Authority and apocalypse

The interesting thing in Wagner’s interview on NPR that is pretty obscure to people who haven’t been intimately acquainted with this subculture is the view of authority. I’ve mentioned before that the NAR is obsessed with legalisms (almost as much as with sex). That comes from a foundational concern about authority. The NAR and Christian Dominionism in general are all about authority and power.

They operate off some fundamental assumptions that are seldom stated explicitly but that frame everything – absolutely everything – that these believers think about and do. Here I am trying to put these pre-rational beliefs into words, based on personal experience, so don’t expect to see these kinds of things stated explicitly by members of the groups, especially not in open fora. If you doubt my explanations, take some time to see whether they fit the overall worldview expressed by Christian Dominionists, especially when they’re being more honest (sermons, speaking privately, etc).

First, everyone is in hierarchical power relationships all the time. All relationships have a power dynamic and that power dynamic is dictated by their god. A disrupted power dynamic is the source of most evils and needs to be corrected immediately.

Second, those power dynamics aren’t just metaphors. They are, deep down, about force. Mostly spiritual force, mostly allegiance, but if necessary, force. Again, military metaphors run deep in this rhetoric because they’re not just metaphors. They are often taken literally. (This lack of metaphorical thinking is not unique to Christian Dominionism, but it takes on an especially dangerous tone here.)

In this worldview, democracy is sort of a surface phenomenon. It can be used as a kludge when not everyone accepts their god-given place in the power dynamics (especially unbelievers). It can be used as a compromise, or a temporary expedient. But it’s not a long-lasting solution. It’s not a fundamental idea, it’s not something to work for, and ultimately, it’s un-biblical.

With that in mind, read what Wagner has to say about the roles of self-proclaimed apostles and prophets in the NAR:

WAGNER: The Bible teaches that apostles – related to prophets and also teachers – should form the basis of the government of the church. Now, up till now, recently, most churches in America functioned on a democratic system, so that the authority in the churches and the authority in the denominations resided in groups of people.

And, of course, that’s what we’re used to politically in America, so that fits in very well with our culture. But in terms of the role of the apostle, one of the biggest changes from traditional churches to the New Apostolic Reformation is the amount of spiritual authority delegated by the Holy Spirit to individuals. And the two key words are authority and individuals, and individuals as contrasted to groups. So now, apostles have been raised up by God who have a tremendous authority in the churches of the New Apostolic Reformation. And I think this is the most radical difference between the old and the new.

When he says, “that’s what we’re used to politically in America,” I hear the unspoken statement, “but that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” When he talks about how the NAR’s authority structure is a “radical difference,” I connect that to the kind of “transformation” that he wants to see in American culture and American politics.

Wagner also made a point of saying that the NAR is “working with whatever political system there is” in each country it’s engaging. But he strictly disavows any mention that they want a “theocracy,” which he specifically links to states like Iran or like Constantine’s Rome. He is telling the truth there, but it’s a specific kind of truth based on his ideas about authority.

I believe him that he doesn’t want a “theocracy” where there’s an institutionalized church that runs the institutionalized state. He wants to meld the two, indistinguishably, because his religious ideas about authority and power are so all-encompassing that they would make a separate institutionalized government redundant.

It is irrelevant to him that this is exactly what I mean by “theocracy.” He has redefined the word, so he can be truthful. You have to know how to listen to this new vocabulary in order to make sense out of his double-talk.

And his double-talk is attractive: he wants to make a world “characterized” by “the blessings of heaven:” “We don’t want racism. We don’t want poverty or divorce or corruption or child abuse or crime.” When the host points out that most of his compatriots also don’t want homosexuality, Wagner hems and haws and says that some other things are more important first.

But that’s precisely the problem. Wagner is imagining heaven on earth – and he does literally believe that if he and his followers can make these changes take place, Jesus will return and the world will end. But like so many people who are utterly fixated on another world, he completely ignores the realities of this one. His biggest victory in the NPR discussion was avoiding talking about how all these changes are going to take place.

Because they won’t. They can’t. In his tradition, this is called original sin: there will always be things wrong, there will be people who are hurting, who hurt others, there will be sickness, and death, and fear, and anger, and all the ills resulting from them. Wagner wants to pretend that when people convert to his flavor of Christianity, they become perfected and none of these things ever happen any more – divorce becomes unnecessary, child abuse nonexistent, homosexuality a fiction. (Ted Haggard can speak to that last one, and his wife can speak to the first one.)

Wagner wants a post-apocalyptic heaven without going through (or talking about) the apocalypse.

Many of his fellow enthusiasts, however, are aware of this, and have actually thought and talked about how to get from here to there, and their conclusion is that it’s up to them to make it happen. The ones who are truly committed to this believe that it is their heavenly mandate to make that apocalypse happen here on earth, using all means of power available to them. In fact, they think that restoring the correct power dynamics – men over women, Christians over non-Christians, prophets over scientists, and so on – is the first step to making that apocalypse happen.

They’re not sitting around waiting to be taken away in the Rapture. They’re bringing heaven to earth – for those eligible for their heaven. And they’ll get rid of those who aren’t. Call it reverse-Rapture.

That’s what they mean when they talk about re-instituting Biblical law. They have realized that they can’t just wish away or pray away all the gay people. After taking a long, hard look at this situation and their perceived god-given roles, they have concluded that the solution is stoning.

If that’s what it takes to get to their imagined holy land, they’ll do it. They’ll do it with what they think is love in their hearts, a psalm on their lips, and blood on their hands.

About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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14 Responses to Authority and apocalypse

  1. Jack Heron says:

    I am reminded of what G.K. Chesterton said about original sin – that it could also be called the doctrine of the equality of men (gendered language his, not mine). It’s supreme function, he says, is that it ultimately means that a king or a priest is no better than an ordinary man. These ‘New Apostles’ would do well to remember that.

    Further, I wonder how their ideas about Dominion are related to their take on the Book of Revelation. It’s generally considered by scholars and non-American churches to be an allegory for the Roman Empire at the time it was written (allegories, of course, are not there to conceal the truth but to *reveal* it by use of analogy) and its chief themes include the emptiness and transience of worldly power, the corrupting nature of wealth and the idolatrous tendencies of absolute rulers. So perhaps by treating Revelation as a catalogue of future events rather than a warning, they miss the irony of what they’re trying to achieve: the ‘Beast’ of Revelation that demands worship its own way, tolerates no dissent and seeks to control all aspects of life is the very thing they are striving towards creating.

    • Literata says:

      Fred Clark has written cogently about how the conservative/evangelical take on authority seems to assume that authority should be unlimited by institutions, so that when they get the “right” person in that position, he (it’s nearly always a he) can do everything he wants. This is directly contrary to the idea of checks and balances (or limited government, whatever you want to call it) which assumes the old saw about how power corrupts. It’s really quite strange to see people who are so obsessed with the idea of sin seem to blithely ignore any potential for sin within themselves. (Perhaps they forgot while they were busy fighting demons.)

      Excellent point about the intolerant “Beast.” Since they also like to make grandiose comparisons to how we’re “just like Rome,” I’d also like to point out that even after John of Patmos died, the whole “accepting Christianity as the state religion” approach didn’t seem to save Rome from its decline. I’m not sure that example says what they want it to.

  2. Makarios says:

    Got it in one, as we say in Canada. It’s all about authority–or, perhaps more precisely, all about power, and specifically what Starhawk has called “power over.” The big no-no in the moral lexicon of the Christian right is defiance of authority–specifically of their God’s authority, but also that of the supposedly divinely chosen leaders. It’s right in 1:Samuel 15: “For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. . . .”

    Interesting, though, that the New Apostles are all in favour of totalitarian government by–guess who–the New Apostles. I wonder how they would feel about a totalitarian dictatorship in which they weren’t part of the in-group. I suppose, as always, that where you stand depends on where you sit.

    • Literata says:

      Well, they scream every chance they get about how we’re becoming totalitarian (they can’t distinguish between “fascist” and “communist,” which is morbidly amusing in and of itself). On the other hand, at least one speaker has admitted that the Christian theocracy would “seem totalitarian at first,” because we’re all children and the government is our parent (standing in for their god, of course), but once we grow up a bit and learn to conform, it won’t be so oppressive. Yeah, right.

  3. num says:

    Wagner was – imo – quite sneaky in that interview, and I felt bad for Terry Gross, because he stonewalled her so many times. That had to have been a very difficult interview for her.

    As to what you’ve said, I believe you’re correct – and I find the NAR/Third Wave (as well as Rushdoony-type Dominionists) quite scary. I have been around some of them… used to belong to a church that was full of semi-secret NAR types. Although some of their thinking was – at one time – mine as well, there was a LOT that:

    – didn’t make any sense

    – sounded like it had nothing to do with Christianity

    – was overtly political/theocratic

    – was nonsensical, with a caveat: the people who buy into it believe that it’s not only true but self-evidently obvious

    And that last point is, to me, the scariest. Let me be upfront: I have seen a lot of otherwise well-educated and highly intelligent people buy into this… as with any cultic movement. (There, I said it: imo, the NAR and its relations are cults.)

    I do not think that NAR-type beliefs have much, if anything, to do with historic Christianity. To me – and I don’t think I’m alone in this – it appears to be a new (probably very old) kind of dualistic religion that uses some words and names from the Bible.

    Example: the whole “strategic-level spiritual warfare” thing. There is nothing in the New Testament (or the Old testament, imo) that says “Go and prayer walk and drive the demons out of your neighborhood.” (Or anything like it.) People have built this whole edifice on proof texts – snippets of this, that and the other taken entirely out of context and used to support their theories.

    imo, they believe in a good god-bad god who are in eternal tension and are eternally at war. (the good god is God, the bad god is… Guess Who.) It seems to me that engaging in the “warfare” thing is something that

    – makes people feel important

    – gives meaning and purpose to the mundane

    – is an ideology that can turn ugly

    – is very much like some kind of real-life role-playing game, but (unfortunately) one that its proponents take seriously

    I’m Christian (still!), and I don’t see much in any of this that connects with the NT or the early, historic creeds of the church (Apostles, Nicene and the Chalcedonian statement). I honestly believe this is a whole other religion – and that its adherents do not see that. (I think it would be very, very hard to convince them of it.)

    Have been keeping up with posts on a number of pagan/Wiccan blogs re. the current “prayer assault” on D.C., and you know – I think you (singular and plural) are correct in identifying a lot of this stuff as magic. The irony is that the practitioners would never think to label it as such.

    • Jack Heron says:

      You’re absolutely right about the similarities between the NAR and dualism – something of the sort was brought up on a thread over on Patheos’ pagan portal. There’s real similarities with Manichaeism/Catharism. Not just the good vs. evil war, but also the emphasis on personal gnosis and spiritual leaders who are ‘more pure’ than the rank and file.

      • num says:

        Good point!

        Though I don’t think the Cathars or Manicheans were aiming to affect government and political process….

        Will have to take a look over at Pantheos – thanks for the tip!

      • Jack Heron says:

        As an addendum, someone pointed me in the direction of the Montanist heresy of 2nd century Asia Minor. The similarities are really creepy – they even called themselves the ‘New Prophets’. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

      • num says:

        The Montanists: yes, I’ve read about them (though my memory is a bit foggy) and have seen the NAR compared to them.

        fwiw, Rachel Tabatchnik’s [sp?] articles on the NAR – at talk2action.org – are great. there’s a great deal of background that she had to leave out of her run-down on Fresh Air… knowing about it is very helpful in trying to understand how the NAR people think and operate, though there’s no accounting for the most on-the-fringe types. (There are people who are a LOT further out than C. Peter Wagner, believe it or not.)

        RT’s post at talk2action about some of them believing that they “killed” both Princess Diana and Mother Teresa “with their prayers” is a must-read.

    • Literata says:

      I think the nonsensical-but-seems-perfectly-obvious problem is a sign of how whole sections of vocabulary and fundamental assumptions have become unmoored from their original contexts – whether those are historical Christianity or American society, or both.

      The NAR and associated noodly appendages does indeed rank pretty highly, in my assessment, on the Bonewits frame, especially since their desire for political power is orders of magnitude greater than any other group I’ve seen in a long time.

      It also reminds me of the whole debate over whether Christian Scientists and other fusions of New Thought and Christianity are still Christian. This Third Wave is, in my not-so-expert-opinion, a lot like Christian Science in that it’s evangelical, charismatic Christianity fused with the magical descendents of New Thought, except with a ton of malevolence added in.

      • num says:

        Yes… they conveniently ignore statements like “My kingdom is not of this world”…

      • num says:

        I think the nonsensical-but-seems-perfectly-obvious problem is a sign of how whole sections of vocabulary and fundamental assumptions have become unmoored from their original contexts – whether those are historical Christianity or American society, or both.

        very much agreed, Literata.

      • num says:

        definite malevolence (see Rachel Tabatchnik’s post on “killing Mother Teresa with their prayers” at talk2action.org)

        I find it hard to believe that the NAR and related groups have escaped serious media scrutiny for so long… though even now, some people seem to write them off as pure lunatic fringe and think they pose no threat.

        while I agree that they are on the raggedest edge of the fringe, I also think they pose a danger to our society.

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