This morning I went to Zion Chapel. It was the church by father attended when he was born again in the early 1970s. It can be said that my father was part of the "Jesus People" movement; he was a young guy who'd gotten lost on drugs and found salvation in charismatic, fundamentalist Christianity. He died in 1976, when I was eight years old, in an accident while building a church in Mexico.
I was apprehensive about my visit to this church all these years later. My early experiences with my father's faith have marked me in ways I'm still struggling to understand. What I do know is that I didn't much like the way he worshiped nor the frameworkk of his faith, and, I must admit, I didn't much like him either because of it. I found his faith to be frightening. I was spooked out by his and his friend's speaking in tongues and embarrased by the way they clapped and shook tamborines and closed their eyes and raised their hands upward as if they were being sucked up into a warm shaft of light. Most of all I disliked -- no, rejected -- their concept of God and Christianity, which I interpreted like this: Being Christian means pretending like you're perfect. I was only four or five or six at the time, but I somehow knew that I wasn't perfect and that I didn't want to be (especially if being perfect meant never again listening to Top 40 radio).
Now I'm 37 and I come back to the church with new baggage. I've been born again a couple of times, baptized a couple of times, but I still feel almost totally disconnected from Christianity. For most of my life I have not been involved with a church. Recently, I began attending a quaker meeting, but iit's been months since I've gone.
I arrived at Zion Chapel a bit early. It has a large octagonal sanctuary with a hardwood ceiling that vaults up toward a point in the middle. There's a stage on one end and perhaps 500 chairs lined up facing it. They're nice chairs, with comfortable padding and green upholstery. An american flag hung to the left of the stage. An eight piece band was playing instrumentals. At one point they broke into what sounded like "Sweet Home Alabama."
There were people there of pretty much all ages, though most appeared to be under 40, and they were all white.
The service began with a long set of songs by the band. The band was very good. They reminded me of the Counting Crows. During a song about prayer, the pastor invited people to come up to the microphone and share a miracle they'd witnessed the previous week. One woman said that after praying her arthritis pain disappeared. Another said that prayer has helped her granson to see better and to learn how to read.
I was uncomfortable from the start. This is due in no small part to my own prejudices and ideologies. For one, I have this thing about churches being big beautiful buildings. I know that thiis sounds insane, but I think it's hipocritical to worship Jesus in an expensive, austentatious building.
As ilistened to the songs, I grew more and more squirmy, cranky and judgmental. The songs made it all sound so easy -- just pray and believe and all these vague, wonderful things will happen: mountains will move, sunlight will burst through clouds, we'll all be free. Then I got more iritiable during the miracle part, as I said, and then got, I don't know, bitter when I heard the singer say, to the beat, "There are so many out there who are lost."
Finally, I got up and left. II just couldn't stand it.
One of the reasons why I don't attend church is that I often feel that they're Satanic, that they dispense the elixir of false prophets. And that's what I felt here (though I must also concede that there are no doubt very deep, personal history forces at play here).
I know I'm treading dangerous ground here. I'm trying to express this as simply and honestly as possible.
At chruches like this, I sense that there's too much focus on the Good News, the life offered in the Gospel, and not enough on the death that's critical to attaining this freedom and salvation. The simple songs these folks sang all seemed to be saying: We've got it! We pray. We believe. And, for that, we are free.
But this overlooks what I see as the fundamental sin we face as American believers, and that is that we're American. I don't know how else to put it. We're on the so-called winning side of global injustice.
I know I'm sounding like a freak here. But it's so clear to me. If we just look at it terms of consumption. Most economic data indicates that we consume the world's resources at a rate that's absurdly higher than almost every other culture on earth. And we also are big time consumers of the lives of fellow human beings, in the form of below-subsistance wages or in the form of actual lives taken away in pursuit of American or Western hegemony. And I'm counting here not only the lives and resources that are being consumed right now, but also those which have been consumed by our history, which, in the not so distant past was cruel beyoond anything we could possibly accept now.
So when I go to church, I actually want to be challenged to die. I need to be challneged to die. And when I'm not challenged to die, I get pissed off, because what I see is other privileged people like myself affirming their privilege, ignoring the suffering upon which it is borne. As Americans, we have this sort of affirmation at every turn, 24-7. But when I read something like the Sermon on the Mount, I see really, really tough words that seriously indict so much of the way we live as Americans. And at very least, it seems, a portion of any worship of Jesus, of getting in line with the example and way his life ostensibly offered ought to have some serious smack time.
I don't think I'm getting out the thought (or thoughts) I'm working through.
Perhaps it's like this: As Michael Eric Dyson said recently on Book TV, "Context is critical." And I wonder if in the context of white America the Good News can really be taken on faith. My sense is that it's really being twisted into propaganda. I more than wonder, I believe this to be so, whether or not it actually is. And believing this, I can't help but see such things as evil.
But if context really is critical, then I have to go all the way. And I have to at least superficially concede my own part in this assessment, which is very likely 100 percent. I walked out of this church that my father helped build so many years ago based on a very quick, categorizational, and subsequently prejudicial, assessment of it.
And my treatment of that here is superficial not because I think this part of it is minor but because I know that it is the most important part of the equation, that it's borne on my own shortcomings, my own anti-Christ-ness. And in this fact is the need for my own death (metaphorical, of course -- I ain't suicidal, so don't worry), which is damn scary to face. Like, I'm probably more guilty of false-prophetism than they are, being a journalist and, as such, inherently egomaniacal and deeply insecure.
Big thoughts beget rambling shock, at least on first draft. Which is why this blog is subtitled "dirty beginnings."