New York WeddiMoon: Day 10
… in which we return to the land of bad theater, boring food, and backwards politicians, pause along the way for a discussion about theology, and officially bring the WeddiMoon posts to a close.
On our last morning in New York, we were convinced we could squeeze in one more event before our flight, and so we jumped out of bed early on Sunday to head for the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Smith Street. Their choir, you’ll recall, performed at Obama’s 2012 inauguration, and a ripping good gospel fest is a fine sendoff for anyone.
The Brooklyn Tabernacle turns out to be a megachurch (seating for 4,000 in a theatre worthy of Broadway; in all, an average of 10,000 people attend their several services each Sunday). As is befitting a megachurch, the Brooklyn Tabernacle has a megachurch pastor, Jim Cymbala who, though he is much too much in love with the sound of his own voice (and, in his line of work, that’s probably more of a job requirement than a defect), nevertheless managed to pull a not-uninteresting Bible lesson out of a colossally dull passage from Acts. I’m a sucker for a good close-reading.
Overall, though, the service was interminable, the singing was a lot less inspired than it reportedly is at other times, and Cymbala sort of plays against the stereotype of the charismatic evangelical preacher in that he seems to be devoid of any personal charisma at all. So I had a lot of time to reflect.
One thing I would have reflected on, had I known it at the time, is that Pastor Cymbala reportedly makes somewhere between a high-six-figure and a multimillion-dollar salary and lives in a home in Little Neck valued at a cool $4 mill. “Reportedly” refers to his salary because Cymbala publicly discloses no information about his financial arrangement with the church; the information about the value of his house, however, is verifiable online.
But internet forums are alive with speculation and accusations regarding Cymbala, which is perhaps par for the course. Especially since the average and median incomes in the neighborhood where Cymbala lives and the neighborhood where he preaches are separated by a factor of ten. So it’s the kind of thing that fuels your paranoia, if you’re inclined to be paranoid about so-called “non-profit” churches with immense real-estate holdings, budgets that rival those of small corporations, and (again, reportedly) millions in earnings from sales of books, videos, and DVDs.
All of that aside – and I realize that what I’m about to say next is the product of my being a Christian-bashing pinko fag agnostic intellectual secular humanist cynic – what left me most perplexed after a Sunday morning at the Brooklyn Tabernacle is this: Why is god (or, at least, the god that Jim Cymbala is promoting) so insecure?
Why does he need to be told over and over in a kind of hypnotic chant (20 minutes by my watch), “You are worthy to be praised!”? Isn’t that the sort of thing he would already know, having created, you know, everything?
And why is he so pleased to hear his followers assure him in explicit and occasionally grisly terms that they’re nothing without him, they’re unworthy, they’re weak, they’re small unless he makes them big, they can only stumble unless he holds them up, they’re capable of nothing but failure unless he shows them what to do?
I mean, what kind of monstrous ego requires the people he’s supposedly leading to tell him incessantly that he cannot actually count on them to accomplish anything because they’re inadequate and inept and are almost certainly going to screw everything up, so it’s all on his shoulders in the end?
In other words, is god really just Donald Trump? And doesn’t god get discouraged by what Monty Python so precisely called “all that dreadful toadying”?
I recognize that this ritual of self-effacement, which took up a good part of the morning’s service, is not entirely disconnected from the Buddhist goal of annihilation of the self – or, more accurately, the annihilation of desire and attachment – whose purpose is to reduce human suffering.
But the evangelical, Brooklyn Tabernacle version of Christianity, far from lessening worldly attachment, encourages an even more obsessive and obstinate kind of attachment – in this case to a rescue fantasy (which is, in its way, also supposed to relieve suffering).
When we were at the Metropolitan Museum, we spent some time reading about (and looking at artifacts from) a tribal group in New Guinea whose belief was that illness and death were invariably the result of a curse or sorcery and, thus, had to be avenged. Head-hunting raids and other acts of violence and murder were then necessary to restore spiritual balance after every death.
What struck me about that was the utter rejection of death as a natural force in human existence. In the New Guinean perspective, everyone is inevitably cursed by someone eventually (that is, no one has ever not died; thus, no one has ever not been cursed). Running afoul of black magic, then, can only logically be seen as normal and natural (albeit tragic and regrettable), even if death itself isn’t. But if that’s the case, why would you have to kill people in order to “avenge” something that cannot be avoided?
In that sense, the New Guineans seem to be caught in some of the same logical knots as the Brooklyn Tabernacle evangelicals.
- We must love god because he will protect us from trouble. If trouble finds us anyway, we must call on god to help us bear the suffering.
- But suffering is sometimes what god wants us to do, though he may not tell us why and, in those cases, the evangelical is supposed to both thank god for the suffering and call on him for help in tolerating it.
- God has a plan for you, but that plan may include the death of your children, unemployment, homelessness, drug addiction, incarceration, disease, victimization, depression, loneliness, poverty, and exploitation. Cheer up, though: god never abandons anyone.
- God loves us all unconditionally, but you must “obey” or go to hell. Which means either that god doesn’t really love everyone unconditionally or that “love” has some other meaning, which perhaps explains why the favorite pastime of so many Christians over the centuries has been deciding whom god didn’t love and culling them from the pack with thumbscrews, crusades, and $350 million in religious-advocacy lobbying in Washington each year.
- If you are sick or injured, call on god to help you get well. If you don’t get well, call on god to accept his will. Or, as a spiritually thoughtful friend put it: “If it happens to them, God is punishing them. If it happens to us, God is testing us.”
So what I really reflected on is this: How did god get to be such a small idea?
To listen to them tell it at the Brooklyn Tabernacle, God is the emotional ATM in the sky, a begrudging granter (or bean-counting withholder) of favors, an enabler of enfeebled lives, a craigslist life coach for the materially challenged, a fickle side-taker, a celebrity endorsement, a wailing wall, an agony aunt. You can send a message to him on the Brooklyn Tabernacle web site; there is evidently internet in heaven.
In all of this, there is no awe. There is no majesty. There is no sense of communion with the divine or immersion in mystery. God has been reduced to the status of your best pal – albeit the pal who never stops reminding you that you owe him. Big time.
If god is the master of the universe, I want him to be concerned with universal concepts, not whether or not I can make my rent. If he’s the champion and protector of the poor and downtrodden, why are there more poor and downtrodden all the time? If he can intervene in human evil, then he ought to stop worrying about our sex lives and start convincing Republicans to quit voting to deprive people of healthcare.
But this is a centuries-old discourse, I don’t have much to add that’s new, and we had a plane to catch. Plus, Christopher Hitchens already said everything anyway.
So let us pray.
Chaplain: Oh Lord…
Congregation: Oh Lord…
Chaplain: Oooh, you are so big…
Congregation: Oooh, you are so big…
Chaplain: So absolutely huge.
Congregation: So ab – solutely huge.
Chaplain: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you.
Congregation: Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you.
Chaplain: Forgive Us, O Lord, for this dreadful toadying.
Congregation: And barefaced flattery.
Chaplain: But you are so strong and, well, just so … super.
Congregation: Fan – tastic.
From Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)