weight-lifter at a carnival

Why Christians fall prey to the travelling carnies of the evangelical-charismatic complex

Episode 8 of the Christianity Today podcast “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” illustrates the degree to which the restless, feather-swallowing (according to Luther) anti-canonical spirit has influenced modern evangelical theology, piety and practice.

The Reformation principle (if not always its practice) was the sufficiency of the Scriptures for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Latin slogan for this was sola Scriptura. The Scriptures are enough. In the Reformation, there was a recognition that everything we need for our Christian faith and life is revealed in God’s Word and expressed there explicitly or implicitly (by good and necessary inference). There was not a quest for continuing revelation. The group that sought continuing revelation was the Anabaptists. It was at least some of their theologians and leaders, as Luther Calvin and the Reformed saw it, who were openly dissatisfied with Scripture and sought direct, continuing revelation from the Spirit outside of Scripture.

The episode begins with the story of the Cottingly Faeries. It was a prank, “a bit of fun”, put on by a couple of young girls in England, c. 1917, in which they fabricated photos ostensibly of fairies. People took the photos as accurate documents of an actual phenomenon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) was taken in by them. He wanted to dedicate his life to investigating the phenomenon. It is hard to believe, however, that Holmes would have been duped by them. Eventually, it came out, decades later, that the fairy photos were fakes. Podcast narrator Mike Cosper notes how people are looking for spiritual footholds and a community can create what Peter Berger called “Plausibility Structures” that make claims of apostolic-like spiritual phenomena credible to reasonable people.

Mark Driscoll helped to create and then manipulated those plausibility structures within Mars Hill Church in order to create the illusion that he had genuine, apostolic or quasi-apostolic abilities. The best way to understand what was happening in Mars Hill and what is taking place today in Trinity Church, Scottsdale is to think about the 1947 film, Nightmare Alley, which was a look at the world behind the scenes of the old carnivals. Across the USA for most decades in the twentieth century, there were low-budget travelling carnivals. They still exist, but what has changed is the midway. At the centre of the carnival used to be “the midway” where one found the freak shows, e.g., the “two-headed man” or the bearded woman. In Nightmare Alley we meet an old Vaudeville act, in which one of the performers had become an alcoholic who was reduced to living, travelling with and working in a low-end travelling carnival. It was the bottom of the show-biz barrel. The premise of their act is that they were able to “see” what was happening to people and what would happen to them. It was all just an act, however. Read the full article by R. Scott Clark.