Sunday, March 28, 2010

Roundabout Hate

When the gospel garage-rock we had so tolerantly been appreciating came to an abrupt end, Lon Solomon's face appeared like the Wizard of Oz on shining silver screens. A shiver ran down my spine and kept running as his dark mouth opened wide around words like "trustworthiness" and "veracity". My discomfort came on so strong because, well,  Lon is an atavistic crossbreed of game-show host and far-right cult leader, fluffing his feathers in high perch as the Senior Pastor of the McLean Bible Church. His position gives him the opportunity to preach to ten-thousand people every week, offering sermons that cover the burning bush, gay marriage, and everything he misrepresents in between.

Solomon's position of authority within the religious institutions we have explored is not atypical. What shocked me was his blatant and entirely unchecked discrimination that he supported with a paltry investigation of the Bible. He started by crucifying Jon Meacham for his Newsweek story, "The Religious Case for Gay Marriage" -- a piece ( that put a thorn in many a fundamentalist's side. My trouble with this, aside from it being incredibly outdated (the article was written in '08) was that there was no way for anything productive to come from Solomon's synthesis of Meacham's work. It's like Solomon agreed to a tennis match with Meacham, wielding a racquet without strings. Needless to say, it was painful to watch, painful to hear, and even more painful to see the entire audience nodding along with it.

On the fateful Sunday he appeared before us in stage makeup, the only issue firing Solomon up was gay marriage. But he didn't approach this subject head-on after decrying it in his introduction. He continued prolixly, telling tales about Jesus meeting the Sadduces, Creationism, the historic validity of religious miracles, and Carl Sagan. To drive us all to further distraction, orbiting around Solomon's disembodied head were additional screens illuminating a powerpoint presentation. In the slides, Solomon's paraphrastic and grossly biased quotes took on a great grammatical purpose. In one breath he said, "We don't need a bunch of gobbledegook theologians telling us what to think," emphasizing not only the righteousness of accepting the Bible at face value but also the necessity of it. Then in another breath, he drew our attention to the powerpoint in which he translated "God's words" for his congregation, and left his translations in quotes. It looked like this:

God: "I AM God, so it's true. I am God, I exist. My words will never pass away, so ride them like a surfboard into eternity."

Now, this isn't from the Bible. It isn't from anywhere except Lon Solomon's head. He said this was the way Jesus saw the Bible, and if we want to be like Jesus, we have to be like Lonny Solomon, and if we want to be like Lonny, we have to not question anything Lonny says the Bible says. Lonny is just reading the Bible like Jesus read the Bible. So Lonny, the Bible, God, Jesus, and real life all become the same thing. To call into question one of these things is to call into question all of them, and then do you know what happens to you? You're condemned to an eternity in Hell. So go ahead, be gay.

Yes, that was Lon Solomon's hour-long sermon. He concluded by breathing fire and snorting the words, "God said it, I believe it, that's good enough for me. This is Jesus' attitude. This is my attitude. If you have any sense you'll do the same thing." Solomon admitted he was not up to debating the issue, because it's "beyond" him to doubt anything God has so explicitly and unmistakably said. It's just not worth the risk.

Far, far away on the other side of the fence, Jon Meacham wrote, "to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition," and from this premise continued to construct an argument in favor of same-sex marriage. Meacham supported his claims using the same Scripture that homophobes hopped up on conveniently suited ideas of God's Will have been using for the opposite purpose. This is possible because, by definition, a quote is words out of context. The same way rock music can be prescribed or condemned by God using different clips of Bible material, similar strategies are employed regarding pressing sociopolitical issues.

Solomon would have everyone believe one road leads to heaven, and it's his road alone that will get them there. This is terrifying for a multitude of reasons. Where do human rights factor into Eternity? Religiosity can be a powerfully deceptive mask for discrimination. Intellectually stunted groupthink that perpetuates marginalization and intolerance has led to no holy place, ever, in human history. Let's love each other on Earth, starting now. Peace be with us all, Amen.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pretend Your Way to a Better You

The last day of our trip found us tired out by a daylight savings leap forward, running on empty, and still drying off from the previous evening's rain. Needless to say, waking up for a 2 hour drive to church didn't seem like the most enticing option.

After a hurried breakfast at the Silver Diner, we made our way back to the place where our journey started a whole year before: the McLean Bible Church. We waited in a familiar-seeming flood of cars, and searched endlessly for a spot in the cavernous and poorly lit parking garage. The chilly walk inside cemented the fact that we certainly weren't in Miami anymore.

Since we'd come to MBC the year before and were veterans of a service in their main chapel, we decided to switch things up a bit and go for the "praise through song" rock-and-roll alternative. In place of the usual opening sermon from a pastor in training and more traditional hymns, this chapel offered 20-odd minutes of total immersion Christian rock. In sum, the four of us stood still for a while, exchanging the odd skeptical glance, as our peers swayed with their hands in the air, reciting the words being projected on the four huge teleprompters towards the front.

It was like being at a watered-down Creed concert - definitely the last thing any of us wanted given our collective mood.

As the vocalists sang their last and the instrumentalists filed off the stage, the lights dimmed and the screens lit up with images broadcast from the main chapel. Lon Solomon, our guy from last year, had taken the stage! After his usual greetings, a few images showed up on the other screens (I can't tell you how well they coordinate the multimedia at these places) and we knew we were in for a treat. The screen showed the cover of a not-so-recent issue of Newsweek debating the issue of religious involvement in gay marriage. Waaamp waaamp. Our moods continued to spiral.

Lon used this platform as a starting point for his sermon topic of when and how literally biblical verse should be interpreted in dictating our daily conduct (his answer: all the time, and entirely literally). And man oh man, did he succumb to some serious flaws of logic.

We sat and suffered as Mr. Solomon proved the literal applicability and validity of the bible by...saying it just had to be that way purely on the grounds that it's the Bible (in other words, everything in the Bible is completely true because the Bible says so). As we watched the most basic principles of simple logic get torn down on a big screen and listened to the murmurs of agreement from everyone around us, it was hard not to wonder just how much everyone was willing to suspend their disbelief for the sake of their pastor's argument. Although the man was encouraging false, circular logic and the type of closed-mindedness that would shock even Pat Robertson, everyone was eating it up. The second things concluded, we bolted, not even close to being in the mood for continued exposure, and too tired to argue.

As we sat in the mass exodus traffic jam, venting our frustrations with everything we had just experienced, it occurred to me that our hurried exit from MBC was all to similar to our exit from Miami. After 2 days of car confusion and trouble, not to mention the sudden onset of overcast, humid weather, we were beginning to get a little fed up with our glitzy, glamorous, gauche, and greasy vacay destination. Even though we were starting to finally get the hang of things (only eat Cuban food, and stick to hotels for some genuinely pleasing nightlife), it had all started to wear a little thin. All the "I'M IN MIAMI, BITCH" t-shirts in the world couldn't make South Beach seem like a real destination, and to do things like we would have really wanted to would have taken a pocketbook much larger than any of ours.

The breaking point came during our visit to a store called Claudio Milan. Although it looked like Eternity Fashions (in terms of decor and wares), the whole place seemed to have been priced by a boom-happy Russian oligarch. Run of the mill, de-labeled Gap jeans encrusted in rhinestones ran well into the thousands of dollars. Latin Grammy-worthy ballgowns with splits up the side that reached above the hip seemed arbitrarily priced at $5000 apiece. Sarah had her eyes set on a part of lycra leggings printed with the image of jeans (a real feat of trompe l'oeil), only to find out that they cost an astonishing $275. A shirt that was literally constructed from mesh netting and puffy-paint cost six hundred and eighty nine American dollars. When Kim asked the saleslady (who had been following us around the store) if this was simply a typo or a case of a decimal gone missing, she responded in her most "Pretty Woman" condescending saleslady voice - "It's a local designer. Handmade. The highest quality." Given the rate at which it was shedding glitter, the shirt itself begged to differ.

In both places, we were being sold something that was so obviously transparent and gratingly untrue that we were left with no other option than to get tired and give up. We learned in South Beach that simply pretending something is glamorous doesn't make it so. At McLean Bible Church, we learned that saying something is true just because someone else said so certainly doesn't make it the case, either.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Ballad of the Drive Back

With drops of jupiter in our hair, sassy new bikinis strewn in the backseat, and McFlurries clutched in our sweaty palms, we set off from the Emerald City that is Miami in a Chevy HHR. We were destined for Savannah. Savannah! Enclave of ole’ Southern hospitality, Paula Deen, and, uh, St. Patricks Day. But wait! We aren’t there yet. Instead, we found ourselves at the Miami International Airport. No! Not to fly to Venezuela; we went to a Hertz. Yes, that car rental agency that excels at answering phones and doling out sexy little vehicles.

The following occurred prior to our sojourn to the Miami airport, when we were having car troubles with our smarmy old Pontiac and switched to a Toyota Corrolla. As we were presented with the tiny blood red sedan, someone whispered, “I think this car got recalled.” iPhones out! After some preliminary Google searches, article after article popped forth relaying the horror story of the disturbingly defective 2010 Corrolla. “It’s not like it’s defective in that mirrors fall off or something,” Adrian told us, iPhone reflecting off his glasses, “It’s more that the accelorator sticks and does not stop.”

We were not about to let Spring Break 2010 turn into ‘Speed.' We were here to research megachurches, not engage in some Keanu Reeves hoopenanny! So we went to the airport. After Kim sweet-talked the woman at the front desk, we were presented with what must have been the only non-Toyota in the lot.

Have any of you ever seen a Chevy HHR? It is shaped like the American dream, and it is a car-truck. We shoved everything in the less than spacious trunk, rolled out to the open road, and breathed deeply. Our car is definitely a smoker. The pungent smell of menthol cigarettes and a slight tinge of body odor filled our nostrils. We quickly opened our beef jerky and iced animal cookies to mask the smell, and the sweet scent of Aisle 7 replaced everything (sort of).

With Kim and Hannah at the helm, we drove and drove and drove, all wide-eyed and goosebumped, in the rain and the sleet and the snow until we made it to Savannah, where it is St. Patricks Day. This was curious, because there is a limited population of Irish people in Georgia, and this holiday is not for another week. Instead of trying to figure out this problem on our phones, we just opted for dinner on the water front. No sense in fighting it. Our exuberant waiter Brian M. (possible relation to Brian McDonnell?) served us delicious oyster poboys and crabcakes and burgers. Frightened by the possibility of us Yankees contracting e. coli, he urged us to get everything cooked fully. “Medium,” he commanded. “We hand pat everything here.”

Stomachs under control, save Kim’s, it was off to the Savannah Garden Inn for the night, where we booked two full beds for four people. Imagine our surprise when we walked in to find one bed and a pull out couch! A pull out couch sans sheets. After much hemming and hawing with the front desk, we were given two space blankets and no pillows. Oh, dear. This was going to be an issue that would have to be resolved in the morning.

Unfortunately, the best resolution we could reach was an 18% discount, but the prospect of a relaxing morning wandering Savannah cooled our nerves, and a long drive to Richmond brought us back down to earth. The drive was punctuated by a visit to Pedro's South of the Border and a low-fuel scare, but we finally arrived at our last roadside hotel in the midst of an enormous thunderstorm.

To sleep!

The fine line between swanky and skanky

After just a few short days in Miami beach, it became clear to me that most of the hype surrounding the nightclubs and fancy restaurants is just that: hype. Mansion, BED, Cameo, PrivĂ©, Space, Trapeze – the names are just vague enough to keep us intrigued, and dark or curtained exteriors make us feel like something secret and awesome is going on inside. 

Going to BED sounds exciting, not to mention reminiscent of Sex and the City as Kim mentioned, and with the whole beds-instead-of-tables thing, it's got a gimmick that makes you feel like you can't find It anywhere else.  Once you get inside, however, and the thrill of the hype has passed (or once it gets knocked out of you by an aggressively unfriendly Bouncer Slash Manager), it becomes nauseatingly obvious how sleazy this place really is.  A pair of older gentlemen stared unblinkingly at us from across the room as we tried to find a comfortable position, and our waitress literally crawled across a bed to take our order.  As we put on the night vision goggles of sobriety among our bump'n grinding, photo-snapping, cocktail-guzzling peers, we imagined what the scene in front of us would look like if somebody only turned on the lights, and decided it was probably best that they remained off.  I almost wished I could accept the glossed over version of my surroundings, but the devil was really in the details for this evening hot spot, and in this case, the devil seemed rather unsanitary.

We met a similar phenomenon as we walked past the other clubs in the area.  We were handed VIP bracelets to Mansion by a beefy gelled up fellow, and told we could cut the line when we got there.  Of course this made us feel picked out of the crowd at first, until we realized that almost every twenty-something walking alongside us was wearing the same neon bracelet, and the line we were cutting only led us to another that was almost just as long.  We weren't VIPs, because there were no VIPs, yet the rest of the bracelet-wearers were holding onto the idea that this place was exclusive, and everyone else was just buying into the hype.

A lot of the megachurches we've visited practice this same kind of hype, with their gimmick being their size, and all the media and technology they use to reach a wider audience and hold their attention.  Like the Miami Beach clubs, they make us feel like we can only get It there (whatever It may be), until we actually go to a few of them and realize that they are mostly the same.

The New Birth Baptist Church was an exception in some respects.  Compared to places like Christ Fellowship, MBC, and New Spring, this one had the fewest gimmicks.  There were two small screens to project the service for those in the back rows, but the stage itself was small, and there were none of the colorful lights or special effects that we had become accustomed to.  Rather than trying to show us how great the church was, our guide was more excited to tell us about how God had blessed them in ways that allowed them to help people in the community, and about the ways God had spoken to her personally.  She told us about how the pastor was trying to keep his services to a manageable length, but how they could run as long as three hours.  This was especially interesting because aside from some songs from the choir and communion, the bulk of the service was the pastor's sermon, compared to the service at Christ Fellowship, which crammed as many different scenes as it could into one hour.

Our guide (who was a pastor herself) didn't seem to have anything against the larger, flashier churches we had been to; when we mentioned how this one seemed like it was easier to feel close to the pastor and the messages that were being shared, she said she didn't think size mattered, because if God wanted to get a message to you, he would do it no matter where you were.  Perhaps some of the larger megachurches began like this one, and if so, perhaps this one was destined for the size and hype of those churches.  Still, at New Birth it felt like no one was hiding behind the glamor of TV screens and lights and music.  Unlike BED, where night vision goggles were necessary to distinguish the reality from the hype, here it felt like the lights were already on.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


How does size affect religion? How does size affect South Beach? The churches that we have been visiting are so attractive to many people precisely because of their size; the same can be said for South Beach. The idea of bigger and better is appealing, because it signals progress and forward movement. In exploring both places, my question is does form and structure play a similar role in these two very different structures?

South Beach is famous because of its grandiose proportions. In the area where we are staying, on 63rd and Collins Avenue, we are surrounded by towering hotels and condos, each one’s penthouse farther up than the next. (Our hotel is a mere three floors). With names like ‘Fontaine Bleu,’ ‘W’ and the ‘Gansevoort’, these luxury hotels sound exotic and mysterious- you want to spend all your time there. They are beautifully constructed both inside and out, but their size is rather intimidating. Inside there are stacks upon stacks of people spending inordinate amounts of money for ocean views. They zoom up towards the sky, blocking the sun and making it difficult to access the beach. The theme seems to be, “Look, but don’t touch. Unless you can afford me.”

The rest of South Beach, at least the part frequented by tourists, is clubs and restaurants, and follows this theme. From a distance, these dining and dancing establishments look glamorous yet accessible. Close up, however, the glossy veil is lifted. The restaurants are huge, their outdoor dining area taking up a good third of a city block. Standing outside of most of them are hostess frantically trying to sell you their menu- they do so by shoving food items in your face as you walk by. Lobsters, cooked by the sun, and melting ice cream sundaes completely detract from the appeal of these restaurants. Despite the obvious lack of haute cuisine, everything is expensive. Your eyes can feast, but only those willing to pay the price can actually indulge.

The clubs are cavernous. As we walked by a megaclub called “Mansion,” the other night, we were struck by its size and the line of antsy, fake-ID armed college students that snaked around the block. Everyone has to dress up in a certain way to even be considered for entrance; once near the bouncer you are given the one-up and then asked to fork over around fifty dollars. The size of these places is intimidating, and the price even more so. South Beach is an exclusive, albeit temporary club. You have to really want to be wanted by Miami to enjoy most of its offerings.

In my opinion, some of the megachurches we have visited feel like intimidating structures, difficult to appreciate if you don’t believe, particularly the Christ Fellowship Church. From the outside, the church didn’t look huge. The walls were a pretty peach color, there were lovely gardens around it, and it looked awfully, well, cute. Inside, we were greeted by a cafeteria of Herculean proportions, and an even larger worship center. I have never felt entirely comfortable in megachurches precisely because of the intimidating size. I feel invisible, lost in translation and unknown as soon as I join a crowd of several thousand. Perhaps because I do not consider myself a particularly religious person, I have never understood how people feel a personal connection to God in a gigantic auditorium.

The New Birth Baptist Church was different. Still considered a megachurch, they have just under two thousand worshippers that attend services on Sunday. While the worship center can comfortably seat these people, the room felt smaller and cozier. The pews hugged the stage in a snug semi-circle, making the room feel much more connected. There were no individual chairs and the pews were rather close to each other. Indeed, New Birth Baptist seemed to be set up the exact opposite of all the other megachurches we have thus visited. This, of course, has to do with the fact that they cater to a smaller number of people. I asked the assistant pastor what she thought of the overwhelming size of megachurches, and if that affects people’s spiritual experience. “I don’t think that’s an issue,” she replied. “It doesn’t matter where you are sitting, God can reach you anywhere. You could be sitting all the way in the back row here and He could still come and touch you.”

The New Birth Baptist Church seemed very conscious of separating religion and spirituality from the physical structure of their location. Christianity can exist without the form and structure of a church; it is a spiritual belief that is embodied in each member of New Birth. Obviously, the church is integral in bringing together a group of worshippers, but religion is something that doesn’t stay in the church. The opposite is true of South Beach. The whole hedonistic lifestyle of partying and eating and tanning could not exist without the physical layout that is already in place. People come from all over the world to indulge in what is South Beach, but they cannot bring home these clubs and lobsters and ocean views. Although we may find some similarities between churches and Miami, the long term benefits that they offer cannot be compared.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comfort Zones Begone

Following a night in our real beds, we had a day of churchgoing to snap us back into a religious sphere of things. First we drove about a half hour from the Lombardy Inn to the Northwest Baptist Church, which turned out to be something of a disappointing enterprise. We pulled into the church parking lot to discover that the most we could do was walk around suspiciously. It was a week day and the church functioned as a school for young kids. There was no easy entry point to get inside, and we looked sketchy trying to find one. We spent more than twenty minutes on the perimeter before we had to cut our losses. Trying to avoid ruffling any feathers, we made our quick round of the exterior and jumped back into the car. Everyone hoped for better luck at the next church, but nobody knew if we would find it.

Part of the discomfort I felt definitely had to do with the sudden change of scenery. We had gone from the glitzy (and frequently sleazy) sidewinder of South Beach to a more sparse and suburban low-income neighborhood. It wasn't far at all from all the excess we had experienced, and shocked us into a sense of seriousness.

When we pulled up into the New Birth Baptist Church (the second church on our hit list for the day), the security guard immediately came over to us and asked if we were lost. We knew before we got there that the church was entirely African American. We weren't lost, we were parked, and it became clear that not very many white people came to visit New Birth, if any visited at all.  I told the guard we were from UPenn and we intended to learn more about the church for a research project, and then he kindly directed us to the information area.

Once inside, we spoke to the secretary who tried to get us to meet with the pastor immediately. He couldn't meet with us, because he couldn't be located, so an assistant pastor gave us a tour and a run down. At first, everyone in the church seemed slightly surprised by our company, but they were eager to educate us after they understood our intention was to learn about their work and their spiritual lives.

We learned that New Birth does more for the Baptist community than provide a stairway to heaven. The church also functions as a career counseling and networking hub, providing employment assistance for any member that needs it. Furthermore, the size of the church (the sanctuary, specifically) was much more modest than any of the other megachurches we visited. This, coupled with the fact that the church cut back on technology expenses so they could keep more people on staff, made us confident that their mission is not only to help individuals reach salvation in the afterlife. They are also interested in bettering the mortal lives of the worshipers in their community, however temporary those lives may be. Unlike the messages administered by Christ Fellowship, the downplay of ephemeral hominid existence was secondary to the necessity of aiding others with a humanistic touch.

This got my gears turning. How can one describe the niche a church fills in its site-specific community with the niche filled by a nightclub in Miami Beach? It's not necessarily about how they might behave similarly or in ideological combat with one another.

Maybe it's more about what happens because they are each there, in their place for their purpose. We can say churches do more for the community, but do they? Only worshipers get to take advantage of the resources they provide, and you have to believe what they believe to have access to those resources. There are definitely a number of people in the New Birth neighborhood that could use career help, but they won't be getting it from the church unless they accept the church's faith. Nobody should be forced to make that sacrifice in order to get the help they need.

Churches might teach you that your soul must be saved before you can be helped by anybody -- regardless of how your bills keep adding up or how difficult it is to live off unemployment checks. Clubbing might teach you that many people seek out a taste of the meaningless and devote a lot of energy and resources to sustaining meaninglessness.

Yes, it's true that the nightclubs in Miami have their elect clientele, those fancy snappers who cut all the lines and get VIP access. But while the clubs emphasize certain vices, they stimulate the economy. Clubs provide jobs and money from the tourists during vacation seasons and the loyal customers who are cultivated every weekend. Many clubs have history and have become landmarks of the city itself. But no nightclub will tell you their club is the only club you can ever go to, and each church we have been to believes it's their way, or the road to hell.

All Senses GO

It would be generously reductive to describe South Beach as anything other than sensory overload. It's impossible to shut out everything that seems to be happening all at once and all the time, everywhere we go. A walk down Ocean Avenue comes with the agreement to deal with restaurant employees forcing lunch and drink coupons into our hands, and an afternoon lying on the beach comes with the constant encroachment of insipid conversation and a continuing parade of greased up beach bods. There's nowhere safe to rest your eyes, and sound is pumped in from all directions and sources.

Though it may sound like a stretch, the same basic exhaustion-by-stimulation happened to me during the service at Christ Fellowship - it just had more to do with rapid video editing and inconsistent subject matter than the reggaeton and shouts of "6.99 MARGARITAS AND FRIES!" we've encountered on South Beach. In light of all this, our visit to the New Birth Baptist Church had a refreshing effect, and the things we learned about the principles of the church from our tour guide seemed entirely antithetical to everything we'd come in contact with before.

I noticed that the significantly more low-key (yet still accommodating, and frankly, huge) chapel at New Birth had the same broadcasting technology as the other churches we've seen, and I asked about the different ways that the sermons were recorded and broadcast. Our guide said that aside from the usual internal projections, sermons were usually broadcast on (a host site that broadcasts sermons online), but due to cutbacks tied to the economic downturn, they'd been forced to put their broadcasts on hiatus; this was one of the first things to go, to ensure that jobs at the church would be maintained.

Where the pastors at Christ Fellowship had made sure to emphasize the importance of continued giving in the face of economic adversity (not to mention the necessity of increasing the size of the congregation, in what felt like a grab for a larger economic pool), our guide at New Birth made sure to tell us that the wellbeing of the community was their foremost priority. If this came at the cost of the expansion of a multimedia project, then so be it.

This tendency to stray from and shrink the power of constant stimulus was also evident in the lack of a snazzy gift shop chock full of STUFF. The kiosk that sold recordings of sermons and speeches seemed to be a bit more honest in it's intentions, in that the sermons were sold on video and DVD; this seemed to speak to a greater attachment to and interest in the message. Instead of being temporally available online, these lasting mementos of particularly affecting or interesting sermons are available to any and all who are interested. Something about this strikes me as more genuine, although it really isn't my place to say.

I don't know why I keep equating the expansion of these churches into new forms of media with a departure from purity in their message, but I think it has a lot to do with the way it distracts me personally. Since I've been having an extremely difficult time focusing on anything in South Beach (case in point: mountain of un-done geology homework), it might be that our visit to New Birth seemed to be a welcome contrast to many levels of this experience.