Friday, December 24, 2010

Books from the Religious Right: NAZIRITE DNA by Lou Engle

Lou Engle, founder of TheCall and a member of the International House of Prayer leadership team, is an avuncular preacher associated with the New Apostolic Reformation. My first exposure to Engle was through the documentary Jesus Camp, in which he spoke to a group of children about the supposed evils of abortion. As I learned more about Engle, I discovered that he not only possesses considerable charisma, but that he also promotes chilling anti-gay and anti-choice messages. In the Vanguard documentary Missionaries of Hate, Engle is revealed as one of several American evangelical leaders who have promoted homophobia in Uganda, where a controversial anti-gay bill is currently under consideration. Because of Engle's disconcerting statements, several politicians who have associated with him, including Mike Huckabee and Sam Brownback, have come under public scrutiny.

Lou Engle's 2009 book, Nazirite DNA, was available as a free download from TheCall's website this month, so I decided to review it for the blog. In Nazirite DNA, Engle reinterprets the Biblical Nazirite vow as a modern spiritual discipline for returning America to God. In the Bible, Nazirites were Israelites who dedicated themselves to God by vowing to abstain from wine and grape products, grow their hair long, and avoid contact with dead bodies (see Numbers 6:2-11). Biblical figures such as Samson and John the Baptist were legendary Nazirites, endowed with power because of their consecrated vow.

Engle himself recites the audio book, preaching in a gravelly voice that can be warm and intensely zealous at once. Back in 2000, he claims, his son Jesse resolved to be a Nazarite until TheCall D.C. gathering later that year. That night, Engle had a visionary dream announcing that America had not yet seen her Nazirites. At the September 2000 D.C. rally, Jesse called out for the Nazirites to rise in America. Engle believes that faith of this intensity heralds another spiritual awakening in the U.S., asserting that "nations will shake" and turn back to God because of the spiritual power of modern-day Nazirites.

Engle also claims that a friend dreamt of a divine being reciting Psalm 50:5-15, in which God calls on his consecrated ones to turn to him in times of trouble. Confident that this was a reference to Nazirites, he observes that the being in his friend's dream stopped at Psalm 50:15, leaving out the next scriptural passages in which God condemns the wicked. Engle interprets this omission as a sign that God still views the U.S. mercifully, in the hopes that America will come together and glorify God. With these visionary dreams in mind, Engle asserts that he felt called to gather these "consecrated ones" in prayer.

Nazirite DNA argues that the Biblical Nazirites constituted a "counter-cultural resistance" to the idolatry, apostasy, and "sexual immorality" of their surrounding society. By challenging the religious status quo and demonstrating heartfelt devotion to God, the Nazirites of the Bible brought about spiritual renewal in ancient Israel, Engle argues. In this, he seems to imply that America is supposedly experiencing a similar moral decay, which can be ameliorated by the devotion of a modern generation of Nazirites. Indeed, at the 19:05 mark, he argues that divine blessing upon a nation may be directly connected to the rise of Nazirites.

The Nazirite vow has not only national significance, he insists, but personal spiritual significance, as the vow is rooted in the believer's passionate love of God. In language not unlike that of ecstatic mystics, he describes God's pursuit of the adoration of the human heart. Engle also describes fantastic boons bestowed upon those who fasted and prayed with Nazirite-like devotion. At the 47:24 mark, he cites a friend who fasted three days each week for a year, crying out to God that he could bring Jesus to Hollywood. That friend allegedly works in Hollywood now, producing short films. Engle also cited an unnamed preacher who fasted and prayed every day, and now had supposedly raised people from the dead in God's name.

Engle associates this personal devotion to the divine with detachment from the surrounding society. At the 37:00 mark, Engle warns listeners about dispersing their attention, even with legitimate recreation such as sports, movies, and technology. Later in the audio book, he lambastes entertainment, fashion, and expectations of family and friends -- "the harassments of Delilah" -- because they threaten to compromise the devotion and inward purity of the modern Nazirite.

Engle's social views soon make their appearance at the 59:50 mark of Nazirite DNA, in which he claims that God is raising up Nazirites to "tear down altars" of pornography, "sexual immorality", abortion, and sex trafficking. Hearing Engle lump hard-won reproductive rights in the same moral category as horrors such as sex trafficking disgusted me, and served as a reminder about his fundamentalist priorities.

At the 1:00:20 mark, Engle waxes poetic about the "spiritually violent ones" who will challenge "political systems of death and injustice." He speaks warmly of the anti-abortion Bound4Life group, which participates in silent prayer protests outside courthouses and abortion clinics. This resistance to a "culture of death" and refusal to figuratively "bury" the abortion issue is held up as the modern analog to the Nazirite vow not to touch or bury dead bodies.

The more Engle spoke about abortion, the more I realized that his call for Nazirites was actually a call for anti-abortion activism. Using an exotic vow from ancient times as a rallying cry, he transmutes followers' religious zeal into political activism against reproductive choice. Lest his flock recoil from labels such as "extremist", Engle tries to reclaim the word, using it to positively describe the zeal of John the Baptist's followers at the 44:10 mark.

As repugnant as Engle's political views are, I admit that he has impressive magnetism and communication skills, which he uses effectively with youthful audiences. In Nazirite DNA, he appeals to young adults by promising them a counter-cultural rebellion, a cosmic mission, and a magical new reality brimming with prophesy and power. His public persona, fatherly and ecstatic at once, is no doubt appealing to young people. Unfortunately, he uses his persona and communication skills to promote homophobia and anti-choice activism, which has earned him the antipathy of progressive observers.

Nazirite DNA, in essence, is a political call wrapped in a spiritual call. As Engle beseeches listeners to adopt an exotic spiritual discipline, promising them power and divine favor, he also urges them to join his anti-choice crusade. For fundamentalist leaders such as Engle, the personal, spiritual, and political are tightly intertwined.

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