Saturday, March 20, 2010

Livin' on a Prayer

Last weekend, I went off in search of answers. Usually its questions of a trivial nature that keep me awake at night, questions such as: Why is there only one monopolies commission? Is there another word for synonym? Or, if one synchronised swimmer drowns, do they all have to drown? This time however, matters of a less trivial nature were vexing me and so I decided to turn to God (well, one of them, the Christian one in fact).

Now Christians often have a rough time around this neck of the woods. Over in Malaysia, they have recently come under fire (quite literally) for their use of the word 'Allah'. Meanwhile, closer to home, bigotry and the mob mentality often predominates over pluralism and Indonesian churches are often blockaded and denied permits. Most recently, over in Bekasi, Muslim residents closed a local church after complaining that it was disturbing their sleep, which I must say I found ironic to say the least.

Christians are, as a result of all these shenanigans, often to be found hiding in churches located deep within shopping plazas and commercial estates in Jakarta. These are not perhaps ideal locations, given Jesus's attitude to the money changers and the like but perhaps, on another level, entirely fitting if you subscribe to the opium of the masses argument (and aren't shopping plazas our new churches after all?)

And so, last Sunday, I decided to pop along to one of these retail houses of worship to see what goes on and to do a bit of clapping. I soon found myself down at the Bellagio Plaza in the Mega Kuningan area, where the Jakarta City Blessing Church sits on the top floor.

I strolled inside the hypermodern house of the Lord and passed a door marked, ‘Sunday School’, which immediately gave me a flashback to the many tedious Sunday mornings of my youth. I shuddered and headed on into the Church proper. Inside, a mix of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indonesians were gathered waiting patiently for the service to begin.

The mall church's interior was fully carpeted and crammed with plasma TV screens. A four piece electric band sat in the corner, ready to rock out below a painted ceiling mural of fluffy white clouds and infinite blue skies, which looked something like the Sistine Chapel done by Walt Disney. Basically, it was the complete antithesis of the cold pews and dour piety of the old British churches of my childhood and, I guess, more redolent of the American mega church phenomenon.

As if to confirm my USA for Jesus thesis, the female pastor stepped up to the altar, the band burst into life and the congregation leapt to its feet, ready to bellow out a Bon Jovi-esque soft rock power hymn. Rather than hymn books, the worshippers followed the words karaoke style on the church’s TV screens. It was all a very long way from, "Abide with Me" wavering out over creaking organ pipes.

The pastor skilfully worked up through the gears and into a religious semi-frenzy as she implored the congregation to pray for people from, "Pulau Nias all the way to Pulau Roti." Many of the congregation had their eyes closed by this point and their palms held forward, as if warming themselves in the Lord’s divine light. Yes, it was all very American of course, although the assembled parishioners stopped short of speaking in tongues and going all wobbly before falling over backwards.

Eventually it was time for the collection, however instead of the collection plate, envelopes were distributed with a handy BCA account number printed on them, should one wish to make a convenient transfer or set up a monthly debit payment. There was no Oral Roberts style hard sell though and we weren't threatened with being cast into a flaming lake of boiling excrement for all eternity. My envelope remained empty alas (I'm holding it now in fact) and I headed back out into the Bellagio with a view to consecrating a large curry brunch (praise him).

"God is dead," so said Mr. Nietzsche back in the 19th-century. Well, he certainly seemed to be alive down at the Jakarta City Blessing Church. What Mr. N. meant by this bold assertion though, is not that there aren’t people who still claim to believe. Rather, he meant that this belief is simply not of the type that people used to have. It is not the central pillar of our lives any more, as much as some of us might want to insist that it is. Our materialistic culture and our scientific rationalism have riddled such faith with the bullet holes of doubt and reduced it to a compartmentalised Sunday morning social club, after which the congregation retreats to the car park in order to compare their new cars (you should never try and keep up with the neighbours, by the way; as the great Quentin Crisp once said, it's better to drag them down to your level, it's much cheaper).

At the other end of the religious spectrum of course lies the Muslim suicide bomber. Are they any surer of their faith however? Perhaps, instead of rabid certainty, they are in fact trying to draw a line under their own unconscious doubts with a final, ultimate act of affirmation.

So where does that leave us? Ho hum. Well, I guess it's another week of existential dread and nihilism for me then. Happy Easter.