Monday, October 25, 2010

Demonizing America - Part III: SPECIAL REPORT - HELL HOUSES - Causing Teen Suicides Or Rescuing Souls?


The following two paragraphs are excerpted from the 2005 edition Hell House Outreach Kit by Pastor Keenan Roberts of New Destiny Church of Arvada, Colorado. While this kit may have been updated, the basic scenes are being played in Hell Houses across the country. 
* Gay Wedding ($45) — This energetic scene will give you another powerful weapon in your arsenal against the homosexual stronghold and the born-gay deception. The demon tour guide conducts the ceremony that actually involves a young married couple. (The wife dons masculine make-up for the necessary male look.) The tour guide pronounces them “husband and husband”. Then the scene utilizes a time warp to move several years into the future with one of the partners dying of AIDS as demon imps swarm into a hospital room. This package comes with the originally produced rock-n-roll wedding march CD, the air of evil background music CD and the death drum track also on compact disc.

* Gay/Lesbian Suicide ($45) — This scene creatively combines two cutting-edge issues into one script. The drama for the scene calls for a spiritual battle between the angel of the Lord and the demon tour guide. They wrestle for Jamie's intellect as she struggles with whether or not God has made her this way. This script captures an incredibly compelling exposé that unmasks the “born-gay” lie.


For once, I'm at a loss for cynical words. I can't demonize someone - simply because to do so would be pointless. People who are caught demonizing are already demonizing themselves. Hypocrisy is like that. 

Once when I was a kid, my dad took me and my cousin Pat to a "Haunted House", put on by the local Chicagoland flower-grower, Otto Amling. It had real actors in skeleton costumes who said "boo" a lot, and had a mechanical "Frankenstein" who lunged at you when you tried to go out the back door. I took it in stride as fun. Pat, however, did not. He held my father's hand so tight my father mumbled something about circulation. When we left, he was as white as a sheet. Pat was three years older than I was. I was nine.

With the spate of teen suicides caused by bullying, it is impossible for some people to see today's Hell Houses as anything but the worst demonizing force ever devised by man. Based on the morality plays of the Middle Ages, they take young people through vignettes as horrific as any Halloween film or venue. And even though they've been parodied and laughed at by others*, their purpose, they insist, is not to scare, but to save. And they are very, very specific about who and what they want today's youth to be saved from. 
I spoke to Pastor Keenan Roberts of New Destiny Church in Arvada, Colorado last week. Pastor Roberts has been selling "Hell House Outreach" kits to churches across the country for the past 19 years. His "Hell House" kits provide a full working script complete with suggestions on props, costumes sound effects. As a cottage industry, in fact, it has been very successful. 

To be fair, I won't quote Pastor Roberts extensively because as every good writer knows, quotes can be edited in such a way as to be very, well... demonizing. Instead I will cite a few key phrases and paraphrase what he believes about Hell House and the current situation.

Pastor Roberts' primary points were:

1. He does not have connections with churches who purchased hell house "kits" and scripts. Therefore, he does not know if any have edited their scripts considering the present situation of teen suicides.
2. People don't really understand Hell House and its purposes. He asked me to define "demonizing". "Our calling is to help people understand what the Bible says. We have choices - and choices that are outside of God's plan are sins."
3. A Hell House simply states that it does not condone homosexual behavior.
4. Media is unfair because it uses "filters of convenience," meaning that it uses one set of criteria and applies it to the whole concept of Hell House. He noted that media criticism was not pointed quite as much to the issues of pre-marital sex and abortion as to the issue of homosexuality.
5. Hell House should be considered a "rescue operation." "You can't point at us and say 'you're part of the problem.'"

6. "Don't shoot the messenger"

Pastor Keenan, I should relate, seemed very sincere in his efforts to impress upon me that what he was doing was right.
But if you look at the text above and the video below, you will now find out how difficult it is not to demonize Pastor Roberts.** A Hell House states more than "we don't condone homosexual behavior"; it states in big, bold letters BECAUSE YOU ARE IN SATAN'S GRASP, YOU ARE A SINNER AND WILL BE PUNISHED BY EVERLASTING HELL. Quite overshadows any message of love, doesn't it?

The most salient point in the entire Hell House script is the depiction of homosexuality as a bad (read: sinful and unhealthy) choice that is spread because activist homosexuals need to recruit young people as part of their "agenda." The immutability of this point cannot be stressed enough: anyone believing otherwise is an un-Christian liberal. Criticism about other aspects of the script are also met with scorn. (e.g.: parents across the country have voiced criticism concerning Hell Houses' violence. They are brushed aside as not knowing the true meaning of Hell Houses.) But the tenacity by which Hell Houses cling to the original script may be more indicative of the respect/power churches demand: alter the script in any way, and that power deflates.


The legends that sprung up from Columbine were tenuous as actual facts about the shootings began to trickle in. One legend, however, did not die - at least in the minds of Hell House producers: the legend of the martyrdom of Cassie Bernall. 

The legend was simple:  one of the gunmen supposedly asked Cassie if she believed in God, and when she replied "yes" he shot her. The media and Cassie's parents focused on that last moment extensively. The problem was, that's not what happened: 

Most examinations of witness testimony state that Cassie was not asked anything before she was shot. According to witness Emily Wyant, who was hiding under a wood table with Cassie, Eric Harris said "peekaboo" before shooting Cassie, while Cassie continued to pray silently.It is believed the famous exchange actually took place between Klebold and Valeen Schnurr, and was mistakenly attributed to Bernall.

The Bernall's website still carries the legend and makes no attempt at hiding the fact that it is still up for sales of the book, She Said "Yes."

Salon. com, Sept. 30, 1999:
The belated media outing of the truth about Cassie Bernall raises questions about why the story took so long to find its way into print. Misty Bernall's book landed on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list at No. 14 this week, with 350,000 copies in print and more than 250,000 already sold, according to the publisher. In the past three weeks, the Bernalls have appeared on Today, 20/20 and Larry King Live, among others. The story has inspired a massive surge in Christian youth groups' recruitment around the country and overseas.
Hell Houses also play fast and loose with other issues: e.g., the abortion scene ends with the young girl DYING because of the abortion. Medical journals have consistently stated that about one girl in one MILLION ever expire from an abortion. Another point: prepared scripts have been edited to suit the ideas of each church. While some churches may prefer to tone down the violence and demonizing, some even ratchet it up, even including Muslims or other religious or ethnic groups they deem headed for eternal damnation. Pictures from the Freres  Corbusier performance show the abortionist wearing a yarmulke (Jewish skull cap).


Some scholars believe that the proper exegesis of Christ's philosophy of love was that it took more courage to love your enemy than to hate him. He also knew that the concept of loving your enemy would be a hard sell - in fact, downright unpopular. 

It still is. In days of war, intrigue, terrorism and distrust, loving your enemy - or even those who are "different" - has never been harder. This brings about the question of culpability and its admission in regards to Hell Houses. You see, one small piece of demonization can make it nearly impossible to love the person at whom it is directed. And any extreme demonization can entirely cancel out all of the commands to love someone, particularly if those commands are voiced afterwards. In other words, no matter how many times someone tells you that God wants you to love someone, that plea has been rendered moot and senseless by the first disparaging word about them.

Telling the public that Hell Houses do not demonize and instead demonstrate love is almost ridiculous. I say "almost" because there are people who believe Hell Houses preach the "love-the-sinner" meme effectively. They must believe - if they are to support their church. And we must accept the fact that they exist, because to think otherwise would be dangerous:
A 2001 study published in the Journal of Psychology found that “the belief in an active Satan [is] directly related to intolerance toward gay men and lesbians.” Given that all of the gay and lesbian characters in Hell House scenes are condemned to hell by Satan and his demons, this research raises serious questions about the impact of Hell Houses on impressionable youth.

One upset parent wrote that Judgment Houses (aka Hell Houses) are just another form of child abuse:

It has been said that “hell serves the holy purpose of cradle to grave intimidation,” and this is exactly what that church is attempting to do. But for civilized people, including most Christian people, what they did can be considered child abuse. They can only be thankful that with the separation of church and state, child protective service agencies cannot do anything about it. 
A review from Newsweek of the Les Freres Corbusier New York production:
"It was a grotesque and shocking imagining of contemporary secular culture, an extreme version of the way some very conservative Christians may think the unsaved live."
 CBS Texas affiliate 2008:
"One skit is a girl on Facebook," says Houghteling. "She meets a friend and gets raped and the demon says she deserved it."...[Reporter] Houghteling tells CBS 11 News that the message Trinity Church is sending to the young members is that if you struggle with certain issues then God has no place for you."

One of the most frequent taunts that are used against gay teens is, of course, "you're going to HELL!"  I should stop at this point, because the correlation to Hell Houses is so obvious. But it doesn't seem obvious to the producers and supporters of Hell Houses. The denial of Christian Right stalwarts like Pat Robertson and Tony Perkins of the increasingly strident Family Research Council has demonstrated that the rhetoric of any debate will be contentious. To them, demonization does not exist. Neither does the possibility of enabling bullies to torment students.

Fortunately, there are Christian groups across the country that have taken a stand against vehicles such as Hell Houses:
With clear implications for the Hell House message, the Council of Bishops, Elders and Christian Leaders, which represents organizations and congregations that reach 98 million Americans, has publicly stated that they are “united“united in [their] rejection of all forms of fear-based religion” and refuse to “cooperate with or support political or religious leaders who caricature and condemn the lives of gays and lesbians.”


The only concrete numbers I have been able to come up with are from 2007: approximately 1.6 million people visited Hell Houses. “Hell House Kits” were distributed to 800 churches across the US and 18 countries. Some churches reported that their Hell Houses received 12,000 visitors per year and utilize as much as 300 people either as professionals or volunteers. Every year since 2007, the numbers have increased.

So have the number of teen suicides and reported instances of bullying in schools. Concerned parents and educators are going over past research and teen suicide statistics. The future may hold a surprise for supporters of Hell Houses. Until then, however, culpability is the predominant issue. Some people may have already asked themselves (as I have done): do the producers and supporters of Hell Houses honestly think they aren't culpable in any way? Can they take one more look at the scenes, the scripts, the props, the acting and say that teens could not in any way be affected in such a way as to contemplate suicide? Or contemplate bullying as an accepted behavior, especially if it's bullying someone who's "going to hell" anyway? Some Hell Houses have been driven to given advance warnings that emotional distress might result - before they go on with the performance! Some attending children are under 12 years old. Are Hell House churches so bent on tormenting youth into salvation that they will risk inflicting severe emotional stress? Do they care at all?

From Tony Perkins, president of Family Research Council on the subject of gay teen suicides:
Despite how threatened they are by the truth, there is nothing more compassionate than trying to rescue people from a lifestyle that is physically and emotionally destructive. GLAAD doesn't see it that way. Just as they did with Matthew Shepard, they're exploiting Tyler Clementi's tragic death as a weapon to scare Christians into retreating--or, in this case, as a way to pressure the media to muzzle any opposition.
As you can see, Perkins is a master at demonizing, especially when he's defending himself: he never talks about any gay organization without framing it  in  "battlefield" terms.

So what do we have now? At best, we have a group of dedicated Evangelicals burying their heads in the sand for God. At worst, we have ...

Tony Perkins, Bryan Fisher and Lou Engle.

If nothing else, I hope that I have conveyed that this is an urgent issue that must be addressed NOW. Just as some evangelicals see the Halloween season as a fleeting chance to save souls, others must take this chance to save lives. If you know of a Hell House in any area in the country, please contact your local media to investigate it and contact local child welfare organizations to help organize protests. It's vitally important.

UPDATE: Another gay suicide has been reported: Corey Jackson, of Warren, MI (Detroit), hanged himself last Tuesday. Corey was a 19 year-old sophomore at Oakland University. Police and friends denied that it was a consequence of bullying. PROBLEM: The portrayal of gays as "making a wrong choice" still sends a message to gay youth: "if you keep on being the way you are, you're going to hell."

*Landover Baptist Church has the Lake of Fire Dunking Booth.

**I am biased, to be sure: my 6-year stint at the AIDS Emergency Fund in San Francisco showed me then just who were the demonized and who were demonizing. In the one photo above, I might as well have been that demon who was talking to the young man in the hospital bed, the only difference being that I wasn't telling him that he was going to hell.

To read the first two parts of DEMONIZING AMERICA click HERE and HERE or go to The Devil and Dan Vojir