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January 2, 2012


Three Nails Gave Me Liberty

by juju2112

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.

both hands silouette

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.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Debbie Doss
    Jan 2 2012

    I see things haven’t changed since I was one of those kids sitting there miserably in my pew trying not to think about what was going on and hoping that Jesus wouldn’t send me to hell for adding “under the sheets” to all the song titles in the hymnal.

    • juju2112
      Jan 2 2012

      Heck no. They have their formula, and it’s a proven, effective one.

      I kind of enjoyed just seeing it with new eyes. I know a lot more now than I did when I was younger.

  2. Jan 2 2012

    You were “terrified?” They’re just people. Rather confused.

    • juju2112
      Jan 2 2012

      You’ve been arguing with religious people for way longer than me, so you’re more seasoned than I. Also, my discussions with theists have been completely online, where people are mean and nasty. I have never stated my honest opinion to a theist and been met with a friendly response.

      I half expected to be thrown out. Obviously, it was a completely wrong assumption, but one born out of ignorance. That’s the whole point of me going, though, to shed misconceptions.

      I’m also not exactly a people person. Frankly, talking to ANYONE terrifies me. In person, anyway. I just hide it well.

  3. Jan 4 2012

    Great post! You’re doing what I have always wanted to do.

  4. Jan 8 2012

    Interesting. I grew up in the Church of the Nazarene, which doesn’t have the speaking in tongues and such and isn’t quite as charismatic as the Pentecostal Church in your post. During my middle school years I went to a church in that denomination where the paster was an old man who I don’t even think prepared a sermon before Sunday morning, but expected God to inspire him. And he yelled and screamed in that smallish church just like what you describe. Even in the more metropolitan church with more intellectual and even-toned sermons the emotional manipulation was shameful. There was also a massive guilt trip and altar call at the end, and a sense that any bad feelings you feel at the time must be because you need to get right with God. I could consider visiting other churches out of curiosity, but I fear ever visiting either of those churches again because I think it would pull my trigger too much if you know what I mean.


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