A Deceptive Pastor, An Amazing Story, and How Results Don’t Always Match Intent

Thirty-five years ago an unscrupulous pastor (ie a real jerk) came to Pennsylvania and led a church. He was the most charismatic person that the residents of that small town had ever met, a friendly man who made everyone feel great about themselves, at least at first. People who knew him have told me that by the end of your first encounter with this guy, you would have done anything for him.

Turns out he was also an abuser and a manipulator. He slept with every woman he could. Seeing that his skills of womanizing were second to none, and he preyed on the most vulnerable, hurting, unhappy women he could find, he slept with a lot of women. He also fleeced the church of money before people caught on to at least some of the things he was up to and chased him out of town.

His intent was to control that small community, take from it what he could, and keep this up as long as possible. And to some extent, his intentions became a reality.

The strange thing is, many people’s lives were changed for the better. I know an entire generation of people around here whose lives were transformed for the better while listening to this preacher – they left their lives of alcoholism and destructive behavior and became upstanding members of the community, many of them starting their own, healthy churches which continue to this day.

This guy’s only intent was to destroy, yet somehow a whole lot of good came out of it.

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When John Irving wrote “A Prayer For Owen Meany,” I doubt his intent in writing the book was to convince people to become Christians, or to prove that God exists. Yet some of the images and stories in this book strengthened my faith more than many “religious” books that I’ve read.

His intent was simply to tell a good story, yet something sacred found its way through.

* * * * *

Intent seems to be a fairly ineffective measure of what any given human produces. People intend certain things for good, yet they cause pain and confusion. People intend to hurt, yet the people they injure somehow find immense good coming into their lives because of that very experience.

Yet so many times, Christians judge a movie or a book by what they perceive as that particular creator’s intent.

“That author is obsessed with witches and wizards, so it must be bad.”

“That screen-writer uses too much profanity, so it must be bad.”

I have this theory that an author or movie producer’s intent has little or nothing to do with the outcome. In other words, no matter what that particular creator’s religious, philosophical, political or theological leanings, no matter what their intent, if the book or movie qualifies as “good art,” Truth will be evident in the piece.

What do you think? Does intent deserve more credit than I’m giving it? Can you judge the merit of a work based on the intent of the creator?

16 Replies to “A Deceptive Pastor, An Amazing Story, and How Results Don’t Always Match Intent”

  1. Intent is relevant to interpreting the human work done and the person acting. However, you are right that God’s grace trumps all. We should not fear darkness when we carry the “Light”.

    As Joseph said, “What you intended for evil, God intended for good.” It did not absolve Joseph’s brothers for what they did, and yet God was in control. The follow up is that Joseph forgives them.

  2. Good insight. I wonder if intent matters more to certain contexts than to others? Like, it would matter alot more on your wedding day than why you chanaged the oil in your car.

  3. Shawn, I agree with you to a certain extent . . . but how about when someone is using their platform, say it is a book or a movie, to push knowledge and information on witchcraft and sorcery? At what point does their motive, trump whatever good may come from it? We are to quick to judge, but it seems we still need to guard at times and places.

    1. I don’t think the motive behind writing a book, in and of itself, ever trumps what comes out of it.

      Using your example, if someone’s main motive in writing a book is to push knowledge of sorcery, I couldn’t care less. What I care about is the truth that emerges from the page.

      This isn’t to say that intent doesn’t have something to do with the end product, but to judge solely on intent without any regard for what is actually accomplished by the work doesn’t make sense to me.

  4. Boy, I honestly do not know what to think. On one hand, truth is truth is truth, no matter the forum or the intent of the creator. I guess all beauty points to God? Not sure about that, but maybe. On the other hand, as a Christian, should I be concerned about my motives when creating something? Does it change the “art” if I am attempting to create something for my glory instead of His glory? As you can see, this has me really thinking.
    I think your major point, however, is true, i.e. we can find Truth in a myriad of sources.

    1. It’s a tough question, isn’t it? I’m not saying there’s no importance at all in someone’s intentions, only that trying to judge the value of a book or movie based SOLELY on the creator’s intent is a worthless exercise.

  5. You are one smart dude, and I’m glad I know you. I ask myself this all the time, when I hear people in this here part of the Bible Belt telling me what movies to see and which to avoid. I smile and nod and make my own choices.

    Intent matters; it shapes the work. It informs the text and is often evident. But. It’s not the only shaper and informer. Just as in a dialogue, there are two speakers who hear the words of the other with their own filters, so too when we engage with art do we apply our own filters and ideas.

    You know, too that L’Engle writes about this at length. The truth is in the story, whether the artist wants it there or intended it to be revealed.

    Great great post. Smart dude.

    1. Intent does matter. Good point. But I don’t think that my judgment of your intent matters.

      You saw right through me – L’Engle is my main influence in this realm.

      I’m not a smart dude. I just stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night.

  6. I have several thoughts.
    1. the pastor above was a psychopath/sociopath and you can’t get people to follow you without helping them to some degree. all “help” is some sort of manipulation anyway. Even the greatest pastor is still a pastor, someone who is trying to “manipulate” his audience to see things his/her way.
    2. the line between good and bad is not as clear as we might think.
    3. lastly, and most importantly, i think the reason the intent doesn’t matter to you is because art is a relationship. what we tend to miss when we judge another for their “evil” intentions, is that it is ultimately up to us, the listener/observer, to decide what to do with it. Because you are an individual who chooses to look for and see the world in certain ways, you saw a hugely Christian message in Owen Meany. While that pastor was manipulating, others were looking for truth and healing, so they found it because it is up to us to do what we will with art, sermons, books, tv, and movies.
    4. I think the philosophy of “sorcery is bad” actually comes from huge manipulation and fear within the Christian church and doesn’t trust God. It is a human way to ward against it and the belief doesn’t actually trust in one’s self to make judgements for oneself. It’s no different than following that horrible pastor’s manipulations.

    1. Great thoughts Jay.
      1. True
      2. True
      3. I like the idea of art as a relationship. I need to think about that.
      4. I think that “sorcery” and “witchcraft” are both highly charged words, and when talking about these issues its best to deal in the realm of the specific. Not that long ago in human history, having a Skype conversation would have been considered witchcraft.

      1. 4. It’s not that I care about the content or truth or problems to witchcraft or sorcery, it’s that believing they alone have the power to manipulate is not accurate. It is also what people are looking for, what people want. If people are looking to lose themselves in a cult following that’s what they’ll do, not just because they’ve been duped.

        3. I can’t see art as anything other than a relationship in its truest sense. Art can only be art if someone sees it. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it does it make a sound? Artists talk all the time about letting their art be interpreted in different ways and this to me is a relationship. If art is communication in some way, their must be a listener. I think the word art is a cultural creation, something that is put out there by one to be seen, felt, experienced and interpreted by others. Maybe art is even a community. If I create on my own and do not share with anyone that is not art, it is therapy or creativity but not art.

  7. You talk about people changed for the good, but is that really the whole picture? What about all the women that were abused? What about the people that saw the church not doing anything about an abusive pastor and walking away.

    While God does work to make good out of bad situations, I am not really sure of your point. I am assuming that your point is not that we should allow a bad, abusive, jerk of a pastor to continue.

    This seems like Paul’s passage, “should we sin more to show God’s grace”. God can work good through bad situations, but that should never excuse us from allowing bad situations that we can prevent.

    1. Also, I realize that my first example may have muddied the water. When I say I don’t worry about intentions, I’m talking mostly about art. One example of this would be Harry Potter – many Christians protest reading the books because they say Rowling’s intent is to persuade kids to become witches and wizards. Quite frankly, I don’t care what the author’s intent is. I only care about the finished product and the Truth it presents.

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