I wasn’t going to say anything. I was invited to go to a Christmas play. It was at a church, but it was no big deal. It was a fundraiser, but I wasn’t paying. I figured it would be a bunch of kids in sheets like, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Instead, it was a fairly professional affair. The choir was quite good — as were a number of the featured singers. Some of the acting wasn’t bad, and one of its attempts at comedy worked pretty well. The orchestra was good at times, but the flutes, and even more, the trumpets were out of tune — especially in the first act. But overall, not a bad production at all.
But in the middle of the second act, the senior pastor of the church came up on the stage to talk about Jesus. For a good five minutes, I could pretend that it was all part of the show. But he continued on and on — for a total of twenty minutes, it seemed to me. It became nothing but proselytizing — for Jesus, but more to the point, for his own little fiefdom, the church I was sitting in. And I can see why! The church consists of at least three sizable buildings. This production was presented in the main church that holds roughly a thousand people. And it is packed with equipment — hundreds of thousands of dollars of audio equipment, as far as I could tell.
When the show was over, he stopped everyone from leaving to spend another five minutes pimping for his church. This man had destroyed any goodwill that I had acquired toward the Christian faith. In general, I push back against people who claim that religion is all about money. I truly don’t think that’s true. But in this case, the good pastor was not a fisherman of souls; he was a fisherman of cash — indirect though it may be. It was disgusting.
At one point during his main performance, he had all of us in the audience pray and ask God to come into our sinful hearts. And he said something about how if you ask Jesus to make his presence know, he will. Okay: typical evangelical nonsense. But it occurred to me at that point that it is pretty easy to stand up there on stage and talk about all the blessings of God when you are doing pretty well in a material sense. I thought of Satan in the Book of Job. Let’s take everything away from Pastor Cundall and see if his faith is as strong as Job’s. My guess: no.
It was also at this point that I really began to think about something I had noticed earlier, but put in the back of my mind. In all the cast and audience, the only non-white person I saw was a single Asian. I didn’t see any Latinos and I didn’t see any African Americans. This is a lily-white church in the middle of a country that does everything it can to bless lily-white people. And I was reminded how one of the big themes in the first act was bowing down to God — and by extension authority. And the scene right before the pastor’s talk involved shepherds being very slippery with the concepts of king and God.
For the first time in my life, I really saw a church as primarily a system of control. Its primary function is to perpetuate and empower itself. But secondarily, its function is to quiet dissent in the larger world. The church depends upon the existing secular power structure for its existence. This is quite a different way for me to think about the Abrahamic religions. Generally, I focus on their lack of theological depth — at least the way that most of them practice it. And there was lots of that on display, including the truly offensive idea that all you have to do is “believe” in Jesus and you are saved — like Christians are children watching Peter Pan trying to make Tinker Bell come back to life.
But I’m beyond that now. I can understand the need of many people to infantilize themselves in the face of death and the cosmic unknowable. But these are just the parishioners. The institutional nature of churches is evil. Garry Wills is right that the Catholic Church should get rid of priests. The Quakers have been right all these centuries. The church I found myself in tonight is more like a corporation than anything early Christians would have understood as a church.