The main message of the Message is this: the world is ending soon, and only those with the Holy Spirit will go in the Rapture and escape the Earth’s final burning torment, known as the Tribulation. This is the foundational idea upon which the Message adds multiple layers of doctrine. Here are some examples of doctrines piling on top of doctrines:
- Because William Branham was a prophet who “had thus saith the Lord” (in other words, spoke directly for God over the pulpit), the Message is the Word of God, equal to but not independent of the Bible.
- The Holy Spirit living inside a person would never reject God’s Word (since it is God, it would mean rejecting itself), a person who rejects the Message cannot have the Holy Spirit.
- A Message believer heeds Branham’s call to “come out” of denominations. For this reason, Baptists, Pentecostals, Methodists and Catholics may be Christians but can’t have the Holy Spirit.
- Because having the Holy Spirit means Jesus lives in you and directs all your actions, you can’t have the Holy Spirit if you (a) question the Bible’s infallibility, (b) listen to rock music, (c) accept evolution, or (d) don’t fit the patriarchal family model.
As you might imagine, this obsession with knowing whether or not you’ve got the Holy Spirit leads to constant soul-searching – or, more accurately, spirit-searching. A constant admonishment in the Message is “watch what you’re feeding on.” Since the Holy Spirit is expected to bring a person in line with everything the Message teaches, it follows that people with the Holy Spirit:
- Want to be at church all the time
- Have no interest in “worldly entertainment” (a.k.a. any activity not work or church-related)
- Readily adapt to the Message’s expectations for men and women: men must be macho leaders without self-doubt; women must be submissive, unambitious and “shamefaced”
- Are physically sickened by the sound of rock music or the sight of women in bathing suits
- Are constantly at prayer
- Are never angry unless it’s directed at “sin”
- Never smoke or drink (except at communion, with a tiny sip of wine, which is fermented by another Message believer and shared in a single cup with several other people)
To shorten what could otherwise be a very long list, the Message teaches that people with the Holy Spirit never do anything to displease or “grieve” the Holy Spirit. And there is a long, long laundry list of actions that “grieve” the Holy Spirit. Branham used a couple of animal metaphors to describe this:
- In each person, there are two dogs: black and white. The black dog is “fed” when you read smutty magazines or listen to flesh-pleasing rock music, and the white dog is “fed” when you read Branham’s sermons or the Bible. The dog that’s fed more wins.
- Having the Holy Spirit is like having a dove sitting on your shoulder. Since doves don’t eat carrion, it will fly away and sit on a fence if you offer it roadkill. It will sit there and sadly stare at you until you eat – you guessed it – the “good meat” that is the Message or the Bible.
Let’s consider this for a moment. In my previous post, I pointed out Jesus’ approach to defilement:
Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. -Matthew 15:10-11.
So, quite literally, what you eat doesn’t defile you, according to Jesus.
“But he meant actual food!” I can hear a Message believer protesting. “Not what you feed your spirit!”
I think the principle holds. What you learn doesn’t “defile” you, it’s what you do with your knowledge that matters. Your “innocence” is not determined by what you know, but how you act upon the knowledge you have.
Not knowing when someone was making a crude sexual slur did not make me more “pure.” It made me more vulnerable to being around the kind of people who say such things. It kept me from having the wisdom to extract myself from unsavory situations. It dulled my mind to potential threats. My lack of knowledge made me unable to defend myself against the very things my “innocence” was supposed to protect me from.
Sophophobia – the fear of learning.
There is an assumption in Message circles (and more broadly within fundamentalism) that knowing leads to doing. For example, kids who know about sex or their own anatomy are going to have sex at the first opportunity. It follows, then, that kids who know how to steal are going to become compulsive thieves or join the mob. Or kids who know how to shoot a gun are going to kill somebody. They’re not innocent anymore, right? They have knowledge!
Except most gun owners aren’t murderers. Most kids who have walked through a convenience store and realized they could stick a pack of candy in their coat pockets on the sly don’t grow up to commit grand theft auto. Most people eventually figure out how sex works and don’t turn out to be sex addicts. Life doesn’t work that way. Knowledge is not action. It may precede action (or it might not, judging by the failure rate of abstinence-only sex education!) but it takes an act of will to carry out an action based on knowledge. Your innocence lies in your will: what do you want to do with what you know?
“Watch what you’re feeding on” is a thought-stopping cliche. Let’s translate it, piece by piece. “Watch” is a warning. There is a supposed danger here. “What you’re feeding on” refers to the things you read, listen to, watch or study. The implied message here is “the only safe thing to consume (figuratively) is the Bible and what Branham said.” More jarring is the idea that if God lives in your heart, your only desire will be to consume the Message and the Bible. How is it that God apparently has such strikingly narrow interests? The translation roughly comes out to: “If you spend your free time doing anything other than going to church, reading the Bible or listening to Branham’s sermons, you are in danger of missing the Rapture because God doesn’t live in you.”
What’s really going on here is this: when you’re told to “watch what you’re feeding on,” you’re told to fill your mind with nothing but the Message. You’re told to remain ignorant of other things. This is enormously helpful to the Message, because those who don’t know anything else can’t question it, and those who don’t question can’t leave. “Watch what you’re feeding on” tells you to lock yourself in prison. It is a process of self-indoctrination.
Sometimes doing good means getting your feet dirty. If Jesus “watched what he fed on,” he wouldn’t have hung out with prostitutes and tax collectors. If I want to help end poverty or domestic violence or drug wars, I have to learn about the forces that create them. That means staring evil in the face in order to do good. It means losing the kind of “innocence” the Message and fundamentalism believe in – and good riddance, because what good is the kind of innocence that hides under the bed for fear of being corrupted? How is it anything but fearful and selfish? What people need is not “innocent,” ignorant minds – it’s purity of heart and intention, and willingness to look and learn in order to know how to help.
Here’s one final comparison. A common Christian children’s song:
O be careful little eyes what you see
O be careful little eyes what you see
There’s a Father up above
And He’s looking down in love
So, be careful little eyes what you see
Aside from the creepy factor (why should a Father looking down in love inspire one to be cautious or afraid rather than to go out boldly and explore?), this message is directly at odds with more of Jesus’ words:
Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. -Matthew 10:16.
Need I say more?