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liberating liturgies and disgruntled employees

photograph

In case you missed it, I wrote a “liberating liturgy/creed/statement of belief” over at my friend Sarah’s blog.

It begins:

I believe that we best know God through the Word of God

and that Jesus – not a book – is this Word,

the Ultimate Revelation of the creative Love behind the universe.

I believe that the Eternal Divine is not trapped in some set of documents,

but that the Reliable, Infallible, Inerrant Word of God is,

and always has been, not a Manuscript, but a Person.

Please be sure to read the rest if you haven’t already, and let me know what you thought in the comments.  I know her campaign will be going on for a while, so please feel free to write a creed of your own and submit it.

PS: for those who don’t know, I was supposed to be in Los Angeles this weekend for a retreat/conference with the Japanese American Citizens League, but all flights out of the midwest were canceled/delayed yesterday because of some disgruntled employee-turned arsonist.  So I now have some time on my hands, and I’ll be getting into LA late tonight and leaving tomorrow morning.  I think there will be enough time for one decent roll of sushi and bowl of ramen, and that’s all I could ever ask for!

Durden, Deaton, and Driscoll (and toxic theologies)

My browser’s home page used to be set to a website called The Gospel Corporation*.  My friend Brett was also a regular visitor to the site.  A few months ago, he told me that he used to go into Starbucks, order a drink, open up his laptop and just sit there for hours, poring over posts that brewed up religious anger and caustic convictions in his heart.  Such feelings were common to my time browsing their articles as well. And we kept reading for years. The self-righteous fury stirred up by the site’s content only barely managed to obscure the foundational vitriol and theological misconceptions upon which groups like The Gospel Corporation™ are based.

In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, one character famously observes that “sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of another…there are just some kind of men who — who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”

The Neo-Reformed/Hyper-Calvinist/New Fundamentalist Industrial Complex (what’s sometimes referred to as the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement) is a powerful player on the evangelical Christian stage, and its sway can clearly be felt multiplying outwards to a plethora of circles.  One needn’t look too far “down the street” of the landscape of contemporary North American Protestantism to see the patterns of sin and harm this particular brand of religiosity has wreaked in our faith communities.

As conservative Arminian scholar Roger Olson has noted, there is an often subtle but pernicious way that these wrath-fetishizing theologies can sneakily influence otherwise unsuspecting churches.  Again, this is why the myopic theological precepts taught by the industry’s predominantly wealthy, powerful white men – the movement’s Driscolls, Pipers, Chandlers, and DeYoungs, the Platts, the Kellers, and the Mohlers – their teachings can be felt reverberating far past individual churches, publishing houses, and media companies.

* * * * *

Driscoll apologists frequently espouse the doctrine of the supposed frailty of each individual (sometimes called total depravity), stressing that the biggest lesson to be learned from the horrific revelations of abuse that led to Mark’s downfall is that even the most humble, brilliant, biblically-sound men have the potential to fall into corruption. Pastor Mark was surely dealing with a lot of rotten demons in his private life. Even the mighty can fall, so this gospel goes, and the failures of Driscoll and Mahaney and Harris are not at all representative of a larger problem within, for example, the culture of celebrity pastor conservative Calvinism.

That’s certainly one way of looking at things: that Driscoll was the rare problematic abuser in a hundred who found his way into an otherwise benign system, who slowly, miraculously, tricked a well-meaning body of believers into following him towards sin and death.  But what if we see the system itself as the source of the problem?  What if the very culture from which a man like Driscoll can emerge and amass so much power and influence is constructed in such a way that it actually encourages and facilitates abuse?

It reminds me of the story of another now infamous abuser: Tyler Deaton.  Tyler, like Driscoll (like my old spiritual discipler) was an extremely gifted, charisma-tic individual who, it’s said, was able to speak with a near supernatural sway over those he talked to (think Parseltongue but in Christianese).  He did not use this power for good.  Tyler founded a benign-sounding Kansas City prayer group closely affiliated with the International House of Prayer (IHOP).  He is now recognized for his role in leading what was actually a horrific cult that quickly descended into all sorts of abuse and culminated in the actual murder of one of its members.

Yet for all the distance IHOP has tried to retroactively insert in between themselves and Tyler (claiming in a set of coolly titled documents called “Regarding the Death of Bethany Deaton” that Tyler had “always operated independently” of IHOP and stating that a “volunteer mistakenly labeled Deaton as a divisional coordinator when preparing a[n]…info packet“) the truth is that Tyler was always closely partnered with the ministry.  Moreover, he was powerfully driven by their shared core beliefs.  That is, Tyler wasn’t “faking it” to fit in: his theological precepts matched up to IHOP’s in such an intimate way that they masked patterns that became truly abusive, and he was given unlimited access for espousing the correct theological buzz words and tirelessly advocating for their shared, bona fide IHOP values.

another famous cult leader, popularized by Chuck Palahniuk – this one named Tyler Durden

another famous cult leader popularized by Chuck Palahniuk – this one named Tyler Durden

While Deaton’s legacy is to this day being framed by IHOP officials as some sort of bad apple who, like the devil, was able to steal away and take advantage of some unsuspecting souls, in actuality Tyler Deaton is the direct result of the theological climate of the International House of Prayer.  As my friend Boze has said, “Tyler was not an isolated individual, but the product of a phenomenally twisted system.”  IHOP’s frenzied obsession with supernatural prophecy, employing sexualized and sensationalized language to describe “spiritual warfare,” their overemphasis on miraculous occurrences and fantastical gifts and regular corporate indulgence in violent apocalyptic fantasies – these twisted theological commitments were all storming together and feeding directly into Tyler’s head.

It should be clear that there could be no Tyler Deaton without IHOP, and that there could be no Mark Driscoll without the culture produced by companies like The Gospel Corporation™.

We see that distorted theology often attracts and supports the wrong kind of spiritual leaders.  As one blogger recently noted, it’s not as easy as insisting that Driscoll was a “weird hiccup in the evangelical world” and that “Driscoll is a product of a corrupt culture, not the other way around.”  I understand his point.  I wonder what it says about a fight club, a church, or a parachurch culture when a guy like Durden, Deaton, or Driscoll doesn’t raise any eyebrows until it’s too late.  When they are first (de)formed in the group’s intense theological soup and then actually begin to pass for emotionally healthy and spiritually sound as they gain wide influence and slowly develop increasingly cultic practices.

IHOP

IHOP

Any religious environment – whether Calvinist or Catholic or Charismatic or anything else – where intellect is squelched and leadership is constrained to a powerful few is a culture where abuse can easily occur.  We see that Driscoll consistently steeped himself in the kind of Konservative Kalvinist Khristianity that so often creates a particularly potent culture of fear and shame.  Meanwhile, Deaton inhabited the fundamentalist charismatic world, a zealous, mystical place populated by violent folks like the self-proclaimed “end-times forerunners” Lou Engle and Mike Bickle.

But does the fact that both of these specific ministries were hellish mean that Calvinism innately toxic? That charismatic fundamentalist theology always fosters abuse?

As Baptist seminary professor and theologian Scot McKnight said in a recent comment over on David Hayward’s blog:

Each version of the major options in theology is quite capable of distortion by toxic people.  The bold lines that emerge under the forceful hands of toxic people are usually healthy lines prior to the force.  Calvinism has lines that are attractive to certain forms of toxicity, while Arminianism or the Anabaptist orientation … Orthodoxy… Catholicism, each has elements easily turned into toxicity.  On their own, however, those theologies are more or less healthy and capable of expressing the gospel and grace.

I tend to agree with McKnight’s characterization: I don’t think that cruel theology always results in cruel behavior.  There are indeed unhealthy temptations towards toxicity in every tradition, and good ones besides.  I’ve seen healthy strands of 5-point Calvinism that openly critique the rhetoric and praxis of the Young, Reckless, and Deformed movement while preserving traditional precepts about election, salvation, and the sovereignty of God.  Likewise, Pentecostal theology is not (as some have suggested) inherently “underdeveloped” or unintelligible or otherwise incapable of producing good fruit, even if IHOP’s version of this tradition has become demonic.

And yet some correlation appears to persist between violent theology and all sorts of abuse.  Perhaps this is because we seek out theological systems – like mates – that affirm our own inner values, that reflect our understanding of ourselves to the rest of the world.  We tend to resonate with descriptions of humanity (and God) that sound like what we’re likely to find in our own hearts.  For those with deep-seated inclinations towards cruelty or anger, this can have nasty consequences.

I once knew a reformed fellow who liked to joke that he was a Calvinist “for his inner prick.”  He’d say it and laugh, but looking back, it really was quite disturbing – although he knew deep down (on a spiritual and moral level) that the theological framework of hardcore ultra-reformed Calvinism is utterly untenable, he delighted in propagating its teachings.  Because of personal misanthropy or apathy or whatever else, this young man was able to take sadistic satisfaction at the rather unbiblical idea that God deeply hates humanity, loves only his “elect,” and that billions and billions of people will inevitably burn in hell to the everlasting joy of this angry American God.

It would be foolish to say simply that “bad theology attracts bad people,” for the answer is surely much more difficult than that.  But we should be able to recognize that the negative, prickling inclinations in our own being, even the tiniest ones, can be affirmed and inflamed and eventually tempt us to re-create God in our own image.  When we come alongside communities of people who struggle similarly, when we blot out other perspectives, this worsens, and our collective conception of the divine angers and transfigures into a monster god.

I’m reminded of a helpful test that Jesus instructs us to use to discern bad teachings: “by their fruit, you will recognize them.”  What this means is that any spiritual movement that is producing pain, horror, and hurt (bad fruit) in the lives of its adherents is not of God.  Applied to this conversation, that means that any unchecked culture of hyper-masculinity, bibliolatry, or prophetic supernaturalism that leads to harm and loss of life is not following faithfully in the tradition of Jesus. If the (pa)theologies inhabited by folks like Durden, Deaton, and Driscoll have proven to be repeat offenders, one a possible indication that all is not well.

For those who remain a part of faith communities driven by leaders who espouse strict Gospel Corporation™ or IHOP theologies, it should give new weight to that old adage about sheep and wolves.  Or, as Shakespeare put it, keep an eye out: “where we are, there’s daggers in men’s smiles.”

death by love wins (a tale of two pastors)

death by love wins

“Death by love,” I repeated.  “The author’s name is Mark Driscoll.  D-R-I-S-C-O-L-L.”

The thin, wiry librarian sitting in front of me leaned slowly forward.  She nodded and began delicately clacking at the keyboard in front of her, using only her two index fingers.  As I waited, I considered pulling out my phone, just to pretend I had something else to do.

“No, I’m sorry.  There’s no book here by that name,” she breathed.  “We do have the other books you asked for, though.  John Piper and Tim Keller, correct?”

“Yes, thank you,” I replied, glancing up from my cell phone’s screen, annoyed.  How could they not carry this Death by Love book here?  It had been recommended to me by many friends.  This Driscoll guy is supposed to be famous, and the book is supposed to be really powerful.

“Those other books are in the religious studies/Christianity aisle,” she said.  “Section AB 120-132.  Would you like me to write that down for you?”

“No thank you,” I smiled with thin lips.  I had no intention of waiting so patiently for another four minutes.

* * * * *

“Ooh,” Mary Ann* said, shaking her head, “you don’t want to read that book.”

We were walking around the second floor of the library, wandering through my favorite aisle, when she stopped, almost as if ordered, and pointed towards a book on the shelf.

“Why not?” I asked, gripping its pleasant red spine and lifting it to my face.

“Be careful with that,” Mary Ann intoned, unconsciously taking a step back.  “That book was written by this pastor who used to be a Real Christian…but then he started questioning everything and now he’s written this book that says hell doesn’t even exist and that no one goes there,” she explained.  “He used to be not bad at all but now, he’s a liberal.”  Her voice deepened to a whisper: “He’s a heretic.”

The book immediately took on an otherworldly weight in my hand.  I was at once filled with an inexplicable dread and the burning urge to stop touching the thing.  I laid it back on the shelf as gingerly as I could, as if it were a sleeping infant who would transform into a tyrant upon being aroused from sleep.  We continued walking down the aisle and talking about the ways our faith had been challenged by Christians who stopped believing in the clear words of the Bible.

A week later, I came back to the library alone.  I picked up the book and carefully read the inside flap.  I considered opening to an actual page, but found myself lacking the courage to do so without an invisibility cloak.  I placed the book back on the shelf and quickly scurried out the door.  None of my ministry friends from Joyous Jihad for Jesus* could ever know about this.

* * * * *

Weeks later, I finally got around to ordering “Death by God” on Amazon.  I plopped down on my bed night after night and tried reading it, but I was so bothered by the author’s aggression, by the way this pastor was speaking about his manliness and wanting to hurt people…about how God also wanted to hurt people…that I couldn’t read more than a few chapters.  I replaced the book on my shelf above my computer and wrote in my journal that night: “I’m not spiritually ready enough for this book.  Pray and read the Bible more then come back when I have more maturity.”

I eventually stole a copy of Love Wins and breezed through it in days.  Rob Bell said that maybe there’s another way to think about heaven and hell, and it didn’t infuriate me as much as I was told it should.  After all, these were the same things I’d been reading my hero C.S. Lewis say for a while now.  I discreetly passed the copy on to several of my close friends.  I felt doubly guilty afterwards, for now I was both a thief and a heretic.

Surely they would crucify me if they ever found out.

kill your darlings

My friends know that my all-time favorite television show is Showtime’s dark and delightful Dexter, the now-infamous saga about the Miami Metropolitan Police Department lab geek who moonlights as a serial killer (who only kills other killers).  Ever since a friend first introduced me to the show my sophomore year of high school, I’ve followed the series with a timid and voracious appetite, as best I could without a Cable television subscription.  I remember making excuses to hang out at my friend Grant’s house every Sunday night – even when he wasn’t home – so I could watch each week’s newest installment of quirky, haunting drama.

Now, my wonderful darkly dreaming Dexter has ended, a nearly decade-long run come to a bittersweet close.  Dexter, I’ll admit, was my darling show.  I’ve spilled ink over it, cried hot tears over the lives and deaths of its unbelievably fleshed out characters, loyally followed the ups and downs of its realistic (and sometimes utterly unbelievable) story arcs.  I can’t imagine I am the only one drawn to the show because of its beauty and how well it expresses some of the deepest feelings I know to be true of the human condition.  It is also certainly a testament to the incredible power of the shows’s writers and actors that the team can make their audience actually root for a serial killer.  It’s uncharted territory.

But Dexter stirs the dark passenger in all of us.

I’m aware that the series ended a while ago, but I waited to finish the final season for more than a year after it aired for several reasons: for one, I waited so long to watch the final episodes because I heard from friends that they were so, so bad, that I shouldn’t go and tarnish my memory of an otherwise brilliant adventure.  I also wanted to be able to share it with my significant other.  We’ve been ritualistically watching Dex together for a while now, and we wanted to finish the series in tandem on the evening of our first anniversary.

Bri even dressed up and channeled her inner Hannah McKay

Mostly though, I waited because I hate it when the fictional adventures that I love end.  (This is why I still haven’t been able to bring myself to watch the newest season of my other favorite show, Arrested Development.)  I hate coming to the final lap of something that was once so exciting and new, that has meant so much to me for so long.  I’m saddened by the thought that there will never be any new content to discover in this carefully-constructed universe, no new stories from the characters I’ve invested so much into.  I’m sure many of you felt similarly turning the last page and reading the final paragraph of some of your favorite fantasy sagas.  It can feel like a loss, almost a kind of death.

We’ve talked about a particularly annoying little piece of advice before on the blogkill your darlings.  The logic behind this line is that the things you love most, if they slow you down or get stale or otherwise impede you (no matter how beautiful or precious they are to you) you must kill them and not look back.  Even if it takes all of your willpower.

This, in many ways, is what I’ve had to do with Dexter.  Carve my love for it from my heart.  Come to terms with how terrible it is that it’s over and how terribly it ended.  And to always remember how much it meant to me when things were good.  After the death of something I love, for me, the grieving process means writing about it.  That’s my goal with this post.

dexter

“boo”

I wanted to write a little about Dexter’s final scenes, and why they came off so kitschy and painful to longtime fans of the show (SPOILERS BELOW).  In short, we’ve seen Dexter mature and grow over these past few seasons in amazing ways.  What is unfortunate is that the last episode does precisely the opposite of what it should do by reversing long-standing character development and diverting from a rising climax that otherwise could have formed a coherent and believable conclusion.

Dexter knows more than anyone the pain of concealing a shadow side from everyone he loves.  It’s something we’ve all dealt with at some point or another, battling the dark passengers in our lives, whether they take the form of addiction, shame, malice, (blood)lust, or whatever our secret vice may be.  Dex has lived with this feeling of concealing for every waking moment since adolescence, back when Harry taught him the code.  It’s not hard to imagine that Dexter would resonate with the old recovery saying “you’re only as sick as your secrets.”  God knows that makes Dexter Morgan one of the sickest men alive.

But the dark passenger had faded.  Even Harry’s ghost vanished for good at the end of the eighth season.  And the icy, dangerously detached Dexter we were introduced to in the first episode — the one who said he didn’t and couldn’t ever love anybody at all — this guy has been melting since season one.  Dexter isn’t the type of person who can’t feel, or who is incapable of human love anymore.

This is why it’s so unbelievable he’s now a bearded guy living in a log cabin.  It is as bizarrely stifling as the ending of Breaking Bad would have been if Walt didn’t have cancer or pride and lived out his days as a lonely fugitive, watching television and chopping wood.  And let’s be clear: the reason Dex goes hermit is because he’s convinced it isn’t safe for those he loves to be around him.  Is that reasonable for his character?

This is admittedly a theme the show has explored before.  After Rita is killed in The Getaway, the final episode of Season 4, Dexter picks up baby Harrison – him too, born in blood – and starts marching towards the camera with his eyes wide and locked front, and you and he both know that this was all his fault.  That Dexter’s hapless attempt at playing this normal dad/Jesus of suburbia fantasy could never last.  Dexter is damnably responsible for the death of the most beautiful, innocent person in his world, and you flinch at your core but know it’s true when his otherwise independent self waxes on destiny and laments, “Harry was right.  I thought I could change what I am, keep my family safe.  But it doesn’t matter what I do, what I choose.  I’m what’s wrong.  This is fate.”

It’s a powerful self-condemnation.  It’s not hard to imagine that Dexter would resonate with Johnny Cash when he sings “what have I become?  My sweetest friend: everyone I know goes away in the end.  And you can have it all, my empire of dirt.  I will let you down.  I will make you hurt.”  But I’m not a fan of the way the writers tried to shoehorn this old theme into the finale, and I’m not buying their defense.  The ending we receive feels like a betrayal of his character, mainly because the “I am a poison, everyone I love gets hurt” motif, while especially salient for an unrepentant serial killer, also hasn’t really appeared in, like, four seasons now.

To summarize the flow of the series — we have the introductory origin story of season one and the addiction, high-stakes, almost-getting caught chase of two which quickly shifts into Dexter making friends, experiencing betrayal, then trying to maintain North American suburban normalcy before experiencing abject loss and regret and revenge and forgiveness and finally somehow stumbling onto faith and doubt and religion; all of this, it seems, is building to a season all about falling in love and how the sins of the past have a way of catching up with us, and finally the whole painful project starts to look like it’s going to end as theodicy, without any easy answers, but having made Dexter (and all of us) all the more human for wrestling with these impossible questions and situations.

But the long-awaited conclusion to our beautiful humanizing journey is no Felina – there’s no cowboy-esque ending (not even the Argentinean gauchos that Hannah tells Harrison about in the finale), no spectacular shootout after our protagonist rides off into a blistering confrontation with the overgrown evils the anti-hero’s lifestyle has sprouted over the course of his criminal career.  That’s what we needed.  Ask any die-hard fan of Breaking Bad (die-hard fan=someone who watched the ending after diligently following the entire series) how perfectly Walter’s baby blue destruction fit in with the direction the show had been heading since episode one.  Vince Gilligan served us up just the kind of apocalypse that both we and Walter White had deserved all along.

No such luck for fans of America’s favorite serial killer.  Instead of a delightfully twisted postmodern take on a happily ever after ending – surprise, mothaf*cka – we’re left with an emotionally muted Dexter, the withered shell of a man devoid of even his regular voice-over narration.  This “hollow like an empty donut box” stand-in monster is a character we thought we’d left behind at at the end of the first season, when Dex breaks through his emotionally monotonous persona, beaming as imaginary crowds line the streets to shout his name: Dex-ter, Dex-ter, Dex-ter!

The Dexter we deserve, the man he’s been building himself up to be ever since he married Rita, had Harrison, met Brother Sam, opened up to Debra, and fell in love with Hannah, this man would never abandon his family, would never revert to the severe patterns of pity and loneliness he so carefully conquered.

But our miserable final shot leaves us with our dearly departed dark defender staring off blankly into the California redwoods (or wherever the hell he is), utterly silent and emptied of everything we’ve loved about him for the past eight years.  Our Dexter is gone.  Instead, we receive a weird facsimile of his past self.  His eyes are glazed, and it rather feels like we’re looking into the comatose soul of Debra Morgan.

The writers might as well have ended the shot with select lyrics from the aforementioned Hurt running across the screen: “if I could start again, a million miles away, I would keep himself – I would find a way.”  These words reflect both Dexter’s tragic reversion to a less-than human figure and the disappointing meta-cinematic reminder that sometimes the things we love most are put to death in the most awful ways.

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