Evangelical Anxiety I

Evangelical Anxiety I August 30, 2004

George Ratliff's documentary Hell House is an extraordinary film. Here's the IMDB summary:

A look at the "Hell House" performed annually in October by the youth members of Trinity Church (Assemblies of God) in Cedar Hill, Texas (a Dallas suburb) — seen by over 10,000 visitors each year. We see the organization and planning of the event — including auditions, construction, scripting and rehearsals — largely through the involvement of one family: a single father with 4 children (one of whom suffers from cerebral palsy) including his daughter, a cast member.

The remarkable thing is Ratliff's detachment and lack of spin. He presents Trinity Church and its "Hell House" as they are and allows the members of the church to speak for themselves. The result is a film that I think the members of Trinity would find represents them accurately, but that most viewers will find appalling.

Inspired by the film, a group of comedians and actors in Hollywood are staging their own version of "Hell House" at the Steve Allen Theater. This is not a reverent production, but neither is it mockery — they are strictly adhering to the same script and production notes that were used at Trinity Church. The New York Times' Richard Rushfield reports:

Beginning Saturday night and running every Saturday night through Halloween, [Maggie] Rowe and her band of comedians, actors, special-effects artists and sound engineers — including [Sarah] Silverman, the comedian David Cross, the actor Richard Belzer, the television host Bill Maher and the former pornography actress Traci Lords — are taking over the Steve Allen Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and converting it, and the two-story office building around it, into a "Hell House."

Or a parody of one. An evangelical Christian take on walk-through haunted houses, Hell Houses replace ghosts and goblins with graphic depictions of young people surrendering to sin and then being tortured in hell for their transgressions. Audiences, led by a demonlike guide, witness scenes played out in unrelenting Grand Guignol fashion, depicting homosexuality, drunken driving and teenage suicide. According to a Hell House "outreach kit" compiled by Keenan Roberts, an Assembly of God minister in Broomfield, Colo., the scenes demonstrate: "The hell and destruction that Satan can bestow upon those who choose not to serve Jesus Christ. Literally, Hell House depicts choices that have the end result of ushering people into hell."

Rushfield is wrong to call this production a parody. Yes, it features Andy Richter as Jesus and Maher as Satan, but the only real differences between this production and the one at Trinity Church are the setting — a Hollywood theater — and the likely audience. Same event, same script, same words. Different perspective.

The production underscores what was most striking about Ratliff's documentary — that the same events can be perceived in directly opposite ways by different observers. Maher describes this well:

"I'm excited that they're doing the show just like they really do it. Where in many parts of the country it's greeted with reverence, here it will be greeted as it should be, with derision and laughter. Especially during this election season, when we are so divided.

"… The country is divided. People do think very differently, and this is a good example of exactly how differently people think."

(That captures what's so compelling and disturbing about Rick Perlstein's important article "The Church of Bush." "People do think very differently.")

It's impossible to understand America — or to understand why the election of 2004 looks to be so close — without understanding Hell House and the evangelical subculture that produced it.

Hell House arises, in part, from what I'm calling "evangelical anxiety" — about which much more later. I believe this anxiety helps to explain not just Hell House, but also things like the strange persecution complex of white evangelicals, the End Times mania of Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, abortion-centric politics, the gullible embrace of urban legends about Procter & Gamble and even the heartbreakingly sad insistence that "contemporary Christian music" is worth one's attention.

I'll get to all that in a bit, but for now I'll just share a sad, lonely example of evangelical anxiety described by Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk (I've promised to lend the book to a friend and I won't be able to type this in later). Annie rings a doorbell to ask the homeowners for their permission to walk along Tinker Creek where it passes through their property:

The woman was very nervous. She was dark, pretty, hard, with the same trembling lashes as the boy. She wore a black dress and one brush roller in the front of her hair. She did not ask me in.

My explanation of myself confused her, but she gave permission. Yes, I could walk their property. … She did not let me go; she was worried about something else. She worked her hands. I waited on the other side of the screen door until she came out with it:

"Do you know the Lord as your personal savior?"

My heart went out to her. No wonder she had been so nervous. She must have to ask this of everyone, absolutely everyone, she meets. That is Christian witness. It makes sense, given its premises. I wanted to make her as happy as possible, reward her courage, and run.

She was stunned that I knew the Lord, and clearly uncertain whether we were referring to the same third party. But she had done her bit, bumped over the hump, and now she could relax.


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17 responses to “Evangelical Anxiety I”

  1. As someone who is not an Evangelical, I agree that “Hell House” is an absolutely fascinating movie. It astonished me just how sheltered the people building the house really were, though they themselves were absolutely convinced they knew all about the occult. (There’s one shot of the props they’ve build for the Occult room of the show, where they put not a pentagram (five-pointed star) but a six-pointed star, better known as the Star of David. No wonder they think there are Satanists everywhere — omigod, look at that blue-and-white flag with a pentagram, there’s a whole country of Satanists!)
    But it also plays absolutely fair with its subjects — one of the main characters is a single father with four children, two of whom are handicapped, whose wife left him for some guy she met on the internet. The only thing that keeps the poor guy going is his faith that it will all work out in the end (even if it’s a reward in the afterlife). One of the rooms seems directly inspired by what happened to him and what he COULD have done — namely, killed his wife instead of letting her leave — if he weren’t a Christian.
    The creepy thing to me was all of the victims of sex crimes in Hell — apparently, if you’re raped or molested and then do bad things, there is no such thing as mitigating circumstances and you’re on the express bus to Hell. But the molesters/rapists don’t seem to be there — maybe they’re staying in a different circle of Hell than the one we see?

  2. The discussion of the correct name of “Magic: The Gathering” was priceless, but the high point of “Hell House” for me was a tie between the jumping for joy “I get to be the Abortion Girl!!!!” (the daughter mentioned above got the part of a kid who got an abortion and then died) or “I like being in the rape scene best because you get to dance” (its a date rape at a rave party scene). The close (“you have 30 seconds to Accept Christ before the next group comes in and we ask you to move on”) pretty much sums it all up.
    I went to one of these at Second Baptist Military Complex here in Houston (aka “The Vatican on Voss”). They took our names first, then scrolled them at the end w/ the heading “will these people wind up in Hell?”.

  3. the part where none of the christians actually knew the name of the “date rape drug” was the second best part of the movie, the first being the “dancing” in the rape scene.

  4. the part where none of the christians actually knew the name of the “date rape drug” was the second best part of the movie, the first being the “dancing” in the “rave” scene.

  5. His life with the ghosts of Bush.

    In the spirit of Roy Edroso’s unhealthy (but amusing; yea, amusing unto death) fixation on that perennial reactionary empowerment fantasy, “Life Among the Liberals,” I offer up this link to Rick Perlstein’s “The Church of…

  6. His life with the ghosts of Bush.

    In the spirit of Roy Edroso’s unhealthy (but amusing; yea, amusing unto death) fixation on that perennial reactionary empowerment fantasy, “Life Among the Liberals,” I offer up this link to Rick Perlstein’s “The Church of…

  7. Wow. I come from a background that occasionally angsts a bit over the occult nature of halloween, but mostly over the violence and grotesquerie of costume trends.
    “Do-it-yourself Dante’s Infernos” are a new one for me.

  8. I once asked my father why we celebrated christmas if we didn’t believe in christ, and he said, “We celebrate Halloween and we don’t believe in ghosts; why give up a perfectly good holiday?”

  9. Here’s something a bit spooky: One of the dKossacks who is also a liberal Catholic posted on the Bushite counter-protestors, one of whom had the following sign (you have to look at the picture to get the full impact, though.)
    SUPPORT PRESIDENT BUSH…TRUST JESUS
    This is bad enough. But in the background, there is another sign, which has on it the words “IN GOD AND PRES BUSH WE CAN TRUST” and then the citation of a Bible verse.
    You can’t read the verse number, but the chapter is 2 Chron 7.
    There is *nothing* in 2 Chronicles 7 that is reassuring in the context of a US political convention. (It’s about the dedication of the Temple, and God promising that the kingship will never depart from Solomon’s line, *so long* as they are faithful in their religious worship.)

  10. You can’t tell what verse is listed on that sign, but I suspect that it is 2 Chron 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” That suggests that the sign holder is exhorting America to repent by supporting Bush, so that God will bless it.

  11. You can’t tell what verse is listed on that sign, but I suspect that it is 2 Chron 7:14 “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” That suggests that the sign holder is exhorting America to repent by supporting Bush, so that God will bless it.
    With the corollary being that if we don’t support Bush we’ll be visited by death-comets and plagues of frogs…
    So, supporting Bush is pennance for our sins?
    *I* was thinking more along the lines that Bushco *is* the punishment for having whored after the Assyrians, so to speak, what with the environmental desolation of the land and the hunger and the wars and all…
    But I don’t think the sign-maker would agree with that interpretation.
    One of my readers has suggested combining the horses and chariots, er, airplanes and bombs, with Isaiah 31:1 – I’m going to do one up that way.

  12. It is so difficult to be willing to proclaim you are a Christian when these free radical Evangelicals exist to tear down everything we (and Christ) tried to build up.
    Little things like tolerance, love, kindness, forgiveness…
    It’s a constant struggle to overcome the fear and hate of these people in the eyes of the world.
    But we keep trying, because it’s so important.
    I haven’t seen the film – what was the point made about “Magic: The Gathering”?

  13. Just once I’d love to tell these evangelicals how offensive their term, “your personal savior,” is. Does that mean Jesus can get in line with my personal assistant, my personal hairdresser, and my personal dogwalker?

  14. the rave scene is best because you get to dance

    I was going to write a review of George Ratliff’s documentary Hell House, but Fred Clark (the slacktivist) has already written a far more interesting piece.
    It’s impossible to understand America — or to understand why the election of 2004 looks…

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