Let me introduce you to four men who want to lead you to God.
Leandro stood big and rangy in the hallway, a couple inches over six feet with sweet tats, huge biceps, and slicked-back hair. Because of this, I and the guys around me nodded when he said, “Hey, let’s make our own version of Fight Club. It’ll be a great way to bond as men.” Sure, we said, let’s beat the crap out of each other. That will make us more like Christ.
It made a lot of sense – if you were Leandro. He’d boxed on the amateur circuit and grew up in the ring. He also had a flattened nose and the reach of a gorilla. For him, beating down an opponent was part of the bond of brotherhood. It didn’t hurt that he’d rarely lost. No one on our small Christian college campus could possibly beat him. We – or at least I – saw him as someone to follow. I wanted an untouchable leader. If he hurt someone, that was just part of the cost, right?
I think Leandro’s motivation was good. How do you galvanize young men who have grown up in a culture of affluence and who have mostly avoided physical suffering? How do you make them feel part of a community when they are far from home? How do you give them a sense of love, security, and significance, all while following Jesus? If Leandro was going to turn our suburban velvet into Christian leather, late-night beat-downs seemed an appropriate means.
Touch gloves, lads, and wait for the bell.
Heaven tasted like blood, or did it taste more like hell?
Three times in my four years at college I watched Christian leaders walk onto the stage at chapel and mesmerize the student body with a combative, cutting, alpha-dog talk. Each time, the man walked off the stage to a knot of adoring students. At lunchtime in the Dining Commons, students ringed the speaker’s table three deep, waiting for his next utterance.
The first man, Rob, is now a household name in Christendom. He came to our dorm the evening before he spoke in chapel, to give a talk to 30 guys. Rob wore black-rimmed glasses, dark skinny jeans, and had the most intense eyes I’d ever seen. He told the story of David bringing Philistine foreskins to Saul as a bridal price. Saul asked for 100 foreskins and David brought 200. Rob leaned forward in his chair and searched our faces. “I want to be a 200 foreskin Christian!” he shouted, and slapped his chair.
I snorted goop out my nose and sprayed spit. I couldn’t help it. Was he serious?
Rob looked straight at me. “Do you think I’m joking?”
The other guys looked at me.
Yes, I thought. But I shook my head.
Then we laid hands on him to bless his ministry.
The next day, Rob gave a chapel message which built to a tremendous emotional pitch. The only problem was that he was wrong. Dead wrong. His interpretation of a clear passage from Matthew was confusing and conjectured. Even the professors looked uncomfortable. Rob waited for the adulation he expected but students stared back in confusion. He looked out at the students with anger. “If I ordered 400 free pizzas and brought them through that door right now, you would all jump up and celebrate!” he shouted.
I noticed that Rob did a lot of shouting.
“I want you to think how awesome God is from what I just explained and celebrate as if I’d brought you free pizza!”
The chapel erupted with cheers.
Rob went on to pastor an enormous church and wrote a book that many Christians view as heretical. But really, who wants to quibble about such things?
The second man was James, a well-known Christian speaker and radio personality.
James gave a week-long series of talks on the Book of Jonah. Students loved his witty sermons and dead-pan delivery. They flocked to him after chapel and throughout the day. James really was top-notch. I can still remember much of what he said. But he also had a short temper and could be cutting when someone asked a question he thought was ignorant or which didn’t fit his agenda. He bullied students into accepting his viewpoint.
During one talk, after finishing Jonah chapter 1, James asked the chapel crowd what Jonah did next.
“He prayed!” a student said.
“Nooooo! He didn’t pray,” James shouted, cutting the student down to size. “That’s stupid. Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve said?”
The student cowered in his seat.
But when I looked in my Bible, Jonah 2:1 read, “From the belly of the fish Jonah prayed to the Lord his God.”
James went on to tell us what Jonah really did, which he said was to get angry at God and complain. It fit the rest of his talk and he made it sound so funny, he had us in stitches. That old Jonah, what a card.
But really, James was quite good and students lined up to buy his books and discuss his talks into the wee hours of the morning.
Years later, it was discovered that James had a problem with authority. He didn’t really have anyone he cared to listen to. No one could hold him accountable. He also had a small problem with gambling and led his organization into a debt of $70 million. But those were just details, right? They didn’t really matter.
Finally, there was Mark.
Not that Mark, the other one. Big, tall Mark. A former basketball player, he had written a book about evangelism and gripped the chapel audience with a riveting delivery and generous helpings of guilt. All of us had plenty of latent guilt to tap into – we were Christians, after all, on a Christian campus in the middle of Indiana cornfields, without many evangelizing opportunities – and dozens of zealous students tailed Mark around campus after his trademark talk where he snapped his fingers every two seconds to simulate the world’s death rate.
I worked at the Dining Commons with two sweet and simple lunch ladies. No one would ever confuse them as theologians. They had childlike faith.
Mark came through our line trailing a group of students. He towered over us. All of a sudden he leaned across the sneeze guard, pushed a thick pointing index finger toward one of the lunch ladies, and in a loud voice said, “Ma’am, if you died tonight, do you know where you’d go?”
We all affected the brittle smiles that nice people assume when they hope something uncomfortable will just go away. We’d all known Monica for years. She gave extra helpings to big guys, because, as she said, “I’m their momma away from home, and my boys gotta grow.” We loved her for it.
But Monica looked confused by Mark’s question, by his – let’s call it what it was – verbal assault.
Mark repeated himself: “I said, ‘Do you know where you’d go tonight if you died?’”
Monica brightened. “I reckon I’d go to heaven,” she said. Then she smiled.
Mark continued to stare. “And how do you know that?”
She dropped her ladle of beef stroganoff into the vat. Then she put her hand up to her chest—everyone was watching, probably a dozen students and staff—and said in a clear but quiet voice, “I know it in my heart.” Or maybe she said, “I know he’s in my heart.” It was hard to hear through the blood pounding in my ears.
Mark lowered his finger. “That’s good, ma’am. You can never be too sure. I’ve been on Christian campuses where staff members were unsaved.” Then he slid his red plastic tray along the counter and walked out the door. “I’m going to the salad bar anyway.”
Mark had written a bestseller – top of the charts in the Christian market – but in person he was an assaultive jerk. Really, though, do things like that matter?
Cults of personality don’t just afflict college students. Each of the men I’ve described came to speak in chapel because he had already enjoyed substantial success in greater Christendom. They were the strong men of Christianity. The A-listers. The alpha dogs.
We excuse their assaultive personalities and call them “assertive.”
We ignore their unwise financial decisions and call them “visionary.”
We rationalize ethical breaches by calling them “industry standards.”
And we ignore the people they’ve hurt by calling them whiners or women.
Does it matter that my pastor can beat up your pastor?
Does it matter if he hurts people as he shares his gospel?
Does it matter?
Check out these articles on the problem of cults of personality in Christendom: