Christian terrorism? Many will balk at the notion, given the murderous terrorisms rampant in the world today. But here is the dictionary definition of terrorism: “The systematic use of terror, especially as a means of coercion.” Now consider these scenes:
· A smashed car and two teenagers sprawled dead on the pavement, the result of drunk driving.
· The sacred institution of marriage is disgraced by the Satan-inspired wedding of two men.
· A teenager tormented by the stress of life, Satan-inspired, commits suicide.
· A young woman bleeding to death between her legs, the result of a self-induced abortion.
· A human infant sacrificed during a clandestine Satanic ritual where masked ghouls and demons utter horrific shrieks and screams in a flickering light. In the audience petrified children cling to their parents, sobbing.
· A depressed teen is pressured by witches to murder his fellow students.
· A demon dancing around the coffin of an AIDS victim, rejoicing that the dead man is now tormented in hell. “I tricked him into believing he was born gay!” the demon exults. “Have you ever heard something so silly?”
· A girl at a rave takes a pill that a young man offers her, telling her it will relax her; she passes out and is gang-raped.
· A corridor in hell where the damned reach out from peepholes begging for help.
· The Angel of the Lord in shining white and a dark-robed demon battle over a teen-age lesbian about to commit suicide. A child in the audience gasps, “I can’t breathe!” and is helped out of the room.
· A girl shrieks and gesticulates as she dies from an overdose of methamphetamine.
· Cold, uncaring medics advise a young woman to have an abortion. “Why not?” taunts a red-faced demon. “Everyone is doing it these days!”
· Scared teenagers in the audience are told by a ghoulish voice to get inside a row of upright coffins; when they do, demons pound on the sides of the coffins while shrieking loudly.
· A girl is strapped to a table for an abortion. Nurses operate, pull out gnarly-looking gobs of bloody flesh; nurses and girl are splattered with blood. Teenage girls in the audience weep. The girl having the abortion dies, goes straight to hell.
These are some of the scenes presented around Halloween each year by various fundamentalist Christian churches, in an attempt to frighten impressionable young people with the consequences of sin and then offer them a way out through commitment to Jesus. While the target is primarily teenagers, some of the accounts show that parents are taking very young children to these events, which are well designed to terrify. Ministers presiding over these presentations admit quite candidly that they are meant to frighten, not to entertain. So in this respect Hell Houses differ from the spook houses associated with Halloween and many fairs and amusement parks; the goal of the Hell Houses is to frighten you away from Satan and into the redeeming arms of Jesus. And by most accounts they do succeed in frightening, if not everyone, many impressionable young people who go to them out of curiosity, or for a thrill, or because they are already half converted. And those presenting the scenes are often teenagers themselves, members of the church sponsoring the event.
|A Hell House presentation of particular judgment, judgment|
of an individual following death.
While Hell Houses can be found almost anywhere in the U.S. except the West Coast and the Northeast – in other words, wherever there are Christian fundamentalists -- they seem to abound in Texas. The first one is believed to have been the creation of the Trinity Assembly of God in Dallas, but they were popularized in the late 1970s by Jerry Falwell, the evangelical Southern Baptist televangelist and founder of the Moral Majority.
Today Keenan Roberts, pastor of the New Destiny Christian Center in Denver, offers kits for $299 that will let you build your own Hell House with a series of theatrical scenes; included are a DVD of Roberts’s own production, a 300-page instruction manual, and an appropriately spooky soundtrack. Roberts himself dons a long black robe, a gray face mask, and large black horns to play a demon who guides visitors from room to room of his own Hell House, which in a 2012 interview he claimed had been visited by 75,000 people over the last 16 years. He refuses to provide the media with sample kits, but excerpts have appeared online. For an abortion scene, he recommends buying “a meat product that closely resembles pieces of a baby” to put in a glass bowl; the actors playing the medical staff involved should be “cold, uncaring, abrupt and completely insensitive.” And business is good: the kits have now allegedly been sold in all 50 states and 26 foreign countries. Has his initiative been criticized? Yes, even in some Christian circles. Does it bother him? Certainly not. “God’s going to have the last word.”
|The wedding of Adam and Steve|
Les Freres Corbusier
Secular, easygoing New York may not seem a likely venue for a Hell House production, but in October 2006 Les Freres Corbusier, a theater company with a Jewish producer and a Catholic director, presented what they termed an “authentic rendition” of Roberts’s outreach kit in Brooklyn, straight-faced and devoid of irony, in hopes that the audience would draw their own conclusions. The sequence of horror scenes was climaxed by a steam bath of a hell with a glaring Satan; then an angel leading visitors upstairs to meet a Jesus played by an actor with intimidating sincerity; and finally, to round things out, a fruit punch and music by a live Christian rock group, and an invitation to play “Pin-the-Sin-on-the-Jesus,” where visitors pin on a cardboard cutout of Jesus a piece of paper on which they have written a secret sin obstructing their salvation, which some of them actually did (“Anal sex,” “I think Jesus is hot,” “I am a man and I wear Capri pants”). And all this without a hint of irony, a suggestion of satire; the mockery, when there was mockery, was provided by younger elements in the audience.
|A Methodist circuit rider.|
So much for Hell House in the Big Apple. But Christian terrorism for the sake of converting the backslidden and the heathen has a long history in this country, which has seen a series of Great Awakenings aflame with hellfire. As late as deep into the nineteenth century most of the mainstream Protestant sects treated their faithful, and the not so faithful, to fire-and-brimstone sermons designed to scare them into repentance and salvation. No one was better at this than the Methodists, whose circuit riders ranged far and wide, both to settled churches and the constant flux of the frontier, preaching fierily in churches or, to accommodate multitudes who couldn’t fit into the churches of the neighborhood, in open fields. So let’s imagine one of these open-air meetings in a rural region where the coming of a preacher was a big event for people starved for entertainment of any kind (no radio or TV, no Internet, perhaps no newspaper), a people eager for excitement, for something meaningful and passionate.
Such meetings often began with assurances that they would outsing the Baptists, outpray the Quakers, outpreach and outlove the Presbyterians. Then, to warm things up, they would sing such classic hymns as this:
The world, the devil, and Tom Paine
Have tried their force, but all in vain,
They can’t prevail, the reason is
The Lord protects the Methodist!
And so on for eighteen verses.
But that was just the beginning. Cries of “Praise Jesus!” and “Hallellujah!” would season the gathering, and as dusk came on, torches would be lit that cast an eerie glow. Then a preacher in a crow-black coat would climb up on a handy stump and begin.
“Brethren, I grieve at the low state of Zion. Satan is in your homes and your hearts!”
Gasps, cries of “No!”
“He is! You’ve been guilty of false pride, greed, and tobacco, of ostentatious apparel and blasphemy, of card-playing, of intemperance, adultery, and dancing! Look into your hearts and see the filth!”
They did. None of them could escape his censure, all of them had sinned.
“Fools!” cried the preacher, sweat streaming down his face as tiny bubbles spewed from his lips. “Maybe this year – this month, this day – you’ll roast in the hot flames of hell, cast down among infidels, Mahometans, and Papists, while your bones hiss and crackle, and demons tong your flesh!”
Sobs in the shadows; a flickering light on tear-stained faces.
“It need not be!” exhorted the preacher, after describing in lurid detail the torments of hell. “Renounce sin, accept the sweet love of Jesus. Cross over into Beulah land! O come to Jesus, come!”
By twos, threes, then scores, weeping and groaning, they would stagger up to the Mourners’ Bench and sit, sobbing and praying. Some might even shriek and fall to the ground.
“Pray, brethren, pray for forgiveness!”
Tears, dazed faces as they prayed. A young girl, limp in the arms of others, might speak in tongues, while other young women plucked off frills and ribbons and threw them away, and both men and women, sin-convicted, writhed and jerked on the ground. Still others, their ruddy faces glowing in the torchlight, would gather round the penitents shouting “Glory!” while the preacher, raising both arms toward heaven as he beheld the results of his preaching, might exclaim in triumph, “Ride on, glorious Redeemer!”
Few of those attending such a gathering, even if not among the sobbing penitents, could fail to be moved. Talk of it would echo through the county for days, and the memory of such a meeting could last a lifetime. As for the penitents, they were in God’s pocket.
|A camp meeting, circa 1829. Women seem especially susceptible.|
So the Hell House of today carries on a long American tradition of scaring people into salvation, though with a difference. In those days the terrors of hell awaited sinners in the next life; in this life those sinners might be plump and prosperous. But the Hell Houses of today, while promising the same fire-and-brimstone hereafter, bring hell into people’s lives right now; the torment of the sinful begins in this life with painful abortions and rape and AIDS, before being heightened in the next.
But the tradition of Christian terrorism goes back even further, to the morality plays of the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, where a central character like Everyman was assaulted by the Seven Deadly Sins (Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride), but aided by such allegorical figures as Good Deeds, Knowledge, Discretion, and Strength. The whole drama consisted of Everyman’s struggle to lead a godly life, failing which the gates of hell gaped wide to receive him.
Everyman’s struggle points back to the western façade of the great Gothic cathedrals of France, the façade facing the sunset and its suggestion of finality, the façade that often showed the Christ of the Second Coming, the Christ of the Last Judgment. Thus the sculpture over the central portal of Notre Dame in Paris shows Christ flanked on his right by the kneeling Virgin Mary and on his left, also kneeling, St. John the Evangelist; under them a winged Saint Michael and a grinning demon weigh souls, and another demon leads the damned off to perdition. The cathedral, like all the Gothic cathedrals of Northern France, was dedicated to the Virgin, whose compassion would hopefully mitigate the stern judgment of her Son. Even so, this was the main entrance, so its subject gave a cheery greeting to the faithful as they came to attend Mass or pray.
|The central portal of Notre Dame de Paris.|
This scene of the Second Coming was portrayed as well by painters, most notably by Michelangelo in his vast fresco on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, where a muscular and angry Christ gestures dramatically to condemn the nude figures of the damned descending to hell and its demons on his left (our right, as we view it), while the saved, also nude, ascend to heaven on his right. The sculpted sinners of the cathedral portals tend to be stiff and stylized, without much differentiation, whereas Michelangelo’s sinners are painted with Renaissance dynamism and drama, no two of them alike. Especially gripping is one chubby male who, gripped by a demon, buries his face in one hand as he hunches over, stricken with dread and despair as he realizes he is damned for all eternity; nothing a Hell House offers can match it.
|Michelangelo's Last Judgment.|
So where is the Virgin, that figure of warmth and compassion? She is there, just to the left of her Son and fully garbed, but she is dwarfed by comparison and turns away from him, almost cowering; this is his scene, not hers. Not much lovingkindness here; Christ is much more Judge than Redeemer. (Unlike so many Italian painters, Michelangelo was not one to portray a gentle, merciful Virgin; his females, far from being soft and motherly, tend toward the stern and majestic, like the Sybils of the Sistine ceiling.)
From Michelangelo to the Gospels is only one quick leap. In Matthew 23:33 Jesus says, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?” And in Luke 12:5: “But I will forewarn you whom ye shall fear: Fear him, which after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell; yea, I say unto you, Fear him.” And in Matthew 13:49-50: “So shall it be at the end of the world: the angels shall come forth, and sever the wicked from among the just, And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” And in Matthew 25:41: “Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” So in the Gospels hell is a very real place of torment, and God is to be feared. Jesus promises forgiveness elsewhere and promises heaven to the righteous, but here he stresses judgment and fear.
All of which is awkward for those many Christians who today shy away from notions of Satan and hell and torment, uncomfy as they are. Since the nineteenth century vast numbers of Americans have opted for religion without God, salvation without sin, a kind of feel-good faith emphasizing good works for those less fortunate than ourselves, and the Golden Rule for all. I should know, since I grew up in a liberal Methodism that said nothing of hell and torment, and a great deal about compassion and tolerance and sharing. I will always be grateful to those gentle Methodists for not ramming ideology down my tender throat, for not imposing a set of strict rules on me, for offering me examples of warmth and love in action and, in the case of a few, a genuine, deep-rooted spirituality.
Admittedly, there are risks in de-Satanizing Christianity, in dousing hellfire so as to emphasize exclusively Christian love and compassion. The result is often a namby-pamby religion where everyone gets to heaven, a religion without spine and rigor. You can see it in the sentimentality of much nineteenth- and twentieth-century religious art, as for example the slides shown me in Sunday School classes every Easter. The slides served their purpose by immersing our callow minds in the drama of Holy Week, but in retrospect I realize how insipid they were artistically.
The sentimentalizing of religion is also seen in Hollywood movies about priests and nuns, as for instance Loretta Young in the 1949 film Come to the Stable, where she plays a beatific nun, her smile benign, her goals noble, and her utterance pure sugar. I’d like to think that, Hollywood notwithstanding, such insipidity is confined to a certain brand of Protestantism, but one glance at websites offering Catholic religious objects for sale disabuses me. There are figurines of Mary and the saints (“Saint Joseph will help you sell you home”) that are equally insipid, sometimes offered in a “blow-out sale.”
The figures I remember being sold in stores for small indoor Christmas Nativities were among the worst, with feminine angels with flowing blond hair and dainty features, but the larger ones advertised online today are no better. All these winged cuties are a far cry from the fearsome male angels of an earlier age, epitomized memorably in Saint Michael, the fearsome warrior archangel who will weigh the souls at the Last Judgment, and who led God’s forces in driving Satan and his rebellious cohorts out of heaven and hurling them down to hell.
|Saint Michael, weigher of souls at the Last Judgment. Rogier van der Weyden,|
1443-1446. This guy you wouldn't mess around with; he means business.
|William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Song of the Angels, 1881. You think |
this is the ultimate in 19th-century religious sentimentality? Just wait.
Franz Kadlik, Three Angels, 1822. It can't get worse than this.
Almost makes you yearn for a Hell House.
So insipidly saccharine are some nineteenth-century renditions of angels that I find them just as objectionable as the horrors of the Hell Houses. It can easily be argued that eliminating Satan and hell rips the very guts out of Christianity, leaves it limp and flaccid, robs it of its essential drama. Maybe what the secular world of today needs is a reimagining of Satan and hell, a fresh incarnation of evil that resonates. Anyone aware of recent history knows that evil exists, and we humans long for a cosmic order that punishes it. I leave it to the thinkers and writers and artists of our time to find this new representation of evil that will grab hold of our psyche, shake it up, excite it, obsess it, and thus make evil once again something we can’t ignore. Unless, of course, this new representation exists already and I, poor fool, am simply unaware of it.
Hell Houses do indeed remind us of what has been left out of a kinder, gentler Christianity, but I don’t miss those features, rooted in the Gospels though they be. Hell Houses terrify small children, whereas Jesus said, “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come [to me], for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). If the liberal Christianity of today is selective in what it takes from the Gospels, so is the fundamentalism that sponsors Hell Houses; it leaves out, or at least minimizes, kindness and compassion and love.
When I started this post with accounts of Hell House, I had no idea I would gravitate via morality plays and Last Judgments to the Gospels and end up where I have. So it goes. But if you have access to a Hell House next Halloween, go visit it for curiosity’s sake and some thrills. Just don’t get converted – not there, on their grim terms. And for God’s sake (and theirs and your own) don’t take any young children with you; this is not for them.
Coming soon: Is Bigger Better? MOMA’s expansions and the Frick’s, and what I and others think of them. And then a post on panhandlers and hustlersof New York: Elmos and Spider Men in Times Square, tight and prickly conservatives vs. loose and gooey liberals, the 20 meanest cities in America (is New York one of them?), Buddhist monks and their amulets, a crippled vet who recovers miraculously, and the panhandler who won a hundred thousand dollars.
© 2014 Clifford Browder