While fishing through some old blogs from “Highly Sophisticated Rednecks” (2005-2006, RIP), I came across a piece I wrote about the ten levels of religious fervor. While having lunch one day, I was politely accosted by a young man who asked me where I went to church. Although I started to tell him that my name was Habib al Kwanza just for shits and giggles, I settled on being polite. And honest. I told him that I did not, in fact, regularly attend services.
My answer generated this exchange:
“You really should get to know Jesus. The End Times are near. That’s not why you should get to know Jesus, though.”
I looked at this guy kind of like Ralfie looked at the kid wearing the goggles and pilot’s helmet as they are waiting in line for Santa Claus. [Note: I wrote this piece around Christmas 2005. The A Christmas Story reference is solid.]
“Uh, right. Whatever.”
“Do you believe in Jesus?”
That was an easy enough question. Jesus is a pretty well known historical figure, as is Buddha and Confucius and Mohammed and Daniel Boone. “Uh, yeah. Of course,” seemed like a reasonable answer.
“That’s good. That’s a start.”
That was really the end of the conversation. As good, solid Baptist or Episcopalian testimonies go, it was a little on the light side, but for a guy like me, it was just right.
[The] more I thought about it, the more I liked the Taco Bell Guy. First of all, he wasn’t at all confrontational. It was like he just thought striking up a conversation about church and Jesus was the most normal thing in the world and isn’t that what the Bill of Rights is all about? If not for the unsettling mention of the end of the world, this might have passed off as an almost completely normal conversation.
So this past weekend, I went with my wife and her family to their small church in Pine Mountain, Georgia. It is a fine church with a tiny, friendly congregation. They sing a lot, which I find comforting (more so when I actually know the hymns). Their pastors tend to be quiet men who give short sermons blissfully free of fire and brimstone and guilt. Since I don’t believe in hell, such an approach has been long lost on me. I’m big on the teachings of Jesus: the red words, for those of you Bible-belted enough to know what those are. Mostly, I like “Do unto others.” I think you can boil J.C. down to the Golden Rule and you wouldn’t be short-changing him much. The same tenet, for what it is worth, is present in nearly every major world religion.
So imagine my surprise when there was a “guest preacher” at the little church in Pine Mountain on Sunday—a guest preacher with a crew cut and a voice that carried through the smallish house of worship even in normal conversation. I went to Baptist school long enough to know what was coming: I call it Hollering for Jesus. For the record, only black congregations can get away with Hollering for Jesus. Black preachers inevitably have a tempo and timbre and manage to insert the “Amens” into the right spots in the narrative. They come off as pious versions of Little Richard or James Brown.
The Drill Sergeant reminded me of Little Richard, but not in a “a wop baum a loom opp, a wop bam boo” sort of way.
First, he Hollered for Jesus. This is annoying. It is especially annoying when the offending preacher is a) wearing a microphone or b) in front of a congregation of 30 people in a church the size of small barn. Thank Allah we were just inflicted with “B.” God is omnipresent and the oldest members of the congregation have hearing aids. You can use your Inside Voice.
Second, he committed the cardinal sin of preaching: he took a verse out of context. People who Holler for Jesus have been doing this for a long time and giving Christians everywhere a bad name. According to the short biography the congregation was given, this man had been preaching since he was 17 years old and had attended seminary. He must have failed rhetoric or matriculated through one of the plethora of religious institutions without such a class in the course book. Pat Robertson endorses this sort of religious teaching. No matter the cause, there was a hole in his sermon you could drive a truck through. One line—one!—in 2 Samuel and it gets flubbed to hell and back.
Third, the sermon contained only one point, as I gleaned it. It was, “YOU SHOULD BE A GOOD CHRISTIAN ALL THE TIME EVEN WHEN IT ISN’T FUN IF YOU EXPECT GAWD ALMIGHTY TO LIFT A FINGER FOR YOU. AMEN.” This point was reiterated over and over again, with slightly different wordings. The feel-good title of the sermon was “You are never alone,” a reliable (if clichéd) bit of Christian aphorism, but the actual title should have been “You are never alone except that the whole world is against you and guilt-guilt-blah-rhetorical lapse-bullshit.” You get the picture.
Fourth—and this is where it gets tricky—Brother Loudspeaker played the “it’s us against them” card. It’s here that you draw the line between people who understand Jesus (or Mohammed or Baha’u’lla or the Buddha) and the people who use religion as a clubhouse. Dickheads of every religious stripe all across the globe have been playing this card since cavemen started carving fat women and praying to them. It is how men have consolidated power for generations. Modern political discourse has even torn a page from the playbook in recent years, serving to drive a wedge between people rather than unifying them. The thought of putting every person on the planet who uses religion to divide rather than to comfort into a room and letting them hash it out while the rest of us get along happily is a thought that warms me. “Do unto others,” is a grammatical construction with a pretty clear direct object—one that isn’t a proper noun.
Lest anyone say I’m giving the guest preacher too short a shrift, I should point out my honest belief in the goodness of men (and women) and the particular goodness of men (and women) of religion. But the truth is, I’m not cut out to be the quarterback of the Atlanta Falcons and not everyone is cut out to stand in front of a roomful of folks in a house of worship and Holler for Jesus.
The guy at the Taco Bell in 2005 was a pretty good fellow, too. He did unto me as he would want done to him. He said his piece and went on to eat his Number Three meal. There were only inside voices. All was right with the world. It’s a pretty stark contrast. I think I took more away from thirty seconds with a random stranger than thirty minutes with a seminary graduate. I think the End Times might not be as close as we think.
Still, the next time I go back to Pine Mountain, I hope they have the regular preacher. Or a black one if they feel particularly compelled to Holler for Jesus.