Intrepid Village Voice reporter Donna Minkowitz thought she knew what she was getting into when she set out to go undercover among the religious right. She was going to observe "the enemy" close up, on its own turf. But Minkowitz, a feminist, lesbian, and "sex radical" who has won awards for her coverage of gay issues, found something else entirely -- a guide to some of the stormiest contradictions within her own soul.
Sex and love, good and evil, rapture and safety -- the religious right, it turns out, is as obsessed with these matters as Minkowitz is, as many of us are. During her adventures with the Christian right, Minkowitz finds all-women Pentecostal services that are as sexually supercharged as her own experiences having group sex with strangers in a lesbian backroom bar. The Promise Keepers, trying to be good in an age when "good" men are branded as sissies, alternately move Minkowitz to tears and provoke her mirth when she disguises herself as a teenage boy to join one of their all-male gatherings.
With hilarious, sympathetic writing, Minkowitz explores the things she and the Christian right have in common -- from their intense sense of "victimhood" to their desire to be loved at all costs. If the Christian right wants a God willing to die for them, Minkowitz wants a lover willing to suffer pain. "Because I have fallen in love with a masochist," she writes, "I think I have entered the Garden of Eden."
On this rollicking trip to hell and back, Minkowitz reexamines staples of gay life she once revered -- like Sex Panic!, a group that wants to applaud all that is "evil" and "transgressive" in sex. She wonders why she ever embraced the idealist assumption that gays are inherently freer, sexier, and "better" than straights.
And the more she visits the Christian right, the more she discovers that neither she nor they have been getting what they're looking for. Whether "getting slain in the spirit" with adherents of the Toronto Blessing, which Minkowitz calls the "punk-rock version of evangelism," or being given a female makeover by Total Woman Ministries, or engaging in mutual confessions with executives from Focus on the Family, Minkowitz comes to understand that both she and they have been using sex and God, not being saved by them.
In the end, Minkowitz discovers a very different kind of ecstasy. It is not the ecstasy of overcoming the Other; it is not the frenzied search for safety. It is an embrace of all the dangers and beauties that our deepest selves can offer. Here is a tour of the extremes of body and soul in America that may exhilarate and shock while it enlightens, but will remain indelibly stamped in the memory long after the last page is turned.
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The Toronto Blessing
"He is offering you everlasting life, not membership in an institution!" the pastor shouts into a crowd of four hundred people, who scream back their defiance of all institutions and memberships therein. I knew I'd feel at home here, with people who cackle, ululate, and bray their praise of God. The Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship, one of the most popular religious-right churches in the world, has been kicked out of its own denomination for being too "extreme."
There's an excited, expectant atmosphere in the room, very much like at an early gay liberation meeting. A diffident young man walks up to the lectern and asks ardently whether any of us are here for the first time. We Toronto virgins raise our hands, and by doing so, get to feel like we're immediately participating in the life of the group. The man calls out countries, states, and provinces of origin, so we can stand and be clapped for being from wherever we are. Those who've been here a few days longer than the virgins are invited to participate in an even more direct way: "If there's anybody here that's been particularly touched by the Father lately and would like to testify," says the shy young man, "we need a few people."
I've come to Toronto because I like people this warm ecstatic, extreme, and cheerily fey people, to be precise. My own people, gays and lesbians, have been known to get pretty ecstatic themselves; but I've also discovered that our alleged enemies, the religious right, like to go out of control and get crazy as much as we do. They just do it in their own way.
The way that the evangelicals' God was manifesting his extreme and disquieting self at the Canada airport sounded admirable and terrifying at once. There were magazine reports that, among other things, these people had "vomited in the Spirit," which sounded like a punk-rock version of evangelicalism. I had to see it.
The airport church lies in a dreary suburb of Toronto called Etobicoke, not far from the runways. Shining in a gray industrial park no one would visit for any other reason, burning perhaps dangerously close to the chemical plants and airline fuel reserves, the church's ecstasy has become a major source of passion (and contention) for evangelicals all over the world. Since the Holy Spirit began showing up regularly at services in 1994, more than a hundred thousand religious-right folks from America have visited the Toronto airport to acquire some of TACF's "fire."
It is perhaps not incidental that John Arnott, head pastor of TACF, is a former travel agent. Special deals have been arranged with nearly all the hotels and rental car companies at the Toronto airport so that people can combine a week's vacation with a pilgrimage to the church whose people come unbridled with the spirit of the Lord.
The denomination that kicked them out, the Association of Vineyard Churches, is itself considered "extreme" at least by progressive critics of the religious right and by Christians (both progressive and conservative) who don't like to see too many miracles happening in church.
Many evangelicals fear the Toronto Blessing as much as progressives fear the religious right. "The power behind them ... is demonic, not divine," read a pastor's typical letter in Charisma magazine, the journal of record for Pentecostals. Another letter called the Toronto churchgoers "immature and carnal."
As the diffident man speaks, two women are dancing by themselves in the wide side aisle. One, a flush-faced fiftysomething, looks a little mad, twirling a pink streamer and scampering lightly on her feet like some sort of ecstatic elf. The other is a vigorous, Gray Pantherish old woman in a T-shirt and painter's pants, who looks as though she's just come back from painting signs for a peace demonstration. The Gray Panther gestures rapidly with a baby blue triangular flag, as though she were an airport worker signaling to a plane. They both look crazy, but I sort of envy them. At different times in my life, I too have wanted to be inhabited by gods and dance ecstatically; what's happening in this church is what I prayed would happen to me as a teenager (although I was a Dionysian, not a Christian, and I prayed that the spirit would enter me through eros, or through drugs).
The Torontans constantly speak of God's anointing being on them, but if they take themselves too seriously, it doesn't show in how they dress. (I can't call them Torontonians, because so many of them have come from other towns.) The male pastors and most of the band are wearing jeans, and the women in the audience wear dresses and slacks in which they can move (a few of them even have on jeans). Standing in front of me is what appears to be a lesbian couple with their children, holding their palms out to God and shaking to His beat.
"Step by step, we're getting stronger!
Little by little, we're taking ground!
Every prayer a powerful weapon!
Strongholds come tumbling DOWN and DOWN
and DOWN and DOWN and DOWN!"
Everyone shouts on the downs. This song's a little frightening, but it's also dare I say it? empowering. The content is basically the same as that of the chants I've chanted at my favorite political demonstrations. The verses go like this:
"We want to see Jesus lifted forward!
We want to see Jesus lifted high!
That all men might see the truth and know
He is the way to heaven
"We want to see [clap! clap! clap!]
We want to see [clap! clap! clap!]
We want to see Jesus lifted up!"
The Toronto worshippers talk and sing all the time about Jesus (and by extension, themselves) being "lifted up," and all their oppressors, who command the "strongholds," being cast down. Next the congregation sings another song about "Jesus ... on a white horse" coming in to vanquish the people in power and claim the heavenly throne for us.
"Whoa ... oh, oh, oh! [hoofbeats!]
Whoa ... oh, oh, oh! [hoofbeats!]
He rides in majesty
In majesty he rides."
A country ballad, it sounds a little like the Kenny Rogers song in which "the coward of the county" beats up all the men who've raped his girlfriend.
The new, gleaming church we're sitting in is the size of a rock-concert hall, and sunlight pours in from eight weirdly angled geometric windows, a strangely modern touch. A portion of the ceiling is mirrored so that we can watch ourselves being overcome, then raised. Long strips of red tape line the floor in a huge, empty area at the back of the hall, which I'm told will be used later when we get "slain in the spirit" and need a space for our eloquent bodies to fall.
As the music ends, three people from the audience rush up to testify. Linda Hinton, a young woman in a long denim jumper, tells how all her life she'd been plagued with "unforgiveness towards men." She doesn't say why, but that "it was very hard for me to talk to men, or even to look at them for more than two seconds." The formerly diffident announcer, a TACF staffer named John Busmo, by now has acquired the air of a confident TV game-show host: "So, would you say the Lord has set you free?"
She would. The next testifier, Vivian Ramspacher, also suffers from female troubles. "I just want to trust in the Lord, but part of me would always hold back. I would hold the stress in my stomach so that I couldn't eat very much." But at a service last Tuesday, Vivian, who's visiting from Richmond, Virginia, lay on the floor "and the Lord used me for two hours!" Since then, she says, her eating disorders have evaporated.
Busmo comments: "Often we see the Lord as being very similar to some of the key figures in our lives." Vivian couldn't trust in the Lord, he suggests, because she'd had so many unpleasant experiences with these "key figures," presumably in her family of origin. This transference can be resolved, the Toronto preachers say, when we realize that "our heavenly Daddy" is far superior to the earthly version that so many of us encountered.
Women testify at TACF much more frequently than men, but finally a man steps forward, Michael Petersmark of Pontiac, Michigan. Petersmark, a hearing man who is pastor of the Deaf Assembly Faith Church, begins signing and speaking at once: "I said, Yes, Lord, take me away! I want to be with you! Also, he showed me myself and that was not a very good-feeling experience. I saw his glory and my worthlessness." A large number of his parishioners from Pontiac are in the hall, in a large deaf section. As he and Busmo pray for them "Let deaf ears be opened!" the deaf men and women from Pontiac shriek aloud in agony and make retching noises.
"Lift your hands and close your eyes, and God'll give you a big surprise!" An ebullient, thirtyish black man named Curtis is giving the sermon this evening, and he begins with this risque promise of a sainted kiss. Conservative as the airport church is on erotic matters, the idea of sex with God figures implicitly and sometimes even explicitly in its preachings. "My perception of Jesus was this naked man hanging on a cross," Curtis says. "Did you know he was naked on the cross? How many of you would hang naked on a cross for me?"
The Torontans speak very harshly of fornication, but they adore the idea of being ravished by God. Though they eschew alcohol, they speak positively of spiritual "drunkenness" (the souvenir T-shirt for sale in the church bookstore shows a big anthropomorphized bunch of grapes falling to the floor in a delightful stupor). Idiocy and insanity are not far from their conception of holiness. "How many of you know that the gospel is foolishness?" Curtis asks us. At this, a woman erupts with hyena noises, and some children begin crying out in the voices of other animals. The three who testified a moment ago are writhing on the floor, having had hands laid on them by members of the prayer team whose real duty is to open the mind to just this sort of intoxication.
Women and men continue to make animal noises throughout the sermon sometimes quite distractingly and the Gray Panther and her friend return to their exhibitionistic dancing in the side aisle. Later I will learn that the Gray Panther is a leading member of the prayer team, and the elf's prophecies have been recognized by senior pastor John Arnott as indubitably coming from God. For now, we all leave our seats and repair to the red lines at the back, where hundreds of us line up to be "prayed on" by certified TACF volunteers who have passed lengthy courses in inducing the spirit. "We have very few rules here," a pastor told us earlier in the evening, "but one of them is that you only let yourselves be prayed on by the people with the pink or blue badges. Blue dots mean they are authorized to pray for both male and female."
Many of the congregants have traveled thousands of miles just to participate in this ceremony. I watch as men, women, and children wait impatiently for a pink or blue badge to get to them so the Holy Spirit can connect and they can finally fall backwards. One stranger puts his hands on you from the front and one from the back, like some complicated sexual encounter. (These roles even have names that could be lifted from the gay male sex lexicon: "pray-ers" and "catchers.") It reminds me of the theater game called "trust," where you fall backward, hoping that your partner will agree to catch you. On the red strips, people begin falling over like dominoes. The ones who haven't been ministered to yet look on, forlorn and envious, like people waiting for a drug dealer, or a date who's blown them off.
"Just marinate in the Lord," members of the pink and blue team tell those who are already on their backs. "Just soak." Part of me would like to "marinate," but I've been on the wagon for so long. The action on the red strips is uncomfortably alluring, and I beat a hasty path to the exit.
The second night, we sing an even fiercer hymn:
"We will BREAK dividing walls [we stamp our feet!]
We will BREAK dividing walls [stamp!]
We will BREAK dividing walls
In the name of Your son
"We will BREAK dividing walls [stamp!]
We will BREAK dividing walls [stamp!]
And we will be one!"
The hymn's verses, sung to an Irish jiggy-sort of melody, sound like a cross between a Nazi marching tune and a bathtub sex song:
"Oh, there's a place of command and blessing
Where beauty and harmony dwell
A place where anointing oil is flowing
Where we will be one
"We will BREAK dividing walls! [stamp!] etc.
"Oh, you have called us to be a body ..."
So much of this church, it seems, is about simultaneously expressing the need to "be a body" and pour oil all over oneself and other people and the need to "BREAK" the things that inspire the body's rage. During testimony time tonight, Pat and Peter, a couple from northern Ontario, come up to share that previously, Peter had dominated Pat viciously. Standing before us, Pat is white-faced and silent, while Peter speaks authoritatively about his own domination. "I thought my wife was second class!" he says. "I thought she was secondary! I come from a very conservative, religious, Pharisaic background, and I thought that my wife should come second to me!" His arm contains her the whole time. Pat says no words, but her arms and legs shake violently, as though she were manifesting her rage at him through her entire body. The crowd cheers, identifying her jerks as a divine gift. After a while, the rigid Peter gets the shakes too, the ministry team prays energetically on them, and they both fall down.
Tonight's perky male announcer, standing over their prone bodies, calls out, "More, God! More! More! More, God!" and Pat and Peter convulse like epileptics.
One of the things I love about the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship is its devoted attention to people who, as tonight's speaker puts it, "have so much anger and we don't know why, because of hurts of the past." "Our church has always catered primarily to misfits," church administrator Steve Long tells us later at a special session for visiting church leaders, "for example, people who had been sexually or physically abused." More and more churches, Long comments, "are recognizing that that's the reality of who comes to their services." Pat, tonight's abused wife, is speaking with her body in a way that's classic to traumatized people, especially women saying things with her spasming limbs that she apparently can't say to her husband through her open mouth. Yet this way of communicating is the very behavior the Torontans hold most sacred a "manifestation," as they call it, of God's power, not of the unconscious attempting to speak. Roaring, shaking, falling, and even speaking in an unconscious manner are signs, for the Torontans, that God is in you, not signs that there may be something in you that wants to come out and can't.
If the services are full of testimonies from the traumatized "He's been breaking all fear of man for me!" croons a typical testifier at a TACF women's conference the shelves of the church bookstore are loaded down with books about sexual abuse, battering, and childhood violence. The bookstore has both From Victim to Victor: A Biblical Guide to Turning Hurting into Healing which says it is "for anyone who has been victimized by trauma and abuse" and From Victim to Victory: Prescriptions from a Child Abuse Survivor. (There is also a display for a book called Adult Children and the Almighty.) The store offers twenty-one books in all on this general subject, including thirteen specifically on sexual abuse and a few on the delicate subject of sexual abuse by pastors. Prominently displayed is a book called Battered into Submission: The Tragedy of Wife Abuse in the Christian Home. Whatever one can say about the Toronto leadership, they do not sugarcoat sexual or family violence, or deny its existence.
Instead, it appears, they worship it.
"Lord, we really need your fire tonight," says a heavyset, passionate, curly-haired woman singer with a British accent, introducing a song that sounds like what Melissa Etheridge would sing if her cruelly rejecting lover were God. Called "Come with Your Fire," it invites the Lord to burn and devastate the singer because this "is the only means" by which the two can become close. ("It's my heart's desire / To go through the fire / Because this is the only means, I gladly choose.") As a symbol, the cross has always invited the worship of victimhood, but the Toronto worshippers take this to a further extreme than most, setting up their worship services so that the most traumatized are always the ones who appear most blessed.
Tiffany Bingham, an attractive young woman in a purple T-shirt, cheerily testifies: "A number of years ago my own father hurt me terribly. He just did so many things that really hurt my heart. I really cried out in pain because I was so broken. That's when I met Heavenly Daddy!" she exults. (Broken, in TACF-speak, is a good thing, much as beat was to the Beats. When you get beaten, Kerouac and these Christians think, you can get beatified.)
The announcer enthuses, "I see with Tiffany just an enormous depth of her relationship with her Daddy." He adds, a bit enviously: "And I really want some of that for myself!" Five members of the prayer team apparently feel the same way; they attach themselves to her like sucking remoras and don't let her go until she's staggering under their attentions.
All the testifiers tonight are female, and as the second woman steps up to tell about her back problems and the irregularities of her menstrual cycle, women in the audience begin crying out in pain. (I've never been in a church where women's minor ailments were discussed with such ardor. But these women, like the nineteenth-century hysterics, apparently invest so much of their pain in small physical symptoms that merely mentioning tense stomachs can feel like an avenue to the cross.) The third testifier, Sweetie Ties, from Ossining, New York, announces, "If they had lemon laws for children, they would have sent me back! You talk about alcohol running in families well, in ours, it galloped!" (Rose, the woman with the irregular cycle, yells loudly at this.) "I didn't know what love was I knew what control was. I became exposed to chemicals that gave me asthma and knee pain. I hadn't been able to work in five years I was taking morphine. Plus, I had lupus."
But then "I started coming to renewal about a year ago, and I now know what it is to be loved. I now know what it is to love myself! I'm taking half as much medication as I was, and I'm walking!" Well, this beats all, but I'm moved for Sweetie Ties. I clap loudly. Okay, people to whom terrible things have happened often do talk about their troubles in comically annoying ways. If this church can get Sweetie to walk and halve her dose, more power to it.
Rose, on the floor now after being prayed on, is laughing as though she were drunk.
Announcer (winking): "It looks like something's happening to Rose!"
Rose (gaily): "I broke my pelvis in six places and this is the first time that I haven't had any pain!" She shakes her hips furiously on the floor in rhythm.
Announcer: "Run, Rose!"
Rose gets up and sprints back and forth ten times, very fast. I'm a bit giddy with this, but also disturbed, as though I'd glimpsed Jean-Martin Charcot's experiments on his hysterics. (Charcot, one of the forefathers of psychiatry, operated a famous asylum in which female patients only were exhibited for live shows.)
Unlike Charcot, however, the practitioners of the Toronto Blessing offer hysterics more than laboratory exercises and a perpetual stage. They offer passionate love to hysterics, misfits, and victims, and even to folks who identify just a little with these categories. "Jesus is radically in love with you," head pastor John Arnott writes in his book about the revival, The Father's Blessing. "Jesus wants a bride who loves Him with abandonment." Good works aren't what pleases God, Arnott adds: "being in love with Him pleases Him." Arnott, whom his own deputy, Steve Long, calls "a misfit," writes ardently about the difference between Martha and Mary, and how Mary was more prized by Jesus, because Martha "ran around ... trying to get dinner ready" for the disciples while Mary was doing what was really important, "resting at the feet of Jesus ... saying, 'Ahhhh ... Jesus, you're wonderful.'"
Arnott can be a very seductive writer, picking out riffs that make me want to wash those feet with my hair, too. "How would you feel if you asked somebody to marry you and this was the reply: 'Yes. I'll marry you. But I do not want any of that emotional stuff. I do not like it when you put your arms around me or kiss me or that kind of thing. I just want to be practical. I will work for you, make money, take care of the house and the kids and everything else, but do not try to kiss me or be intimate with me.' ... Is that what what you want in a spouse? ... Doctrine is not a substitute for a love affair." This isn't the way most people expect the religious right to talk about God or about anything. But the Pentecostals and charismatics who comprise a near majority of the religious right often speak of God in such gorgeously romantic terms, as though all the sexuality in the world had been compressed into the relationship between God and believer.
The way they do it at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship sometimes makes me want to pack my bags and relocate to Toronto permanently, with a warm smile on my mouth and a big bouquet of roses for the Lord. At an Intercessory Prayer session in the middle of the day, Shirley, the dervish and Gray Panther, "sings in the spirit" for us, speaking in the character of God, in a minor key: "Do you know how much I love you? Do you know the extent of my love for you? I feel all your pain, I take it upon me. Will you allow me to love you?" This crazy lady has brought tears to my eyes. She continues: "I will forgive you, as I promised. I will restore you. ..." The melody is a haunting sort of half-operatic, half-Asian aria and drone. It wakens in me barely acknowledged desires to be loved, forgiven, embraced entirely.
The Toronto Blessing is the other side of the conservative evangelical movement's well-known fixation on hellfire and damnation. Hundreds of thousands of believers fly to Toronto each year because the Torontans talk about what you will get if you're not damned: the parental love of God forever, unlimited and intoxicating. The mother who never pulls back; the father who never deprives you of him, ever. The lover who will chain himself for you, and never leave. The lover who will give whatever you need, even his blood.
The "spiritually drunk" Torontans speak of Christ's blood as though it were a never-ending fountain of mother's milk. Reasons I would go to this church include: the special "pastoral soaking party" once a month, where, Steve Long says, all the volunteer and paid ministers "just have a lot of desserts and pray on each other" till they get giddy; the gaily colored "prayer streamers" for sale in the bookstore, long beautiful ribbons for worshippers to dance with, in adult and children's sizes; a Nova Scotia woman's testimony of a vision she had in which she was an eight-year-old girl in pigtails, and Jesus grabbed her hand and skipped with her and told her, "I am as thrilled with you as you are with Me"; and, especially, John Arnott's conversation with God in which God confessed to him, "Oh, John, I just want to wash your feet."
The Torontans often render God as a beautiful masochist whose superlative and almost unbelievable offer can hardly be refused die for me? wash my feet? let me hang you up by nails for how long? It is no accident that his redemptive body, for them, takes the form of pastry.
On my third night, I can hardly hold back any longer. When Arnott, a fat man with a menacing air, calls on the unsaved to step down to the front of the room, I step. It's a little awe inspiring to be right up there at the center of things, the axis of four hundred people's love and the focal point for the attentions of the furnace-hearted ministry team. The pink-and-blues always occupy the first two rows so they can minister to all the insufficiently loved ones who step up.
When I get up from my seat, Curtis is excitedly telling us that we're not good enough for God and should by rights be rejected, "because His standard is absolute perfection! Jesus was the only man who ever walked the earth who fully satisfied God!" ("I don't understand that, do you?" Curtis asks later. "Why would God love us?") Love and repulsion intertwine in this story; Curtis next talks graphically about how physically disgusting Jesus became for our sake "It says in the Bible, his appearance was so disfigured, beyond that of any man" and how, stretched on the cross, he turned into a fetid "snake" because of his love. The message in my ears as I approach the altar is that Jesus got nasty for me who am already too nasty for God so that I can have God's love after all, even though, apparently, I don't deserve it.
God knows I want to be loved. It's nice, in the end, when an older woman lays her hand gently on my upper back and tells me I am unconditionally loved. There's a whole row of us, mostly young men, who've come down to the altar for a dose of lovin'. I am the only one who's accepting Jesus for the first time; the others are backsliders. Strangely, I start to feel a profound shaking in my chest, and if I were one of the Torontans, I'd be sure it was the Holy Spirit knocking. But I know it's not, because I haven't really accepted Jesus, and if the Spirit thinks I have, it's dumb. (Later, reenacting the scene with my sister, a physician, I discover that being touched that way on that part of the back can make you feel an exciting sort of quaking in your chest when you breathe.)
Hamming it up, I fall to my knees, and eventually on my face. The Torontans throw a traditional charismatic modesty-scarf over my bare legs, and John Arnott himself appears and scoops me up, putting his hands on my face and asking my name. It is nice to be touched this way by the chief minister. They gently pull me to my feet and lead me to a special indoctrination-session for converts in another room.
Inside the backstage room for new believers, things are much more tense. My companions, all in their teens and twenties, stare at their feet in shame and overwhelming sadness. I'm perplexed. I thought we could be happy now, or at least feel as though we were out of the woods. But our guide, the woman from New Life Ministries we followed in here, sweeps all those notions away.
"Now I'm going to tell you the meaning of what you just committed yourselves to!" Her air is that of a yuppie lawyer about to inform us that we had signed something really stupid, and she'll profit from it. "You have just signed a contract with God. And just like if you rented and had a landlord who owned your apartment, He is your lord. He owns you now! ... You have been bought and paid for."
It's not fun to be told you have been purchased, but it gets even less thrilling when the program changes to that of a rigorous final exam. We are asked whether we're sure we'd go to heaven if we died, and if we're not sure, "and God asked you why you deserved it, what would you tell him?" Everyone answers satisfactorily except for one very sad young woman, who is ushered with me, the Spiritual Infant, to a sort of remediation session.
It's a reading-comprehension lesson. We're given two pamphlets; like so many pairs in Christianity, one is sweet and the other is disgusting. The sweet one asks Who Am I? and answers with biblical quotes grouped in three sections: I Am Accepted; I Am Secure; I Am Significant. The quotes say things like these: "I am God's child." ... "I am Christ's friend." ... "I have been adopted as God's child." ... "I am a saint." ... "I am free from condemnation." ... "I have been chosen and appointed to bear fruit." ... "I cannot be separated from the love of God." The other one, put out by Billy Graham's organization, teaches by means of many little drawings, all captioned this way: People (sinful). God (holy). The same drawing, of the gross People and the wonderful God, appears on every other page of the pamphlet. They are separated by an enormous chasm, because "we chose to disobey God and go our own willful way." The final drawing depicts People ("Sin Rebellion Separation") and God ("Peace Forgiveness Abundant Life Eternal Life"). The only thing that can bridge the chasm of our unworthiness is Christ.
The young lawyerly woman makes sure that we understand each of the drawings. Then she makes us sign commitments to God and Christ. Finally, detention's over. "You are released to go," she says. I'm surprised to feel a surge of affection as I prepare to take my leave of this rigid young woman. I hug her hard, and her mouth finally betrays a little warmth. Being bought and paid for is romantic to many people, I remember as I clutch my tiny souvenir copy of the Gospel of John even, at times, to me. I guess in her own way she was only offering me love.
But ultimately, love isn't the main emotion expressed by the Toronto worshippers when God takes them over. I see the Torontans' view of God more fully when I begin to see my first prophecies at their services. One night, a woman in her thirties, alternately cringing and commanding, grants this Word to us: "He's giving us a hole, a vacuum, that can never be filled with anything but Him! We can't trust ourselves, but we can trust Him!" There is a big response from the congregation. Several make noises as if they were defecating or throwing up. Others howl as though they were giving birth. There is something liberating about these noises, unsettling as they are. They sound like an ill or angry people finally realizing that they are angry or ill, and expressing it. It's hard to listen to, but there is nothing put on about it. I'm sure these sounds express the way these people really feel, and that in itself makes this sickening spectacle moving.
John Arnott's response is also strong. He calls for "those who have a prophetic edge especially those who've regularly been getting the Word of God at our services to come up here" to the front and say more things that are on God's mind. Thirty or forty prophets come up mostly women and eight or nine of them speak to us in a row.
These prophets combine Elizabethan phrasing with contemporary slang. "I charge you not to be flaky," says the first, "cause we're not into bogus prophecy." The next woman, breathing hard, tells us to "Open your hearts, because there is something coming that is FAR BEYOND THESE WALLS AND FAR BEYOND THIS CITY, it's far beyond anything we've seen!" She sounds terrified. The people in the congregation scream as though they were in pain.
Most of the images in God's brain are military. A forty-year-old woman tells us, "I just keep hearing over and over again, 'When we hear the sound of marching in the mulberry trees, be ready!'" Armies, swords, and even donkeys to carry God's swordsmen figure in these fantastic, superheated visions along with a reference to the movie Braveheart. ("Just like in the movie, the sword was five feet long! You need to be on horseback to wield it.") Men and women cry out "Ho!" throughout the prophecy-time as though they were in the army of the Roman Empire. It looks like fun to wave imaginary weapons and babble in this way, about these things: "The church is like a womb! Take up the sword! Protect the womb! We have to have a sword in our hands to protect the womb of the baby!"
The fantasies are a romp, but the most important numbers are a little too intense to be called "fun." Before giving the major prophecy of the evening, Arnott's wife, Carol, nearly crumples to the floor until he forces her to stand. Trembling in his arms, pinioned in their bulk, she tells us: "It's a fire over us burning the church burning the people. It is not the good fire! It is a consuming fire! We're not gonna get away with what we got away with before! Oh God! God's calling for a pure bride! We cannot pour out this anointing on a bride that's full of spots and full of pride and full of jealousy!" As God, she offers a final chance for reprieve, but warns: "But if you do not come to my gentle hand, the fire that is coming WILL ... CONSUME ... YOU!"
Almost all the prophecies speak of a terrible punishment that awaits. Hearing them, it's often hard to figure out whether it awaits us or our enemies. Depending on whether the prophet is speaking in God's voice or the voice of a quaking believer, the Word of God comes across as either rageful or masochistic. Which amounts to much the same thing. Hearing Carol refer to herself as a "bride full of spots" in one sentence and the bearer of a nasty fire in the next, I hear the same viscous, obscure sentiment in her speech. It is masochism as rage murky, undivided, powerful.
In TACF's prophecies, "He [is] venting His anger and His fury through His people," John Arnott writes. "[We are] explosively displaying God's wrath." In church, he prays, "Let this city be blasted. ... Ninety-five percent of the people here are controlled by the Enemy!" "You're gonna send your people out to look for those buzzards and shoot them down!" visiting preacherwoman Pat Cocking informs God at a conference for women. Mary Audrey Raycroft, a TACF pastor like an iron rod, gleefully relates a vision she had of "lassoing" "rebellious" Christians and branding them with a hot iron "B for Betrothed!" These people think one of the earliest indications that the Holy Spirit was here was when a reserved Chinese pastor visiting in 1994 zipped around the church aisles like a lion "pouncing at people, claws out, roaring in their faces."
The Torontans celebrate victims in precisely the way that Christ did. And they ultimately worship His ambiguous rage, the rage of the victim.
"Six hours of bleeding, suffering agony," Arnott says with relish, as though he were describing a sexual fantasy. "Every time he tried to breathe, he's working his wounds, so the blood cannot clot. So all his blood would pour out. He literally bled to death!" Arnott tells us it was necessary that Christ's death be as bloody, "horrible," and "torturous" as possible, so that God had "a legal basis" for forgiveness. "'When I see that blood,' God said, 'I'll pass over you!'"
There is a strange logic to this "merciful" crucifixion story that is rarely commented upon the idea that Christ's torture can "pay for" anyone else's violation, that one act of torment can somehow redeem another. Even less merciful is the idea that an additional act of torment is necessary to redeem the first. In her book The Origin of Satan, religion historian Elaine Pagels explicates the bewildering duality that has always existed within Christian tradition between punishment and forgiveness, sadism and compassion. She suggests that the increasingly savage theological threats against "sinners" and "son of hell" in the New Testament have to do with the historical experiences of the writers of those works persecution, starvation, torture, and martyrdom. As a religion of victims, literally created and promulgated by people who had been tortured and abused, Christianity contains an understandable vein of sadistic anger that is hardly ever acknowledged by its adherents.
This contradiction pervades the New Testament the startling leap from "Love your enemies" to "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire," the gaping chasm between "There must be no limit to your goodness, as your heavenly Father's goodness knows no bounds" and "It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God." For the Torontans, it is the leap between God's unstinting, almost masochistic love (I will hang naked on a cross for you and deny you nothing, not even my blood) and his equally boundaryless and unquenchable hate (I "WILL CONSUME YOU!"). My entire time in Toronto, I am overwhelmed by the difference between the God who gets me drunk and gives me pastries and the God who wants to throw me down on the floor, terrified, until I realize that they are one and the same. To the Airport Christian Fellowship, love is rage.
"All the goals and ambitions of your life are fading from view," Arnott preaches, "because He's putting a brand, a mark upon you!" The branding that makes the Toronto pilgrims writhe on the floor and cry in pain and fear is the same branding that indicates God's ardor for them, and his sexual embraces. It is frightening, but then again, many people find love and sex pretty frightening in their own right. "Some of you are sitting there worried that you'll get burned alive!" Arnott tells the audience during the prophecy portion. "Wouldn't it be something if church would be a dangerous place to go into? Well, it is dangerous! Yes, it is dangerous! That fire that we speak of is real, and sometimes there are accidents!"
For the adherents of the Toronto Blessing, love always comes coupled with the sense of their intrinsic repulsiveness and undeservingness, and it always comes coupled with violence. They constantly seek reiterations of this contradictory thing they prize: fiery love, frightening sex, nurturing danger, as though the drumbeat of rageful loving were like the hit of a powerful drug. "Hit me, God!" Rhonda Carrington from Shreveport, Louisiana, testifies about telling Him. "Okay, God, hit me!" She was jealous because her husband had gotten the jerks and she hadn't. "He's saying He's got value for you, and the value is not so much in you it's in Him!" the pastor laughingly tells her.
It is chilling to listen to them. But their furious services give them a way to bring their darkest, least acceptable emotions into the light of day. Writing about a neo-Pentecostal revival that once broke out at Yale, psychoanalyst Julius Laffal said: "By the fact of verbalization, glossolalia brings close to consciousness what the individual cannot put into words. Since the specific social tokens are lacking, the shame, guilt, despair or anxiety that might accompany [the unspeakable content] are avoided while the person feels that he has expressed the ineffable."
And rendered it holy.
For them, the most holy thing emerges from the least holy that is the vastness of the act of transmogrification they are pulling off. That is why they must be inarticulate, though loud. "I want to pull a cork out of your MOUTH!" Mary Audrey Raycroft, strangely sexy and aggressive, suddenly shouts to the women's conference.
She makes me think of a parable from the gnostic Gospel of Thomas, written in the second century A.D. In the parable, Jesus asks three disciples to articulate what he "is like." Responds Simon Peter, "You are like a righteous angel." Matthew says, "You are like a wise philosopher." But Thomas says, "Master, my mouth is wholly incapable of saying what you are like."
Jesus responds in pure Toronto airport fashion "I am not your master. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring which I have measured out." To reward Thomas for becoming intoxicated (!), Jesus takes him aside and tells him "three things." When Simon Peter and Matthew ask Thomas what Jesus has revealed to him, Thomas says: "If I tell you one of the things which he told me, you will pick up stones and throw them at me; a fire will come out of the stones and burn you up."
How do the Torontans speak the things that can't be spoken without burning? By speaking them without words, and almost, without thoughts. They have to tremble and bleat because it is difficult to find a way to speak about being violated that does not take such form. Only speaking with their bodies makes it possible for them to worship at all. Only ecstasy, with its unspoken pain, will ever make them feel that they have any kind of soul.
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