Spiritual Warfare: What’s It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing!)

Spiritual Warfare: What’s It Good For? (Absolutely Nothing!) July 17, 2014

Remember furries? Those are the kids who think that they’re “really” animals in human form. Back in the 90s they were the emerging weirdos of the internet and became our collective punching bags, a low status they bore with varying degrees of grace. You’d see them prancing around town in tails and ears and sometimes paw-like gloves, painting their faces with whiskers, wearing collars (if they were “really” dogs or cats), using animal terms to describe themselves and their actions (the most famous of these was “yiff,” which they thought was the sound foxes made while mating and which got adopted as slang for having sex), or even going to extremes like tattooing and body modifications to look more like what they imagined they really were. In terms of general respect, they ranked somewhere around the level of newly-assimilated Amway salespeople, but with almost no willpower, discipline, or perseverance–though they did share a total lack of self-awareness with MLM believers.

Some digital photos from Folsom Street Fair '06.
Some digital photos from Folsom Street Fair ’06. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). I don’t actually remember anymore what about them used to bother me so much.

Looking back, though, I can see that at least they were benign for the most part. They kept their weirdness largely to themselves and they weren’t really hurting anybody but themselves. Though weirdly obsessed with sex and traditional conceptualizations of beauty, they were usually pretty inoffensive people; the most offensive of them were the ones putting their private lives on TMI-mode on LiveJournal or bragging about stuff that most of us wouldn’t consider brag-worthy. Their communities were insular and unless outsiders set out to interact, chances are they wouldn’t. Now that genuinely scary and creepy weirdos proliferate all over the internet, now that people who genuinely wish harm to others and do real and devastating things to real people are shitting all over the internet, I’m sure I’m not the only person who longs for the sweet innocence of those days when furries were the worst problem the internet had.

But the human psyche longs for the feeling of significance, and it’s really hard to feel significant if one is an internet punching bag and a joke’s punchline all the time. That’s very likely why one day I ran across an exchange between a pair of battling furries that had apparently spilled past the digital-ink stage and into the stage of SPIRITUAL WARFARE.

Oh yes.

One of them wrote in his own journal that he was simply exhausted from all the SPIRITUAL WARFARE he had been doing that day on the ASTRAL PLANE. His furry-self, a dragon I think (probably with more than a few tails; most furries were way lots into anime), was feeling quite droopy from all the spellcasting and SPIRITUAL WARFARE. To hear the fellow talk, he’d spent his entire day doing this battle, which seemed to consist of him squinching up his face and muttering a lot and maybe yelling at thin air and waving his arms around until he got tired (about 3.6 nanoseconds; furries were never famous for being in fabulous physical shape). There was a little Wiccan spellcasting thrown in for good measure to set up psychic “wards” (that’s New Age-ese for a mental fence one erects around one’s mind or area to hold off psychic intruders and attacks, and yes, quite a few people take that idea very seriously).

In a flash, as I read his journal entry (linked on another website that poked fun at people like that), I got this sudden sense of recognition.

All this stuff this guy imagined–these invisible battles, these invisible enemies, these emotional and mental and even (to him) psychic efforts he was expending, I’d seen all of it elsewhere.

I’d seen people acting this way before.

I’d seen a lot of people acting this way before.

I’d acted this way myself, long ago.

We might have called this warfare different things–“wards” exist in Christianity but they call it things like “a blanket of protection” and the like–but we did the exact same thing.

When I was Christian, I had once been a warrior for Jesus, but all my battles had been like this kid’s battles–all fought on a battlefield nobody could see with human eyes.

Lacking real battles in our lives, lacking real conflict, we invented our own by imagining ourselves as Biblical-era warriors with shields and swords and spears and armored breastplates. We prayed and prayed to do battle with Satan, and that might sound absolutely like the sheerest nonsense to outsiders, but at the time, we really believed that we were fighting a huge war on that invisible battlefield.

Our leaders encouraged us to think this way, and Christian media got into the charade very early on in the 90s with Frank Peretti’s irresponsible work of fiction This Present Darkness. I’ve mentioned before that my entire church went Kookoo for Cocopuffs over this book–there were without question more people who knew the plot and details of this book better than they even knew anything about the Bible. I can see why; though there were a lot of theological problems and beyond-ludicrous plot issues in the book, and though the guy who wrote it clearly has no clue whatsoever what the New Age Movement is actually about or what neo-pagan beliefs look like in real life, it was still a better love story than the Bible, as the saying goes.

My generation–those growing into adulthood in the late 80s and early 90s–was hungry for battle. We’d grown up on the Jesus Movement‘s fervor and boundless enthusiasm for pushing the zealotry envelope. We were starting to feed on Christian quacks and sharks telling us that we were the “last generation” and that our country was in serious danger of being overtaken by demons if we didn’t do something about it.

This pandering and fearmongering entwined itself together with American exceptionalism to make a weed that choked to death everything good about our religion. We were way past the last glorious war the United States had fought, so our desire to protect America and make it great again manifested as a new militant extremism in religion. And I watched my friends–and my then-boyfriend and later husband Biff–fall right into its maw.

Now if you Google “spiritual warfare,” you’ll find thousands upon thousands of entries about the subject–over a million to be more precise. “Spiritual Warfare is Real, Difficult, and Dangerous!” shrieks one entry on the subject, which is funny because really it’s not any of those things, and then goes on to explain how to do this imaginary “warfare”–using language that is not precise, concrete, or even really coherent, with a caution that Christians “are in the fight of (their) lives” even if they can’t tell from looking at the world. Another asks, in an example of truly shoddy journalism, “Should we engage in SPIRITUAL WARFARE?” (capitals were theirs, not mine) and then goes on to declare that the question isn’t whether Christians should do it, but rather how they should do it. It goes on and on like that, link after link.

Careful readers will notice, though, that none of these breathless explanations actually contains any evidence that there’s a battle going on. They all take it as a given that one is happening and then plunge into rah-rah about how they think it should work. None of them actually define spiritual warfare in a coherent way, and there isn’t any consistent idea about what it involves or how it should be done. Conspicuously absent, as well, are any indications or signs that Christians can observe to tell whether or not their battles have been won or lost.

I want to stress here that this wasn’t the kind of language I grew up with in Christianity. This emphasis on Christians as soldiers and warriors wasn’t something I really heard before the 90s. Now it’s ubiquitous. Not a single link I saw discussed spiritual warfare in any terms but the ones I’ve mentioned here. Nobody in Christian-land is even saying “Hey, maybe this isn’t really a thing and we should concentrate on real stuff and not worry about fake battles that make us feel good but don’t accomplish anything.”

The problem, of course, is that spiritual warriors don’t have to cultivate the qualities that real ones do. One serious mark against modern fundagelical thinking is that it really doesn’t encourage much discipline, follow-through, or courage. The people in it are bullies with their strength coming from belligerence, self-delusion, and strength in numbers. That’s why their various demonstrations against the the government tend not to pull in great numbers–even when tons of Christians say they’ll be there, that’s no indication whatsoever that they will be there. At that point, embarrassed organizers have to scramble for explanations that even they don’t seem to realize raise more questions than they answer. During one of these anti-government quasi-religious demonstrations, Operation American Spring, one humiliating explanation offered for the low turnout (projections of 10-30 million people turned out to mean a few hundred, if that) was that it was a little rainy that day–because if there’s totally one thing that will stop SPIRITUAL WARRIORS FOR JESUS dead in their tracks, it’s getting their Crocs wet and their Chik-Fil-A sammiches soggy, amirite?

In place of qualities like discipline and courage, this habit Christians have of engaging in fake imaginary battles provides other qualities that aren’t nearly as positive. Early on I observed that my peers in church were very short on follow-through and often made plans that they ignored or allowed to fall apart. If I genuinely needed help or even just a listening ear, then hopefully I needed those things at times that were convenient to my friends. I wish I’d seen a lot earlier that the people I thought had my back, the people I thought were my “tribe,” were obsessed with themselves and not in any position to extend me any help or care. I was always driving friends somewhere, but when my own car died, they vanished. I once dropped everything (on my first wedding anniversary no less) to help a friend who’d had a bad car accident hours away from home, but you can guess how many boxes she helped me lug later when I was moving. While declaring that we were a family and that we were one body in Jesus, they were also simultaneously letting me down in a hundred different ways. And I’m not mad; it’d be lame to be angry at people for not doing me favors, and they had their own things going on. I’m noting it here because this lack of discipline and follow-through is curious to see in people who claim they are warriors and soldiers.

Looking back at my time in the religion and at what I see modern Christians doing nowadays, I really think that Christians need the ego boost that comes from believing that they are war heroes fighting this massive battle against unspeakable odds–and most of them will do anything to get that high except go to actual war. Real war and real soldiering is very hard work and requires a lot of tough discipline and courage. But fighting imaginary battles doesn’t require any of that stuff. It can be done by anybody who can talk a big game and who has a sufficiently developed imagination and has been coached the right way.

And thanks to the miracle of modern Christian media, that coaching is available absolutely everywhere.

No matter how lowly someone is, no matter how humble that person’s job may be, imagining a second life full of adventure and importance is a good way of overcoming the distress of living a low-end life. This situation isn’t unique to Christians; I knew quite a few folks in paganism who imagined themselves spiritual warriors or protectors or whatever whose real lives were banal and low-prestige. One particularly drama-loving woman worked part-time at a coffee hut by day, but by night she was an eclectic Wiccan High Priestess who talked, wide-eyed and histrionic, about the amazing battles she conducted by night on behalf of the forces of good (in her head). In gaming, I ran into people like that constantly as well–people using an imaginary life to compensate for a mundane real life.

I can totally see why. We all grow up with movies that tell us that even normal “farm boys” can grow up to be Dread Pirate Robertses and Lukes; we all see how girls can be whisked off to kingdoms to become the princesses they didn’t even know they were (like me–I had a long-running fantasy life as a Space Princess in my early childhood, if you might remember). Doors open into rabbitholes; one drink of a potion shrinks us down. Household pests like rats have secret kingdoms below the ground. A fireplace might transport us anywhere in the world. It’s all right there, coexisting alongside the world we can actually see. Harry Potter’s platform to Hogwarts is built right into the real train station. The Teen Titans’ tower is built right out in the middle of its home city’s river. Batman dresses up in a tuxedo and attends charity balls. Ghosts and witches and monsters lurk at the corners of our vision, waiting to be unveiled and revealed.

If you’re a Christian, then multiply all of this hidden stuff by ten.

Every single Christian I knew just ached for that hidden world. We all wanted it. We wanted to think that we walked and breathed and moved among angels and demons. We desperately craved that touch of the divine–so much so that we were willing to make stuff up if it didn’t materialize on its own. Battles occurred everywhere around us.

And the goal of all of this fighting?

Why, nothing less than the souls of every human being alive.

Imagine what an ego-boost that is.

Just imagine it!

No matter how lowly you might feel, no matter how drab your life might look, you are soooooooo important that unseen beings wage war over you.

Over you!

Yes, you!

Yeah, that’s a level of narcissism that I just couldn’t handle after a while, this idea that oh my gosh I’m just soooooo important that all this is going on to push and pull me one direction and the other, like I’m at the crux of some huge important battle that somehow I can’t perceive with any of my senses. This egocentric view of things bothered me even as a Christian; it made me wonder if maybe our god wasn’t as powerful as we thought, if battles needed to be waged that often. And this stuff wasn’t in the Bible; it might talk about spiritual armor, and one passage in the Old Testament talks about spiritual warfare, but you have to really stretch to get the idea that Christians are supposed to engage with that hidden world in the way that modern fundagelicals are convinced they should. Eventually all this nonsense about spiritual warfare got to me and I had this sudden snap realization that it was all imaginary and we were all shrieking and screaming and moaning and yelling at thin air, and that toned me down considerably.

It wasn’t long after that realization that I began drifting away from Christianity itself; once you make your roll to disbelieve that illusion, you start seeing the people still caught in its maw in a very different way. All those things I’d once thought were powerful expressions of divine strength looked like a bunch of empty posturing and weird, overdramatic flourishes. I began to see how this posturing fed into Christianist ideas of persecution and urgency–and oh my they do indeed. And I began to see how Christians used this idea of an imaginary war to pummel outsiders into compliance and seize dominance over everybody else.

Even now the imagery of war and battle pushes people–not even Christians–to force their ideas onto others (a while ago a commenter here tried to make the case that forcing unwilling women to gestate fetuses against their consent was just like drafting them into war, and I’ve seen that argument a few times since in other places, even though it’s really not a good argument). If it’s for a war, why then any overreach is justified and acceptable. Any horror is allowed. Any damage is just part of the job. And anybody who speaks against what a soldier does in a war zone is obviously a traitor. This imagery Christians use forces a sense of urgency and necessity that they couldn’t achieve otherwise and gives them a power and authority they couldn’t exercise without that claim of acting in war.

This war imagery is imagery we should challenge and be aware of when we hear it. When we hear about Christians pushing the idea of spiritual warfare, those are Christians who are gearing up to do something they couldn’t get away with otherwise. We need to be asking those hard questions like “yes yes, but how do you know this is happening?” and making them aware that they look just like the ASTRAL WARRIORS of other religions–which is to say, that they look quite foolish and obviously like they’re not actually fighting anything or anybody. To me now, there’s no difference at all between that furry kid on LiveJournal and the Christians back at my old church.

I wish fundagelicals would make up their minds though:

Is their savior a Prince of Peace?

Or is he a Lord of War?

We’re going to talk next about what being an ambassador of the Prince of Peace looks like. I do hope you will join me!

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