I was 17 years old when my girlfriend’s father pulled me aside, saying, “You’ve just got to hear this song.” He usually had great taste in music but honestly, what followed was one of the strangest things I’d ever heard. It was just a guy talking about what I could only describe as feel-good nonsense.
Chuckling to myself slightly, I was ready to give up when over a slight musical pause I heard the line, “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly.”
That caught my attention and the thought has stuck with me ever since. In much the same way that car advertising aims to convince you that your current vehicle isn’t cool, economical, spacious or versatile enough, the beauty industry thrives on convincing you that your looks need improvement.
They will only make you feel ugly. Weird how that actually works.
The song, if you haven’t guessed by now, was Baz Luhrman’s Everbody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and it became the most unlikely number one hit back in 1998.
Over a decade later, the night my tenure in music ministry came to an end follows a similar narrative arc. That night I heard something truly profound that has had a lasting impact on the way I view (and continually re-assess) organized religion.
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I’d just moved to California and, thanks to the economic downturn in 2008, church positions were hard to come by. I was serving as a lead guitarist at a fairly large San Diego church, working full time while still on the lookout for church openings.
The Director of Music had just visited Pixar where part of the tour involved an in-depth story board of the movie Shrek. He then called a worship team meeting where he explained how the emotional arc of a movie related to the structure of a “good” worship service. Personally, I’d never liked the idea of qualifying worship as “good” or “bad”, since it was all for God, but I went into the meeting open minded.
Here’s how they relate: A movie is planned out to get people feeling excited and drawn in at the beginning (A church service typically starts with faster, happy, celebratory songs), then moves into a phase of seriousness and the main conflict in the middle (RE; Slower, quieter, contemplative songs, about sin and Jesus’ death) then the movie would move to it’s climax (RE; build at least one song in volume and intensity until all the hands are up), then there’s the “victory dance”, the real celebration, the resolution, and roll credits (RE; recap an earlier chorus, or do an up-tempo hymn over a solid rock beat, then take the offering). The one obvious departure in methodology is that the mood of the final song should fit the mood of the sermon, so as to flow naturally and continue the development of the arc.
The lighting and effects crew was going through the same training, about how the colors chosen should reflect the desired mood of any given song, that background images behind the on-screen lyrics should reflect joy, calm, celebration or introspection: A flowery field, Jesus bleeding on the cross, a dove in the sky, hands reaching up from below the surface of the water with air bubbles floating to the surface.
Yes, we had a “drowning in sin” animated backdrop.
He even explained why the vocal range of these songs were always on the high side. “When people have to really fight for those notes, they feel more connected to God,” he said.
I couldn’t believe it, but there it was, scrawled out on a grease board as plain as day, and it hit me like a Greyhound bus: My role in ministry was to emotionally charge people up, cut them off from their critical minds by eliciting a state of oxygen-starved euphoria, then brow-beat them into submission with slow, minor key songs about their sin and Jesus’ death.
I sat face to face with the emotional architecture of nearly every church service I’d lead or been involved with for more than a decade.
“The whole point of the middle of the song service is to put Jesus on display, bleeding and dejected, crucified for our inescapable wickedness, a sin-nature so ingrained in ourselves that we cannot escape and can never be redeemed on our own. We’re hopeless, and the music, the images, the lighting, should all reflect that before we can move on to redemption through the resurrection. People need to feel hopeless or we’re not doing our job. You can’t save someone who doesn’t feel… well, ugly. Ugly in God’s eyes, because that’s what we are. That’s why we need Jesus.”
This is the last note I took during that meeting, mindlessly scribbling down every word the man was saying until it finally clicked.
It was after this meeting that I walked away.
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I once believed nothing could be more crushing to the spirit of a growing child than the pressures society puts on them to rush toward a level of maturity equal to the 20- or 30-something actors they see on TV, typically cast as unusually good-looking, well-endowed teenagers with charmed lives and sexual experience bordering on the pornographic. Modern youth, I felt, were simply force-fed these unrealistic standards and hopeless comparisons in every outlet imaginable.
But long before any girl learns that her breasts are too small, her lips aren’t rich enough, her hair could use some highlights or her nose is a little off; if such a girl is raised in some form of Christianity, she is taught that she is sinful by default, unworthy and dirty and hopeless without God.
Similarly, prior to being told that he must be muscular and tan and have a dashing smile, that he must be strong yet sensitive, manly yet domesticated (is such a thing even possible?), young boys are told that some classmates will spend eternity in Hell if their family prays to the wrong God, or maybe other classmates believe the wrong doctrines about the right God, so it’s unsure where their eternal home will be.
As a child I learned about eternal damnation before I knew how to spell my own name. Is there anything more ugly than telling a developing child they will never be good enough, that they are hopelessly flawed in the eyes of the one being they are taught to worship and fear?
While the benefits of sunscreen are proven by science many times over, and beauty magazines really are garbage in my opinion, my best piece of cautionary advice toward living the most fulfilled life possible would be to state, boldly and without reservation:
Do not go to church, they will only make you feel ugly.
It’s true. It’s undeniable. It’s all part of the plan. They simply can’t sell you salvation if you’re not convinced you need it. Few churches have anyone who thinks clearly enough to lay it out on a grease board, but there it is. That is how it works.
And you can’t be saved when you realize you don’t need it.
But I can’t stop there. I refuse to focus on the negative and reinforce the stereotypical lens through which Christians view the non-religious. I must move on to an uplifting truth about the human condition, and I know of no better way to sum up how amazing, beautiful, rare, and sublime life on this planet is than by quoting Lawrence Krauss:
“You are all stardust.
“You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded. Because the elements, the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution weren’t created at the beginning of time. They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars. And the only way they could get into your body is if the stars were kind enough to explode.
“So forget Jesus. The stars died so you could be here today.”
In much the same way that so many industries thrive on making you feel ugly, guilty, fat or otherwise bad about yourself, the most liberating truths I know come right out of our ever-expanding understanding of the universe. You and I are amazing because we are alive, because we are self-aware, and because of where we’ve come from. We’re not just animated dirt. You weren’t sculpted from mud or a rib.
We are the remnants of dead stars reborn.
It is my belief that no religion on offer has anything to say about the human condition anywhere near as powerful as that one simple truth. And that one simple truth is only the beginning.
Instead, we find modern religion floundering, proud in it’s self-imposed ignorance. I once stood in that camp, so don’t think I’m taking jabs below the belt. We all relished in the truth of the Bible and routinely mocked this or that scientist when they made a mistake, or when some theory was overturned in light of a new discovery. The new discovery elicited no interest at all, as we were quite sure that one was soon to be debunked as well.
We had no respect for the natural world and all its wonder. We gave God all the credit for every advance of science and medicine, and blamed every scientist (since they were all atheists, of course) for every human shortcoming, every weapon, every conflict.
I hang my head in shame that I once mocked the very branch of medical science that now keeps me alive*.
Carl Sagan contrasts the two worldviews quite well:
“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, ‘This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant’? Instead they say, ‘No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.’ A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
When I first read this quote, about two years into my deconversion, I felt like Carl Sagan was writing to me and I nearly teared up. My once anemic sense of awe and wonder has only bloomed since I opened my eyes to the universe around me. The only thing more difficult to grasp than the immensity of the universe is the thought that, at some point not very long ago, I believed that I was the center of it all, that you and I were the purpose for which the entire universe was created, and that I was a hopeless wretch in the eyes of that creator. Now I see that notion for what it really is: Naive narcissism thinly veiled with false humility, reinforced with years of conditioning and undergirded by fear of eternal damnation for being exactly how I was created.
Do not go to church. They will only make you feel ugly, and that’s a lie. You are beautiful and amazing and rare, and anyone who tells you different is selling something.
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*More on this topic in a future post.
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