Alex Gabriel is a braver man than I am. Throwaway joke aside, he just finished doing something I couldn’t do myself. He spent a week at a charismatic Christian conversion camp. *shudders*
In my defense, growing up without religion means I didn’t build any filters for a lot of what they say. I never spent any time rationalizing why hating sin doesn’t mean hating me. I didn’t develop any counters for their tactics aside from sheer rejections. Everything about highly religious culture is raw and obvious and personal and grating.
Even after growing up with religion and rejecting it, Alex didn’t have the easiest time of it at camp. These events are designed to break down filters. They are meant to get personal. And the leader of the camp has made it quite clear that he is hostile to at least one of Alex’s particular “sins”.
Alex went anyway. While doing that, he blogged about it for the edification of the rest of us. It’s a highly effective series. It is definitely not “fair and balanced”, but the comments on the posts indicate he is making believers, including some who attended the camp, think about religion is presented sold there.
Day One: In which Alex explains Soul Survivor and his mission.
At the start of this year, I crowdsourced the cost of the ticket on my blog, with the promise I’d write daily posts if I went. A lot of people worried I’d be thrown out, which remains a possibility – but I doubt it, because while the organisers might not choose this phrase, I genuinely think it’s a conversion drive. I’ve been told that at similar festivals which followed Soul Survivor, guests sometimes sign pledges reading ‘I will now follow Jesus’ and the like; while I don’t know if that occurs at Soul Survivor, it does claim attendees will learn how to ‘live [their] whole lives for him’.
Another concern was that these efforts might work, and I’d return to the blogosphere an out-and-out believer. Like any good skeptic, I’m always happy to be convinced, and if it turns out I’ve been missing something crucial since my teenage deconversion I’ll be glad to learn what it is. But I wouldn’t bet on Soul Survivor changing my mind. As a charismatic gathering, it seems little more than an extended emotional appeal.
I use the c-word in its religious sense, and not as one might to describe cult leaders or dictators, but it’s true that aspects of the liturgy (or ‘worship’, as it’s fashionably called by evangelicals) have troubling connotations, at least for me. Swaying to guitar-led hymns in a YouTube clip from a previous year, a crowd of thousands hold their right hands palm-open on the air – a gesture which even as a Christian, I never understood, and which I now find uncomfortably reminiscent of a Roman salute.
Day Two: In which the party starts, and seems a lot like high school.
Just as I notice that, as with the camp in general, children of primary school age are all over the place, I spot Mike P. – the camp’s charismatic leader, who disapproves of my sex life in a loving way – for the first time. He is dressed in a multi-patterned, garishly coloured shirt and a pair of checked shorts, with afro-like hair, a protruding belly and tremendously expressive features.
As the crowd around me are welcomed to Soul Survivor 2012, and Mike and the other speakers are introduced, they burst into cheers. A comic video plays on the hall’s raised screens, starring Mike with his apparent second in command Andy Croft and spoofing The X-Factor. (Unlike the real thing, this version contains no gay men.) When it comes to an end, first time guests are instructed to stand and get cheers of their own. I don’t do so, needless to say; quite apart from staying out of evangelism, I feel oddly pressured, as I did once before when a stage hypnotist did this to me.
And then Mike says, ‘What we’re gonna do now is worship Jesus.’ The crowd erupts once more, and the band strikes up a never-pausing Christian rock repertoire. (I don’t know what else to call it. It’s not a medley, since the songs are seamlessly connected but each sung in full.) This lasts for something like the first half hour. I see the familiar lit-up cross activate, and hands are raised in the aforementioned Roman salute. The male vocalist declares, emotively, ‘I am always yours, Jesus. / You are always mine’ – though not in a gay way, presumably. When later he sings ‘everything we are is yours’, I wonder about his self-esteem. While I know that Fifty Shades-style total ownership is a fantasy for some, it’s never seemed a healthy relationship style to me. And when during a musical version of John 3:16, rephrased for today’s hip youths, he sings that Jesus ‘bore our sin and shame’, my wondering continues.
Day Three: In which Christians talk about (some) sex.
My iPhone died last night at the end of the meeting, and my iPad – I’m an Apple fan, okay? – is almost out of battery, so I head into the ‘office’, an assembly of aged desktop computers, and pay for some internet time while I plug in my devices to the sound of more Christian rock. With any luck, this means I’ll be able to live-tweet throughout the day as I did in last night’s gathering. Today there are two more seminars, and these I won’t miss. The first, given by Mike, Andy and a third speaker named Esther Davenport, is titled ‘Soul man meets soul sista: sex’.
If the title wasn’t a beacon of heteronormativity, the first remarks in the discussion certainly are. Predictably, we get that quote from Genesis about men cleaving to their wives and becoming one flesh. (Stephen Green quite likes it.) The session quickly becomes a guide to abstinence, as Andy says it’s ‘a proven statistic’ that committed couples have better sex. He omits to give a source, before he goes on to call sexuality an ‘appetite’ that ‘needs to be controlled’, and adds that ‘sex outside marriage has caused harm’, naming AIDS as an example. There’s some good stuff too, particularly in Esther’s comments, about not feeling pressured to have sex when you don’t want it and not being incomplete because of that choice – but all three seem determined to have sex, or not, exactly how God says they should, which rather undermines any notion pressure is bad. It doesn’t make you incomplete to be a virgin, but nor does liking lots of sex with lots of people. It’s your body, so it’s your decision what sex you have and no one else’s, including God’s.
Day Four: In which gender performance is dictated (or dick-tated?).
It turns out the event is female-only, so I head to the equivalent blokes’ one (‘Soul man’) with Mike and Andy. Something troubles me about the gendered audiences – I’m totally in support of women-only meetings in a feminist context, but I’d like to know what the attendees were told, and it seems a bit secretive giving talks on how to be a man or woman without letting the other gender know the contents. As it turns out, the ‘man’ meeting feels a bit generalised, so I end up wondering if it’s on the programme just to mirror the ‘woman’ one. There are certain things Andy says which are interesting: ‘We’ve all been hurt by girls’, for one, and how like David and Jonathan (he mentions the latter disrobing) we each need ‘one or two special guys’ to whom we can commit. That made my eyebrows do interesting things.
He also names a man called Brother Andrew as a masculine role model, who smuggled Bibles into Soviet eastern Europe, and meets with Afghan terrorists, South American drug lords and even Yasser Arafat to preach the Gospel. I can’t help thinking that in an audience with these individuals, there’d be more obvious morals to promote than Christianity – but then Mike is speaking again, and says it’s God’s will that we be male a particular way. There are some young men here, he says, whom God has been calling to ‘a bigger life’ but who are afraid. ‘God’s grace is bigger than the evil stuff you think and say and do’, he says. Then he has these people stand, gets others to stand next to them and make physical contact, and asks that they be prayed for.
He tells the Lord to release them from ‘harmful habits’ they’ve been ‘stuck in’, to give them ‘visions and dreams’, to live in ‘exploits’ and ‘adventure’, and to achieve ‘great victories in your name’. A curly-haired, stocky boy in a red t-shirt, who must be around fifteen years old, starts quaking at the knees. If you don’t want to give things up which you enjoy or become a religious maniac, says Mike, just have a conversation with Jesus. ‘Down you go’, he tells someone encouragingly whom I can’t see, and I realise that elsewhere in the room people must be collapsing.
Day Five: In which Alex’s personal concerns are shown to be merited.
I realise now that I’m beginning to crack. A week ago, this image would never have occurred to me – I likely wouldn’t even have glanced at the bright spot in the fabric – but today it jumped out, seemingly obvious and meaningful. Were I not a skeptic by nature and occasional trade, it seems possible this could form part of a ‘religious experience’, becoming the basis of a Soul Survivor conversion narrative.
It’s not hard to understand why the shape seemed notable. In environs this intense, the memes spread quickly. After three days, the non-stop exposure to Christian rock songs – in the main meetings, piped into the cafés, audible from rooms next door during seminars and played by other campers – has had its effects, and yesterday I caught myself whistling one of them, despite my conscious effort to block out the music or negate it with the secular record collection on my iPhone.
I’ve no doubt the ever-present crosses on walls, flyers, computer screens and around necks have played a rather similar role. Perhaps attending Soul Survivor has cumulative effects: as I snuck into the close of last night’s evening session, dramatically more hands were in the air than during Friday’s, and at the end another mass of new converts was announced.
Day Six: In which Alex finds someone who speaks his language.
Since it’s been suggested people never exposed to the Bible might be able to enter Heaven, and since Andrew has stated the current ‘spiritual battle’ is not with other faiths ‘drawing people away from God’ but with secularity, I ask in the Q&A if God’s gates will be open to those who encounter scripture but find it unconvincing.
If you ‘reject it’ you won’t be there, he says, but why would you want to be? Spending all eternity with Jesus surely isn’t very appealing to atheists or skeptics. It’s a response which makes me smile – I have to give him credit, as an interfaith worker, for understanding my perspective. But if we won’t be in Heaven, where will we be? Either in Hell or annihilated, depending on your theology, which regardless of our preference is construed quite clearly in the Bible as a punishment. That doesn’t seem fair. And why say ‘reject’, as if I can believe at will that Jesus died for me? My doubting that is no more a choice than my doubting Bigfoot, and surely an omniscient creator of Christian scripture would have known that? There are other things Andrew says that I think are flawed, which given he’s a theist seems unavoidable, but I get the sense I’d enjoy talking to him more, and I’m sad to leave the session without doing so.
Day Seven: In which Alex considers the harm done.
If the camp’s attendees could be so easily convinced of Christianity’s claims – that a God exists, that the biblical account of him is accurate, and that we ought to devote our whole lives to this creature – what’s to say they won’t be convinced just as easily of other baseless claims? That MMR vaccines cause autism, say, or that climate change isn’t real? And what’s to say their God-beliefs, formed for entirely emotional reasons, won’t result in them wasting thousands of pounds, spurning tried and tested medicine, traumatising children with images of Hell or spreading destructive lies about gender and sex?
It frightens me to have seen hundreds display such poor criteria for belief. (William Lane Craig may be touted as the best apologist God currently has, but I’m willing to bet more Christians are made at Soul Survivor than in his lectures.) Some secular activists focus on church-state issues, like removing bishops from the House of Lords and ending religiously segregated schools. That’s a legitimate choice, and I’m glad someone is taking that line. The ultimate issue for me, though, is that people believe things they shouldn’t.
A big thanks to Alex