Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Art and Skill of Religious Manipulative Practices: What Perry Noble, Steve Furtick, and others have in common with Jim Jones

Manipulation has a developed a bad reputation these days. Before I advance this discussion, let me be the first to say that I do not consider ALL manipulation as morally equal. According to Webster, manipulate can have two meanings in the context of which I am using it. Used in one sense, it can mean to manage or utilize skillfully. Used in a negative sense, it can mean to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage. Manipulation is only immoral if used maliciously. The problem is that sometimes, we cross those lines without realizing it and at other times, selfish and inconsiderate manipulation becomes just part of our method for getting what we want. From my experience and perspective, people in power positions or positions of influence are the most susceptible to engaging in sinful manipulation.

Godly manipulation is getting things done in the Christian community by following the standards explicitly given in Scripture to do so. A leader leads. He does not intimidate, threaten, ridicule, insult, or engage in any of these tactics to advance the cause of Christianity and improve the spiritual condition of the community.

Recently, I watched a video of Perry Noble that someone posted on Youtube. In this video, Mr. Noble is talking to his congregation, preaching a sermon I presume. In this sermon, Noble seems obsessed with upsetting “religious” people. Now you need to understand that among the “young seeker” types and the “emergent” that religious is a pejorative term. To them, religion is the old school way of holding power within the Christian community. They see religious people as old-fashioned, outdated, legalistic haters that want to tell them how to live their life. This younger generation will have none of that. The idea of submitting to your elders has long been lost on them. Well, sort of. The idea of submitting to the elder elders has been lost of them. They have replaced experienced men with young, predominantly inexperienced men that possess strong personalities and gigantic egos to be elders. Anyways, I digress. How did Noble decide to upset “religious” people? He decided to play the song “Highway to Hell” during a recent Easter service. The Youtube video is fascinating to watch. Noble relished in the fact that he was upsetting people with a different opinion from him concerning, well, you pick the topic. What was Noble really doing? First, he was polarizing those he called “religious.” They are unattractive, stupid, legalists who have no place in the Christian community. Second, he was stigmatizing their beliefs. By belittling them in front of everyone, he was making sure that no one would want to have anything in common with them for fear of being ostracized themselves. This is an outstanding way to manipulate young and old alike to follow you wherever you want to them to go. This shuts down any dialogue about differences before it can ever get started. This is the fine art and science of religious manipulation. The loss of critical thinking skills in our culture makes this type of manipulation easier to pull off. When you add to that fact the fact that we have severely downgraded biblical doctrine, we have a recipe for all sorts of cult type figures to enter the church and shred the sheep to pieces. Discernment has all but disappeared from the church today. Why is that? Who needs discernment when doctrine doesn’t matter? Why bother doing the hard work of searching for truth when truth doesn’t matter? It does not make sense to spend that energy on knowing truth when we have been told that Christianity isn’t about truth, it is about relationships.

I now turn my attention to Mr. Furtick. Steve Furtick is a close friend and associate of Perry Noble and pastor of Elevation Church here in Charlotte, NC. He also has a video posted on Youtube. Steve’s video is called, “Hey Haters.” In this video, Mr. Furtick refers to those who have criticized his teachings and methods, as haters. He then has the audacity to inform them that their day is done. That is correct. Steve Furtick, the mighty man of God himself, has pronounced that those who disagree with him are finished! Mr. Furtick is a talented and gifted communicator, at least as far as communicating to the younger generation goes. His defiant attitude resonates with this generation and their overwhelming approval serves to bolster his ego and embolden his confidence. In short, it validates him as a leader in his own mind and this serves to further fuel his ambition to do things his own way. But this too is manipulation. To begin with, he also polarizes those that might question his teachings and methods by calling them haters from the start. The only people that dare to question my teachings and methods are haters. In our culture of “love wins,” no one wants to be called a hater. Do you want to be one of them? Of course not! Then straighten up and walk in step with the rest of us. He then says that the haters day is done. He arrogantly and proudly declares they are finished, the ones who question his teachings and methods. He sets up the us versus them mentality marvelously. Steve Furtick employs extremely effective manipulative tactics. It is no wonder! He was a disciple of Perry Noble.

Jim Jones and every cultists that comes down the pike employs the same type of strategy. They elevate themselves. They have an inflated sense of their own importance. Their ego is so large that you could use it to cross the Grand Canyon. They are not open for true dialogue even though in our culture, many of them claim that they are. That is just another manipulative tool that rings quite hollow when someone wants to test it. Just ask Rob Bell.

The problem is that religious manipulation is not limited to men with high profiles like Noble, Furtick and Bell. I was once part of a church that decided they wanted to engage in a building project. Well, I should say the pastor decided he wanted to expand the ministry. The very first thing leadership decided to do was use Israel in the wilderness as a lesson plan to help people get the right perspective. This was lost on me at first. Then I heard the very first lesson about the “grumbling” Israelites and I realized that the fine art of manipulation was at work. Anyone who dared question the necessity of the building program was a “grumbling” and “complaining” Israelite. This tactic had one purpose: to shut down any potential opposing views to the building campaign. While I acknowledge there are negative people who seem to have a negative disposition about everything, this is not the way you handle these kinds of situations and it isn’t the way you lead. Pastors often view people with opposing views as problems rather than as God-fearing, sincere, intelligent people that have legitimate questions and differing perspectives.

I now am aware of an internet apologist who has come up with the most elaborate method for handling anyone who disagrees with his views on anything. He begins by pontificating about the differences between the Mediterranean Culture of Jesus’ day and our own. This is not an illegitimate observation by any stretch. There is much to be gained by understanding the social practices of the culture in which Scripture was penned. Social science (Sociorhetorical) criticism has real potential to add value in the area of hermeneutics. Like any other critical method, it must come under the theological discipline of the Christian ethic. Neutrality is a myth that we do not have the luxury to concede to any method. This apologist points to the challenge/riposte method of Jesus’ culture to justify his methodology. The challenge/riposte method was a system of maintaining honor among one’s peers. As with any theory, there is substantial disagreement among scholars concerning the intricate details of how this worked in actual practice. The idea is that you would challenge your peer and they would have to answer with a response (riposte). If their answer is substandard, they were shamed and the winner achieved or maintained honor. Scholars are not in agreement over the idea that this exchange only occurred between peers. There is evidence that lower class challenges took place with those in a higher class. In Jesus’ culture, maintaining honor in front of the collectivist society was extremely important to the individual. Space constraints prohibit a fuller treatment of this subject, but I think you get the picture. One example of challenge/riposte is found in Mark 15. Before tackling that story, I have to ask the question, “does it necessarily follow that Jesus’ participation in some of these exchanges indicates that he was equally concerned with his place of honor in his culture?” Good question I think. This internet apologist, in my opinion, has wrongly assumed that it does. My contention is that Christianity, like its founder, is a counter-culture religion for the most part. It is antithetical to the sinful patterns and foundational commitments that make up most cultures throughout most of the world. Moreover, Scripture was not written merely to provide historical accounts of what happened, but to change our way of thinking as a result of what we see taking place in the story. Mark 15 is a perfect example of the challenge/riposte game and how Jesus did not play it exactly the way His culture played it. And He did so much to the complete bewilderment of Pilate. After all, Jesus was not nearly as concerned with gaining honor in the eyes of His God-rejecting culture as the religious hypocrites who were his chief opponents. Jesus had another mission altogether that would impact how He engaged His culture. To miss that point is to miss the entire purpose of His mission. The Church is responsible to engage in behavior that transforms the ungodly culture around it into a culture that wholly commits to Christ. Taking a section from V.K. Robbins, here is an example of how Jesus, at least in this case, was unconcerned with winning a challenge/riposte:

In the context of the challenges and responses to Pilate by the chief priests and the crowd, Mark 15 presents two challenges to Jesus. The first comes from Pilate when he asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews. Jesus' response "You say so" (15:2) may seem clever or appropriate to the modern reader, but in the terms of Mediterranean challenge-response system, this response does not establish or maintain Jesus' honor in the eyes of Pilate. The same is true of his silence in response to the accusations of the chief priests and the people. This silence leaves Pilate in wonderment. Although the nature of Pilate's wonder is not clear, it is certain that neither Jesus' words nor his silence was "honorable." At the end of the interaction, Pilate initiates actions that reveal the extent to which, within this cultural system, Jesus has been dishonored: crucifixion is among the most dishonorable deaths imaginable. The second challenge to Jesus' honor comes while he hangs on the cross, as people who pass by, chief priests and scribes, issue the mocking challenge that he should come down from the cross (15:30, 32). Again, Jesus is silent in the face of these remarks, a silence which itself communicates how deeply dishonored he is within the Mediterranean system. The failure to respond to such a challenge dishonors him. For the reader who accepts the narrational perspective that Jesus is the Messiah, the challenges are of course ironic. The irony is that, while Jesus is thoroughly dishonored within the challenge-response paradigm of Mediterranean culture, his silent acceptance of his humiliating death demonstrates his obedience to the will of God. For the narrator and the reader who accepts the narrational point of view, the very silence that apparently dishonors Jesus is the source of his greatest honor.

To get to the point, this internet apologist actually engages in the art of insult rhetoric and he uses Social Science Criticism as a means to justify his behavior. He contends that it is perfectly acceptable to call one’s opponents all sorts of names. He calls people stupid, idiots, and morons. I saw in one place where he used the term “Jerry’s kids” in a very disconcerting pejorative sense with a person who was a non-Christian. You don’t have to wonder how that person felt about Christians after receiving that insult. If you are wondering how else this man gets around those who objective to this type of behavior, it is very simple: he argues that all those passages about being kind and respectful and gentle and not using unwholesome words don’t apply to debates. This isn’t just public debates. It also applies to emails. I sent this man a personal email letting him know how I felt about his methods. He responded with stinging insults and then threatened to hi-jack my name on the internet so that anyone searching for me would be directed to a page he would set up first. I also requested that he no use the content of the private email in his forum. He rudely, and forthrightly proceeded to ignore my wishes. I saw someone do this to D.A. Carson once. You don’t have to be a scholar to figure out that such behavior is entirely incongruent with the Christian worldview regardless of how sophisticated one can make an argument appear. There is another interesting question that came to mind as I wrote this blog. It regards the collectivist/individualist cultures in the world and where Christianity flourishes as opposed to where it does not. I think another good question would concern religious freedom and other freedoms in those societies. After all, collectivist cultures tend to communistic in economic philosophy. The better questions concern the philosophical underpinnings of cultures if it is our intention to praise one cultural practice over another and ask if Jesus adopted it hook-line and sinker and therefore, so should we.

To be clear, I am not actually accusing Perry Noble and Steve Furtick of intentional manipulation. What I am pointing out is that the tactics they employ are manipulative in nature. I do not know what goes on in the hearts of these men. Manipulation goes to motives of the heart. An act may fall into the category of being manipulative in nature even though that was not the intent. Nevertheless, the tactics employed by both of these men are not in keeping with the spirit of accountability and open dialogue within their immediate Christian community, not to mention the broader Christian community as a whole. Both of these men should be confronted with the fact that their tactics give the stark appearance of manipulation with the purpose of intimidating those with whom they disagree.

Finally, I am in no way detracting from the important work that goes into Social Science or Social Rhetorical criticism. The grammatico-historical hermeneutic would include such work. There is a remarkable difference between recognizing how a cultural practice may be useful in interpreting the authors of Scripture, and leaping from that to actually positing that we adopt it in our own culture. Understanding challenge/riposte is helpful in the interpretive process. However, we must avoid the temptation to take it too far. Perhaps one reason for cultural change is due to the impact Christianity had on that particular culture. Christianity does not blindly endorse cultural practices, and neither did its founder, our Lord Jesus Christ. Did Christ engage in challenge/riposte? It would seem that He did. Did he have the same heart motivations for doing so as his ungodly sinful enemies? What do you think?
Homer Simpson

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