Thursday, April 24, 2008

Gonzo journalist goes on Christian retreat; says 'Jesus made me puke'

Rolling Stone's gonzo political reporter, Matt Taibbi, who has been called a latter-day Hunter S. Thompson (over and over again), has a new book about his "tales from the evangelical front lines." Taibbi is a great reporter and a fantastic writer, but he doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would be inducted into GetReligion's hall of fame. Not with writing like this.

"The Great Derangement," his cynically named book, does, however, offer a number of interesting windows into life in the Rev. John Hagee's "apocalyptic mega-ministry." It is with Hagee's Cornerstone Church that Taibbi attends a weekend retreat through which he tells his tale.
So here I was, standing in the church parking lot, having responded to church advertisements hawking an "Encounter Weekend" — three solid days of sleep-away Christian fellowship that would teach me the "joy" of "knowing the truth" and "being set free." That had sounded harmless enough, but now that I was here and surrounded by all of these blanket-bearing people, I was nervous. When most Americans think of the Christian right, they think of scenes from television — great halls full of perfectly groomed people in pale suits and light-colored dresses, smiling and happy and full of the Holy Spirit, robotically singing hymns at the behest of some squeaky-clean pastor with a baritone voice and impossible hair. We don't get to see the utterly batshit world they live in, when the cameras are turned off and their pastors are not afraid of saying the really dumb stuff, for fear of it turning up on CNN. In American evangelical Christianity, in other words, there's a ready-for-prime-time stage act — toned down and lip-synced to match a set of PG lyrics that won't scare the advertisers — and then there's the real party backstage, where the spiritual hair really gets let down. I was about to go backstage, to personally take part in the indoctrination process for a major Southern evangelical church. Waiting to board the bus for the Encounter Weekend, I had visions of some charismatic ranch-land Jesus, stoned on beer and the Caligula director's cut and too drunk late at night to chase after the minor children, hauling me into a barn for an in-the-hay shortcut to truth and freedom. Ridiculous, of course, but I really was afraid, mostly of my own ignorance and prejudices. I had never been to something like this before, and I didn't know how to act. I badly wanted to be invisible.
Taibbi, of course, fails to remain inconspicuous. How could he after fabricating his "wound" -- a concept, which Taibbi calls "schlock biblical Freudianism," from John Eldredge's "Wild at Heart" -- as being the abused son of an alcoholic circus clown?
Unfortunately, my one fleeting error of judgment about my circus-clown dad had left me shackled to a rank character absurdity for the rest of my stay in Texas. I soon found myself reading aloud a passage from my "autobiography" describing a period of my father's life when he quit clowning to hand out fliers in a Fudgie the Whale costume outside a Carvel ice cream store:

I laugh about it now, but once he chased me, drunk, in his Fudgie the Whale costume. He chased me into the bathroom, laid me across the toilet seat and hit me with his fins, which underneath were still a man's hands.
Taibbi later seems dismayed his fellow retreaters actually believe his outlandish story of hardship. He chalks this up to their pathetic lives. And that is sad.

I'm the first to agree that "Wild at Heart" was a sappy manifesto about how all the pain in our life is caused by some single trauma. And I was understanding when one of my friends said he literally tossed the book across the room when Eldredge's son asked, "Am I a wild man dad?" (That is supposed to be a good thing.) And I wish Christians writers were more critically introspective of their own community.

But there is something positive to be said about a group of "desperate congregants," as Taibbi terms them, who are willing to come alongside you and help you along, even if your major malfunction is the consequence of being beaten with clown shoes. This is not, as Taibbi later calls it, your "basic cultist bait-and-switch formula," even if it is coming from a rather fundamentalist congregation. Fear and loathing, anyone?

If you want to read more, a lengthy excerpt can be found in Rolling Stone's current issue.

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