Going Soul-o: one young atheist’s week at Christian camp (Day Two)
Right now I’m lying in my tent. It’s shortly after nine; I’ve just returned from the very first ‘main meeting’ of Soul Survivor, which lasted two hours. These take place twice every day, and all other venues are shut while they’re in session. (‘We don’t want there to be any other distractions’, the programme reads, ‘because we know that Jesus is worthy of our full attention.’)
You know how I ended my last post by saying I could be wrong to worry about emotional appeals and beliefs disguised as people? Turns out, I might just have been onto something.
Two hours ago I enter the meeting hall, brushing crumbs off my hands from an overpriced burger. The room is large enough for thousands, dark apart from the brightly lit stage. Pumping techno music fills the space from all directions, controlled presumably by an onstage DJ whom due either to staging or myopia I can’t see. The atmosphere in general is reminiscent of an urban nightclub, but with alcohol noticeably absent due to site rules, and totally devoid of sexuality. (Another rule, as stated in the programme: ‘no boys and girls sleeping in the same space unless married’.) When I saw this assembly on YouTube, it reminded me of certain extremist rallies. Now, as I search awkwardly for a place to sit, another image comes to mind. This scene has all the jarring glamour and sexlessness of a school disco.
Just as I notice that, as with the camp in general, children of primary school age are all over the place, I spot Mike P. – the camp’s charismatic leader, who disapproves of my sex life in a loving way – for the first time. He is dressed in a multi-patterned, garishly coloured shirt and a pair of checked shorts, with afro-like hair, a protruding belly and tremendously expressive features.
As the crowd around me are welcomed to Soul Survivor 2012, and Mike and the other speakers are introduced, they burst into cheers. A comic video plays on the hall’s raised screens, starring Mike with his apparent second in command Andy Croft and spoofing The X-Factor. (Unlike the real thing, this version contains no gay men.) When it comes to an end, first time guests are instructed to stand and get cheers of their own. I don’t do so, needless to say; quite apart from staying out of evangelism, I feel oddly pressured, as I did once before when a stage hypnotist did this to me.
And then Mike says, ‘What we’re gonna do now is worship Jesus.’ The crowd erupts once more, and the band strikes up a never-pausing Christian rock repertoire. (I don’t know what else to call it. It’s not a medley, since the songs are seamlessly connected but each sung in full.) This lasts for something like the first half hour. I see the familiar lit-up cross activate, and hands are raised in the aforementioned Roman salute. The male vocalist declares, emotively, ‘I am always yours, Jesus. / You are always mine’ – though not in a gay way, presumably. When later he sings ‘everything we are is yours’, I wonder about his self-esteem. While I know that Fifty Shades-style total ownership is a fantasy for some, it’s never seemed a healthy relationship style to me. And when during a musical version of John 3:16, rephrased for today’s hip youths, he sings that Jesus ‘bore our sin and shame’, my wondering continues.
At last this ends and Mike P. reappears on stage for a period of banter. He frequently mocks audience members, chiding some for example who come in late, and though the crowd are appreciative, his delivery seems at times authentically nasty. Then a female guest named Julia arrives, who relates her Christian upbringing and secular dalliance with drink and boys on growing up. She then describes her more sincere re-conversion via the Alpha course, during which she mentions thinking an inadequate earthly father caused her ‘pain’, and that God could take his place. (Feminists, your opinions please.)
Then Julia talks about learning of human trafficking, and her decision to row the Atlantic for a relevant charity. I don’t mean she rowed the appropriate distance on a machine, though this was my initial interpretation: I mean that with six other women, she literally rowed from one side of the Atlantic to the other, in a boat. For the first time here, I’m sincerely impressed by someone, though I don’t see what it has to do with Jesus. As it turns out, she views her achievement as evidence of what he helps you do. (I feel the urge to point out that five other women on the trip, who she says weren’t Christians, accomplished the same, but no one seems to scrutinise her.) When she says that due to soaking clothes, she and her teammates often rowed naked, a sourceless wolf-whistle issues from the crowd. Immediately, Mike tells whoever performed it to come to the stage afterwards (albeit it ‘to repent’), and I’m almost impressed by someone a second time, before it becomes clear it was another of his jokes.
Then comes the climax of the evening’s gathering. For any who ‘don’t get it’, Mike reels off the narrative of his particular Christianity, with Andy and his wife acting out specific biblical characters’ roles and humanity’s generally. This starts with Adam and Eve, whom Mike conveniently ‘doesn’t mind’ if you see as ‘literal’ or not, after creation’s been discussed. To quote: the tripartite mutual love of Father, Son and Holy Spirit was simply too large for God to contain – he’s a frail deity, after all – and ‘exploded’ into a cosmos. Punchline: ‘I think that’s what scientists call the Big Bang.’
We then get the core biblical story, compete with mime. The pre-Sinaian Israelites, we’re told, ‘even worshipped some gods where they killed and sacrificed their babies to them!’ Is Mike unaware of Jephthah’s murder of his daughter for the biblical God, or of the latter’s personal infanticides in Pharoah’s Egypt, David’s Israel and elsewhere? It’s possible he simply trusts that his audience are.
Then Jesus, who Mike says took all our ‘sin’, ‘pain’, ‘brokenness’ and ‘sickness’ upon himself. This is the rhetorical climax and with rapid-fire, possibly desperate delivery, he invites those who ‘don’t know Jesus, or don’t know if [they] do’ to come up to the front and convert, receiving personal prayer from him. At first, one of two silhouettes move, then more and more, until dozens are lined up. As each joins the crowd, the audience breaks out into applause more thunderous and uncontrolled than any all night. More join, and then more, until eventually the converts stretch from the centre of the hall – a veritable hangar – to the far end from me. After they’ve received his prayer, and filed out to be given evangelical starter packs, Mike later tells us they were 204.
The crowd is told to celebrate, and again the band strikes up, repeating several of the songs from earlier. One’s lyrics declare, ‘We’ve got nothing to lose / We’ve got no reason to hide’. I sense that the people in the hall, and the 204 converts, had much to lose – autonomy, money, emotional health – and seemed not to have very much reason at all. I won’t call them stupid for accepting complex, flawed factual claims asserted with no actual argument, as some other atheists might, because these claims were never presented as such. ‘It’s not a religion, it’s a relationship’, Mike said before assembling his converts. This was what I feared in yesterday’s post.
During the first round of God-rock, I’ll admit I was bored. But now, writing this from my tent, I feel shellshocked.
July 27, 2012 at 10:43 pm | Skeptic News | Comments Off