Last Wednesday night I got the opportunity to attend The Church Basement Roadshow: A Rollin’ Gospel Revival, with my friend Joel Borofsky. Joel and I are working on a book which critiques the emergent church movement; so we couldn’t pass up the chance to meet some of its key leaders. Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, and Mark Scandrette, all of whom contributed to the recent book, An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, were there.
The Church Basement Roadshow is touring churches across the country in an attempt to garner interest in the emergent movement and promote their latest books. The show is interesting to say the least; a surreal experience that will stick with me for a long time. Jones, Pagitt, and Scandrette play the parts of Duke Arnold, A. B. Hawthorn, and A. L. Withee; old time revival preachers from 1908. As you walk in, they greet you; in full costume and in character. A guitar player and backup singer set the mood, playing everything from old-time hymns to Johnny Cash. After a brief performance, they invite the audience to stand and join them in song; while Duke and Withee revv up the crowd; yelling, “Amen!” and “Gl-o-o-r-y!”
Joel and I found ourselves on the front row; unable to sing along. The whole thing felt wrong. Was the crowd really singing to Jesus, or was it all part of the show?
Eventually, the enthusiastic trio took the stage and sang their theme song; a humorous revival tune boldly declaring that, “love is the way.” In between their crazy antics and humorous skits, Jones, Pagitt, and Scandrette took turns reading selections from their books (which were on sale in the back) and desperately pleading for reform. After each monologue, promo videos were played; and they even urged the crowd to adopt a child through compassion international.
By far, the most interesting presentation of the night was made by Mark Scandrette; a compassionate man with an honest desire to reach out to the “dregs” of society. He read a selection from his latest book, Soul Graffiti. In it, he recalls how he and his friend Joseph befriended an aging transvestite who called himself, Emperor Arcadia.
The Emperor lived in an old bus with a peculiar message inscribed in bold letters on the side: “I HAVE BEEN CONDUCTING EXPERIMENTS ON MYSELF FOR 30 YEARS—EXPLORING THE MYSTERIES OF CHEMISTRY AND HEALTH. MY PRESCRIPTION: EAT A CLOVE OF GARLIC AND DRINK OUR OWN URINE AND SEMEN TWICE A DAY.” Suffice to say, the Emperor’s mind suffered from years in a mental institution, excessive drug abuse and a lifetime of sexual immorality. Mark provides this bleak picture of the Emperor’s life in his book,
Estranged from his family after years in mental institutions, he had moved west from Wisconsin. During the sexual revolution of the 1970’s he was something of a celebrity in San Francisco’s gay club scene, hosting “naked pool” on Sunday afternoons at a popular bar South of Market where he would prance nude around the pool table exchanging fiery jabs with patrons. The club owner let him live in the basement of the building for many years . . . Emperor Arcadia was [also] locally famous for crashing society balls, civic celebrations, and parades, announcing himself swathed in a velvet cape and crown and accompanied by his matching miniature poodles on leashes. As he got older and more peculiar, he lost his social currency and became more isolated.
I sat on the front row, engrossed by Mark’s story, starving to hear more about their interaction with the Emperor, dying to know how it would end.
However, as the story progressed, and Mark recounted all of the time he and his friends had spent with the Emperor-bringing him food, celebrating Christmas, listing to him rant and rave about his chemical concoctions—I began to wonder, “when are they going to share the gospel?” This thought lingered in my mind, and I waited patiently, yearning to hear the saving message of Jesus preached to this lost and dying soul.
Finally, the moment I had been waiting for arrived. One Sunday, Mark and his friend Joseph, found the Emperor collapsed in his bus after taking a lethal dose of Phenobarbital. They quickly called for an ambulance which rushed him to the hospital. Mark rode along holding his hand . . .
At the emergency room after he was stabilized, a nurse invited me into the examining room where I stood alone by his side . . . With his eyes still shut he murmured, “I wanted to die. Why did you save my life?”
I hesitated for a moment, searching for words. “You are my friend and I care about you.”
Agitated, with speech still slurred, he asked, “But why do you care about me?” And then louder and more desperately he repeated, “Why do you care about me?”
“This is it,” I thought to myself, “the moment I’ve been waiting for.”
Slowly I lifted my hand and began to caress his bald head. “Emperor, we are all loved,” I said.
How desperately anticlimactic! Who loves everyone? Why are we all loved? Why didn’t he speak to him about Jesus? How could he pass up such an opportune moment? Talk about a total let down! This was not the ending I had hoped for.
After the show I approached Mark, and having introduced myself, I inquired as to what ever happened to the Emperor. Mark explained that they had lost touch and weren’t sure where he was. Then I dropped the bomb, “I was just curious,” I said, “did you ever share the gospel with the Emperor?”
Mark kindly explained that the Emperor got upset when Jesus’ name was mentioned, and that he and Joseph had opted not to speak of Jesus around him.
I marveled at his reply. “So,” I asked, “there was never a point in which you confronted him to change his lifestyle or challenged him to repent?”
Mark seemed surprised, “No” he said.
“But it was his depraved lifestyle that got him where he was,” I insisted, “how could you withhold from him the one message that could drastically change his life?”
Mark was visibly upset with my comment and informed me that I was being extremely judgmental. He asked me how I could possibly make such a statement, especially since I didn’t know the whole story (It was surprising how quick Mark criticized my point of view considering the Emergent Church constantly espouses toleration and open minded conversation). Mark didn’t seem tolerant of my point of view; and I got the distinct impression that he was not open to what I had to say.
Frankly, this did not bother me. Mark has convictions, and just like me, he is willing to fight for them. Despite what the Emergent Church wants us to believe, it is no different from any other movement or institution; its proponents passionately think they’re right and everyone else is wrong. I wish they’d be as forthright in their writings as Mark was in our conversation; it’s refreshing when people are honest.
I tried to explain to Mark that it was not judgmental to speak the truth; that it was, in fact, the most loving thing that one could do. He disagreed. He didn’t think it was as necessary to share the gospel with someone as it was to show them love (in a practical way). He lamented over the terrible ways in which Christians treat people like the Emperor and argued that it was more important for Christians to show love and compassion like Jesus.
I told Mark I agreed with him: Christians do need to show genuine love and compassion to people like the Emperor (in a hands on practical kind of way). Christians do need to reevaluate how they treat homosexuals and transvestites. However, Christians also need to share the gospel; because, ultimately, Jesus is the only real hope for our world.
Again, Mark disagreed. He feared that sharing the gospel with people like the Emperor would come off as judgmental and would only drive them away. He argued that the message of Jesus could be better communicated by loving action. I stressed to Mark that both the practical and the propositional had to be presented to the lost in order for the full message of Jesus to be received. It simply isn’t enough to show love in a practical way.
The message of Jesus is not simply one of practicality; it has content which can only be communicated through words. As Christians, it’s our responsibility to communicate, not only the practical side of Jesus’ message, but the content. For, “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14 NASB)
The lost cannot be found without hearing the word of God; the sinner cannot be saved without hearing the word of God, and it’s up to Christians to make sure that a sick and dying world hears it. Sharing the gospel is not intrusive or judgmental, it’s the most loving gesture that anyone could make toward someone as hopeless and lost as the Emperor. As the Apostle Paul noted, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news of good things!” (Rom. 10:15)
Despite my best efforts, Mark never seemed to grasp what I was saying. Eventually, I decided to back off and let our conversation come to a close. That night, as I lay in bed, I wrestled for a way to explain to Mark, and others like him, the gravity of the situation. How could I demonstrate that one could be loving, in both a practical and a propositional sense? How could I show the tremendous importance of sharing the content of the gospel?
Several days later, I realized what must be done. The ending of Marks story was all wrong; it had to be rewritten . . .
The Emperor sat in the hospital bed in tears, screaming, “Why do you care about me? Why do you love me?”
I began to stroke his head and with tears running down my face I replied, “Because you were created by God and that makes you incredibly valuable.”
The Emperor peered deep into my eyes, obviously wrestling with what I had said, “I’m not valuable,” he screamed, “I’m worthless! God could never accept a man like me!”
“None of us are worthy to be accepted by God,” I exclaimed, “we’re all broken and distorted, but this is precisely why Jesus died on the cross for our sins, so that we could be accepted. God does think your valuable; he loves you Emperor.”
The Emperor buried his head in his hands, weeping in agony he whimpered, “I’ve been running from God for so long . . . h-how could I turn to him now?”
I wrapped my arms around the Emperor and gently whispered into his ear, “Repent, turn away from these things that are destroying you. Believe in Jesus with all your heart. It’s never too late Emperor . . . never.”
 Tony Jones, Doug Pagitt, Mark Scandrette, The Church Basement Roadshow (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2008), 61. This was the handout given to everyone who attended the show. It has selections from each of their books.
 Ibid., 64.
 Ibid., 66.
 Ibid., 66.