While home from college one afternoon, I plowed away behind a 1990s era John Deere lawn mower. As I mowed, I watched a young man and woman meander down my childhood street while I ran over gopher holes, doing my best to keep the machine from pelting me with dirt clods. I paid the couple little attention, as I was more intent on ensuring my lines were straight, and yard free of gopher massacres. The heat being what it was, I’d abandoned my shirt while bits of green and brown clung to my chest creating the iconic smell of my youth — grass and sweat.
Once the young man and woman neared the curb where my parents set out trash, they stopped to marvel at my meticulous detail. Curious, I let the mower expire and wiped my brow, dribbling beads of water onto the nearby sidewalk where I stood. Between us, the thin strip of manicured lawn might as well have been an ocean. Few people stop to admire a lawn without alternative intentions. Skeptical, I eyed the couple and waited, wiping the sweat once more.
Pleasantries are always superficial, yet we all do them. What do you do for a living? Wow, this weather sucks! How do you know so-and-so? In my case, we talked about where we went to school. They thought they might have recognized me, which appeared to be the reason they stopped. We struck common ground, each being college students, and talked about courses, teachers, and our career goals. They hadn’t recognized me, however. I’d spent the last year fighting overseas in Afghanistan and already dropped out of school twice. Realistically, I was a ghost that haunted my campus on occasion. They didn’t know this, but I didn’t care to offer. Nevertheless, I still mentally lashed their carefree attitudes.
Once our pleasantries subsided, the real question a stranger asks when stopping someone emerged. Do you have the time? Where is the nearest store? How did you get the lines in your lawn so straight? But this pair posed no such question. Instead, they wound up for the pitch, and threw me a curveball: “If you died today, do you know where you would end up for eternity?”
Ah. The endless state of the soul. So, there we have it; the real question at hand. Not the time or lawn tips, but a weird existential question often reserved for close friends. I did a quick mental scramble over my years of searching into the question of purpose, but was uncertain how to answer the two. Maybe I’d end up in the endless void? Perhaps as energy into the universe? Achieve Nirvana? Heaven? Hell, was I even certain there was an afterlife? Who can say? After all, life is pain, and anyone who says differently is selling something. Or so says the Dread Pirate Roberts.
I didn’t answer them with my cynicism, though. Instead, I went for the bunt — the safe play when thrown a curveball.
I’d grown up inside the buckle of the “Bible-Belt,” so I knew what these two were after. I would end up as a tally mark for their little Kingdom of Numbers. They wouldn’t care if I actually followed the faith, so long as I professed something similar to a witch’s incantation — “Now repeat after me. Dear Jesus…” Those of us with enough exposure to cultural Christianity, however, already know the language, culture, and pat answers. Were I to share my honest doubts about I’m-not-sure-which-course-is-correct, an argument about hell and the eternity of a soul would begin. I’d been down this road before, and had no desire to continue talking to these young evangelists, so I put on my best Billy Graham face. Then with the flashiest smile I could muster, I exclaimed, “Because I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior! I would spend eternity with him.”
Their delight was palpable, followed by a rousing “Amen” and hugs; the sweat of my body and grass transferring to their clean shirts. I long suspected the girl was nervous around me and her hug confirmed as much. A shirtless man around a woman probably chaste and pious — but who felt some sense of attraction — will confirm the obvious. Whether it was the short eye glances during our conversation or the awkward hug, I knew all wasn’t as it appeared in her bubble. So I shot her a mischievous grin, and she blushed. There was no malice in my flirting. I just wanted them to leave, which she suggested all too eagerly after the dubious smile. I stood a moment longer and watched them once more meander down the street looking for their next victim to trick into buying their pristine spiritual vacuum. Then I yanked on the cord to start the mower again, and as the roar grew I chuckled and said, “Suckers.”
A friend of mine was once “catfished.” For those unaware, it’s when a person creates a fake online persona to lure or target a victim. Most times, perpetrators use the practice for a romantic scam on dating websites. While the term is a new invention, the implications are not. We have several English words for when a man is tricked — duped, deceived, bamboozled, hoodwinked, conned, swindled — and an endless variety of idiomatic expressions. Yet, when you’re the one pulling a quick one, the other person is just a “sucker.” When my friend discovered he was the sucker in question, he started drinking alone in his room to quell the demons of duplicity.
Like my friend, there are a growing number of men and women who’ve been catfished, but by their faith traditions. They were lured in to believe one thing, but find themselves downing the proverbial bottle to scrub the bad taste and memories. Over time, they realize they’ve been the sucker of some charlatan preaching about how the poor inherit the Earth, all while the preacher in question flaunts his $1,000 Nikes from stage. For those in the Christian tradition who’ve been duped, they identify as any number of labels. Some have been “burned” by the church (as was my case while a young man pushing a lawn mower), or are now #exvangelical. They are angry having been swindled by a system that promised them peace and joy, only to find heartbreak and lies. Isn’t it curious that — culturally — Americans identify as Christian in belief (roughly 70% according to census information)? Yet, in practice, we hate Christians for their inability to do the simplest task their teacher commands: To love their neighbors as themselves. It makes one wonder, what teacher are they following exactly? This Jesus character? Or money, fame, indulgence, convenience, and pleasure? Just who is duping who now?
To dismiss the notion that we’re all addicted to worshipping our whim and fancy, many in modernity have moved away from faith traditions and adopted the term “spiritual.” Indeed, our fascination with the spiritual even permeates to pop culture. The most popular book of the last decade involves a young wizard using everything from magic to talking hats to defeat evil in a world the rest of the populace is unaware even exists. We’ve found Harry Potter so enticing we throw parties as adults where we dress up like school children and wield sticks. We even demanded Universal Studios build a theme park so we can pretend Hogwarts exists. It satiates the soul temporarily, but then we leave, longing once more for the supernatural. It’s an odd thing that we’re all hungry for magic, yet feel swindled by the people claiming to wield the magic. We remember the preacher who nailed his assistant and embezzled funds. The priest who touched little boys. The church leader who condemned gay men, only to have a boyfriend. The masses in turn reject the divine, but wander like rabid wolves seeking just a sliver of the supernatural, all the while convinced there is some great con afoot. Who can blame them? Yet hungry we remain, seeking some shred of realness in the magic we all wish we possessed.
One of Coca-Cola’s most well known slogans from the 1960s is “It’s the real thing.” Variations of the slogan have continued to emerge in Coke’s branding over the years—like in 1990 when the slogan changed to “Can’t beat the real thing.” Americans love authentic things, hence why the slogan resonates. On the flip-side, we hate getting conned, but it happens to the best of us. Recently, I was the target of a fantastic bait and switch. I bought a pair of gym shorts after seeing an online advertisement. The slick style, compression fitting, and hidden pocket for my phone became lucrative selling points. I’d seen variations of this product ranging from $70 to $100 from other resellers and balked at the price. This ad, however, offered me the shorts for the low price of $25. I should have known something was amiss given the price, but I took the bait, anyway. After three weeks of waiting — because my shorts shipped from China — I received them in the mail. The sizing was off, but for the most part they looked like the real deal. That was until they began falling apart. Much like the Coke ad from the 1960s I’d gone over to Pepsi and found a poor substitute when what I wanted was the “real thing.” The problem was that the real thing cost more than I wanted to pay. But isn’t that the case with most desires in life? In fact, isn’t that the glaring inconsistency in Western Christianity? People everywhere are settling for a cheap substitute, then it unravels at the seams. The real version, though, is costly.
The cheap substitute for Christianity works like a vaccination. When one receives a vaccination, the physician injects dead parts of the original strain to trick your body into creating the antibodies necessary to attack the source. Your body then builds a natural immunity to the virus were you to encounter the real thing. Society gave many of us the vaccination to the divine as children in the West. We might have grown up going to church, perhaps gleaning morals from the pulpit, or our parents espoused Christian values to further their business in an attempt to appear trustworthy. The injections we received were just enough to convince our mind and spirit we’d caught the real thing, but that’s all it was, a dead virus. Not the real thing at all, but a dead substitute.
For many, the vaccination convinces them a man (i.e. spiritual leaders) represent God, rules need following to appease a sky wizard, karma is real, and as long as you’re a good little boy or girl he’ll #bless your life. When reality drops, tribalism and politics becoming the rallying cry of the inoculated. They don’t do good to honor their master, but to flaunt their good works, moral well-being, or signal their tribal loyalty. They blame some money hungry power monster in the pulpit for why they left their faith, having never encountered the real thing, but a dead strain. When those injected with the dead cells build up enough immunity, they leave the faith altogether or become the people you argue with on social media because of their inane zealotry. This belief system is the Great Trickery, The Great Catfishing, The Great Suckerdom, and the West is eating it in gallon sized bowls.
For so long, I was the inoculated too. Prior to my authentic conversion, I would have said I valued people, when I only cared about myself. After all, this is the operating system of the human heart, as evidenced by the rally cry of our culture — “you do you.” Christians like that rally cry even more than their so-called “pagan” counterparts and here’s why: the faithful no longer have to love their enemies, because their enemies are too woke, too racist, too conservative, or too liberal. Jesus would probably hate them anyway because they’re on the wrong side of history, they rationalize. Nor do they think it necessary to give their money away. I earned it and deserve it is the motto. Plus, giving your money away is socialism others would decry. Nevermind blessing those who persecute you. Instead, take an eye or “put them on blast” online. So while it’s one thing to say you’re a Christian, it’s quite another to be Christian. This is, indeed, the West’s largest problem. We identify as “the real thing” but most are frauds, just like my gym shorts. Pretty on the outside, but fraying inwardly.
This begs the question so many ask aloud: “Why don’t American Christians act like Christians?” But the answer stands boldly in the face of any rational thinker — we’ve been tricked, bamboozled, inoculated, and swindled. They say the greatest trick the Devil ever performed was convincing the world he isn’t real. I would contend the greatest trick he’s ever performed is amassing hordes of people who think they’re Christians, only to continue to act like the Devil himself. If Christ is to be taken at his word, then he intends to create little versions of himself who love, serve, bless, and care for those on the fringes of society. Today’s flavor of Christianity mimics the taste of New Coke, and everyone hates it. We “believe,” yet never behave. Not that we have to behave according to the orthodoxy behind our faith tradition, but show me a man or woman radically different from their past that hasn’t had a change of heart. Thus, aside from their claims, there is little to show. They do not seek to look more their master, but mimic the attitudes and actions of Twitter, television, celebrities, or politicians.
The real beauty of Christianity is the opposite of the people I encountered that summer day while mowing a lawn. If people are conversion tally marks, there is nothing alluring about the faith. That’s a faith for suckers. But if your faith seeks to enrich and bless the lives of others because your master does the same for you that’s — at the very least — endearing. You won’t need clever tactics or persuasive arguments for why you’re a Christian.
Instead, you’ll live it. Or you just might die a sucker in the cog of the American-Christian Hoodwink Machine.