Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for
many false prophets have gone out into the world.
--1 John 4:1 NRSV
I was a relatively new minister serving in a church in New York still reeling from the 9-11 attacks which had happened only months earlier when it happened. I met with a church member who was eager to talk with me about something important. I had expected to talk about some personal struggle or perhaps the collective trauma of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Instead, the church member launched into a long explanation of the research they had been doing online which revealed a conspiracy secretly running the world.
The church member handed me a binder full of information printed off the internet with charts connecting the Illuminati to the United Nations to the New World Order. I was stunned, to say the least, that this well-educated successful suburbanite was invested so deeply in the conspiracy theories they presented me. I tried to steer the conversation towards the person’s own internal struggles, but it was apparent they were disappointed I didn’t buy into the secret knowledge they possessed.
This encounter happened when the Worldwide Web was still relatively new, before social media and smartphones, but it is a phenomenon that has been common in American Christianity for centuries (witch hunts, vampire scares, Jewish cabals, Catholic plots, Freemasons, etc.). For that matter, conspiracy theories and claims of “secret knowledge” have been a part of Christianity from its beginning. Maybe they have been a part of religion since humanity first began walking upright. The allure of being among the chosen few who know what lurks behind the veil of reality as perceived by the masses is addictive.
My attention was drawn today to an editorial at Religion News Service titled “QAnon: The Alternative Religion That’s Coming to Your Church.” The author is a former editor at Christianity Today, not exactly a liberal alarmist publication, yet she laid out the dangers of this online conspiracy movement for local congregations—especially conservative evangelical ones.
If you’re not familiar with QAnon, be careful when you google it. You’ll quickly go down a rabbit hole of conspiracies that has no end. In general, this conspiracy theory began on a site known for racist and far right content called 4chan. An anonymous user named “Q” began posting claims of inside knowledge about high level Democrats running a child sex ring and elements in the Trump administration working to stop it. In cryptic language that is often religious in nature, the posts implicate the media, Hollywood movers and shakers, and Democrats. Sharing QAnon-related conspiracies has grown exponentially in the age of COVID-19; one study showed posts sharing QAnon conspiracies increased by 71% on Twitter and 651% on Facebook since March of this year.
Once upon a time, conspiracy theories were only things your “crazy uncle” spouted at family gatherings or shared in late night dorm room discussions. Yet, now they are common and rampant among White Evangelical Protestant Christians who generally distrust the media and question scientific consensus on things like evolution and climate change. Of course, left-wing conspiracies have been common in the past as well. What they all have in common is the promise of granting a select few the satisfaction of knowing the “truth.”
Scholars generally credit the appeal of conspiracy theories to the need for people to cope with a disorienting world where ordinary people are buffeted by complex forces lacking easy explanations. It’s easier to believe COVID-19 is a plot by evil left-wing industrialists than it is to accept that there is a fatal disease that doesn’t seem to affect some people but kills others. It’s easier to believe a pedophile ring is killing the job market than it is to make sense of an impersonal global economy that ships jobs overseas. In the same way, it was easier for the Puritans to kill witches when illness struck villagers in the 18th century than to believe in things like germs, hereditary and sanitation.
Katelyn Beaty, the author of today’s editorial, along with the great religion journalist Jeff Sharlett and others have equated the recent QAnon conspiracies with the early Christian heresy Gnosticism. Like QAnon, it had cryptic texts that promised enlightenment to its adherents. Christians combatted the heresy by turning back to scripture and pointing to the incarnation of Christ, who was not an esoteric spiritual being but an actual human being who demonstrated love of neighbor, caring for the least in society and a message based on concrete examples of lost sheep, parents and children, day laborers and landlords. Jesus taught a Gospel of love that was difficult for the masses to accept, because of its demands of self-sacrifice. The promises of Gnosticism offered the exultation of humans through secret knowledge, while the Gospel of Jesus offered the exultation of God through easy to understand acts of every day love.
The author of the First Letter of John told their readers to “test the spirits,” and urged them to believe that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. Why this emphasis upon the incarnation? Because Jesus was not just a ghost passing through this material plane, but a human being who knew what it is to suffer and gave his life for the sake of others. The author of the letter goes on to offer some of the most beautiful language about God ever written: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” In other words, the way to test a belief system is to ask, “where is the love?”
Whether the conspiracy theory is QAnon, the Illuminati, the Freemasons or ancient Gnosticism, a simple way to “test the spirits” is to ask where is love in this system of belief? Does this worldview result in people forsaking their own ego to show love to others around them or does it exalt the ego by declaring its adherents are superior to others because they alone know what is really going on? QAnon may be the latest false religion to invade Christianity, but it’s the same song different verse. It’s just another selfish attempt to declare some are better and more spiritual than others. Jesus didn’t have much patience for religious know-it-alls. We shouldn’t either.
Grace and Peace,
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