As the evening went on, there were a number of speakers interspersed between the songs. Lay people, so far as I could tell, who were giving their “testamonials” about how they had managed to screw up their lives and only subsequently got their shit together after a conversion to christianity. It reminded me heavily of a conversation I had had a few months ago with my mother, in which I was talking about how christianity requires weakness in its followers in order to function. It needs some void within a person – real or imaginary – that it can claim to fill. It can be financial, emotional, social, medical or mental, but there needs to be something you see as fundamentally wrong with you that only their god can solve, or forgive, or what-have-you. If no such flaw exists, then they will create the illusion of one, through their catch-all of “original sin”, and then provide the illusion of a cure for this through a lifetime of service and cash donations. Like a drug dealer who creates the problem of an addiction in a user’s life, and then offers to solve the problem of the cravings thus-engendered through regular financial transactions.
This sense was re-enforced a short while later as one of the staffers – and I can’t say I’m sure I know what his role was, though I suspect he must have been some sort of deacon or something – came up to the podium and started asking if anyone had any ailments, down to and including a medical dependence upon prescription drugs. He promised that through the magic of his imaginary god, these illnesses could be cured, and that the sufferers could simply stop taking whatever drugs it was their doctors told them they needed. At this point, I recall my demeanour towards these charlatans becoming decidedly more hostile, as it became how dangerously ignorant and irresponsible they were. It was fortunate that nobody took them up on this offer, because this is the sort of behaviour that really can get gullible believers killed, when they stop taking their life-saving treatments thanks to their irrational belief that the magical sky daddy has cast a magical spell of healing upon them.
Finally, the preacher got up to preach. His sermon was rather unpleasant to listen to, at least for me (though naturally I do not pretend not to have a bias here). His voice was frantic, nearly shrieking, as though what he said was SO URGENT that it needed to be conveyed with the same sense of immediate panic that one might communicate to a rescue worker that THERE ARE TWO KIDS TRAPPED IN THAT BURNING BUILDING LISTEN TO ME NOW AND DO NOT TAKE THE CHANCE THAT I AM NOT 100% CORRECT. He gesticulated about wildly, so as to keep all eyes and all focus upon him, and seemed at times almost ready to burst into carefully-rehearsed tears.
His sermon revolved around a small part of the story of Jacob and Esau, in which Esau, starving, comes to Jacob and begs for a bowl of soup. In his moment of need, he short-sightedly offers to trade away his inheritance and birthright in return for this bowl of soup, and later comes to regret having done so. This, the priest used as an analogy for trading away one’s chance to get into heaven in return for a BOWL OF SOUP, whatever that BOWL OF SOUP may be, whether your BOWL OF SOUP be money, your BOWL OF SOUP be sex, your BOWL OF SOUP be drugs, or whatever else it is that distracts you from the better use of your time which is to spend it groveling before his god. A simple metaphor which takes all of ten seconds to explain, but which he spent the better part of an hour belabouring, shouting the phrase BOWL OF SOUP some hundred or so times after doing so had already lost any rhetorical or theatrical value. Towards the end of his sermon, he asked all in attendance what that BOWL OF SOUP was for each individual; what distraction it was that kept us from fully embracing his god. I remember laughing out loud as I thought to myself “A desire for moral and intellectual integrity.”
Finally, the sermon came to an end, and with it, the service proper. People began milling about and chatting, joining one another in various prayer groups and suchlike. It was at this point that the priest, who could not help but to have noticed me standing outside of the tent the whole time, came over to speak with me.
After some brief introductions and such, he asked me what I thought of the sermon. I began by asking him for a point of clarification. He had spoken of the alternative to heaven being “death” and “destruction”, and I asked him if in his particular theology, the soul which does not go to heaven is simply obliterated and ceases to exist, or if they go to hell. He affirmed that yes, he did believe in hell, and that the soul which goes there is constantly being destroyed for all of time. I pointed out that he had been somewhat less than clear on that point, and that he might want to work on clarifying that point in future sermons.
I then went on to make the observation that oblivion actually does seem like a preferable fate to either heaven or hell; while eternal suffering seems as unpleasant as it is pointless, the idea of going to heaven and spending an unending and uninterrupted eternity in the company of a god which I view as ethically monstrous is not something which holds a great deal of appeal to me either.
This led to, at least at first, a re-visiting of many of the same points that I had made when speaking to the woman I had conversed with earlier, vis a vis the monstrous behaviour of the christian god in the stories of the flood, the genocide of Canaan, and so on and so forth.
“How many grains of sand are there on a beach?” He asked, in evasion of my point.
“Four,” I responded.
Unfazed by my insincere response to his rhetorical question, he continued as per a script I’m sure he worked out long ago. “There are things that we don’t know, but which god knows. What would be your reason for ordering all of the people in a town to be killed? You can’t know what god’s reasons are, and so you can’t judge him! In fact, his mind is so vast that you cannot hope to understand his reasoning.”
Now, by this time, between the faith healing bit and this rhetorical mischievousness, I was feeling a little snarky, and so I responded by raising my hands to the empty sky in a mock gesture of supplication, and called out “Oh, lord! I beseech thee, in whom all things are possible, to grant me the ability to comprehend your mysterious motives, for you who art all-powerful, I know, could give it to me to understand your acts with the slightest exertion of your will and end my doubting ways!”
I then looked at the priest with an expectant look, as though to say ‘Your move, motherfucker.’
He retorted that his god was under no onus to allow us to understand his motives, and we were in no position to ask to be able to do so.
“And yet you ask me to endorse his actions, even though they are apparently monstrous, and no explanation is ever offered which might even SEEM to justify them? You would ask me to pledge myself to a lifetime of service to a being which is to all appearances a monster who is so contemptuous even of his followers that he doesn’t even bother to allow them the CHANCE to understand his monstrous actions?”
At this point, it was plainly time for a change of topic on his part. Challenging my motives, he suggested that my questions were not being asked sincerely, but rather in order to tear down and belittle his god. I was honest, and told him that this was not entirely untrue, but pointed out that my motives for asking the questions did not make the questions any less valid or my observations any less sound.
He launched into full-on preacher mode at this point, affecting the same affectations he had been while on-stage, with the increasingly-frenzied voice and swaying about. He asked me if I had ever allowed his god into my heart, if I had ever bowed down in prayer with my heart open to him, and asked him into my life.
“Simmer down there, sport,” I responded, in the tone one might employ when speaking to a rambunctious eight year old whose antics threaten to break some furniture or something, “You’re getting all agitated.”
“I’m not getting angry!” he shouted.
“I didn’t say ‘angry’, I said ‘agitated’.”
“I’m just getting excited,” he responded, somewhat sullenly.
“Well, that’s great for when you’re standing behind your pulpit, screaming at people who want to be screamed at, but it’s not so useful for one-on-one conversation.”
Somewhat churlishly, he promised to try to keep it under wraps.
I then addressed his earlier question. “Before I would do something like that, I would need some proof, or at least some reason to believe that there was such an entity to be prayed to.”
“When I first found the lord, I was in prison,” he responded, reciting his True Tale of Human Weakness which so many christians are fond of, “and do you know what I was doing in my cell?”
“Masturbating?” I ventured.
“I was praying!” he snapped back at me.
“And so, for you, in that situation, that experience was what it took to convince you of your god’s existence,” I observed.
“Well, let’s say your god is real, and is more or less as you describe him. Omnipotent, omniscient, and all that, right? If that’s the case, then he knows me better than I know myself, right? If so then he knows that, while for you that’s an adequate experience to convince you of his existence, he also knows that for me, something a bit more substantial is necessary. So why then does he choose to give you what you need, but chooses to withhold what I need?”
“You’re not coming to him honestly,” he responded, “he knows you don’t want to believe, and so he chooses to let you live on in ignorance.”
“So he chooses to give people who are swayed by emotional appeals the experience that they need in order to make the informed decisions they need to make in order to get into heaven, but those whose minds are set up – presumably by his design – to value evidence above emotion, he chooses to deny the necessary information to make those informed decisions. To me, that’s not just an evil god, it’s a nasty, capricious one.”
At this point, he abruptly “realized” that he ought to be helping to strike the tent and pack things up, and very hastily disengaged from the conversation. I was quite willing to allow him to do so; things were obviously going nowhere, and besides which, it was getting bitingly cold outside. I kind of wanted to go home anyways. Nevertheless, I took some satisfaction as I made my way away that he was the first one to blink.
So, that was my first experience with a christian tent revival. Nothing genuinely shocking, but there were a couple of arguments which were novel to me, and which gave me a chance to think on my feet and to argue against, and so I feel like I got something positive out of the experience. The priest was a kind of professional liar, and so he was less interesting to me than the lay person I spoke to earlier (and a couple of other brief conversations I also had which I didn’t bother to transcribe since they kind of covered similar ground anyways). Nevertheless, it was primarily worthwhile to me in that I proved to my own satisfaction that all of these arguments I’ve been stockpiling over the years really do work in the real world, and I’m quick enough to employ them effectively. Now maybe I will follow up on that one woman’s suggestion and seek out some professional theologians.