An old mentor of mine tells a story of how he went from being a promising young Baptist evangelist in the late 50’s and early 60’s to leaving paid ministry altogether. His complete departure from what he called “the religious system” didn’t result from a failure to thrive in that system; on the contrary, to hear him tell it he was doing quite well. He had published a couple of popular manuals on church growth and had helped pioneer the use of door-to-door surveys as a means of evangelism a few short years before D. James Kennedy popularized the same idea in his Evangelism Explosion. He was also tapped to interview Christian leaders in high government positions amidst one of the early attempts to coalesce “values voters” into a unified voting bloc more than a decade before Paul Weyrich would attempt (and largely accomplish) the same thing through founding ALEC, The Heritage Foundation, and Falwell’s Moral Majority. My friend tells of how he got to attend high-level meetings with some of the biggest names in Evangelical Christian leadership only to discover that the people at the top had nothing intelligent to say about the issues that confronted them. He got to peek behind the curtain, so to speak, and from that experience he learned that there was no magic there, no special anointing, no divine empowering to guide the legends of the faith he had previously come to idolize. He was having his Wizard of Oz moment, and it wouldn’t be long until he would leave the Evangelical world in search of an alternative. His experience took him out of one Christian subculture and into another. Mine simply took me one step further.
We Have Met the Wizard and He Is Us
Consider for a moment what happened in Oz. Dorothy found herself in a bizarre and unfamiliar land run by a wizard whom few were ever allowed to see. Everyone implicitly trusted the wizard because he could do things no one else could do. Wonder and awe kept most of the citizens of Oz at a safe distance, spellbound by his booming voice and his Big Giant Head. But Dorothy was desperate. She needed to get home and she would not be turned away for fear of the wizard. She was compelled to press through to meet the man himself. He gave her a special set of instructions which she followed to the letter. She reported back to him only to discover that he was really just a regular man, powerless to do anything to truly help her. In fact, he wasn’t able to do anything except feed and maintain the illusion that he was something larger than life. The Lion had to provide his own courage, the Tin Man his own heart, and the Scarecrow his own brains. Even Dorothy’s trip “home” turned out to be her own doing. In reality, of course, this whole story was her creation because it was all just a dream. This tempts me to bring in Inception for a bit, but I’ll need to save that for another post :)
The citizens of Oz truly believed that a great and powerful wizard was running the show, and this belief enabled the Emerald City to function the way it did. The whole enterprise depended on maintaining that illusion. But Dorothy’s determination to win an audience with the man himself led to the discovery that he was indeed just a man. No special powers. No Big Giant Head. Just a guy behind a curtain pulling levers and pushing buttons.
This is an excellent picture of what happened to my friend who won an audience with the legendary leaders of postwar Evangelicalism and it’s also a great illustration of what happens to people like me. Our hunger to take hold of reality in our Christian experience put us ahead of the pack. We surpassed our peers in passion, in studiousness, in commitment, and in self-sacrifice. The system rewards people like us by putting us up front so that we can lead everyone else by our example. But a funny thing happens on the way to the sanctuary. One day it becomes our responsibility to produce the effect that mesmerizes the spellbound “people in the pew.” We no longer get to sit and enjoy the show, watching the magic unfold before our eyes. It eventually falls to us to make the magic happen. We have to start pulling the levers and pushing the buttons ourselves, at which point it begins to dawn on some of us that this is all an illusion, and that we are the ones creating it.
When that time comes you have to make a decision. Do you stay and continue to play this game? Some choose to do that even though they’ve figured out it’s not real. If they were to “fess up,” they would lose everything: their income, their reputation, the admiration of the community, all their friends, and maybe even their families. The cost is high, lemme tell ya. So I can understand why many count the cost only to decide they need to just try and forget about the whole thing. Take the blue pill. Maybe go postmodern and dive into the gelatinous mental world of “radical theology” (long, complicated topic that I’ll cover another day). Whatever works to keep your world from falling apart. Some will simply find a way to twist the logic of what’s happening so that they convince themselves God is hiding, secretly making them do whatever they’re doing anyway, so it’s all good. One way or another this cognitive dissonance must be remedied. The only solution that I could live with was to embrace the discovery and follow the evidence wherever it leads. That’s how I responded to my Wizard of Oz moment.
I couldn’t possibly tell others going through the same thing what they’re supposed to do because I understand all too well how much you can lose. The spell won’t be broken for the rest of the citizens of Oz. You’ll have to deal with their anger and judgment for abandoning the illusion around which their community is built. The backlash may prove too severe. Your best bet is probably to quietly begin learning a trade so that you can slowly transition yourself out of the situation you’re in. Maybe folks over at the Clergy Project can help, or perhaps some of my friends at Recovering from Religion. Whatever you decide to do, the world will keep spinning, and life will go on. At the very least you should know that there are many of us out here who have been through this disorienting experience and made it out alive. We’re here to chat with when the time comes.
Now about Inception…