The Deseret news ran a story in their Saturday edition that had a focus on religious learning, and as a part of that story, the reporter interviewed me.
You can read the article here.
After a nice long hiatus, I’m back! And I’m still doubting.
The church I went to this morning was, as usual, within walking distance of my home. So close, in fact, that it’s only a few blocks away, in the funky “downtown” section of Greenwood. If you’ve ever been to Seattle, you probably know that the city is a patchwork collection of neighborhoods each with their own character, some of which used to be cities in their own right before being absorbed. Most of these neighborhoods have a “downtown” area.
Downtown Greenwood is filled with shops, apartments, offices, restaurants and way more coffee shops than you’d think one neighborhood could handle. But this is Seattle, after all, and coffee is kind of what we do here.
This particular church owns its own coffee shop, a non-profit called The Green Bean, which has been in the neighborhood in one place or another for about four or five years. And while they own a coffee shop, this church doesn’t own a church. They meet in a local theater, the Taproot.
I’ve known about this church’s existence for some time, and I’ve always thought it odd that they’d own a retail establishment, but not a place to park their pews. I suspect it’s because the cafe can more reliably pay their expenses than a collection plate can, and after seeing their pamphlet today with a year-to-date donations income of only $8500, I can imagine that having some cafe income would be something they’d want.
They have two services, one at 9 am and the other at 10:45. I opted for the later service, and I showed up at the theater at about 10:30. When I got there, there were perhaps twenty people milling around in the lobby, chatting, and drinking coffee. I snagged a half a cup, and stood at a table with literature, hoping to find a guide to what I’d hear today. They didn’t have that, but they did have several pamphlets that describe the church and its philosophy.
They are basically similar to Baptists, but perhaps a little less Calvinist-leaning. That is to say, they believe the Bible is divinely inspired and will lead you inerrantly to heaven, but that some parts of it aren’t literal. This was confirmed when a woman approached me and introduced herself, and we talked a bit about the church. She was nice and turned out to be married to the Worship Director.
As with most churches I’ve visited, the folks there were pretty friendly, and several other people came up to me and introduced themselves. I have to admit that my ability to make smalltalk with complete strangers is a little rusty. Last summer, I had gotten pretty good at it. This morning, I found that I was out of practice.
Soon, the time approached, and we all went into the theater and took up seats. There was a band there, and I found my seat as close to the band as I could get, right up in the front row.
The band was pretty good. There was a lead singer who also played acoustic guitar and for some songs tapped a device that made a drum beat, a bass player who stood mostly obscured in the back, and a lead guitar player who was really good and had a mighty beard. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, and I was glad to have had a chance to tell the band that later. It turns out that the lead singer was also the worship director, and his name was also Mark. He seemed like a pretty nice guy.
Now, the Taproot stage was set up for a play, and so the band stood in what looked like a stone courtyard, in front of a medieval castle-style house. Behind the band, and in front of the house was a large screen they’d put up, and at far stage right was a wooden cross, which looked kind of like two four-by-fours nailed together with some spindly legs at the bottom holding it up. It kind of looked like a coat rack for very large people.
The band started playing, their first of a total of eight songs for the service. I think the music to preaching ratio of this place is probably higher than any other place I’ve visited so far, and in stark contrast with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who played no music whatsoever.
As they played, the words to the songs showed up on the big screen so we could sing along. When doing so, we were all told to stand. I did my best but after a while, I have to admit, I sat down. I looked around, and saw that about halfway through the music, about ten other people had sat down too, so I didn’t feel too out of place.
In between some of the songs, there was a prayer or two, and readings from Psalm 86, and Psalm 17. Psalm 86 is about how awesome God is and how un-awesome we are, and Psalm 17 is about how God won’t answer feigned prayers, only genuine ones.
Most of the songs were fairly typical of the protestant churches I’ve visited. Mostly about how awesome God is, some were begging for wisdom, or help, or thanking God for being God.
After a while, the music paused, and there were some announcements, and the lead singer led us through a few prayers. The first prayer was about giving glory to God, and it was put up on the screen so we could all say it together. Then there were more specific, personal prayers that were about members of the congregation, and then The Lord’s Prayer.
After that, I was thinking, “Okay, the usual stuff has all happened, and now it’s time to hear the message.” But alas, it was not to be. The band fired up again for a few more songs while they passed around the collection plate. As it reached my row, the lead singer sang a heartfelt refrain: “I’m giving all I have!” It was a nice touch.
It was also a big part of the pastor’s message when he finally did come up on stage and start talking.
It turns out that the pastor was a guest from a “church plant” up the road on Aurora. A church plant is an offshoot. This pastor explained that he had been an intern at Sanctuary, and after he was done being an intern, he went off to found his own church, the Awake church about a mile and a half away. I know a little about Awake, because I’ve considered visiting them, and I know that they don’t have their own space either but meet in a community center. I don’t think Awake has their own cafe though.
So, this causes a small issue for me. Part of me thinks that I shouldn’t give a grade to Sanctuary based on the words of a guest pastor. But on the other hand, they did approve him to speak at their church. The difficulty arises because (spoiler alert) he’s not going to get a very good score, and I’m trying to be fair.
To begin with, he’s not a terribly good speaker, but I tried to keep this from influencing the score. It was kind of hard to stay awake, and his style of talking was such that for every point he made, he repeated himself at least once. Sometimes twice. It took him forty five minutes to give his sermon. It felt like three hours, and it only contained about fifteen minutes’ worth of preaching.
That grumble aside, the real problem I had with it was the content. He rambled around between Acts, a CS Lewis Book, Matthew, and personal anecdotes, to talk about pearls. Specifically, the Great Pearl, which is seeking God, and Lesser Pearls, which are the other things we seek in life. His message was this: If you spend too much time fiddling around with the Lesser Pearls, you aren’t going to get to the Great Pearl.
So, why would this message bother me? On the surface, that very high-level skimmed-over explanation doesn’t sound bad at all. But in the long-winded details there was something I found harmful: He was telling people not to focus too much on things that I think are important, because if you do, you won’t get into heaven. Specifically, he said don’t spend too much time focusing on job stability, family, money, a social life, or anything else because those things aren’t important. Getting to know Jesus is. So stop doing all that stuff and get to know Jesus.
This message sucks enough by itself to rate a negative point, but there was something else: He focused a bit (or at least repeated a lot) about having material wealth, and how giving that up would be like removing a barrier to the real treasure, which was being in good standing with Jesus. In other words, you don’t really need all that money.
All churches need money, and I think it’s okay to ask for it. But I tend to look at churches that are up front about it a little less skeptically than those who use innovative marketing techniques on their flock to get it.
So, on to the score:
Being good to your fellow human: 0 (no mention)
Help your community: 0 (no mention)
Be good to yourself: 0 (no mention)
Good and timely advice: -2 (don’t focus on things that are important, you don’t need that money)
Venue was pretty awesome: +1
Music was good: +1
Guest Pastor McSnoresville: -1
Total Honorary Points: +1
I haven’t written anything in a while, but I’m going start going to churches again, about one a month or so.
I kind of burned out going to two or more churches a week, and I kind of ran out of things to say about them. But folks are still finding my blog, and sending me email and leaving comments, and it makes me feel slightly guilty that I haven’t done anything with it in a while.
This is especially true in the last few weeks, where the traffic on the blog has hit quite a high.
So, this Sunday, I’m going to go visit a church. I haven’t decided which one yet, and when I do, I’m not going to publish it in advance because last summer someone called ahead to a few of the places I was going to visit and warned them that I was violent. I don’t know who did this, but I have my suspicions. I’m not going to say who I suspect but their church rhymes with SCHMILENTOLOGY.
They won’t return my emails anymore, probably because my midichlorians or memory engrams or whatever are out of phase or subversive, or whatever it is that they call it.
Anyway, I’ve been invited to a few by pastors to various different, and I think one of those will be my first stop for this year.
Most of the comments I’ve been getting recently have been from my posts about my visit to the LDS church. Which is typical. I think the Mormons tend to visit and comment more than any other group by about a factor of ten, because they’re little surprised (and I think delighted) that an atheist said nice things about them. Most people that I know, when they talk about Mormons, tend to focus on the parts of their dogma that differs from other forms of Christianity. New World revelations, baptism after death, the three tiers of their religious cosmology.
But I didn’t focus on those things. As a non-believer, I don’t give those things any more or less credence than any other form of religious dogma. To me, it’s kind of all the same. Whether you believe in Dharma, or Heaven & Hell, or Cosmic Warlord Xenu makes little difference to me. Although I do appreciate that those things that are less accepted than others are easier to poke fun at.
And, I tend to poke a little fun at every church I visit.
The fun I poked at the LDS church was very light and somewhat friendly, and that’s because I honestly enjoyed the visit and was surprised by it. It’s not, as I have been oft charged, church-sponsored propaganda.
Here’s a conversation I got from Facebook over this, and my response:
Ok, I don’t believe your story. Sorry. I want to know who you really are. I think this is LDS propaganda.
I am a writer and a biblical apologist. No serious seeker would walk into a Mormon church and just join. Especially, ESPECIALLY an atheist!
Write me. Let’s talk.
25 minutes ago
I’m not a “serious seeker”, I had a specific agenda, and that agenda is well spelled out and applied to a number of different churches, not just LDS.
I didn’t “just join” the church. I’m not a member of any church.
If you’ve read any of the other posts on the blog, you’ll see that I went to about 20 churches, and graded them the same way, and wrote about them.
Some churches I liked, and some I didn’t.
I also said good things about the Unitarians. Perhaps I’m spreading Unitarian propaganda as well? Maybe they’ve hired me and I’m totally on the take.
Or, maybe the Catholics hired me. I liked one of their priests and said so. So, maybe the Catholics have me on the payroll.
It’s funny, because the folks at Mars Hill have accused me of being the exact opposite: An outside interloper who’s bent on spreading negative propaganda about their church.
It’s because I said bad things about them.
So, maybe I’m some kind of religious secret agent, out to promote some churches and hurt others. That’s a fun theory.
Or, maybe I’m just a guy who went to a bunch of churches and wrote about it.
Sadly, the truth is often more boring than conspiracy theories.
You’ll notice I have links to a few blogs in the blogroll to the right, and there are a few of those that I find particularly noteworthy that I wanted to call a little attention to. Not all of them are church, or religion related, and some are maintained by friends of mine.
Ed’s Photodoodle Blog is a great site from a creative photographer friend, showcasing his talents. Also, he likes to rant about religious people who make him angry, and so if you like a good rant, visit his Two She Bears blog.
Cameron is a fellow who just found my blog and let me know that he visits churches and writes about it too! It’s a good read.
Pastor John McLarty is a Seattle-based Seventh Day Adventist pastor who I met for coffee after reviewing his church and had a great conversation with. He’s just about the only liberal Seventh Day Adventist you’ll ever hear about. He’s also a really nice guy. His blog is here.
Chris Owens is a former Methodist pastor who has recently been promoted from preaching to supervising and helping other preachers. I’ve never met him in person, but we have mutual Facebook friends, and when it comes to religious arguments, he’s really kept me on my toes. His blog is here.
If you want to visit Alaska, or just want to read about it, an old High School buddy of mine can give you some advice with his blog.
And finally, my favorite teacher in the whole world, who I haven’t been face to face with in over 30 years, writes about her childhood in California. It’s a fun and interesting read.
There will be more church-stuff this weekend!
Well, it’s been a few weeks, I’ve been enjoying my summer, and a little break from posting on the blog, but now I’m back at it.
Yesterday morning, my girlfriend and I went up to Shoreline, just north of Seattle, to visit a Catholic church. I’ve already done a Catholic church, but that one was only a Thursday morning mass, not the full show, and so I’ve been wanting to go to another Catholic church for a while. This one is near a friend’s house, and we were invited up to breakfast after the service, and so it was a good excuse to make the trip. Not that the trip was very far. Shoreline is the city immediately north of Seattle, and we live in the northern part of the city, so it was actually fairly close.
I’ve been seriously considering writing about my experiences and observations in book form, but before I do, I’m wondering if there would be any interest in it. The book would be a lot of what is in the blog, but more in-depth, and would include an exploration of the faith in terms of its ritual and dogma, and would also include outreach.
One of the things I’m continuously told I’m missing, is reporting on the good things that churches do with their money and their time, and I think that’s a fair criticism. I’d love to write about that, but that sort of thing takes a lot of time and effort, and I’d like to get paid for it.
I have no idea how to publish a book, my first thought would be to try to self-publish using a crowd-funding mechanism like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo or some such. The book would be cheap and electronic.
So, here’s where I need your help. Would you buy such a book? If not, why not? Would you be willing pay through a crowd funding vehicle?
And also, if you are interested in this kind of thing… what am I missing? What do you think should be included that I haven’t mentioned here?
If you don’t want to create a WordPress account to respond in the comments, then hit the “Contact Me” link and shoot me an email or tweet. I can’t promise to respond to all messages, but I can promise to read everything.
Oh, and if you think this is a dumb idea, I’d like to hear that too.
So, a little personal history here before I dive in: I’m a former Freemason. I haven’t been active in a few years, in part because I decided it was okay to be an atheist, and atheists can’t be Masons. Previously, I had identified myself as a deist, and sort of believed in the possibility of a God, but when that changed, I no longer had the qualities required to remain a Mason.
Why am I mentioning this? Because Aleister Crowley, also a former Freemason, had joined OTO and sort of transformed it with his own beliefs and rituals, and he allegedly included a lot of masonic stuff in there. Knowing this, I’ve always been really curious about the OTO. Presumably, the first, second, and third degrees of OTO are the same as the ones in Masonry. I’ll never know for sure, because I don’t intend to join and go through their degrees. I’m just going to go to their public rituals.
This means that it’s not likely that I’ll be able to give them a score. But given what I think I know about their degrees, they’d probably score pretty highly on my humanist scale.
Last week, I had a little trouble because I was improperly dressed. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, this morning I put on some nice slacks, a nice button-down shirt, and a tweed jacket. I didn’t put on a tie, nor did I put on my dress shoes, opting for black sneakers instead. So I guess my manner of dress would be somewhere between “business” and “business casual.”
Turns out putting the sneakers on was a good idea. Not only because I walked a little over a mile to the church, but also because you don’t sit down during an orthodox service. You stand.
Like last time, I went to the front door, and like last time, it was locked. I guess they’re not used to people walking up to their front door. The back door, which opens off of their parking lot and into a common area with a kitchen and tables, was open. There was a lady there pulling stuff out of her car, and I stopped to help, grabbing a box of cups and bringing it into the kitchen for her.
I’m not going to mention them beforehand, because I don’t want a repeat of being told to buzz off like I was at the Saint Germain “I Am” temple.
I haven’t exactly settled on which Christian church I want to visit, there are several possibilities in easy walking distance of my house. Some of them hold services quite early, so I’m going to base my decision on how late I feel like sleeping.
Regardless of where I go, I will not dress like a Seattle Slob. I wouldn’t want to get kicked out or denied entry because of my clothes again, either. This part should be easy, it’s going to be cool this weekend anyway, and shorts and sandals won’t cut it.
The non-Christian church holds its services later in the day, and I’m really excited to be going there. There’s a bit of my own past that I haven’t talked about yet, that sort of ties into this place. I wanted to go last weekend, but there was a family thing going on that was more important.
And lastly, I’ve made contact with another non-mainstream group and they want me to read stuff before I go any further. Sound familiar? The reading of the books is kind of a filtering process. I guess if you read some of their stuff, and then decide that it’s not for you, it saves them the trouble of kicking you out. By going through the filtering process, they know they’ve got someone who’s not as likely to question what they’re presenting.
And, quite frankly, if they feel like they have to do that, then you just know that their faith is … way off the mainstream. I think it’s safe to say that this new group is the farthest off mainstream I’ve yet encountered. And given how far off the mainstream Saint Germain and Scientology are, that says something, doesn’t it?
So, I’m going to read their stuff, and write a review on it as well. But I’m not going to post it here until after I’ve made some kind of progress, and have something interesting about which to write. The Saint Germain guys cut me off before I felt like I was finished, and I’d rather that not happen again.