Saturday, January 24, 2015

Westboro Baptist Church as Performance Art

It appears that Westboro Baptist Church has jumped the shark. What started out as an edgy, creative social critique has become vague and gimmicky. The group, otherwise known as the “God Hates Fags” or “God Hates America” people, is planning to be in the Quad Cities January 24--26 to do their prophetic work at churches in Bettendorf, Davenport, and Moline, as well as a Davenport Public School. WBC indicates the reason for its visit to the Bettendorf church is that the church has “perverted” the true purpose of ministry by making worship “into some sort of social club providing ‘Saturday night kid's club’, ‘lots of coffee’ and ‘pastors in jeans.’”

There is of course nothing unbiblical about kids, coffee and jeans; WBC’s point is just that the church’s happy style of worship is distracting the congregation from being concerned about their salvation, and making them comfortable in their sin. WBC believes this involves disobeying “the commandments of God such as no divorce and remarriage.” The members of WBC see themselves as prophets. Whether you agree with them or not, it has to be acknowledged that WBC shares something in common with all Christian prophets, whether they be found in Bible history, or the history of U.S. civil right movement. They all were hated by the general, unreflective public.

To understand the metaphor ‘jumped the shark,’ it helps to understand two types of meaning involved in the understanding of metaphor. The first is what a metaphor means--how it functions--and the second is how the metaphor gets its meaning. What “Jumping the shark” means is that a long-going artistic effort has exhausted its creativity, and becomes vague and gimicky to keep itself relevant. But many understand the meaning of the metaphor without understanding how it gets its meaning. In an episode of the 70s show Happy Days, the star character The Fonz donned his characteristic leather jacket, put on water skis, and used a ramp to literally jumped over a shark in the waters below. This scene was taken to signal the fact that the show had run out of good ideas, and was desperately trying to retain viewers for a bit longer. The term has since been applied to other TV shows.

I am applying the term “jumping the shark” to religious movements as well. WBC gained notoriety in large part for chanting and displaying signs at military funerals. Members argue that dead American soldiers are a definite sign that God is punishing the country for its sins. Primary among these sins is the tolerance of homosexuality. For them, it is not just that homosexuals are bad, but that anyone who tolerates homosexuality is just as bad. WBC has spoke out about other things as well. For example, when heavy metal singer Ronnie James Dio (one of my favorites) died a few years ago of pancreatic cancer, WBC was at his funeral, making note of his apparent Satanism and other sinfulness. But to go from addressing military funerals to addressing Dio to addressing blue jeans indicates that they have lost their edge, and are getting a bit desperate.

The media often refer to WBC as ‘protesting’ at events. The word ‘protest’ is misapplied here. WBC does not seem to believe in social change. Their belief that America is doomed follows their deterministic theology. As old-school Calvinists, they believe that God has set the saints and hell-bound in place, and made their lives fit this plan. Indeed, there are some essentially saintly folks who are still unsaved, and capable of being converted, but the majority of people are set up for damnation. The idea behind this philosophy is that, if God is all powerful, then his call for repentance cannot fail to work unless He planned for it not to work. It is like the top salesperson who gives you their best sales pitch, complete with what they believe is the soundest of reasoning, and you still refuse to buy the service. The salesperson leaves the house saying, “Well, I didn’t want to sell it to you anyway.”

It is clear that the QCA is no different from other parts of the country: It does not want what WBC is selling. But reactions to the group are bipolar. One the one hand, there is a Facebook event entreating people to counter-protest. “The HORRIBLE Westboro CULT will be picketing in the Quad Cities. We want as many people as we can to make a human wall around these places.... Lets all band together and keep them out of our cities and away from our children!!!!!!!!” (The missing apostrophe and 8 exclamation points are almost as offensive to me as anything WBC has said.) On the other hand, there is a Facebook event asking people to ignore the group. With considerably better punctuation, this group asks: “What's the best way to annoy Westboro? Ignore them. Don't give them any opportunity for publicity and self satisfaction.”

I think both approaches are misguided. You cannot oppose them directly, since opposition does not matter to them. It is just a sign of humanity’s total depravity, and thus confirms their beliefs. But ignoring the group is haughty. Though not all prophets were ultimately right, all prophets were initially ignored. We should ask God either to forgive them or forgive us, because at this point, no one knows what they are doing.

The best response to WBC is to consider them a form of performance art. With particularly challenging art, we are instigated to reflect on our real values, the ones that are offended. Blessed are those who take no offense, says Jesus. I think those who refuse to be offended, but rather see WBC as opportunity for critical reflection, are the blessed ones. It is not easy to forgo being offended, but no one said being a Christian is easy.

This doesn’t mean we have to accept their cultural critique at face value. I prefer to see the group at its most edgy, and I lament the fact that they’ve jumped the shark by complaining about coffee and blue jeans. WBC offends the most when it preaches at military funerals. Liberal and conservatives both hate this. I think this is what the group is ultimately disclosing, and if there is anything truly prophetic in what they are doing, it is found in the fact that the military-funeral preaching hits such a nerve in America. Soldiers have become saints and martyrs in a post-9/11 religion of militarism. It is of course odious to preach condemnation at anyone’s funeral, but the fact that people get most upset when WBC does it at military funerals tells us that, perhaps, militarism is our idolatry. The common claim that “soldiers died for our freedom” has become a creed in this new American religion. It is an article of faith, and challenging it risks apostasy. WBC says that the soldiers died because of our sins, and I don’t think they are entirely wrong. The soldiers died, after all, because we have sent them off to wars. And we forget that war is sin.

This is the message of WBC. I don’t care that they would disagree with my assessment of them, since I have little interest in their intentions but only their actions. I am choosing to find good in an evil situation. Our response to WBC should be to appreciate them as edgy art, or listen to them as a counselor. We have have hope that they work out our issues, and we can leave open the possibility that we will work out any issues we have as well.

--Tadd RuetenikIA.


  1. You should share these opinions with the Veteran's office at Ambrose, and I am sure the campus gay and lesbian student group/s would be interested in your opinion, Professor Ruetenik

    1. Veterans and LGBTA can see my opinions--and see that they are mine. I don't go Anonymous unless I am ratting out a mob boss or something.

      I hope veterans will see what I am saying: America has an idolatrous attachment to war, and soldiers are being sacrificed. We then honor their sacrifices without giving as much attention to preventing the deaths to begin with. No one is arguing that being belligerent at funerals is moral activity. I am just looking for the best way to deal with the fact that some people are compelled to do that, and looking for the higher ground.

      The highest ground is found here:

      I wish I had thought of something so classy and Christian.