts to rest. Doubt is a tool used by Satan to rob Christians of their joy, peace, and happiness, countless Evangelical pastors told their congregations. If in doubt, just BELIEVE! The problem, of course, is that most people, Christians included, do have doubts and questions. Now that three-fourths of American homes have broadband internet access, doubting and questioning Evangelicals no longer have to rely on their pastors for answers.
I started blogging in 2007. At the time, I was still a Christian. On the last Sunday of 2008, I attended church for the last time. Filled with questions and doubts that had been percolating for years, I came to the realization that I was no longer a Christian. The internet played a crucial part in my deconversion. It connected me with like-minded people, those with similar doubts, questions, and fears. Thanks to internet (and search engines), hundreds of thousands of people have come to this blog (or one of its previous iterations) seeking answers to their questions and interaction with like-minded people. I have been blessed to meet countless people from the vast corners of the world. I have hundreds of what I call digital friends, people I likely will never meet, but who play an important and helpful part in my life. And I hope that in some small way, telling my story and critiquing Evangelical Christianity has been a help to those who visit this site.
Recently, I stumbled upon a post by Joel Miller. Miller’s blog is hosted by Patheos on the Evangelical channel. In April of 2014, Miller wrote a post titled, Is Internet Porn to Blame for the Rise of the Nones? He later changed the title to How Internet Porn Explains the Decline of American Faith. Miller, who is vice president of acquisitions for Nelson Books at Thomas Nelson, doesn’t think the internet plays an instrumental part in the rapid rise of the NONES, those who self-identify as atheists, agnostics, or indifferent towards religion. Instead, Miller blames porn. That’s right. It is not doubts and questions that have caused a loss of faith; it is easy access to internet pornography.
Since the early 1990s, there has been a significant uptick in Americans abandoning their faith. After crunching the numbers, one researcher says contributing factors such as upbringing and education only explain part of the increase. What about the rest?
After controlling for variables like income, environment, and so on, computer scientist Allen Downey of Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts found 25 percent of the decline can be correlated with Internet access. More Web, less faith.
Why? Here’s Downey’s stab at an answer: “For people living in homogeneous communities, the Internet provides opportunities to find information about people of other religions (and none), and to interact with them personally.” So increased exposure leads to doubt, disagreement, disenchantment, and ultimately to discarding your faith.
Disaffiliation should come as no surprise. We’ve already seen that porn makes prayer and beneficial contemplation impossible. Given the Christian understanding of the spiritual life, we’re not capable of simultaneously pursuing our lusts and sanctification. Such a pursuit causes internal dissonance, and the only resolution involves eventually conceding to the pull of one or the other.
If the rise of the internet has anything to do with a loss of faith — and it’s an interesting thought — the role of ideas is likely minimal. Arguments don’t cool many hearts, but sin surely does.
While I certainly agree that the internet gives us ready access to a wide array of eroticism and pornography, I seriously doubt that the road out of Christianity is paved with YouPorn videos and JPEGs of naked men and women. Miller, a committed purveyor of endless books that are meant to answer Christian doubts and questions, dares not admit that the real problem is one of knowledge. Doing so would put the blame for the NONES squarely back on Christian sects, churches, and pastors. Doing so would open pastors up to charges of deceit and promoting ignorance. We can’t have that, so those who have exited the Evangelical church stage left and found purpose and meaning elsewhere, are doing so because they are lustful.
Is this your experience too? Are you an unbeliever today due to your insatiable desire for porn? Or did the internet and sites like this one play an instrumental part in your deconversion? Please share your experiences in the comment section. I am certain that Miller is far afield in his assertion about the NONES, and I ask that readers educate him about the real reasons people leave Christianity.
I plan to pin this post to the top of the front page for a few weeks, giving infrequent readers a chance to share their stories.
Bethel Redding, an Evangelical charismatic multi-campus church, is located in Redding, California. Its senior pastors are Bill and Beni Johnson. What follows is a compendium of information about Bethel and its methodology.
Bethel offers a surefire way parents can help children troubled by depression and discouragement. Let me introduce you to Vintz, the puppet.
Great for Ages 4-10
Included in the Curriculum:
*Vintz the Puppet: He lives in a barrel and brings the message of God’s presence and joy as priority number one.
*Manual: The manual contains 13 lesson supplements. Short lessons designed to incorporate joy into every week in your children’s ministry.
*DVD: On the DVD is a demonstration of one of the lessons, as well as an interview with Seth Dahl.
Seth Dahl believes in raising a generation of children who are strong (joyful) in the Lord. One of his passions is for them to encounter God and experience His works, preventing them from living a life of Christian form without the Reality. Seth and his family live in Redding, California where he is the Children’s Pastor of Bethel Church.
Here is a video from Bethel detailing how children are taught to prophesy and speak in tongues:
This video shows that Bethel is serious about indoctrinating children in the charismatic way of life.
In the following video, Seth Dahl, Bethel’s children’s pastor, details Bethel’s four core values for children:
- God is in a good mood
- Jesus’ blood paid for everything
- I am important
- Nothing is impossible
On Sundays, children gather together at Bethel and recite the Bethel Kids Declaration:
On Sundays, children gather together at Bethel and recite the Bethel Kids Declaration:
Here is another I Declare statement Bethel uses in its children’s programs:
I think I can safely add Bethel Redding to the list of churches that emotionally and mentally manipulate children in the name of Jesus.
Bethel Redding attracts thousands of people to its services. Attendees come expecting to see God work in supernatural ways. According to a 2010 Record Searchlight article, Bethel provides healing rooms for those in need of a touch from God. Amanda Winters reports:
Every Saturday morning from 9 to 10:30 a.m., two large rooms in Bethel Church are transformed into the Healing Rooms Ministry; a place where people can come and receive prayer for any kind of ailment.
Randy Castle, who was acting director that Saturday, said the healing rooms generally see 100 or so visitors – and up to 300 on a busy weekend.
Four teams with about 70 people each work the Healing Rooms. Many pray over visitors, commanding the body to be healed, speak in tongues and invite the presence of the Holy Spirit through impartation, or laying on of hands. Others, Castle said, play worship music in the “Encounter Room” where people can go bask in the presence of God.
Music performed in the Encounter Room made its way through the Healing Room speakers, repeating “God is good, God is good, God is good,” while worshippers prayed, danced, laughed, cried, fell down and lay on the floor under what they say is the power of God. According to Bethel leadership, this is the room where people are cured of cancer, broken bones, chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and a host of other diseases.
Later in the article, Winters writes about an interview she conducted with Bethel senior pastor Bill Johnson:
Bill Johnson, Bethel’s senior pastor, settled into a plush black couch in his office, his arm around an animal-print pillow. Before anything else, he wanted to talk about healing.
“We just had another brain tumor case of cancer healed,” he said. “We have a lot of that kind of stuff happen. It’s verified by doctors, they do the tests and the cancer’s gone. We have a lot of that sort of thing – miracles.”
Johnson, who himself required hernia surgery last year and wears prescription glasses, teaches that the supernatural miracles that happened in Biblical times still happen today if people just value God’s presence and open themselves up to receiving it.
“Because we have such value for his presence with us, things just happen,” he said.
Johnson said that healings happen all the time and he doesn’t feel he needs to provide any documentation or hard evidence to inquiring minds. He also said he doesn’t check up on people who come to Bethel for healing – he doesn’t have the time.
“If you’re sitting here and you say, ‘I’ve been deaf in my left ear since childbirth,’ and I pray for you and then I have you close your right ear and I whisper 10 feet away and you can hear me, I don’t feel like I need to get a doctor’s report,” he said. “I’m happy you’re happy you can hear. That’s enough for me.”
Though he had people praying for his hernia to heal early in 2009, the condition still required surgery and Johnson said that was OK because God can use doctors as well as he can use Bethel’s healing teams, though both are necessary.
“The doctors serve a great purpose but they’ll tell you they can’t fix everything,” he said. “Some things need to be fixed by a miracle or just aren’t fixed at all.”
Johnson said in his sermons he often tells the congregation stories of miraculous healings to encourage them. One such story was about a group in the small, rural city of Shelton, Wash., whose goal it is to raise people from the dead.
Bethel Redding also operates a college of sorts, Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry (BSSM) . According to its website, in 2012-13 over 1,800 students took classes through BSSM. Much of BSSM’s training consists of reading books. Students receive little theological training. The focus of the school is the impartation and use of supernatural gifts.
Think all this supernatural mumbo jumbo is funny and of no consequence? Think again. In 2008, Jason Michael Carlsen, along with Sarah Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas, both students at BSSM, traveled to a California cliff to have a party. Already drunk, Carlsen fell off the 200 foot cliff. Instead of immediately dialing 911, Koivumaki and Gudelunas decided to put their BSSM skills to work. The Record Searchlight reports:
Rather than call police when their drinking partner fell ? or was pushed ? off a nearly 200-foot cliff, two students at a Redding Bible school tried first to reach the severely wounded man and pray him back to life, a lawsuit alleges.
In a lawsuit filed this month in Shasta County Superior Court exactly two years to the day after he was pulled by search-and-rescue crews from the banks of the Sacramento River, Jason Michael Carlsen alleges that when Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry students Sarah Elisabeth Koivumaki and Zachary Gudelunas couldn’t reach him to heal him with their prayers, they spent hours debating whether to call the police.
Bethel’s members purport to have the ability to heal people through prayer and bring the dead back to life.
The two later told police they thought Carlsen was killed in the fall.
Worried that they would be exiled from the church, the two Bethel students also went so far as to try to cover up evidence they’d even been at the top of the cliff, the lawsuit alleges…
Carlsen, by the way, is now a paraplegic.
According to Beni Johnson, in 2009 Martin Scott came to Bethel and gave the church a prophetic word about the California drought. Johnson thinks the recent rains are proof that God fulfilled Scott’s utterance.
(video no longer on Vimeo)
Beni Johnson also practices what is commonly called grave sucking (or mantle grabbing). What follows is a picture of Johnson lying on the grave of C.S. Lewis, hoping to suck out of Lewis’ corpse some of his supernatural power.
According to a February 20,2016 Record Searchlight article, Bethel has submitted plans to the planning commission for a new church facility. If approved, Bethel’s new 39.3 acre church plant will include:
- A 171,708-square-foot campus
- 1,851 parking spaces
- An auditorium that will seat 2,600
- Classroom space at the School of Supernatural Ministry to enroll up to 3,000 students
There is no question is my mind that Bethel Redding is a dangerous Evangelical cult. While people often think of cults being small, secretive, out-of-the-way sects or churches, Bethel is a reminder that some cults hide in plain sight.
If you have ever attended Bethel or had any interaction with its members, please share your experiences in the comment section.
Molly Hensley-Clancy, a writer for Buzz Feed, recently wrote a feature article on Bethel. Here’s an excerpt from her insightful article:
The basic theological premise of the School of Supernatural Ministry is this: that the miracles of biblical times — the parted seas and burning bushes and water into wine — did not end in biblical times, and the miracle workers did not die out with Jesus’s earliest disciples. In the modern day, prophets and healers don’t just walk among us, they are us.
To Bethel students, learning, seeing, and performing these “signs and wonders” — be it prophesying about things to come or healing the incurable — aren’t just quirks or side projects of Christianity. They are, in fact, its very center.
This is the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry’s real goal: creating spiritual warriors, young people who will go out into the world armed with just the kind of supernatural gifts that Bethel believes will bring people into the Kingdom of God.
“Jesus is bringing the Kingdom, and he’s doing it through signs and wonders,” says Dann Farrelly, BSSM’s dean. “They’re the things that make people go, ‘Huh, there’s something about you, about this.’ Jesus even said: You don’t have to believe in me, you believe in the signs I’m doing.”
More simply: Miracles are a really good way to convert people.
BSSM is built on the idea that we are all “naturally supernatural”: We all have the potential to heal the sick and to hear God’s vision for the future. It’s ours because it’s Jesus’s, says Farrelly: Jesus does the work, and humans act as conduits. The school’s job is to foster the supernatural gifts of signs and wonders — to teach people to hear God’s voice and turn it into prophecy.
Stefan, who spent three years at Bethel before eventually leaving evangelicalism, felt for his first few weeks at Bethel like he was really seeing miracles: healings and prophecies that felt like they had come directly from God. Eventually, that changed.
Stefan looks back at his time at BSSM and sees an array of “psychological mind games” — healing via placebo, prophecy through confirmation bias. He’s done some reading lately, he says, on how magicians convince crowds that they are seeing magic and not magic tricks; how believing that you are going to recover from an illness or that your injured limb has been healed can, sometimes, be enough to accomplish healing.
“I think, for me, Bethel was the beginning of realizing, like, this is all bullshit,” says Chris, who went to Bethel in the mid-2000s and asked that his last name not be used because he still has close friends in the church. “When you do it, you convince yourself that this is all really real. But it’s cold reading, that’s what it is. You just dress it up in Jesus.”
Chris was a good prophet, his teachers told him. While he was studying at Bethel, he once had a vision from The Song of Deborah as he prayed over a woman whose name he did not know. As he told her this, she cried out in surprise: Her name was Deborah.
“What I see now is, those are random thoughts,” Chris says. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, your prophecies are horrible misses. But you don’t remember them being a terrible flop — you remember the one time it worked.”
At BSSM, Chris said, the focus was on testimonies of success — retelling to a group of fellow students the stories of the one “holy shit” moment when their prophecy had worked. No one talked about the times they had failed.
Bethel has offered tens of thousands of people a chance to be healed at its massive conferences and on mission trips across the globe. And hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to their Healing Rooms in Redding every week. Many, I am told, practice Bethel’s brand of Christianity, but others are mainstream Christians, dipping their toes in the waters of more radical faith. Others, like me, are not religious at all.
On a Saturday morning, I sit in the lobby of the Healing Rooms, clipboard in my lap and a pen in my hand. On my right knee is the big, ugly black brace, one that I’ve been sporting for six weeks, since a soccer injury left me with two completely torn ligaments. I’m here to have my knee healed — or at least that’s what I write on the Healing Room intake form I’ve been given, which asks me to list my “Physical Prayer Needs.”
I have a lot of physical prayer needs: At the moment, I can’t ride a stationary bike, go down stairs, or even bend my knee at a right angle. I write those down. The form also asks whether I’m “born again” and if I’ve been “baptized in the Holy Spirit.” I check “no” for both.
After an introductory class on the “Biblical foundations of Healing,” we’re led into the main sanctuary, a kind of holding room which is already buzzing with people. Concentric circles of chairs, some of them draped with colorful blankets and pillows, have been set up around a large group of easels where people are painting prophetic art on giant canvases: a pair of hands touching each other, a tree shedding blue leaves. A praise band of beautiful young people wearing flannel plays up on the stage, crooning hypnotic, repetitive strains of viral Bethel Music songs. In the corner, in front of a cross draped with sequined gold cloth, a woman lies prostrate and unmoving, her forehead pressed to the carpet. She does not move the entire time I’m in the sanctuary.
In the back of the room, a row of people with telemarketer-style headphones and laptops are conducting healing sessions via Skype. A pair of large screens in front of us remind us that only Bethel’s ministry team are allowed to heal.
I settle in the corner, waiting for my number to be called, and watch as a trio of prophetic dancers, barefoot and carrying colorful scarves, gather around a woman near me who looks very much like she has just emerged from a brutal chemotherapy treatment. They ask if they can dance for her. She begins to cry, clutching her husband’s hand, as they twirl around her.
After a while, a woman interrupts the praise band to tell us that there is a “healing pool” forming in front of the stage. “It’s a pool where the impossible is possible, where oil and water mix, and here there’s going to be real healing,” she says. As dozens of people come up to the pool, collapsing to their knees or raising their hands in the air, the woman’s voice becomes a hypnotic chant: “Oil and water mix here, outside in the world they don’t, but in here they doooo. Oil and water mix here…”
The ailing woman and her husband make their way to the pool and begin to dance with each other, swaying slowly.
Later, we’re herded into another, smaller room, one where intense healing is going to take place. We wait our turn and watch Bethel’s healers do their work, stationed in pairs in front of people clutching their intake forms.
The woman next to me, who looks about my age, has a squirming little boy on her lap. I peek at her form, which lists just two ailments, scrawled in all-caps: PARASITES and HEARTBREAK.
Finally it’s my turn. “So, you’re not saved, and you’re not born again, right?” one of my healers asks, scrutinizing my form.
I explain clumsily that I was “raised Catholic,” which is only barely true. With my utter lack of faith made clear, the prayers focus not just on my knee, but on my own relationship to God, asking him to “help me on my journey towards faith.”
I can tell I’m a tough case, because a third healer comes over to us, and then a fourth. Soon I’m surrounded by people praying for me, one woman’s hand on my shoulder, another on her knees in front of me, and the force of their expectation — desperation, almost — is palpable. Unrelentingly, every few minutes, they ask me how I’m feeling, whether I’m better.
I try to deflect some of their questions, but it never works. When one healer asks me what I feel, I tell her I feel “your energy and prayers.” She jumps back, “But what about your knee?”
“Well, it’s a really serious injury,” I try. “So I think it might take some time.”
The woman seems almost offended. “Time?” she says. “Jesus doesn’t need time! Jesus can heal you right away.”
We start praying again, and I start feeling a little desperate, like I’ll never get out of here. The next time they ask me how my knee feels, almost automatically, without thinking, I lie.
“I think it’s more flexible now,” I say. I move it back and forth, and I can see my healers’ eyes light up. “I think it’s getting better. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Father!” one of them cries out, taking my hand. We’re both, I think, relieved, though maybe for different reasons. “Thank you for beginning this journey to healing.”
It’s finally over, and my healers ask me to give them my intake form. When I take the paper off of the clipboard, I notice there’s a back side, too, meant to be filled out by Bethel staff: a checklist labeled “Miracles Performed.” It includes healed shoulders and knees, zapped tumors, cured cancer, and limb-straightening, as well as soul-saving. At the very bottom of the list is the very miracle that the Stanford professor told Stefan would convert him: “Limb regrown.”
I hand the form over, wondering if they’re going to check me off as a Miracle Performed. As I leave the room, I think I see one of my healers do just that.
A week later, when I’m back in New York, I pull myself up onto my physical therapist’s table, facedown. The excruciating process of recovering from my injury has, so far, involved forcing my locked-up knee to bend slightly farther at every appointment, a process that always makes me cry out in pain, and sometimes leaves me with tears in my eyes.
“All right, let’s see how you’re doing,” she says. Before I left for Redding, I had told her where I was headed and why, and as I lie there on the table, she jokes, “Maybe you’re healed! This could be our last day.”
I squeeze my eyes shut and feel her bending my knee back. “Wow,” she tells me. “You’re doing really well. You’ve got much more flexibility, actually. I’d say at least 20 degrees.”
I had a lot of downtime in Redding, and I spent most of it doing physical therapy — several hours a day of excruciatingly painful work, lying on the hotel room floor and using a strap to force my knee to bend farther and farther. But still. I turn around to my physical therapist, and she and I exchange a look: just a split second.
You can read the entire article here
Here’s a deeply troubling video of a woman from Bethel Redding putting her beliefs into practice:
Jesus has the power to change lives. At one time, Jesus wrought change in my life, as he has for millions of American Evangelical Christians. Having spent 50 years in the Christian church, and 25 years as an Evangelical pastor, I witnessed first-hand the mighty power of the life-changing Jesus. I know of many alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, murderers, and thieves who are now exemplary citizens due to Jesus and his ability to change and transform lives. I know of a family member who, thanks to the Jesus, is now out of jail and no longer on drugs. Recently, this family member was baptized and he is now a faithful member of Crossroads Baptist Church, (link no longer active) a Southern Baptist church in Newark, Ohio. If “knowing” Jesus causes my nephew to stay off drugs, all praise and glory to the mythic powers of the son of God.
Those of us who were once card-carrying members of Club Jesus™ know firsthand the transformative powers of Jesus. While we are now atheists and agnostics, we cannot deny the fact that religion does have the power to transform substance abusers and criminals into model citizens. Wait a minute, Bruce. I thought atheists deny the existence of the Christian God? Correct. Here’s the thing that most atheists and Evangelicals fail to understand: the transformative powers of Jesus have nothing to do with whether Jesus is who Evangelicals and the Bible claim he is. Myths and stories can and do have great power to effect change. Politicians and preachers alike understand this, using myths and stories to bring about political, religious, social, and personal change.
American history is littered with stories about how sermons from a mythical book about a mythical God and his son Jesus produced great change. That this change was brought to be by belief in a mythical God is immaterial. All that is required is that people believe the myth to be true. This is why the mythic Jesus and his miracle-working supernatural power is still a powerful force in America. Substance abusers go to church, hear about the wonder-working power of Jesus, make a decision to turn their lives over to him, and their lives are transformed. While many “saved” substance abusers will return to their addictions, some do find lasting deliverance from their demons.
How then, should atheists respond to such stories? Perhaps we need to determine what is more important: destroying the myths or seeing lives put back on the right track. Take Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a program devoted to helping substance abusers get clean. AA’s appeal to a “higher power” drives many atheists nuts. Pointing to AA’s group and accountability dynamics, atheists rightly say that a “higher power” has nothing to with substance abusers kicking their habits. Fine, but participants “believe” God is helping them to work the program, to take another step forward in their continued sobriety. Are programs such as AA a crutch? Sure, but all of us, now and then, need crutches to helps us walk.
Should we ridicule and demean those who find help and support from religiously oriented institutions and programs? Isn’t the ultimate goal the betterment of society? Yes, I wish people could find help without getting entangled in the mind-numbing web of Evangelical Christianity. I wish my nephew and others like him could find help for their addictions without having to turn to Jesus and his emissaries on earth. But wishing changes nothing. Christianity still gives life, purpose, and meaning to a majority of Americans, and atheists such as I need to accept this. Until secularists, humanists, and non-Evangelical Christians can provide comprehensive help to people struggling with addictions, addicts have little choice but to turn to religiously-oriented programs. It matters not whether Jesus is who Christians claim he is. Addicts want and need help, and Jesus is ready and waiting to help them. If non-Christians want things to be different, then we must be willing to invest our time and money in developing “ministries” to help those in need. While good work is being done of this front, we are likely several lifetimes away from the day when the miracle-working Jesus is returned to his grave.
One of my sons had a substance abuse problem, one that resulted in him stealing medicine from his father. I am proud to say that my son has been drug-free for a number of years. If religion played a part in restoring him to mental and physical wholeness, so be it. All I care about is that his life is back on track and he is a happily married and father to four awesome girls. He is gainfully employed and our once-fractured relationship is now restored. While he himself finds it frustrating to attend group meetings where Bible-thumpers remind him that the only reason he is clean is Jesus, he has no other option. While my son attends the Catholic church with his family and is a spiritual person, he no longer believes in the Evangelical version of God.
The nephew I mentioned earlier? I hope that he finds Jesus to be the addiction counselor that sticks closer to him than a brother. All that matters to me is that he finds mental and physical deliverance from methamphetamine. He has been down the Jesus path before, having made numerous professions of faith and rededications at the family church, the Newark Baptist Temple. None of these previous attempts worked, and in time my nephew found himself back in the gutter, homeless or in jail, losing countless jobs and destroying his relationships with family members in the process. I know that if he continues on this path it will only lead to continued misery and heartache, and likely result in incarceration and early death. If Jesus can help him break free of his addictions and turn him into a productive citizen, count me as one atheist who will say AMEN.
As a pastor, when we are doing our best at the request of others to be of assistance in the lives of others, it’s frankly repulsive where we are today — that an individual can bring such undue and unfounded criticism.
Pastor, Faith Memorial Church, Lancaster, Ohio
As many readers of this blog might remember, I spent a number years in central and southeast Ohio, pastoring congregations in Somerset and Buckeye Lake. In 1983, I started the Somerset Baptist Church, a congregation I would pastor for 11 years. During this time, John Maxwell pastored Faith Memorial Church in nearby Lancaster, Ohio. Faith Memorial, affiliated with the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, was, at the time, considered one of the fastest growing churches in America. Maxwell, a charismatic, winsome speaker, attracted large crowds of people wanting to hear him preach. Committed to the church growth principles of the 1970s and 1980s, Maxwell established a large bus ministry that brought hundreds of people to Faith Memorial.
I started Somerset Baptist Church using the same principles Maxwell was successfully using at Faith Memorial. The goal was to use whatever means necessary to attract people to the church. Once there, the gospel would be preached, and attendees given an opportunity to become Christians. The bus ministry was the single most effective method to get large numbers of people under the sound of the gospel. This is why virtually all the megachurches of the 1970s and 1980s had large bus ministries.
The first bus we purchased at Somerset Baptist Church came from Faith Memorial. We paid $400 for the bus, an astronomical sum for a small, struggling church. This bus would provide many years of service until one day an inattentive driver failed to notice that the engine had zero oil pressure, resulting in engine failure. We junked this bus and bought a replacement, also from Faith Memorial.
John Maxwell would later leave Faith Memorial, becoming pastor of Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, California. He is now some sort of positive thinking guru, far afield from his days as a Fundamentalist pastor. After Maxwell left, Faith Memorial’s attendance began to decline. Today, as with virtually every church that bought into the church growth hype, Faith Memorial is a shell of what it once was. Few churches have bus ministries, and most of the churches that do are Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) churches that refuse to admit that this method of growing a church no longer works. Having heard IFB guru Jack Hyles implore them to NEVER, EVER QUIT, these preachers refuse to let go of their bus ministries. To quit means to admit failure, and if there is one thing IFB preachers are not known for doing, it is admitting failure.
I haven’t had a thought about Faith Memorial in many years; that is, until today. Evidently, Faith Memorial Church finds itself in a bit of a pickle over their involvement in various Fairfield County public schools Bible clubs. According to a February 22, 2016, Columbus Dispatch report:
Student Bible clubs in at least two Fairfield County schools have been temporarily suspended after administrators received a complaint that area religious leaders were heading the groups.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit group that serves as a watchdog over issues involving separation of church and state, sent letters to four school districts regarding Bible studies held in eight high schools, junior high schools and middle schools before class or on lunch breaks.
Such groups violate protections of separation of church and state if they are led or regularly attended by local pastors, said Ryan Jayne, a legal fellow at the Wisconsin-based foundation.
“Public school districts must ensure that student religious groups are genuinely student-initiated and student-run, and that outside adults do not regularly participate in the clubs,” said a letter from the group to Lancaster City Schools Superintendent Steve Wigton.
Similar letters were sent to the Bloom-Carroll Local School District, Fairfield Union Local Schools and Liberty Union-Thurston Local Schools.
Jayne said a community member, whom he declined to identify, saw the Bible clubs posted on the website of Fairfield Memorial Church in Lancaster. A screenshot of the now-removed web page said the groups are “led by volunteers or community youth pastors.”
The Rev. Jonathan Morgan, Faith Memorial pastor, said the complaint is “much ado about nothing” and that the Web page, along with some local church newsletters, was improperly worded.
Pastors do not lead the groups but have been invited to attend at times by students, he said, and there have been no concerns from administrators, principals, parents or students.
Attorney Sue Yount of Bricker & Eckler in Columbus has responded to the foundation on behalf of all four school districts.
“The districts are meeting with building principals and reviewing the parameters of the federal Equal Access Act,” Yount wrote in an email. “This Act provides for the right of students to hold religious activities on school grounds during non-instructional time, so long as the activities are student-initiated and student-led, with non-school persons not directing, controlling, or regularly attending.”
Morgan said the clubs have been “incredibly beneficial and longstanding” programs in the schools and that discrediting them would affect the well-being of students.
“As a pastor, when we are doing our best at the request of others to be of assistance in the lives of others, it’s frankly repulsive where we are today — that an individual can bring such undue and unfounded criticism,” he said.
According to Pastor Morgan, his church’s involvement in the supposedly student-led Bible clubs is little more than one of the students inviting someone from Faith Memorial to club meetings. And the statement on the church’s website that stated their involvement was leading the clubs? A poorly worded statement, say Morgan. According to Morgan, pastors who attend these clubs are there at the “request of others” to “be of assistance in the lives of others.” What I want to know is exactly what assistance did Faith Memorial, Pastor Morgan, and other Fairfield County pastors provide to local public school students?
Here is what I know. Faith Memorial is a Fundamentalist church pastored by man with Evangelical beliefs. I assume the Bible Clubs in question are Evangelical in nature. While I certainly support the right of Evangelical public school students to have their own clubs, when churches like Faith Memorial and pastors such as Jonathan Morgan actively participate in these clubs, they have crossed the line and are in violation of the principle of separation of church and state. Morgan would have us believe that he and his fellow pastors are just passive participants in student-led Bible clubs. Does anyone really believe this to be true? Are Evangelicals ever passive about anything? Of course not.
Evangelical pastors go to these clubs to steer students towards the right beliefs and practices. I am sure there are discussions about how to effectively evangelize non-Christian students. I am sure there are also discussions about the culture war hot buttons: abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and premarital sex. And I am sure that Morgan and his fellow passive pastors would be outraged if students of a Satanist or secularist persuasion started a Godless club and began having local Satanists or secularist leaders materially participate in the clubs. In fact, I suspect these passive pastors would strongly oppose the very existence of these clubs. After all, Evangelicals are not known for tolerance of competing worldviews.
While Fairfield County Evangelicals will likely see the Freedom of Religion Foundation’s (FFRF) actions as much to do about nothing, supporters of FFRF rightly understand that if you give Evangelicals an inch they will take a mile. Let Faith Memorial, Pastor Morgan, and his merry band of passive pastors actively participate in these Bible clubs, and they will only want more access to students. Remember, the goal of men like Morgan is the conversion of every Fairfield County public school student to Evangelical Christianity. Fueled by their belief that the Bible is an inspired, inerrant, infallible text — a text that commands them to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature — these proselytizing Fundamentalists will not rest until every student is singing What a Friend we Have in Jesus. And it is for this reason, they must be stopped.
Polly and I took a road trip today to Hardin County, Ohio. We finally got a decent day weather-wise (except for 30 mile-per-hour wind), so I was itching to load up my camera equipment and hit the road. Our destination was a sizable rural Amish community between Kenton and Mt Victory, Ohio. While the Amish proved to be elusive, we did stumble upon several interesting churches as we traveled to and from Hardin County.
Mt Zion Old Regular Baptist Church of Jesus Christ. According to an Old Regular Baptist forum, Mt. Zion is part of the Sovereign Grace Association. The church meets once a month for worship. Their beliefs are as follows:
SOVEREIGN GRACE ASSOCIATION OF OLD REGULAR BAPTIST CHURCHES OF JESUS CHRIST.
This appears at present to be one of the smallest Old Regular Baptist Associations. They are however one of the strongest representatives of the original doctrine, faith and practice of the Old Regular Baptist in modern times. The churches of this association stress the Godhead, Inflability (sic) of the Old and New Testament, Election by Grace, Original Sin, Justification by the Imputed Righteousness of Jesus Christ, sinners being called to Repentance, Eternal Secruity (sic), a properly ordained ministry. Their ministers preach a Travail from Nature to Grace, (there must be a begotting (sic) before there can be a birth.)They believe in a Last Day in which there will be a resurection (sic) of the dead the just and the unjust, the joys of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked will be eternal. They baptize by immersion, take the Lord’s Supper with wine and unleavened bread which is followed by feet washing. Old Regular Baptist are non-instrumental prefering (sic) to line their songs in different meters. The members of this association practice modesty of dress. Sisters belonging to these churches do not cut their hair, brothers do not let their hair grow long. They have no secret orders among their membership. Sovereign Grace Association doesn’t however infringe on any of it’s (sic) Corresponding Associations and leaves them to settle their own matters. Like all Orthodox Old School Baptist they deny Freewillism, Arminism (sic),Gospel Regeneration, Works for Eternal Salvation, Pre and Postmillenalism. While there are young people attending their churches, there is no Sunday Schools, Missionary Societies, ETC.. Sovereign Grace Old Regulars believe the church of today has no right to place something in the church that Christ and the Apostles did not establish; that to do such would be adding to the Word of God. You will find these churches are very open to newcomers/outsiders. Visiting one of these churches is like taking a trip back in time, you will often hear shouting and praising the KING OF KINGS AND THE LORD OF LORDS, old time singing and love being manifested throughout the service, if you long for simple New Testament Worship vist (sic) one of these Old Regular Baptist Churches.
First Baptist Church, Forest, Ohio. The church is an Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church. If you are looking for an opportunity to talk to God, he lives at this church. Stop by and listen to what he has to say. On July 1, 2003, Evangelist Don Hardman was holding a revival meeting at First Baptist when God sent the church a message. According to Hardman’s wife Laura:
About halfway into the message, we could hear the thunder and see the lightning through the stained glass windows, During his preaching, when a loud crack of thunder rang out, Don would say, “Yes, Lord, we are listening.” He made reference to the verse God’s voice was like thunder. (Psalms 77:18)
All of a sudden, a lightning bolt hit the church and burnt out the sound system, blowing the light bulbs out of their sockets behind the pulpit. We could smell the burning wires but still did not know we had taken a direct hit. Not once did we lose our electricity, so Don kept preaching on Solomon’s prayer of repentance. About 20 minutes later, a women came running into the church and said, “the church is on fire.”
Evidently, this message from God did not make much of an impression on the church’s pastor. Not long after the lightning incident, the pastor of the church was removed due to sexual misconduct.
Victory in the Cross Ministries, Blanchard Avenue, Findlay, Ohio. Regular readers of this blog might remember that I attended Findlay City Schools from eighth through eleventh grades. According to one of the signs in front of the church, the United States was founded on the Word of God. Victory in the Cross is pastored by George H. Jarrell. Here is what the church’s website has to say about Harrell:
In 1990, I fully rededicated my life to the Lord. Then in 1996 God called me to be a Youth Pastor for the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Lima Ohio, which is Pastor (sic) by my eldest brother.
The Lord opened a door for me in the year of 2000 to be the Pastor for the Gilboa Pentecostal Church of God in Gilboa Ohio. During this time I began to learn the Message of the Cross as taught by Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. As I tuned into Sonlife Broadcasting Network (SBN) I grew in the the (sic) Message of the Cross and God opened up His Word to me as never before.
In the beginning of 2011, through some problems and disagreements I prayfully (sic) left the PCG. With the Leading and Guiding of the Lord I ventured out and began an independant (sic), non-denominational church. We strongly believe in the Pentecostal experience, which is the Baptism of the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised the people that they would recieve (sic) Acts 1:8; and the speaking in other tongues as the Spirit gives the utterance as in Acts 2:4.
This sign is in front of an Amish home outside of Kenton, Ohio. Not a church sign, but interesting nonetheless.
In February of 1979, Polly and I moved from Pontiac, Michigan to Bryan, Ohio. Polly was six months pregnant. For a short time, we lived with my sister. Once I found suitable employment, we rented a place of our own. Bryan is the city of my birth. When I moved away in 1976 to study for the ministry at Midwestern Baptist College, I planned to never return to Bryan. However, marriage, an unexpected pregnancy, and job loss turned my “never” on its head. Over the years, we have lived in or near Bryan several times, and in 2007 we bought our current home in Ney, a small village five miles south of Bryan. Try as I might to get away from Bryan and the flat lands of rural northwest Ohio, I keep returning home. I have now resigned myself to the fact that this where I will live out my life.
Not long after we first moved to Bryan, Polly and I began attending my sister’s church, Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, a community ten minutes north of Bryan. Jay Stuckey was the pastor, and after a few weeks Jay asked if I would be interested in becoming the church’s bus pastor (an unpaid position). I quickly told Jay yes! In a post titled, Bruce, Were You Happy in the Ministry? Part One, I detailed our time at Montpelier Baptist Church:
In February of 1979, we moved to Bryan, Ohio, the place of my birth and the home of my sister Robin. After living with my sister for a short while, we found a house to rent on Hamilton Street. I began working at ARO, a large local manufacturer of pumps and air tools. ARO paid well, but I still desired to be a pastor. As with every job, I viewed secular work as just a means to an end — me pastoring a church. My sister attended the Montpelier Baptist Church in Montpelier, Ohio. When we first moved to Bryan, we thought that we would attend First Baptist Church, the church I had attended before enrolling at Midwestern. Though I knew everyone at First Baptist, we decided to go to Montpelier Baptist, a young, growing GARBC church pastored by Jay Stuckey. This decision did not sit well with the people at First Baptist. One of the matriarchs of the church told me, “Bruce you know you belong at First Baptist!” At the time, First Baptist was pastored by Jack Bennett. Jack was married to my uncle’s sister Creta.
I had previously preached at Montpelier Baptist, so I knew a bit about Stuckey and his ministry philosophy. Stuckey was a graduate of Toledo Bible College, which later moved to Newburgh, Indiana and became Trinity Theological Seminary. After attending the church for a few weeks, Stuckey asked me to help him at the church by becoming the bus pastor and helping with church visitation.
The church had one bus route. It brought in a handful of children every week and little was being done to increase ridership numbers. Enter hot-shot, get–it-done, Bruce Gerencser. In less than a month, on Easter Sunday, the bus was jammed with eighty-eight riders. I vividly remember arriving at the church with all these kids and the junior church director running out to the bus and frantically asking me what I expected him to do with all the children. I replied, that’s your problem, I just bring them in. Needless to say, this man was never very fond of me.
A short time later, the church bought a second bus. I recruited bus workers to run the new route and before long this bus was also filled with riders. On the first Sunday in October, 1979, Montpelier Baptist held its morning service at the Williams County Fairground. A quartet provided special music and Ron English from the Sword of Lord preached the sermon. Five hundred people attended this service and about 150 of them had come in on the buses. Less than two weeks later, I was gone. Polly and I, along with our newborn son Jason, packed up our meager household goods and moved to Newark, Ohio.
As mentioned in the above excerpt, I quickly went to work building up the church’s bus ministry. Using the skills and gimmicks I had learned while working in the bus ministry as a teenager and at college, I rapidly grew the bus ministry, and bus ridership numbers exploded. Key to increased ridership was a system of regular bus promotions. Every Saturday, bus workers would meet at the church and I would motivate them to, as Luke 14:23 says, go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled. Like the Apostle Paul who said, I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some, I was willing to use whatever means necessary to entice children to ride our buses, The goal, of course, was for them to hear the gospel and be saved.
One such promotion was Tar and Feather Pastor Bruce. I told the bus workers that if the total bus attendance was such and such a number that I would let bus riders cover me with Karo syrup and goose feathers. Sure enough, bus workers scoured the area looking for new riders, and in a few weeks they exceeded the attendance goal.
Here’s what happened the following Sunday after the morning service:
Yep, that is me. Stupid, stupid me. It took me an hour, in a steaming hot shower, to get all the syrup and feathers off my skin. Needless to say, I never did this promotion again!
Rock music has always been a problem for Evangelicals. Rock music is generally considered worldly, sinful, and satanic, and parents are told to keep their children away from its influences. Rock music is considered a gateway to a world filled with illicit sex, drugs, and satanism. Recently, a homeschooling mom by the name of Leslie published an article on her blog titled, The Truth About Rock Music. Here is some of what Leslie had to say:
Rock music has always had a satanic influence. It does not really take all that much research to figure that out. Just google the Beatles and Hinduism and you will see it almost immediately. They were very open about their Hindu activity and even secular websites confirm this. But, as wild as the 60s were, the society wasn’t quite ready for outright false religion and songs promoting open sex and drug use and so many of their song lyrics had double meanings and hidden agendas.
Of course, all the changes in the last 50 years have made hidden agendas and double meanings unnecessary. This has happened through a very systematic hardening of our consciences. And so evil and ungodly lyrics have been eagerly accepted by a fan base that doesn’t pay any attention at all to what they are filling their brains with.
I then moved on to the artists themselves. Who were these people that were coming into our homes and cars on a regular basis through their music?
With the 80s influences of Madonna and Micheal (sic) Jackson– who were perhaps some of the first openly satanic artists to be played on the radio– the way was paved for many more to come. Recent rock stars such as Beyonce, Kesha, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, Jay Z, Eminem, and Nicky (sic) Manaj (sic) (just to name a few), have filled the American culture with an abundance of ungodly, crude, and sexual lyrics and, even worse, very graphic music videos. This, of course, I suspected before I started doing my research. What rather stunned me however was the plethora of satanic symbols and images. As I studied, I found that many of these artists claim to have sold their soul to the devil or to be possessed by demons. This was by their own admission, recorded on video or found in reputable sources.
I write it here because I think most of us are absolutely clueless regarding the danger this music presents to our spiritual health. We just allow this music to play in our homes and in our cars and in the ears of our kids–never giving it a second thought. The tunes are catchy and for some reason that seems to be all we need for it to get our seal of approval.
But fast forward my life to just a few weeks ago when I found myself up to my eyeballs in the lewd depravity of the rock music industry. I just can’t even begin to describe how awful it all is. And maybe worst of all–how precious and beautiful young girls and boys, many of them Disney stars as youngsters, are morphed into larger-than-life rock musicians that promote everything God abhors and how so many of their fans–usually tweens and teens– just follow them down into the dark pit.
If this music is something that beckons you or someone you love, may I encourage you to do your own research? I think you will be more than a little alarmed and shocked at what you will find out. And may we pray for deliverance of ourselves and our families from the evil influence of this demonic music.
Leslie seems shocked to find out that rock music is filled with references to sex, drugs, and darkness. These elements have always been central themes of rock music. Leslie goes on to say that rock music is satanic and many musicians have sold their souls to the Devil or are possessed by demons. For people such as Leslie, such things are frightening. However, if there are no devil or demons, then the only thing that matters is the lyrics. While I agree with Leslie about the lyrical content of many rock songs, I think she greatly exaggerates the effect these lyrics have on people. While it is certainly appropriate to regulate what younger children see and hear, by the time children reach their teenage years they should be able to handle the lyrics Leslie finds so objectionable.
Those of us raised in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church movement vividly remember sermons about the evils of rock music. Sermons on sex, drugs, and rock and roll were common. Many IFB preachers would recite lyrics from popular songs, showing, in their minds, the satanic origin of rock music. Some preachers would warn parishioners of the dangers of the mesmerizing “jungle beat” in rock music. Laden with subtle racist overtones, these preachers told teenagers and parents that rock music had a hypnotizing effect. Once under its influence, people would do horrible, vile things.
In the 1960s and 1970s, men such as Bob Larson traveled the country giving seminars on the evils of rock music. Larson purportedly had been a rock musician. He wrote several books about the evils of rock music: Rock and Roll: The Devil’s Diversion, Hippies, Hindus and Rock & Roll, The Day the Music Died, Larson’s Book of Rock. In his 1972 book, The Day the Music Died, Larson had this to say about rock music and its effect on listeners:
The basic rock rhythm is syncopation. …. this explains the erotic body movements of dancers to the accompaniment of the syncopated or pulsating rock beat. (page 15)
The origin of this Negro influence was, of course Africa.. These innovations were connected with heathen tribal and voodoo rites. The native dances to incessant, pulsating, syncopated rhythms until he enters a state of hypnotic monotony and loses active control over his conscious mind. The throb of the beat from the drums brings his mind to a state when the voodoo, which Christian missionaries know to be a demon, can enter him. This power then takes control of the dancer, usually resulting in sexual atrocities. Is there a legitimate connection between theses religious rites and today’s modern dances? (page 179)
I was aware of the connection between demons and dancing even before my conversion. I speak from experience as to the effect rock rhythms have on the mind. …As a minister, I know what it is like to feel the unction of the Holy Spirit. As a rock musician, I knew what it meant to feel the counterfeit anointing of Satan. I am not alone in my experimental knowledge of the influence of demonic powers present in rock music. (Page 181)
In his 1967 book, Rock and Roll: The Devil’s Diversion, Larson wrote:
There is no difference between the repetitive movements of witch doctors and tribal dancers and the dances of American teenagers. The same coarse bodily motions which lead such dancers into a state of uncontrollable frenzy are present in modern dances. It is only logical, then, that here must also be a correlation in the potentiality of demons gaining possessive control of a person through the medium of the beat. This is not entirely my own theory. It is the message that missionaries have urged me to bring to the American public. (Page 182)
On Friday and Saturday nights across America the devil is gaining demonic control over thousands of teenage lives. It is possible that any person who has danced for substantial lengths of time may have come under the oppressive, obsessive, or possessive influence of demons. Knowing this, churches and clergymen need to shed their cloak of compromise and firmly denounce rock dances. Dancing is no longer an artistic form of expression ( if it ever was) but a subtle instrument of Satan to morally and spiritually destroy youth. (page 184)
Evangelical preachers also began alerting church members about the subliminal messages (backmasking) rock groups were putting on their albums. Supposedly, if rock records were played backward, people would hear satanic messages. Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven was supposedly one such song. When played forward the song said:
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow
Don’t be alarmed now
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen
Yes there are two paths you can go by
but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on
Backwards, the words above were supposedly turned into:
Oh here’s to my sweet Satan.
The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan.
He will give those with him 666.
There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.
In a January 1982 television program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network hosted by Paul Crouch, it was claimed that hidden messages were contained in many popular rock songs through a technique called backward masking. One example of such hidden messages that was prominently cited was in “Stairway to Heaven…
Following the claims made in the television program, California assemblyman Phil Wyman proposed a state law that would require warning labels on records containing backward masking. In April 1982, the Consumer Protection and Toxic Materials Committee of the California State Assembly held a hearing on backward masking in popular music, during which “Stairway to Heaven” was played backward. During the hearing, William Yarroll, a self-described “neuroscientific researcher,” claimed that backward messages could be deciphered by the human brain.
As with the satanic ritual abuse hysteria years later, the backmasking scare quickly faded into the pages of history. The last preacher I remember saying something about backmasking told church members that if you played the theme song of the TV show Mr. Ed backwards it contained a satanic message.
Leslie, the homeschooling mom I quoted at the start, will learn, as did the preachers of my youth, that all the preaching in the world won’t keep teenagers from listening to the popular music of the day. While parents might be able to keep them from listening to rock music at home, once they go to school they will be exposed to the music of their non-Evangelical peers. Once teenagers start driving or riding in automobiles with friends, the radio will be tuned to the local rock station. Unless parents are willing to lock their teenagers in their rooms, allow them no internet access, and remove radios from automobiles, it is impossible to keep teenagers from listening to rock music.
Polly and I grew up in homes where rock music was verboten. Despite these prohibitions, we somehow learned the lyrics of the popular songs of our day. In the mid-1970s, we attended Midwestern Baptist College, a strict Fundamentalist institution that banned students from listening to ANY secular music (except classical). Students were not permitted to play anything other than religious music in their dorm rooms. However, once in the safety of their automobiles, students turned on radios and listened to the rock, pop, and country music.
One spring day, Polly was sitting in the Midwestern parking lot listening to the radio. I walked from the dormitory out to her car to see what she was up to. Playing on the radio was Afternoon Delight, by Starland Vocal Band. Polly was singing away without a care in the world. I laughed and then I asked her if she knew what the song was about. She gave me an innocent (and clueless) interpretation of the lyrics. When I told her what the song was really about, she didn’t believe me. To this day, we joke about this story. Such is life in the IFB bubble. My favorite song, by the way, was December, 1963 (Oh What a Night) by the Four Seasons.
These days, many Evangelicals have taken a different approach to combating the evils of secular rock music. Instead of outright banning rock music — an approach that has proved to be a dismal failure — Evangelicals promote what is called the replacement theory. If church teenagers are drawn to secular bands that have what Evangelical consider bad, immoral, or satanic lyrics, churches and parents suggest that they listen to a Christian alternative. This approach has, for the most part, also failed to keep Evangelical teenagers from listening to secular rock music. First, many of the Christian alternatives are cheap rip-offs of secular bands. Bad music is bad music regardless of the lyrics. Second, many Evangelical teenagers quickly embraced what is now called contemporary Christian music (CCM). However, instead of abandoning their secular favorites, teenagers just added the CCM artists to the mix. Some Christian bands, such as P.O.D., Skillet, and Switchfoot, have been huge successes, both in the secular rock market and the CCM market.
Here is a recent video by P.O.D..
Here is a video by Skillet.
Some Evangelical churches have given up trying to keep church teenagers from listening to rock music. This is understandable, in part, because many Evangelical churches are now using rock music in their worship services. In the 1960s, few churches had drums. But today? Many churches have full-blown bands, complete with percussion sections.
If you are not familiar with what is going on with music in many Evangelical churches, I think the following video clip from a Hillsong New York worship service will prove instructive.
Evangelicals, to some degree or the other, have been waging war against rock music for 60 years. Based on the videos above, I think I can safely say that rock music has won the war. Like all battles waged against popular culture, prohibition only makes what has been deemed sinful more enticing and popular. Teenagers will always be drawn to that which parents, pastors, and other authority figures say they can’t have. Teenagers are built to try the forbidden and test boundaries. We all did it, and here is the lesson that adults need to learn: we survived. Instead of treating teenagers like toddlers, how about teaching them to make responsible choices? Surely by now we have learned that telling teenagers to Just Say No doesn’t work. It is far better to equip them with the requisite skills necessary to navigate the world. Yes, there are real dangers they will face, but rock music is not one of them. I seriously doubt that there are many teenagers whose lives are destroyed because they listened to songs that have sexual or substance abuse references. I am sure there are some who take the lyrics to heart and make bad decisions, but most teenagers, as sixty years of history shows, can listen to rock music without being adversely affected.
Bob Larson book quotes found here.
For more articles than you will ever want to read on the evils of rock music, please check out the Jesus is Savior website, operated by a disciple of the late Jack Hyles.
According to Fundamentalist Calvinist John Piper, Old Testament commands concerning the execution of homosexuals no longer apply. According to Leviticus 20:13, homosexuality is punishable by death. God’s inerrant, infallible, never-changing Bible says:
If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
I find no ambiguity in this verse. Have sexual relations with someone of the same gender and God commands that you be put to death (Though technically, this verse does not mention lesbians). So then, how does Piper, a staunch believer in inerrancy, get around Leviticus 20:13? Piper states that things have changed, that the way God views homosexuality now is different from how he viewed it in the Old Testament. While homosexuality is still a sin, says Piper, the punishment for it has changed. In other words, God changed his mind. Rather than stoning homosexuals to death, God is content to wait until they die. Then he can fit them with a body that will withstand untold pain and suffering. Once fitted with a God-approved fire suit, God will then spend the next billion or so years torturing homosexuals in the Lake of Fire. Ah yes, the kinder, gentler, nicer God of the New Testament.
I would love to ask Piper if he would approve of homosexuals being sentenced to death. If U.S. law, mimicking the commands of God’s inerrant Word, allowed for the execution of those convicted of sodomy, would he support such a law? I suspect he would. According to Calvinists such as John Piper and Al Mohler, God is perfect, righteous, and just in all his ways. If this is so, then when God commanded Israel to kill homosexuals (and non-Jews, fornicators, and adulterers), his command is perfect, righteous, and just. Since I know how Piper views God, I can say with great confidence that he would have no problem with the U.S. legal code using the Bible’s laws, commands, and precepts as a foundation for regulating human behavior. Surely God’s law is superior to man’s law, right?
What prompted Piper’s post was a question from a podcast listener:
Dear Pastor John, I want to first thank you for the Ask Pastor John podcast and for your obedience and love for the Lord. One thing I have always struggled to communicate is the difference between the Old Testament Law and the fulfilled Law after Christ. I have many atheist friends who press me here, specifically when it comes to homosexuality. Why do we as Christians not believe practicing homosexuals should be killed for their sin if that is exactly the prescription in our Bibles in Leviticus 20:13? How would you answer this objection?”
Ah, those pesky verse-quoting atheists, using the Bible against Christians. According to Piper, these atheists really don’t understand the Bible, nor do they know how to interpret it properly. Piper writes:
This is huge and absolutely crucial. And we need an answer for it to those who ask. It is such a common response for somebody that has a smattering of knowledge or has just read that there are these verses in the Bible like that. And it is not difficult to answer this problem. It just takes a little willingness on the part of people to listen for a few minutes as we describe the nature of the Christian Bible.
Besides, what these atheists really need is not answers about God commanding the execution of homosexuals. Oh no, what they really need is — drum roll please — Jesus. Piper concludes his post with this:
So our overall aim in dealing with our critics who don’t know their Bibles is to direct them to Jesus, who is the goal of everything in the Bible and to try to help them see that God has been moving through history in different ways at different times to bring us into a relationship with Jesus for the salvation of our souls.
In other words, ignore their questions and point them to Jesus. Once they are saved, atheists will understand how to properly explain away Leviticus 20:13 and dozens of other verses which clearly show that the Christian God is a narcissistic, bloodthirsty psychopath.
Piper appeals to Matthew 5:17 as proof for his contention that there is a new God, with a new law, in town. Matthew 5:17 states:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.
According to Piper, who is supposedly a theologian:
We see the first pointer of how things have changed dramatically in Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” So all the Old Testament finds its completion and fulfillment in Jesus—and that is a basic truth that a person needs to understand. Everything in the Old Testament was pointing toward Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, dying and rising to save His people. And, therefore, in His person, in His ministry, the whole Old Testament reaches a climax and is dramatically altered.
Seems pretty straight forward. Jesus, by his death on the cross for the elect, fulfilled (satisfied, completed) the Old Testament. Thus, its laws, commands, and precepts are no longer binding today. Once Jesus died and rose again from the dead everything changed. Or so says John Piper.
Taking Piper’s position at face value, this means that none of the Old Testament’s laws are in force, including the Ten Commandments. So, Bro. Piper. Are the Ten Commandments applicable to today? Let the shuck and jive begin. In a post titled, Are Christians Under the Ten Commandments?, Piper wrote:
No. The Bible says we’re not under the law.
So, our approach towards ethics is different. We don’t ask the question, “Am I under the law?” We are under grace. The law is already fulfilled perfectly by Jesus. We are in Jesus and as far justification goes, God sees it as completed for you, one-hundred percent. He says, “You’ve trusted my Son. You’ve been grafted in him. You are in Christ Jesus and he fulfilled the law perfectly. He covered all your sins.” God sees you in and through Christ, therefore, as far as final judgment goes God is 100% for you. That is settled and nothing is going to change it.
Love God and do as you please is not bad advice, if you’re bent on holiness. If you’re bent on love the ten commandments are really important. You should hang them on your wall and you should measure your life by them, but in a very different way than when you were under them, because they have been kept for you.
No, the Christian is NOT under the law, says Piper, but if he really, really, really, I mean really loves the Evangelical God, he will keep the Ten Commandments. Sure sounds like the Ten Commandments are binding and in force.
Like all Evangelicals who resort to playing the Bible gymnastics game, Piper uses Matthew 5:17 in a way that makes it say something other than what it actually says. Why didn’t Piper quote the relevant verses after verse 17? You know, to give a bit of context. Here is what Matthew 5:17-19 says:
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
No wonder Piper didn’t quote verses 18 and 19. These verses undo and contradict the point he was trying to make. Well, let me, an atheist theologian, educate Piper and others of his ilk, about this passage of Scripture.
First, the gospel of Matthew was written 40 to 70 years after the death of Jesus. This means it was written at least four decades after Jesus, according to John Piper, established the New Covenant through his atoning death and resurrection from the dead. Why would the author of Matthew write about whether the Old Testament law had been fulfilled? Surely, two to four generations after Jesus died. Christians would by then KNOW the Old Testament was no longer in force?
Second, does this passage really say that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament and that it is no longer binding? Verse 17 says yes, but verses 18 and 19 say no. Verse 18 states unambiguously that the law of God (the Old Testament) is in force until “all be fulfilled.” The fulfillment here is not the Old Testament or even the death and resurrection of Jesus. The text states that the Old Testament is in force until heaven and earth pass away. This passing away is described in 2 Peter 3:10-12:
But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat?
Go outside and look up. Are you standing on earth? Is heaven (the sky) still above you? Okay, maybe you didn’t have to go outside to know this. Evidently John Piper needs to spend more time outside. Matthew 5:17-19 is quite clear: until heaven and earth pass away, the law of God is still in force. In fact, the Bible says that every jot and tittle of God’s law is valid and binding. This means that every minute detail of God’s law applies to New Testament Christians: from the execution of homosexuals to not eating certain foods such as pork and shellfish.
I am sure someone will suggest, hoping to rescue Piper from the sea of contradiction, that the law that is now binding is the New Covenant (New Testament). Here’s the problem with this attempted end run around the text. At the time of the writing of this text, Christians had not yet completely collated the canon of Scripture. Thus, at best, all early Christians had was a partial book of God’s laws. It makes more sense, especially when considering that most early Christians were Jews and Christianity was considered a subset of Judaism, that the word law in Matthew 5:17-19 refers to some or all of the Old Testament.
Verse 19 is one of the most difficult verses in the Bible. Well, difficult for Fundamentalists such as John Piper. Believing the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and infallible Word of God requires Evangelicals to harmonize the Biblical text. There are no mistakes, errors, misstatements, contradictions, or bad writing days. According to a normative reading of verse 19, there are two classes of people who will enter the kingdom of God: those who break the laws of God and teach others to do the same and those who keep the law of God and instruct others to do the same. So then, there will be deliberate lawbreakers in Heaven, those who not only disobey God, but also teach others to follow in their footsteps?
The Apostle Paul, a man known to pen quite a few contradictions himself, disagrees with the writer of Matthew. According to Paul’s gospel (a gospel that is quite different from Jesus’), breakers of God’s law will NOT enter the kingdom of heaven:
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9,10)
Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.
And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. (Galatians 5:19-21,24)
Of course, Paul, ever the jokester, writes in other epistles that no one will enter the kingdom of God by keeping the law of God. Paul, Paul, Paul, what are we going to do with you?
Don’t you just love playing the Dueling Bible Verses Game®? I have long believed that the Bible can be used to prove virtually any belief. The various Christian sects have fought internecine wars for centuries over whose interpretation of the Bible is correct. I have come to the conclusion that all of them are right. The Arminian, Calvinist, cessationist, non-cessationist, and every other theological name Christians give to their one-hundred-percent-pure interpretations of the perfect Word of God, are all correct!
I have no doubt that an Evangelical or five will likely point out that my exegesis is wrong. They will quote verse after verse, massaging and shaping them to fit their peculiar theological system of belief. But, try as they might to make sense of an incoherent book, all their contortions will do is cause more inconsistencies and contradictions. It is, contrary to thousands of Evangelicals books that say otherwise, impossible to make the Bible internally consistent. The best that Evangelicals can do is obfuscate, explain away, or stutter when confronted with verses that do not fit their particular theological paradigm.
Leviticus 20 also commands the execution of people for all sorts of sex crimes.