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.
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?*
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.
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.