Three Nails Gave Me Liberty
Yesterday morning, I went up to a Pentecostal preacher after he’d spent an hour and a half screaming at the pulpit, shook his hand, and told him I’m a nonbeliever. The look of shock on his face was priceless. It was as if I’d walked up to him holding a can of gasoline and sincerely declared my intention to set myself on fire.
I was terrified: a militant atheist in a Pentecostal church. Why did I decide to go? I knew I had reasons, but I couldn’t remember what they were. Thankfully, I had three friends with me (also atheists): Mike, Sterling, and Aaron. I remember they actually said it was a “good idea”, an assertion which remains beyond my understanding.
In the first song, people sang the chorus, “Anything is Possible”. I made some inappropriate jokes about people being able to fly. Most people were waving their arms around in the air, looking upwards towards the sky. A couple in front of us were speaking in tongues. Why is everyone looking at the ceiling? Do they know it’s just atmosphere and space up there?
The second song was “Yes You Have” by Leeland:
With Your love you set me free
Three nails gave me liberty
So I’ll sing Your praise
Oh, with Your love
You forgave my sin
Forgot my past
And brought me back again
So I’ll sing Your praise
I glanced behind me. There was a lady with a pained expression on her face. You’d think she’d just lost a child by the look of her. I’m struck by how huge a role music plays in churches. They wouldn’t be experiencing these waves of emotion without the music. Secular music can achieve the same effect, yet people associate these feelings with divinity.
During the sermon, the pastor is screaming at the top of his lungs. Did I mention he’s got a microphone? Is it really necessary to yell when you have a microphone? It’s not a megachurch. There can’t be more than 40 people here. You don’t even need the mic if you’re going to yell like that. Of course, for maximum effect, when he’s ready to tug on your emotions, his voice drops down to a whisper. That’s when you know he’s serious.
The crowd was into it, though. People kept yelling words of encouragement. One guy in front of us would say, “C’mon” in a southern accent every 2-3 minutes or so. After about an hour, I began to wonder if he knew any other words.
In contrast to their parents, the little kids were totally disengaged. It was clear they had no idea why they were there or what was being said. One kid had his face buried in his hands, the double-facepalm maneuver. They weren’t getting anything out of it. Their parents probably think bringing them here will make them good people.
Near the end of the sermon, as the pastors voice drops down low, there’s silence for a bit, and then the soft music kicks in, barely audible. The pastor starts on the spiel about coming up front and giving yourself to “The Lord”. 80% of the crowd goes up front and kneels on the floor. Some are crying and sobbing like they’ve lost a loved one. There’s more talking in tongues.
My friend Mike (a magician) remarked on how the experience is just like a magic trick. In magic, he explained, the magician distracts people with one thing, then does the trick when people aren’t looking. In this case, the ceremony and the preacher’s message are the distraction. The music and the cadence of the pastor’s voice would then be the trick, designed to evoke an emotional experience that seems real.
Some people who aren’t religious will often say that faith is harmless. When I look at church-goers groveling on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably, it’s obvious to me they are going through some powerful emotions. They’ve fallen in love with an invisible friend. They feel worthless and sinful. Their pastor stresses submission and obedience. It’s not right to let people go through this. People who haven’t been through this experience can’t know what it’s like, and they dismiss it as trivial too easily. This is where the disconnect is between accommodationists and confrontationists.