At the height of the Satanic Panic, my ultra-Christian first husband, Biff, concocted a plan. He felt certain that it was foolproof. See, he had figured out how to achieve his dream of being a professional Christian! He’d become a radio show host just like Bob Larson. Today, I’ll show you what happened, how it shook out, and the hand it ultimately played in bringing us all together.
As many fundagelicals do, Biff subscribed to the notion of THE ANGLE.
He wanted to live a life of total hedonism, indolence, excess, and comfort. But he possessed no particular skills that might help him achieve that dream. Nor had he cultivated any kind of education or self-discipline along those lines. He lacked the often-necessary parentage and connections, too. In a religion that all but worships entrepreneurial success, he couldn’t even come up with any business ideas that might lead him closer to his goals.
Despite all these dealbreakers, however, Biff ached for wealth and power–and the respect that he was sure accompanied them.
And he suffered that ache long before his dramatic (and faked) conversion to Christianity. Joining Pentecostalism only amplified his existing desires by giving him divine approval for them. Indeed, nothing less than the god of the universe deeply desired his success. In fact, Jesus himself had crafted a life plan for Biff that he just knew included vast wealth and power.
Consequently, most of our marriage consisted of him chasing after that dream and me following tribe-approved tactics to keep him from bankrupting us. He leaped from one harebrained notion to the next. And as fundagelicals do all too often, he completely forgot each failure in his rush to start the next plan.
In the early 1990s, shortly after our wedding, Biff hatched one of these plans.
The Radio Star.
At the time, Bob Larson ran a call-in radio show. He called it “Talk Back” and fundagelicals in my area loved it. Basically, people called in to talk to Larson about chosen topics of interest to Christian wingnuts. He’d try to resolve their issues and, if they weren’t Christian already, try to convert them.
Biff loved this show like burning. He seriously believed Bob Larson’s assurances that it was spontaneous, improvised, and unscripted.
To me, it was beyond obvious that Larson very liberally massaged each program and call to sound more dramatic. He even bestowed upon each story an ending that confirmed fundagelical beliefs.
More than that, though, I felt extremely uncomfortable with Larson’s constant appeals for money. This nutjob was always in serious danger of losing his “ministry.” He was always under “spiritual attack” for running his huckster’s grift. And he always needed lots of money. His “ministry” appeared to be geared toward enriching himself, not helping people in emotional distress. In a single hour I remember, Larson spent like 20-30 minutes begging for donations. Biff remembered almost none of those minutes.
I didn’t actually know anything at the time about the deep concerns already being raised about the veracity of Larson’s testimony. Nor did I know that a lot of folks questioned how he ran his “ministry.” When I did find out, I was not at all surprised.
The Satanic Panic–Yes, Again.
Biff loved “Talk Back.” The show assured him that his religion’s wildest claims were true. Even more so, though, it confirmed every lie he believed about the Satanic Panic.
Fundagelicals in those years felt a great deal of concern about this moral panic. It was orders of magnitude bigger than fundagelicals’ current moral panic about human trafficking. We didn’t have a bunch of distractions back then, perhaps, or an internet ready to tell us that fundagelicals had once again cynically engineered themselves some “folk devils” to gain power at everyone else’s expense.
Very quickly into his promotion of the Satanic Panic, Bob Larson discovered the fields were “truly white unto harvest,” to borrow a creepy phrase. Except fundagelicals’ wallets were the harvest, not the souls of unwashed heathens.
When we marvel at the shameless pandering of Christian movies today, we need to remember one thing above all: the people writing that dreck came straight from the Satanic Panic. They cut their teeth on that fantasy. And like Biff was doing even then, they observed what worked and what didn’t. In response, they came up with new grifting scams all their own.
Up, Up, UP the Ziggurat, Lickety-Split.
Biff decided to become a mini-me of Bob Larson.
He crafted a plan. First, he’d get a radio show to host. He’d take calls from atheists. Atheism was his hook–his focus. Larson focused on demons. Biff would focus on atheists, because he claimed that atheism was Jesus’ burden for him.
And he’d get paid to preach at them! He’d totally convince them they were totally wrong about everything! Then, finally, he would totally convert them to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ live on air!
(I know every one of you is cringing right now.)
As he described the plan to me, his face shone like the sun. He looked so excited.
Ever since his conversion, he’d wanted to become what he called “a professional Christian.” Biff meant by it someone who got paid to do Christian stuff–you know, like a full-time pastor or evangelist or author. Until this radio plan, Biff volunteered with Sunday School in the hopes of scrunching his way toward a ministerial position. That strategy sounds skeevy, but a lot of guys in our end of Christianity did it. Probably half of the “professional Christians” we knew had taken that route.
When he looked at Bob Larson’s roaring success (and that of other talk shows he admired, like the one Rush Limbaugh started around then), Biff saw a whole other–and faster, and more dramatic, and more lucrative–route to his goal.
But the path to radio stardom turned out to be a lot more difficult than he’d imagined.
Obtaining the actual time to do a radio show turned out to be fairly easy. There’s a reason why fundagelicals glommed onto AM radio like they did back then. It’s the same reason why they continue to dominate AM radio even today. I don’t know exactly how Biff did it, but he made the process of securing a timeslot sound easy as pie. (If it’d been difficult, I absolutely would not ever have heard the end of it.)
However, the radio station in town did not give away these timeslots for free–not even to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ festooned with thirty-seven pieces of turn or burn flair.
So Biff turned to our pastor–the first one, the genial old fellow with the aw shucks smile. (This same pastor and his family later threw Biff out of Daniel’s room at the hospital for being a gluteus maximus.) Because I always thought our pastor had a good head on his shoulders, it surprised me to hear he’d given Biff several hundred bucks to chase this dream.
It shouldn’t have, though.
The Shared Greed.
Pentecostals labored at the time under a slew of very restrictive behavioral rules. Our leaders forbade almost all mass media. Officially, we couldn’t own or watch television or go to movies–even super-duper-Christian shows. We regarded Christian movies and TV shows as a sort of gateway drug. In our wacky world, Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel led straight to triple-X-rated hardcore German porn.
But our leaders considered radio safe. Like all fundagelicals do, they vehemently denounce and resist any new media, but media they grew up with is perfectly acceptable. Obviously, they allowed only radio broadcasts that were edifying, which is Christianese for “Christian-pandering enough for TRUE CHRISTIANS™ like me.” Though they gave Christian music stations a lot of side-eye, talk radio was usually perfectly acceptable as long as it grounded on whatever doctrinal and political stances they preferred.
Thus, Biff’s proposal of a radio show involving arguments with and conversions of atheists lined up pretty well with existing feelings about the topics. Plus, Bob Larson–despite his protestations of poverty and constant financial danger–was very obviously rolling in money.
Hopes of similar success likely went a long way toward our pastor’s approval of the scheme.
The Self-Image, Combusted.
Biff had always imagined himself as this TRUE CHRISTIAN™ leader. This was the same guy who started a student club on campus called Prayer Warriors for Jesus. He imagined himself as this strong, steadfast soulwinner. And he cut quite a memorable figure on campus with his Indiana Jones hat, Christian t-shirts, and the many large, illustrated buttons that he wore daily. (He created these shirts and buttons because few consumer goods existed at the time that were radical enough for his taste. So he happily wore slogans like turn or burn and fly or fry.)
In the same way, he considered himself the perfect person to engage with atheists. He’d literally been exorcised, he insisted, so he had gone toe-to-toe with real live demons like the ones who inhabited non-Christians. He understood atheists, he thought.
In summation, Biff suffered from an gravity-defying case of Dunning-Kruger Effect.
RL vs. Radio.
It took me a while to work out why Biff had been so drawn to the idea of becoming a radio personality. And maybe it comes down to the differences between a person’s media persona and their RL persona.
In person, a great many people thought Biff was incredibly charming. And it was that charm that saved him from becoming a social pariah. Anybody who got to know Biff figured out almost immediately what kind of person he was. He was, to put it mildly, the worst kind of hypocrite: a liar, serial abuser, and self-serving user of people.
Christians put up with his worst behavior for a variety of reasons. They compartmentalized away his hypocrisy. But non-Christians considered that same hypocrisy to be a dealbreaker for his sales pitches. So he failed routinely at saving people in person.
Maybe he thought radio would be better for him because he wouldn’t be fighting against his own poor witness there. He could talk to people who had no idea who he was, though as you’ll see, that’s not how it shook out.
Biff’s narcissism caused his own downfall in another way related to the differences between real life and radio. Not to be mean, but Biff did not exactly have a voice made for radio. Because he cultivated a persona that was goofy, bombastic, affable, and boyish, he typically affected a childlike voice to match. This mid-20s man deliberately sounded like a teenage boy whose voice is about to crack.
In person, this weird affectation worked for him. But on radio, it proved catastrophic. People mentioned it sometimes to me. (“Cas, maybe you should suggest a voice coach to him…?”)
I wish I had actually sat in on the creation of Biff’s programs. He always accidentally made it sound like a complete and total cluster of epic proportions. But remember, I did not approve at all of this idea. So after listening in our shared apartment to part of one show during its actual broadcast and cringing so hard my spine temporarily left my body, I largely kept out of the whole thing.
Basically, Biff at first wanted to operate just like Bob Larson. He offered a phone number (at the station) for people to call in, and he planned to just take calls as they came.
However, he found out almost immediately that literally no atheists wanted to call in to his show during its broadcast. For some wacky reason, atheists didn’t appear to care in the least that here, at last, was a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ willing to grant them some of his exalted time.
Instead, sometimes a church friend of ours would call and they’d talk about atheism. During these shows, they devised various straw atheist talking points to battle. Biff had no shortage of friends he could guilt into calling and no shortage of straw atheist talking points to tilt at.
But one day Biff hit upon the idea of simply inviting someone to the studio to sit and talk to him about a topic.
That was a turning point for Biff’s radio show.
Biff knew a lot of atheists at college. He decided to ask them to be guests for his programs. And to my amazement, many of them agreed to the idea.
He’d pick them up in our car and take them to the studio, where (he told me) they sat together and talked about various topics. To his credit, they knew perfectly well what the show was about. They knew as well that their conversion was his goal.
If he couldn’t get any of our college friends to agree, he drove out to troll for anybody willing to come sit with him. One time he secured the cooperation of an extremely poor and elderly black man who might have been homeless or very close to it. Afterward, Biff took him out shopping for food. I hope, I truly hope, that the food wasn’t a requirement or payment for the man’s time (but this is Biff we’re talking about). After the man refused to convert to Pentecostalism, of course, he dropped off Biff’s radar like a push-pin falling out of a map.
Most of the atheists themselves told me later that Biff had not exactly done well during these broadcasts. But they hadn’t needed to tell me that. Though he did not convert a single atheist or even give one cause for doubt, his optimism remained stratospheric. He called the broadcasts planting seeds, to use the Christianese. One day his efforts would pay off, he was sure of it.
The Unexpected Results.
Until Biff began his radio show, I’d never really met atheists–that I knew of, anyway. Everybody I knew was some flavor of Christian. Thus, my attempts at evangelism usually focused on moving people from the wrong flavors to the correct flavor.
So Biff’s burden for atheists meant I came into very close contact with a lot of atheists. After each episode of his show, he usually brought the guest-star over to our apartment to hang out. Here, I met and got to know atheists. And because I was fundagelical at a time well before the fundagelical moral panic about straw atheism, I didn’t suffer from the terrible misconceptions about atheists that so many fundagelicals suffer from today. Sure, I had some general ideas about atheism, but I didn’t see atheists as idiots or childish or evil monsters.
When my tribe began to talk like that about atheists, I knew immediately they were wrong. And worse, I already knew that atheists’ reasons for rejecting my religion weren’t childish or reactionary. They brought up very serious concerns and objections to my faith.
Even more devastatingly, though, I got to know them as people. I knew they were decent human beings. Many were considerably better people than the vast majority of Christians. They challenged my misconceptions about non-believers.
And once I knew my leaders lied about one thing, well, I couldn’t help but wonder what else they’d lied about.
The Problem of Hell.
Atheists’ existence greatly troubled me in another unexpected way, one that proved to be a dealbreaker for my faith. I felt greatly distressed about the idea of my god condemning these perfectly lovely and decent atheists to eternal, unending physical torture simply for believing the wrong things about him (especially if their conclusions had been drawn for what I knew were very solid and understandable reasons).
In short, I smashed face-first against the Problem of Hell.
And a lot of Christians manage to make peace with that problem. They must, to stay Christian. They must devise a way for their god to be both the epitome of grace, love, forgiveness, and mercy, and also a being capable of allowing or causing humans to suffer eternal, unending physical torture simply for believing the wrong things about him.
The number of rationalizations around these two points staggers the imagination. And I heard or came up with quite a few of them right then to resolve that huge point of cognitive dissonance.
However, not a single one of those rationalizations resolved the yawning chasm of doubt that had opened up at my feet.
The OMG!Shocking Conclusion to the Story.
One day, Biff didn’t go to the studio at his habitual time.
When I asked why, he said he’d decided to stop running it. He didn’t say more about it, and I was so relieved that it was done with that I didn’t inquire further.
That was also about the last I ever heard about his divinely-handed-down life purpose to convert atheists.
Later, I worked out what must have happened. Biff opened up a new venture. He failed to secure the adulation and success he felt entitled to have. THE ANGLE had failed to materialize. And so he had dropped the whole project–and then he forgot he’d ever started it.
And Here We Are.
So there you have it!
Without Biff’s radio show, my story might look very different.
I wouldn’t have known any atheists before the culture wars came a-knockin’ to fill my head with lies about them. And I wouldn’t have brushed up against the Problem of Hell before my religious leaders could indoctrinate me with the correct compartmentalizations to keep it from troubling me.
Remembering this whole episode always makes me chuckle. I can’t help but think that Biff’s “burden for atheists” contributed to my own deconversion–and indirectly brought us all together. I wouldn’t have things any other way than they are right now. <3
Cuz I just realized something.
He’s never achieved his lifelong dream, and likely never will. And yet somehow I became a professional non-Christian somewhere along the way.
NEXT UP: A bunch of Christians got really upset over the post I wrote recently about their widdle hearts hurting over our non-belief. Because I’m feeling helpful, I thought I might maybe offer some consolation to them. See you next time!
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