Before the Cult of “Before” Stories: Tricking Authoritarians

Before the Cult of “Before” Stories: Tricking Authoritarians February 19, 2019

Long, long ago I wrote a post called “A Cult of ‘Before’ Stories.” In it, I described how I came face-to-face with the truth about two beliefs I held: that my god transformed people upon conversion, and that Christians would never lie while representing that god. (Hooboy, don’t ya just have to laugh sometimes? I was so innocent!) So this story is about how my then-husband Biff arrived at that dais to lie for Jesus. To get there, he had to fool a whole lot of people–and that is exactly what he did. Today, let me tell you what happened right before that devastating night.

(sebastiaan stam.)

(Also: kitty pictures!)

First, Testimonies.

Before we get to that dais, allow me to briefly describe the culture of the time.

Biff and I became Pentecostal in the late 1980s and married in the early 1990s. The Satanic Panic was in full throat, so our flavor of Christianity thought demons lurked everywhere. Mike Warnke, the terrible comedian at the heart of my earlier post, still enjoyed a lucrative career. Really, he was as close to a rock star as we had! And bombastic testimonies were very much the order of the day.

Most Christians construct a testimony after they convert. Testimonies typically contain three parts.

  • First, the Christian describes how awful their life was before conversion (conversely, the Christian enjoyed an awesome life full of fun and debauchery, but they always follow up immediately with how “empty” they truly felt).
  • Second, the Christian talks about the conversion itself: what prompted it, how it felt, and so on.
  • And third, the Christian relates how wonderful their life is now that they believe in Jesus.

A testimony typically comes in two types: a short one to offer strangers walking past, and a longer one to relate to people who are going to sit through it. And different emphases get laid down depending on whether the audience is already Christian or unwashed heathens.

Christians consider testimonies to be one of their most powerful evangelism tools. They think this way despite lacking objective confirmation of the idea, but even so it’s a pervasive belief in the religion. The more evangelistic the Christians, the more highly they esteem testimonies–even if they get very persnickety about how those testimonies run.

Grabbing Attention.

However, it’s harder than it looks to make a testimony that sounds effective! Christian hucksters publish books, videos, and websites to help new converts craft compelling testimonies. I can see that today’s Christians really struggle with this task.

Back in the heady days of the Satanic Panic, it was so much easier. Back then, all someone had to do to become an instant rock star was lie about having seen or interacted with demons.

If you’ve ever played the card game Once Upon a Time, you’ll understand this next bit. But even if you haven’t, imagine a menu from an old-school Chinese restaurant. Elements of a Satanic Panic testimony were like the cards in the game, or items on the menu. Pick a card from this stack, another from that stack, and some from that other stack over there. Combine them and you have a testimony fit for a feast.

Bother asks: Do you want to play a game?

Nowadays, it’s much harder to create a rock-star testimony. Sometimes we run into Christians who go there, and they’ve certainly acquired a following. But overall, I don’t see those kinds of testimonies anymore. We’re far more likely to encounter I-totally-used-to-be-an-atheist-you-guys sorts of testimonies.

It’s so much more difficult to rise above the pack with that, though.

Tricking Liars is Easy.

Christians’ ideology conforms not one iota to the real world. Nothing in reality confirms anything contained within Christian beliefs. Test anything you like–anything at all. Let it be an earthly claim or a supernatural one. It doesn’t matter. Test it, and you will easily demonstrate that the claim is false.

Now here’s the terrible truth of toxic Christianity:

Tell toxic Christians that one of their beliefs is false, providing them ample evidence to that effect, and they will scorn you and seek a way to negate everything you’ve said–and then destroy you if they can for daring to say so. And they will very likely succeed in all of it.

Oh, but tell them that one of their beliefs is true, providing no evidence at all, in fact contradicting everything their senses tell them in reality, and they will love you forever and praise you to the skies. And they will push you up the ziggurat of power as high as you can reach.

If Biff had only possessed more gumption and discipline, he could have shot into the stratosphere in our denomination. He knew, with serpentine cunning, that the key to winning over liars is to lie to them.

Donald Trump would use the exact same strategy, decades later, to stunning effect.

A Prayer Warrior for Jesus.

Not long after I’d rejoined the church he’d stormed into one dark evening, I began hearing people praise Biff to the skies for being godly. That’s a Christianese word. It means he showed in his behavior the qualities they expected to see in a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.

One of the highest praises a Christian can bestow on someone in the tribe is that that person is godly. Men in particular aspire to have that word tacked onto their descriptions: he’s a godly man. (A man of God is, of course, a pastor or preacher. Don’t mix them up. As far as I know, nobody talked about someone being a godly man of God. That’d just be silly. Also as far as I know, people didn’t talk about women being godly.)

You won’t hang around that end of Christianity long before noticing that women ached to find a godly man. They required this man so they could marry him and begin living out their life-script.

(Really, also this entire Twitter search.) This is why pastors can’t keep their pants zipped.

And I, apparently, had somehow found myself one of these paragons of masculinity.

Performance Art: Happy Pretendy Fun Time Games.

Here’s the big problem with that whole godly man schtick, though:

It’s so, so, so easy to fake.

Seriously.

How often, how long, does a guy attend church every week? Even if he’s a regular, he’s there twice or three times a week for a couple or three hours tops each time. Anybody can pretend to be sweetsie-syrupy-Jesus-y for that long. You can just about hold your breath that long. It’s not even hard to pretend to be the ideal TRUE CHRISTIAN™ in such short, brief doses. And the whole time the pretense goes on, rewards flow in like applause and tips during a YouNow video chat.

Then the faker can leave church and drop the facade, and begin acting the way he really prefers acting. Literally nobody will be the wiser in most communities. It must feel like a relief: like a poorly-fitting shroud made of scratchy wool, finally allowed to fall away from the body to the floor.

I reckon most of us have had to put on a brave or sociable face when we were dying inside. But pretending on this level must be excruciating for someone who prefers to use and abuse others. Only in secret and in hidden shadows can such a person do that which delights them.

The rewards for Christian pretenders clearly vastly outweigh the dreary pretense required to gain them.

Not Actually a Hospital for Sinners.

So yes, churches find themselves brim-full of hypocrites. Those sweet, smiling church-lady pepperpots behave like hunger-maddened hyenas behind closed doors. All those brightly-beaming youth group kids waving their arms in the air during worship time? They pull out sharpened daggers to use on the group’s weaker members during the school week. And once those godly men leave the church building, oh those godly men who so excite and titillate Christian women, they act far worse than the unwashed heathens they lord it over.

Often, when people confront Christians with the huge number of hypocrites in their churches, they hand-wave away those accusations. They smarmily, sanctimoniously proclaim, Oh, but churches aren’t a museum of saints! They are a hospital for sinners

It’s a decades-old bit of Christianese. And that disavowal is supposed to get them off the hook for failing miserably to live up to their own marketing hype.

However, the disavowal fails on all levels. Real hospitals get people well. If a treatment doesn’t work, then the people working there seek something that succeeds. If a person dies of whatever got them admitted to a hospital, the hospital’s staff go to bed that night questioning themselves and every decision they made about that person’s course of treatment. Medical-care providers at a hospital who lose too many patients might well end up losing their jobs–or ending up in court defending their actions.

Churches aren’t hospitals for sinners.

What they actually are is a country club for hypocrites.

And boy howdy, is it easy to get a lifetime pass to these country clubs.

She has no patience for this.

How Biff Totally Tricked Our Leaders.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, Biff was completely bombastic as a personality. Tall, floppy-footed, loose-limbed, and handsome, he galumphed and cavorted and chewed scenery like a court jester. He behaved this way around whatever group would have him. He affected a high-pitched, squeaky voice, but the deep timbre behind it softened it to make him sound perpetually silly and goofy. In fact, most folks described him, mostly affectionately, as a goofball. He came across as downright harmless, like a giant teddy bear, and innocuous. Children, in particular, adored him. They turned their faces to him like flowers to the sunshine.

It would take me years to discover the scheming, ruthless authoritarian behind that well-constructed facade. Even then, once I’d seen the glittering-eyed, balls-to-the-wall malevolent reality underneath his mask, plenty of people simply never believed me when I tried to warn them about what I’d discovered in him.

If it took me that long to really come to grips with Biff’s reality after dating and then living with him for years, you can bet it was absolutely impossible for our church-mates to do so in the relatively brief time they had with him each week.

All they saw was the bombastic, goofy, floppy-footed goofball who threw himself into youth ministry and never missed an altar call after services. They only knew the guy who had literally boxes of arcane Endtimes diagrams and talked constantly about soulwinning.

They assumed–as all of our friends did–that Biff acted that way all the time. And since their ideology supported everything Biff was doing, it flattered them to see that ideology being lived out to that extent.

Sliding Into Their DMs.

The last part of Biff’s ruse involved using the false front he’d crafted to gain access to leadership.

His dream had always been to become what he called a professional Christian. The phrase meant “someone who gets paid to do nothing but Christian stuff.” He yearned to become a pastor, preacher, evangelist, missionary, or anything along those lines. Every move he made within Pentecostalism was made with an eye toward how it’d help him move up, up, UP the ziggurat as quickly as possible–and with as little real effort from him as possible.

In authoritarian groups, leaders achieve unilateral power despite having shockingly poor qualifications. Then, those leaders–safely ensconced on their thrones–dole out power to their underlings. These leaders’ rationale for picking underlings often make no sense at all to people used to better, more reality-based groups.

Group members jockey for power in these groups by playing upon leaders’ feelings, for the most part: how well can the underling flatter the leader? How many favors and how much service can the underling perform for that leader? Advancement is also based upon acting performance: how convincingly can the underling pretend like the group’s ideology really works?

In the most authoritarian flavors of Christianity, actual objective qualifications–proper schooling, training, and whatnot–can be easily overlooked in favor of these two metrics. In fact, a really good leader in such a flavor can make the rank-and-file view those qualifications with the deepest of suspicion.

And that’s exactly what happened in our Pentecostal denomination.

(A common joke I heard in Pentecostalism: “Seminary? More like CEMETERY, amirite? HAW HAW!”)

The Desperation of Small Churches.

In extremist flavors of authoritarian Christianity, opportunists like Biff discovered a path to real power: the desperation of small churches.

See, most churches in those flavors of Christianity are quite small. I mean, like fewer than 100 people small. And there are TONS of these tiny little churches dotting the United States. Consequently, they are always hurting for staff.

Larger churches can be choosy about staff. They possess budgets and money enough to be that way. They can say they’ll only hire people with experience and proper educations, however their denomination/group defines those terms. Smaller churches, however, tend to accept whoever walks through the door. They’ll find somewhere for those people to serve. And a lot of those folks will be unpaid volunteers, because the church can’t afford more than, say, one or two paid ministers. (Usually this will be the pastor and music minister, and maybe they’ll have a part-time secretary–though a very poor church might impress a minister’s wife into service there.)

Once a volunteer builds up a work history with a tiny church, that person can parlay that experience into a position with a larger church later on–or slide into a paid position in the current church, and then leapfrog from there.

So if a man in these flavors of Christianity doesn’t wish to attend CEMETERY AMIRITE seminary or the far-less-rigorous indoctrination stations known as Bible Colleges, then he can build up a history through volunteer work. Eventually, he might even become a megapastor–with absolutely no relevant education or training at all.

That’s what Biff was doing. And it was working–until I deconverted.

The Crowning Achievement of His Life.

Biff had been a volunteer youth minister for a while and we’d been married a fairly short time when our pastor, a genial old fellow with a folksy charm, asked him to tell his testimony from the pulpit during an upcoming service.

The church was about to host a huge gathering of other Pentecostal churches. I forget the occasion, maybe celebrating some denominational leader’s anniversary of service or something, or maybe some missionaries sought extra support, I don’t remember anymore.

I do remember how excited Biff got. Not only would he get to preach from the pulpit, but he’d get to show off in front of who even knew how many denominational leaders! It was like getting to show your corgi at the Westminster Dog Show, if the stands were full of people who are looking to hire someone to tend their dogs during long yacht trips around the Mediterranean Sea. Biff considered this evening a potential way to land a job as a professional Christian, and prepared as such.

And man, he gave his speech his all. He went all out. He shrieked himself hoarse and put “-uh” at the ends of his words (“And-uh the Lord-uh said-uh unto me-uh…”)

The crowd, in turn, went wild for him. Very easily I can say that he was the hit of the evening. Young, charismatic, and utterly on fire for the Lord, Biff acted like the perfect embodiment of a TRUE CHRISTIAN™.

All the while, during the crowning moment of his life, I tried not to burst into angry, hurt tears because every bit of what he said in the house of our Lord, standing at that consecrated pulpit, was a baldfaced lie.

The story unfolds; Bother in background on the other chair.

Maybe He Didn’t Fool All of Them.

I’m sure my reaction on the drive home deflated Biff considerably. I told him never to lie around me again, or I’d out him. I’d tell the truth. He was furious with me, maybe even more furious than I was with him, but he knew better than to go toe-to-toe with me when I talked like that.

But as the days crawled on, he remained a volunteer. Nobody put him forward for a paid position anywhere. Now I kind of wonder: did our leaders guess a little that he was too good to be true? Maybe they did. Maybe they wanted to wait and see with him.

Eventually, one of our friends in church, Brother Gene, started a tiny church plant in Friendswood. He invited Biff to be his youth pastor–unpaid, but it was a serious jump forward. It also came at exactly the right time, after a very serious slam against Biff in private from our pastor. So my husband leaped at the opportunity to switch churches. He considered Gene’s offer as divine providence, coming right when it did.

It was a big step up, but it was as far as he’d ever get. We went to Japan shortly afterward because “Jesus” had told Biff to go there and convert the whole country. By that time, I’d already deconverted.

If Wishes Were Horses.

Last time we met up, I showed you Mark Driscoll’s arrogant pride in being so grossly uneducated about the Bible and his own religion that he seriously thought he’d written a book about something nobody’d ever noticed before in the whole history of Christianity.

As ignorant as he remains, Driscoll managed to work his way up to the top of the ziggurat in exactly the way Biff wanted to do. He began with a home church, parlayed that into a tiny church plant, and that into an ever-growing church that eventually became a megachurch with a multi-church network. Now disgraced, he seeks only to repeat that process.

And that’s a perfectly normal succession in his end of Christianity. People there expect it. They think a god moves their leaders along to where he’s called them to be from the beginning of time itself.

When we see these authoritarian leaders picking subordinates who are equally grossly unqualified to hold their positions, recognize what’s happening: this is a broken system; this is how it operates. Leaders don’t want their underlings with proper qualifications. If that happened, underlings would easily overtake and surpass their totally-unqualified leaders! Everything depends on having an unstable base of power, always wobbling, always full of people seeking to undercut those above them and steal their positions somehow.

Leaders in these groups want to keep their followers dancing on the wire. And that’s exactly what they do.

Bumble, watching me fool around with the cards. He could. not. EVEN. figure out what I was doing.

NEXT UP: Speaking of which, we dive into the Cult of Family next time. See you then!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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