Sunday, February 06, 2011

God on the Big Screen

The spirit may move upon you. 
Last night, I had a most interesting experience. I stepped outside of my comfort zone (It was not exactly willingly, mind you. An attempt at a well-deserved nap was thwarted by numerous phone calls until I finally gave up.) and went to a church to "witness" a baptism. This church was outside my normal denomination. Way, way outside.

Having been in the music "ministry" business for a long, long time, I figured I had seen, if not all, most of what happens during a service. I have never seen such a display. Eee-ow. I had heard that this church is loaded and mine eye$ hath seen the glory.

This church had the most advanced audio and video equipment I have ever seen. A rack of speakers hanging from the ceiling reminded me of sound equipment seen at rock arenas. Combine that with both seated and roving videographers, complete with headphone mics, I was truly impressed by what had to be a very generous music budget. These people are serious about their presentation. The sanctuary felt like a cross (No puns here.) between the Clay Center, the Civic Center and more than a dash of community theater.

Am I envious? A big yes to that query. For 14 years I worked for a small and neglected church on the West Side who couldn't afford to upgrade our aged sound system. Yes, I am envious of the equipment, the players and the huge choir. The presentation? Not so much.

The evening began with two songs, the first led by one singer who hopped about like he was an evangelical, but goofy, Mick Jagger and the second song was led more capable singer led song two for what seemed ten minutes. A large mixed chorus swayed and joined in the singing. Two large screens displayed the lyrics, plus adding visual MTV-like effects such as scenery (all religious in nature of course). At one point, images of Calvary were superimposed upon the sweaty singer's face all to great effect. Well, great effect if you're Trinity Broadcasting or Mike Murdoch. This is a serious production.

Two huge screens on either side rolled the lyrics of these songs. This removes all the clutter and the cost of hymnals while serving the more poorly sighted among the congregation. Very smart indeed. Words repeated in the chorus of one song included "enlarge my territory" and "no limits." While I agree that if God loves us, then his love must be generous, but that choice of words seems poor. Are we saying, "Enlarge my bank account?" Or a more puerile choice?  Call me old fashioned, but I prefer even the old and moldy hymn lyrics to words sounding like mantas from a motivational seminar.

With all the singing and praising God, I secretly wondering what God thinks of all this weekly praise he receives. Do we do it to curry favor? Does he find it annoying? The one burning question that came without bidding: why does an infinite being need praise in the first place? I have struggled with who the Almighty is for most of my life. The Bible speaks of God as jealous. This I have never been able to fathom. Wrathful-probably, but jealousy of what?

Most of the time, when I go online and read all this disagreement (also called heresy) about how to interpret the Scriptures or read/hear cracks about my faith - Catholicism, I begin to wonder if at the core of our being we are too much monkey to understand divinity in any form. In short, religious teaching is cannot be held within a mind that is constantly being overwhelmed by an animal nature. No sooner are we done reading the "word" that we begin arguing about it. We are contentious by nature because we want to be seen as higher on the social strata or the "banana tree" as my friend calls it.

Inevitably, after the music comes the preachin'. I liked the down-to-earth, good old boy who took the mic and talked about salvation being a rough road. Yep. The Buddhists already know this, but Christians act like it's solely from their tradition.

The Boone County boy preacher's styles ran from homey to crazy outbursts. Quiet moments would suddenly be broken with him rushing and screaming al la Sam Kinison. His voice cracking into a high squeal, clenching his hands as if tearing the life from some invisible demon, yelling: "and then Jesus is coming down on a white horse with a sword to cleanse the world. Amen."

Oh boy.

Perhaps if Saint John could see the resultant hysteria about his Revelations, he might have thought twice about committing them to papyrus. I remember my granny talking about the end of the world to me. I had heard the preacher' sermon on her radio which she slept to each night. Little Jimmy laid there in the darkness listening to the mad exhortations about salvation. I wanted Jesus to love me and save me from the pit of fire. "Jimmy, they have been taking about the end of the world since I was a little girl." She reassured me that there was nothing going to happen. I never forgot her small remark on all things eschatological. Jesus on a cloud or a white horse flying down from heaven? I sincerely hope so, but my doubts are substantial. The end of the world is likely, because we are frightened monkeys hell bent on killing one another. It's the primal blood lust rising to the thin surface of civility. Rather than live in doubt and fear, pound somebody. The body is released, the mind is cleared. Doubt me? Watch a sporting event with a crowd and watch how quickly we transform. It's what we are.

Mr. Screamy was enjoyable, although he did take one small shot at Catholicism. Duly noted and I will say that the entire 20 some years I worked at St. Anthony's I never heard one disparaging word from a priest, nuns nor anyone in the congregation. Not one. He worked the crowd very well, bringing them near a frothing frenzy, but never quite getting everybody burning with faith. Oh people danced and jumped up and down, the house was never brought down. Good try though. I enjoyed his sermon, despite the style.

At the end of his act, he brought people down to be saved. That is, saved from the pit of fire of eternal damnation.

During all this, people yelled out, waved their arms heavenward and swayed out of time with the music. I saw a woman near the "stage," kneeling and rocking back and forth, lost in her prayers. All these outward displays of faith may be engaging to these people, but ultimately I feel that God is a much more intellectual experience. When I experience what I believe to be of "the other" is always a feeling that evades description or it is a revelatory moment in which I see the humanity of another person, recognize my own lack of humanity or see my own acts of humanity. It's both inward and outward. I'm not going to run around a church speaking in tongues. That's not me, babe.

The other thing that I recognize about myself is a propensity to be an outsider even if there's no evidence to support that supposition. There's that nasty habit of being a smart ass as well. That guy just wants attention. Put to the highest use, I can smell hypocrisy, especially my own, like a bloodhound.

Now we got to the dunking. Er...the baptismal rite if you prefer. In my tradition, water flowing on the head while words are spoken suffices. Here, in the land of Internet broadcasts, high tech cameras and lights, not so. The person who wants to be baptized must go completely under. Under the big top!

This, as you can imagine, was done in a dramatic style that combined elements of a Bingo game, theater and MC'ed in the style of a beauty pageant. Two guys stood in a nearly waist-high tiled pool and brought the undunked into dunkdom. It was a hammer to my head honestly. One dude had the Evangelical hair so common to the Televangelists that we all know and revile. Seriously, a few points:

Why is it that men of the word, both local and national, are usually the ones so vain about their hair? Doesn't it say, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity?"

Why do the fundamentalists chastise long hair when every picture of Jesus has the Lord with abundant locks complete with beard? Very funny that. Been tough on women too. Sorry, ladies, no braids or jewelry.  Biblical blame throwers seem more about condemnation and less about redemption, let alone something naive as love.

When I sat among these seemingly warm and wonderful people, a feeling came upon me. Not one of alienation, and most likely not God, but perhaps it was that ineffable feeling of community even among strangers. We are social creatures after all and among our own, we can feel a certain lightness, an unburdening perhaps. A commonality of emotions, desires and a certain mortality. Church, any church, helps us deal with our sense of isolation. The deeper the sense of isolation and hardship, the deeper the fall into dangerous harbors such as cults. But, without people, we would go mad and life would be pointless.

Methought I sensed some teenage girls giving me the eye in the lobby as I waited for my group to file out. I silently laughed at one girl's jeans which were so tight that they looked painted on and of course, they had St. Alban spangles places in strategic places. I guess she missed the whole point of the nearly two hour service. Maybe not. Maybe despite our best efforts, hormones override spirituality with such force that all we do is make empty promises to God, go ahead and sin with mucho gusto, and then ask for forgiveness. I don't know, but God was surely tired of my late night "Oh Lord, don't let me get sick and I'll never drink again" petitions.

What has become of the person who is now baptized? Well, she isn't exactly following the straight and narrow per se, but she is doing better with her life and we were there to support her efforts. Even if they are misguided and glaringly hypocritical.

But, hell, who isn't a hypocrite? There was a very wise man (with long hair?) who said something about casting the first stone? I like that part.

He stopped those monkeys right in their tracks.


Al said...

Good observations James. Much ado and ritual to find the spark of God that has been inside us all along, methinks. Beauty, talent, love, sympathy.....all inside and my idea of God. If it takes a bazillion dollars and slicked back hair to find it in there, maybe it's worth it, though.

Stickhorsecowgirls said...

So funny...yes, "too much monkey."

As for heretical thoughts, I've been there a while now. I find that God actually likes these poignant questions.


The Only Mister Ed said...

Yer a good man, Charlie Brown. Keep axing the tough questions.