Vaguely religious #1

As part of my project I would like to fill in the weeks I don’t visit a church by doing something else at least vaguely religious. This time I watched the movie Dogma. I know it’s probably thought of as mostly a stupid comedy, but I actually watched it for the religious storyline. And that’s what I’ll talk about. If you haven’t seen it, get with the times! I mean, just teasing. Spoilers ahead.

The story goes as follows:

Two disfavored angels try to take advantage of a forgiveness policy of a particular church and regain entry to heaven. All that’s required is to pass under the arch of this church to gain indulgence (equivalent to forgiveness within the movie context). The problem is that God kicked the angels out. If they get forgiveness without his ok, it makes God fallible and nullifies all existence. So several entities are dispatched to stop this from happening. They include an apostle, an angel, a muse, and a distant relative of Jesus Christ. God is quiet during all this, leading to speculation that he’s on earth somewhere posing as a human (he enjoys skeeball) and hasn’t heard what is going on.

The movie has quite a few things I like. Very early in the movie we see a Catholic cardinal unveiling the new symbol for Catholicism- the buddy Christ. It replaces the bleeding Christ on the cross which is just too depressing. That seems right on the money to me. My church growing up always had an abstract statue crucifix. I was surprised by the realistic crucifix at some of my friends’ churches. Of course “buddy Christ” is a little silly. But the whole blood and gore thing should go right out the window as far as I’m concerned.

Then there’s the- Jesus had siblings issue. Some theology teaches that the Virgin Mary must be a virgin forever. Besides seeming unrealistic, this is contested in the bible itself which talks of Jesus’ brothers. Some translators insist this is a loose term that means his cousins, but I don’t buy that. They all had like a zillion kids back in the day. She was married. She had more kids.

The characters I could go on and on about. I’ll try to be brief with those I felt were the most interesting. First there’s Bethany. She is approached by an angel to go after the wayward angels and stop them. She has no idea why she is chosen and feels disconnected from her faith, wondering if it is really what she believes anymore. There are numerous little conversations with those she meets about faith. Because of this Bethany is made the most human and realistic character in this comedy. Especially striking is the scene in which she is told of her relation to Jesus Christ. She reacts badly, running blindly until she finally crashes in a river (baptism allusion anyone?) and tries to face what she’s been told. Throughout, she has to take steps that she is unsure of, with only faith to assure her that she will succeed. Yet she finally does achieve her purpose, at the cost of her life (Jesus parallel) which God then restores to her. (nice!)

Now I understand that the only real reason Jay and Silent Bob were in this picture is because the Kevin Smith fans expected it. But at the same time they make interesting characters. They are foretold to Bethany as “prophets” with whom she should journey, but they don’t seem aware of it themselves. I like the idea of God being able to use people for his works even if they don’t know about it. It’s also clearly a bit of spiritual revelation to them to be involved in something so massively mysterious. As a stand alone movie, ignoring whatever other movies they were characters in later (which I haven’t seen), I would guess the experience changed who they were as people.

Loki and Bartleby are the two disfavored angels. They fell out of favor after the killing of the firstborn in Egypt and have been living in the midwest ever since. They are both very jaded and unhappy, always wishing they could get back to their former glory. The special church indulgence thing seems like just what they needed. Now, as a side note, it seems like the indulgence being equal to forgiveness is a misinterpretation. It’s really meant to be a lessening of the actual punishment a soul goes through on the way to heaven. The punishment part is called purgatory and souls sometimes have to undergo this punishment before entering heaven. And all of that is based on seldom used (but still on the books) Catholic teachings. But in the movie it means forgiveness, which is what the angels want. Halfway through the movie, one of them accidentally learns that what they are trying to do will obliterate reality and that there are several individuals out to stop him. He seems not to understand this fully or maybe he just ignores it. My view is that he actually understands well that this will happen and wants his own existence terminated. It is clearly torturing him to remain on earth out of God’s presence. We see at the end of the movie God finally reappears, thanks in part to Bethany, to do just that. God allows him to become nullified and ends his misery as he mouths words ‘thank you’. To me this is the best and most moving part of the story. God is merciful, not wrathful. This is how I see God. This is the God I love, and as weird as it might be to have a moving spiritual connection with a comedy, I did. And I think the movie is just great for that ending alone.

A Fun Day- Thoughts 1/28/12

Just an update- I figured I should do something extra what with the week off from the project. Several churches on the list I am still compiling are mysterious to me. They seem to have no website and I can’t confirm if they are active or what time service might be. I did a couple of drive-bys to check for signage. First I stopped at the an LDS (Latter Day Saints) place on Madison avenue. I met some Mormons. I asked about what time they meet on Sunday and do they meet on Sundays? I’m still iffy about terminology for some of the denominations. I mean, you don’t want to call a service a mass, or a temple a chapel, right? They gave me a card and encouraged me to learn about LDS and come on Sunday. They seemed a bit perplexed by what I wanted. I’m thinking I may run into a lot of assumptions about who I am, perhaps assuming I am ‘lost’ ‘confused’ or already one of the group. If I don’t really fit into those categories I am possibly something of a mystery.

The second drive-by was a place that looked deserted and had no sign except the name “Emmanuel Christian Center”. After getting home and googling it again, I found a website explaining that it is a retreat center which can be rented for events. So not actually a church. I’m beginning to see the yellow pages as rife with errors. For instance: they refer to the LDS albany address as the “Church of Jesus Chris”. Yeah. Ok.

Church #4, Glenmont Community Church

Date: 1/29/12

Church: Glenmont Community Church (Reformed)

Pastor: Abby Norton-Levering

Time Spent: 10am-11:30am

Overall Impression: Good, familiar, small community

Type: Reformed Church in America

Format: Some opening words and a song, greeting time, congregation speaks some lines together, scripture and song, sermon, prayer, song, blessing

Thoughts: The feel is very like several Methodist Churches I’ve been to. The format was basically identical. I fear I will have very little to say about this church, simply because it was not alien to me. It felt like a church. There were pews and a loft for an organ, hymnals and bibles, and I got to sing the doxology. I sure do love singing the doxology. For any unfamiliar with it, here’s the words:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise Him all creatures here below,

Praise Him above ye heavenly host,

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

A-men!

That has such great memories for me from camp and the different tunes we used to sing it as a grace before meals.

The greeting time near the beginning of service was the ‘musical chairs’ type, in which everyone moves all over church to say hi to everyone. I got a hug from an older gentleman named Jay, who seemed nice. Also there was a prayer time open to the congregation, in which we took turns giving Pastor Abby prayer requests. Then she led us in prayer over the requests. This again was very like the Methodist Churches I’ve been to.

The church is small. The building isn’t too big and those attending church don’t fill the building more than one third. They told me it was down to about five families at one point, in danger of closing. But it didn’t and has grown some since. And it is fairly active in terms of projects geared towards helping the needy, especially considering its size. I’ve been to churches with size/attendance issues before and I’ve seen how tough that can be, so I hope this church can continue and be where it needs to be. As for me, the nature of my project says I must go on to the next church on my list. I do however think I will be stopping at this church too sometimes with canned goods for their food bank affiliate. They are conveniently located right next to a grocery store.

Overall Feelings: I like this place, and would be willing to go back again.

Church #3 Kingdom Hall in Bethelhem

Date: 1/15/12

Church: Kingdom Hall Bethlehem

Pastor: Unsure if they call the leader(s) pastor(s), the two speakers were referred to as Brother Matice and Brother Derek Doherty

Time Spent: 10am-12noon

Overall Impression: Kinda scared

Type: Jehovah’s Witnesses

Format: 30min talk about scripture, 1hr 30min study of Watchtower Literature, a hymn at the beginning, middle and end. Prayer bookended the Watchtower study.

Thoughts: I showed up and tried to take a seat. It took several minutes because people greeted me continually as I walked inside. I guess it might have been my clothing. All of the men were in suits and the women in dresses and skirts. Anyway I finally achieved a seat. A woman asked me if I knew what to expect. I said no. She told me there would be a talk and then a study with questions and answers. The first half hour seemed ok. There were references to Abraham, Adam, Jesus. The message was about Jesus needing to suffer and maintain integrity/obediance to God in order to take on sin. It was given by a speaker they mentioned was from somewhere local (Brother Matice). Then things got- different. I was given a copy of the watchtower lesson and the entire group went through it led by another speaker (Brother Doherty). It was very like an English comprehension lesson from third grade. There would be a paragraph followed by questions which we could answer to make sure we understood the lesson. Here’s how I remember third grade:

text- Tom and Jody are friends. Tom gives Jody a book for her birthday. Jody is happy to get this gift.
question- Why is Jody happy?
answer- Because Tom gave her a book for her birthday.

But I’m not in third grade today. And I don’t think my bible lessons should treat me like I am. About 50% of the answers offered were verbatim from the lesson itself, as though half the room wasn’t even interested in thinking, just spitting back answers. I also noticed the lessons were made up of verses from various parts of the bible just all strung together with no attempt made to follow the original context. I’m not really a fan of that. Taken apart and put back together you could make any book say anything:

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf.”

“Your ring is shown to be that One Ring by the fire-writing alone,”

“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo…”What am I to do?”

“You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,” said Gandalf.

“You are wise and fearless and fair Lady Galadriel,” said Frodo. “I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice…”I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

“And that’s the end of that,” said Sam.

I remember how Frodo left his home to escape those that wanted his ring, almost got tricked into giving it to Galadriel and finally decided to keep it for himself. The End.

But I digress. Even reading the bible entirely and in order people disagree about it. And these weren’t the only reasons I started to feel really weird at Kingdom Hall. Most of the lesson was about how we are to live apart from the world, which is of Satan and therefore evil. We live in the world but we are not of the world. This strikes me as a potentially dangerous idea, because it sets up a scenario of us vs. them. In my mind religion should be about reaching out to help people. This seemed more like it was closing in to stay away from people. Because they belong to the evil world…just a step away from saying, everyone else is evil. I don’t ever remember being taught that in my religious upbringing and it seems kind of pretentious.

Weirdness goes on however. Towards the end there was one more freaky thing that I was nervous to hear. The lesson explains how we are to hold ourselves away from the world if we can and not engage fully. (it’s evil remember?) Here is what it says:

Vigilant Christians refrain from using the world to the full with regard to higher education. Many people in this world consider higher education an indispensable stepping-stone to prestige and an affluent life. But we Christians live as temporary residents and pursue different goals.

So now I’m not a Christian because I went to college? Ouch. This seems wrong to me for several reasons. Education is important. Education is good! This is such a basic assumption for me I can’t even think of a way to argue why it’s good. Also, in most places it is important to have a college degree in order to get a job that’s not factory work or retail. Why is a religion telling me not to go to college?

So in the end I was rather creeped out. It may not be as bad as I think though. I don’t really know based off one Sunday how seriously all of them take it. There was the one man who told me his wife is Catholic. Either he misspoke and she used to be Catholic, or they are ok with a member being married to an outsider. And one of the leaders pointed out that the anti-college thing was really more about avoiding prestige for the sake of prestige. My gymnast friend points out that I may be in for visits to other churches that also feel the rest of the world is either wrong or evil, but it may be understated. Or not revealed to the casual visitor. I guess I’m saying I understand these are still all people and can give the benefit of the doubt. But I won’t go back into that church. One Sunday of that was plenty.

Overall Feelings: Too much for me. I’ll stay out here in the world.

Church #3 Kingdom Hall in Bethelhem

Date: 1/15/12

Church: Kingdom Hall Bethlehem

Pastor: Unsure if they call the leader(s) pastor(s), the two speakers were referred to as Brother Matice and Brother Derek Doherty

Time Spent: 10am-12noon

Overall Impression: Kinda scared

Type: Jehovah’s Witnesses

Format: 30min talk about scripture, 1hr 30min study of Watchtower Literature, a hymn at the beginning, middle and end. Prayer bookended the Watchtower study.

Thoughts: I showed up and tried to take a seat. It took several minutes because people greeted me continually as I walked inside. I guess it might have been my clothing. All of the men were in suits and the women in dresses and skirts. Anyway I finally achieved a seat. A woman asked me if I knew what to expect. I said no. She told me there would be a talk and then a study with questions and answers. The first half hour seemed ok. There were references to Abraham, Adam, Jesus. The message was about Jesus needing to suffer and maintain integrity/obediance to God in order to take on sin. It was given by a speaker they mentioned was from somewhere local (Brother Matice). Then things got- different. I was given a copy of the watchtower lesson and the entire group went through it led by another speaker (Brother Doherty). It was very like an English comprehension lesson from third grade. There would be a paragraph followed by questions which we could answer to make sure we understood the lesson. Here’s how I remember third grade:

text- Tom and Jody are friends. Tom gives Jody a book for her birthday. Jody is happy to get this gift.
question- Why is Jody happy?
answer- Because Tom gave her a book for her birthday.

But I’m not in third grade today. And I don’t think my bible lessons should treat me like I am. About 50% of the answers offered were verbatim from the lesson itself, as though half the room wasn’t even interested in thinking, just spitting back answers. I also noticed the lessons were made up of verses from various parts of the bible just all strung together with no attempt made to follow the original context. I’m not really a fan of that. Taken apart and put back together you could make any book say anything:

“Last night you began to tell me strange things about my ring, Gandalf.”

“Your ring is shown to be that One Ring by the fire-writing alone,”

“But this is terrible!” cried Frodo…”What am I to do?”

“You ought to go quietly, and you ought to go soon,” said Gandalf.

“You are wise and fearless and fair Lady Galadriel,” said Frodo. “I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.”

Then Frodo stirred and spoke with a clear voice…”I will not do this deed. The Ring is mine!”

“And that’s the end of that,” said Sam.

I remember how Frodo left his home to escape those that wanted his ring, almost got tricked into giving it to Galadriel and finally decided to keep it for himself. The End.

But I digress. Even reading the bible entirely and in order people disagree about it. And these weren’t the only reasons I started to feel really weird at Kingdom Hall. Most of the lesson was about how we are to live apart from the world, which is of Satan and therefore evil. We live in the world but we are not of the world. This strikes me as a potentially dangerous idea, because it sets up a scenario of us vs. them. In my mind religion should be about reaching out to help people. This seemed more like it was closing in to stay away from people. Because they belong to the evil world…just a step away from saying, everyone else is evil. I don’t ever remember being taught that in my religious upbringing and it seems kind of pretentious.

Weirdness goes on however. Towards the end there was one more freaky thing that I was nervous to hear. The lesson explains how we are to hold ourselves away from the world if we can and not engage fully. (it’s evil remember?) Here is what it says:

Vigilant Christians refrain from using the world to the full with regard to higher education. Many people in this world consider higher education an indispensable stepping-stone to prestige and an affluent life. But we Christians live as temporary residents and pursue different goals.

So now I’m not a Christian because I went to college? Ouch. This seems wrong to me for several reasons. Education is important. Education is good! This is such a basic assumption for me I can’t even think of a way to argue why it’s good. Also, in most places it is important to have a college degree in order to get a job that’s not factory work or retail. Why is a religion telling me not to go to college?

So in the end I was rather creeped out. It may not be as bad as I think though. I don’t really know based off one Sunday how seriously all of them take it. There was the one man who told me his wife is Catholic. Either he misspoke and she used to be Catholic, or they are ok with a member being married to an outsider. And one of the leaders pointed out that the anti-college thing was really more about avoiding prestige for the sake of prestige. My gymnast friend points out that I may be in for visits to other churches that also feel the rest of the world is either wrong or evil, but it may be understated. Or not revealed to the casual visitor. I guess I’m saying I understand these are still all people and can give the benefit of the doubt. But I won’t go back into that church. One Sunday of that was plenty.

Overall Feelings: Too much for me. I’ll stay out here in the world.

Church #2, King’s Chapel in Glenmont

Date: 1/8/12

Church: King’s Chapel, Glenmont

Pastor: Lou Giampaglia

Time Spent: 10am-12noon

Overall Impression: Impressive Depth

Type: I can’t make out a denomination that this church calls itself, but it also doesn’t go by “non-denominational” which is a term that seems to be becoming a buzzword. It’s possible they want to avoid the classification because the term “non-denominational” is almost becoming a denomination itself.

According to the history, it is an outgrowth of Westerlo Baptist Church in the late 90’s, but there’s no mention of current affiliation, and I’m not entirely sure how to group it. (possibly that is the point- touché!)

Format: Opening song, announcements, more songs, sermon, closing song and prayer

Thoughts: The first thing that grabbed me was the warmth. Now I’m a sucker for good lighting, acoustics, and actual warmth, so it’s possible this fuzzy feeling was just a lucky combination. But it felt nice in there. I notice from the bulletin that this church collects food and clothing in association with a food pantry and a rescue mission, maybe I should consider shopping for non-perishables and driving them over. It is right next to my usual grocery store. The people seem nice, cool, they are obviously close to each other. I was greeted only once, but that’s ok. If one is greeted too many times into a new place it can become overwhelming. And it’s not like I felt snubbed. Actually the opposite. After the service I introduced myself to the pastor and he intro’d me to his wife. While talking with her I put my hand in my pocket and discovered I locked my keys in my car. She offered to let me use her tripleA to unlock it, but I didn’t need to since Dan was down the street. It was kinda funny in a stupid (like of all the dumb things I could do!) way.

The sermon was really my favorite part. The pastor touched on a lot of different aspects of the reading for that day. It was from Genesis 15- actually it might have been the whole chapter. Here are the parts of the sermon that struck me enough to record in my notebook.

Covenant is an important theme in this part of Genesis. The idea of covenant is throughout the bible. There is an implicit one with Adam- take care of the earth and Eve and don’t eat that fruit. Noah was given the rainbow as sign of the covenant when God told him he wouldn’t flood the earth again. Marriage is a covenant. Grace is a covenant.

The pastor did an interesting thing (I think) in relating Genesis opening to the gospels. The words God says to the three in the garden can be interpreted as relating to Jesus’ death. He says to the serpent (evil/devil) ‘He will crush your head’. Jesus crushes sin and gets rid of it. He also says ‘You will bruise his heel’. Jesus was busied and wounded in his death. This interpretation makes the Genesis verses almost a prophesy and I hadn’t heard it that way before.

There’s lots of good imagery in this chapter. Abram (later renamed Abraham by God) was from Ur, a place where he probably worshipped the moon. God came to him, brought him out, and then promised to give him really awesome things, including lots of lands and descendants. God speaks to him and takes him outside, telling him to look up. “Number the stars. So shall your descendants be.” He promises him so many grandchildren great-grandchildren, etc, that he wouldn’t be able to count them. And he told him in a way that had him focus on a night sky with the moon in it. A moon that probably never promised all these things to him. And we know from later chapters that God keeps his promise. The other important thing about Abram is that he believes God before it was even accomplished. That’s why we call Abram one of the faithful.

An interesting thing the pastor talked about was old testament agreements. The covenant Abram makes is like others made at that time with animal sacrifices. An animal was cut in half and those making the promise walked between the halves as a sign that they agreed. It was a way of saying, “I’ll keep my promise, if not may I be sliced in half like these animals.” If I understood the message correctly, in this case God made the necessary pass through the animal halves as fire and smoke.

Another point that was called into use was the idea of faith vs. works. The message was that faith is the important one because True Faith brings works. I think I can disagree with this one in practice, because I feel it is part of myself to require motivation actually doing good works and I don’t think it is lack of true faith. But that’s probably another longer discussion.

I also had some difficulty with a question we were posed: Given the choice, would you choose the best thing in your life or Jesus? Well the best thing in my life is my family. I don’t think it would ever come to me choosing to give them up in order to obtain Jesus. Also I wouldn’t. So I think the question wasn’t a great one, but I think I understand the point. Jesus is pretty important.

Overall Feelings: Nice place you got there!
I could go back. And I might, if I get a free week- say one in which I try attending a service that is no longer in service. I’d be a bit late of course, but I get the feeling they wouldn’t mind.

first miss, St Michael’s Chapel

My first miss of the year is called St Michael’s Chapel. I was unable to discover whether they have Mass there or not, there was not a webpage which was clearly up-to-date. No times were listed on the door or anywhere near the Chapel. I was rather interested because some of my sources make it sound like Mass is done in Latin. So for the moment this one is a miss. If anyone knows for sure what the story is, I’d appreciate the info.