Hello and welcome back! Lately, Christian lies have been on my mind. Today’s particular bit of dishonesty pinged my radar a very long time ago. And even then, it disturbed me quite a bit! On that night, I heard Christians insisting that they’d still be Christian even if they stopped believing in the supernatural claims found in the religion. Let me show you what so disturbed me, how I knew it wasn’t true, and why Christians tell themselves this oh-so-very-comforting lie.
Set Your Wayback Machines to 1987-ish.
Long, long ago–more than a lifetime ago and well over half my lifetime ago to be sure–I sat in a church sanctuary listening to a sermon.
My friends at Maranatha often compared this sanctuary to, I kid you not, a funeral parlor. Here it is, and maybe you can tell me if they were off-base or spot-on:
This particular night was a special revival service featuring a visiting evangelist. It wasn’t the night this picture was taken, but it was similar.
(In this photo, incidentally, there are approximately 4000% more black people on that stage than we usually saw. It was a gatherum event for us with lots of visiting churches. My first pastor is in the center of the pic in the silver suit looking behind himself at the choir. The dude in the pale suit facing the camera was one of the biggest names in our entire denomination–I want to say it’s Nathaniel Urshan but it might be David Barnard. I briefly met and spoke with both of them at various times. If you’re not or weren’t ever Pentecostal then you have no idea, but seriously, all three men were our very own David Bowie and Sting and Mick Jagger. But again, this pic depicts a different night than I’m about to describe.)
On this fateful night, this visiting preacher was very excited. He moved as gracefully and yet as surreally as a Jack Skellington ballet dancer, crossing and criss-crossing the stage as he gave his sermon.
We loved seeing him like this.
This was a Sunday night, so everyone had come expecting euphoria and catharsis. Everyone was excited right alongside the preacher. Oh yes, he played the music, and we danced to it.
Until he said something that pulled me up short.
That evening, I was just sittin’-there-all-fat-and-happy, as my dad used to say. I always enjoyed being part of a unified blotch of fundagelicals in full throat.
(Blotch of fundagelicals is now a thing.)
At least, I was doing that right up until that pale, gangly, birdlike preacher said something that caught me completely and totally off-guard.
I’m paraphrasing, but here’s the gist of what he said:
Even if I stopped believing in Jesus tonight, I’d still be a Christian and do everything we’re doing here tonight, because it is so AMAZING! PRAISE JESUS!
Everyone around me erupted into applause. They broke out into shouted tongues, waved arms, hopping, and all those other things fundagelicals do in rowdy churches at such times.
But I stopped cold.
I felt frozen in place.
My world just… stopped.
Tell Me Lies (Tell Me Sweet Little Lies).
Everyone in the crowd just asploded with shouts, clapping, and excitement. Yes, yes, they cried out as one. They loved this feeling of euphoric catharsis, and they loved getting all rowdy for Jesus. It didn’t matter to them if our tribe’s claims were true: they just loved being fundagelicals doing their thing after a stressful week immersed in we derisively called the world.
They shouted and clapped and danced around for joy, while the band played (with no drums, of course, cuz those contained the demon beat of Africa, just in case anybody needed more ammunition regarding evangelicals’ hardcore racism). But I could only sit there stunned.
I didn’t agree with them at all.
Worse, I would hear this lie many, many times from preachers of all kinds in my years as a Pentecostal. Congregants would parrot it as well till it simply became part of our low-Christianity lexicon of accepted beliefs.
Everyone acted like being Christian was so amazing and rewarding that anybody would benefit from practicing its devotions and following its rules. This claim included all of it, even fasting and tithing. Seriously. As I outlined a few months ago, they still tell this lie to this very day.
And back then, this lie troubled me enormously in ways I couldn’t even put into words at the time.
A False Focus on Fun and Joy.
The first problem I had with this sentiment was that it put Christians’ focus on the awesome giddy fun they claimed to experience as practicing Christians.
Granted, the enthusiasm of Pentecostals definitely interested me. Some Southern Baptists had attracted me in turn shortly before.
But I hadn’t joined either group because of exuberant feelings. I’d joined out of fear, not happiness. One Christian pastor assures his followers that “the promises of God ensure life, grace, mercy, joy, and love for all people,” but I sure didn’t find anything like any of that in his religion–and neither do millions of other Christians.
Maybe if I had valued euphoric catharsis more as a Christian, I’d still live in that cage. Who knows. But I didn’t. Maybe that’s a major source of faith for the faith pool for such Christians–and thus, without those emotions flowing constantly into my own faith pool, it drained all the more quickly. I do know that a lot of those euphoria-chasing Christians consider their feelings to be all the PROOF YES PROOF of their religion that they could ever need. They certainly use those feelings as evidence and support for their claims: if their god wasn’t real, then gosh, how could they ever feel that way?
I don’t know, I’d like to say to them. Ask some Sufis, or pagans at a drum circle, or orgy or bondage or body-modification enthusiasts, perhaps?
Nobody holds a monopoly on euphoria. Not Christians, not anybody.
Claims Being Made.
This lie also insists that Christian devotions are enough to hold members in the group.
And they aren’t. So it felt like this preacher was saying that gosh, we had SO MUCH FUN that WE DIDN’T NEED to find our fun out in the world. As one believer observes,
[Being asked in a group, years ago:] What would you do differently in your life if God did not exist? — It quite gave me a whole new perspective on those people, some said they’d start wearing less clothes, some said they’d get drunk every night, some said they’d sleep with a lot of people. — It made me feel sad for them, they weren’t content with the life they’re leading, their belief in God was making them dream about a life they wanted but couldn’t get.
I sincerely answered ‘I would live my life exactly as it is now’; I’d still go to church for the community events, I’d still fast, I’d still celebrate religious holidays; the happy ones and the sad ones. . .
That’s likely how my crowd felt too, to the letter. We professed to feel nothing but pity for those poor wretches trapped in the world’s endless hamster wheel of gratification-seeking–when we had the real joy and meaningfulness to offer them.
Poor widdle sinners! If only they knew what we had!
We’d wring our widdle handsies over it all, and secretly revel in this unchallenged show of tribal superiority.
The Reality of That Claim.
But in reality, church culture was stultifying aside from the euphoria that some people found in it.
I missed out on a lot of formative experiences and cultural events (like this one) because of my affiliation with Christianity. Worse, the Christians involved in that culture were nothing but work friends pretending to be real friends. I couldn’t even hold to the implied sales promise of them being my second family!
It’s quite clear that even today’s Christians know the truth I learned back then. I mean, not even Christians themselves can be bothered to attend church services regularly, and very few of them chip in to support their private clubhouses (for that matter, almost no Christians give anything close to 10%).
If I’d been paying attention, I could have seen another disturbing truth that very night.
A Truth I Didn’t Recognize.
After all, our church had the same attendance patterns as churches do today–just a bit more skewed positively in the churches’ favor.
Most members don’t attend every service, and they didn’t back then either. Instead, our biggest attendance days were big church functions (like in the picture I showed you up above) or on big holidays like Christmas and Easter (and perhaps strangely (or not at all so), Mother’s Day, in our denomination).
On those days, our parking lot overflowed to the Mormon church next door and the sanctuary was just about standing room only! The pastor would chuckle and tell us to make new friends as we squeezed closer and closer together in the pews. (Barf.)
But this is the rule: People ain’t actually stupid.
If something benefits people enormously and it meets their needs better than whatever else they could be doing right then, they want to do it and they’ll make time to do it. If they aren’t making time to do it and never get around to doing it, it just isn’t as important as the other stuff they have going on.
The benefits don’t even need to make sense or be apparent to anybody else–or even to the people pursuing them–or even be really positive or constructive (or real) benefits for this rule to hold true. If we see clear benefits but they don’t, chances are they’ve already considered our proposal and rejected it long ago.
So unsurprisingly, many Christians chose to spend their time elsewhere! I didn’t even notice what was going on when the truth was literally spread before my very eyes in a super-crowded church.
Here’s what that truth means in this situation:
The Christians going nuts that night would be gone the next Sunday, doing the stuff they really valued!
Christians utilize these sorts of claims as sales pitches. The Christians using these pitches seek to sell membership in their various groups.
Trust these claims exactly as far as you’d trust a sales brochure, and for exactly the same reasons.
When I was Christian, I knew that talking honestly about my real experiences in Christianity would chase any reasonable person away from it–and thus send them to Hell. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who knew that. Sometimes people tell lies with a cringing heart and while wishing for a hole to open beneath their feet. It’s not always done maliciously.)
It is unsurprising, even natural, that these 24/7 salespeople would want to paint their product as being as appealing as humanly possible. In service to that goal, they seek to pare away every single objection to their product that they can. If belief in their imaginary friend becomes a bar to purchasing their product, they will do away with that bar by declaring that belief doesn’t actually function as a reasonable reason to reject their product. They want to imply that everyone can purchase and benefit from their product.
There’s a more sinister part of this situation, of course. By claiming that their product benefits literally everyone, they more easily rationalize forcing it on others. The Christians making these pitches can visualize themselves as knowing better than their customers do–and from there, appointing themselves as their customers’ Designated Adults.
The mindset goes like this:
Sure, people don’t like being taught to eat vegetables as children, but it’s so much healthier and better for them in the long run to develop a wide-ranging palate for healthy foods! Their victims will appreciate their concern in the long run, in the end!
Most of their victims never end up believing in the group’s imaginary friend. That’s fine. At least they’ll behave, if unwillingly, in ways that make their Designated Adults feel safer and more in-control of things.
But the problem worsens.
This is really important:
Sometimes, maybe even often, someone speaks an untruth from a place of self-delusion, ignorance, self-preservation, sheer optimism, or a lack of self-awareness than from an intentional desire to create intentional dishonesty. Sometimes the liars are the hucksters who sold someone innocent an untruthful idea.
While I was Christian, I suffered from undiagnosed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I also suffered from some major problems with frustration tolerance and anger management. Looking back, I can see plenty of times I reacted poorly to things that happened around me. “Prickly” probably best describes me during those years. The stress of holding together fantasy and reality became more unbearable with every passing day.
And yet I had completely convinced myself I had the peace that passes all understanding and joy unspeakable and full of glory. It was a real surprise when I landed in therapy at last and learned about my anger problems.
(My exact reaction ran along these lines: “Anger problem? I’m not an angry person at all.” I don’t know how the therapist avoided bursting into laughter.)
Anger scared me. Angry people scared me. That fear made me easy prey for these irresponsible leaders.
By the same token, I also ached to have consistency, safety and protection, and genuine love in my life. And these same leaders preyed on those needs.
Let Me Introduce You to Bait and Switch.
They’re Total Ratbastards.
O’course, if someone joins Christianity on the basis of any of these claims and complains about not getting that stuff, you know Christian hucksters will pull their bait and switch at that point.
Oh, is someone all upset about not getting that euphoria? Well, Jesus totally died for them! He never promised them a rose garden! Nothing else should matter to them but their own salvation!
Why, are they complaining about not feeling joy, ever? Jesus told them they’d have rough days and be led like lambs to the slaughter!
Uh oh, is someone having a bad case of the
Mondays Letting Men Turn Their Focus Away from Jesus? Better clear that problem up quickly because our god won’t consider that a valid reason to leave Christianity!
Way too many Christians are happy to sell their groups as fun and happy-clappy. But nobody better expect those promises to be for realsies.
Spotting a False Sales Pitch.
When a group allows for no valid reasons for rejection, watch out.
If those who leave the group reveal a consistent pattern of misstating their real feelings about the group while they were part of it, approach that group with caution.
When you spot a sales pitch promising happiness, but also spot a lot of hand-waving around members expressing a lack of happiness, get everything in writing before giving resources of any kind to them.
And if you notice the group’s members gaslighting anyone, friends, then run like the ever-lovin’ blazes from those people. The people in that group mean you no good at all. Whatever they have for you, it’s not going to be for your benefit.
NEXT UP: We’ll be talking a lot more about Christian lies as we move through the holidays into the new year. One that figures prominently is how I dunno, just DIFFERENT they think they are. Let’s dive in together to explore this common sentiment!
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Found this, thought you’d like it: a 2006 New York Times article about speaking in tongues.
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