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An elderly man brings me a carnation, and a few people smile and say welcome.
The congregation has been studying John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. (Here's the Amazon.com synopsis: One of the most powerful dramas of Christian faith ever written, this captivating allegory of man's religious journey in search of salvation follows the pilgrim as he travels an obstacle-filled road to the Celestial City. Along the way, he is confronted by monsters and spiritual terrors.... An enormously influential seventeenth-century classic, universally known for its simplicity, vigor, and beauty of language. ) Today's sermon is about one of those monsters, a character called Deceiver.
"Deceiver is a scary, scary person," Johnston begins. "His hood is pulled down over his eyes. He hides himself from you. He doesn't want you to know who he really is. And in the 31 years I've been a Christian, I can't think of a time that Deceiver ever walked up to me and said, 'Hello, Jerry, I'm Deceiver.' ... But he worked in all sorts of other ways, many ways I never anticipated. He was always trying to keep my eyes off the eternal truths. Get me to doubt God. He used all kinds of influences, and occasionally he actually used people."
I begin to squirm. Does Pastor Jerry somehow know that I'm here and what I'm up to?
"We have a command in Scripture, Galatians, Chapter 6, Verse 7," he continues. "It's just one verse: 'Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.'" He makes us repeat it a couple of times. God is not mocked.
I'm starting to feel guilty. Am I here, despite my honest desire to understand the values voter, with the ultimate intention of mocking God? No way!
But mocking Jerry Johnston? Perhaps a little of that is in order.
Johnston and I have a couple of things in common. He, too, was a teenage drug abuser (until he accepted Jesus Christ at youth camp one summer).
And I'm not in love with the concept of gay marriage, either. But that's because I question whether my gay brothers and sisters should bother trying to imitate the most overrated institution in heterosexual culture (" Behind the Veil," November 18, 2004). But, hey, if that's what they want to do, I've never argued that they shouldn't have the same right. Mostly, I've argued that the gay-marriage debate isn't about marriage at all; it's about the Republican Party's craven effort to turn out conservative voters by demonizing one relatively defenseless minority group, and how Democrats have caved in ("Altar Ego," Feburary 12, 2004, and "Queer Bait," June 17, 2004).
Johnston might actually believe that marriage is under attack from gay people -- instead of from half the straight people who currently abuse the privilege. But he also understands perfectly well that hammering on the issue is a beautiful way to keep himself in the spotlight and his followers positioned for political power.
Throughout the Deceiver sermon, it's obvious how Johnston turns anxious suburbanites into values voters like Jesus multiplying fish at the Sea of Galilee.
First, all that election stuff about Hollywood being the great Satan? Do not be deceived: Johnston loves Hollywood!
Pastor Jerry begins his Deceiver sermon by noting that he has spent the past week reading Tatum O'Neal's book A Paper Life, which chronicles her trajectory from 10-year-old Oscar winner to child-abandoning drug addict.
"I met Deceiver in the pages of this book," Johnston notes. "I'm reading another one now, by Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He, too, has met Deceiver along the way."