Monday, April 17, 2006

Review: The Texas Baptist Crucible

“What you are about to read is real” is the opening statement of the prologue to James Spurgeon’s The Texas Baptist Crucible. Of course, the moment you hear that phrase you immediately begin to question what you are about to read. It’s almost as if the phrase casts the story into more doubt than the actual story does. Such is not the case with Spurgeon’s work. We can trust him on the phrase; the real work is dealing with the actual story.

The Texas Baptist Crucible, the larger, published form of “Tales from the Temple,” is a collection of stories of James’ experiences at Texas Baptist College / Longview Baptist Temple, the epitome of independent Baptist “fundamentalism.” The book description states:

When he was ten years old, James converted to Christianity in a Southern California Baptist church. After graduating from high school in 1987, James enrolled in Texas Baptist College. Seven harrowing years later, James escaped that cult-like environment with his spirituality and sanity intact. This is his story–a story of struggle, courage, faith, and perseverance. It will make you laugh and cry, make you angry, make you cheer. The Texas Baptist Crucible illustrates the ugly side of legalism, misguided zeal, and misplaced priorities. But it is also a story of grace, and how God often takes us through difficult paths so that we will learn to appreciate what real grace is all about.

The church and school are basically driven by extreme right-wing fundamentalism, here a collection of KJV Onlyism, an ironic mixture of legalism and antinomianism (pointless and random rules that fail to address the “heart of the matter”: the human heart), and the perceived notion that the “noble task” (1 Tim 3:1) of pastoring and teaching is somehow really the “kingly task.” This is the type of school and church where if you display the slightest disagreement with the pastor or teacher, next chapel’s sermon is spent exhausting the fact that you are a type of devil from hell. And the pastor is neither nonchalant nor ambiguous about it. He’ll call you out by name (or at least stand right in front of you, acting as if you are remaining anonymous while the rest of the congregation knows exactly whom he’s talking about), pull you out of your pew by the collar of your shirt, and brand you the rebel ringleader. James Spurgeon knows this, because this is exactly what happened to him, in one of many like-experiences during his days at the Temple and College. “At LBT,” James states, “the pulpit was a whipping post where the fearful and the disloyal were publicly flogged, intimidated, and humiliated in order to keep others in line.”

“Totalitarianism.” “Big Brother.” “Brain Washing.” These are all terms that can be used to describe the leadership of the Temple/College. What the pastor/teacher/staff member says goes, and the student body was trained to think in this way. And the brainwashing certainly took an effect on the students. “Friends” were transformed into snitches. Fellow ministers became competitors (James reminds us of this several times in his recounting of “Bus Ministry” stories and the tactics that were used to get more baptisms on a roster list than another team in order to boost bragging rights, a practice that was approved by LBT staff). Man was glorified, and the kings of men (that is, the Temple pastors and staff) were exalted. “The number of lives that were wrecked,” James tells, “the number of people who were cast aside in our reckless pillaging quest for fundamentalist immortality as Longview Baptist members and Texas Baptist College students was a sad, pathetic, astounding number.” Leaving the College prematurely, or leaving the Temple to pursue ministry elsewhere, was considered abandoning God. This was the mentality that was constantly indoctrinated into the minds of the students.

James writes, “We were like blind sheep following every command without question. To not do so would have meant spiritual defeat for us and the victory of Satan in our lives. And we were treated like infants. …We were totally dependent, both spiritually and in every other aspect of our lives, upon the staff and pastor. This was fostered. We were not to be independent, but submissive.” It is with the purpose of releasing those caught up in the LBT mindset from their indoctrination and exposing the un-Christ-like practices of the Temple and College that James authors his work.

Phil Johnson, in the foreword, appropriately notes, “James writes with unflinching candor. He has an uncanny knack for painting the most vivid word-pictures. But compassion, humility, hope, and charity are predominant colors on his palette. He even manages to put a human face on the very people who labored hardest to eliminate the last vestiges of his humanity.”

At some points of the story, I was cracking up laughing, and then I thought, “Wait… this is a real person’s experience. Should I really be laughing?” Well, James has the humility that allows his real-life experiences to be the subject of both humor and edification. Phil rightly notes, “I’m convinced that one of the main reasons the Lord allowed James to suffer these trials and indignities was to equip him to be an encouragement to others (2 Corinthians 1:3-7).” The book has an interesting mixture of humor and sadness, some stories more humorous than others, and some sadder than others. In many ways, this college destroyed lives. Indeed, apart from God’s grace, it would have destroyed many lives. But the life of James Spurgeon has not been destroyed. It has been afflicted, but for the better good. Trials produce perseverance (James 1:4). Something unique that this book communicates is that you don’t need to be covered in boils like Job in order to suffer. Suffering can come by the hands of a church that claims to preach the Word of God. And yet, through this, the Gospel of Christ is made known ever more, and the cross is exemplified.

James’ stories are terribly addictive. I found myself reading chapter after chapter, non-stop. (I know that if I ever get the chance of meeting James in person, I know what I’ll do: take him out for lunch and beg him to tell me some more stories that were not included in this book). The literary style is what I would call “friendly.” He portrays his stories well. Many of the chapters (each story is a separate chapter) follow the structure of “set-up and punch-line.” But James doesn’t work literary wonders or fill up his book with hyperboles. Rather, what really drives this book is the content. And James relays the content to us in a conversational manner, every now and then spicing a few of his notations with some good-hearted sarcasm. While the primary focus of the book concerns James’ experiences at Texas Baptist College (and, consequently, Longview Baptist Temple), the information, of course, is conveyed through James’ own perspective. So the reader is made privy into the entertaining moments of James’ life, much like we are sitting at the dinner table with him as he shares some stories of the old days. The reader truly feels like he has experienced a part of James’ life. The chapters do not follow a rigid chronological order, but they certainly follow the logical order of telling the over-all story. Each chapter leads into the next (topically), even if the event did not follow chronologically. For this reason, the book can be viewed either in parts (as a bunch of short stories that can be read separately, out of order, or over a period of time), or as a single story read from start to finish. In any case, it is my firm belief that anyone who picks up this book will not put it down until it is complete, and because of its addictiveness, will complete it shortly after beginning it. I certainly did.

Therefore, I, excitedly, pass on to you the link to where you can purchase Mr. James Spurgeon’s book. Enjoy!

Evan May.

16 comments:

  1. Thanks for your review of James Spurgeon's true story! Your conclusions are mine, too!


    Nothing is worse than BAD
    RELIGION and there is much of it today in every place I have been and read about.

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  2. I read the online version a few months ago, all in one sitting. I didn't mean to. I was just going to skim a chapter or two to see what it was like. But I ended up sitting in a computer chair in front of an eye-irritating computer moniter until about 4 in the morning because I just couldn't stop reading! I can't wait to get my "real" copy and read it again.

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  3. Stephen:

    I can completely relate! I'd read 8 chapters at a time!

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  4. I read several of James Spurgeon's "Tales" when Phil Johnson posted about them a while back. I was shocked that such a book existed, because I know Longview Baptist Temple well, at least by proximity.

    My parents' house is separated from Longview Baptist Temple by a field. The church has no fence around their property. At one point, they bussed people in from Dallas, I think. Anyway, we grew up hearing stories like James Spurgeon's all the time, but we were never quite sure which ones were true and which ones weren't.

    For example, several years ago, a house about an eighth of a mile from my parents' was purchased by a very nice family with several cars in various conditions. The house was large enough to accomodate a large family, but I think they probably had one late model car and one beater for every person in the house. Anyway, my sister was walking in the neighborhood one evening shortly after this family moved in, and as she passed their house, she chatted for a moment with them (as she is wont to do) and walked away with a flyer for LBT. I'm sure she took it out of kindness, since we all knew the stories about LBT (and had lived a couple of them). The month was November, and the flyer promised that every family who came to LBT's Thanksgiving service would receive (free of charge) a whole turkey. I'm not sure at this point if they were offering cooked or ready-to-cook turkeys, but whatever. My sister brought the flyer home and we laughed about it for quite a while.

    Or, you might notice, if you live in Longview, that the marquee outside LBT often sports an advertisement for "Soul Winning Night." Though they haven't come door-to-door in my parents' neighborhood in a long time (as far as I know), there was a time when you could be sure to encounter lots of LBTers, evangelizing throughout the surrounding areas. I remember how difficult it was to "shake" them when you met them in public places. Once, outside the public library, I remember trying very hard not to be rude as I attempted to make my escape.

    Or, when our back fence blew over in a storm, and some enterprising folks thought it would be okay to come knocking at our back door. The strangest was the time my father was cooking on the grill, and had just lit the fire and gone inside to get the meat ready, when two fellows knocked on the back door to let us know that there was a fire in the grill. They apparently thought this was a perfect seque into a Gospel presentation.

    One of the stranger rumors that floated around was that they tried to make my friend Michael get baptized when he visited once. When I use the word "make," I mean, "verbally coerce." His friend, Brent, who was the LBT member who invited him, did not refute the story, but Brent was very quiet and passive, so perhaps that doesn't mean anything.

    The McDonald's across the street (Loop 281) was often staffed by women with long hair and ankle-length skirts, who appeared not to be wearing makeup. It was told that they liked hiring LBT women because they were very efficient, did not flirt with employees or customers, and were dependable. Was this true? Who knows?

    Oh, we heard that they locked the doors during sermons, that the ushers wouldn't let you leave early, and that sort of thing, but the only close encounter we ever had (outside the occasional, invasive, street evangelism) was when my sister was playing in the field between our house and LBT, and a kind man asked her if she knew Jesus. I think she credits that experience as the date of her conversion, though I can't be sure if I'm remembering correctly.

    The methods and the message that LBT purveys are seriously screwy, true. They were really a sort of running joke when I was growing up. Nonetheless, I'm thankful that the Lord uses even the strangest people to reach us, and that even in places like LBT, that Word is true that, "We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love Him, who are called according to His purpose."

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  5. PS-- for those who don't know, Longview Baptist Temple is the independent Baptist church that created and runs Texas Baptist College. I don't think that came through clearly in my earlier post...

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  6. Oh, we heard that they locked the doors during sermons

    Heh, yes, James mentions that. But did you here the story about the pastor that pulled out a .357 magnum in the pulpit and went around asking if there were communists present? :-)

    Nonetheless, I'm thankful that the Lord uses even the strangest people to reach us

    Indeed, and amen.

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  7. I can attest that indeed doors were locked in the chapel the day the assistant pastor pulled the .357 looking for commies. I was there. During church services, however, the 14 doors leading from the auditorium are policed by two ushers each in uniform sport coats. The doors do not have locks, but the ushers will discourage people from leaving. Unaccompanied children and younger teens of course aren't allowed to leave under any circumstances for "safety." This is more than likely the source of the locked door rumor.

    The uniformed ushers are not all armed, but you can be sure that several ushers and other men in the congregation are packing concealed weapons at every service. Dr. Gray has claimed on numerous occassions to have received death threats. I am not aware of any police report or official investigation substantiating those claims.

    I grew up at LBT and am featured in several of the Tales. I'm the guy that owned the garbage company that James worked at for a while. I can attest to you that every single word of the Tales is absolutely true. Those of us trying to live as Christians under this oppressive system were very close and have made lifelong friendships. It is a disgrace that Bob Gray continues his evil reign. The man is a narcissistic, paranoid, and probably has borderline personality disorder. He's not a good person. He knows absolutely nothing of grace.

    After leaving LBT, finding grace was like having the scales fall from my eyes. Finally I could see. Away from this Pharisee, I encountered the Risen Christ on my own Emmaus Road.

    Would the blog owners mind if I forwarded your review to the Longview News Journal? please contact me at (remove underscores to get the address; mail bot protection)

    t_ed@t_rium_phdispo_sal.c_om

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  8. Ted!

    It's so nice to hear from you, and put an internet-face on the story :-)

    Feel free to do whatever you want with this review.

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  9. Thanks, Evan, for an awesome review. I'm linking it to the TBCUnderground.

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  10. I AM AN INDEPENDENT FUNDAMENTAL BAPTIST AND I BELIEVE THAT ALOT OF THESE STORIES ARE WRITTEN FROM THE POINT OF VIEW OF A REBELOUS TEEN. I GREW UP A BAPTIST AND HAVE HAD THE HONOR OF MEETING BOB GREY ON SEVERAL OCCASIONS. I HAVE ALSO LISTENED TO HIS PREACHING FOR A NUMBER OF YEARS AND WHAT YOU SAY ABOUT HIM IS NOT ONLY BOGUS BUT VERY UNFAIR. THE MAN IS DOING THE BEST HE CAN. HE IS ONLY HUMAN AND IS GOING TO MAKE MISTAKES JUST LIKE ANYONE ELSE. BESIDES GOD IS WHO HE WILL ANSWER TO JUST LIKE ALL OF YOU. THAT CHURCH DOES MORE TO GET THE GOSPEL OUT THEN MOST OF THE CHURCHES IN AMERICA COMBINED. IF YOU CANT HANDLE THE WAY HE DOES IT THEN MOVE ON BUT DO NOT GIVE THE WORLD AMMO TO ATTACK HIM. THAT IS EVIL. THE GOSPEL IS BEING PREACHED AND IF I REMEMBER CORRECTLY THE BIBLE SAYS GODS WORD WILL NOT RETURN VOID. YOU CAN ALWAYS FIND FAULT IF YOU LOOK FOR IT. WHY NOT LEAVE IT TO GOD WHO SAID I WILL RAISE UP WHO I WILL RAISE UP AND PUT DOWN WHO I WILL PUT DOWN. I DARE SAY THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WHO WOULD BURN IN HELL IF IT WASNT FOR TRUE MEN OF GOD WHO WERE WILLING TO SACRIFICE EVERYTHING EVEN THERE REPUTATIONS TO SEE SOULS SAVED. YOU DO RELIZE THAT BY STRIKING OUT AT GODS ANNOINTED YOUR STRIKING OUT AT GOD. IT IS MY BELIEF THAT MANY MORE HAVE BEEN HELPED THEN HURT BY THIS MANS MINISTRY.

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  11. I attended LBT and it's Grade and High School LCA for over 8 years and let me tell you it was terrible experience. One of LCA's principals molested several of the High School's girls. Interestingly enough no charges were ever filed. He just vanished. The other one called his Step Daughter a "whore" in front of the entire school. Bob Gray is just as responsible as he fosters an evironment that does not allow for criticism of the "men of God". It makes me sick.

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  12. I attended Texas Baptist College for about 1 1/2 years myself. I can personally verify that they are very legalistic - adding to the word of God. If my shoes weren't polished enough, I wasn't right with God... things like that. I eventually dropped out of church and joined the Navy. I was out of church for years, but God through his grace salvaged my life.

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  13. I am a former member of Longview Baptist Temple. I am a lot younger than James of course (19) but I know for a fact everything he has written about the church is true. I went to the church from birth to age 12 when my family and I were basically kicked out of the church. I am the daughter of Russell Hirner and the way we were treated shortly after this particular situation was completely un-Christian. We are only friends with a few families there still. We certainly grew from the whole experience, but still are not completely over it, due to the fact that my father is not yet back with us. We hope that he will be soon.

    The part of the concealed handguns is definitely true because my own father had one too, and I know of at least 4 or 5 others that also carried them. I mean who in Texas doesn't have one.

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    1. Hi , i am Joshua caleb mckeon , you might not remember me , but i was good friends with your brother billy bob , and i attended lonview baptist academy where your dad was principle , he seemed like a very good man , i looked up to him , i hope every thing gets better , thats all i can say , when will he be out

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  14. I can say with out any doubt that the stories told about these kind of churches are very true, sad to say.

    I attended Hyles Anderson back in the 80's. That was a blessing and a cures.. Thank God he can use any school for His purpose. And He did. I gain and lost from going to that school.

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  15. The legalism that Paul was so against in the book of Galatians is a perfect example of the legalism at LBT. Personally, I don't have a problem with the rules for college students, but when you start making a bunch of rules for all Christians, I have to draw the line.

    How often in my early time there did I aspire to be like Bob Gray. How sad that I didn't aspire to be like Jesus. There was very little real Bible taught to me, just LBT's methods.

    From the outside they looked very successful and on fire for God, so I was duped into thinking it was something they were doing in their own strength. I lived in the flesh and was filled with pride because of what I had done. It was I, I, I, me, me, me... when really the Christian life is Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, grace, grace, grace!!!

    I can't believe how blind I was. Glory to God for his mercy, forgiveness, and patience.

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