Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Friday, October 5th, 2007 http://adamkhan.net/rambles/i-thou-and-pastor-bob
t’s the last morning of this successful trip to south Florida, and I’m sitting here at 6:22am under the slight air-conditioning and two ceiling fans at the head of the dining room table while my colleague’s son and daughter, 11 and 15, prepare for school. Considering I’ve not had the privacy of my own place, it’s been nice and easy staying here, and this morning I had a momentary mild wrench that I’m going to be yanked out of this familial middle-American setup — what with two signed photos of President and Laura Bush on the fridge, and being “churched” as they say — and move along.
We’re doing the web site for a big local church, Coral Ridge Presbyterian, and while the kids go to its school, the family are members of Calvary Chapel, the California-based new megachurch that’s raging through the country and here looks like a giant pristine shopping mall and is now seeking more land to expand. I attended the service there on Sunday, and was often moved during it. In fact, I was moved every time I glanced stage right, where they have an American flag, and then stage left, to the Israeli flag. That was an excitement and a comfort. Here are these fervent yet mainstream Americans expressing that the State of Israel is an integral part of their identity. Follow that, jihadi shmucks — we got some power in our pocket!
At Rome I would feel peculiar that they would paint and revere scenes that occured in Israel, but here, looking at the Calvary Church campus, I felt that the religious energy is actually here, that we are far enough away from the places of the events themselves that they can finally become abstracted and spiritualized and kept relevant. An ocean and a small continent separate Fort Lauderdale from Afula.
The service is more like entertainment than what I am accustomed to, and I wonder if it’s too dilute. By making it entertaining, with rich music and an engaging pastor whose sermon is not dissimilar to a stand-up comedian’s routine, I wonder if they have not fatally hurt themselves. Religion to me is about forming a community around powerful human methods of reconciling mind with world. The same way that the Australian aborigines (as we have learned through books such as Bruce Chatwin’s Timelines and David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous) believe they sing and walk the world into existence by trekking their assigned dreamlines through the landscape, so there is a sense that every Jew in every synagogue is making sure the world stays in existence by reciting the Torah throughout the year. You are joining others in participating in a duty. It’s a “look away” sort of activity, wherein you gain the benefits only by doing something that is seemingly not about you.
At this Calvary service however you are not participant but audience. There was only one moment in fact when the congregants were brought in to the service: after applauding the choir, the choir in turn applauded the congregation. That was cute but it’s not enough. Despite the traditional values espoused by the preacher, this is all thoroughly modern, too modern. And to repeat, it’s not because they pepper their sermons with references to celebrities and television shows, but because the congregation is there to be entertained and engaged rather than preventing existence from winking out.
Perhaps that’s just Christianity however rather than Judaism; most Christian religious services have always been about engaging rather than enpriesting the people.
That said, being “churched” also implies being “Godded”, if you’ll forgive the phrase, meaning that one engages in discourse with Thou, rather than the dismal tendency of the unaided (or unchurched) to engage in discourse with I alone. No less wise a philosopher than Socrates himself championed the companionship of a God. So even if the services do not seem to me to actually be religious services, they nonetheless contribute greatly to that great civilizing switch of adding the second person to the grammar of one’s internal thoughts.
Why is it civilizing to think in terms of Thou as well as I? I have my ideas, but I think it’s now time to return to Martin Buber’s I and Thou, which my stepfather Stuart gave me when I was a teen, and which I could not understand at the time.
Tonight after work, I fly Jetblue again to New York for a few days. It’s satisfying to once again be accruing frequent flyer miles, even if the pace is much slower than during my corporate times at Amdocs. This time it’s doing work I enjoy, and it’s still getting me to random destinations. Hallelujah!