Stranger in a Strange Church

Philip Jenkins cites the prescience of science fiction writer Robert Heinlein, whose novel Stranger in a Strange Land, written in 1961, posits a church of the future that sounds strangely prophetic:

“At a time of social chaos, seminary reject Joseph Foster proclaimed a spiritual message uniquely suited for America, a nation that had always combined public puritanism with private libertinism. But why not combine the two instincts, creating a religion that spoke the language of fervent piety, while tolerating virtually any behavior? . . . .

Believers who paid their dues and tithes would receive spiritual exaltation and the assurance of salvation, while not actually being required to observe any moral laws. God, said Foster, above all wants us to be happy, and he created alcohol for that purpose. Moreover, “the New Revelation did not actually encourage lechery, but it got quite mystical in discussing sexual conduct.”

Gambling is a potent source both of profit and spiritual expression. The church’s awe-inspiring Archangel Foster Tabernacle doubles as a Vegas casino, with a full range of slot machines, staffed by bouncers dressed as various stages of the angelic hierarchy. As the church declares in its central tenet of faith: Happiness, Happiness, Happiness!

Church leaders have mastered all the technological and psychological means needed to manipulate the faithful. The Tabernacle is a marvel of light shows, dance acts and music, with subliminal messages deployed to create feelings of sin and redemption. Advertisers sponsor hymns (“Dattlebaum’s Department Stores, where the Saved shop in safety!”). The church exists as a profit-making venture, dedicated to the exercise and enjoyment of absolute power — and all tax free!

The New Revelation, though, depends on organization as much as ideology. Its structure is threefold, from an outer church available to a middle church of true-believing tithe-payers, who became rich from the church’s insistence that members only give their business to fellow believers. Far more select is the secretive inner circle, chosen exclusively from the beautiful and good-looking — sports stars, strippers and showbiz celebrities, who are totally exempt from any sexual restraints.

The only disputes within the spiritual-industrial complex involve homicidal leadership fights. Foster himself was poisoned in one such battle, although his body was subsequently enshrined as a major tourist attraction within the Tabernacle. At the time of the novel, the Supreme Bishop bears the evocative name of Huey Short.

However dubious the church might appear, it survives by its secret weapons of political power and intimidation. Claiming ten million members, it is a vast political bloc, which claims many public officials as members. And when that influence fails, critics and dissidents are silenced or killed by the church’s faithful members, who serve as violent shock troops.

The New Revelation is a perfect marriage of capitalism, consumerism, celebrity culture, and demagoguery. Thank heaven it could never happen in real life.

via RealClearReligion – A Triumph of Science Fiction Prophecy.

Could it?  Would it?  Has it?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • tODD

    This sounds like nothing so much as Scientology, which was formally incorporated eight years before Stranger was written. Even Scientology’s Project Celebrity, which gave rise to the “Celebrity Centres” you may see in major cities, began in 1955.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    I love reading Heinlein, although I confess to not having read Stranger in a Strange Land. I think tODD is correct: this does sound a lot like Scientology, although I can see some overlap with the megachurch movement as well in this statement.

    For the record, I recommend Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters.

  • Kempin04

    Ok, J Dean, the megachurch movement? I’m going to have to ask you what exactly of the “megachurch movement” overlaps here. That is, what of this is there in megachurches that is not also in non-mega churches?

  • SteveD

    Sounds like most run-of-the-mill evangelical churches I have been to. . . . nothing so exotic as Scientology. Just visit Houston or Atlanta (or a variety of other places) for one of these types of shows every Sunday.

  • kempin04

    All right, J Dean, 5:29, since I’ve glanced at the article I realize you weren’t the one invoking the connection to “megachurch,” so forget my question. (I also failed to notice that this post is actually tagged with “megachurch,” so I guess it is not my most observant morning.)

    Still, I am crying “foul” on Phillip Jenkins.

    This article is, first of all, a cheap shot. In his own conclusion he says, (and I am paraphrasing, not quoting), “of course, no churches today have actually done any of the things I just referenced, but . . .” Boy howdy, though, all of this pagan (not to mention fictional) nonsense sure calls to mind those other churches that we don’t like, huh?

    Secondly, and I think this is the part that peeves me, it cultivates an attitude that despises other Christians. If there are churches in error or struggling with sin and tolerance, we should not scoff at their error nor at their fall. A fallen Christian or a fallen church is not the cause of the Church’s problems. It is the result. Regardless, we are called upon to show humility and respect when discussing others, all the more if they claim the name of Christ.

    Furthermore, this article puts forth a laughably false premise in suggesting that these sorts of struggles and failures in the church are somehow “futuristic” or particular to our time in history. This is the struggle of the church of all ages. If today’s culture is hostile to the church, understand that the culture of the world has ALWAYS been hostile to the church, even if that hostility manifested in the form of pietism rather than license.

    Finally, even as a cheap shot I don’t think Mr. Jenkins landed any punches. The literary portrayal that he described was blatant cultism. I really didn’t see a single thing that could be laid at the feet of the “megachurch movement,” (whatever that means), other than the general charge that yes, there is hypocrisy and tolerance and a watering down of the truth. Still, as I said in my comment to J Dean, I’m not sure how those things apply MORE to a megachurch than they do to a house church. There is no better way to blind yourself to your own (or your own church’s) failings than to focus on the failings of others.

  • SKPeterson

    Well, I think temple prostitution is just fine as long as it’s being done for the glory of God.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mesamike Mike Westfall

    I just can’t grok that kind of church.

  • kerner

    Scientology Schmientology. Sounds like the 15th-16th Century Roman Catholic Church to me. Although maybe limiting it to those centuries is a little narrow.

  • Gene Veith

    One principle of church growth methodology is to identify “obstacles” to growth and then eliminate those obstacles. Surely the church’s moral teachings are an obstacle. So is its theology. So is its worship. So is its apparent lack of coolness. Now there are churches today, mega- and otherwise, that address the last two, and they tend also to downplay, in many instances at least, theology. We do see in some of these churches (not all) a certain watering down of traditional Christian moral teachings, especially on sexual matters. There is also certainly a cult of celebrity in many of these circles, from parading professional athletes to the phenomenon of the celebrity pastor. Heinlein is just pushing it all to an extreme so that we can notice what we may not have noticed before, which is a way satire works. (Mike Westfall, you get the virtual literary allusion award for picking up on Heinlein’s made-up word in that novel!)

  • Kempin04

    Dr. Veith, 11:24,

    Sorry, Dr. Veith, but you stepped on my peeve.

    ” Surely the church’s moral teachings are an obstacle. So is its theology. So is its worship. So is its apparent lack of coolness. ”

    Said . . . somebody.

    “We do see in some of these churches (not all) a certain watering down of traditional Christian moral teachings, especially on sexual matters.”

    Fair enough, but what about your church? Are there divorced members of your church? Are there members who have had abortions? Pornography? Have we NOT watered down sexual morality, really, or have we just not watered it down as much as those other guys.

    “There is also certainly a cult of celebrity in many of these circles . . .’

    Thats never been seen in the church before. It’s not as though luther-ans have any figures we quote or celebrify.

    Look, this is all very sloppy. It is a load of buckshot at a crowd of people among whom there are sinners and failures. There are churches in apostasy. Ok. There are churces in error. Yup. There are pastors teaching what is false. Tragically true, but is that new? Is it helpful to state? Shall we just gratify our frustration by vilifying them? More importantly, does this perspective help us deal with the damage in our own churches, or does it cultivate the attitude of a Pharisee by leading us to discuss the problem that someone else has rather than our own. (The Pharisees would have never used contemporary worship–that’s a fact.)

  • rlewer

    The article is satire. Satire is by nature overblown and unfair.

  • kempin04

    Dr.Veith,

    I glanced back at my post (1:13) and realize that it reads with a “tone.” Please know that there is no tone intended. I was trying to identify the tendency that we all have to talk about the failings of others to the exclusion of our own, which I think can often be seen when “megachurch” becomes a bogeyman.

    So if I owe you an apology, I will pay.

  • http://enterthevein.wordpress.com J. Dean

    ” Surely the church’s moral teachings are an obstacle. So is its theology. So is its worship. So is its apparent lack of coolness. ”

    Said . . . somebody.
    Says me.
    I’m an ex-megachurch attender, having been to two of them. That assessment is quite correct.

  • kempin04

    I’m truly sorry to hear that. At least it explains where you were coming from in your comment.

    I still think it is sloppy to argue by anecdote and stereotype , particularly one so ill defined as “megachurch.”

  • Abby

    Dare I say, this might already exist somewhere?

    http://sacredsandwich.com/archives/1367

  • Abby

    The World’s Largest Church:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5a2M24DEOKE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MMa-6AD5an8

    How would you like to navigate that place?

  • helen

    It doesn’t have to be the “largest church” (although that’s where a lot of the “entertainment” seems to be generated). And anyone who thinks the article only applied to an undefined “them” hasn’t had a good look at “synod”. :(

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  • Kempin04

    I hesitate to come back to this, but . . .

    helen, 2:17,
    “. . . anyone who thinks the article only applied to an undefined “them” hasn’t had a good look at synod.”

    Would it be too much trouble to ask for a specific example of where the synod,
    -States that people who tithe do not have to follow moral laws,
    -Runs a casino,
    -Has an inner circle of lecherous libertines,
    -Uses subliminal messages, or,
    -Use violence, intimidation and murder to suppress their opponents?

    Just one or two examples would be fine. I mean, I know these things go on in megachurches, but I can’t believe I missed them in the synod.

  • helen

    kempin04
    January 17, 2013 at 6:44 pm
    Oh, my! You did read the post which reminded all that satire is for the purpose of making a point?
    My point was that we need to check the logs/branches/splinters/sawdust in our own eyes before worrying about what “they” do. And there are some.

    I hesitate to come back to this, but . . .
    helen, 2:17,
    “. . . anyone who thinks the article only applied to an undefined “them” hasn’t had a good look at synod.”
    Would it be too much trouble to ask for a specific example of where the synod,
    -States that people who tithe do not have to follow moral laws,
    E.g., just yesterday, a pastor wrote that his DP told him, if there is a dispute between pastor and congregation, he would side with the congregation every time. The subject was unscriptural (i.e., immoral) dismissal of a Pastor from his call.
    -Runs a casino,
    I have not heard of this one, but I was told that a NJ LCA congregation had a roulette wheel in its fellowship hall, back in the 60′s
    -Has an inner circle of lecherous libertines,
    We’re not so organized generally. But we have had a homosexual ring participated in by a clergyman and recruiting day school boys once or twice that I am aware of. Sin happens everywhere. Divorced men were once removed from the roster. Now we have convicted child predators knowingly brought into the “lay ministry” [MN No]
    -Uses subliminal messages, or, [as in, it pays to "go along and get along"?]
    -Use violence, intimidation and murder to suppress their opponents?
    Why use violence?; “starving a pastor out” attracts no attention. Intimidation: you betcha! Any CRM could tell you about it, if they thought it was safe to talk to you. Todd Wilken, who is now beyond reach of retribution, wrote about it on steadfastlutheran.org in the last two weeks.
    Luther said that taking the place of a pastor who was unjustly deprived of his call was “robbery and murder” because it deprived the first man of his living.

    Just one or two examples would be fine. I mean, I know these things go on in megachurches, but I can’t believe I missed them in the synod.
    Synod has some churches which are “mega-wannabe’s”; they even have a little club… only for the liberal wing, though. I have not heard that the Pastors of the largest liturgical Lutheran churches were invited.

    Read Lutheran lists, kempin04; it’s an education. :(


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