cover_story (2006-28)

I am squirming because my bottom is asleep and I don’t really care about or understand what’s going on. For a moment, I’m still, paralyzed by the streams of light fracturing in from the skylights above, particles of gold dust dancing downward.

God, I think.

The melismatic hymnal music swirls around as I knead the chubby flesh of my knee, He never failed me yet…Gran Gran’s wobbly neck follows her lower jaw as she sings, totally off-key, in her high pitch, shaky as her handwriting would become in a few short years. The dust-emitting wads of Kleenex, the somewhat crusty rolls of Breath Savers and Werthers in her purse are as vivid in my memory—maybe even more so—than the delicate stained-glass of the church windows.

What would our religious outlook be, if the part of our soul that controls faith were tabula rasa? Would we be struck, at the time when most in need, by the religious power that best suited us? Would we exist forever unfettered by any faith at all?

We’ll never know, because most of us have had experiences akin to the aforementioned one—some sort of religious molding. Many of us are introduced to religion by our families, but all around us are sights and sounds of faith. We say “Under God,” in the Pledge of Allegiance every day in grade school, and so on. While faith itself and its manifestations are ubiquitous in modern society, it seems we rarely stop and wonder why we as humans tend to hold onto it with a zealousness reserved for little else in life.

Religion, especially in the South, is serious business. My main church experiences were here in Knoxville, at Laurel Church of Christ, where my extended family went. My immediate family did “home church,” in Nashville, which basically consisted of us doing chores and my dad reading Bible passages and deconstructing them as he might have any other children’s book, complete with funny voices. They were life lessons, not hard-and-fast truths. So these trips to church—such a stringent church where everything was just so, and the Bible was taken as literal truth—did a number on my religious psyche.

Regardless of whether or not I believe in God these days, I’ve always been mesmerized by the act of faith itself. Staring down the rows of polished pews, each person nodding in agreement, standing, sitting, singing, and sometimes crying. It’s one of the only times in modern life when people are content to just be, and do as they are told, all on blind faith.

And my personal experiences are limited—there are many different forms of faith. In its dictionary definition, faith is intangible—nearly an oxymoron; according to Webster, faith is the “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.”

Logically, it seems absurd to believe in something that has no proof to back it up. But as Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church pastor Chris Buice points out, “Every one of us has some form of faith. Why do any of us get out of bed in the morning? On some level, just getting out of bed is an act of faith. Even scientists in the lab need some measure of faith that what they are working on will come to something.”

If every action we perform is an act of faith, in hopes that it will contribute to, or directly result in outcomes we want to see happen in our lives, then the concept of faith doesn’t seem so preposterous. Still, religious faith is a different beast. Does it lead to any ultimate goal? The vast majority of Christians look forward to an afterlife, but is that the whole motivation for dressing up on Sunday morning and settling into the pew?

I decided to go, for a couple months of Sundays, to different churches around Knoxville, to try to get to the root of that motivation. I don’t intend to prove or disprove God or any religious teachings here, just to be clear. This is a study of why people have religious faith, and how it manifests itself in worship. The study is limited to Christian faiths, in attempt to consider the vast diversity within one religion—the one that is overwhelmingly dominant in the area. This is by no means comprehensive. Such a comprehensive look at religion in the South could be a life’s work. No, this is just a modest observation, a simple string of Sundays.

But the sonic sensations are much more spectacular than the visual—in the literal sense that it is a true spectacle—one might rub one’s sleepy Sunday head in disbelief. The woman at the organ is diminutive but feisty on the keys. Her bobby-pinned bun bounces and her neck tendons flex outward as she croons into the mic, “Praise the Lord!”

Similar guttural exclamations of faith burst forth at random from the church’s four attendees and others at the pulpit, or stage, as it might be more aptly termed. They all hold microphones and there’s a video camera set up amidst the pews. The music rages on, in loops, with the repetition of certain phrases, “Praise God, Amen.” The foundation-shaking fervor is comparable only to a used car commercial.

During a slight lull in the action, Sister Joan (on the organ) begins unexpectedly talking about the high cost of fuel these days. “We prayed on Wednesday night that the Lord would drive the gas prices down,” she says, grinning. “And we’ve seen them go down, down, down.”

Two elderly women, who appear to be sisters, sit with their legs covered by a crocheted yellow blanket. They had seemed nearly asleep to this point, but they nod their heads solemnly, affirming Sister Joan’s observation. A younger, roundish man with slick, coifed brown hair adds, “God wants us to take our power back and take charge over the devil! That’s what happened when we prayed over the gas prices.”

Sister Joan bemoans the many empty seats in the pews, saying there are multitudes of lost souls in America. Then, just as suddenly, she really breaks it down, like the freaking James Brown of the gospel. “O, the spirit of the Lord’s comin’ down! O, the spirit of the lord’s comin’ down!” This phrase is repeated for at least 10 minutes. A white-haired gentleman off to the side of the pulpit-stage really gets going too. He jogs in place, clapping his tambourine at a microphone. Eventually, he strides over behind all of the pews and lays on the floor on his back, arms to the side with fingers shaking slightly. Then, obviously accustomed to this, the younger man spreads a gauzy white cloth over his body.

After nearly an hour of music, Pastor John Touseull emerges from a side wing. He’s closing his eyes for the first 10 minutes or so, and it’s hard to make out exactly what he’s saying, as it’s spewed out in an impassioned mumble. He seems stricken by some unseen power. On heaven, he says, “Can’t get there through Buddah, or Allah—no one but JEEE-SUS!” On the subject of “lost souls,” he pleads, “Lord, shake ’em over the HELLFIRE, put the fear of GOD in them!”

Then he picks up a floppy Bible—nearly every line on every page appears to be highlighted in vibrant yellow. “Shout if you love God today!” he bellows. His wife, beside him, gives a set of stand-up chimes a muscled strum, and Sister Joan pounds out a shrill chord on the organ keys.

Later, on the phone, Touseull acknowledges his services may be different from other churches, but that, in the eyes of the Lord, they are not extreme. “The Bible says to praise skillfully and with a loud noise, and in Psalms it says to make a joyful noise.”

Still, many things he preaches aren’t exactly joyful. Typical of evangelistic and fundamentalist tradition, House of Faith subscribes to a strict view of faith. “Everyone of us is born with sin and we need savior to make atonement for our sins,” says Touseull. “All the bad things that are happening now—earthquakes, pestilence, floods—God’s judgment has fallen on America. Katrina is part of that.”

What has America done to deserve God’s wrath? Touseull points to abortion (“killing little babies”) and the fact that “marriage isn’t honorable anymore.” Of homosexuality, he says, “That’ll take you straight to hell. It’s an abomination of God. He didn’t make Adam and Steve, he made Adam and Eve!”

Fundamentalists tend to use such maxims to support more controversial beliefs, but even more mainstream churches have strict views on the moral issues that overflow into the political sphere. Because homosexuality and gay marriage is such a hot issue, it’s not surprising that several churches address the subject, even basing entire sermons on it.

At Cedar Springs Presbyterian Church in West Knoxville, the Wednesday night service is on adultery—or, more specifically, on homosexuality, which is presumed to be adultery here. Pastor T.M. Moore, speaking to 30 or so worshippers, says, “The United States Congress has today relegated the marriage amendment [outlawing gay marriage] to the dust bin. This shows the failure of moral will of America’s leadership…they are too busy making room for everyone, so they can no longer even declare right from wrong. It’s a sanction of moral decline that’s occurred.”

The logic is that if gay marriage were made legal, then homosexual intercourse would be within the sanction of marriage. As long as it’s outside the bonds of marriage, homosexuality is, by these rules, adultery. “God never intended sexuality to be performed without constraint. This is why he instituted marriage,” Moore says.

Adultery, though, is not limited to homosexuality, says Moore. It encompasses all sexual behavior outside of marriage. Even lustful thoughts are considered adultery by this interpretation. And the consequences are dire. “Adultery and sin drag us down into the mire, with the rest of the forlorn, forsaken society.” (It should be noted that there are various branches of Presbyterianism, varying greatly in thought. Cedar Springs is of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, as opposed to the other dominant groups: The Presbyterian Church of America and PCUSA.)

This sense of otherness—and what might be construed as moral superiority—can obviously effect those outside the religion, in everyday life. In a recent essay published in The American Scholar by Marilynne Robinson called “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” she refers to a third great awakening, saying this current upsurge in fundamentalism is “notably devoid of interest in equality” and, in divergence from typical Christian philanthropic thought, she says “it shows startlingly little sense of responsibility for the vulnerable.”

Of course, nearly every Christian organization focuses some of its energy on ministering—a seemingly humanistic task of bringing people to God, thus saving them from damnation. While on one hand such a goal is benevolent, one might perceive it as bordering on persuasive assimilation. “Religion kind of creeps in,” says Phil King, president of Rationalists of East Tennessee. “People that are religious are so immersed in it that they don’t realize they are doing it. They can be insensitive.”

TVUUC’s Buice points out the pros and cons of witnessing. “Anytime you have faith you should affirm it and share it,” he says. “The problem with proselytizing is that it can come across as “my religion’s better than yours.’ That can be especially hard on the minority religions like Judaism, Muslim, and even Unitarian.”

Interestingly, these “flocks” tend to be as the birds; in seeking out a worship style that best fits their needs, people who are similar in age, race, dress, and, seemingly, socioeconomic status, tend to flock together.

Among many of today’s churches, “Sunday best” clothing is no longer a requirement, and many people regularly wear jeans and T-shirts instead. At Calvary Baptist Church on Alcoa Highway, even the setting itself is casual. It’s in the middle of a strip mall, neighbored by retail stores like Rush’s Music and El Herradero’s Western Wear.

Inside, the rows of chairs are so packed with people that it’s difficult to find an empty one. It’s hard to tell whether it’s the large crowd or the low ceilings, lined with fluorescent lights, and the lack of windows, that makes the sanctuary feel claustrophobic. There is a full four-man band, plugged into amps, playing soft-rock accompaniments to the contemporary Christian songs. Some people sing along, following the words as they stream onto video screens on either side of the band.

Pastor Mark Kirk, dressed in khakis and a red button-down, bounds up onto the platform. Today, he’s continuing a series of sermons on “The Don’ts of Worship.” At first, his beatific, but conversational delivery is more akin to a standup act than a traditional sermon. When he relates the story of a bank robber who accidentally jumped into a cop car in his attempt to escape, the congregation laughs heartily for a moment. But, Kirk says, “That killed his career in bank robbery, and there are things you can do to kill your worship time.”

Some of the “don’ts” seem confusing. Don’t take God’s glory, says Kirk, by worshipping too flamboyantly, gesticulating for the sake of getting attention. On the other hand, he says, don’t be critical of those who have animated worship. “We don’t seem to have trouble expressing ourselves at Neyland Stadium! We need to be free in worship too. I’m not saying we need to paint our faces red for the blood and yell, “Yeah, go Jesus!” he pauses for the congregation’s reaction, with a wild look on his face, “but we must be free in our worship.”

As if guided by his sermon, many members appear more uninhibited in their expression during the closing songs. One young woman holds both arms in the air, palms cupped toward the ceiling. Others sit and rock back and forth, eyes closed.

Kirk doesn’t seem to mind preaching in the strip mall, but he mentions that Calvary has purchased a plot of land where it plans to build a real church. “A lot of stigma comes with the strip mall, and rightfully so—some people will just set up in a strip mall and claim to be doing something spiritual when they are not. So people are skeptical,” he says. “But the church is not about a building, it’s about the people.”

As for bucking tradition, embracing technology and allowing casual dress, Kirk says it’s a natural progression. “We tend to find ourselves in a rut over time, and it can become so traditional that it becomes dead,” he says. “God’s really concerned about your heart, not your clothes or whether you’ve got piercings or tattoos.”

On the other hand, some churches are still firmly rooted in tradition. The sanctuary at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Northshore is the polar opposite of Calvary’s. The Roman architecture, high-domed and gilded ceilings, the deep indigos and blood reds of the stained-glass windows, the lurid crucifixion statue over the pulpit, the vacillating flames in the platforms of votives—all of it communicates an unspoken sentiment of demure holiness.

Family is also a striking component of worship here; at both the 12 p.m. service and the Spanish sermon at 1 p.m., the pews are mostly populated with families of two or three children. The sermon itself is nothing out of the ordinary, just some scriptures read and discussed. The music—organs and voices echoing gorgeously in the acoustics of the vast church—gives the service a therapeutic comfort. Catholic services usually entail a traditional rapport between priest and congregation. “May the Lord be with you,” says the priest. “And also with you,” chimes the crowd in unison.

Here, going to church doesn’t seem to be a learning experience, but more of a rote tradition—like brushing your teeth. And people seem to find something comforting in that, and in the non-controversial nature of the sermon itself.

On the other side of the spectrum are churches that embrace the cerebral side of religion. Philosophy and in-depth study of religious theory is a main thrust of the Unitarian tradition. “We are about freedom to think and to question,” says TVUUC’s Buice. “You might say we find our faith in freedom.”

Unitarians tend to take the Bible with a grain of salt. Seibert goes so far as to call it, “a foreign amalgam of stories written in a foreign language that has no native speakers…internally, it is so inconsistent, that, in some cases at least, it must be firmly disregarded.”

The surroundings at TVUUC could be described as Zen; a simply decorated room with pale blue pews, a large wall of windows looking out to a lush green garden. The congregation is extremely variegated, with styles of dress ranging from shorts and Teva sandals to silk dresses and hats. The congregation seems bonded as one, though, when it gives a standing ovation to Seibert’s final thought, “If homosexuality can bring comfort, dynamism and love in a world so sorely in need of it, that’s good enough for me.”

Many turn to religion as an explanation—most of the world’s religions include creation stories explaining how we came to be. “I think faith goes back to the very first moments where humans became aware of their surroundings and things they couldn’t explain,” says King (of the Rationalists). “Also, people know they are going to die, and so we tend to want to extend our existence beyond that. It’s a little like wishful thinking, like children believing in Santa Clause. It’s comforting to believe in.”

The flipside of that comfort is the fear of going to hell. As one member of Cedar Springs relates during the service, “We are all sticks of wood that have been plucked from the fire by God.” And of course hell is never depicted as a very pleasant place to be. “It’s interesting that humans would create such a scary faith where you are going to go to hell if you do wrong,” says King. “I think it’s a mechanism that was instituted to keep people in line.”

From day to day, though, religion functions as more than just an answer to life’s—and afterlife’s— big questions. At Mt. Olive Baptist Church on Summit Hill, religion serves as a platform of community. Here, people still dress up for Sunday service. Among the primarily African-American congregation, there are a few fancy hats bobbing with conversation. People shake hands and pigtailed little girls whisper and grab each other’s arms, pulling in for a secret.

The sermon begins with the Praise Choir’s leading the congregation in “Walking up the King’s Highway,” a lively chant that provokes the crowd to sway and clap. Then, Pastor Kelly M. Smith Jr. begins his sermon called “Getting a Handle on Life.”

With the ferocity of an old-time revivalist preacher, Smith’s delivery is full of vibrato and it crescendos into moments so hot that people have to release a shout, “Yes, yes Lord!”

“The only one you can count on is God,” says Smith. “The devil is out there and he’s real. He’s not just a figure of your imagination. And he’s out to get you!” Despite the dreadful tone of the sermon, Smith’s intensity appears to stir an internal radiance in people, who are smiling throughout. They are, after all, on God’s side.

“Worrying is an act of pride ! Because you think you can handle it all yourself, and that’s pride-ful ,” Smith is literally screaming now. “You gotta give it up to God.” The wave of excitement explodes into clapping and shouts of exaltation.

“Giving it up to God” is one of those phrases that crosses the wide range of Christian faiths. In a sense, it’s a relief that we might not be the sole responsible parties in our lives—that God, or some higher power has a plan for us.

TVUUC’s Buice says that, to him, “Religion is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.” At the Salvation Army Wednesday night service, that feeling is overwhelming. About half mostly made up of the small congregation appears to have wandered over from the shelter. The other half is mostly elderly people who’ve been given rides here by other members or social workers. Interestingly, it is the only racially diverse service I attend. The Caucasian female pastor calls on Miss Eve, a skinny, elderly African-American woman to open the service in prayer. She is earnest and direct, and long-winded, as if she’s said many prayers in her life. “Lord we want to make a place for you in our hearts,” she says.

“Ya’ll pick a song,” says Salvation Army corp. member Sonja Anderson, in the soft tone of a babysitter. “Anybody have a favorite?” We sing “Blessed Assur-ance,” one I remember from childhood.

This is my story/this is my song/praising my savior/all the day long

The song comes to a reluctant close, and Anderson asks if anything positive happened to anyone today. “I didn’t get locked up today, even though I violated my probation, they let me go,” says one wiry man.

“That’s real good,” says Anderson, unflinching.

“I woke up today and that’s good. I’m feeling good today,” says another elderly woman with a large halo of shiny black curls.

During prayer requests, one woman asks to add her name, as she had a mammogram turn up with a possible tumor. Another woman breaks down into tears over her troubled son and her own financial crisis.

Then, Anderson reads from a devotional book called Stand in The Gap , which she says she picked up at a thrift store. “It’s by faith that we have been made acceptable to God,” she says. “We gladly suffer because it helps us know that we will be able to endure.”

The purpose of religion couldn’t be more starkly apparent than it is here at the Salvation Army. Faith, for those who are truly in need of it, functions to ease the suffering in life. Here, there is no mention of controlling others’ lifestyles, or even bringing others to God. It is enough that they are here. Today.

Then, someone requests to sing “Amazing Grace.” No one needs a hymnal this time; the words are etched in everyone’s memory.

Amazing grace/how sweet the sound/that saved a wretch like me/I once was lost/but now I’m found/ was blind but now I see

The voices are off-key and dissonant, mingling together and rising up in a prayer that’s both shabby and wrought with holiness. Closing my eyes, there is a childish comfort. The familiar words swaddle me and I want to grab someone’s hand or poke their hip and ask them for a wadded up Kleenex, but no one is there next to me. Still, it’s enough, to stand, be calm, and sing out.