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Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Exercise Of Ultimate Power–Religious Conversion

“Hallelujah”, shouted Claire Roberts. “Praise be to Jesus! Hallelujah”

The entire congregation, a church filled with over a thousand souls, answered loudly, in unison, and conviction. “Hallelujah!”, they shouted, standing and raising their arms, first to Claire and then to Heaven.

Hallelujah!

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“God be praised”, Claire intoned, looking upwards to the rafters and vaulted ceiling of the church – her church, the one she had built, the one she had imagined since she was a little girl and first heard the Word of God shouted by Hiram Beasley.

Her rural Southern Baptist church was small, barely large enough to fit fifty congregants; but the sermons of the Reverend Beasley were so powerful and so uplifting, that the crowd around the outside of the church, by the front door, beneath the windows, and even in the cemetery nearby was almost as big as that inside.

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It was hot in that church in the summer, Claire remembered, hot and sweaty and smelling of leather, hay, and manure; but there was no place she would rather have been. She insisted that her parents leave the house early so that they could sit in the front row.  It was one thing to hear the inspirational voice of Reverend Beasley from the grave of Ezekiel Potter, but another thing altogether to be close enough to him to smell his breath, to see every line and crease in his face, see the color of his cheeks turn from ruddy to red, to watch him wipe the perspiration from his brow while catching his breath, gather himself, hold the Bible up high, and shake the timbers with verse after verse of Scripture.

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“Matthew 15:25” he shouted, shaking his Bible with one hand and a fist with the other. “The woman came and knelt before him. ‘Lord, help me’, she said”.

Beasley waited for the words of succor and piety to sink in.  When he saw that the congregation had settled back and were quietly reflecting on these words and wondering where he was taking them, Beasley went on.  His shout in the quiet church was deafening, almost frightening. “Lord, O God Almighty, help me!”  His face was contorted, twisted into an expression of pain and exaltation. “I am a sinner, Lord, and I have come to you for forgiveness. Help me, Lord! Help me.”

The anguish and torment of his absolute, abject submission to Jesus Christ was painful and palpable. “Forgive me”, he shouted, dropping to his knees. “I am but a poor, lonely sinner.  Take me, Jesus, take me.”

The churchgoers rose up in unison and shouted “Take me, Jesus”, again and again.  The choir began to sing a militant hymn as those below swayed from side to side.  Some men cried.  Men and women on the ends of the pews stumbled out and walked beseechingly up the aisle to the waiting minister. “Hallelujah”, he shouted to the rooftops and to Heaven.  “Hallelujah.”

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For years Claire waited for a sign of vocation, for she knew that above all else she wanted to be like Hiram Beasley – to speak the words of the Lord and to share his message with others.  She prayed every night, kneeling on the hard wooden floor by her bedside, begging Jesus to take her, to anoint her, or at least to give her a sign.

Weeks and months went by and as much as Claire was thrilled by Pastor Beasley’s sermons, by the conversion of the faithful, and by the invoked presence of the Lord in the church, she knew that something was missing.  The long hoped-for calling never came. No matter how hard she prayed, no matter how submissive and penitent she was, God and even Jesus Christ still remained abstractions, ideals rather than substantive, intervening saviors.

“I have done everything right”, she thought, “and yet He has not appeared to me. What am I doing wrong?”; but at the same time she remembered Paul’s doctrine of grace and how one cannot achieve it.  It is granted through the election of Jesus Christ and Him alone.  He would appear to her in his own good time, if then, and there was nothing she could do about it.

Paul

As she reached her teenage years, Claire had become no less observant; and if anything had become even more in awe of Pastor Beasley and his power to elicit faith, conversion, and belief.  How could one man hold such power over hundreds? How could he, by sermon and voice alone, call the faithful to Jesus every Sunday?  Soon she realized that she wanted to be like him regardless of the end result of her ministry. It was not God she sought, but the power of conversion.

Her parents thought she indeed had a calling, and now that women were being admitted to theological seminaries in increasing numbers, they were ready to send her any one of a number of qualified institutions in the East. 

The seminary, however, was the last place she wanted to be.  She had no interest whatsoever in Biblical exegesis, textual analysis, Early Church history, or literary analysis of scripture. She wanted only one thing – to be in front of a large congregation, invoking the name and power of the Lord and by so doing converting many.  Faith was simple, she reasoned, after many years in the front pews of the Good News Baptist Church.  People could care less about the coherence of the synoptic gospels, the complex theology of John, or Paul’s justification for the divine yet human nature of the Savior.  They had no need for anything except the passionate spoken word of the Bible, a congregation of faith, and the ecstatic experience facilitated by supremely gifted evangelists like the Reverend Beasley.

“Miracles, mystery, and authority” is all the people want, said Ivan Karamazov; and as The Grand Inquisitor he challenges the returned Christ for having deceived mankind into believing that one does not live by bread alone; that the promise of salvation is worth far more than a full stomach.  Free will, freedom, independence, and the ability to choose between right and wrong, Ivan went on, were chimera, illusions spun by Christ in the desert and taken up as manipulative tools by the Church after his death.

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Claire instinctively understood this, for there at the Good News Baptist Church she had watched hundreds of uneducated, unsophisticated, unschooled but spiritually hungry people beg for the intercession of Jesus Christ.  “It’s up to you and Jesus”, Pastor Beasley would counsel in one of this quieter moments, transliterating the complex doctrine of faith and grace enunciated by Paul and making it easily digestible. Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior and all will be well. Conversion and the epiphany of conversion was then a matter of Beasley’s power of persuasion.

“Miracles, mystery, and authority”, and nothing could be more true.  Few people were ever converted through the logic of Paul, Augustine, or Aquinas.  It mattered little whether Christ was divine and human at the same time, indivisible; or whether he was the divine issue of his Father.  The doctrine of suffering and the remission of sins through Christ’s martyrdom on the cross was far too academic and incomprehensible for those who ran down the aisle into Pastor Beasley’s arms. 

Aquinas

Convinced that for a woman without belief a religious career would be impossible,  Claire pursued a secular path which most closely matched it; and became one of the most adept and skillful trial lawyers in the highly competitive District of Columbia. She became the go-to defense attorney for high-profile political and murder cases; but soon jumped to the other side of the aisle.  Defense took agility, savvy, and borderline chicanery; but prosecution – the absolute, total, and unforgiving pursuit of conviction – was the most aggressive, competitive, and satisfying. 

Yet she soon realized that trial law was only an apprenticeship.  It was one thing to convince a jury of the guilt of the accused; it was another thing to raise thousands of people out of their seats and come down the aisle to accept Jesus.  However fictive the relationship between preacher and God Almighty, it still was played out within an arena far more grand than Superior Court. The preacher who enticed, cajoled, and convinced a doubter to accept Jesus Christ as a personal savior; who cemented the relationship with worldly and Biblical knowledge; and who chastened, threatened, and when necessary comforted was an exercise in pure will.  Convincing a jury based on forensic evidence, witness accounts, and probable cause was nothing compared to religious conversion.

It was not hard to begin her professional religious career.  By showing the same abject humility that she saw exhibited in her childhood church and the same passionate belief; and by presenting her public record of courtroom successes, she soon was able to give guest sermons at small churches in the state where she grew up. As she knew, thanks to her experience with Hiram Beasley, one needed few if any credentials in charismatic and Pentecostal churches.  An exhaustive knowledge of Scripture – chapter and verse sufficed – was the only prerequisite other than oratory, rhetoric, persuasive power, and charisma. A warm and generous endorsement from Pastor Beasley helped her on her way.

Claire was patient and thanks to her success at small, rural churches (congregations often doubled during her tenure as well as revenues) she was able to move up to bigger and more recognized congregations, and before she was 45 was preaching to thousands in one of the biggest churches in Texas.  Finally she had achieved the dream she had had when only ten.  As she stood on the pulpit in front of the stadium-sized screen which projected her image to the very far corners of the church; and as she began, slowly, surely, and deliberately to begin her sermon, she knew that she had finally arrived.

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This short narrative cannot do adequate justice to the ins-and-outs of church politics and how Claire Roberts had to carefully navigate her way through often rough waters; but suffice it to say that she never doubted her success.  Will, determination, intelligence, and purpose were all that were really required in her new business.  The rest – a faithful, believing flock, and more money than she had ever made on K Street were history. She never looked back.

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