A Cult of “Before” Stories.

A long time ago, in the 70s and 80s, a comedian named Mike Warnke blasted onto the Christian scene. I even had some of his albums–back before YouTube when comedians put out actual records and tapes and people bought them to listen to them. His humor was clean and Christian-oriented, and it sold like hotcakes to the sort of Christianity to which I now belonged. In his albums and live shows, he always managed to work in some bits about how he’d been saved–his testimony, to put it in Christianese. His was horrifying indeed: he’d been a Satanist, a Wiccan high priest, a cat mutilator, a drug dealer and user, a womanizer, you name it, he had done it, right down to watching and possibly organizing a gang rape (carefully avoiding the legal issues involved in participating). Then he’d gotten saved, and he’d totally turned his life around.

Too bad not a single bit of it was true. I didn’t see the exposé until after I’d left the religion, but even then I was simply shocked to hear how dramatic of a deception Warnke had perpetuated. Simply put, he’d just been an extremely imaginative liar who’d found the perfect market for his brand of attention-seeking. He’d been a square like anybody else in the 60s, nothing special, no special misdeeds or particular agonies. But Christians wouldn’t find such a story compelling at all; it had to be spiced up if he wanted to sell it. And oh boy did he ever spice it up. And oh boy did it ever sell.

Wiccan priestess preaching in temple.
Wiccan priestess preaching in temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia) Looks real demonic, doesn’t it? Cuz nothing says “BLOOD FOR LUCIFER” like Christmas lights on gauze and butterfly ornaments.

It’s easy to see why Christians even today love stories like Warnke’s. Think about how banal and dry life as a fundamentalist Christian is: no sex, no liquor, no drugs, no partying, no movies, nothing. The people in my new church home were very suspicious of “fun” at all, when they weren’t busy redefining the term till it’d lost all meaning. But we retained our very human need for titillation; stories like Warnke’s fed that need. And we considered that the worse a person was prior to conversion, the more grace was involved–and being a Satanist or Wiccan was about the worst thing anybody could do. We love underdog stories anyway just because we’re human, but coming out of a drastically bad life is the ultimate thrill to hear about.

These stories are never, ever questioned or fact-checked, and even if they are, as Mike Warnke’s exposé showed, such a hurdle can be easily overcome–check his webpage out if you want a chuckle and note that he’s still being praised to the skies and his “ministry” is still going strong. Heck, there are people out there still convinced that detractors of their hero are evil, nasty horrible people out to mar the good work they think Warnke’s done for “the Kingdom.” People with normal, ordinary testimonies like mine of living basically decent lives and never doing anything too evil and converting to Pentecostalism purely because we thought it was a better way to follow God were ignored in the trample to kneel at the feet of Christians who had the big dramatic testimonies. I felt left out sometimes, I admit, but not left out enough to embellish things.

It’s not hard to see why other predators might see Warnke’s example and come up with their own made-up “testimony” to get attention and donations. I had just never seen it happen or even imagined it might happen until the night my own husband did it.

One day shortly after my marriage to Biff, he was invited to give his “testimony” at a major revival meeting. He spoke at great length about just how bad his life had been as a non-Christian. I sat up front in my nicest church dress, surrounded by other earnest, eager evangelists’ wives, and listened to him lie for a solid hour.

I was devastated.  I knew nothing he was saying was true. I knew he’d never been a Satanist or a Wiccan, much less a Wiccan high priest. I knew he’d never sold porn to kids. I knew he’d never done drugs. I’d been dating him since he was 19, and he’d been living at home with a doting, attentive, stay-at-home mother and a hugely perceptive father. The worst thing he’d ever done was joust mailboxes in his POS Dodge Dart. If he’d even been caught doing marijuana he’d have been kicked out. But he was telling people this total fiction with the earnestness of complete sincerity.

I sat there frozen in my seat on the pew, my smile frozen on my face, my mind racing, trying to blink back tears. I didn’t know what to say. After my husband spoke, he bounded down from the podium and bounced onto the seat next to me and hugged my shoulders with a big goofy Jesus-smile on his face like he was a very small boy wanting affirmation from his mother, and I gave him a strained little smile back. A number of other speakers gave their testimonies after his, each featuring the same dramatic elements my husband’s had. Some of these stories involved some rather attention-grabbing miracles, but most were just straightforward stories about lives completely lost to shockingly debauched lifestyles and sins. I began to wonder if any of them were lying too. The worst part was afterward, when all these people came over to congratulate me on having such a strong man of God as my spiritual leader and husband. Many of these people talked to me about parts of my husband’s testimony to get more juicy details, to get corroboration, and it was all I could do to nod and smile to them and be polite and keep from bursting into furious tears, keep my hands from shaking, and keep my voice steady.

That night, my white-hot rage and searing shame all but blinding me, I told Biff in the car on the way home, “If you ever lie like that again on the pulpit, I will not cover for you. I’ll tell the truth.”

“I’m not lying!” he tried to say, but I cut him off.

“Stop it! Yes, you were lying. I know you were. And if you ever do that again, I’m not going to play along.”

He argued a bit more, saying that what he’d done was perfectly okay because his story brought people to God, and possessions and Satanic involvement really did happen, so he was just kind of organizing things to have a more personal impact on people. It did him no good. I put my foot down and told him flat out that I wasn’t going to be a party to his lies any further.

Like a lot of narcissists, once a firm boundary was laid upon my husband, he tended to fall into line, and this was one of those times. His testimony toned down considerably after that while I was around. But the damage had been done. He’d lied right to the faces of the old white dudes in our denomination’s upper echelons, and they had fallen for it. They’d bought it; they had praised him; they had declared him to be their star performer, their golden child; they had swallowed every filthy lie he had presented without the slightest indication that they disbelieved any of it. That night was like gasoline on a brush fire for my husband. There’s no way I can possibly overstate just how devastated I was to finally come face to face with the simple fact that my husband was a liar and that Jesus had not transformed him at all, that he was living a lie, and that I was now part of it whether I liked that idea or not.

I mean, I’d known deep down that he was a liar, but I’d never come face to face with it before that night. I’d caught him lying many times. He wasn’t actually that good at it, though he very clearly thought he was a brilliant liar. His friends all knew he had a habit of embellishing, of making stuff up, of dramatizing, of saying things he didn’t mean, of distorting facts. He could lie so sincerely I think he believed what he said himself until he got cornered; at that point, he’d say “You know what? You’re right. I’ll work on that.” And the cycle would begin again. We all knew what he was like, and because he was so sincere and so puppy-like and charming, we just chuckled and corrected him gently and moved on with our days. But now suddenly I felt so ashamed of myself. I felt so used. So violated. So hurt. Even today my eyes sting with the remembrance of that night. How had I been so amazingly, cosmically blind, so utterly stupid? How could my husband be godly when he lied like this? How could he be a good Christian? And how could all these men of God be mistaken about him?

I was trying my best to follow God at this point, and this incident and others like it to come did not impact my faith or my desire to serve God, but I was seeing a rather dark underbelly of manipulation and lies in the body of Christ. I just wasn’t one of those people who believe that “lying for Jesus” is okay. If Jesus was true, he didn’t need lies to prop him up; I wasn’t one of those “ends justify the means” Christians, though I now realized I was surrounded by them. When I heard a fantastical story about a miracle or a healing, my inclination was to ask for proof that this had happened (a proof I never once received in all the years I was involved in Protestantism, by the way), and after seeing my husband for what he was, I began to look very critically at the succession of preposterous stories, myths, lies, and urban legends preachers told (trufax: I actually heard a returned missionary to Africa say from the pulpit that “If the King James Version was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me!”). But I was surrounded by people who lied their butts off for Jesus and thought it was okay as long as it got people closer to God, and by Christians who were so gullible that they believed anything somebody said as long as that person said he was a Christian.

Why were there so many people lying in this religion? Why weren’t liars more scared of Hell and God’s wrath? Why were they so willing to titillate and victimize and take advantage of the innocent? Why weren’t Christians more skeptical of outrageous claims and so complicit in allowing their peers and leaders to lie? Why, when a lie was exposed (like when I pointed out instances of urban legends being offered up as factual happenings), did Christians tend to condemn not the deceiver, but the person exposing the lie? Why didn’t Christians condemn such behavior more than they did? Most importantly, what about Christianity was so in need of propping up that all these people constantly demonstrated by their deeds and words that the truth about the Good News was insufficient and that lies were necessary to keep butts in pews and hearts in grace?

All these observations went into a hopper I now informally call my “deal with this later” pile. (I obviously didn’t call it anything then. I barely perceived that the pile even existed.) That pile was getting bigger and bigger, and sooner or later I’d have to deal with it, but for now, I just continued going to church, studying my Bible, praying, and trying to be a good, submissive Christian even though I was becoming more and more aware that quite a few Christians around me were anything but godly when they absolutely should have been.

Consider this incident yet another attempt to throw the dice to try to break free of the illusion spell, an attempt that failed. Again. And just like characters do in a roleplaying game, my response to that failure was to rationalize and try to justify the illusion so it made sense again. I did great on that front; I soothed myself by thinking that it didn’t matter what people did, it mattered what God was doing, and in this manner I stayed trapped and immersed in the illusion.

But every gamer knows one incontrovertible fact above all others: the neat thing about dice is that no matter how cursed your dice are or how horrible your luck is, sooner or later, if you keep throwing them, you’re going to land a critical success. And mine was coming soon.

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