Saturday, June 07, 2008


I've had a few brushes with childhood memories recently.

The precipitous weather change from crisp spring to what romantic Southern writers call "sultry" inexplicably throws me back to a wooden pew built with one-by-fours and tiger-striped with peeling egg-shell paint.

Halos of moths and june bugs encircle the fluorescent lights strung among metal pole rafters and high ceiling joists of an open tabernacle.

Camp meeting was always in June.

The other finger pointing to the past comes not from the current season, but current events.

Politics brings it to my attention, but it is not politics that I am reminded of.

The former pastor of former parishioner, Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Barack Obama, and now, Father Michael Pfleger, have a familiar look, a reminiscent tone.

Both men have superb oratorical skills. They have mastered the art of crowd connection.

I know this because I have observed many crowd connectors, some of the best; sermons where every sentence is measured, if not outright alliterated. Every inflection is the work of hours of practice, every shift of the eye is deliberate, every physical gesture is nuanced and calculating.

I watch Rev. Wright preach to the choir. He loves it and they love it. He sings their song. He provokes strong emotion. Coy, innocently sarcastic slides lead into thunderous blasts of conviction, taking the crowd where they want to go.

Father Pfleger comes to the pulpit hailed as a great friend of the church, and works that comission like a master. He turns his ire and the ire of the mob outward, excoriating the injustice of the world, condemning it in the harshest of terms. Hyperbole is inspiration, mockery is passion. He parlays the role of the voice crying in the wilderness into a pied piper's battle anthem. Such conviction must not go unheeded, such authority must not be ignored.

I believe I know the feeling in that sanctuary. It bleeds through the YouTube feed.

I sat once in the back of that open tabernacle, watching with dumbfounded amazement being overcome by uneasiness marching down my spine and lifiting hair on my arms.

I had just heard Pac-Man inserted into a litany of other dubious sins with a conviction that did not lend itself to unbelief. Indeed, the congregation took it, believed it, swallowed it, raised their arms to it, and ran with it, through the aisles and down to the altar. It was music to their world weary ears. The problem was out there. Here was heaven, with like-minded people who eschewed the Internet, Pac-Man and hair-bows. More sick of the world than sin, they found emotional relief in the rash, brash, corporate denunciation of everything secular.

The atmosphere was charged and electric. I felt the waves of something potent, tangible by virtue of the spell it cast as it rippled from the platform out over the congregation, scattering the faithful in every direction, down to the bench to be exorcised of the demon Pac-Man, through the aisles, overcome with team spirit, and possibly roaming the room in search of the skulking prodigal in the back.

I was unsettled, feeling a magnetic implosion, conscious of the power of an emotional gravitational pull, sucking people into a maelstrom of convoluted, whim-driven legalism. I watched with the fascination of horror, mesmerized and repulsed by the exploitation of feeling.

These people were not broken, they were not humbled, they were pumped!

As were the parishioners of Rev. Wright and Father Pfleger. They appeal to the basest of human emotion. A carnal vindication flows from the soul in chorus with the recitation of the creed. Pride fuses with emotion, hardening into a patriotic defiance, deflecting all attention from contrition and humility. And they are ready now to take on the world.

I am so thankful for my own pastor, who tells me repeatedly to juxtapose his words with Scripture, who digs deep into the loam of the Bible, and never ventures outside its boundaries.


Devan said...

Amen, brother! Rev. Wright and others are an example of what can happen when Christians get their eyes off Jesus and onto "things & circumstances". We have to be so careful as we work out our own salvation with "fear and trembling". (By the by, I'm thankful for our pastor, too!)

Anonymous said...

Great blog.And all so true.I am a little disconcerted and nonplussed to know that you discovered this at such a young age,at about the same time your parents did.I thought the last paragraph especially good.

Nathan Carpenter said...

You would.