last week’s episode of this american life is phenomenal.
apparently it’s a year old, but i didn’t hear it the first time, so yeehaw podcasting. :)
it tells the story of a fundamentalist preacher named carlton pearson, who rose through the ranks of the charismatic movement and led a huge pentecostal church in tulsa, oklahoma that was one of the stars of the fundamentalist christian world.
then, a few years ago, he decided that he didn’t believe in hell anymore, which is a rather startling move for a pentecostal preacher.
he was the kind of guy who thought about things, though, especially when they seemed to be coming from god, and the more he thought about this one, the more he decided that, in fact, the damnation of the pure at heart simply because they didn’t know about christ was anathema to his understanding of god. he had a sort of epiphany where he saw hell not as something that god would ever do to his children, but rather as something that we create for ourselves by not believing in universal forgiveness.
these ideas ran counter to the very foundations of what he had been taught, but he knew that sometimes god had reasons for not revealing everything at once, so it just felt to him as if god was saying that people were ready to advance to the next level, like in mario 3, where suddenly in level 6 it makes sense to use that suit that lets mario turn into stone, but in level 3, where there’s a lot of water, that suit really didn’t make any sense, and actually it sucked hardcore because you just sank to the bottom and sat there like an idiot. but that didn’t mean that level 3 didn’t have it’s place or it’s own wonders. who doesn’t like that frog suit? people just work with what they’re given at the moment, mmm-k?
ok so that’s my analogy, not his, but maybe you get the idea.
anyway, he was used to preaching what felt true to him, so he started talking about changing the charismatic doctrine. he didn’t feel like he should leave the church, and at first, he was just met with disbelief. people did this awkward kind of throat-clearing “how’s the weather?” kind of song and dance because they didn’t Really want to believe that he was serious, and you know, maybe it would pass.
but eventually, his ideas went further and he began to say things like: if you think about it just a little bit, you realize that it’s the Spirit of the word that matters, and not necessarily a literal adherence to the translation that happened to make it into the king james.
round about there he crossed a line, and it wasn’t long before he was shunned and officially branded as a heretic. his church attendance plummeted, he fell into debt, he was asked to leave the board of oral roberts university, and eventually, he was forced to reinvent his church on a much smaller scale.
about 100 of his original members stuck with him through the whole ride, despite being shunned themselves, and today he preaches to about 400 of what may be the world’s only pentecostal universalists, with his numbers slowly growing.
and remember, this is in oklahoma.
i believe that this is an incredibly important story for anyone concerned about the outcome of the faith and values debates that are raging in contemporary america, and it is also the 53839th reminder of why this american life is a great show and i miss out when i forget to listen (so again, yeehaw podcasting!).
it is important because these are people who looked at their long-held beliefs, looked at the world, saw a discrepancy, and realized that they had the choice to either push the discrepancy away as a threat to their way of life or embrace it as a chance to learn more about what they truly believe, even though what they found might be different from what they always expected.
and they chose to take the chance.
bishop pearson’s former colleagues and friends saw this decision as a failure of faith; a failure to trust the bible without question, even if (or especially when) it might seem to contradict itself. the idea that there are compelling reasons to not believe in hell is seen by them as proof that it is a particularly pernicious temptation meant to test them, and they just need to be strong.
but bishop pearson chose a different interpretation of faith, and i think this is important, not because “follow your heart” or “live and learn” are particularly new ideas in this world of ours, and not because, in this case, the people involved happened to have a change of heart that made their beliefs a lot closer to mine.
whatever we believe about damnation and salvation, and wherever we think faith comes from, i think this story is important because, in general, the idea that, when our way of life is threatened, faith could be what leads us to embrace change rather than resist it, is a Big Idea. the kind of idea that changes the shape of our world.
i know it doesn’t sound that revolutionary, but bear with me here, because i’m not sure we really get it.
the world around us right now is a pretty scary place.
at the end of the day, we are frightened that the way of life that we cherish is being threatened, and, in one way or another, the weapon we wield against this fear is our faith.
faith in god. faith in democracy. faith in ourselves.
but what are we really asking that faith to do for us?
are we saying “give me THIS! NOW! prove that you love me!”
or are we saying “give me the strength to grow and remember that love is never in doubt.”
because big and grown up and developed as our civilizations might be, we’re still pretty young in the grand scheme of things, and in some ways i think we’re just a bunch of kids with superhero suits that we refuse to take off even when we sleep. we wear the suits because they make us feel invincible, or invisible, or strong or smart or brave. we think the suits are part of who we are, and we’ll fall apart or disappear without them, so if anyone suggests that we might actually enjoy wearing a t-shirt and jeans, or a pinstripe suit, or maybe a sari, we just yell at them and run away and hide under the bed, consoling ourselves with dreams of flight or xray vision or whatever other power we are sure we will have just as soon as our true nature is revealed.
now i’m not a parent, or an expert in psychology, but word round the campfire is that the best thing to do in this situation is let the kid wear the suit as long as they want. that 9 times out of 10, if we come to believe that we are safe in our superhero suits, after a while we just wake up one morning and decide to wear something else of our own accord, confident of the fact that any superpowers that we really need are still with us, and always will be.
what i’m saying is that it’s important to remember that, wherever this world of thinning and shifting borders takes us, and however much it might not look like we thought it should look when we were little kids, we have a choice about how to respond. we can either make our decisions out of fear of losing what we thought we were, or out of faith in finding what we know we will become.
i tip my keyboard to bishop pearson and his church for that reminder.
you can stream the episode or pay a buck to download it here, or sign up for the free podcast here or, as lucy was lovely to announce to the world, through itunes. i still have numerous problems with itunes, but right now i am using it to keep up with this american life and this i believe while i’m abroad, and, as a portal for those progams, it brings me moments of joy that almost balance out the overwhelming sense of fatigue that overcomes me every time i think about all the hours i would have to put into organizing and annotating my music in order for itunes to live up to its distant, barely visible promise of flexibility and power.
i said almost.
if you have an hour while you’re making dinner or something, i hope you’ll give the episode a listen, and i’m all eyes if you wanna let me know what you think.
i warned you i was gonna write some this week, right?
this post took a wicked long time.
and that downloading music. it didn’t take any time at all.
i still want to go work on that paper, but i might just have to sleep a bit first…