The Biggest Question

A big question requires a knowledgeable reply, but “The Biggest Question” necessitates the explanation of three men by hour-long video.

The DVD was sent to me by a friendly young minister in Texas who must have read my op-ed when it was reprinted in the Dallas Morning News. His return address revealed him to be Baptist, but the video itself makes no denominational claims. I imagine its producers reside somewhere on the current Christian frontier where such distinctions are downplayed. The accompanying card explained that the minister hoped the DVD would answer my questions from the “evangelical/protestant point of view.” I thought that wording was nice: he wasn’t saying it was right, just another perspective.

The video’s main narrator is a guy named Todd Friel who is apparently a popular evangelical figure. He hosts a daily two-hour Christian-themed radio show called “Wretched” that streams from Wretchedradio.com. The website offers videos and podcasts, all brought to you by Burning Bush Communications. You can sign up to join the Wretched club and receive your Wretched news. You may also buy a T-shirt and baseball cap and save by purchasing them as a “Wretched wear combo.”

Friel is a tall, skinny guy with the vocal stylings and over-the-top enthusiasm of a morning rush-hour DJ. He may be a few years older than the evangelicals I’ve seen in person, like Jackson and the Christian boy band members, but not by much. The backdrop “set” for the DVD (and the other videos that stream on the site) looks like an industrial warehouse loft filled with old-timey furnishings. I imagine it’s someone’s idea of where Shakespeare might live if he rose from the dead and took up residence in a former factory.

Friel wanders around the loft talking into the camera. Intermittently, the video cuts to two other men who help him explain stuff. The first is Kirk Cameron, a former teen heartthrob (he was on a popular TV sitcom called “Growing Pains” in the 1980’s) turned evangelical actor/spokesperson. He does his explaining from a leafy yard setting. The second is a young minister who goes by the name of R.W. Glenn. He speaks earnestly into the camera while walking the streets of an idyllic-looking suburban “downtown” devoid of pedestrians. In the alternate reality of the DVD, women seem to have no presence. If they exist, it is only as implied by the wedding bands on the men’s fingers. As such, their most lively moments come when the men use their hands to make a particularly important point.

Does what they have to say answer the biggest question, as its title suggests?

Most of the DVD is dedicated to explaining what they call the “Doctrine of Imputation.” Embrace this doctrine, they explain, and experience freedom. Never again must we feel lacking in goodness.

The detailed thesis, to which each man contributes, is this:

We are criminals and an enemy of God with nothing to offer but our filthiness. Ours is an infinite debt of sin. We can do nothing God requires. We are bound for the eternal torment of hell. Put in academic terms, we all have failing grades.

Luckily, Jesus lived the perfect life and then died the death we deserve. Because God loves people who recognize their deep badness, He—in His mercy—is willing to substitute Jesus’ grade (A+) for our own.

This swap is something Friel calls “Jesus as our propitiation” and serves as the heart of the Doctrine of Imputation, which can also be called the “Imputation of Jesus Righteousness.” It occurs as the result of an actual transaction, the specifics of which are also spelled out…

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Plexiglas box

Strumming his guitar, Pastor Jeff approaches the microphone stand and begins to belt out the first song, “Glory to God Forever.” The band behind him reaches full throttle.

I look around to see if I can catch smiles on anyone’s faces.

It’s Pearl Jam meets Jesus.

This is ironic, no?

John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, was famously opposed to displays of flamboyance and mirth. He considered dancing at weddings a vulgarity, as was providing too many types of food at dinner. What would he think of this?

But today’s congregants are extremely earnest. I follow them as they stand.

I’m holding the lyrics on a photocopied sheet. I can’t for the life of me catch the beat. I’m reminded of when kids sing a song they barely know, and they mumble along until they stumble upon a familiar series of words—but blurt them a tad too late. I’m the worst offender: my mangled version dangles from the other congregants’ slightly less mangled versions. I whisper-sing hoping my contribution gets drowned out. The pastor has an excellent voice, and a dynamic stage presence. If I could, I’d vote we all just zip it and listen. But I suppose that would run counter to the spirit of participation.

If this was anywhere else, I’d be swaying. I find it almost impossible not to move at least one limb to any music with the semblance of a beat. Everyone else stands still. They are redwood trees in a forest alive with exotic birds. It’s the strangest sensation, all this vibrancy electrifying the air, and they are as immobile as steel rods. Actually, this is precisely what I was expecting before I showed up this morning. The rock star pastor is a surprise, but the congregants fit right in with my preconceived notions of Presbyterians, who I associate with the early colonial settlers. Here are my puritans—it’s not that they don’t feel passion for God, just that they are more comfortable with the pastor expressing it on their behalf. I decide on a little unobtrusive foot tapping.

After a medley of opening songs, we settle into traditional service elements that include a Time of Silent Confession, Assurance of Pardon, New and Old Testament readings, giving of tithes and offerings, and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

In retrospect, what’s funny is how ordinary the pastor’s rock performance turned out to be. I came to realize that many mainline Protestant denominations offer two versions of their Sunday services, one with hymns and the other with a drummer in a Plexiglas box. Sometimes I saw older people in the contemporary service or young people in the traditional service but, in general, the age divide was clear. I wasn’t sure who was making concessions to whom—whether the elders were accommodating current tastes or if new leaders were hoping appease their base of long-time congregants and likely best tithers. Each time I had to decide between services, I couldn’t help but note how meager the attendance usually was and how, if services were combined, twice as many people would be present. Because what seems to matter more than the style of music is that people bothered showing up; everyone sits elbow to elbow and at least tries to join their voices to whatever songs play.

Dividing services feels to me like one group or generation saying to the other, “I choose music over you.” Isn’t this just the sort of gap worship is meant to close?

Right on

Maybe it took almost 500 years, but the Catholic Church has adopted some reforms originally demanded by Protestants.

Today, in turn, some Protestants are borrowing ideas from the Catholic Church. In an effort to feel more in sync with other Christians, some denominations have created their own Bible-reading schedules similar to the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary; they are literally on the same page as others using that same guide. Traditional elements such as more frequent communion, celebrating Lent, or Stations of the Cross strengthen ties between Christians around the world.

The Protestants who came to these soils may have achieved the religious freedoms for which they set out, but lost something vital along the way. How else to explain the “Plan of Union of 1802” when 2,000 independent Congregational churches traded their autonomy and name for the Presbyterian structure and title?

The pilgrims and pioneers yearned for autonomy, to be free of directives about how to worship or live. The Plymouth Rock Society Toast summed it up: “To a church without a bishop and a state without a king.”

But perhaps the only thing more American than to fight for freedom is to achieve freedom and then look longingly at severed ties. It’s the same struggle I experience on a most intimate level. I want to make my own decisions about spirituality but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to trudge the path alone.

Protestants may be turning back to the Catholic Church for inspiration—but they’re reaching forward too. It wasn’t until I was further along in this journey that I could reflect on some of my earlier church visits and see how popular culture, particularly trends in music, were being incorporated into the services of more established denominations.

“Are you here for the contemporary or traditional service?” a young man inquires of me at the chapel door of a Presbyterian church just a few months after I started my church-going.

“What’s the difference?” I ask. This is the first I’m hearing of two services.

“The music mostly. I think. I don’t know.” He looks around self-consciously. “I always go to the contemporary one. I’ll get Pastor Jeff. He can explain.”

He returns, tailed by a baby-faced man in an enormous blazer. Pastor Jeff has recently lost 100 pounds or he just likes really loose-fitting clothes. Either way, it makes him appear even younger than he already seems, like a kid wearing his father’s suit.

“You’re visiting us today!” He exudes oodles of confidence. He is handsome in a clean-cut way. I nod, picturing him in Christian camp as a teenager, all the girls chastely fawning over him in the mess hall.

“Right on,” he says enthusiastically, using a phrase I associate with surfers. He explains that the contemporary service uses newer “rock” songs and guitar, whereas the other features older hymns and a choir. Besides this, they are the same: identical message and readings and sermon. “The newer music rubs some of the older folks the wrong way,” he says.

I choose the one starting immediately—the contemporary one.

In the main sanctuary, Pastor Jeff says a few words of welcome and then disappears into the corner. Suddenly, a loud guitar riff fills the chapel. I scan the room to spy what I had previously overlooked: to the side of the altar sit the accoutrement of a full rock band including drums, bass, keyboards and two backup singers sandwiched between tall concert speakers.

The pastor spins to face us, an electric guitar strapped to his chest…