Friday, July 06, 2007

Service Interruption

On July 3rd, I noticed a phone company van outside my window. "Huh!" I thought. At around 1:00 PM, my phone signal died along with my internet connection. I figured it would come back soon; after all, the phone guys were still here! But they drove away, and at 9:30pm, I called to report my continuing service outage. "We can send a repair crew on Friday." Swell.

The called my cell phone to confirm the "appointment": the crew would arrive sometime between 9 AM and 6 PM on Friday. I guess that's what you get for free service. Good thing I just got a pile of DVDs from the library. It turned out it must have been a simple fix, because sometime between noon and one, the service was restored. I never saw a single person, no one knocked on my door, and no one called.

Even though all worked out for the best, it was still frustrating.

*** *** ***

On Wednesday (July 4th), I performed at a local church. I'm not familiar with Independence Day being a church holiday, but they decided to have a musical spectacular. This church was one of the larger churches that crowed at the top of their lungs that they were having services on Christmas Day, when apparently many churches only have services on Christmas Eve. They made mention to this fact during the Independence celebration, which drew applause from the audience. To me, this extra service seems like a thinly-obscured "more pious than you" statement. However, I don't understand these things.

The church itself doesn't look like the sort of church I'm familiar with. No stained glass. In fact, no windows at all in the sanctuary, giving the impression of a 60-foot ceilinged movie theater. Unpacking my trombone in the hallway, I noticed that the back doors to the sanctuary are marked "Stage". I laughed at this, wondering if they really thought it was like a playhouse.

The joke was on me, however. It is indeed a play house. Never have I attended such an insincere display of faith, towards any religion. Eight Klieg lights illuminate the stage. TV cameras in the middle aisle. Cameras at the corners. Cameras on "Tonight Show"-style cranes, swooping over the audience. Cameras being jockeyed into position by on-foot guys. A sound and light board at the rear. Large projection screens on three walls. Everyone standing on stage has a microphone (or sometimes two).

Before the service started, the screens were showing slides of the upcoming guests and lectures. Summer camp in July! Stephen Baldwin in August! And Pat Robertson in September.

Pat. Robertson. I ground my teeth together to stop from barking with laughter.

By itself, the sanctuary is almost unremarkable. It has no cross that I noticed. No copies of the Ten Commandments. No "authentic" scripture with a token verse hung on the walls. The room is relatively austere (for a television studio). It wasn't what I was expecting from a church, but it wasn't offensive or disturbing. I know many denominations remove the focus from iconography and the other "trappings" of religion.

And yet, something did disturb me. To be honest, this church is well known to me. They're evangelical, and the pastor has had my scorn since the first time I heard him speak, when he emphatically argued that gay marriage was a bigger threat to America than terrorism or global warming. So going into this performance, I was steeled against ideas I would find abhorrent.

But it wasn't just the ideas. It was the people. The head minister's son (also a pastor! Go figure) came through our hallway, shaking hands and smiling at everyone. He approached me. Smiling without using his eyes. "Welcome, brother. We're so pleased you could worship with us today." Now, perhaps I'm just a prickly fish, but I get weirded out even when my OWN brother calls me "brother." This guy doesn't know me from the pool boy. I took his hand and said all the things one says when being paid. He even shakes hands strangely, although I can't put my finger on what the problem was. Too much curl in the fingers, perhaps.

Ahh, the people. The pastor felt like a used car salesman. My only mental picture as he talked was him assuring people that the fibro-carbon undercoating is an ESSENTIAL component of the used car. There's just no getting around it. Halfway through, a kid got up to discuss how going to Bible camp made him want to be a minister, and to encourage all the young people to go. The audience murmured and clapped their approval to what he said. Watching him talk, then look at the pastor, I was struck with what a supportive environment he was in. He could have said anything remotely positive about Jesus and the choir and audience would have shouted "amen". No wonder he wants to become a minister; the positive feedback loop. By the way, he was saved at seven.

So why was I disturbed? As I said, I expected ideas I don't agree with. But I couldn't shake the notion that the people in charge didn't believe. The whole calculated "made for TV" atmosphere just made the whole thing...fake. As I sat there playing, I couldn't help but think I had wondered into a studio where they film a reality show set in a church. And watching a preacher play to the crowd just rubbed me the wrong way.

Then again, perhaps that's just the way a skeptic (me) relates to people of faith. I honestly don't know. I only know that I'm not as impressed and respectful as I was to the ministers in my family's church when we were growing up. I may not have agreed with their words, but I could respect them as people.

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