February 23, 2013 by jmar198013
–Calvin Luther Edwards, III: Contributing editor for The Phinehas Page—
Tuesday morning I was not asked to accompany Brother Herbert and Mr. and Mrs. Skeeter McDoogan to breakfast at Shoney’s. I was fairly certain that it was my little standoff with Brother Snipes the previous afternoon that did it, but at the time it felt more liberating than anything else not to have to listen to Herbert Sharp and Skeeter McDoogan berate preachers I’d never met. As I looked out of my window at the hotel parking lot, I saw Woody Dupree get in the seat I had ridden in the previous morning, rear passenger side of the McDoogan’s 1990-something Pontiac Bonneville, and thought, “Better him than me,” because my stomach cannot abide Sister McDoogan’s driving when it’s full of super-absorbent material.
Seeing as how I’d been ditched, I decided to go and eat the continental breakfast provided by the hotel. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the dining area to see none other than Brother P. Beauregard Jones spreading cream cheese on a bagel! I headed quickly over to his table and told him, “Brother Jones, they’re mighty sore at you over here!” He looked up at me like I was mildew on a shower curtain. “What, here at the hotel? Did I get a noise complaint called in on me while I was singing in the shower this morning? Who are you?”
“Sorry, sir. I’m Calvin Edwards, III—the editor for The Phinehas Page. You wrote a couple of articles for my publication last year: one on Jesus opposes the minimum wage, and another about how homosexuals are taking over the government and we ought to protest. We’ve had a few e-mail exchanges as well. Remember—I said you bore an uncanny resemblance to Dom Deluise?”
“Ah yes, I remember you now. How are you, boy?”
“Disillusioned and quickly losing my ecclesiastical innocence, Brother Jones,” I admitted. “Look, do you mind if I sit here and eat with you—after I grab a couple of crullers and a cup of coffee?”
“No, I don’t mind,” he said. “But if you’re going to carry on anything like a conversation with me, I beg you: please don’t keep referring to me as ‘Brother’ Jones. ‘Brother’ has become nothing more than a low-church euphemism for ‘Reverend’ or ‘Father.’ Call me ‘Beau,’ like all my real family members, my wife Helen, and my friends.”
“Okay, Beau,” I replied.
Two minutes later I was back at Beau’s table with my crullers and coffee. He said to me, “Okay, Calvin—when you say, ‘They’re all mighty sore at you over here,’ I guess you mean brethren at the Full Armor Lectures, right? I know that Hollis Snipes skewered me in abstentia yesterday. I was pretty sure he would when I saw that he was scheduled to speak on Jude 7. He sent me about ten e-mails and wrote me up in Speaking as the Oracles of God when my latest book was published.”
“That’s right, Broth—er, Beau. Your book on Hell has Mack Snipes and most of the brethren here all fired up.”
Brother Jones waved a dismissive hand. “My views on Hell were well known amongst those people years ago, Calvin,” he said. “Up until a few months back, they just thought of it as one of those pet anomalies every preacher is allowed to have. Let me give you a few examples: Alasdair Cornwall, one of the eighteenth-century visionaries whose ‘back to the Bible,’ non-denominational preaching spawned our little movement, was an Arian, and I’m not even sure if he knew who Arius was. The pioneer revivalist ‘Onion’ Jim Throckmorton taught that it was a sin to get sick. O. D. Gypsum, the much-venerated Greek professor at Steed-Ramrick University from 1923 until 1965, was a staunch pacifist. Yet all these men are quoted freely from Brotherhood pulpits. Then, there’s a slew of outright bigots, such as Lloyd Q. Sargent, Jephthah Wigglesworth, and Zebulon Butcher, who put down their black brethren in their journals and belittled any white congregation that allowed a black evangelist to come preach there. But they are still seen as heroes for their strident defenses of orthodoxy, despite such blatant manifestations of a sinful attitude. It wasn’t an odd perspective on Hell that caused them to put the ban on me, Calvin. I’m in trouble for a much graver display of heterodoxy than annihilationism. And now that I’ve offended them in a great matter, they are calling me to task for every small matter, as well.”
“What heresy are you promoting, sir?” I asked.
“About six months ago, I was invited to go speak to a group of ministers in Scotland. While I was there, one of them asked what I thought about the fate of the unbaptized heathen—folks who had never even heard of Jesus. I could tell that he wanted me to send them straight to the fiery abyss, but that’s really not my call to make. And I told him so. I quoted Acts 17.31 to him: ‘he—that is, God—will have a day on which he will have the world justly judged by a man—Jesus, of course—whom he has appointed.’ I said, ‘Are either one of us God or Jesus?’ And of course, he had to say, ‘No.’ So I said, ‘Well, then it doesn’t matter what you or I think about the fate of the unevangelized. That’s God’s department. If he wants to open the heavenly portals up to every naked bushman, it’s no business of ours.”
“That sounds reasonable to me,” I said.
“Yes, but our people are not always known for being reasonable. Some of us will go to any length to be fools for Christ; I’m afraid that we often make Christ look foolish in the process.”
“Touché,” I admitted. “So, what did he say?”
“Well, first he quoted Mark 16:16 at me—you know: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.’ And he followed that up with Titus 1:2—God can’t lie. And he said that since the Bible clearly states that those who don’t believe in Jesus and get themselves immersed are damned, I’m making God out to be a liar if I don’t consign all the ignorant heathen to the flames.”
“And then what did you say?” I asked.
“I told him Mark 16:16 is dubious ground upon which to build a doctrinal platform, since it’s probably spurious. And that Jesus said that only foolish men build their houses upon sand. Then I added that at any rate, Mark 16:16 assumes the verse before it—the commission to go out and preach the word. Hence, Mark 16:16 deals only with those who have heard the word and then rejected it. It has no bearing upon the fate of the unevangelized.”
“He didn’t take that so well, did he?” I asked.
“That’s an understatement. First, he said that I was taking scissors to the Bible by saying that Mark 16:16 wasn’t genuine. He started quoting Dean Burgon at me—he must have sat there defending the genuineness of Mark 16:16 for twenty minutes or more. Of course, he doesn’t really know anything of textual criticism, aside from what he learned in preacher training school, which is, ‘Text critics are evil.’ I’m sure he didn’t even grasp half of what he was saying. Anyway, then he said that if I’m right, we ought to just stop sending out missionaries at all, since ignorance is a ‘Get Out of Hell Free Card.’
“Now, I retorted by saying that he’s obviously got a very narrow view of divine knowledge. I tried to explain to him the theory of counterfactuals—that since God’s knowledge is perfect, it could be that he knows who, given the opportunity, will accept him and who will not. I also said that my understanding of the matter did not let us out of evangelizing others, since Scripture clearly commands us to do that.”
It was clear to me that Beauregard Jones had bested the Scottish preacher—and probably deeply wounded the man’s pride in so doing. “Let me guess,” I said. “He went out and told everyone you didn’t believe in evangelizing the heathens?”
“Worse,” replied Brother Jones. “He went and printed in some brotherhood rag in the U.K. that I outright denied that baptism is necessary. Then he e-mailed Mance Tatum, an elder over at the church in Florence, AL that supports some of the work in Scotland, and told him the same thing.”
I let out a low whistle. Mance Tatum is the preacher and an elder at the Pinebox Drive church. He is also the President of Northwest Alabama Bible College, which the Pinebox church runs. The “College” is really nothing more than a diploma mill for militant preacher boys. They put out a primitively-produced newsletter every month, with most of the articles written by Brother Tatum himself, called The Winnowing Fork. One bad write-up in there can ruin your credibility in over half our churches east of the Mississippi—and that’s where about three-quarters of First United Primitive Christian churches are located.
“Yep. Within two days, my e-mail inbox was flooded with messages from folks I’ve never heard of. How do you tell a thousand angry brethren scattered throughout the U.S. and Great Britain that you’ve been misrepresented? It was a nightmare. I got mean messages on my answering machine. Someone even sent me an e-mail with a virus in it that crashed my computer. I’ve spoken at the Steed-Ramrick lectures for the past ten years. I didn’t get invited this year. Gospel meetings I’d had planned for two years or more got called off. All because I told some random preacher boy that if God decided to let a few unevangelized persons into heaven, I wouldn’t argue with him. Essentially, Calvin, unless I recant and say that all the ignorant heathen are on their way to the lake of fire, nothing I ever say again will be right. I could write an essay defending the divinity of Jesus or the reliability of the Genesis flood story, and they’d still find something wrong with it.”
“But what about Burl Coffee and Elmo Ellis?” I asked. Brother Jones’ account of his fall from grace made sense, but Mack Snipes had also mentioned the similar works from these men. “Mack Snipes called out their books on Hell, too. What did they do to get on everybody’s bad side?”
“Burl Coffee’s just easy to pick on, Calvin. He’s a little flaky, you know? How seriously can you take a man who writes a hundred-and-thirty-three page book detailing all the different sorts of communion breads he’s tasted? And then there was that awful book he wrote in the seventies—what was it—A High-School Sophomore Knows More about the Bible than Karl Barth? Do you realize how audacious—how pretentious!—a book must be if it has that title? Have you ever read that book, Calvin?”
I had to admit I had not. “Well then, young man,” said Brother Jones, “let me fill you in on the impetus behind that book. In 1952, Barth was giving a lecture where he accidentally misattributed a verse. I believe he said Philemon 4.1, when he meant Philippians 4.1. Of course, everyone knows that there is no Philemon 4:1, but the man had probably just written ‘Phil. 4:1’ and pronounced ‘Philemon’ by mistake.”
“An honest mistake,” I agreed.
“Right, well, that incident . . . if it can even be called an ‘incident’—I prefer to think of it as a very insignificant snafu, was what prompted A High-School Sophomore Knows More Bible than Karl Barth,” said Brother Jones.
“Mack Snipes said he still heartily endorses that book,” I informed him.
“Well, of course he can endorse that book,” replied Brother Jones. “There’s nothing all that controversial in it, because there’s nothing of substance in it. To launch a diatribe against the Barth book is tantamount to swatting a fly with a sledgehammer.
“Now, Elmo Ellis is another matter entirely,” Brother Jones continued. “He was a good friend of mine for years. Honestly, we came to very similar conclusions about the nature of Hell because our views on the matter were refined by conversations we had with one another. I consider Elmo a spiritual mentor. Let me ask you, what did Hollis Snipes say about Elmo’s book?”
“He said that either Brother Elmo was so senile by the time he wrote it that he can’t be held responsible, or that it was an outright forgery.”
“Elmo Ellis was a lot of things, Calvin—ornery, mischievous, cantankerous, contrary, and stubborn—but he never was senile a day in his life. And that book was no forgery. He believed in what he was saying. But none of the companies that had previously published his work would touch it, and he wasn’t contemporary enough for the more progressive publishing firms—Harlan or Sauer or Teakwood Press—to pay it any attention. So he went through a small vanity press. That’s all there was to that.”
“What I want to know,” I asked Brother Jones, “is what you’re doing here?”
“Me? I’m just here promoting my book.”
He might as well have told me he’d come to fart “Jesus is Coming Soon” at the evening devotional, I was so stunned. “But Brother Jones . . . they’ve put the ban on you! Why, just last month the Full Armor of God published a list of books that they deemed hazardous to believers’ spiritual health, and your book came in at number three, just behind Thursdays with Jesus by Mack Baldato, and the new Strudel Harrison book, Your Bible is Too Small. Surely they’ll chase you out of here quicker than Jesus chased the money-changers out of the temple!”
“First of all, Calvin, look at this quarter’s edition of the Full Armor Catalog—try page 17.” He handed me the supplement. Page 17 was an advertisement for the latest books from Harlan Publishing. Most prominent of the titles was Beauregard Jones’ controversial volume. “Then try looking at pages 26, 42, and 63.”
Those turned out to be advertisements for books by Strudel, Baldato, and Burl Coffee. “I—I don’t get this at all,” I stammered. “I mean, they ran an article emblazoned with a biohazard warning sign, saying how dangerous all these books were. It seems to me that if they really believed that these were doctrinal nuclear sludge that could turn us all into mutant apostate zombies, they’d—”
“I know, I know,” said Brother Jones, “I thought the same thing myself. But if you go to the Full Armor bookstore, where I’ll be signing copies of this book later today—that is, if anyone actually decides to buy any—you can find every book on that banned book list.”
“Why do you think that is?” I asked.
Brother Jones laughed at my naïveté. “Calvin, we’re all good capitalists here. Controversial books churn out money. Most of our more progressive brethren are well-to-do, and they like to read books that make them look cultured in the eyes of their Presbyterian and Methodist friends. Most of what passes for ‘progressive’ in our churches is actually assimilation. Mack Baldato’s audience, for instance, is primarily made up of middle-aged women who can afford not to work because their husbands are pulling in at least eighty grand a year. That’s why he can get away with his books selling for thirty dollars apiece.
“Then, after the progressives have gotten the book, the most conservative brethren are going to buy it so that they can reference page numbers when they rake it over the coals from the pulpits and in their periodicals. They’re just being true to what they know—any statement you make out of a pulpit must be buttressed by book, chapter, and verse.
“Eventually, the book will trickle down into the mainstream. Folks in the more moderated churches—and really that’s most of them—will hear that the book has generated a lot of heat, and some of them will be curious as to what the fuss is all about. They’ll purchase the book as well, though they probably won’t ever admit to it. Owning the book will be a sort of naughty secret pleasure for them; it’s like doctrinal pornography.”
It was at that moment that I realized that I had not actually been a member of a church all these years. All I am—all any of us is, really—is one little spoke in a real-life, fully-functional perpetual motion machine.