I am deeply troubled and feel deeply moved by a recent episode of The Hunt with John Walsh, which I just finished watching on the Cable News Network (CNN) tonight. It was a powerful presentation—powerful almost beyond belief and hard to put into mere words here. Unfortunately, I cannot direct you to a video showing the entire presentation because one does not exist on-line at this time. If you ever get a chance to see it on CNN, I would urge you to just drop everything else you are doing, sit down in the nearest chair, and watch every second of it. It highlights one of the most dangerous aspects of Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism in the United States today, and it beams a spotlight on the awful places one can end up personally and spiritually as a result of applying it in one’s own life. What is this dangerous aspect of modern Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism?
It is the aspect I and many others who study Christian fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism refer to as “Turning Off the Critical Evaluation Centers in Your Brain Before Entering the Church Door,” which is often shortened in prose to just “Turn Off Your Brain at the Church Door.” It is based primarily in the KJV scripture: “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Many fundies in the United States are taught to believe that the pastor standing in the pulpit and speaking a sermon to the flock becomes the direct voice of God himself spoken directly to the people sitting in the pews. Therefore, when any fundie enters a church sanctuary to worship, the brain’s God-given ability to analyze, evaluate, assess, criticize, and question what one hears must be turned off because those are all aspects of a believer’s “own understanding.” Instead, the brain must be set on record only to take in every word God is speaking directly to them through the preacher. The spoken words of God uttered by the pastor’s vocal cords must flow uninhibited onto the internal recording tape in their brains and become a part of who they are in every aspect of their life in both thought and deed. The members of the congregation must adhere to it in absolute trust and obedience. In other words, many Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelical believers feel duty bound to take leave of their senses and become something not too far from “Zombies for Jesus.”
What is the primary danger here? The above scripture says to trust in the LORD with all your heart, NOT the pastor in the pulpit. In addition, Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals often forget what the scriptures say about the human heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). They forget that the pastor in the pulpit is a human being who has one of those human hearts—and so does every member of the congregation sitting in the pews on Sunday morning. We all do. All pastors are capable of evil and are subject to errors in both thought and belief, as all human beings are. If we delude ourselves into thinking that our pastor is always the direct voice of God speaking to us with his every Holy word, we leave ourselves open to the error of eventually believing, either consciously or unconsciously, that the pastor IS GOD himself. Only one man on this Earth was ever God himself, and that was our beloved Jesus of Nazareth. Even worse, it allows some pastors to begin to behave as if they are God himself and even begin to believe that they are God himself, which is the very essence of original sin as set forth in the Book of Genesis.
From watching this episode of The Hunt with John Walsh, it was apparent to me that the 15 families who followed Pastor Victor Barnard and his preaching to Minnesota already possessed this fundie mindset that requires one to turn off the questioning centers of the brain and set the brain only on record when the pastor speaks. I would not be at all surprised to learn that the members of these families were raised in some stripe of Christian fundamentalist or conservative evangelical church during their childhoods because it seemed fairly clear to me that they already had a significant but simple understanding of the Bible before they ever got caught up in the evil web of Pastor Barnard. These families decided to blindly follow Pastor Barnard without questioning, and here is what they reaped. Read the story and watch the associated video clips:
There is a strong lesson here for you, me, every Christian fundamentalist, and every conservative evangelical in the United States. We are called to believe in and worship God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. The pastor of your church, a well-known parachurch leader, or your favorite TV preacher is not one of those three sovereign and omnipotent individuals. He (or she) is a human being just like you and me. Each has a heart that is capable of misunderstanding, spiritual error, factual error, and evil (be it conscious or unconscious)—just like yours and mine do. They also have the ability to pass it on to you. No Christian believer should ever turn off their brain as they enter a church sanctuary. God gave you that brain for a reason—but turning it off was not one of them. He meant for you to use it, even on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. Never take every word a preacher says as a message of total and absolute truth directly from God to you. Some or many of his words could just be the error or ravings of an ignorant and misguided human being. Question every word your preacher says—about both the big things and the small things. Do independent Bible study and theological research on your own at your local public library or university library. Look deeply into what other Christian theologians, pastors, and traditions believe on subjects of concern and why they believe those things. Compare them to what your pastor is saying. Then, ask yourself: “Given all that I have heard and studied in depth, what do I believe about this?” Jesus wants to know what YOU believe. If you do not do this, you are setting yourself up to be a person who blindly follows any spiritual pied piper who can pipe a tune, and extraordinary spiritual error and personal misery are liable to come out of it for you—not to mention the misery you are going to cause other people to experience along your own way in life.
Many of you are no doubt going to say at this point:
But you don’t understand. Many of us out here are just simple people, with simple minds, and simple lives—and all we need is a simple gospel that our simple minds can understand. We’re not bookish people, we don’t analyze things all that well, and our average to poor grades in high school let us all know that. We have to listen to preacher alone, believe everything he says, follow his commands, and just read our Bibles real simple-like ’cause that’s all weezuns is got.
Others of you are no doubt going to say at this point:
Well, that’s why we send our preachers to preacher school [meaning Christian college or seminary]. We do that because we want them to know all the right things to say to us. We also expect them to be duty bound by scripture to not lie to us or deceive us—and we expect them to get that as part of their education. We see them as service providers we pay for with our tithes and offerings just like we pay our drycleaner, painter, or pest control man. We work hard for our livings Monday-Friday, and we need rest on Sundays!!! We believe church should be that one place during a week where we really can turn off our brains from all the mental gymnastics, rancor, and toils of the work week—for just a couple of hours and—you know—just coast along. I don’t see what’s so wrong with that?
What do I have to say to those two statements? Jesus said, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7: 7-8). Notice the verbs. They are all actions a person must take. The things of the LORD require asking, seeking, and knocking—movement—work—a deep and intense effort on your part, and you have to use the brain God gave you well and wisely in doing it. That is one reason you have that brain—so you can do the required work. Instead, what many of you want to do is just be lazy; sit still, fat, dumb, and happy on your Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical hind ends; and let spiritual things come to you through passive osmosis and just kind of “take care of themselves in your life.” You are entirely content to call yourself a Christian—just so long as you do not have to think about it too much or do anything much about it. That is what happened to the followers of Pastor Barnard. They followed him and his words mindlessly, and when the parents finally realized their many teen daughters were being screwed once a week by their pastor like a boy dog on a car tire, they did not want to face up to the truth—and even worse—most were too passive, fearful, and lazy to do anything about it. They turned off their brains at the church door and reaped a whirlwind of misery.
Do not be like Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals in your own life and Christian walk. Never turn off your brain in a church sanctuary, Sunday school class, Christian conference presentation, Christian counseling session, or the pages of a book bought at a Christian bookstore, especially if they are based in Christian fundamentalism or conservative evangelicalism. Never be passive at your church. Question everything, analyze everything, and evaluate everything a human mouth says or human typing fingers say in written materials about God and the things of God in your church. Take peaceful action when necessary, especially to protect the innocent and “the least of these” among us.