On Saturday, My family and I accepted an invitation from a friend to go to church with her. It was one of those big, non-denominational super churches with stadium seating and free coffee.
I didn’t expect to get much out of the experience. I’m an agnostic, and a devoted skeptic:I think this is the main reason my friend invited me. I think she wanted to show me how cool Christians could be.
I don’t think she understood that it wasn’t the coolness of Christians that I doubted. It was the validity of the claims found in their foundational document.
So I sat with my friend, my wife, and my oldest son in the enormous, high-tech amphitheater. My mind kept flashing to images of Richard Dawkins sitting in Ted Haggard’s super-church in The Root Of All Evil. I imagined myself being like that: there to observe. An independent thinker among the faithful.
And then the band began to play. They were good. They sounded and looked like any number of Christian rock groups out there: vaguely ‘alternative’ sounding music played by a handful of goateed young men in skate shoes and beanies. But it sounded good. It was passionate. My son danced in the aisle.
After a short video, the preacher came out and delivered his message on the book of Ezekiel. He was a compelling speaker, and the audience was enrapt. He told us that ‘the world as we know it’ is always ending, and that if we put our faith in worldly things rather than God, we will always be disappointed.
I appreciated the language he used. He reminded the congregation that all nations fall, and that there is nothing special about the U.S.A. He told us that yes, the U.S. was just another nation among many, and it too some day would fall. He told us not to get too comfortable with our taboos and our cultures, because they would go bye-bye too someday.
While I was appreciative of this tone, and the practicality of this message (which could be delivered outside of a religious context just as easily as within), I wasn’t deeply moved. But then the preacher started talking about the way we should interact with each other, essentially saying we should be the most genuine version of ourselves possible. We should be open to new evidence, yes, but we should state boldly those things which we were certain we knew. We should accept challenges to those dearly held ideas, and be willing to change them if we should discover they were wrong. We should proselytize on behalf of that which we knew to be true. And then he showed this video:
The preacher introduced Penn as ‘A famous, crass atheist.’ And at the completion of the clip, simply said, ‘Interesting’, and moved on.
I had been blindsided.
I’m a fan of Penn’s persona, and share a lot of his ideas. He’s a fun, thoughtful character that I associated with my little sphere of resources. I was surprised to see his face on the jumbotron at a super-church, and even more surprised to see it up there as an example of a viewpoint the preacher agreed with.
Penn’s word’s touched me, and at that moment I realized that I wasn’t so different than the people in the seats around me. It’s very easy to go through life in this country playing it safe, not speaking our minds on controversial issues, being p.c., and generally not delving too deeply into who we really are or what we really believe. That wasn’t the case with me, and it didn't seem to be the case with the other people in that audience. We were all people willing to stand up and claim our beliefs. We were all a bunch of dry bones looking for answers. At that moment, I felt connected to everyone around me.
Were I the kind of person to believe such things, I would think it was more than coincidental that the preacher chose to tie a meditation from Penn Jillette into his sermon. It would almost seem like he was saying, ‘That’s right Spencer. You’re an Agnostic. You don’t know for certain that I’m here, and you’re even less inclined to believe that I’ve ever dictated a book to any group of human beings, anywhere. Good. That’s who you are. Don’t feel bad about it. Be brave. This is who you are.’
But of course, that would be a silly thing for God to say.