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The Game

 

 

J.K. Rowling said, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all of the power we need inside ourselves already.”  Looking back, I can say that this fully describes what came next.  But at the time, I almost thought I had been given a superpower.  Some would call it a “gift,” others the Hand of God, and I’m sure that the religion’s headquarters would call it their curse.  At this point in time, I referred to it as “the game.”

 

It was great fun, this game.  I couldn’t really explain to you how it worked, but that it seemed like pure magic.  I had channeled some form of Assistance, and He was helping me with every single touch of my finger to a keyboard or a mouse.  I couldn’t break it!  No matter how hard I tried to see if I could make it fail, it never did. 

 

As a teenager, I made what I thought then to be a mistake.  Choosing the wrong “filler classes,” I found myself in a “speed reading” class for my seventh grade.  This class was designed to help students who were slow readers to become faster, and advanced readers to polish their skills.  Myself, having read hundreds of books by this age, was far too advanced to have been in this class.  I quickly found myself turning pages in a book faster than some could read a single paragraph, and retaining the subject matter as though I’d sat down by the fireplace with the book and a hot cup of Earl Grey. 

 

But it ruined my desire to read.  Reading became a chore, and the great works of fiction that I once enjoyed became jobs that I would have to endure through hard labor.  To me, books were suddenly large blocks of wood, waiting to be split, armed with only a heavy axe and a maul.  I no longer enjoyed them, quickly forgot about them, and stopped reading altogether.

 

But this mistake turned out to be one of my greatest assets.  I could read through an entire cult sermon within just a few minutes.  Sometimes two full hours of audio recording could be conquered in the blink of an eye.  And I could retain what I was reading, though I struggled to remember it due to illness.  Reading it with a notepad handy though, I found that I was able to plow through sermons at an amazing pace while taking a mountain of notes.

 

The “game” had a routine.  Every morning, before the crack of dawn, I’d pour myself a cup of coffee, grab my laptop computer, open up my sermon software, and pick a sermon.  At first, they were in order, starting at the end of his life and working my way back to the beginning, or starting with a particular subject and working through the sermons chronologically.  The house was usually quiet, my wife and children asleep, and it was very easy to concentrate without distraction.

 

But this morning study became very strange.  As I started speed-reading sermons, looking for anything and everything that was abnormal, the process became easy – too easy.  Taking mental inventory of the style of the sermons, I noticed patterns of speech.  These patters were very obvious when the sermon was dissected into logical elements.  You had the opening statements, usually welcoming “friends,” pointing out those people who were recognized.  Some of these people appeared to travel with him from town to town, all over the nation.  Even in his home church, where the entire crowd would have been friends, key personalities were identified.  It was all part of the strategy.

 

 

Next, he’d introduce the sermon.  This usually began with his choosing a single verse from a single book in the Bible, and telling the crowds that he was going to get his “context” from this verse.  I’d never noticed this before!  The context of scripture would require several verses, sometimes more than one chapter.  If the listener wanted the context of what the Bible was telling them, they’d appeal for him to read more.  I can only imagine several in the crowd continuing to read, completely missing what came next.  And it was the important part. 

 

The cult leader WAS the context.  There was never any intent to learn the context of the letter or book that contained the words; it was his full intent to apply the one or two sentences to himself or his “message” (as opposed to his sermon, which he was speaking at this moment.)  But this would be disguised as a sermon pointing to Christ, the founder of the religion.  Taking that single verse, he’d often tell some example in his life that raised curiosity and bordered supernatural.  Some times, he’d claim the supernatural.  As he continued expanding his claims, while tying them to scattered verses throughout the Bible, listeners would begin to focus more upon him than upon Christ.  All while they believed they were focusing on God, they were focusing on God AND the cult leader.

 

He would often turn to humor as his next transition.  It was usually simple stories, the kind that everyone could identify with, and he’d pretend to be amazed.  “How many people are here from Kentucky, anyway?” he’d exclaim.  This turned my stomach, after only a few hours digging.

 

Since my childhood, we were told wonderful stories of a young Prophet, roaming the hills of Kentucky like a tale from Huckleberry Finn.  How he and his several siblings used to crawl into their beds in a tiny log cabin near Burkesville, Kentucky as his widowed mother would tuck them in.  He’d often tell of the “castor oil” that he’d be given as his “medicine,” and how “coon grease” was used to open their eyes the next morning.  We joyfully sang songs of praise to this cabin.  “The Cabin’s Location” could often be heard playing in many of the homes of cult followers and even on the platform of some cult churches.  The songwriter had instant fame, many recognizing her gentle voice and tinkling piano as she sang in honor of the log cabin that raised the man, William Branham. 

 

But as I read through the sermons, I noticed that the cult leader had also “prophesied” that he would leave Kentucky before he was fifteen months old.  Barely old enough to walk, only old enough to have a limited number of words, this toddler was supposed to have predicted the families relocation only months prior to their leaving the hills of Kentucky and starting life in the bustling river cities of Indiana.  Shouldn’t he be asking the crowd, “How many of you are from INDIANA, anyway?”  But Indiana did not bring the same emotional connection as Kentucky.  Kentucky painted a picture in the minds of the people, one of a backwoods simpleton. 

 

What came next was a bit more complicated.  They were miniature patterns; all repeated in a rhythmic beat, which almost felt like a strange, demented poetry.  And the patterns changed, depending upon the year of the sermon and the circumstances under which they were preached.  I started paying close attention to the names of cities and people mentioned, so that I could compare it to the nation’s history and politics of the day.   Some patterns were an appeal to topics many would have been familiar with at the time, using them to his own advantage.  Others were emotional, significant milestones in the nation’s history that many would recognize.  Some even focusing on numbers, which coincided with his “lucky numbers” from the newspaper.  Most were cultural.  The fear of change was a powerful asset, and speaking harshly against the change would have connected with many of the older listeners. 

 

But many of the sub-patterns were all woven together in one larger scheme: fear.  There was the communist scare, which lasted for years, and fueled many of his predictions.  There were the Birmingham race riots, which appealed to people differently depending upon which part of the country they lived.  To the North, it was a terrible time of division, man fighting with his fellow man.  To the South, it was the fear of the crumbling of Segregation, and preaching to them, it was evil. 

 

He’d inject himself into these fear patterns.  Claiming to be the “spirit of Elijah,” he’d tell stories that resembled passages from the Old Testament, even giving nicknames so that the listeners didn’t miss it.  One African American lady in his stories was so unfortunate to be given the racial slur “Aunt Jemima” in his sermons, while blessed enough to become nicknamed the “Shunammite Woman” from 2 Kings 4.  Elisha, having the “spirit of Elijah,” had visited a woman in need just as our “Prophet” had done!

 

The patterns were simplistic and easy to identify.  But we’d never noticed them before!  Thinking back, the audio also had patterns that matched all of these.  The calm, gentle friendship of the opening statements turned into solemn reverence for reading the single phrase that was to be context of himself.  The voice would turn to laughter for the humorous stories, and to sadness as he injected his own life into the sermon.  The emotions of the crowd would have been bouncing like a yo-yo.  Then, with each of the miniature sub-patterns, the cult leader would scream with a Hitler-style barking, and then becoming calm and quiet to build curiosity for his main points.  For the main points, he’d speak with authority, often slapping the pulpit and making the microphone pop.  It was a very well orchestrated effort, one that came with a great deal of practice and possibly education.

 

Even the “healing lines” had patterns, depending upon the year.  In the early years, a limited number of prayer cards would be called to the platform before the “color patterns.”  “You in the red dress,” he’d call out.  “You in the blue sweater.”  Memory association is powerful, especially when the color cards are sitting right in front of you at all times.  They were not always colors, and not always the same strategy.  Sometimes, he’d “envision” a person sitting in the audience with an illness of some sort, the listener forced to assume that the patient had entered the building without telling a soul.  And maybe they didn’t; many in the crowds followed the Prophet from town to town, using “prayer cards” in other cities.  Later, after mass production of the transistor radio, he would claim divine intervention for a “change in his ministry.”  In this change, he could go for hours at a time guessing the names, addresses, and diseases.

 

It was a game, understanding these patterns.  Similar to a chess game, one where you know your opponent’s strategy.  It’s very easy to guess the next move when you know the sequence.  Before long, I could tell when he was building emotion, when he was opening the mind with humor, when he was using quick repetition to mentally program a response, when he was appealing to their senses in any way.  But most of all, I could tell when he was lying, because there were words transcribed onto the page.