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The Megachurch, Mike Jones, and the Suspension of Disbelief

A Commentary

Jim Burroway

January 29th, 2007

I am reluctant to write about this because I tend to stay away from criticism of religious practices. My interest is more in debunking junk science that emanates from the anti-gay lobby. While much of it is supported by religious groups, I don’t want to get into any theological discussions because it seems to me that this is a dead end. Faith is a deeply personal thing, and I’m not here to change anyone’s faith. All I want to do is to get some facts on the table and wipe away the falsehoods that many others promote.

A lot of those falsehoods about homosexuality are accepted uncritically by a large number of people, and many of those people accept them in good faith because they come from leaders of faith. So while I hesitate to enter into a theological discussion, I do believe it is appropriate to enter into a cultural one. And a recent visit by Mike Jones to Ted Haggard’s megachurch offers just such an opportunity.

I’m sure you remember Ted Haggard, the founder of New Life Church in Colorado Springs who was caught in a sexual relationship with Denver escort Mike Jones. This scandal played on the worst stereotypes many gays and lesbians have about Christians, stereotypes that are reinforced with great consistency by the behavior of many prominent Christian and religious political leaders themselves.

And whenever the mighty have fallen, there’s always a great celebration that one with so much hubris has finally met with his come-uppance. But in the midst of all of this, it is easy to forget that one of the core tenets of Christianity is the humbleness and meekness (“Blessed are the meek…”) that all Christians are called to exercise. And so it’s good when, from time to time, we can get a glimpse into that most admirable Christian trait, that seemingly rare quality of humility. When Mike Jones visited a service at New Life Church yesterday while on a fact-finding mission for his new book, the Denver Post reports that he got a small glimpse of it:

Just about every person who offered him a handshake said the same thing: Welcome, thank you and God bless. …

A couple of ladies cried when they were touching me,” Jones said. “I was thanked for exposing the church, for helping Ted Haggard. A couple of them said they hoped I get God into my life. And they all said ‘God bless you,’ every one of them.”

Christianity is at its best when it is humble. That has always been the case, and for good reason: Christ called his followers to a life of service and humility.

And yet, our culture is far from humble and Christians are just as much a part of our culture as anyone, despite the Apostle Paul’s warning to “be not of this world.” From slick web sites, television networks, music videos, and all manner of political pronouncements delivered on cable news channels at all hours of the day and night — and the massive and constant fund-raising that supports all of these endeavors — there is very little in the public face of Christianity that suggests that humility is actually a core tenet. That’s why it’s so good to witness it wherever we find it. But the public expression of humility is increasingly rare, and it seems that it takes a scandal to remind everyone of its importance.

It shouldn’t be that way, but we have no one but ourselves to blame. Our popular entertainments have trained us well in the spectacular arts, and we have come to expect spectacle when we go to a theater. And as all students of theater know, we best experience theater only when we are willing to suspend disbelief. In other words, we know it’s a show, we know they are performers, and we know that what we are seeing isn’t entirely true. Our rational minds disbelieve what we are seeing. But we are spectators, and our role is not to question such things and just enjoy the show. To do that, we must suspend our disbelief in the literal falseness of what we are seeing before we can get wrapped up in the spectacle. If we don’t, we won’t have nearly so much fun. That’s the whole point of theater.

Worship at New Life Church

So I wonder what happens when, after an audience enters the auditorium and takes their seat, when the lights come on, the band takes the stage and the music swells, I wonder what the audience’s natural instinct would be? Aren’t we conditioned to automatically suspend disbelief? And now that some practitioners of Christianity have incorporated all of these elements — complete with stage, sound systems, theatrical lighting, and canned music — one has to wonder if the audience doesn’t react with the same habits as when they enter a theater. Why wouldn’t the audience — I’m sorry, did I say audience? I meant congregation — suspend disbelief?

We now shop in shopping centers and worship in worship centers. And when the church builds an auditorium instead of a sanctuary and engages in stagecraft instead of contemplation, when the bright spotlight shines on the “humble servant” on the stage, it seems that stage is set for a lot of things, including the suspension of disbelief. And in the midst of that suspension, an awful lot of falseness can slip through.

There is a fundamental contradiction in play here. We are placed in an environmnet in which we are conditioned to suspend disbelief, and yet in this very same place we are supposed to be a witness to the Truth with a capital “T.” I think Mike Jones detected this very contradiction here:

But Jones … said he wasn’t impressed on the whole. If the Gospel message is enough, he said, why the loud music and MTV-quality production?

I hate to promote stereotypes, but Time Magazine complained in 1966 that “on Broadway, it would be difficult to find a production without homosexuals playing important parts, either onstage or off. And in Hollywood, you have to scrape them off the ceiling.” I guess you could say we know theater. And as with theater, we’ve learned not to believe everything we see.

And I hate to promote stereotypes of Christianity either. But as long as the most visible branch of Christianity is seduced by spectacle as a method, there will always be the temptation for a pastor to say something that propels his voice above the loud noise emanating from the other worship center next door. And all too often, he can do that by employing the time-tested elements of stagecraft. Great theater demands a villain, and gays and lesbians have been a very reliable villain for quite some time.

And just as great theater demands a villain, it also demands a great hero who can look directly into the camera and say, “I Know What You Did Last Night”. That way, he gives the audience, err, congregation something to cheer about, and keeps them coming back for more.

See also:

Ted Haggard: “I’m Not Gay”
The Megachurch, Mike Jones, and the Suspension of Disbelief
“There Is A Part Of My Life So Repulsive and Dark…”
Blessed Are The Opportunists
Haggard Resigns; “I Know What You Did Last Night”
Prayers and Assistance for the Haggard Family
I Did Not Have Sex With That Man!
Jones “Fails” Lie Detector?
Fall of the House of Haggard

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