The tallest building in Germany, the Fernsehturm or TV tower, stands next to Alexanderplatz in the centre of Berlin. It’s impossible to miss, having been designed by East Germany’s secular government to tower above the capital’s churches, a feat it still accomplishes today. Unfortunately for them, and to the churches’ great delight, the spherical structure half way up the tower which now houses a bar and restaurant was assembled using small, flat metal plates. This means that, when the sphere’s extremities catch the sun, an enormous shining cross forms above the city. (Berliners traditionally call this Rache des Papstes – the Pope’s revenge.)
It’s late afternoon, and as I lie inside my tent I see the hot sun distorted by two layers of canvas mesh, its glow abstracted into a similar cross; a vaguer version, perhaps, off the bright white projected one from the worship meetings.
I realise now that I’m beginning to crack. A week ago, this image would never have occurred to me – I likely wouldn’t even have glanced at the bright spot in the fabric – but today it jumped out, seemingly obvious and meaningful. Were I not a skeptic by nature and occasional trade, it seems possible this could form part of a ‘religious experience’, becoming the basis of a Soul Survivor conversion narrative.
It’s not hard to understand why the shape seemed notable. In environs this intense, the memes spread quickly. After three days, the non-stop exposure to Christian rock songs – in the main meetings, piped into the cafés, audible from rooms next door during seminars and played by other campers – has had its effects, and yesterday I caught myself whistling one of them, despite my conscious effort to block out the music or negate it with the secular record collection on my iPhone.
I’ve no doubt the ever-present crosses on walls, flyers, computer screens and around necks have played a rather similar role. Perhaps attending Soul Survivor has cumulative effects: as I snuck into the close of last night’s evening session, dramatically more hands were in the air than during Friday’s, and at the end another mass of new converts was announced.
A weekend of camping has taken its own toll on my body. While my tent was designed for four people (the campers’ adage has it that your rucksack counts as one), I’m aware not for the first time that none of them was 6’3″, and the cramped conditions mean my back, shoulders, legs and ankles are filled with a dull ache. Cold temperatures in the nighttime mean I’m somewhat sleep-deprived, and though the camp shop means I’ve generally been okay, dehydration is a hazard in the hot afternoons. In need of cash three hours ago, I also walked to local Stafford and back, a six mile round trip.
The depressive American poet and eventual religious convert John Berryman said that, in pursuit of inspiration through terrible pain, he hoped to be ‘nearly crucified‘. I wouldn’t quite go that far, and not just for circumstantial reasons, but I’ve felt much better physically than I do now – and this is relevant because, suddenly, I understand the temptation to collapse in one of the two-hour Soul Survivor sermons, for much of which people are expected to stay on their feet. I imagine that if I did, I’d be surrounded instantly by prayerful attendees, and this alone is a powerful deterrent.
Skipping the bulk of the hour-long guitar-led overture, I head toward the meeting hall at quarter to eight as it’s reaching an end. Picking up another veggie burger from the van, drenched this time in gratifying layers of various sauces, I hear a woman whose face I can’t see (she’s in front of me) tell the staff our world was created in six days, ten thousand years ago. Having also encounteredjust before setting off, I feel compelled to contradict her once she’s left – and on mocking the sheer amount of wrong in what she’s claiming with the burger-flippers, a wonderful sense of relief pours over me.
The guest speaker in tonight’s meeting’s not a bad one, either, comparatively. Patrick Regan, who runs a Christian charity for social justice called XLP, says many things I like, including that ‘hope is the refusal to accept a situation as it is’, and his t-shirt reads I refuse to accept that this is a lost generation. So do I, though I’m not sure if we mean quite the same thing.
‘If you have come to rescue me,’ he mentions a woman in a developing country telling him, ‘you are wasting your time. If you have come because my liberation and your liberation are bound together, then let’s do this.’ I want to clap, but then he starts to talk about how he’s motivated by a belief in a certain Heaven, and how he shares the Bible’s teachings with people he helps. I don’t have a problem with what drives him, except the not-unimportant one of thinking he’s wrong, but I do feel charities which help the marginalised should be secular – both to accommodate non-Christians who want to join in, and because their work is so important that, like the NHS or maintained schools, there should never be any risk of missionary agendas taking over.
There’s nothing to suggest religious visions aren’t all false, whether crosses on tent walls or classless utopias. Still, I can acknowledge some are better than others.