Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Is it like in the movies?

I figured I'm on to something with this 'explain to the real world what Pentecostal churches in the South are like,' so here's your next post on the matter.

I guess the main topic is, what are they like? Are they what you see in the movies, with people whooping and raising their hands and all that? Do they really speak what sounds like gibberish all the time, a la Snow Crash? If so, do they really think it's something significant? Etc.? The answer to all this is, yes. Chances are, just about everything you've heard about Pentecostal churches is true; at least everything I've heard is really close to the truth on a large number of points. Now, some of it sounds utterly ridiculous, but really, it does happen. I'll touch on some of the stereotypes and the reality of them here.

If your opinion involves Jesus Camp (that creepy documentary where, to go a little Godwin, it starts coming eerily close to people raising kids to be Nazis or terrorists or something), then sure, that's so extreme that you really can't count it. But here are things that are very common. You've probably heard of most.

Some people are going to say I'm generalizing here, but I'll counter by saying that I think I have a good handle on the public Pentecostal opinion. Maybe it's anecdata, but I'm not claiming it isn't -- this is just what I saw from my experiences.

1. Homophobia. Yes, they do believe that being gay is evil. Yes, they believe that you only do it because you don't give a crap about changing. Yes, they really would advise you to go to one of those correctional places where they try to make you straight. This is all true. They preach on the virtues of being straight, of how marriage is only between a man and a woman, and of how allowing gays in the military is part of the Downfall of America. You can extrapolate from there, but yes, this is a safe haven for people who are squicked out by gays.

2. Exceedingly energetic preachers. I don't know if it's a requirement or what, but Pentecostal preachers range from the Very Energetic to the "Are you about to explode?" When I was a kid, ours was of the latter category, and his face would turn beet red and he would jump up and down and SHOUT EVERYTHING HE SAID. I swore that I was getting in trouble, because the only time people's faces do that normally, is when they've just come out of a serious workout, or if they're mad.

3. Lots of charisma and mob psychology. Say what you will about them, but Pentecostal preachers are great at getting a crowd to follow them. They know how to whip a group into a frenzy. If you ever need someone to coordinate a riot, you should search out the Pentecostal preacher and put him at the head of the group. Some say this is why televangelists (lots of whom seem to lean Pentecostal) have the results they do on their audience, with people falling over and all that. Psychology can really do crazy stuff to you. They jump; they shout; they get the audience involved and enthusiastic; there is lots of PRAISE JESUS; the preacher encourages the people listening to make sounds and shout agreement and generally sound supportive. As a kid, it's a terrifying environment, because the pressure is so subtle and so strong. You are supposed to do these things, because the people look so darn honest and excited about it. The neighbor next door is over there singing her heart out and jumping around and shouting, why the heck aren't you? And there are lots of supporting come on motions on part of the preacher and lots of calls for audience response and lots of subtle hints that you REALLY SHOULD BE FEELING IT YOU ARE RIGHT?! And then you respond, because otherwise you feel anywhere on the spectrum between "awkward," "abnormal," and "bad Christian." Depends on the place and person.

4. Speaking in tongues. Whatever you think it is, it does happen. Often during the course of a message, someone will break out into frantic gibberish that always sounded to me like they were about to burst into tears. After about a minute of constant speech, the person will fall silent, and someone else in the audience will speak up to interpret what is said. (For the record, I do believe in speaking in tongues. I think it really does happen. I'm just not sure that all instances of it are legit.)

5. People falling over. I don't even know what this is called, after 22 years, but what happens is the preacher goes up to a person and puts his hand on their head and they fall straight back and someone catches them. They lie there for a while before getting up. It's supposed to be a demonstration of God's power, and the idea is that you fall over regardless of whether you want to do or not; it's involuntary, as if some invisible hand took your legs out from under you.

6. "Harry Potter is evil" and other media issues. Yes, there are plenty of people that have a beef with Harry Potter. From what I've gathered, Pentecostals are really sensitive to media hype. They're eager to believe that any book mentioning a witch is going to send kids to hell; they really like to band together and rally against things. They are easily swept away by preachers telling them things like this. See Mob Mentality, and also because they are a culture of trust. You can always trust your fellow Pentecostals. They're not the bad ones. Everyone else is part of the hedonistic evil masses, but the Pentecostals are really the good ones. This leads to a lot of strength and solidarity, but also to a lot of blind trust.

7. A massive tangle with patriotism. Pentecostals have dubbed themselves as America's holy defenders, people who are the soul of what America should be. They like to get really involved in social issues, and they seem to think that they should govern the country because they're the last bastion of morality, and if they finally get power, they can finally fix all these people by legally preventing them from doing evil things.

8. A vast hatred of modern culture. They really do think that lots of actions many people see as progressive (abortion, the advent of birth control, gay marriage, letting people get lots of piercings and dye their hair, etc.) are in fact signs that the apocalypse is coming, that the world is getting more evil, and that anyone who doesn't agree has been suckered in. "Wickeder and wiser" is a phrase that is very common; it means that the world is getting more evil, but it's also getting better at convincing you that it's not evil. So if you're not Super Guarded, you'll become a hedonistic evil person like everyone else, and you won't even know it until you're headed to hell in a handbasket.

9. Hellfire-Damnation preaching. Pentecostals have a strong focus on avoiding punishment rather than just doing good things. You are moral, because otherwise you go to Hell. You do nice things, because otherwise you're screwed. They may not say it straight out all the time, but live with their teaching long enough, and you can tell. And if they're not saying it about you, they're saying it about people you know. Let me tell you, this will screw up a kid. Being raised on "because otherwise you're going to be tortured forever" is a really terrifying thing, and in the end you start thinking about everything in terms of "how am I going to be screwed if I don't do this" or "am I being nice enough?" or other things like that. You really don't want to live like that.

There's more, of course. I'll post on more specific parts in the future.

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