Sunday, October 26, 2008

An open letter to American Christians

Dear friends and strangers,

It is no secret that with your upcoming elections you are facing some strange and interesting times. In many ways I feel like I am facing them with you. For one thing Rammstein kind of had a point – “We’re all living in America”. I watch the movies you make, I watch your sitcoms and your drama’s, your televangelists, your talk shows and your news programs. On a more personal level I have had the pleasure to get to know some of you personally through your blogs and through Facebook and that has been by far my favourite part. It was great to get past the preconceived ideas and stereotypes and get to know you for the real, interesting and complex people you truly are. It is for this reason most of all that I felt the need to share something with you. See I know a little something about the things you are worried about right now. I have been in a place similar to where you are at present and I have lived through some of the very things you fear most. Now let’s be clear, I would be the first to admit that it doesn’t mean I know exactly what you are feeling, after all I’m not you. So I’m not trying to preach to you or talk down to you. I also have no idea what your future will be like as I am no prophet or clairvoyant. I just want to share a part of my own experience and maybe, just maybe, it will be of some use to you.

See, I have been reading some of the concerns you have about your possible future and especially the work of people like Janet Folger and Focus on the Family paints a horrifically grim picture of your future under Democratic Party leadership. Now this has never been a political blog and I am not about to turn it into one. I have no intention of telling you who to vote for. This blog has been about matters of Christian faith and it is those concerns in particular that I wish to address.

First, some background. This is me, a couple of decades a go, a happy little white boy living in Africa proudly supporting our very own “war on terror” as you can tell by my t-shirt. Things were pretty simple back then, in fact in many ways we in Apartheid South Africa had what most American Fundamentalist Christians dream of – Christianity was the state religion and everyone had to live according to Christian rules. Gays had no say. Abortion was illegal (there were a handful of exceptions but they were rare and for medical reasons mostly). Every day the national broadcaster featured Christian devotionals on both TV and radio. Sundays everyone went to church and again, there were church services on both national radio and TV. The advice columnist in the biggest and most popular family magazine in the country was a preacher and Christian counselor – back then if a teenager wrote in saying that he thought he was gay he was told that he wasn’t really gay and was referred to counseling. No evolution was taught in school. Bible classes were compulsory subjects even in High School. All forms of entertainment deemed obscene or blasphemous was heavily censored if allowed at all. (There was one adult magazine on the supermarket shelves and it was printed with stars over the “naughty parts”.) But then suddenly 1994 came around and everything changed. We got a brand new super liberal constitution. Abortion became legally and freely available without parental consent. Gays got the right to marry and adopt children. TV no longer just broadcast Christian devotionals and services but started giving equal time to Islamic, Hindu, Jewish, New Age and Traditional African religious programming. Our government no longer supported Israel and started supporting voicing support for Palestine instead. Suddenly nothing was censored and everything was freely available. In short we went from a fundamentalist’s dream to a fundamentalist’s nightmare.

Let me put it to you this way – what are the things you fear most about having Obama and the liberal left wing in charge? Having a black man in charge who chooses the interests of black people over that of white people? Having Muslims, socialists and communists in your government? Having a weakened military? Open borders? Nationwide gay rights regarding marriage and adoption? Going from a “Christian Nation” to a totally secular state? Well, I have had all that happen in my lifetime and I have been living with it for the past 14 years. Everything you fear and a couple of things that probably hasn't even occurred to you to fear has happened here so believe me, I get your concerns. We had the exact same ones and we had the same dark view of the future - people were stocking up on canned food and toilet paper like you wouldn't believe!

Well, it’s been 14 years. Here is what didn’t happen:
  • Christianity didn’t become illegal. I’m not in a concentration camp and I can still attend any church I want to.
  • Fundamentalist Christians aren’t getting persecuted. In fact it seems that Christian fundamentalism is gaining ground daily.
  • Christianity didn’t get censored. Pastors, Dominees, Reverends, Bishops and Priests can still say whatever they like from the pulpit. Likewise, Christians can still say what they want in newspapers, magazines and on TV – even if it’s anti-gay or anti-abortion or anti-government.
  • The Bible didn’t get banned. I can read from it, write about it and discuss it in any forum I wish.
  • Home schooling is not illegal – in fact many parents take that route.
  • The country didn’t collapse into an odd mix of Orwellian politics and moral anarchy and Satan worship (though you could probably find some South Africans with a more pessimistic outlook on this than I do.)

Here is what did happen:
  • The kind of churches that people used to belong to for political or business reasons lost a lot of members, some even closed down. You know the kind I’m talking about, the kind of church you have to belong to if you want to fit in? Well when “Being Christian” was no longer equal to “fitting in” they just didn’t have much of a reason to exist it seems.
  • Churches who offered their members something real and relevant started booming – Pentecostal and Charismatic mega churches actually arose for the first time.
  • Christians still had freedom of expression under the super liberal constitution they weren’t crazy about BUT they had to start enduring challenge and debate for the first time. Sure, a pastor can still go on TV and say that gays are an abomination to God but he will have to share the podium with another pastor who may disagree with him. People now get to make more informed decisions on what they believe.
  • Christians don’t get to enforce their moral standards using the law anymore. But then neither did the Apostles. Or Jesus for that matter…
  • In short, Christianity had to sink or swim on its own with no help from the government.

So while I don’t know what your future will look like, I can with reasonable certainty tell you that those who try to tell you that there are only 2 possible outcomes – conservative Christian government or an evil Anti-Christ empire – are wrong. After all, if your faith has anything going for it, if what you believe is in any way real, then it shouldn’t need the president to prop it up and keep it going, right? (I believe that your Christian brethren in totally secular (and mostly atheist) countries like the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Japan etc will back me up regarding this one.) Being concerned about your future and making careful decisions regarding it is good, I’m not suggesting you stop that. Just let go of the fear. Most of all, give no ear to people who only spread fear and hopelessness and visions of doom. Vote any way you want to for whatever reason you see fit but please don’t vote out of fear. Is America not supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave? Why then does it seem like I believe that more than you do? Sometimes the larger implication of freedom is that you don’t always get to have things go your way. Beware the fearmongers. Be brave. Embrace freedom.

We did and look, we are still here!

Kind Regards,

Your Christian friend in a secular South Africa.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Critical Thinking and Christianity: A Case of Complement or Contradiction?

Everyone wants to be a skeptic these days it seems. There used to be a time when the term “skeptic” meant someone who opposed believers in everything from UFO’s to séances but as a recent series of articles in at the James Randi Educational Foundation noted, these very believers in the paranormal are now referring to themselves skeptics! I noticed the same thing on various internet discussion boards – everyone from Young Earth Creationists to a wide variety of conspiracy theorists are describing themselves as skeptics. What happened? It seems as if somewhere along the line being a skeptic became cool and now everyone wants to be one. Which leaves me with the question – what am I?

After all I call myself a skeptic yet most of the great skeptics (the real ones like James Randi and Phil Plait) would probably not agree with me. After all, though I may not believe in alternative “medicine” (like homeopathy, reflexology and acupuncture), astrology, numerology or the Loch Ness Monster but I am still a Christian. I do believe in strange and improbable/impossible things like the God and angels and the virgin birth and bodily resurrection, so really how much of a right do I have to call myself a skeptic? Should I not be applying the same rules to Christianity that I used to come to the conclusion that New Age “remedies” is total BS? I remember that in the opening chapter of his book “Tricks of the Mind”, the mentalist Derren Brown tells of his journey from Pentecostal Christian to Atheist and how it all started with him investigating various “demonic” New Age practices and how finding that it was all just smoke and mirrors and self delusion led him to the eventual conclusion that the same could be said of his Christian faith. Is this really the only destination that thinking critically can take me? Is it the eventual destiny of all who discard superstition to discard their faith as well?

To me the mark of a true skeptic is the ability to think critically and therein lies the rub does it not? After all in my own previous post I lamented the lack of critical thinking skills among Christians. Added to that, no matter how much I would like to, I cannot separate myself from that. Being a Christian and believing the things I do, requires me to take some things on faith after all. There is no way for me to use logic, evidence and critical thinking to vindicate my beliefs no matter how much I wish it could be so.

What then can I do? Should I reject critical thinking in order to be a better believer? That is not an option available to me. I cannot simply switch that part of myself off, especially not now. Should I try to be selective? Be critical of some things and blindly accepting of others? I honestly do not see how I can do that. How will I draw that line? I can’t look at some evidence and ignore others. I can’t open my eyes to the facts I like and close it to the facts I dislike. I cannot, like some of my brethren, act as if science and archeology proves the Bible as factual for I know it cannot. Finding the city of Jericho does not prove that the Israelites marched around it for seven days. Knowing that Pontius Pilate was a real person is not the same as having proof that he washed his hands in innocence. Finding an empty tomb or two does not prove that Jesus rose from it. Some things can be proven as fact and others cannot. Maybe it is in the acceptance of this fact that I must live then.

I was reading a great book called “Becoming a Critical Thinker” (well the free online first chapter which is all I can afford for now…) by noted skeptic Robert Todd Carroll and something struck me in its description of what the attitude of a critical thinker should be. In it he writes that: “A critical thinker is neither dogmatic nor gullible. The most distinctive features of the critical thinker’s attitude are open-mindedness and skepticism” (©2004 Robert Todd Carroll). When I read that I realized that maybe being a critical thinker and a Christian is not such a complete contradiction. It seems to me at least that a true critical thinker has to live in the balance.

On the one hand he should be skeptical without being dogmatic. I believe it is here that a lot of wanna-be internet skeptics fail. Being a skeptic doesn’t mean rejecting everything out of hand. A knee-jerk skeptic is not a skeptic. Simply disbelieving and dismissing everything out of hand doesn’t make you a skeptic, it makes you an ass. Skepticism should carry with it the willingness to evaluate and investigate. Skepticism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the assumption that you already know all truth, rather it is the willingness to search for the truth – continually if you have to. Skepticism means you are willing to check and recheck any idea for truthfulness, even those ideas most dear to you. For this of course you need the other side of the balance, the ability to be open minded. Open mindedness is not the same as gullibility. Most people consider themselves open minded when all they really have is a hole in the head where their brains are leaking out! Open mindedness does not refer to believing everything you hear, it refers to the ability to give all ideas a fair chance. Now not all ideas are equal, but if someone tells you something you are skeptical about and they offer to prove it, the open minded thing would be to at least give their proof a chance. The moment you refuse to even hear what someone with an opposing viewpoint has to say you are closed minded. Open mindedness is nothing more than the willingness to listen, explore and give a fair hearing to different ideas.

Now granted this only scrapes the surface of critical thinking and deals with the attitude of the thinker, not with the various tools involved. I admit freely that I have a lot left to learn about skepticism and critical thinking and that I still have to undo years of uncritical thinking patterns. However the more I learn about critical thinking and skepticism the more hopeful I become that there is hope and room for me amongst the skeptics. All of us, even the best critical thinkers face innumerable hurdles to truly being a critical thinker about everything. Most, if not all of us, find it easy to be critical about some issues but hard regarding others. For instance one person may be extremely skeptical about politicians but really gullible when it comes to infomercials while another may analyze everything his preacher says, yet never ask for a second opinion on anything his doctor tells him! We all have our strengths and weaknesses in this way. In many ways, critical thinking is hard no matter who you are. So much of our very wiring seems to be set against it. We seem to be wired to seek out opinions that agree with ours and reject those who do not, sometimes without regard for their actual truthfulness. Following the trail of truth to wherever it may lead us is no easy task for a human. Its not a matter of intelligence either, the smartest people can be the worst and critical thinking and do the dumbest things sometimes! In fact, sometimes intelligence may be more of a handicap - the more intelligent a person is it seems the easier it is to rationalize away the things that prove them wrong!

The best any of us can do is to try to live with a continuous willingness to seek the truth and to examine what we find. We cannot possibly hope to know or understand everything yet that should not discourage us to try to know and understand as much as we can. It is in this balance we must all attempt to live. I have heard it said that poets don’t go mad, chess players do. Yet I can’t help but wonder how many chess players end up drowning themselves in large bodies of water like poets often do... I believe that balance is the key element. While there are things that we are certain about, that gives us no excuse never to re-examine and re-explore them, testing our own sacred certainties. At the same time there are some things which may always remain mysteries, things that may forever elude our understanding. Yet I don’t think this means we shouldn’t constantly try to get a better grasp on them, to try to further our insight into them.

I certainly believe that the church should be more welcoming of critical thinking. We allow so much nonsense into our midst, simply because no one ever thinks to question or think about it. Did the Old Testament not require prophets to be accurate on pain of death? Does the New Testament not say that we should "test the spirits" and that there is "no private interpretation" of the prophecies? Why then is there such an (unBiblical) unwillingness to be more skeptical in church? (I'm not suggestion we stone people for getting something wrong but really, would it kill us to admit when we made a mistake?)

As for my faith, I believe there is room for that right alongside my skepticism. After all, no amount of skepticism rules out the existence of God and any skeptic who claims that is not being true to the tenets of critical thinking. Even a devout atheist (in this case, Youtuber AronRa) stated that:
“Everything within the capacity of human understanding contains a degree of error, and everything men know to be true is only true to a degree. Everyone is inevitably wrong about something somewhere. We don’t know everything about everything. We don’t know everything about anything! And what we do know, we don’t know accurately on all points nor completely in every detail. Honest men admit this. “

This means you can’t rule out the existence of God using only critical thinking and logic. At the same time this also means you can’t claim with absolute certainty that God exists or that anything in the Bible happened the way it was described. I fully accept that. That is why God is a matter of faith to me, not knowledge. In fact I was hesitant to even bring this up because this happens to be my least favourite defense of the existence of God, the “Well you can’t prove He DOESN’T exist!!!” argument. I mention this only to say that I don’t think it is absolutely contrary to be a critical thinker and a man of faith. My faith is just that, faith. I don’t pretend it’s anything else. Terry Pratchett had a character in his Discworld novels named “Abraxas the Agnostic”. Now he was nicknamed “Charcoal” Abraxas because he had been struck by lightning fifteen times - which suggests that being an agnostic in the Discworld requires an enviable strength of mind, not to say thickness of skull. His own comment, just before the fifteenth stroke, was “They needn't think they can make me believe in them by smiting me the whole time”. In studying critical thinking and skepticism I often feel like a mirror version of Abraxas – I comprehend all the reasons for not believing in God, I understand the reasoning of Agnostics and Atheists and I see the sense and reason in their arguments. Yet for some reason I cannot stop having faith. God is real to me and I believe in Him, try as I might, God remains real to me whether I want Him to or not. Therefore, my life remains in this strange juxtaposition of faith and reason, skepticism and mysticism. It may all change one day, it may never change. Come what may I will continue to both explore and enjoy the mystery and question and probe the certainties of my life, wherever that may lead me in the end.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Brainwashing the flock

I recently read a brilliant article called "6 Brainwashing Techniques They're Using On You Right Now" by David Wong. Now usually I just hang out over at for the entertainment and fun articles but this one really stood out for me. It was interesting, well researched and presented in a great format. OK so there were some totally gratuitous shots of cleavage in there too, try to look past that and just read what he wrote if your sense of humour is broken! So please check out his article because I have no intention of passing someone else's hard work as my own here. I do however want to use his article as a framework for discussing another facet of these brainwashing methods he did not mention - the fact that the points he raised applies to the church so accurately it's more than a little scary! While Mr Wong was pointing out how politicians, advertisers and the media use simple, subtle techniques to brainwash you I realized that you could basically re-write the whole article as a bad comedy skit called "You may be a Pentecostal when..."

Of course there is no real need for me to try my hand at bad stand-up comedy since there are enough people out there making fun of Christians already. Sad thing is, a lot of it is totally deserved. This may come as a shock to a lot of Christians, but we are not known as paragons of analytical thinking and reason in this world. (Something that was brutally made fun of in season 3 of Weeds when one of the kids attended a fundamentalist Christian "Critical Thinking" class) I believe the 6 things listed here greatly contribute to shutting down critical thinking the lives of Christians. Still, I don't think anyone in the church would like the idea of being brainwashed. Just to be completely clear, I don't think this is done on purpose at all. I don't think the Christian leaders of the world had a secret meeting and decided on a 12 step plan (that all started with the same letter) to brainwash the faithful. I would even go out on a limb and say that 99.99% of the leaders that use these techniques are completely ignorant of their brainwashing potential, they simply use them because they work. Lets face it, most preachers/teachers/evangelists are nothing if not pragmatic. If something works they tend to use it without spending too much time pondering why it works. Many organisations all over the world are using these methods, it was really only a matter of time before they ended up being used from the pulpit. These techniques are pure elegance in their simplicity. They are:

"But Christians don't chant!" you protest. Oh but we do! Ever notice how most of our Christian catchphrases are really easy to say and even rhyme a little? Ever notice how a lot of worship songs have simple repetitive lyrics? Ever heard lines like "Say it with me" or "Turn to the person next to you and say...." or "Repeat after me" from the pulpit? That all counts as chanting. These types of repetitive sayings tend to override the analytical part of your brain, which is why the nice folks over at the Cult Hotline and Clinic (go read that page for even scarier thoughts about some accepted church practices!) refer to them as "thought stopping techniques" - because that's exactly what they are. Now this isn't necessarily an evil thing. It can be used as a way to keep focus and to keep your mind from wandering. Just keep in mind that as a side effect it also tends to disrupt your ability to carefully consider the things you are told - which is why its so popular with cults. And the Army.

Slipping false information into your subconscious
You come across this in the media all the time - they lay a shocking headline on you, usually in question format about Product X maybe causing cancer (or something like that). Now its pure sensation and they know that and if you read the whole article you eventually come to the part where actual experts in the field debunk the claim, but the seed is sown. That's just how our brains work, we don't absorb massive chunks of information, we tend to remember tidbits. Problem is that we remember the sensation and the interesting tidbits, not necessarily the factual ones. That's why next time someone brings up "Product X" the first thing that pops into your head and out of your mouth is "I've heard that can cause cancer". Now this happens in the church a lot too but the main difference is that it is not planned at all as far as I can tell. Still there are so many false rumours running unchecked through the Christian faith due to this very fact. Little pseudo-facts get used in sermons and repeated in conversation and so lies just continue to circle through the church unfiltered for decades. From Chinese people eating babies to the gay Jesus movie to Noah's ark being found, there are tons of "facts" that Christians tell as if it was gospel truth even though a simple 2 minute fact check would prove it wrong! It was this gullible swallowing of total falsehoods spread by well meaning people that turned me to skepticism in the first place actually!

Control of what you watch and read
Now the church may be guilty on all of these points but it tends to be brutally guilty of this one! Communist countries can learn a lot about control through censorship from Christianity! Spend enough time in church and you will be warned in great detail of the evils of TV, movies, games, the media and music. Don't even get me started on books! From Harry Potter to the Origin of Species, its all from the Devil himself! Christians must be protected from all these poisonous influences for their own good!! Of course no one in the church likes to think of it as censorship. Again, I don't think this is a planned, deliberate attempt to stamp out dissent, I believe that those who are doing it to "protect others from the snares of Satan" truly believe they are protecting others. Now I understand that it certainly feels comfortable to surround yourself with sources that only agree with you (who simultaneously tell you how wrong all those who disagree with you are) but it's really not healthy! Also I am not blind to the fact that in some cases censorship really does protect people - I would for instance never suggest that parents let their kids be exposed to torture porn! I do however think that it is naive and dangerous to try to protect all people all over from ways of thinking different from yours. In other words, making sure that your small children stay away from age inappropriate movies is good parenting - controlling what your child gets to see at age 30 is not. At some stage you have to let people make their own informed decisions about what to believe and for that they need the freedom to truly look at all sides. Otherwise their beliefs will never carry weight. Any idea that can only survive by being protected from all criticism is hardly an idea worth holding on to. If we believe our faith is true and that it truly has merit we should not have to fear opposing opinions.

Keeping people in line through shame
This is one we are all intimately familiar with! I don't care where you are from, you have known about this method from your earliest years! Your mom probably used it on you to get you to do things, your peers at school did too, in fact its safe to say that you probably used shame and ridicule (even if only very subtle) to make other people do what you wanted them to do at some point in your life. Everyone does this at some point and while its not a healthy tool it certainly is an effective one! Using an appeal to ridicule is devilishly simple - no one likes to look like an idiot, so convince someone that all other options would make them look like an idiot and they will most likely go with your way. Of course in the Christian world we don't quite use coolness or looking like an idiot to control the way people think, but the results stay the same. Granted, those in the Creationism vs Evolution debates love to use straight up appeals to ridicule, using straw man arguments to make sure that everyone knows that accepting evolution is the most obviously dumb thing anyone could do (Check out anything by Kent Hovind for many, many examples). The rest of the church tends to rather use terms like "No true Christian would ever..." or "No one who is filled with the Holy Spirit would enjoy...." More subtle than most forms, but it still does exactly the same thing - it creates a subconscious equation in your mind which makes a certain way of thinking or behaving unacceptable for fear of being rejected by the group.

Black & White choices
Something I have often lamented in this blog is the way that Christians tend to avoid any and all shades of gray. True, this can be said of many groups, from sports to politics. However when it comes to black & white options only the church really has the upper hand because we are the authority on what is good and what is evil are we not? Compromise is the worst swear word in the Christian language and we tend to sharply divide everything into right and wrong, good and evil, God or the devil. Churches promote the simplest answers to even the most complex issues - which is why Christians in general tend to see no conflict with being both pro-life and pro-death. This habit of making all things either good or totally bad is a great way of controlling the thoughts and behaviors of other people. It taps into our most primitive "fight or flight" sides, making it all about life or death (or even damnation in some cases), effectively shutting down all critical or analytical thoughts which leads to blind obedience and following. After all you are not going to be weighing your options when you are already convinced that your side has it right and all others are horribly wrong and hell bound for it! Which leads to the final point.

Us vs them
The "us vs them" mindset is all around us and we all suffer from it to such an extent. Whether it is your faith, your race, your home town or your sports team, we all tend to find our identity in a group of some kind. Through the millennia, human beings have been hardwired to form tribes, to find a place they can belong. This is not something that is evil by its very nature. In fact this can be good and the church can provide such a place of belonging. At it's inception after all, Christianity was a haven for the outcasts, the marginalized and the downtrodden. As tribes went it was a very welcoming, inclusive one. Sadly, that is rarely true today. The church and the different denominations in it have become cliquish to the point of almost becoming cultish. This mindset totally convinces people that we are not just a good group to belong to, we are the ONLY group to belong to if you want to get it right. Those outside of "our" group are mocked and vilified, our group becomes the safe haven that protects you from "them". Of all the brainwashing techniques this is the big one - it's the culmination and end goal of all the others. As brainwashing tools go there is none more powerful. After all, what do we fear more in our deepest of hearts than being kicked from the tribe? We will bend over backwards, change the way we live and think and behave just to fit in, just to not be excluded. Hard to think for yourself when you live like that isn't it?

Of course that is kind of a worst case scenario. A lot - if not most - of the churches out there do not take these methods to extremes, but unfortunately there are those who do. The problem as I see it is that all of these techniques are used to some extent right throughout the church - again, I don't think this is because of premeditated malice - and all Christians would do well to be aware of them. After all these very same techniques are being used on you by motivational speakers, team leaders, CEO's, politicians and the media anyway and a little awareness can go a long way. When your preacher or youth group/worship/cell group leaders use these I don't think they plan to actually brainwash you nor do I think they plan to do any harm. In fact it's probably not planned at all. But that doesn't make it less dangerous. Not thinking about where you are headed or not thinking about why you are doing something is always at least a little dangerous and that is what these techniques all lead to - NOT THINKING. So be aware, don't let even the most well meaning people shut down your abilities to think critically and keep thinking. Questions will not damn you, unthinking obedience just might.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Army of God?

A while back I came across a rather disturbing article about a new movement in Charismatic Christian circles called Joel's Army - basically a growing movement of young people " with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian "dominion" on non-believers" under the charismatic leadership of guys like Todd Bentley. According to the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada:

"An end-time army has one common purpose -- to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion," "The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel's Army. ... Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God's kingdom on earth."

Now normally I would pay guys like these little (if any) notice. The crackpots have always been among us after all. However this is bigger than just a few crazies dreaming about the coming apocalypse. This isn't really isolated in just one area either, since the media started poking into the background of Sarah Palin and her church ties, the The Christian Dominionism movement - in a nutshell, the idea that Christians ought to be in charge of the secular world - now receives more widespread attention. Now personally I still feel that a lot of the articles and media attention this gets is a little alarmist. The Dominionist message has been preached and promoted for almost a hundred years now and to date it hasn't really managed to stir up much besides feelings. I don't think we are in any danger of the Crusades being relaunched any time soon and I don't think America is about to be turned in to a military theocracy any time soon either. However this movement and its growing popularity should still give Christians pause since it represent a extremist form of a bad idea that is found all over the Christian church in general - the idea of the Church as an army.

Now the Bible gives many pictures of the church - that of a family, a building, a bride or a body for instance but more and more Christians prefer to think of the church as an army instead. But is this a Biblical model? Does God want His church to be an army? Well, the idea is certainly not that new. It certainly featured big in the Middle Ages and of course the Crusades. Young and old may remember songs like “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “God’s got an Army”. This model had a big boost through the works of people like Rick Joyner and a handful of others who use vivid battle images in their books on Christianity. I have to admit that the Army model sure is a romantic one and it stirs the blood like few others. But that doesn't make it a good model for the church by a long shot.

Firstly it is very important to note that the Bible never uses this as a model of the church. When the Word refers to the army of God it always refers to His angels, not His church. On a few (three if you want to nitpick) occasions the Word refers to the individual Christian as a soldier (Phil 2:25; 2 Tim 2:3; Philemon 1:2), but never to the church as an army. (The Bible refers as many times to Christians as athletes, why does no one ever refer to the church as a sports team?) Even though the army model has its merits it is still a deeply flawed model. Better ones are already given to us and they fit the role and function of the church a whole lot better.

The problem is that there are some aspects of an army that makes it completely unsuitable as a church model. An army destroys those who oppose them. As the church we are however instructed to win over those who oppose us by doing good, loving our enemies and not repaying evil with evil, not seek their annihilation. The church should seek the salvation of its enemies, not their destruction. Sadly, with the romanticism of the army way of thinking gaining ground the fundamental Christian ideal of turning the other cheek and seeking the blessing of those who curse you is being driven further and further into the background. There is a growing "us against them" mindset in the church with the "them" being everyone from Muslims to gays to liberals and the gist of the message is not reaching them so much as defeating them.

Now right about here, many supporters of the Army model would stop me and point out that according to the Bible the true enemy is Satan and his minions (Eph 6:12), but here again the army model proves dangerous, for it encourages tons of spiritual warfare. This is a big problem with the Army model - armies focus on battle. Similarly, once a church starts thinking of themselves as an army, it becomes all about fighting. I can't help but feel that most of the church are far more focused on the devil and evil spirits and spiritual warfare than they are on God. Now I don't want to digress into a discussion on "spiritual warfare" but I will say this - how much of it is drawn from the Bible? All these "prayer walks", deliverance ministries and endless lore on different spirits - from names to functions and even locations - where does it come from? How much of it is actually drawn from Scripture? If we needed such extensive knowledge of exorcism, deliverance, Jezebel spirits etc, why is there so little of it written in the Bible? While there is a time and place for this, I believe the focus of a Christian should be God and not the devil. One should never be tempted to forget that the Biblical order is firstly submission to God and secondly to resist the devil (Jam 4:7). When speaking of the armour of the believer the instruction is that we should use it to “stand our ground” - sounds like these things are more about "self defence" than attacking the devil day in and day out. Just a thought.

OK, back to the problems with running a church like an army. In an army the generals take no risks. Instead they send their troops to take the risks while they take the glory. Come to think of it that does sound a little bit like some of the congregations I have been part of and really, it sucked! In an army, the troops have little significance. Just watch the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan or read about life in the trenches of World War One. In an army a life is a statistic – the objective is more important. In the church everyone is significant. At least they are supposed to be. The people are as important as the objective because in a very real way people are the objective. In the church it is of no use to reach some arbitrary goal if most of the people are lost along the way.

I could list many reasons why I find the army church model to be fatally flawed. I did not go to the army myself (I missed forced conscription by about a year) but I did grow up in a very militarized society and school system and the one thing I remember hating most about it was the forced uniformity. Where as thinking about the church as a body makes it OK to be different and unique even, in an army everyone has to look the same and most importantly think the same. Sadly, this is another bad idea the church has grabbed hold of. This is a case where the favoured model actually clashes with the Biblical one! Paul teaches that we are all like different parts of a body - completely different yet all important and all part of something bigger than ourselves. He tells us to embrace the fact that we are different and to let others be different from us. The army idea of assimilation utterly goes against this. Other reasons include that in an army the obedience is based on fear and duty not love and respect. Also in the church we are to serve one another, not control one another (Mat 20:25-27). Armies also leave no place for dissent, you either agree or you are in trouble. Being right or wrong has no bearing here. Is that really how a church should be run?

Now I grew up in various churches with the dominionist bend and I get the allure. I can certainly see why the army model would seem so attractive. It represents power after all and power is always attractive. But the problem is that on the whole, Christians are spectacularly bad with power. They may have only the best intentions, but we all know what they say about good intentions. I think Christians should think long and hard about this image they have of themselves as God's mighty army. We need to look past the romance and see the dangers and the many pitfalls. Groups like Joel's Army should serve as a wake-up call regarding the path we are headed down and it is not a good one. Sure, very few groups take it as far as the extremists do but why choose an inherently un-biblical model with so many negatives in the first place?

I said at the beginning of this article that I don't think there is any reason to be alarmist about these groups but I am starting to wonder if that's true. After all you don't need large numbers to do large amounts of damage, small dedicated groups can cause immense harm (if terrorism taught us nothing else its this...) It takes only a few individuals to break down in moments what generations have painstakingly built. Years of good can be undone in moments. Sure, most Christians - even those in utterly dominionist charismatic churches - would never actually go beyond talking but they are not the danger. Its the handful of overzealous people out of the masses who decide to "help God out" that pose the danger. That is why the church at large needs to think long and hard about what message it is sending. Preach on what monsters abortion doctors are and sooner or later at least one guy will get it into his head to shoot one. Spend enough time building fear about how the Muslims are going to kill us all and eventually someone is going to harm Muslim children.

Again, I'm not saying this is going to lead to a bloodbath or anything truly tragic, but it still sounds like a recipe for a disaster waiting to happen. See these groups are militant, elitist and and worst of all anti-intellectual. While there is a lot of anti-science sentiment among many Christians today already but among some of these groups take it much further than that by embracing teachings like that of William Branham. In a nutshell these state that the "fruit" Eve ate was sexual congress with the serpent and that Cain was the son of the Serpent. Therefore there are literally sons of God and sons of the Devil on earth. It takes it even further, the "sons of God" are good simple folk while the "sons of the serpent" are the scientists and intellectuals and even the theologians (the complete sermon on "The Serpent's Seed" can be found here). So then, you have a group of zealous, passionate young people, you teach them that all who differ from them are not only wrong, they are evil (and therefore you shouldn't listen to a word they have to say). You then teach them that they are special and meant to be running everything, that they should be in charge of the world. You hammer home the idea that the world is coming to an end and they have a vital role to play in the victory of good over the forces of evil (which happen to be everywhere and controlling everything from governments to schools to the media). You tell them that they are not only right, they are absolutely right for God Himself is on their side and He supports and endorses their cause completely. How is this not a terrible idea?