Sunday, March 15, 2009

Megachurch, Megafun!

I didn’t feel uncomfortable at the New Spring Church. To be perfectly honest, of all the major attractions we’ve seen on this trip, Disney World included, New Spring felt like the most relatable. This comes as a huge accomplishment on the part of both our tour guide and the atmosphere and mission of the church, especially following our experience at the North Point.

Although both of our guides at each separate church were more than welcoming and eager to show us around once we told them about our project, the major differences were almost immediately apparent.

New Spring makes a point of humbling itself and its origins. Although it is definitely surprising to make the connection, the fifteen million dollar mega-church started small, with a college Bible study group. According to our volunteer guide who worked as an intern at the church, senior pastor Perry Noble started out with a message that ended up drawing more and more people to the church. This struck me as remarkably organic, and particularly interesting because of its origins in a space that encourages critical readings of the Bible and engaged, active participation in a topic that interested the original followers of the church. This seemed to disprove my previous conceptions about the correlation between size and intellectual passivity, but a connection still remained.

The significance of the way the church was founded was particularly interesting to me in light of the other two churches we had visited. McLean Bible Church had the goal of gaining support and followers with the explicit intent to influence “secular Washington.” They were set up to do this particularly well, mostly due to the fact that their location afforded them a significantly more effective and interested visitor base. At the North Point Community Church, our guide told us that the goal of the church was to gain followers by converting them to Christianity, which on its own did not make me feel particularly at ease.

North Point was also home to an ideology that I had a difficult time relating to our sympathizing with. At the beginning of our tour, we were each asked about our personal religious backgrounds, and there was the underlying intention of conversion implicit in everything we shown and told. Instead of the “come and see if this is right for you” attitude we were given at New Spring, our guide at North Point made it extremely clear that the only way to heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ as taught by his church. Both churches had similar resources available to their communities, but the strategy behind them differed greatly.

At New Spring, the goal of the widely varied and visually exciting youth centers on the campus is to foster an interest in the church that has the potential to develop into a life long relationship with the church. Our guide told us that the senior officials had recognized the importance of youth as the future and wanted to create a space that nurtured long-term ties. At North Point, it was always made clear that the goal of creating these attractive and safe spaces was to create places where non-Christians would feel comfortable, and in the case of their teen center, a place where people wouldn’t be embarrassed to bring their non-Christian friends. However, because the ultimate goal there was the conversion of non-Christians, there is a sense that visitors are sort of being lulled into a sense of complacency. If they are made to feel safe and interested by their surroundings, then there is essentially no good reason for them to not become members of the church.

Whether or not the ultimate goals of these two places are the same, the up front-ness of our guide at North Point put me off. It seemed as though all of these resources were made available with the goal in mind of changing people’s lives drastically in a way that benefited the church, much in the way Disney World seems to attract visitors for profit. At New Spring, too, however, there is a massive catch; unless you are a follower of this church, and are someone who subscribes to the teachings of evangelism, you can’t get access to these important technologies and resources. It seemed a bit like a carrot and stick incentive; you can have all of this if you just become a Christian!

I think the most profound similarity between the New Spring Church and Disney World was my reaction to the spaces on their most fundamental levels. When you strip away all of the inherent messages, goals, and implied meanings associated with these two mega-spaces, they represent things that I agree with and enjoy. Underneath it’s evangelical message, the New Spring Church basically provides a sense of community for its attendees. It gives them resources that would otherwise be difficult to come by in the area, and for that it deserves some praise. If I choose to look at Disney World as nothing more than an amusement park (which, underneath that sticky, sweet coating of dumbed-down consumption, it really is), I am more than happy to wait in line for Space Mountain again. Both of these places earned a positive reaction because they are fundamentally representative of things that I like and enjoy, but it is only when given further thought that they become something more, and potentially sinister.

The greatest success of the New Spring Church and Disney World is their ability to capitalize on the safety and entertainment of the people who use these spaces. There is no perceived threat in either place, and if you don’t immediately look at either with a critical eye, there really is nothing to be concerned about. Your needs are being more than met, and you are happy to be there. The understated d├ęcor of New Spring set it apart from other the other churches we saw in its ability to create a welcoming environment, and the fact that we were so welcomed by a peer of ours clearly helped improve our understanding of the church.

Both churches seek to accomplish the same goals in different ways that vary in terms of explicitness. All of the major catches are things I inferred in the case of the New Spring Church. The North Point Community Church was simply more up front about them.

In the end, I’m not entirely sure which is worse. Is it better to be explicit about these goals of conversion or to let them hide behind a fancy teen center and secular music concerts? In order to appreciate the non-religious offerings of these churches, one has to remain willfully ignorant of a message that may be disagreeable. It is impossible to divorce these spaces from their implied messages and meanings, and significantly raises the importance of maintaining a critical point of view in anything. If nothing else, the presence of these resources in a space like a mega-church encourages a deeper analysis of the structure they are inherently tied to, which alone has been a more than gratifying experience.

Mr. Popular

How does anything become popular? What makes a consumer choose one product over another? Even in this economic climate, it isn’t always price. For something to become popular, it must be perceived, remembered and shared. Without exposure to a product or an idea, there is no opportunity to process it. If a consumer can’t remember a product that they have been exposed to, than chances are, they won’t purchase it over another item. Finally, for something to stay popular, it must be spread, through either explicit diffusion, such as word of mouth, or implicit diffusion, like passive propagation.

With this model in mind, the popularity of megachurches can be analyzed. At the New Spring Community Church, our guide, a young college student at Clemson University, kept saying that the popularity of the church in such a small town was “because of Jesus.” As we have seen on this trip, faith in a higher being can certainly propel people to work harder to achieve their goals. However, there are other explanations for the amount of people that New Spring draws every Sunday.

First, perception: Christianity is the most popular religion in the world, with over 2.1 billion practicing followers. Anyone anywhere can tell you what Christianity is- we have been exposed to the religion for over two thousand years. Thus, any church is going to get some attention. However, we have a limited attention span that is capable of being divided. What is New Spring doing that has captured the attention of over ten thousand followers? The resources the church offers is one possible explanation. Besides the local YMCA, New Spring is the only community center in Anderson that offers amenities such as a daycare, free computer access, and a gym. Novelty gets our attention, and a gym in a church for high schoolers is a pretty novel idea. Since there is no community center that can really rival what New Spring offers its followers, its a no-brainer for many families to join a church that can provide such facilities for their children.

Second, remembrance: Perception increases reception, and the more of a product we see, the more likely we are to remember it. How, why and when we remember something is based on our memory. When advertising a product, marketers aim to create links in consumer memory. These internal and external retrieval cues will bring their product to the forefront of people’s minds. Obviously, every time someone thinks of Christianity, they will recall their church. However, at New Spring, its facilities will strengthen its recall. For example, every time a high schooler thinks “Where do I want to sit to do my homework?” he or she may recall the great study areas that New Spring offers them. The more internal (personal thoughts) and external (cues in the environment) retrieval cues there are, the more likely New Spring’s popularity will rise. Nothing sticks without memory.

Third, sharing: An idea or a product can be great, but it won’t become popular unless it is sticky enough to spread. Marketers can spend millions of dollars advertising on billboards and in commercials, but this isn’t always the most efficient way to spread a product. Instead, word of mouth (WOM) has been found to be the most effective way to popularize a product. When we asked our guide how he came to choose New Spring as his church, he told us that he came here on a whim one Sunday after a close friend told him how “awesome” the church was. We tend to trust our friends’ opinions more so than ads in magazines and on television, and with good reason. We often share the same interests as our friends, and we trust that they know what we, as a consumer, want. When it comes to as big of a decision as picking a church, we are more likely to join a religious community that our friends and family speak highly of. Indeed, at New Spring, they call each of their followers “deacons,” with the aim of spreading the message of New Spring in an attempt to draw in new visitors. Of course, New Spring also relies on other forms of advertising. Their billboards and t-shirts have catchy slogans printed on them such as “Iwantanewmarriage.com” and “No Perfect People Allowed.” Not only are these unusual slogans more likely to capture’s people attention, the distribution of these slogans will spread the word of New Spring.

As we have seen, New Spring’s popularity is not just because of Jesus. Despite its small size, Anderson has proven to be the perfect ground on which to build a megachurch. By appealing to a diverse group of people, and by offering the community facilities that are found no where else, New Spring has grown from a 15 person Bible study to a 10,000+ church. It certainly has become the most popular kid in school.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Back-to-Back Megachurch Mayhem

At the North Point Community Church we spoke with an extremely knowledgeable older man who worked in the bookstore. He offered to give us a tour once we told him that we were conducting research about houses of worship. He informed us that the church operates by using the culture that the youth is involved with and then adapting it to suit their needs. About 600-700 high schoolers participate in the church's activities and those events are designed, “so you wouldn't be embarrassed to bring your non-Christian friends. They would see some cool-factor in it.” He also expounded on culture at large, “Technology and culture is part of our DNA.”

When we spoke about the Sunday services at the church, we were told, “If you don't like the loud music then this is not the place to come. If you think rock 'n roll music is the Devil's spawn, this is not the place to come.”

The most interesting thing I heard at the North Point Community Church came right out of the mouth of our tour guide: “The Bible can be used out of context rightly or wrongly, but can be used to argue back.” Meaning, just as Scripture can be used as support for any claim, a counterclaim can be made with just as much validity. Doesn't that sort of toss everything out the window? Our guide used rock music as an example, as North Point and all other megachurches that we've visited have an impressive band and sound system. He said, “The idea that loud music is awful can be quoted from Bible, but it could be counter-argued in another chapter, like 'All God creates is good'... It's one of those things.”

We got a little bit of bio on the man, also. He went to Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade with “all the rules, guilt, cans and can'ts” and when he got out of high school he decided he was “through with that.” He took off, but when he started a family he knew he should get his children exposed to the church. He needed to teach them right from wrong, and in his opinion, not belonging to church divorces you from community and moral ground. He said, “Religion teaches a basis for why something is right and why something is wrong. It may not be definitive by everyone's measure, but it at least gives you some stake in the ground.”

His daughter came to Christ at the University of Georgia. When he visited for parents nights, that's when he first started coming back to the church worship services. It was his first time outside the Catholic church, and the people worshiping god were listening to non-ritualistic messages, so “they actually were there because they wanted to be.” Our guide was excited by the teachings and the community. “Once you get that feeling you might start rethinking the whole eternity thing... Why am I here? and all that... I came back, kept coming a little bit more, and they kept teaching a little bit more truth.” Now he began talking specifically about North Point, “We don't care if you sit in the back and listen to the music. We're content for people to feel comfortable and come back. And one day Andy [the pastor] will say something right out of the bible that will hit you right between the eyes, and you'll think, he's talking to me personally.” The church focuses on allowing new members to take “baby steps.”

The tour of the facility included a survey of the youth facilities, one of which was described verbatim as “little Disney World.” The comparison there is as adequate as ever. The design of the children's area was extremely imaginative, sculptural protrusions ran off the walls, colorful forests were painted, and toys were everywhere. It was easy to understand why parents would want to give their children these resources. Not only could parents secure the educational and social requirements for their kids, but they could support the church at the same time by being a member. They are doing right by God, fulfilling their religious drive, and giving their children everything they need.

The “Virtue of the Month” series kicked off with a huge multimedia party this month. The virtue was hope, and there were videos, music, and dancing to drive home the virtue. The church used to do this every Sunday, but now there is one huge production a month and everything else is web-based.

The church has also begun outreach programs to assist the large Hispanic population. The pastor, Andy Stanley, is pretty famous. The church sends Andy's series to Hollywood to be overdubbed in Spanish. Our guide said, “Everyone loves Andy. Now we have Spanish Andy.” The church has multiple outposts and reaches globally. There are factions of North Point in Eastern Europe. If Andy is speaking at any campus, he is broadcast through video and can be seen on enormous screens at the others. North Point was the second place anywhere to have high-def video screens, they installed theirs after NASA. The screens are a little bit smaller than the average movie screen.

Our guide was surprisingly knowledgeable considering he only worked in the bookstore. He was able to answer just about every question we had. When we pressed on about his return to Christianity, he said, “Something happens in your life: a death, a birth, those things that happen to anybody. It makes you look for something else.” The most troubling thing about our conversation occurred when he asked us what religion we were. After some minor points he turned to me, stared into my eyes and said, “I'm worried for your soul."

The visit to North Point was depressing. All of the artwork around the church was chosen for its size instead of its aesthetic, and there was the overwhelming feeling that if you did not believe in Jesus Christ as your personal savior, your life was utterly meaningless. I had to put the Grateful Dead on the in car when we left and nap off my ill feelings. Listening to the Dead made me reconsider something-- the idea of prodigy. Prodigy and prodigal son are pretty close. Dictionary.com tells me that prodigy can mean something extraordinary regarded as of prophetic significance, or an act or event so extraordinary or rare as to inspire wonder. Choosing prodigy as a substitute for prodigal son is a compelling switch when you consider purpose in life. In my mind, there is a Venn diagram: the two main circles represent academia and religion, and the small midsection holds the few who have managed to combine religion and academics in their daily life. I'm not sure exactly what that means for everyone, but I feel like I've chosen science and philosophy over religious dogma. Instead of feeling like my life is meaningless because I don't worship Jesus Christ, I am empowered to create my own meaning through whatever medium I choose. I can maintain a sense of spirituality without subscribing to the teachings of anything in particular. In this way, I would argue that instead of my life being without purpose, I am free to adopt or create any purpose. I deeply resented being told that my soul was something to be worried about, especially by a stranger with absolutely no understanding of what I hold dear on this earth.

At the next church, New Spring Community, our guide worked as an intern for the church and was the first guide to be a peer of ours. He was really excited about the space, as we all were, because it was awesome. It was the church we felt the most comfortable in, because it had anything you could ever want out of a community venue. Think of what one space would look like that had a gymnasium, coffee shop, four children's theaters for different age groups, a bookstore, two huge multi-tiered auditoriums with stages and musical instruments, about 30 different well-equipped rooms for young children, offices, and several huge luxuriously upholstered lounges that serve refreshments and offer a view of a pastoral landscape.

The intern excitedly told us that the building we were standing in cost 15 million dollars to build. Though there were a few private donors who remained anonymous, their total donation only came to about 2.5 million. The rest of the money was raised through memberships and a “Capital Campaign”. He told us the donors only gave what God asked them to.

“We can't take any credit for this. We're just seeking God and listening,” he said, “I mean, let's be real, this is Anderson. How else could we have over 10,000 members if it wasn't Jesus?” The Sunday service is more like a rock concert, because New Spring plays secular music, too. On Easter, they are planning to do a cover of ACDC's Highway to Hell. One of the pastors, Lee McDermot, was descirbed as an anointed man who's “very well connected” with god, and a gifted pianist.

The church started when the most senior pastor, Perry, went to Anderson College (now Anderson University). He was an RA leader who started Bible study with 15 people in 1999. The group jumped to a church service of 50 before long, and by January of 2000, 102 people were showing up to hear Perry preach while they worshiped with him and his acoustic guitar.

Since then, “it went nuts.” In 2006, they got a building on the main drag of Anderson. They were hoping for something on M81, and “by the grace of God” they landed there. They had almost outgrown the facility before they moved. “Before we moved over here we were averaging 4000 people.” By the Fall of 2006, their marriage series “Lord of the Rings” brought in even more worshipers. The facility where the church is now is only 3 years old.

Our friendly, energetic guide has been attending New Spring since 2006. It was clear how incredible he thought the place was, it was as if he was working at a concert venue that consistently housed his favorite band of all time. He heard about the church through word-of-mouth and had a friend who said he had to check the place out because “it's awesome.” The church views every member as a deacon and operates internally in a unique way. There is a Senior Management team comprised of 6 men who are all paid CEO full-time members. They don't have associate pastor titles, only senior media, communications, graphic design titles, etc. All design is done in-house but printed somewhere else. There are only 100 paid employees. All of the jobs that aren't covered by the paid employees are handled by volunteers. There are 1,000 volunteers giving up personal time every week to work for the church. It's like religious socialism. The volunteers, with absolutely no financial incentive, create an army of a work-force.

Volunteers greet you in the parking lot, open doors, usher people to their seats, and work at the information desk. The sound/production/graphic designers have worked for huge companies before and now deal with pay cuts to work for New Spring. As an intern, our guide worked with guest services and would like to keep working for the church after he graduates from Clemson College. He said, “The holy spirit speaks through Perry really genuinely. You feel like he's talking to you. If you need something... I mean, mine was for rebellion. First 3 or 4 Sundays I was here it was like a nail on the head. Perry said, 'you're running away from God and you need to stop, and you know you are.' He asked us to stand up and he prayed over us from up there.” He continued, “You always see people and get to know each other by what service they attend.” Perry “brings it real... attacks the real life: money, sex... how often do you hear a senior pastor talk about sex on stage for four weeks?” Perry discusses “stuff the world would talk about, but churches won't.” New Spring is progressive when it comes to developing religious series. They offered programs called "Where's My Bailout" and "Iwantanewmarriage.com" that were advertised on billboards. These programs relate to current events and personal struggles, while ultimately delivering religious messages.

Our guide went on, “Perry talks about how he'd come before the church opened and just pray about it. He sat on stage and asked 'what in the world am I doing?'” There were enough members to fill the church before anybody moved in. “That's a whole lot of people to have already outgrown it before you preach in it. That's just God. The only other time that many people meet is for a football game. Let's be real. This is South Carolina.” The congregation does have a “whole bunch of rednecks” but it seemed more diverse than that. Despite being warned that yes, some church goers have shotguns in the back of their trucks, there were also people in their 70s rocking out in the front row.

The New Spring Church was different because it was a lot less gaudy than the others. The church was designed primarily for use, while also being somewhat of an architectural marvel. When we viewed the spaces for children, it was hard not to agree that the church provided an incredible amount of enjoyment and stimulation for youth. They can't be bored and getting into trouble if they're hanging out playing Guitar Hero and skeeball at New Spring. The church also accommodates children with special needs. The volunteers who work with the children are trained specifically for that purpose. It seemed that no child would be turned away or told they could not be provided for.

In one year, the number of students enrolled at New Spring jumped from 200-810. The church hopes to open another outpost in Columbia, S.C. by the end of the year. Our guide said, “It's Jesus and the Holy Spirit, to be honest with you.” While I do not necessarily agree that this is the case, it was obvious how comprehensively the church was filling the needs of the community. Not only was it providing a place for worship, but it provided counseling and educational programs for youth and adults. Plans have even been set in motion to create a football field where spectators can watch from bleachers and the balcony of the teen center. New Spring wasn't anywhere near as ostentatious as North Point, the art and children's arenas were attractive in a way that made sense, and nobody asked us what religion we were. We showed up the day after the Unleashed Conference, an event church officials from all over the country attend to see how New Spring does its thing. Our guide told us that while he has grown accustomed to the place, he understands how first-time visitors are amazed. “It's not normal, that's what they say” he said, “and I understand that.”

You can't really criticize a place that so clearly assists such a large number of people in a well-organized manner. You can disagree with the messages or the absolutist take on the Bible, but the place itself is succeeding in social service in a way that simply is not paralleled by any other community spaces. The Disney aesthetic works for kids, that's no great leap, and when implanted in a church setting it makes children actually want to attend church. The Xboxes and flatscreen TVs seduce older kids, as does a full indoor basketball court and swanky lounge area. If you can make the church itself a fun place to return to, inevitably the teaching of Christ will catch on. With pastors of celebrity status, this seems to be the main point of the megachurch. Can you blame them for doing what works?

See the church websites: http://www.northpoint.org/ & http://www.newspring.cc/
See my pictures of the churches:
North Point http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2027295&id=1376520288&l=13ee8
New Spring http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2027307&id=1376520288&l=1a531

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Burglary Follow-Up






We didn't feel like waiting for the police to come and do nothing, so we found a place that would fix the window for about $150.00 in cash and headed straight there. Before we left the lot, the maintenance staff helped us by sweeping and vacuuming the glass out of the car. When I pulled out of the spot to drive next to a blue dumpster that was close to the high power vacuum, Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" blasted out of the speakers. It was a fun 30 second spin around the lot.

Now we're in Norcross, a town a little bit outside of Atlanta. Two expert mechanics are sorting out the window as I write, from their residential home/registered business. Looks like we'll be out of here and on the road in a half hour. The town is funny, there is a strip mall called "Global Mall" that is decorated like the Casbah.

Check out the pictures of our burglary!

Burglary at the Days Inn Atlanta Parking Lot

My hands are shaking as I write this and await the arrival of the police. We got to our car this morning to begin the drive to South Carolina, never expecting to find what we did. The driver's side window was completely smashed in, the glove compartment had been opened and the contents scattered around the front of the car. We found our sleek black leather bible and some paper and pens sprinkled on the passenger's seat. We knew enough to remove any and all items of value before we headed inside for the night, but this is still shitty and scary. When you call 911 in Atlanta, you get an automated response that tells you to, "Stay on the line. You will be given the next available operator. Do not hang up. If you hang up, you will lose your place in line." What if something terrible was happening?

Another car had the same treatment, a white Frontier pick-up with a Virginia plate. The Jaguar in the lot was untouched. Our healthy black Buick with Philadelphia plates must have been too good-looking to pass up. The more we look around the parking lot, the more cars we find with smashed windows. We have now found three-- the last one very close to ours, a GMC SUV with Missouri plates. We're bonding with a man in a University of North Carolina Tar Heels t-shirt, sweatshirt, and matching cap. Everyone is pissed off. Adrian is on the phone trying to find a place that will repair the window for the least amount of money, so we can keep the trip going. I'm not sure what the consensus will be on whether or not we continue the trip as planned, but I'm hoping this won't ruin the entire experience. Everyone looks suspicious to me now. The "engineer" from the hotel just came over and I asked to see his identification. I hope the police get here soon because this parking lot is strewn with crime.

Apparently there was a security guard patrolling last night and the lot is equipped with cameras. Three cars were broken into and nobody knew a thing about it. Who was asleep?

People keep coming over and staring. I'm ANGRY.

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.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big, Bigger, BEST

Everything about this adventure just keeps getting bigger, well beyond the point of being larger than life. Making a stop in Savannah was a stroke of genius on our part, mainly because it gave me a fantastic set of grounds on which to compare Disney World and Epcot to the real world, and has helped me come to the realization that the biggest thing that sets this parallel universe of amusement apart from reality is it's totally distorted sense of scale.

Walking around the historic center of Savannah was fantastic; the city and it's architecture were beautiful, and were ultimately a perfectly romanticized version of the American south, without being patronizing or kitschy. On the opposite end of the spectrum, though, is Main Street USA in Disney's Magic Kingdom. This was my first time at Disney World, and immediately after we got off the monorail from the parking lots, I felt like I had left the real world altogether, but not quite in the way that Walt Disney may have originally intended. Instead of feeling like I had entered a perfected, conflict-free version of America, I felt like I had been transported into some sick nightmare. As I stood in the town's center square looking up towards the Magic Kingdom's most recognizable landmark, the Enchanted Castle, classic Disney showtunes were piped into the area, adding to the completely surreal nature of the space. A trolley car full of actors in total Music Man costumes rode by, waving at us from their perfect America, their creepy smiles indicating just how great everything was over there.

But as I looked around, I didn't see anything that came close to the near aesthetic perfection achieved in Savannah. A good 50% of the children around me were either crying or screaming, and every parent looked entirely put upon, as though they were only here in this bizarro-world out of obligation to their children (who at this point, weren't even enjoying themselves). The buildings on Main Street USA attempt to replicate the gabled architecture of the south, but they get it wrong. The exaggerated colors and proportions ended up adding to their falseness; it looked like they had gotten pretty close until you took a step closer. I didn't see the fantastic proportions that I had in the architecture in Savannah, and all the wrong things were simply made...bigger.

The most telling characteristic that gives everything in the Magic Kingdom as being a big fake is scale. Everything about the place is bigger than reality, with the intention of appearing larger than life. Instead, it creates a kind of hyper-reality, where everything ends up looking cartoony. Food is bigger (regrettably, I had an entire turkey leg for lunch), buildings meant to imitate an aesthetic that is beautiful in real life are bigger (to their own detriment), and even the people are bigger. For dinner, we headed to Downtown Disney, a big waterfront shopping mall, and ate at a restaurant called T-Rex. Out front was a huge artificial skeleton of an Argentinosaurus (the largest of all known dinosaurs), and upon walking into the restaurant, guests are greeted by a huge, roaring, animatronic Tyrannosaurus Rex. The space seats 945.

This starts to beg the question, when did bigger become better? What is gained from blowing up the scale of everything? Is it more entertaining? Is it more satisfying? It is clear to me that any sense of authenticity is lost in this explosion of scale, even though the intention is to present visitors with the sense that they are experiencing something real.

My suspicions were basically proven today by our visit to Epcot's shrunken representations of a variety of different countries. Each stop along this world tour added up to an edited, watered down, and basically reductive version of everything these countries have to offer. The proportions and coloring of each landmark are pumped up in a way that make them more friendly looking and accessible. Does this mean that making things bigger basically makes them easier? Disney advertises Epcot as a world tour that doesn't require a passport; God forbid you have to go through the hassle of customs to see a landmark. Why not just go where you can see the Eiffel tower and eat in a Moroccan open air market, just feet from one another?

Blowing up and cartoonifying all of these things makes it so much easier to consume them. On Mainstreet USA, one didn't have to deal with seeing the occasional block of urban blight as we had in Savannah. In Epcot Norway, you don't even have to deal with the cold, although you do have to deal with trolls. All parts of the world are represented in a totally idealized and reductive way that does away with their visual complexities to the end that their cultural complexities are taken away, too.

Disney and Epcot have made something as exciting as a vacation entirely risk free and safe thanks to the huge scale of things. The reductive vision of the world that both of these parks present turn huge individual nations into neatly consumable goods, all without the possible risks that go along with actually visiting them. Instead of being able to create a fully informed critical judgment of a place for oneself, guests of Disney World are encouraged to absorb only the happy, cartoon vision of the world that it presents. The reason this felt to me like a nightmare is the fact that people are not encouraged to make their own judgments and are instead implored to passively consume someone else's entirely artificial creation as a substitute for the real thing. Just because it is easier, it is perceived as being better which is where the real danger lies.

The morning before we entered the Magic Kingdom, we got coffee and supplies for the day at the local Super Target, which is ultimately a regular Target store writ large. It contained a vast multitude of consumable goods, all under one roof. If people can get everything they want out of one place in a short period of time, they'll have more leisure time, which is always good. But if leisure time is spent in a place like Epcot or the Magic Kingdom, what happens to critical thought?

This complex makes me wonder if the easiness that comes along with size leads people to want the same thing out of a church. The ideal for pretty much everything at this point has to do with convenience, accessibility, and ease. Why not apply this logic to religion and spaces of worship? The megachurches we're visiting have vast resources, and are essentially a one-stop shop for all the needs of a faithful Christian. But it also implies a certain passivity that I don't think should be in any way affiliated with faith, especially if a church has designs on influencing policy in Washington. Looking at the influence of scale on people's actions and thought processes makes me wonder about what is gained from going to a church because it is the biggest and easiest, perhaps just because a lot of other people are doing it, too. The Magic Kingdom and Epcot essentially do the critical thinking for their visitors, and I hope to find out (with further evidence) if megachurches end up doing the same thing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Superbowl XLIV: Real v. Unreal

When I first came to Disney World, sometime in middle school, I was dazzled by the bright lights, the mountains of cotton candy, the 50-foot plunges and the sheer amount of people. I did not give a second thought to any of it. Disney is what Disney does, and to a twelve year old, Disney does roller coasters. However, coming to Disney a second time has changed my perspective on this vacation destination. Now, all I can think about is how unreal everything seems. As a group, we found ourselves questioning everything: “Are the space cadets in Space Mountain real?” (answer: yes). “Is the Swiss Family Robinson treehouse built on a real tree?” (answer: no). Of course, by trial and error, it is simple to distinguish the real from the unreal. However, what happens when we can’t touch things or ask questions to determine the “realness” of something?

Walking through Disney World, and earlier that day, in The Holy Land Experience, I couldn’t help but think about this question. It brought me back to my eleventh grade English class, where we spent the year analyzing texts around a central theme of reality and truth: when can lies (or something unreal) seem more true than the actual truth (or reality)? In the Holy Land, it was easy to tell that everything was fake- it was an attraction park. The reenactments were done by professional actors, the marketplace was full of plastic fruits and vegetables, and the animals couldn’t move. However, when we began to talk to the cashier at the Scriptorium, she informed us that the Holy Land had recently undergone a facelift that de-authenticized the original vision of the park. The flower gardens, statues, and costumes were all added to beautify the park, and as a result, deducted from its original authenticity. I was taken aback by this- what authenticity?

The Holy Land was a beautiful replication of the description of Jerusalem, the Red Sea, the Burning Bush and other religious areas found in the Bible, but I don’t think I could call it authentic. The Holy Land presented a sampling of Bible stories packaged in such a way to appeal to as many consumers as possible. Jerusalem was not always sunny, nor did it always smell like honeysuckles, and probably not everyone smiled and waved at you when you walked through the market, greeting you with a friendly “Shalom!” Actual reality has been forgone in favor of what people want: pretty, safe things. I don’t know if I would have enjoyed the Holy Land quite as much if it was exactly like the Bible’s Jerusalem. Half the fun was just soaking in the sheer beauty of those gardens and statues. Have I fallen prey to this eleventh grade English class theme? I didn’t find the Holy Land real, by any stretch of the imagination, but I also didn’t realize the full extent of its fakeness, especially after what the cashier told us. I also enjoyed the unreality of the park, and accepted it much more quickly than I would have the real version of these events.

Jesusney

Today we spent the morning at The Holy Land Experience, a theme park with religious motivations. Originally constructed by Marvin Rosenthal and his organization, Zion's Hope, The Holy Land Experience was meant to be as close to biblical Jerusalem as possible. This means, prior to the takeover of the park by Jan and Paul Crouch, there were no statues, elaborate costumes, lavish gardens, or dramatic performances. Because statues are condemned by God as idol worship, it was surprising to find hundreds of statues of Christ and other religious figures. As one employee of the park described, the Crouches “fancied it up”. They have now owned the park for eight years, during which time, antiques, fancy furniture, paintings, and Christmas decorations during the holiday season have become staples.

When the park was run by the Zion non-profit, there wasn't enough money to advertise on television. Because the Crouches own the Trinity Broadcasting Network, they can now advertise their park extensively, so the number of visitors has increased. Many churches find The Holy Land Experience to be a perfect destination for group trips. The majority of the rest of the patrons, we learned, is comprised of local and non-native retirees. We were the only people at the park within ten years of our age.

One young woman dressed as a “Jewish woman” approached Adrian and me and asked us if we knew what time it was. We struck up conversation and discovered that in order to work at the park, one must adopt Christ as his or her savior. She said, “I love Jesus, so... I saw that they were hiring. I got the job.” When I asked if her costume made her overheat in the warm weather she said that some other employees made a “big stink” about the fact that her skirt came above her ankles. She said something to the effect of, yeah, I'm a biblical skank-- whatever. Later on she encouraged us to “see Jesus the Messiah. It's pretty cool-- that's a live show.”

The park's largest selling-point is that it enables people to “see” the miracles of Jesus Christ happen right before their eyes, from the miracles he performed to the giving of his life on the cross and his resurrection. Within the park is a Scriptorium, where visitors can view real artifacts from 4,000BC to the present. A prominent family, the Van Kampens, were friends with Marvin Rosenthal and had amassed a number of religious relics during their lifetime. They donated some of their findings and gave their financial support to the park. Going through the Scriptorium takes an hour, photographs are prohibited, and the tour leads you right into the park's gift shop.

In order to work at the park, you must accept Jesus Christ as your savior. When I asked if there were any employees who were not Christians, I was told that there had been a few, but they were discovered and disbanded for various reasons. Some employees were “having an affair” and were asked to leave. One woman commented that this was an unfortunate necessity because, “What would be next? People saying, oh it's okay for me to live with my boyfriend...”

We left before we could see Jesus crucified or resurrected, but we walked away with priceless memories. When we got to Disney's Magic Kingdom, I felt as if the Holy Land Experience had been an extension of Disney World. A religious theme park could be considered the natural next step after history and cities are reconstructed and purified for entertainment. Almost all of the structures we live with have been created by man, and therefore, can be recreated. Everything can be reproduced, everything can be remade, and through reproduction we believe an improvement has been made. The Crouches made an improvement on the Holy Land, and Walt Disney created a world without problems, where every culture and icon fits a readily digestible mold.

Magic Kingdom includes a salon called the Bippity Boppity Boutique that caters to young “princesses and princes” who want to be made up to look like their favorite Disney stars. Disney is also home to 4 championship golf courses as well as a ton of square acreage meant to encapsulate all of Africa, Asia, and prehistoric Earth. Disney's main selling point, like that of the Holy Land Experience, is that during your stay, the impossible is made possible. Well, kind of possible. The longer you stay, the harder and harder it is to remember that everything is a mirage.

The Disney commercials on TV say, “Let's go to Africa! Well... Disney's Africa. But, it's like the real Africa, without all the malaria shots and stuff!” As if Disney had somehow improved upon the African continent, or could have in any way managed to slim down everything that is African to what suits its needs. And whose needs are these, anyway? Does Disney respond to what we want, or do we want what Disney has decided it can do better?

I am not particularly religious, but I have found that the times I pray the most are times that I am scared. Whenever my life, or some essential aspect of my life, is endangered I feel inclined to reach out to some higher presence-- to attempt to tap into the largest, all-seeing audience. Why? Perhaps religious impulses come from an evolved fear instinct. I don't buy into the idea of an afterlife, but I can see why it would wash away any doubts about behaving righteously in this world. In a way, the afterlife means we get to live forever, so all threats are subdued. We also become less menacing to ourselves, in that religious motivations are still motivations. Work hard and the results will be the same whether you're doing it for god or for your boss.

The voice on the Disney tram sermonized, “There is so much in life worth celebrating. Celebrate with us.” Lon Solomon preached, so long as Jesus Christ is your savior “there is always something to rejoice about.” The difficulty here is that everything looks like what it isn't. These are two cases of repeated, misplaced identity, but isn't that the basis of all entertainment? For a moment we can forget where we are, get into the frivolous, worry about what doesn't apply to us, forget what we actually worry about, and take solace in a momentary release from our reality. But, what is our reality that requires such elaborate plans of escape? What is so uncomfortable that makes us take immense pleasure from alternate realities that mimic what we experience, but aren't and could never be? Maybe the illusion of an answer will suffice for now.

Monday, March 9, 2009

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pictures from Savannah/Kissimmee
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Blinded by the Light

When we first walked in to the second level of amphitheater seating in the McLean Bible Church, there was music already playing. The lead singer encouraged us to sing along, but there were many empty seats around us, and we felt awkward and too removed from the scene. So we stood respectfully in front of our seats and waited for the music to end and the service to begin.

But the singing continued, and the crowd around us grew. Since we had been too timid to find seats far from the entrance, we watched as people of many different ages and ethnicities trickled and eventually poured in through the door. Whether in groups, couples, or individuals, they all smiled at us and began to move their lips in song. In front of me, a woman whose nametag said “Here to Serve” bobbed her head and wiggled her hips modestly to the beat. Soon I could pick out individual voices coming from all sides, and the chorus enveloped me as the energy in the room reached a level I haven’t felt since Phillies fans filled the streets after the World Series last year. Glancing to my right, I saw Sarah mouthing the words she read on the screen. And when I knew my voice would be drowned out by the sound of overwhelming unison, I started to sing. It wasn’t that I felt guilty for staying silent; I actually wanted to join in. And when the songs were over and Pastor Lon Solomon asked us to say hello and shake hands with those around us, I greeted all the smiling faces and I was glad to do that too.

What I felt at the beginning of this service was a kind of building momentum, an implicit promise of community and acceptance if only you just join in. And in that moment of elevated energy, I bought it. Like all other human beings, I want to be accepted, to feel like part of something that is bigger than myself; it’s part of my nature, and the McLean Bible Church knows it. From the rest of the service, I could tell that this was not the only aspect of human nature that Lon Solomon was familiar with, and as I think back to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, I realized that he found a way to hone in on almost every one. Maslow says that after our physiological needs are met, we move on to the following emotional needs:
  • Safety (security of body, of employment, of resources, of morality, of family, of health, of property)
  • Love and Belonging (friendship, family, sexual intimacy)
  • Esteem (self-esteem, confidance, achievement, respect of others, respect by others)
  • Self-actualization (morality, creativity, spontaneity, problem solving, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts)

My lapse in control over my vocal chords is a clear example of the use of our need for belonging, and it didn't end there. Kim wrote about the girl who had accepted Jesus for the first time; she found people who accepted her “with open arms” when they didn't even know her, and my fellow churchgoers watched her televised face eagerly as it gave them proof of what this church can do. Meanwhile, every other screen alternated psalms that preached security for those who believe, such as:

“Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily
thou shalt be fed” (Psalms 37:3)

The church encourages involvement on all levels: jobs at the church (employment), participation in one of the many musical groups (creativity), or in any of the hundreds of community groups (belonging/friendship). And Lon used Martin Luther King Jr. to preach equality, while the acceptance of facts came with his proof of the existence of God, leading directly and somewhat unsettlingly to the idea that right and wrong are definitely black and white and sinners obviously go straight to hell.


Lon also spoke to our need for esteem throughout by praising the crowd's good prayers and their achievement in accepting Jesus into their hearts. This led into the ultimate promise of security, which was the forgiveness of sins. Being raised Catholic, I'm used to the idea that God forgives our sins, but we have to keep renewing this forgiveness by going to confession and doing some sort of penance or atonement that shows that we are sorry for each individual sin. But according to Lon Solomon, all you have to do is accept Jesus (the way they tell you to), and you pretty much have a Get Out of Jail Free card for the rest of your life. Who wouldn't want that kind of guarantee?

Yet all of these promises still leave me wondering. Are McLean churchgoers' emotional needs fulfilled or do they only feel like they are? They are told to be like MLK Jr., with a lack of prejudice against others, yet anyone who doesn't believe what they do will not join them in heaven. Creativity is encouraged, but within the confines of Christian values and a modest dress code. And between passionate and suggestive lyrics and the facial expressions that went with them, the repressed sexual energy between our favorite 20something male-female singing duo was almost laughably obvious. It seems that to believe we are being completely fulfilled, we have to be able to get swept up in the crowd and let our lips move on their own.

BIG BOX WORSHIP (BG BX WRSHP)

Walking into the McLean Bible Church reminded me a lot of walking through a big box store, like Target or WalMart. The building itself is secondary to the enormous parking lot that greets you when you drive into the megachurch complex. This two-tiered parking structure made me think of arriving at a mall more than anything, and there was a constant flow of cars going in the same direction we were, all of them full of punctual folks like ourselves.

My most surprising moment came when it was actually time to go inside. The entrance itself was completely indistinguishable from that of a mall, and if you asked me to differentiate between the two in a side-by-side comparison, there’s a pretty solid likelihood that I wouldn’t answer correctly.

The major hallways themselves were relatively nondescript, but the individual spaces that they connected were incredibly varied, and not unlike IKEA. To the left was a space designated for the high school set, designed to look like Discovery Zone, complete with brightly colored furniture and a half-court basketball setup. To the right was a secondary worship space, which, although huge by my personal church standards, was dwarfed in comparison to the major chapel.

However, the characteristics that made the space most like a mall were the attractions we ran into throughout these hallways. The McLean Bible Church is home to not only multiple chapels and childcare centers, but a coffee shop called “Journeys,” a combination bookstore and gift shop, and a big old cafeteria. In passing, these things all look like they provide relatively normal church activities and products, but the scale on which they are conducted and the spaces they are in lend themselves more to a mall or big box store.

Where there might normally be a few seniors volunteering to make coffee for the congregation, here there was practically a Starbucks outpost. Instead of a tray of post-sermon refreshments, there is a whole food court supplied by a vast array of vending machines. And should you find that the sermon didn’t quite ease your worries about the financial crisis, there’s a money management section in the bookstore just steps from the chapel.

The church was kind of like a one-stop shop for all of you religious needs; where people might go to WalMart SuperCenter because they can get their groceries, clothes, and electronics all in the same place, people seem attracted to the McLean Bible Church for the full service approach it takes towards faith. On any given Sunday morning, a parishoner can count on the church to sufficiently entertain their children of all ages, caffeinate them, get closer in touch with God, and provide them with weeks of reading material.

After experiencing this one church, I’m wondering if it might have been more fitting to compare a bunch of different megachurches with a series of different malls and department stores. It’s much too soon to be drawing any conclusions about anything, but I was struck both by the spectacle of the whole situation and it’s vocally commercial focus.

ADRIAN OUT!

Putting the Church Back in the State

McLean Bible Church’s mission is simple, yet ambitious- “to make an impact on secular Washington with the message of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, in the middle of all the pantsuits and the dry political speech, there seems to be little room for religion. Oh yeah, and that little thing called the separation of church and state. Why is the MBC so bent on infiltrating this city on a hill whose whole message is built on secularism? Who are they to preach the word of God, and start a change?

Even after a morning spent at this church, and a nine hour drive to mull everything over, I still cannot completely figure it out. When Hannah and I met with Dana, the New Members Coordinator, she made sure to stress the vision of her church. Make a change in Washington, because a change there can change the rest of the world. Dana went on to say that Lon Solomon, the senior pastor, did not preach political opinions, nor did he tell his followers who to vote for. Instead, MBC focuses on spreading the word of God, including some choice passages on homosexuality and abortion, because those are in the Bible. Dana was enthusiastic as she talked about her church’s unique position in Washington. The 10,000 followers that gather each Sunday are sure to include some politicians and other important D.C. figures, she added.

For a liberal Yankee so far removed from these megachurches, this vision, from a distance, seems absolutely absurd. Of course a church could never have an impact on our nation’s politics by simply being a stone’s throw away from the White House! Just because abortion is shunned in the Bible does not mean that they will overturn Roe v. Wade! Fifty U.S. politicians who happen to come to the same church every Sunday does not mean that they will bring their religious views to work on Monday! However, attending mass and meeting with Dana made the MBC vision scarily tangible. She spoke in such reassured tones, and seemed convinced that MBC had the power and the resources to make an impact on D.C. MBC does technically have the money and manpower to make some sort of an impact on Washington. However, religious groups in the past have tried to make their voices heard in D.C., to bring about a more conservative shift to politics. With the Republican party ousted, and a liberal Democrat in power, MBC probably won’t have much of a chance in eradicating abortion and homosexuality. However, after witnessing the enthusiasm of these church-goers, and the resources they have, I began to worry a little bit. But I guess I just have to keep faith in the Democrats.

A Shot at Christ Love with Pastor Lon











Day one was spent driving to Vienna, where we dropped our stuff off and went back to hang out in D.C. with our buddy Adam Hartheimer. He showed us a helluva good time! On the drive, what I noticed most were the bundles of straw growths coming up from the side of the highway, things that looked like Pomeranian tails or Brett Michaels' wormy hair extensions.

Before we settled back into our room, we took a dip in the hotel's tepid, three-feet-deep pool. Miraculously, Hannah and I discovered how to use the “spa” feature five minutes prior to suffering perma-prune. We were lulled to sleep by loud bangs and cries coming from the room next door. I was terrified until I realized it was a pillow fight.

On the drive to Savannah after a morning at the McLean Bible Church, I thought about some things that Robert Coover told our Fellows class when he visited the Writers House. He said, in order to unmake myth, it is necessary to get inside of it. The day that he was in class, I asked him what it means to get inside of a myth. I feel closer to understanding that now, because in some way, the megachurch story has opened up...


The drive from our Tyson's Corner Hilton to the church was littered with Starbucks, DSW, Ethan Allen, Olive Garden, and a stretch of car dealerships. Nissan, Infiniti, Mercedes, Lincoln, Honda and Mitsubishi felt like breadcrumbs leading us to church. We passed gated communities and smaller churches, like the Providence Church and St. Thomas Espiscopal, before seeing the big ol' McLean billboard.

The main amphitheater at McLean had four huge monitors capturing close-up video of the pastors and musicians, and four more monitors for the words of the songs or quotations from the Bible. The musical accompaniment to the service was orchestral, as the ensemble included 2 guitarists, a bassist, a piano player, 2 drummers, a xylophonist, and a horn section that would bring tears of jealous rage to the eyes of any ska band, ever. There were 18 sax/trumpet/horn players facing the audience, and two groups of 9 facing each other on either side of the stage. In front of this impressive aural imperative, seven different pastors arrived to commence a celebration of Jesus Christ.

Singing along was a mandate, albeit a pleasant one. The words on the huge screens made the experience feel like Monday night karaoke. The room was saturated to drunkenness with the harmony and force of the music. At the conclusion of each song, the copyright and legal information for reprinting the words appeared in fine print.

The video editing and direction cuts were reminiscent of shots of the band on David Letterman (or any late-night talk show, for that matter). When the horns came in, the percussion picked up, and the bass line dropped, it was hard not to be moved and weird to not be singing along. The concept of “Rock God” was taken to a whole new dimension as I watched older and younger men and women extend their arms and shake their palms upwards in the direction of center stage. The pastors repeated, “No worry, no fear, God commands our destiny.”

On May 2nd the church is offering a Men's Breakfast, and all men are encouraged to bring their sons. On October 19-27 the church is offering a Best of the Holy Land 9-day “deluxe tour of Israel that focuses on the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The parking lot and layout of the church make it feel like an ugly mall. There is a full coffee bar inside that is just like the William's cafe, and a swanky youth hang-out stop with multicolored lighting, video & arcade games, air hockey, movie screens, and rainbow folding chairs.

Last week the congregation was asked to pray for high school students on a trip funded by the church. Pastor Lon Solomon cried that as a result of these prayers, over 60% of the kids on the retreat “made a decision for the Lord Jesus Christ.” A slide appeared on the overhanging screens that highlighted the retreat's success. It said at the Senior High Winter Camp, 190 attended, 19 prayed to receive Christ (11 of whom were new to The Rock!), 97 recommitted their life to Christ. The Rock is the youth movement within the church, the ministry that caters to the younger generation (see pictures of the Rock headquarters at McLean).

A montage featured Jamie McIntyre, a 12 year old girl who spoke about her experience during the retreat. She had recently lost her brother and enjoyed the retreat because “people are nice because they want to be nice.” She informed the cameraman, “I smile more, walk with joy,” and, “I feel whole, I've never felt this way before” because she has now fully incorporated Christ love into her life.

Lon says, “Now pray. Turn this money we're about to give into transformations in the lives of our children in the name of Christ. Pray for all students to make decisions for Christ this week.” A collection plate gets passed around, and we all pass on donations. Then, a recently married couple played an original erotic monogamous love song for God. One of the lyrics was, “I want to yearn for you. I want to burn with passion over you.” Throughout the service, I was constantly entertained, as there was no opportunity for personal reflection. Something was always being explained, given freely, widely. The video screens made where we were sitting feel like the nosebleed seats at Madison Square Garden, but also provided a constant stream of information and stimuli. Nobody needed to imagine anything, there was so much right in front of us. Quotations were printed on a parchment-like graphic, as were the definitions of Greek words that would not be understood readily by most of the attendees. The definition of perfect tense was also expounded on extensively, as Pastor Lon said, “This is how you can picture it. Imagine a point, right here, and then an arrow going all the way to the right, on and on, forever and ever. That is how Jesus gives absolute, total, permanent dismissal of sin.”

Lon's sermon began with pictures of MLK, Mother Theresa, and Gandhi. He said that it was clear to determine all of their messages during their lives: equality, concern for the poor, and non-violence respectively. The message of Christ is less clear, but Lon clarified. The message of Christ is his authority to forgive sins. Only Christ can do this. Lon said, “God puts all of our sins in the sea and puts a buoy on top that says, 'No Fishing'.”

Lucifer's problem was that he wanted to be is own god. He wanted to be the “Lord of his own life”. God created hell to be the final resting place for Lucifer and for everyone else who might choose to follow him in his (here the screens revealed a John Milton quote) “foul revolt”. Well, let's say Jesus is the only one who can forgive sin. Lon informed us that this was time to ask the most important question that he proliferates, so everyone shouted, “So what?!” This “so what” question is asked so the answer can satisfy, not so discussion can ensue. Sermons are an entirely one-way education. Lon started to answer this so-what-that-Jesus-has-the-authority-to-forgive-sin question with, lo and behold, a criticism of Richard Dawkins.

The Atheist Bus Campaign has been plaguing London. The British Humanist Society has printed, “There's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” on buses that drive all around the city. If there was no god, there would be no absolute right or wrong. There would be no sin. There would be no accountability for sin. Finally, hell would be a myth. Sounds terrible...

Lon said these atheist principles were grounded on falsehoods. He said the heavens declare the glory of god and the skies declare the nature of god. To know god is real, one must only look at the sky or the complexity of the human body. Lon said, “There is a god. The bible makes that clear.” The words “factual” and “biblical” were used interchangeably, repeatedly throughout the service.

He spoke personally and relayed anecdotes. He asked his daughter's godless doctor how he couldn't believe in god when he deals daily with the astonishing intricacy of the human body. How could the body have evolved in such a wondrous way without there having been a divine creator? Lon posed this question to his doctor, who responded by saying, “I never thought of it that way.” The success of modern medicine means we understand enough about the human body to treat it secularly. Prayer doesn't suffice when the people we love are ailing. You don't ask god to teach you about human physiology, you consult a specialist with a PhD.

Lon says, “think about it now,” but then follows not with Q & A, but with more point-proving. In our post-structuralist, postmodern world, where we pray to the altar of the subjective experience and cultural relativism pulls the vocal chords of elite liberal politics, we are situated in a time of unprecedented exposure. It's sort of like how during the Vietnam war the public couldn't ignore the number of bodies coming home because they could see them on TV, only it happens multiple times a day and the content is always new. In this age of information, we can feel connected to people we've never met, cultures in which we've never been physically located, because we see them. The technologies employed in this perceptive field become better every minute. These same technologies are employed by the McLean Bible Church to go backwards-- to go to a place where everyone must think the same way, must connect through the same mentality, in order to be saved. The way that certain information enables a better understanding and appreciation for different cultures, it can also propagate the supremacy of one mode of thought, however archaic that mode may be.

OMG-d, check out their website! http://www.mcleanbible.org/pages/page.asp?page_id=4029

Monday, March 2, 2009

South of What We Know

Hello! I am Kimberly Eisler, a sophomore at UPenn, and during the next week and a half I will be traveling to the South with my friends and peers-- Hannah, Sarah, and Adrian. We were sitting around thinking about what we wanted to do during spring break, and Cancun didn't really excite us. We had spoken about going to the Bible Belt to visit the megachurches, and had also discussed going to Disney World. In my mind, it seemed not only possible but logical to combine the two into one trip.

If we can temporarily put all opposition aside, what would it mean if we could compare megachurches and Disney World? What forces are operating in each place, and can connections be drawn between them? If faith in god requires imagination, and in church and theme parks the imagination finds a physical existence, there must be common threads. We discussed this concept at length until it manifested itself into an eight-page proposal-- not that we're all business. It is natural, at this point in our lives, for us to want to travel. Road tripping is a fairly common collegiate practice, a chance to get On the Road and see what it means. Now, here we are: a mere five days away from our odyssey to the south, with the generous support of the Kelly Writers House, and the promise of what cannot become a vacation spent on the couch watching The Real Housewives of Atlanta.

I would like to explain what my outlook is and where I am, so that any changes in purview and location will be better understood as they happen. The trip is no more than five days away and I am delighting in fears of what lies ahead. We have all been speaking to a number of people who have engaged us and contributed their ideas-- our trip seems at this point to be of interest to many, which is encouraging and makes what we are doing seem easier. We have spoken to some people who have at one point or another resided in the south. Some have attended megachurches or rallies for Christ, others have been observers at varying distances and through a variety of modes. What we have unearthed thus far has broadened our knowledge and braced us for the coming weeks.

Some friends spoke personally about a family trip to Disney World during the winter holidays, and remarked on how strange it was that Disney seemed only to acknowledge that it was the Christmas season. It became, in their words, "Christmas Land" where religious services were held, and only those who believed in Jesus Christ could participate in the magic of an otherwise secularly whimsical space. Another friend suggested that the megachurches are less fit to be compared to Disney World than Jerusalem would be. She offered that the crusades geared worshipers for a journey to the Holy Land, the site where the miracles of the Bible are said to have really happened. Disney is similar in that it is the place where "the imagination lives", the isolate region wherein all that can be dreamed can be real. This has peaked my interest especially, as we will be traveling to a theme park called The Holy Land Experience. It is right outside of Universal Studios and maintains a rather unusual calendar of events. Re-enactments of the crucifixion occur twice daily, and when we get there, there will be special exhibit featuring actors playing monks in a seminary. If it is your birthday, you can enter the park for free.

There are counterclaims to our idea, and at present, these provide more avenues of inspection. For example, at megachurches, everyone's attention is pointed toward one central spectacle. Theme parks by contrast are divided into interrelated but distinct mini-spectacles, immersed in thematic lands with distinct features. My companion Nick Salvatore articulated, "The spatial component of theme parks urges the visitor to wander from one location to another in pursuit of satisfaction, whereas it wouldn't be in the megachurches' interest for anything to distract their visitors from the main event." While that does not necessarily corroborate with our initial injunction, it gives us depth!

Another tidbit worth mentioning is that during the meeting at which I proposed this project, I was asked whether or not I feared getting brainwashed. It would be a lie to say that we are embarking without preconceptions, but we are not looking to prove ourselves right. We will hold under the microscope not only that which we find disturbing or that which unsettles us, but also that with which we connect and that which elates us. Perhaps sprituality can transcend and include religion and organized, communal rituals.

We have a car, we have a GPS system, and we have the internet hook up that will take us all the way to Orlando and back. Hopefully we won't come across any nasty suprises, but whatever the case turns out to be, we'll be getting somewhere.