I was in high school when the remarkably commercial cult of Skull Church first made popular notice in the Flathead Valley. I vividly remember the sudden explosion of bumper stickers and flyers around Kalispell, each of them bearing the cartoonish cranium that looked suspiciously as though it had been ripped off from the SkullCandy logo and staring aghast as a bevy of comrades weekly flocked to the doors of the Strand and Liberty Theatres.
My distaste for Skull Church originally came from the completely servile nature of the following that Levi Lusko has built behind him–which owed, no doubt, to the faux-hipster, ultra-trendy aesthetic with which he has painted himself and his church. More importantly than my aesthetic qualms, however (the execution of all things Skull Church can only be described as supremely tacky; talk of “forgiveness-bombs” and lame slang—“It was [God’s] eight-ball, corner pocket, yo!”—only add to the after-school special quality), was the rhetoric by which those who bought into such a cheap ruse identified themselves. The “Fresh Life Code” on their website contains such vomitous pieces of phraseology as “We bow before the battle; we are weak, he is strong”; and “We stand as one behind the vision that God has given Pastor Levi”. This kind of puerile and submissive prose echoes strongly of Marshall Applewhite or Joseph Smith. It’s hard to imagine anyone that anyone can read this and agree with it (let alone that someone can write it) and talk of humility with straight faces. Furthermore, while none of the prostrations that are typical in Skull Church press materials and in Levi’s sermons are unique in the obscene, servile mentality of evangelism, the specific marketing it does towards children and young adults is more than a little reminiscent of Oceania’s Big Brother.
Since my initial impressions, Skull Church (and Fresh Life, of which it is a subsidiary event) has conducted numerous tours and Lusko, pseudo-celebrity that he is, has traveled broadly to spread the word. I don’t wish to give further credence to the dossier by listing what they no doubt think of as accomplishments. More to the point, however, the message being spread is one of inane cruelty, of self-hatred, and one those in his service should feel shame at applauding. He callously Tweets about the deaths of Egyptians last month:
And the servile abjection of Lewis:
It is nothing new for evangelicals to preach the worthlessness of themselves or their fellows or to glorify their deaths, nor to proliferate the evil mentality that we are born sick and commanded to be well. But to do so and call it transcendence and inspiration and love is a kind of delusion that deserves to be pointed out every time it occurs. This is identical rhetoric that less-loved fanatics such as bin Laden have used in the past—which is not a vitriolic point, but rather a very concise parallel: that death and the reaping of human sacrifice is the epitome of love. Skull Church in this way embodies this toxic philosophy as a fulcrum of their public message—and it is all the more insidious for it being a traditional piece of Christian methodology and thereby less often criticized.
Like all evangelicals, Lusko gives moral credence to what Hitchens referred to as “vicarious redemption”, and in Skull Church the brutal act of the Crucifixion is fetishized so highly that even some conservative Christians I know are made uncomfortable by Lusko’s imagery. In his sermon titled “Dead Man’s Handle” on February 8th of this year, Lusko says:
“I’ve made it my goal to preach Christ and him crucified, and shoot ’em all with that, and let God sort them out.”
Lusko also Tweets:
Anyone who thinks I may be unfairly characterizing the views of this church or painting them with a sadistic broad-brush should only look at the Tweet made by the Skull Church Twitter profile on September 26th, 2014.
Or this quote, Tweeted by one of Levi’s followers during his Gold From Golgatha series:
Incidentally, I do reject this point. By Levi’s estimation, I’ve got myself a one-way ticket to the hot seat. It should be devastating and eye-opening to my moderate Christian friends of Montana, who both love me and who attend Skull Church, that they are indulging in a moral quandary (without taking into consideration their monetary or material donations, or their purchasing of Skull Church hats, shirts, etc.—and one or two who have even tattooed Skull Church’s logo on themselves). Either myself and many people they love are doomed to suffer eternal damnation by Lusko’s edict or are not. It may be time to pick a side and make it known.
Is there another philosophy in the world that has such a morbid obsession with a barbaric act of torture or of child sacrifice? Why do not Trotskyites walk around with miniature ice picks around their necks? Those devoted to the Socratic method do not re-enact the ingestion of hemlock. But Skull Church (like all Christian churches), named even so for the hill on which Christ was crucified, delights in this obscene act—and peddles the twisted idea that because an innocent man was beaten bloody and nailed to something, they get prizes.
Part of what Levi has done (while absolutely in no ways original) could sincerely be called entrepreneurial brilliance. Lusko has taken a religion, curtailed it to a specific audience (in this case, young people, especially those of an “alternative” aesthetic), and sold salvation—the Adolfo Pirelli of crucifixion. He carries this product with all the gravitas of the Sham-Wow guy. The original Skull Church Mission Statement (which no longer appears to be online but has been published in my book), calls the young worshipers of Skull Church “lost teens” who “desperately need Jesus”. Insulting as it must be to be told routinely that you are not good enough sans the influence of some desperate-for-lost-youth pastor’s imaginary friend, such subservience seems to have boomed economically, as the Flathead Valley is now positively plastered with Skull Church merchandise and their touring performances only grow larger. Levi, with podcasts, t-shirts, radio shows, massive rock concerts, and various other kinds of cheap memorabilia, seems one step away from hawking snake-oil.
My invective of this piece is not necessarily against Levi alone, despite the truly contemptible things he preaches and the depths to which he is willing to sink to monetize them: but rather the many, many people I know and love who insist on lapping it up. How many Kalispell residents are absolutely not homophobes, but hang on the words of a man who has supported the work of Rick Warren and has worked so closely with someone like Greg Laurie? Why do people who find human sacrifice to be barbaric, who would in all other instances condemn the exploitation of torture as immoral in any pursuit, give their time and means to an institution which indulges in such maudlin imagery—one that preaches not only lies but uses the most contemptible of means to proliferate their message? If you’re under the delusion that reveling in the bloodshed of the innocent has given you a ticket to paradise, then indulging Levi in the same pursuit is part of a much larger psychological, social, and moral issue.
For any number of reasons, Skull Church doesn’t deserve to be frequented by people of balanced moral compasses, but while Christ continues to sell, Lusko is going to stay in business. It can be reasonably asserted that the primary issue here are not the street mountebanks who vend such cheap piffle, but the readiness of a culture who is so willing to endorse it.
I firmly stand on the philosophical platform that no man’s torture abolishes me of my moral responsibility. Levi is convinced that the opposite assumption is correct. I suppose we will have to chalk up the Orwellian tactics and remarkable commercial success as mere coincidence.