30 Aug 2008

'Arming' for Armageddon: Militant Joel's Army Followers Seek Theocracy

Southern Poverty Law Center - Intelligence Report, Fall 2008

Joel's Army followers, many of them teenagers and young adults who believe they're members of the final generation to come of age before the end of the world, are breaking away in droves from mainline Pentecostal churches.

by Casey Sanchez

Todd Bentley

Canadian Todd Bentley, who preached for months on end this year in Florida, is a general in Joel's Army.

LAKELAND, Fla. — Todd Bentley has a long night ahead of him, resurrecting the dead, healing the blind, and exploding cancerous tumors. Since April 3, the 32-year-old, heavily tattooed, body-pierced, shaved-head Canadian preacher has been leading a continuous "supernatural healing revival" in central Florida. To contain the 10,000-plus crowds flocking from around the globe, Bentley has rented baseball stadiums, arenas and airport hangars at a cost of up to $15,000 a day. Many in attendance are church pastors themselves who believe Bentley to be a prophet and don't bat an eye when he tells them he's seen King David and spoken with the Apostle Paul in heaven. "He was looking very Jewish," Bentley notes.

Tattooed across his sternum are military dog tags that read "Joel's Army." They're evidence of Bentley's generalship in a rapidly growing apocalyptic movement that's gone largely unnoticed by watchdogs of the theocratic right. According to Bentley and a handful of other "hyper-charismatic" preachers advancing the same agenda, Joel's Army is prophesied to become an Armageddon-ready military force of young people with a divine mandate to physically impose Christian "dominion" on non-believers.
Todd Bentley healing

"An end-time army has one common purpose — to aggressively take ground for the kingdom of God under the authority of Jesus Christ, the Dread Champion," Bentley declares on the website for his ministry school in British Columbia, Canada. "The trumpet is sounding, calling on-fire, revolutionary believers to enlist in Joel's Army. … Many are now ready to be mobilized to establish and advance God's kingdom on earth."

Joel's Army followers, many of them teenagers and young adults who believe they're members of the final generation to come of age before the end of the world, are breaking away in droves from mainline Pentecostal churches. Numbering in the tens of thousands, they base their beliefs on an esoteric reading of the second chapter of the Old Testament Book of Joel, in which an avenging swarm of locusts attacks Israel. In their view, the locusts are a metaphor for Joel's Army.

Despite their overt militancy, there's no evidence Joel's Army followers have committed any acts of violence. But critics warn that actual bloodletting may only be a matter of time for a movement that casts itself as God's avenging army.

Those sounding the alarm about Joel's Army are not secular foes of the Christian Right, few of whom are even aware of the movement or how widespread it's become in the past decade. Instead, Joel's Army critics are mostly conservative Christians, either neo-Pentecostals who left the movement in disgust or evangelical Christians who fear that Joel's Army preachers are stealing their flocks, even sending spies to infiltrate their own congregations and sway their young people to heresy. And they say the movement is becoming frightening. "The pitch and intensity of the military rhetoric of this branch of the global Dominionist movement has substantially increased since the beginning of 2008," writes The Discernment Research Group, a Christian watchdog group that tracks what they call heresies or cults within Christianity. "One can only wonder how long before this transforms into real warfare with actual warriors."

'Snorting Religion'

Joel's Army believers are hard-core Christian dominionists, meaning they believe that America, along with the rest of the world, should be governed by conservative Christians and a conservative Christian interpretation of biblical law. There is no room in their doctrine for democracy or pluralism. Dominionism's original branch is Christian Reconstructionism, a grim, Calvinist call to theocracy that, as Reconstructionist writer Gary North describes, wants to "get busy in constructing a Bible-based social, political and religious order which finally denies the religious liberty of the enemies of God."

Notorious for endorsing the public execution by stoning of homosexuals and adulterers, the Christian Reconstructionist movement is far better known in secular America than Joel's Army. That's largely because Reconstructionists have made several serious forays into mainstream politics and received a fair amount of negative publicity as a result. Joel's Army followers eschew the political system, believing the path to world domination lies in taking over churches, not election to public office.

Another key difference between the two branches of dominionism, which maintain a testy, arms-length relationship with one another, is Christian Reconstructionism's buttoned-down image and heavy emphasis on Bible study, which contrasts sharply with Joel's Army anti-intellectual distrust of biblical scholars and its unruly style. "Some people snort cocaine, others snort religions," Joel's Army Pastor Roy said while ministering a morning program at Todd Bentley's Lakeland, Fla., revival in late May.

As this article went to press, Bentley's "Florida Outpouring" had been running for more than 100 days straight. Many attendees came in search of spontaneous physical healing and a desire to be part of a mystical community marked by dancing, shouting, gyrating, speaking in tongues and other forms of ecstatic release. Snide jabs at traditional church services are fairly common at Bentley's revivals. In fact, what takes place onstage at the Florida Outpouring looks more like a pro wrestling extravaganza than church.

On stage, Bentley and his team of pastors, yell, chant, and scream "Fire!" and "Bam!" while anointing followers.  "The Call," a 12-hour revival of up to 20,000 young people held in a different city each year, is led by Joel's Army pastor Lou Engle. The audience members behave as if they are at a psychedelic counterculture festival. One couple jumps up and down twirling red and silver metallic flags. Dyed-haired teenagers pulled in by the revival's presence on Facebook and MySpace wander around looking dazed. Women lay facedown on the floor, convulsing and howling. Fathers wail in tongues as their confused children look on. Strangers lay hands on those who fail to produce tongues or gyrate wildly enough, pressuring them to "let it out."

Bentley is considered a prophet both by his followers and by other leaders of the Joel's Army movement, whose adherents claim to be reviving a "five-fold ministry" of prophets, apostles, elders, pastors and teachers, as outlined in the Book of Ephesians. Not every five-fold ministry is connected to the Joel's Army movement, but the movement has spurred an interest in modern-day apostles and prophets that's troubling to the Assemblies of God, the world's largest Pentecostal church, which has officially disavowed the Joel's Army movement. In a 2001 position paper, Assemblies of God leaders wrote that they do not recognize modern-day apostles or prophets and worried that "such leaders prefer more authoritarian structures where their own word or decrees are unchallenged."

They are right to worry. Joel's Army followers believe that once democratic institutions are overthrown, their hierarchy of apostles and prophets will rule over the earth, with one church per city. Warrior Nation According to Joel's Army doctrine, the enforcers of the five-fold ministry will be members of the final generation, for whom the landmark Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade constituted a new Passover. "Everyone born after abortion's legalization can consider their birth a personal invitation to take part in this great army," writes John Crowder, another prominent Joel's Army pastor, who bills his 2006 book, The New Mystics: How to Become Part of the Supernatural Generation, as a literal how-to guide for joining Joel's Army.

Both Bentley and Crowder are enormously popular on Elijah's List, an online watering hole for a broad spectrum of Joel's Army enlistees, from lightweight believers who merely share an affection for military rhetoric and pastors who dress in army camouflage (several Joel's Army pastors are addressed by their congregants as "commandant" or "commander") to hardliners who believe the church is called to have an active military role in end-times that have already begun.

Elijah's List currently has more than 125,000 subscribers on its electronic mailing list. Rick Joyner, a pastor whose books, The Harvest and The Call, helped popularize Joel's Army theology by selling more than a million copies each, goes the furthest on Elijah's List in pushing the hardliner approach. In 2006, he posted a sermon called "The Warrior Nation — The New Sound of the Church," in which he claimed that a last-day army is now gathering and called believers "freedom fighters." "As the church begins to take on this resolve, they [Joel's Army churches] will start to be thought of more as military bases, and they will begin to take on the characteristics of military bases for training, equipping, and deploying effective spiritual forces," Joyner wrote. "In time, the church will actually be organized more as a military force with an army, navy, air force, etc." In a sort of disclaimer, Joyner writes at one point that God's army "will bring love, peace and stability wherever they go." But several of his books narrate with glee what he describes as "a coming civil war within the church."

In his 1997 book The Harvest he writes: "Some pastors and leaders who continue to resist this tide of unity will be removed from their place. Some will become so hardened they will become opposers and resist God to the end." Two years later, in his book The Final Quest, Joyner described a vision (taken as prophecy in the Joel's Army world, where Joyner is considered an "apostle") of the coming Christian Civil War in which demon-possessed Christian soldiers enslave other, weaker Christians who resist them. He also describes how the hero of the novel — himself — ascends a "Holy Mountain" in order to learn new truths and to acquire new, magic weapons.

Kids on Fire

Bentley, who claims to be a supernatural healer, is no less over the top, playing his biker-punk appearance and heavy metal theatrics to the hilt. On YouTube, where clips of his most dramatic healings have been condensed into a three-minute highlight reel, Bentley describes God ordering him to kick an elderly lady in the face: "I am thinking, 'God, why is the power of God not moving?' And He said, 'It is because you haven't kicked that women in the face.' And there was, like, this older lady worshipping right in front of the platform and the Holy Spirit spoke to me and the gift of faith came on me. He said, 'Kick her in the face … with your biker boot.' I inched closer and I went like this [makes kicking motion]: Bam! And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God."

The atmosphere is less charged with violence at "The Call," a 12-hour revival of up to 20,000 youths led by Joel's Army pastor Lou Engle and held every summer in a major American city (this year's event was scheduled for Washington, D.C. in August). Attendees are called upon to fast and pray for 40 days and take up culture-war pledges to lead abstinent lives, reject pornography and fight abortion. They're further asked to perform "identificational repentance," lugging along family trees and genealogies to see where one of their ancestors may have enslaved or oppressed another so that they can make amends. (Many in the Joel's Army movement believe in generational curses that must be broken by the current generation). As even his critics note, Engle is a sweet, humble and gentle man whose persona is difficult to reconcile with his belief in an end-time army of invincible young Christian warriors. Yet while Engle is careful to avoid deploying explicit Joel's Army rhetoric at high-profile events like The Call, when he's speaking in smaller hyper-charismatic circles to avowed Joel's Army followers, he can venture into bloodlust.

This March, at a "Passion for Jesus" conference in Kansas City sponsored by the International House of Prayer, or IHOP, a ministry for teenagers from the heavy metal, punk and goth scenes, Engle called on his audience for vengeance. "I believe we're headed to an Elijah/Jezebel showdown on the Earth, not just in America but all over the globe, and the main warriors will be the prophets of Baal versus the prophets of God, and there will be no middle ground," said Engle. He was referring to the Baal of the Old Testament, a pagan idol whose followers were slaughtered under orders from the prophet Elijah. "There's an Elijah generation that's going to be the forerunners for the coming of Jesus, a generation marked not by their niceness but by the intensity of their passion," Engle continued. "The kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.

Such force demands an equal response, and Jesus is going to make war on everything that hinders love, with his eyes blazing fire." Although Joel's Army theology is mainly directed at people in their teens and early 20s via events like The Call and ministries like IHOP, sometimes the target audience is even younger. In some of the most arresting images in "Jesus Camp," a 2006 documentary about the Kids on Fire bible camp in North Dakota, grade school-aged kids dressed in army fatigues wield swords and conduct military field maneuvers. "A lot of people die for God and they're not afraid," one camper told ABC News reporters in a follow-up segment. "We're kinda being trained to be warriors," added another, "only in a funner way." Cain and the Intellectuals Both Christian and secular critics assailed the makers of "Jesus Camp" for referring to the camp's extremist, militant Christianity as "evangelical."

There is a name, however, that describes Kids on Fire's agenda, if you're familiar with their theology: Joel's Army. Pastor Becky Fischer, who runs the camp, said that a third of the kids at her camp were under 6 years old because they are "more in touch in the supernatural" and proclaimed them to be "soldiers for God's Army." Her camp's blend of end-times militancy and supernaturalism is perfectly emblematic of the Joel's Army movement, whose adherents believe their cause is prophesied in the Old Testament chapter titled "An Army of Locusts."

The stark, evocative passages of that chapter describe a locust swarm that lays waste to Israel (to this day, the region suffers periodic locust invasions): "Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come." As remarkable as the language is, most biblical scholars agree that it is a literal description of a locust invasion and resulting famine that occurred sometime between the 9th and 5th centuries B.C.E. In the Book of Joel, the locust invasion is described as an omen that an Assyrian army to the north may attack Israel if it fails to repent as a nation. But nowhere is the invasion described as an army of God. According to an Assemblies of God position paper: "It is a complete misinterpretation of Scripture to find in Joel's army of locusts a militant, victorious force attacking society and a non-cooperating Church to prepare the earth for Christ's millennial reign."

The story of how an ancient insect invasion came to be a rallying flag for 21st-century dominonists begins just after World War II in Canada. Out of a small town in Saskatchewan, a Pentecostal preacher named William Branham spearheaded a 1948 revival in which he claimed that his followers lived in a new biblical time of "Latter Rain." The most sinless and ardent of his flock would be called "Manifest Sons of God." By the next year, the movement was so strong — and seemed so subversive to some — that the Assemblies of God banned it as a heretic cult. But Branham remained a controversial figure with a loyal following; many of his followers believed him to be the end-times prophet Elijah. Michael Barkun, a leading scholar of radical religion, notes that in 1958, Branham began teaching "Serpent Seed" doctrine, the belief that Satan had sex with Eve, resulting in Cain and his descendants. "Through Cain came all the smart, educated people down to the antediluvian flood — the intellectuals, bible colleges," Branham wrote in the kind of anti-mainstream religion, anti-intellectual spirit that pervades the Joel's Army movement to this day. "They know all their creeds but know nothing about God."

The Gates of Hell

Branham was killed in a car accident in 1965, but his Manifest Sons of God movement, the direct predecessor of Joel's Army, lived on within a cluster of hyper-charismatic churches. In the 1980s, Branham's teachings took on new life at the Kansas City Fellowship (KCF), a group of popular self-styled apostles and prophets who used the Missouri church as a launching pad for national careers promoting outright Joel's Army theology. The Joel's Army movement began with the 1940s preaching of William Branham, whose group was banned as heretical by the Assemblies of God.

Ernie Gruen, a local pastor who initially promoted and gave citywide credibility to KCF pastors in the early 1980s, cut his connections in 1990. Concerned about KCF's plans to push its teachings worldwide, Gruen published a 132-page insider's account, based on taped sermons and conversations and interviews with parents who had enrolled their kids in KCF's Dominion school. According to Gruen's report, students at the school were taught that they were a "super-race" of the "elected seed" of all the best bloodlines of all generations — foreknown, predestined, and hand-selected from billions of others to be part of the "end-time Omega generation."  Though he'd once promoted these doctrines himself, Gruen became convinced that the movement was turning into an end-times cult, marked by what he summarized as "spiritual threats, fears, and warnings of death," "warning followers to beware of other Christians" and exhibiting "a 'super-race' mentality toward the training of their children."

When contacted by the Intelligence Report, Gruen's spokesman said that Gruen stands by everything he published in the report but no longer grants media interviews. The Kansas City Fellowship remains in operation and has served as a farm team for many of the all-stars of the Joel's Army movement. Those larger-than-life figures include John Wimber, the founder of a California megachurch, The Vineyard, who, before his death in 1997, proclaimed that Joel's Army would not only conquer the earth but defeat death itself. Lou Engle founded The Call based on the Joel's Army visions that KCF "prophet" Bob Jones (not to be confused with Bob Jones III of Bob Jones University) received while at KCF. Mike Bickle, another KCF member, stayed in Kansas City to form the International House of Prayer.

IHOP members and other Joel's Army adherents are well aware of how their movement is perceived by other conservative Christians. "Today, you can type 'Joel's Army' into a search engine and a thousand heresy hunter websites pop up, decrying the very mention of it," writes John Crowder in The New Mystics. Crowder doesn't exactly allay critic's fears. "This is truly warfare," he writes. "This battle is not a game. They [Joel's Army warriors] will not be on the defense; they will be on the offense — and the gates of hell will not be able to hold up against them."

So far, few members of the secular media have taken notice of Joel's Army, even as they report on Protestant dominionists like Pat Robertson or the more outrageous calls for the stoning of gays and lesbians emanating from Reconstructionist circles. There are exceptions, however. On the DailyKos, a well-read, politically liberal blog, a diarist has been blogging for two years about her experiences as a walkaway from a Joel's Army church. She writes under a pseudonym out of fear of physical reprisals. She may have real cause for concern. As Wimber, the late founder of The Vineyard, put it in one of his most famous and fiery sermons, one that is still frequently cited by Joel's Army followers: "Those in this army will have His kind of power. … Anyone who wants to harm them must die."  

This article was found at: http://www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?aid=964


'Arming' for Armageddon: Militant Joel's Army Followers Seek Theocracy 

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Rapid growth of Bible-based education in Canada spurred by Christian nationalists eager to indoctrinate the "Joshua Generation" 

Canadian fundamentalist Christian universities promote religious extremism over knowledge


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  2. British MP calls on government to block Canadian evangelist's entry


    A controversial Canadian evangelist who attracted a huge U.S. following in 2008 before his sudden fall from grace is now under fire in Britain ahead of a planned tour that one London-area MP claims could bring physical harm to unwitting Christians in search of a faith-healing experience.

    Todd Bentley, a 36-year-old preacher from Abbotsford, B.C., gained international attention four years ago when the charismatic sermoniser -- heavily tattooed and a recovered drug addict -- led a series of old-time Christian revival meetings in Florida that drew as many as 8,000 people a night during the summer of 2008.

    But the high-profile series of faith-healing events, aired by U.S. religious broadcaster God TV and which came to be known as the Lakeland Outpouring, ended abruptly that August amid accusations about Bentley's personal life and questions regarding the validity of his claims to have healed the sick and even raised the dead.

    "Some of the language used during the Lakeland Revival has created an almost sideshow atmosphere," the editor of Pentecostal magazine Charisma wrote about Bentley in 2008. "People are invited to 'Come and get some.' Miracles are supposedly 'popping like popcorn.' ... Such brash statements cheapen what the Holy Spirit is doing."

    Interviewed at the time by FOX TV journalist Geraldo Rivera and later by the ABC News investigative program Nightline, Bentley acknowledged publicly -- though not for the first time -- that he had been convicted of sexually assaulting a seven-year-old boy in 1990, when he was just 14 himself.

    In fact, Bentley had admitted in an earlier media interview in Canada that he had been "involved in a sexual assault ring" as a boy.

    "I was assaulted, too," he had told the B.C. newsmagazine The Report in 2001. "I turned around and did what had happened to me."

    But it was a revelation about Bentley's marital troubles in August 2008 that led organizers of the Lakeland revival to suspend his involvement in the Florida meetings, and there has been no significant news coverage of the Canadian's activities since.

    Now, however, Bentley's planned appearance later this month at a three-day soul-saving session in Croydon, England has prompted media attention there and led the area's Labour MP, Malcolm Wicks, to urge the British government to block the Canadian evangelist from entering the U.K.

    "This man is a very unsavoury character," Wicks said of Bentley in his Aug. 1 letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, a copy of which was obtained by Postmedia News.

    "I urge you to do all in your power to ban this man from the U.K. His visit can do nothing but harm and I would be grateful for any measures you can take."

    Wicks referred to Bentley's sexual-assault conviction and added that "apparently, as part of his so-called evangelism," Bentley "has been known to physically assault those who come to him for help."

    Bentley can be seen in an online video clip describing how he once kicked a woman in the face in order to infuse her with the Holy Spirit.

    "I inched closer and I went ... BAM!" Bentley is shown saying on stage during a religious gathering. "And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God."

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  3. continued from previous comment:

    Bentley couldn't immediately be reached for comment about the clip or Wicks' bid to prevent him from appearing at the Croydon events, which are scheduled to begin on Aug. 30.

    But an unidentified man reached by phone at Fresh Fire Ministries in Pineville, North Carolina -- Bentley's base of operations today, according to a robust website devoted to his evangelism -- indicated he was aware of the controversy in Britain and that there was no plan to cancel the Croydon appearances.

    "We're still moving on with the meeting," the man said. "Controversial things -- they are what they are."

    According to the Fresh Fire website, Bentley is also scheduled to appear at an event in Norway this month and at another in Pakistan in October, and has been taking his ministry to other parts of the world over the past few years, including earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

    Bentley has previously described how he embraced Christianity at age 17 after an encounter with a former drug addict who had turned his own life around after finding faith in God.

    The experience, according to a biography posted to Bentley's website during the Florida revival in 2008, saved him from "a lifestyle of drug and alcohol addiction without cravings or withdrawal symptoms. He was also delivered from a lifestyle involving criminal activity, youth prisons, drugs, sex, satanic music and bondage ... Todd was instantly transformed into a radical disciple and soul-winning evangelist for Jesus."

    Bentley built a large following in B.C. in the early 2000s before taking his conversion crusade to the U.S.

    "I don't look like a typical preacher," he told The Province in a 2008 interview. "I want to be relevant to a younger generation, to bring them confirmation that God loves them."

    He added at the time: "I never say you're healed. I pray for healing, and God does the miracle. People tell me they're healed."


  4. Revivalist preacher Todd Bentley refused entry to UK

    by Lizzy Davies, The Guardian Uk August 21, 2012

    An evangelist preacher who has claimed he can cure people of their illnesses by hitting and kicking them has been banned from entering the UK by the Home Office.

    Todd Bentley, a controversial revivalist healer based in the United States, had been due to hold a series of gatherings in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the next few weeks. But the Home Office said Bentley, a Canadian citizen, was subject to an exclusion order and would not be permitted entry to the country.

    "We can confirm that Mr Bentley has been excluded from the UK. The government makes no apologies for refusing people access to the UK if we believe they are not conducive to the public good. Coming here is a privilege that we refuse to extend to those who might seek to undermine our society," the Home Office said.

    Bentley, a 36-year-old former drug addict who at the age of 13 sexually assaulted a minor, reacted angrily to the decision, writing on his church's Facebook page: "What about all the other celebrities,musicians and others with a more colorful past than me that are permitted into the UK for shows … Is this really about my past and fear of potential violence or Freedom of Religion and attack on Faith, God & Healing?"

    Bentley has reportedly distanced himself from some of his more extreme claims, insisting on Twitter that violence was "the furthest thing from who we are and how we minister".

    News of the tour's cancellation will come as a relief to those who had petitioned the government against it, including Malcolm Wicks, the Labour MP for Croydon North, who earlier this month wrote to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, urging her to ban Bentley, saying: "His visit can do nothing but harm and I would be grateful for any measures you can take."

    Croydon's 400-capacity conference centre was due to be the tour's first port of call for three nights from 30 August. Bentley, who has visited Britain several times before, most recently in December, was also due to visit Portadown in County Armagh, Liverpool and Cwmbran in south Wales.

    His planned visit had sparked alarm among those critical of his controversial style of preaching, which he has said often involves "curing" people of diseases, including cancer, by means of physical force. In various videos posted online, the self-styled "preacher with the tattoos" claims he once choked a man to health; in one he claims he banged a woman's legs "up and down on the platform like a baseball bat" until she was miraculously healed.

    In one typical claim, he is filmed telling an audience: "And the Holy Spirit spoke to me, the gift of faith came on me. He said, 'kick her in the face with your biker boot'. I inched closer and I went like this – bam! And just as my boot made contact with her nose, she fell under the power of God."

    In 2008, Bentley gained international attention when he led a series of revivalist meetings in Florida which drew thousands of people and came to be known as the Lakeland Outpouring. But his reputation as a man of God subsequently took a battering amid allegations about his private life. He was also the subject of a documentary on Nightline, the ABC news programme, which questioned the validity of his claims.

    Expressing his disappointment on the Facebook page of his church, Fresh Fire USA, Bentley wrote: "They have no legal basis for their accusation. I did all their visa process and fingerprinting and security. This decision was made before any of my application was processed. It is based on internet, media and false perception they have not followed up on. I think this is big news! USA immigration saw fit to receive me into the country. The UK government never asked our side of the story or gave any process for discussion. Disappointing but God wins!"


  5. In Brooklyn, a Punk Church Tries to Redefine Religious Faith

    by Carly Lewis, The Atlantic March 26, 2013

    A congregation founded by the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker ministers to the rebels and the doubters.

    "It's hotter than hell out here," mutters a man leaning against the defaced outside wall of a bar on Lorimer Street. He is smoking what remains of the cigarette he found on the curb, so I offer him two of mine. It is Easter Sunday, after all, and no one deserves a used cigarette. He tucks the fresh cigs into the breast pocket of his black leather jacket, and walks into the bar. There are two jagged holes in his tattered jeans. One is partially covered by a sloppily stitched Black Flag patch. The other hangs agape, revealing a Jesus fish tattoo on the back of his hairy thigh.

    I follow him into the bar, watching as he spots and hugs a woman with two lip rings who brought her small dog along with her. They are joined by a younger looking man with long, slithery hair, who is wearing a skinny tie and has a tattoo of a crucifix peeking from beneath a rolled up dress-shirt sleeve. Soon they all have pints in their hands and are making their way to the dim room in the back of the bar. The man with the holes in his pants offers me the chair beside him. We clink our glasses together, but that is the last time we communicate. He is not in this Brooklyn bar at 4 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon to make small talk with a stranger. He is here to pray.

    On Sunday afternoons, Pete's Candy Store— an unprepossessing dive bar tucked away near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway— becomes the home of Revolution, a non-denominational church for people who choose to preserve their religious faith through non-traditional means. Out of the 30 or so people present, only a smattering have Bibles open on their laps and most have pints of whatever on-tap beer cost the least amount of money.

    At the front of this small backroom is a modest stage, illuminated by an arc of round, struggling light bulbs. Two of them have burned out, and two of them are missing. The state of disrepair gives the already dusky space an even darker portent, not dissimilar to a certain grunge-era music video featuring punk cheerleaders in a dirty gymnasium.

    The church's co-pastor, Vince Anderson, greets the congregation with a friendly grin as he takes his place on the stage's lone wooden stool. I expect him to stand— which he never does— and begin the service with formal salutations and well-rehearsed Bible passages. Instead, he pulls out a bottle of red wine, for communion, and passes around a plastic grocery store bag of Easter chocolate. "If you like the marshmallow ones, you're gonna have to fight for 'em," he jokes, adding that Lutherans and pagans are always welcome in his church. We're already drinking beer in a bar on Easter Sunday— why not?

    Reverend Anderson starts off with some announcements. A regular Revolution-going couple has just had a baby. Another member is in the hospital, recovering from back surgery. Then he preaches of trauma. He preaches of joy. He preaches of terror and amazement, and of the Gospel of Mark. He preaches of uncertainty and confusion, and of the months following his father's death in which he— still a reverend— became an atheist. "God allowed me to be an atheist," he tells the congregation, "because I needed nothing." He elaborates on the tumultuous relationship he had with his dad while he was still alive. I look up and see that the girl across from me— the one with the small dog— is crying.

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  6. "I don't know if I can get my head around the idea that Jesus was physically resurrected," he later admits to the group. The mood is lightened by laughter as those in attendance contemplate the practicality of certain biblical teachings, but it fades once again when Anderson recalls his suicidal college years. A handful of heads nod in empathy. He fills a heavy silence with a reassuring warrant: "There is room here for the doubters."

    Anderson reads Allen Ginsberg's "Footnote to Howl," but omits the particularly indecent parts— after all, this is still a church, a point he marks with the respectful gesture of dressing in a suit. There is chocolate to eat, bread to break and, of course, the wine, which flows around the room in a communion chalice (alternatively, in shot glasses, for the germophobes) while Johnny Cash's "Breaking Bread" plays loudly in the background.

    The collection plate circulates. The man with the holes in his pants, whom I had earlier found smoking a resurrected cigarette from the street, smooths out two crumpled $1 bills. Church for the week is over, and the congregation of misfits files outside in an orderly fashion. Worship is alive and well in Williamsburg, but it is more partial to Bad Religion than it is to the Holy Bible.

    Punk and Christianity make for wary bedfellows, so this pack of leather-clad, beer-guzzling churchgoers is a curious sight. Punk culture is rooted in anti-authoritarianism, and Christianity is a system that functions through obedience. In England during the 1970s, punk was born from a sense of embittered fury. Bands like the Sex Pistols used it as an outlet to vent their frustration toward stifling political policies and working-class hardships. Their debut single, "Anarchy in the U.K.," begins with singer John Lydon hoarsely declaring he is an antichrist. On the song's release, the church was horrified at being mocked by a band whose virulent popularity was building steadily, one disenfranchised kid at a time. If you weren't with Christianity, you were against it, and punk certainly was.

    So how could this congregation of crusty kids feel justified in having ichthys tattoos? What would John Lydon think? Were these churchgoers experiencing a holy conversion or being total hypocrites? As it turns out, neither, and the premise of Revolution is not as outlandish as it might seem.

    "We all saw that there were a lot of kids who didn't feel like they were fitting in at church," says Anderson's Revolution co-pastor, Jay Bakker, who is also the founder. "We just saw this whole area of the church that seemed to be rejected."

    Rejection is a feeling with which Bakker is well acquainted. As the son of shamed ex-televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye, Bakker learned just how quickly faith-based communities can crumble. In 1989, when Jay was 13, fraud and sex scandals turned his family into an American punch line. His father was found guilty on eight counts of mail fraud, 15 counts of wire fraud and one count of conspiracy for mishandling the membership fees he solicited through his show, The PTL (Praise The Lord) Club. Jim Bakker was also accused of raping his church's secretary. He resigned from the ministry after it was revealed that he bribed her with PTL Club money to keep the allegations a secret. Jim and Tammy Faye eventually divorced.

    Jay's depression took over and his addictions to drugs and drinking filled the loneliness left behind by a demolished family life and a glimpse of the dark underbelly of organized religion. Bakker says that his return to faith ultimately saved him, and that the church-imposed judgment and rejection he felt as a teenager are things he never wants his congregation to experience.

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  7. "We're here for you when you need it or when you want to be here," he says. "We're not demanding that people come to church every Sunday. We're not trying to create an army. We want to create a community, but at the same time, we want it to grow naturally and organically."

    When presented in this light, the relationship between punk and Christianity is not so antithetical after all. "I don't think it's as peculiar as it seems on the surface," says Reverend Jesse Parker, about the fusion of Christianity and punk. "I don't see punk as being opposed to Christianity and I don't think that connection is nearly as strange as people make it out to be." Parker spent his youth playing in Toronto punk bands with violent-sounding names like Scare Tactic and Career Suicide.

    Last year, he was ordained as a deacon and now preaches at Toronto's Anglican Church of St. Andrew. During the era of his life in which he considered himself a punk, Parker was straightedge, meaning that he abstained from drinking, drugs, and casual sex. "Perhaps deep down it was the same part of me that was attracted to punk rock that was attracted to Christianity," he says. "Perhaps it's the same part of me that is dissatisfied with the way that things are but is still hopeful about the way things could be."

    Parker says that the ethos of punk is not all that different from the ethos of Christianity, and in fact, that the two often mirror each other in terms of how they officiate. "It is kind of a monastic community," Parker says of straightedge punk. "It's these young (predominantly) men, who come together and take these self-imposed vows, and there's kind of a dress code and they meet regularly at shows and there are elders in the community who are seen as superior. There's a really interesting kind of quasi-religious, quasi-monastic way about them— a rejection of the expectations of the world in favor of a way of life that will eventually lead them to some kind of higher purpose. In a different time, a lot of those kids who were attracted to the straightedge scene would have been the young novices in monasteries."

    Hannah Malone has attended Revolution for the past four years. (At her request, I've changed her name.) Having grown up in the Bible Belt, she says, she felt so "beyond sheltered" by her Christian school that when she turned 18, she packed her possessions into garbage bags and ran away from home without even leaving a note. Eventually she found herself in New York. "I had no outlet to meet people because I worked all the time," she says.

    But she was intrigued when a coworker told her about Revolution. "I felt like I needed people in my life," she says. "And I started to feel like a good way to do that would be church. But I definitely didn't want to go to a normal church." The girl she sat beside on her first Sunday at Revolution was wearing thigh-high pleather boots, a mini-skirt, and "mega Goth makeup." Malone herself sports a Debbie Harry-meets-Amy Winehouse aesthetic, and the girl's style made her feel comfortable. "I thought, 'I know I'm in the right place. I'm not alone. Everybody has a spot here.'"

    There's some irony in the comfort Malone felt at seeing a girl her age who looked like her in church. "Christians feel they've succeeded if they make you look like them," says Graham Taylor, a retired Church of England vicar. "What Christians want to do is clone people to be like themselves. The punk scene is very much about individuality."

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  8. Taylor spent his youth backstage, in mosh pits, and working as a roadie for bands like The Stranglers and The Sex Pistols. On the many nights that John Lydon sang, "I'm a jealous God and I want everything," Taylor raised his fist in solidarity with his employer. "The threat of nuclear war hung over our heads," says Taylor of the '70s. "It was all very different then. Something had to come to give people a motive— a motive for living, really."

    Taylor went on to make a name for himself not as roadie or a vicar, but as the best-selling author of fantasy novels that contain Christian allegory. As we discuss his fiction, I ask him this: If punk is anti-establishment and Christianity is an establishment, is it not profoundly hypocritical to pledge allegiance to both?

    "I'm not saved by the lord," Taylor replies quickly. "I'm saved by grace. I don't adhere to Leviticus. I don't adhere to the Old Testament. I adhere to the teachings of Jesus, which are very straightforward: 'Love thy neighbor as thyself.' It doesn't say anything about what I've got to wear, or the length of my hair, what color my hair is or whether I've got a tattoo."

    If anything, Taylor contends, the punk ethos may be more Christ-like than Christianity itself. "I don't think church is like a gathering of punks at all. The gathering of punks would be a lot more cheerful, to start off with. I don't think the punks would be so content on criticizing each other. I don't think a gathering of punks would be as judgmental toward each other as a group of Christians."


    The following Sunday at Revolution, the congregation is noticeably smaller than it was on Easter. It is, once again, hotter than hell. "It's like a sauna in here," quips Bakker. The bartender leaves his post to turn on the overhead fan, which shaves one degree, maybe two, off of the temperature. This is a community that sweats together, and there are no complaints. Bakker is delivering the sermon this week. "We try to not have just one person speak all the time," he told me in an earlier phone conversation. This is to prevent the church from establishing one singular leader, which could make it resemble a cult.

    The service begins with announcements, as usual, and the smokers quietly shuffle in a few minutes late from outside. The man with the holes in his pants sits down in front of me. He is wearing the same jeans as last week, and they appear to not have been washed. The Black Flag patch is still hanging on, but the other hole has widened over the past seven days.

    Bakker informs the congregation that the Revolution pastors have set up a Google Doc to schedule visits with the hospitalized church member who has just had surgery. He suggests that people bring meals to this man once he is discharged, as he will be unable to cook for himself during the recovery phase. The iPad containing the Google Doc will be at the back of the room after the sermon for anyone wishing to visit or cook. With that out of the way, Bakker launches into a sermon about sex.

    "Sex is always a topic people want to talk about," says Anderson. "There's so much baggage around that. We've done a lot of sermons about premarital sex and what the Bible actually says about it. But I still think people want to hear about grace."

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  9. Revolution is a strongly gay-affirming church, and Bakker is an advocate for queer religious rights. In this, he is aligned with a broadly defined postmodern strand of Christianity that separates itself from the rules of the institutionalized church. This larger movement is in the process of reexamining the pillars of modern worship and the nature of religion, and it advocates for social change (such as queer and reproductive rights) inside Christianity. Unsurprisingly, it has traditionalists in a panic. It questions authority. It rejects the patterns of history. It bends the rules. It allows people to drink on Sundays. It lets gay Christians come to church without having to hide their sexuality.

    Unconditional acceptance is something Revolution prides itself on. It was also among the founding principles of punk rock. And it is in the Bible. Proverbs 10:12 reads: "Hatred stirs up disputes, but love covers all offenses." If punk and Christianity are strange bedfellows, the emerging church movement is their couples' therapy.

    Reverend Hank Peirce fits the description of this movement. He grew up on punk rock and new wave and attended what he calls a "super liberal" Unitarian Universalist church (to which he still belongs) throughout his childhood. He spent his adolescence drinking underage. He spent his 20s working as a poorly paid roadie. "I consider myself an anomaly in the world of punk rock-religious folk," he says. "I'm part of the same religion that I grew up with. The religious values that I grew up on are still my religious values."

    Years ago, though, Peirce did make a conscious decision to rededicate himself to the church. He was working as a roadie for a friend's band that wound up opening for Metallica. His own band was still in fledgling mode and he wasn't making much money, but he was as content as a broke young punk could be. That is, until he noticed something unsettling about the Metallica roadies— that they were older, joyless, future versions of himself— and felt a canyon of existential angst that he says had to be filled by religion.

    "I wanted to be with other people, but I wanted to help other people make meaning," he remembers. Today, he is a straightedge priest living just outside of Boston with a graying Morrissey haircut and a reputation for outspoken, lyric-laden sermons. "For me, when I've had these conflicts between religion and punk rock, it just comes back to who I am."

    On his Facebook page, Peirce writes of the difficulty that can arise when reconciling his dual devotions: "I have to talk about punk's anti-religious bent," he says. "It comes from the inherent anti-authoritarian part of our movement ... but mostly it is the idea of not wanting anyone to tell us what to believe." Christianity does, of course, tell people what to believe. But it would be disingenuous to claim punk doesn't do the same. The counterculture may have begun as a grimy free-for-all of glorified rebellion and uninhibited liberation, but it, too has drawn up its own strict set of rules and norms.

    At a coffee shop in Toronto's east end, I meet Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in TO and Beyond. As something of a punk-rock scholar, she gives the scene an equitable shake. "Punk is very tribal," she says. She points out that going to Sneaky Dee's, a beloved Toronto dive-bar, every Friday night becomes just as much a community-oriented tradition as going to church every Sunday morning or afternoon. "It's important to keep in mind that punk rock started in a time where people really believed that there was no future. People were genuinely afraid that the world was going to be over, that there were going to be nuclear bombs and that would be the end."

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  10. So the first generation of punks lived as though tomorrow would never arrive. Concert experiences were unpredictable; parties were wild; fashion was impulsive. "You don't see a lot of punks doing that stuff anymore," says Worth. "People don't wear garbage bags to punk shows these days, and if they did, I think a lot of people would react to it. That person would be back outside of the norm." If religion has lost much of its authority, punk has lost its sense of anarchy. "It's a strange popularity contest," Worth continues. "Punk and religion are such personal things. People should be allowed to process them and express them and feel them out whenever they want to, and on their own terms. But we don't let that happen."

    Worth's observation gets to the core of what makes a church like Revolution so unique. It is a place where religious questioning is encouraged and even shared by the pastors who in any other context would be defrocked of their ministry status. It is also a place where the doubters and the bad kids can express devotion without being ostracized. To those for whom punk is a religion and a way of life, Christianity is the counterculture.


    It is Father's Day at Revolution. Reverend Anderson is speaking, and he begins with a personal disclaimer. "Father's Day has become kind of a weird holiday for me," he tells the congregation. (When Anderson's father was alive, their relationship was tenuous.) Anderson last delivered a Revolution sermon on Mother's Day. He does not have a strained relationship with his mother, but quotes the same Bible passage today. He reads Mark 3:24 and 3:25: "If a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand." And so begins a sermon about community, with a biblical passage that could just as easily be a punk lyric about unity. "It is very, very hard to be authentic and to live an authentic life," says Anderson. "We demonize what we don't understand. Sin is so much deeper than objects or behaviors."

    Anderson distributes pencils and slips of paper around the room. Congregants are to write one authentic thing about themselves on one side and one inauthentic trait about themselves on the other. The slips of paper are then folded and exchanged. Just as it seems Anderson might be orchestrating a group confessional (which would be a certifiably un-punk thing to do), he tells the congregation not to read the slips they received. Instead, they are to lay them down on the modest stage where he sits on his barstool, illuminated by that arc of round, struggling light bulbs. He tucks them into his Bible and says he'll put them away somewhere. Maybe he'll bury them, or maybe he'll put them in a closet.

    "Sometimes we won't know what to do with each other's sins," he says. "We'll just hold them. The thing about rituals is that they're all made up as we go along. I can't imagine that Jesus thought about communion before he gave it." The aim of the exercise, he makes clear, was not to punish or shame people for their hubris or their lustfulness or their greed, but to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, those things exist inside us all. "This is the beginning of our journey together as a community of confession," says Anderson, "a community of authenticity."

    After a short prayer, church for the week is over. The congregation of misfits— some of them devoted, some of them doubtful— says amen and shuffles back outside.