No Experience Is Better Than False Experience (Guest Post)
July 2, 2010

Following is a guest post from my Kiwi friend, Jonathan Elliot, who writes about faith and being a friendly agnostic at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

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I’d like to tell my story of not being slain in the spirit.

I spent a fair bit of time in spirit-filled practice when I was a student, attended a charismatic church and worked closely with Pentecostals in our campus christian group.  I can still speak in tongues on demand, if you want me to. At the time, a pentecostal ministry ran a revival week in a huge tent out in the countryside. I’ll let the cynical among us note the appropriateness of using a circus tent for such events.  They brought a number of apparently-big-name preachers in from overseas and one of them was a clean-cut young man who was surely not even thirty years old. I’ll call him Redfords LaGrange. God had allegedly been talking to him since he was seven years old, and he’d made a study of “God’s Generals,” famous spirit-fooled preachers.

Standing at the rear of some 1500 people, I listened to him. On another night I’d heard Redfords exhort the whole crowd to voluntarily speak in tongues at the top of their lungs.  I felt uncomfortable with this, mainly for what I felt were Scriptural reasons. It also seemed kinda stupid and I quietly left to stand in the dark field and pray. As the roar of the crowd behind me surged, I could hear the cry from the poor folk trying to sleep in a distant farmhouse: “SHUuuuuuuuuT UuuuP!” This rather amused me, especially since they actually used more colorful language.

Anyway, on the night in question Redfords LaGrange called for those engaged in youth ministry up the front; he was going to pray for them. I walked up the long aisle into the spotlights along with about 50 others and we stood in a line along the front.  Now, when you’ve got 50 people to pray for individually and you’re a preacher with no time to spare, you have to kind of rush along the line and spend about 15 seconds with each person.  You don’t have time to even ask the person’s name. As Redfords was coming, I prayed “God, I’m open to anything you want to do. Do anything you want to me. Make me fall over if you want, only please let it be you and not psychology.”  I’d been praying that all the way down the aisle too. Let me say, I was very sincere about both things.  I wanted a touch, but only if it was real.

I knew falling over was likely, as that tended to happen in these kind of meetings. I always preferred to call it “falling over”, as the term “slain in the spirit” is not one found in scripture. The cynical can point to the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who were slain BY the Spirit.  I doubt anyone wants to recreate that experience.

Indeed, as Redfords came down the line, I saw people falling over out of the corner of my eye. “Catchers” ran forward to make sure they didn’t hit the ground too hard. Many of us already had catchers standing behind us in advance. If it’s an experience from God, I always wondered why he would allow you to be hurt?

Redfords LaGrange reached me and prayed, his hand gently on my head. I didn’t sense any physical pressure from him, I was alert to being pushed.  He prayed kindly and briefly, and moved on.  Did I sense him hesitate when I didn’t collapse? I stayed there praying, slowly realising that out of the whole line, I was the only one who hadn’t fallen over.  Maybe I was resisting the spirit, maybe my intellect had made me hard-hearted. But I know I was sincere. I just didn’t want it to be weak buckling at the knees under the influence of emotion, tiredness or peer pressure.

Mark Vernon migrated from christian clergy to atheist, and now calls himself an “agnostic christian”. He’s an advocate of silence and
not-knowing. Vernon says it’s important to draw a clear line between silence and an experience of ecstasy.

There is an emphasis on experiencing ecstasy in much contemporary churchgoing. This is Christianity that is authenticated by some kind of peak experience, from speaking in tongues, to being healed, to seeing a statue move.  Typically, the experience is noisy, demonstrative and, qua the experience, often barely distinguishable from a bungee jump or druggy high.  But this is Christianity as psychological buzz; its passion is no more than emotion.  It’s aims may be valid – happiness, satisfaction, belonging – but they eclipse the goal of spirituality, at least according to [Meister] Eckhart, which is that of sacred ignorance. For the pursuers of pure experience, the unknown is regarded suspiciously.  They substitute the language of personal fulfillment for the language of … doubt.” –After Atheism, p 120.

So what do I make of this? As it happens, in the course of many other meetings I’ve never fallen over. I’m not a hater; I believe that if God was there, then my prayer was honored. I also have a funny feeling that at least some of those people fell over because they felt they had to, or look unspiritual in front of the audience. Have you ever felt left out when others all seemed to be getting blessed? What did you make of it?

Again, check out Jonathan’s blog at Spritzophrenia.wordpress.com.

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Three Lives, Part 3: Oral Roberts (really?)
January 9, 2010

Oral with Elvis

It had been more than a decade since I last laid foot on the Oral Roberts University campus. I drove to Tulsa to visit some old friends, and while I was there I’d stop by the ORU library to return some *slightly* overdue books — 13 years overdue to be exact. As soon as I got into town I went straight to the library, dropped the books in the return slot in one stealth move and quickly shuffled off to wander around campus.  I made my way to Christ Chapel, where odd things like this frequently occurred (quite interesting from 3:45-5:00) —

And I was in Christ Chapel when other thing like this messed with me:

It was in Christ Chapel that I experienced a variety of moments that totally confused me, caused me to lose faith and feel spiritually inadequate, and even some moments of peace, so to say the place caused great tension in my life is an understatement. Christ Chapel at ORU was the birthplace of my doubt.

So as I sauntered up to the back doors of the chapel, I felt the tension coming back. I had grown and changed a lot since I was last there, but still the confused feelings from my college days flooded my mind. I paused at the 15-feet-tall doors and accepted the fact that they would probably be locked because it was summer and the campus was nearly empty. But something compelled me to grab the massive handle and tug on one door. It was unlocked. I pulled the door open just a crack and….

This is a weird piece to write because my thoughts are so conflicted. Let’s get back to Oral for a second. (If you’re not familiar with him, this 2-minute vid summarizes his controversial life and you can read how he’s relevant to my blog in my Definitions page under “Charismatic.”) It’s well-known that Oral was no stranger to controversy, and it’s no stretch to say he was narcissistic. It seems to me his ministry started out with sincere and loving intentions and a passion for helping people, but as he grew in popularity I think yes-men surrounded him, his ego swelled, and although his ministry impacted the world (for good or bad) his own world apparently included few more than himself. One notorious 1988 occasion had him locking himself in his Prayer Tower, which was sort of the epicenter of the campus and his ministry, and telling the world that God would kill him unless he raised millions of dollars (which he did).

Oral was one of if not the original televangelist, one of the first “faith-healers,” one of the fathers of the “prosperity gospel,” and the first person to effectively bring Pentecostalism beyond the realm of toothless Appalachian snake-handlers and into mainstream consciousness. He hosted people like Elvis, multiple presidents including JFK, and other mainstream celebrities on his show and on campus, and he garnered respect from thousands for his devotion to his God. From my experience, while he was definitely in his own wacky world, he apparently cared deeply about people and genuinely wanted to make the world a better place than what he found it. He wanted people to get relief from the poverty and sickness that he experienced growing up.

And he was determined as a jackass. How else could one man believe so deeply that he heard God tell him to build a university to educate men and women to positively impact the world…and then actually build it. (By the way, ORU is not just a seminary or place for training preachers; it’s a full university and Oral wanted desperately to see its medical school and cancer research center succeed.)

So when I was walking the halls of campus last summer, when I looked around and saw all those Jetsons-looking buildings, it was obvious that this empire of sorts was built by a visionary. And then I re-read the vision statement that was inscribed all over the place: “Build Me a university. Build it on My authority and on the Holy Spirit. Raise up your students to hear My voice, to go where My light is seen dim, My voice is heard small, and My healing power is not known, even to the uttermost bounds of the earth. Their work will exceed yours, and in this I am well pleased.” — That was what Oral believed he had heard straight from God’s mouth. I don’t know if he actually heard from God or whether he was a fraud, maybe a bit of both, but it’s apparent that he had good intentions and otherworldly motivation. He wanted to help the world. To be sure, he messed up some people, but he also helped some too.

So to see videos and posts throughout the web with people saying how terrible a person he was and such, while I don’t disagree with all of them, it makes me wonder what makes us think that we’re any better than him. We’re all fucked up. We all have our narcissistic days (whether we admit it or not). True, all of us don’t have the hearts and minds of thousands hanging onto our every word, but if I did, I bet I’d go a little crazy too. Regardless, even if he was a little off, he drove his ministry like a man who had, in fact, been somehow in touch with something beyond us, boldly making actions he knew no one would understand. This is why to some he is a prophet and to others he is a devil. To me? I have no idea what to say because all my experiences with him, his ministry, his family, and his university are filled with tension. Which brings me back to that summer day as I was about to open the doors to Christ Chapel:

Those memories came flooding back as I pulled the handle. Memories of some of the most confusing times in my life, the feelings of spiritual inadequacy because I couldn’t hear from God like others; I couldn’t feel God’s presence like others; I couldn’t believe what the Bible said, and I didn’t know how to pray. So I hated this place. Oral Roberts and his university were a scam. …And I felt the tension coming back….I pulled the door open just a crack and out came an incredibly peaceful sound. A welcoming sound of a single person calmly playing the piano in an empty chapel, and the sound of a vacuum cleaner. I opened the door wide and stepped inside. I felt welcomed by a special presence. I was surprised by how peaceful I felt. This did not sit well because it did not justify my angst. I felt like the place was just there, like a blank canvas waiting for whomever to do whatever they felt they needed to do to find peace. It had no judgments against me. And so I realized that maybe I was the one carrying the judgments, choosing to hold onto the confusion and restlessness. It wasn’t all Oral’s fault.

There is more to this story and it’s a long one. So I’ll end it here for now. I just have to say that I think Oral Roberts was one jacked-up mofo, and so is his son and his university. But he was also a human who tried to do good the best he knew how. He made it possible for me to get a degree because his university was the only type of school my parents would pay for. His ministry gave me insight into a segment of our society that is still often misunderstood, but a segment that nonetheless believes in something. Even though I cannot believe the same things Oral Roberts and the subculture he created believe in, you’ve got to give kudos to the guy at least for being true to what he thought was the direction he should go, at least he tried to do something positive with his life, which is more than many of us can say. And for that I can say, without any ill feelings, rest in peace, Oral Roberts.

Three Lives, Part 2: Billy Joe Daugherty
January 5, 2010

I would wake up far too early in the morning for an 18-year old. Wander out of my projects-type apartment and down to the ditch, Bible in hand, ready to bask in the purple glow of a pre-dawn session with God. My view was of the 60-feet-tall Praying Hands sculpture across the street at Oral Roberts University. I would meditate for about an hour, trying to squeeze some juicy revelation from the Holy Spirit, drop by drop, into my soul. Then I’d follow a dirt driveway to the back of Victory Christian Center, board an empty bus, and go pick up poor people to bring them to church — the ORU Mabee Center arena — to meet at least 5,000 other folks and hear Billy Joe speak.

He spoke of love and faith…and that’s about it. And he had a funny laugh, like a kid just learning to laugh. But he didn’t wave his fist in the air or try to push people down in prayer or make anyone feel guilty about not giving enough to the church. He and his wife, in their no-nonsense way, seemed to just want to be there for people…something desperately missing from most other churches that size I’ve been involved with. After the  service, Billy Joe would stand at the exit of the massive arena and shake hands with as many thousands of individuals as he could. Often by the time I made my way to him his grip was like a dead fish, but he always made sincere eye contact.

After church, I’d load back onto the bus and take the poor people back home, handing them a paper bag with a PB&J sandwich, an apple and some crackers or fruit roll-ups. Other times I’d help out by serving hot meals to people who couldn’t afford it (and eat the leftovers). And that’s what I did almost every Sunday as a discipleship student at Billy Joe’s Victory Bible Institute. It was a requirement because people were the top priority of Billy Joe’s ministry. And although some of the institute’s teachers and their classes led us to believe otherwise, Billy Joe himself always made clear that Christian ministry was for the people, not ourselves.

Billy Joe Daugherty, the Tulsa mega-church pastor, made the unlikeliest of activists for community service, but I think in a way that’s just what he was. He was so unlike most other pastors of churches that size (in my experience), or pastors who wanted their church to be that size. Sure, he and his wife had a TV show and big Easter and Christmas productions and a call-in prayer service, for which I occasionally served as a “prayer partner.” But he was not a loud man;  did not pontificate with extravagant lectures; did not sweat with holy insanity. But he would sweat alongside us fresh-out-of-high-school Bible students in the middle of an Oklahoma summer to help set up big tents and  feed the poor. And he shook hands. He looked people in the eye and tried to be as present as possible. He spoke gently of how God loves everybody…even the guy who punched him in the face during an altar call (who by the way was brought in on a bus)….

I have many memories of my five years in Tulsa, of both praying across the street from the Praying Hands and trying to vandalize them while attending ORU a couple years later. Some messed-up memories. Some jacked-up philosophy. But none of it was Billy Joe’s fault, I can tell you that. — I was, in fact, quite surprised to learn that he filled in as interim president of ORU while Richard Roberts was recently ousted by scandal. Billy Joe just seemed a little out of place in that circle, although he had been part of it for decades. Anyway, he showed me that (some) big-name pastors have hearts too. Just because we see them on TV playing the roles of televangelists doesn’t necessarily mean they are all hypocritical or greedy.

I wish I could play the part of the bitter Christian-turned-agnostic here — that would go well with my black-sheep header image — but I’m trying to get beyond unhealthy negativity. Yes, I have issues with much of what most TV preachers say…but I’d rather not turn into that guy who has a habit of punching them in the face. And Billy Joe’s life gives me hope.

So Billy Joe faded out with 2009, suddenly falling prey to cancer. I had spoken with him on occasion years ago while in Bible school, but I didn’t know him well. But from my times around him, I know he had a good soul. Today, this helps me remember to try not to be too hard on (some) big-name pastors. Just because they’re on TV doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad. Yes…I think some of them have some major issues and some have hurt a lot of people and I’d better stop now or I’ll get worked up. But they are people too. Maybe not like Billy Joe, but they are people. And if I’m as open-minded and as tolerant as I would want them to be toward me, I will assume that they are trying to help more than they hurt. And I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for giving us hope for preachers, Billy Joe.