Friday, March 02, 2012

Promise Keepers, Demons and Charismatics

At Tough Questions Answered, Walt Tucker brought up an incident from his trip to India. He asked how skeptics could provide a natural explanation for what he thought was an obvious supernatural intervention of demon(s) possessing a woman.

In 1994 or ’95 I attended Promise Keepers conference—where Christian men are challenged to be Men, yet encouraged to be soft, sensitive and sorta metrosexual at the same time. At this historical point, this was “the current hot Christian thing” that everybody---EVERYBODY…had to get on board with. There were even bumper stickers.

So every local church sent out banners and buses, registered blocks of testosterone, and we managed to pack the Silverdome full of Christian men all but lathered up to learn how to be better fathers, sons, husbands and brothers…but mostly how to be Men. This meant we had a mixture of Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Non-Denominationals, Lutherans and…Charismatics.

I grew up Baptist—we were known as “God’s Frozen Chosen” for a reason. We never clapped (unless it was a children’s program), never even swayed to music, certainly never raised our hands when we sang and never, EVER ran up and down the aisles like hooligans whenever the feeling…er…”spirit”…moved us. We sat still and looked grim like God expected proper Christians to look.

We found Charismatic believers fascinating. Occasionally one would wander in our midst, and upon putting up their hands at the first song, a collective “gasp!” would issue forth, and the reproving stares would immediately inform the miscreant they were an outsider and such flagrant displays were not welcome here. Those upward-pointing hands would be discussed in the car on the way home from church, I can assure you.

Yet as much as we were repulsed by their terrible doctrine, we were enthralled by their antics. Like monkeys in a zoo—we wouldn’t want to BE one, but we loved to watch them.

So anyway…back to Promise Keepers…our particular set of stoic attendees was seated in the first section, dead center, maybe 10-15 rows up. Excellent view of the stage and the crowd of men seated at floor level. At the first song (yeah…they sing at these things) we discovered a whole pack of Charismatics seated on the floor—we knew because they all raised their hands. It looked like a heavy metal concert without lighters.

But what we didn’t know (and quickly discovered) is that there were actually two (2) separate Charismatic groups who happened to sit near each other. Men…being men…were not satisfied with the adequacy of only performing as their competitors.

At the next song, one pack (per usual) raised their hands, while the other tribe successfully one-upped them by raising their hands and standing up! Quickly the first team realized they were trailing in this spiritual warfare, and likewise stood up with arms raised. Any student of Dr. Seuss recognizes escalation was a mandatory response.

The plot was hatched. A new song…group number 2 again stood and raised their hands, foolishly believing all they needed was status quo. With barely concealed smirks, Clan No. 1 stood, picked up their chairs and held them over their heads! Winning by height, mass, volume, strength and exuberance.

You couldn’t have torn us away from this feud if you offered free buffet in the lobby. We had a packed Sports Stadium where every person was acting as if they were “singing to the Lord” yet in reality were transfixed by the contentious sporting event taking place before us, while pretending it wasn’t happening. As if we were just singing away to Praise Jesus.

At the break the two teams huddled together clearly discussing what plays to call in the Second half. The rest of us waited with bated breath as to who would make the next move; we hoped for the next song just to watch the competition unfold. Unfortunately, they forgot the fundamental rule of all team sports—there is no “I” in team.

When the next song broke out, leadership failed and pandemonium ensued. Some (in each group) held up chairs; others (in each group) stood on chairs; still others took to the aisles dancing. One enterprising guy picked up a chair and swung it in a circle! We all moved to the edge of our seats, not wanting to acknowledge the unchristian desire he swung a little wide and brained some fellow Charismatic with the resulting spray of blood confirming this to be a legitimate sport. Alas, his seatmates had moved to safety.

They were holding things up, they were dancing, they were moving, in our estimation they were completely out of control. Nobody, but nobody, could determine how to score this or who was winning. Eventually, out of sheer exhaustion, it calmed down and they muddled back to their seats. By the next song, the two teams were too fatigued from battle to do much more than stand and lift their hands.

For the rest of us, the Battle of the Charismatics was the highlight of Promise Keepers.

As a Christian, this is how I viewed “healings” as practiced by the Charismatic movement. Did God Heal? Absolutely, often by deftly moving the able fingers of a surgeon, of course. But God intervened occasionally and removed tumors, or balanced chemistry or performed some act curing the person. Did God heal by some preacher striking the poor sod on the head? No—those were antics.

As a Christian, I believed there was a natural explanation for these spiritual “healings” allegedly performed by the likes of Benny Hinn. It was fakery. This is still the belief of my Christian family. My Christian former friends. Every Christian church I attended. Millions and Millions of Christians who believe God can and does heal, finds such “miracles” to have natural explanations. It is not just us non-theistic skeptics.

As a Christian, I believed it was possible for a God to miraculous cause someone to speak in a foreign language. But tongues as practiced by the Charismatic movement? Again—all fake. Natural explanation. One doesn’t need to be an atheist to be persuaded there is subterfuge going on—Millions and Millions of Christians (again, including my family, former friends and former churches) agree.

Demon possession? As we believed the Gospels were historical, and Jesus tossed out demons possessing people, we obviously believed it could happen. But every instance of claimed demonic possession? Naw…even we knew those were not real. We enjoyed discussing them—every tale of demons involved topics normally taboo outside of Church, let alone within a church—there was nakedness and cursing and sexual-laden references. Or blood and rituals and severed limbs.

But we understood those tales were outlandish. Like a horror film…fun to hear and be scared that night, nothing beyond.

Occasionally missionaries would return from missions and give accounts about witch doctors, dark forces of evil and demon possessions. (Only missionaries to deepest parts of Africa, South America or Asia, of course. Not the ones to cities like Paris or Berlin.) We treated these tales with as much fascination and belief as we did Charismatic tales of healing.

Look, was it possible God, on some rare occasion, actually stepped in at the moment Benny Hinn smacked that person’s face and removed the root canal? Sure—God can do what he wants. But likely? No—one chance in a 100 million. Same thoughts with Demon possession. Was it possible? Mmmm…maybe. But far likely not.

If, as a Christian I believed in the possibility of such things, but doubted the stories regarding the same (again, just like all the Christians I associated with who would continue to doubt the same today) how much more now I am a naturalist?


  1. Great post. The PK highlights made me laugh.

    I had similar thoughts of doubts of these miracles, even if I didn't doubt the possibility. I grew up Methodist in the south. Southern Baptists were known to be a little more energetic in my neck of the woods, so it is kind of funny to hear you describe Baptists as the Frozen Chosen.

  2. Fun stuff. Love your super-accurate description of the restrained southern baptists (cut my teeth on a southern baptist pew in Texas) and the attitude towards charismatics.

    Great insight on the mental model of limiting how/when god worked to rationalize it to the modern world. I wish most believers could understand the tightrope they're trying to walk there.

    Often times, it is easier to let the sectarian disagreements within a faith to expose bad beliefs of other sects. With enough sects, you can add that up and get to atheism.

  3. Love the story about the hyper-charismatics, 'specially the chair swinging! I never saw that before.

    Especially this line, too funny:
    We all moved to the edge of our seats, not wanting to acknowledge the unchristian desire he swung a little wide and brained some fellow Charismatic..."

    The stories remind me of the one-upmanship dynamic I felt in a charismatic church. The *really* spiritual ones were the ones doing the out-there stuff, which I totally was not going to do. But if you just sit in your chair being a cessationist, you would obviously be seen as someone not being fully given to God. So the trick was to hit that sweet spot, balancing comfort level with other's perceptions. The leaders I think are the ones that go just a *little* bit further than everyone else. Those that go farther might be maniacs, those that do less are perhaps still on their spiritual milk, or something like that. :^)

    Maybe that is a common dynamic in social settings...

    Right on about the rationalization to justify disbelief in Benny Hinn, et al. It is funny how we as humans justify rejecting some people's irrational beliefs while holding onto others ourselves at the same time.

  4. Your post made me think of the Steve Martin movie, Leap of Faith. I was a frozen chosen church of Christ member, so I grew up with the same skepticism regarding healings and speaking in tongues.

    Personal experiences, like Walt's, are what individuals seem to ultimately go back to in confirming their faith. However, because they are personal, they are hard to verify and not very convincing to others who only hear about it.

  5. I went to Promise Keepers in '97 at Shea Stadium. One group started chanting We love Jesus yes we do, we love Jesus how bout you!!?! which of course resulted in everyone else having to repeat the chant louder than the first group, if you didn't join in it meant you hated Jesus.