Thursday, March 12, 2009

It's a small-minded world, after all

Everyone in Holland wears clogs. Ireland is full of clovers and leprechauns. All Austrians yodel with goats in the mountains and all French women entertain a crowd by dancing the can-can. Dancing is especially popular in countries and islands that are more exotic than we’re used to, where women are tan and scantily clad, and they enjoy winking at passersby. But fortunately, all these people love each other, and they love to sing about it, too.

This is how we can understand the world through the famous “it’s a small world” ride in Walt Disney World, which my comrades and I experienced reluctantly yesterday after technical difficulties prevented us from going on Space Mountain a second time. And today, we found ourselves in yet another small world: Epcot, Disney. Its “World Showcase” features something called “The American Adventure,” plus the best of Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico, mixing famous landmarks and cities with cute shops and restaurants and a sugary sweet taste of foreign culture.

It’s pretty safe to say that Epcot does not give us the full picture. First of all, it only “showcases” eleven countries. And within this selection, we can wander at our own pace through a warped reality. At first glance, it’s easy to be impressed by the authenticity of the architecture or the smells that waft through the marketplace, but a closer look can break the spell when you notice signs for “Emergency Exit” and “Cast Only” or the placement of Rome’s Trevi Fountain within Venice’s San Marco. Everything is almost convincing, but the setup of the park never lets you forget where you are.

So why leave so much out? The masterminds behind Epcot have dumbed it down for us, making other countries easier to understand within a context we are familiar with. Without back alleys or any space between countries, we are meant to accept everything at face value. Like our experience at MBC on Sunday, Epcot is presented in a way that dismisses questions. During Sunday’s service, when ideas needed clarification, Pastor Lon asked our questions for us and then answered them for us as well. Several times during his sermon, I had to fight the urge to raise my hand and question his logic, to say, “But why? How does x prove y?” But obviously, sermons don’t function like one of my classes. We were meant to accept Lon’s questions and his explanations. This expectation, along with Epcot’s simplified version of the world, feels rather condescending to me. Do they think we can’t handle an alternative? Is this easy version of reality what people want? Whatever the answer, neither institution gives us the opportunity to find out.

Imagine an Epcot where Paris is surrounded by the poverty and racism of the banlieue, where menus aren’t always written in English and not everything can be made into a pin or a t-shirt. Picture the “it’s a small world” ride complete with wars, disease, colonization, genocide and hate crimes instead of only singing and dancing when groups of people come together. And what about a service at a megachurch where the pastor talked to us about who wrote the different sections of the Bible and where its contradictions come from? What if the church distinguished between the direct word of God and the collective efforts of priests who developed their religious principles over time? What if it discussed the beliefs of other religions like Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam and the influences they all had on each other? This theme park wouldn’t be very much fun, and this church would feel like it was losing sight of faith in God.

We are curious by nature, and we want explanations for the world: for nature, for life and death, for free will and the problem of evil. And we want to know why people are different from ourselves, and how they are. But in discovering all of these things, we don’t want anything we find to threaten our way of life or our set of beliefs. We want to stay in control of our surroundings and ourselves, and we want to feel like the way we do things is still the best – because if it turned out there were a better way, we would have to change and do that. And we don’t want to change. We are happy the way we are! We live in America, after all. And when we die, we are going to heaven. How do we know? God says so, of course. And how do we know God says so? The Bible says so, obviously. But how do we know that what the Bible says is what God says? Because the Church says so? Because the Bible is really old? Because enough people have proofread it that they would have caught a mistake by now?

The further we push our questions, the more uncomfortable people become. People want to satisfy their curiosity within their comfort zone. In Epcot, the landmarks created are ones that we already know and already associate with those places, so by leaving everything else out, it reaffirms what we know, leaving no point for questions. The psychological phenomenon of confirmation bias tells us that people tend to look only for the things that confirm their beliefs. In Epcot, this might mean taking the fact that real Italians work in Italy and real Moroccans work in Morocco to mean that they have accepted these places as accurate replications of reality, and that the preconceptions you had were right all along. A similar message from a megachurch could be “God is right, the church is right, and you are right by extension. And look at all the people around you to back you up!” These institutions condition us to ask questions to a point, and that is the point that makes us feel the best (the smartest, the most righteous, the most “civilized”). Once we come to that point, they satisfy our curiosity without making us examine the world more closely, and even more importantly, without having to question ourselves.


  1. Most of the religious leaders that I respect are people who consistently push me to ask questions, to test what I believe, to try and figure out where logic comes into it. I certainly have done that, and it has certainly left me with no answers thus far, and a whole lot more questions. My point, though, is that I would hope your experience with one pastor (who, let's face it, probably has a more complex relationship with God than can be conveyed through one sermon) wouldn't make you feel that all or even most religious leaders want you to accept their belief without question. Sometimes when we push and test and question our beliefs, what comes back is a feeling. Yes, more questions and doubt and confusion, too. But also a feeling. A feeling that no matter how confusing or bizarre or inexplicable it all seems, something out there is good and right and loving. That's what faith is, and I'm going to tell you that although I currently have no idea where I stand or if I feel that at all anymore, I did at one point in my life and MAN it was so great I just wanted everyone else to feel that great too.

    So that's what I have to say. Are there holes in my logic? Probably. But is it about finding logical answers? Not necessarily.

  2. I think it should also be noted that what was attended at MBC was a sermon, not one of the many sunday school classes where those questions can be answered very specifically. If everyone could ask questions during the sermon we'd be there all week, especially at a church that has an attendance of over 10,000. Lon does his best to assume the questions that you might ask but there are plenty of resources (classes - books - Pastors) that are available for digging deeper.

    The bigger point is that a Sunday sermon shouldn't be all of the spiritual nutrition that you're getting every week. The sermon is just the icing on the cake to your own personal study.

    One of the difficulties of a large church is creating real community. That's why we have things like a cafeteria and a cafe so that people can develop those relationships. More importantly though we have small group Bible study's that meet weekly or by-weekly. It's in settings like this that you dig deeper into God's Word. Personally our small group is going through Matthew right now, specifically looking at the Sermon on the Mount. When we come across questions that we can't answer we take them to our Pastor and he's happy to help us.

    Additionally the book store is there for people to get resources so they can dig deeper in the Word. I think you'd be interested in knowing that MBC is not a bank. We're not about making money and if you saw our over/under in our quarterly budgets you'd see that we always lose money on our bookstore and cafeteria, but we continue to cover that cost because we see it as a vital way for people to connect and grow closer to one other while growing closer to the Lord. That might be another good comparison for you in your project. Amusement parks bottom line is money, Church's (at least McLean Bible Church) bottom line is souls that are won for Christ. Money is just one of the many tools that are used to accomplish this goal.

    I’m not sure when you’re ending your trip but our small group meets on Tuesday nights if you want to come and see where the meat of our relationship with Christ is developed. Our small group is made up of 4 young couples (late 20’s early 30’s), we have dinner together and then study the Word.