Mike Warnke, revisited

Originally from the Moveable Type chuck-pearson.org blog, July 6, 2007; crossposted to Growing Up Goddy on August 17, 2007.  Linkrot fixed left and right.

Here’s my moment of oh-dear-God-I’m-getting-OLD of the day:

Fifteen years ago, Cornerstone Magazine published an expose’ on “Christian comedian” Mike Warnke.

That very possibly is not a big deal to you. It’s huge to me. As Davan MacIntire puts it (in a comic that I identify way too much with), “I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to entertainment during my ‘I Love Jesus So Much I Annoy My Christian Parents’ stage. It was basically Warnke or Carman, and Warnke was the one who didn’t sell $150 tour jackets.”

(Apparently, Carman still does good business.)

There’s a great deal I could write here for the uninitiated, but I think the best person to tell you about who Warnke was is a just-shy-of-21-year-old USENET poster from 1992, who went by the moniker “clueless chuck”:

Mike Warnke is/was a prominent Christian comedian who based his entire ministry on his assertion that he was at one point in time a high priest in a Satanic cult and he turned his life completely over to the Lord. He wrote a book over this “experience” called The Satan Seller (which became a prominent reference text in many circles on how Satanic cults operate) and gave his testimony in many locations over the last 20 or so years, winning many people for the Lord.

It would appear that Mike Warnke’s testimony is a lie.

In retrospect, I can totally see how I should have been skeptical of the joker from day one. Let this be known up front: the dude was FUNNY, and funny in ways you had to hear and see to get. He could DELIVER a punch line with perfect timing, tell a brilliant story to capture you, and then (and this is key, I’m finding) turn the story on a dime and go into full-on preach mode. When I was a college-radio DJ and VERY young in my Christian life, Mike Warnke skits and stories were a staple of my radio programs for a time, because they could make you laugh AND make you think. Or, perhaps, manipulate your thoughts.

I think part of why I didn’t see through Warnke’s act and start asking questions was because I was so young, though. I mean, you can see my youth in my first USENET post about Warnke; I talk about “one of my heroes, Mike Warnke, a Christian comedian who God has built an incredible ministry on over the past few years…” It’s so easy to take common American hero-worship and spin the Christianese on it to make it sound like something more profound and important than hero-worship. You can so easily get wrapped up in the larger-than-life preacher or comedian or artist and forget that he’s just this guy, and guys screw up. And in American celebrity – even celebrity in the Church – so much of the life they live is behind closed doors, and you have no way of knowing who’s straight-up and who’s screwed up.

As I think about it, Mike Warnke’s downfall was a defining moment in my early Christian walk. It took the dangers of celebrity and placed them front and center in a way I wasn’t expecting, and forced me to respond to them.

And it did something else – it put in front of me honest, thinking Christians who were willing to take time to talk to a 20-year-old punk explain to him, in words of one syllable, what exactly they were doing and why, in a way that has never ceased to amaze me.

One of the people who responded to my initial call-for-information on the rec.music.christian newsgroup was Eric Pement, who was at the time editor to Jon Trott and Mike Hertenstein, the authors of the original Cornerstone Magazine article. I immediately struck up an e-mail conversation with Eric, and explained (in very schoolboy ways) why I was skeptical – and he wrote back, and was very gracious in pointing me towards free access to the article, its sidebars, and other documents (and I’m still in awe of the 170 footnotes Cornerstone mag published with the article…the thing was a MASTERPIECE of documentation).

And what really hit me was when I wrote back, after doing all the reading and coming to the conclusion that the Cornerstone article was right, how Eric responded with RIDICULOUS humility. My recollection after 15 years might be bad (it’s a bit difficult to save e-mails for that long), but I got the sense that even with that weight of evidence, he’d gladly retract the story the next day if somebody would come forward with concrete evidence that Warnke really had led a coven of 1500, or been ANY level of decadent he’d claimed to be in The Satan Seller, instead of a standard late 60’s square.

He was just as much of a skeptic as a scientist was supposed to be, in other words; he had his hypothesis, and he sought out any way that it might be wrong. He was a brilliantly critical journalist. And he was far more theologically sound than anybody I had ever communicated with across the internets.

In retrospect, there’s a lot about the type of Christian I’ve become at this point in my life that was informed by those e-mails with Eric Pement, and I really owe the guy a measure of thanks. (I stumbled across Eric’s homepage while typing this up. It’s kind of cool for the geek in me.)

There are probably more stories to be told about my former life in USENET, but this has been on my mind all day and pretty much needed to get into words.

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