Yeah, you read that title correctly.
Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine published an article called Jesus Made Me Puke where he goes undercover to a church retreat in Texas to get a look under the hood of evangelical Christianity.
Of course, while we are told to respect all religions and are spoon fed this “all paths lead to God” nonsense, Christianity is routinely treated with ridicule and contempt.
Taibbi could have gone to a church with some intellectual credibility, but he rather chose to go to the Christian circus that epitomizes evangelical cheese just to watch the Charismatic chaos.
He wasn’t disappointed.
Stay with me, I’ll get to the puke part in a minute.
Here’s the drill: he pretends to be a seeker and attends Cornerstone Church’s Encounter Weekend. That’s John Hagee’s church, and he is a Christian Zionist who wants to fast-track Armageddon so we can usher in God’s kingdom.
Taibbi’s a cherry picker who went after an easy target. But if you’ve ever wondered what honest skeptics wonder about Christianity, look no further. He is blunt in his assessments:
When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television – great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair.
We don’t get to see the utterly bats**t world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there’s a ready-for-prime-time stage act – toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won’t scare the advertisers – and then there’s the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church.
What he discovers “backstage” is a level of weirdness that would qualify for a witch trial in an earlier generation. The main speaker for the Encounter weekend, Phillip Fortenberry, is an ex-military macho man who continually tells the audience how many manly pieces of military equipment he can handle.
This macho image is important for Fortenberry, because Christian men are weak. Taibbi tries to dress the part:
My disguise was modeled on other men I’d seen in church — pane glasses and the very gayest blue-and-white-striped Gap polo shirt I’d been able to find that afternoon. Buried on a clearance rack next to the underwear section in a nearby mall, the Gap shirt was one of those irritating throwbacks to the Meatballs/Seventies-summer-camp-geek look, but stripped of its sartorial irony, it really just screamed Friendless Loser! — so I bought it without hesitation and tried to match it with that sheepish, ashamed-to-have-a-p***s look I had seen so many other young men wearing in church. With the glasses and a slouch I hoped I was at least in the ballpark of what I thought I needed to look like, which was a slow-moving hulk of confused, shipwrecked masculinity, flailing for an Answer.
Shipwrecked masculinity. That’s what outsiders think of Christian men.
The program revolved around a theory that Fortenberry quickly introduced us to called “the wound.” The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.
Unfortunately, Christ was not very well presented as the solution. Pop-psychology ruled the day:
But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to “find your wounds” (“My husband hid my Saks card!”) at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.
He explains that Christians are actually faking their way through religious exercises.
The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along to those awful acoustic tunes, telling people how blessed you feel and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self. Even if you’re a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene – even if you’re intellectually enraged by the ignorance and arrogant prejudice flowing from the mouth of a terminal-ambition case like Phil Fortenberry – outwardly you’re swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves. And at the same time, that “inner you” begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest – in my case checking out into baseball reveries and other daydreams while the outer me did the “work” of singing and praising. At any given moment, which one is the real you?
I think Taibbi is on to something here. In a religious environment such as this, where external conformity is paramount, one could find themselves easily slipping into a routine of conditioned responses to certain spiritual stimuli. We should be on guard against this.
For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your “sinful” self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way. So long as you go through all the motions, no one will care who you really are underneath.
Ironically, Taibbi is somewhat prophetic here. He is complaining about people who are, in Jesus’ words, “whitewashed tombs,” who clean the outside of a cup while the inside is still dirty. I think Jesus would agree with that last quote.
Back to Fortenberry. After this intense and protracted weekend full of gut wrenching and emotion inducing meetings and group counseling sessions, they reach the final climactic “Deliverance” service where they can finally receive the healing they came for.
His description sounds more like Voodoo than any variety of genuine Christianity. This is the puke part, by the way.
What happens next is this: Fortenberry starts to call out “demons” from the stage and casting them out. Demons of pornography, drugs, addiction, gossip, and so on. This continues for a long time as his voice escalates and people start to get worked up. Fortenberry instructs people to open their mouths so the demon can come out of them. He tells them to not pray, because they need to have a clear path for the demon to travel as it is passing out of them.
Life coaches are literally given barf bags to take to people who vomit out their demons.
Within about a minute after that, the whole chapel erupted in pandemonium. About half the men and three-fourths of the women were writhing around and either play-puking or screaming. Not wanting to be a bad sport, I raised my hand for one of the life coaches to see.
It was obvious that virtually everyone in the crowd was playacting to some degree or another.
Taibbi left the Encounter weekend with his notebook full of juicy anecdotes to share to Rolling Stone readers who I’m sure were all too eager to pass judgment on all of evangelical Christianity based on the behavior of these folks.
I have two responses to this.
First, Taibbi was wrong to target a church that would provide such fodder simply for the purpose of making fun. You can’t judge all of Rock music based on the burnt couches and trashed hotel room antics of Guns-N-Roses, and you can’t judge the truth claims of Christianity based on excessive and superstitious people who are deluded and worked into an emotional frenzy by a psycho-spiritual manipulator.
I would love to see the article that would be written after spending a weekend at a retreat with John Piper’s church, or RC Sproul’s church. If its Charismatics he likes to target, then go to Mark Driscoll’s church or to CJ Mahaney’s church.
These men are some spiritual heavyweights who are more interested in exalting the sovereign Christ than toying with the emotions of people with real needs.
Secondly, although I’m embarrassed by the goings on at the Encounter Weekend of Cornerstone Church, these men and women are my brothers and sisters in Christ. These people who are rolling in the aisles and foaming at the mouth and puking into demon bags are my brothers and sisters in Christ and I will proudly claim all of them. I will not be ashamed of those for whom Christ died. Their behavior is unacceptable, but they are God’s children.
If Taibbi wanted a freak show, that’s what he got.
But I have been pointing out for a long time on this blog the very fact that Jesus values things that are backwards.
Taibbi looks at these people and sees losers, posers, freaks, and idiots.
Jesus looks at these people and says:
“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:11-12)