Tag Archives: mega-church

Religion and Theatre of the Absurd

If you think religion and religious people are not influenced by popular culture, then you just aren’t paying attention.  More often, the religious folk are in search of headlines and news clips, not truth or enlightenment.  This happens in small towns and mega-churches.  For the record, I have blogged about mega-churches before (“The Religion of Me Part Two: The Mega-church,” 09/29/2010).  They are not churches, they are theatrical events with a religious theme.  If you disagree with me, then I ask you to consider a Texas story.

Yes, I understand Texans like to do things in a big way.  My best friend from college lives there and turned me on to this story, so apologies to the Lone Star state, but sometimes y’all are just crazy.  At Fellowship Church in Grapevine, “Rev.” Ed Long thought the Easter story of Jesus rising from the dead was not dramatic enough.  He authorized the church to hire a real lion, lion handler, and four-day-old lamb to symbolize Jesus as both a lion and a lamb (April 2012).  One story reported the show cost the church $50,000.  I guess that’s not a lot of money to Pastor Ed because he makes more than $1 million per year.  (Usually I would offer links to stories, but my best source was the Dallas Morning News and you can’t get the story for free.  The Humane Society of Flower Mound has a good summary.)

I was unable to find anything about the pastor’s credentials or education online, but I was able to find plenty of press.  He and his wife made news (February 2012) by doing a 24-hour bed-a-thon on the roof of the church to promote sex in marriage.  More accurately, Rev. Ed was promoting his latest book, from which he doesn’t have to share sales revenue from with his church.

The absurd is not limited to big-time money-grubbing showmen.  It also infects in smaller arenas.  I posted a story on my Web site (http://allthingsreligiousonline.com/) about an Assembly of God Church in Central Pennsylvania that kidnapped youth group teens at gunpoint to show them what life is like for missionaries.  Neither the teens nor their parents knew this was going to happen and the designated kidnapper was an off-duty police officer with a real gun.  It wasn’t loaded, but the kids didn’t know that.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/pennsylvania-church-kidnaps-teens-holds-them-at-gunpoint-to-teach-a-lesson_n_1382605.html?ref=religion

Stories like these are why atheists think religious people are nuts.  It’s a difficult point to defend.  The practice of faith is not a concrete endeavor.  Still, there are lots more people quietly honoring their own spiritual interpretations without circus stunts and contrived violence – or real violence for that matter.

If the church folks in Central PA wanted to demonstrate real courage, they would fire their minister.  Rural Pennsylvania is known as fertile ground for hate groups like the Klan.  I am certain that the Assembly of God church could find actual mission work spreading compassion, if they chose, like that ‘love your neighbor’ stuff that is in their Bible.

The best thing that they could do in Grapevine, Texas would be to convert their ‘mega-church’ into a homeless shelter and soup kitchen.  Then they wouldn’t need their $1 million-per-year Showman Preacher and his private jet.  Even if they took all that money and started a business, they would be creating jobs, which would be of more service to the community than devoting extraordinary resources to religious theatre.

Jesus had a lot to say about peace, poverty and humility.  But you wouldn’t know that if you went to church in Grapevine, Texas or Middletown, Pennsylvania.  It’s not just ironic that these two churches are doing such a poor job of representing their own religion – it’s tragic.  These stories demonstrate that you can’t immunize religious practice from human ego any more than you can protect organized religion from politics, or politics from organized religion.

There is a desperate need for reasonable people to have a stronger voice.  This is true in religion and in democracy.  Quite frankly, I don’t know how to make that happen.  The only response I can think of for us non-wealthy regular folks, is to respond to news stories.  I want to believe that if regular people, regularly, demanded better news, we would get it.  If we stopped being consumers of sensationalized non-news, maybe there would be less of it.  That means writing letters and e-mails to news editors.  It also means turning off the TV, or changing the channel.  It might mean getting more news from National Public Radio.

I admit that watching a story about “tanning bed woman” from New Jersey (where else?) who is being referred to as beef jerky on Facebook is a hoot.  We might need to watch a water-skiing squirrel to balance our day.  But if we don’t work in some real news stories of greater length and depth than sound bites, then we can’t expect much more than sound bites and beef jerky, the latter offering more to chew on.  –J.B.

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The Religion of Me, Part Two: The Mega-Church

There is a seventy-something woman I know well whose father was a pedophile.  I asked her if she was abused by her father and her response was that she doesn’t remember details of her childhood.  I’m told by my social work friend that her memory-blocking is a symptom of abuse.  In any case, I don’t see how it is possible that she could have had a healthy, happy childhood.  Whether or not her father abused her, he and his in-denial wife established a dysfunction household way beyond the everyday grousing most of us do about our families.  That is what takes me to Eddie Long.  As the “bishop” of a 25,000-member Georgia “mega-church” there were symptoms of corruption and impropriety (at best) that 24,999 people chose to overlook.  That was one giant dysfunctional social club.

First of all, the words “mega” and “church,” in my view, are mutually exclusive.  The discussion of religious topics or the word ‘god’ being tossed about about does not a church make.  Political rallies talk about god, Klan rallies talk about god, Masonic ceremonies talk about god.  Even stadium revivals may have a religious theme or inspire spiritual transformation, but these events do not constitute a church.  I’m not going to tackle the definition of church here, today, but I do want to make the distinction of what about this story raises religious questions.  Granted, this is a sensational story on many levels, but not many aspects are really about religion.

An MSNBC morning anchor interviewed a commentator who described Long as running a “ministry of prosperity.”  First of all, there is no such thing.  That is not a “ministry.”  It is religious-themed theatre where a motivational speaker tells folks what they want to hear.  It is not for the common good or the good of the disadvantaged.  It is established and maintained to promote the personal comfort of the leader and the members of his club.

There’s a terrific story CNN story by John Blake on Long (the best mainstream secular reporter covering religion today);  the link follows.

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/09/28/long.new.birth/index.html?hpt=C1

On the other hand, if you’re just sick of the nonsense, then I’ll give you a short-cut check list.  Here is my top ten list: Top 10 reasons to suspect your clergy has his hands in the wrong place.  Here are some things that a few of those 24,999 folks should have noticed.

10.  He’s has to hold a news conference to defend himself.  If he is a man of God, then news stories are irrelevant, aren’t they?  He is fighting for his image and income, not to protect a real ministry.

9. He’s wearing more bling than the little old ladies on the front row or gangster rappers.  In fact, the bling on his finger is the size of a Super Bowl ring.

8.  He doesn’t travel with his wife.  C’mon folks.  This is a little something girls in bars learned about traveling salesmen and lounge lizards a long time ago.  Did not one of you 24,999 folks find a married (allegedly straight) guy traveling around the world with young men slightly hinkey?

7.  Is your clergy driving a better car than you?  He’s not just driving a better car than congregants, it’s a $350,000 Bentley for crying out loud.  With this lousy economy and his millions couldn’t he find domestic luxury to his satisfaction?  How about a nice Towne Car?

6.  Your clergy is sending photos of himself in spandex taken on his cell phone in his bathroom.  (That one really doesn’t require any other comment, does it?)

5.  He’s running a charity to help the poor but lives in a $1.4 million dollar estate and pays himself $1 million a year salary.

4.  There are more pictures of him around the “church” than any religious icons and he tells you questioning him is the same as doubting God.  This is the “Religion of Me” personified.

3.  The use of personal pronouns in his sermons and sound bites.  As I said in my previous column, personal pronouns are a big red flag.

2.  He has sound bites.

1. A ministry of hate.  If anyone in any pulpit is teaching hate messages, it is the sign of a personal or political agenda.  Remember when Southern Christians found justification for slavery in the Bible?  One key to Eddie Long’s prominence is his condemnation of homosexuality.  While it now seems obvious that was some kind of self-loathing, he was engaged in a ministry of hate.

Of all the sordid details in this ever-unfolding story, there were two comments from Long I found especially disturbing.  In speaking to a minister of a smaller church, Long said with envy, “I may have the numbers but you have the love.”  If you are running a church so people love you, then it really isn’t a ministry, is it?  That’s Cult 101.  He justified his lavish lifestyle by describing himself as a CEO.  Again, this is using religion for big business and personal gain not working to help the poor or support the spiritual growth of congregants.  The behavior I found the most disturbing was how he cultivated young men for several years, but didn’t start traveling with them until the legal age of consent (17 in Georgia).  That’s not an accident.  That’s premeditated, calculated manipulation.  Again, what were the 24,999 other church members thinking while this was going on?

Writing about such a lurid story may seem like I’m grabbing low-hanging fruit.  I challenge you to get a ladder and look for the rotten apple still on the tree.  There are smaller examples of clergy in every religion using their position to promote themselves and their own agenda.  As long as the folks listening accept whatever they are told without question or challenge, then these same dynamics will continue to hurt the untold many.  I blame the 24,999 folks sending Eddie checks and Sunday morning amens because he was telling them what they wanted to hear not what they needed to hear, and they were averting their eyes from some obviously creepy behavior.  Wake up and smell the spandex chafing.