The Pastor Who Ruined the Christmas Play

Jesus CryingI 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.

6 thoughts on “The Pastor Who Ruined the Christmas Play

  1. There’s this church in Odense, Denmark. It’s a functioning church, with worshippers and stuff. In the basement there’s a dead king’s bones. (People were way smaller in the Middle Ages, even the kings.) Why is the king there? Because he was a horrid tyrant who tormented the peasantry. The peasants, reasonably enough, rose up against the king. He tried hiding in the church, saying “you don’t dare kill me in a church!” or some such. They killed him. The Pope declared him a saint. So I guess it’s a saint’s bones on display, not just a king’s. Best of both worlds for him.

    The saint’s/king’s bones were cool, but what really struck me about the church was the pulpit. Great craftsmanship, four hundred years old woodwork. What’s an actual “pulpit,” besides a metaphorical place we mention people preaching from? A “pulpit” is a place people preached from; imagine the political speech from “Kane,” that sort of thing. Pulpits weren’t at the front of the church, by the altar. Oh, hell no. The people at the front of the church, the local rich fuckers, didn’t need castigating; why else would they be at the front? So the pulpit was put in the middle of the pews, for Kane/the priest to address those lower souls. The priest would do all the holier bits up at the altar, closer to the rich people. When it came time to do the sermon, chastising sinners for their wanton ways, the priest would go up into the pulpit in back. Yeah, you losers, back here. You’re the ones I’m sermonizing. You harbor illicit thoughts about your neighbor’s wives and stuff. Not like the respectable people up front.

    That’s what a pulpit is. I’d never realized that before I visited this church.

    As far as I understand it, that’s what the Reformation and Hundred Years War were really about. That’s what drove them, anyway; peasants sick of being treated like shit. The war and the doctrinal disputes descended into meaningless slaughter and countries trying to steal property from other countries, because those are what wars are for, but it all started with how cozy the Church was with rich assholes. A Church that placated the peasantry with a ton of made-up saint’s days where workers got the day off to go to church. (Medieval peasants had more days off than we do in America now.)

    The first thing you notice when you read Luther — oh, wait. The first thing you notice when you read Luther are his rabid anti-Jew rants. OK, the second thing you notice when you read Luther is how much he hates “indulgences.” “Indulgences” were, um, it’s a Catholic thing, kinda hard to explain to outsiders. Basically there’s Heaven and Hell, but as long as you’re a properly baptized Catholic who attends church on a regular basis, you won’t go to Hell. You’ll go to “Purgatory,” kind of a Rocky-movie training exercise for your soul. It purifies you before you get admission to Heaven. How long you spend in Pugatory, which is going to be a royal bitch, depends on how much of an asshole you were before you died.

    You can have your soul-training time reduced, however, by prepaying the Church. It’s a spiritual Roth IRA. Of course, this meant rich assholes thought if they ponied up enough money to the Church, they’d be better off in the afterlife. That’s what Luther was, when he wasn’t ranting about Jews drinking the blood of Christian babies, ranting about. If you go into any Catholic church today, and I mean any single one of them, you’ll see a ill-lit room full of candles and a statue of Mary. Technically, you’re supposed to give money to the Church, and then Mary will persuade God to reduce your dead loved one’s time in Purgatory. That’s the theology. As it is, I doubt most people kneeling in those little rooms full of candles give half a shit about the theology, and instead think of a quiet, dark place with some candles burning as a way to honor the memory of those they loved. Silent little flames, hissing occasionally in the darkness. Nobody ever accused the Church of being bad at imagery.

    Oh, well, you probably know this stuff, I just felt like typing it!

    • That’s an interesting observation about the pulpit. Of course, if you go back even a little bit, the mass was all in Latin and none of the poor understood that. Perhaps it is the case that the church once protected the poor from the secular world, because there was a battle between church and state. Now what we see are all these supposed Christians making a bold stand for lowering the top marginal income tax. Thomas Frank is brilliant on that issue in Kansas.

      Have you seen my article on The Meaning of Life? If so, then you know that Martin Luther was really interested in sex for pleasure. I quoted the real guy before, Antisemite Martin Luther, but I don’t think he was particularly worse than other people of his time. Part of me admires him, although I think his legacy is quite bad. I wish protestants would stop thinking they understand the Bible. It’s a rat’s nest of ideas.

  2. The church you went to sounds like a great example, especially given the make up of the audience, of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel.” My bet is that the parishoners expect and don’t mind the sermonizing and the selling…?

    • It isn’t the kind of explicit “believe in God and grow rich” claptrap. It is more the implicit “God must love me” nonsense that blocks out all thought of social inequality and white privilege. But you are right: the sermon went over well. I would say 40% of the audience was quite into it. Most of the rest were just quiet. But I noticed some people who seemed to be annoyed — nothing like my rage, but still.

    • I was struck by that when I watched Terry Jones’ Barbarians a month or two ago. Ultimately, the question he is trying to answer is why do we look down on all the “barbarians” and look up to Rome? His answer is that it is all about the church — that Rome became a substitute for it. Rome was great because Christianity came out of it. Infidel753 cautions me that this is probably too facile a rendering of Rome, but I certainly think there is something to the framing.

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