The Way the World Ends: What if Jesus Doesn’t Come Back to Save Us?

treeoflife01Over the weekend, some of my progressive Christian friends were grousing on Twitter about how growing up in ‘90s Evangelical culture and being taught that we would be raptured up to heaven before anything terrible happens in the world, ever, left us ill-equipped to face the reality that we would one day die.

I quit believing in the rapture early on in high school when I realized it was inconsistent with Jesus’s own teachings on the end-times, but in retrospect I can see how this denial of death bled over even into the forms of Christianity towards which I was drawn in my teens and early twenties. In the doomsday cult I was a part of in college, we believed we would be impervious to the bullets fired at us in the Middle East by the Antichrist and his hordes of demonically driven Muslim supporters.

“If it wasn’t time for us to be dead,” my friend April* told me, “God could just send us back down. So that might be a really great option! Whenever we’re in any kind of danger, we can just shoot each other! Like if they were going to behead you, I could just SHOOT you and then Jesus could send you back!”

“I don’t think I like where this is going…” I said in a low voice.

April cocked an imaginary gun. “‘I’LL SEE YOU IN A MINUTE!’” she yelled.

After I left the group I began studying Gnostic groups (like ours) that believe they have a special mission to accomplish at the end of history. This sense of being in a cosmic drama relieves us of the appalling tedium of being not-particularly-special people living in a fairly uneventful period of history. One writer made a point that has stuck with me: he said that these Gnostic groups, even the ones that call themselves Christian, deny the wisdom of the Old Testament writers that life is an incredible mystery, and that everything that has a beginning must also have an end—ourselves, our relationships, our accomplishments, the world itself.

And I don’t think I fully got that until I stood in front of my friend’s coffin, face to face for the first time in my life with the awful specter of mortality. Nothing in my upbringing or religious education had prepared me for this. Bethany had been there not long ago and now she was just gone. I could spend the rest of my life roaming the earth trying to find her and would never find her. The body in the coffin had once belonged to her, but now it resembled her less and less. I had no idea what to make of this. As I wrote in my journal on the day after the visitation, “She was dead and I suddenly had no idea where her soul had gone, or if she even had one.”

I had already begun to abandon the convoluted eschatological scheme accepted by most Evangelicals (seven years of tribulation followed by a thousand-year reign of Jesus) before Bethany’s death—the Catholic Church which I was in the process of joining teaches only that Jesus will return at some point in the future and set up his kingdom forever. The rest is just speculation. But it was only after I had thrown out most of what I had been taught and believed all my life about the end of the world that I ran into a problem—namely, that science already has a pretty clear idea how the world is going to end, and it’s pretty grim.

Basically, carbon life has only existed on earth for about two billion years out of the roughly fifteen billion years of the lifespan of our universe. The first Homo sapiens emerged some tens of millions of years ago, only a second ago in geologic time, sweeping down out of the trees onto the savannahs with a miraculous awareness of themselves that is surely the greatest mystery and miracle of cosmic history—“the universe,” as one scientist put it, “becoming aware of itself.”

Barring some nuclear or ecological disaster, our species and life on our planet as a whole will lumber along for another few hundred million years until we are wiped out by an asteroid, a comet, a meteor, a chance collision of two black holes somewhere in our galaxy, an explosion from a neighboring supernova or some other ghastly and xenocidal event. Assuming we manage to survive each of these extinction-level threats, within a mere five billion years the sun will enter the next stage of its life cycle, becoming a red giant and swelling up to gargantuan proportions, in the process casually destroying the three closest planets in its orbit.

Of course by then it’s entirely possible that we’ll have developed the means of leaving earth and colonizing other solar systems. But even if we do, it turns out we’re only delaying the eventual end of our species, for the stars are going out one by one, leaving us in a cold void of perpetual night.

On the bright side, if there is one, this is still an inconceivably vast number of years away from happening, and by the time the sun winks out, everyone you know will be dead. Maybe you’re okay with that. It’s hard enough getting people to care about rises in ocean levels that will flood coastal regions and cause massive droughts, leading to war and famine, in the lives of our children and grandchildren. Still fewer are kept up at night by the cosmological certainty that our species will eventually be annihilated when the sun, the giver of life, blows up and devours its own offspring. But I am.

It troubles me because even as a child I had a mystic’s eye for the goodness and beauty of the world, because I believed that this world is full of more good things than we can possibly dream or imagine, and love makes it hard for me to accept that all this—the churches of Greenwich, the bistros of the Left Bank, the factories of Birmingham and Philadelphia; every piece of flannel, every strip of paper, everything you ever built or wrote—will perish in solar fires, unobserved and unremembered. Surely if anything can test a person’s faith, it is this. Philosopher Bertrand Russell felt keenly the implications for humanity when he wrote, “All the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system … The whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins.”

Perhaps Shakespeare glimpsed something of the futility in which all humanity’s ambitions must end when he had King Lear ask, “Is man no more than this?” This is the sort of question people of faith are going to have to take seriously, if we want to be taken seriously by the rest of the world in our time.

As a Christian blogger, I’m supposed to state here that it’s all going to be okay and we don’t have to be afraid of extinction and Jesus will come down and save us before the universe reaches Threat Level: Midnight. But I don’t know that for a fact, and you don’t, either. In this life we’re given promises, but no guarantees. We have assurances, but no certainties. That’s why it’s called faith.

Ironically, part of what led to my current existential crisis was the Catholic faith in natural processes, in the idea—going all the way back to St. Augustine, who developed an early theory of evolution to describe how life on earth had come into being—that God uses natural methods and natural laws to accomplish his purposes in the natural realm. (This is still a major source of division between Catholics and Protestant fundamentalists: it was a Catholic priest and astronomer, Georges Lemaitre, who first proposed what became known as the Big Bang theory, which is almost uniformly rejected by fundamentalists who don’t seem to realize how it converges with the Genesis account). Once I accepted that maybe God had used a slow unfurling of cosmic evolution to bring the worlds into being over a span of eons, I couldn’t help wondering if maybe God would end space-time in precisely the same way: slowly, over many billions of years.

I spent much of yesterday reading a book by John Polkinghorne, a renowned Cambridge physicist—his work was instrumental in the discovery of the quark in the 1960s—who is also an Anglican priest and amateur theologian. The book, The God of Hope and the End of the World, summarizes his conversations with several other scientist-theologians at Yale University who are trying to reconcile our scientific knowledge of the eventual extinction of our species with the Christian faith in a bodily resurrection in which God raises individuals from death and restores them to their bodies in a natural environment. (The belief I was taught growing up, that when we die, our spirits leave our gross bodies behind and fly up to heaven to be with Jesus forever, is actually Gnostic).

Polkinghorne and his colleagues raise several possibilities for how this might happen in a way that doesn’t contradict current scientific findings or Christian orthodoxy. For example, maybe the information-bearing part of a human being (what we call “the soul”) is stored in God’s memory after death until the day of resurrection. Maybe we all die at different times and then find ourselves together again at the same time, as happened in the final episode of LOST. Maybe we awaken to find that the billions of years between our death and the end of the old universe have already transpired while we slept.

Ultimately, as even Polkinghorne himself seems to concede, none of these answers can be entirely satisfying because they all have to be taken on faith. “Any hope of a destiny beyond death,” he writes, “can ultimately rest only on the faithfulness of God the Creator.” In the end we’re left only with hope: hope that we were created for a purpose; hope that our creator loves us; hope that this world of unthinkable beauty is leading us towards a world of beauties even more unthinkable.

And, if I’m being honest, hope is what I’ve been missing ever since Bethany’s death. She trusted God to protect her, and God seems to have failed her. After she died, I could no longer entrust myself to pious certainties. People die. People are murdered or take their own lives and no deity intervenes to save them. Terrible things happen because this world can be a terrible place, because humans are terrible and depraved and a savage darkness lurks in even the most devout heart. Just look at what they did to Jesus.

And ultimately that’s why I remain a Christian, because even with all my doubts and questions I know I’m not asking anything new or original. Nothing has changed in human nature just because we now understand that the sun will eventually destroy us. It was Thomas Kempis in the twelfth century who said, “Look on all things as passing away, and thyself as doomed to pass away with them.” It was Job who asked why man is born to trouble, and it was Jesus who in the agony of his final hours dared to ask God why he had been forsaken, and heard only silence in response.

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Two Poems: On Atheism and the End of the World

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………..Atheism

            I think

            I could become

            an atheist

            if I thought

            it would annoy

            my

            mom.

.

.

            Lights Out

            Science tells us

            (with near certainty)

            that one day in the distant future

            the sun will swell its proportions

            and engulf the earth

            and every living thing

            and every memory of things

            and every tree and hill

            and the whale that sings in the sea.
.

            and I think an artist could come to accept

            that she might cease to exist

            but that this gorgeous world

            might one day end

            is grief

            too deep

            for words.

Five Reasons I Still Believe (Even When My Faith Is Shaken)

tree_of_life_81In the final pages of my memoir, I describe how my faith was shaken after the untimely death of my close friend in 2012. Seeing her lying in a coffin, realizing she would never get out of it, I wondered where she had gone and whether she had ever had a soul to begin with. I wondered if there was any chance I would see her again.

These aren’t the musings of someone who’s losing his religion but a natural cry of the heart in the face of death. You’re not human if you don’t ask yourself these questions when confronted with the mystery of suffering and evil.

Nevertheless, for several years thereafter my faith was shaky. I read essays by atheist philosophers and Christian theologians in the hopes of uncovering a satisfying answer to the question of what awaits us in the undiscovered country. And today I still have questions. On my worst days I find myself wanting to jump ship as I contemplate the eventual annihilation of our planet and the ultimate heat death of the universe. But I’ve managed to hold onto my faith in the Christian God, though sometimes by fingernails only. Here are some reasons why.

The Existence of Humans

Back in the 1990s Christian apologetics was fascinated by the anthropic principle, this idea that the universe and our planet are perfectly fine-tuned for the existence of life. I find that argument less compelling than I once did—newer scientific models are suggesting that, given certain conditions, the emergence of life is not only possible but likely. Even the Vatican has conceded that there may be other planets inhabited by creatures like humans.

Yet the fact that over the centuries the basic building blocks of life would have evolved from single-celled organisms into primates and eventually into humans who can write books and design towering cathedrals remains impressive. In the words of Catholic film critic Steven Greydanus, “The riddle of existence is not a riddle the universe poses to us, but one we pose to ourselves . . . We are the riddle, and the very fact that we ask the questions we do is one of the best clues we have to the answers we seek.”

The Survival of the Jewish Race

According to legend, when the anti-semitic emperor Frederick the Great of Prussia asked his wise men to provide one irrefutable proof for the existence of God, they said simply, “The Jews.” The survival of the Jewish race into the present era has been called, even by secular writers, the greatest miracle of modern times. It’s all the more remarkable given the various attempts to exterminate them wholesale, and the promises in their scriptures that they would be protected and return to their own land.

The Survival of the Christian Church

When Attila the Hun was ravaging Italy in 452 and the nascent Christian faith was threatened with destruction, Pope Leo I personally confronted the invader and persuaded him to leave the peninsula and return to his homeland. The Emperor Napoleon threw Pope Pius VII in prison and allegedly said, “I will destroy your church.” Within a few years Napoleon was in exile and the pope had returned to Rome and the newly restored Papal States. Stalin is reputed to have said, “How many armies does the pope have?” but in June 1979 Pope John Paul II led a rally in his native Krakow in which over a million people gathered in the town square and shouted, “We want God! We want God!” This rally set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. “I will build My church,” said Jesus, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it,” and he has been true to his word.

The Shroud of Turin

I’m generally skeptical of alleged miracles, but the Turin shroud is not easily dismissed. True, an early test of the fabric concluded that it was woven during the twelfth century, but subsequent analysis has found that the patch tested was not consistent with other portions of the cloth, and had in fact been added after a fire. Moreover, Shroud skeptics must account for the presence of pollen that is only found in the Jerusalem area in the spring, along with the growing scientific consensus that the image could only have been made by a single burst of ultraviolet light.

The Character of Jesus

If you read Christian apologetics books from the ‘90s, it’s obvious that amateur theologians were obsessed with this idea that the Christian religion is true because the Bible is a single perfect work written over a span of several thousand years that has been passed down to us in dozens of ancient manuscripts. There are problems with this argument, one of them being that it doesn’t matter how many copies of a text we have, if the text promotes and teaches terrible things.

I’ve lost friends for questioning the accuracy and wisdom of certain Old Testament passages where God commands the slaughter of innocent women and children. To its credit, the Christian church has always been troubled by these passages because they don’t reflect the image of God that we now see reflected in the life and character of Jesus. Even with all my questions I remain fascinated by the vision of Jesus presented in the four Gospels, by the only man who has ever led a lasting revolution of the human heart, the one man without whom the past 2,000 years of human history would be inconceivable. In many ways our world has not yet met his equal in wisdom. I’m reminded of the young atheist girl in Soviet Russia who, after reading the Gospel of Luke, said simply, “I fell in love with Him.” So may we all.

If Charles Dickens Wrote Contemporary Christian Music: or, God and the Grotesque

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My first day of high school in 2000, my pre-AP English teacher (and Sunday school teacher, and super-woman) Mrs. Pauley ran through the list of everything we’d be reading in the coming trimester. Then she asked us, “Have any of you read Great Expectations?”

One hand went slowly up into the air. Blushing, I could feel the stares of the rest of the class as they turned to look at me.

“Boze,” said Mrs. Pauley, in her usual droll voice, “I knew there was somethin’ wrong with you.”

It wasn’t the first time an English teacher had teased me for my Dickens obsession. Two years before, I had torn through Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in short order. I’d begun speaking and writing in a pastiche of nineteenth-century Victorian writers. (“Magniloquence is a virtue much to be admired in a gentleman,” I would say, to the friends I did not have).

I found Dickens irresistibly fascinating; David and Pip and Joe Gargery and old Fezziwig were like old friends, in the same way Ali Baba and Sinbad befriended young Ebenezer Scrooge. As a poor boy growing up in an abusive home environment, I connected with the violence and destitution and rage and filth and gore of Dickens’ imagined England, with this gothic and grotesque world in which convicts leapt out from behind tombstones and frightened little boys out of their wits, in which stepmothers and stepfathers beat their kids until they bled and eccentric old women set themselves on fire.

Dickens was haunted by what Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor called “the grotesque”; it was the darker half of his Gothic imagination. His books were filled with wild, extravagant, deformed figures, twisted in soul and body. He got into a fair bit of trouble when a roguish, “ogling” dwarf woman in the not-yet-completed David Copperfield turned out to have been based on an actual person, who was so hurt by Dickens’ characterization that he was compelled to revise forthcoming installments of the novel, to portray her in a less appalling light.

Arguably, though, it was this gallery of grotesques that made Dickens so massively popular. They burned themselves onto your brain. Novelist Susanna Clarke once described him as “huge—like the sky,” and the same could be said of his characters, even the most minor ones, like the grinning, inebriated old robber David meets on the road to Dover who shouts, “Oh, my lungs and liver! Oh, goroo, goroo!” It is a dark, violent world Dickens builds for his characters, and heaven bless him for it.

At around the time I was beginning my freshman year of high school, and reading Great Expectations for the second time, the Christian contemporary musician Steven Curtis Chapman released the single “Great Expectations,” a track from his massively popular Speechless album. (If you attended Christian summer camp in the late ‘90s or early 2000s, it’s likely you were subjected to the song “Dive” off of that album).

I remember the curiosity and interest I felt when I learned that Chapman had a new single entitled “Great Expectations.” His previous songs, from “Lord of the Dance” to “More to This Life,” had not been found wanting. But, like a young orphan discovering that his mysterious benefactor is something less than he imagined him to be, I found myself disappointed by the sheer immateriality and vapidness of the song, which didn’t seem to be about anything.

We’ve been invited with the Son, sings Chapman:

We’ve been invited to come

And believe the unbelievable

Receive the inconceivable

And see beyond our wildest imaginations

So Lord, we come

Oh, Lord we come…

With great expectations

Now, musically the song isn’t bad. It has a subtle but wonderfully evocative piano intro and a stirring string section. And I’m willing to concede that my disappointment may have been a case of… well, misplaced expectations. When you title a song “Great Expectations,” I expect greatness. I expect gritty ballads about orphans and outlaws. What I got instead was another generically written worship song with some abstract lyrics about power and glory and the obligatory pun on “Sun / Son.”

Lest it seem like I’m picking on Mr. Chapman, I should add that this is a problem endemic to Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), both then and today. (“Your love never fails, it never gives up, it never runs out on me,” sings Passion on the most recent WOW album). So often Christian-brand music, and worship music in particular, sings ethereally of “approaching the throne room” to encounter God’s grace, compassion and mercy. But rarely do these songs give any indication of what this is actually supposed to look like, nor how God’s goodness and mercy manifest in our actual lives, the place where we live and move and breathe.

We’re left with uplifting platitudes that fuel a quasi-Gnostic spirituality divorced from the realities of time and place.

Yes, this is a long way from Dickens in the opening chapter of Great Expectations, describing Pip’s encounter with the runaway convict Magwitch: “A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared, and growled.” But it’s also a long way from the very best of which Christian music is capable.

Which brings me to this man:

johnny-cash2

In January 1968, Christian, country-western musician and recovering drug addict Johnny Cash performed two shows at Folsom State Prison in California, one of the most notorious prisons in the country, a place where the most dangerous criminals were imprisoned, men who were just waiting around to die. Those two shows became the basis for one of Cash’s most celebrated albums, the live album At Folsom Prison.

Listening to the opening and most famous track, “Folsom Prison Blues,” you can hear and practically feel the exhilaration of Cash’s audience as he states his name and launches into his dark, hopeless and morbidly funny ballad about desperate men in desperate places:

When I was just a baby

My mamma told me, “Son

Always be a good boy

Don’t ever play with guns”

But I shot a man in Reno

Just to watch him die…

 And when you hear the loud howl of recognition that one guy yells out right at that moment, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that here was a musician with a preternatural gift for connecting with people in their deepest pains and regrets, a man who descended into caves of guilt and despair and emerged out of them again like the apostle Paul with a burning revelation of grace, a revelation that made him almost irresistibly compelling to the Magwitches and Havishams of the world—freaks, outcasts, thieves, murderers—life’s grotesques. The people whom ordinary church music could never reach.

This aspect of Cash’s legacy, and the controversy it raised among regular suburban churchgoers, is perfectly captured in a scene from the 2006 movie Walk the Line:

walktheline

The best Christian music, the most truly “Christian” music, whether it’s performed by outsiders like Dylan, Bono, or Cash, or by artists in the Evangelical mainstream like Jars of Clay, Rich Mullins, or Gungor, never loses sight of this world in search of the next one. Unlike the disembodied worship songs of so much CCM, with their vague descriptions of a personal, mystical experience, they remain fixed in their own time and place, in the reality of original sin, in the rhythms of liturgy, in the simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying beauty of nature, in real situations that real people face.

The best Christian music sings about actual things: an open field of wild flowers; a mudslide in Decatur, Illinois; the moon spilling laughter on the cold Dakota hills.

And Christian-brand music will never be relevant until it follows the examples of its best and most talented artists, and embraces this crooked world.

 

 

My Heart Breaks for Micah – and Bethany

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Bethany and Micah, SU Commons, September 1, 2008

One afternoon in the fall of 2007 I walked over and sat down across from Bethany in the Southwestern Commons. I had a dazed look on my face.

“Were you just talking to Micah Moore?” she asked me.

I nodded. “How do you know Micah?”

“He’s in my Reel Jews class. What did y’all talk about?”

“He did most of the talking,” I said, in a perplexed voice. “He told me about Jesus.”

Micah Moore was a freshman. I’d met him at the beginning of July when he messaged me on Facebook and asked if I was living on campus for the summer (I was), and if I would be willing to give him a tour of the school (I did). When he moved in at the beginning of the fall semester, we became good friends. Sometimes at night we would visit the hookah bars on Sixth Street, and drive through Austin listening to music and talking. Sometimes he would play guitar or recite poetry he had written. Sometimes my friend Booth would tell a joke and Micah would laugh so hard, he had to leave the room.

But then we got pulled in different directions and didn’t see each other as often. I’d learned that Bethany and Tyler Deaton were starting a secret prayer group, and I had begged them to let me be a part of it. Micah had dropped acid with some of his hall mates, and lately he wasn’t himself.

That was what we had talked about—and what we would talk about again on the last night of the fall semester, when Beth and I prayed over him. He hadn’t felt safe since the acid trip. It was hard for him to know what was real anymore. His mind was full of disturbing, paranoid thoughts. What if reality is just a projection? What if the people around me don’t even really exist?

Micah hadn’t prayed in a long time, but lately running and praying were the only things that could help him.

And being prayed over by others. Beth and I prayed over him for two hours that night in December, and by the time we had finished he was feeling more peace than he had felt in months. He said he wanted to be part of a community. He really seemed to like us.

I felt cautiously optimistic. To be honest, I was quite nervous. Micah was a cool guy, and I had been worried about how he might react if the two of us tried to ambush him with Scripture. But this wasn’t a case of someone being forced to pray against his will. He had sought us out. He said no counselor he had seen could bring him the feeling of reassurance he felt when Beth laid hands on him.

The moment he left the room that night, Bethany gave me a mighty high-five.

“I think he might join our group,” I said quietly.

“I was feeling the same thing,” said Beth. “Just wait until Tyler hears about this. He’s gonna flip out!” And she ran to go find him.

The next morning, Micah showed up at the door of my room. He handed me a CD and a note he had written.

“I can’t tell you how blessed I am,” it said, “to have become friends with you. You have inspired me on so many levels. It seems like every time I begin to feel negatively about things, I think about things you have told me and it opens my eyes … I know you are always saying you have a long way to go, but don’t we all? We all hurt and grow and fall and that is why we need God. Anyway, I just thought I would tell you how much I respect and look up to you.”

Today I think back on those words, and they burn.

*           *           *

I failed Micah. This is what I’ve been feeling, in one form or another, for most of the last week.

It was already a stressful week. The ends of Octobers are always hard now, ever since the night two years ago when I learned that Bethany was dead. Booth warned me not to let my grief make me bloodthirsty, but I was already so certain there was more to the story than a newlywed taking her own life.

And the rest of what transpired in the fall of 2012 just seemed to confirm my initial suspicions, as a few of the leaders from the International House of Prayer in Kansas City staged a heroic intervention (according to their version of the story) to rescue the remaining 18 members of Tyler Deaton’s cult. At a series of public meetings in the middle of November, senior IHOPKC leaders described how Shelley Hundley had interrogated Micah until he broke down and confessed to killing Bethany.

Mike Bickle and Allen Hood painted in the blackest possible terms the depravity of the sex cult from Texas. The men’s house, they said, was an epicenter of darkness. The core leadership was all engaged in despicable homosexual acts with each other. Tyler and Micah probably weren’t even truly saved. They were murderers. It didn’t seem to matter that Micah was still awaiting trial (and that Tyler had yet to be charged with a crime). What mattered was that Shelley Hundley had exposed a tremendous evil. Because of her, IHOP would no longer be associated with a dangerous cult.

At the time, the murderer narrative made a certain amount of sense. I knew firsthand that Tyler was capable of extreme cruelty. I had seen him twist and manipulate the guys I had once lived with into doing horrible things that they would never have done in saner circumstances. Given the awful, nightmarish reality of Bethany’s death, it wasn’t a stretch to believe something only marginally more awful: that her husband had coerced a mutual friend into taking her life.

Yet there was always that nagging voice of hesitancy and discomfort, and it would come up in conversation whenever the subject turned to Micah. “Do you really think Micah…?”

It wasn’t that they thought Tyler incapable of ordering such a heinous act. No one doubted that. But anyone who had even the slightest familiarity with Micah wanted to know how someone like him—gentle, quiet Micah—could have been a party to something so ghastly.

Micah, who had once picked me up off the side of the road and driven me across town to a friend’s house, when no one else in the group would speak to me.

Micah, who would laugh and cry and cry and laugh whenever he felt the wind of the Holy Spirit.

Micah, who was beloved of my atheist friends because when I was being a total jerk, he had explained his faith to them in a way that was humble, and sincere, and made sense.

How could that Micah ever have done such a thing? What was he doing behind bars in Jackson County, unvisited by members of the group or anyone from IHOP?

And, in my darker and more honest moments, I knew there were several things that didn’t add up.

Like the fact that Bethany was clearly emotionally unstable, and apparently suicidal, in the weeks before her death. Shortly after her funeral I learned from friends and former members of the group that Tyler had shamed her during their honeymoon and shunned her when they returned. Knowing how traumatic the group’s shunning could be, and how prone she was to depression, even before the group started, there were times when I would wonder, what if…?

And then there was the fact that guys who had lived in the house at the time of her death, and whom I trusted, didn’t think Micah had been involved. And the fact that Micah had painted a lurid story of ritualistic sexual assaults that was not only totally outlandish, but also unsubstantiated by any evidence. And the fact—most worrying of all—that Micah was not mentally or emotionally stable, that for as long as I had known him he had been suffering from the after-effects of that drug trip: hallucinations, paranoia, and a tenuous relationship with reality. All those problems had been exacerbated by his association with Tyler’s group, and with IHOP.

*           *           *

And then last week, the week of the second anniversary of her death, Micah’s defense attorney released a 15-page motion to have his testimony rendered inadmissible. I read it—and had to admit that I have no idea what really happened, and that this case is even more twisted and confusing than we knew.

The defense makes a powerful case that Micah’s initial confession to Shelley Hundley was completely fabricated, and that the treatment Bethany received at the hands of Tyler and other group members pushed her to take her own life.

– Analysis of the suicide note found in her van revealed that it was written in Bethany’s handwriting.

– Micah’s DNA was not found anywhere on the plastic bag used to induce asphyxiation.

– Micah was unable to describe the crime scene accurately. He got some pretty important information wrong, such as the location of her body. He said I had helped him commit the murder, though the prosecution feels confident I was nowhere near the crime scene when it happened.

– Wal-Mart surveillance footage shows Beth buying the drugs that were in her system when she died, earlier that morning.

– Video taken from the IHOPKC prayer room web stream shows Micah in the prayer room at the time he originally claimed to have killed her. (I remember walking past him that morning. He was pacing around on the sidewalk outside the prayer room, reading his Bible. He said hi to me in a kind voice. I remember being moved and surprised by it. It was the last time life would be “normal” for either of us, ever).

But the thing that clinched it for me, that made me feel confident that Micah’s confession was probably fabricated, was when I learned the identity of the IHOP-affiliated group that had prayed over Micah and the other group members on the night of Micah’s confession.

It was Prisoners of Hope.

I’ve already written at length about my own experience with Prisoners of Hope. The leadership of IHOP denies that they’re an “IHOP group,” but they’re all IHOP staff members who are brought in to pray over sex-trafficking victims and people they suspect of being in demonic bondage. I went through a few “counseling” and “deliverance” sessions with PoH at the end of last year, and walked away feeling abused, humiliated, and insulted.

The ministry is like a mirror image of Tyler’s group. They implied that they had been following me on social media, wanted to know why I had been photographed with the director of an anti-IHOP movie, and performed a Charismatic “deliverance” ritual (speaking in tongues, snapping their fingers in my ears) designed to “break off” the false spirits of Catholicism, Mormonism, etc. Then finally, as if the parallels weren’t already explicit enough, they rebuked me for saying I would never battle the forces of Antichrist, telling me, “Tyler was right about that.”

So when I read the defense’s statement and found out that Prisoners of Hope had been involved in Micah’s confession… suddenly, a lot of things started to make sense.

I thought about how susceptible the group was to religious manipulation, and how during the summer of 2011 there had been a week (we called it “Fire Week”) where Micah and about half a dozen others would periodically start laughing, twitching, screaming, falling on the floor. (I would say one thing to Micah’s girlfriend and she’d collapse into the couch cushions, wailing).

And then I thought about the deliverance style of Prisoners of Hope, which seems designed to provoke exactly that kind of response.

And I thought about what a metaphorical person Micah is, and how difficult it would be for a literalist to understand that. And I wondered if maybe when Micah, overwhelmed by guilt and the rising tide of religious hysteria, confessed to murdering one of his closest friends—I wondered if maybe he was trying to express a feeling that for him was emotionally true, even if it wasn’t literally true.

Because the defense motion had made one other thing abundantly clear: if Bethany wasn’t murdered, she was certainly bullied into taking her own life.

“At her attempts to initiate a physical encounter with her husband by kissing him,” the report says of their honeymoon, “Tyler shunned her advance, became angry, and scolded her like a child—undoubtedly humiliating and devastating her.” And it kept getting worse: “Upon their return from their honeymoon, Bethany and Tyler began their married life in the basement of the men’s house. Because of Bethany’s attempted physical relationship with her husband, she was punished for her ‘narcissism’ by being shunned, isolated, and ignored. As further punishment, she was not allowed to sleep in bed with Tyler, and the newly married Bethany was forced to sleep alone on the couch. At a time when she had been physically rejected in the most humiliating way a woman can be rejected she was also being socially rejected—excommunicated from those close to her. She could find no solace—no reprieve.”

I hate that this happened to one of my best friends. It grieves me to think that the person responsible will probably never see justice in this life.

And if the defense is right, there are really two victims here. There is of course Bethany, who spent the last days of her life being rejected by a man who had systemically isolated her from her own closest friends and family until he was all she had left. Bethany, who found herself in the position of being the person on whom the group unloaded its anger, hostility, contempt.

And then there’s Micah—who, in effect, fulfilled that exact same role for IHOP.

And my heart breaks for him as it does for her—because even in my darkest imagination I have no idea what it’s like to wake up in a cold police station after a long, sleepless night, and find out that you just confessed to a crime that you didn’t commit. Because, as much as these last two years have been a nightmare for me and some of Beth’s other close friends, they’ve been even more of a nightmare for Micah, who was banished from his religious community, demonized by its leadership, and had to face the prospect of potentially going to prison for the rest of his life because of a statement he made in the throes of religious delusion.

And frankly, I’m haunted by the comment that Micah left tonight on Jonathan Barclay’s blog post about him. Haunted because what Micah says about IHOP is true—“they threw me to the fucking wolves and then walked away dusting their hands off”—and I went along with it. Haunted because his perspective on the similarities between IHOP and Tyler’s group—“to me, they are just two flavors of the same poison”—so fully mirrors my own, and it’s impossible to get IHOP to see that, and I wonder how many more Bethanys there will be, and how many more Micahs. Haunted because, yes, Jonathan’s post was full of empathy and compassion, and my own response, all too often, has not been.

And I’m so sorry that all of this happened. And I wish I had asked these questions sooner. I wish I had listened to the whispers of dissension. I wish I had fought harder for Micah.

“The Apocalypse Has Been Postponed Until Gym”: My Last Year of High School & the End of the World, Part I

ahs“But which is more important:

To comfort an old woman

Or see visions of the heavens

In the stumps of fallen trees?”

            — The Handsome Family, “Lake Geneva”

 My last year in high school was a strange time in my life.

 

It’s a year that I haven’t talked much about since I left the dangerous group a few years ago because it’s hard to describe what happened without sounding a little insane. But I’ll try.

 

Eric Booth had been my best friend for about three or four years. To the rest of our friends, we were an inseparable duo, one of the classic teams, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Boze and Booth. We were always getting into trouble and wreaking havoc.

 

And we were a great match. Booth was tall, outgoing, and good with women. I was quiet, bookish, a little awkward, and spent most of my time writing down entire conversations in a notebook I carried around everywhere. And while I was whimsical, romantic, and full of weird ideas, Booth was rational, pragmatic, and rigorously logical. (Once when a friend boasted that she was “one in a million,” Booth did the math and pointed out that there were at least 6,000 of her.)

 

Young Boze

Me, my senior year of high school

Booth and I had a teacher I’ll call Mr. McGowan. Mr. McGowan was our European History teacher, but he seemed to view himself as an entertainer first and teacher second. On the first day of my last year in Alvin in 2003, the day our story begins, he delivered a ten-minute monologue on the day’s news. “My Middle Eastern friend hasn’t been happy ever since we had that talk about Allah,” he said. “You know, Allah this, Allah that…”

 

(“Welcome to Mr. McGowan’s stand-up comedy class,” whispered Booth.)

 

I’d been feeling sort of anxious about going back to school. So, to alleviate my concerns, Booth tried to think of the worst things that could possibly happen. “Watch, you’ll get put in the Criminal Law class!” he teased me. To our friend *Brandon he said, “Your counselors will mess up your schedule so bad, you won’t be able to fix it. And, you’ll get put in Child Development with all the pregnant chicks!”

 

So our whole first day back at school was interesting, because yes, I did get put in Criminal Law, even though I hadn’t signed up for it. When Brandon went to the counselor that afternoon to complain about his schedule, she tried to put him in Child Development. By the end of the day Booth had also correctly predicted that *Lauren, a girl I was interested in, would call me, even though she hadn’t done so in almost two years.

 

But we thought it was all just an incredibly weird string of coincidences—until the next day.

 

New England was experiencing a tremendous electrical shortage. The night before, over 45 million Americans had lost power in eight northeastern states. Mr. McGowan decided to begin his daily monologue by plugging the virtues of the Texas electrical system when compared to the infrastructures of New York and California (which was currently going through a recall election in which actor Arnold Schwarzenegger was the clear frontrunner).

           

“See, here we have a superior electrical system,” said Mr. McGowan, slowly warming up to his audience. “On the East coast, their facilities are sixty and seventy years old, and no one even knows how to fix ‘em anymore. Whenever a generator blows, they have to call out these really old men to take care of it. That’s why the New York electrical system sucks!”

 

Booth leaned over and whispered, “Watch, the lights suddenly go out!”

 

“Oh, and Ah-nold!” said Mr. McGowan, shaking his head and grinning slightly. “Can you imagine? ‘Governor Schwarzenegger, we have a problem with immigration!’” He held up an imaginary gun. “‘I VILL TAKE CARE OF IT!’”

 

But at that moment the laughter of the class was interrupted by the lights going out. There’d been a power spike across the entire east side of Alvin and over a thousand homes had lost power.

 

Booth denied it as best he could, but I could no longer doubt it: he was a prophet. Something strange and uncanny was happening in Alvin, and him and me and Brandon were about to be swept up in it.

 

*           *           *

 

Brandon and I became convinced that tragedy was going to strike our campus. In the swirl and haze of late summer, omens were all around us. Thirteen ravens sitting on a power line, the mysterious imprint of a child’s hand on the window of a car, the continual recurrence of the number 42. One Sunday the Houston Chronicle’s daily Bible verse was Isaiah 13:13, in which God warns that judgment is about to fall on the land.

 

On the thirteenth day of school the three of us took a walk around campus during our last class, and we saw some strange things. Total strangers who looked just like people we knew (“Doppelgangers,” I explained to Brandon. “Omens of death”). Two ambulances flashing their sirens in the exact same place. (We fled when we heard a third one coming).

 

The whole day had a weird, uncanny quality about it. Booth and I spent most of the evening on the phone, speculating about what it all could mean. But then at about a quarter to nine, Brandon called and explained everything. The parents of a good friend of ours had just been caught up in a high-speed police chase. A man had rammed their car, and the three of them had been life-flighted to a hospital.

 

“Do you need me to spell it out for you, Boze?” said Brandon darkly. “We know two of the three people in that accident. Just like we saw three ambulances, but only heard the third one.”

 

“We saw it,” I said quietly, my eyes brimming with sudden awareness. “We saw the whole thing.”

 

“Yes,” said Brandon. “And this is only the beginning. Whoever is behind this is trying to warn us of something. Something big that’s about to happen. Someone is going to die, unless we can stop it.”

 

*           *           *

 

The whole world had become a secret code begging to be deciphered by us. At first it was an exhilarating feeling, being privy to secrets that were hidden from the rest of our classmates and teachers. Mr. McGowan, the only person who seemed willing to listen, encouraged us to stay alert and pay attention to the numbers and patterns all around us.

 

He urged me to keep journaling our encounters, but he also advised caution. “Your senses are keen and you’re making connections; you just may not be correct about them. That’s the strength of a novel: it’s fun.”

 

And it was, at first. But the longer it went on, the lonelier I felt. I was getting trapped in the maze of my own connections, and I wanted out, but there was no way back. Sometimes when I went into the cafeteria at lunch I would see four people I knew in succession, and the order in which I saw them would show me, with uncanny precision, how my relationships would unfold going into the next semester: which of my friends would suddenly betray me, which one would make an unexpected return to my life. And I was never wrong, and it was scary, in a way, because I felt sure I could see the future but I didn’t have anyone else except Brandon and Booth who believed me, and increasingly I felt isolated even from them.

 

And sometimes I wondered if I really was crazy, like that woman in the old song “who wrote poems to Jimmy Carter but forgot to feed her kids.” Though, as the first trimester of school wore on, a lot of strange things were happening and people were beginning to notice. Booth and our friend *Adriana had the same dream on the same night. I heard the exact words Brandon was thinking, as though he had said them aloud, as I lay on the floor half-asleep. Mr. McGowan’s wife saw an angel in their house.

 

*           *           *

 

In November I reconnected with *Blazes O’Reilly, a friend who had recently left Alvin to attend an advanced school for mathematics in north Texas. Blazes had been in love with Booth for a long time. (Those were his two major temptations, he had once told me: homosexuality and witchcraft). Before we’d been on the phone for more than a minute I asked if anything strange had happened to him lately.

 

“Funny you should ask,” he said. He told me that since the middle of August demons had tried to possess him on ten different occasions. He would start cursing and throw his promise ring across the room. “It’s like Satan and the angels are fighting a war over my body,” he explained matter-of-factly.

 

“And what do you think it all means?” I asked.

 

“Well, I was going to say, you’re going to think I’m crazy, but after the story you just told me, I’d be very surprised. I think we’re heading into a major spiritual battle, possibly the final battle, and both sides are gathering their key forces for a major offensive.”

 

Blazes O’Reilly seemed to think I had a major role to play in the final end-times battle. That was insane, crazy. I told no one what he had said to me on the phone that night, because my reputation had already suffered enough.

 

A few weeks later, on a cool, sunny Saturday, Adriana came and sat down next to me at a UIL competition in San Antonio. She was a thin, quiet girl with short black hair and blue, sprightly eyes, and every time she watched the trailer for The Return of the King she wept, because it reminded her “of the great battle that is coming for us all.”

 

“What would you say if I told you that Jesus is going to return in our lifetime,” she asked me, “and that I will be one of his closest followers?”

 

I was too polite to tell Adriana what I really thought, which is that it sounded like Satan was preparing her heart to receive the Antichrist.

 

But apparently Adriana had similar feelings. Feeling encouraged by our conversation, she wrote me a letter that weekend. In it she revealed the horrible truth about her life. In dreams and visions God had shown her that she was soon going to meet the Antichrist. She would fall hopelessly in love with him, and the fall of men would begin.

 

“In a battle,” she wrote, “my love will be wounded and killed, though not by my hand, and he rises again. In the last battle, I am able to get past his defenses and, in the most horrifying moment of my life, kill the darkest love in the universe. And though I realize that I have saved my life and my fellow men, I know that my life will never be normal. I will never again feel the all-powerful passion of that love or the security of that touch. Though I know it was worth it, I can’t help but hate the loneliness that will accompany me for the rest of my life.

 

“Can I deny this fate and give it to someone else? And if I do, will there be someone to answer my call? Am I the only one who can achieve this end? I need to talk to someone, but no one but you believes me.”

To be concluded tomorrow in Part 2.

Five Warning Signs of Dangerous Religion

imagesI know a thing or two about spiritual abuse. I know that feeling of betrayal when the thing that’s supposed to protect you tears you to pieces. I’ve seen predators disguise themselves as faithful servants of the people of God, using subtle indoctrination and mind control techniques to weave a prison so tight around their victims that even their closest friends and family couldn’t get through to them.

For those of you who don’t know, in my last year of college one of my best friends started a Charismatic prayer group. Dozens of people joined it and in the years after our graduation we moved to Kansas City. Members of the Group were punished, isolated, and expelled for questioning the leader’s authority, and ultimately the oppression became so great that it claimed a life.

So in my experience, these are five clear warning signs that a group or movement or religious community has departed from traditional Christian orthodoxy and become a danger to its members and others. Continue reading