The Cult of Before Stories: Desperate for Relevance.

The Cult of Before Stories: Desperate for Relevance. December 7, 2016

Years ago, I wrote about the Cult of Before Stories: the exaggerated, embellished conversion stories that right-wing Christians create to tell each other. These stories share a number of features in common–and a number of flaws.

One of their biggest flaws is that they are very much rooted in whatever the boogeyman du jour is for fundagelicals. It’s really hard to walk back these stories or even alter them once they’re concocted and fully-fleshed. So when the tribe moves on to a new boogeyman, these storytellers are left holding narratives that no longer frighten audiences–or even interest them much. These once-popular, once-sought-after performers become refugees in a sense, wandering the earth in search of a new hook to make themselves relevant again.

Bill Schnoebelen is one such storyteller. Once a popular figure in fundagelical Christianity, his narrative long ago lost its freshness. He’s had to reinvent himself–but is finding that once someone’s joined the Cult of Before Stories, that’s really hard to do.

(A href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/pc_plod/8329939576/">Tony Smith, CC.)
(Tony Smith, CC.)

Satanic Panic at the Disco.

Younger folks might not remember this particular fundagelical scare, but the Satanic Panic was one of the first really wide-scale popular modern conspiracy theories in right-wing Christianity.

There are many reasons why I suspect this particular conspiracy theory got so popular. It came along right when right-wing Christians were only just beginning to enjoy some political power after the totally-manufactured Red Scare had moved them into their lofty position. Cable TV was just beginning to reach homes across America–allowing for movies and television shows to reach almost everyone with what fundagelicals regarded as pure moral filth, further threatening their hold on the nation’s morality–but also allowing more American Christians than ever before to engage in fundagelical culture via televangelism and talk shows.

These Christians were already smarting from the competition they perceived in the New Age movement of the 1960s and 1970s–a movement that Jack Chick and his associates were busy re-imagining as a concerted war waged by demons upon TRUE CHRISTIANS™ for the souls of every person alive.

The Satanic Panic was perfect for the movement’s needs. Here’s how it went: There was a huge, vast underground network of Satanists gearing up to take control of the entire world, starting with America (because of course). To do that, they had to destroy faith in Christianity (because of course). To do that, they were seducing young people with rock music, New Age religions like Wicca (and to a lesser extent casual spiritualism like Tarot cards, Ouija boards, and daily horoscopes in the newspaper!), sexual immorality, drugs and booze, and… tabletop roleplaying games. Seriously. Once kids were firmly hooked by these illicit thrills, then they would be open to joining the vast network of Satanists operating in secret.

Once the network of Satanists was big enough, then the end of the world would begin: Armageddon, the Rapture, and all that. As you can imagine, in this conspiracy theory Satanists were responsible for pretty much everything terrible in the world. They put razors in kids’ candy, slaughtered cats on Halloween, kidnapped children and forced them into sexual slavery to bear babies that were, themselves, sacrificed to Satan, and a host of other atrocities. (Observant readers may note a certain degree of projection here.)

The more salacious the story being told, the closer Christians leaned in to hear it–and the more money they threw at its teller.

Fleecing the Sheep.

In 1972, Mike Warnke burst on the scene with his stand-up performance art and books, which (sort of) described his conversion to Christianity. It was huge. He was only the crest of a wave, of course; there were many others besides him all farming the same fertile pastures of eager sheep.

Much like we suspect the Bible’s own Gospels were written, these conjobs all based their stories off of a shared mythology–adapting each other’s claims, embellishing them, and adding to them. Satanic Panic testimonies all have very similar features:

  • A life of utter debauchery, particularly involving sex and drugs, possibly also involving child abuse;
  • A stint as a Wiccan or Freemason or both before being introduced to the real power of Satanism;
  • Various crimes committed while in the group;
  • Details of a worldwide network of Satanist Wiccans/Wiccan Satanists who’d infiltrated all branches of government and law enforcement;
  • And then a wild miracle occurs!
  • A total 180 turnaround! Hooray Team Jesus!
  • A money grab.

The more elements on this list are included in the testimony, the less you can trust it. As you can imagine, absolutely nothing the storyteller describes will be supported by any evidence–even circumstantial evidence. Nor will the storyteller seem concerned with bringing to justice their lawless, atrocity-committing former pals, who are presumably still out there murdering cats, impregnating toddlers, and casting spells on parents to induce them to purchase more D&D books for their kids.

The payoff was simply too big for dishonest people to resist. It’s always been that way, though; I don’t think it took long for the first Christian to notice just how big the rewards were for a really titillating conversion story, or to notice that the wilder and more shocking the story, the richer the rewards seemed to be.

The best part was that the sheep didn’t even question these stories. To the contrary, Christian audiences listened with huge saucer eyes to every single huckster who pranced through their doors. And they opened their wallets to them–buying millions of books and videos from various liars-for-Jesus.

A 90th Degree Freemason. Really.

Bill Schnoebelen entered this heady world of Satanic Panic a little late, with his conversion occurring in the mid-1980s. He immediately took his story public by speaking to crowds and writing books about the occult and his supposed top secret past as a Satanist Catholic priest who totally had sex with a demon and everything.

His tour de force is doubtless Wicca: Satan’s Little White Lie, published initially in 1990. As you can probably guess, it’s about how Wicca is totally not actually “a harmless nature-worshipping religion” (as he himself wrote), but rather “nothing more than Satan’s most clever recruiting tools, designed to lead many into actual Satan worship.”

Really.

He claims that he became at various times an Alexandrian Wiccan, a Mason (achieving “90th degree”), an Illuminati, a Catholic priest, a vampire (yes, really, with blood-drinking and an aversion to garlic and all that), a Mormon, and a Satanist, almost all of it between 1976 and 1984.

Say what you want, but he didn’t leave anything to chance, did he? About all he missed was a stint as a drug-dealing pornographer.

I hope I don’t need to say that its author’s claims have been debunked nine ways from Sunday. The book contains shoddy scholarship and worse fearmongering and pandering, with a number of flat-out impossible assertions and laughably inept conclusions, but fundagelicals appear to have loved it, judging by the many breathless reviews of the thoroughly-titillated Christians who got exactly what they wanted out of it. (In fact the reviews of his work display the usual polarization that we expect to see out of fundagelical works–fundagelicals themselves rate it very highly and plainly state their agreement with it, while everyone else rates it 1 or 0 stars and blasts its inaccuracies.) They didn’t care that his details about, well, everything were totally wrong, or that his timelines don’t work, or that his stories of miracles and spells are completely made-up. They still don’t.

A good but false story beats a true but boring story any day, to fundagelicals.

A Sad Decline.

As the Satanic Panic finally worked its way through the bowels of Christianity, the storytellers who had based their entire schtick around it discovered that they’d been left behind for the next big panics–atheism, the One World Government, race-baiting, and the like.

The Satanic Panic fell out of fashion once people realized how little evidence there was for it. Wiccans’ and Masons’ outrage helped hasten that end a little as well, though mainly the scare was a casualty of its own wild-eyed recklessness. The sorts of stories that grew out of it were simply embarrassing; they made Christians look gullible and stupid. Though a few leaders appeared to buy in completely with its claims, there was just so little evidence that any of it was true–and so much evidence that it wasn’t–that people drifted away.

The problem for the storytellers now was that they were stuck in their own manufactured pasts.

Tony Anthony, the now-disgraced evangelist who claimed he was a globe-trotting kung fu assassin before his miraculous turnaround, was one of the most successful post-Satanic Panic storytellers. His testimony involved the slightly-newer panic of martial arts, which incorporated the old panic’s fascination with Eastern mysticism in a slightly different way. But his story was more interesting because of what it didn’t deal with at all. It contained no hint of Wiccans or secret cabals of Satanists in the highest places of power (except for its super-secret group of Kung Fu bodyguards, I suppose). Instead, it was a straightforward (if entirely fabricated, as they all seem to be) “Amazing Grace” narrative about a guy who did bad things, saw the light, and did a 180 back to the arms of Jesus.

Tony Anthony’s story marks an end to the Satanic Panic, in my opinion; after him, you don’t see many more Christians claiming those sorts of pasts. Hell, you don’t even see ex-martial-artists or ex-assassins anymore–that’s way too easy to debunk. Instead, nowadays you have testimonies that are all but unfalsifiable: ex-atheists and general gadabouts who discovered purpose and happiness in Christianity, and of course the sad ex-gay people who insist that Jesus has made their new, divinely-approved lives of cold celibacy perfectly wonderful.

Indeed, Bill Schnoebelen fell from public view some years ago. He’s still got a “ministry” online and a blog, and still hawks his books and tries to persuade fundagelicals to believe him–and part with some cash. On his site, I notice he hawks anti-vaxxer and cancer-curing woo, which doubtless will do far more damage to people’s lives than a bullshit testimony could. You can also find him over on Jack Chick’s website selling his totally true testimony THERT RERLER TRULER HERPNERED, ERMAGERD. Back in 2002, he wrote a book about nuclear terrorism that positioned himself as some kind of expert on such warfare, and in 2007 that’s when he got serious about having been a vampire, apparently. It’s almost funny to see him stuffing new details into his tired old testimony like nobody’s going to notice.

Despite his story having been picked to pieces, he still sells all of his books and DVDs to the unwary. And there’s good reason to think that he’s well aware that he’s not telling the truth at all but rather milking the sheep for whatever fleece he can get before the gravy train ends.

Reinventing a Narrative.

A while ago, I thought that I’d seen the last of the Satanic Panic guys.

Imagine my surprise when Bill Schnoebelen’s name popped up on an article on Charisma News, a fundagelical pseudo-journalism site, connected to a hit piece on Pokemon Go. The writer for that site referenced something Bill Schnoebelen wrote back in 2000 about the card version of the game–something that reminds me of what Bernard Black said about Pokemon in the dearly-missed BBC comedy Black BooksPac-Man! It’s pronounced Pac-Man!” Mr. Schnoebelen and the writer of that more-current opinion piece both know as much about the game as Bernard Black does, not that their ignorance stops them from weighing in about whether TRUE CHRISTIANS™ (like themselves) should be playing the game.

Even though the rest of us moved on from Satanic Panic (if indeed we ever bought into it at all!) in the mid-90s, there are still plenty of Christians who still buy into this foolishness, if World New Daily’s commenters are anything to go by. On a post about how modern media is “driving demonic activity,” one can see Mr. Schnoebelen’s work pop up in comments as PROOF YES PROOF that demons are totally for realsies. Clearly his fans still cling hard to the world he helped create in their minds.

(It’s a shame that Christians have so much trouble outgrowing false ideas. I think I remember some famous book or other talking about how a house built on a shaky foundation can’t stand–maybe Christians should be careful about where they get their facts from before parroting the nonsense they take in.)

Bill Schnoebelen is an artifact of a fundagelicalism now almost entirely gone–one that was altogether more imaginative and fanciful than the grim, stony-faced belligerent one we deal with now. But he’s still influencing way too many Christians with his frantic attempts to reinvent himself before his time runs out and the Cult of Before Stories completely devours him.

TERTERLER TRER TERSTERMAHNER THERT RERLER HERPERNERD
What, this? No reason. (elysiummag, CC-SA.)

Grifters gonna grift. It’s not like he’s gonna go find a real job, not after all these years, and certainly not while Christians are still willing to finance liars-for-Jesus who tickle their ears. I just wonder how many Christians will hear him and start wondering what else isn’t true, like I did once, long ago.


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