Chapter Two: Overwhelmed By Fundamentalism
Dad told us that as a young man he had once held an application form to Prairie Bible Institute in his hands but had never sent it. He had always regretted that. Maybe that’s why my older sister Gail went there for several of her high school years. Dad wanted his kids to do what he felt that he had missed- the will of God. Aside from Dad’s influence, how else would Gail have found out about such an isolated place?
I remembered going along one September when my parents took Gail to school. The slightly undulating land to the east of Calgary stretched to a mountainless horizon that was the terrain opposite of mountainous BC. The absence of mountains made the prairie sky appear to be much broader and expansive.
Grain fields, some hundreds of acres in size, blanketed the region with yellow to golden brown squares of wheat, oats and barley in differing stages of maturity. Most areas were treeless except for patches of brush or short prairie trees, mainly along eroded gullies running down-slope.
As we neared Three Hills we could see the three little bumps in a row several miles to the north of the town that gave the town its name. They were hills roughly one hundred feet high. In relation to the surrounding terrain, the village of Three Hills itself was located on a sloping plateau surrounded by open grain-fields.
On the downtown side just across from PBI there was an aluminum-colored water tower with a huge circular tank elevated some 40 to 50 feet off the ground. The other buildings of noticeable height were the 4 or 5 tall grain elevators situated along the railroad tracks that bordered the edge of town. They were used for storing local farmer’s grain until it could be shipped on the trains to Vancouver. The water towers and elevators of prairie towns could be seen from great distances, long before other buildings came into view.
The Prairie campus occupied the northern half of the small town while the rest of the 2000 population occupied the southern downtown half. The main street of the town was three blocks long with single story wood-frame stores- a bank, 2 drug stores, a grocery store, and some clothing stores, among others. The town center was surrounded on all sides by approximately 3-5 blocks of small, plain houses.
We would soon discover that the road separating the two halves of the town was much more than just a physical line of separation. It represented a profound social and psychological separation created by the Christian community. On one side of town there were God’s people, the good people. On the other side of town were Satan’s people, the unbelievers. I would discover that Christianity creates profound divisions among human beings.
On the Christian side of town, the school buildings were similar to army barracks; one or two story wood buildings, plain and weathered. Several larger buildings with arching roofs housed the dining facilities and the main church building. Staff houses and trailers surrounded the campus core for blocks in each direction. The central streets and walkways of the campus were lined with tall thin birch and poplar trees. The smell of those trees, just like the Cottonwoods in Chilliwack, would in subsequent years evoke pleasant memories of warm summer mornings and chirping birds heard throughout the flower-decked campus.
As we toured the campus on my initial visit, we stopped occasionally to open the doors of buildings and peek inside. We saw clean-shaven and shorthaired young men smiling and looking busy while women in decent long skirts chatted happily as they worked. Some were even singing hymns. It appeared to be quite wholesome.
Now several years after that first visit- newly converted and too embarrassed to face my friends at school in Chilliwack- I decided to go along with my family to Three Hills, hoping to finish my final year of high school there and then go on to university. I even dreamed of going to medical school.
But I did not go on to university. Instead, I was swamped and trapped by the zealotry of Fundamentalist religion. The central themes of threat, fear, punishment, and domination would from my very first days at school begin to weave a tight emotional web throughout my consciousness. I had no idea then that it would take almost two decades to find my way to freedom and back to humanity. I was going to experience the very heart and soul of Fundamentalism, close up and from the very inside. I was going to become Fundamentalist myself.
Sometimes, when critiquing my religious upbringing and training, I experience moments of hesitancy. In trying to expose something of the inhumanity of Fundamentalism, I wonder if I am being too harsh and upsetting toward the many people who find great comfort and security in their religious beliefs. I think, for instance, of the pastor interviewed on the news show 20/20 who lost his six sons in a fiery car accident. He finds great comfort in such Evangelical truths as the belief that God predetermines all things and has some good purpose for every tragedy in life. Perhaps in criticizing that religion, I am undermining something that many people depend on for some sense of security in an often cruelly random world.
But then I recall people like the U. S. House managers who tried to impeach Bill Clinton and I am reminded of the shameless Fundamentalist manipulation of God and people- the harsh threat, the fear, and the insatiable drive to punish. I am no fan of Bill Clinton, but I find the Fundamentalist loyalty to law above compassion to people to be a disgusting and inhumane way to treat anyone. I see also a very religious America intending to punish and lock up its citizens at historically unheard of levels and I am reminded that many social attitudes and practices are rooted in ancient religious ideas such as those of punishing gods.
People commonly replicate in their societies what they believe to be divine patterns. More correctly, people imitate in their societies the divine patterns that they have created for themselves. If people hold views of a God who is vengeful, dominating, and punishing, then they will inevitably mimic those same harsh features in their own lives and societies. This is why it has been said that we will never have truly human societies until we create more human views of God.
This fact inspires me to expose something of the inhumanity of Evangelical Fundamentalism as I experienced it. It is part of my own overall endeavor to find a more human form of spirituality or God.
So I am absolutely fed up with seeing people dominated, controlled, and threatened with punishment by religious people, by those who use the reality of God to validate such harsh treatment. Using God (an appeal to the highest known authority) to validate inhumanity is the most perverse thing any person can ever do to another human being.
I realize that others may have had a more positive experience of Christianity than I did. I was perhaps a bit introspective and perhaps I took the warnings and threats more seriously than others did. But I received what I was taught as God’s truth. I saw no alternative, because Christian leaders always said that they were teaching God’s Word to us. They told us that to be relaxed (lukewarm) or liberal about God’s truth would anger God and lead us to hell. We had to take everything they said very seriously, or else.
Also, my Dad had some darker strands in his personality. He tended to see the negative side of things more than others did and we now know that some of these personality traits can be passed on to children. Maybe I also had a tendency at that time to notice more of the dark underbelly of things.
I do not want to belittle the genuine love, generosity, and sense of community that existed at places like Prairie, but I do feel that the nastier elements that I experienced there were not just aberrations or imperfections at the periphery of an otherwise sound system. I believe that what I learned and experienced in Evangelicalism represented something seriously wrong with the heart and core of the Christian teaching and lifestyle. At any rate, it is my experience of Evangelical Christianity.
I also realize that Christian people, in defense, will claim that I am a heretic, bitter and disgruntled and that explains what I am saying. I should not therefore be taken seriously. That is all right. I once felt that way myself about people who left Evangelicalism and made public complaints afterward. I understand where the Christians, who feel slighted by those who abandon them, are coming from. It is frightening to have someone challenge a system that provides you with your personal identity and meaning.
If it means anything, I would point out that I experienced Christianity as a totally committed zealot and not just as a dabbler at the periphery. I was well-trained in Christian teaching and practice. I even went overseas as a missionary for 11 years. I speak from intense personal experience at the very heart of Christianity.
My sister Gail says that what I have written here reveals anger. Yes, sometimes it does. Am I an angry person? Yes, I would probably agree that occasionally I have experienced those emotions when reflecting on my experience in religion (more pissed off at myself). But I feel less of that as I get older. I like to think of myself as a forgiving person. More accurately I would say that I have struggled at times in the past with anger. I was angry at having wasted so much of my life in Fundamentalist religion, trapped by threat and fear, and controlled by such archaic, pagan religious ideas. How could I have let that happen? But that anger has passed over the years. Time does heal.
But let me balance my criticism of Evangelicalism with a clear statement of gratefulness for the intense focus that Christianity makes regarding concern for others in need of help. People in the Christian religion often communicated to me that life was not about selfish hoarding of things for one’s self but rather it was about loving, sharing, and helping others. Those are profoundly human values and I am grateful for having learned them. But despite those positive values expressed in Christianity, which are also taught by other religions and are common among normal non-religious people, I cannot ignore the destructive influence of the Fundamentalist spirit that defines the essential nature of Christian movements like Evangelicalism. That Fundamentalist attitude arises from the very core beliefs of the religion. It is not just a nagging aberration that creeps in around the periphery. It is due in many ways to the nature of religion itself (e.g. religion as essentially about conditions cannot advocate true unconditional treatment of others).
Fundamentalism threatens our hopes for a peaceful future more than perhaps any other movement among humanity today. Whether Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, or Christian, the Fundamentalist factions of religions, political movements, and other social movements, threaten the peace and security of all people with intolerance, exclusivity, and the drives for revenge, conquest, domination, and punishment.
My criticism of Evangelical Fundamentalism is simply an effort to express something of my own experience with a very harsh and inhuman movement that has destroyed more relationships and lives than perhaps anything else in history.
Back in the 1920s some religious people had gotten together in Three Hills to form a Bible school where young people would be brought to learn the Bible and then become pastors or missionaries. Leaders used to say in later years that God gave them a vision for Prairie. God had planned it in heaven. It was a place that was specially favored by God.
Those early founders established Prairie Bible Institute. It was not just an ordinary Bible school, but a Fundamentalist and very missionary-oriented school. As Fundamentalists they believed that every word of the Protestant Bible was truth sent directly from God. They would live and die for that belief and would faithfully fight all others who disagreed with that foundational truth.
Also, a high percentage of PBI graduates went overseas to convert lost souls to Jesus. The school was very proud of that. On the ladder of spiritual status, becoming a missionary was the highest rung of attainment or service. It was the real ‘work of God’, more than any other kind of work.
There are a large number of Bible colleges across North America. Prairie’s leaders considered those that were not Fundamentalist to be Liberal, which was the same as saying that they were damned. Liberals were worse than other infidels because they were expected to know better. They had been given some light and they still refused to become Fundamentalists. They were not close to God and therefore they were not good Christians.
The best Christian people and the people who made God the happiest were the Fundamentalists.
Fundamentalists now call themselves Evangelicals, Conservatives, or the Christian Right as they realize the term Fundamentalism has taken on negative connotations, much like the Islamic Fundamentalists who bomb and kill their enemies or the US Fundamentalists who bomb abortion clinics.
One of Prairie’s uniquely distinguishing features and the first thing people noted on the campus were the separation of the sexes and the almost complete suppression of sexuality.
But how do you cool all the blood boiling with hormones in the veins of those young student bodies? At PBI the most powerful natural drives were permitted very little expression at all. Men and women students were separated in dormitories on opposite sides of the campus. Just as in Islamic societies, the rules of Prairie strictly limited any interaction between the sexes. Occasional casual glances or comments were tolerated as students walked to and from classes or meetings. But only less dedicated students would actually stop and talk. And they were breaking the rules. We were taught to frown at the poor behavior of such careless students.
Even in the classrooms and in public services at the big central auditorium (the Tabernacle) the men and women had to sit on opposite sides. It was very similar to Islamic mosques. We learned to glance quickly, but not too obviously, to find where the person we were interested in was sitting. We also learned how to pretend to talk to someone beside us in order that we could look past them to where the girls sat. Really loose people would just sit and stare across at the opposite sex (apparently in recent decades things have lightened up more).
All the women at Prairie had to wear long skirts that hung well below their knees so as not to expose too much flesh and tempt the boys to lust (but just covering the knees did not help those men who had lower calf, ankle, or foot fetishes). The rule book demanded that all the extra long clothing also had to be loose fitting in order to properly hide boobs and buns. It was all part of the commitment to preserving student concentration for finding and doing the will of God without worldly distraction. We were exactly like Fundamentalist Islam.
LE Maxwell, the school founder and president, often declared from his pulpit that, “Western flesh-exposing fashions are from Paris, and Paris, in turn, gets them directly from hell”.
It was so alien to what I had known back in the world. But I was being drawn into and caught up in it all. More accurately, I was being swamped and trapped by it as many others were. The school leaders told us that a nonsexual life was the holy life that God wanted, so it was the best thing to pursue. “Single people”, they said regularly, “can serve God more fully and effectively”. And we all know what kind of perversion this has unleashed in branches of Christianity such as Catholicism and its priesthood.
LE exhorted us to remain single in order that we would not be distracted from doing the will of God which meant going overseas as a missionary. If we married and did not go overseas then we would miss the will of God, which was the next worst thing to hell. He even handed out an essay written by his son Ernest, which urged us to stay single until we got to the mission field. Tragically, some of us took him seriously. Damn it.
To keep us students committed to that strange new lifestyle we were told that we must please God at all times. We were created for one thing alone- to glorify God. That was the constant challenge pressed upon us- “Does what you are doing or saying, glorify God?” It was an effective guilt-stimulating challenge that kept us subservient and obedient to authority and rules. It was one of those tools of control that are very general and can be used to cover almost anything the user wishes to gain compliance with. Prairie used it to dampen the human hormonal system.
But don’t assume that human sexuality was quashed completely in that holy community. There were times when students would sneak off for clandestine meetings of illicit kissing and touching. We even heard of the odd staff member succumbing to adultery. When caught, they were publicly condemned and shamed. Some were expelled which was perhaps the worst punishment. They were being cut off from God and God’s work in God’s special community.
Despite the threat and punishment, it was impossible to eliminate hormones from the blood system. Hormones made our minds wander in the most sacred of places, even while praying and in public services when everyone was supposed to be worshipping God. I could stand while singing hymns of praise and still imagine the delicious buns under those long loose fitting robes covering female bodies in front of me. To counteract such lust, we were taught a verse that commanded us to bring every thought under control to Jesus Christ. And God knows we tried. In prayer I would often start out focused on God (some indefinable male brightness sitting on a throne with a crown) but within seconds my mind would end up in the slimy gutter of lust, imagining nubile naked female bodies.
It was too often a losing battle. Why couldn’t they just return to the old female goddesses of past eras? Especially the stone carvings on those Indian temples where people were intertwined in the most earthy positions (I believe the most common position depicted on those temples is called the ‘missionary position’). Then young men everywhere could be faithful worshippers, doing missionary work and the will of God and easily staying focused on God.
I’m just kidding.
In my years at Prairie I never heard anyone mention the word sex positively. Not even making love or married couple’s pleasures or responsibilities. Just as Dad had said in earlier years, sex was for dogs and pigs. If anyone at Prairie had ever said penis or vagina, I’m certain they would have been bound, carried out, and shot. There was never the faintest expression of sexuality in public. We were like a big community of nuns and priests. Yuuuck.
Oh well, at least we never heard of a case of STD at Prairie. Not even one single little wart or rash or bug. Nothing. In such a sexually sterile environment it was impossible to imagine the staff couples touching each other sexually or enjoying it. And it was equally impossible to imagine Mr. Maxwell, the school’s president and leading holy man, groaning during an orgasm.
Over the years that I spent as a student at Prairie, a variety of dominant themes were beat into our brains. The opportunities to beat Fundamentalist teaching into our heads were endless. The first thing we were required to do on waking early every day was to have devotions (Bible reading and prayer). After breakfast we trudged off to classes to study the Bible, Christian doctrine (the belief system), witnessing (telling people about Christian beliefs in order to convert them), and missionary work. During a break in the morning classes it was mandatory for all of us to attend a student chapel to listen to some inspiring preacher. They weren’t all inspiring. Once a fraud artist slipped in and tried to con an offering out of us. It was an exciting diversion. But he was quickly shooed away by the school authorities. It was Satan sneaking in to sow tares (weeds) among the wheat.
In the afternoon our Bible study classes continued unabated. They were interrupted only by a missionary prayer meeting half way through the afternoon. There people closed their eyes and bowed their heads to intone, “Lord, bless all the missionaries around the world”. In the evenings we studied our Bible lessons or attended prayer meetings and other preaching meetings.
If we failed to attend any of the scheduled meetings or classes then we would be reprimanded promptly and sharply.
On the weekends we attended special meetings to listen to more inspiring preachers or we went on outreaches to try to convert lost souls (again, it was called witnessing). Sunday was the big meeting day. LE Maxwell usually preached the morning sermon and lesser lights preached in the evening service. Those weekend meetings were not just more of the same; they were special meetings called services. In the afternoon between Sunday services we went out to surrounding villages to do more converting work.
Our weeks were packed densely with classes and meetings all focused on Bible study, prayer and witnessing. It was total submersion in God, the Bible, and righteous thinking, living and breathing. And remember, religious meetings were the most deadening things ever created to dull and destroy the human spirit. We endured 4 solid years of such meetings. That was enough to destroy the spirits of hundreds of normal people.
I entered Prairie Bible Institute as a fairly normal, fun loving human being. Just an average pagan sinner. But during my first year I was made to feel guilty about my normalcy and I was pressured to become more serious. The growing seriousness was essential to becoming committed to the Christian God and the Christian Jesus.
Caught Up In The Special
When you naively enter a Fundamentalist community it does not take long to become caught up in the zeal and fervor of people who feel that God is with them in a unique manner and that all they do is directly related to God. God smiles on them and blesses them in a special way. The sense of specialness so permeates everything that you start to feel giddy and excited at times. They call it the joy of the Lord and they claim that true joy is a special feeling that God only gives to fully committed Evangelicals. It comes straight from God and it is a sign that God is blessing people for being obedient and submissive to his will.
I wanted to be part of it. Everything was couched in God-talk. Everything at Prairie existed because God himself willed and brought it into being. Therefore, everything being done was God’s work. Prairie was called God’s School by its leaders. You had to be careful to give God all the praise and glory. God supplied the funds, and led the staff and the students to go there. Everyone at Prairie was specially elected and chosen by God himself. You simply could not get any closer to God or his work.
The idea of election- a special people called by God, a chosen people to do God’s work- is really just a modern religious form of ancient tribalism. The ancient animal reality of exclusive and opposing bands continued on into the existence of emerging humanity. That band or tribal orientation shaped the earliest human communities and their views of gods. Those early peoples believed that their particular god favored their band or tribe in opposition to all others. The ancient band orientation was eventually institutionalized in the developing structures of nation states. But that tribal exclusivity undermines and destroys the reality that we are all human beings in one family, responsible for each other. It also destroys any sense of tolerating difference and accepting others. We are no longer to be enemies or outsiders to each other. We ought to be inclusive of all people just like the secular sage Jesus was scandalously inclusive.
The creation of religions and churches with the saved in opposition to the unsaved is quite simply a return to the old tribalism. However, in those early days at Prairie it did not seem to be a bad thing. We were the most special people on earth. It was all very upbeat.
The sense of specialness, of being different from and better than the rest of humanity is also one strand in the robe of morality. God’s special people are better than other people because they have received a special revelation of the divine way of thinking and they have been personally led by God to a more pure or holy lifestyle.
But such moralism is essentially just an updated version of another primeval drive. It is the very animal-like drive and emotion to dominate others, to be the top band among all the other bands. Pardon me if I am relating these beliefs, drives and emotions to our animal background. But it is the argument of evolutionary biology that we still feel and do many things due to residual influences from our animal past. We still carry the remnants of a residual animal brain in our skulls, a brain that emotes very primitive drives. Millions of years of selection for certain traits cannot be suddenly erased from human mentality and emotions. We can still see those ancient animal drives expressed in modern worldviews and practices, even in religious views and practices.
CS Lewis, an Evangelical hero, also speaks of the perverted pride, which finds its identity and satisfaction in setting itself above all others, in putting others down in order to feel good about itself, and thinking itself as more special than others. Such pride is often expressed in the humble-sounding Christian phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”.
The historical Jesus fought moralism and eventually died at the hands of very moral and religious people. But at Prairie we were not taught that nonreligious historical Jesus. We wanted to be special, set apart from common humanity as God’s special people, his favorites. Fundamentalist religion gave us that sense of being special to God.
I also wanted to become part of the Fundamentalist community in order to escape the wrath of God and hell. That element of fear would be developed thoroughly over the following months and years.
Getting Closer To God
Everywhere on the Prairie campus there were young zealots busy serving the Lord. Smiling students with good straight-back posture were purposefully striding around from here to there and back again. If you asked them about normal things in life like, “How are you doing” or “Where are you going?” they would respond, “Well, if the Lord wills I’ll do this or go there” or “Whatever the Lord tells me” or “The Lord’s blessings are so good” or “The Lord is good”. Often such responses did not even bother to answer our polite questions but only made us feel embarrassed and unspiritual for not talking in the same manner. How could we be so worldly to not include the Lord in everything?
Over the years I never felt comfortable talking like that, even though I tried. But religious God-talk proved to other Christians that you were walking close to the Lord and you were a very spiritual person. I felt the pressure to at least try to use God-talk. Sometimes I even became pretty good at it.
Once a visiting Evangelical speaker, Corrie Ten Boom, took a nap after a long trip to her host’s home. She came out of the bedroom after napping for only about 10 minutes. The host asked in surprise, “That was such a short nap?” Ten Boom responded with a saintly smile, “You only need 10 minutes when the Lord gives the sleep”. Sheesh.
Sleep researchers now tell us that short naps in the afternoon are much more refreshing than long deep sleeps. But her reply sounded more spiritual and she had a reputation of being a very spiritual person.
We all felt the pressure to be more spiritual than average people and that reveals something rather unsettling about Christianity. It is a very hierarchical religion despite its profession of egalitarian ideals. There are numerous levels of spirituality. One of the famous victorious life authors, Jesse Penn-Lewis, speaks of moving up through various planes as one becomes a better Christian. As you become more committed, you become closer to God and you are more favored than the normal mass of lukewarm, worldly believers. You get special experiences with God and special messages from him. Kind of like the teacher’s pet. God likes you more than the rest. Christians call it the reward for ‘pleasing God’.
Quite naturally, no one wanted to be left on the lower levels. Those were the people who made God angry, lost their reward and were even in danger of being thrown into hell like garbage. You were not just sent to hell, you were thrown there. Angry people throw things.
So we all tried to climb up the spiritual hierarchy to be above normal sinful people and above lax or lukewarm Christians. We wanted to get closer to God who sat at the very top of the Christian hierarchy.
Getting close to God was one of the central goals of the Christian community. That goal has spawned a huge industry where people write ‘how to’ books that peddle the secrets to becoming closer to God. But it often confused me. Was not God already present here everywhere? Therefore are we not all close to God? No, not according to Evangelical leaders. Only the most zealous of true believers were close to God. God manifested himself only to those people.
The Danger Of Being Right
There was no evidence at Prairie of anyone trying to maliciously brainwash people in hidden torture rooms. People didn’t walk around in fear of being shot as was true of Jonestown where armed guards were posted. No. It was more subtle at Prairie because such harsh control of others was forbidden by the wider secular society. But similar to Jonestown, at Prairie we had to submit completely to the leaders and the Evangelical beliefs and practices that they taught us. That was how to do the will of God.
Our teachers told us that if we did not follow through on that full commitment to Evangelicalism then we were refusing God’s will. We would then lose heavenly reward and forfeit God’s blessing or power. We were also in danger of making God angry and ending up on his roasting spit. That was an infinitely worse threat than being shot at Jonestown. The hell thing was always hanging around threateningly in the background.
Evangelicals, and Christians in general, use the most powerful ideas in human history- God, truth, right, wrong, hell, and heaven- to coerce people into commitment to their religion. Once they become trapped under the emotional and intellectual pressure of such ideas, very few people are able to escape. Even many non-Christian or nonreligious people succumb to the pressure of such ideas, traces of which can be found throughout conventional cultures.
People at Prairie honestly believed that they were doing God’s will and acting in the best interests of others. But sincere people who believe that they are doing the will of God are sometimes the most dangerous people on earth. They believe that God has shown them what is best for all people and they believe that they alone are acting for God. God is on their side directing their every move. The inevitable outcome of such a belief is intolerance, arrogance, and the impulse to dominate others in order to change them.
True believers led by God are often driven by a passionate conviction to convert others to their version of truth and right- to their view of God’s will. Many even believe that in coercively converting people they are acting out of sincere love. They believe that converting people to Christianity, and especially to Evangelicalism, is the best thing for everyone. It is the will of God and it is the ultimate good for all humanity. Along with a direct mandate from God to convert others to that truth and right- well, is it any wonder that normally pleasant people can then find themselves acting intolerantly toward others who differ?
And there is another reason why fundamental Evangelicals are intolerant toward the lifestyles of all those who differ from them. They believe that God will punish people for not living as Christians, and in fact, God will punish entire nations that do not live “righteously” as Christians view that term. So all in a society live under threat of punishment if some are not living Christianly. Hence, true Christian believers feel obligated to interfere in the lives of others and change them in order that all in a society will be spared from some horrible judgment, including themselves. This may help to understand why Evangelicals are such busy bodies intruding into other’s lives and not permitting them to live as they choose (always trying to enact laws that prevent others from doing this or that). It is at core the fear of punishment from an angry God.
The Evangelical attitude of being right and wanting others to convert to their worldview was revealed in a survey where 72% of American Evangelicals said that it was important that non-Christians convert to Christianity. Only 25% of other Protestants and only 17% of Catholics felt the same way. But they were only liberals anyway.
Remember also that people who feel they are led or directed by God are rarely open to challenge or correction. God cannot be wrong and what they are doing in God’s name cannot be wrong. That explains much of the hard-nosed arrogance of Fundamentalist peoples.
When people begin to believe that their ideas and lifestyle are directly from God, then it becomes almost impossible for those people to admit to error or to maintain the freedom to change. The anthropologist Roger Keesing (Cultural Anthropology) said that people divinize the beliefs and rules they create, “giving them the aura of being absolute and eternal… and place them beyond challenge”.
Once in a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) interview someone asked LE Maxwell, the school president, if his beliefs might be open to correction. “Oh no”, he retorted bluntly. He would have nothing to do with such weak uncertainty. He continued, “I know that I am right and there is no question in my mind about my beliefs being possibly wrong”. He wanted the CBC, which he said was “pink”, to know that Fundamentalists were certain about black and white.
Our guide into Fundamentalist religion was the forceful personality of LE Maxwell. He always signed his name with the initials LE because his first name was Leslie and he did not like it. It wasn’t manly enough.
His dominating presence shaped the culture of the school more than any other factor. Prairie Bible Institute, or PBI, was LE Maxwell’s creation and kingdom.
LE was a white haired patriarch of some 70 years of age at the time of my starting school in 1969. My sister Gail referred to him as a living Moses and he had the intimidating scowl to back up that characterization. He was a short man, but in solemn dark suits he carried himself purposefully with the shoulders-back posture of a former soldier. His prominent hawk’s nose and his strongly jutting lower jaw pointed his way directly along God’s will around campus.
But despite a generally solemn and intimidating presence, sometimes he could be jovial and capable of a hearty laugh. He would joke about peripheral things in daily life but never about God or Jesus or Hell or sex or the blood sacrifice of Jesus or the Devil. To joke about such things was blasphemy, which was beyond even normal sin.
LE was very careful about the when and where of his joking. He did not like, for instance, laughing, talking or goofing around in the presence of God which seemed to reside mainly in the big central Tabernacle. All those normal human activities upset his God; they grieved him, especially on Sunday mornings during the worship service.
And according to LE, some Sunday mornings the chatter of people bothered God more than other Sundays. During the opening of one service, LE sat on the platform of the Tabernacle watching people come in and take their seats. Many were engaging in friendly talk with others. It was just normal human interaction. LE waited till it was his turn to speak. He then strode quickly to the microphone and, unexpectedly, shouted loudly in anger at the audience, “You came in here like a herd of stupid pigs. Don’t you know that you are in the presence of God?”
Everyone sat stunned and embarrassed trying to think of others who had been talking more than they had. Maybe he was mad at someone else. It was a defensive response to try and deflect the shame. We did not realize that God was so pissed off with us just trying to be friendly to each other.
LE felt that we should have been speechless with awe. My, my what a nasty, unamused God.
Another time LE sat on the platform and scowled in displeasure as a Sunday school teacher finished a harmlessly funny skit for children.
I was confused. At other times LE would do fun things on the platform and have the audience laughing at his antics. I guess he alone knew when God was in a funny mood or not.
LE did not so much lead us as drive us with fear. He, better than anyone else I have ever met, knew how to communicate the wrath of God in his preaching. He could shout and glare and freeze people in their seats with stern warnings of Hell (“where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched”) or at least serious loss of reward for careless, sinful moments in the Christian life. When LE frowned from the pulpit, you could feel God was angry with you.
His favorite sermons were on the Judgment Seat of Christ where believers were going to be exposed completely (every thought and evil desire), shamed before the entire universe, and maybe even damned. That was where rewards and punishments were to be handed out to the elect. Good Christians would get to rule over stars or worlds as absolute dictators. But bad Christians- “Well, you just better make sure you are really saved and committed and obedient and confessed up to date”, he would scowl. Being right with God was the only security in life. Nothing else mattered, said LE.
The emotional web that was being woven throughout our consciousness used the most powerful ideas to ever enter the human mind- God, heaven, the spiritual- and the worst threats to ever enter human thinking- the wrath of God, burning torture in hell- to entrap us firmly within the Evangelical faith. LE used his terror-inspiring God to shape us into committed young zealots.
Ruling With God
LE often motivated us with the promise that if we were good faithful followers of Evangelicalism then we would share the absolute domination of our God over the entire universe. That desire to rule the universe with God exposes one of the central themes of Christianity as brutally pagan and animal-like. The absolute domination of all others is the ultimate Evangelical ideal (“Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord”). Evangelical’s dream of the day that everyone who disagrees with them will be beaten, crushed, subjugated, humiliated, and even destroyed. They believe their God will conquer, crush, and destroy all their enemies in a horrific bloodbath and slaughter known as Armageddon. The Christian God will then rule the universe as an absolute dictator and all true believers will rule in absolute domination with him. It is a pagan, barbaric ideal of brutal animal domination at the very heart of Christian theology.
There I go again with my evolutionary biology.
What drives the Christian zeal for such violent confrontation and inhuman domination? Robert Brinsmead says that Christianity has always been a brutally intolerant religion that has not looked kindly on any who oppose its teachings. Some historians (Walbert Bulhmann- God’s Chosen Peoples) suggest that Christianity may be responsible for shedding more blood than any other world religion. How do Christians legitimize such violent intolerance? Brinsmead says the legitimization comes from the very heart of Christianity- the death of Christ.
“Orthodox Christianity teaches that on the cross Jesus satisfied divine justice by paying the price for human sin. Only thus could God cease to be offended with sinners and be able to offer them forgiveness. This is the ultimate citadel of the Christian religion… The Christian religion embraces the Law’s ‘eye for eye’ kind of justice and perfects it in the death of Christ. Instead of recognizing the death of Jesus as the tragedy of religious violence… the Christian religion regards his death as a drama of divine violence… The death of Christ thus becomes an exhibition of divine violence in its most terrifying aspect… The Christian religion, no less than any other religion, has perpetuated religious violence because at its very heart it teaches divine violence’ (Religion And Violence, Verdict, Essay 35, 1988).
Brinsmead notes that the final display of divine violence is postponed until the Second Advent of Christ. Then “in flaming fire and vengeance he will finally recompense his enemies until there is blood as high as a horse’s bridle for miles on every side (Rev. 14:20)… Meanwhile, because of the divine justice displayed in the cross, we may escape the final display meted out without mercy at the end of the world. While ‘Jesus is tenderly calling today’, those who do not respond will be thrown into a hell so horrific that some have fainted or lost their minds in contemplating the most cruel and inhuman punishment ever to enter the minds of men…”
“This is the sacralization of violence so terrible that it can never be appeased or be moved to pity by multitudes of screaming, suffering human victims… Enough of this outrageous religion which has held millions in bondage!”.
“The legitimizing of violence which occurs in Christianity does not represent a few unfortunate aberrations. It is profoundly inherent in the religion and persistent throughout its entire course of history. A religion with violence at the heart of its theology (i.e. blood payment for sin and hell fire) and a religious community which glories in divine violence are bound to sanctify all forms of human violence… ‘Christianity has generated savage wars of religion and supported numerable “just wars”; has tortured and burned multitudes of heretics and witches in the name of God; has motivated and authorized the persecution of Jews; has validated systematic racism'”
“There is no necessity to trace in detail the pathetic history of Christian intolerance, anti-Semitism, heretic burning, the Inquisition, the Crusades, sexism, slavery, racism and all forms of social control. Western culture has always been able to draw from Christianity the necessary legitimization and even motivation for all these forms of violence. In this the Protestants have been no different from the Catholics, especially when they have slaughtered each other. After all, is not the God of both Catholics and Protestants a God of war and violence?”
Brinsmead then notes that America in particular has adopted religious violence as central to its ideology of being a redeemer nation and having a cosmic destiny in human history. The fight against Communism (and now Islam) must be understood in this light. America must save the world from evil and ensure that the Christian God rules over all. Members of the Christian Right in the US appear to be the most vocal hawks in the country. With Evangelical fervor they push for confrontation (even nuclear) with all the enemies of Christianity. One author quoted by Brinsmead (herself Evangelical) notes that the faces of popular evangelists turn radiant at the thought of building more bombs and using them to annihilate the enemies of Christianity.
But let me return to LE Maxwell.
LE did not allow any interpretation of life issues that differed from his own. Staff regularly told us, “He does not suffer fools gladly (all who disagreed with him fell into this category)”. The slightest departure from his positions led to banishment. One fall semester a popular instructor suddenly quit teaching and left the campus. We asked what had happened and were told, “He started ‘going off’ and saying ‘unbiblical things’”. He was expelled under a cloud of suspicion and shame. He had dared to disagree with LE on some minor point of doctrine.
Another time LE invited a preacher from a well known Evangelical organization (Youth For Christ) to come and speak at the big Tabernacle. Just as the man was leaving his guest suite to go speak before a large conference crowd, LE received a telephone call from a friend warning him that the invited speaker had previously said something that was not strictly in line with Fundamentalist orthodoxy. The concern was not that the speaker had perhaps said something inhumane or bad. What he had said may have been very loving and humane but it was not Evangelically correct. Well, LE rushed over to the Tabernacle entrance just as the invited man was about to enter, blocked his way and then told him, “You cannot speak in the meeting which has already started. You will have to leave immediately. I cannot explain why”. Stunned and humiliated, the man complied. LE later said that it was an extremely difficult thing to do, but first and foremost he had to be faithful to Fundamentalist teaching. Loyalty to his God came before tolerance toward another human being.
LE was pre-tribulation pre-millennial rapture (the yoyo belief- Evangelicals will be taken up to heaven just before a 7 year period of suffering then come back down with Jesus to rule the earth for 1000 years before returning to heaven once again), anti-charismatic, pro-capital punishment, verbal plenary inspiration (every word of the Bible was given by God and was to be understood literally), whole body dunking under water baptism, salvation only through the precious blood of Jesus after agonizing repentance, holy Evangelical life as essential evidence of salvation, no drinking, dancing, cards, movies or TV, nor smoking. He was also anti-short skirts with knees exposed, anti-sex, not laughing too much in the holy presence of God especially while in the big Tabernacle, Spirit-filled Keswick deeper life, and very missionary-minded. Everyone at Prairie had to be the same. Or else.
Years later, I concluded that at times Maxwell was very much like a spoiled brat who too often got his own way without responsible adjustment to others in the group. But he could get away with such things because he sat at the very top of the hierarchy of power and control.
LE did not seem to realize that PBI was simply an expression of his own unique eccentricities. Over the decades of his tight control, his view of how a Christian should think and act had become embodied in the school’s policies, rules, and overall culture. Others who joined the school had to deny their own unique selves and submit to the distinct school lifestyle that LE had coercively created. PBI was not, as LE claimed, “God’s truth and will”. It very much represented LE’s truth and will.
All organizations take on the personalities of their founders and subsequent power-holders. Those leaders have the power to control and set policy or rules in a manner that suits their own views and practices. They are often true believers that what they are creating is best for everyone else. But such control and domination is a blatant denial of freedom and equality. It destroys the human uniqueness of others who enter such organizations and it destroys the healthy diversity so necessary to true freedom.
If anyone on campus tried to express disagreement and debate some issue or depart from set school patterns, staff people would rebuke them for causing “disunity in the Body of Christ”, a terrible thing to do. They would quote verses on unity and peace and then pressure the disturbers to get back in line, to conform. “God is not a God of confusion, but of order” they would quote and they would add, “We must submit to those placed in authority over us”.
While at Prairie I discovered the central feature of the Christian God- he wants to dominate and control utterly. And Christian people have become experts in using that God to control others, often in the pettiest of ways.
But you will never get human progress if you take all that Christian threat to conform seriously. All human progress and development comes by curiosity, questioning, skepticism, challenging the status quo or orthodoxy, and breaking out of traditional parameters. Humanity advances by breaking precedent and moving in entirely new directions, by creatively experimenting in growing diversity and complexity.
The physicist Freeman Dyson (Disturbing The Universe) has said that the fundamental trend of the universe and life in the universe is toward growing diversity and complexity. From absolute uniformity at the Big Bang, as the universe has cooled matter and life have moved increasingly toward creative and spontaneous diversity. Yet very few organizations provide space for that fundamental movement of life and religious organizations offer even less space for creative diversity and advance. Their frozen position too often is that God cannot change. He is immutable. That view of God is like the eternally unchanging law of Newtonian reality. In that view, God’s truth, will and law are unchanging and his followers try to replicate that eternal unchanging reality in their belief systems and community life. Such devotion to an unchanging divine model leads inevitably to stifling conformity.
The Fear Of God
There was a huge conflict in LE’s life and teaching. The Bible he revered has two parts, an Old Testament and a New Testament. Conventional Christian thinking holds that the Old Testament presents a more stern view of God as punishing lawgiver, while the New Testament presents a more compassionate God of mercy and grace. In the Old Testament, people were under the Law of Moses, while in the New Testament people were to be under grace, forgiveness and mercy. How to reconcile those two pictures of God is an ongoing dilemma that Christianity has created for itself.
LE chose to purposefully downplay New Testament love and mercy in order to emphasize the Old Testament view of God as punishing lawgiver because he was terrified of what he often called “cheap grace”. He was afraid that if people heard too much about God’s love and forgiveness, then they would become lax Christians and would start sinning. To prevent that, people had to be constantly reminded of the law with its sting of threat and punishment. In order to restrain any urge to sin, people must continue to fear the punishing God of the Old Testament.
LE held to the slippery sliding slope view of life. Any relaxation of threat would open the floodgates of sin and people everywhere would go wild and start sinning left and right.
Therefore, LE could never speak of love, forgiveness, or mercy without cautiously hedging such things about with all sorts of frightful warnings against potential abuse. They might make you lax. Consequently, love, forgiveness, and mercy were rendered meaningless realities. LE never made them the clear and liberating truths that they could have been, but instead he buried them under threats and warnings. We left Prairie not knowing God as the familiar accepting Daddy that Jesus taught, but as a threatening and distant Old Testament Judge who was not amused with people living like normal human beings. We were taught Moses’ God, the harsh and threatening God of LE Maxwell.
There was nothing of the scandal of Jesus’ unconditionally merciful God in LE’s teaching.
The wise elderly British preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to say that the apostle Paul was continually charged with encouraging people to sin because he emphasized mercy and forgiveness so radically. Lloyd-Jones argued that, “If you have not been accused of encouraging sin because of your profound emphasis on mercy and forgiveness then you have not really taught the gospel of the mercy of God properly”. LE would never take such a risk. He did not trust people to properly handle love or mercy.
Many students were crushed under the burden LE placed upon them.
Control By Fear
LE’s commitment to law was most prominently evident in Prairie’s rulebook. Rules or law were the main feature of existence at PBI. One of the first things students received upon their arrival at PBI was a copy of the rulebook which they were expected to read from cover to cover and obey without question. Students were also told to report other students who broke the rules.
There were rules covering every aspect of life (with many pages devoted to covering boobs and buns) and strict punishment for any breaking of rules. Those threatening rules were designed to keep students faithful to the Evangelical lifestyle that Prairie was committed to. Prairie controlled people tightly through rules and fear of punishment for breaking rules.
Once a student poured kerosene on a cat and sent it howling through the men’s dorm at night. A stupid and cruel prank to be sure. Several days later, the principal, Ted Rendall, went before the entire student body during a morning chapel to read the student’s name and detail his punishment. It was considered a necessary public shaming in order to strike fear into others. It said in the New Testament that pastors should, “Rebuke sinners before all, so others will fear”. Punishing and shaming bad students publicly would keep the rest of us in line. It worked. Threat and shame are some of the most powerful tools used to effectively dominate and control others.
Normal fear of punishment can motivate people to do pretty much anything you want them to do. And when you add the worst imaginable punishment ever conceived by the human mind- eternal burning and torture in the fires of hell- well, multiply the manipulating power of such threat to infinity.
Some two centuries ago Jonathan Edwards preached the infamous sermon, “Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God”. It was a detailed account of people slipping straight into hell to suffer God’s wrath at the hands of tormenting demons. Members of Edward’s audience actually gripped the church posts to prevent themselves from slipping into hell right there and then while he preached. After terrifying people with horrific visions of a fiery hell, Edwards was able to get his people to do pretty much whatever he wanted. They were desperate for relief. Christians call that inhumane and coercive torment, “the convicting work of the Holy Spirit”. They believe it to be a good thing.
LE believed that without a similar fear of punishment, people would run wild in the streets. He made statements in sermons which revealed his belief that without strong control by law and fear of punishment there would be chaos and anarchy. Sinful people just cannot be trusted. They must be taught to fear a punishing God in order to keep their natural tendency to wildness in check.
We now have evidence to the contrary. For instance, anthropologists have found that in the apparently ungoverned slums of developing countries the residents have created complex social systems and order similar to the villages they migrated from. People naturally create their own order from the bottom. There is even the theory of spontaneous order by Colin Ward which argues that people evolve their own order out of chaos, an order that is more closely related to their needs than externally imposed order.
Francis Fukuyama (“The Great Disruption” in Atlantic Monthly, May 1999) said that the study of how order arises as the result of self-organization on the part of decentralized individuals and not as the result of top-down mandate by hierarchical authority- is one of the most important intellectual developments of our time.
Evidence also shows that decentralized bottom-up order is healthier for people as it creates a sense of empowerment and control over personal life and destiny. Important for any system of organization is the fact that bottom-up control improves human well being. It improves morale, lessens turnover with all the costly retraining of such turnover, and therefore improves the long-term performance of organized groups. So along with improving human well being, it is also more efficient than strong top-down control.
Also, research on managing human error in organizations (Robert Helmriech) now condemns the use of threat and punishment. Threat only degrades organizational atmosphere with increased tension, which then hinders people’s ability to absorb information and make good decisions. It creates a stressful environment, which can lead to more mistakes and deteriorating performance.
But the fear-mongering and threat worked for LE. The Bible said that we were to fear God and LE focused tenaciously on such verses. It justified his tight grip over the campus through a complex system of law and punishment.
Fear was therefore a dominant note in LE’s teaching. It was, in LE’s mind, the only safe response to dangerous human freedom. God as terrorizing Judge watching every misstep and recording innumerable slips for future punishment was more certain to keep people anxiously on their toes. Love and mercy, yes, but only as pale comforting backdrops that we were never allowed to be certain about.
“After all”, said LE, “It has been reported that fully 75% of people who come to Christ, convert out of fear of damnation. So use the motivation of fear”. Terrorize them into Christianity with Hell.
And then to make sure that converts would remain faithful, keep them scared and uncertain of their salvation through threats of loss of reward or the unsettling suggestion that maybe they never were saved in the first place. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”, LE would often quote from the New Testament. You could never be sure of your salvation if you ever relaxed for a moment. What fear of God I had known in my youth now intensified into something closer to terror at Prairie.
LE also taught that the impossibly high standard of ‘sinless perfection’ was possible in this life. He would not actually commit himself to stating that position, but he would not deny it either. He preached a special sermon detailing his beliefs on this issue. If you were lax and allowed any imperfection in your life then you could not really be sure you were saved from hell, he argued.
What a horrific burden for any human being to labor under.
The domination of Prairie’s rules and threats did not end at the campus borders. They followed students out into the summer break and all the way home at great distances from campus. For instance, we were forbidden to start a romantic relationship when out of school for the summer. We were also forbidden to do such things as go see movies.
But some of us gave into temptation and sinned.
One summer while working in Banff, Alberta, my sister Barb and I decided to sneak into a movie. Heads darting back and forth, we fearfully and anxiously waited outside on the sidewalk for the teller to give us our tickets before anyone could see us. After hurrying inside, we slid down in our seats to hide in the dark. When the movie ended, we had to deal with guilt feelings for having broken Prairie’s law. We never told anyone.
Years later during a coffee break with staff members (my Dad was present), LE actually broke down in tears and confessed to the group, “I’ve been such a law man”. He admitted that the central emphasis of his teaching had been all wrong. But he never had the courage to come forward and tell his students of his mistaken emphasis on a punishing God of terror. The coward. Many former students and staff were left to suffer and find their own relief if they could.
As one former Prairie student said, “I spent 4 years at Prairie and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to unlearn what they taught me there”.
Devotion To Religion Before Compassion For People
As I noted at the beginning, in the process of becoming a good Christian I discovered the profound conflict that exists between devotion to the Christian God and being human. I would eventually discover further that this conflict between loyalty to a nonhuman reality and treating people humanely was the essential curse of religion. Religion demands devotion to a religious ideology, a religious lifestyle, and a religious God. That devotion inevitably results in the inhuman treatment of others and that is perhaps the most important insight into understanding the dehumanizing effect of religion.
This insight applies to nonreligious people also. Too often loyalty to organizations, ideologies, belief systems, and systems of law lead the loyal people to neglect or even abuse others.
No ideology or belief system, law or lifestyle should ever come before people and relating to people with love and common decency. Not even God should come before people. John the apostle said that if you love people then you love God. He was saying, “Just focus on people and being decent or nice to people. That is all that God wants”. Jesus said the same in stating that to treat others humanely is to treat God the same (what you have done to others you have done to me also). Wherever religion creates a God who demands devotion that leads to neglect or even abuse of people in favor of the devotion to God, then be sure that is an inhuman and false God. It is an inhuman devotion.
Being nice to others is true devotion, worship, and love of God. There is only one law and that is to love others. But at Prairie we were taught that the Evangelical God and Evangelical religion came before people.
Damning Those Who Differed
In my new zeal to be a good Christian and be devoted to the Evangelical God, I wrote to an old friend, Terry Berg, to warn him that he was lost and going to Hell unless he repented and accepted Jesus as his Savior. My condemnation of him as a sinner no doubt offended Terry because I never heard from him again. I found it embarrassing to do that but I felt that I had to be faithful to God and do his will.
I also went to visit another friend, Nipper Friesen, and out of a sense of duty to God I solemnly warned him that he must repent as he would one day “stand before God in judgment”. He laughed at my warning and with an irreverent smirk said, “I think I’ll just sit down then”. My guts tensed in holy dismay at such blasphemy. Surely God would reserve a special place in hell for such disrespectful blasphemers.
I was beginning to experience Fundamentalist emotions and reactions.
Our teachers had warned us that God required us to be faithful in telling the lost that they were on their way to perishing. A favorite image used by our Christian teachers was that lost people (all non-Evangelicals) were walking blindly toward a cliff and would fall over into the fires of hell unless we were kind enough to warn them of their fate. While true believers would only slide down a slope when they were wrong, unbelievers were not given such mercy. They fell right off a cliff with no warning.
Becoming a good Christian required viewing non-Christians as bad and wrong in opposition to our good and right. It involved developing intolerance toward the beliefs and lifestyle of others who were different. Faithfulness to God also required convincing all others that our Evangelical beliefs were the only truth and our God damned anyone who disagreed with us. We had the truth while they had only lies.
We could therefore never just relate to non-Christians as normal people. The demand for loyalty to our system would not permit us to respond to others with our natural sense of compassion and humanity. We were under constant pressure to be faithful Evangelical witnesses first and save people’s souls from hellfire. That meant telling everyone we met that they were wrong or evil and they needed to change. They needed to get right with God, which meant joining our religion.
I always felt embarrassed talking to people about sin, hell, and religion. It often offended people when we told them they were wrong and going to hell. But we had to do it if we were to avoid God’s anger ourselves. We were laboring under the worst threat ever invented by the human mind- hellfire.
Shame, Shame, Shame
The shame of such religious zealotry was not too intense when we were on campus. Hundreds of us were doing the same things and encouraging each other that we were being good Christians and God was happy with us and would reward us for our zeal in witnessing. In fact, we were told that if the evil sinners in the world persecuted us or made fun of us, then we were “to count it all joy for great is your reward in heaven”. We would get even more reward and blessing if we suffered for doing God’s will. It was very similar to the Muslim promise of paradise for martyrs. But no one said anything about harems of 72 virgins (and interestingly, one Islamic scholar says that particular scripture is actually a reference to 72 grapes or raisins, not virgins. Yikes… imagine the disappointment for all those suicide bombers).
The promise of greater reward for extra suffering tended to fan ordinary religious commitment into a more zealous extremism. The competitive drive to outdo each other in suffering in order to gain the most blessing actually pushed some students right off the edge. Once, in a prayer meeting, several students got all worked up into a frenzy and told God that they were willing to die for him right then and there. They even started crying and wailing, which made me feel cold, insensitive, and less spiritual because I could not whip up similar tears. I have no idea what God would want them to die for on a Christian campus like Prairie. Maybe for crossing over to the girl’s side of campus.
I felt the shame of zeal for religion mostly when contacting nonreligious people off the campus. It was intensely embarrassing to approach complete strangers on the streets of downtown Calgary to start a religious conversation. It was especially embarrassing when we began to tell them that they were lost and damned sinners who needed to repent and come join us in our Evangelical salvation. I felt intensely at such times that I was an odd religious zealot. But apparently, that made God happy. And the ideal set before us was to become a “fool for Jesus”.
Dehumanizing Devotion To God
In my new zeal I was cutting off old friends and acquaintances. I was entering the harsh isolating world of religious Fundamentalism or legalism. They are one and the same. In that world a person becomes zealously loyal to a belief system or religious ideology to the point of intolerantly rejecting and condemning other human beings who are not loyal to the same system.
In Fundamentalism the system of beliefs or laws is always more important than people and treating people humanely. That is the essential insight into the Fundamentalist mind or spirit. Fundamentalists believe that it is more important to faithfully conform to a religious system than to treat others decently or humanely. Let me repeat, the orientation and devotion to a religious system (or any nonhuman reality) always leads to neglect and even abuse of people.
That was exactly what happened to me at Prairie Bible Institute. In my growing loyalty or devotion to the punishing and exclusive God of Christianity I started to treat people inhumanely. I became very much like the God of Christianity. I condemned people (whether complete strangers, or friends and relatives), isolating myself from them as evil and regarding them as the children of Satan who were to be pitied but not accepted as equals. I could no longer relate like a normal human being to non-Christians. I was obligated to treat them as outcasts and to faithfully warn them of their sinfulness and their final destination. They were not following the only true way of life- Evangelicalism.
My entire life was directed toward making non-Evangelicals feel bad about themselves in order to convince them that they had to convert to Evangelicalism. Evangelicals called such effort, “Bringing souls under conviction and then winning them for Jesus”. They believed that it was the primary reason for which God had created them- to be soul-winners.
To treat people in such an inhumane manner I had to push aside my natural sense of humanity and the desire to show common decency toward people. My new religion demanded faithfulness to God first of all. That devotion to the Evangelical God produced horrific inner conflict between the desire to express niceness and decency to others versus a sense of loyalty to the Evangelical God and his religious lifestyle. The Christian God always beat out people.
It happened to many of us at the school. Whether we wanted to or not, we became intolerant and offensive toward other people because of our devotion to a harsh religious ideology and an exclusive God. I know from firsthand experience that in becoming devoted to or loyal to any nonhuman entity, people inevitably end up treating others inhumanely. Religious devotion or commitment obligates people to push aside or bury their basic human impulses and compassion in order to fulfill the requirements of the object of their loyalty. The devotion may be to an ideology or system of beliefs, to a holy book or system of law, to an organization or its leaders, or to a nonhuman God. Such devotion always and inevitably leads to harsh, inhuman treatment of other people outside the system who are not loyal to the same things.
Fundamentalist religious loyalty has developed a particularly nasty tone. Loyalty to the Fundamentalist God requires excluding the non-religious or the nonmembers, becoming intolerant of their differences, even the slightest differences in beliefs, viewing them as enemies to be dominated and ultimately condemning them to hell.
A Christian friend of mine, Bob Moye, used to say, “The nicest people I meet are unbelievers”. Fundamentalist religion did not allow you to be nice to people.
All In The Family
Even members of the Christian community suffered at the hands of zealous true believers. One student couple, very much in love and eventually to marry, were caught on an unapproved date. Try to imagine the evil of two people in love getting together spontaneously without the approval of the school authorities. How sinful. Consequently, they were not allowed to graduate and that was the denial of the highest privilege that Prairie granted its students. It was the worst thing they could do to punish someone. Despite the harsh punishment, that couple stayed on to finish their studies at Prairie.
I would encounter many other situations where devotion to law or religion resulted in inhuman treatment of people.
Years later while traveling across Canada on furlough (the time when missionaries return home to tell financial supporters stories about eating snakes and converting people so they will continue to give money) I met a married lady who had attended Prairie years before. She was still an angry and bitter woman when I met her, though she said she was fighting the bitterness because good Christians are not supposed to hold any ill feeling toward others. They had to forgive.
She had started her last year of high school with her dresses the proper length- knees covered. Whoever wrote that rule must have had a knee fetish. She told me, “During the year I had a growth spurt or my dresses shrank in the hot water or maybe it was a bit of both. My knees started to show”.
Some pinched, rule-bound staff member (we call this anal retentive today- head stuck up butt) reported her dangerously exposed knees and consequently she was denied her high school graduation. It was an inhumane and excessively severe response to a young person excitedly looking forward to graduation. But she had broken a rule and therefore she had to be punished. Faithfulness to the rule had to come before mercy and compassion toward a human being.
“I was devastated”, she said. She will struggle with that for the rest of her life.
Another Prairie student also told us of her humiliation at the hands of Prairie authorities. She explained to us that she had a strangely angled body. When she stood, her dresses were long enough, but when she sat down her knees were exposed for all to lust at. And that exposure sometimes occurred when she was singing in the choir at the main auditorium where the humorless God resided. Thousands of people could see the tips of her knees. Fortunately, there were no Sharon Stones in that choir. All the ladies held their knees tightly together.
Again, some zealous staff member dutifully reported her and she was reprimanded by the proper authorities. “Cover those knees, Verna Asprey, or else…”
As noted earlier, the Republican effort to impeach Bill Clinton (a fellow Christian) was another clear illustration of the Fundamentalist spirit or attitude that puts faithfulness to law or religion before treating people compassionately. Republican house managers (most of them Conservative Christians) stood to argue that the law must be upheld at all costs, that we are all obligated to faithfully fulfill the law. “The president must be punished”, they intoned Pharisaically.
With their stereotypical Fundamentalist stance they rigidly contended that they had to be faithful to the law no matter how harsh the consequences were for imperfect people. Instead of seeing such compassionless treatment of others as loveless and cruel inhumanity, Fundamentalists claim that God demands it and it pleases him. They are convinced that they are being faithful to God by upholding law and therefore God is happy with whatever harsh treatment they mete out to others.
The harsh treatment of others that results from devotion to law came into sharpest focus every time the Senate Sergeant At Arms stood each morning to announce, “All senators will remain seated and quiet under threat of imprisonment”. No whispering and especially no farting.
One elder Senator was caught on camera picking his nose while sitting right beside the Senate speaker Trent Lott. But he was not imprisoned. It was silent activity and there was no law or punishment yet for silent nose picking.
The Christian Congressmen were very zealous for the law. They argued repeatedly, “We must uphold the rule of law. We must show respect for law. If we don’t punish the president then we will be sending the wrong message that you can get away. It will erode the rule of law”. They were slippery sliding slopers.
Punishing justice must be applied, they demanded. The people must fear the law and punishment. They held to a rigidly archaic payback version of justice- do wrong and you must suffer for it. But that is a barbaric way to treat any human being.
Justice Means Mercy
Insightful scholars such as Robert Brinsmead have pointed out that even in the supposedly harsh Old Testament, justice does not mean punishment, but rather it is consistently used as a term which means showing mercy to the powerless and downtrodden. Bible justice does not mean upholding law by punishing lawbreakers. It means forgiveness and mercy to the oppressed. Why then do Conservative Christians continue to insist on standing in Pharisaic circles to throw stones at imperfect people? In doing so they are taking the opposite position to that of the God they claim to represent and they are especially opposing the teaching of the scandalously merciful Jesus.
By forgiving and showing mercy you are not sending the wrong message to others of disrespect for law. You are sending the right message that love, mercy and forgiveness are the truly human response to human imperfection which we all share. That response sends the much more powerful message of humaneness.
Too often the argument of upholding respect for law is simply a thin guise for callously punishing someone the punisher does not like and refusing to grant common mercy. It often has little to do with the professed concern for protecting the public good.
Common sense guides us to realize that such things as showing mercy does not mean allowing dangerous people freedom to continue harming others. I have to say that because someone, for instance, will inevitably run off on a nonsense tangent and argue that in urging mercy I am advocating letting all sorts of dangerous criminals go free (yes, people actually respond this way). But that is not what is being suggested. Most people are able to make such distinctions using common sense.
I continue to run into endless situations where people out of loyalty to some rule or law are treating others inhumanely. Recently, in a workplace situation, the supervisor punished a staff member for apparently breaking a rule. The rule-breaker (a longtime and well-liked employee of a group home for the mentally handicapped) had used the personal funds of one high-functioning client to purchase potatoes for a holiday meal intended for all the clients. That was done with the client’s permission and she was to be paid back the next day. The company policy generally discourages borrowing client funds due to the potential for staff perhaps stealing client funds. But in that situation the staff member simply wanted all the clients to enjoy a good meal on a special holiday. So she created an ad hoc solution to meeting the needs of the clients in that particular situation. The concerned and compassionate staff lady was a non-Christian.
I tried to reason with the supervisor that she was being severe and legalistic in her harsh interpretation of the situation. But she refused to listen. She insisted the rule had been broken and the staff lady must be punished. Good motivation to help the clients did not matter here. The law must be fulfilled. The supervisor was an Evangelical Christian. All of the staff were disgusted with her harsh response to the non-Christian lady.
At Prairie, LE encouraged the harsh environment of Fundamentalist intolerance of sin or lawbreaking. He was proud that he never compromised with sin or worldliness. In fact, he boasted that he hated sin and the world. In public meetings he would scoff, “Dialogue?!? A meeting of the minds? What nonsense. You never compromise with the world, the flesh or the devil. You never compromise with sin. You must always be zealous for purity and truth”. He meant Fundamentalist truth.
One of the favorite stories of LE was that of the Old Testament priest, Phinehas (Numbers 25) who caught a couple in adultery and ran a spear through them. They had broken God’s law and the wrath of God against sin had to be honored. That severe punishment of human weakness, said LE, was a great example of the uncompromising zeal that pleased God and kept his people pure and holy.
Interestingly, no one ever thought to come back and challenge LE with the story of the woman caught in adultery who was brought before Jesus. Her accusers displayed zealous concern for faithfully upholding the law and demanded that she be stoned to death. But Jesus counteracted their inhumane zeal, saying, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone”. After a brief conscience-stirring pause her accusers all turned and walked away, ashamed. Jesus was consistently moved with compassion to forgive and not to punish imperfect people. In Jesus’ view, faithfulness to law must never come before compassion and mercy toward failing people.
Too often Christian people forget that. They claim to represent Jesus but with their zeal to punish lawbreakers they act more like the enemies of Jesus, the loveless religious authorities.
Fortunately, secular forces have now moderated such harsh punishing forms of religion, outlawing them in order to protect us all. Secular values, representing more of the merciful spirit of Jesus, now protect us from the harsh religious zealots who claim to represent him.
The Bible- An Absolute Authority
The supreme boast of PBI was its devotion to the Bible. It focused on studying the Bible more than other similar schools did. “Everything a person needs to live a good successful life is contained in the Bible”, our teachers said. That book revealed God’s plan for his people in complete detail.
Because our teachers believed that the Bible came directly down from heaven, like Moses’ tablets from God, they therefore claimed that it was the absolute authority over all life, thought and behavior. And because it was viewed as a divine authority, it was not to be subject to any doubt, questioning or challenge like other human authorities. As one lady, a Southern Baptist said, “(In the Bible) we have God’s position and there is no compromise on that”.
We students were placed under that absolute authority similar to the way the Communists used Mao’s Thoughts to control the Chinese people or Leninist ideology was used to control the Russians. The Bible, or Word of God as it was often called, was presented to us as the only final, closed and complete system of truth in the whole universe.
So Evangelical Christianity has made the Bible the ultimate standard or law to guide all thought and behavior. It has been made the authority that Christians believe must rule in an absolute manner over the lives of all people on earth. That belief in a divine authority drives the Christian missionary movement. Christians claim that the Evangelical Bible is the sole authority that all other beliefs and systems must be judged by or replaced with.
But using the Bible as a system of controlling law only adds a further burden to already struggling people. For example, I recently heard a TV preacher tell his audience that, “John says, ‘If we confess our sin, then God will forgive us’. But if we don’t confess then God won’t forgive”. He took an insight and exhortation from an ancient sage and turned it into an impossible standard for anyone to fulfill.
The preacher illustrated a very common Christian use of the Bible but what he said is simply not true. To place difficult conditions before people undermines God’s love, mercy and forgiveness entirely. In reality, God forgives without requiring the fulfillment of any prerequisite condition. As Brinsmead has said, “A God who will not forgive until the debt is paid (or some condition like confession is met) is a God who does not forgive at all”. True forgiveness does not demand meeting some prerequisite condition first.
Christians endlessly take such ancient biblical insights and turn them into burdensome and guilt-inducing law, thereby creating misery and confusion for millions of people.
With their belief in the Bible as a totalitarian authority, Christians also obsessively search for verses that will tell them how to think, feel, and act. Life becomes an intolerable struggle to stay within the narrow confines of some religiously patterned lifestyle that demands Biblical authority for every twitch, burp, or fart. Any deviance means either a loss of reward or maybe even a fall directly into hell.
Submitting To Biblical Authority
From our earliest days at Prairie we were told that we must submit wholeheartedly to the authority of God’s Word. We would do that by cheerfully submitting to what our teachers taught us. It was a mediated submission as in all systems with priesthoods. They would teach us the truth of God as it was set forth in the Bible.
And you will often hear Fundamentalists argue till they are blue in the face that they teach only what God says in the Bible. They seem incapable of realizing that their particular views differ from millions of other Christians and that difference may reflect some very personal interpretations of what they assert God said in the Bible. People who claim to have a divine authority over their lives tend to slip in all sorts of personal views under cover of what they call God’s word or truth.
That explains why there are multiple thousands of different versions of God’s truth and will across the planet, each claiming to be the correct one.
Students and staff at Prairie never dared to question why there were so many different ways of viewing what the Bible teaches. Prairie’s teaching was presented to us as God’s most correct word and will. We alone among all the people on earth throughout all history had the sole truth of God. We never suspected that what our teachers presented to us as the lofty ideas of God’s Word might actually include more of the personal scruples, opinions, and quirks of Christian leaders than anyone wanted to admit.
At Prairie there was little, if any, distinguishing between the personal viewpoints and the practices of leaders and God’s truth. Any such questioning of leaders was viewed as questioning God himself. The personal scruples of leaders and teachers were communicated to us as part and parcel of God’s word and will. That happens in all religious groups who claim to speak for God. The personal eccentricities of the teachers or leaders eventually merge with and become the truth of God. In that way the Bible is kind of like statistics. You can make it mean whatever you want it to mean.
Consequently, too often those personal scruples or quirks of very fallible people have been transformed into enslaving ideology and law masquerading as the truth of God. It is an especially offensive form of slavery because it takes the natural respect that many people have for the ideas of truth or God and then focuses that respect on faulty human systems of belief and law. Hiding personal fallibility under the cloak of God’s truth or will only encourages the presentation of all sorts of nasty personal eccentricities as sanctioned by God.
Our instructors did not dwell at all on the fact that ancient eastern peasants with a very tribal (even pagan at times) worldview wrote the Bible. Those people often wrote poetically or used numbers and images of beasts to evoke emotion and response, not to describe literal history or actual events in their exact original detail. They also borrowed freely from surrounding tribal mythology to help express their own understanding of life and reality. They never intended their imagery, numerology or mythology to be taken literally or to be used as a governing authority over everything that would be said and done by subsequent generations. To take their writings literally as something intended to govern modern life is to utterly distort the original message and intent of those writers.
James Barr in ‘Beyond Fundamentalism’ said, “Jesus’ most common method of instruction was fictitious story (parable), not factually accurate history”. We need to understand and approach much of the Bible with such information in mind.
But at Prairie we were told that God had overpowered and inspired a few select people to write his words down. He dictated directly to them the exact words, every jot and tittle, that he wanted them to record. “God”, our instructors said, “gave those ancient writers universal principles and laws for all peoples. He inspired them to write a book that was intended to rule all cultures in all times”. That inspiration was especially true of the 16th century King James Version. All the thous and thees and doths and haths. That was God speaking, so serious and solemn and formal. All that solemnity and formality was so beautiful that it had to be from God, they said.
A young man from Malaysia once tried to convert me to Islam. He repeatedly urged me to read verses from the Quran, telling me, “If only you will read it you will see the beauty and know the Quran is God’s only true Word and Islam is the only true way”. He sounded exactly like my Evangelical teachers.
Our teachers also expended significant time in classes convincing us that our Protestant Bible was the only true scripture and that all the scriptures of other people were false. They said that about everything they taught us- it was truth, while the teachings of other people were false. Prairie leaders told us that we alone had the unique holy book, the word and truth from God that was special among all the scriptures of the world and it was all we needed to study. Studying other forms of knowledge was in fact a waste of time and would only lead us astray from the truth of God.
The Sin Of Unbelief
To solidify our commitment to the Bible we were regularly threatened regarding the evils of curiosity, exploration, or questioning. To ever doubt or question Evangelical truth or its sacred book in any way was the damnable sin of unbelief that would cause us to suffer God’s eternal wrath in the burning fires of Hell. We were told that if we questioned any detail in the Bible as perhaps not historical fact or truth, then we would be damned just as atheists were. The entire book and system of Evangelical interpretation stood or fell on the literal truth of every word in the Bible. So our teachers would never tolerate even the slightest suggestion of questioning the harsher elements or inhumanity found in the Bible or in Prairie’s evangelical teachings. The school’s positions were based on the Bible and were representative of the truth of the wider conservative Christian movement. They were absolute Bible truth.
Prairie leaders told us that if anything seemed inhuman or contradictory in Evangelical teaching then the problem was our imperfect understanding of truth. We just did not understand how it all fit together perfectly because of the darkness in our sinful minds. The problem was with us, not with God, the Bible or the Evangelical system of teaching. So shut up and sit down.
A visiting conference speaker told the story of a man who began to doubt the Bible. That man went to visit his dying father who was a faithful Evangelical. During the visit, the father opened his Bible and fondly smoothed its pages with his hand. The son, on seeing such respect for the word of God, repented on the spot and returned to his former unquestioning belief in God’s word. It was one of the stories they used to make us feel bad if we ever dared to doubt the Bible.
Also, anyone who doubted or questioned the Bible or Evangelical beliefs in general was called an agnostic or even an atheist. The point made in such labeling was that true believers would never doubt or question the truth. They would just submit passively to the entire system. People who doubted were not considered to be curious or exploring new frontiers, which is a positive thing. No. They were called agnostic or atheist, which is a great evil. By using such labels our instructors made innovative people appear officially evil and thereby created fear that kept the rest of us from freely questioning or challenging the system of teaching. That crushing of healthy democratic dissent is what keeps institutions like Christianity from diversity, growth, change, and development. It keeps Christianity imprisoned in archaic views that no longer connect with the historically emerging understanding of reality.
Adding to the controlling power of Prairie’s system was the fact that many of us students were from religious family backgrounds that did not provide us with the mental capability or tools to question the beliefs that controlled our family worldviews. Curiosity and exploration were not encouraged but were condemned as leading to doubt- a great evil to avoid. We were not provided with a means of finding freedom. We were denied the experience of normal curiosity and exploration of spiritual things that should be inculcated in children from an early age.
As students at Prairie we were obligated (under powerful threat) to learn the Bible and we were told that in that book we would find God’s will for our lives. We would therefore shut down all normal curiosity or questioning and all normal human existence in order to submit completely to obey the rules of the school and learn its Bible teachings. That was submitting to God and his will.
Living By The Book
Prairie’s leaders also told us incessantly that we must bring our lives into complete conformity to the Bible. We were supposed to live according to the Bible, every jot and tittle of it. I still don’t know how you live by jots and tittles. We were being indoctrinated into Fundamentalist beliefs and culture, which are based on a very literal understanding of the Bible.
But it would be a great relief to many Christians to just honestly admit that no one actually lives according to the Bible. Jesus never told anyone to live according to the Bible. I cannot understand why Christians bother to make that claim when so few of them ever try to practice it.
For example, Jesus told his followers to give up all possessions and follow him. Few Christians ever do that. Paul said women should be quiet in meetings and cover their heads. Few ever obey that command (and they shouldn’t). Paul also urged people to share all things, to not be possessive but give to the needy. Few Christians ever try to practice that.
All Christian groups pick and choose what they will follow and what they will ignore in the Bible, conveniently explaining away the difficult passages they find here and there. Living by the Bible, for most Christians, means not seriously disturbing the comfortable consumption lifestyle that modern economies have provided them.
In order to do that, most Christians have to do a lot of agile sidestepping around the historical Jesus. He was just too radical for his own or anyone else’s good. Many Christians prefer the de-scandalized version of Jesus that Christianity has created and uses to support conventional values of such as domination, vengeance, and exclusivity. If you take the historical person seriously it could disrupt society significantly. That simply does not suit modern Christians.
The Christian emphasis on the Bible as the source of all truth and as containing all the answers for daily life issues led also to the practice of proof-texting. That is where Christians feel that for everything they believe or do, they must have a verse to validate or back it up. A verse from the Bible proves they are doing the will of God. Hence, they are always looking for and quoting verses. In so doing, they are declaring, “We have found what God said on the topic, there is no more to say, we know the final truth, so shut up and go away”. Billy Graham always declares, “The Bible says…” as if that is the final word on any subject.
Also, the Christian emphasis on the Bible as the ultimate truth of God leads inevitably to an emphasis on the wrath or anger of God, condemnation or punishment of imperfect people who break laws, and of course, hell. Those are dominant Bible teachings and dominant features of the Bible God. All that brutality often buries the more human elements of God such as forgiveness, love, and mercy.
The view of God that Fundamentalists have inherited from ancient Christianity, and which is embodied in the Bible, contains elements that encourage intolerant inhumanity in ways that few Fundamentalists ever dare imagine or inquire into.
It may appear that I am being very hard on the Bible. But not entirely. I also value it as a source of good information on such things as the historical Jesus. But I am trying to be very blunt about a certain distorting religious use of the Bible. Christians have rarely viewed the Bible according to the manner in which it should be viewed, as a collection of writings with valuable information on ancient people’s insights and discoveries about such topics as God and expressed in the context of their cultures and mythology. Protestants have instead viewed the Bible as an infallible law sent directly from God to govern life in a very totalitarian manner. They have consequently used the Bible to control others through narrowly limiting systems of belief and authority. They have used it as an infallible standard by which to exclude and damn all others who would disagree with their own views which they have projected onto the Bible’s basic teaching. That is a horrible distortion of the Bible and it leads inevitably to intolerance and abuse.
It is much healthier to approach the Bible with a sense of common humanity, appreciating where the Bible affirms humanity in common with all other human worldviews, and freely questioning and rejecting those parts where it advocates inhuman views or practices.
Protecting The Faith
While at Prairie we were not permitted to interact with the outside world or with differing positions from the ones taught at Prairie. We did not interact with emerging discoveries in the various disciplines of science. Those areas of research were closed entirely to us because our leaders claimed that they presented evil or worldly ideas and they would corrupt our pure faith. Higher education in general was viewed as faith destroying and destructive to righteous living because it taught people to question and explore. LE was fond of mocking advanced education and noting that Jesus’ disciples were “unlearned and ignorant men”.
Anything that led to questioning of Evangelical truth was blasphemy and would damn our souls to hell. To gain salvation in heaven we had to learn to think correctly on all details of Evangelical beliefs and to never doubt those beliefs. Doubt and questioning were from the Devil and were the darkest forms of evil to have emerged from the depths of hell.
Prairie, and Evangelicals in general, presented ideas in an emotionally overwhelming manner that did not encourage creative thought or exploration. Ideas were not presented in freedom, as one viewpoint among other valid options. Never. Alternative ideas to Evangelical teaching were falsehoods. When you demonize other positions in that manner, then you are not obligated to seriously engage them or respond to any legitimate issues raised. If the alternative position is evil then you just dismiss it as worthless and avoid it entirely in order to protect your faith. Consequently, believers were not encouraged to discuss, evaluate, compare and then freely choose from differing opinions. No. Ideas were presented coercively with dire threats for those who might dare disagree. Positions were presented in black and white, “This is God’s truth or will and that is Satan’s teaching. You must submit and accept God’s way right now or else. There is no time to delay or your soul will be lost in hell”.
To further protect us from corrupting falsehoods, Ted Rendall, the vice president of the school, would regularly list books that he approved. Those were books that supported Prairie’s position and were therefore orthodox. He would also list books that differed with Prairie’s teaching so we would know what to avoid. Mr. Rendall even considered publications like the widely read Christianity Today to be too Liberal and corrupting to our true faith.
Another means of protecting us from worldly influences was to ban all televisions from the campus. Prairie was very much like a cloistered monastery. But despite such cloistering, sometimes students would sneak out of the dorms to go downtown to some lax Christian’s house to watch TV. That underground TV watching usually intensified during the National Hockey League playoffs.
The reason that the founders located the school far from urban areas in the isolated little town of Three Hills was to avoid the evil influences of the world. They wanted to protect students and staff from the corrupting influence of normal life. We could only become pure, holy Christians by staying away, far away, from the world.
There were a variety of ideas in the world that we needed special protection from. Those were ideas the Devil was using to trick Christians into hell. One was evolution. “Imagine”, our instructors scoffed, “People descending out of trees from monkeys”. The leaders even invited a scientist from some creation institute in California come and prove to us that the fossil record was a lie and that God made everything just 6000 years ago on October 1st, starting early one Monday morning around 6 AM in 4004 BC.
Harold Lindsell, the former editor of Christianity Today, said that God’s creating work had to be an instant “fiat” creation in order to properly glorify God and his power. A drawn out evolutionary creation would just not do. Well, isn’t the Big Bang the mother of all fiats?
Interestingly, in response to the growing understanding of reality around us, Catholics have now recently admitted that the evolutionary viewpoint, while imperfect, does make better sense of life and its processes of emerging change and development. After peering for a long time at the sedimentary record and those big dinosaur bones they have decided to use some common sense. Catholics have now switched from using the fish symbol on their cars to using the fish with feet symbol- the one with Darwin in the center. Many Evangelicals, however, continue to stick their heads in the sand and claim the earth is flat, screaming, “Glory to God, Hallelujah. Don’t confuse us with the facts, our minds are made up”.
Some Evangelicals have missed the fun of the Darwin fish joke and now offended that someone would make light of their holy beliefs, they have made new symbols for their cars which show a much larger and nastier fish eating the Darwin fish. It appropriately represents the harsh ‘beat the crap out of your enemies’ attitude of Fundamentalists.
After a week of creating work, God then rested on Sunday. That’s why all the stores in Alberta were supposed to be shut on Sundays by force of law. People were supposed to stop work and go to church. Mr. Sharp, a school instructor, said he even believed that it was worldly to go for car drives on Sunday. People should sit still at home after church and meditate on the Bible or pray. LE felt that you could go for walks but not too fast. Definitely no running. And he shouted in anger during one Sunday sermon about young people making noise and laughing outside his house on the holy day of rest. They were violating God’s no-work injunction. I think they had probably just violated LE’s afternoon nap.
So evolution was from the Devil. And then there was humanism. Everything positive about people- people being normal human beings, or people doing good- was thrown into that bag. Whenever someone said something positive about human beings, LE would derisively snap that there was absolutely nothing good in people. People were all evil except for the grace of God, which made some people Evangelical and missionary-minded.
Roy Hession, a British deeper-life speaker, said we were all dirty worthless worms that deserved only to be crushed under God’s foot. When he said that, I used to imagine that God had one really big foot made of spirit stuff. What a squishy mess of people that big stomping foot made. Just like stepping on earthworms.
Feminism was another tool of the Devil to get us all sliding into hell. Women were supposed to shut up and just submit to the men- at home, at work, and especially at church. Men (white men exclusively) taught, preached, and ran the school. But LE allowed a few women to speak in certain circumstances. He felt that he was being quite radical in allowing Miss Ruth Dearing with her tightly knotted bun and long skirts to teach a Bible class. But she was an exception because she was such a good example for young women. You would never see the knees of Miss Dearing exposed for anyone to lust at. Not even her ankles.
More recently, New Age is the tool used by the Devil to deceive Christians. New Age is anything that is not Evangelical. It is anything a good Christian cannot understand. New Age is especially all those frightening things from California like crystals and anything else that promotes spirituality aside from Fundamentalist Christianity.
Years later I saw that same fear of the different in the tribal people I worked among. Anything they did not recognize, they called busow (evil spirit). Once, I showed some tribal kids a magazine advertisement with several computerized figures. The kids, on seeing the nonhuman figures, cried “Busow”. That was exactly how Christians reacted to anything they did immediately understand, anything that was new or different. They cried, “New Age”.
It should be noted, as earlier, that when Christians demonize something, labeling it as coming from the Devil, then they cannot just leave it alone or coexist peacefully with it. The Devil is evil, malicious and out to destroy Christians. He is an active enemy. He is an actively destructive force and a dangerously threatening person. The only sensible response to those who are actively trying to destroy you is to be equally and preemptively active in trying to destroy them. That explains why Christians often feel obligated to take coercive action against non-Christians and to impose Christian beliefs or laws on entire societies. They cannot just tolerantly coexist with what they believe is actively trying to destroy and annihilate them. They feel that to properly defend themselves they must proactively gain the upper hand. They must dominate in order to survive. It is a very animal response to others who differ.
I remember also in this regard the Christian tendency to create a strong sense of victimization, of being a persecuted and threatened minority that must fight for its survival in order to prevent the evil world from destroying Christians utterly. That Christian sense of victimization is similar to what fueled the Serbian drive to destroy their Kosovar neighbors before being destroyed by them. Serb leaders manipulated that sense of victimization to whip their people into a vengeful frenzy of slaughter even though their neighbors were not actually threatening them.
Jerry Falwel once preached a sermon (May 1999) where he relentlessly played on Christian feelings of being a victimized and threatened minority. He repeatedly noted that the American people were abandoning the Christian way of life (Fundamentalism) and that Christians were in danger of becoming a persecuted minority in the US. Falwel urged his listeners to be proactive in their own defense. “We must declare war on the Christ haters, those in New Age religions”, he thundered.
That sense of feeling threatened also fuels the Christian Right movement to take control of political offices at all levels of government in order to push the Conservative Christian agenda on America as a whole.
God’s Appointed Leaders
Students and staff never dared question LE or any of the leaders at Prairie. Questions in classrooms were mainly of the clarifying type, “Could you repeat that please?” or “What will that assignment involve?” Never the challenging, curious, argumentative or speculative type. That was too disrespectful and might lead to doubt and blasphemy.
They did not believe in democracy at Prairie. And if the Christian God was an absolute dictator then it would only be natural to imitate that God in Christian community.
We were told that God had chosen the school leaders and sent them to lead us, so we were obligated to submit and obey. Our leaders were the specially chosen and anointed of God. The Pope had nothing on Prairie’s leaders. Romans chapter 13 was clear that we were even to submit passively to secular leaders in government. All leaders must be obeyed because God had put them in power. Ordinary people were too stupid to know how to live so God sent leaders to tell them in onerous detail how to live their lives. The authority of leaders was therefore absolute and final because God always told them exactly what to tell the little people who paid taxes.
Students and staff at Prairie could often be heard saying, “What does LE say about that?” or “LE says…”. That would end all argument or discussion. He sat at the top of the hierarchy of power.
Our submission to Prairie’s leaders was so complete that if LE had ever said in the middle of winter, “Lets all go out to Three Hills and wait for Jesus to come”, we would have gone and froze to death. Complete and unquestioning submission to leaders as the spokesmen of God can be a very dangerous stance for followers to adopt. It is simply too much power or authority for any imperfect human being and it has resulted in more than one Jonestown.
Too many organizations freeze around the views and practices of their founders or other charismatic leaders. The leader’s unique personality and approach become embodied in organizational policy and rules. That becomes the culture that all subsequent members must submit to, while denying their own uniqueness as human beings. It is an elite control that destroys the unique humanity of those in subordinate positions. It destroys freedom and equality utterly.
In this regard the Lordship of Jesus was continually beaten into our brains. Preachers would scream at us that “Jesus was Lord and must be in total control of our lives. He must be Lord of all not just part”. And somehow that was all inextricably tied to submission to Christian leaders and Christian beliefs and law.
Thankfully, not all people in organizations and societies submit so unthinkingly to human leadership. If everyone passively acquiesced to human-created authority, the human race would never experience social change and advance.
Never take human leadership or human created authority seriously. Leaders know nothing more about God or truth than anyone else does.
In fairness to LE, let me say that there were some admirable things in his life, especially his sometimes inspiring example of unselfishness. He did some very human things to help others. For instance, it was well known at PBI that he spent the odd night down at the boiler room shoveling coal so that regular workers could take a night off. He could be as unselfish as any human being that has ever walked the planet. That was the great contradiction of his life- often compassionate human feeling toward others, yet harsh rejection and condemnation of anyone who disagreed with his strict Evangelical beliefs and practices.
Often LE would cry in public over stories of suffering people. I have rarely met a man who could so freely and unashamedly express emotion. He could also dance, sing, laugh, or play without the slightest self-consciousness or regard for how others might react to him. One missionary leader in reflecting on LE said, “He is the most liberated person I have ever known”. He seemed utterly free of concern for how people might react to his expressions of compassion, fun, or sorrow.
But then he could suddenly turn and scathingly denounce or damn to hell anyone who differed in the slightest degree from his understanding of Evangelical truth. Go figure. He was kind of like Thomas More who would lovingly play with his children at home, then after affectionately kissing them good-bye; he would go out to pursue heretics to the burning stake.
There were also times when even LE showed flashes of normal humanity such as his becoming ticked off with all the high temperature spirituality and holy God-talk. One instance of note was the time he met a young zealot on the sidewalk. He greeted the young man with, “Hello. How are you doing?” Shining with all the glory of the Lord, the young man replied, “God is good, Mr. Maxwell. God is good”. Somewhat annoyed, LE fired back, “Yes, I know God is good, but I asked how you are doing? I didn’t ask how God was doing”. LE loved to tell that story as an example of his being a balanced person.
He also had the common sense to warn young zealots about such things as the danger of joining some enterprise and feeling nothing good has been done by your predecessors until you arrived. So don’t rush in and try to condemn and change everything others have accomplished before you. He was full of such practical insights.
He would challenge people with such things as, “Can you really rejoice in the success of others or does it make you feel uncomfortable?” He would also warn people about monopolizing conversation and urge them to be better listeners. And he loved to read the comments of an old nun that show how we selfishly make judgments of others. She had written, “When you correct someone it is negative criticism but when I do it, it is constructive input. When you praise someone it is cheap flattery but when I do it, it is positive affirmation. When you give something it is bribery, but when I give something it is pure generosity”. And so much more commonsense wisdom.
And despite all the contradictions of his life, I am deeply grateful to LE Maxwell for his inspiring example of unselfishness. He was refreshingly hard on self-pity, whining, pickiness, fussiness, egoism or boasting, self-congratulation, me-firstism, inconsiderateness and selfishness in general. Unselfishness is a profoundly human trait that we need to re-establish as critically important to a truly human culture or society. It is only in being unselfish that we discover our true humanity and the meaning of human life.
LE was a radically unselfish human being. He believed that we should live a simple life free of attachment to material possessions and we should always be willing to give everything to others. It was a radical unselfishness that is almost never heard of in our contemporary accumulating culture.
At conferences LE regularly asked us students to move out of our dorm rooms in order to allow guests to sleep in our beds while we would sleep on the floor in the gymnasium. As a former WW1 soldier he wanted to toughen us up for spartan living in other cultures. He boot-camped us into becoming good examples of the radically unselfish Jesus. In terms of discipline and self-denial he could equal a Mother Teresa any day. I am grateful for his example. He gave me a radically new understanding of love, an unselfish God, and how God inspires sharing. Thank you LE.
Many others at Prairie exhibited the same unselfish behavior. The school had some of the nicest, most loving human beings that I have ever met. Sadly, the Fundamentalist religion they espoused too often clashed with their sense of love and led to contradictory responses that nullified love entirely. They struggled, as many religious people do, with their sense of humanity which often conflicted with the inhuman demands of their religion. Such is the curse of religion.
Dad And Higher Learning
While we were becoming faithful disciples of LE, Dad was taking steps to improve himself. He had done plumbing years before but had never obtained the proper training and certification. So he decided to attend the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology at almost 50 years of age to gain his official provincial certification. He had left school in grade 8 and it was a frightening thing for him to return to a level of schooling that he had never achieved before in order to tackle math and other subjects. But he did good work and was very proud of himself for passing all the exams and becoming fully certified. We were all proud for him.
Then Dad got carried away and decided to go to Bible school. He was jumping off the wharf into the deep waters. He started by taking a counseling course.
Previous to this new learning adventure of Dad’s we had been visited by a lady who had adopted a number of ethnically varied kids. Dad did not know this and assumed they were all the biological children of the lady.
One day Dad came home from his counseling class frowning. He sat down and very somberly said, “Now I know why that lady has so many problems. Have you seen her kids?” His humble class grades confirmed what our laughter said- give it up. That ended his foray into academia, if a Bible school can be called that.
Later in life Dad often expressed the regret that he had not gone further in school. He often said, “If only I had known how important education was, then I would have continued my schooling. I could have done something with my life”. Remember Marlon Brando? “I coulda bin somebody…I coulda bin a contenda…Stella…STELLA”.
He also expressed regret that his lazy brother never helped him on the family farm which could have provided some opportunity for success. “I could have done something with the acreage we had if he had only helped”, Dad said. Apparently, Dad once asked the brother to help plow a field. Later, when Dad checked to see if the work was done, he had found the brother sleeping in the grass and the horses still tied up.
Dad says now that when he returns to Alberta for visits he feels depressed by the memories of a hard youth and missed opportunities. He also regrets the 20 years at Prairie, giving up everything for volunteer work there. He received no regular salary, only a living allowance. When he left the school later in his life he had nothing to help us kids with. But during the time he was employed there he honestly believed that it was what God wanted.
Alberta, though a very sunny province, holds a lot of dark memories for Dad.