Last time we met up, I was talking about the first important thing that Frank Page’s resignation shows us: that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is still way too focused on shoring up its disintegrating power level to worry about reforming its own broken system. But I hinted–as Yoda did once–that there was another reason: many Christians still haven’t figured out that “Jesus” is doing exactly diddly-divided-by-squat to help anybody at all in Christianity do anything, or realized what this perceived inaction means.
It Wasn’t a Miracle.
Two months ago, Jules Woodson wrote a blog post describing a decidedly nonconsensual encounter she had in 1998 with Andy Savage, who was at the time just a lil ole youth pastor in the Houston area at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church (which is now Stonebridge Church). She was 17 years old at the time and a member of its sizeable youth group. After a period of time grooming her for abuse, he allegedly attacked her after driving her somewhere dark and quiet.
The assault had a horrific effect on her emotionally and she sought help afterward from the church’s associate pastor.
Unfortunately, this was 1998, and she was little more than a child. Ain’t her fault she believed what trusted adults told her about themselves.
Instead of helping her, of course, Associate Pastor Larry Cotton strongly implied that she needed to stay very quiet about what had happened–and for good measure implicitly shamed her for “participating” in the attack.1
In fact, nobody on that church’s ministry team appears to have ever informed the police about the assault.
Nope, No Miracles Here.
In service to the real goal of keeping Jules Woodson silent about the attack she’d suffered, the ministry team at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church convinced their youth pastor, Andy Savage, to confess to some unspecified “mistake” and say he was leaving his position, so they could avoid having to fire him. Like Frank Page last week, he was allowed to quit the position without suffering any loss of reputation (or hireability)–and without causing his church and his religion any tarnishing of reputation.
Because of this tactic, however, the super-popular youth pastor also never had to specify exactly what he’d done to cause this resignation, and a lot of folks there weren’t happy about him leaving. Like a lot of youth pastors are in fundagelicalism, he was well-liked by the congregation–particularly by young people.
In the vacuum created by all that silence, the rumor mill started up as it always does in churches.
The main rumor was that Savage had simply “kissed a girl,” as Wartburg Watch phrased it after talking to someone who had been a member of the church at the time of the assault. The TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at his church didn’t like the idea of Savage having to quit over something so minor as an impulsive and innocent-sounding romantic gesture. As fundagelicals will, they talked–loudly and often–about how they felt about his precipitous resignation. And they speculated–loudly and often–about the character flaws that must have been present in the girl who’d brought about this poor innocent godly man’s downfall.
Folks, Jules Woodson was still attending that church. She heard all of these things that her TRUE CHRISTIAN™ peers were saying.
I can imagine all too easily all the denunciations that were passive-aggressively aimed at whatever girl in church had made him “stumble” like that. I also know all too well how often underage girls are blamed in churches when–not if–these situations crop up. And from the sound of it, at least some of the other kids in the youth group knew that Savage favored Ms. Woodson–she was pretty and he paid “lots of attention to her” in an atmosphere where many underage girls were vying for his attention, which created jealousy and competition in the other girls there.
Eventually this gossip and hostility hounded Ms. Woodson right out of her onetime church home.
“Jesus” didn’t mind that Jules Woodson was alone and without allies or resources to help her after her experience. Instead of help, she’d been given a heaping serving of “Christian love” by her tribe, and this predictable response had had the predictable–and in my opinion desired–effect on her.
Still Not Miraculous.
By marked contrast, Andy Savage only saw his star continue to rise.
Four years later, in 2002, Andy Savage found himself auditioning for a megapastor position in Memphis.
These megapastor positions are everything to people like Savage. I’m willing to bet real money that most brand-new pastors, as they ascend to their very first pulpits for the very first time in their very first churches, are wondering if one fine day they’ll be the next Joel Osteen, or if they’ll be squinching up their preacher eyebrows one fine Sunday morning under the skylights of a Crystal Cathedral. As Christian groups continue to hemorrhage members, they’re starting to consolidate and cannibalize each other–so megachurches are mostly surviving, while smaller churches, unable to compete on the basis of amenities and activities, are closing by the sackful.
These precious-few megapastor positions represent to aspiring pastors what becoming an NFL quarterback represents to junior-varsity football players, or what getting a platinum album means to a bunch of kids practicing music in a garage. It’s the 1% goal for the 99%. People who have finally ascended to that peak of success can reasonably expect to be set for life–both thanks to the literal hundreds of thousands of dollars pouring into the coffers through tithes and collection-plate donations alone, but also through investments, speaking gigs, publishing deals, and more.
If a pastor wants to reach retirement age these days as a traditional career pastor with no side hustling or finagling required, then megachurches are where they need to be.
Now, Highpoint Church might not be one of the very biggest megachurches out there–they claim that between their multisite locations they have almost 4,000 people a week attending services, a figure that is almost certainly inflated–but a pastor position there is still going to be quite a lucrative position for whoever can land it.
So obviously Savage wanted the position very much–and that may have led to his decision to truth-trickle at them about the circumstances of his resignation from that other church back in 1998. And it worked. I’m sure he totally thought his god had answered his prayers.
I wonder if he even remembered the night that he assaulted Jules Woodson and then kept her quiet.
And twenty years began slowly, inexorably to pass.
What is Buried Is Not Forgotten, Anymore.
No thanks to any deities, however, the buried past doesn’t stay forgotten like it used to in Christian-Land.
#MeToo strikes home even in a broken system that is long accustomed to burials of the truth, as Wartburg Watch has documented about Highpoint Church more than once. The truth comes out whether Christians like it or not, no gods required.
Thanks to that far-reaching social media movement, last January (only a few days after Jules Woodson saw #MeToo and made her bombshell accusation) Savage sorta-kinda fessed up to a little about his resignation in 1998. Of course, he totally omitted the fact that he’d resigned because of a sexual assault he himself had committed. And after even these halfhearted efforts he got a goddamned standing ovation from the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ listening to him lie through his teeth.
For that matter, this god didn’t tell the TRUE CHRISTIANS™ at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church years earlier that the assault had occurred in the first place. Nor did “he” bring the full force of conviction upon the ministry team there, and nor did he motivate the pastor at that church to call the police to report the assault he’d learned about.
But public outcry accomplished what “Jesus” never could. According to a local Memphis news site, that pastor, Larry Cotton, has admitted publicly that he didn’t report the attack. And he resigned from his own position at that original church in February, citing his own piss-poor response to Jules Woodson’s abuse.
And it sure wasn’t any god who made Andy Savage take a leave of absence when the story about his actions broke nationally. Similarly, when he resigned his position entirely a couple of weeks ago, that, too, was hardly an act of the divine. Instead, both situations occurred because of the outcry around his behavior.
But Jules Woodson’s Situation Doesn’t Mean Millions of Miracles Weren’t Happening. Apparently.
Don’t imagine that the Christian god ignored all of his children during this time, though! Far from it!
Millions of Christians reached their destinations “safely and on time” or were healed of ailments large and small after accessing comprehensive healthcare systems. Tens of thousands of Christians decided their god wanted them to be millionaires through participation in a multi-level marketing scam.
Thousands of Christians located their car keys after praying for them and found divinely-ordained love. A few eager-beavers got a divine revelation about opening up a franchise restaurant or quick-lube place somewhere. Many students thought their god helped them pass tests at school–along with varying amounts of studying–or saved their cell phones from water damage.
I watched a pack of pastors in Memphis rejoice at being given a nice window seat at an Applebee’s one weekday afternoon. At least one woman’s acne cleared up before her wedding and at least one twit claimed he’d totally helped facilitate a full-on resurrection.
This was one busy, busy god!2
But despite his constant activity in many thousands if not millions of lives, for some reason, this god didn’t see fit to spare Jules Woodson one single glance on that dark country road on that fateful night, or to do anything meaningful and tangible to help her afterward or bring her justice.
Why, it’s almost as if this god is weaker than a basket of newborn kittens–or maybe he doesn’t really exist at all.
That’s because no gods are out there taking an active hand in the matter.
And that simple reality is a problem for Christians who really want to believe otherwise.
The Problem of Evil.
Why did He not answer the prayers of the imprisoned, of the helpless? And when He heard the lash upon the naked back of the slave, why did He not also hear the prayer of the slave? And when children were sold from the breasts of mothers, why was He deaf to the mother’s cry?
I see this entire story as a slap in the face to Christian claims about both the nature of their god and their relationship to and with that god.
Jules Woodson’s story couldn’t happen in a universe where a real live god cares about his followers and provides meaningfully for their needs–which is not just something the Bible repeatedly promises, but is also something that Christians themselves proclaim at every single opportunity.
Instead, when the claims simply don’t materialize in reality, Christians reach for demonization and negation to silence all critics. (Yes, the same thing is happening with the Faux Noise talking heads bullying the Parkland students and harassing women who publicly push against their groupthink.)
The problem they seek to sink is not that people are praying for ponies and plastic rockets and then getting pissy about not getting them. The many Christians who disdainfully parrot that all-too-common retort are both belittling the very real pain of people hurt by Christians and shooting themselves in both feet by reminding everyone they can reach of all manner of uncomfortable truths about both themselves and their religion.
No, the problem is that would-be Christian evangelists are trying to sell a worldview that simply does not survive even the most cursory of engagements with reality, and then they are mistreating the people who get hurt because they took that mythology and those sales pitches a bit too seriously.
The existence of evil is not just a problem for Christians. It’s the problem. Specifically, it’s the Problem of Evil. It summarizes more or less like this:
The existence of evil and the many instances of evil that we can easily find shouldn’t even be possible in the presence of an omnimax good and powerful god. Either he is too weak to stop evil from existing, in which case he isn’t omnipotent; or he can do something about it but hasn’t, in which case he isn’t really good; or he isn’t aware that the evil is happening, in which case he obviously isn’t omniscient.
There’s no way at all that a Christian evangelist/apologist can win once evil is invoked–whether it’s just the concept of evil existing or the reality of evil as examples of stuff that happens despite this god’s supposed protection of his children, his sheep, his followers, his Bride.
Apologists and evangelists alike have been bustin’ ass for years trying to resolve this dealbreaker. They have not yet succeeded, any more than they’ve succeeded in credibly supporting anything their religion asserts about the supernatural. But they have churned out an absolutely incredible number of books that seek to equip Christians with talking points to hopefully zinger critics into silence.
But the old zingers aren’t zinging like they used to, not anymore.
The string of scandals coming out of fundagelical Christianity are a stunning reminder that this god doesn’t live up to Christians’ hype–and that’s why we talk about it like we do, and why we must.
We’re going to be talking some more next time about miracles–and about why they backfire so dramatically as PROOF YES PROOF that Christianity’s many supernatural truth claims have any validity at all. I hope you’ll join me!
1 Texas became a mandatory-reporting state in 1995 and this law absolutely applies to clergy, which makes Larry Cotton’s decision not to report Jules Woodson’s assault to the police look all the more disappointing and hypocritical.
Sorry this is late tonight–it’s amazing how disruptive a bunch of hornets in a single room can be.
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