. . .And it’s mostly all for profit
In 1987 Edgar C. Whisenant published “88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988” and sold 4.5 millions copies of it throughout America.
Also, in 1987, Oral Roberts predicted that if he did not raise eight million dollars, then God would call him “home”. He locked himself in the ORU prayer tower and fasted while he waited for his followers to send him the money.
In April 2011, Mark Taylor, a retired firefighter, predicts that Donald Trump will be president by 2016 and his story is told and retold by prominent Evangelical leaders and made into a film, and used to justify the belief that the forty-fifth president was selected by God.
What is it about evangelicals and the “gift of prophecy” that is so intoxicating and fascinating? More importantly, when we are face to face with people that claim to be prophets or who believe in modern day prophecy, how can we counter it?
I myself was born into so-called prophecy. My mother, who was considered later in her childbearing years at the time of birth, had a dream that she believes was sent to her by God. She was told she would have a son, and that I would bring the family together and be the apple of father’s eye. She had other dreams that I would be a “grower of things.” Later, a friend of hers prophesied that I should be named “Daniel” after the book in the Bible and would lead a similar life. People in the church prophesied that I would marry the preacher’s daughter and become a great leader in the church.
Raising me in the evangelical belief system, the church and my mother shepherded me into this prophesy and believed it was coming true. After three daughters, my father, a child of the 40’s and 50’s, did take quite the shine to me. They family felt “brought together” by me since I would be able to carry on the family name (This is a archaic patriarchal concept that the family line dies out if there isn’t a son to carry on the family name through marriage).
Trying to live up to the full potential of this prophecy laid out before me was incredibly stressful. Any time I fell short of things, it led to bouts of depression. The preacher’s daughter didn’t take a shine to me, and I didn’t like her much either. I wasn’t really good at growing anything, and I was constantly questioning the church. My teenage years were filled with a sense of dread that I was failing my mother, my family, the church, and God.
It took me years to realize that I wasn’t faced with any sort of prophecy, but a non subtle manipulation to mold me into an image dictated by a religion that demands authoritarian compliance. According to the Bible and church leaders, Prophecy is the “word of God,” and so anything less than absolute compliance is rebellion against God himself. People who claim to be prophets understand this and use it as both carrot and stick. Follow the prophecy, and it’s all smiles and love. Fight against it, and it’s frowns, disappointment, and constant reminders that you are a sinner. In some cases, the stick is an actual thing as both physical and mental abuse is justified to bring the person not following prophecy into line. In many cases, physically abusive people justify their abuse through prophecy, and use their image as someone with a gift of prophecy to distract others from their abusive behavior.
Why are prophets so captivating?
To Evangelicals, God is omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent. “His eye is on the sparrow” according to the popular church hymn by Civilla D. Martin. He’s also completely invisible, intangible, and inaudible. This is where faith comes in. Evangelicals are taught that they must believe in God and his plan even if they can’t see it or hear it. They yearn for the word of God and pour through scripture hoping that God will speak to them through the words. Evangelicals are taught that faith in God and the leaders of the church is the critical to salvation and a fulfilling life, and yet sometimes, that just isn’t enough.
A lot of belief in hearing from God rests firmly in the Book of Acts. According to the story, on the day of Pentecost, a mighty wind rushed in, tongues of fire appeared on the disciples heads, and they began speaking in tongues. Peter stood up, and gave an impassioned speech promising the Holy Spirit. A great deal of Evangelicalism revolves around this premise. If Evangelicals can receive the Holy Spirit, a manifestation of the Trinity given to the disciples, then they too can feel and hear God, and allow God to speak through them. Empowered with this feeling, it isn’t a stretch for Evangelicals to believe that those who claim to be “anointed by the Holy Spirit” to have the gift of prophecy.
The Bible, as well as many other religious texts, speaks of prophets. Vessels that God speaks through. So when a prophet comes along with the word of God, the person listening to the prophet finally gets a sense of relief that they are hearing directly from God. This is the same “magic” of soothsayers, fortune tellers, readers of the bones, and psychics. Prophets constantly talk about the biggest mystery that everyone must confront, the future.
The future is a frightening concept for people. Nobody knows what will happen in their lives from one day to the next. Death is certain, and that is all we know. Through their interpretation of biblical prophesy, Evangelicals circumvent that fear by talking about prophecies of rapture and a future in heaven where everything is beautiful and streets are paved with gold. The fantasy of having this assurance of paradise in the future is the most critical carrot on the stick that keeps Evangelicals marching forward toward authoritarian goals, and they are repeatedly warned that if they don’t stick to the prophecy and do exactly what is laid out by the prophets in the Bible, they will suffer eternal death, eternal torment, and the complete damnation that was promised to properly punish Satan himself.
It goes without saying that prophesy about the end times can be extremely abusive and harmful. Many of us who were raised in the church speak of rapture anxiety. We constantly worried about not experiencing things if the rapture happened before we had a chance. (I think Evangelical kids talked more about the possibility of never being able to experience sex than they talk about sex in general) We stressed about loved ones not being able to go to heaven with us. We worried about our pets. Often times we didn’t voice these worries for fears we would be questioning the divine will of God, and angering the church.
Fears and worries are made worse by the fact that humans are exceptional at pattern recognition. We are constantly looking for patterns to make sense of the world around us. We crave order, and it leads us to believe even the craziest conspiracy theories. Evangelical prophets, soothsayers, and psychics are really good at finding patterns in human behavior, and piecing together (sometimes badly) easily recognizable patterns of human behavior. It allows them to make quick judgments of their audience and tailor what seems like prophetic words and insights from God. They help people who are already looking for patterns play connect the dots with patterns that aren’t really there.
Psychologists tell us that our tendency to have faith in the unseen is a combination of our need as intelligent creatures to find patterns and a need for survival. If we hear a rustle in the grass, we may assume it is the danger of a while animal and flee. If it isn’t a wild animal, no harm, no foul, but if it does turn out to be something dangerous, then we survive another day. There may be something in our physical senses that allow us to have deep insights into people and situations. However, even though we may have predictive abilities, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we are being directed by God, and it is never an excuse to use an ability to abuse or manipulate people and cause harm.
Now imagine you are walking on a path, and rustle stirs your senses. You rush away from danger off your normal path and find a bag of money. The rustle turns out to be nothing. Our brains try to find a pattern and we might begin to think that a supernatural force led us to the bag of money. It’s a pattern where there was none, but to us it seems like divine intervention. We believe that God himself or an angel rustled the grass.
Now imagine you are in a church looking for your path in life. You are frustrated because you are outside the social circle, but a preacher/prophet has seen that you are generally outgoing and engaging when people do talk to you. The prophet suddenly announces to you “God is speaking to me and has a plan for you, and wants you to be a leader of men.” It gives you purpose, and your skills at talking to people are suddenly seen as a gift. The congregation brings you into the circle and wants to hear from you and they latch on to your words. In a sense, the “prophet” has rustled the grass and led you to the treasure you didn’t know you were seeking. It’s dazzling and empowering, and just one way that prophecy is used by the church to manipulate not just you, but the entire congregation.
On a grander sense, prophets with a bigger stage can dazzle masses with prophecy. Consider all the megachurch pastors and evangelists that went all in for Trump. They “predicted” his rise to power, and they predicted (rightfully so) that the left would hate him. They preached it, and announced that he would become the next president. People used their pattern recognition skills to come up with silly prophecies like “God told me that Trump was god’s Trump card” and it helped whip up the fury that led him into office on the votes of white evangelical voters. It became a self-fulling prophecy and Evangelical Christians are more sure than ever before that God is speaking through their leaders with the gift of prophecy.
Finally, on the darker side, prophecy is used as a tool of absolute fear. The Old and New Testament are full of end time predictions announcing the end of the world and the death of all mankind. With all the little “prophecies” that come to fruition inside our little circles, our pattern recognition abilities go into overdrive and we begin to believe these dark prophecies and fear for our own souls and it becomes a matter of life eternal or death eternal to follow along with these prophecies. Here in lies one of the greatest abuses of the Church, that if you don’t believe exactly as instructed, you will suffer a fate worth than death itself.
Profits for Prophets
If we are to accept that all prophecy is a tool for control and the product of extremely good pattern recognition skills, the next obvious question is “How does this prophecy benefit the prophet?” This is the question we both need to ask and need to teach people to ask. Earlier in this writing, I mentioned Oral Roberts and his eight million dollar prayer request. Oral Roberts actually received nine million dollars and swears that it was all put to good use, but based on further study of Oral Roberts and his band, that is a fairly dubious statement.
In the case of Edgar C. Whisenant, he sold four and a half million copies of his book, with no indication that money went anywhere good and noble. He went on to publish more predictions, but since there was no rapture, he eventually faded into the background, forgotten but not without the profits of his book sales.
Mark Taylor went from being a retired firefighter to a somewhat well known national figure who shared the stage with some of the biggest national figures in Evangelicalism.
All of these profits for prophets are easy to see. But what about the small church prophet? Or the family prophet? They may be an elder in the church or more than likely the pastor him or herself. They get to be a big fish in a little bowl and help strengthen and grow their congregation who more than likely fills the collection plate when it’s time to receive the tithes and offerings. It may be someone in the family who is using prediction to control and manipulate other family members to bend to the family prophet’s will.
Even in the case of my own mother, her benefits could have been a child who came out exactly as he was raised to fill her life with the joy of having a completely compliant child who elevated her status in the church and in the ministry. While it may seem sinister, depending on how you look at it, it becomes the way to fill both the desire for a wonderful family and to ensure that she could indeed hear the voice of God. Even to this day, over forty years later, any indication that I am somehow living up to that prophecy is important to her. I have recently developed an interest in Texas wine and viticulture, and my mother couldn’t help herself when she found out and proudly proclaimed “God told me you would grow things, this is all part of the plan he told me about.”
Recognizing what “the gift of prophecy” actually is important. We can easily see that it primarily a tool used to garner power or even money. How we deal with it is equally important, and in my humble opinion, critical when fighting to #EmptyThePews. Prophecy is used to seal the masses behind the wall of Authoritarian Evangelicalism, so understanding how to break that seal by questioning prophecy can be a great tool.
Self-proclaimed prophet pastors often use the same tactics of “cold-reading” that psychics use. They have a captive audience who is looking for something. They call out common phrases and names. People want to be important, so a pastor might call out that “God is speaking to them that someone here needs to be a leader in the church.” People will rush to heed the call. People want to be healed, or want family members to be healed, so when a prophet-pastor calls out “God wants someone here to be healed” someone will invariably react to the call. Prophets and pastors are quick at reading people, and so they know who to approach. It dazzles the audience, and reinforces the supposed infallibility of the speaker.
When we hear these stories from loved ones or friends, we can point out the cold-reading techniques. It can be a hard conversation, but we are giving people a new pattern to look for. We can also use this knowledge as we look inward to understand how we were used or abused to help us understand how we were taken advantage of by false prophets and church leaders.
As Ex-evangelicals, we are placed in the role of the skeptic. When I speak to Christians, I often tell them that I like the example of the Apostle Thomas. While there is a stigma behind good ‘ole Doubting Thomas, I love to point out that Thomas, even as a skeptic, was one of the chosen few of Jesus. I suggest using that persona to our advantage. If Jesus himself wanted a skeptic as close to him as possible, should all Christians follow that example? Using him as an example, I love to ask “prophets” the following:
What else besides hearing from God makes you believe this?
If you take God out of the equation, who does this benefit and why?
How will you feel if this prophecy doesn’t come to pass?
This is a great start to some tough conversations. Chances are, you won’t get any satisfactory answers right away, but others may hear you and you also can sometimes reap the benefits of the prophet leaving you out of their circus. Evangelicals are good at deflection and redirection. When prophecy doesn’t come to pass, they say things like “The Lord moves in mysterious ways” and “It’s not our place to understand the divine will of God.” You can call them out and question why God would say something through the prophet and then immediately change his mind. God is supposed to be infallible, and surely this would be a failing, unless the prophet himself was in the wrong. Question the prophet and his audience which is more likely, that God failed, or the prophet failed. Prophets don’t like to be questioned, and you don’t need help them run their performance, so be prepared to stand fast in your questions and set boundaries around yourself if you take this path.
If a prophet comes directly to you with a “personal word from God.” Don’t be afraid to announce that you are #NotYourMissionField. Don’t let yourself be used by people claiming to be prophets. “No” is always an acceptable answer. You don’t owe anything to anyone who feels the need to make themselves feel better at the expense of you, and there is no need to lend them even an ounce of power by listening to them.
Finally, while there isn’t a lot of anti-prophet material in the #Exvangelical communities about dealing with prophets at the time of this writing, there happens to be a lot of anti-prophet material in a place people might find surprising. Christian circles are very good at dealing with they consider “false prophets.” A “false prophet” is any “prophet” that might usurp the power or wealth of the other prophet. Because of that, they often create some wonderful manuals about how to spot and call out false prophets, which can easily be used against the authors themselves. Using Evangelicalism to fight Evangelicalism is effective, so I suggest reading more into it. You can find a great example right here courtesy of Charisma News. Just keep in mind when reading these tips about fighting prophetic abuse, that all evangelic prophets are false prophets.
In conclusion, I like to think about life as a grand mystery, but not one that needs to be terrifying. Ultimately it is me that is responsible for my future, and you are responsible for yours. We don’t need to feel an invisible hand guiding us to lead a fulfilling and rich life. One of my favorite movie lines comes from the Terminator, and I think it applies well as we confront Evangelical prophecy, as Evangelicalism itself is a story of apocalypse and the fight against it.
“The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”
Thanks go out to Chrissy Stroop who has been an invaluable guide through my deconstruction and to Brigitte H. who provided insight and feedback into this topic.