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Born Again Testimonies – Again

In a post last year about the Tony Anthony testimony debacle, I featured (with permission) a scanned copy of Simon Jenkins’ cartoon strip ‘Born Again Testimonies’ from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine in the early 1980s. I now discover, thanks to my friend David Parsons, a retired Baptist minister, that Jenkins turned it into a video and posted it on YouTube. Here it is for your viewing pleasure:

The Beauty Of An Honest Christian Memoir: Ashley Cleveland’s ‘Little Black Sheep’

Ashley Cleveland

Ashley Cleveland by Steve White aka echobase_2000 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’

Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.

Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.

But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy  marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.

There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:

* Music fans should read it;

* Pastors should read it;

* Most of all, broken people should read it.

I’d better end this with some music:

The song which provides the title for the book:

Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:

An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:

Covering the Rolling Stones:

 

Tony Anthony, Born Again Testimonies, And Poor Evangelical Theologies Of Conversion

Back in the days when the now-famous Ship Of Fools website was a print magazine thirty-odd years ago (aagh!), it printed in Issue 3 (June 1979) this cartoon strip. I reproduce it below with permission from the editor, Simon Jenkins, and Ship Of Fools.

Born Again Testimonies 1Born Again Testimonies 2

How apposite this seems in the light of the Tony Anthony story. For those who have not heard, Anthony, an evangelist, had a book called ‘Taming the Tiger’ ghost-written by a journalist called Angela Little. Ever since its publication in 2004, some have been sceptical about claims Anthony makes in there about significant details of his life. Now, following the resignation of one of Anthony’s trustees, Mike Hancock, an investigation has indeed shown that large parts of the book are untrue. Journalist Gavin Drake has many of the details. The Evangelical Alliance and Avanti Ministries issued this statement. Ghost writer Angela Little revealed some possibly surprising approaches and attitudes to research and verification in a conversation with someone on a martial arts discussion board. The publisher, Authentic Media, have issued a statement, but it is hard to detect any sense of them taking any responsibility for the debacle in their words.

But my purpose here is not to analyse this specific case. It isn’t hard to find those on the Internet who are doing so. The reason for posting this is to ask what kind of culture promotes the lust for spectacular testimony books, such as Anthony’s.

I suggest there are at least two reasons. The first, briefly, is that evangelical Christianity is too obsessed with celebrity. And if we haven’t got any celebrities, we’ll make some. In this respect, we mindlessly accept the values of the world. I have no wish to decry those who genuinely have become disciples of Jesus Christ through a dramatic route. God bless them. But celebrities are not more valuable than the unknown. Indeed, we believe – surely? – in a Jesus who was and is on the side of the marginalised.

But secondly, we have a huge issue over privileging dramatic conversions, and this troubles me pastorally. So often I hear Christians feeling inferior because they have not had a ‘Damascus Road experience’. It may even make them doubt whether they are Christians at all. I tend to say, “Do you have to remember when you were born to know you are alive? No! You just need to notice the signs of life. And it is the same in spiritual matters.”

In the early 1990s, Churches Together in England commissioned some work on conversion. It was published in 1992 by the British and Foreign Bible Society under the title ‘Finding Faith Today‘, and was authored by John Finney. 54% of the 601 Christians interviewed said they knew of a time when they were not Christians,46% had ‘always been Christians’. Of the former category, 38% spoke of a sudden conversion, and 62% gradual. Of the latter category, 80% had a gradual commitment, 20% sudden. Among evangelicals, it was as I reported: 37% sudden, 63% gradual. Among non-evangelicals, it was 80% gradual, 20% sudden. On average across all Christians, 31% had a datable conversion and 69% did not.

So if datable conversions are a minority experience among Christians, then dramatic datable ones must be an even smaller percentage. And I therefore have to ask how helpful they are, when ordinary Christians feel demeaned by them. I think publishers are partly responsible, and need to rethink their policies. I also think the wider Christian culture is possible, because whatever we say about these contributing to evangelism, in reality they are often treated as Christian entertainment with a spiritual veneer.

As Phil Groom asked on the Association of Christian Writers’ Facebook page today,

Why do we need super conversion stories to proclaim the gospel? Isn’t the gospel dramatic enough??

So – does an addiction to dramatic celebrity testimony indicate that we don’t really believe in the Gospel?