Hi and welcome back! Yesterday, I showed you a scene from This Present Darkness that gave a narrative shape to an old fundagelical concept: spiritual warfare. Today, I want to show you how my old churchmates and then-husband alike used that narrative–and took it even further to abuse people. And then I want to show you how their house of cards collapsed in on itself for me when it accidentally ran afoul of something that very ex used to call that oogly-boogly feeling.
(I’ve not often used this phrase on the blog very often because well, it’s incredibly silly. I know it is. Please know in advance it’s not something I made up to mock Christians or whatever. As you’ll soon see, my SUPER-DUPER MEGA-CHRISTIAN then-husband actually invented it as a sales and gaslighting tool! But as silly as it is, I hope you’ll stay with me anyway. What this phrase ties to and how it accidentally helped me escape Christianity in the end is, I think, important.)
Don’t Say He Never Gave Us Nothin’.
The phrase I’ve always attached to spiritual warfare is that oogly-boogly feeling. And weirdly enough, we have Biff to thank for it, though I see it floating around online here and there with other, slightly different spellings and meanings.
Like many extremely manipulative people, Biff often tried to reframe really scary concepts to sound innocuous and simple, even playful. In movies like 1984’s Ghostbusters, reframing can be funny:
Dr. Raymond Stantz: My parents left me that house. I was born there.
Dr. Peter Venkman: You’re not gonna lose the house. Everybody has three mortgages nowadays.
It’s less so in real life.
When Biff got involved in Pentecostalism, he brought his signature goofy interpersonal style into the religion with him. Very soon after his miraculous conversion, he trotted out today’s phrase-that-pays. I think it first happened during a discussion of spiritual gifts, which is Christianese for stuff like “dancing in the Spirit,” speaking in tongues, making prophecies, magical healing, and the like. He even had a finger-waggling jazz-hands gesture that went with the phrase.
I, of course, was still quite reluctant to go anywhere near Pentecostalism ever again. I felt very uncomfortable around them. Eagerly, Biff told me that no no, I had totally misinterpreted everything.
That oogly-boogly feeling didn’t mean something was terribly wrong. Oh no! Not at all!
It meant, rather, that something was terribly right. In Biff’s opinion–and that of pretty much every Christian in that end of the religion–that feeling was a sort of announcement that Jesus was fully present and active.
The Anatomy of a Feeling.
Here’s how this feeling would come to me and what it felt like.
Imagine you’re in church and things are getting really rowdy. The preacher is, as the Christianese goes, on fire that night. People are shouting in the pews, waving their hands around, and nodding vigorously in approval.
Groups possess a sort of rising, bubbling mental energy at such riled-up times. I don’t mean that in the woo sense. I mean that there’s this combination of loud breathing, agitated rustling movement even in people sitting down, music playing in the background (maybe so softly nobody can even consciously identify its presence), and the ebb and flow of everyone’s words and sighs and murmurs. It all builds to a sense of anticipation.
A skilled public speaker or showman–like a preacher–can use all those elements like kindling to bring forth a fire. Let’s say that the preacher up front in this example is such a skilled showman.
So suddenly, the crowd goes silent–but everyone’s holding their breaths. A crescendo reaches across the room.
Then a random Christian stands up and begins shouting in baby-babble. Fundagelical Christians call this babbling a word from the Lord.
Take a snapshot after the babbler falls silent again.
Note that unsettling feeling sparkling across your chest and freezing your joints and maybe widening your eyes, that sudden realization that something has happened that is not at all connected to reality and thus everyone lacks reliable cues for gauging an appropriate reaction. ANYTHING could happen now as a result. The normal behavioral rules have suspended themselves, but not necessarily in a good way.
We can label this sensation as that oogly-boogly feeling.
Why I Felt It.
That feeling told me that something was not quite right at all in the situation. Someone was doing something really bizarre, and we were all expected to just run with it.
It was not like improvisational theater, where all the actors are on-board for the most part with “always say yes and…” My fellow Christians all acted like it was, but to me, I felt like the child seeing the Emperor naked during his big procession. The person claiming to see angels hovering in the sanctuary’s ceiling? I couldn’t see them. Or the person claiming that our god was right there present among us? I sure couldn’t tell. But pretending felt so wrong. We weren’t playing a child’s game; we were invoking our very god and claiming his presence. It felt incredibly weird and off-putting every single time.
Maybe I can best capture the feeling by comparing it with that climactic ending scene from the first Zoolander movie. In it, the villain Mugatu trash-talks the various facial expressions (“looks”) that Zoolander uses for his modeling work. He accurately sees, as does the movie itself, that all of Zoolander’s looks are exactly identical. Frustrated beyond belief and unable to make his audience understand his point, Mugatu finally cries out, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!”
That’s kinda it.
So Biff’s job, as he clearly saw it, was recasting my evaluation of these “spirit-filled” antics from pretendy game that everyone but me was in on to a real live god doing stuff, except I wasn’t evolved enough to realize that’s what it was.
Biff needed to persuade me that Zoolander really did have more than one look and that that oogly-boogly feeling was in fact connected to reality, when he didn’t and it wasn’t.
Those Gas Lights Are Flickering!
The form of manipulation Biff used to accomplish his goal is called gaslighting. It’s a form of abuse that does a serious number on its victims’ heads. In gaslighting, abusers rewrite a victim’s memories, opinions, and experiences.
(The National Domestic Violence Hotline gives us a great list of gaslighting techniques. They also provide a list of signs that someone’s being gaslighted. Their observations will probably unsettle many ex-Christian and ex-evangelical readers with how much it resembles their pasts in authoritarian religion.)
It’s a hassle for gaslighting abusers to locate and set up a victim for this extended congame. Abuser go to this trouble anyway because it gets their victims completely off-balance. Indeed, victims of gaslighting eventually stop being able to trust their entire sense of reality, their judgment about even tiny matters, and their own sense of safety, boundaries, and personal protection.
And once their victims stand helpless and completely vulnerable, their abusers simply become the source of their new reality. It’s a HUGELY powerful position for an abuser to hold in a victim’s life. It’s also extremely difficult to escape.
Signs and Portents.
At that young stage of my life, I found myself victimized twice at the same time by gaslighters.
One gaslighter was Biff, of course.
The other was the church that loved Biff like a golden child and egged him on.
I know now to avoid anybody who tries to tell me I’m wrong about feeling uncomfortable about something. But back then, I was a rudderless teenager with no sense of boundaries. So when Biff rewrote my entire conceptualization of Pentecostalism and my experiences within it, I didn’t insta-dump him and go find myself a nice New Wave synth keyboardist to date and share eyeliner with.
Instead, I accepted his bizarre rewrite for a long time. Yes, spiritual warfare provoked a very weird feeling in me. But as hard as I struggled with my perception of it as weird and faker-than-fake, I was surrounded by people who rejoiced in that feeling and did everything they could to work themselves into it. They all loved that feeling, as I soon discovered when I timidly broached the topic with them.
Yep, they knew exactly what I was talking about. They just welcomed it instead of seeing it as a tip-off that something was wrong.
What Broke The Programming.
Looking back, I think what really killed the gaslighting on me was context. Biff and our church tied that oogly-boogly feeling way too closely to one particular context.
Ironic, isn’t it? That kind of Christian adores accusing the rest of us of using arguments or Bible verses “out of context” when we raise criticisms or objections to their behavior. And yet it was context itself that might have become the slender cord my flailing hands caught ahold of at the last second.
I wrote about this years ago, but just to recap and expand a bit: Biff and a mutual friend of ours, James, started an on-campus prayer club. Biff named it PRAYER WARRIORS FOR JESUS. Yes, really. Anyway, they needed a third person and nobody else was available, so I became the third officer of this club. Yes, even though I’m a woman and female leaders are totally ickie to fundagelicals.
The club was nothing but Biff’s latest grandstanding stunt. (See endnote for why I think that.) Even by his standard, it was an incredibly obnoxious move.
And ironically, it ended up completely and hilariously backfiring on Biff.
It Was Context Killed The Beast.
See, these prayer meetings weren’t in anything like a church. In fact, the rooms we used were small and simple conference meeting rooms. They contained a big table surrounded by chairs, with a big whiteboard across one wall and a facilitator’s desk with various hookups for audiovisual and computer stuff. That’s it. In order to hold our meetings, we typically pushed the table against the wall and pulled some chairs out to kneel against. Biff and James both also liked having a big walking-around area to hotdog around in, with room to windmill their arms.
And hoo boy, does church stuff look absolutely bizarre when divorced from all the trappings of fundagelical churchgoing and the mental noise of bunches of fellow fundagelicals working themselves into a coarse lather. Without that background noise and hubbub, it looks totally ridiculous!
That oogly-boogly feeling arose in me again, but this time, it didn’t feel divine at all. Instead, it felt like a voice deep in my bones urging me to run away as fast as I could and never talk to these people again. They were play-acting in a way that was not okay at all. They expected me to buy in and play along. But I couldn’t detect whatever it was they claimed to detect to induce that behavior.
From there it was a short leap to realizing that Biff and James probably didn’t feel anything genuinely divine either, but had simply worked themselves up to a frazzle. They looked like lunatics, and not the flippy-dippy, cuckoo-for-Jesus-puffs kind that they ached to convey.
I had attended so many of these meetings and so often that I literally lost my mental connection between that oogly-boogly feeling and the churchy context that it now completely belonged to.
It was like when you lose a word’s meaning when you repeat it too often. Except this time, the redefined meanings never fluttered back to me. My own innate sense of dignity had settled at last back to JFC, this is SO STUPID, and it refused to budge from there.
Setting My Own Terms.
Thanks to Biff and his grandstanding, I’d been completely jarred out of seeing prayer as a magical form of communication with a god.
Soon enough, I began noticing all kinds of other places where things did not line up with his attempted reframing of them. I began to see that he’d totally rewritten how I saw the entire world!
Oh, for sure, Christians like him still try to do that today. Gaslighting represents such a huge part of the fundagelical abuse toolbox that I don’t think those Christians would even know what to do with themselves if their god turned out to exist and then physically removed their ability to do it.
When a Christian sneers at you, “Gosh, why are you so angry?” if you raise a criticism of them… that’s gaslighting.
All those times that Christians try to tell you that you just totally misinterpreted something in the Bible that doesn’t really mean something atrocious or mind-bogglingly evil… that’s gaslighting.
Of course, when Christians gloat about pushback because it means their critics are just upset about their Jesus Auras… that’s gaslighting.
And it is abusive. No gods who value love would allow it, condone it, or encourage it in their followers. Feel free to call it out and then walk away from those using it. They don’t have anything to offer you that’s good for you–anything at all.
NEXT UP: A creepy complementarian guy thought I was his One True Love Forever. I’ll show you why he thought that. See you next time!
Here’s why Biff probably went to all that effort: The Student Life Center printed and distributed daily schedules of all formal meetings of student clubs. They distributed those schedules all over the entire university, absolutely everywhere. And club officers could reserve formal meeting rooms for free up to three times a week in the Center itself. So Biff realized that he could totally shove his
Jesus boner TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ in every single face at our entire huge university by naming his club something really grandiose and ostentatious, then reserving the max of meeting rooms each week.
Rest assured, however: his grandstanding did not go unnoticed for what it really was. Biff reveled in all those other students’ annoyance and exasperation. Obviously that meant he was Jesus-ing just right. However, his impulsive stunt meant that we had to actually show up at those meetings ourselves, which meant we were actually going to be praying at them, which meant he kinda kick-started my deconversion in a way. Also, if you’ve read the post about the club then you know how it ended up crashing in humiliating flames for him. Oops. (Back to the post!)
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