I went to Church, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

I realized recently that, despite having inter-married parents, I knew pretty much nothing about Protestantism. Don’t tell my mom: she’ll be sad she didn’t teach us more about her own religious upbringing. My ignorance is also ironic considering almost the entirety of the US is Protestant. (Of course, there’s an argument to be made that because America is a Protestant country, our culture is innately Protestant itself and my understanding of Protestantism is vast because by being American I am pretty much a Protestant anyway.)

Up until a couple of years ago, I thought all versions of Protestantism were pretty much created equal. Southern Baptists were into fire-and-brimstone, mega-churches liked to proselytize, and the Unitarians loved everyone, but other than that, I thought all non-Catholic churches had one steeple (open the doors and see all the people), their attendees were repressed (like Bree on Desperate Housewives), and they scorned idolatry and decoration. I had visions of preachers who wore black and were stern and preached from a podium overhung by a gruesome wood carving of Christ bleeding on the cross, the agony on his dying face reflected in the faces of the congregation for their self-imposed constant suffering in the name of faith because somehow, someone has them convinced that God wants you to be miserable and forsake all earthly delights because that is how to get into heaven, and heaven obviously exists and the devil is everywhere. Protestantism was a religion of fear, misery, repression, and self-denial. My vision of Protestantism was obviously drawn by The Scarlet Letter and the Salem Witch Trials.

Inasmuch as I understood modern versions of Protestantism existed, I sort of thought for the most part they were bland, boring, dry versions of Catholicism. Not that Catholicism is so thrilling, but at least they have incense and candles and decorations. Catholic priests had collars and wore robes, and there were lots of candles and gold and stained glass adorning every cathedral I had ever seen. Catholics had beautiful architecture and saints. Catholics got to do things like take communion and get confirmed and go to confession. As far as I knew, Protestants didn’t do these things. Protestants went to their plain-looking churches and just prayed really really hard. Of course, Jews aren’t much into idolatry or decoration either, but in my mind Protestant churches were full of uncomfortable wooden pews, blank walls, gruesome renditions of Jesus, and threats of hellfire. Protestants didn’t have any of the pretty things Catholicism or Orthodoxy did; I thought of them as the ascetics of Christianity.

In a nutshell, I thought if Catholicism was gaudy and ostentatious, then Protestantism was depressing and ascetic. Every church I had seen confirmed this suspicion. Cathedrals are tourist destinations, exotic and beautiful and full of lovely, devotional artifacts. I never really went to Protestant churches. I pass by them all the time, but they don’t look as fascinating as the Catholic churches. There aren’t domes or apses or gargoyles. I went to church once when I was little, my cousins were in a Christmas pageant or something, but I don’t remember it being interesting; it probably looked like synagogue, so I thought it was boring and ugly. Once, in Jerusalem, I went into a German Presbyterian (I think) church in the old city. I mean, if you’re going to do church tourism, Jerusalem is a great place to do it. Though there was a lot of white, it was still full of right angles and austerity and German efficiency and plain-ness.

German church, Jerusalem. October 2010.

All of these notions about Christianity in general and Protestantism and Catholicism in particular are thanks to a lifetime of having mostly Jewish, lots of Catholic, but very few Protestant friends. Once I was older and had Protestant friends, I silently pitied them for their god-fearing, fun-less lives without actually asking them what Protestantism was about. Also, they weren’t really very religious, so it never came up. (Sorry, mom, I guess I could have asked you, too.) We learned the history in school, about the Reformation and Luther and Calvin, and about Henry VIII and his creation of the Anglican church, but honestly, that’s sort of where I thought significant deviation in Protestantism stopped, and I still thought they were the same except in name. Also Anglicanism doesn’t really count. So I continued along my path believing Protestantism to be uniform, stark, solemn, and intimidating.

But stereotypes are made to be broken. I’ve recently learned not all Protestants are WASPs and Protestantism is not a modern version of Puritanism. I’ve also learned not all Protestants believe the same thing. Realizing there might be a whole mysterious world out there which I knew nothing about, when presented with the opportunity and realizing I had never actually been to a real church service in my adult life (I went to an afternoon mass in high school once), I jumped.

Let me fill your head with a few more stereotypes: this is the upper Midwest. It is known for passive aggression and repressive niceness. Also, everyone is northern European, tall and blond, and Lutheran. Knowing this, I naturally expected Lutheran church to be filled with a bunch of depressed, repressed, yet painfully nice Germanic Barbie dolls. And free mayonnaise. I thought it would be serious, uncomfortable (because discomfort is the way to God and all that), and bleak.

Well, it wasn’t. First, I have never seen anything so big. I mean, Notre Dame is huge, but it doesn’t have a parking lot, and certainly not a parking lot like this. They must have hired urban planners to build it. I didn’t even know this many people went to church. Heck, I didn’t even know this many people lived in the northeast suburbs of St. Paul. And this isn’t even a mega-church like they have in other places which I am literally scared out of my mind to ever go to. (Watch Jesus Camp and Saved! and you’ll see why.)

We walked inside, and shook hands and said good morning to the ushers at the front door. (What is this, meditation class or church? What’s with the lovey-dovey thy neighbor thing?) The first thing that struck me inside was the people walking around in white gilded robes. They were like members of a Vatican gospel choir. Does. Not. Compute. I thought they were Protestant! I thought they hated ornamentation! I thought they were all supposed to be dressed in dark clothes and be dour and sour and morbidly meditative on God and prayer, all the time, and especially at church! Isn’t church a place you go to be remorseful and feel threatened by God’s wrath?

As we entered the sanctuary, an organist was playing Bach. It was lovely. The room was huge; not just in square footage but the ceiling was unfathomably high and the room was filled with light. There were decorations and ornamentation and light colors and all sorts of things. At the beginning of the service, the congregation sang a hymn about saints, a pastor invoked the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and it struck me that Protestantism really was a) not all the same and b) not entirely about self-deprivation. I had always thought that the fundamental difference between Catholicism and Protestantism was belief versus non-belief in the Trinity. This is obviously wrong and I am very confused: Lutheranism, right, was invented by Martin Luther, who started the Reformation. Obviously Lutheranism is Protestant. So why do they have all these Catholic things, like saints and decorations and belief in the Trinity?*

Sanctuary of Lutheran Church.

Anyway, the (Vatican gospel) choir sang a religious-ified version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and I couldn’t help but sing along with the non-religious words. I sang quietly, though. Don’t worry. Watching the choir was hilarious: half of the women were gossiping, the men looked bored, and a skinny young man was fervently singing while next to him a heavy-set older man half-squishing the skinny one out of his chair was nodding off to sleep. Someone should make a sitcom about church choirs. The pastors (and there were at least four in attendance) read some things from the Bible—a psalm, some gospel—and then the congregation recited the Apostles’ Creed. This creed outlines some definition of the faith and the practice, as if that was supposed to help me understand what was going on.

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried; he descended to the dead.* On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Holy Spirit? Catholic Church? Saints? What?

Then we sang Amazing Grace, which I actually know and like, so I sang along, and that was fun, although I had to look at the words for three out of the four verses (who knew there were four verses to Amazing Grace?). Participatory religion is always interesting, even when it’s not yours. The sermon was short (thankfully), the pastor told a nice story, but I felt the “Jesus loves you” message was a little heavy-handed. Well, we all know Jesus doesn’t love me and this doesn’t particularly bother me, but still I don’t particularly care to be preached to about the universality of his love and all that.

Sunday was first communion for the little kids, who were all very adorable, but I was still very confused about why Protestants take communion. When I was growing up and my Catholic friends were going to CCD and I was going to Hebrew School, I remember them talking about their first communions and their white dresses and how this was a big deal in Catholicism. So I was surprised to find that not only do these protestant Lutherans take communion, but they don’t wear white dresses. I mean, if you’re going to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, you should at least wear white, don’t you think?

An additional weird thing about communion at this church, and I think this is because it’s a big church with lots of money, but during communion they had a handbell ensemble playing hymns. HANDBELLS. They were very good, but I felt like I was watching a Jesus-loving Blue Man Group dressed in black. It seemed sort of excessive. But that must just be my Puritanical Jewish upbringing talking. They also had white grape juice and gluten-free communion wafers for people who preferred. Anyway, communion took forever because there were hundreds of people who lined up to be hand-fed little pieces of bread and minuscule cups of wine and be told Jesus died for their sins. I just watched.

After communion, the congregation said the Lord’s Prayer, which I only know from Boondock Saints, feeding some stereotype that only Catholics say this and it is usually associated with killing bad guys. Then there were some more prayers and hymns and then we left, and I’ve decided I now needed to go to a church of every kind because I obviously know nothing about Christianity whatsoever.

What was most interesting to me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about, was the amount of income this church must have. They have six pastors on staff, a huge, beautiful, modern facility, can afford choir robes with gold stitching and an orchestra of bells, a freshly paved parking lot, an organ, and enough bread to give communion to an army. I wonder if other communities support their religious institutions in this way, and why synagogues, at least the ones I go to, seem to be struggling to make ends meet. In that sense, the success of this church’s fundraising and the willingness of the community to give was kind of shocking. There is nothing wrong, of course, with giving to the community, and churches, including this one, often do good work. It’s just not something I’d seen before, and the amount of money people are evidently willing to give in order to be told how to live and about sinners and saints and heaven and hell seemed kind of scary.

In particular, when they passed the collection plate exactly at the end of the sermon, I was reminded of what churches must have been like historically, particularly during the Roman-Catholic-Church-as-a-government phase of European history: by preaching, you are soliciting money to enable the effective spread of your word and keep your church in a position of power. It was, and seems still to be to some extent, political fundraising. The concurrence of revenue-generating with sermons seems subversive of their moral, religious, or spiritual relevance. The pastor or priest or whoever, some religious figure, speaks, and if you like what is said, you pay up. It is, at its most fundamental, a sales pitch, only they’re selling the power and relevance of church to people who, probably, are already buying into it.

Other than making me question religious fundraising, church inspired me to go to synagogue for the first time since high holidays last year. (This still means I have to find one to go to.) Also, despite feeling like an outcast because I’m a brunette, I’m going to go to a different Lutheran church this weekend. I just can’t get enough: once you pop, the fun don’t stop.

*I have since read on Wikipedia that Lutheranism retained many of the practices of Catholicism, and further splits (like with Calvin) engendered the depressed repressed Protestantism with which we WASPs are so familiar.

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8 thoughts on “I went to Church, and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

  1. I blame myself…I have failed!!!! (Dan…please help here!)

    Clearly, we didn’t have enough (any) discussions about Protestantism when you were a child. I don’t know where to start in correcting your misunderstandings (though maybe attending a church service or two will help).

    As long as you are visiting (and if you can find) I suggest:

    a) Methodist
    b) Presbyterian
    c) Episcopal
    d) Congregationalist
    e) Baptist (of any variety)
    f) Unitarian

  2. I seem to thrive on uncomfortable social situations. I was at a Peace Corps club meeting yesterday and the audience meter, as I reconstruct the facial expressions, glances, vocal tones, subject-changing, etc., rated me hovering between lobotomize and lynch. But they all listened to me.
    This contrasts (and I’d been talking about this as one of the warm-up topics) with previous days where I’d be so busy feeling status-deprived or dignity-deprived or defective that I would have coasted along, rhetorically speaking, not paying attention, and thus seeing very little need to steer the conversation. Once you start paying attention, you want to steer. “The noble seek power.”
    Religion raises the question of reason’s limits. So, what is reason? What is the alternative? Does it make sense to refer to the non-reasonable? Invoke it? Invite it?
    How can you tell what other people believe in? (“Do you believe in gay marriage?” “Yes, I’m certain it happens all the time.”) How do you learn what you believe in?
    Is it possible to base a social order on the non-reasonable?
    I will quit my social-sciencing here and suggest that it is the only basis for a social order. The only problem is the one you are scraping at–how do you keep a non-reasonable social order from coming under some person’s (persons’) arbitrary regime, which they camouflage with non-reason, but not the same non-reason that they supposedly (who supposed?) are administrating/administering?
    I can suggest, by way of my answer, only a song lyric of mine from thirty years ago which I am still analyzing: truth is more than a mass of fact, it’s beating the heart out of love.

  3. From the Tablet (“A New Read On Jewish Life”), Music department, “Holy Trinity”
    “How a Jew, a WASP, and a Catholic found the perfect religious balance and made the Velvet Underground one of the greatest rock bands in history”
    By Liel Leibovitz|November 8, 2011 7:00 AM|3comments
    Three things happened in the fall of 1990 that changed my life forever.

    The first—and by far the least significant—was the first Gulf War, which inspired Saddam Hussein to hurl his missiles at Israel. As if in some strange ghost dance, most of them landed within a two-block radius in a small suburb of Tel Aviv, forming a nearly perfect circle around my home. At dusk, which was usually just before the missiles would hit, I’d run up to the roof to see if any were visible on the horizon. Then, with the first siren, I’d rush down to the concrete-walled bomb shelter that in those days was my room, and I’d wait for the all-clear. Mornings were spent strolling the streets and looking for shrapnel, cool shreds of metal with Arabic inscriptions in red and green. The missiles were antiquated, their aim poor, and the damage minimal, which made the first Gulf War the best starter war a child could wish for: just consequential enough to convey a real sense of dread, but incapable of the sort of devastation that leaves nations and boys scarred for life.

    But the war’s discrete charms—carrying your gas mask with you everywhere you went, keeping an atropine injector handy in case those threatened chemical warheads ever materialized—were nothing compared to the season’s twin colossal discoveries: sex and drugs.

    I was a few months shy of my 14th birthday, and my first taste of hashish was like a second, and far more palpable, bar mitzvah. Someone had given me a joint, and I smuggled it past my mother and grandmother and down to my subterranean, bomb-resistant room. I realized the momentousness of the occasion, and with a rigid sense of ritual that only awkward teenagers can so earnestly conjure, I thought that an appropriate soundtrack was de rigeur. The same enabling friend had also given me a tape with a suggestive painting of a banana on the cover, and one song on that album, I saw, was called “Heroin.” Understanding very little about what set one drug apart from another, I figured that heroin and hashish were virtually the same thing, and that a song celebrating one would do just fine as I experimented with the other. I put the tape in my yellow Sony Walkman, stuck the ear buds in, pressed play, and lit up.

    What happened next isn’t worth describing. Unless you’ve done drugs, or listened to the Velvet Underground, or done both simultaneously, or done both simultaneously when you were almost 14 and with Iraqi Scuds making their final pre-flight preparations en route to your neighborhood, you just won’t get how holy and filthy it felt, and how enlightening. Two hours later, the alarm sounded, and my mother and grandmother rushed down to my room and shut the heavy steel door behind them. I was panicking, convinced that the reek of burnt hash still lingered. It never occurred to me that we were all wearing gas masks.

    That afternoon changed me forever. I listened to my tape endlessly: “Venus in Furs,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “I’m Waiting for the Man”—all Velvet Underground songs were about drugs or sex. And because I had no more of the former, I wanted to try the latter.

    A few weeks later, I did. The girl was a sweet 16, and even though neither of us had done much more than breathlessly sneak a few fingers under a bra or down the pants, I felt I had to project a sort of secure masculinity, calm and seductive, and take control of the historic moment. I told her I had just the tape to put us both in the right mood. We undressed, turned off the lights, and I put the Velvet Underground cassette in her tape deck. If “Heroin” was such a befitting song with which to get high, I thought, surely it worked just as well for getting laid.

    Four or five minutes in, with Lou Reed’s guitar and John Cale’s electric viola fighting like small, bleeding animals and Maureen Tucker’s drums as hypnotic as an underwater tribal trance, the Velvet Underground had given me the perfect score for scoring: The music was just as hysterical, desperate, insecure, elated, and terrified as I was, or as is anyone, I believe, who’s losing his virginity way too early and for all the wrong reasons.

    Obviously, then, I spent much of my adult life thinking about the Velvet Underground and about what makes it such a stellar band. There are many obvious answers to this question, and some not so obvious ones, but there’s one I think deserves serious consideration: What made the Velvet Underground so great was religion—or, more specifically, the fact that its three most influential founders were a Jew, an Episcopalian, and a Catholic who together created the sort of perfectly balanced rock theology we haven’t seen before or since.

    The Catholic, of course, is Andy Warhol. In Songs for Drella, the haunting tribute to Warhol that reunited Reed and Cale after years of animosity and alienation, the two recalled their mentor’s state of mind in a song called “Work”: “Andy was a Catholic, the ethic ran through his bones/ He lived alone with his mother, collecting gossip and toys/ Every Sunday when he went to Church/ He’d kneel in his pew and say, ‘It’s just work, all that matters is work.’ ”

    The song goes on to describe Warhol, who sponsored and promoted the Velvet Underground early on in their career, pestering Reed to write more songs, repeating again and again that work was the only acceptable human condition. No wonder that a boy reared on ritual and iconography grew up to create commercial, colorful work that turned the detritus of pop culture into sacred objects of reverence.
    But Warhol alone was not enough. The problem with Warhol—evident in each of his paintings and sculptures and movies and quips—is that there are no emotional boreholes lying beneath the arid surface of concept and artifice. And rock, Warhol knew, was the music of emotion; it was one thing to shoot eight hours and five minutes of the Empire State Building and call it a movie, but as soon as guitars and drums are involved, passion should be as well.

    His first passionate disciple was John Cale. Born in Wales, the quiet, artistic youth had had just the kind of monstrous childhood that tends to turn people into either perverts or pioneers. Here he is, in his autobiography, about being a boy:

    Each time I walked up the path in the growing dark I had to pass the local church, which, being the largest in the area, harboured a Rushworth and Draper organ for the High Church services held every Sunday. When I was twelve, wearing regulation schoolboy’s trousers, I was sexually molested by the organist. He was giving me special lessons in how to play and sing hymns. … The way into the organ loft was narrow and, once in, you could not easily get out. If you were there with the organ tutor, it was even more cramped. When you have lessons there is often attention given to your footwork and its accuracy in playing certain set pieces for examinations. He was trying to grab me and jerk me off, and in those short pants it was hard to avoid. It was distasteful and difficult to deal with. It lasted one spring and summer, and it certainly took care of my religious sensibility.

    There are many remarkable things about this passage: its quiet, reserved tone, its sense of understated torment. But most striking of all is the fact that Cale remembers just what sort of organ it was that he’d played, remembers not as a traumatized victim holding on to detail but as a consummate musician thinking about his instrument even as he’s being raped in a musty room. And this is exactly what his music sounds like: incredibly controlled, with some eerie sense of dread thudding in the background. You can hear it best in Fragments of a Rainy Season, his stunning 1992 live performance in which beautiful and measured piano songs break down into thumps and screams only to regain their composure almost immediately. Although most of the Velvet Underground’s songs were written by Lou Reed, it is impossible to imagine the band’s sound without that electric viola, without Cale’s grace.

    And then there’s Lou Reed. Born Lewis Allan Reed in Brooklyn, he was 14 when his parents dragged him to receive electroconvulsive therapy designed to fry away his homosexual urges. “They put the thing down your throat so you don’t swallow your tongue,” he recalled in an interview years later, “and they put electrodes on your head. That’s what was recommended in Rockland County to discourage homosexual feelings. The effect is that you lose your memory and become a vegetable. You can’t read a book because you get to page 17 and have to go right back to page one again.”

    Instead of reading books, Reed wrote songs, and his anger dripped into each line and chord. It was a particularly Jewish anger, the anger of someone who grew up in a community so eager to belong to society at large that the slightest touch of deviancy called for severe measures, the anger of someone who had come of age pinched by a litany of laws. Even when he finally managed to escape to Manhattan, he sought the kind of safety and security that reflects his middle-class, suburban, Jewish upbringing and became the in-house songwriter for the very commercial Pickwick Records, where he wrote soundalike albums. He later described the tenure as being “a poor man’s Carole King.”

    Warhol and Cale gave Reed the background he needed, musically, artistically, and commercially. So much of Reed’s rage is made airy by Cale’s arrangements, and so much of his bitterness dissolves. By himself, Reed is frequently excellent, but he is also very hard to take because he is a bard of impotent fury, writing songs about beautiful losers hopelessly challenging social conventions they would never, ever change. But add Cale to the mix, and the frustrations turn sublime. Add Warhol, too, and the whole package is ethereal. The angry Jew, the repressed and damaged WASP, the anxious Catholic, each brought his own demons into the studio and, to everyone’s delight, the demons all played well together.

    Which is why “Heroin” was, in retrospect, a great choice of a song for drugs and dirty deeds alike. Sex and intoxication both appeal to us so much because they are emotions we can never really understand, in retrospect, when we’re sober and dressed. They’re ecstatic, which means that they leave us, as we partake in them, vulnerable and victorious at the same time, very confused and very much in need of candor. It takes more than one religion to supply this kind of emotional honesty. It takes three. Luckily for the Velvet Underground, the ecumenical stars were all aligned.

    Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine.

  4. yeah. mom is presbyterian, duh. And you have definitely also been to church for a wedding and probably for Hebrew School too, I know I did as part of a learn about other religions thing. Just be sure to never kneel (neal? neel? how do you spell that?) that’s what Morah Abromowitz (?) always said….also are you going to start giving money to synagogues now?

    1. Morah Miriam always told me not to sit cross-legged because that’s how the infidels sit. AND I WONDER WHY I HAVE STEREOTYPES?!?!

      (kneel, by the way)

      Um and no I didn’t go to church. We went to a Catholic wedding, I guess that was in a church. But I remember that. But no, I never went to non-Catholic church. At least I don’t remember ever going. Except Christmas that one time which, like I said, I don’t remember. Definitely not for Hebrew School — I went all at B’nai Israel and, well, Morah Miriam again. Not really conducive to cross-cultural understanding.

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