The Good Friday Marathon


"What is truth' Pilate asked." —John 18:38

It is hard to explain to people just what it is that I do.


“Oh, you’re visiting LA? Have you been to Disneyland or Universal Studios?”
“No, but I have been to Saddleback and Hillsong and have plans to see the Crystal Cathedral.”


I do not know a lot of people that go on pilgrimages anymore. Especially not pilgrimages that include visits to various Evangelical churches. Actually, I am pretty sure I am the only one I know that’s doing this. I am definitely the only person I know that finds it fun.


And for the record, I am trying to visit the gatherings of other religions too, but they are just harder to come by (I am on a very different kind of witch hunt!), so I have spent most of my time on this trip so far among Jesus people. And that’s probably better this way. It seems fitting that my search for spiritual Truth should begin in the last place where I thought I had it. I figure it is at least worth a close and scrutinizing look.


This last Friday was Good Friday, one of the most holy and sacred days in all of Christendom. This means that that it was a great opportunity to reflect on what it is that Christians actually believe. It also meant there were a lot of different church services happening at a lot of different times. And I wanted to go to as many as I possibly could. It turned out to be a long and surreal day. Here’s how it went down:


* * *
I spent the morning reading a little about the history of Good Friday within the church. Traditionally, it is a day of mourning and fasting. Not altogether different from Yom Kippur. It is a day for atonement, reflection, and repentance. St. Ambrose called it “a day of mourning, not a day of festive joy.” Augustine called it “a day of bitterness in which we fast.” Some churches used to (and might still currently) drape black cloth over the crucifix and hold a candlelight service where the candles are extinguished one by one until the church sits silently and reflectively in total darkness. That all seemed solemn and sacred and beautiful.


What I saw was different than that.


After a quick shower and a breakfast at Chick-Fil-A (because if you are going to pretend to be Evangelical for the day, one should do it wholeheartedly), I arrived at the first church just before their noon service. It was a non-denominational mega-church and Christian high school. The service was held outside on the football field and the surrounding area was set up like a carnival. There was kettle corn and quesadillas and snow cones and balloons and possibly a face painting booth (but I am not sure on that). I really wanted a snow cone, but all the booths were acting as fundraisers for the various church ministries and I was one dollar short of the four dollar price.


I made my way to the football field where I was surrounded by people wearing shoes that probably cost more than what I could sell my organs for on the black market. Lots of white dresses and fancy hats and children looking like they just came out of an ad for laundry detergent. Perhaps it was because almost every woman looked like she had auditioned for Real Housewives of Orange County—and chances are a few were actually on the show—I had the distinct impression that at least some of these women were so bored with their lives that they could easily be seduced during the service.
But I was too busy thinking about my lack of snow cone to care.


The service began with the smooth adult contemporary music that churches seem to really go nuts for. Some guy read the entirety of Psalms 22 and then some other guy, presumably the pastor, got up to give the sermon.
It was hard to focus on what was said because the only chairs available were in the back by all the carnival booths and there were kids running all around me. But one thing I did notice, because it kept getting repeated, was the pastor’s insistence that the death of Jesus “happened on this very day just over 2,000 years ago.”


And it struck me then that this is one place where traditional Christians and I definitely part ways. Whatever it is that my “faith” is at this point, it is more focused on a mythological or symbolic understanding of things. But these people were insistent that no, this was a historical event. This all actually happened exactly the way that the Bible says it did. In fact, Jesus decided before the very beginning of time that he was going to choose that precise historical time and method of execution for him to die. He did not attempt to explain or defend how he knew all this. He just stated it all as fact.


And this raised a lot of questions for me. Much like creationism, if you are going to declare something as a scientific or historical fact, then you invite scientific and historical scrutiny. I thought instantly of copying errors, non-canonical gospels, feuds among Christians throughout history about what the death of Jesus meant, even disparities among the four gospels themselves. This is not to say that there is nothing to the story of Jesus, but whatever it is messy and complicated and mysterious.
But Mr. Pastor guy just wrapped it all up in clean and simple and small little box. There you go, swallow it whole.


The service ended with prepackaged communion cups that were passed out by the Boy Scouts, for some reason. I never partake in communion because that’s the one thing Christians say is just for them and I want to honor that. Plus, I realized that if I left a little early I could catch a screening of the latest installment of the most paranoid sci-fi thriller trilogy that I have seen in years:


* * *
I do not have the space here to fully describe this series of movies, but they are all set in alternate reality where Christians are the most hated and persecuted group of people in the country. Not like our world where Christians make up 75% of the country and exercise a huge amount of political power.
But seriously, I felt like I was in a flashback to the early days of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale.
It was a surreal and almost frightening movie to watch. In part, because I saw my actual life on the screen.
The conversations that were played out have been some of the exact same conversations that I have had with my believing friends. But here I was portrayed, with absolutely no subtlety, as the villain.
Fun stoner conversations about the Mandela Effect are here shown to be a nefarious plot to undermine the faith of college students. I have been the boyfriend of the confused college girl that is questioning her faith, but in the movie that guy is seen to be emotionally manipulating her into disbelief.
In fact, every non-Christian in any of these three films seems to exist solely to destroy Christianity and every good thing it stands for. I felt like a spy deep into enemy territory watching propaganda against myself.


And to be fair, it should be noted that the overarching plot of the movie is to show that Christians should not respond to non-believers in anger, that they are to love instead of to fight.
But the underlying point of the movie was that Christians would be justified if they did choose to fight. That liberal universities and the media and atheists and homosexuals all hate you and want your way of life destroyed. And call me paranoid, but that concerns me.
Especially given that we presently have a highly authoritarian president that has chosen the same institutions as a target. The frog is in the water and the temperature is being slowly ratcheted up. You can call me crazy, but there are shifts happening in our nation that we would be wise to pay attention to.


And my dear Christian friends, just for the record, let me tell you: We are not your enemy.
We just want to live in this country too. And I know that every God’s Not Dead movie are based on real first amendment court cases and I am more than happy to deep dive into each one with you. But I promise you, we are not out to destroy you.
No doubt, a lot of us don’t like you, but that’s usually because you try to legislate away who we can marry or how we can live our lives. God loved us enough to give us free will, I don’t know, maybe you can follow that example and simply go back to trying to persuade us differently as opposed to regulating our morality.
But that’s a whole other subject and I still had two more churches to attend that day (which I will try to cover very briefly. There’s just so much I want to say and I am skipping over a lot!)


* * *
After the movie, I had just enough time to make it to the next church. It was smaller and full of middle class type families. The service was set up to be contemplative and reflective. There was only a soft red light cast on a large empty cross in the middle of the sanctuary. Instead of a sermon, there were three people who gave a dramatic reading, each followed by a long period of silent meditation.


The entirety of all three dramatic readings can be summed up as this:
Man, you really suck. I mean, the whole world sucks. But you especially. You really suck. The world is full of suffering and anger and human trafficking and rape and war and pollution and you, you can’t do anything right, you aren’t there for your kids or your wife and probably do a half-assed job at work and are really actually evil and you deserve a punishment more severe than death.
Or, as Godless in Dixie writer Neil Carter put it:
“The Christian gospel is a fundamentally anti-human message because it is predicated on the notion that humans deserve to be punished just for being what humans are and for doing what humans do naturally...Most people are not criminals, and yet your message explicitly asserts that all people deserve a punishment worse than the ones we inflict on murderers and child-molesters. An eternity of suffering for about seventy years of what amount to mostly ‘thought crimes.”


But the thing is, I don’t really feel like I am evil. I don’t even feel that much like a sinner. I mean I am a single, sex positive, fairly attractive guy who has spent the last month in LA (a city I’ve always heard was a hotbed of lusty hedonism), and I have been trying pretty hard to sin, but still can’t seem to pull it off. Sinning is not nearly as easy as my youth group always led me to believe.
Which makes me believe that introverts are introverts no matter what they believe and extroverted Christians probably repent a lot.
But if this version of the gospel is true, than I am a horrible sinner even if I spend most of my time drinking coffee and reading. Morality itself can’t exist out of the redemptive and sanctifying work of Jesus’ death. And that just doesn’t seem to be true to me at all. Sure, there is a lot of horrible things that people do to each other, but how we go from that to saying that all of humanity is hopelessly fallen seems like a stretch to me.


Even the part towards the end of the service where I was told that without Jesus, I am empty and void of meaning and have some giant God shaped hole in my heart did not hold up. I have given up everything to spend a year seeking out God and spiritual Truth, but I still do not feel empty or incomplete or even broken. I do not believe I need to be fixed.


When I contemplate spirituality what I feel is the opposite of empty. I feel expansive. Like I am connected to something beyond me. This feeling wants me to open myself up and love people more authentically and genuinely and to not see them as some condemned other, but to recognize that we are all in this together. If what I am feeling is God, I do not presently see how that connects with this idea that I am corrupt and worthless and dirty and immoral.


I went to another service, but since it was just more of the first two I will mostly skip discussing it here. Except to say that they threw out way more audacious historical claims as if they were fact. “Now the Romans, they would crucify anybody. Women, children, it didn’t matter to them. Which is why it was so amazing that Mary would risk her life to come see Jesus at the cross. So how dare you deny Jesus in front of your co-workers!”


I’m sorry, what?
If the Jesus story is historically true you can’t just make up stuff about it. But again, that’s what’s so confusing about all of this. It’s all deeply symbolic, but reportedly true.


It all made my head hurt.


* * *
After all the churches, I drove out to the beach. I walked alone and barefoot in the sand and listened to the waves and watched the stars.
I thought about how the Romans surely did not care who they were crucifying on that day just over 2,000 years ago. There were dozens of people claiming to be the messiah at that time. This was just another day in the backwoods of the Roman Empire.


But yet…
Somehow this one day (a day which some believed didn’t even happen) really did change the entire course of human history. Like it or not, the person of Jesus and the religion that rose up around it has been one of the biggest and most influential movements since, well, ever.


And I don’t know what to make of that. And thus I must keep digging deeper.


Oh, and for Easter, I had drinks with some friends as we watched Jesus Christ Superstar Live together. I don’t know what that says about spiritual truth, but damn if it wasn't a good time.

Comments

  1. I guess it is too late for this year but if you want to experience Good Friday/Easter, I suggest you attend all Triduum services at a Roman Catholic Church. Starting with Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter (Vigil Mass on Saturday night is a must-attend), and then Easter morning Mass.

    Palm Sunday commemorates the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem amdist cheers from the crowds.
    Holy Thursday commemorates the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples feet and ends with a stripping of the altar (powerful).
    Good Friday commemorates the mock trial and crucifixion with the full Passion reading complete with the congregation playing the roll of the mob shouting "Crucify Him!" (powerful again).
    The Easter Vigil begins in the dark with a fire in a cauldron outside. Congregants are given candles and a feeble light is passed from person to person, candle to candle, until the sanctuary is filled with points of light (powerful once more). The readings are pairs of OT prophecy, psalm and NT fulfillment. New members are baptized and holy oils and the Easter candle is blessed.
    Easter morning is a celebration of the Resurrection and the Empty Tomb.

    The liturgy is beautiful in the "high churches". "Low (evangelical) churches" are, for lack of a better term, shit when it comes to holy days.

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    1. I am in full agreement with you. I was tempted to go to a Catholic or more liturgical church last weekend, but I am trying to attend the dominant religious expression of whatever community I'm in. And in Orange County, Ca, Megachurches are all the rage. Luckily though, Good Friday and Easter are this coming weekend for the Orthodox church, so I will be able to go to those. And I am really excited about that.

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    2. I guess you have to decide what your goal is by attending these services (i.e. what would "satisfy" you and not be an object of your ridicule). If you're going to Chinese restaurants and complaining that they can't make a good burger, well...you've erected a nice straw man there.

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    3. An excellent point, but in that instance there is a baseline for what good Chinese food is. What I get in Chinatown will always be better than what I find at Panda Express. In the instance of church, that distinction is not as clear. Or at least not for me. I do not necessarily believe that Catholic or more liturgical services are somehow "more authentic" than their Evangelical Megachurch counterparts. And so I am going to all of them and evaluating each based on the ideas and culture they present. I am excited to go to an Orthodox church for their Good Friday because that will be an entirely new experience for me, but I don't if what I find there will be subjectively any better or worse than the other services I've been to.
      And if I have come across as ridiculing these other churches, well, yeah, I suppose I have. But I didn't go there with that intention. I am doing my best to remain as open-minded and accepting as possible. Though as a former Evangelical, I am naturally more inclined to be a bit critical of those churches simply because I am more familiar with them and have an idea as to what "authentic" looks like in that culture (which may or may not be an accurate view). I will try to be more careful to at least give them the benefit of the doubt moving forward.

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  2. I've spent my time in and around a variety of churches and think each one brings a portion of the larger picture to the table. Liturgical churches do emmanent/transcendant God really well but to appreciate it, you need to be a "profess"ional. And some churches do it better than others. The best one I went to was attached to a Benedictine monastery. Solid liturgy, rich imagery, clear, concise homiletics. Also participated in Liturgy of the Hours and lectio divina there. But God is an internal being in that space so it isn't very approachable to the new comer. French or Japanese cuisine.

    Evangelical churches do immanent/incarnational God well. This is set up for the "casual user" and is very approachable. Modern facilities, food courts, lots of community/kids/outreach programs and simplified preaching. You go to these churches for a sense of belonging and purpose. The theology is generally shallow, though. It's the entry point. I can't think of one that is "best" but the one I got the most involved with was best for me. These are more like Fast Food.

    House churches are the least approachable and have the most variability. You can encounter deep relationship and deep theology here but it is more orhtopraxy than orthodoxy. High accountability and visibility and a more egalitarian environment. But since they are so small and you need to commit for several years before really experiencing them, they are hard to find. I've only heard about these. These are like cooking at home and family meals.

    They all have different strengths and weaknesses and none (IMHO) show the complete picture. You just have to take them for what they are.

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    1. I think that's really helpful way of putting that. Thank you.

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  3. Initial response: Oh, so my actual problem was that I am an extrovert. No wonder all the introverts always seemed so much holier than me. And were, all my life, conveyed that way. :D (Introversion is next to godliness.) ;)

    Serious response: This helped me understand more of the conversation in the panel yesterday. As someone who left religion and stays away due to zero belief in or feelings of spirituality I found your explanation more clarifying than others I've read. So many times the desire of an Atheist/Agnostic for spirituality sounds as if there is some longing to return to the "nice" feelings they had when they were Christian. In short, there is never a whole lot of thought behind it, never a consideration of all we gave up of our own selves to "enjoy" those feelings. So, while I still will probably never understand the need for spirituality because I just never thought that way (and didn't that make for five decades of insanity?) I can definitely have respect for people who think they have that need and are honestly seeking to understand what it means, while still keeping their feet planted in reality.

    And, back to my initial response: I am also often accused of leaving Christianity because I wanted to sin. So far I've only had time to start swearing like a fucking sailor. I always want to say, "Look, I've got five kids, a house to clean, laundry to do, yard work, oh, and I work and go to school full-time. When do I even have time to sin?" :D

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    1. Yep, extroversion is the biggest cause of sin in America today. That's why in my new religion, one gets baptized into a library membership and our church service is an hour alone in the woods. The "fruits of the spirit" are an aversion to bars and parties and a disdain for small talk.

      But seriously: Thank you. I really appreciate your take on this and it has helped clarify some thoughts that have been rolling around in my brain lately. I really think there is something to the fact that some of us just don't seem wired for belief—or at least not belief in the same way and with the same emotional intensity—as others. And I think that is something that needs to be affirmed more. You aren't broken or "less than" just because you don't feel it. And it definitely needs to be affirmed more that people don't leave the church so they can sin (we all know you can sin just fine as a Christian, it's probably even easier there). I am not seeking because there is a hole inside me that I am looking to fill. I think what we want is a true understanding of how the world actually is. And as you say, we are willing to sacrifice a lot to even truly begin that search. And speaking of those sacrifices, I wrote a thing a few weeks about that, it may or may not resonate with you, but here it is: http://www.theholyapostate.com/2018/03/i-often-see-how-you-sob-over-what-you.html I'd love to hear your thoughts if you read it.

      And yeah, people keep asking me what wild things I did after I lost my faith. And they are always disappointed when I tell them that I pretty much just stayed the same. But maybe I'll try to sin more in honor of you and others who just don't have the time.

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