Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Two: Bill Johnson, Donald Trump & Evangelical Reckoning

*Links are highlighted.

This is the second post in a series wherein I attempt to explore and articulate the nature of my own evolving Christian faith. In part one I sketched a vague backdrop of my own experience of (re)embracing Christianity, and by proxy Western Evangelicalism, as an adult convert. In my original plan for the first draft of this (less than) brief missal, I considered the construction of a selective narrative explaining how my spiritual journey has been shaped by various different church contexts in recent years. Recent events in America, however, have led me to refocus my efforts on the specific and pervasive influence that Bethel Church in Redding, California has had on my encounter with a distinct subset of UK Evangelicalism throughout the past ten years. Apologies in advance for any subversive, grammatically obtuse hilarity that may ensue.

Feel The Burn

I can still recall my first charismatic ‘encounter’ at a church ‘worship’ service on a Sunday evening (worship in this case meant singing, with no sermon or communion etc). The setting seemed innocuous enough at first, and consisted of a rented space above a set of tennis courts. I cannot remember the precise nature of the music, but at some point there was an altar call and eager worshippers were encouraged to take a step forward as a physical act of pursuing God. Being a zealous, recent convert, I complied. What happened next took me by surprise.

*Boom* – I received prayer for the Holy Spirit to fall upon me. The (customary) palm was placed upon my forehead, and before I knew what was happening I ended up flat on my back as my whole body buckled (does one fall or is one pushed?). Seemingly, I was now under the influence of some unseen, spectral entity. Thankfully, I was gently lowered to the floor by a group of volunteers, whom I discovered were known as ‘catchers’. Clearly, collapsing Christians were to be expected, since apparently this phenomenon was commonplace in charismatic church circles. I vaguely remembered the pastor calling out to God for ‘unquenchable fire’ (which I later discovered had distinctly eschatological connotations; Matt 3:12). As I lay on the floor, with my eyes closed, I had clear visions of an exalted Jesus Christ like figure against the backdrop of a blue sky, surrounded by cumulonimbus. This really was a full blown religious experience unlike any I had received before, and marked my introduction to the Pentecostal-charismatic movement.[1] It would be entirely fitting to describe the whole scenario as a baptism of fire.

Over the years that followed this experience, I found myself in similar contexts on many occasions. Church services, conferences, ‘worship’ nights, and prayer meetings with various charismatic church groups all had one thing common: an expectation of some kind of powerful ‘encounter’ or experience with what participants were taught was the Holy Spirit. Preachers would ‘share’ messages that were at times scripted (with varying degrees of precision), and at times purportedly unplanned and led by the Spirit. So called ‘prophetic words’ were part and parcel of such meetings, as speakers and members of the congregation offered what they believed was divinely inspired speech (viz. speaking on behalf God), which may or may not (oftentimes not) have involved references to Scripture. People in such settings were frequently overwhelmed by their religious experiences to the extent that they would cry out, shake, rattle, and roll, emit strange grunting sounds, animal noises, and babble in tongues, fall over, twitch uncontrollably, burst into spontaneous fits of laughter, and be reduced to tears. On occasion, people might even fall to their knees or lie prostrate in acts of reverence to their unseen perception of the divine. Then, there were the ‘fire tunnels’:

Do the Holy Cokey

As a youth, I must confess that I enjoyed gyrating my hapless, long haired, wannabe-goth-rocker clad frame around erratically in a vain attempt to ‘dance’ (strong word) or ‘mosh’ to whichever tunes were doing the rounds at the local Rock club. [2] This unfortunate predilection continued well into my early twenties, and was not even entirely dissuaded by my conversion to Christianity; I’ve always loved a good, slightly awkward looking boogie. So, imagine my surprise when I discovered that charismatic Christianity, as I experienced it within a predominantly white, middle class, Western context, had more than it’s fair share of interpretive dance moves. From billowing ribbons, to fluttering flags, twirling tasmanian devil-like expressions of tortuous contortions were the order of the day for many a rhythmically challenged worshipper on the third wave charismatic scene.

One of the more intriguing movement based forms of Pentecostal piety that I partook in was the ‘fire tunnel’ (or prayer tunnel, for slightly embarrassed Brits who wanted to tone down the weirdness). Essentially, believers form two parallel lines, facing each other, and put their hands out to pray and/or bless people who form an orderly queue at one end and proceed to walk through said gauntlet. This holy cokey often (allegedly) involves people being overwhelmed by the Spirit as they are continuously prayed for by each pair of believers in the line as they pass through. Sometimes people have to be carried out as the experience is just too intense. Animal noises and rabid babbling may ensue. As peculiar as this practice is, audience participation in questionable modes of collaborative, ecstatic movement is hardly a difficult concept for a man who first crowd surfed to Pantera at the original UK ‘Ozzfest’, and survived several ‘circle pits’ at post-punk gigs and festivals.[3] I’ve been through a fair few fire tunnels, and as wonderfully daft and absurd as it may be, I’d done far worse during my misspent youth. If Anglo-catholic Christians are going to politely line up and receive the real body and blood of Christ in communion, are pentecostal-charismatic types really any more insane for expecting a divine encounter when receiving focused prayer?[4]

Fusing can be Fun

In my previous post, I quoted Kathy Escobar’s book entitled Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, wherein she describes the early stages of faith as a process called ‘fusing’, which consists of ‘believing‘, ‘learning‘, and ‘doing‘.[5] I believed in Jesus Christ, so I began to learn about him, attend church, and started ‘doing’ various religious activities. Another characteristic of fusing is a desire for ‘affiliation’, ‘conformity’, and ‘certainty’.[6] Borrowing Kathy’s language, I can now see how I wanted to be affiliated with certain church groups, and thus found myself subconsciously learning how to conform to the tacit expectations required within such contexts. I also gradually developed a growing sense of certainty about my faith and the nature of Christianity, albeit filtered through the various churches I attended and the people therein. Charismatic Christians were my brethren, so I adopted the mindsets, language, and subcultural affiliations that were part and parcel of my encounter with the wider pentecostal-charismatic movement in the West.

Experience had played a powerful role throughout my journey to faith, and my fusing process was saturated by subjective sensory stimulation that I readily attributed to God on many occasions. It wasn’t long before I was first exposed to the influence of the American megachurch pastor Bill Johnson, who emphasised a theology of pentecostal-charismatic encounter. As senior pastor of Bethel church in Redding, California, Johnson offered a vision of Christianity that pursued the supernatural presence of God more than many other preachers whom I had engaged with as a new believer. To sweeten the deal, Bethel also churned out a remarkable amount of guitar driven Christian pop-rock music, books, and multimedia resources for believers to consume. I was sold, and somewhat uncritically too at first. If I’m completely honest, oftentimes it was actually a lot of fun to pursue my new beliefs via the medium of corporate participation in bizarre charismatic practices, which usually took place to a familiar soft rock soundtrack provided by the likes of Bethel. I devoured their fodder, and gorged myself on Johnson’s charismatic theology by downloading sermons, podcasts, and reading books on topics such as Hosting [God’s] Presence and The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind. It helped that trusted friends were into the same ideas and bought the same products since after all, one must conform in order to be affiliated, no?

Powerful Promises

Power sells. White power, which promises prosperity and is galvanised by persuasive religious rhetoric, even more so. It is tempting to ignore, dismiss, disbelieve, minimise, and generally refuse to acknowledge the flaws of those whom we admire and trust the most. For many Evangelical Christians like me, Bill Johnson has been an important spiritual leader, guru, mentor, and guide through the labyrinthine maze of how a vibrant, living pentecostal-charismatic spirituality turns faith into praxis. Like many megachurch pastors he is a winsome communicator who tantalises the earnest seeker of all things spiritual with catchy, tweetable soundbites whilst tickling the ears of the uninitiated by appealing to their affections. Moreover, he stimulates and captures their imagination by promising that it is possible for believers to enjoy a miraculous lifestyle peppered with supernatural phenomena. For instance, as Johnson puts it:

God is changing the way Christians think about the so-called impossible. He is teaching us to work hand in-hand with the Kingdom so the reality of heaven comes crashing into earthly problems and overwhelms them. The results are astonishing miracles, great victories over the enemy, healing, deliverance, revelation, and more. It’s not hype; it’s not baseless hope or theory. It’s fact. [7]

And

In the end, nothing satisfies the heart of the Christian like seeing so-called impossibilities bow their knees to the name of Jesus. Anything less than this is abnormal and unfulfilling. [8]

Grounding his argument in an understanding of doing God’s will as the primary focus of Christian living, Johnson elaborates that:

To be effective believers, we must go well beyond the Christian life we have known. We must redefine “normal” Christianity so it lines up with God’s idea of normal, not the definition we have accepted and grown accustomed to based on our experiences (or lack thereof). The normal Christian life begins with the realization that we were put here to do the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.. [9]

Thus:

‘God..wants the reality of heaven to invade this rebel-torn world, to transform it, to bring it under His headship. What is free to operate in heaven—joy, peace, wisdom, health, wholeness, and all the other good promises we read about in the Bible—should be free to operate here on this planet, in your home, your church, your business, and your school. What is not free to operate there—sickness, disease, spiritual bondage, and sin—should not be free to operate here, period.’ [10]

So, for Johnson, the pursuit of the divine will ought to lead to positive change and prosperity. Presumably, if a believer is not experiencing this, they must be ‘confused’, and have been subjected to ‘bad teaching and disappointment’. [11] He sums up and reiterates the potential benefits that Christians can expect in the following terms:

‘What happens when we make this our mission? Lives are set free, bodies are restored, darkness lifts from people’s minds, the rule of the enemy is pushed back in every way imaginable. Businesses grow healthy, relationships flower again, people re-connect with their calling and purpose in life, churches grow, and cities feel the effects of having the Kingdom flourishing within them.’ [12]

For years I stoked the embers of my own dissatisfaction with the all too familiar reality of my own mundane existence by uncritically swallowing Johnson’s Theology of glory; with enough faith I too could enjoy health, wealth, and unprecedented supernatural phenomena on a daily basis. Why not? Surely this was God’s will? [13] If this wasn’t happening, surely there must be something amiss with me? Such were the kinds of questions that reverberated around within my thought world as I digested more and more charismatic theology from the likes of Bill Johnson and his known associates. [14] It almost felt as though regardless of whatever strife or angst I might have been experiencing in my first church, like minded people who defied Christian stereotypes and compelled me to press onwards in my increasingly pentecostal-charismatic faith journey were never more than a click away via podcast/recorded sermon/etc. Even my decision to appraise and critique Johnson’s theological method in one of my early MA papers didn’t dissuade me from listening to his voice, appreciating his perspective, and allowing him to have a significant measure of influence over me as a believer (albeit with a healthier dose of informed scepticism and sobriety). 

Then, Bill Johnson endorsed Donald Trump as President of the USA. Cue minor existential crisis.

Colour Blind?

For someone who has aspirations towards undertaking a career change by pursuing doctoral level research in Theology and Religious studies, it would be extraordinarily naive of me to think that I could even attempt such an endeavour without at least becoming more aware of my own colour blindness. I am a privileged, highly educated, middle class, white, Western, Christian male who simply does not (and to a large extent cannot) appreciate or understand the perspectives of people of colour within my own context or beyond. Racial prejudice is something I read about in the news, and generally never experience. Systemic evil and oppression feature primarily as hip sounding buzz terms in my latest missiology essay, and abstract (albeit genuinely horrifying) concepts which exist largely in my imagination. At best, the sickening realities too many people live with on a daily basis only become more tangible within my British Cantabrigian bubble when they are hidden within the sanitised words of a scholarly article or blog post that I stumble across on Twitter. I am ignorant, uninitiated, and blind to the struggles of race related bigotry and discrimination that perpetuates itself throughout Western culture. God forbid that such topics should ever darken the doors of my local church(es). 

Yet I can acknowledge the evil in our midst. I must, or I will never break free from the endless cycle of apathetic narcissism and sanctimonious (dis)harmony of indifference to real world suffering that Christ followers are surely called upon to challenge, alleviate, and oppose. Make no mistake, the insipid irony of a well respected, white male megachurch pastor like Bill Johnson (who preaches a message that promises believers power, influence, and prosperity) endorsing another white man who promises Americans the same things (albeit a different kind of power from a different source!) whilst branding the majority of Latino immigrants as criminals, drug dealers, rapists and murderers is not lost on me. Johnson wrote at length to justify his own support for Trump whilst ignoring and/or minimising Trump’s racist rhetoric, which has arguably energised the alt. right (read: white supremacist) movement in the USA and provided them with a platform and a sense of legitimacy. Notably, on this issue alone, Johnson has nothing to say about the significance of David Duke, the former head of the Klu Klux Klan, ‘rejoicing’ at Trump’s election victory. After a passing admonition of Trump’s misogynistic views and claims of being able to ‘grab [women] by the pussy’ and ‘do whatever [he] wants’ to them, Johnson dismisses any concerns by appealing to Trump’s public apology for being caught on camera. In addition, Johnson’s silence on Trump’s mockery of a disabled person, alongside allegations of widespread corruption in the former business practices of the President-Elect, suggests that either he hasn’t read articles like this one, and/or he disbelieves/disregards them if he has.  It is difficult to imagine quite how Johnson’s vision of Jesus’ Kingdom invading our earthly sphere of existence can be reconciled with the upsurge in right wing nationalism, racial  hatred, xenophobia, and misogyny that Trump’s candidacy has already enlivened and (to some extent) legitimised.

To say that I found Johnson’s uncritical public acceptance and support of Trump’s candidacy disappointing would be a grotesque understatement. By aligning himself with the legions of white Evangelicals who endorsed Trump, and by proxy his racist and misogynistic ideology (to say nothing of his potentially corrupt business practices), Johnson has shown solidarity with the oppressors of those who most fear a Trump presidency, and the destructive forces that his candidacy has already unleashed. Given Johnson’s influence over pentecostal-charismatic Christians within the broader context of Western Evangelicalism, this feels like a tragic betrayal. Worse still, it feels like an abandonment of the pastoral imperative to show solidarity with the ‘least of these’ over against one’s own interests, and the seductive allure of Empire (Matt 25:31-46). 

Unraveling the Gordian Knot

As the title of this, and my previous post suggest, my faith has been shifting in recent years. Kathy Escobar describes part of the shifting process as ‘unraveling’, in the following way:

Unraveling can be a season of grief and profound loss, where we lose certainty and faith, relationships and familiar structures, and identity and purpose. 

And

In many ways, Unraveling is like a game of spiritual Jenga. Over many years of Fusing we have built a tower of beliefs and practices. During Unraveling, we begin to pull these things out, unsure what it means for the rest of our faith. We wonder, If I take out this piece, is the whole Christian tower going to fall? Will losing this piece end the game entirely? How far can I go before my whole faith crumbles? …the bottom line is this: Unraveling is unnerving. [15]

Consider me unnerved. Whilst I wouldn’t identify with every aspect of the process that Escobar describes (for instance, my faith feels surprisingly robust!), I do recognise much of my journey in what she says. Insofar as Spiritual Jenga is concerned, my question might be: If I take out my reliance on the kind of pentecostal-charismatic theology proliferated by superstars like Bill Johnson, and stop consuming products by Bethel Church, will my faith ever recover it’s sense of urgency and pursuit of a lifestyle steeped in the miraculous? A broader question which I shall attempt to explore in my next post might be: can I still self-identify as ‘Evangelical’ and keep a clean conscience in light of the overwhelming support white Evangelicals like Bill Johnson have given to Trump? Can a white Western male such as myself possibly extricate himself from the pervasive influence of American Evangelicalism and yet retain a lively Christian Faith and sense of missiological purpose?

Emma Green, writing for The Atlantic, puts it well when she talks about The Evangelical Reckoning Over Donald Trump in the following terms:

..For some evangelical leaders, and particularly women and people of color, this election was never about power jockeying or compromise. To them, Trump represents a bigoted, misogynistic worldview and an existential threat…White, conservative Christians may have thought they were just casting a vote for president, but some of their brothers and sisters in the church see their choice as a direct and personal assault.

Thus, for many Christians (including me), whether or not to remain affiliated with Evangelicalism is now a serious question: Would doing so would violate their conscience? Thabiti Anyabwile puts it well when he says that:

Evangelicals in this vote have created a pretty deadly and chilling effect on their witness to Christ and the gospel, and the scriptures…

For that reason alone, my own decision is clear enough. I can no longer identify as ‘Evangelical’; Simply ‘Christian’ will have to do. Quite what any of that might entail, I shall leave until my next post.

M

End Notes:

1. I have deliberately chosen ‘pentecostal-charismatic’ as a catch-all term to denote Christians who believe in the restoration of the so called ‘charismatic’ gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor 12), which include various phenomena, such as speaking in tongues, healing, miracles, prophecy, words of knowledge, etc.. which are themselves dependent upon the ‘baptism’ or ‘infilling’ of the Spirit as a second blessing subsequent to conversion (and often water baptism). It goes without saying that such a staggeringly broad generalisation has little if any scholarly traction as it is too imprecise. Nevertheless, it shall have to do for now.

2. Yes, I once had long hair, sported an eyebrow piercing, and wore boots, chains, black nail polish, etc. No, I don’t regret it, and no, I don’t think heavy Rock/Metal/Alternative music and the connected subculture/fashion/etc is of the Devil. I still listen to heavy Rock music and I’m fairly sure that Jesus is a wicked guitarist. Make of that what you will!

3. For the uninitiated enquirer, crowd surfing is reasonably self explanatory: get up on top of a willing crowd, and be carried along by their hands, shoulders, and heads until you reach the barrier near the stage at the concert in question. At this point, burly security guards ought to manhandle you (for free!) and deposit you over the safety barrier where you can walk around to re-enter the morass of sweating bodies for another attempt. A circle pit is when a section of the crowd starts rotating around in a big, big circle, oftentimes flinging other people around in the process until chaos ensues. It’s rough, and a bit like a very tame bar brawl (hopefully with less people ending up in hospital or being arrested for GBH).

4. Questions of sanity aside (I’m not saying Anglo-Catholic or pentecostal-charismatic Christians are insane!), many believers report positive after effects of such pentecostal-charismatic practices. It may be pneumatological or psychosomatic, but whatever the case something certainly appears to be happening in these situations. Bizarre? Yes. Unbiblical? In a sense. Yet to be dismissed outright as plain loopy? Not so easy.

5. Escobar, Kathy, Faith shift : Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart, (Kindle Edition) New York, USA: Convergent Books; Crown Publishing Group, 2014, 23.

6.Ibid. 

7. Johnson, Bill, The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles, Shippensburg, PA, Destiny Image Publishers Incorporated: 2005, 29-30.

8. Ibid, 31.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid, 32.

11. Ibid, 31.

12. Ibid, 32.

13. Paradoxically, for what it’s worth, I still think Jesus’ words about his followers doing greater works than him, and that all things are possible for the one who prays with faith, ought to challenge believers to pursue the apparent impossibility of his promises (Matt 21:21, Mark 11:23, John 14:12 etc).

14. E.g. Heidi & Rolland Baker, Georgian & Winnie Banov, Catch the Fire ministries, etc..

15. Escobar, Faith, 67.

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2 thoughts on “Identity Crisis? Faith Shift(s) & Amorphous Affiliations – Part Two: Bill Johnson, Donald Trump & Evangelical Reckoning

  1. I’ve been thinking about this myself lately (see here, here, and here, for instance). The key question, it seems to me, concerns the way that we define evangelicalism and our relation to it. In many contexts, evangelicalism has represented a sort of conservative Protestant cosmopolitanism. Although we each have our own particular denominational identities, we enjoy and express a gospel unity across these divides.

    Perhaps evangelicalism is like the village green which helps to gather various clumps of houses into a unified community. It is the place where we do the sorts of joyful and goofy things that we do together. It is where we bump into each other and stop for a chat. It is where we bring our kids to play with the other neighbourhood kids.

    Sometimes people may damage the village green in various ways. Perhaps some kids build a fire or some local fails to clean up after their dog. We are committed to the green and seek to restore it for the sake of the good things that can go on there.

    However, good though the village green may be, it is not our home. It is common land and has the messiness and openness that is characteristic of such a place. Our homes are much more bounded and house rules are rather different.

    When we go out to the village green, our parents set the terms of our behaviour there. They tell us to keep away from the bad kids, to try to avoid getting into fights, and to be courteous and considerate towards other people there.

    • Thanks for engaging Alastair! As ever, a very thoughtful and helpful analogy to stimulate further reflection. It is a pickle, no question about that. More about this later…

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