Dogma Alert

Monday, March 21, 2005

The Rapture of Homeboy Jesus and Wrangling Cowboys

Three interesting stories crossed my desk this month, each concerns a different aspect of Christianity in the American South. Although, they are not really related, the thing that ties them together is that each shows a peek inside the bizarre world of the fundamentalist belief system.

In the first we hear from a Canadian religious colunmist who travels down to Florida to spend time with the "Rapture-ites". Those are the folks who believe that someday soon their bodies will simply vapourize into thin air, while their spirit gets whisked up to Heaven by Jesus, and they can look down in smug superiority on the plagues and pestilence their non-baptised brethren have to endure.

Rapture awaits in the Florida Panhandle
Feb. 12, 2005. 01:00 AM

Last month, as we usually do, we motored down U.S. Interstate 75, to the emerald waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the shores of the Florida Panhandle. It's a time to catch up on serious reading, walk the pristine white quartz beaches, watch for pelicans and passing dolphins, and do some research on the ever-fascinating phenomenon of American religion.

The whole coast from Panama City on the east to Pensacola on the west, apart from having the most beautiful beaches in the world, is the focus of some of the most intense conservative evangelical activity in the entire U.S. Superchurches, training schools, and all kinds of crusades abound.

You know you are in a different culture when you enter the U.S. We always enjoy the flagrant billboards along the highway. Shortly after entering Ohio, a large sign trumpets a coming "Gun and Knife Show;" this one was followed shortly by another equally vast board touting "Microsurgery: Vasectomy Reversal a Specialty — Money Back Guarantee!"

In rural Georgia, a rather beat-up Pentecostal Church had a big sign: "Road Rage? How would Jesus drive?" Another advertised a Bible Factory Outlet with drastic savings on both new and used Bibles. Then there was the enormous Wal-mart store with a sign at the customer service counter: "No refunds on guns and ammunition." Guess they meant use them or lose them, but don't bring 'em back.

At first impression, the religious scene in this Bible Belt terrain is upbeat, vigorous, prospering in numbers, properties, and outspoken leadership. There is an agenda both spiritual and political as well as the people and money to make it happen. But, when you pay close attention to the message being driven home by every possible technical medium and skill, you meet some deeply disturbing, even frightening realities.

Let me illustrate by describing an all-day Saturday conference at one of the largest Protestant churches I have ever been in, The Village Baptist Church in Destin, Fla. The facilities there are gleaming, spacious, comfortable.

The theme of the day was Left Behind: A Conference on Biblical Prophecy about End Times, and it featured three of the leading voices in the U.S religious right today: Tim LaHaye, Gary Frazier, and Ed Hindson.

LaHaye was one of the leaders included in Time magazine's Jan.31 story on evangelicals most influential in the presidency of George W.Bush. He appeared, for that reason, a few nights ago along with three other prominent evangelicals on Larry King Live.

LaHaye has written about 50 non-fiction books and is particularly noteworthy because of his multi-million dollar Left Behind series of novels dealing with end-of-the-world themes.

Following the "Rapture" — the supposed moment when Jesus Christ will suddenly appear and all the saved will be "caught up to meet him in the air" — leaving the rest of Earth's billions to plague, pestilence, famine and war, there will be seven years of the "Tribulation."

How the Christian "God of love" treats those "left behind" makes for lurid reading indeed.

To sum up the essence of the three speaker's messages all that long Saturday, I have never heard so much venom and dangerous ignorance spouted before an utterly unquestioning, otherwise normal-looking crowd in my life. For the $25 fee, the 800 devotees certainly got a plateful.

There were stunning statements about humans having been only 6,000 years on Earth and other denials of contemporary geology and biology. And we learned that the Rapture, which could happen any second now, but certainly within the next 40 years, will instantly sweep all the "saved" Americans (perhaps one-half the population) to heaven, leaving the United States as "a Third World country" with the European Union becoming the revived Roman Empire.

But these fantasies were harmless compared with the hatred against Islam that followed. Here are some direct quotes: "Islam is an intolerant religion — and it's clear whose side we should be on in the Middle East." Applause greeted these words: "Allah and Jehovah are not the same God ... Islam is a Satanic religion ...We will never be able to understand their (Muslim) mentality ... They're going to attack Israel for certain. ..."

Gary Frazier shouted at the top of his lungs: "Wake up! Wake up!" And roughly 800 heads nodded approval as he added that the left-wing, anti-Israel media — "for example, CNN" — will never tell the world the truth about Islam. According to these three and the millions of Americans they lead, Muslims intend ultimately "to impose their religion on us all."

The idea of peace in the Middle East was denounced — specially any accord granting any land whatever to the Palestinians.

The two-state concept is unacceptable to American Christians, they argued, because "God gave that land to the Jews through Abraham" long ago. If the Palestinians want a state they must go to Jordan or elsewhere.

A terrible, final war in the region is inevitable.

Frazier, Hindson and LaHaye all teach at Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. They have the ear of the President of the world's sole superpower

The next story comes from CommonDreams and tells us how spreading the word of Jesus will not only secure a place in Heaven, but can also be very good for the bank account.

Jesus Is My Homeboy

Published on Monday,
February 14, 2005 by
by Robert Rowen-Herzog

By all accounts, Jesus must have one damn good publicist. This past year brought a great deal of exposure to the Son of God – from multiple cover stories in Time and Newsweek; to a healthy split of box office proceeds with Mel Gibson from 'The Passion of the Christ'; to the ubiquitous sightings of Jesus Is My Homeboy t-shirts in shopping malls, coffee shops and other various post-pubescent, post-modern venues; and finally, to playing in front of standing room only crowds at his regular one-man gig in a Bethlehem stable this past December.

Like the honorable Governor of California, Jesus parlayed some of his box-office capital and success from 'The Passion' and threw his halo into the political ring. As has been documented, President Bush’s favorite philosopher has provided the inspiration and, as George W. would have you believe, direct memos on how to rule the country and the world.

The Republican Party has glommed on to the Bible, co-opting and proof-texting their way to marketing it as a “Family Values for Dummies” tone. And as this past election cycle certainly revealed, 51% of the American public is buying it with mandating zeal. Nothing is safe from becoming a commodity to be bought and sold in these days of market-inspired culture. The teachings of Jesus, referred to here marginally as “Christianity,” and his very identity have not been spared this folly.[...]

The conservative Christian movement has at its core a perception of God as the ultimate disciplinarian Father, quick to anger and ready to unleash legions of angels on New York and Hollywood, our modern-day versions of permissive Sodom and Gomorrah. The sins against morality are clear indicators of the need for punishment with this model; one can avoid such punishment, i.e. being exiled to Hell with gnashing of teeth and eternal fires and such, through disciplining oneself in adherence to the moral teachings of Christ.

This is the only way to redemption, to heaven as it were, and any deviation from this path of “Thou Shalt Not’s” should bring quick and justifiable punishment.

A dear friend has regaled me with stories of growing up in a conservative church in a rural small town – how most Sunday nights as a young boy he would lay in bed gripped with insomnia, inspired by that morning’s hell and brimstone sermon that the Lord would not take his soul if he should die before he woke. Everyone else, he imagined, would be gloriously raptured and he would be banished to hell, wallowing in the transgressions of a sinful eight-year old. You can see the power of this model – stay in line or else. Salvation is thus seen as merely “fire insurance,” keeping you, until you screw up again, out of the fiery pits.

The progressive notion of Christianity, in contrast, perceives of a God who is benevolent and loving and wishing to bestow blessings, not punishment, on His/Her people. Redemption or salvation is through grace, and this grace is ultimately personified in the life and teachings of Christ – and his mandate to care for the sick and the poor and the widow. One is redeemed through this grace, through this metaphorical nurturance, and is thus inspired to nurture one’s relationship with God and with others. This is Golden Rule stuff , the essence of Jesus’ teachings as even he described clearly, “To love God and to love others as yourself.”

This progressive notion of a loving God has been confused with being permissive – the kind of God found only in free-love, boundary-less, pot-smoking, hippy communes of the 60’s that are responsible for the moral decay of our increasingly God-less society. To use the family metaphor, it is easy to refute such a claim, in the imperative that parents must create boundaries and discipline to be truly effective and nurturant. Hey, even the Cos had to discipline Theo, Vanessa and the rest of those unruly kids on 'The Cosby Show'.

In most hawkish circles, this perception of God is clearly viewed as weak, the kind of God that John Kerry and the rest of we “girly men” might worship; belief in such a God would certainly make us more vulnerable to terrorist attack. Violence must beget quick, and increasingly, pre-emptive action, the predominant logic proceeds. Fight is necessary, flight is cowardly. This is a war against powers and principalities, the stuff of apocalypse, and George W. is our Divine Warrior. This notion dovetails nicely with most interpretations of Revelations, and sells millions of copies of the Left Behind series to boot. [...]

The last story is one that is close to my heart, having grown up on a farm and all that. In concerns the packaging of that old-time religion in a western millieu. Where the quiet handsome cowboy sits around around the fire after a long day of roping cattle and sings hymns instead of Home on the Range. Hallelujah and aw shucks, tain't that sweet?.

Cowboy ministers wrangle for Jesus

Midland seminary teaches preaching for Western workplaces

By Bobby Ross Jr.
Sunday, February 13, 2005

MIDLAND -- "Preaching Jesus, Western style," declares the sign out front.

Across the street from a flea market, in the shadow of oil wells and tumbleweeds, Glenn Smith trains aspiring cowboy ministers in a building that looks more like a steakhouse than a seminary.

"These boys and girls will come out of here full-fledged ministers, but they'll be ministers that look like I do," said Smith, 70, sporting a $550 Resistol hat and $600 ostrich skin boots.

At the School of Western Ministries, pickup-driving students don colorful cowboy shirts, Wrangler jeans and belt buckles with messages such as "Jesus Christ: Champion of Champions." (As Smith explained, nobody puts on a suit and tie and then goes out to get cow, um, stuff all over himself.)

From Alabama to Australia, students come to West Texas to study how to teach the Bible in places where a barn might double as a sanctuary and where horse tanks and farm ponds make do as baptisteries.

Matt Reid, a 30-year-old saddle bronc rider from Cullman, Ala., said he came to learn from down-to-earth scholars who speak his language.

"These folks, they're not very religious," Reid said. "It's more like, they believe a relationship with Jesus is the best thing. You don't get all churchified."

As Smith sees it, the "Western world" is turned off by holier-than-thou preachers with deep voices and three-piece suits.

The former professional bull rider and rodeo clown leads a cowboy worship service each Sunday night at the International Western World Outreach Center, the Midland-based ministry that he and his wife, Ann, oversee.

The type of folks who attend would not fit in at the First Baptist Church, the First Methodist Church or the First Assembly of God, he said. On Sunday morning, when traditional church folk occupy pews, they're baling hay and tending cattle.

"So what we're trying to train these kids to do is what I've done for 30 years, and that is to actually go out in the boondocks, where no one cares," he said. "And we have church services in barns, rodeo arenas, Holiday Inn ballrooms, out under shade trees in the summertime."

Smith's ministry even prints its own Bibles -- King James versions with drawings of cowboys on the front and back.

The idea is that a macho cowboy might be more apt to throw such a Bible on his pickup dash than an official-looking one with a black cover.

"Somebody said, 'Well, aren't you afraid that God doesn't like that?' " Smith said. "I said, 'Well, in 30 years, he hasn't told me.' I figured if it had teed him off, he would have at least let me know."

The Smiths started the school last year with a class of 16. Twenty students enrolled for this year's session, which started in January.

"It's great for the young people," said Tim Kelly, 44, who works with Rodeo Cowboy Ministries in Kingaroy, Australia. "When we started at home, there was nothing like this. So we just had to learn as we went."

There's also a ministry in Saltillo, Coahuila.

Each student pays $1,200 tuition for 17 weeks of instruction geared toward "those called to minister in any and every area of the 'Western world' -- be it rodeo, farm and ranch, horse events of every kind, stock shows, and all associated activities and occupations," according to the school's Web site.

They learn from instructors such as Neil Cassata, a cowboy minister from Groesbeck, who offers common-sense advice such as, "Your opinion and 27 cents will get you a refill at Dairy Queen. Don't give people your opinion. Give them the word of God."

In the same recent lesson, Cassata delved into the New Testament book of Revelation's topics of rapture and tribulation.

"A lot of people who don't know the Lord will say, 'Man, what's going to happen at the end of the world?' " Cassata said. "So the students need to at least have a basic overview . . . so that they can tell people and give them a good, biblical explanation." [...]


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