The Cosmic Cathedral

Understanding God in the Word and the World


Petition for IHOP-KC to tell the Truth about Bethany Deaton and Micah Moore


Sign the Petition saying #IHOPmustspeak

In response to the 48 Hours special, Fall From Grace, there has been an increased interest in the case surrounding the death of Bethany Deaton and the confession of Micah Moore. In the wake of Moore publishing his description of the exorcism in which he made his false confession, there are a host of questions surrounding the ethical nature of the International House of Prayer’s handling of the case. Though IHOP-KC leadership had ample evidence that Moore’s confession was suspect and that he could not have murdered Bethany, the ministry has made no public statements to correct those they made in the weeks following Moore’s arrest. Within his former church and school, Moore as been viewed as a murderer for the past two years without IHOP-KC speaking out to stand by him or help actively promote his innocence. To this day IHOP-KC has not apologized for their actions or told the truth to their community about his innocence.

In response we are promoting a petition to put pressure of IHOP-KC to speak. In a public statement, IHOP-KC said they were “committed to transparency as we discover more information related to Tyler Deaton.” This has not happened. The time has come for IHOP-KC to rectify that.

Specifically we request:

1) A more forthright, honest, and written accounting of the “exorcism/deliverance,” including:

(a) what the meeting was like and the high-fervor religious behavior it contained.

(b) what the objectives of the meeting were

(c) how high level IHOP-KC leaders (Shelley Hundley, Allen and Rachel Hood, and others) played a role in pushing Moore into a reactive psychotic episode and how these leaders are being held accountable.

(d) their irresponsibility in handling a clearly irrational confession.

2) An apology for not actively helping exonerate Micah even when the evidence began to mount in the early weeks and months following the arrest.

3) A written apology to the IHOP-KC community and public for the lack of transparency thus far.

4) A written apology to Micah Moore and his family for IHOP-KC’s involvement in this situation.

We invite you to sign the petition, spread the word, and see the truth be spoke about Micah Moore.


Placing Blame on Deaton

“If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.””

—John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

ConversationalIn my writing about the death of Bethany Deaton, one of the persistent challenges I have received is that I am not harsh enough on Tyler Deaton. My analysis has been judged as misguided because I do not give Tyler enough blame or hold him responsible enough for the death of his wife. On some level, I suppose this response may stem from the fact that I have been fairly open about my belief that Bethany committed suicide rather than being murdered. Yet, I do not understand why this belief would automatically make my position one that fails to place blame or responsibility on Tyler. Bethany’s own father, in the 48 Hours special “Fall from Grace,” stated that it is his belief that “Bethany was severely depressed, to the point of being suicidal…  And I think she took her own life,” yet no one would accuse him of letting Tyler off the hook. To think this is the case is to drastically misunderstand and fail take seriously the profound influence the context of Bethany’s spiritual community and marriage life had on her mental health. Even Micah Moore, who has every reason to hate Tyler, calling him “a pig” and “shit house crazy” says, “if you’re going to assign some kind of blame or responsibility to him, do it according to what really happened, according to all the facts that most have shown no regard for. To accuse him of murder is to perpetuate the same witch hunt that led to my own arrest.”

The other reason it has been suggested I am too easy on Tyler, is because of my insistence on discussing Tyler Deaton and his spiritual community within the larger context of IHOP-KC, the source of the theology that undergirded much of Tyler’s group. This criticism has presented itself mostly in two forms.

First, there is the way I attempt to explain the role IHOP-KC played in shaping Tyler and allowing his behavior to go mostly undetected and unopposed during his four years in Kansas City. Regardless of what some people seem to insist, I cannot simply blame Bethany’s death on Tyler being “evil.” I cannot accept that some people are just simply evil independent of the context they are in. Where there is ample evidence, which in this case I believe there is, I think it is appropriate to discuss the theology, spiritual culture, and leadership ethic that influenced Tyler so radically. This does not excuse Tyler’s behavior or remove blame. Blame is not a zero-sum game where to point out the fault in one entity removes fault from another. There is more than enough blame to go around. I am not interested in the simple story where Tyler is the only one guilty and everything else is excused. I am much more interested in the complex messy story that is closer to reality.

The second form this critique takes is concerning my criticism of the way in which IHOP-KC responded to

Bethany’s death, its treatment of Tyler, the members of the group, and Micah Moore. I do not understand how this equates to being light on Tyler. Much of the way I have formulated my analysis has been shaped by Michael Langone’s book, “Recovery from Cults.”* A significant portion of my analysts gains its power from understanding the way it which IHOP-KC failed to take the issues at stake with Tyler’s group seriously. When IHOP-KC first learned of Tyler’s group over a year before Bethany’s death, leadership did little. And when Bethany died and questions to the nature of the group arose, rather than acknowledging their lack of expertise in addressing the complicated situation, IHOP-KC leadership acted irresponsibly, harmfully, and unprofessionally. The actions of IHOP-KC — information control, ultimatums, high-pressure deliverance sessions etc. — bare all the marks, not of the methods of trained anti-cult specialists, but the tactics of the very types of controlling group from which IHOP-KC claims they were trying rescue these individuals.

Far from excusing Tyler’s behavior, I have attempted to hold IHOP-KC responsible for their actions in light of the seriousness of the situation. If Tyler’s group was as controlling and spiritually destructive as we have been led to believe than IHOP-KC’s actions must be taken into account and held responsible. Above and beyond all the hurt which Tyler Deaton caused, when intervening, rather than helping and healing, IHOP-KC, despite claims the the contrary, caused even more damage than that which had already taken place. This does not in any way take blame away from Tyler. I simply want to draw attention to the continued hurt that IHOP-KC’s actions have caused.

Langone’s book is an informative and powerful collection of essays on the nature of controlling religious groups. When I think of Tyler’s group, I think in terms of Langone’s definitions of thought reform and manipulative religious communities. When I think of the inappropriateness of IHOP-KC’s response, I think of it in terms of their failure to follow even the most basic advise when addressing situations of this seriousness. When I hear the way in which IHOP-KC responded, it does not match the types of behavior displayed by the exit counselors described in Langone’s book but rather the types of actions and mindsets in step with controlling high-pressure groups exit counseling exists to address. Actions and mindsets aligned not with Longone and his professional colleagues but with methods of control, misinformation, and spiritual chaos.

Steinbeck says, “the quality of owning freezes you forever into ‘I,’ and cuts you off forever from the ‘we.'” It is the “we” that I am most concerned about understanding. It is simple and easy to blame Tyler Deaton for everything. A simple story with nothing new, complex, or ambiguous. But that is freezing us in “I” and cutting ourselves off from the “we,” the story that effects every one of us. It is easy, like with “Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin,” to see Tyler Deaton as the cause of all this. He is to blame after all. But ending the story there fails to see the rest of the canvas. We need to understand Tyler not merely as cause, but as result, the result of a charismatic ministry, a particular eschatology, a certain leadership culture. Seeing Tyler Deaton as a cause is easy. Taking the next step to see him as a result is where the real work comes. This is not about removing blame from Tyler, but it is about uncovering the other blame that has been hid.

More than anything we need to understand these dynamics at work in high pressure religious groups. These issues need to be understood and discussed more fully. More that accusing me of lessening blame, we need to work towards understanding more fully what took place and how the dynamics of these types of controlling environments function. I highly recommend Longone’s book,”Recovery from Cults.” If you or someone you love is in what you suspect to be a high pressure religious environment, I would commend this book to you. It will not give all the answers nor seek to provide everything you need to know. What it will do is start giving you tools to navigating these types of situations so that in the future others may get out while there is still the chance and be helped in the process rather than harmed even more.

* I want to be generous with the word “cult” whenever possible. The word has a lot of connotations and it can be difficult for people to understand or know how to respond to it. If the word itself produces a negative reaction, try to think instead of the concept it is attempting to communicate, a high pressure environment, possibly controlling or manipulative, which is hurtful to its members’ long-term mental, emotional, or spiritual help. To understand more on this subject I would recommend Dr. Langone’s article, Characteristics Associated with Cultic Groups.



What 48 Hours Didn’t Tell You About Micah Moore

What 48 Hours Did Not Tell You

Sign the petition for IHOP-KC to Tell the Truth

Sign the petition for IHOP-KC to Tell the Truth

On Saturday, February 21st 2015, CBS aired a 48 Hours special Fall from Grace about the death of Bethany Deaton in the fall of 2012. Originally ruled a suicide, Bethany’s death shook the close knit spiritual community of The International House of Prayer in Kansas City (IHOP-KC), when a member of Bethany’s Prayer Group, Micah Moore, confessed to murdering Bethany with his own hands, at the command of her husband, Tyler Deaton.

Bethany Deaton Fall From Grace

Watch the documentary or read the transcript

The case has been a lightening rod for discussion about the role of religion, homosexuality, cult activity, and manipulation. It garnered attention in January of last year when Jeff Tietz published a searching expose about the relationship between Tyler Deaton’s group and the larger context of IHOP-KC where Bethany, Tyler, and his community when to church and many went to school. Yet all these analyses took place with the assumption that Bethany was indeed murdered. Across news outlets and blog pieces, it was taken as a given that it was Micah Moore, at the behest of Tyler Deaton, the husband revealed homosexual manipulative cult leader, who had drugged and strangled Bethany in the back of her van out at Longview Lake. I had consider myself friends with Tyler in the years before Bethany’s death, and though I was never a part of his group I mourned her death at her November 6th, 2012 funeral was who Tyler reached out to when his friends abandoned him, and what at his house the day Micah was arrested and Tyler taken in for questioning. I was deeply affected by the events, so in January of 2014, I took up writing on the heels of the Tietz’s article with the goal of questioning the assumptions surrounding the case: What Rolling Stone Didn’t Tell You About Tyler Deaton.

Tyler and BethanSince then, there has been much discussion about the case as 48 Hours began to put together their narrative of this tragic death. Ambiguity had entered into the story, and we awaited a trial that would ultimately never come. For some, this is an event whose tragedy is only outmatched by Bethany’s death. The killers escaped being brought to justice. The murderer got away. Somehow Bethany was left unvindicated in her murder. 48 Hours leaves us thinking that we just can’t know. The program ends with Detective Cole saying, “”Our case is still open. And we will continue to investigate it.” When asked if arrests might be made it the future, Detective Kennedy makes it seem as if this prospect is likely, responding, “We would hope so. We’re working toward that.”[1] Yet, leaving this open case or thinking up possibilities of further fowl play does not serve to remember Bethany rightly and does not draw attention to the real issues that drove so tragically to her death.

There is so much more 48 Hours could have said to show that Micah Moore did not murder Bethany Deaton. There is so much more they could have done to draw attention to the real forces that led to her death. There is so much more to the story to be said, and so much more to learn from the loss of this beautiful life.

Tyler Deaton shaking hands wit IHOPU President Allen Hood at his 2012 IHOPU graduation.

Tyler Deaton shaking hands with IHOPU President Allen Hood at his 2012 IHOPU graduation.

When the news of Bethany’s death first reached the leadership of IHOP-KC, Allen Hood (President of IHOPU) and Shelley Hundley (former Vice President of IHOPU), came to Bethany’s house to provide pastoral counseling for the small community which Bethany belonged to. They have stated they came to help and care, yet these leaders’ presuppositions about the group could not have been neutral from the outset. A year previously, August 2011, Stuart Greaves, another senior leader at IHOP-KC, had been tasked with handling what was seen as problematic behavior within the group. Shelley Hundley had received an email from the group that contained a so-called prophetic revelation from the group claiming to have the word of God for Hundley. Also around the same time, Shelley Hundley called Deaton’s questioning and inquisitive behavior a sign that he was “bad fruit.” In October of 2011, when Sarah Sun Kim (former Executive Vice President of IHOPU) and Shelley Hundley met with another IHOPU student, Kim claimed they knew Deaton’s group was a cult and that they had a student leader who had infiltrated the group and was reporting back to IHOPU everything that was happening in the group.

Given this history with Deaton’s group, the pastoral presence soon turned to concern as Hood and Hundley began to question members of the group about the dynamics of the Bible study and Tyler Deaton’s leadership. Much of what IHOP-KC alleges was reported has never been revealed, yet it was alarming enough to the leadership of IHOP-KC to attempt a sudden and dramatic dismantling of Tyler’s group. Those living in Deaton’s house where told to move out, and the group was given a choice: come with IHOP and get deprogramming or stay with Tyler and be ex-communicated from the IHOP-KC community. Soon, a new story was emerging, one of a controlling religious subgroup dedicated to prayer, fasting, and an all-encompassing end times mission operating in secret at IHOP-KC. Within this community, group members’ money, relationships and spiritual growth were all controlled by the self-appointed apostle, Tyler Deaton. Though Deaton had married Bethany only two months previous, information began to surface of homosexual activity between Tyler and the other members of the community living in his house.

Motion Description

Read more from the motion.

It was this context, in the midst of grieving the death of a close friend and being pressured to disassociate from a group that had been their primary social and spiritual context for the past years, which ultimately lead to Micah’s confession. It changed Bethany’s death from a suicide prompted by the unhealthy aspects of her spiritual community to a murder, ordered by the leader of a sex cult. Shelley Hundley, known within the IHOP community for her prophetic gifting, gathered the group who had left Tyler for a time of prayer and confession facilitated by an IHOP-KC affiliated ministry, Prisoners of Hope. The time of prayer grew into a time of ecstatic religious fervor, loud praying and screaming, shouting in “tongues,” (an unintelligible prayer language) and eventually an attempt to exorcise a demon from at least one person, Micah Moore.

The motion to have Micah’s charges dropped describes the meeting as follows; “Putting their hands on the cult members, shouting at demons to leave and scream-praying in tongues, soon had many in the group crying and yelling and falling to the floor. In that atmosphere – loud, frenetic, chaotic – all the pent up emotion from their friend’s death and from being accused of being a cult – spilled out.” In describing the meeting, Moore recounts “three men were shouting demons out of my body in an isolated room” and that only moments after admitting to some of the sexual activity between Tyler and himself, Shelley Hundley insisted “that [he] had something to confess? “You have something to tell me, don’t you, Micah?”[2]

When Moore allegedly confessed to something involving astro-projection and witchcraft, he was taken into another room by leaders, including Hundley. Here, as Moore was subjected to yelling, shaking, ecstatic prayer, “demons” being cast out, and “curses” being broken off, Moore confessed to murdering Bethany Deaton. The original news reports have Moore saying he murdered Bethany because he and the other men living in Deaton’s house had been drugging and sexually assaulting Bethany for the previous few months. He claims to have recorded video footage of these assaults on an iPad and that the group wrote poems about them. Fearing Bethany would tell her therapist about the assaults, Moore claimed to have drugged Bethany with Seroquel before holding a bag over her head until her body shook. Later, at the police station Moore would claim Tyler had put him up to murdering Bethany “saying he knew Micah had it in him to do it,” according to court documents.

Motion LogoYet, this is not the whole story. According to Micah’s lawyers, what the news reports failed to include was that in this same confession, Micah also claimed to have murdered another woman, Erica Jones*, who had left Tyler’s group the previous year. Erica had been one of the individuals, along with Bobby Herrington, who had attempted to contact IHOP-KC leaders in order to raise concerns about Tyler’s group during the summer before Bethany’s death. Nor did Moore claim to have acted alone. His confession placed Herrington at the scene of the crime, even though there is no evidence he was with Moore that day or that they had much if any contact since Herrington had left the group over a year previous. During his confession, Moore even asked if Tyler was indeed a real person, a confusion apparently brought on by the similarities between “Deaton” and “Durden” from the film “Fight Club,” where Tyler Durden is the name of the violent projection of the main character’s psychosis.

Having been up all night, and not allowed to sleep prior to his confession at the Police Station in the early hours of the morning, Moore was finally allowed to sleep for two hours at the station. When he awoke, he was questioned again about his confession. It was here that the story begins to fall apart. Upon waking, Moore responded to questions about the murder saying ,”I didn’t murder anyone.” The whole of Micah’s confession was retracted within only two hours of being officially made.

Yet, this is not the only hole existing in Micah Moore’s confession. It was easily confirmed that Erica Jones was very much alive. Moore had not murdered her. Herrington was not at the crime scene.

The subject of the suicide note was the next piece of evidence. According to court documents Bethany left a note reading;

“My name is Bethany Deaton. I chose this evil thing. I did it because I wouldn’t be a real person and what is the point of living if it is too late for that? I wish I had chosen differently a long time ago. I knew it all and refused to listen. Maybe Jesus will still save me.”[3]

There has been much speculation about the contents of this note and claims that the awkwardness of the language and imagery means Bethany could not have written it. In his confession Moore claims to have written a fake suicide note yet handwriting analysis preformed by the FBI reveals that the note was indeed written in Bethany’s hand. Micah also claimed to have drugged Bethany prior to her murder, yet medical examination has revealed no Seroquel present in Bethany’s body, and a rape kit revealed no evidence of rape or semen in her body. Additionally, video surveillance from a local Wal-mart shows Bethany purchasing the drugs that would eventually end her life.

And yet, the simplest question was perhaps the one that no one ever thought to ask—did, perhaps, Micah have an alibi? Where was Micah Moore at the time of Bethany’s murder? The International House of Prayer is a Christian ministry built around 24/7 prayer and worship. Since September 1999, live praise and worship bands have lead a room of worshipers and intercessors in round-the-clock services of prayer and worship. In December of 2006, in partnership with GODtv, IHOP-KC began to broadcast a 24/7 webstream of the prayer room live across the world. It maybe should not be surprising then, that this webstream would serve the purpose of providing the final nail in the coffin of Micah’s false confession. The Prayer Room webstream confirms Micah was in the Prayer Room at the time of Bethany’s death.

The only evidence that Bethany Deaton was murdered was the confession of Micah Moore. A confession made under duress and in a psychologically compromised state to a religious leader, Shelley Hundley, who was attempting to exorcise Moore of a demon. IHOP-KC denies any ‘exorcism’ occurred. [4] Nick Syrett, an IHOP-KC spokesperson, defended their actions, saying, “This meeting was to help these young people process recent events and to hear their hearts related to these events. It was not in the slightest way for the purpose of ‘exorcising’ demons out of people.”[5] Yet all those present (except IHOP-KC leaders) give the same harrowing description of the high pressure and intense environment in which the confession took place: a confession that was easily called into question with only the simplest investigation and now thoroughly disproved by a full investigation.

 48 Hours can act as if there is a big mystery waiting to be solved, a last clue waiting to be uncovered that will tell the real story, but in doing so, they do a disservice to Bethany by failing to use her tragic death to draw attention to the significant forces that lead not to her murder, but to her suicide. The reality is, there is ample evidence, disheartening as it may be, that Bethany was severely depressed and psychotic, to the point which she was briefly hospitalized prior (leaving against medical advice), in the weeks leading up to her death. The medical records, including a psychiatrist’s description, specifically notes Bethany’s experience of psychosis (hearing voices preoccupied with her salvation). When scored on the Global Assessment of Functioning, a DSM-IV-TR diagnostic tool, Bethany received a low 30 suggesting, “behavior is considerably influenced by delusions or hallucinations or serious impairment, in communication or judgment (e.g., sometimes incoherent, acts grossly inappropriately, suicidal preoccupation) or inability to function in almost all areas (e.g., stays in bed all day, no job, home, or friends).”

It is this information that is perhaps most telling in how we read Bethany’s death. Rather than looking for a conspiracy of murder and a twisted plot of intrigue, we should seek to understand the factors that lead to the rapid decrease in an innocent young woman’s mental health that eventually contributed to her suicide.

In collaboration with Richard Liantonio, I would like to end by looking at five points we should take away from the CBS 48 Hours special on the death of Bethany Deaton, “The Community” lead by Tyler Deaton, and their involvement with the International House of Prayer in Kansas City.

1) If you are a gay man, please do not marry a woman. For the rest of you, please stop pressuring gay people to be straight.

Tyler DeatonIt is impossible to over-state the negative affect of the psychological, spiritual, and social pressure within Evangelical Christianity for homosexuals to conform to a heterosexual orientation. The teaching that homosexuals should change their orientation, “fix” themselves, and practice heterosexuality (the sure sign they have been cured of their malady), creates an unbearable and distorting context within which to come to terms with their sexual identity. Tyler Deaton was and is a gay man. The delusion of living in a high-pressure religious environment, within which changing one’s orientation is an expected norm, places unbelievable pressure on the individual to live out the “story-book” narrative of heterosexuality. Tyler was deluded into believing he could carry out a healthy heterosexual marriage with a woman and simultaneously unable to be honest about his homosexual “lapses” and mounting sexual confusion. When Tyler was unable to engage sexually with his wife after marriage, the psychological pressure placed on Bethany — that she was failing as a wife, that she was falling short of her task to love Tyler out of his “illness” — massively contributed to the deterioration of her mental health.

The official stance of the American Psychological Association is that the origins of homosexuality are unknown. As such, it would be best if Christians kept to that neutral stance instead of insisting, without basis, that the condition of homosexuality is rooted in issues of psychological “brokenness.” Regardless of its origins, it does not follow, either logically, biblically, theologically, or psychologically that an individual can significantly “reverse” their sexual orientation through any form of prayer or therapy currently in use. This has been verified by empirical studies done even by conservative Christians. The results show that religiously mediated sexual orientation change therapy produces minimal to no change in sexual orientation as defined by location on the Kinsey Scale.

Numerous people, including leaders in the ex-gay movement, have said (though people are hesitant to admit it,) that they have experienced little to no change in their attractions despite being involved in the ex-gay movement for over ten years. Despite the few real-life examples of orientation change (many of who’s stories are remarkably ambiguous, and “healed from homosexuality” is an incredible misnomer for what actually has happened to them,) empirical data shows that in most cases no such change happens and in the rest the change is quite small. With this in mind, the Deaton situation is a striking reminder of the real life consequences of brazenly insisting people change something about themselves for which there is no basis to believe can be changed and which, when pressure is applied to change, results in the negative psychological consequences described above.

2) If someone joins a religious group and has a rapid and significant personality change, be very concerned.

2014-01-22 01.04.00 amHigh-pressure religious groups can have a significantly detrimental affect on the mental health of those involved.[6] A loss of autonomy and drastic changes in positive goals, aims, desires, interests, and personality may be indicators that the religious context within which the individual finds themselves is damaging and detrimentally affecting their mental health. Unfortunately, it is not only the members of Tyler’s group who report experiencing these types of rapid changes in personality. The larger context of IHOP-KC has given rise to numerous stories of these types of rapid, detrimental evolutions in otherwise positive and non-harmful behavior, desires, and personality. Within the spiritual environment of IHOP-KC, where students are taught to be “forerunners” urgently preparing the earth for the “end-times tribulation” prior to the return of Christ, Bethany’s changing personality was lost in a sea of individuals going through similar, if not necessarily so drastic, metamorphosis. This is not to say that there was not an intensification of these types of changes within Bethany individually, or within the members of Tyler’s group more generally. What is significant is that changes were all taking place within a broader religious context where high-pressure spirituality; a unique, all-encompassing identity; and a world-altering mandate, were all at work. While Bethany was changing for the worse, she was surrounded by rapidly evolving individuals with whom Bethany and her community regularly interacted.

3) If someone says something in the context of an exorcism accompanied by yelling, speaking in tongues, falling on the floor, and other ecstatic religious experiences, take what they say with a level of suspicion.

shelley2bhundley2bbioThe fact that Micah Moore’s confession was given so much weight and was allowed to be propagated as far as it was without being called into question is deeply troubling. Given the amount of details in the confession which were easily disprovable, the fact that IHOP-KC leaders boldly stated Moore had murdered Bethany seems increasingly irresponsible. Professional pastors should have the ability to assess the truthfulness of the information they receive and demonstrate restraint with how that information is presented, especially when the factual evidence available and the context within which the information was received present as many challenges as Moore’s confession did. Both the death of a close friend and the removal of one’s spiritual and social context are very traumatic events that create a context for psychological breaks from reality, susceptible to gaslighting (where an individual is caused to doubt their own memory via the twisting of facts, selective omission, or false information), and an inability to coherently function. Adding to these conditions, the high-intensity prayer session facilitated by Prisoners of Hope and Shelley Hundley, who Mike Bickle, the founder and head Pastor of IHOP-KC, says “went for it” to get the confession, should instantly call into question the ethicality of the actions of those in leadership over these proceedings and the reliability of the information which was obtained.

This behavior has been deeply troubling since the truth of Micah’s innocence has come out. Regarding to their involvement, Moore says,

“The role of the International House of Prayer in this whole situation is absolutely reprehensible. They threw me to the f$&@ing wolves and then walked away dusting their hands off. It is sickening that people so emphatic about “hearing the voice of the Lord” would show no interest in uncovering the truth. That Mike would state … that Shelley Hundley was a hero who had solved a mystery and I was a murderer shows their self-interest and their disregard for factual information. Further, their public statements about what happened at Shiloh could not be further from the truth. Their only basis for the way they handled everything was to defend their own public image, not to defend the innocent.” [7]

After receiving Moore’s confession, however ill-gotten it many have been, Hundley certainly had some responsibility to report that confession to the authorities. Yet, this does not explain her failure to encourage Moore to first seek legal counsel of his own nor did it necessitate Hundley or anyone else on the IHOP-KC leadership to actually believe the confession or to address the whole IHOPU student body and IHOP-KC community as if the confession were true. If Moore confessed to witchcraft, astro-projection, and, most importantly, the murder of another woman within the IHOP community, there should have been more than enough reason to doubt the authenticity of such a confession. The fact that Erica Jones was alive would have been easy enough to confirm. On this information alone, the IHOP-KC leadership should easily have raised suspicion concerning the rest of the confession. Yet these questions were apparently never raised. Bickle took the stage at IHOP-KC certain he was telling the truth about the murder of Bethany Deaton, certain Micah Moore was the murderer, and that Tyler Deaton had brought his group to IHOP to operate under a “veil of secrecy.”[8]

4) If you are a cult leader, and another religious group is able to get all of your followers to abandon you within one day, maybe you’re not the one who is really in control.

The way in which IHOP-KC went about removing the community members from Deaton’s group demonstrates an extreme level of irresponsibility. Giving the members an all-or-nothing ultimatum to stay with Tyler or come with IHOP-KC is damaging and places an irresponsible level of psychological strain on members. This is exasperated even more, having taken place right on the heels of the funeral of their close friend. This drastic method of getting members to leave is often referred to as deprogramming and has fallen out of favor in anti-cult studies.[9] Rather, the preferred method of helping individuals who are in unhealthy religious groups is commonly referred to as exit counseling. The goal of exit counseling is the well-being of the member: helping him/or reestablish autonomy and make an informed choice.

Exit counseling seeks to focus on providing information.[10] A trained exit counselor spends significant time coming to understand the dynamics of the group they are seeking to counsel a person out of. Often the counselor meets with the individual privately or along with the members of their family who have expressed concerns about the group. The exit counselor seeks to present information about the group, harmful elements the individual may have been unaware of, or ways the group is controlling. The counselor does not seek to focus on the correctness of the group’s teachings in relation to other religions or philosophies. They do not seek to label behavior as sinful. Rather, they seek to demonstrate the ways the group’s environment is psychologically unhelpful or harmful for the individual. Ultimately, the counselor respects and dignifies the choice the individual makes, whether to stay or leave the group. They do not enact punishment or impose negative consequences in order to pressure the individual to leave. They do not hold up any other group, doctrine, or ideology as the correct or true teaching the individual should embrace. Rather, above all, they seek to reestablish the person’s autonomy, which has been compromised by their involvement in the group. The exit counselor ultimately seeks to see the individual be loyal not to any other individual, creed, leader, or group, but to themselves, their own desires, self-understanding, goals, and identity.

5) If the religious or social environment within which you are operating does not provide the tools with which to navigate the breakdown of mental health and the possibility of psychotic suicide, preemptively seek input and help from family members and others outside of your social or religious environment and find professional assistance.

Despite its shortcomings, perhaps the most powerful moment of the CBS 48 Hours special, “Fall From Grace” is the final interview with Bethany’s father where he admits, “in my particular — understanding of the facts, as we’ve come to know them at this point, I believe Bethany was severely depressed, to the point of being suicidal. And — I believe that she wasn’t properly cared for or protected in a very fragile state. And I think she took her own life.”[11] While I do not know why Mr. Leidlein chose to speak out, I can only hope one of the byproducts of his courageous action would be for people to become more aware of the factors surrounding depression and psychotic suicide.

When talking about the night of worship where Tyler was challenging the members to make a choice, Deaton states in his interview that “there was a part of me that was like, ‘I — I just — I don’t have anything else to do. I don’t have anything else to say. What am I gonna do?” The context of his community and the larger environment of IHOP-KC did not prepare him to navigate the complexities of depression and psychotic breaks. As Deaton says elsewhere, “it was my — my messed up world view. …I thought there was no way someone could really just start believing this stuff and have like — a snap like that. I thought that Bethany was doing what she was doing on purpose. I really did.”[12] The religious context he found himself in, even that his own leadership at IHOP-KC was creating, made it impossible for Tyler or the members of his group to know how to respond or offer appropriate help. Commenting on the ambiguities surrounding Bethany’s death, Moore states, “The only mystery surrounding Bethany’s death is how the hell we got so absorbed in Tyler’s bull&%#t that when our friend was threatening suicide, going around saying she was sure her soul was damned to hell, we didn’t even have the sense to tell her parents.”[13] The religious environment of IHOP-KC did not provide the adequate tools to navigate these difficult circumstances or provide Bethany the help that may have saved her life — the narrative of radical religious devotion, abandonment of self, and the need to model a heterosexual relationship regardless of the true orientation of her husband were too strong.

Those involved in Deaton’s group, including Bethany and Tyler, sorely lacked the type of positive outside input in order to find answers to the complications the failure of their new married life had caused. Insulated within the confines of their own radical group and stuck within the bubble of religious fervor of IHOP-KC, there was no where to turn. Compounding this was the belief, both in Deaton’s group and IHOP-KC, that those on the outside are not sufficiently spiritually attuned to understand their problems and give reliable help. In fact, the help they might offer could actually be “spiritually destructive.” Answers did not seem possible—creative solutions were outside of their cognitive ability to discover. The moral of this tragic story is the need for the church at large, especially charismatic circles, to take seriously the issues of mental health and to promote education and tools that will help people suffering from depression, delusion and psychotic episodes to find the help they need. It is significant that the elements of religious fervor and intensity that gives rise to these types of disorders must be addressed head on and rooted out so that these tragedies might be averted in the future. Bethany Deaton’s death is a heart-wrenching reminder of the consequences of organizations such as IHOP-KC continuing to operate without adequately addressing the pressing issues of mental heath within their four walls.


There are still plenty of questions left to be answered. Does this mean Tyler Deaton and his group were a healthy organization? I do not think so. Members of the group have come forward with stories of the manipulation and control taking place within the group. There is still the question of Tyler using his position of authority to manipulate sexual contact with the men in his house, yet this contact never resembled the type of full blown sex cult that the media or IHOP-KC leadership lead us to believe. It seems much more likely that the homosexual activity represents just the type of actions that individuals attempting to suppress and reform their sexuality might find themselves engaged in. We need to be compassionate in our attempts to understand what was going on in Tyler’s group given the amount of social and psychological pressure Deaton and others were under.

What actually happened? What was the nature of Tyler Deaton’s group? How did the larger spiritual atmosphere of IHOP-KC, and more specifically the atmosphere of Deaton’s group, contribute to Bethany’s suicide? These are the questions that need to be asked. These are the details that need to be wrestled with. There is one question we now have the answer to. Micah Moore did not murder Bethany Deaton. Micah Moore is innocent. On October 30th, 2012, Bethany Deaton committed suicide. That is the truth those of us who knew her must mourn. That is the fact we must reconcile with.

Bethany Deaton took her own life.

Let us remember her and mourn her.

Sitting in a chapel by Longview Lake, just across the water from where she died, I am surrounded by members of Tyler’s group. It is November 6th—Election Day, 2012, two days before the confession that would change so much. I am one of the few outsiders there, along with my girlfriend and Richard Liantonio. We shake hands with the family of the deceased. We send our sympathies. We send our prayers. The service starts. Jaye Thomas, an IHOP-KC worship leader, starts with a worship song — “Taste and see that The Lord is Good.” It is far too happy. Allen Hood and Shelley Hundley share something. The microphone is opened for reflections. Micah, Tyler, three or four others share their thoughts. I wish I could go back, with all the hard-earned answers we now have, along with the lingering ambiguities, uncertainties, and doubts, and mourn her like she should be mourned. Not with the simple story but the full, nuanced, ambiguous nature of it all. That is the way she deserves to be mourned.

 Bethany Deaton Wedding Day

[1] Fall From Grace, 48 Hourse February 21, 2015 Produced: Chris O’Connell, Lindsey Gutterman and Dena Goldstein





[6] Langone, Michael “Helping Victims: History Background.” Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. ed. Michael D. Langone, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 1996) 22-23

[7] Micah Moore, The Acquittal of Micah Moore Two Years Too Late, Jonathan Barclay, Blog Comment: 2014

[8] Allen Hood, Regarding the Death of Bethany Deaton

[9] Langone, Michael “Helping Victims: History Background.” Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. ed. Michael D. Langone, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 1996) 30-31

[10] See Clark, David, Giambalvo, Carol, Giambalvo, Noel, Garvey, Kevin, and Langone, Michael “Exit Counseling: A Practical Overview” 155ff, and Garvey, Kevin. “The Importance of Information in Preparation for Exit Counseling” 181ff Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse. ed. Michael D. Langone, (W.W. Norton & Company, New York: 1996)

[11] Fall From Grace, 48 Hourse February 21, 2015 Produced: Chris O’Connell, Lindsey Gutterman and Dena Goldstein

[12] ibid.


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Learning to be Afraid- Halloween and the Christian Life



Click view all "Conversational"Today is Halloween.  On this All Hallows’ Eve, thousands of America’s children disguised as witches, goblins, mummies, and Doctor Who will roam the streets in search of candy and fright.  This evening, young adults will seek out ghosts in haunted houses and front yards will, for one night, turn into grave yards where some may encounter the dead or perhaps a few werewolves.  Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, I never really partook in Halloween.  “Halloween is a celebration of death!” I was told, “It is meant to terrorize people!”  To many of my Evangelical brothers and sisters, fear and faith are dichotomized in this way.  One cannot be counted among those of the faith while also learning to be afraid at the same time.  But is that the way the Christian faith has always presented fear?  I do not believe so.  But allow me to explain with the use of some fairytales.

One of my favorite Grimm Fairytales is about the boy who “went out to learn to be afraid.”  He never knew the feeling of dread and then, accordingly, journeyed to find it.  He wanders through terrible woods and all the countryside only to return unmoved and unafraid.  Regarding this fairy tale, Soren Kierkegaard wrote:

“In one of Grimm’s fairy tales there is a story of a young man who goes in search of adventure in order to learn what it is to be in anxiety.  We will let the adventurer pursue his journey without concerning ourselves about whether he encountered the terrible on his way.  However, I will say that this is an adventure that every human being must go through…  The person who has learnt how to be afraid in the right way has learnt the most important thing of all.”[1]

For Kierkegaard, learning to be afraid is one of the most important lessons to be acquired and, according to him, everyone is a pupil and no one is exempt.  But how can a Christian say that the life of fear is anything but a distortion of truth?  “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall not fear” the Psalmist chants.  “Be anxious for nothing” Saint Paul once wrote.  And of course, my favorite, “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18).  Why would one seek to fear when, so it seems, the bible states that we ought to seek faith?

It is quite clear that the perfection of the Christian life is one without fear.  But who among us wishes to assume such perfection now?  Concerning this, CS Lewis writes:

“Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear.  But so do several other things — ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.  It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.”[2]

Until love has been perfected among us, Lewis imagines the Christian life going one of two ways:  either our fears will be fully present to us, or we will find some way to pacify them through “inferior agents,” something he sees as wholly undesirable.  Though Lewis lists several “inferior agents” that could be used to pacify fear (presumption, alcohol, passion, etc), it is of value to remember that at the core of all of these agents is our compulsion to control.  “If I can dominate… if I can manipulate, convince, or force my will,” we reason, “then I don’t have to feel helpless and scared.”  If we can control, we will never feel out of control.

b94b77f91d89A significant way humans have attempted to regulate and manipulate their surroundings is by classification and narrative development, or by “making sense” of the world.  According to Heidegger, we are sense-making beings.  We identify, classify, and analyze.  We construct narratives and assign roles.  If we can properly place certain peoples, actions, and symbols in their corresponding boxes, then life will be safe and free of anxiety.  But what happens the categories we keep the world in begin to break down?  For instance, why is there so much fear concerning minorities in America?  Nationality is an abstract construction referring to geography and land mass- a recent invention in modern history.  Minorities scare majorities because they are “different” and difficult to categorize- there is an abstract purity that needs to be protected and the minorities must be quarantined- so the logic goes.  According to Heidegger, because of humanity’s sense-making compulsion, angst (the German word for fear) is the crisis of meaning; when we can no longer make sense of things or when our rigid categories are proven untrue.[3]

It is in the constant refusal to silence our fears, to exist within the crisis of meaning, that the Christian life is lived.  When Saint Anthony heard the words of Jesus “Go and sell everything you own and give it to the poor…. Then come and follow me,” he took it as a call to escape the “inferior agents” that compulsively seek to substitute themselves for perfected love.  It was in the wilderness that Saint Anthony faced his demons of fear, greed, and anger and overcame them by the love of Jesus.  Mother Teresa wrote about only being able to meet Jesus in the darkness, being unable to feel His presence for over fifty years…  And yet she never turned to the “inferior agents” Lewis spoke of.

Till_We_Have_Faces(C.S_Lewis_book)_1st_edition_cover“Till We Have Faces,” Lewis’s retelling of the classic myth of Psyche and Eros, is about two princess sisters: Psyche (the beautiful younger sister) and Orual (the older and uglier one).  Orual was a manipulative and dominating person (much more so on becoming queen) and, because of her ugliness, she wore a veil over her face to cover herself.  She hated the gods, especially the god Ungit.  She hated him because he was masked himself in darkness, refusing to speak with anyone openly.  Her hatred burned for them even more when they took Psyche away from her, which prompted Orual to write a complaint to the gods.   The story of Orual is about an incredibly manipulative and possessive person that constructs a self-justifying narrative about how she is the real victim and the gods are the ones who are evil.  At the end, she finally gets to stand before the council of the gods and read to them her complaint.  She reads what she had always assumed to be an eloquent response.  However, in reality it turned out to be a few lines of narcissistic blathering about how Psyche belongs only to her.  Upon realizing the lunacy of her complaint, she fell silent and recollected:

“I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

As a sign of control, Orual refused to show her face.  However, this refusal to show her face, to lose control, to maintain vulnerability, meant that she would lose any meaningful connection around her.  In other words, by attempting to cast out fear through control, she made it impossible for love to get to her.  Until she took off the veil that was masking her face, the gods could never speak with her face to face.

Trick-or-treatersWhat does this have to do with Halloween?  Halloween is a time when, like the young man in the fairytale, we can go out “to learn to be afraid.”  When death comes to our door this evening, we have an opportunity to look him in the face and feel our crisis of meaning (albeit while giving him candy).  When we go through our haunted houses, we can be allowed to feel the anxiety that our perceived control on the world is illusory at best and destructive (to ourselves and others, ex. Orual)  at worst.  Our shared Christian life isn’t lived by dichotomizing fear with faith/hope/or love.  Rather, our fear is the avenue down which we will arrive at these virtues.  As St. Isaac the Syrian once wrote, “Just as it isn’t possible for someone to cross the great sea without a ship, so someone can’t reach love without fear.”  Perhaps this All Hallows’ Eve, we can view venturing into the darkness as actually stepping into the light and, maybe, by veiling ourselves with masks and frightening one another, we can, with Orual, learn to take off our masks.  Without learning to be afraid in the right way, we have no hope of love reaching us.  And so I ask you, as we wait for perfect love to cast out our fear, would you learn to be afraid with me tonight?

Happy Halloween!

[1] S Kierkegaard, “The Concept of Dread” pg 139

[2] “The World’s Last Night” in C. S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, pg 51

[3] Heidegger, “Being and Time”

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The Darkness of City Destruction: The Apocalypse of the Cross: Part 17

Apocaylpse of the Cross

Essay Posts

In the previous post, I began to look at the way the writer of Matthew anticipates the darkness at the cross by alluding to darkness earlier within his gospel. This innertextuality serves to both prepare the reader for the darkness at the cross and to provide an interpretive lens through which to understand the darkness. I suggested that Matthew 24:29 serves as an innertextual allusion meant to both alert the reader to the coming darkness at the cross and the context of which, apocalyptic eschatological discourse, is meant to provide the interpretative lens through which both the darkness and the death of Jesus are to be viewed.

Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.[1]

Intertext 4 GospelI attempted to situate this reference to darkness within the broader context of Matthew 24. I looked at some of the differing interpretive matrixes that have been used to understand the passage as a whole. Significantly, I considered whether Matthew 24:29 is meant to describe the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (either with metaphorical cosmic imagery or with the expectation of its destruction being accompanied by cosmic signs) or if it was meant to describe Jesus’ parousia and the end of the age. Yet to better understand this passage, and specifically the meaning of the cosmic darkness imagery, it is necessary to examine those Old Testament texts that Matthew 24:29 is drawing upon. In the same way that my previous posts have examined the Old Testament and pseudepigraphal texts that stand behind Matthew 27:45, it is important to look at the intertextual relationship with the Old Testament that stands behind Matthew 24:29. Understanding these allusions will help us better understand the meaning of the cosmic imagery within the context of Matthew 24 and, more significantly for our aims, how this passage informs our interpretation of the darkness at the cross and the meaning of Jesus’ death.

Old Testament Imagery

Matthew 24.29 is a rather free amalgamation of cosmic upheaval language alluding primarily to two Old Testament texts, Isaiah 13:10 and 34:4,[2] though possibly influenced by Joel 2.10 and 4.15-16 (LXX). In this post I will look at the possible allusions to Isaiah while in my next post I will examine the more dubious allusions to Joel.

Jesus draws allusion to Isaiah 13.10 in the first line:

For the stars of heaven and Orion
and all the ornament of heaven
will not give light,
and σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, it will be dark) when τοῦ ἡλίου (tou hēliou, the sun) rises,
And ἡ σελήνη (hē selēnē, the moon) οὐ δώσει (ou dōsei, will not give) τὸ φῶς αὐτῆς (to phōs autēs, its light).[3]

Matthew’s ὁ ἥλιος σκοτισθήσεται (ho hēlios skotisthēsetai, the sun will be darkened) contains both ὁ ἥλιος (ho hēlios, the sun) and the future passive σκοτισθήσεται (skotisthēsetai, will be darkened) found in Isaiah.[4] Matthew’s second line parallels the final line of Isaiah 13.10 closely; καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φέγγος αὐτῆς (kai hē selēnē ou dōsei to pheggos autēs, and the moon will not give its light) for Isaiah’s καὶ ἡ σελήνη οὐ δώσει τὸ φῶς αὐτῆς (kai hē selēnē ou dōsei to phōs autēs, and the moon will not give its light). The only difference between Matthew and the LXX is the evangelist’s substitution of τὸ φέγγος (to pheggos, brilliancy, light) for Isaiah’s τὸ φῶς (to phōs, light).[5]

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The broader context of Isaiah standing behind this allusion is an oracle of the destruction of Babylon. Isaiah uses the cosmic language of darkness and celestial disturbance to paint the picture of Babylon’s demise as a climactic event of earth-shattering proportions.[6] The imagery of cosmic darkness fills passages of YHWH’s judgment of Babylon, setting off both YHWH’s victory over the pagan city and the soon rescue and vindication of YHWH’s people who have experienced distress and hardship within it.[7] This text sees not only YHWH’s destruction of the pagan city, but, following close on the heels of its destruction, the divine rescue of YHWH’s people.[8] This follows precisely what would be expected from the model of eschatological tribulation, a time of tribulation often described through apocalyptic language followed by a time of salvation.

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The second passage alluded to is Isaiah 34 in the third line, here with reference to falling stars:

Heaven shall roll up like a scroll,
and all τὰ ἄστρα (ta astra, the stars) πεσεῖται (peseitai, shall fall)
like leaves from a vine
and as leaves fall from a fig tree.[9]

Matthew reads οἱ ἀστέρες πεσοῦνται ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (hoi asteres pesountai apo tou ouranou, the stars will fall from heaven), drawing from Isaiah’s πάντα τὰ ἄστρα πεσεῖται (panta ta astra peseitai, all the stars shall fall), though the evangelist uses the plural verb rather than the singular of the LXX. The addition of ἀπὸ τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (apo tou ouranou, from heaven) may be drawn from the first line of Isaiah 13.10; ἀστέρες τοῦ οὐρανοῦ (asteres tou ouranou, stars of heaven).[10] The usage of Isaiah 34 is similar to that of Isaiah 13, both being oracles of divine judgment and destruction of pagan cities, in this case, Edom, and both following the pattern of the destruction of an oppressive nation or city followed by deliverance of YHWH’s people.[11]

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As France notes, the darkness imagery accompanying the destruction of pagan cities extends also to Israel, as seen in Amos 8.9 where it is used not of judgment on pagan nations but on Israel’s northern and southern kingdoms.[12] It is not too far a leap to see Jesus evoking this imagery of city destruction in response to the disciples’ question, using the prophetic language to indicate what is to be destroyed is more than merely an important building, but a power structure in step with pagan Babylon.[13] The imagery of tribulation closely tied to vindication is present both within the larger context of Matthew 24 and will be important as we turn to look at how the context of Matthew 24:29 informs our reading of the crucifixion narrative and the darkness at the cross.

[1] Matt 24.29-30 NRSV; Gk. NA27

[2] Ibid. 334.

[3] Isa 13:10 NETS; Gk. LXX

[4] Adams, Stars. 154.

[5] Ibid. 154.

[6] Wright, People. 354.

[7] Isa 48.20; 52.11-12 cf. Jer 50.6, 8, 28; 51.6-10,45-46, 50-51, 57; Ibid. 356-357.

[8] Pitre, Jesus. 336.

[9] Isaiah 34:4

[10] Adams, Stars. 154.

[11] Pitre, Jesus. 334.

[12] France, Matthew. 922.

[13] Ibid. 923.


In Spirit and Truth

Woman at the wellI don’t alwaConversationalys like the Gospel of John. It often seems too detached and “spiritual.” From the beginning Jesus is the Word from heaven and sometimes I wonder if he ever actually makes it to earth in the that Gospel. Some of the extended speeches attributed to Jesus (e.g. John 6 and John 10) can seem hopelessly vague. I find myself quickly reading through them finding little or no connection to “the bread of life” or “the good shepherd” and the “gate for the sheep.”

My struggle with the Fourth Gospel is perhaps typified best in John 4 where Jesus says to the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” What in the world does that mean Jesus? And how does that help this poor woman? God just wants people to be more spiritual? “Woman at the well, God wants you to be good charismatic and evangelical Christian. Devote yourself to the Holy Spirit and sound doctrinal truth.”

As I was in this passage a few weeks ago the broader context began to transform my reading of this verse, and it makes me curious as to what else I am missing in John’s Gospel (I assume the answer to that question is “a lot”). This passage is not about “the woman at the well,” it is about “the Samaritan woman at the well.” In the conversation that precedes the “spirit and truth” verse, it emerges that the woman is living within a socially, racially, and religiously divided world. It is a world of “Jews” and “Samaritans,” a world of “us” and “them.” Each side has tried to claim that God is only present on their piece of holy land. “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” This is the context within which Jesus speaks the truth that “God is spirit.” As spirit God transcends these boundaries and the true worshipers who worship the true God must do the same.

What does it look like to worship God in spirit and in truth? Jesus is enacting it in front of us as he willfully transgresses the social, ethnic, religious, and gender boundaries that separate him from this Samaritan woman. He enacts a unity between all people – one people under one God regardless of the labels they wear. Worshiping God in spirit and truth is not mostly an interior worship in my heart via the Holy Spirit, it is an embodied love for the “other” because of the love of the One God who is Spirit and who is not defined by the things that too often define and divide us. If you do not know who “the other” is, just find a person who everyone at your church “would be astonished” that you were speaking with and begin there to worship God in spirit and truth. The Father is seeking such to worship him.


Zahnd V. Brown: Who’s the Monster?

Bxb5IuJIYAAFbsE.jpg-largeConversationalThis past Saturday afternoon, The International House of Prayer hosted a debate between St. Joseph pastor and author Brian Zahnd and radio talk show host (The Line of Fire) and Fire School of Ministry president Michael Brown. The debate was entitled “Monster God or Monster Man” and sought to address if Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the biblical model of atonement or if the theory presents an image of a “monster God” requiring the death of the innocent to be placated. Michael Brown debated for Penal Substitution Atonement while Zahnd debated that the God found in Penal Substitutionary Atonement is more like a pagan deity, a Monster God.

You can watch the debate here.

The Name of the debate is taken from Zahnd’s recent sermon entitled “Death of the Monster God.” The debate followed a format giving each debater fifteen minutes to present their position, followed by an eight minute response from each. At this point each participant was allowed to ask three questions of their opponent, who responded with two to three minute answers. This was followed by a time of questions from the audience submitted via twitter. The debate end with each debater allowed five minutes to give their closing remarks.


Michael Brown: Founder and President of Fire School of Ministry and host of the nationally syndicated, daily radio talk show "The Line of Fire." Holding a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature, he is a published Old Testament and semitic writer and a Messianic apologist.

Michael Brown
Founder and President of Fire School of Ministry and host of the nationally syndicated, daily radio talk show “The Line of Fire.” Holding a PhD in Near Eastern languages and literature, he is a published Old Testament and semitic writer and a Messianic apologist. His is the author of twenty-five books, including Can You Be Gay and a Christian?, Hyper-Grace, Authentic Fire, and The Real Kosher Jesus.

 From the outset of the debate, it was clear that Brown was playing on home turf. The moderator, Wes Hall, introduced the debate as one between the “traditional view” of Penal Substitutionary Atonement and the new atonement theories of modern scholarship. Despite this bias toward Penal Substitutionary Atonement, Which Hall called the “classic”view, from the beginning, Hall did a fair job remaining impartial as he mediated the debate, with both participants remaining civil throughout.

The debaters ultimately came off feeling fairly evenly matched. It would be difficult at the end of the debate to say who resolutely won. Brown had the advantage of being able to quote from a list of Bible verses Evangelical Protestants have been use to hearing through the lens of Penal Substitutionary Atonement. This often made it seem as if Brown’s case was much stronger than it actually was. Brown referred to Penal Substitutionary Atonement as “Bible 101” and regarded his view as the straight biblical reading of the text. At one point, when Zahand stated Isaiah 53 is a difficult text, Brown responded by simply stating “Isaiah 53 is not a difficult text.” These appeals to biblicalism should be understood as resolutely unprofessional to the point of embarrassment. As one viewer said via Twitter

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Yet in this context where the citing of specific scriptures was so central, the big picture nature of Zahnd’s position may have been both his greatest strength and greatest weakness. Rather than verses taken out of context, Zahnd focused on a narrative approach to atonement. For him, the lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world is the system of violence stretching from Cain and Able which has always sought to sacrifice the innocent for the sake of the power of the violent. Zahnd talks of the cross as the moment when humanity violently thrust our sin onto Jesus, that Jesus, and by extension God, subsumed our violence, and in return forgave freely. In the cross, the coronation of Jesus, the world whose axis has been centered around violence and retributive justice is refounded around forgiveness and love.

This is large picture narrative work.

Brian Zahnd Founder and lead pastor at Word of Life Church in Saint Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of three books: Beauty will Save the ORled

Brian Zahnd
Founder and lead pastor of “Word of Life Church” in Saint Joseph, Missouri. He is the author of three books: Beauty Will Save the World, Unconditional: The Call of Jesus To Radical Forgiveness, and What To Do On The Worst Day of Your Life.

In another context, this would have taken the debate. Yet in the context of Brown’s list of scriptures, Zahnd’s inability to point to specific texts to better substantiate his claims came off as a major disadvantage. Zahnd responded to the list of verses Brown cited (without explanation) by saying “I believe all those verses you quoted, I interpret them differently.” Zahnd alluded to the possibility of understanding these verses differently than Penal Substitutionary Atonement has presented them. Yet Zahnd did not have the time or patience to do the type of close work required to recontextualize and understand these texts differently.

Even were Zahnd to tackle one or two New Testament texts, as he did with Hebrews 10:5, Brown was able to cite many more which the audience was conditioned to see as supporting Penal Substitutionary Atonement. Zahnd relied more on the overarching narrative of the Bible than on any specific text. Unfortunately this caused Zahnd to at times seem unable to give clear answers to questions put to him. It was evident, for example, that Zahnd’s own view of the Old Testament differs greatly from that of Brown. I remember in a recent debate on Calvinism how Zahnd made an appeal that we listen to the top scholars in their fields of biblical studies, that we listen to those like Bruggemann. If Bruggemann and other Old Testament scholars like him are a shaping voice in Zahnd’s understanding of the Old Testament, Zahnd is ultimately willing to be critical of the Old Testament narrative in ways which would be unacceptable to Brown.

Brown, on the other hand, embarrassed himself with his inability to present a more nuanced view of the Old Testament texts. When Zahnd brought up the multiple voices concerning the sacrificial system — which is prescribed in the Torah, questioned in the Psalms, and in Hosea the prophet says “I have desired mercy not sacrifice (a quote used twice by Jesus) — Brown responded that Hosea could not possibly have contradicted the Torah or else he would have been a false prophet and would have been executed. When Zahnd similarly pointed out that Jesus both reinterprets the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount and in his teaching at times replaces its commandments with his own radical ethic — Brown similarly responded that it would not have been possible that Jesus would have contradicted the Torah, or else he would not have been accepted as the Messiah and would have been executed as a false prophet. One wonder’s at this, if Brown has not read the end of the story concerning Jesus. How the irony is lost on him is difficult to imagine.

10705222_724083169747_1684956065_nFor Zahnd, a flat reading of the Biblical text is impossible. He cannot give equal weight and authority to every part of the text. For Zahnd, the Jesus seen in the gospels is the ultimate word on who God is. If the Old Testament must be re-understood in light of this, or if our reading of Revelation or Paul needs re-examined than so be it. The ultimate word for Zahnd is Jesus. While Brown may not explicitly reject this claim, he is not willing to be critical in his readings of the Old Testament texts given the radical picture of Jesus in the gospels.

The issue of Church History served a significant dividing point between Brown and Zahnd. Brown openly admitted to being unfamiliar with Church History, a point that makes his claim that the teaching of Penal Substitutionary Atonement goes back to before the New Testament somewhat suspect. Zahnd opened by pointing out that the theology of Penal Substitutionary Atonement was developed by John Calvin 500 years ago during the Protestant Reformation, building on the economic model of Anselm from the 11th century A.D. Brown does not engage with this claim or attempt to show the presence of Penal Substitutionary Atonement in church history earlier than Zahnd claims. When Zahnd asked Brown if it concerns him that Penal Substitutionary Atonement was developed by Calvin or that the Eastern Orthodox Church has never taught Penal Substitutionary Atonement and considers it a heresy, Brown responded, “No.” He believes the church so quickly departed from the Jewish roots of Christianity in the Post-Constantinian era that he is not surprised to find much of the church unaware of these central doctrines to Christianity. This should be deeply troubling, especially as Brown later stated that Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the very heart of the gospel, the good news — a gospel that much of the church, according to Brown, does not know or believe. Here the Evangelical Protestant context once more gave Brown an advantage where a more ecumenical audience would have been deeply troubled by  Brown’s response.

Similarly, Brown and Zahnd found themselves at an impasse on the subject of divine judgement. Brown leaned heavily on verses describing Jesus coming to judge with fire, wrath, and vengeance. With too many passages to draw from, Zahnd could not hope to examine any passage in satisfactory detail to make an exegetic point stick. Once more Zahnd drew on the larger theological and narratival imagery of divine judgement or wrath being the biblical authors’ way of speaking of the natural consequences of sin — the hell created when humanity embraces a path counter to that of God. God’s wrath, for Zahnd, is the sharp shards of God’s love which pierce those who turn counter to love. Wrath is God’s love wrongly received. Yet Brown would not entertain this big picture argument. To him the plain, unnuanced reading of the text supported his argument too well to consider a more complicated, culturally and literarily sensitive reading.

Brown and Zahnd found themselves again unable to speak on the same terms in the way in which their arguments addressed the issue of sin. While Zahnd made a point to talk about the systemic and cyclical nature of sin, Brown made no attempt to deal with this claim directly. For Brown sin is first and foremost an individual’s affront to the justice of God, an affront that must be repaid. Zahnd argues that God is not beholden to some exterior Lady Justice. God can forgive freely. In Brown’s view, someone must pay for sin, must experience wrath, even if the innocent one God chooses to unleash his wrath on is God’s own son. At one point, Zahnd eloquently described the violent function which scapegoating has served throughout human society — the sacrificing of the innocent by the violent to maintain their own power-hungry and destructive world. Brown’s response revealed once more both his unwillingness to follow critical questions about the nature of the Old Testament as well as his unwillingness to deal with the issue of systemic sin. Brown responded that the idea of the scapegoat  is not a human creation but rather God’s.

Zahnd ultimately held his own against Brown. Yet he was not able to bring a decisive victory. Given the context, there was much which Zahnd needed to overcome. The debate format does not allow for the detailed and patient work a thorough investigation of these topics requires. Zahnd’s appeals to the multiplicity of voices in the text of the Old Testament, the progressive nature of God’s revelation, the narrative of God revealed in Jesus as the pinnacle of YHWH’s revelation to humanity, the undoing of the cycles of violence and the refounding of the world in Christ were often fighting to stay afloat in a sea of Bible verses which Brown threw at Zahnd without much exegesis or explaination. Brown relied much on the expectation that his audience would read his premise, Penal Substitutionary Atonement, into those verses out of habit. Zahnd’s appeal to the narrative of the undoing of the violence of the world was both beautiful and bold but it was just enough to keep him level with Brown given the context Zahnd found himself in.

My hope is that hearing Zahnd and Brown would spark new discussions around the issue of Atonement theory. It might be too much to ask but I would be happy to discover that more people would realize how unhelpful throwing out a list of verses and “the Bible tells me so” are to a true discussion. Perhaps we can look forward to a day when it is taken as a given that these are difficult texts. When someone tells you a piece of poetry written in Hebrew over 2500 years ago, in a culture you do not know, in a land in which you do not live, is not difficult to understand I would hope that all Christians would realize they are not being told the truth. These things are difficult to understand. That does not make Brown right. Nor does it make Zahnd right.  Yet this does mean that in the task of the gospel — to announce, as Zahnd said, that Jesus is Lord and Caesar ( or anyone else whose kingdom has at its axis violence and retributive justice) isn’t — we have an obligation to examine these things closely, to listen to our best voices on these issues, and to be bold in listening to these texts and their radical message meant to refound the world.


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