Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Terrors of the God-haunted Man: A Slacktivite Response

Welcome, all Slacktivite friends!

[[ Note: Last night on the Slacktivist blog, Fred Clark wrote the latest in a long series of posts - stretching back to the early 2000s - in which he critiques the "Left Behind" novels from a literary, theological, and human perspective. He noted how, in mainstream Christian end-times theology, the wiles of the Devil and the purposes of God are so intertwined, that to oppose the one is to incur the wrath of the other. Add to this the terrifying and apparently arbitrary suffering devised by the end-times God in a schemata removed from its biblical context of righteousness, judgment, and hope in a final restoration of all things, and you create a God more diabolical, and frankly more scary, than the Satan whom Christians are taught to believe they are incapable of resisting. Reading this and feeling profoundly inspired, I immediately wrote the following post]]:

FRED! Thank you! This post is inspired. It comes as a revelation for me personally. Let me explain why.

{{ wondering if he should finally come out or not… hmmm… }}

Okay! Well… I grew up a pre-millennial dispensationalist. I read all the Left Behind books as soon as they came out—all but the last one, which, for one reason or another, I could never finish. I absorbed its theology without question, though somewhere along the way I abandoned pre- for post-tribulationism. I attended a small, squabbling, continually splitting Southern Baptist church.

Beginning on the first day of my last year high school, I found myself in the midst of some pretty improbable circumstances. As I had been nervous about returning to school, my best friend Booth decided he would try and calm me down by making jokes about how awful everything would be—e. g. “Watch, they put you in Criminal Law!” “Watch, ‘Brian’s schedule is so messed up there’s no fixing it, and he gets put in Daycare class!”—all of which happened, along with others I’m leaving out—and when, on the second day of school, we experienced a campus wide blackout, on the day of the Great New England Blackout (though we lived in Texas), in the midst of a long rant “Mr. Peggleston” had been delivering, since the beginning of class, on the idiocy of New York’s electrical system, and not more than a minute after Booth leaned over and said, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!” my friend “Brian” and I decided there was something strange and supernatural afoot.

We began seeing omens everywhere—moths, ravens, ambulances, doppelgangers, numbers, and so on. Before very long, we had managed to convince ourselves that we had foreseen a terrible accident, the afternoon before it happened. I had a long and convoluted series of visions describing the events of my second trimester, all of which came to pass in a manner I still struggle to explain (even during the two or three years in which I was a closeted agnostic during college, this bothered me, and none of the rational explanations, such as confirmation bias, seem sufficient).

Shortly after the beginning of second trimester, “Brian” decided he wasn’t a Christian—that he hated God, in fact, and me. But I called my friend “Lucius,” who lived far away, and with whom I hadn’t spoken since the end of the summer, and learned that he had been leading a parallel life—e. g. he could hear voices whispering, temptation to sorcery was everywhere, demons were trying to possess him, he thought he might have channeled one of the languages of hell, etc. I asked him why all this was happening, and he essentially said, “It seems the Final Battle is approaching, and both sides are gathering their key players.”

I told no one he had said this—it was preposterous, frankly—but then, a few weeks later, my friend “Marina” took me discreetly aside and said, “Boze! I think I’m called to be a Major Player in the Final Battle!”

Yet I soon found out she was understating her own particular role in that event. She wrote me a long letter in which she revealed that she was destined soon to meet, and then to marry, the Antichrist himself, and that he would die at her hand. “Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else?” she lamented. “And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

So, naturally, during the Christmas holidays, I made the mistake of introducing her to Lucius. If you’re ever in this sort of situation, please, don’t ever, ever do that. It was a very troubling meeting, for a number of reasons—Marina seemed to anticipate what Lucius would say, and Lucius said he could see three demons circling around her, whispering lies in her ears, and shortly after the meeting Lucius confided that he felt they were destined to fight to the death, and Marina admitted that her voices had informed her that Lucius was the Antichrist.

Great. So one of my best friends was now convinced that the other was, literally, Satan incarnate, or would eventually become so, and increasingly, the other friend seemed to think so himself, and even LIKED the idea—though I had told neither one the suspicions of the other! How??! And up until the end of the summer, I had had a pretty normal life. Yet now I appeared to be living something from a Frank Peretti nightmare.

Then Booth, who all the while had been watching from a distance with an air of skepticism and amusement, suddenly started hearing heavy, evil-sounding breathing in his room… so I gained another ally… Like me, Booth began to suspect that we really were living in the end times… Up until now it had been just a theory, an abstraction, but suddenly it was real, and I couldn’t escape it…

And school—school descended into all-out chaos… “Brian” spoke seriously about wanting to rape another student—he threatened another girl with a baseball bat because he claimed she had stolen his kitten—fights broke out everywhere—Mr. Peggleston began making incredibly creepy animations using pictures of his students, and running through the room with scissors, and petting plastic iguanas while lecturing, and teaching from the floor, and giving long speeches in class about the problems he had with his wife (this was shortly before their divorce)—numerous students were suddenly claiming the ability to read auras, or to feel presences, or to see shadows, or to glimpse on the lips of another person what that person was really thinking when they spoke—I had a particularly terrifying series of out-of-body experiences…

And who knows what it all meant? Mr. Peggleston eventually claimed, when we confronted him about it at the end of the year (Christmas 2004), that he had orchestrated much of it for his own entertainment—that he had been prodding us, needling us, with his speeches on numbers and symbolism, to test our reactions—though I think even he was surprised, and alarmed, when it blazed beyond his or anyone else’s control.

And this is where we come to Fred’s post. Shortly after Mr. Peggleston’s confession, on Christmas morning, I suffered a devastating emotional collapse, precipitated by discovering that a “prophecy” I had made about a friend the winter before, had actually come true during the time frame I had initially predicted; except that, since I hadn’t known this at the time, I had concluded that I was a false prophet, and no one could see the future, and gave up my faith. And now here it was again, roaring back to life. Once again, I could never escape it. I might have been crazy; I might have been right; but I could never know, one way or the other, and either way, it would always defeat me. I could never put it out of sight for very long.

For nearly six years now, and particularly in the last six to seven months, I have been asking myself what it was that provoked me to collapse so badly. Socially, emotionally, spiritually, I was incapacitated for some time. In writing out the events that led up to that moment, I’ve gathered some glimpses—been compelled, for example, to surrender altogether my belief in the teachings of John Calvin regarding election, now discovering only for the first time how pernicious their effects, how the image of God they produce in the heart is arbitrary, cold, impersonal, remote… then, too, yesterday on my birthday I discovered that for twelve years I had been living in a legalistic, works-based framework that exacerbated that perspective to an unassailable degree…

And now, here is Fred, with another piece of the puzzle. A huge piece, in fact. Friends, this is a near-perfect example of the power false theology possesses to distort, and even to destroy, the minds of its adherents. Let’s examine it in more detail.

“But here the authors have drained all the suspense and tension out of these diabolical job offers by reassuring readers ahead of time that it's actually God's divine plan for Buck and Rayford to sign on as helpful members of the Antichrist's team. It may be just what Nicolae wants, but it's also just what God wants, because here in Tribulation Force, God and the Antichrist want exactly the same thing.

“This is a central problem with the plot of this story that the authors are unable to resolve, or even to address, because it's also a central problem with the theology on which the book is based. For most of the next seven years of our story, Nicolae Carpathia's evil agenda and God's purportedly beneficent agenda overlap. God and the Devil are working from the same script, and it becomes impossible for our heroes to oppose the Devil because to do so would be to interfere with God's foreordained plan.”

He’s right; he’s absolutely right. Though in fairness, the authors do take a brave, confusing, and half-hearted stab at this at the midpoint of the series, in the novel Assassins—four or five different characters separately conspire to kill Nicolae, at the same time, because they all know that the Antichrist is prophetically destined to be murdered in Jerusalem—and then, three days later, to rise from the dead. Strangely, if memory holds, there is not a single conversation anywhere in the entire book where one character says to another, “Wait, why are we doing this? Are we actually trying to help him get indwelt by Satan? I mean, wouldn’t it be better to try and outwit him by thwarting his attacker? Thus, you know, preventing the prophecy and permanently keeping him as Normal!Nicolae?” But no… they all fire their guns at the same time—Nicolae dodges them all, and is slain by a sword…

This flaw in the author’s theology is more evident there than at any other point in the series. Because once you have the characters begin to ask those troubling questions, you’re essentially forced to admit that in attempting to prevent the Antichrist’s death—not from the kindness of their hearts, but to prevent SATAN from taking over the planet—you’re actually hindering the work of God.

It’s possible to imagine this situation unfolding in a manner that doesn’t involve God and the Devil conspiring together for dominion of the planet. For example, you could say that as people multiply and increase on the earth, the potential for evil is multiplied, as we witnessed in a number of the more terrible events of the twentieth century. And you could say that because God is full of compassion, and because He so honors the dignity and free will of man, He refuses to force them to turn and accept Him. He doesn’t then ordain, or instigate, the debauchery and violence of the Tribulation—on the contrary, He permits it, for a time, that humankind might see the dismal state to which it is reduced when it willfully and flagrantly rejects the all-embracing grace of God. You could then say (as is argued in The Christ Clone Trilogy, for example), that in doing so, God would be allowing a remnant, repulsed by the violent, orgiastic excess of the new world order, to realize the depth of its need for redemption, and repent. I love that idea!

But traditional PMD theology is much more superficial, less concerned with substance—or redemption. Only now am I beginning to realize that the possibility of Christ’s return as it is normally taught in our churches doesn’t thrill us with the promise of glorious hope, as it did the apostles, who were suffering near-constant persecution, who were always half a step away from bodily annihilation, who had already witnessed their loved ones sawn in half and torn apart by lions—the hope of a world in which righteousness was rendered, in which suffering had ended, in which tears were wiped away—forever. A hope, in short, that makes God GLORIOUS. No, rather, it is the cheap titillation of actual suffering and death that excites us—of getting to see people torn asunder, smashed, and ripped apart—not, however, by the Romans, but by God.

I will say this: I realize now that God is righteous. I believe His judgments are righteous, and not only righteous, but full of tender mercy. For those of us who believe in, and teach, the return of Jesus, that is the spirit in which it must be viewed. But until we can see the heart of mercy at the heart of judgment, we will continue to do exactly what Fred is warning against—what I have done—attributing unrighteousness to God; smearing Him with vile slanders; rendering Him in His designs and motivations so unstoppably malignant, so dementedly, incontrovertibly evil, that the evilness of evil is clouded, and the goodness of good is unseen, and we live in a world without hope.

This creates a problem on the basic level of “what happens next?” Our band of supposed resistance fighters aren't actually allowed to resist, making them seem dull and directionless. They cannot do anything so they do not do anything. Our heroes cannot be active agents in a drama because there is no drama -- no conflict -- just a melodrama in which they are pawns and victims of events that will occur no matter what they do or say.

But on a deeper level, it also makes God seem like a cosmic jerk who is, essentially, indistinguishable from Nicolae or Nicolae's boss. If Nicolae even has a boss other than God himself. All of the persecution and tyranny Nicolae will soon be inflicting on humanity, we're told, is God's will -- the divine plan for the End Times. And as bad as everything Nicolae does may be, it's actually a lot less painful and deadly than the evils to come that will be wrought directly by the hand of God.

With the two of them working in concert, it doesn't seem like the Antichrist is anti-Christ at all -- he's Christ's servant, playing his ordained role in God's great plan. Every evil deed Nicolae has in mind is what the "prophecy" says will happen and therefore it is what must happen and thus -- and this is where we fall through the looking glass into a warped and bizarre alternate universe -- it is what ought to happen. This traps readers and heroes alike in an insane world where the purported moral obligation of good people is to facilitate evil, to ensure injustice, oppression and suffering, to clear a path for the Devil and all his works.

Once again, we begin to see how inherently Calvinist is pre-millennial dispensationalist theology in the substance of its teaching—strange, in a way, because most of the major leaders of the current PMD movement are evangelical non-Calvinists. Yet the God they espouse is a Calvinist God. He cruelly and arbitrarily inflicts inexorable judgment on the earth—and not only that, but there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Thus PMD believers tend to be as fatalistic in their outlook as Calvinists—which might be unfair to Calvinists, in fact, because the majority of Calvinists that I’ve known have been self-consciously non-fatalistic, while I can’t say the same for the majority of end-times believers.

As I can attest from my own life, this creates gigantic problems. Because what you’re essentially saying is, “Jesus is coming back… and He’s SCARY… and there’s nothing anyone can do!” And so you now have—God as horror movie villain. Not only that, but omnipotent, omniscient horror movie villain. This is problematic on two levels. First, and especially given the fantastical nature of most PMD thinking, it creates a terrifying and intolerable universe, no rules, no impossibilities, no limits, simply sheer, unmitigated power. You have no security in such a world. Ideally, God should be your security, if you’re a Christian, and He isn’t—He’s a nightmare. You never know what might happen. He could rip you out of your room at night and fling you into space. He could fling you straight into the sun. What are you going to do about it? Satan becomes a mere sideshow distraction. You become hypocritical and evasive, pretending—and perhaps truly believing—that you love and honor Jesus, that you want to give Him your life, your heart, your soul forever, but really, you’re only saying this because YOU DON’T HAVE A CHOICE! He’s God, He’s evil, and He WANTS you! None of which is true, but you THINK that, and you might not even know that you think it, but you do, and you’re hiding it from yourself and everyone else, and your whole heart is pitted against Him in a war that, frankly, you can’t win—not because God will destroy you, but because ultimately, you’ll collapse from the sheer weight of the pretense, and the war in yourself.

Secondly, particularly when you implicitly believe God is evil, inexorability is not an attribute you want to give Him! I let out an audible “WOW” when I read what Fred wrote here: “There is no drama—no conflict—just a melodrama in which they are pawns and victims of events that will occur no matter what they do or say.” Oh, the number of times I’ve felt that—the number of times declared it aloud! I would only amend it to note that, stated so abstractly, it can’t give a full sense of the horror—and hatred, boiling, bubbling hatred—in which such a person lives his or her life. You wake up in the morning, you cook your eggs, you brush your teeth because God so wills it. Are you called to be a prophet? You are? That’s great! Who told you? God did? Amazing! Do you want to be a prophet? What’s that you said, I couldn’t hear you… no, no, you’ve gotta speak louder… oh, you said you don’t really want to be a prophet… but, oh, you know you can’t help it. Why not? Because God is infinitely cleverer and smarter than you, and He knows your every move and will find some way to trick you into doing it, whether you want it or not. You cannot beat Him. It is like trying to beat a computer at chess—and He is the Chess Master.

I tell you the truth: Life—the simple act of living—for an apocalyptic, fatalistic, prophecy-haunted, God-terrorized person, is a small piece of hell. You continually feel like Neo in the second Matrix, when he comes face to face for the first time with the Architect and discovers that his creator has designed, and ordained, every move in the game. The only difference is, Neo still has choice, and you have none. Your choices are all God’s. You are nothing more than the glove that fits around His hands. If God reveals to you that He intends to wreak destruction on the earth, first of all you don’t have a framework for understanding what good He might provoke from such an act, because you don’t know grace, or love, or anything but wanton, arbitrary judgment; secondly, you sense that you might be involved in preparing said destruction, and you tell Him you’re in till the end, but all the while you’re secretly thinking of ways to undermine His will—a sort of saboteur against the cosmos. And you can’t admit even to yourself what you’re doing because you know God reads your thoughts, you know that before ever there’s a word on your lips He knows it altogether, and you know that if you even so much as verbalized in your head that you were playing Snape to His Voldemort, He would either destroy you, or worse—He would laugh, knowing better; knowing how easy it will be to circumvent your puny and pathetic plans for His own ends. And all the while resentment increases inside you, and you become a torment to yourself, your family, your friends, you feign the formalities of worship but you don’t really mean it, you spend your days running away in evasions and distractions, you can’t even sit still for a moment because you know that if you did, He would get you, and you can’t let Him get you, no matter what it takes, you must resist… but in fleeing this demented, diabolical, wrong image of God, you’ve completely shut out the real One—shut out light, shut out hope, shut out depth—you begin to waste away into nothing, so earnestly you war, so hopelessly you flee, from Love Himself.

And all the while, God is really there—not forcing; not cajoling, even; simply waiting. Waiting for the moment you exhaust yourself and give up fighting. Waiting for the moment you realize you’re no good alone. Waiting for the horrible, glorious day when you look around on the wreck of your life—all the broken vows, wounded friendships, time lost, feelings trammeled, days of vanity and nights of torment, all the pride scorn pretension hysteria self-martyrdom theatricality selfishness loneliness alienation hatred cruelty in which you live—and see Him standing there, beaming, radiant, not angry, not cold, not controlling—there is no manipulation in that face—but possessed of a fierce, and tenacious, and relentless tenderness. And He says, in essence, “Come inside. The table is laid. The others are all eating. They would really love to have you back. And… so would I.”

O my soul, go in with Him. You’ve been laid low for far too long. Lay down your useless arms and surrender. Go and learn where peace, and bliss, and fellowship, and warmth, are found—who Jesus truly is.

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