Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Have I ever told you about Potter's first rule of evangelistic practices?

It states that no matter how theologically bankrupt and pastorally retarded a particular "evangelistic" practice might be, as soon as I speak up to criticize it, there will be in the room at least one person who supposes they (or they momma) "got saved" by its influence.

The Independent's Andrew Gumbel took a tour of a Hell House in Texas, and shares with us his observations:
It's called Hell House, which sounds ordinary enough. What makes it peculiar is that it is run by a right-wing evangelical church, and its aim is, quite literally, to scare the bejesus out of impressionable teenagers and shock them into signing up for a life in the service of Christ.
My favorite line:

Some of my fellow Hell Housers lose it completely. "Get me out of here! Get me out of here!" screams a girl a couple of coffins down.

"Don't worry, Sarah," one of her friends shouts above the din. "We're Christians, we're going to heaven!"
And of course one must "seal the deal:"

Thoroughly shaken, we were taken to one last room where a pastor called Larry invited us to choose between two doors - one plain one marked "Exit" leading straight to the night-time air, and another leading into a "prayer room" where Hell Housers could sign up for the church and talk, if they wished, with a counsellor.

"The question is, if you were to die tonight, where are you going to go?" Larry asked. At least three of the teenagers trembled visibly. "The devil is trying to stop you going through the prayer door," he asserted. And, he told us, calling yourself a Christian was not enough protection from eternal hellfire. "Who does the devil want most? Those close to him, or those who got away?" he asked. The teenagers murmured: "Those who got away." Larry thundered back: "And what are those who got away called? That's right, Christians!" Every single member of my party went through the prayer door. Some of them rushed through.

The whole thing was crude and manipulative, of course. Hell Houses have attracted plenty of criticism - not just from homosexual rights and feminist groups, but also from less extreme evangelical churches who feel it is entirely inappropriate to inspire religious feelings through blank fear.

The most lasting impression, though, was not the insidious way in which the usual Christian right talking-points on abortion, homosexuality and extramarital sex were hammered home so much as the kind of world constructed by Hell House and the way it spoke to its target audience - young, impressionable church-goers from lower-middle class communities.

It was hard to shake the feeling that the drugs, alcoholism, pornography, child molestation, rape and gun violence depicted in the show were a real part of everyday experience in this part of the world, whatever one thought of the way the issues were interpreted and twisted to fit the distinctly unforgiving Christian message.

Note that last bit closely. Here we have a group of would-be Christians who think they understand what the world is like: evil is afoot. What kind of hope do they believe in? What hope do they presume to offer the rest of us? Do they join with Christ and his Church in the suffering, healing and redemption of God's world? Do they throw their lot in with people who struggle under the weight of these things?

No. This is the message they have for a world God loves: that if only you do the right things, and pray the right prayers to the right gods, many of these things somehow will never happen. And if they do, it's all just fine, because Jesus will transmit you to some pie-in-the-sky, mythical land called heaven.

Neither of these things is true as such. A religious attitude that insists to people that they need to clean up their lives to avoid the supposed vindictiveness of one's deity puts a lie to the Gospel.

This is the good news that the Church bears: that all the things that separate people from God have been taken up in the Cross, and that as Lord of the World, he is bringing healing and restoration to the entire Creation. The Church is a sign and sacrament of that redemption, and a community that bears it to the world.

That means that the Church cannot be an outside observer to any pain and brokenness to the human condition, that in all of these scenes of sin and death where people would suffer alone, the Church makes its habitation, just as Jesus did and does. The identity of Christians is bound up in continuing the Incarnation, and bringing love to bear in every situation we can find.

Is "sin" harmful? Of course it is. But that's not the point, that's not our business. Judgment is God's business. Restoration is ours.

Waiter Rant offers a related story, of his godfather's speech at an anti-abortion rally. The old man knew something about the Incarnational character of the Church:
…..and shuffling into the pulpit, resplendent in his Byzantine vestments, my godfather looks over the top of his glasses upon the congregation.

“I have heard many of you talking today about God’s punishment, His wrath. How you’re good Christians because you hate abortion. But, after listening to the people gathered here, I can’t help but notice that some of you harbor a vituperative attitude towards the very women you want to help.”

People start shifting in their seats uncomfortably.

“I know many of you, like me, are here because you want to defend the unborn. Some of you are motivated by the deepest conviction.”

Another pause.

“But some of you are here because you love to hate.”

Shocked silence.

“Are you here because you really want to help the unborn?” my godfather asks. “Have you taken an unwed mother into your home? Feed her? Cared for her baby? Or are you here because this is where your friends are? Are you here to indulge in a comforting sense of moral superiority? Smug in your certitude you’re not going to hell?”

Everyone is listening now.

“Let me tell you about something about Hell,” my godfather says, “We know there’s a hell because Jesus said there’s one. But we don’t know if anyone’s actually in it.”

My godfather lets that thought sink in.

“What’s more,” he says, “Jesus never liked hypocrites. He once said, ‘They do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? No! Every thing they do is done to attract attention!”

Now some of the congregants look angry.

“Let me ask you something. Are you relieving these women of their burdens? Or are you adding to them with your self righteousness? Are you helping or hurting? Because if all of your fervor is directed towards feeling good about yourself, if it’s about getting attention, if its about how you’re better than someone else - YOU ARE WASTING GOD’S TIME!”

Amen, Amen.

"Welcome to Hell" - Andrew Gumbel in the Independent
"All Hallows Eve" - Waiter Rant


#Debi said...

Walter Rant's godfather's sermon is one of the best I've ever seen. Good for him!

Expax said...

Ok. Ok. Actually I really don't like the idea of hellhouse but I have to admit that 1#) they are as fun as crap to go through, often quite hysterically funny & 2#) I actually know of a quite few people that came to Christ through them. How did that happen? The hell if I know. But in undergrad I knew three guys in the ministry department that contributed there salvation and desire to be "evangelists" to a hellhouse.

Expax said...

good post by the way.

JHearne said...

Thanks for the post, Kyle. I like it.

Here's your misunderstanding: You thought the gospel was good news.

The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is seriously ticked at you and wants nothing more than to get you. Boo!

Anonymous said...

I've had encounters with these things before; mine in particular was with what I think was called a "Judgement House." You know, teens having fun, doing the hip teen things (Bible study and smoking pot) and then BAM! School shooter takes out a bunch of them. Next scene: gates of St. Peter. Some get in, some don't. We then realize how scary the devil's costume is (I believe he was wearing the mask from "Scream") and the only choice is instant conversion. That was a close one.

Kyle said...

Ha! I'm glad there's hope. And I'm sure you realize, Jeremy, that I would never do Bible study without the aid of a little pot.

Maybe it's why people kept mistaking me for a PHA? ;0)

And Ben, it seems that you would understand my aforementioned rule of evangelistic practices. It might be a cynical rule, but it's sadly true.

Debi and Josh, thanks for commenting - and Josh, I'm glad you understand the true meaning of Hallo -- I mean, Christmas.