November 24, 2017

Midnight Shift at the Radioland Asylum

Midnight Shift at the Radioland Asylum
by Eric Rigney

Summary: In these articles, Eric Rigney returns from a long sabbatical fit, tanned and in fighting form.. In a two-part descent into madness, he tackles both radio preaching and bad language. You may be surprised which one he’s in favor of…

• • •

PART I

“The radio’s jammed up with the gospel stations,
Lost souls callin’ long distance salvation…”

-Bruce Springsteen, “Open All Night”

I’ll Trade You Two Preachers for One Healer…

I must now admit to you a strange habit: I collect radio preachers.

It all started when I lived in eastern Kentucky, where a trip to Wal-Mart or the movies or church required anywhere from 25 to 45 minutes trapped in the car. It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that there are “not a lot” of choices for radio listening in that part of the state. You have your basic ‘80’s Hair Rock throwback, your run-of-the-mill Nu Country churner, and your loud and obnoxious preacher venue. That’s about it. Sure, we had a CD/tape player in the family car, but for me, there’s something about listening to the radio in the car that I often prefer over CD’s or tapes – I’ve often thought maybe it’s the feeling of connection to other human beings that attracts me to radio. When I listen to a CD, I feel detached and sort of like I’ve fallen down a well of music. This is not such a bad things at times, but I usually prefer the immediacy and sense of connection that radio provides, especially on long trips.

But for whatever reason, during those routine and sometimes long trips, I would get my hopes up and hit the Seek or Scan over and over, feeling like Charlie Brown trying to kick the football, only to be invariably disappointed when I found nothing on except “Cum on Feel the Noize,” “Boot Scootin’ Boogie,” and a sermon about the evils of women in pants or the Satanic influence of the NIV. I did so much eye-rolling, I’m surprised I didn’t drive into a log truck. Eventually, after trip after trip of fruitless radio wandering, I became so disgusted that I was near to abandoning radio altogether.

Until I discovered that some of that off-the-wall preaching was actually pretty interesting stuff.

I don’t remember exactly how I came upon such a liberating revelation. I think perhaps one day I heard something particularly wild that caught my ear, and I hesitated, finger tensed and hovering near the Seek button, waiting to see what would come next. Whatever it was, it got my attention, and it’s almost as if I’ve never hit the Seek button again. There’s just something about wacky radio preaching that draws me like a moth to a Citronella candle, and I am now obsessed. Even though I no longer live in a radio wasteland, I always check out the preaching channels first when I get in the car, hungry for that outlandish, outdated fix of wackiness.

But alas, even now, in the throes of my obsession, not all radio preaching is wacky enough to get me to stop and listen. Not surprisingly, I occasionally encounter an intelligent-sounding, articulate, even-tempered orator reasoning his way through a passage of scripture with all the aplomb and normalcy of D. James Kennedy.

Borrrring.

I mean, sure, it’s good stuff, but I get the good stuff at my own church, I’m glad to say (both the one I attended in eastern Kentucky and the one I now attend in that other state known as western Kentucky). Fortunately, I don’t need to go to the radio for the good stuff, so I don’t really bother to search out the average, normal, just-doing-their-job preachers. No, I only collect two types of radio preachers: very bad ones, and very crazy ones.

Before I get into why I have such an odd collection, let me tell you how to start your own collection so you can play along at home. It is a very simple process, really, involving only three simple steps (I wish I could come up with 12 of them, given my family history, but three will have to suffice):

  • Step 1: Find crazy/wild/heretical/mean/unstable/horrible preacher on the radio.
  • Step 2: Take note of and commit to memory the craziest/most offensive/off-the-wall/wrong things he says (writing them down isn’t advisable, since you are usually driving the car at this point).
  • Step 3: Enjoy.

Paging Ted Bundy…

Now you may think this whole “hobby” makes me sound as kooky as the preachers I collect, and (to quote the poet) you may be right – I may be crazy. My wife tends to think it’s a pretty bizarre habit. She has to put up with me Seeking and Scanning until she’s ready to choke me. She watches in disbelief as I find a station and settle in for the madness. She marvels as I first shake my head and laugh, then drop my jaw in shock; and she always asks, “Why do you listen to that stuff if you dislike it so much?”

But the thing is, I don’t dislike it. At least not in the same way I dislike liver and onions or potted meat or Uncle Kracker. I despise those things and never want anything to do with them ever again, except to make fun of them or express my disgust at their existence. No, dislike is not an accurate descriptor for how I feel about my collection of preachers. I think a more accurate word would be “fascination.”

Yes, I am fascinated, literally. I listen and marvel and shake my head in disbelief, yes, but not (usually) out of anger or distaste or derision. It’s more like an accident on the highway – I am horrified, but I can’t look away. Or perhaps that’s not accurate, either. I think maybe it’s more closely related to a phase I went through when I was in high school and part of college: it seems I just could not get enough information about those oddly intriguing subhumans known as serial killers. Gacy, Bundy, Starkweather, Jack the Ripper, Richard Ramirez, all of the famous ones – I soaked up information about them like a sponge soaking up blood. I researched them in the library, I watched A&E specials about them, I devoured books about them. I even got a cheesy Time-Life book about them, which I still have somewhere. I was extremely fascinated.

Of course, I was also slightly embarrassed by my fascination. After all, when people see you reading a book about John Wayne Gacy or Charles Manson, they kind of look at you like, “Okaaaay. Well. I’m going to go … anywhere else but here right now. Heh heh.” But fascination was truly all it was, really. I was so fascinated by them that I briefly (in that almost exclusively young-boy way) toyed with the idea of pursuing a career in law enforcement, perhaps the FBI, tracking such killers for a living (maybe some vague, Hollywood-inspired idea of a Manhunter or Profiler). (I think my plans were thwarted by the simple fact that I tend to run away from dangerous people).

I think what lay at the root of this fascination was a basic question: What makes these men tick? I was driven by that question. What (besides plain old evil, of course) would possess a person to do and think the things these serial killers did and thought? And I still wonder, although the fascination is admittedly no longer as compelling as it once was, and I am actually glad that I’ve never been able to come up with a specific answer to that question. After all, if you can understand what makes a person like that tick, how much different from them are you (read Thomas Harris’ Red Dragon for a closer exploration of that question)?

It is this desire to understand that drives me to collect crazy/heretical/wacky preachers also (who are, needless to say, not to be equated with John Wayne Gacy and the like). What makes these men tick? (And they usually are men, just as serial killers are usually men. Hmmm.) What would possess a person to say some of the bizarre things I have heard pouring out of my car’s speakers like so much rhetorical ooze? What enigmatic life process must a person endure to arrive at such a charged-up state about such out-there issues? I can’t help but wonder what would make a person:

  • rail against a black preacher in a nearby county who left his wife “for a white woman” (with an obvious emphasis on the miscegenation as the greater sin);
  • proclaim with hoarse fervor that, “If you’ve been to Dollywood, you’ve been to the very pit of hell, my friend!” (We may tend to agree with this one, though perhaps for different reasons);
  • report with all earnestness that a rebellious, drug-addicted, felonious teen came “miraculously to the Lord” after he cut his long hair;
  • hatefully denounce church-goers who are fans of Wildcat basketball as the worst sort of sinners (I’ll leave this one alone);
  • proclaim with boldness that Christmas is a Satanic papal plot – just another Catholic ploy to corrupt and destroy our good protestant youth.

I have encountered all of these things and more. I have invented none of them, and this is just a sampling – I could add an addendum to this article that would read like the prayer book of an insane asylum’s Chapel for the Uniquely Infirm. And I must say that I am constantly amazed to find that people have come to a place where it makes perfect sense to purchase time on a public radio station in order to fervently proclaim such patent absurdity. It is, in a word, fascinating.

The Perfect Trifecta of Wackiness

I should, I suppose, make it clear that not everything I encounter in my collecting is so glaringly obvious in its absurdity. True, the most fascinating personalities in the fraternity of the religiously insane are those who are the loudest and most obnoxious; but there are others who prefer to dwell more anonymously in the hazy background, opting to allow their compatriots the spotlight of obvious dismissability. Many times these brothers are no less fascinating in their wrong-headedness, but they are without a doubt much more subtle about letting everyone know. Thus, it takes a close listener (a collector, perhaps) to mine the nuggets they produce. Indeed, some of the best nuggets are ones that are disarmingly encased in the guise of otherwise-rational, perfectly sane logic and reason. In fact, some of the wacky stuff has been preached so long and by so many preachers and with so little objective scrutiny, that it is accepted as normal universal spiritual truth in spite of its wackiness and non- or extra-biblical logic. For me, this stuff too – not just the rolling-eyed certifiable stuff – is fascinating.

My favorite example of this normalcy-encrusted wackiness is what I like to call the Big Three. Anyone who’s spent any significant time in church or been exposed to preaching for any length of time has no doubt witnessed preachers tilting feverishly at the windmill of the Big Three. In fact, I dare say it’s impossible to attend many churches more than once without hearing about the evils of 1) Drinking, 2) Gambling, and 3) Cussing (usually in that order). These ubertopics are the preacher’s best friends when it comes to hitting a sermon’s stride. They’re the old standby’s. What better way to nail the climax of your sermon than to trot out such willing trump cards, such sizzling and scandalous topics?
And, really, I can understand why the Big Three are so popular. For one thing, everyone has to be on board with the preacher on them, unless they want to labor under the label of drinker, gambler, or cusser for the rest of their days. And daggonit, they just offer such wonderfully diverse preaching possibilities. They can be worked into testimony: “Before I found Christ, you coulda found me any night settin’ on a barstool, playin’ poker, and cussin’ like a sailor!” They can be used as tools of conviction: “You can’t claim to be a Christian on Sunday mornin’ when you’re out there a-drinkin’, a-gamblin’, and a-cussin’ on Saturday night!” They’re also wonderful for Biblical embellishment: “Those Israelites claimed to love the Lord, but when Ol’ Moses was up on that mountain getting’ the Ten Commandments, they was down there just a-drinkin’ it up, throwin’ dice, and a-cussin’ up a storm!”

Yes, they’re just all-purpose sermon-boosters – a perfect legalistic, fascinating trifecta – and I collect preachers condemning of the Big Three like a kid collecting baseball cards. They are the most popular of all non-Biblical whipping boys for preachers everywhere, and they are glowing representatives of tradition-based religious oppression and bullying: although they have very sketchy (if any) bases in scripture, they are used perhaps more often than any other spurious principles for controlling and condemning human beings unnecessarily.

Now I know that some of my brothers and sisters will likely have jumped ship at this point, fearing that I have devolved from weird serial killer lover to outright apostate and heretic, but I would invite those of you who have graciously remained with me to pause for a moment and consider some questions concerning these three things. First, where in scripture are we commanded to completely abstain from alcohol? Second, where in God’s word are we expressly forbidden from gambling?

I am (of course) willing to concede that there are points in Scripture which are subject to interpretation concerning both imbibing and gambling (in fact, I myself rarely imbibe and have never been intoxicated, and the occasional scratch-off sucker bet, er, lottery ticket is my greatest gambling “sin”); so I have no beef with those who follow their conscience and avoid both drinking and gambling. I say if people believe something is wrong, they shouldn’t do it, and more power to them. But as for those of my brothers and sisters who feel that everyone should live according to their convictions in these matters, I in good faith request that I be directed to the Scriptural principles and/or commands that demand that all Christians feel the same way on the issues. In spite of much frothy and spirited insistence to the contrary, they just aren’t there.

What the *#!@??

But alas, I fear I will stray too far (or farther than I already have) from my point, which I promise is forthcoming. After all, I am not by any means the first person to (perhaps foolishly) come to the defense of these two harmless-if-done-in-moderation activities. Many theologians and philosophers (and not just modern ones) have argued far better than I for the removal of the automatic stigma surrounding gambling and alcohol consumption.

But who is coming to the defense of the tertiary member of the Big Three? Who is the defender and apologist for cussing? (A word here on the term “cussing.” It is a silly word, to paraphrase my favorite British comedic troupe. But “cursing” implies something different from that which I believe people are often doing when they say “bad words,” and “swearing” is rarely what is actually taking place. Therefore, I choose the clumsy, childish-sounding term, “cussing.”) The truth is, hardly anyone seems to be arguing the case for the liberty to cuss.

Which, of course, begs a question: Should someone be arguing for the liberty to cuss? I mean, cussing is not exactly a noble enterprise (none of the Big Three are, as far as that goes); so why would anyone come to its defense? Really, I would venture to guess that there is no noble purpose for cussing. I just can’t imagine that anyone’s life was ever saved or a terrorist attack was ever heroically thwarted because someone cussed at just the right time. So why bother?

Well, for starters, let’s think about this line of reasoning for a second: does there need to be a noble reason for everything we do? Does everything have to have some earth-shatteringly significant utilitarian nature? This is really fodder for another article, but I think the answer is no. I think it’s the clamoring for a pragmatic reason for everything that’s taken the joy out of life for so many people and makes so many others hateful and hostile toward anything that does not conform to their standards of usefulness. So no: cussing is not a noble enterprise – but its lack of a significant usefulness does not by default make it a sin.

Also, there is another compelling reason to argue for liberty to cuss. There is a principle at work here: it is just plain wrong for individuals to demand that people live according to restrictions that are not expressly outlined in the Holy Scriptures. Christ’s salvific work is all about liberty, not needless restriction, and under normal circumstances, any activity that is not clearly forbidden or unnatural should not be universally prohibited (there are, of course, times for sensical, civilized, self-imposed restraint – more on that later). And whether we like it or not, cussing falls into a category of ambiguity – it is not expressly forbidden in God’s word, and it does not fly in the face of the natural order of things; therefore, anyone who says that cussing is wrong under any circumstances must shoulder the burden of proof that such a principle is correct.

And it’s a burden that cannot be consistently met. The best that can be done is to argue that cussing is wrong in certain circumstances (with which I agree) – but this is not the same as proving that it is wrong always.

In light of this truth, therefore, I have an announcement to make:

If you want people to not cuss, you need to give them a reason.

This, believe it or not, is a radical concept. After years and years and years of simply accepting Thou Shalt Not Cuss as one of the Ten Commandments, it is sometimes hard to get people to look at it in a different way. But like with all things that are not expressly forbidden in the Bible, anyone wishing to prevent others from taking in this activity must provide a justification for the restriction.

And I am not ready to say there are no such justifications. Actually, I think that there are many times when cussing is either a bad idea or simply wrong. So I am not arguing here for some anarchistic cussing dystopia. What I am arguing is that, in spite of much vituperative striving to the contrary, Because it is wrong is not a good enough reason for people not to cuss.

It is with this in mind that, in Part II of this folly, I will endeavor to answer 2 questions: when is it okay to cuss, and when is it not okay? Important questions, to be sure, and ones which I shall do my best to address. In the meantime, for homework I would like everyone to go out and rent Goodfellas and My Cousin Vinny, and let Professor Pesci handle the practicum part of our lesson.