In his fuming autobiography, The Long Hard Road Out of Hell, shock musician Marilyn Manson reveals what years of false teaching about the return of Christ--and the apocalyptic conspiracy theories that enhance such teaching--did to him.
His teachers left him feeling abused, cheated and eventually caused him to reject Christianity. He would later say: "I blame everything I do on Christianity. So why aren't they out there arresting the preachers I was raised listening to, or the Sunday school teachers?"
He, like so many within the church today, endured a stream of sermons about receiving the mark of the beast during these "last days."
"Those that don't receive the mark, the number of his name (666)," warned Ms. Price, Manson's Friday-night teacher at Heritage Christian School during the early 1980s, "will be decapitated before their families and neighbors."
Then, as today, Manson was told that the mark was concealed as the UPC code that appears on everyday items in your grocery store, which, with the help of false reporting, works out to be the same demonic code, 666. All this was presented as fact--not opinion and never speculation--drawn straight from the Bible.
"They didn't need proof; they had faith," Manson writes.
Nightmares, which he says haunt him still, soon visited his 12-year-old mind. "I was thoroughly terrified by the idea of the end of the world and the Antichrist. So I became obsessed with it, watching movies like ... A Thief in the Night, which described very graphically people getting their heads cut off because they hadn't received 666 tattoos."
Manson was terrified. Now he terrifies others, especially within the church, when he proclaims his life mission is to "topple Christianity with the weight of its own hypocrisy."
Though popular end-time mania is not the sole cause of Manson's descent, its role should not be completely dismissed. How we live and mis-live our lives is the result of many influences. When it comes to apocalyptic conspiracy theories shared by numerous Christians across America, those influences must not be discounted as irrelevant.
End-time conspiracy theories have influenced many ordinary people and more noted ones such as David Koresh (Waco, Texas) and his followers, the Weaver family on Ruby Ridge (Idaho), Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City), and Christian conspiracy theorists such as Norman Olson and Dean Compton, two of America's more noted Bible-quoting militia leaders who express end-time angst and conspiracy fears.
It is a mind-set that brought us the belief that the U.S. government intentionally killed civilians on Ruby Ridge, in Waco and in Oklahoma City as part of what they believe is a one-world government plot found in the book of Revelation, or what is commonly called the "New World Order." For this community, our own government was complicit in the attack upon the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on 9/11.
These theories feed upon our fear of the future. There was no better example than the now conveniently forgotten Y2K hysteria that burned throughout Evangelical and fundamentalist media. WORLD magazine was one of the few Christian publications to take the hysteria head-on. "Being wrong on Y2K may do damage to everything we say," read one headline on January 15, 2000. Joel Belz expands in this article, implying that financial gain motivated some Christians during that regrettable time.
"What sells at Christian bookstores, and on Christian radio, ... may well be precisely what turns off those who are skeptical of the Christian faith," he wrote.
Christian columnist and talk-show host Cal Thomas has witnessed the same destruction, stating, "few things block unbelievers from serious consideration of the gospel more than conspiracy theories."
Ministers are mistaken if they think that the popularity of end-time conspiracy theories come solely from the power of the gospel (see sidebar page 40). They offer the allure of exclusive information, a promise made by their secular counterparts, occult psychics.
Both provide a patterned and coherent world if only one is willing to bow to their self-professed expertise and claims of exclusive knowledge that often cannot be verified. Both are accompanied by a reasonable price tag and as Belz alludes, bulging marketing.
Conspiracy theories tickle the ears of those willing to pay for the newest tape or book on how to survive economic hell on earth, as psychic readings appeal to those who will gladly spend $2 a minute to discover if love is in their futures.
Years of false teaching changed Manson, whose real name is Brian Warner, who said, "Gradually, I began to resent Christian school and doubt everything I was told."
His father also lamented his son's Christian education experience, stating that if he had known "the result would be the demise of the rest of [Brian's] morality ... I would never have" sent him to Christian school.
Speculative and irresponsible teaching pushed Manson further from Christ and into a worldview fashioned by Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Manson wrote in his notebook: "Fools aren't born. They are watered and grown like weeds by institutions such as Christianity."
The tantalizing message of end-time doom made popular in 1970 by Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth changed the way many Christians perceive Christ's second coming. Apocalyptic threats have been promoted as an effective way to lead people to Christ.
Warner and countless other malleable boys and girls in the last 30 years were ensnared in a net tied with earnest hands and hearts. Their innate fear of the future was exploited in an attempt to drive them into the arms of a loving Savior. But perfect fear often casts out love.
Worse, troubled youths such as Brian Warner resent this fear and manipulation and curse the little god who they were told is behind it all. Hatred of God is inevitable, as preacher David Hawking notes:
"Oh, some of the prophecy preachers got a little out of hand ... and we were even told that ... when Israel became a nation in 1948 it would be 40 years and then the Lord would come ... I've met people all over this country who believed that, followed that, anticipated that. It did not come and as a result many of them bombed out, dropped out, copped out; they're not around anymore" (emphasis added).
As Hawking observes, too many like Warner have been left behind, not because of the rapture, but due to unfulfilled expectations, over and over again.
Why don't more pastors warn against such damaging speculation? Charles R. Swindoll has stepped up to the plate, but there is rarely anyone warming up on deck behind him. "There's something captivating with the prophetic message," he warns, "that seems to consume a person's mind, and often very bright people get into this subject. It's like drilling a well deep into their lives, and they can't get out of the well they dig."
He explains that of all topics in the Bible, none has more power to drive a person away from "contact with reality" than prophecy. "When people say such things as, 'Let's live our lives only in light of His coming' and do so to the extreme, they are in peril. When they say, 'The earth is going to burn up, there isn't going to be any peace, trying to live in harmony is a waste of time ...,' that individual is heading for deep emotional and mental troubles."
I have tried to reason with these brothers (the majority are men) and some sisters on my talk show on a Christian radio station. They take warnings such as Swindoll's as confirmation of the persecution that the righteous remnant will receive in the "last days." They are nearly impossible to reach.
Sons, daughters and wives try desperately to reach the theorist who may have liquidated his 401k to buy gold or guns, build a shelter, stockpile food that later goes to waste or generators that sit idle. They only have fellowship with fellow conspiracy theorists. They may come to view any critic as an agent of Satan, an accusation placed on me more than once.
I suggest that ministers not take the end-time conspiracy theory head-on, because to criticize the theory is to criticize their faith. Take the Dr. Phil route and ask in various ways, "How's it working for you? Has the quality of your life increased since adopting this worldview? What have you gained? More importantly, what have you lost? Have you become more like Christ?"
Sadly, concern for the theorist can fortify their resolve, and some in contemporary Christian publishing aren't helping. How I wish this admonition from C.S. Lewis would appear as a kind of spiritual advisory on the cover of the glut of end-time pulp fiction:
"We ... never seeing the play from outside, never meeting any characters except the tiny minority who are 'on' in the same scenes as ourselves, wholly ignorant of the future and very imperfectly informed about the past, cannot tell at what moment the end ought to come. That it will come when it ought, we may be sure; but we waste our time in guessing when that will be."
Marilyn Manson, who adopted the names of two pop-culture icons as his own--Marilyn Monroe, a victim of pop-culture fame and power; and Charles Manson, a sinister predator hell-bent after fame and power at any price--is himself an example of pop culture's corrosive nature. He is the pied piper of the disenfranchised, self-professed misfits, freaks and losers.
Manson's body is reported to be a canvas of many scars. His mind, like all of ours, is a canvas as well. It began with a base layer of abuse by those who violated his young body with brutal blows and bewildering sexual acts, and it culminated with spiritual abuse from pop-prophecy teachers.
With Manson, we see that one of the central problems with irresponsible Bible prophecy and accompanying conspiracy theories is that they betray a person's trust. Often bright people like Manson run into the church because they sense it is a sanctuary for truth and meaning.
They desperately need God's revealed wisdom. But then a speculative prophetic message is introduced, fortified with New-World-Order fears, and the listener believes this is also gospel truth.
The person in the pew acts upon this message and discovers, years later, that he's been misled. He realizes that his loyalty and trust have been betrayed and turns his guns on the betrayer because he tastes the bitterness of the minister's unfaithfulness toward him.
Though unintentional, the minister has mishandled his influence. It's bad stewardship of a fundamental kind. This is what we have with Manson, and if not for deep soul-searching, was almost what happened with me.
Philosopher F.H. Bradley wrote that there are people who, when they cease to shock us, cease to interest us. He said so in 1930, well before Dennis Rodman, Madonna, Howard Stern and Manson, those who twist conventional norms upon themselves and who create a paycheck from this distortion. But Manson's pain drove him further. He formed a bitter philosophy.
Manson should at least interest us after he takes his last sweaty bow on the freak-show circuit. My hope is that his story will serve as exhibit A in the ongoing trial that testifies to the dark side of end-time preaching. I hope it leads to repentance because Manson is to some degree our own end-time Frankenstein.
We created him. Not all, but part. And the devil stops to laugh
Why are these end-time theories so popular and attractive?
(Hint: It has nothing to do with your dynamic delivery.)
When this message is preached from our pulpits, and promoted in best-selling fiction and nonfiction, ministers must realize what drives its popularity and attraction. It is often a mixture of secular and religious impulses, which are as vast as our hopes, dreams and especially fears.
Security Blanket: It's ironic, but some people are more comfortable believing in a world run by sinister forces with a prevalent will than in a world that is sometimes unclear and hard to fathom, which is the more biblical view. Wrote Paul: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully ..." (1 Cor. 13:12, NIV). Conspiracy theorists attempt to rid the world of troubling ambiguities, and they do so by creating an alternative universe. They doubly suffer because not only do the trials and tribulations of the real world affect them, but they are also harmed by their fantasies.
Earthly and Spiritual Pride: End-time conspiracy theorists believe they know what's really going on, and that most everyone else has been suckered by the mainstream press, the propaganda ministry of the New World Order. Sometimes, this allure of exclusive knowledge appeals to their pride. They, like the Pharisees, wear their beliefs as a badge of spiritual maturity and superiority. Like snooty intellectuals, they take pleasure in knowing more than others.
Some believe that God has uniquely chosen them. That they are prophets of His revelation that He entrusts only to those with pure hearts, like Mary. When I disagreed with one such conspiracy theorist, he told me that I wasn't disagreeing with him, but with the Holy Spirit who revealed these truths to him. If I were a real Christian, he said, my heart would confirm what the Holy Spirit revealed. He held his conspiracy theories on the same level as inspired Scripture. He took great pride in this knowledge, and he's not alone.
Convenient Scapegoat for Sin: People who believe in these theories tend to believe that the world's problems are caused by a fairly small group of people. As long as this fiction stays in place, conspiracy theorists don't feel compelled to look at their contribution. It gets them off the hook. They will never be compelled to say, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, that "what's wrong with the world is me." Naming scapegoats is not a solution to our problems. It just leads to a continued search for more scapegoats.
Filthy Lucre: These theorists claim that their motive is revealing God's perfect plan in these "last days." But spend time studying what they really write about, and you'll find they are really in the business of "exposing" their subjective view of Satan and his evil plans even after they've been blatantly wrong with past predictions. And it's startling how much money they can make, especially when they advocate buying gold from them at premium prices.
Remember Mike Warnke? His book, The Satan Seller, sold approximately 3 million copies in 20 years. He claimed to be a satanic high priest who had 1,500 followers in three cities and was given power by Satanism's highest echelon, the Illuminati. His entire story was proven to be a fraud in the early 1990s, but the money was very real. Let's not pretend that the same isn't happening today. Remind your congregations that the only person who walked this Earth with pure motives was Jesus. So when it comes to these lucrative theories, a little skepticism is a virtue.
Paul T. Coughlin's Secrets, Plots & Hidden Agendas: What You Don't Know About Conspiracy Theories (InterVarsity Press) explores the political, psychological and theological components behind conspiracy thinking in America. He has been interviewed by C-SPAN and The New York Times as an expert on conspiracy theories.