Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Saturday at the Hilltop Conference: George Otis Jr. on Society's Decline

To read an introduction to the Hilltop Conference, click here. To read about Faytene Grasseschi and Benjamín Núñez's comments on abortion, click here. To read about Lou Engle at the conference, click here.

On Saturday, April 13th, I observed the Hilltop Conference at the Holiday Inn Rosslyn in Arlington, Virginia. The event was hosted by the anti-abortion group Bound 4 Life and the Justice House of Prayer D.C., and featured New Apostolic Reformation speakers from across North America. George Otis Jr., president of the Sentinel Group ministry, gave a talk on the supposed decline of American society and the need for Christians to approach revival differently.

Otis' talk quickly turned melancholy, delving into reasons why America has become "diseased". America's value system is dead, he claimed, and pervasive "moral decomposition" and inattentiveness are symptoms of America's hastening decline. He lamented pervasive dishonesty in the U.S., which he blasted as a sign of "rot" in our national ethics, citing companies and public authorities than deceive the people. Furthermore, Otis listed several examples of real or alleged social malaise as evidence of this decline, such as America's high prison population, high rates of cheating among students, high rates of adultery among married couples, pornography consumption, promiscuity among youth, drug and alcohol abuse, and abortion for "social" rather than medical reasons. To boot, Otis lamented the decline in the number of Americans who believe in the Bible and dwindling youth attendance at churches.

Otis' comments revealed a great deal about the fundamentalist mindset. Like many fundamentalists, Otis looks at society and sees it in hopeless decline. Real or perceived evils in society are symptoms of a planet in free fall, according to such a mindset. Otis' words reflect common fundamentalist attitudes toward "the world", casting it as a fallen, sinful place that threatens Christians.

When real or perceived social ills are understood in context, however, it becomes clear that society is improving, not declining. Sizable prison populations and violent crime, for instance, do not necessarily signify a hideously violent society. Many pre-modern societies had high rates of interpersonal violence and homicide, often higher than those of modern America.* Drug and alcohol use (and addiction) were prevalent in ancient societies, if not more so than in modern societies. This is not to say that these problems are not real or not deserving of serious responses, only that they do not necessarily signify a world sinking into depravity.

Other perceived social ills that Otis named are a matter of opinion. Pro-choice people would not necessarily see abortion as a social evil. People who do not view pre-marital sex as sinful would not necessarily see promiscuity as wicked. An increase in non-Christians is not in any way cause for alarm. In short, Otis sees the existence of practices and belief systems that he disagrees with as symptoms of social decline, rather than signs of social change.

In his haste to paint American society as decaying, Otis ignored the many signs that society is improving. Our society has made dizzying advances in medicine, science, and technology.We're connected with the larger world far more than ever before. Women, children, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities have far more rights and opportunities than they did fifty years ago. Our society is far from perfect or just, but we've come a long way, and I look to the future with optimism, not despair.

Otis described modern society as a "culture of forgetting" that is unable to focus, the mark of a dark age or "twilight culture". Declining societies such as the U.S. and ancient Rome focus on the present, oblivious to looming threats, he claimed.

Otis suggested that it may be time for Christians to stop focusing on how to preserve that that are already lost, including the American way of life and the notion that the U.S. is a "Christian nation" It's time to "let go" and recognize a new reality, he told listeners.

He advised his audience to let go of four assumptions and strategies: (1) an approach to politics and legislation that seeks to change things, (2) trust in state protection, (3) assumptions about cultural continuity, and (4) manifest destiny and the supposed inevitability of God's blessing.

* * * * * * *

It was impossible to ignore the sorrow hanging over the room, the regret etched on the faces of the audience members. Looking at the melancholy faces in the room, I felt pity for these Christians who now realized that they'd lost the culture war. Otis' talk convinced them that their nation was spiraling downward and their efforts had gained them little if any ground.

But then I paused. Why am I feeling pity?

I remembered all the dominionist, anti-choice, anti-LGBTQ rhetoric I'd heard from New Apostolic Reformation preachers. These people were part of a movement to carry out fundamentalist agenda in my country, a movement that wants to control women's bodies and make my LGBTQ friends second-class citizens.Why am I feeling pity?

I realized that while I could empathize with their sorrow, I must not forget that the people in the room were part of a troubling movement that opposes so much I hold dear.

* * * * * * *

Otis quickly shot down fantasies of Christian nationalism and leadership by pointing out unethical, hypocritical, and abusive behaviors among some Christian leaders. He argued that many Christians would do no better in power than "family values" leaders such as Mark Sanford and Ted Haggard. He then listed a litany of Christian leaders who had perpetrated sexual misconduct, outright sexual abuse, or fiscal corruption. Otis noted the irony of evangelicals trumpeting the sanctity of marriage while having a high collective divorce rate, wondering out loud why more evangelicals don't focus on their own marriages. In short, Christians have been blind to the dark situation in their own ranks.

Otis stressed the need for robust revival. He noted that while people have brought him stories of revival, many do not pass the "smell" test. Any spiritual transformation that is confined to a single church or institution is a red flag, he argued. Few believers have experienced real revival, in which God's presence is pervasive, Otis claimed. Christians who talk about revival without actually having experienced it can only imagine what it is, which is dangerous. Otis insisted that Christians need to exchange revival as they imagine it for genuine experiences of revival. Two conditions are needed for a robust revival: (1) desperation after all options have been exhausted, and (2) hope and faith so that desperation does not become toxic.

The marrow of Otis' message was that today's challenges are too insidious and entrenched to be remedied with simple solutions, and that God's wisdom is needed. While Christians are ready to work toward noble goals, their collective efforts are insufficient for such overarching problems, making divine intervention necessary, he said. Greed, "humanistic pride", and "demonic deception" are the roots of today's problems, but few people are addressing them. Both individual and corporate sin must be addressed amidst revival, because individual actions have corporate consequences, he argued.

Otis talk, despite its flawed assumptions, showed a self-awareness that I rarely see among New Apostolic Reformation preachers. On some level, Otis seemed aware that conservative Christians were losing the culture wars, given that he no longer saw politics, legislation, or "state protection" as the means by which they would bring about social change. Unlike some preachers, Otis had no illusions about the hypocrisy and crimes of some Christian leaders, reminding listeners that even Christian leaders could commit unethical or revolting acts. His calls for spiritual revival amidst so much anemic revival was refreshing, even though he and I would likely disagree on what positive spiritual upheaval would look like.

In conclusion, I came away from Otis' talk with mixed feelings. I was as surprised by Otis' genuine insights and calls for humility as I was alienated by his excessively negative outlook and conservative political stance.

* See War Before Civilization for a look at research on violence in pre-literate societies, for example.

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