Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Soldiers of Christ

I'm always interested in articles about megachurches and this one's a doozy; Soldiers of Christ by Jeff Sharlet. It has the old run-for-the-hills,-the-martians-are-coming feel that you usually find in these articles, but reads kinda like a novel and is just about as long as one. It's about New Life in Colorado Springs...I've never been to New Life, don't know anyone who has, and I know better than to believe everything journalists have to say about big churches...but Sharlet's interactions with individuals from the congregation really set this article apart others I've read about Megachurches.

Here's an excerpt:

On any night of the week in Colorado Springs, if one knows where to look, one can join a conversation about God that will stretch late into the evening, regardless of workday schedules to be fulfilled the following morning. Some of these are cell groups, spin-offs from New Life or from the city’s other churches, but others are more free-form. On a Thursday, I joined one as the guest of a friend of a friend named Lisa Anderson. Lisa is an editor at the International Bible Society. A few nights before, after I bought her several rounds of mojitos, she had promised to send me Our City, God’s Word, a glossy New Testament produced by the IBS and included a few weeks before as an insert in the local paper. (To unanticipated effect; the city’s Jews, as it turns out, were not pleased to find New Testaments in their driveways a few days after Hanukkah.) The cover image of Our City, God’s Word is a surreal photo collage in which the Air Force Academy chapel—a row of silver, daggerlike structures that is probably the cruelest-looking church in America—is superimposed over office buildings and snow-draped Rockies. “Colorado Springs is a special place,” declares the introduction. “The Bible is a special book.”

Lisa’s Thursday-night group met in a town house owned by a young couple with two children, Alethea (which means Truth), age three, and Justus (which means Justice), age one and a half. The father is assistant to the president of The Navigators, a conservative parachurch ministry, and the mother works for Head Start. Also in attendance were two graduates of the Moody Bible Institute and Lisa’s boyfriend, a graduate student and a writer for Summit Ministries, a parachurch organization that creates curricula on America’s “Christian heritage” for homeschoolers and private academies. There was also a gourmet chef.

When I walked in, an hour late, they were talking about Christian film criticism—whether such a thing could, or should, exist. Then they talked about the tsunami and wondered with concern whether any of the city’s preachers would try to score points off it. When I mentioned that Pastor Ted already had, they cringed. I told them that at the previous Sunday’s full-immersion baptism service, Pastor Ted had noted that the waves hit the “number-one exporter of radical Islam,” Indonesia. “That’s not a judgment,” he’d announced. “It’s an opportunity.” I told them of similar analyses from Pastor Ted’s congregation: one man said that he wished he could “get in there” among the survivors, since their souls were “ripe,” and another told me he was “psyched” about what God was “doing with His ocean.”

“That’s not funny,” one woman said, and the room fell silent.

James, an aspiring film critic with oval glasses and a red goatee, spoke up from the floor, where he’d been sitting cross-legged. “You know that Bruce Springsteen song on Nebraska, about the highway cop?” he asked. He was referring to a song called “Highway Patrolman,” in which the patrolman’s brother has left “a kid lyin’ on the floor, lookin’ bad” and the patrolman sets out to chase him down. Instead, he pulls over and watches his brother’s “taillights disappear,” thinking of “how nothin’ feels better than blood on blood.”

“He can’t arrest his brother,” James said, and quoted the song: “a man turns his back on family, well, he just ain’t no good.”

“I think that’s how it is,” James continued. “That’s how I feel about Dobson, or Haggard. They’re family. We have loyalties, even if we disagree.”

I told James about a little man I had met in the hallway at New Life who, when I said I was from New York City, said, simply, “Ka-boom!” I told him also about Joseph Torrez, a New Lifer I had eaten dinner with, who, when describing the evangelical gathering underway in Colorado Springs, compared it to “Shaquille O’Neal driving down the lane, dunking on you.” Torrez had said, “It’s time to choose sides,” a refrain I had heard over and over again during my time in Colorado Springs.

“So which is it?” I asked. “Which side are you on? Theirs? Are you ready to declare war on me, on my city?”


“Then choose.”


“We can’t,” Lisa interrupted, from the corner.

“We can,” said John, another Bible Society editor. “We do. Just by being here.”


Steph Stanger said...

I would be interested to see the repoters blog. Thanks for posting that it's insightful. It's so hard for me to know what's worth fighting about...especially when it comes to brothers and sisters in Christ! I certainly believe there are things worth standing up for...but sometimes I pick the wrong battles. This gives me something to think about thanks for sharing.

Kim Traynor said...

I got the link working now, sorry about that!

seegeepee said...

That ocean comment makes me want to show that guy what God is doing with "His shoe".

Kim Traynor said...

As some british might say, yup yup.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Sharlet here: Thanks, Kim, for the kind words. I, too, distrust most journalism about church life. I've been attending and writing about religious communities of all kinds for years now. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that New Lifers are like Martians. They are are the mainstream of America. Make of that what you will.

Kim Traynor said...

Hi Jeff, I'm honored that you stopped by! I don't think you demonized the people of New Life (your interactions with the congregants was my favorite thing about the article)...I just kinda had the feeling, reading your article, that I was walking around on somebody else's planet. As an evangelical and a member of Willow Creek (and somebody who voted for Bush, for that matter) I had expected to encounter something familiar in your article, but, for the most part, I did not.

Anonymous said...

Hey there. Am on vacation and took a couple of moments to check out your blog. Pretty cool for stuff like that to happen.

I live in Colorado Springs and I found the article interesting and accurate. It is scary how enmeshed New Life and evangelicalism with consumerism and the millitary.

Our church is downtown, and I found his comments about downtown insightful.

Friar Tuck

Kim Traynor said...

Thanks for your insights Friar Tuck (glad to see you haven't been run over by semi or anything.) I'll have to go back and re-read the stuff about downtown.