I watched the documentary Selling God last night. (This is also streamable on NetFlix.) While I did not find it perfect, certainly (at times it seemed a bit over-the-top), I did resonate with the overall message concerning the dominant form of Protestant Christianity, commonly referred to as Evangelical Protestantism. I have a lot of experience with this particular brand of religion. I was a member of what I commonly refer to as an “LRO” (Large Religious Organization) for about 9 years in Chapel Hill, NC. It was during this period that I performed the maneuver that I refer to in this blog (reading the bible, not as a sacred religious text, but as a work of human literature) which resulted ultimately in the traumatic collapse of my belief system. But I digress.
OK, Selling God. I guess the thing I really liked about this movie was that after showing these butt stupid Christians (like Greg Laurie of Harvest Ministries, one of the most annoying, offensive preachers I have ever seen, and believe me, I have seen some doozies), they would show some Christians who were actually not too bad. Pretty good, actually. I particularly liked this guy who had this very nuanced view of the part of the sermon on the mount which Evangelicals refer to as the “end time prophecies”. You know, how there will be wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes, and so forth. His point was that these were not to be taken as signs of the times (as has been the case for generation after generation of Evangelicals, all of whom believed that they were living in the “last days”). Instead, he said, that Jesus was saying: “The Kingdom of God is like this: There will be wars. (When in human history have there not been wars?) But with My help, you will still overcome. And in the overcoming, My Kingdom is there. And there will be earthquakes. (When in human history have there not been earthquakes?) But with My help, you will even overcome that too. And in the overcoming, My Kingdom is there.” And so on for each form of natural or man-made disaster.
I find that a much, much more satisfying explanation for those verses than anything I had ever heard before. Certainly, a much, much more interesting interpretation than the typical Evangelical view. This was a very positive picture of a very intelligent, sensitive, and compassionate Christian. Which is surprising, for a movie which is billed as being basically about simply bashing Christianity.
The thing that I found compelling and familiar about Selling God was the idea that modern Protestant Evangelical Christianity has become simply a big business. There is certainly an enormous amount of money being made here. (Interestingly, although I can find the GDP percentage for just about every form of human activity, I cannot find it for religion. If anyone has this, I would love to know about it.) It is certainly the case that most of the current crop of Protestant Evangelical churches are simply a form of capitalism. And the product that they are selling is, from all appearances, invisible, without substance, and completely internal. If they would admit that they are selling anything, they would say (per the title of the movie) that they are selling God, or possibly selling Jesus or salvation. (Not completely far-fetched as one of the evangelists in the movie had run the numbers and figured out that after costs he had been able to “save a soul for 47 cents”. Effectively buying salvation.) In my view, though, what they are really selling is not really salvation, per se, but rather a sense of significance, purpose and meaning. A feeling that your life matters, and that you are part of a loving community.
Interesting, in that Jesus preached against just this sort of thing, as Selling God points out.
Having said that, I have come to believe that there is a form of Christian religion that is actually not bad, possibly even good. If a Christian church produces what they claim to produce (a truly compassionate, loving community), then it can be wonderful, as I myself have experienced at various phases of my life. The aggressive form of Protestant Evangelical Christianity definitely does not fall into that category, though, at least in my view. The entire time that my wife and I were at the last LRO we belonged to, precisely one family (lead by my Christian friend Ray) reached out to us. And Ray and his wife are no longer members of that LRO either. Otherwise, the folks in the LRO were among the most deluded, unconscious people I have ever known. I became involved in the Christian 12 step program there, and I had several moments of stunning clarity when I looked around the room and asked myself: “Do I want to be like these people?” To which I responded with a resounding: “No!” With the exception of Ray and his lovely wife, my Christian friends were largely intolerant, insular, bigoted, misogynistic, and closed minded.
I heard a piece on NPR that resonated with me. The woman being interviewed had written a novel and was describing the main character as: “A middle-aged Christian, white, southern, heterosexual, married, Republican man who thinks he’s good, but isn’t.” The main reason this man was not good was because he was only empathetic with people like him: I.e., folks his own age, religion, race, geographic region, sexual orientation, gender, and political view. He had no empathy for liberals, the young, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, people of color, feminists, and, most of all, gays.
That was me. At one time, I fit that description perfectly. But no longer: I have flipped in many of my views from my fundamentalist religious days. As I told my friend Ray: I have woken up, and to a large extent, that cannot be undone. I may engage again with the more positive forms of Christianity, but I will never again believe that the bible is the inerrant “word of God”. That’s over for me now. And I have developed deep, abiding empathy and compassion for all human beings at this point. Even those who do not agree with me. That’s for sure!