95 Theses Friday #3: As Gentle as Serpents, as Wise as Doves

Let us turn the Wayback Machine to the 80s.  This was the age of the Moral Majority.  The Religious Right had emerged as a serious political power.  TV preachers with bad suits and worse haircuts had genuine influence in Washington DC.  The Christian subculture was coming into its own as we learned that it was a lot easier to reject the world, with its sinful music and movies and paperback thrillers and t-shirts and such, when we had access to our own not-as-good-but-with-more-God-references versions of those things.  This gave rise to innumerable CCM albums and Christian novels that frankly would be better used as emergency construction materials than as entertainment, but when every mainstream musical act was known to consort with the Devil (in a very literal sense, in the case of the heavy metal guys; It was well-known that Ozzy held a full Black Mass before every concert in honor of his dark lord), you took what you could get, and what you could get was Stryper.  At best.

But I’m not here to talk about how much most Christian music sucks, or how disgustingly tacky “in case of rapture, you can have this shirt” t-shirts are, or how the financial success of the Left Behind series is an affront to God and man artistically and theologically.  Anyway, that last front is already covered.

I want to talk about why it was that, in a time when evangelical Christianity had a bigger head of steam than at any other time this century for good or for ill, we were acting like a persecuted minority.  And why, at this time when our theology emphasized God’s awesome power and His direct and immediate interest in the minutiae of our lives, we were so prone to cowering in fear of the Devil hiding under every bush and behind every bedroom closet door.

I also want to talk about it maybe being time to knock that sort of thing off.

Listen.  The Devil’s loose in the world.  That’s sound doctrine.  Saint Peter tells us he roams the Earth like a lion seeking prey.  There’s some theological debate about how literal the Devil is, especially since he’s something of a composite character combining the Serpent in the Creation story, the King of Babylon in Isaiah, God’s prosecuting attorney in Job, the Dragon in Saint John’s Revelation and a few other things, but even if there isn’t an according-to-Milton Lucifer working evil*, there is undeniably evil being worked on a nigh-universal scale, and the Devil’s as good a name for that as any.

Some people claim to worship the Devil.  Most of them are just teenage metalheads, anarchists who want cooler trappings for their philosophies, and guys who want to get laid (Aleister Crowley, I’m looking at you).

Some people get accused of worshipping the devil.  Now, as in centuries past, they’re mostly nature-worshipping pagans and hippies, and in some cases Episcopalians.

Some people claim to have worshipped the Devil in the past, only to have repented and seen the light just in time to warn you, their brothers and sisters in Christ, about the vast midnight conspiracy that is this close to running the world and wants to molest your kids and convert them to goat-sacrificing blood-drinking Satanism.  They are, to the last man, lying blaspheming con artists.

Mike Warnke, I am looking right.  At.  You.

There was a satanism hysteria going on in the eighties.  Geraldo was on about it all the time.  Satanic serial killers, satanic drug dealers (in fairness, there were one or two really nasty little left-hand-path cults running drugs on the border back in the day, but it wasn’t exactly an epidemic.  We’re talking like a dozen guys or so), satanists poisoning Halloween candy, satanic conspiracies seeking political power (unsurprisingly, there was a lot of crossover with hardcore conspiracy theorists back then, as accusing the Jews of being the secret puppet-masters of the world stage was no longer socially acceptable, and a new force for evil had to be adapted to fill the gap), and lots and lots and lots of satanic child molesters.  Their tools were rock and roll, Hollywood, Halloween, Dungeons & Dragons, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Star Wars, Proctor and Gamble and the Smurfs.  And also, you know, their vast magical powers.

It was all a heaping, steaming pile of crap, of course.  There were no satanist conspiracies.  No backwards-masking brainwashing.  There may have been one or two isolated incidents of lone nut jobs putting razor blades in candy apples for Halloween, but I know of lone nuts jobs who ate kids with no reference to satanism, so Occam’s Razor can be safely applied here.  The hypnotically retrieved memories of ritual satanic child abuse turned out to be bogus.  The scariest rock star on Earth at that time, Alice “I Love the Dead Before They’re Cold” Cooper is and apparently was a devout Christian (and Republican, and golf enthusiast) who just loved vaudeville and horror movies.  Proctor and Gamble was just the victim of a viral smear campaign started by a certain religiously-affiliated competitor in the soap business whose name rhymes with “scamway.”  The Care Bears were not a gateway that would lead to your children being lured into the depths of occult degradation.  I know, I’m as surprised as you are, but James Dobson was wrong about them.  Dungeons & Dragons?  One of the coolest Christians I know used to play with Gary Gygax himself.  The game draws heavily on Christian literature, Tolkien and Lewis and Le Chanson de Roland and Beowulf.  My D&D character right now is inspired by very Christian themes of redemption and faith (his redemption is still a work in progress, but he’s trying).

How did we get to a point, as a people, as a Church, when we were afraid of Care Bears?**

Why are so many of us still scared?

Harry Potter is still the guest of honor at the occasional book burning.  J.K. Rowling is a practicing member of the Church of Scotland, which means, I don’t know, we should be regarding Presbyterians in general with suspicion as potential witches?  Hm.  Actually, some Southern Baptists I’ve met may do this already.

But logic and facts, o my brothers, have little to do with irrational fear.

And that is where we come around to some part of the why and how of this thing.  Facts.  Facts, and the lack of them.

There’s a modest industry based around telling lies to Christians.  In some cases, the people working in this industry are themselves victims of it.  Jack Chick, for instance, that inescapable purveyor of comic strip tracts, seems to be a genuinely deluded crazy person rather than a liar.  But Alberto Rivera, the man who first told Chick that the Catholics were responsible for creating the KKK, the Nazis and the Holocaust and that the Jesuits habitually go around trying to destroy protestant ministers?  He’s a liar, and the truth is not in him.  Not misguided, nor misled, nor misinformed, but a flat-out liar whose profession is making up vile slanders of the Roman Catholic Church and telling them to gullible Protestants.

Gullibility.

We were to be, He told us, gentle as doves but as cunning as snakes. He warned us that we were sheep surrounded by wolves.  It seems like we ought to know better than to swallow any tall tale told to use just because the teller’s standing behind a pulpit and invoking the Name a lot.

Listen.  The pulpits in those days were full of itinerant guest speakers with a personal testimony about redemption from Satan’s talons, or a line of patter about the horrible peril your kids were in.  And they lied all the time, whether because they were liars or because they’d been lied to.

And this is still happening.  Some of the same habitual liars and con-men are still telling the same lies.

“KISS?  The band’s name is an acronym for Knights In Satan’s Service.”

“The ‘peace symbol’ is an ancient Roman sign representing an inverted broken cross.”

“Listen to Led Zeppelin(/Twisted Sister/Black Sabbath/Alice Cooper/AC/DC/ABBA) records backwards, and you’ll discover the secret messages commanding your kids to worship Satan and take drugs!”

“I was a high priest of Satan for fifteen years, during which time I dealt drugs, ate human flesh, drank blood, participated in orgies beyond counting, wore waist-length white hair and long black nails, performed real magic that actually worked, and was groomed to become a member of the Illuminati’s high council.”

“Blah blah blah Halloween blah blah blah Druids blah blah blah human sacrifice blah blah blah satanists blah blah blah poison candy/molestation (there are a lot of ways to fill in the blanks there; Halloween and its evils was a popular theme in those days).”

“The Harry Potter books contain instructions for doing real magic!”

“Satanists love the Harry Potter books, because they’re effective recruitment tools! (this one is, in fact, derived from America’s parody newpaper of record, the Onion, which has also run such articles as “Disgruntled Ninja Silently Slays 12 Co-Workers).”

What do all of these things have in common?  They’re all bald-faced lies, for starters.  But in addition to being bald-faced lies, they were all also bald-faced lies told from the pulpit to Christian congregations.  Congregations full of people who believed those bald-faced lies, spread those bald-faced lies, and went out and did things based on the assumption that those bald-faced lies were true.

One of my favorites is the D&D Steam Tunnel Story immortalized in the Tom Hanks picture Mazes and Monsters.  The story was that Some Kid was playing a live-action version of the game in the steam tunnels under his college campus, got lost, and died.  None of this was true.  A very stressed and depressed kid who happened to play D&D went into some steam tunnels to attempt suicide, failed, and went and hid at a friend’s house.  None of this had anything to do with the game.  Of course, by the time he turned out to be not dead, the first sleazy paperback novel based on the incident had already been written, and before long it turned into the aforementioned Tom Hanks picture.  Even if it were true that he’d died LARPing in the tunnels, that’s just evidence that college kids do stupid things.  He could just as easily been playing hide and seek in those tunnels when he didn’t actually get lost and die.

So.

Why are we so easy to trick?  Why are we so ready to believe lies?

We’re trusting, for one thing.  Faith is the belief in things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  More blessed still are those who have not seen, but still believed.  And our Faith is a bond of brotherhood, eh?  And we want to trust our brothers.

But we share our fold with wolves in sheepskins.  If you believe all your brothers tell you uncritically, soon there will come men who are not your brothers, but claim to be, and they will have things to tell you.

That’s one.  Here’s two: Fear.

Fear makes you stupid.  Fear makes you gullible.  Fear makes you easy to manipulate, easy to control.

Friends ya got trouble!

Gentle reader, you will probably see that video again some time down the line, when I get to talking about Doctor Wertham and that little book of his.  Because listen, brother, when a man’s telling you to be afraid, take a good hard look at what he might be selling.  Ninety times and nine out of a hundred, he will be selling something.

Beware.  Be gentle, but be cunning.  For God hath not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of love, and of a sound mind. The Devil’s loose in the world, but God made the world.  God is stronger than the Devil.

*I personally believe there is an individual Devil of some sort.  Or rather, like Lewis says in the foreward to The Screwtape Letters, I believe in devils, and that one devil in particular is their chief.  I could be wrong.  Certainly, the Bible doesn’t tell us much about the Devil, or his demons, or the Angelic Hosts, which seems to me to imply that we should mind our own business and focus on dealing with human affairs.

**I am not kidding.  Care Bears, like pretty much every other kid’s franchise from the eighties, was regarded by some of the noisier fundamentalists, including Doctor James Dobson of Focus On the Family and the Family Research Council, as being a potentially dangerous hook by which the Devil could reel in your children.

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One Response to “95 Theses Friday #3: As Gentle as Serpents, as Wise as Doves”

  1. “I want to talk about why it was that, in a time when evangelical Christianity had a bigger head of steam …why, at this time when our theology emphasized God’s awesome power and His direct and immediate interest in the minutiae of our lives, we were so prone to cowering in fear of the devil hiding…” Maybe you have a point because it was sure tame back then. The fear facter you raised and the verse “faith is the substance” is on target.
    You wrote a long blog ya know..ha-

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