Morality as the Ultimate Game
certain trees are sprouting in the Middle East, the world will soon end.
Because the European Union has grown to its current size, fiery death and
plagues of locusts are about to descend on the planet. Because Israel established
a homeland, non-believers will, in a short while, suffer agonizing horrors
before being damned to an eternity of pain.
And now a word from our sponsor -- a real estate agent helping Christians
find their dream homes.
This summer, I joined the rush hour in San Bernardino. Every day, descending
the final hill from Los Angeles into the fastest growing region in California,
I tuned into Christian radio station K-Wave. The station broadcast lessons
on Christ-sanctioned financial planning as well as sermons on faith-rooted
marriages. But its mission of missions was to map out, just the way the
Weather Channel describes approaching storm fronts, the end of the world
now bearing down upon us.
The deep voice of Pastor Chuck Smith filled my car each morning. Founder
of Calvary Chapel, a "mega-church" with a publishing company, Bible colleges,
and franchises in every state, Pastor Chuck inspired two followers to
write the best-selling Left Behind novels about the Apocalypse. Soon obsessed
with the station, I started wishing my Democratic friends in L.A. would
join me in K-Wave's freeway congregation.
Each evening I returned home to find them wringing their hands over
the possibility that a born-again Christian president, who laced his speeches
with secret signals to fellow worshippers and considered praying his most
important action before starting an unjust war, might be re-elected --
and re-elected by religious nuts so stupid they believed Sesame Street's
Bert and Ernie were lovers.
As it happened, those "nuts" won the election for the president. Ill-prepared
newscasters promptly relabeled them "moral voters," showing how little
they understood about the new religion practiced in Calvary Chapel.
Democrats could, of course, have turned on K-Wave (or its equivalent),
but even then they might not have grasped the most basic element of Calvary
Chapel: It isn't guided by the outside world's concept of the Christian
right's stern and unforgiving morals code.
While Calvary Chapel encourages Christians to enjoy "fellowship" with
God, the doctrine it preaches is guided not by any ordinary sense of morality
but by a gruesome vision of the end of the world and a set of instructions
for how to deal with it.
Listening to that doctrine each morning and evening, I felt the sensations
American audiences first discovering Hong Kong action flicks must have
known: a fascination with the exotic combined with awe at the extreme
violence it displayed. Granted, my perspective is unusual. Unlike most
of my Democratic friends, I was raised in a church that practiced New
Thought Christianity just up the freeway from Pastor Chuck's compound.
It offered a new agey cocktail of faith, drawing heavily from Buddhism,
Hinduism, and transcendentalism. Just the type of stuff Calvary Chapel
My childhood of crystals and sunshine made Calvary Chapel-style evangelism,
with its emphasis on conversion and its belief in testifying to God's
power, something strange and deeply mysterious. I felt like an anthropologist
investigating a new culture as I listened to its broadcasts, and what
I found makes me refuse to picture the organization as an army of moral
If my liberal friends had accompanied me to the Calvary Chapel branch
in Livermore to meet other listeners they might have wondered if we were
in a real church. The squat, one-room chapel, with its rows of chairs,
resembled a conference room. I, though, recognized it immediately as California-casual-style
worship. New Thought had had the same laid-back vibe at its gatherings.
Under a 1960's suburban sun, spiritual wanderers established my childhood
church. Around the same time Pastor Chuck began ministering to Jesus freaks
and Republicans in Orange County. My church stagnated in the 1980's. Its
meditation garden now sits empty. Pastor Chuck's congregation, on the
other hand, grew until Calvary Chapel took up a campus as large as a mall
and spread beyond the country's borders.
My friends might have been surprised that as I sat in this chapel, where
the outline of a dove on the back wall replaced a traditional altar, I
wasn't thinking about morality or stupidity. I was simply staring at the
people around me who wore jeans, shushed babies, and tried not to kick
over their purses on the floor. When the pastor asked everyone to greet
each other, a woman buzzed up to urgently give me important bullet points
from her life. One: She met her husband at church. Two: Her new baby was
named Grace. I could escape the future of lonely desperation that she'd
narrowly avoided, she implied, by finding a man here.
The Left Behind books serve as Calvary Chapel's literary touchstone,
even though they're closer in quality to Star Wars paperbacks than anything
penned by St. Augustine or St. Thomas More. In the series, certain people
are physically sucked up to heaven, leaving those who don't make the celestial
cut to suffer through the last, grim days of life on Earth. The people
in the chapel had the feel of those left behind not by God, but by our
world. They weren't losers, but they'd lost out.
Religious scholar Donald E. Miller, who studied Calvary Chapel for his
book Reinventing American Protestantism, found its congregations to be
dominated by blue-collar Americans. Only 20% of church members had a college
degree. Over half of the pastors Miller surveyed had grown up, or spent
parts of their lives, in single-parent homes; 70% had parents who abused
drugs or alcohol. The numbers were similar for the congregants, almost
a third of whom claimed to have been physically and/or sexually abused.
In my friends' world, such numbers would be as alien as the Rapture
itself, but I suspect Pastor Chuck knows them intimately. His mission
is to embrace those the world leaves behind and promise them a new chance
in the after-life.
The dove on the chapel wall, I decided, wasn't the typical symbol of
peace found in many Christian art works. In the Old Testament, a dove
lands on Noah's Ark after the entire earth has been flooded, proving there's
land nearby and providing hope for a new life to all the creatures crammed
onto the wooden boat. In the same way Calvary Chapel's dove offered hope
not of peace but of a change in fortune, at least for those who belong
to the church.
What liberals might have learned from visiting Livermore, listening
to K-Wave, or reading Calvary Chapel-inspired web sites is that "morality,"
at least as they imagine it, is beside the point. In fact, Calvary Chapel-style
Christianity is a complex system with intricate rules. Think of it as
God's game. Instead of X-Box's MechAssault, this is GodAssault.
If you play the game correctly, you'll receive that change in fortune.
If not here, then in the after-life.
The guidebook to the game's moves is the Bible; the key steps to winning
are in the Book of Revelations. Conventional notions of "morality," in
which people adapt standards of right and wrong to an ever-changing world,
don't hold here. Neither do the teachings from my childhood, which emphasized
enlightenment and a sense of knowing God through your mind and heart.
In GodAssault, your conscience is not your guide.
The Bible is.
Like many evangelical forms of Protestantism, Calvary Chapel preaches
that everything a Christian needs is written, word by holy word, in the
Bible. In Miller's surveys, everyone from Calvary Chapel's pastors to
its recent converts said they took the Bible literally. If you read the
Book of Revelations as the physical, material truth, then you come to
see God's game as one played in a swirling, planet-devouring vortex of
blood and violence.
Pastor Chuck's main radio work involved describing this unstoppable
Apocalypse, doling out a new chapter each morning. It begins as the Antichrist
arrives on Earth -- some time after the Jews establish a Holy Land --
to annihilate a large percentage of the planet's population. Then, Christ
comes to judge the living and the dead, sending the bad guys to a just
and unspeakably gory end.
Calvary Chapel's Apocalypse, however, bears a resemblance to the fantasy
game Dungeons and Dragons. Just as "D and D" players excel by learning
complicated strategies and knowing arcane sub-rules of sub-rules, Calvary
Chapel Christians win by following a set of instructions taken straight
from the Bible. They must know the secret passwords, identify their enemies
correctly, and understand what lies beneath the various layers of evil.
False prophets will become popular in the end times, for example, and
those who don't want to be damned will recognize these poseurs and refuse
to worship with them.
Whether heaven's riches are 17 virgins or a beautiful set of angel wings,
Calvary Chapel won't say. Prizes aren't important to the game, because
winning is defined as not losing; not having to endure unthinkable tortures.
And not losing rests on adhering to all of the rules.
My friends in L.A. wanted to know what this new "morality" meant in
terms of American politics. Was there some way to maneuver on this new
political landscape, dominated by religion, and reclaim "the moral voter"?
Leading Democrats were also looking to put new moral moves in their
political playbook. At a Roe v. Wade commemoration Hillary Clinton announced
that her once-firm stance on legal abortion had turned Jell-o soft, showing
exactly what churches like Calvary Chapel mean to politicians. Clinton
and other party leaders are now determined to win over Calvary Chapel-style
evangelicals by taking stands they imagine those Christians will consider
"moral." In the meantime, they hope to preserve their wider political
philosophies in the shadows.
But take heed, oh keepers of the Democratic word, I say unto you: Lo,
do not give into the temptation of moral appearances that will not bear
fruit in the next elections. Change your view on abortion and they still
won't vote for you, Hillary, not if you don't play the total version of
My aunt often complained that Eve, her cleaning lady, rambled on about
God and the end of the world while dusting. Eve had dropped out of community
college to marry a drug addict, divorced, and then married an alcoholic.
She couldn't stop having children or getting fired from part-time jobs.
I liked Eve. As she told me about how she struggled to afford milk for
her kids and gas for her car, I realized that, in this world with its
rules, Eve was on the losing team. But there was hope in Pastor Chuck's
board game of a religion.
I didn't ask Eve if she attended a Calvary Chapel, but I did hear her
repeat the game's rules. And why shouldn't she? If Eve followed the game's
demands, she would stop suffering one day. She would win. For all sorts
of struggling souls the promise of eternal salvation, and victory over
those left behind, is stronger than any weak pledge a politician could
Lambert, a student at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism,
rebelled against her upbringing in adolescence with the radical act of
joining an Episcopalian church.
This piece first
appeared at Tomdispatch.com.
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