Thursday, August 28, 2014

Who Is and Is Not a Pastor

Who is a "pastor?"  Who speaks meaningfully for the Christian faith?

That question popped and hummed around my mind this morning, as some of my progressive friends anguished over the latest terrible thing circulating on the Huffington Post about what a Christian leader has said.  Michael V. Wilson is the pastor/preacher in question, as he'd posted a peculiar and inflammatory video calling for a Constitutional Amendment to incarcerate gays in some sort of gay gulag.  

A constitutional amendment to imprison gays would insane and antithetical to the liberty outlined in the rest of the Constitution, of course, so wildly off that it'd go nowhere.  It is, however, the sort of thing that people get riled about and pass around on the interwebs.  Look!  A horrible, offensive, insane pastor!  Oh, what a horrible thing Christianity has become!  This being controversial and all, there were hundreds of comments, many reposts, and in just a day or so, over 100,000 Google-hits.  

I'm a curious sort, so I actually bothered following up on Pastor Wilson.  Who is he?  What sort of community does he lead?

Real pastors are not hard to trace.  Like say, me.  As the part-time pastor of a very small church, I'm not exactly the biggest fish in the sea.   But you can know who I am.  

Right here on the blog, you can see my social media identity, and the identity of my congregation.  Google my very very common name and the name of my church?  There it is.  More information about me.  You can hear my voice, and see news articles from local media quoting me.  Go deeper, and you'll find record of me through my denomination.  I am the person I say I am, and you can independently verify that.

Why is this?  Because I'm not hiding anything.  Why in the blessed name of Jesus would I?  I actually want you to know about my church, where it is, and how to come experience it and consider being part of the gracious Way we walk together.   Because, you know, that's my job as a pastor.  That's perhaps the most important part of being a pastor.

It shouldn't be hard to find a pastor, particularly a pastor with an intentional media presence.

So I went looking for my dear brother Pastor Wilson.

Wilson's website is called "Preaching Politics," and it has extensive links to the radical right wing media.  It's all wild, inflammatory, fringe-politics stuff.  Link-images on the home page network him in with groups affiliated with the Pajamas Media blog network, along with a few fundamentalist sites, and a link to BibleGateway, which is an utterly awesome online bible resource.  I use it all the time.

But anyone can link to anything, so that tells me nothing about who he actually is.  And Wilson?  He doesn't seem to claim to be a pastor, frankly.  He doesn't claim to be much of anything.

I tried to go deeper, and it got weird.  There's no link to a social media profile or page, which is odd for any media-savvy leader.  There's no information about his identity at all, just a picture or two.  He appears to be Texan, and at one point took a picture with a kid who he claims as his grandchild, but even that's vague.  He does not want you to know who or where he is.

Vaguer still is his "church."  His website indicated some unclear affiliation with something called The Church on the Rock, so I clicked through to the page.  It's a picture of a dark brown church building across an empty parking lot.  There are no people, just an empty building.  It's a drab, lifeless picture, the sort you could take if you cruised through any mid-sized church parking lot at seven-fifteen on a Monday morning before the staff arrived.  

On that page there was no text, no information at all about the church.  Not what they believe, not where they are.  Instead, there were four "announcement" videos, presumably for a congregation.  Each was 40 seconds long, so I watched them.

It got weirder.  Each one of the four videos is a video of Wilson, standing in front of a green screen.  Yes, a green screen.  Using the green screen, he's "in front" of a blurry generic church office background.

"Hello, I'm Michael Wilson," he says in the first video.  "Next month is Januarynthat means it's time for the discipleship class."  Where he said "Januarynthat," the video had been crudely cut.  What followed the cut was a generic description of a new members class in a stereotypical fundamentalist church.  

In the second video, he says, "Hello, I'm Michael Wilson.  Next month is Aprilnthat means it's time for the discipleship class."  Same cut.  Same place.  And after the cut, the same video sequence, exactly.

That was true for all of the "church" videos.  

There's nothing else about the church, or where to find this "discipleship class."  No address.  No phone.  No sermons.  Just four very odd videos.  If you've spent any time around evangelical churches, you know this is seriously, seriously sketchy.

So to Google I went, with some targeted searching.  While there are many congregations called "Church on the Rock," and some are in Texas, but none of them has a Michael Wilson formally affiliated with them.  None.

For some small church pastors, particularly pastors of tiny, rural congregations, this might not be surprising.  A lot of little family-sized churches don't have a web presence, as they still relate to one another the same way they did forty years ago.   But those congregations are old, and part of the old-line.  They also don't have pastors who are web-savvy enough to produce green-screened videos...but who won't do the same for the community they're trying to build.

If you went looking for other far-right small-church conservative pastors--like that bushy dude who burned the Quran, or the bizarre Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor in the last Virginia election cycle--you could find them.  They were crazy, but they were real.  You could find their churches.

This is something else.  This is a thing that does not add up.  Michael Wilson's identity as a "pastor" comes apart like wet tissue paper in your hands, the way that any untrue thing does when you dig into it deeper.

Is he a preacher?  Perhaps, sure, in the technical sense of the term.  In the pre-web days, anyone with a bullhorn could ensconce themselves on a street corner and berate passers by.  But as someone woven together with a community, the shepherd of a flock?  No.

He's just an eccentric right-wing guy with a video camera, editing software and some opinions.  Which are his right to express, but which should be mine to ignore.

What I struggle with, honestly, is why...just a few days after he pitched it out many souls would briefly care enough to worry about it.

Or, frankly, why I would care.  Jeez.  I have other things to do.


Sometimes I think the internet is driving us insane.