Just how crazy are those wacky evangelicals? Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone wanted to find out, so he went “Undercover with the Christian Right” by immersing himself in the world of TBN star John Hagee’s Cornerstone Church.
There’s much not to like about the methods that Taibbi employed for the piece, which is an excerpt for a forthcoming book. First of all, to act as if you’re going in to uncharted territory by investigating pentecostal Christians is a little disingenuous. After all, this is America. There’s a pentecostal on every corner — they’re not that hard to find.
Second, why in the world would a reporter use an alias when signing up to attend a retreat at John Hagee’s church? Was he afraid someone would recognize him as a writer for Rolling Stone? The folks he described didn’t strike me as the type to sit waiting each month with bated breath for their copy of RS to arrive just so they can read Matt Taibbi. Understandable if he were investigating the mafia, but pentecostals?
Third, Taibbi suffers from a condition common to many media professionals: ignorance of the evangelical landscape. The reason for this undercover stint, he claims, was to “to get a look inside the evangelical mind-set that gave the country eight years of George W. Bush.” To claim Hagee as the cornerstone for the evangelical mind-set in America is pretty big leap. Hagee is at best a subset.
That said, Taibbi does come away with a few observations of which evangelicals should take note. This passage in particular highlights the kind of psycho-babble that often shows up even in churches outside the pentecostal sphere:
The program revolved around a theory that [retreat leader Philip Fortenberry] quickly introduced us to called “the wound.” The wound theory was a piece of schlock biblical Freudianism in which everyone had one traumatic event from their childhood that had left a wound. The wound necessarily had been inflicted by another person, and bitterness toward that person had corrupted our spirits and alienated us from God. Here at the retreat we would identify this wound and learn to confront and forgive our transgressors, a process that would leave us cleansed of bitterness and hatred and free to receive the full benefits of Christ.
We were about a third of the way through the process when I began to wonder what the hell was going on. Fortenberry’s blowhard-on-crack-act/wound gobbledygook were all suspiciously secular in tone and approach. I had been hearing whispers throughout the first day or so to the effect that there was some kind of incredible supernatural religious ceremony that was going to take place at the end of the retreat (“Tighten your saddle, he’s fixin’ ta buck” was how “cowboy” Fortenberry put it), when we would experience “Victory and Deliverance.” But as far as I could see, in the early going, most of what we were doing was simple pop-psych self-examination using New Age-y diagnostic tools of the Deepak Chopra school: Identify your problems, face your oppressors, visualize your obstacles. Be your dream job. With a little rhetorical tweaking and much better food, this could easily have been Tony Robbins instructing a bunch of Upper East Side housewives to “find your wounds” (“My husband hid my Saks card!”) at a chic resort in Miami Beach or the Hamptons.
When a writer for Rolling Stone can recognize that your preaching is more pop-psychology than biblical truth, you’re in trouble. Sadly, much of the evangelical landscape shares this wholesale adoption of talk-show therapy. It’s a practice the Apostle Paul might well refer to as conformity to the world.
The gist of Taibbi’s piece is to show how markedly different these alien Christians are from the norm. Though he saw some pretty nutty stuff (glossolalia in the form of Russian band DDT!), it’s ironic just how much wasn’t as different from the world as it should have been.