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By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
A few years ago I had the opportunity to attend a religious service at one of the Midwest's largest mega-Churches, and I have to say that the 70+ minute worship-extravaganza was one of the oddest and most baffling pieces of performance art that I've ever witnessed. Obviously I went into the Church with less-than-reverent motives--I was way more interested in the freak-show potential for the service than in any actual redemptive soul-cleansing or spiritual actualization.
I've been leery of the whole "mega-Church" craze ever since I got my first glimpse of Joel Osteen's alarmingly cheery, somewhat reptilian countenance during a televised transmission from his Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. And I've learned to distrust the non-denominational, God-will-make-you-rich message that those rock star preachers always seem to emphasize to their parishioners. As a lapsed Catholic, it boggled my mind to think that people "enjoyed" Sunday mass; in my youth, Church was that joyless, dutiful thing you did once a week, that unpleasant chore you completed in order to watch football with a guiltless conscience.
The production I saw in Chicago resembled nothing as much as a television variety show from a bygone era, something that would have starred Dean Martin or Perry Como or Carol Burnett and had a rotating series of guest stars. There was an introductory segment, featuring acoustic-guitar music played by young, pretty people. There was a dramatic sketch about the dangers of holding a grudge. A screen came down and a scene from a recent Clint Eastwood war movie was displayed. There was a "humorous" sketch about the difficulties of family dynamics. A vaguely U2-sounding Christian rock band (actually, all Christian rock bands are vaguely U2-sounding) played an energetic pair of songs that most audience members seemed to know all the words to. A deacon (or prefect, or associate pastor, or whatever) then listed the various public-service opportunities for church members, the homeless ministries, the soup kitchens, the youth-for-Christ things. Some more music was played.
Then, the lights dimmed, and with a flourish, the telegenic pastor finally entered the stage, his arms raised in a praise-God salute, and he was singing loudly, passionately to the modern-rock hymnal, until finally, slowly, the music began to ebb away and when it was completely silent he took a very dramatic pause and gave a brief nod to the heavens and then began his weekly sermon.
It was at this point that I sat up in my seat, for I was very interested in what was going to come out of the guy's mouth. The whiz-bang production values of the service had left me a little disoriented — this is a Church? I kept thinking — but I knew that, ultimately, whatever it was that made this Church so popular would probably be revealed in the next few minutes. And I must admit I was damned curious to find out what that was. Plus I was interested in the guy himself — a former internet businessman, the pastor had retired from his very lucrative career in order to shepherd the good people of Chicago into a higher spiritual conscientiousness. He had said previously that he wanted to build the Church like he had built his business; he had a specific, aggressive model in mind, one that he was certain he had been "called" to enact.
He began to talk. The sermon that day was about prejudice, and tolerance, and how we must learn to rise about the pettiness of human pride and deal with people as Jesus would have. To illustrate the point, he told a personal story about how pernicious a force prejudice can be. The pastor was Asian-American, and he talked about a recent incident that occurred as he was preparing to take his boat out from the dock on Lake Michigan.
Four white guys had walked past him on the dock, and in passing one of them had uttered an ethnic slur. Enraged, the pastor wanted to turn on them, confront them: "I was so angry! I wanted to yell at them, 'Hey, you don't even know me. I'm so much more than you can imagine!' I wanted to belittle them, I was so mad, I wanted to say, 'You know, I've accomplished so much more than you. I have more friends, I'm more involved in the community, I've got so much more. . .'" and here the pastor paused. "EDUCATION than you!' But he didn't say anything. “I realized I didn't want to engage in a stupid fight with these people,” he said. “I realized that I would become just as petty as they were if I did. I thought about Jesus then, about turning the other cheek, about how wise that policy was. And so I walked on by."
And there it was. For it was then — right then — that I knew the guy was lying. Because I know that what the pastor had wanted to say to those idiots wasn't "I have so much more EDUCATION than you!" — no, what he wanted to say was, triumphantly, thunderously: "I have so much more MONEY than you!" But he realized he couldn't say that. In that crucial moment, onstage, all heated up, he had the instinct to self-edit himself, and so he switched it to "education" because he didn't want to look bad to the assembled masses. Nobody else that I talked to after the sermon though that that was the case, but I was sure my interpretation was correct. That is exactly what he wanted to say: money, not education. I knew it intuitively, I knew it like I knew that I was right-handed.
Now, you'd think that a profane iconoclast like me would use the pastor's slip-up as my coup-de-grace, as the ultimate reason why I could just dismiss everything the Church and the pastor stood for, but that's not the case. I actually felt a strange empathy for the guy, and not just because he was the victim of some particularly heinous racism. I felt bad for him as a performer. As a performer — and at the most basic level, that's really what all preachers are — it's incredibly difficult to talk about yourself in a completely honest way. You invariably learn that even when "talking about yourself" there's always a great deal of subtle re-invention that goes on. I had learned this earlier, during a one-man show I had performed at Firefly. The show was basically just me speaking monologues about my thoughts and experiences, yet I knew that the persona I had developed onstage was a lot different than the person I really am. (Similarly, these articles don't quite represent who I "really" am.) You're obligated to entertain as a performer, after all, and sometimes that means that what's "real" or "honest" will often get trampled by something that sounds a lot better to an audience. It is a willing deception that even the most genuine artist can't rise above.