Thursday, March 24, 2011

Lou Engle, Race, and Abortion at Firestorm 2011

Life Center Ministries in Harrisburg, PA held its Firestorm 2011 revival on March 2-5, with Lou Engle among its inspirational speakers. Engle, a prominent New Apostolic Reformation speaker, is the founder of TheCall and a member of the International House of Prayer leadership team. Known for his opposition to abortion and homosexuality, Engle has drawn controversy for promoting homophobia in Uganda, where a draconian anti-gay bill is being considered by Ugandan parliament. Although I could not attend Firestorm 2011 myself, I secured a DVD recording of Lou Engel's March 4th talk, which was heavily laden with messages about abortion, gender, and race.

With infectious enthusiasm and charisma, Engle began his talk by exploring the theme of human life as a narrative written by God. God has written a story about everyone's life, Engle told listeners, and we must keep turning the pages. Asserting that God is the "author and finisher of our faith," he claimed that God hedges people in so that they follow the direction he has planned for them. "Even unbelievers do what they were created to do," Engle said, with the exception that unbelievers do not give glory to God. Every person has to find their name written in God's book and learn of the Creator's storyline for us, he said, exhorting men and women who do not venture guesses about God's plan but rather say "behold, I come."

Citing the trials and tribulations of Joseph and Zecharias, Engle observed that if they'd grown bitter during the hard times of their lives, they wouldn't have lived out God's story for them. One's story may not make sense until the end of the chapter, or the end of the book. "Don't retire, read the next chapter," he encouraged listeners, assuring them that a point comes in everyone's life when God gives them a glimpse of their destiny. Dreams and obsessions are two possible vehicles through which God provides this glimpse, he told listeners.

Abortion is one of Engle's most central issues, and he wasted no time in condemning it at Firestorm. Because "every child is a dream of God," abortion disrupts God's dreams of new lives, he claimed, and thus ending abortion will "comfort the heart of God." Likening abortion to Herod's slaughter of the innocents, Engle entwined his story-theme and anti-abortion theme when he told the audience, "I am not an accident, I am a narrative!" He credited God with keeping him alive after birth, when he was in poor health and had to be administered oxygen for days. He also recounted the story of Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who claimed that his mother refused to abort him despite her doctor's warnings that he could be born with birth defects.

In a reference to the first chapters of Exodus, Engle lamented abortion in the days of the Egyptian Pharaoh, when babies were allegedly thrown into the Nile. (I suspect that Engle was deliberately conflating abortion and infanticide here.) However, Engle celebrated the way that God undermined this state of affairs by having a man from the tribe of Levi take a woman, who then conceived Moses. Two people marrying and having a baby overthrew evil, he emphasized, joking that he wants to start a "went-and-took" movement. "When marriage is being assaulted on all sides, just have a man went-and-took-a-woman," he joked.

At the 17:45 mark, Engle bluntly urged people of color to reproduce, arguing that this would counter the forces behind abortion. He accused abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood of deliberately targeting people of color, a common trope in anti-abortion rhetoric.

"We need women who can see their child in the midst of a culture while people are oppressed. I'm speaking to the Hispanics and the oppressed people. Just give me a Hispanic man. Go and take a Hispanic woman and see their child in the way God--and he'll rise up and shake the whole abortion system down. Listen. Roe v Wade and Planned Parenthood's targeting Hispanics and blacks. God changes the whole culture by a-man-took-a-woman and saw the child in the way God sees the unformed embryo."
At the 21:00 mark, in starkly patriarchal language, Engle urged women to bear children as a revolutionary act.
"Be a mom. Moms are written in the pages of history. What is Susannah Wesley would have stopped having babies at fourteen [children]? She wouldn't have had John Wesley. Isn't it interesting that in those days when the Hebrews were being persecuted, they were slaves, they were poor, you know how they overcame the system? By having more babies. They multiplied."
This statement struck me as sexist and misguided. Engle was essentially encouraging women to make their mark in the world by bearing children, not by acting within the world or cultivating their unique skills. The idea that women can make history themselves, rather than through male offspring, was not considered. To boot, Engle's glorification of Susannah Wesley's prolific reproduction ignores the fact that excessive childbearing places enormous physical and psychological strain on women, often with unhealthy consequences. Finally, prolific reproduction alone does not ensure political gains for a particular group in the same way that education and organized activism do, so his assumption that a group can overcome "the system" by having more children is specious. I was reminded of Engle's appearance in The Abortion Matrixwhere he associated prolific childbearing with political influence among conservative Christians. 

This reminds me too much of the Quiverfull movement, I thought.

Engle claimed that another New Apostolic Reformation preacher, Cindy Jacobs, prophesied that California would become an anti-abortion state. At the time, he speculated that the only way this could happen was through the efforts of Hispanics. Shortly thereafter, he claimed that a friend dreamed that a Hispanic man told him to report to California, while a fellow preacher, Che Ahn, dreamed of a black man calling him to the state as well. Eventually, Engle became involved in anti-abortion activism with the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which he saw as confirmation of Jacobs' prophesy.

In no uncertain terms, Engle was eyeing up people of color as a resource for the anti-abortion movement. This is nothing new, as Engle has been cultivating ties with anti-abortion people of color through his involvement in the 8:18 Movement and AVIVA. What impact this will have on fundamentalist Christian communities of color remains to be seen.

Finally, Engle celebrated the Nazirite vow as a spiritual discipline, recapping themes from his book Nazirite DNA. After recounting the story of his son Jesse's Nazirite vow, he told listeners that Nazirites often herald powerful spiritual events. For instance, Samuel preceded King David in the Old Testament, and John the Baptist preceded Jesus in the New Testament. Echoing Nazirite DNA, Engle emphasized the power of Nazirite Christians to bring about radical upheaval in society.

In short, Engle's talk blended anti-abortion activism, stereotypical roles for women, and racial politics. With his usual passion, Engle presented a right-wing political message at Firestorm 2011, heavily spiced with enchanting, uplifting metpahors of life as a cosmic story. Lou Engle, I've found, is frequently political, often disconcerting, but never boring.


  1. Amazing how some charismatic speakers backed by peppy rock music can make any message, no matter how illogical and biased, sound inspiring.

  2. Donna Banta -- I have to admit that Engle's charisma and enthusiasm are infectious. Unfortunately, he uses his public speaking talents to promote troubling messages.

  3. "The idea that women can make history themselves, rather than through male offspring, was not considered."

    I hope you know concept that women have value beyond their ability to produce offspring is an evil and heretical one, Ahab. ::sarcasm off::

    People like Engle have to be either delusional or something much more sinister. I wish I knew which one.

  4. Cognitive Dissenter -- Engle definitely has an agenda, and I wish I knew what was ultimately driving him.


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