One of the most dramatic exorcisms of Jesus’ ministry takes place in Mark 5 when Jesus casts a legion of demons out of a man chained to a graveyard in the region of the Gerasenes by sending them into a herd of pigs who run with fury to a cliff and throw themselves in a lake. For the last several years, as certain aspects of the evangelical corner of American Christianity that I inhabit have looked less and less Christlike, I have had a single prayer that I have written probably several hundred times in my journal: “Lord, let their fruit be made plain.” I’m not sure who the “they” in the prayer is — probably people who earnestly hunger after God no less than I do. But it’s hit me this week that God really is answering my prayer. I really think American Christianity in the age of the culture wars has been like that tortured Gerasene demoniac ranting and raving in the graveyard and finally that legion of demons is starting to reveal itself in a herd of pigs who are racing furiously for the water.
Growing up as a moderate Southern Baptist, there were things that disturbed me about the fundamentalism that was ever-present all around me, but I always assumed it was a reflection of my sinful rebelliousness. Yet there were little cracks that started to form in fundamentalism’s fierce wall of infallibility for me. I remember when my mother was given a video tape talking about how Christian rock music was demonic, given the “proof” that Amy Grant had made a pagan sign with her hand during a concert — “the sign of the moon” — which was essentially a “Gnarly dude!” with her middle three fingers down and pinky and thumb raised. Then there was the video that let us know that AC/DC stood for Anti-Christ Devil’s Children and KISS was Knights In Satan’s Service. Though I wasn’t sure, I suspected that “Highway to Hell” and “Hell’s Bells,” rather than being the representative samples of rock and roll music they were presented to be in the videos were actually outliers.
When the nineties rolled around, I fell in love with the newly popular Rush Limbaugh, I think because he was essentially a 15 year old boy in a grown man’s body. I remember telling all the girls in ninth grade that they were feminazis (one of whom signed my yearbook “Queen of the Feminazis” with a smiley face). As the nineties went on and I kept listening to Rush, something started to feel uncomfortable in the back of my mind. There was such a pornographic delight that seemed to be at play among those around me who seemed to gobble up greedily all the delicious outrages of those amazingly awful Clintons.
As Bill Clinton was playing around with his cigars, on a different front, I had gone to college where I threw myself into several different evangelical campus fellowship groups. As a freshman at the University of Virginia, I breathed, drank, and slept evangelism. I handed out my own homemade tracts to strangers on the sidewalk. I wrote messages about Jesus in chalk. I spearheaded an evangelism rally called the Lovefest on Valentine’s Day, 1997. But then when I got nominated for a leadership position in my campus fellowship group, a rival said he would call me out publicly because he didn’t think I took everything in the Bible literally.
I was pretty devastated, but a major demon got exorcised my sophomore year. I was living with a group of 12 Christian guys in 2 apartments next to each other (we had an Ethernet server whose domain name was “Chosen12”). One of the guys was a hard-core Calvinist who would always bring home from the library super-thick hardcover books by Charles Spurgeon and R.C. Sproul and D.A. Carson and J.I. Packer and John MacArthur. Something about the size of the books and even the names of the authors (which seemed like Charles Dickens characters) made me think of all the vegetables like broccoli and lima beans that I hated to eat as a kid.
Well, after winter break, this roommate ran away from home. A note was found in which he had written that he hated everything and everyone at college. He was eventually found in a motel room in Fayetteville, NC. He transferred to a Bible college, and I never saw him again. He was actually a really sweet guy, and I hope he has a great life today. But what happened to him was for my faith journey the equivalent of an exorcism in which a pig snatched up my demon and raced it furiously off a cliff into the water. After seeing that take place, the wall of infallibility that fundamentalism had always imposed over my consciousness shattered and fell to the ground in a million pieces. I realize that fundamentalism wasn’t the purer version of something I was doing in a lukewarm way. It was an ideology that made you hate people.
I have a feeling (or hope perhaps) that at least half of the kids who grew up evangelical through the culture wars like me are now standing in front of walls that have either shattered or are on their way to doing so. In the movie Blue Like Jazz, the adulterous youth minister with the Ralph Reed haircut has the kids bust open a piñata during church that turns out to be filled with single serving communion juice containers. I remember thinking as I watched it that every ex-evangelical must have had a “piñata moment” of clarity. What makes me really sad is that some of the ex-evangelicals I know seem like they’re ruined for life. The agonizing perplexity is that we’ve seen poisonous fruit on the tree that we ate from, but the roots are opaque and impenetrable. So all of our ideological assaults are quickly dismissed as “straw men” and phantom “caricatures” because we can’t articulate precisely what is demonic about what we’re seeing even though the “caricatures” in which we “miss the point” are the actual beliefs of millions of people who have acquired them somehow. (By the way, let me put myself on the record saying that the American evangelical problem isn’t penal substitution theology itself; it’s a horrible misunderstanding of it, which I already said here.)
There are a legion of misanthropic demons in the evangelical consciousness that cause famous preachers to have more to say about the infiltration of the Muslim Brotherhood into our government than the brotherhood of humanity that Jesus died to create. When Christians lust for Armageddon and rejoice over the evidence that all those eternally reprobate Arabs should have never been introduced to democracy, we are no longer part of the body of Christ, but the flailing limbs of a demon-possessed man in a Gerasene graveyard. But thanks be to God for Fred Phelps (the God hates fags preacher) and Terry Jones (the Koran burner). Because of them, I think I have finally found a proper application for my least favorite verse in the whole Bible: “What if God, although choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?” (Romans 9:22). If predestination is right (and perhaps it is), then God has predestined Fred and Terry and other Gerasene pigs like them to race like fury off the cliff and into the lake, taking the demons of American Christianity with them.
I really have no snark or rage in me at all right now. I’m actually being dead serious to say that I rejoice at the providence of God for anointing Gerasene pigs to purge us of our demons by making their fruit plain.And my prayer for Fred Phelps, Terry Jones, and all the discernmentalists, conspiracy theorists, worldview litmus-testers, and pornographers of outrage is that they would one day wake up in a graveyard to the squeals of pigs splashing behind them, wondering how they got handcuffed to the graves. Or perhaps they’ll find themselves eating with pigs and realizing that they can return home to a Father who loves them. I don’t know what theological changes are needed to save (white?) American Christianity from itself (I only put the white part in because I realize that I don’t have a clue about the black, Asian, or Latino churches insofar as we have a segregated heritage). I really don’t think that we’re destined to howl in the graveyard forever. The legion of pigs are finally headed for the water, and I genuinely believe for the first time in my life that the American evangelicals are going to make it.