03 November 2015

an (infuriating) experience in anti-intellectualism

over the weekend, henry and i spent time with his family in atlanta to celebrate his mom's birthday. we were very lucky to be able to join them -- we spent some time wandering around a botanical garden, admiring the fall foliage, dining, and catching up.

sunday came. we fully expected to attend church with henry's parents at their church across town -- an independent-type protestant christian church with a largely ethnically chinese congregation. however, when sunday morning arrived, henry's mom declared that time was short and we would go down the street to one of the 'popular' local megachurches. i was immediately hesitant, knowing what that meant in an affluent atlanta suburb. what could i say? we had already been accused of being 'far from god' given we haven't found a church of our own in philadelphia yet. we obediently loaded into the car and were off.

as we pulled into the parking lot full of expensive luxury cars and well-dressed older adults shuffling into the giant brick edifice, i shifted uncomfortably. 'why am i here?' i internally lamented. i tried to reassure myself: maybe the music will be good? maybe i'll see someone i know? maybe they'll surprise me with their slant on social justice or acceptance of all? (so much wishful thinking). i tried to remain open, but mostly i just guarded my mind and soul against the brand of 'christianity' that has come to induce nausea in me. 

the service started innocuously if not a bit impersonally: announcements had been pre-recorded and were broadcast on a large screen with dramatic music. 'we are SO GLAD you're here!' the face chirped... although it wasn't actually here but only on a recorded message. next, the music began. a large, robed choir composed entirely of old white faces launched into a hymn. my examination of the church program revealed that we were attending the 'majestic'-style service (as opposed to the other 2 services that morning, 'traditional' and 'modern')... maybe the choir made it majestic?

i am guilty of a bit of eye-rolling throughout this introductory phase, however overall i hadn't yet experienced the stomach-burning, head-exploding anger that i had braced myself for. but don't worry, that was coming. truly, it was a two-fold infliction, with the slow-burn of the pastor's 'message' doing most of the damage.

part one.
next up on the large screen, a pre-recorded video about a mission trip to romania taken by the church's choir (the majestic one i described above).

to save a full-on rant, i will mention a few points here (full-disclosure, i know very little about romania and what i provide here is from the church):
1. romania, as they describe in their video, is self-described as 93% christian. the video suggested that maybe they weren't 'real, practicing christians' which they say justified the mission there - to help them become 'better christians'.
2. romania is full of people of similar racial and socioeconomic backgrounds as this church.
3. romania is far away and requires a lot of money and resources to travel to.

anger stems from: very well-off people going to a generally well-off place ministering to people who share their beliefs and wasting tons of money for travel AND CALLING IT A MISSION TRIP THAT DEMANDS MY RESPECT while playing soft music, dramatic videos of sunrises, smiling faces they are manipulating me to believe have to do with their interventions.

here's a suggestion, EVERY SUBURBAN CHURCH: stop spending all the gobs of money on going to other parts in the world and trying to justify these trips to your congregation. or keep doing it, but don't try to bill it as a 'christian endeavor' or garner my respect or approval. i got this sense while watching this video that it is a very 'comfortable' way to do missions -- that this church had found the perfect loophole in how to combine 'missions' with 'comfort.' 

what would be much more uncomfortable, but much closer to what Jesus did (and may even change your life) is to spend time with meeting the needs of people within your own city. i'm not talking about the rich white people in your congregation who are sick. please, by all means, take care of them. but when you talk about 'missions'... when you talk about 'helping others'... when you talk about being a 'good steward of resources'... help out those in your city that don't live in your perfectly-manicured walled-off subdivision. go to inner-city atlanta and address the issues of prior decades of racial segregation and the animosity that remains. begin the process of helping right the institutionalized wrongs done to african-americans in this country. get angry about unfairly-priced insurance and housing and everything! feed the hungry. clothe the poor. shelter the homeless. make friends with those suffering through substance addiction. make friends with people different from yourself. go to prisons! god, go to prisons. start to understand the issues surrounding mass incarceration IN THIS COUNTRY, and have ministry in your own city of atlanta. promote acceptance of all people, by the grace of god's love, rather than hate or exclusion. 

ok, i'll stop. but ohhhhh, the anger. this is not christianity. this is a club of convenience.

part two, ohhh, part two. (insert red-faced angry emoticon)
the sermon. ::deep breaths:: i actually got a bit upset here, visibly shaken. i wasn't sure what to do, as i was afraid i would tempt my mother-in-law to further confirm my heathen status. so, i grabbed some paper and a pen and started taking 'notes'. 

as an aside: i have to say, truly, sitting through something that angers you to your core is a very inspiring experience. i couldn't stop writing, jotting, having thoughts. although it was probably HORRIBLE for my blood pressure and general stress levels, it was amazing for my creativity. (something to keep in mind in case you personally ever need writing inspiration!)

theology aside, the sermon was pretty bad as a talk. it was disorganized. it didn't flow well. the only consistency in it was the pastor's gross tone of voice, which, if you've ever been to a southern baptist church, is the tone they all must have been taught in their respective seminaries -- flat but somehow still loud, occasionally banging podium, relaying zero care or concern for actual people. [literally wrote the following on my sheet of notes: "i guess if you say enough stuff in the same tone of voice, people don't realize you're not actually saying anything?"] 

but then, the pastor tried to bring in current events and politics. i'm not a fan of this from behind a pulpit, unless it's to highlight things in the world that we can pray for, or help out with, or otherwise not judge but show grace and love and mercy to. in this case, not so. the topic was 'abraham's calling' -- and he compared it to the syrian refugees, but declared abraham's journey superior to theirs because he was wealthy and affluent and went anyways -- while the refugees were motivated by desperation alone (what. the. eff?) ... and then, went on to compare 'abraham's calling' to the newly elected republican house speaker. pathetic. disgusting. so infuriating. all of this said from a pulpit as if it's 'gospel truth' (no pun intended. or maybe it is).

in order to try to spare you the extent of cleverly masked blasphemy endured, i'll highlight just a few salient points from my 'notes' from the rest of the sermon:
-it's astoundingly clear to me how a pastor's race, social class, experiences heavily influence what they say; it's pretty gross in this case to be acutely aware of his cushy, self-serving existence
-biblical concepts are talked about in an exceedingly vague manner - and personal opinion on their interpretation in detail and touted as truth
-tries to dramatically appeal to emotion by casually mentioning pain, death - asks people to think of their late spouse, children, parents - with no connection to rest of sermon
-talks about how awful it must be to feel like an 'alien' in a foreign land when you have lots of money and status back home... but fails to address those who actually live as 'aliens' all the time; those living in poverty here in the US, refugees, immigrants...
-tells congregation that the most important job they have as christians is to come to corporate worship and practice for heaven; criticizes that they "have it so good, they forget to think about heaven!" ... well, yes, they have it 'so good', i don't disagree; but that IS NOT the most important job we have as christians. not even close.

blah, blah, blah, blah, vomit.

i think one of the last thoughts i had, that i was struck by on my page of 'notes'... 
"if you held captive the attention of this population (by which i mean affluent white suburban christians) for an hour, what would you say?"
what would you say? i would describe the person of jesus. i would describe the unconditional acceptance of all those who he encountered -- except those who demanded legalistic obedience and shunned grace. i would describe the feeding of the hungry, the wandering in the desert, the chilling with prostitutes and drug dealers. and i'd make the RADICAL suggestion that the congregation follow that lead -- maybe i'd even describe for them how they could do that in their own cities. 
i would not, and i really think this is important here -- i would NOT tell them what they want to hear and make them feel comfortable. i would try to be very aware of my own biases, and theirs, and attempt to address these head on.

when we left the service, my anger subsided slowly. my overwhelming feeling was that of relief being on the other side of this experience that i dreaded. then anger gave way to purpose -- i felt very strongly about how important it was for me to find a church in philadelphia in line with these things that i felt were missing here. and i intend to do this. (i doubt this was my mother-in-law's sneaky intention in having me attend this church, but, alas.)

and not only that. i think this experience offers a reminder to all to look closely at what your church purports, what biases are there based on ethnicity/homogeneity/social class/etc, and how what you are told to do aligns with what jesus actually did.

on the top of my page of notes, i had written the word 'anti-intellectual', bolded it, and circled it. this was my overwhelming thought of what was wrong with this service and serves as an example of what is wrong with many 'christian' churches. (and this reaches widely, beyond churches as well). what does it mean to be intellectual? according to webster's, intellectual: "of, or relating to, the ability to think in a logical way. involving serious study and thought." not accepting everything that is spoon-fed to you, but hearing it, working it around in your mind, comparing it to what you know to be true. being critical. THINKING FOR YOURSELF. thinking forwardly, deeply, in a goal-directed way. being intentional about your life and your relationship with your spirituality and religion, not about what sometime tells you to do with it.

so, after all is said, am i glad i sat through that church service? hells no. i am glad to be able to articulate what i truly believe and encourage others in thinking for themselves -- and to use this as a horrifying example as to why this is important. but please, for the love, no more visits to large southern megachurches or i might have a stroke.