A misadventure. [Written in 2006.]— At lunch in the campus center I saw a flyer advertising an event tonight having something to do with dating and sex. I thought ‘Sure, why not’ and went to it. Maybe I’d meet somebody. Turns out it was a meeting for members of some weird underground cult that does nothing but preach about how inferior we all are to some guy named “Jesus Christ.” I felt like Indiana Jones in that scene in The Temple of Doom when he observes the ritual of the Thugee cult—the zombies intoning meaningless sounds as a human is sacrificed into the fire pit. “No one’s seen anything like this for a hundred years!” That’s what I was thinking.
It began innocently enough. I walked into the large room, which was absurdly empty (evidently the cult isn’t very popular), and stood there wondering what I’d got myself into. I didn’t yet know it was a Christian Conference, but I could tell I was about to be underwhelmed. Some girl involved with the show came up to me and started a conversation. Quite pleasant. We were both friendly; I was starting to think that maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all—when, in answer to my question about what all the musical instruments on the stage were for, she said “We’re going to start out with some worship music.” A single thought flashed through my mind: ‘Uh-oh.’ “Worship music?” I asked. “Well, no....” she said, “just some music.” Hm. A few minutes later another guy came over and introduced himself—very friendly again—and then two other guys—very friendly. I was getting suspicious. After I’d heard a few references to Christianity, my suspicions were confirmed. “So....this is sort of a religious thing?” I asked. “Yes!”, with an amused smile. Then it took off. I was told all about this little group that goes around spreading the Word, and I was told to go to Bible study tomorrow at noon, and there’s a fancy dinner tomorrow night, and etc. Then the pastor came over and we talked. Finally the production began—with half an hour of songs and prayers about how unworthy we are of God’s love. It was a sing-along; we stood up and clapped along and sang to the lyrics on the video screen in front of us. (It was a Powerpoint presentation.) Guitar, synthesizer, bongo drums, accompanists with microphones. Ugh. Those songs lasted forever! Each was at least eight minutes long. And there were only about two verses to each song, so we sang each verse about ten times. Audience members were closing their eyes, raising their hands to the heavens and keeping them suspended in air for minutes at a time, bowing their heads and saying “In Jesus name! In Jesus name!” as the rest of us kept the melody going. Twenty-five minutes into it I got to thinking that it wouldn’t be so hard after all to come to believe in this stuff if it was regularly pounded into you like this. Still, I could see that they meant well, and that they were good people. ‘These are the good Christians,’ I thought, ‘the ones it’s easy to forget about.’ —That was a rather naïve opinion, as I came to realize.
It all stayed innocent and somewhat charming for a while longer. There was a mimed drama that portrayed Jesus (dressed in white with a red paper-heart stuck on his chest and paper hearts taped to his palms that you could see when he raised his arms in that expansive “I love all of you” way) saving four tormented souls (dressed in black with masks on their faces;—I didn’t catch the symbolism)—by slapping hearts onto their chests, which caused them to jump up and down with glee and whisk their masks off and dance around the stage. ‘At least their intentions are good,’ I thought again.
Then it was time for the entrée. Our guest speaker was going to talk about sex and love in our sinful society—“Is true love still possible?” etc. (I’ll spare you the suspense: yes.) Skilled speechifier that he was, he started off with jokes to lighten the mood. Here’s a sample: There were two brooms in a closet. They were getting married. So there was a bride broom and a groom broom. (That drew laughs.) They went to a party shortly before their wedding; the groom broom made some remark that I’ve forgotten (it had something to do with asking his betrothed if he could “whisk her away”), to which the bride broom responded with “Are you kidding?! We haven’t even swept together yet!” Har-har. That provoked the universally accepted reaction to bad-pun jokes: a collective good-natured “Awwwhh!” (like: “Oh man that was bad, ha ha, but it was funny too, ha ha”), a few chuckles, and a lot of turning-of-heads-to-neighbors-and-shaking-of-heads while smiling;—“Aww, that mischievous ol’ guest speaker with his bad-pun jokes!”
Okay; now it was time to get down to business. The speech began poignantly: he described his near-suicide in college, after his fiancée had broken up with him. For a week he’d planned it out, down to the last detail; but one night in a park, while he was trying to make the final decision for or against death, God spoke to him. That was his rebirth, etc. Now he was a marriage counselor and a preacher (or pastor or reverend or one of those things). The rest of his speech was about the greatness of love—and abstinence until marriage—and the sinfulness of flesh-pleasures—and the inadequacy of evolution (“We’re all descended from muck, just by chance?! That doesn’t account for love! Science can’t account for love!”)—and the sinfulness of society. It turns out that the cause of all the world’s ills is sex before marriage. The speaker himself had had sex with his fiancée before she’d dumped him; this was the reason for his suicidal pain. Satan had possessed him, and the result was despair. (Lust, you may know, is the work of Satan. Love is the work of God.) We have to love Jesus. If we love Jesus with our heart and soul, etc. etc. Besides, if we abstain from sex until marriage we’ll enjoy it a lot more when it finally happens. (He emphasized this pragmatic concern quite a bit.) “Is love temporal or eternal?” Well, according to him, lust is temporal, but love is eternal. And the precondition for love is that women save their “precious jewel” for marriage. The speaker threw out all sorts of statistics that drew oohs and ahhs from the audience—like, for the last five years, 100 Japanese young people have killed themselves every day (often during big internet “suicide parties”), and 80% of people who have sex before marriage end up divorcing, and one out of five women is sexually abused in childhood, and one out of five pastors is addicted to pornography.
An hour of this. This palaver. By the end I couldn’t stop thinking about Inherit the Wind, which I’d seen the previous night. All these people sitting here absorbing this stuff and nodding and shaking their heads—this stuff that was becoming more ignorant and bigoted by the minute—these people had been so kind and pleasant just two hours ago, but now they were haters of evolution, of science, of gays, of the irreligious. They would have denied that, but obviously missionary zeal was not foreign to them. And what else is missionary zeal but intolerance of dissent? That’s clearly the motivation behind it most of the time—the desire to impose oneself on the other. In the 1920s these people would have lived in Heavenly Hillsboro and happily thrown the free-thinking heretic into jail. All because of their infinite love, their eternal love. It was all right there below the surface. This absolute faith in their own rightness.... And yet they were so agreeable as conversationalists, and I could see they were fundamentally kind! This is the paradox that has always disturbed me. The intermixture of good and bad, a mixture so perfect that there’s really no distinguishing between the good and the bad. The bad exists in the good and vice versa.
Equally frightening: I can sense the rudiments of hateful missionary zeal within myself. As I walked home tonight, feeling so corrupted—almost physiologically corrupted—that I could think of little else but the Mozart I’d be listening to in a moment, I could tell that I had the potential for atheistic fanaticism. I knew that the only reason I’d never succumb to fanaticism is that I’m aware of my fanaticism. My self-consciousness is what prevents me from sliding into the pit of disguised jihadism.
(Incidentally, the obvious insight again occurred to me that historically the role of “confessors” has been to function as therapists in an age that didn’t recognize psychology. Conversely, therapists are just confessors for the modern age. Talking about problems (like guilt; hence “Have you sinned recently, my child?”) in itself somehow relieves their burden.)
 One reason Christianity is such a psychologically powerful ideology is that it first burdens people with guilt and then gives them the means to overcome it. It separates them from the community (with God, etc.) only to draw them more closely into it. (Guilt is just a form of isolation, of self-fixation.) That is, it creates a community by promising that only through this community can one reach the ideal, eternal community—by at least partially transcending one’s original guilt (“sin”), which is essentially one’s original individuality or isolation. For sin is just the stain of original separateness. The stain of personality, of concrete, bodily existence. Salvation means overcoming the particularities of concrete existence.