Today, let me show you one of the most devastating things that happened to me when I was Christian. It was how I discovered that my god didn’t mind at all if his followers represented him through lying in flagrantly dishonest ways. It was also how I discovered that one of the most important beliefs my church taught wasn’t true: Jesus didn’t transform people at all.
Blasting Onto the Scene.
A long time ago, in the 70s and 80s, a comedian named Mike Warnke blasted onto the Christian scene. I myself 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 testimony was horrifying indeed: he’d been a Satanist, a Wiccan high priest, a cat mutilator, a drug dealer and user, a womanizer, and more, and worse. 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. He was lying for Jesus.
The Spice of Lies.
I didn’t see the exposé about him until after I’d left the religion. Even then, I was simply shocked to hear how deep and extensive 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. He was nothing special, no special misdeeds or particular agonies. But Christians wouldn’t find such an origin story compelling at all. He had to spice it up if he wanted to sell it. Oh boy, did he ever spice it up. And oh boy did it ever sell.
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. Their leaders forbid sex, liquor, drugs, partying, movies, everything (except, weirdly, symphony orchestra attendance). The people in my new church home viewed with suspicion anything fun, when they weren’t busy redefining the term till it lost all meaning.
But we retained our very human need for titillation. Outrageous testimonies like the one Warnke peddled fed that need.
A Primer on Testimonies.
We viewed testimonies through a cultural lens.
The worse a person was prior to conversion, the more grace was involved in their redemption. Obviously, joining Satanism or Wicca was about the worst thing anybody could do. People love underdog stories anyway just because we’re human, but coming out of a drastically bad life is the ultimate thrill for fundagelicals to hear about.
Christians never, ever fact-check or question testimonies. Even if they do discover that someone’s testimony is just a pack of lies, as Mike Warnke’s exposé reveals, such a hurdle can be easily overcome. Check out his webpage if you want a chuckle. 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 villains out to erase or hinder the good work they think Warnke’s doing for the Kingdom.
Most Christians have normal, ordinary testimonies like mine. I lived a basically decent life and never did anything too evil. In my teens, I converted to Pentecostalism because I thought my god preferred that flavor of Christianity. But Christians ignored people like me. They trampled us to kneel at the feet of the Christians claiming big dramatic testimonies. I felt left out sometimes, I admit, but not enough to embellish my story.
Apparently other people in my church felt otherwise.
A Liar for Jesus, Unmasked.
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 money.
I had just never seen it happen or even imagined it might happen until the night my 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. There, I listened to him lie for a solid hour.
I was devastated. I knew nothing he was saying was true. Biff had 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, his parents would have kicked him out of their home.
But he was telling people this total fictionalized version of his life, all with the earnestness of complete sincerity.
WOW, HOW GODLY!
Frozen in my seat on the pew, my smile frozen on my face, my mind racing, I blinked back tears. I had no idea how to react or 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. He wore a big goofy Jesus-smile. He behaved like a very small boy wanting affirmation from his mother. Somehow, I managed to give him a strained little smile back.
A number of other speakers gave their testimonies after his. Each featured 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. It was all I could do to nod and smile to them and be polite. At any moment, I thought I might burst into furious tears. But I kept my hands from shaking and my voice steady.
The Argument Afterward.
That night, as Biff drove us home, my white-hot rage and searing shame all but blinded me. I told him, “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. He said 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, at least!
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 and declared him to be their star performer, their golden child. Indeed, they had swallowed every filthy lie he had presented without the slightest indication of doubt.
Lying for Jesus.
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. Even worse, Jesus had not transformed him at all. He lived a lie, and I was now part of his lie 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.
Biff 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. 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 anybody consider my “godly” when he lied like this? And how could all these men of God be mistaken about him?
How I Stayed Christian Through This Trial.
I was trying my best to follow God at this point. This incident and others like it to come did not impact my faith or my desire to serve God. But I now perceived 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 real, 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. Nobody ever supplied that proof, incidentally, not once.
After seeing my husband for what he truly 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. My church was filled top-full with Christians who believed anything somebody said as long as that person said something that fit in with their beliefs.
The Questions That Haunted Me.
Why were there so many people lying in this religion? Why weren’t liars more scared of Hell and God’s wrath? How could they be 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?
When a lie was exposed (like when I pointed out instances of urban legends being offered up as factual happenings), why did Christians tend to condemn not the deceiver, but the person exposing the lie? And 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?
Dealing With It Later.
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 grew bigger and bigger. Sooner or later, I’d have to deal with it. But for now, I 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. That attempt failed. Again. And just like people do in a roleplaying game, my response to that failure was to rationalize and try to square the illusion so I could believe it again.
I did great on that front. I soothed myself by thinking that it didn’t matter what people did. No, it mattered what my god was doing! 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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(Cas tidied up this post on February 19, 2019.)