So, I went to church last Sunday, and I’m almost glad that I did. It was a very entertaining service, which at least once tipped toward giggle loop territory.
First, my brother and I left for church after everyone else, neither of us really having any desire to go to Sunday School/Bible Study. I’m pretty sure he’s seen me in the closet, so to speak, mostly because I accidentally left my list of Podcasts open on iTunes the other night, and saw him looking at it. Curse you, “The Atheist Experience,” for coming so early in the alphabet! Anyway, after a fallout between him and my mother a few years back, I suspect he’s got about the same mindset. We listened to The Lonely Island on the way to church, and arrived just before the service started.
Things began with the teeny-tiny choir walking up to the stage from the back of the church, singing “Rejoice in the Lord Always” a capella. Now, maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s some impulse from some forgotten passage in my youth when I was involved in a church chorus, but the song felt incomplete. I felt the difficult-to-resist urge to add in claps where they would be rhythmically appropriate, i.e.:
I don’t know, it was like taking the claps out of “Jack and Diane”–without them, there really wasn’t much to the song.
Things were uneventful through the brief announcements and the offering and the special music and whatnot. Then the sermon started, and boy do I wish I’d had a tape recorder. It started with standard Easter clichés–it’s a beautiful morning, Jesus is risen, what a wonderful sacrifice, etc. But about two minutes in, it got fun. The pastor explained why Jesus died for everyone’s sins:
Now, this might have been a moderately good segue into a sermon explaining Christian theology in terms of Star Trek. There are better openings for such a sermon, and I don’t think it would have been appropriate for Easter Sunday, and there’s the absurdity of using atheist Gene Roddenberry’s frequently anti-religious series to frame Christian beliefs, but such a sermon would have been interesting. This wasn’t that sermon; Spock would not be mentioned again.
After some more talk about how awesome Jesus’s sacrifice was, the pastor* said that he sometimes wondered what it would be like if Christ came today–then clarified that he meant the first coming, or what if Jesus had waited until the modern day to do his thing.
Now, I’ve often thought about this very question myself, though obviously not from the same perspective. Given the lack of evidence for Jesus’s existence and the likelihood of much of the story of his life being exaggerated, mythologized, and fabricated, I don’t think there’d be a whole lot of difference, if any. But what if Christianity had never taken hold? What if, like all the other contemporary messianic Jewish spinoff cults, it had fizzled out or never even existed in the first place? What would the world be like?
That’s usually about as far as I get. For one thing, I don’t have the requisite historical knowledge to be able to imagine that scenario with any kind of detail. For another, say what you will about the Christian church (and I do), but they have been fairly efficient at amassing power, prestige, wealth, and influence in the last 1700 years or so. Without Christianity, what religion would Constantine have chosen? Would that have filled the vacuum left in the absence of Christianity? Would some other religion be able to fill the same niches, spreading to and assimilating from other cultures with the same ceaseless alacrity? One of the key innovations of Christianity, which I credit for much of its success even today, was ease of conversion: all you have to do to become a Christian, as so many preachers will tell you, is hit your knees and accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior. Other religions require you to be born, married, or conquered into the fold, or ask you to go through lengthy, painful, or difficult conversion rituals. Christianity doesn’t even require you to remove your foreskin! Would the replacement religion of Rome have this same flexibility? Would a religion without that trait spread as easily?
By the time I begin considering a Middle Ages without a Catholic church to fight the Crusades and fund the Universities, I realize that there’s very little chance that a world without Christianity would bear any resemblance to the world with it, except perhaps in those regions where Christianity never flourished.
That would have made for an interesting sermon, and a far more interesting history lesson or book (in fact, if such a book exists, I’d like to read it). This was not the direction that the pastor chose to go on Sunday. Instead, he paused after that brief “what if” introduction (just long enough for someone to strum some harp strings and for the screen to go all wavy) and then began to read:
Peter Pumpkinhead came to town,
Spreading wisdom and cash around
Fed the starving and housed the poor,
Showed the Vatican what gold’s for.
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees.
Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead.
I perked up after the first two words, far more shocked than I was at the Spock reference. Was a pastor, in a church–a Christian church–actually quoting XTC’s “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead”? He was. And he continued to do so.
Peter Pumpkinhead pulled them all,
Emptied churches and shopping malls.
When he spoke, it would raise the roof:
Peter Pumpkinhead told the truth.
But he made too many enemies
Of the people who would keep us on our knees
Hooray for Peter Pumpkinhead
At this point, under my breath, I said (quite incredulously) “Is he going to sing the whole song?”
He was. He went through the whole song, more or less. He fouled up the last line of the third verse (saying “Any kind of law with love’s all right” as opposed to “Any kind of love is all all right”), and I realized after the service that he’d abbreviated the chorus (even when, at the end, he repeated “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin” twice, as it sort of does in the song). The actual lyric is “Hooray for Peter Pumpkin / Who’ll pray for Peter Pumpkinhead?”
I like the song enough that I picked up the album it’s on (“Nonsuch”) at a used CD store a month or two ago. Here’s the video:
After finishing the song and the citation, the pastor said something like “Is that what it would be like if Jesus came today? Would we miss the point like that?” Pastor, if your sermon is any indication, then we’d miss the point by a wide, wide margin.
Now, perhaps I’m way off, but I don’t think “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” is a pro-religious song. In fact, I read it as the story of a secular messiah, who “tells the truth” against religion, consumerism and probably government. He “empties churches” with his speeches, which makes enemies of “the people who would keep us on our knees”–i.e., religious leaders. I suppose tyrannical governments would fit in as well, but the line has always seemed to have the connotation of prayer to me. The Christ imagery is certainly intentional, and the video makes that even more explicit, but it reads to me more a criticism of the church message than a validation of it.
Then again, my interpretation is also informed by one of XTC’s other well-known songs. Given “Dear God,” I kind of have an inkling as to what XTC’s thoughts on religion are. Furthermore, I have a hard time believing that anyone in the United States could be familiar with XTC’s version of “The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead” (as opposed to the Crash Test Dummies version off the Dumb and Dumber soundtrack) without also being familiar with “Dear God,” which I’d think was the much more popular song. Similarly, I have a hard time believing that anyone would be familiar with either of those songs without knowing “Mayor of Simpleton,” much to my chagrin.
It’d be like knowing The Beatles for “The Long and Winding Road” and not knowing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “Come Together.” Point being, I don’t know how you could pull a positive message about religion out of “Ballad” if you were at all familiar with the band’s other songs, and if you paid any attention to the lyrics, and if you had any sort of moderately orthodox religious views. Either this pastor is very oblivious, very dense, or very keen on irony, and I’m almost certain that the latter isn’t the case.
So that was pretty entertaining. And while it would have been schizophrenic and borderline disrespectful to hear someone make a sermon out of such a (blatantly, from my perspective) atheistic, anti-religious song, the pastor didn’t follow through. After briefly touching on the meaning of the song (mostly just asking a couple of questions about whether or not it would be like that today) he shook his head and said something to the effect of “let’s get out of that nightmare.” Unfortunately for him, he’d done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario as nightmarish. In fact, he’d really done nothing to characterize his “what if” scenario–all the characterization was original to the song, and there’s nothing really nightmarish about the story. I could see coming up with a nightmarish scenario where the congregation is made to consider how they would feel as the modern-day Pharisees and Pilates responsible for crucifying the modern-day messiah, but this wasn’t that sermon.
After this, the pastor went on about various themes related to the day–we’ve all both succeeded and failed in life, we’ve all stepped off the path, and we gather together in part to help each other back onto said path, we all believe in God, we have to practice our faith–you get the idea. He had a tendency to lead down a path with a thematically repetitive series of phrases, culminating in some pithy, obviously telegraphed punchline, after which he would stop and smugly beam as though he’d said the most profound thing ever. The example that really sticks out is the “practice” thing, how we have to practice our faith, and the word “practice” came up so many times in the rambling sermon that it was the closest thing it had to an overarching theme, even though most of the sermon had nothing to do with it. But after one string of phrases about practicing, he said “and practice makes perfect,” and stopped, and grinned this smug grin. Okay, great, not only was it patently obvious that you were going there, but it seems like you’re suggesting that as long as we’re diligent in going to church and following the rules, we can be Jesus.
I can’t really stress this point enough: in order to be an effective speaker, you really have to have some awareness of what message your audience is getting from your speech. This pastor didn’t have a clue, and it really showed. There were several occasions where I could tell that he expected the audience to be feeling some specific emotion or sensation, but he hadn’t done anything to make them feel that, and so the moment fell entirely flat.
Anyway, somewhere along the line, he descended into something that I can only describe as the Glurge Gallop. He started telling a story about a pastor who told a story to a congregation–very meta.
To digress a moment, I suspect that if Jon and I were to come up with a list of rules for bad movies and music to follow, based on our long and storied history of consuming bad media, one of them would be “Don’t make references to better movies/songs.” It pops up an awful lot, actually, where some terrible movie or terrible song will make a throwaway reference to some much better movie or song, either demonstrating that the artist thinks they’re really clever or that they think they’re actually as good as the object of the reference**. If the song or the film is good, then the reference serves whatever purpose is intended–satire, homage, jarring juxtaposition, etc. When the work is bad, the reference only serves as a reminder of how bad the work is. Moreover, it shows that the artist is familiar with better works, which means they don’t even have ignorance as an excuse for the poor quality.
That’s what this meta-sermon did: by giving a sermon about another pastor giving a better sermon, the pastor really only underscored how bad his sermon was by comparison, and showed that he’d at least been exposed to better sermons, which should have given him some idea as to what makes for a compelling speech.
This is not to say that the story he told was all that good. A quick Google search turned up many versions (as I’d expected) that have likely been forwarded around in e-mails with tags at the end exhorting believers to forward this message to everyone in their address book, an act for which they will be doubly blessed***. Here’s the closest version I could find with minimal effort. The jist of the first half of the story is that the pastor comes into church and sets an empty birdcage on the pulpit, then proceeds to tell the congregation the story of how he met a small child who had the cage full of birds. He asked what the kid planned to do, and the kid responded that he’d play with them, then when he got tired of them, he’d feed them to his cat. The pastor bought the birdcage from the boy (who named his own price–$2 in the version I heard) and set the birds free.
On its own, that would have made for a decent start of a sermon, either from the pastor at the church or the one in the story. It’s a parable, and it would make for a decent sermon about how Jesus paid the price to set us free from sin. It would, that is, if not for the last half of the story. The probably-fictional pastor then goes on to tell the exact same story, except with Jesus and Satan in the roles of the pastor and child, and humans in the cage instead of birds. Now, it’s one thing to use a story as a metaphor for what you’re trying to teach, it’s quite another to belabor the point by telling a metaphorical story, then telling the same metaphorical story in a slightly different fashion so that the metaphor smacks you in the ass with its obviousness. The good sermonizer would take the parable of the caged birds and relate the various elements to the story of Christ’s sacrifice; the poor sermonizer writes bad fanfic about Jesus and Satan having a little chat.
One of the more interesting features about that story was that it included a Jazz interlude of sorts, a place where different people telling the story could be creative and add their own touches to it, much like the chapters of “The Iliad” about the various sorts of boats in the fleet, or the vast majority of The Aristocrats. In this case, it’s the passage where Satan outlines his plans for the caged humans. I can’t recall exactly where the pastor went with this, though I definitely recall “divorce” being in there, and I seem to recall war-related stuff as well. The latter, I’d think, betrays a pretty staggering ignorance of all the places in the Bible where God orders war (and worse). The former just strikes me as odd–I have a hard time seeing divorce as a purely negative thing; certainly happily divorced couples are better than unhappily married ones, right? It seems like the real “devil’s work” there would be causing incompatible couples to fall in love with one another, or pressuring people to marry prematurely or for bad reasons.
But there I go again, the bleeding-heart liberal godless atheist, wasting time on the reasons why people do “bad” things, rather than just attributing it all to sin and Satan.
But despite how condescending, repetitive, ham-fisted, and sappy the full story ends up being, I suppose you could craft a decent sermon around it. I don’t know why you’d want to; it seems like the best option for that idea would be to cut out the last half and let the parable stand on its own. Such sermons can work very well; I quite liked the one about gossip in “Doubt,” where the priest told a story about another priest using a parable (though it was a little less meta) to teach a lesson. But again, that parable wasn’t immediately followed by a pedantic retelling where the meanings of all the symbols were made explicit. Regardless, none of these was the sermon that the pastor preached on Sunday.
No, instead of tying this story into the apparent theme of “practice,” instead of really elaborating on the story, instead of making any connection to “Peter Pumpkinhead,” the pastor whipped out another glurge. This story starts with a dark night in Chicago****, where a homeless boy peddles newspapers on the street. I don’t know if it was the mumbling or just my lack of sleep, but when the pastor started, I thought he said “In ‘Dark Knight,’ in Chicago…” (since that’s where much of the movie was filmed). I thought it would be odd to pull a religious message out of The Dark Knight, but after Spock and XTC, nothing was going to surprise me. Rather than comparing Harvey Dent to Job, though, the pastor went on to relate the linked story, where a boy uses “John 3:16” as a secret password to get food, shelter, and comfort for the night. Go ahead and read the story, it’s sappier by far than the previous one, and this post is long enough without a recap. If you want, you can find it here on the Snopes forums, with some amusing comments.
Back? Okay, so a small child gets hospitality and charity by citing a chapter and verse. Now, I understand what the point of the story is, but it still seems like the better verse would be Matthew 25:40 (“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me”) or Matthew 19:14 (“But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven”) or Deuteronomy 15:11 (“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy”) or any of a dozen other verses about charity, hospitality, and cute Dickensian ragamuffins, rather than just the summary verse of Christianity.
I honestly don’t remember if the pastor did any follow-up on that story. I remember him saying something at some point about how we haven’t been able to eliminate war and hatred and blahdey blah in 2000 years, and for shame and so forth, but beyond that, the rest of the service is kind of a blur.
So Spock, XTC, and the licorice whiplash of non sequitur glurges, all connected only by the fact that the same guy was saying them in the same place in the same block of time. I’m not exactly astounded that such a sermon could get made and presented–I’ve seen the same problems in college writing–but I’m a little astounded that a pastor could be complimented for the sermon afterward (admittedly, I don’t know how many people did that, but at least one did). To my parents’ credit, they found the sermon just as inane as I did, and suggested that a lack of self-awareness was a feature of that pastor’s character (“he thinks he can sing, too,” my dad said, or something along those lines). By any reasonable standards, this was a terrible speech, with no overall theme, no single point, just a bunch of half-formed unrelated ideas. At least it was entertainingly bad, I suppose.
Look, far be it from me to tell Christians how to write their sermons; I’m not their intended audience (or, then again, maybe I am). All I know is that I’m not interested (or swayed) even the slightest bit in sitting on an uncomfortable pew for an hour having someone read me the e-mail forwards they’ve received in the past week. From my perspective, the vast majority of the justification for religion rests in emotion, and a large portion of apologetics arguments are appeals to pathos. I don’t expect sermons to be logically valid or based on sound evidence–then they’d just be lectures–but I do expect that a sermonizer have some awareness of emotional appeals. If you don’t have that, then there’s not a whole lot left–kind of like that song, sans clapping. There’s content, sure, but it’s repetitive and shallow, and there’s no way to get into it.
*I’m reasonably certain that this church would use a different word. The concept is essentially the same though.
**Good examples: Gwen Stefani mentions (and uses the bass line from) “Another One Bites the Dust” in “Hollaback Girl,” Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” is about “Sweet Home Alabama” (and samples “Werewolves of London”), Rihanna’s “SOS” samples “Tainted Love” and name-drops several other ’80s songs, and so forth.
***Particularly if they happen to be barely seventeen and barely dressed.
****On the Dickensian London side of the city, apparently.